This is the second of a three-part post about the last six months and what happens next. Once again, I will be very frank. I have had…I have…and I will continue to have a consistent struggle with my own worth. My history with church is a big part of that.

Church Life & Spiritual Gifts

The church is the imperfect bride of Christ. Key word connecting that sentence with what I’m about to say…imperfect. But some people shoot for perfection as the plan and the goal; please know this story is not about anyone, so if you think it’s about you, think again. It’s about my experience with the church.

Bear with me. A little backstory…back much further than six months…

My earliest recollection of going to church was the remnants of a church my grandparents and some other folks had started in my hometown. That ended while I was in elementary school, and aside from that, occasional Vacation Bible School was it. Flannelgraphs, handmade crafts, and punch & cookies. I’m sure many of you have similar experiences.

I was twelve when we started going regularly. I was introduced to a cruel God who forbade anything that was fun. I “got saved” at least 30 times during my teens but was eventually convinced that I had committed the unforgivable sin…blasphemy of the Holy Spirit…even though I didn’t know what it was. Why I thought that – everyone else around me seemed to be “clicking” with the Jesus thing, and I didn’t. I must have gone too far.

The damage done by 80’s “rapture” culture, legalism, and evangelicalism remains. It is a permanent scar. On me…and I’m finding…also on countless others. Scaring people into believing was the way to go. I was so terrified and that formed my opinion of God…one that I held for decades. If I displeased Him, hell would be the result. Since displeasing Him seemed to be the only thing I was able to do, I figured that hell it was. I’m shocked that I didn’t do way more “bad stuff” than I did.

Since I returned to a “church” setting in my life five years ago, many have you have walked with me through a lot of highs and lows. Based on my writings, some have scoffed, claiming I was craving attention. Some have, quite accurately, realized that I struggle with mental illness manifested as depression and anxiety. Some have ignored, and some have gotten involved. But I found out that He loved me five years ago, and He reminded me of something I had heard Him say when I was a teenager: “I will use you”. In those five years, the word “use” in that phrase has taken on several different meanings. Those will be discussed further in part three.

Some may not like what I am going to say now, but the “church” is a tool used by the enemy. The enemy knows he’s already lost, so he goes after the church…the bride of Christ…and those who are part of it. Considering Christianity has endured splits into thousands of “denominations”, it should come as no surprise that Satan infiltrated the church.

Back to my first church experience. Church was not an important part of life. It was an occasional option. It is still an occasional for many people. If we wonder why, the place we need to look is in the mirror. As part of the church, but as humans, we often think we are doing the right thing but are chasing people away.

Then…my teen years…those years where I can definitely say the Holy Spirit was at work in my life. However, the fact that the entire modus operandi of the church I was to disciple by keeping the church body in good behavior, blameless in the sight of God, and creating “sanctified” believers who no longer sinned. This led me to believe that I was without hope.

My early adult years through my early 40’s were a return to the church being “occasional”. Because Stacy was not of the denomination I grew up in, I never saw her as “saved”. I didn’t see myself as saved either, so we were pretty well what I had been taught to think of as “pretend” Christians. The “lukewarm” that Jesus would spit out at the end.

My decision to profess atheism in late 2013 was probably the best faith move I have ever made. In my decision to walk away once and for all, God opened my eyes to Him. I learned through a series of events happening from November 2013 through May 2014 that He truly did love me; wanted to be in my life; and was never going to leave me. I didn’t get saved or baptized again; I merely started going to church. I allowed people to love me and show me what He had done for them. This came as a big surprise. Church is where those who had it all together got the opportunity to figure out that you didn’t and judge you for it.

But Jesus did something for us…for me, and for you. He rescued us. Made us part of his church, his bride. 2,000 years ago, Jesus went to his earthly death. One that you and I will likely never have to suffer through. Mocked, a crown of thorns placed on his head, stripped naked, spikes hammered through his wrists and ankles, suspended on a cross to suffocate.

But none of this…NONE…compares to what he experienced preceding his death, when he cried out “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He experienced separation from the Father.

He did this willingly, without expectation of repayment. He did this knowing that it was the only way to rescue humanity from our eternal separation from God. And he did this knowing that humanity would populate the church…his bride…imperfect. Totally flawed, doing this in his name that would scar many.

But church has a couple different meanings, and the one that most of us focus on is a building that is part of a denomination. Sadly, where a repayment plan often becomes part of the teaching. This for that; good works in exchange for salvation. Behavior in exchange for heaven.

The true church is a people, loved by God, and equipped by the Holy Spirit to share that love with others…regardless of their station in life. It took me a lifetime to understand this, and I’m still trying to figure it out.

I’ll end with this today…the pronoun “your” applies to me as well as you…I’m going to list some things that we might think get us closer to God, but are nothing but filthy rags in His sight:

  • your service as a Sunday school teacher
  • your mission work in Africa
  • your witnessing to a homeless person
  • your theological education
  • your memorization and recitation of scripture
  • your taking hot meals to shut-ins

None of it gets you closer to God. No “points with Jesus”. No advancing to the next level of goodness in God’s eyes. Do I mean “don’t do it?” Absolutely not…you’ve been equipped by the Holy Spirit to do it…but never once think any of this will get you or me a better spot, closer to Jesus, in heaven.

Over the next few days I’ll put together part three and post it. It will detail “what next”.

God bless!

Brian

 

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control. 2 Timothy 1:6-7, ESV

In this intro to a longer passage that ends at verse 14, Paul encourages Timothy to take the gospel out to the world, not being ashamed of it, or afraid of what might happen when he shares it. This leads me to believe that perhaps Timothy was having some fearful thoughts.

Fear permeates our culture. It’s mentioned everywhere. Much of what we do to protect our families and communities is driven by fear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t desire to protect…by all means we should.

Fear is nothing new. Using it to accomplish control isn’t either. Our enemy uses it against us daily. Some use fear as a tool to keep people in check; to convince them that they must constantly strive to attain God’s favor by right behavior, and if they don’t, they can lose their place in God’s family, or even face damnation. Even though I began this piece almost two months ago, I was reminded of its relevance in an exchange on a recent episode of “Young Sheldon” on CBS, where Sheldon’s mother is charged with overseeing her church’s annual “Hell House”:

Meemaw:  “Hang on…y’all are trying to scare people into joining the church?”

Mary Cooper: “Yeah, but people like gettin’ scared on Halloween anyway; why not make ‘em jump in the right direction.”

Sheldon Cooper: “Actually, fear has been a recruiting tactic used by organized religion for centuries. When you add guilt to keep people in line, it’s an extremely efficient form of crowd control.”

Bingo.

“Do not fear” is repeated throughout scripture, so when we fear, we realize our shortcomings and might think that because of said fear, we’re without hope.

But in thinking that, we do ourselves a disservice. Performance is expected, and fear of failure is amplified. Change, get better, or else. Been there, done that. Everything I ever thought I was doing to get better in God’s eyes was useless. It just made me look for a sense of what I did as being important, but it was always overshadowed by the fear of failure.

I wish I could say I have no fear, but that would be a blatant lie. To be completely honest, my fellow humans…you who read this…are what I fear most. But that isn’t what I’m called to do. What I’m called to do is love. Love my neighbor despite my fear of them. Easy? No. Fear gets in the way, always.

Over the last couple months, since before I wrote this, I have been living in a rather constant state of fear. Fear of my own failure and it being a continuing and constant part of my life. Fear that The Beggar’s Bread men’s ministry would tank. Fear that my struggle with depression and anxiety will take me to the edge again.

I only have one answer. Jesus. Only He can give me the ability to live and love, despite my fear. I can love the wretch I see when I look in the mirror, realizing that he lives for a purpose. I can love those who are treating my illness and trust that they know their job well enough to not cause me to fear. I can love whoever walks through the door to the church on Friday night, whether it be just one or many…and whether they believe what I do or not. And, I can get up in the morning, put one foot in front of the other, and love those who God has placed in my path in my day-to-day life, even though I know I am going to disappoint them, fail them, and quite possibly hurt them in ways that I don’t realize I am capable of.

My purpose in this post has one reason…I know that lots of folks believe the Bible is a manual for better or correct behavior. I’ve been “trained” to believe that conquering fear is something that must be done to make you more like Jesus. I’ll just leave you with this…He did the conquering. We’ll continue to try, but when we make ourselves believe that we’re free of fear, we’re exercising self-reliance, rather than trusting in the finished work of Jesus. When (not if) you fear, look to Him.

Blessings!