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Thursday, August 04, 2005

My Life as a Pendulum

I can't say that my earliest memories were of church, but a large number of my early memories are. Until about sixth grade, that church was Jefferson Church of Christ in Hobbs, NM. I often have a hard time explaining exactly what all of the beliefs of that church are - in some ways they were incredibly conservative, in other ways they weren't. For instance, they frowned on women wearing pants, make-up, and jewelry, didn't like men with long hair (somehow Jesus was exempt), and wouldn't even allow an altar or musical instruments in the sactuary of the church. In my memory, though, they didn't make pulpit calls for political action - though, to be fair, a fourth grader might not really understand the politics behind the message. However, it seems to me that they seemed to take a kind of pleasure in cutting themselves off from the world in many ways.

One thing they did stress was Bible knowledge. Every time we walked into the church, we (the kids) were expected to have memorized another Bible verse. Maybe this is one reason why I have such a competitive intellectual nature - I just can't stand to be the only one in the room who doesn't know something. Being singled out to recite the latest verse and not having a clue will do that to you, I suppose. Who knows? Maybe I would have been like this anyway.

From sixth grade onwards, we moved often. Mostly it was in and around the city of Lubbock, Tx. Lubbock is a city of slightly more than a quarter of a million people spread over an area of about 114 square miles. By way of comparison, Queens is the largest borough of New York City and has only 109 square miles. (Of course, Queens has a population of about 2.2 million.) So it's a bit understandable that moving every year or so, and sometimes more than once per year, meant that there was a lot of difference schools and a lot of different churches. For the most part, they were Churches of Christ, but occassionally a Southern Baptist.

Our church life was one of excess and absence. When we attended, we generally were there at least three times a week. When we didn't, - well, we didn't at all. A year or two might pass without darkening the entrance of a church, then we'd be there a hundred times a month.

As I grew up, I began to listen a bit more to what was being said and to understand how it was different from what was written in the Bible. Periodically, I get tired of being preached at when it was so obvious no one really believed what they were saying - either you believe what the Bible says and stick to it or you deviate, you can't say you are sticking to the Bible and then deviate. Then after a while of not being at church, I'd begin to miss the fellowship and friendship and go back. Sort of like a drunk staggering between rehab and the bar, I'd turn my back on the church and swing away from it, then I'd run back and embrace it whole-heartedly.

This pattern has continued in my adult life. I spent a few months while I was in school in the Navy attending nightly Bible study and going to "independent, fundamental, Bible-believing churches" in central Florida. Then, fairly abruptly, I left it behind because one day the pastor of the church said that he would not allow a bi-racial couple to join his church unless they got divorced and refused to speak to each other. As we walked out of the church, he told me, "I'm a bit concerned about you. You don't look like you took my sermon too well today." I ignored the hand he held out for me to shake and said, "I don't think it was a sermon at all, just a statement of bigotry and ignorance." I never went back to that church.

There is nothing like the faith of the newly converted, and there is nothing like the total disregard for right and wrong like the recently disillusioned. I spent the next several years making sure that no one would ever attach the word "Christian" to their description of me.

After I got out of the Navy and settled in Corpus Christi, I finally found my way back into the church - though I did so cautiously. I was living with the woman who would become my first wife at the time and I wasn't too happy to hear a whole series of sermons directed at the sanctity of marriage, the failure of man to submit to God, and the like. When I was told I was being silly for thinking they were directed at me, I asked the pastor and he said, yes, they were, and he hoped they were getting through.

I'm getting ready to explain why I left that church, so let me first say that there were some very good people there. The pastor there conducted my wedding service and he was the one my family turned to when my nephew died. They were definitely there in the hard times. I can't fault them for not caring, because they did.

But, one day in Sunday School, the group was speaking about holding a protest at a Planned Parenthood clinic against abortion and how wrong it was that they had to remain on the far side of the street to do so. I was doing my usual trick of flipping through the Bible that I had learned helped pass the time when I didn't like the direction the conversation was going. At some point, I became aware that everyone was silent and staring at me. The leader of the group, Russ, asked me if I intended to participate in the protest as God wanted us to.

I told him I couldn't find anywhere in the Bible where it said I should participate in protests. Since it wasn't based in the Bible, he couldn't claim it was what God wanted. I also told him that we should view Planned Parenthood as a partner for expanding our ministry to those in need and distress instead of as our enemy to be shut down. This is especially true since at the time Nueces County had the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the country.

Before the day ended, I was informed several times that people were "concerned" for me. I told them to save their concerns and pray for their own guidance.

Again I left the church. I simply don't need to be anyone's example or prayer concern for trying to stick closely to what the Bible teaches.

I could go into other swings in detail, but the effect is much the same. I've eventually determined that what draws me back to church is the desire to connect with God and what pushes me away is the hypocrisy of man. It doesn't bother me that Christians are not perfect - after all, no one is. What bothers me is when they try to act as if they really are perfect. Abortion is not mentioned a single time in the Bible and there is no point in acting as if it is. The backwards Jim-Crow-religion belongs consigned to the dust-heap of history. Christianity should be focused on expanding and uniting people, not confining and dividing them.

My core belief is that when we focus on God, we find commonalities that unite us. When we focus on each other, we find differences that divide us. If Christianity is to fulfill its mission to draw people to Christ and to be the conscience of our society, then it must begin by re-focusing on the Grace of God, not the pettiness of man.

And that remark is meant as much at me as it is at anyone else.

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