I go to church. Not the way I used to. Not three times a day, not desperate, not believing blindly. Not storing treasures in heaven, not trying to save people from hell, not piling up discrete answers to discrete questions. Not following behind myself with a clipboard and a pen and a checklist of required actions, a list of never-must-do’s.
I once stood in front of a full auditorium and earnestly declared “we all need Jesus.” It was a heart-felt plea, a genuine profession. I believed whole-heartedly that my faith was everything. My sustenance, my guide, my reason for being. I thought I couldn’t live without it. And I presumed that meant neither could you.
You may have been in the audience that day. You may have squirmed uncomfortably; perhaps you looked down and picked at your trousers when I made my earnest proclamation. You were sitting there at my invitation, your presence there in that bright school hall all the evidence of your unconditional support I’d ever need, not that I’d see it at the time. I was trying to win you over. I wanted you to see how much life I had, I wanted you to see the glow of the light I could feel burning me up on the inside. I was trying to convert you.
I could apologise, right here. I could come clean. I could tell you how sorry I am. That I’ve regretted that day, and all the days like it, for a long time. I could re-count my sins in a list as long as all four of our arms put together. I could repent. Oh the litany. Of all the things I could repent of. The assumptions, the narrow-mindedness, the fear. The fear. But I know you don’t need it.
You saw right through me. You saw how small I was, how afraid. You saw how the light glanced off my eyes and blinded me. You knew my world view was a shaky construction, held up by dogmatism, the most flimsy of flimsy supports. You knew, somewhere deep inside you, that if my faith was a building, it would fail every building code out. That I had not tested anything. I had put no weight on it at all.
And so you kindly tolerated my enthusiasm. You took my cheerful positivity at face value. I was happy, I was finding my way in the world and you were proud of me. You were interested in my life. I turned up at your house one night, ostensibly for no other reason than to say hi, and you were very glad to see me. At the end of the evening I asked you to pay for my bible college fees. I had believed the money would come, as everyone else around me did. And when it didn’t, I came and asked you. You said yes, of course.
It took a long time for everything to fall apart. Self-deception is the true world super-power. There were several bouts of depression, more than one round of mild burn-out, and still my story stayed the same. If I could just do the right things, and pray the right words, or get the right people to pray the right words, everything would be fine. I knew that something was wrong with me, but I couldn’t admit that something was wrong.
Life has an uncanny way of presenting us with the exact circumstances needed for us to learn exactly what we need to learn. Almost twenty years after the day I stood in front of you under the glaring lights of that sterile school hall, the day I graduated with the bible college diploma you had paid for, I finally found myself in the dark. Looking into the murky reality of my completely unknown self. Everything was steadily becoming undone, and there was nothing I could do about it. There was no area of my life that had not been touched by chaos. And it was the beginning of everything, the pre-labour of my own re-birth.
I’m waxing metaphorical here, I know. But hear me out. I thought I was already re-born. The story I’d been told, that I had absorbed and recounted a million times, was that I began again the moment I believed. It seemed so simple. It seemed to make sense. Some kind of metaphysical interaction had occurred on the night that four-year-old me asked the holy spirit of God to look after me forever. Forever and ever and ever. I have this feeling I was being efficient. A shred of a memory tells me I thought I was praying once so I’d never have to pray again. But my mother, opportunist and recent convert that she was, saw eternal potential. “Do you want to ask Jesus into your heart?” she asked me sincerely. I did.
If I could go back to that tender night I would not change a thing. Children see where adults do not. They understand things we find obtuse. They believe, where we scoff. My conversation with God that night, aided by my mother, was the real thing. I wanted something more than this world had to offer. I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to believe.
I could look back on the years since then as one long loss. My simple four-year old faith was quickly tarnished. It wasn’t long before I was convinced I was right and everyone else wrong. I read the world through newly converted eyes. Even at four I had opinions about what Christians should do and shouldn’t. The day I found out that our closest church friends ate white bread, I was horrified. Christians ate brown bread! I was a prodigious fundamentalist.
You can fill in the gaps between four and fourteen, and fourteen and twenty-four. The desperate prayers for myself and the entire world. The missions trips. The youth groups. The compulsive bible reading. The conferences, the sermons, the mega-healers on TV. My heart was full to bursting, or so it felt. But my mind had checked out a long time ago.
I’m not here to recount the evils of organised religion. You know them all. I can’t even bring myself to hint at them; the horrors beggar belief. But I can tell you why, after all these years, I still go to church. I go to church because I like to go to church. I like to sit in the quiet of the one hundred and fifty year old stone building we worship in and think about my life. I like to look up at the rafters towering above me, and imagine the people all those years ago who put so much energy and resource into building something soaring and magnificent, something so impractical. I look up to the balcony floor and wonder what the days were like when most people went to church on a Sunday. When this old building was full and bursting with life. I think about the Reverend Wallis, a character in my novel, who preached in buildings just like this one, to a full house. And somehow, sitting in that building, partaking in the ritual and the community it offers me, my life makes sense. I go to church to understand.
I used to go to church for you. I thought that if I did the right things, and prayed the right prayers, that you would have your moment of transcendence too. I wanted you to be happy. I wanted you to be free. I wanted you to know that sweet indescribable feeling of being loved by something bigger than you. I wanted you to find something soaring, magnificent. I wanted you to know that you are beloved, end of story. I still do.
You are welcome to join me at church any time, but I’ll never invite you like I invited you before, all serious and hopeful. Every precept I once held, tightly as if it were a rock and I drowning in a sea of uncertainty, has crumbled. What’s left is beautiful. But it’s beautiful to me. I won’t presume you’d feel the same way. The children will probably want you to come and hear them sing in the choir, and I’d recommend it. The sound of their clear and steady voices pierces the still air, and above them the morning light streams in reliably through ancient glass in a myriad of colours. There’s nothing like it.
You see, I still want more than this world has to offer. That’s why I go to church. Not like before, when I was so unaware. I go like the new-born newly-adult self that I am, everything fresh and undone. It’s the best way I know to begin again.