Because I was a preacher’s kid, and it would have caused an international incident, I couldn’t stop attending … but I gave up.
Well, I was 15 at that point, had been going to church functions since I was in amniotic fluid, and somewhere around the age of 11, I started realizing that a lot of the Christians around me were … well … jerks.
I would read about Jesus and how he treated people, then I’d look at Christians, and the two just didn’t match up.
Sometimes, we’d go by the church to surprise my dad in the middle of a workday, and there’d be someone in his office yelling at him for changing the carpet or not using the choir robes.
We would receive threatening anonymous letters at our house … certain church members would interrupt the service to call meetings.
They wanted to edit sermon content.
They hated the music.
They controlled the finances.
They humiliated … just like Jesus would have done … right?
But there was one event that still sits in the front of my mind that gives me much pause to this day. At one point, my father decided to use a smaller lectern to preach from instead of the large, ornate, traditional pulpit. Of course, the backlash from a select few was outrageously harsh.
Finally, in one uproarious meeting, the statement was made that when my father had removed the larger pulpit, he had also removed God from our church.
It took me a long time to be able to look past the theological idiocy of that statement to what the person was really saying.
A few years ago, I got to meet one of my heroes, Frederick Buechner, who was in town for a series of lectures at a local college. During a Q-and-A session, someone asked Rev. Buechner where he attended church. I’m sure his answer wasn’t quite what anyone was expecting:
“I don’t always attend church, actually. Because not every church is alive with the Spirit of God. I only attend where and when I know the Spirit is.”
That certainly was not what people were hoping to hear, but it was the truth.
In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Gandalf writes a letter to the hobbits. Included in the letter is a poem that cryptically refers to the return of Aragon, the King. That portion of literature may not be all that well-known, but there’s a line from the poem I hear and read frequently:
Not all who wander are lost.
But I would add this: Not all who wander are lost … but all who wander are searching.
When the judgment was given that God left our church along with the pulpit, I knew I was finished there, and I began to wander.
I never gave up on Jesus Christ, but for years, I washed my hands of the church. Because, I told myself, if to follow Jesus means I end up looking like those people, I don’t want any part of it.
To be quite honest, I’m still not convinced I’ll ever stop wandering, searching.
At least, I hope not anyway.
A Bible passage that comes up when I have this kind of conversation is a line from the letter to the Hebrews, 10:25, that says we must “not forsake the assembling of ourselves together … .”
And I agree, but I also don’t think we as followers of Jesus should gather simply to gather. The Hebrews passage also talks about doing things by a “living way” … encouraging each other toward “love and good works” … our assembly must be a living assembly.
Church isn’t a weird, secret club; it’s a feast, and there’s room for everyone at the table. (And I do mean EVERYONE.)
Either what we believe is alive or it’s not. Flash, hype and clever manufacturing can’t make a dead thing alive. Only the Spirit of Christ can do that.
Growing up, as questions about faith, life, doubts and fears took center stage, the people around me were so busy arguing about whether drums in church were satanic, I never got a chance to ask.
In 2004, I was ordained as a Christian minister. I can “marry and bury” as they say.
But I still wander.
I still search.
I believe Jesus is alive, and a faith marked by Him will also be alive.
I believe grace changes everything.
I believe doubts are a part of our journey.
I believe church should be a safe place, not a place where we pass out masks as people walk through the door.
I believe wandering must be a part of following Jesus, because the more we wander, the more we meet people to invite to the feast.
Now I’d like to share why I went back.
It wasn’t what I expected. (It never is.)
I was living next door to a guy, we’ll call him Caleb, who personified nearly everything I didn’t want to be known as. He drank too much. Couldn’t keep a job. Made his own drugs. (True story.) Loved strip clubs.
Keep in mind, I had been raised in a conservative Christian home, was homeschooled for a while and didn’t see my first PG movie in a theater until I was around 12 years old. Caleb was a shock, to say the least. I didn’t quite know how to handle or interact with him, and most of the time, I didn’t have to—my life happened during the day; his life happened late at night.
Our relationship was odd, but always cordial. Sometimes, he’d even share war stories from his late nights out. They were … fascinating. Like they happened in a world only a few people could experience. He was funny, adventurous and possibly one of the riskiest people I’ve ever met.
Oh … and he hated Christians.
That was the confusing part.
He didn’t have a Christian family. Didn’t hang out with many Christians publicly. Didn’t ever go to church.
We’d talk around religion sometimes, but never discuss it directly. Finally, one day, I just had to know.
“Caleb, you’ve tried all kinds of crazy things … why don’t you ever think about trying Jesus?” (I’d never use that verbiage now, but that’s how I understood things then.)
It was a simple enough question. Usually, the person answering gives some passive response or promises to “check it out sometime.”
But not Caleb. He knew exactly why … and I wasn’t ready for what he said next.
“Matt, when I go to the strip club, sometimes there’s another group of guys there. They say all the same things I say to the women, but during the day, they’re in class studying to become pastors. Why do I need to believe what they believe when we all end up at the same place anyway?”
I’d like to tell you Caleb and I talked late into the night about the things of God. I’d like to tell you he converted and turned his life around. The truth is, that didn’t happen. In fact, I have no idea where he is today. His answer to my question left me speechless, but it also left me with no choice.
I had to go back.
But not to the same place.
In my pre-wanderer days, I knew everything … or so I’d convinced myself.
My original journey back to the family of God was a pretty arrogant one. I was going to “fix church.” I helped my father plant a new community in Central Florida. Then I went and led worship for a small church in Tennessee. Then I started a fairly successful college gathering in a coffee house. Then I went on staff at a much larger church. That’s where I finally began to break under the weight of trying to rectify how to deal with a special needs child and why none of my “fixes” seemed to take.
So while I was on staff at a large church with what any other person in their mid-20s would have considered a dream job, I began to run. (That’s a post for another time.)
Along the way, I bumped into people who time and time again served as blockades of grace that helped me slow down until I finally realized this:
What Christ laid out in the gospels doesn’t need any improvement.
In fact, if we just did those things, I think we’d be OK … it’s all the extra stuff we’ve added that causes problems. Sometimes, it feels like our churches are working much harder to keep systems in place than actually connecting with people (like Caleb).
Sometimes, I wonder what would happen if Jesus came into our temples of today. Would he overturn the tables like he did in the ancient days? Heck, what if he came into the temples of our very lives? I’m sure there are many parts of me that come off like a den of thieves.
I don’t know any of the clergy-in-training Caleb frequented the strip club with, but I know the church is supposed to be a safe place for people to be laid bare. To show their scars and ugliness without fear of being pushed away, kicked out or told to go elsewhere. And this isn’t a denominational issue; this is a perspective issue.
I’m back in the church. To stay.
And when my children look at me, I want them to see hope instead of cynicism. I want them to see a dad who gets it wrong a lot but knows where to turn when I fall.
Because we don’t need more people trying to fix the church; we just need people to be the church.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35