From my friend:
“My church issue is simply that the stories and the people are just making no sense to me right now. I don’t know how else to describe it other than that there doesn’t seem to be anything that church people have that the rest of the world doesn’t. They’re just as snobby, just as sectarian, just as divisive, racist, politically closed, and just as violence prone.
“I think that the claims about there being a substantial life-changing presence in church should be evident in history. Individuals I know have had deep life-changing experiences but that truth seems to be spread equally amongst all spiritually minded people.
“It isn’t like the Baptists or Unitarians get very well but the Buddhists and Wiccans get negative results . . . so being in a “Church” which draws boundaries around God and affixes truth claims around what that word means seems inappropriate . . . yet, without it, how can there be any content in the concept—how do you worship a presence you cannot describe or draw boundaries around?
“I don’t know . . . but right now I seem to worship best by using my brain in school, being nice to my wife, loving my friends, and trying to help strangers.”
My reply: The first time I quit the church was when I got sick and Plymouth didn’t care for me. They left me alone. I figured that the first thing a church should do is care for its own. The second time I quit the church was when the pastor of East Syracuse United committed fraud against me (in regard to a Medicaid fair hearing). I expected other church members to stand up for me but they didn’t. They knew what their pastor had done but they just turned their heads.
I was close to God all of this time but I also wanted to be part of a congregation. Corporate worship is a joy that is unlike anything else in life. Harvey Pinyoun, when he was pastor of Plymouth, had an extraordinary ability to open the congregation to the movement of the Holy Spirit. One of the functions of the congregation is to carry the individual during the ebb of his faith.
God did not make his covenants with individuals; he made his covenants with the community. We are supposed to take care of each other. “The Church”—which is the body of Christ—is supposed to do that. In American, it doesn’t.
I was called to the ministry, which meant that I returned to Plymouth. The third—and final—time that I quit the church was when I again became so sick that I couldn’t cross the threshold, and nobody visited me. I had been “taken in care” by the Board of Deacons; that meant something to me but it meant nothing to them. They exercised their power by putting the stamp of approval on me, but when I dropped out of sight then they never followed up and asked if I was all right.
The head of the congregation wrote me lengthy emails about what they were doing to make the church physically accessible. He chose to blind himself to my clearly stated need: I am homebound, why don’t you visit me? They did not really care about me and did not really want to know me. What is most appalling is that they did not really believe in God or really want to do his work.
There were home aides, nurses and social workers to see to my physical needs. Who was to see to my spiritual needs? I did not need the members of the church to bring me casseroles or do the laundry; I needed them to read the Holy Bible and pray with me. They couldn’t. Their faith was too weak and their spiritual practices too paltry.
The Church is a bust. It is a cluster of frightened human beings who huddle together and shut out those who frighten them, whether it’s African-Americans, homosexuals or liberals. The church enables them to feel self-righteous while being hypocritical and exclusive.
I worship best by using my brain. God gave it to me and expects me to use it, not to shut it down in his name. Yes, I read the Wiccan bible and when I got to the parts that made me shiver, I did not ask God to strike down the wiccans. I asked him to keep me on his straight path while I worked through it.
God made all people. There is value and worth in all kinds of people. Instead of shutting out the Muslims, Chinese or people who dyed their hair purple, I sought to understand how they all fit together. What I found through my studies of spiritual texts was that the Lord is one above all people; that I should be humble before the Lord; that I must seek the Truth, and work for Justice. My farm-family credo was (a) worship the Lord; (b) plant every spring, and (c) mind your own business.
In the end, it’s not very complicated. You spend your life figuring out what it all means to you. It is not about what the church teaches; it is about what you believe. The church is usually a hierarchy of men, most particularly the Roman Catholic Church.
Seek the Lord. Read the holy texts. Pray. Don’t worry about the church. The Lord has a unique and specific path for you to walk. Find that path and never waver from it. It is between you and God, not you and man. If you, like I, have been given a lonely path to walk then accept it. It leads to God, who will love you and protect you.