August 11, 2003
Wow, did I need that

I had a great vacation. I didn't quite realize, until I was already into it, how much I needed a break. For some time now, my life has been consumed with two things: work, and seeking. I really needed to let go of both for a while.

The seeking part has been especially stressful lately, and I wasn't completely sure why. I'd been feeling anxious about Telford moving away, and I wondered about that too. Our relationship will go on over the Internet, where at least 80% of it was happening already. But a large part of the problem is that this is forcing me to make a decision: do I want to keep going to Christian Assembly?

I had been thinking about going to a church since before I met Telford. But I really had no idea where to begin. L.A. has a kajillion churches of every imaginable sect, and I knew no one who went to any of them. I don't like talking to strangers anyway -- who would I bring my innumerable questions to?

Befriending Telford, on top of its other benefits, gave me an entry point. If CA was his chosen church that certainly recommended it strongly to me. And I hoped that through him I could meet other people, get plugged into the network.

Going to CA has certainly been interesting and rewarding. And since it's my only point of in-person contact with Telford, going to church and seeing him were always part of one package. But I've been feeling more and more disaffected with church, and now that the seeing-Telford part is ending, I'm seriously wondering if I should go back.

I've been having a hard time putting my finger on exactly what's wrong. It's been tough talking about it with Telf, because he doesn't like to hear me criticize the church and the people in it, and he often thinks I'm being unfair to them Certainly everyone I've met has been nice to me. But I'm looking for more than nice. I'm looking for a purpose. I'm looking for something that is going somewhere I want to go. And just as important, I'm looking for a purpose for myself within it. I need to have a use, a function, a way to make an impact. I need to know that I, with my particular abilities and limitations, have a reason to be.

It's a tall order, but one reason I've been looking for God is that I figure nothing less can fill it. And I'm not getting it from CA. The church clearly brings a lot of things to people who go there; I've heard testimony from former criminals and drug addicts who feel it saved them. But after going there for almost 10 months, I'm not getting a feeling that yeah, this is something I really want to be part of. And I don't feel like there's a place for me. Sure, no one's going to kick me out. But I don't feel like anyone I've met there other than Telf even understands who I am, much less what purpose I could serve.

The big question is: where else will I go? Leaving would put me right back where I started last year, with a zillion choices and no clear idea what I want.

I have been wondering if I should give All Saints, the liberal Episcopal church in Pasadena, more of a shot. I went there for Good Friday and Easter, and I collected some material on their charities, and then flaked off. Certainly it's more of a cultural fit for me than CA: more intellectual, more liberal, much more involved in the sort of charitable work I want to do. They also seem to be quite friendly to newcomers; unlike most Episcopal churches apparently, they seem to be an energetic, thriving community.

I have some hesitations about it though. It's even farther away than CA, and I think the distance is one reason I haven't felt that connected to CA, so All Saints might be worse. Also, though I realize this is totally irrational, I have bad vibes about the place. I went there last April after I learned my friend John had died, and sat for some hours. And when I was last there, seeing the sanctuary and the grounds hit me with remembered grief. I seem to have this emotional association burned into my brain. It should wear off if I go enough times, but I'll have to deal with it.

But perhaps most importantly, the very things that make it compatible with me make it feel like a step backwards. The world I encountered there was pretty much a Christian version of the left-wing upscale academic WASP culture that I come from, with all the things I like about it and that annoy me about it. I wonder if going there would ever stretch me or push me, if it ever transcends the subculture it's in. But I guess I could only find that out by going, hm?

Another thought I've had is that, since St. Blog's Parish has been so welcoming and helpful to me online, maybe I should check out a Catholic church. Recently I shocked Tom by remarking that I've never been to a Mass, and certainly I should do it at some point. Better yet, the Mother Church has real estate everywhere, and I know St. Gerard Majella is less than a mile from here. Since this neighborhood is about half Latino, I imagine going there would connect me with a really different subculture. But I guess I could only find out by going, hm?

Posted by Camassia at August 11, 2003 05:22 PM | TrackBack

My prayers are with you. :-)

Posted by: Katherine on August 11, 2003 08:08 PM

I've been in a similar situation. Back in my campus church-going days, the assistant pastor departed. He was very popular with the students in the congregation (although he was not a young man), and we were quite dismayed that he was leaving. He told us that it was a mistake to tie one's religious experience to any particular person, that such attachments actually get in the way.

After he left, however, it just wasn't the same. Also, the student presence began to dwindle. Eventually, I finally admited to myself that I was attending church for social, and not spiritual, reasons. I didn't really feel a religious calling. I drifted away from that church and I've never felt a need to attend since then. Instead, I turned to strong drink, and I've never been happier. (Okay, I'm just kidding about that last sentence).

I'm not saying that I think you're destined to give up the church. I do think, though, that it might help to reflect upon your reasons for attending CA and studying the Bible. Your weblog has a strongly intellectual cast, but relatively less discussion of your spiritual journey. This may just be a reflection of what you choose to write about, but it may be indicative of where your feelings really are. Are you drawn to God, or just going to church? Do you feel anything from the Bible, or is just a really interesting book to study? I don't mean these questions to sound judgmental or pejorative; I'm just trying to frame the issue for you as to whether there's anything transcendental about your experiences.

In my view, if you are inclined to try to seek out a new church, I think the Catholic and the Episcopal churches may not be the right place for you, at least at this point in your search. Catholicism has such a robust cultural background and so much systematic theology that it seems to me that it would be very tempting for you to get diverted into treating it as a social or an intellectual pursuit. (I was always drawn to the systematic theology as well, but I'm a lawyer, and that may have reflected an attempt to view God in terms of the human agency with which I am most familiar). The Episcopal church, in my experience, seems institutional, to the point where the religious experience is attenuated, at least for the casual attendee.

You might be better off at this point with a small church that is more directly spiritual. The Society of Friends (the Quakers) come to mind, but that may be too quiet to be at all inspirational. A more charismatic, revivalist church might seem alien to you at first, what with all of the spectacle, but it might light a fire; it might help you to catch some of the spiritual fervor that seems to animate those churches.

Best of luck.

Posted by: Tom T. on August 12, 2003 06:38 AM

I'd like to hear more about what you mean when you say you want to have a purpose and are seeking a church that understands you and where you can make an impact. Say more about what you are looking for.

I've heard about a book called "The Unauthorized Guide to Choosing a Church" by Carmen Berry, put out by Brazos Press, but I don't know if it would be helpful or not. It tells you what the different denominations believe.

I've always been United Methodist so it almost feels now as if I'm married to that denomination. I'm kind of a "high church" person so I'd disagree with Tom T. and say that Catholicism and Anglicanism have a very strong tradition of spirituality. Methodism not so much, but we kind of borrow from those two.

It's good to find a church that would challenge you and not just "affirm" you. (Methodists love to affirm!) The definition of worship that I learned is the glorification of God and the sanctification of humanity. Glorifying God is first and through that, we are changed.

God be with you on your journey.

Posted by: Jennifer on August 12, 2003 09:10 AM

Hmmm. I can't help but wonder if you are trying to fill a round hole with a square peg or put the cart before the horse (so to speak).

Do you believe in God or do you WANT to believe in God? Do you believe you NEED God to fulfill your yearning for purpose or are you hoping that, through God, you will find your purpose?

Have you attempted to create or find someplace/something, away from church, which would fulfill your desire to have an impact (volunteering to help at the local Veterans hospital or such)? Have you exhuasted the search for purpose within yourself?

By offering your particular abilities (and limitations) to any number of truly worthwile endeavors (battered womens shelter, soup kitchen, United Way, children's hospitals, and don't forget our Veterans...)you may begin to find "your place" in this world.

The path to God and happiness may lay in first finding the "thing", by and for yourself, which has a positive influence on YOU and others. Then perhaps God may find YOU!

Hope this helps in some way.

Posted by: David on August 12, 2003 11:26 AM


You have more insight into this problem than a lot of regular church-goers.

10 months is a long time to have attended a church, and if you don't feel like it's your home yet, that may be a sign that it's time to look elsewhere. You don't have to drop it lock, stock, and barrel, but your experiences there may be a little clearer if you look at some other churches.

However--and this is the really important point--you are also quite right to want a church that will stretch and challenge you, and not simply echo back to you your own personality, your own morals, your own beliefs. Finding a church that can be both homey and challenging can be very hard, and if you find one that does it perfectly, let me know!

Keep looking; the right place is out there for you.


Posted by: Captain Inertia on August 12, 2003 12:57 PM

I try to look at it this way:
Here I am, all tangled up in cogito ergo sum. God is perceived to be "elsewhere". Despite this perception, however, I am at every instant, standing before God, stark naked, and utterly transparent.
If I can come to feel comfortable, even joyful, about this arrangement, I'll have arrived in the Kingdom. That's what I'm seeking.

Posted by: Rob on August 12, 2003 01:20 PM

Everybody is different of course, but I received this email from a searching co-worker..I wouldn't have thought about the Mass as something conversional, but then what do I know?

He writes about his conversion:
There was no defining moment, where the scales fell from my eyes and golden rays of enlightenment shone through newly opened doors of perception.... it was much more mundane than that. I have reconciled (finally) the idea that you (I mean I) could distinguish what you believe from what you can prove to be true. There's that Freethinker element, which rejects authority and dogma in favor of rational inquiry and speculation, and which traditionally has had way too loud a voice in the old mental committee...

Which is kind of why I stress the strict definition of agnosticism, which merely holds that you simply can't "Know", but you can still believe. My fiancee, who has been Catholic her whole life, invited me to attend mass a couple of years ago, and "yikes!" I found it enriching. As it continues to be... When I went through RCIA classes a year ago I had many rewarding conversations with a deacon from the Josephinum...

Posted by: TSO on August 13, 2003 03:50 AM

TW checking in between packing up one house and unpacking another.

Your own authenticity and that of your commentators make for a really great post. Just to get one thing straight: I am uncomfortable with anyone criticizing just about any church, (1) because it happens a lot especially among people who (like me) end up in grad school studying theology and imagine we are above the riff-raff, (2) because I have found every lousy church is full of people beloved of God, (3) because I have also found that every great church is full of sinners, (4) because until Jesus gives up on a church, we shouldn't, and because (5) Jesus doesn't give up on churches, even dead ones (Rev. 3:1ff). My discomfort is spilling over sometimes when I hear you raise legitimate objections. Sorry when that gets in the way.

Complaining about a church and leaving a church to find the one at which you belong are two very different things. There are all kinds of churches that aren't really right for me or my family, and that should be even truer of a seeker than a believer.

As you look elsewhere you have my blessings, and CA's help if you want it. From the pulpit Mark has repeatedly said that he is happy for people to leave CA if they belong elsewhere. It's not about numbers, and it certainly isn't about CA being all things to all people. It is about where God wants each of us to be.

And now a little unsolicited advice, to you and anyone looking for a church:

Follow your hands. Where do you find a place to give, not just receive? Don't ask where you are satisfied; ask where you are productive – and specifically, productive with fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Gal. 5).

Follow your hunger. Where do you find the things you need? Note that I didn't say "follow your taste." This isn't about comfort or entertainment or personal growth; this is about nourishment for survival and maturity. Look for a place where you want to gulp down what they offer and come back for seconds, not just because it's cool or fun but because it's vital. Frankly this is the kind of seeker I am used to: a person so attracted to the hope he or she has found in the good news that he or she can't be stopped – from attending, from Bible reading, from secondary reading, and all the rest. You haven't been there this year. I wasn't that way all the time I was at several churches growing up, but when I found the right place it clicked like never before. Look for that.

Follow Christ. If this faith is true, then what makes a church a church isn't demographics or doctrine or structure or old-school spirituality or new-school spirituality, it's the presence of the risen Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. That's here at CA, but it is all over the place – among Catholics, Episcopals, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Orthodox, charismatics and Pentecostals, Quakers, and all the rest that I've left out – because God is at work all over the place. It can take a while for even Christians to appreciate the width and breadth of Christ's presence, because at first we are constrained by our own expectations; but the right place will give you greater sensitivity to spotting it when it takes less familiar forms.

See you tomorrow!

Posted by: Telford Work on August 16, 2003 10:17 PM

My sense is that the concept of "church" came not from God, but from men. Had Jesus wanted to found a big organization centered around some institution other than the temple in Jerusalem, certainly he could have done so. He did not.
So long as an individual seeking God has a Holy Bible and a room to go into, to pray behind his closed door, he has enough.
If you have no room, no bible, no door, you still have God to pray to: you still have everything.
It's nip-and-tuck whether institutions do more harm than good. I personally distrust all collectives. All those good people you might meet in a church, you meet at WalMart, or at your job, or at the county fair: go for it. I don't feel above anybody. I fear that most sectarians can't honestly say that.

Posted by: Rob on August 17, 2003 07:34 AM
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