August 12, 2003
Where do I go?

I got some interesting and helpful responses to my previous post (thanks, everyone). I was going to reply to them in the thread, but the answer was getting long, so I'll write a post about it instead.

David and Tom T. both wonder why I'm looking for a new church at all. David suggests my search for a purpose might be better served working for a charity unrelated to church. Tom says:

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 was surprised to see him say that, but I guess it does come from what I choose to write about on the blog. I didn't mention the option of dropping church altogether, but it's not because I didn't think of it. It's because I know I feel a spiritual hunger. I don't really feel like I can say, "Oh well, I guess I won't think about God any more." I can't not think about it. The desire predates CA and predates Telford, so I figure it would go on without them too.

Last year before I started going to CA, I did think about volunteering for a charity. But I had the same problem as with churches: there are a ton of them, and I wasn't sure how to connect with them, evaluate them or what to offer them. In a way, it was even harder than finding a church, because churches at least sit there on the street and are open to all comers, while most charities are a lot less conspicuous. Since the two interests seemed related, I had hoped to address both at once, although CA was a rather poor choice in this regard.

Jennifer says:

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.

Well, one problem is that I'm only figuring out what I'm looking for as I go along. Shopping for a church isn't like shopping for a car, where I have a picture in my head of what features I want and go looking for a car that fits it. In a way, it's more like I'm the car, looking for the driver that wants me.

One point Telford keeps hammering is the importance of Christian community. To him, Christianity is primarily relational; it's not like Buddhism, where you go off and find nirvana by detaching yourself from others. I've been receptive to this message, because I searched largely in solitude before now, and it didn't go very far. And many of my own issues and problems are relational. I've never really done community. I've had close relationships with a few people, but I've never felt connected to any larger entity.

Going to CA has made me confront the reasons for this. I'm still not totally sure what they are, but I had a kind of eureka moment when I was arguing with Telford the Sunday before last. We were talking about a woman we'd known at Alpha.

Telford and I went through this Alpha course in February and March, and it's definitely the thing I remember most fondly about CA so far. The course itself wasn't much but we had these great table discussions afterwards with five or six other people. After the course was over, however, people kind of drifted off.

In this last conversation with Telford, he was trying to impress on me how important I was to people at church. He mentioned that he'd recently bumped into this woman from Alpha at the library, and she'd asked after me.

"Eh," I said. "When you see someone you know, you ask after people you both know."

"It's wasn't just bourgeois politeness," he said. "She was really concerned."

"If you say so..."

"I do say so. Why don't you call her, and find out?"

"She never contacts me unless I contact her first."

"Well, call her on that."

My revulsion at this idea revealed a lot to me. There are few things that I want less than to maintain relationships by laying guilt trips, saying, "Pay attention to me, dammit!" I mean, duty has a role to play in friendships, and sometimes you need to nudge people who've been neglecting you (as some people have rightly nudged me). But if it's falling into that this early in the game, something's wrong.

I think I'm figuring out what's wrong. A purpose, a goal, isn't just necessary to me spiritually, it's necessary relationally. When we were at Alpha, we were all working on a project. We each had a role to play, and I was good at mine. After Alpha, that structure was gone, and we never really knew what to do with each other. I'd run into them sometimes, and we'd make small talk; but our relationship had formed around a purpose that was no longer there.

I think that's what distinguishes my friendship with Telford from my relations with everyone else at church. Since the beginning, we've been on a big project. Telford's purpose, obviously, is to bring me to God. The rest of the church wants that too, of course. But the real difference is that I also serve a purpose to Telford. This became clearer to me than ever when he recently told me about his book chapter that I'm in. I had brought questions and arguments to him that he hadn't heard before, and he realized he needed to develop real answers to them.

I don't feel like I have a function like that to anyone else at CA. The people who know me may like me, they may care about what happens to me, but they don't have a use for me. I don't bring them anything special that they want or need, so they don't have much motivation to make contact with me.

Mind you, it's not like I don't want to bring them something. It's just that I don't know what, or how. And this basic fact, I think, is what has kept me alienated from most people for most of my life, not just CA people. It's what leaves me feeling like I don't have a purpose, that I don't really matter.

I guess all this talk about using people might sound un-Christian. But I don't mean it the way a woman who was seduced and abandoned would say, "He used me." I'm thinking more along the lines of Romans 12:

Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

I've been wondering: what part of this body am I? Am I part of it at all? My big frustration with CA is that I'm not seeing any way to that. Yet I do want to be part of a body. I see this now more clearly than ever. But whose body, what shape it would be, is a lot fuzzier.

Posted by Camassia at August 12, 2003 07:27 PM | TrackBack

Since Telford is into discussing what is accurate history in the gospels, and what isn't, let me propose as something that perhaps isn't, the report Jesus founded a church. If he had wanted to found a formal organization, he could have done so and had it up and running during his earthly ministry. Instead, he sent his apostles out two-by-two to announce the Good News to strangers, taught his hand-picked inner circle in small groups (sometimes one-on-one) and seemed to preach to large groups only reluctantly.
You may feel the need to belong to an organization for social reasons, but I don't think that you need to feel that way for religious ones. What I'm saying is look for the answer to that question inside, not outside yourself.

Posted by: Rob on August 13, 2003 09:33 AM

I must disagree with Rob's interpretation. No, Jesus didn't found a "church" as we think of it today. But he inaugurated the kingdom of God - when Jesus says I've brought good news, it's usually followed by a reference to the kingdom. Thus, the good news is political and communal. His hand picked inner circle was not a display of his preference for small groups but a symbol of the Twelve Tribes of Israel - a symbol of the community of Israel.

Camassia, I'm sure Telford drummed all this into you, but I had to put my two cents in with regards to Rob's comments.

Posted by: Jennifer on August 13, 2003 03:10 PM

Hi, Jennifer: It's nice to hear from you. You are correct, of course, that Jesus chose the 12 to represent the 12 tribes. The key word here is "chose". He could have done things big; he chose to do things small. He taught that we should not be ostentacious in our worship, but go into our room and close the door to pray. That might not be the complete answer, but it might be the place to start, if one is in some doubt about how to proceed in the spiritual quest. God is always available, even if the ideal collective--at least right now--is not.
In the end, nothing can be added to, or subtracted from, God.

Posted by: Rob on August 13, 2003 05:40 PM

Well, I've been looking inside myself for a long time -- in fact, I think I am too inward-turned. But a lot of what I've been finding inside myself lately is how much I need other people. So it goes around in a circle...

Posted by: Camassia on August 14, 2003 05:31 PM

People, yes. There is no shortage of us around. I kind of enjoy this venue--just being a disembodied mind; still a person, though...

Posted by: Rob on August 14, 2003 06:55 PM

On rereading my recent comment, I realize I sounded reather more aggressive than I meant to. I apologize if I was offensive.

I didn't really mean to be pushing you to quit going to church. I'm not trying to advocate one conclusion or another. It's more that I'm trying to suggest the questions that I think may be most helpful to you if you do wish to pursue a relationship with God.

I have no problem with considering the social and cultural aspects of particular churches. I am just concerned that it can be easy to allow these considerations to obscure the deeper spiritual quest, such that your search might not lead you in a direction that's satisfying to you. I wanted to push your thinking in a spiritual direction (with the understanding that you may have been having such thoughts and just not writing much about them), because your post struck me as mostly about human relationships and less about your relationship with Christ.

To be honest, your remarks about wanting to feel that you have a purpose raise some of the same concerns in me. There's nothing wrong with feeling that way -- indeed, it's admirable -- but it may not be a useful approach to finding God. The heart of Christianity, it seems to me, is being truly able to feel that Christ loves you. It's not about feeling needed. To be blunt, God loves you but He doesn't need you (or me or anyone else). In the Christian view, everything we are and everything we feel flows from God's grace, and His love and power transcend any purpose you might serve on Earth.

I don't mean to discourage you, and I'm not suggesting that you're doing anything the wrong way. Everything you're considering about finding the right church sounds wise to me. I'm just trying to emphasize the point that the church should not be the end in itself, but rather should be the means by which you enter into a meaningful relationship with Christ.

I agree that community in worship should be important to you. I would suggest, though, that an important aspect to consider in evaluating a church community is the extent to which it feels inspired. Can you feel the love of Christ in them, and can they convey to you how that feels?

Best wishes and good luck.

Posted by: Tom T. on August 14, 2003 07:06 PM

One of the mega problems with megachurches is that it is so easy to seem not to matter in them. That's a problem CA keeps trying to solve, not very successfully. The problem may be structural rather than simply strategic: churches of 2,000 people in our society are not going to be tight-knit. You need either smaller units or a social structure unlike that of Los Angeles.

Paul was writing Romans to what we would think of as a very small church, yet even then he sent them the grandiose ecclesiology of Romans 12. I think Romans 12 scales up and down; I just haven't seen it scale in American suburbia very often.

Getting back onto the topic, I think it's absolutely right to want a community to which you can contribute. First of all, that's what Christianity promises, and so it becomes a positive or negative indicator of the truth of the good news. (Of course, people and communities alike can resist that good news, which discredits them more than the gospel itself. Still, a faith that can't deliver on its own promises seems to me to be fundamentally flawed.)

Second, that seems to be a pretty universal human quality. Don't know much sociology, but I do know that people who don't know they matter are miserable. Communism and capitalism both create these conditions for lots of people – I think because they belong to the old creation rather than the new creation.

You matter, Camassia, just like everyone does. You may not know it yet, or you may doubt it, or you may think it abstractly but not know how it is supposed to look, but you matter. Not a little; a lot. God himself will leave ninety-nine true believers to look after themselves while he goes after you. God knows when a sparrow falls to the ground, and you are worth more than many sparrows. The whole world will forget about you and me, but the Father remembers.

This is why Frank Capra was right to call "It's a Wonderful Life" the best film ever. Every one of us is George Bailey.

The church of Romans 12 is the future, where we all know we matter, here in the present. When we forget and imagine that we don't matter, and when the cold world reinforces our forgetfulness with lies that our worth is tied to our power, the church is is a living reminder to us, and we to each other, of the way things really are. It is God keeping a promise to make us whole, individually and communally.

I have always found the parable of the good Samaritan helpful in gauging these things. The setting of that parable is a man who has learned that all the Law and the Prophets hang on the commandments to love God and to love one's neighbor as oneself. He replies, "Who is my neighbor?" hoping probably to get a legal definition that permits loopholes. Instead Jesus delivers the news that your neighbor is anyone you end up next to. The parable accepts that we can't really love everyone, not concretely anyway; we can only love those we have an opportunity to love. But it goes on to proclaim that everyone whom we have an opportunity to love must receive that love, or we have fallen short. That is a commandment to remind each other that we matter to God.

This is also why looking for a church that facilitates love of neighbor is a good thing, but does not by itself fulfill the commandment to love those God has put in our lives. Even the many churches that make love difficult are not excuses not to love, not to act in the promise that we matter to each other. There can be no such excuse.

Posted by: Telford Work on August 16, 2003 10:46 PM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?