Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The list

I'm having a heck of a time finding a place where I feel a fit at church these days. There are many people there who love me very much, and I love them in return. Yet I'm not sure they totally 100% love the real me, or just the orthodox part of me that I'm willing and brave enough to show on Sundays and Wednesdays.

While I'd like to think I have enough grace to love all parts of their souls and lives, even their flaws, they surely wear the same facade of righteousness just to play it safe. And so we go on, week after week, loving each other which is the easiest thing in the world, because really, the only parts of ourselves that we show are very lovable!

This topic came up recently in our Wednesday night discussion group, and it turned into one of those open windows where I took a bit of a chance to see what would happen.

Classmate: I think our church is an open place, and the members are open with one another. We share our lives.
Me: I don't think that's true.
Classmate: What do you mean?
Me: I think most of our lives, especially the struggles, are almost completely hidden from our church friends. Take divorce, for example. At least five couples in our group have been separated and divorced over the past few years, and none of us saw it coming. Because they never opened up to any of us about the problems in their marriage. For all I know many of you are having those types of struggles right now. Or maybe Jamie and I am. But the history shows that you'd never know and we don't talk about it here.
Classmate: What can we do about that, though? If they don't choose to be honest and share their lives, how can we know if they need help?
Me: That's just the thing -- I think we've created an environment that makes it almost impossible to be honest about these things. It's like there's a list of sins or problems that we're not allowed to talk about at church.
Classmate: (Challenging) Give me an example.
Me: Let's start with sex, since it's probably the easiest and most obvious. Do you think there are men in this church who struggle with lust, pornography and adultery?
Classmate: Probably.
Me: No probably, I guarantee it. With more than 1,000 members in this church, I guarantee you that there are triple-digit numbers of guys wrestling with pornography. I'm one of them, but it never gets talked about here.
Female classmate: (confused) Triple digits?
Me: At least 100 guys. Sexual temptation and struggle is almost written into our DNA, but after more than 30 years attending church I can't think of a single time I personally witnessed a man testify to his struggle with sexuality. We don't talk about it, and that silence makes it seem that nobody is having this problem. So 100 guys are left to feel alone with no support system until the problem grows large enough for painful consequences to set in.
Classmate: Okay, I see what you're saying. Are there more things on this list?
Me: Substance abuse, greed/stealing, addictions of various types. How many times have any of you seen a public or even classroom/group setting where a person confessed to one of these things? The only struggles that seem to be okay to discuss at church are depression, joblessness, and "not living better for Jesus". Meanwhile we wrestle with all of these other very real issues on our own.
Classmate: But what would change that?
Me: Somebody would have to be very brave and step out in trust that they could talk about this type of thing in vulnerable confession, and that the group would respond in love. If it worked, it might make it easier for the second person to come forward. If not, then we'd prove we aren't a safe place to come with problems, and we can forget about getting deeper than the happy-looking surface level in this building. I think it's tragic, and that Jesus would say this is a place for the sick and the hurting. How sad that this is the last place people want to bring their real problems.

When this was over, four different guys came up to me after class to talk privately and say this felt more "real" than anything they'd experienced at church in a long time. Another guy called me on his cell phone as he was driving home.

I'm 34 years old and have still never had a close enough friend whom I felt I could trust with tough problems. Perhaps more importantly, I haven't been the kind of friend to anyone in a way that would let them trust me with their own struggles.

No, I'm not in some kind of personal crisis mode right now. My crisis was systemic, looking at the church and not seeing it as a place where my generation can come together with their whole selves.

And I fear that if that doesn't change, there won't be much of a church left for my grandkids. If that's the case, I hope that there's some other support system of friends and loved ones who can help them when the time comes.

18 comments:

Debby said...

Mike. I totally get this one. But the thing that I want to tell you is this: YOU can be that sort of person. I don't confide in my church. When you have a child with a mental illness, people do assign guilt. Mom is always in the cross hairs. There are gossipy old women in the church who ask cloyingly personal questions, but you know who they are, and you smile sweetly and you don't answer, because you know what they do with the information. (When my wig was being trimmed and the woman accidently pulled it from my head in the local beauty shop, that word went around town and church like none other. The woman who was trumpeting the news even told me!) But I keep my own counsel, and the understanding of my unfortunate church dynamics makes me a go-to person. When someone has a problem, they will tell me. I do offer comfort. I do talk with them. I do pray for them.

I'm not trying to set myself up as some sort of golden hero. You need to be what your church lacks. That's why God has put you there. So. Get on with it.

Redlefty said...

Debby, I think you're right on with that.

And at work I'm certainly the one everybody comes to with their struggles. Partly because they think I'll listen/help but mostly I think it's because they at least know I'll keep it in confidence.

So I see two takeaways for me to work on:

1) Be the good listener/friend
2) Be open to someday being the one who opens up at church and takes the risk

Don Rogers said...

Michael- My friend you are spot-on. And, it's not just your church denomination, mine was identical. Deeply orthodox (whatever that means) churches are NOT places where the things you mentioned are discussed freely, knowing fellow members will be ready to discuss and help each one who "confesses". I believe there really are a few churches, very few, where discussions of this type can take place....My problem is I've never found one.

Andrew said...

Great stuff. It seems the one place we should have a little honesty is at church, but rarely the case.

This is me with my personal drum, but I think as long as we remain tied to in/out, heaven/hell theology we will never overcome this.

~aj~ said...

Great post, Michael!

I couldn't agree more with your thoughts on this one. Our class at church and our small group have talked about this issue a lot the past couple of years.

I think it all comes down to being that open-minded, non-judgemental, loving friend to others AND allowing yourself to be humble/vulnerable enough to share your own struggles with someone else as well. (What is it Ghandi said? Be the change that you want to see?) And there's no reason we should limit those type of relationships to the church. Coworkers, family members, neighbors...we all are in need of and deserve relationships like that.

It seems to me like that deep kind of relationship is best developed one on one and then expanded upon. I could not imagine myself being comfortable at this point in time to share something DEEPLY personal with my entire class, let alone my entire church. But I'm at a place where I COULD open myself up like that to a couple of individuals and at the right time, to our close-knit small group.

I've also been mulling around the comment you had at the end about the church not being what it needs to be for our generation, let alone future generations and with that, I think I have to disagree. I think about "the church" our grandparents were a part of in their younger years and how people related to one another during those times and in that regard I think we've come a long way with taking down walls. Maybe it's just a matter of being a part of the RIGHT (for you) church family?

One last thing (sorry this is so stinking long), have you ever seen videos of Cardboard Ministries? In my opinion, that is some powerful stuff and is the type of evangalism we should all be practicing!

~aj~ said...

Oops, that should be Cardboard Testimonies instead. :)

Redlefty said...

AJ,

Never heard of Carboard ministries so I'll check it out; thank you!

I agree that a few walls have come down and perhaps the churches I envision are indeed out there. I just haven't seen one yet.

For example, even though it may be unrealistic to expect a church member to confess some deep issue publicly, how can we never even talk about the things I mentioned in the post (sexual problems, substance abuse, etc...)?

Those topics seem genuinely forbidden at any CoC I've been to. What I'm envisioning instead is formal support groups, scheduled and publicized, with each group led by a church member who has experience in the area.

So I'm totally qualified for a few already! :)

Roland said...

I haven't been to my church's men's group in a while, but we did discuss some of these things.

I don't always talk about my struggles publicly with a capital P, but do it publicly with the small p - with a few select people who I know can help, even if it's just by just listening. Not all are at the church, but there's certainly a concentration of them there.

Even within my church friends, I still pick and choose who to share what with. If news gets to the other ones, I don't know. It's not a very gossipy place, but it's not a secret, either. Although it's sad to know they all have struggles, it's good to know they all have struggles, too. For that reason, I'm okay with sharing some of my problems. So far, so good.

Steve H. said...

Michael,

I don't have a lot of time as I'm going into China for a couple days (and the blogspot blocked access that goes with it) but wanted to say I loved this post and may steal it for a post on my site. Will write more once I re-emerge from the bamboo curtain...Steve

Redlefty said...

Steve,

Steal whatever you want! :)

Roland,

Very cool that your men's group talked about some of these things. I've been in a few men's groups that were supposed to do this, but we just never got there. The trust never developed.

AJ,

I saw a video on the cardboard confession/ministries and it was VERY moving! I haven't seen it at a CoC yet, though, which is part of what concerns me.

Bob said...

Agree with Debby completely; you can be this go-to person and this might be what God is nudging you to do.

I have been in an Evangelical non-denominational church most of my adult life. I don't agree with some of the theology now but one area in which it is strong is what you are writing about here. There has always been encouragement to be "real" and really, no subject is taboo. I have known countless guys who have confessed their struggles with pornography and countless couples who have been very up-front about their marriage problems.

There's a song called "This is Not a Place" by a guy named Ken Medema (sp?). I'm trying to find the lyrics on the Internet to send to you. Perfect for your stated concerns about church.

I hope you'll continue to be the light in the darkness where you are. Next sermon topic?????

Bob said...

The song is "IF This is Not a Place."

~aj~ said...

Michael, I actually learned about cardboard testimonies because of CofC churches doing it. I'll send you a link of the first one I saw.

Redlefty said...

Thanks, Bob and AJ!

This is blowing me away, because as an adult I've been a member at six or seven churches and have NEVER seen these topics discussed openly. Maybe I really have just been in the wrong places.

Next sermon topic -- loving our enemies. It's almost completely ready in my head but I probably won't put it to paper until I'm asked to deliver it and there's a date on the calendar.

~aj~ said...

For what it's worth, the church Matt and I worshipped at for years when we were first married is not even close to being able to have these kinds of conversations. Some of these topics are being addressed in our current change (by people of all ages which is encouraging), but we're still a long way from where we "should" be.

Don't lose hope that these discussions aren't happening anywhere though because they are. One of my best friends worked at a church this summer and on one particular Sunday he had a homeless person on one side of him and an ex prisoner (who served time for MURDER) on his other side...and there they sat praising the same God from the same row. Gives me goosbumps.

~aj~ said...

Should be "our current church" not change. Didn't proofread. :)

Bob said...

song I was telling you about:

http://lifelistening.com/news/writings/if-this-is-not-a-place/

Redlefty said...

Bob, that song really nails the feeling of my post; thank you.

AJ, I think you're right that there is hope out there -- may talk to you more through email about that.

Thanks for the awesome discussion, gang!