I spent more time with Christians this weekend than I have in months. And it stirred a lot of feelings that I am still processing.
Saturday night, I went to a housewarming party where the bulk of the guests were friends of the hosts through church or Christian NGOs. Such friendly, nice couples…most with that fresh-scrubbed, yuppie look about them.
As the evening wore on, one guy started to set off a few of my alarm bells. He and his wife live in an ‘intentional community’ with eight other people. (Which I actually admire.)
Still, he was just a little “off”… almost like he wasn’t tracking the conversation: he somehow found ways to relate everything the group talked about back to faith and religion. He was a milder version of the "Praise Jesus" Dave I wrote about a few weeks ago: someone for whom the touchstone at every moment in time is Jesus or God regardless of what everybody else is thinking or talking about.
One woman there was clearly not religious… at one point, this guy took it upon himself to ask what her “religious heritage” was. I could almost feel him gearing up for an evangelistic moment, though thankfully he didn’t take it any further (I admit, I could have been projecting). Later, there was an awkward silence when he excitedly described how the Hebrew letters of YAHWEH, when printed backwards and vertically, resemble a human figure. (And the relevance of this is... ?) He also injected a few “religion and politics jokes” which went over like a lead balloon – to the point that I started feeling bad for him. Mostly, though, I felt a cascade of relief at no longer being around such earnest, self-serious evangelists.
So that was last night.
Today, I went to a goodbye BBQ for a couple who started the Christian non-profit I had once been involved with. I hadn’t seen them for almost a year, and I hadn’t seen many of the other leaders in the group for months. I was a little anxious about how I would answer the inevitable “What's new with you?” question, for two reasons. One, I didn’t really want to discuss my growing doubts about my faith at someone else’s party – the day was not about me. Two, I didn’t really want to discuss my growing doubts with people who are positively on fire for God – it would invite too much scrutiny, questions, pity, and/or prayers.
So when the question did come, I answered generically and deflected conversation back to the asker ASAP. “I’m doing well…work is good…I’ve been doing a lot of rock climbing lately. Oh, yep, bought a car last month. And how are you?” I felt bad being something less than totally open – after all, I had been very open with these folks a year or two ago when the organization was just getting started. But I just couldn’t go there.
Yet, at a deeper level, I knew I was giving a really flat answer. The people at the BBQ had that infectious love that my faith had once given me but I no longer have, as well as that deliciously certain sense of mission and purpose in the world…something else I no longer have. I felt a weird pressure to prove that I'm doing just as well as anybody there - that I need to justify my choices, questions, and decisions to move away from faith. That felt crummy.
I also started to feel jealous – how come these guys still have their faith and optimism that God is acting in the world? What is God doing for them that he didn’t for me? What daily evidence are they seeing that God exists, that he cares, that he’s as invested in his relationship with them as they are with him?
My thoughts then turned in another direction: I don't want to go back into that milieu, exactly. Among other things, my beliefs are so broken right now, I’m not sure it would be possible.
But I started to wonder what other communities in this world so unite people in purpose and love to serve others the way churches do? That is the seduction of the faith that still remains with me. There is something about the bond that forms between Christians who join a service project or who plant a new church. It goes beyond the activity they have in common: it’s an immediate unity – maybe an assumed unity – of thinking, belief, vocabulary, practices, world view. It's comforting, provides a sense of belonging, and imbues the activity in question with a sense of purpose that I know can exist among agnostics and atheists, but haven't yet experienced myself.
So while I don't miss God, I do miss that. And don't quite know what to do about it.