nonsermon #7: my church

by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

It’s true what they say, though acknowledging this doesn’t make it easier to accept: sometimes you can’t go home. I was exiting a toxic relationship, searching for a place within my friendships, and for the first time in my life wondering who I was, worrying it wasn’t who I believed myself to be. I had recently met a band and went to see them play down the street from my apartment. Though the venue was a coffee shop, there was something else about the building that I couldn’t quite figure. In addition to the coffee shop was also an art gallery, a lot of seemingly unused space, but no explicit purpose stated anywhere. Later, I found myself on the building’s website, reading about Sunday morning worship.

I had never known a church to remain so close to the chest, like a secret to be kept instead of a gospel to be shared. This was the first of many points in favor of the church, as I had grown weary of evangelistic efforts, and it soon became my refuge. Every Sunday, I would sneak to my spot, trying to remain undetected, only speaking to the two friends I had made in as many months.

Community was not what I was after: I wanted a place to disappear, a place where I could feel like I was a part of something without actually being a part of that something. I was often left gutted by the messages, and I frequently walked home to quietly reflect. For a while this worked.

I soon made a friend who invited me to visit and join her small group, but if I did this, the gig would be up: I couldn’t remain invisible. I decided to give it a chance anyway, and on some Wednesday in the spring I arrived at a house full of people I did not know, eating, talking, laughing, and watching a movie, the first of many nights we would do this. A month later I found myself on a camping trip with the group. Looking back, I don’t know what got into me. I was never this bold socially. I avoided interactions that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I was working to disappear myself, in a way, at the time. Suddenly I had about ten people daily ensuring that I wouldn’t. This is what a church can be: a shelter, a home, the place you find your chosen family.

Along the way, I lost faith in church, maybe in faith altogether. Several mentors from various churches in my youth disappointed me, people I would have liked as mentors did not give me a chance to admire them up close, and my questions about religion had no answers except in the way that my body stopped moving toward the building on Sundays, my mouth stopped forming prayers, and my convictions stopped making sense. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that I lost sight of that peace beyond understanding. It was just that I could have used a net to catch me, and felt I had none.

So I put my faith in my friends. I believed in the many ways we came together to say that our lives were better in community. I put my faith in the line we inked to our bodies: “The hallway was where we learned to celebrate.” I decided no more answers, at least not now. My church became the house where we gathered, my only belief in the smallness of our individual lives, in the truth of our love for each other. Eventually, I would figure out the rest.

There was a time in my early adult years when I was training to become a minister for the church while studying religion from an academic perspective at the university I attended. Over the course of my learning, I found that my religious views did not align with the conservative tradition I grew up in and worked for during my college years.

Throughout college, I started carefully avoiding certain topics in my youth group lessons, or else dancing around issues where my perspective would cause problems with the churches that employed me. On one occasion, when Christians were celebrating a fast food restaurant’s donations to anti-LGBTQ organizations, I spent hours that week writing a lesson for my teenagers about my belief that Jesus would not be found amidst this celebration but among those who were being marginalized by such gross displays of homophobia. It was the only time I recall risking my job for the sake of an issue I could not abide by.

Eventually, I couldn’t bear the weight of dividing myself between an employee of the church and the person I was to become, so I left ministry to become a teacher. Despite this, I still faithfully attended church, though I opted for a non-denominational church where the theology was farther along the progressive line.

When I later went to graduate school a few cities over, I stopped attending church, but I had made the majority of my friends through the one I had previously attended and thus remained in its orbit. While in grad school, I married, and my spouse and I moved back to the city and visited the church a handful of times, unsure if it was where we wanted to land. In the midst of our decision-making, our friends convinced us to lead the small group I had been a part of before leaving. We ambivalently obliged, and found ourselves—somewhat spontaneously—leading a group of about ten 20 and 30 somethings.

Despite this new leadership role, my partner and I were in the midst of interrogating our
engagement with the church, both this one specifically and the church at large. Fortunately, many of our friends were going through the same process of questioning. Unfortunately, leading a small group under the guise of its Christian affiliation led to even more internal tension concerning our own doubts.

I had moved from a conservative faith background to a somewhat more progressive one, only to find that I still felt that a church needed to affirm certain principles to be in line with my own faith. I attended a seminary that put me in contact with many Christian traditions that both loved God and held my same beliefs in affirmation of LGBTQ+ communities and social movements like Black Lives Matter and the rights of immigrants. Before meeting them, I hadn’t seen Christians living out the Gospel and being socially and politically minded in this way.

But it was—or felt—too late. Though I was inspired by how my classmates lived, it had been ingrained in me that the public and the private person, the spiritually faithful and the socially minded, could not come together. I could not collapse the dissonance in my own heart, even as I saw people living and believing as I always wanted to. I had thought that I was losing my religion, but might gain it back. I didn’t know I had already lost it.

I started to wonder aloud if other people felt like this, and I discovered that many of my friends were in the same place. Many had stopped going to church for various reasons, and none of us were talking about it. None of us knew that our friends were not at church because each of us had quietly stopped attending and hoped no one would call us out, or ask why. When I spoke with other friends and broached the topic, I found that the millennials who are labeled as “nones” were us: most of us grew up in churches, tried to cling to our faith in our early 20s, and had not necessarily walked away but somehow drifted off to varying degrees. There’s not a single one of us that would call ourselves “nones.” however, because it is not that simple: this losing what we had.

As soon as the silence was broken, we found that many of us had been hurt by churches and Christians in various ways, or some could no longer support that which hurt their friends. Even those who were still active members of churches felt conflicted by certain questions. As our small group came to a close for the year, we talked about spending the summer having conversations about the things that we hadn’t been talking about: our questions, our doubts, and our fears around faith. There is a process of deconstruction necessary if something else—something hopefully better—can be built.

While some in my life have seen this process as rebellious or antithetical to the idea of church, it is not for or against religious bodies in any way. It honors wholeness, whether or not that is found within four walls on Sunday mornings. I have wrapped myself in communities of people in churches, and I have done the same outside of them. If Christians or church bodies fear growth outside of their buildings, I’ve had to remind myself that their fear and insecurity is not about me. A church is a building, and not everything that is good and holy happens inside of that space.

For some of my friends, our conversations were instrumental in leading them back to church; for others, these conversations gave us a lifeline to cling to in seasons of doubt and depression.

I’ve a friend who recently visited a church where the pastor said, “Too many millennials want to make the Gospel fit around their lives to make them comfortable.” What is nearly comedic but mostly tragic about this statement is that my generation grew up around Christians justifying their lavish lifestyles, Christian men—including church leaders—hiding and getting caught for affairs, and faithful people stubbornly explaining why the Bible says what it says and not what each of us interprets from it (only younger people did this, they asserted). As a teacher, I know that students respond to encouragement and support, not discouragement and hypocrisy. As an adult I know the same logic applies at any age. From my experience, millennials are not leaving
churches because we want the Gospel to make us comfortable: many of us are leaving because we want the Gospel to challenge us into action and not comfort.

Whatever I feel about my faith in general, the Gospels still serve as an influence over my daily life, the words of and stories about Jesus challenging how I spend my time as I strive to be a better person. I don’t want to fit the Gospels around my life, but I do want people to be honest about how we all make negotiations around texts we hold sacred and traditions we seek to honor. None of us is free from context, culture, and circumstances. They influence the way each of us thinks and acts, and the more transparent we become about this process, the less people will feel they have to hide their struggles in shame.

In several conversations with family and friends since the start of this endeavor, I have made great pains to explain to people that “giving up” is never a phrase to describe someone’s experience with leaving church or struggling with religion: giving up on God, church, and faith all questions asked of me in the last year. I think of Jonathan Safran Foer’s rabbi in Here I Am, who, citing Jacob, reminds a married couple, “What we don’t wrestle we let go of.” If I had given up on any of these questions, I would not still be wrestling them.

Writing and sharing nonsermons has challenged me to open myself to vulnerability in ways I did not know I had refrained from being with my family and closest friends. They moved me from a place of privacy to a place of intimacy—a religious experience in itself. Sharing them with a wider audience has made me even more fearful as I attempt to be vulnerable with people who may have dismissed me when I first said I have left church. But I choose to step out in faith, acknowledging the role of fear as something felt by more than me, and hoping that my small voice provides strength for others, millennials and beyond.

This is the only nonsermon that was not written in some form last summer. Although every nonsermon went through significant changes, rendering some of them almost unrecognizable from their original forms, I find myself freer now to reflect on the experience as a whole. I hope they only serve as conversation starters and not as actual sermons, though I know that in many ways they share the same characteristics. In some ways, I wanted the name to increase transparency should they fall short of my goal.

I have written each in fragments to allow the reader room to think, disagree, or drift off. I often break from my own train of thought to allow for my contradictions to become more readily apparent. I only want to break the silence and the shame around questions and doubts surrounding faith, and to open the door for more genuine conversation. I hope that readers feel free to argue with me in the margins, cross out things I say, add their own spins, and find their own way. I only mean to walk with you, even if our paths are not the same.

Throughout my time in seminary, I was fortunate to have professors expand my canon beyond the authors of biblical texts and Christian inspirational memoirs. My shelves became richly enhanced by the sacred voices of Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Pamela Lightsey.

In a class on Black Lives Matter, our professor assigned Jesus and the Disinherited, the slim volume by Howard Thurman that Martin Luther King, Jr. supposedly carried with him everywhere he went. Thurman queries fellow Christians, “What does religion offer to those whose backs are against the wall? Not what it does for others, but what it does for these.” This, he asserted, was a question that had yet to be answered properly.

Every page I turned was a prophet who contributed to the healing of this world and held
churches accountable for their role—or lack thereof—in justice-making on this earth. Malcolm X proclaimed the failure of the Christian church to be its failure to confront racism; Dr. King was a Christian but did not bend to the apathy of churches; and James Baldwin, though never assigned in my classes, wrote that “Christian churches do not have many Christians in their congregations.” By the time they truly accept wayward souls like his and others, he asserted, “the church will have had to change.”

If not for my introduction to prophetic voices beyond the Bible, I might not have found anything left to dig for in my questions, at least not through religion.

                                                                                —

During my first crisis of faith in college, where I was caught between my life in church and the new spirit of doubt that was forming in me, I experienced my first season of depression as a young adult. Among the things that saved me at the time were my writing classes, where I channeled my energy into expressing everything I had bottled inside.

I had long loved poetry as a child but had failed to keep up with it in high school. When my first professor asked me who my favorite poet was, I was embarrassed to not have an answer. After class, knowing nothing of the infinite number of poets but seeking to overcome my ignorance, I headed to the campus bookstore and felt drawn to the title The Pleasures of the Damned, a collection of Charles Bukowski’s poems. It felt both subversive and comforting to purchase a book with such a title in the midst of my first crisis in faith. Although Bukowski’s name bears a lot of baggage, and rightly so, he was the first poet who gave me a sense of what poetry could offer.

In that collection, there was one line that struck me at the time and still does: “About church: the trouble with a mask is it / never changes.” I am not so young and cynical to now apply this couplet wholesale to all experiences of faith, but I do maintain that any place, relationship, or institution where people are wearing masks can no longer be called church for me.

Often when debates about church turn to critiques, a common defense for the church is that “no church is perfect.” I agree. But I also think that people rely on the phrase “no church is perfect” in order to not even try to make it better. I have loved ones whose experiences of sexual abuse were minimized by their church bodies (or happened within their church bodies), and others who were not wholly accepted because of their sexuality. To say that “no church is perfect” in defense seems aimed at protecting the building and not the people inside.

I distinctly remember telling someone how I had felt personally hurt by a church, and they used this exact phrase. I still cannot determine why this friend could not hold two things in tension: the church is not perfect, but it did hurt me. The church is not perfect, but it could do better. If my life ever takes me on a path to open a building for people to gather, I will place this quote by John Steinbeck front and center: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

A few weeks ago, after months of research, anxiety, and hesitation, I woke up on a Sunday morning, showered, got dressed, paced around, walked to my car, drove to a church I had never visited, parked, sat around, then, finally, walked in for the service. It was my first time to attend a full church service in over a year, and I was not surprised but was nonetheless saddened by how unnatural it felt to do something I had once done every Sunday for over twenty years.

I sat in the back of the room and did not sing along with the congregation, but I was deeply moved by the reading of a poem alongside the scriptural reading, and I was even more moved by the preacher’s message, in which he did not claim to preach anything but rather spoke of his own experience and asked us to find ourselves in it if we so desired (apparently nonsermons are delivered everywhere!).

I thought of how many bodies of faith might be doing the same thing, how comforting it could have been for me all along, how many of us will never feel this tension between past hurt and new healing because we were scarred by what we could not see beyond. By what no one should be asked to move beyond.

After the service, I walked out slowly, thinking I might be stopped by someone asking my name, but no one did, and I got back in my car and drove away. I am still searching for the courage to return.

During the recent Lenten season, someone asked me why I was observing Lent if I was no longer religious. I’ve come so far from that first moment with my barber that I responded, “I am religious, though.” There have been times in my life where I heard Christians criticize people as “spiritual, but not religious.” I also know people who wear this label as a badge of honor. I never thought to consider the phrase for myself, but I think it is a bit of a misnomer anyway.

The word religion stems from somewhat vague etymology, as the Latin term religiō is not
altogether clear in meaning. Its roots are often traced to Cicero, who interpreted it as combining re (again) with lego, meaning “choose, go over again, or consider carefully.” This eventually led to the definition “to reconnect,” made popular by St. Augustine. But original uses of religiō were not believed to be connected to a system of faith or devotion specific to a god, but rather obligation, devotion, or a sense of duty to anything: gods, yes, but also family, neighbors, authority. Thus, one can reconnect, choose, or consider carefully devotion to the people we love, the spirits we worship, the people we consider our neighbors. In all of these ways we may be religious.

I am therefore not so sure about the differentiation between spiritual and religious. I am starting to think I am both spiritual and religious, and I am still figuring out what that looks like in the context of contemporary misconceptions—including my own—about what faith looks like.

This morning, standing in that place that first brought us together, I cried because it was not mine anymore. I cried because soon my friends would move. Because some had already left. I cried because in each of them I have found my home, and that home is spreading out across the country. Because my home is not now in a church but in the people I have met who carry me through life.

But we were a miracle I did not miss because I looked up at the right time. Because I was drawn into the gravity of family and allowed myself rest in it. Because I felt the weight of love and carried it well.

As I walked out of the building, my ears were ringing with the echoes of a lyric that used to make me think of God, but now makes me think of each of my family members and friends, in whose faces I still see God: “You made this world to look so nice, I wonder what the next one’s like.”

So now I’m saying amen—a form of goodbye—translated: so be it.

notes:
1. “The hallway was where we learned to celebrate” is a lyric from “Holocene” by Bon Iver.
2. Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I Am (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2016).
3. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
4. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley (New York:
Ballantine Books, 1992).
5. James Baldwin, “What Price Freedom?”, in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected
Writings (New York: Vintage, 2011).
6. Charles Bukowski, The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993 (New York: Ecco,
2008).
7. John Steinbeck, East of Eden (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003).
8. “You made this world to look so nice” is a lyric from “Yellow Spider” by mewithoutYou.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Amazing thoughts! I really love this.

  2. Reblogged this on Ben Lewellyn-Taylor and commented:
    nonsermon #7 is about spaces I have held sacred, both places I have and have not called church.

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