On Going to Church and Falling in the Mud

When I was a kid I fought valiantly for the attention of the adults I knew from Big Church by telling stories. My goal was two pronged: make them laugh and, in doing so, make them love me. I trailed adults around the sanctuary or took food from their plates at Bible study and then forced them to listen to my jokes.  The only problem was I had no grasp of the basic concepts of humor and none of my stories were funny.

To combat this I developed a simple—yet stunningly effective—strategy. Every story or comment I made ended with a punch line that, to my childish mind, was impossibly funny.

“And then…they fell in the mud!”

It worked in every context. Whether the story was about something we learned in Sunday School or listing what I’d eaten for lunch, it never failed to get a laugh. At the time, I labeled myself a genius. I now understand the real reason people laughed so hard was because my dedication to the falling in the mud plot line was hysterical and made no sense.

I don’t tell this story very much, which is a shame because my storytelling skills have greatly improved since my mud punchline days. But I don’t like to talk about the key setting for the story—church. Not because I’m embarrassed or have anything to hide, but because I would prefer for people to dislike me because of real flaws in my character, not their preconceptions of the type of people who go to church.

Church in America

It’s no secret that church attendance in America is declining. The number of millenials who do not affiliate with any faith has increased 10 percentage points in less than nine years. Experts have taken to calling these people “nones.”

In my mind I’m the most None there ever was. No particular denominational allegiance, lots of questions about holy texts, a deep longing to reject the business model of institutionalized religion. But unlike the majority of Nones I can’t seem to quit showing up at church every Sunday morning.

There’s no logical reason for this. The rhetoric of this election season, especially over the past few weeks, has made it clear that the most vocal church goers in this country are uninterested in the things that interest me. The rights of women and marginalized groups, caring for neighbors, de-idolizing America, living a moral life etc.

Here is what America sees of church people: that Christians give a lot of lip service about caring for the unborn, but do not care at all for the living (and to be really honest don’t care much about practical solutions for the unborn either). That Christians believe women are weak, incompetent, and unfit to lead while simultaneously being manipulative, dishonest, capable of controlling everyone around them and responsible for any thought or action a man takes toward them. That what Christians care about more than their neighbors is their tax bracket and personal freedom.

This is just a perception, not an entirely accurate picture, but it persists for a reason. Why do I keep aligning myself with the people who perpetuate it?

And Then There’s Me

I could sleep in on Sundays. I could go to brunch. I could read the newspaper and pretend to like crosswords. I could volunteer or do something productive.

Instead I sit in a room filled with people who see the world through a lens that makes sense to them and appears irrevocably distorted to me. I am uncomfortable because a prerequisite of any serious church is uncomfortable seating, but also because of how strange it is to occupy a space that is as familiar to me as my childhood home and as foreign as the moon.

Like many people my age, I am unimpressed and uninspired by theatrical church experiences. I prefer quiet liturgy and well reasoned, if passionless, sermons to the tearful, darkness drenched trendiness of many modern churches. If I wanted to feel less cool and fashionable than everyone around me I would go to Brooklyn not church. But here I am. Drowning in Eurocuts and wedding bands and lots of Bible verse quoting and theologically sketchy worship songs.

I don’t mean to criticize people who go to church. Their presence there makes complete sense—they believe these things and their beliefs require church attendance. I’m the one who is wrong and out of place, who is trying to bend centuries of religious thought and practice to the will of my own mind.

I don’t like calling myself a Christian because the label doesn’t fit and also I don’t want anything to do with the title. But I’m still at church. I go by myself or I go with friends. I sit in the back and take notes and sit down when we sing songs about asking God to lead where “our trust is without borders” while surrounded by people who look likes us in an air conditioned room where we will never feel anything but perfectly comfortable. But I am still there.

I keep going because it reminds me that religion is more than memes on Facebook. Because the people in the pews are as good and kind and broken as anyone else, only they are trying to do something about it.

I keep going because church may be full of liars and organ twisting hypocrisy, but it is also full of grace. I keep going because if you don’t own your heritage it will own you. I keep going to church not to find God, but to find people. Because I have a hunch that God is not up there but in here. Because of the hands reaching up, a physical attempt to claw into God’s presence.

Outside the walls of church, many Christians are very good at shifting the blame for the world’s problems onto others: immigrants, liberals, sinners. Inside though, things feel closer to what I imagine Jesus and Paul envisioned when they talked about friendship. Where else are people admitting permanent brokenness and fault? Where else do people take time each week to look up from the pavement and embrace the sky?

A Long Walk Through the Mud

Several years ago I was in the thick of spiritual questioning and doubtful thinking that all humans experience. At the time, I comforted myself by envisioning this period as a slow sludge through a large sea of mud. It was disheartening and difficult, but I remember telling people how glad I would be it when it was over. I assumed I would come out on the other side with decisions, moral clarity and conviction, and then continue my life with a clear sense of direction.

I no longer make the assumption that there is an end to the mud. Now I think the mud patch isn’t what you trudge through to get to the start of your real adult life. I think the mud is without end and the trudge is life. I assumed there would be an end to the questions and the dirt, but now I think maybe I was a genius when I was a child who thought every good story ended with a gleeful “and then they fell in the mud!”

I keep going to church because we are all stuck in this mud, but here is the only place I’ve found that attempts to find joy in the sludge. My presence in church is a protest and a prayer. It is a dare to myself to look up and out, to laugh at the mud and accept this stained landscape, with all its senseless happenings and tragedies, as a good place for my story to take place.

I go to church. I fall in the mud. We laugh together. It is beginning to make sense.

 

 

 

 

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What Can We Learn From the Controversial Sainthood of Mother Teresa?

On September 4, Mother Teresa officially became a saint. Not in a “bless your heart you’re a saint” kind of way, but in the real, Pope approved, miracles verified, legitimate kind of way.

If you’re not an expert on Catholicism or India’s economy (hello, most of the world), Mother Teresa is probably a vaguely mythological creature. She’s known for her tireless work serving the poor, winning a Nobel Peace Prize, and the many, many inspirational quotes attributed to her.

But she is not without controversy.

Dr. Aroup Chatterjee, a physician who works in England, has spent years criticizing Mother Teresa for her coercive conversion tactics and accused her of providing subpar medical care to those she served. He also objects to the image she popularized of Kolkata as an overwhelmingly destitute and impoverished city.

For the most part his criticism of the most beloved woman to have ever lived was met with silence or contempt. This has only intensified Chatterjee’s attempts to shed light on what she actually did. One of his most well known attempts to shed some light on the work Mother Teresa actually did is the documentary, Hell’s Angel, which he worked on in the 1990s with Christopher Hitchens.

Christopher Hitchens wrote scathingly about Mother Teresa, criticizing her frugality (it could be excessive), her condemnation of abortion and contraceptives (she was Catholic), and her fetishization of poverty.

“I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ,” Hitchens quotes Mother Teresa as saying. “I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”

It was this glorification of the destitute that led Hitchens to conclude:

“She was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty.”

Hitchens and Chatterjee both believe people should be more skeptical of the media image they have been fed of Mother Teresa. Krithika Varagur of The Huffington Post agrees, arguing her reputation was “basically the result of a forceful media campaign from an ailing Catholic Church.”

Whatever the cause of her angelic reputation, on September 4 it was permanently immortalized.

During her lifetime and even more so after her death, Mother Teresa has existed to most of us not as a person, but as a figure of speech. The official canonization of Mother Teresa does officially what most of us have done unofficially for years. It makes her something other than human.

There’s no doubt Mother Teresa was an enigma. She felt like God told her to quit her job and serve the poorest of the poor and so she did. Then she didn’t hear from God for forty years. She took money from sketchy donors and refused to disclose what happened to the millions of dollars she received. She claimed to treat everyone like Jesus and criticized the luxuries that insulate people from suffering.

She was, like all humans, contradictory, infuriating, alive. Now, she is no longer a person and we can boil down the narrative of her life to one word: Saint.

Calling her a saint allows us to distance ourselves from the magnitude of her life. Quitting your job to serve the poor, shunning common luxuries—these are not things normal people do, they are what saints do. We should reject this idea entirely. The uncomfortable truth of her failures existing alongside the otherworldly perfection she exhibited proves a saint is the perfect category for Mother Teresa. She earned it not because she was perfect, but because she was perfectly human.