Church and I go way back. I’ve been in, out, in again, out again, not sure for a while, discontent, back in a little bit, on the fence, one toe in, all out, and all in again. There’s probably not an emotion involving church that I haven’t felt. I’m a bit of a spiritual mutt as well. I was born into a family that was Southern Baptist. I accepted Christ and was baptized at the age of nine, which is how Baptists refer to one’s decision to follow Jesus. In the fourth grade, my family moved a long way from the church I grew up in and the people I loved and the people who loved me. In our new city, I had a hard time finding my place. I was 10 and struggled making friends and was homesick for Texas.
By middle school, the wheels began to fall off. I made some poor choices and pushed back against my parents and my faith. I didn’t like the church we attended and thought there were no cool kids in the youth group. (Middle School brains think their own thoughts.) In high school, I joined a United Methodist church that had an active youth group full of kids I liked. I moved my membership to this church by myself, which in hind site was an odd and brave choice for a 17 year old. I loved the formality and liturgy of United Methodist worship, the marble, the organ, the confession and pardon. Reading from the United Methodist Hymnal #890 we would say together:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name. Amen.
And then the minister would say:
Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive all your sings through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen
Then he said my favorite part:
“You are forgiven” and the congregation would respond, “We are forgiven indeed.”
It’s been 15 years since I regularly attended a church that offers me this weekly reminder of forgiveness. In the last five years I haven’t regularly attended anywhere. I’ve used the excuses of graduate school and work and weddings. In truth, I pulled away from most things church, as I experienced a season of doubt, fear, and loss. I’ve always loved Jesus. I just haven’t always been a fan of church.
I live in the Bible Belt of the deep South, and there are churches everywhere. They look really pretty on the outside. Inside, people are well dressed, and say, “How are you?” Most respond “fine”. What’s been hard for me is when I don’t feel fine, and I know my neighbor isn’t fine, and in fact some things really suck. What then? A pastor friend said last week that 90% of the people in our downtown area zip code are unchurched. There are over 40 churches in our downtown in that zip code. So my tendency is to just feel mad at church in general and think snarky thoughts about all things church.
Sometimes I’ve thought that if Jesus were to appear in the sanctuary of many churches in America, he might say something like “This is what you thought I meant? Really?” And I get mad all over again. And I don’t want to be mad any more. I want to be done with the mad. So I go back to the confession. Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name.
Most merciful God, hear my confession. Have mercy on me and forgive me. Help me to walk in your way.
I am forgiven indeed.