Three years ago I formally left both the Catholic and the Presbyterian Churches. I sent letters to both churches where I had been a member and asked to be removed from their rolls. In modern parlance, I hit “unsubscribe”. I did not take this action lightly. Those two thin envelopes felt mighty weighty at the time; I was sure I was leaving an important part of my life behind me for good. I tried to be upbeat about it, to see this as being released from institutions that had coerced me into beliefs (both about the divine and human) that were wrong and harmful. The truth is I felt very somber about it.
I was less fraught about leaving the Catholic Church. The truth is I had begun the process of leaving when, at eight years old, I found out that they wouldn’t let me become a priest because I had been born with the incorrect genitalia. But, nevertheless, it was where almost all my family and most of my school peers belonged. I would lose this connection to most of my hometown community. None of my argument was with them, so I mourned this lost connection.
Leaving the Presbyterian Church was harder. With the my letter to the Catholic Church I was direct, I wanted my name removed because I no longer considered myself a Catholic. In my letter to the Presbyterian Church, however, I hedged. I’ve moved, I told them, and I’m probably not coming back. I didn’t want them to have to pay the Presbytery my dues. I didn’t have anywhere for them to forward my membership, yet. My Presbyterian Church does not really know I’ve left for good. I like it that way. I return at Christmas or during visits home and get to enjoy the church’s life. But as much as I enjoy this little vacations into my old life I know that they are supported by a lie. It’s not only that I live far from my home church that I rescinded my membership, it’s because I am, by all means of measurement, not remotely Presbyterian.
Recently I’ve hankered after my old Christian life. It’s the holidays that do it to me. It’s the carols and the creches. It’s the suddenly inviting sanctuary that’s warm, candlelit, and draped in garland. It reminds me of the youth group trips I used to go on this time of year. It makes me think of having snowball fights in the parking lot and coming in to a warm chapel all rosy-cheeked where you’d knock the snow off your shoes while your glasses fogged up. It’s just all the regular kid nostalgia, but for me, when I think about these things I don’t think, “that’s what I did as a kid,” I think, “that’s what I did as a Christian.” It makes it all seem so much further away.
The church, in my imagination, stands out as a quiet light in the darkness. It’s dark up here in upstate New York. Really, actually dark. I have to turn on the lights at 3 p.m. If it’s a cloudy day, they go on first thing in the morning. I could use some light…
So I’ve been wondering if I could find a church where I could just pretend. Sing along and pretend that I can step out of my finite life to worship the divine infinite. Bow my head and pretend that my prayers are heard. Share the peace and pretend that this loving community is still just a shadow of things to come, a shadow seen through a mirror darkly.
I think if I announced these intentions most churches would actually be fairly tolerant, certainly any “seeker-sensitive” church would be. But I don’t think they’d quite understand that I’m not really a “seeker”. I already know the story and I’ve heard the message. I’ve talked the talk and walked the walk and I’ve done it from the pulpit and not the back pew. Most non-Christians walking into a church are looking for something different from what they already have. Being a seeker suggest some kind of ignorance or naivety. I’m looking not for something new, but something old. I would be an oddity for sure. A tolerably oddity, perhaps, but an oddity nonetheless.
In a church that’s not seeker-sensitive I think I’d be a real scandal. In fact, I think my story is quite scandalous to a church that believes in eternal security. And scandal is dangerous. I do not think that I would be very welcome in some churches, a church-attending atheist is a wolf among the holy flock. And if I go to a church and keep mum about my actual disbelief then I’m just a liar who’s lying about something really bizarre.
So I think I will probably stay home Sunday mornings. I really don’t want to be a scandal or a really bizarre liar. And I’m not super interested in getting the hard sell on the gospel. It’s too bad, really. I could really use some glad tidings.