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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

From the Clutches of the Church to the Arms of God. My Spiritual Autobiography


Part One: Growing Up. I didn't know any better and no one told me otherwise


A disclaimer: First off let me say church was good to me. Nothing ever bad or sinister happened to me. I did not get excommunicated or ran off because of some heretical ideas. The Church and I just grew apart.


I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene, which is a conservative/fundamentalist church. This denomination was birthed out of the early 20th century Revival and Holiness Movements. This church's theology put emphasis on living a holy life. None of that I knew at the time, but it is important to understand. As I came to understand what this truly meant, I was no longer comfortable with that brand of Christianity. Not that I have anything wrong with living a holy life, only the way in which they forced it upon its members and the way in which they defined it.


At the time, as a child, all I knew was that it was a fun place to hang out. My friends and family were there. We did cool things like play fun games and later as a youth we would go on cool trips like to Disneyland and Magic Kingdom.  Along the way, I learned some about the Bible and some about Jesus and even a little about God. I learned that sin was bad and God was good. I learned that you need the Holy Spirit to thrive as a Christian.


I even learned a little about some spiritual practices such as prayer and fasting, those seemed to be the two big ones. I participated in other spiritual practices, yet not knowing at the time that was what they were. Bible study and worship were also really big in this church. None of it was really that important to me at the time. As a child, it was just part of going to church. Being with friends and having fun was the important part. But it did build a foundation for a spiritual life which took years to build.


Now that I am older and better educated I can reflect back upon those years and see other forces at work. When a theology is built upon an ideal such as "holiness of life" it does not take long, a generation or two at most, for that ideal to become a dogma, a type of works righteousness, and a "law" to live by. There were stated principles for being a member in good standing in the Church of the Nazarene. Not only would you attend and tithe regularly but you would hold to a certain code, outlined in the church manual. Summed up it was, "do not go to places of ill repute, and don’t go with anyone one who would." This means no drinking (bars), no dancing, and no movies. My parents did not hold too close to this code. I went to school dances. I went to the movies with friends. My parents drank wine and beer on occasion (although I did not until I was in my 30s.) The church leadership just kind of looked the other way. They had more important things to do then ostracize my parents . My parents were very involved and remained members in good standing. This created a duality in my thinking, a duality which would later help me to break free.


I found that within that church, the push behind "holiness" became a legal framework for moral purity.  What was lacking was both the reasoning behind the quest for "holiness" and the training in how to achieve it. It left nothing but layers of guilt and shame for seemingly petty temptations. It did not equip a child or youth to face the big bad world and all the things one would experience.


This guilt/shame is not unique to this church or to me. I have heard many times: "Oh you know that Catholic guilt," or "That is just my Baptist shame kicking in," and similar sentiments. This tells me that what I was feeling and what I came out of, is a universal Christian experience. It stems from unfair expectations, lack of spiritual education/direction, and a legalistic/moralistic framework of belief.


I had no idea the depth of what was going on. It took years to work through the layers and find peace with my morality/spirituality duality.


Here is a short example: Going to the movies. I love to go to the movies, but the prohibition: "Thou shalt not go to the movies" meant we never talked about going to the movies at church. We kept that part of our life separate, which of course brings some guilt. Then, if you are caught coming or going from the movies then you have some shame to go with the guilt. Until one day the cinema was showing a "Christian" movie and then it was ok to go to the movies. So obviously there wasn’t anything wrong with the Movie Theater itself, only what was happening in the theater. If it was "Christian," then it was ok. Yet then one could ponder, what about something with a good moral and G rating? No? Still bad?


Making a blanket statement about movies only led to confusion. A better option is leaving it up the discernment of the parents and the children. This is also the right spiritual thing to do. Later I came to realize this. This line of reasoning is why my parents allowed me to go to dances and the movies, etc. Yet not everyone was that spiritually mature, certainly not the youth. Let me continue with my example.


In the late 1990s the church changed its stance on going to the movies. All of a sudden, it was ok. I was working in a Church of the Nazarene as an associate pastor at that time and I had members come to me in confusion. How could going to the movies suddenly be ok? There had only ever been an absolute and no training or education to discern the "holiness" of not going to a movie, versus when it might be "holy" to go to a movie. Absolutes can destroy.  Without the proper spiritual guidance, absolutes become legalistic dogma which enslave people to a way of thinking and acting without fully preparing them for the ramifications (guilt/shame).

What does this type of legalism teach a child or youth? It may teach them how to be a moral person, but not a spiritual person. What about the Bible? Doesn’t that teach someone how to be spiritual? In a legalistic system without spiritual foundation, Bible stories become fantastical tales completely removed from reality. Moses and the burning bush becomes so far removed from life that the story becomes meaningless. It seems God does not act this way anymore. Yet, God does, it is just that we are no longer spiritually attuned. We are moral but not spiritual. Once we rediscover our spiritual side,  then the Bible becomes alive with new meaning and insight. The fantastical stories open up to us a new understanding of the God/human relationship. 


The legal/moral framework of absolutism dug itself deep into my psyche from those early years. It took much soul searching, education and reading to finally find the divine. Even today I have kneejerk reactions in certain situations which I have to carefully work through and ask very clear questions about. Questions such as: Is this from me or from spirit? Is this response helpful or harmful? Am I bringing light and wholiness (yes wholiness, not holiness)?


I shy away from absolutes, dualities and either/or thinking. I find they all lead into briar patches. But in this case, my parents modeling different behaviors than those taught by the church created a duality within my thinking which had to be rectified. It was the crack in the wall which the light of spirit was able to penetrate and free me from a legalistic framework which was killing me. I am thankful for my parents modeling a way of being which was more spiritual than what the church was showing me, even if they were doing it unknowingly. It allowed me somewhere to turn later in life, especially as I discovered the mystics and learned all about theology.  

Coming soon Part Two: Becoming a Mystic.