By Frederick Schmidt
"Church is for people who want to avoid hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there."
She might have been in her early 70s, but it was really hard to tell. She was a regular visitor to AA meetings, that much was clear.
It was also clear that she had been hurt or neglected by the church somewhere along the way. The observation she made was without a context -- a flat opening declaration that followed the required, "Hi, I'm _____ and I'm an alcoholic." And it was said with the kind of energy that only anger can fuel.
Her convictions about church and the spiritual life are also pretty common, and you don't hear them just from people in AA. You hear the same thing in the responses to this column and I hear them everyday from people I meet.
It's one of the reasons I avoid wearing a clerical collar on an airplane. People either cling to the fuselage, trying to get as far away as possible, or they glare at me and announce, "I don't believe in God or I don't go to church" -- as if I was taking attendance or running the complaint department.
What they probably don't realize is that I share their disenchantment with the church -- and so do a lot of other clergy. Why is a place that is supposed to be a center for healing a place where people are so often hurt?
For one thing, the church is as much in the world and of the world as any other institution. That's bad news and even worse news. I wish that the church was different, but it isn't. It is actually just as screwed up as any other institution on the face of the earth. And, if I could say with any kind of certainty, "Get out of the church and go find good people to live with and love," I would. The problem is that if the church is no different than the world, then that means the world is no improvement on the church. I had a friend who used to say that he was going to write a book entitled People Are No Damned Good -- and we aren't.
The church isn't a gathering of good people. The church is meant to point beyond itself to God and to draw inspiration for its own transformation from God. Otherwise it ought to be a place where sinners love on one another, bandage one another's wounds, pull one another out of the gutter, and encourage one another to dream dreams.
The church becomes a hurtful place when it does almost anything else.
It's hurtful when it becomes convinced that it's good and the world is bad.
It's hurtful when it is preoccupied with its own preservation.
It's hurtful when it wraps religious language around politics.
It's hurtful when it practices zero sum spirituality: "We can't go to heaven, unless you go to hell."
It's hurtful when it assumes that it is in charge of the gates of heaven, deciding who is in and who is out.
And, ironically, the church is often at its most hurtful when it is preoccupied with protecting God, instead of reaching out to people in God's name.
So, what are we to do -- those of us who have no control over whether churches get it or not? (And, believe me, I don't have any more control than you do.)
One, find a church that's healing, not hurtful. You are not obliged by God -- let alone anything or anyone else -- to endure or worship with people who are hurtful. Move on. Shake the dust off of your feet. It's been done before.
Two, if you can't find a church that is healing, then nurture intimate friendships that are. I think God wants to work through the church, but God isn't obligated to work through it. As a friend of mine puts it, "God will send you angels." They are out there. Find them.
Three, be an angel -- a person who is a healing presence. Far too many people who are victimized live as victims, shut themselves off from loving relationships, or victimize others out of their anger and pain. Being hurt is not a good thing and it's not God's will. But God wins and so do we, if our injuries alert us to those who are injured.
Finally, remain open to God. Don't let disenchantment with the church rob you of your relationship with God. God isn't going to let the church get in the way of loving you. Why let the church get in the way of you loving God?
Let me know what you think.