I seem to always be trying to fit in to something, somewhere. Shortly after I had my daughter I tried, quite unsuccessfully, to fit into my pre-pregnancy jeans. No luck.
Once my daughter started school I tried fitting in with other moms. In pre-K, they were artists and organic farmers who made their own clothes. In other words, I didn’t fit in.
Now that my daughter is in grade school, the moms I meet are all different — which makes fitting in sort of a non-issue. Unless, of course, I join the PTA, which I will not likely do. Mostly because I’m sure I just wouldn’t fit in.
Religion was a dress I fit into easily at the time of my “conversion.” But lately is has been feeling a little snug. Like, two-sizes-too-small snug.
Lately I’ve wondered why I didn’t leave this desire to fit in behind, in the cafeteria in seventh grade when I definitively decided teasing my bangs was a line I just wouldn’t cross. I thought I’d given up fitting in once and for all.
When I first became a Christian, I unwittingly rekindled my love affair with fitting in when I joined the church.
The first church
The first church I joined was easy for me to fit into. It comprised a bunch of ragtag twentysomething artists in NYC, of which I could’ve been the poster child. It wasn’t until I moved south, to Texas, to the buckle of the Bible Belt that I became conscience of a struggle to fit in.
In a recent session with my spiritual director, we talked about religion being something I put on, like a dress. It was a dress I fit into easily at the time of my “conversion.” But lately it has been feeling a little snug. Like, two-sizes-too-small snug.
I became a Christian in my mid-20s, and in the years, months and even weeks leading up to my baptism, I was flirting with disaster.
It was the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll version of disaster, and I thought Christianity would shoehorn me out of a destructive lifestyle. I put it on like a dress; it covered my past transgressions and gave me purpose and identity. But there was more to my decision to become a Christian.
I had begun to develop an awareness of God’s presence and activity in my life. This awareness grew in power and frequency the deeper I dug into my community of Christian artists, and the deeper I dug into learning who the God of the Bible really was.
But more than 10 years later, I’m realizing that this dress I put on, the religious aspects of Christianity, is not necessarily what Christianity is about. In my attempt to fit in, I seem to have squeezed myself into something I am now outgrowing.
In my attempt to fit in, I seem to have squeezed myself into something I am now outgrowing.
Pressure and power
Being “not religious” is a banner slogan of the brand of Christianity I signed up with. Most Evangelicals believe that Jesus did not come to earth to start a new religion.
Instead, they believe he challenged the complicated rituals and practices that were the hallmark of religion during his time. We celebrate that Jesus brought freedom from church politics, that he challenged religious authority and opened a way for any person — not just priests and church officials — to communicate directly with God.
But in reality, the American Evangelical church has grown into the spitting image of what it claims to be its opposite. We put unbelievable pressure on and power in the hands of pastors, worship leaders and church officials.
Rather than trust that we the congregation can, as individuals, hear from the spirit of God and communicate with God directly, we turn that responsibility over to our leaders and often fail to speak up when we think that some insight they claim to have from God may be coming from some place less celestial.
This pressure on pastors and leaders mirrors that of the pressure on CEOs and CFOs of large corporations, and sadly, those jobs often look quite similar in a large, American Evangelical church. But a church is not a business, and this marriage of religion and business results in something far more malevolent than either element alone.
This model of Christianity — with the all-important, business-minded leadership at the helm — is the religion I put on like a dress, that dress I know I have no business trying to squeeze into anymore.
Okay, you might say, so you don’t want to be “Evangelical.” Okay, fine.
But you’re still a Christian? Yes.
The importance placed on fitting into a community that is so integral to Evangelical Christianity has shortchanged the importance of the solitary pursuit of God.
And you’re not Roman Catholic, not Russian, Eastern or Greek Orthodox? Nope.
Not Episcopal or Presbyterian or Baptist? Exactly. I think all those denominations have wonderful and not so wonderful things about them. I just wouldn’t call myself a part of any of them.
What about “non denominational?” Nope. That’s usually a disguise for something else.
So if you don’t fit into any of those denominations, but consider yourself a Christian, what kind of Christian are you?
For now, I will leave that question unanswered. For me, I’m comfortable not having an answer.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Christianity is a solo pursuit. Community is an important value that is clearly modeled in both Judaism and Christianity. The Trinity — the Father, Son, Holy Spirit — is a model of community itself. But the importance placed on fitting into a community that is so integral to Evangelical Christianity has shortchanged the importance of the solitary pursuit of God, and as a result discounted the vital importance of the individual experience of God alone.
In the gospel according to Matthew, in chapter 6, we find this gem of advice: Go into your inner room and shut the door and pray to your Father in heaven who is unseen. Then your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
We skim over “secret” and ignore the sense of singularity advocated for here, and instead focus on Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, those hours set aside for “community” or — a term I am not fond of — for “corporate” worship and prayer. Are these hours the only ones that define a person’s faith?
Since my experience in the garden at the Villa De Matel, and some time I’ve spent reading this wonderful book on the subject of contemplative prayer, I’ve been reminded again that my experience of God is not limited to what I experience in church. I am perfectly capable of communicating, communing, even worshipping God all by myself.
I have a sense that if I return to that alone place I found at the Villa De Matel, to that quiet room or empty garden, I will find God there. But first, I must do the difficult and sometimes lonely work of quieting the distracting voices in my life, even the religious ones. I must have the courage to stop trying to fit into a dress that simply doesn’t fit. And right now, my faith depends on it.