Every religion on the planet, and there are so many more than you are even aware of, has the potential of absolute thriving. But when you think that you must prove that you have the only one that is right—and you use your condemnation to push against the others—your condemnation separates you from your own connection that, before your condemnation, you were finding in your own religion.
Several years ago, sometime during that mired haze between having one child and having four, we stopped attending church. Though there was plenty of turmoil in the church we went to at the time, we didn't leave because of the drama, hadn't engaged in any fight. We didn't leave in a huff, and we didn't leave to prove a point to anyone. We left quietly... simply stopped going, as much to move toward a better relationship with God, as to move away from a unhealthy environment. No one asked us why we left (they seemed to prefer to come to their own conclusions) and we never really offered up an explanation.
Though there were a few reasons, this quote reminds me of perhaps the strongest one.
Mike and I both grew up in churches that were very... set in their ways, to put it kindly. Intolerant, to be a little more blunt. This was a church that believed its way was the only way, that any deviation large or small would not only be incorrect, but be sinful. I'm not proud to admit it, but I was one of the worst ones! I remember when one family left to attend a different church. It was the family of a good friend of mine, and while I of course missed my friend, I was also terribly curious as to where they landed once they left. When they were inevitably gossiped about - in that hushed, whispered, let's pray for their souls kind of way - I found out. They were attending a Methodist church. ! Oh the scandal! As ludicrous as seems now, I was flabbergasted. How could they do that, when they knew the truth? What were they thinking? Didn't I know them at all?
Yes, all that judgment over another Christian denomination. Though most of the church treated them as though they'd “fallen away,” they hadn't changed religions, didn't start worshiping some other God, hadn't given up their faith. Back then, it didn't matter. Methodist, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist... I knew nothing about any of them, and I wasn't allowed to ask questions. They were all lumped together. They were all WRONG.
It wasn't until I left the church as an adult that I could look back on my teenage self and truly see how egregiously wrong I'd been. It made me feel sad that I'd joined my congregation in being so judgmental, and angry that I'd been taught to look at others through such a narrow, narrow view. It made me feel small.
It was then that I decided to learn, for the first time in my life, about other religions. So I did.... by myself, and for myself. It wasn't so much that I wanted to change my religion (I never really liked the word “religion” anyway), as it was that I wanted to understand others. I wanted so badly to learn, appreciate, and yes, even EMBRACE different religions, and I knew I couldn't do that while I was continuing to be taught at the school of “This is right, everyone else is wrong.” My quest turned out to be one of the most rewarding and liberating things I'd ever done. Even now, years later, I still site that break we took from church as one of the most influential periods in both my own personal faith, and in my acceptance of others.
I'd been going nowhere in my own spiritual walk, so focused I was on getting it “right” and condemning others who'd gotten it “wrong”. I needed to break free of that limitation, and leaving that church was the catalyst that did it.
A couple of years ago, we started attending church again. It was a huge, non-denominational Christian church, with a beautiful campus, a rocking band, and a joy-filled atmosphere. It was a lovely church. I still think it's a lovely church, and a welcoming church, even though it's been awhile since we've been there. We'd been attending for just a short time when we had the opportunity to take some friends and family as our guests on a few different occasions. While a few seemed to enjoy themselves, others were compelled to critique it.
~It was too big.
~It was not reverent enough.
~It was not personal enough.
~It was more like a concert than a church service
~It was wrong that people were sitting back and enjoying themselves rather than worshiping (which was the most ridiculous to me, because 1) you can't open people up and see where their hearts are at, and what they're getting out of a particular experience, and 2) whatever else a spiritual experience may be, shouldn't it at least be enjoyable?)
The frustration I felt from these comments, and the attitude of judgment that came with them, was immense. “This judgment is why we stopped going to your church!,” I wanted to yell, but I didn't. I let them say what they needed to say. And in time, we stopped going to the new church too... partly because we had a toddler who couldn't sit through the service, and partly because the most recent of the negative comments had struck an (immensely irrational) fear in me. The ones with the strongest opinions were Christians. Is that what going to church does to you? If we got really immersed in a church again, would it happen to me too? Would I become judgmental and condemning as I once was?
What I realize now – finally – is that my negative feelings towards the church I grew up in (and my frustrations with some of the people who still go there) are no different than the judgments that I'd so carefully tried to avoid. Besides being entirely wasted and non-productive emotions, it is wrong. Their beliefs, their feelings, and their attitudes, are just that – THEIRS. And while I do fully believe that anyone who holds condemnation towards others is hindering his own journey, it does not have to hinder mine. In church or out of church, I can hold firm to my beliefs, which include loving and accepting people from ALL religions, or lack thereof, and recognizing and embracing the freedom that makes it all possible.