(Welcome to my blog part 2 of 2)
Yes, it’s true. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t exactly a rebel growing up. About the most rebellious thing I did as a kid was, when upset with my parents, I would go into their bedroom and gently lay their bedside lamps on the ground so that it would look like I was so angry I had gone in and knocked them over. Well, what do you expect? I didn’t exactly want to break them. But I could just imagine the anguish they experienced upon discovering the lamps. “What have we done??? Where have we gone wrong??? Our otherwise gentle, perfect son has gone on a rampage. We’ve lost him forever!!! Well, at least he didn’t break them.”
But it was true. I wasn’t just asked but actually told to leave VBS because of my heretical ways. It is one of my earlier memories, and I can only guess I was around 5 years old but can picture the events of that day in my head fairly well. I had been dropped off with a friend by car at a home that was sponsoring one of those backyard Bible studies – the kind where there was all sorts of games and activities (hoola hoops, water balloons, red rover red rover) with the obligatory have the kids settle down in the middle of it to listen to an important teaching. Now while this house was in the general subdivision of where I lived it was also on an unfamiliar street in an unfamiliar neighborhood that I had not been to before.
So after some fun and games the time came to settle down for “the talk.” Now Jesus was not unfamiliar to me because my family regularly attended church every Sunday where I learned about baby Jesus and how he grew up and then taught a bunch of really nice things about being honest, sharing toys and being kind to one another. Then for some reason he had to die on this thing that we hung on our church walls because he loved us. But everything was okay because he came alive again so we could get all extra dressed up for church one Sunday every year and have lots of candy that we’d found that morning hidden behind doors and under the sofa.
Now I don’t remember everything that was said during “the talk” but I’m pretty sure, being a 5 year old with an extra short attention span and a very active imagination, that what was going on between what was being said and what was in my head went something like this: “Just like Adam and Eve we all have sinned…Ha, I can pick these pieces of grass from the ground cause I’m like a giant picking trees from the forest…the bad men then came and arrested Jesus…Wow, a ladybug. Hi, ladybug. Don’t worry I won’t hurt you EVEN THOUGH I’M A GIANT…the next morning Mary went to the tomb…Oooh, if I were Spiderman I could swing from the roof of that house over to the other one over there…Would you like to ask Jesus into your heart? If you would go ahead and raise your hand…” Suddenly every hand in front of and around me went up. “Huh? What’s going on? What does that even mean? Jesus in my heart. That’s kinda weird. I like Jesus but how’s he even gonna get in there? Wouldn’t he get squished?” But every hand around me was raised up. They seemed to get it. And so I did exactly what I had been taught Jesus told me to do. I was honest…and did not raise my hand.
Then it came time to play again and so I went about, stomping across the tiny forest with my little ladybug friend, trying to search for Jack and his beanstalk. It had been a few minutes when one of the worker ladies, who had been going up to and talking to various children, suddenly honed in on me. I don’t know what her name was but we’ll call her “Ms. Schnitzel” because that just seems to fit. And so Ms. Schnitzel leaned way down to me with the biggest smile on her face and said, “Hi little boy.” Drats! I was no longer a giant. “Did you raise your hand earlier to ask Jesus into your heart?” And once again I remembered the importance of being honest…and so I shook my head, “no.” You should have seen it. At once her smile vanished and I swear her eyes turned dark. Dolores Umbridge apparated right there before me. Even though she wasn’t a character yet. I’m pretty sure she was invented there. “Noooo???” she exclaimed in the most shocked voice you could imagine. My heart sank. Did I do something wrong? Had I created a great sin? Fortunately at that moment some other kid interrupted her to ask a question. I had only moments to think. “What did I do? What should I do? Was I going to jail? Did she know about the lamps???”
After the other kid left, her gaze locked back on me, a forced smile across her face, hiding the serpentine tongue ready to lash out at me. “I’m sorry. What was it you said? Did you raise your hand to accept Jesus into your heart?” At that moment, knowing the full weight of my entire life lay in the balance, my mind calculating every possible scenario, I did what any reasonable 5 year old would do…and proudly nodded my head “yes.” This should get me out of it, right? But once again, the smile dissipated from her face, and the coldness of the underworld emanated from her voice. “No you did not,” she growled. “Just a second ago you said, ‘No.’ You just lied to me. You are going to have to leave and go home now. Now go on. Get going. Right now!”
And so began my walk of shame. Past the giggles of other children as they darted in and out, playing tag. Past the joyous shouts of “red light, green light!” Past the bean bags as they flew through the air, trying to hit their intended target of x’s and o’s and out into the cold hearted world. Now you must remember that I was dropped off…on an unfamiliar street…in an unfamiliar neighborhood. But fortunately somehow at least I knew my house was approximately “that way.” So off I headed, through various backyards and down the hill in the general direction of my home for what felt like an hour, but was probably more like 10 minutes, until miraculously I reached my destination.
My mother greeted me at the front door, naturally surprised to see me, and with a worried look asked me what happened. Tears streaming from my eyes, I took and deep breath and eloquently responded, “Hmben bfff umbono blrrbd (gasp) and then they awskkk umfhf raymmm um hmbuns (gasp) and then she sembla hddd gubooga waaaay (gasp) sdun beti libuididn (gasp) an I didn knohow tofin mywa hu hu hooome!” Now moms are amazing and somehow she knew exactly what I said. She quickly swept me inside to comfort me and, as soon as I was calmed down and settled on the sofa, darted off to the kitchen phone.
After several minutes of raised tones & mumbles from the other room, my mom returned. “Well,” she said, “I talked to them about it. They said they are so sorry. That should never have happened. They will talk to her (Ms. Schnitzel) about it. She was new and…” Now I don’t remember if my mom actually said this next part or if I just thought it in my head, but the next thing I heard was, “She just didn’t know.” Needless to say, I never went back.
A couple years ago I told that story to a friend and he asked me how it might have affected me. I had to pause because up to that point I had never really thought much about it. To me it was just a funny story. But since early memories are often moments of significant impact, I had to ponder it for a while until I came up with the following conclusions:
1) My VBS experience was the day I became a skeptic.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I stopped believing in God. In fact amazingly, not once did I ever blame God for the incident. For some reason I can’t explain, even as a five year old kid, I simply knew that what Ms. Schnitzel did was simply “not God.” But it was the day I became a skeptic of religion itself. Even though I continued to attend church weekly with my family and even once raised my hand at the back of a VBS bus, I knew that religion could never be fully trusted and had an aversion to anyone I considered “too religious.” As a teenager I even wrote and directed with my friends a mockumentary about a fake religious sect called “Caca-ra” (I’ll let you use your imagination as to what they worshipped) which manipulated people in order to take their money.
But in spite of my mistrust, one late night at age 20, I found myself sitting in a church parking lot crying out to God, desperately seeking some answers and help…and a voice responded – a voice that was both familiar, as though it had been there all my life, and brand new. It was a voice so compelling that even this skeptic could simply not deny the reality of its presence and a voice that would change my life forever. Suddenly, I was forced into a world of a God I completely trusted and a people I did not.
So how do I define “religion” because for a lot of people that means different things. When I use the term religion I simply mean anything that tries to have the appearance of God but is simply “not God.” But religion is a lot more sneaky than we think. It is the reason that Jesus warned to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees” because it has a tendency to find its way in through small, indiscernible means and rapidly expand before you even know it. Religion can not only be found in the ungraciousness of Ms. Schnitzel and the judgmentalism of Westboro Baptist church but also in the common clichés we use and frequent use of out of context verses. It sneaks its way into the music we say is the “right kind” and the attire we say is “appropriate” and the keys we say will “guarantee success.” It can be found not long after a legitimate spiritually significant moment is quickly followed by an intentionally patterned movement claiming this should work for everyone. It makes its way into “Christian Culture” and affects how we interpret everything through the lenses of “Western Culture” way more than we care to admit. And, of course, it boldly advertises itself in the way we often hypocritically live out our lives and in the way we continue to bash one another, living out our continually segregated Sundays. All this while a watching world that doesn’t know God waits to see if they can actually see God and then reasonably responds, “No thanks.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I stand in no judgment. For I said that religion is sneaky and it snuck up on me, too. I have spent the better part of the last few years trying to lose it while simultaneously trying to keep and even strengthen my faith. To me there is only one solution; and that is the passionate direct pursuit of God himself. For religion often makes promises it can’t keep and places burdens on you that you can’t keep. God, on the other hand, always keeps his promises and is forever trying to remove from us our burdens (even to the point of taking it upon himself). I often tell people that I’m probably one of the most skeptical people you will ever meet, to which they are surprised. The reason for their surprise, is point #2.
2) My VBS experience was the day I learned to be silent.
I became a silent skeptic that day for the message I received was clear: When it comes to church and religion, it is more important to go with the flow of things than to be honest – as long as you don’t get caught in the lie. Thus began my silent rebellion. For you can never actually stop a questioner from questioning; you can only get them to stay quiet. And for those that have actually dared occasionally to speak up, they quickly learn the landscape is not always safe.
For amongst the religious are what I call the De-vangelists who, like Ms. Schnitzel, are more interested in searching out the non-comformists and sending them away than bringing them into the intimate presence of a loving God. They often spend more time de-vangelizing the church rather than evangelizing the world. They call themselves defenders of the truth, often forgetting a major part of that truth is love, encouragement, sacrifice and grace.
Ironically, in the process of trying to weed out the “not Gods,” De-vangelists actually often end up weeding out the very people who can draw attention to the “not Gods” the most. For contrary to public belief, skeptics do not set out to rebel against the truth but instead are the ones who most desperately seek to know it. They are uncomfortable living under any kind of lies and so they believe in honest thinking and honest living, asking lots of questions, challenging assumptions, and sometimes needing proof. Like the doubting disciple Thomas they just want to know something’s real, and when they find it they are the first to shout, “My Lord and my God!” Sometimes I think the people who fear the skeptics the most are the ones who are most fragilely holding onto truth.
In my journey throughout the years I’ve actually met many of these silent rebels. There are actually way more than you think. They are within your church hallways, they are in your pews. Underneath all that are the silent whispers of “I know what they say but I’ve always really thought…” and “that just doesn’t make sense to me” and “I really feel called to…..but I’m scared to speak up because that’s probably not my place.” Some just continue to live uncomfortably where they are at but never grow and others eventually fade away and disappear.
Therefore, I’m not advocating compromise (because that would be “not God”) but more open dialogue…honest dialogue. A chance for people to ask their honest questions and share where they are at. And a chance to be responded to in kindness and grace. And no matter how scary that can be to open up to questions, you never have to fear the skeptic if truth is what you have. Can you imagine how different it would have been if Ms. Schnitzel had simply said from the start, “Well thank you for your honesty. Is there anything I can better explain to you or help you understand?”
But in a way I’m kind of glad that day happened the way it did. For without it I might not have asked all the questions or challenged the usual assumptions. And trust me, though I’ve been silent, I’ve certainly asked a lot. And in the process of “losing my religion” my faith in God through Christ has never been more certain.
3) My VBS experience taught me about grace
There’s one more thing I learned that day, and that is from the phrase I held onto most…”she just didn’t know.” As much fun as I’ve had with Ms. Schnitzel in telling this story, to be honest I never really held it against her because in that phrase I learned the importance of grace. One of the saddest things I’ve also witnessed is when the judged become the judgers…when the skeptics and others hurt by the church turn and become judgmental. Their words on social media, the web, and behind the scenes often become as vehement, if not more, as those of the De-vangelizers. Now many have been hurt by the church in far worse ways than my VBS experience and for that I am so sorry. Some of you have received scars that will simply never fully heal. But in the wounds I would encourage you to never forget the words of Jesus Christ himself about the very people who betrayed him and hung him on the cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”
And while my own critiques may make it sound like I am against the church, let me say nothing could be further from the truth. As much as I’ve seen “not God” sneak its way in, I’ve also seen plenty more “God.” I’ve seen him in missionaries who have given up all conveniences in life in order to bring life and health to those who have nothing. I’ve seen him in Christian leaders I’ve met from all over and from many different denominations – their faith and compassion for others I only wish I had. I’ve seen God when victims of my prodigal son’s misdeeds not only forgave his sins but actually helped pay his debt. I’ve seen him when so many people united together to pray for my daughter’s depression and helped ensure we had the funds to get her the care she needed. The list could go on and on.
Out of all these church people, are any of them perfect and totally free of religion? No. They are human and, therefore, I will always hold onto the phrase, “They just didn’t know.” But I say that, keenly and humbly aware that I’m in need of others to say of me, “He just didn’t know” as well. We believers all need each other – we just all need to offer a little more grace.
I subtitled this “Welcome to my blog part 2 of 2” (you can see part 1 here) because it’s a continuation of my intentions with this blog site. I desire honest thinking and honest dialogue, all with a goal of discovering truth. Sometimes that means asking a few hard questions and challenging a few long held assumptions, but done with an attitude of grace. This is no longer my silent rebellion but perhaps my little less quiet rebellion. And as a warning I just might knock over a few lamps along the way (but gently, of course).