May 11, 2018

Skipping Church & Other Sins…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:30 pm


Such had been the history of the old man. His life had come up from the
wilderness, the buried past…The potent mystery of old events had passed
around him, and the magic light of dark time fell across him.

Like all men in this land, he had been a wanderer, an exile on the immortal
earth. Like all of us he had no home.

—Thomas Wolfe

The question seemed innocuous enough, when I first saw it. Posted on an online forum as I was scrolling by. I barely gave it a passing glance. But then I stopped. Scrolled back up. I saw the words again, absorbed them. Read them again, slowly, to make sure I wasn’t missing something. It was a simple question. And it simply asked, exactly as follows: Staying home from church when you could otherwise go is a sin: Yes or No.

I don’t usually get ensnared by little polls like that. It’s just not worth the hassle or the energy it takes to get involved. People get all fired up. Not that my opinion means or matters much, I guess, except to myself. Lately, though, I’ve engaged a bit more. And that day, I stopped and looked at the responses. And I was shocked to see that the vote was about 60/40, leaning the wrong way. Those sixty percent, they said, yes. Yes. It is a sin. It was a Reformed site, so I don’t know if they were talking venial sin, or mortal. Venial, probably. Or maybe that’s just a Catholic thing. But still, bottom line. Most people in the poll said it was a sin not to go to church when you could otherwise go.

And I thought about it. And I thought to myself. What’s wrong with you people? What kind of bondage are you in? Why do you insist on dragging such chains around? Why do you burden yourself with all that legal jargon? It’s like that big pack Christian lugged around on his back in Pilgrim’s Progress. You don’t have to carry it. Let it go, let it fall from you. And I just couldn’t help myself. I staked out my territory, big and bold, in my response. And short, too. I spoke it like I saw it, like I’d speak it again, about anywhere it could be spoken. Just a few words: It is most definitely NOT a sin not to go to church.

Well. My little assertion did not go over so nice. The responses were polite and good-humored, mostly. They just disagreed or went off on little bunny trails. Maybe it’s just a fault and not a sin, one commenter suggested cheerfully. Would I agree? Nope, I would not. And I kept insisting. I never said you shouldn’t go to church. I’m saying it’s not a sin not to go. We are free to go, or not. A few responses weren’t very polite. They were harsh and dismissive. If I chose not to attend church, then my heart wasn’t where it needed to be. I wasn’t right with God, I was resisting the spirit, by not assembling with believers. Whatever that means. And back and forth we went, me and one surly guy who seemed particularly perturbed at my obstinance. He didn’t change my mind. And I can say with some certainty that I didn’t change his.

We didn’t get much done that day, I don’t think, to convince each other of anything. Me and the surly one. Still. I’ve mulled over the issue a lot, since it came at me. My mind goes to all sorts of cobwebbed places. And those places are all connected by one thing. Almost all my adult life has been one long struggle, one lonely and weary slog through all sorts of rocky and harsh terrain. A protracted and relentless quest in pursuit of one simple goal. To break the shackles of legalism and walk free. Mine wasn’t a relentless pursuit of perfection, like the old Lexus commercials used to say. It was a relentless pursuit of freedom. And if you think it’s a sin not to go to church when you otherwise could, well, I have a few things to tell you.

If it’s a sin to skip your church, or any church service, anywhere, for any reason or none, if that’s a sin, I might as well pack up my things. I might as well sell my Jeep, Amish Black, for what the market will cough up on short notice. And I might as well sell all my English clothes and gather up a goodly supply of those awful barn door pants. And galluses. And shirts without pockets. I might as well go buy a Beaver brand black Sunday hat and a new Mutza suit. I might as well move back to Bloomfield, Iowa, and rejoin the Amish. Or Goshen, Indiana. I guess it don’t matter where. The Amish would still take me back, providing I was properly penitent, with downcast eyes and sorrowful face.

If it’s a sin not to go to any church on any given Sunday for any reason or none, I might as well go back to living under the law. Because that’s exactly what you’re doing, if you ever, ever go to church because it would be a sin not to. You’re living in fear of negative sanctions. Punishment. If you don’t walk right, the Lord will smack you down. He’s just waiting for you to fall, to fail. And you’ll pay when you do. Maybe you’ll even lose your salvation, if you’re not more careful. The horror is real. That’s how it feels when you’re living under bondage and in despair. That’s how it feels to be chained and shackled to the law.

You may or may not attend a church for many reasons, including no reason. Whether those reasons are actually valid is between you and God. Look to your own heart. Your reasons for attending might be as wrong as you figure mine are for not. I know how it is, not to go to church. I’ll never forget those dark and brutal days back in 2007, right after Ellen and I blew up our marriage. I quit going to the church we were attending, the early version of Chestnut Street Chapel, there in Gap behind the clock tower. I told my friends there. I’m leaving. I’ll be around, but I won’t be back until I’m ready, when and if that ever happens. And to a person, every one of my friends at Chestnut Street accepted what I told them. They didn’t preach or tell me I was sinning. Every single one of them respected my wish to be left alone. I hunkered down at home. Home and work. That was my world in those days.

I’ve thought about it many times, since. How many churches would have been that understanding? How many groups would have extended the grace I saw and felt from my “family” at Chestnut Street? Not a lot, I don’t think. There are protocols to follow, formulas to plug in. If a brother strays, go admonish him. Do this, say that, and tell him how it is. Show him the Scripture where it tells you to do what you’re doing, admonishing him. All in love, of course. Chestnut Street was young enough and raw enough that there weren’t any established procedures for running after and pestering a backsliding brother who wouldn’t “come to church.” I wanted to be left alone. They left me alone. I knew they were there, if and when I was ever ready to return. They stood aside in silence. That’s one of the hardest things to do. They gave me my space without judgment and without condemnation. Sometimes real Christian love is such a simple thing as that.

I didn’t walk away from church entirely. Just Chestnut Street. Somehow, I eventually wandered into the structured magnitude of space that is Westminster Presbyterian Church, over on Oregon Pike. A huge sanctuary with lots of seating, and a balcony on three sides. I got to going to that place about half regular. I always walked in just a moment before the service started. Walked up the stairs and way back to a far corner of the loft. And there I sat, alone, and listened to the worship. The people there sure liked to sing, seemed like. And I sat in that back corner and listened to the preacher preach. Dr. Michael Rogers was a plump and learned man, dressed in a formal black robe. High Church, compared to where I was from. And Dr. Rogers was a faithful servant of God. He simply preached the gospel. He never had any idea of who I was or that I was even there. I soaked in his words, took them with me and absorbed them in the daily grind I was slogging through. And I never let anyone near me in that place, there at Westminster. I always got up as they were singing the last song and walked out of there.

I can’t remember that I got to know more than a handful of people’s names in that congregation during all that time, during all those days when I was wandering pretty far out there in the wilderness of life and all that life can be sometimes. I expected nothing from those people at Westminster. Still, during that time in the wilderness, I heard one lone voice as I heard no other. And that was the voice of Dr. Rogers, standing up there in his black robe, faithfully proclaiming the gospel. That right there was a powerful and significant thing, in retrospect. Much more so than I could possibly grasp in the moment.

I was about as unsupervised and unaccountable as I could have been. You always hear wise trite things about accountability. How you got to have it, to walk right with God. Well, I didn’t have it. I’m not saying accountability is wrong. I’m all for it. But I am saying there are times when most of us slog along without it. As I was walking in that moment. I didn’t go to the services at Westminster when I didn’t feel like it. Sometimes, the day was too hard, the road too long to get there. Sometimes, I didn’t see the inside of that church or any other for weeks on end.

My world was bleak and desolate. And when you’re stuck in such a world, you simply absorb the desolation around you. You feel it, taste it, hold it close to you. Trace it all the way down to its roots, and then you slowly start pushing it back. Working your way out. And that was me, in those days. When I didn’t feel like going to church, I didn’t go. When I didn’t feel like hearing Dr. Rogers preach, I didn’t. As Thomas Wolfe would say. Was all this lost? Or to rephrase Wolfe. Was all that a sin? To stay away from church, when I otherwise could have gone? If you are sitting under preaching or teaching that such a thing is a sin, you are in bondage. I don’t know of any clearer way to speak it. That right there is bondage. Get out. Walk free.

I go to church regularly. Chestnut Church, out on Vintage Road. We moved from behind the Gap clock tower out into the country, to a real nice church house that got gifted to us. There, I “assemble with believers” because I want to, not because it would be a sin if I didn’t. And there at Chestnut Church, Pastor Mark Potter faithfully proclaims the gospel every Sunday. Patiently, persistently, joyfully, he proclaims. He keeps insisting that the church is a hospital, not a country club. And there is one particular refrain the man has hammered hard over the years, like a blacksmith at his forge. About addictions. Pastor Mark preaches like he always has. And he says. When you are a child of God, nothing can ever make you not be. Nothing. And so it’s safe to bring your problems to God. Tell Him. He’s your father. He’ll never get tired of listening. And if there are things in life too hard to face, if the pain is too intense, if you drown reality in alcohol or drugs, well, bring that to Him, too. Try to stop. Tell Him you want to. And try. If you fail, try again. Talk to Him again. And try again. And again. And again, and again.

What does what Pastor Mark preached have to do with going to church or not? Not a whole lot, I guess. Still, it triggered something in my memory. And thus a little bunny trail back to last summer, when I was drinking as heavy as I had in a long time. Hard. Every day. And there were a few Sundays when I woke up and the last thing I wanted to do was go face anyone at church. I didn’t feel guilty or anything. I just didn’t feel good. Well, as you don’t, when you’re all bloated and sluggish. And so I just stayed home, those Sundays. Slept in a bit, even though my sleep was extremely broken in those days. And by late afternoon, I was ready to head out and start the process all over again, to dull some of that intense inner pain. And I did, like clockwork. Every day.

And I often thought about it back then, hearing the good Pastor’s words about talking to God and trying again and again. Yeah. A fat lot of good that’s done me. Talking. Or trying. Over the years, I have tried and tried and tried to quit drinking. I even stopped, cold, a few times. The longest I ever quit was just over two years, back in 2006-07. It was one of the last-ditch things I did, to “save my marriage.” Quit drinking. It saved nothing. And after my world blew up, the lure of the whiskey, those shades of delicious amber fire, drew me right back to the bottle.

It’s all so easy to rationalize, the reasons why. I have seen hard and broken roads and so much sorrow and loss. Plus, I write. Writers drink to dull the pain of what they have seen and lived. And relived, in the writing. The real ones do, anyway, the ones I like to read. (Or they did, back when they were alive. Wolfe drank heavily, right up to his extremely unfortunate and untimely end.) That’s the crutch I used. And I settled in my cups, pouring vodka and scotch on the rocks from bottle after bottle, day after day, year after weary year.

The thing is, Pastor Mark never told me I was “sinning.” He told me I was God’s child, and that nothing could make me not be. And he told me to try again. Not directly, as in getting in my face. But in his sermons, he told me. Try again. And again, after that. And again. And again. It got so that I barely heard him when he spoke those repetitious words. Yes. It was nice that he thought God could or would help. But it just was what it was, with the whiskey and me. We were connected for life, I figured. And sure, it was a choice. I never claimed or thought anything else. But it was a choice I didn’t feel much motivated to change.

Until it all changed, kind of on its own. I wrote about it after it happened. I decided, one Tuesday evening back in late August. After I talked to the guys about it, at our Bible Study. I need to do something about the whiskey. I’m not sure how or what. Later that night, I decided. Tonight, I won’t have a drink. And the next day, that day I didn’t have one, either. And things just took off from there. It’s approaching nine months, now. It’s still for today, for tonight, and maybe tomorrow. Not much further out than that. Just enough to keep walking without a lot of inner noise or stress. So, nine months it’s been, this new stretch of road. Which means very little, statistically. I mean, it was over two years, before, that I was dry. And the day came, after those two years had passed, when I went out one night and bought a bottle of single malt scotch and took it home.

The past may be prelude to the future. I don’t know. Still, you gotta start somewhere. I have no idea what sweet whiskey lullaby the sirens will sing at me, down the road. I guess I’ll see, down the road. I’m OK with that. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. I never made any promises or vows to anyone. Not to any person. Not to God. I’m kind of whistling along, here. Right now, today, I’m feeling pretty good. And right now, today, I’ll keep walking.

Bunny trails are always so tempting and inviting. The point I’m trying to get to. All through that time last summer when the whiskey flowed hard and heavy, all through that time I felt totally free not to go to church. I knew there would be no committee meetings, no vote on who is going to see Ira and admonish him about not coming around to assemble and worship with true believers. I knew that no growling deacon was coming to poke around and smoke me out. I was free to go to church, when I went. And I was free not to go, when I didn’t. If anyone ever tells you it’s a sin to skip church, any church, anywhere, at any time for pretty much any reason, don’t listen to that person. Walk away. Don’t accept the heavy burden of false guilt that others want to load on you. You are free. Walk free.

Circling back to that Saturday morning when I saw the poll question online. It was a little ironic, what happened later that day. The comments simmered down, by afternoon. Most were good-natured. It was interesting, to see what people thought. The grim ones remained grim. It’s a sin, not to go to church if you can. I felt sorry for anyone who felt that way. And that afternoon, I was running errands here and there, when a text came pinging in. From my friend, Steve Beiler, over close to the goat path west of Leola. Stop by if you get a chance. OK, I texted back. I’ll do that.

Steve and Ada Beiler are old friends, from way back. I’ve known them for decades. They attend my church, there at Chestnut. And I have one particular memory, from back in those harsh and heavy days, right after Ellen and I split up in 2007. She had left, moved way out to Phoenix. And I hunkered down alone, at the home we had shared for seven years. I hadn’t shown up in church for a while. I wasn’t looking to hang out with much of anyone. Sometimes you feel like being alone, and all you want is to be left alone. That’s where I was.

And I remember. After a few weeks or so had passed, I got a call from Steve one day. He didn’t say a lot. Guys don’t speak a lot of words to each other in times like that. But that day, Steve called, and I answered. We chatted a bit, and he told me. He figured it was about time to connect. Would I like to meet for coffee? Um, sure, I guess, I said. I felt pretty ambivalent about it. And we agreed on a time, a few nights later.

We met at a little coffee shop in the shopping center just off 501, beside Rt. 30. Of an evening. I’m not sure if it’s still there or not. I hardly go to that area at all. I remember some of the specific things we talked about, sitting at a table, drinking coffee. It was dark when we walked back out to the parking lot. And I remember how we gripped hands just before I got into my truck to drive back to my home. Not a lot of words were spoken. But a lot of things were silently expressed. That’s where Steve and I have been together, a place like that.

I pulled in and parked my Jeep outside Steve and Ada’s house. They were sitting in the office. They have a bunch of beautiful daughters and one sturdy son. I’ve watched all the children grow from the time they were babies. I walked in and took a chair. We chatted. And after a while, Steve looked at me. “Come along with us to Dover tomorrow,” he said. I half gaped at him. Dover. The Monster Mile. They are big, big Nascar fans, Steve and Ada. I used to be, much more than I am now. Nascar isn’t all that exciting to watch, anymore. I mean, it’s three races in one. Stage one, stage two, stage three. It all seems a little watered down. Anyway, here I was invited to skip church the next day and go watch the race.

I thought about it. I haven’t been to a Nascar race since camping with friends inside the oval at the Poconos, back in 2010. That’s been a few years. It’s about time to go again, I thought. Especially when I can go with such good friends and hang out for a day. The old me would have flinched a little, hedged back. Made introverted excuses. Not the new me. Sure, I said. I’ll go. And they both smiled. Noises were made, then. Could I drive my Jeep? Gaaah, I thought. Those crowds are going to be crazy, getting in and out. But still. What’s a new black Jeep for, if you can’t take it to Dover to watch the race with friends on a Sunday? And I said, sure. Again. I can drive. I guess I was on a roll, there.

And they told me, before I left. Pack a few things. Snack bars and such. You can take a backpack in, and a water jug. No glass bottles, though. Well, there went the whiskey I figured to sneak in. Just kidding. I headed home and just putzed around that night. By nine, I had retired. I figured to get up earlier than usual, for a Sunday. I planned to pick up my friends by 7:30 for the two-hour trip south to Dover.

Sunday morning. Early. My alarm clamored. I got up and rubbed my eyes. Good grief. I usually sleep in until 8:00 or so, on a Sunday. This was more like getting up to go to work on a weekday. I got showered and cleaned up. Dug out an old camo rain jacket. That’s what I’d wear, if it got chilly. Outside, the day broke. Cloudy. I noticed the grass was wet, as was the drive. Just before seven, I sat down to put on a pair of tough leather hikers. Comfortable, since we’d park a half hour walk from the track. That’s what Steve figured. They had been to Dover before. I’ve never seen the Monster Mile, except on TV.

And right then, I heard my phone buzz. What now? I walked into the other room and picked it up. Glanced at the screen for the name. Steve. What now? I answered. Hello. Steve greeted me. And he told me. He had not purchased the tickets, yet. Those were easily available, he had told me. But he was just looking at the weather. It was raining outside, here at home. And according to the forecast he was checking online, there would be rain down at Dover, too. There was a better than even chance the race would get rained out.

Well. What do you say in a moment like that? It was going to be a long day, down there at the track. I knew that. Still. I was mentally ready to go. And still, again. The last thing I wanted was to sit huddled in the rain at any Nascar race. That just wouldn’t be any fun. So I told Steve. I’m fine, with whatever. Yesterday, I had no plans to go to the race before I stopped by your place. I can just as easily plan not to go. I’m fine, going to church. We got a fellowship meal today, anyway. (Not that I’d partake in the church meal. But I figured to sneak home a big plate of food for my one meal, that evening.) And Steve made the decision, right there. The trip to the Monster Mile was canceled. We’d go hear the preaching at our church, instead.

And there it was. Whiplash, one might suppose. Except it wasn’t. It all came and went very calmly, as things usually do when you don’t try to manipulate events. When you’re free enough to just let life flow. It was totally OK to go to the race instead of church. And it was totally OK to go to church instead of the race. It was OK, either way, whatever happened. We took all that liberty and simply walked through the door that opened. It did not matter to me, which door that was. And I couldn’t help thinking later that morning, as me and Amish Black drove through the rain to Chestnut Church.

It’s kind of fun, to be free like that.