Let me tell you the story of my FREEDOM (queue seat belts fastening). I call it the Great Shift.
My life within organized religion is not entirely negative. I had two primary institutional church experiences in adulthood: Catholic and Evangelical. What appealed to me about the Catholic Church were its sacraments and rich spiritual past, especially the mystics. What I liked about the Evangelical community is that you heard the simple John 3:16 gospel message every Sunday. But the problems of both churches I tried to ignore, purposely turning a blind eye so I could stay within my comfort zone. Fortunately, there was a pea under my mattresses, and his name was Brent Arias (my husband).
For our entire marriage (about 18 years), something about the church had been getting under his skin, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Within the Catholic context, where we started, he could see that priests were not invested in their calling. Brent called it, "stir crazy". They seemed bored, restless, focused elsewhere and apathetic.
This led to a church led by laypeople, and the ones stepping up to take the helm were caught up in the liberal vs conservative debate. They made church entirely about expressing the freedom they found in Vatican II, throwing out the old, classic, strict, Latin, formulaic church for one of felt banners, people dancing in the aisles, and campfire songs. As it is, the Catholic Church was riddled with superstitious beliefs, complicated dogma, and a Hodge-podge of Saints to remove your focus from the gospel. It only served to make it more confusing that they were throwing in their agenda and politicizing the whole thing. Top it off with a priest who clearly didn't want to be there, and it was enough to take my husband's fervent faith and make him wonder if there was a God at all.
We spent the first ten years of our marriage searching for a Catholic Church that seemed to "get it", to no avail. Following that, we spent a span of time going to no churches. At this point, my husband's beliefs turned toward pantheistic (God is all things), and I found Jesus and church to be in my yoga practice.
Finally, we decided to try a Bible Church. The Fundamentalist world, though, is a whole other beast with its own set of problems.
For instance, they said out of one side of their mouth the gospel is "by grace you have been saved and not of works", but they still needed us to do LOTS of works. Including but not limited to: being actively involved in ministry, donating 10% of your income, reading the Bible daily to yourself and your children, attending Sunday worship and a weekday Bible study (cell group), praying or having "quiet time" daily, bringing your children to the children's weekday lessons, donating your time for various church projects, loving everyone at church like they were your closest friend even if you didn't like them, listening only to Christian music, and having friendships with non-believers with the express purposes of eventually converting them.
Not only that, but the overall church gave you the impression that God had multi-personality disorder. This is mostly because of their attachment to the Bible. They had to make the God of the Old Testament (genocidal, angry, jealous, unpredictable, mean) the same guy as the one in the New (patient, kind, meek, loving, inclusive, safe). Why? Because the Scriptures were the infallible Word of God, and nothing in them is contradictory. The Bible was on such a pedestal that it took on idol-like qualities. Logical reasoning to allow the book to not only express God's word, but also the ideas and misconceptions of the humans that helped write it, was beyond them. It was ONLY God's word, and you had to "literally translate" it (i.e. accept their translation).
The overall impression of the Evangelical world created a pressure-cooker for me. I was desperately hoping no one would notice that I wasn't quite up to snuff, and kick me out of the social circle. It made it all the worse that God, who could see all things, knew the real sinful me, and was very disappointed. Acceptance by God and the church community were EVERYTHING to me at that time. I also had the uncanny tendency to take on the Phoenix stuff-oriented culture, the mommy-has-to-be-perfect culture of my generation, and the immaculately-clean-house-equals-perfection culture and added all that on top of the mounting church pressure. I was a mess, and was raising my children with the fear of what others thought as my main motivation.
By this time, my husband was watching all this and getting more and more fed up. He went to church every Sunday, but he'd make us twenty minutes late every time, and have psychosomatic back pain like crazy the whole service. To my disappointment, not only was he refusing to go to the Men's Retreat every year, but he had no interest in climbing the ladder of the church and leading ministry. Since his background in theology and church history is extensive, I saw this as a wasted opportunity to impress the hell out of people.
But even worse, he'd say things like the members of church, in his estimation, have a lower than average sanity level. And to top it off, he kept repeating that even though he couldn't agree that there was no God, he'd rather be talking to atheists. At least they were sane. This did not go over well with me.
That brings us up to date with January of 2015. I pinned my husband in a corner and let him know that every Sunday, we missed the worship part of the service because of him. This was unfair, because it was precisely that part of the service which got me in touch with God and set me up for a good week. He then dropped a nuclear bomb, telling me that it was going to church that set him up for a BAD week. I said, "Well, then, we can't go to that church anymore, can we?" But inside, I felt as though my husband was making me choose between my marriage and God. And I was in love with both. That January was tough, because for the first time in my life I was thinking about leaving my marriage. Eventually, Brent could see through me and said, "You don't even want to be with me anymore, do you?"
So, January was very dark and dismal. But the light was just around the corner. We were sent an angel, my friend Teri, who was at my house one day and noticed I didn't seem to be myself. She asked what was wrong, and I let her know about my evil husband and his plans to ruin everything. Then she said something I will never forget, "Ya know, I haven't gone to church in eight years and they've been the happiest eight years of my life!"
I was blown out of the water. For the first time I saw that I could have God and my husband, too. I ran to get Brent, told him what she had said, and right there on our driveway we had a life-changing conversation. She told me about the books, So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore by Wayne Jacobson & Dave Coleman, and The God's Honest Truth by Darin Hufford. I devoured those books.
The first one set me free to realize that organized religion today isn't necessarily what Christ had in mind when he brought his Kingdom of Heaven to Earth. Also, not attending a church at a building doesn't make you not part of the Church universal, because the body of Christ consists of all believers. Those who like church buildings don't have ownership of the word "church". Lastly, gathering together as Christians can happen in any setting, and doesn't need to be formulaic.
The second book set me free. It broke down 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, which reads...
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."
...and explained what it would look like for a God who is Love to have each of those attributes. It only took that chapter explaining how God is in essence Patience, and never loses his patience with us, to click a light on in my brain. I thought, "You mean, God actually IS Love, and I don't have to EVER be afraid of him?" The rest of the book was a confirmation of the Truth I had buried: that God actually is all we hoped he would be, all we knew he must be, deep down inside. No one need fear him.
With my pressure cooker released, I became a new person. One who had no fear of sin, and didn't even think about it anymore. After all, nothing could separate me from the Love of God. I became aware of a God who delights in me and wants me to have the journey I choose to take, without pushing or pulling or disapproving or prodding. He lets me be me, and that's all he ever wanted anyway. I figured out that the gospel really is about Grace, that Hell doesn't make sense (because love never fails!), and that there is nothing to fear. I finally was able to look out of myself and see that the rest of humanity was just as precious as I was to God, so I didn't need to fix them, either. They would make their way towards Love in their own time, and that was perfect. It didn't need my constant attention. I didn't have to save the world, someone much more capable had already handled that.
So, no more institution and its lies. No more being inferior and subject to men, no more judging non-believers and "sinners", no more looking for approval from everyone. Wow, talk about a breath of fresh air.
I know that a lot of people who read this post will write me off as either going to Hell or leading others astray. Who gives a shit. I'd rather be my "evil" twin than die an early death from the stress of being "good".
I will never give up my freedom again.