Messy or neat?

Why I stopped going to church….simple.  I couldn’t handle the questions.  

I was 21 years old, in my first job, in a new part of the country.  I needed to make friends, and I wanted to go to church.  So I popped along to the new estate church.  They were lovely people, very welcoming, lots of families, plenty of older people, one or two folk my age.  When I walked in, they spotted the newcomer, bounced up and said “Hello, welcome, what’s your name?  Where are you from?”

“Where are you from?”  It’s the most innocent question, it’s a reasonable conversation starter in any language.   But when the family you grew up with have all died in the last year, and you have no home left to go back to, answering “where you are from?” is ridiculously hard.  Of course, a simple answer would have sufficed – I could have given a town or county, and that was all that was needed.  But faced with the question “where are you from?” all that I could find in my head was loss.  I certainly couldn’t answer coherently.  And when a simple question triggers a storm of grief, people don’t know what to do.  I never went back, I tried a couple of other places and exactly the same thing happened.  I’d like to apologise to those people – they did nothing wrong at all.  

Most 21 year olds are not emotional wrecks of loss and grief.  But some are.  Most people can handle the simple social polite questions.  But some can’t.  Churches are the refuge (metaphorically) of the lost and the sad and the lonely, but we seldom acknowledge this in our bids to attract young families and create happy places for old people.  We talk about church as family – but the people who don’t fit into families are just as embarrassing as the oddities in the congregation.  I should know, I was the oddity. 

What would have helped me?  With hindsight, I needed a large anonymous congregation, where no-one would speak to me.  I should have gone to the cathedral, perhaps.  I don’t know if there were other churches that would have suited me – probably.  But in 1990 they were harder to find.  SocMed would have let me do research.  But more importantly, I needed a church where I could be me, where hurting was OK, where faith was not measured by the size of my smile.  

I was just one particular messy person.  But growing up, becoming independent, is a tough job.  Everyone finds their own difficult point, the trigger for emotion, the thought pattern that won’t be broken, the cliff edge of self esteem.  We all have them.  Lives are messy complex tangles of decisions and feelings and thoughts.  Faith runs through the tangle and is just as messy and liable to knotting as the other bits.  Churches are tidy and have rotas and neatly arranged people.  The neatness, the tidiness, don’t always speak of God’s love for the messiness that is humanity.     

Every generation turns from the previous one, as part of that bid for independence.  Every generation wants to differentiate itself, to make it clear that they are the future.  Young people have been trying to be different ever since the first teenager stropped off announcing they were cold and didn’t like fur, and managed to invent fire instead.  Where in church do we make room for this independence?  Where do we make room for the messy bits?  How do we welcome the people whose lives are too messy for the false God of Tidiness?

13 responses to “Messy or neat?

  1. Every sympathy – I think church is always difficult, no matter what stage of life you're at. I don't think I've really ever fitted into any I've been to, so will always be an outsider there. Which is possibly the way I want it! And, yes, that does include those where I've served as Deanery Synod Rep, or Sacristan or in some other role – I do try, even against character :))

    I'm strangely reminded of a lovely saying from an old (Christian) friend of mine who once told me (with a heartfelt sigh): “Ah, Anne, if you're really looking for support and a sense of belonging, you need to ask a non-Christian …” And this is something I've found to be true for a large part of my life!


  2. Personal reflections on my own messy life. (Oh, Claire, I bet you weren't expecting this?)
    When my marriage broke down it wasn't just me that didn't know what to do; neither did virtually everyone in the church I was attending. (Actually I was on the leadership team and responsible for most of the teaching & training. It wasn't like your average Anglican parish.) Thanks God that one of my closest friends – also our (professional) pastoral worker – had experience with real messy lives.
    The biggest difficulty was that I/we had challenged the comfortable normality. We had been missionaries for 16 years; we had 4 wonderful children; we were involved in the church … how dare we mess up the picture. 7 years down the line I am still very ambivalent about my relationships with many folk in the church. And since then, I haven't fitted the mould that they still largely feel should be the norm for “good born-again Christians”. It was OK for folk 'outside' to have messy lives & relationships – this was what we were there for; but not for dedicated Christian families.
    The most difficult thing was being told by the wife of one couple who had been close friends of ours before we split up that she didn't really want me to spend “too much time” with her husband. Maybe as if I had some sort of infectious disease that he might be in danger of catching?
    However, I don't go fully with Anne's implied comments (above) about finding support & a sense of belonging only from a non-Chrisitian. But on average, my non-Christian friends were far less judgmental and helpful about things. But I certainly lost a fair number of those I had thought were Christian “friends”.
    Yes, I still hurt and feel let down. And as a result I am much less likely to seek out trusting relationships as a result; and I'm a lot 'looser' to the relevance of church as a human institution than I used to be. And I still don't feel at home anywhere spiritually.

  3. How sad that people feel they have to turn to non- Christians. I too felt the same when I went through my own 'messy' time and turned to Buddhism where people were full of compassion and were non judgemental. I wonder why people find the Church a bit of a no go zone at these times and how they could change this perception/reality?

  4. Oh, don't I understand and relate to this. Try to explain that you and your extended family don't talk to each other, haven't seen each other in 20 years. No room for that one I'm afraid. Try talking about your son's partner, who is the same sex. That you don't fit into “normal,” into the “blonde hair, blonde teeth, blonde life” ideal. It doesn't go over well. I'll talk to a messy-life understanding, non-judgemental, non-Christian any day over a Christian that smiles with their mouth but not with their eyes.

  5. Feeling one has to turn to non-Christians for acceptance is desperately sad, and bitterly disappointing. Of course it isn't polarised into “Christian and perfect” or “non-Christian and a mess”. I suspect that lots of us are messy Christians. (MIke Yacconelli wrote one of the few books by an American pastor I have found not only tolerable, but useful “Messy Spirituality”.)

    But if we don't deal with “messy” in church, people will (rightly) leave. Either we meet people as they are, where they are, or church (deservedly) dies.

    As an aside, I went back to church when my first child was born. As a working mum, so that didn't really fit either!

  6. I relate to the trying to fit in (said the woman in the dog collar!!)

    I've been lucky in that there have been good Christians out there who have let me be messy, and helped me resolve lots of things (including grief). But I've never assumed that one “should” seek support from other Christians, just from where one can find it. In certain Christian circles, that isn't an acceptable view, but I refuse to cut myself off from most of humanity!

  7. Simon, thank you so much for sharing this. I started to write “it's sad that” and then realised that actually reading your comment makes me very angry with people who could have helped you in a difficult messy bit of life, and instead worried that their own lives might be contaminated. I wonder how many of those who stepped aside from you were worried about the mirror you might hold up for them, and how much your difficulties might be all to recognisable to them. Perfect people get scared when they work out they are not perfect.

    Healing from broken trust takes time – big wounds take a long time. But know that there are people around who care. As for where you “fit” spiritually – I firmly believe God knows where to find us even when we can't find the easy path to God. Which isn't much comfort when we're in the middle of mess.

  8. I'm going to throw a cat amongst the pigeons here.
    By non christians do you mean those of other faiths or “church going” christians as if there are no other sort.
    Indeed do you beleive there is any other sort??

  9. Yes, that challenge of admitting we are not perfect, especially in an environment where we are supposed to strive for perfection. I tend to the view that Jesus said “Follow me” not “be perfect”, and that all we can do is be the best selves we can be.

    I wonder whether it's easier to be messy in a parish church than in one which is more “membership” based? A lot of the messiness I encounter in my working day is found through the occasional offices, where people can be relieved to discover they can baptise a baby although they don't know who the father is, or that a funeral can be healing for that family rift.

    This is challenging me to think about what I can do to make sure that people know that messy people are welcome, and that God loves messy people just as much as the perfect ones. The parable of the lost sheep is the obvious scripture reference! There may be a blog post about that when I move out of curacy….or before.

    Thanks for your comment, Ros, , I'll be working through this for a while…..

  10. Don't know about the others who've commented, Steve, but I was a non church-going Christian for years.

    My own (shorthand) yardstick of a Christian is whether a person is happy to recite the Apostles Creed and sign up for the beliefs within it, but there are plenty of others who would argue with me!

    People of other faiths are to me logically non-Christian, so are atheists. And that doesn't mean they are bad people (just for avoidance of doubt) any more than being a Christian makes us perfect.

  11. Just to clarify I mean “you” as in everyone. I'm pretty sure I know Claire's stance on this.
    p.s. Yes I know I've spelt believe wrong :-p

  12. Kassak, Don't even start me on messy families. I'm from one of those too!

    There are churches out there (Thank God) who are inclusive in their approach, and “Inclusive Church” keeps a decent list. One day it'll be all of them, and no-one will have to keep lists at all. But finding a church where you don't have to fit a mould is hard, especially because we're all different.

    If you ever catch me smiling with mouth only, do say!

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