Cherie recently told me that moving here deepened her faith. When she said it, at first I was taken aback. The transition from our church life in Tampa to what we experienced here was pretty jarring. But as I have reflected on what she said, not only do I think she’s right, but I’m confident that it did the same for me.
Back in our suburban professional Tampa life, we attended the Methodist church in our community. I grew up Methodist so the atmosphere was comfortable for me. We and the kids dutifully attended every Sunday. Cherie taught Sunday school. I was an usher and served on the board. Church was just part of what we did on Sunday mornings. It was comfortable and never challenging. We were good cultural Christians.
When we moved back here, I assumed we’d attend the little country church where I grew up. I love that place and the folks who go there would do anything for me. But on a good Sunday there were only about 15 people there and the average age was well over 70. It just wasn’t a good experience for the kids.
We moved around after that, first to a large Methodist church in town and later to an even larger contemporary “seeker”-style church. These days we’re on a sort of church sabbatical, but we are part of a small house-church group of folks who are dedicated to community outreach and helping the needy.
But it wasn’t something she heard in church that deepened Cherie’s faith.
Rather, it was being immersed in the fundamentalist culture that is so prevalent here, outside of church more than inside it. Many of the beliefs that would be characteristic of a person of faith in other places (such as opposition to violence and war, social justice advocacy and concern for the environment) were here considered characteristics of unbelievers. Cherie has told her story on her blog better than I can tell it here, but being bombarded with “Christian” identity markers that strongly conflicted with her own values (those markers were usually wrapped in extreme conservative politics and/or anti-intellectual biases against science) caused her to begin to question whether she really was a Christian. So, for the first time, she began to examine very seriously what she believed and why she believed it. She emerged from that process with a much deeper faith and renewed convictions that her values and beliefs reflect Christianity, rather than conflict with it. These days she keeps a full plate of ministry and volunteer work.
As usual I was following in her wake. I was never as uncomfortable in the religious environment here as she was. Either I was used to it, or I just didn’t think about it as much. But her discomfort and struggles affected me too. So I did plenty soul-searching of my own.
Things I heard in church inspired me to dive into some pretty significant social justice work. I came to realize that it is what happens outside the walls of a church that are the most important. I enrolled in seminary. I came to realize that farming as we do is a matter of profound spiritual significance. I have been inspired by the examples of people (especially in Haiti and in the inner city of our hometown) who have dedicated their lives to helping others, even at the expense of their personal comfort. I ultimately concluded that I couldn’t in good conscience continue in my old job.
The days of putting on a suit on Sunday mornings, sitting in a pew for a sermon and helping take up the collection, are long gone.
If we were still back in Tampa we’d probably still be faithfully attending our old church. We likely would never had set off on the faith journey we’ve experienced here.
We joke that we’re outside of the matrix now. And I think that’s a good place to be.