Guilt Free Living

The number one benefit I have experienced in leaving the church and letting go of my idea of God is a loss of the “guilt trip”. I no longer feel guilty (or bad) for things I haven’t done wrong or might do wrong.

I was raised in the church with a fear that God was watching everything I do and if I stepped out of line, whether or not anyone else saw me, God saw me. While this fear probably kept me out of a lot of trouble growing up, it also led to this push-pull relationship that I had with others and my idea of God. Since I also believed in God’s grace and forgiveness, even if I did something wrong I knew God would forgive me. More importantly, God HAD to forgive me.

So beginning when I was a child and ending just about a year and a half ago, I was on a carousel that looked like this: I would “sin” (either against God or others), I would feel really bad or guilty afterwards, and I would then pray and ask God to forgive me and would immediately feel a sense of peace knowing that I was once again clean in God’s sight. But internally I never felt clean. I still felt guilty, dirty and shameful.

One of the primary guilt laden areas of my life revolved around sex. It was all very confusing about what was and wasn’t a sexual sin in God’s eyes. For example, in our church youth group we were taught that masturbation was a normal part of growing up. It wasn’t a sin in and of itself, but if it involved sexual thoughts and lust then it was. Also, we were certainly told that premarital sex was a sin, but even more than that our youth pastor would say that “sex begins with holding hands”. He would say that since everyone that has had sex usually holds hands first, we have to be very careful of the slippery slope that could lead us to having sex. This involved holding hands, kissing, hugging, super-kissing, super-hugging and so on and so forth. Needless to say, I spent much of my young adult life feeling guilty and praying for forgiveness.

I thought that once I got married this would all be in my past, but it wasn’t. Especially early on in our marriage after we made love, I would lay there in coital bliss telling her I was sorry. “Sorry for what?” she would ask. “I don’t know,” I would say, “I just feel guilty”. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, yet I felt bad about the act. I knew I didn’t need to pray for forgiveness in this instance because I hadn’t done anything wrong, however I often felt “bad”. I did pray for God to take those bad feelings I had, but they would regularly return.

But it wasn’t just sex that I would feel guilt over, it was many things. It seems like I lived my life looking over my shoulder, wondering if this was a sin or that was a sin. And sins weren’t only the things I did wrong, I would feel guilty for things I thought I should be doing to please God (or others). Nothing I did or was doing was ever enough to get rid of the thought that I just wasn’t measuring up. I sincerely believed in a God that loved me in spite of my failures (I preached grace more than any other message), but I just never felt I was worthy of it.

Now, I have such a sense of relief about the guilt trip I have experienced for most of my life. It simply no longer exists. When I let go of my skewed ideas of God, I let go of the guilt trip I had been living. Good riddance.

I was a Stupid Church Person.

I was a Stupid Pastor.

I would get up and go to church each and every Sunday, thinking that God would use me to share the answers for people’s pain. Arrogantly I thought that the service planned with it’s music and message would actually make a difference in people’s lives. It’s as if I imagined that it was during that one hour each week where life change occurred. How stupid of me.

I sit here tonight and think of those hours spent in church and realize that nothing… NOT ONE THING I ever taught or learned in church has prepared me for today. I don’t remember any of the messages I heard or preached.

Then why do we do it. What’s the point?

Life change happens out here in the real world. Mainly, what I have learned, is that it happens through pain. Tonight I am writing from a place of pain again. I can’t understand why that pain has returned, but I welcome it. I know that the pain is where the learning takes place. It’s where I am alive, it’s where I am in touch with what I really need, it’s where things seem to matter.

Laughter, smiles, happiness and joy are only appreciated in the shadow of our painful memories. Don’t run from the pain, embrace it. It’s here with you now to teach you lessons you can’t learn anywhere else.

Do Churches Still Sing Hymns?

I grew up in a Baptist Church in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Did I just type that out loud?? The 60’s and 70’s??? Damn, that’s a long time ago. No wonder my teenager thinks I am weird. But anyway… where was I? Oh yeah, church.

Growing up in church one thing I definitely had a love/hate relationship with was the music. Back in those days, our church sang hymns. Pure and simple hymns. No praise music. No contemporary worship service for the younger people and traditional style for the older people. We sang hymns on Sunday morning and that was that.

Now in our youth group we were able to sing praise music. But not in “big church” as we called it. I think a little later, around the late 70’s maybe a little praise music crept into our services, but usually not. When it did it was in the form of the “special music” or choir performances.

I was thinking about these hymns this morning. Don’t ask me why I just was. I looked a few up and I was amazed that every time I saw the title of a hymn, I could almost always recall the tune and the chorus. It’s been nearly 30 years since I regularly sang any of these songs but here they were, rattling around in the back of my brain.

Have Thine Own Way Lord
Blessed Assurance
Blessed Be The Name
Just A Closer Walk With Thee
All Hail The Power of Jesus’ Name
Christ Our Lord Has Risen Today
Faith Is The Victory
To God Be The Glory
I Love To Tell The Story
He Lifted Me
O, How I Love Jesus
Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus
‘Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus
The Old Rugged Cross
I Surrender All
Standing On The Promises
Nothing But The Blood
Love Lifted Me
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

Amazing! I can sing at least a good portion of each of those songs and many more. I didn’t even mention the ones I take for granted like “Just As I Am”, “Amazing Grace” and of course “How Great Thou Art”.

For some reason, I love these old hymns. Most of my youth was spent loathing hearing these “dumb old songs” each and every Sunday, but no doubt there is something very comforting about hearing the tunes and remembering the melodies now. For centuries these hymns have been sung in churches of all denominations, but I would like to think us Southern Baptist sang them with just a little more conviction than most.

Remembering all of these songs says something for repetition and longevity. Do something often enough and long enough and you will never forget it, even if you didn’t like it at the time.

Would I go back? No way. Not now, not ever. Do I miss it? Yeah, sometimes.

The Guesswork Christian

Most Christians I know have a problem.

Their life experiences and interactions with people do not match up with the Bible. This new knowledge and understanding lends itself to a life of grays… and the Bible does not tend to lend itself to a life lived in the grays.

Biblical truth often becomes subjective and left to the complete and total interpretation of the reader. You can find almost any biblical scholar to back you up on any point or perspective. And if that doesn’t work, then you just move forward and have faith that God is big enough to figure it all out in the end. Faith is the ultimate answer for any question offered…and how can one argue with that.

This was first evident to me when I discovered as a teenager that my father, a deacon in the church, was previously divorced prior to marrying my mother. It was a shocking discovery for me, one that shattered the image I had of my father for a period of time. As I heard the story, my dad fought in World War II and shortly after he entered the service, he met a woman whom he rushed to marry. Apparently, after realizing it was a mistake, he ended it a short time thereafter.

When I found this out, I had questions. If divorce was a sin and didn’t qualify a person to be a deacon in the church, why was my dad allowed to be a deacon? I asked my mom and she said that the church realized that the first marriage was a mistake, didn’t mean anything and looked over it. I finally talked to my pastor, the one who ordained my dad and he pretty much said the same thing. My father was a good man, had asked forgiveness from God and there was no reason that he shouldn’t serve God as a deacon regardless of his previous mistake.

But still, the way I read the Bible, divorce was a sin. Although I was only a teenager, I knew there were clear rules about divorce and to not abide by those rules meant you could go to hell. Actually, the way I read it, my father was still married to the first woman and that he and my mother had committed adultery. In other words, now my mother was in danger of hell.

It was all very confusing for my youthful, literal brain. My pastor, who believed in Biblical inerrancy, was saying that everything was fine and that I shouldn’t worry, but I just didn’t get it. Either the Bible was true on these points or it wasn’t right?

Eventually, I came to read more and understand more. Just as importantly, ultimately I became dulled to my strict interpretation of the Bible. Over the years, as a pastor, I spoke less of sin and more of grace.

Most Christians I know still have this problem. They are constantly seeking to justify and explain away the parts of the Bible that do not fit with their life experience. Most of my Christian friends still speak more of grace than sin, believing that God will figure it out in the end. Faith again becomes the ultimate answer. They talk about faith and their beliefs as truth, but to me, it just seems like a lot of guesswork.