Several things might drive us to consider our life in the church. We might grow out of childhood and need to find our own way in faith. We might have doubts. We might find ourselves unhappy and disenchanted with the church or its programs. We might feel lonely and out of place. We might feel angry about what the church has done in history and want to distance ourselves from association with it. We might feel ashamed of the current direction of our denomination. We might feel disappointed with God. All these realities may call into question our relationship to a particular parish, the Anglican tradition, or the church in the broadest sense of the word. How do we walk with integrity at these crossroads in our lives?
In our current culture, the primary model of decision-making is consumer-driven. We are taught to evaluate possibilities like they are products with greater or lesser value to us and for which we need to determine the price we are willing to pay. This consumer decision-making impacts our decision-making regarding church. We are accustomed to finding what feels good and getting what we want. In this culture, the questions that surface when we ponder our relationship to a particular church might be: What does this church have to offer me and my family? Do I like these people? Do I fit in? Is there a sense of community here? Do I like the music? Am I comfortable in the service? Do I like the preaching? Do I like the worship? Am I happy here? Do I agree with where this church is going? These questions are not wrong—they are human questions—and they provide some information for us. When we seek to find a home in faith these factors impact us. However, the nature of our consumer culture—which feeds the notion that we need to get what we want—can diminish our capacity to see the true, the good, and the beautiful that we are chasing with our hearts.
Even if we are in a season of doubt about the Christian faith, most of us still believe that we are created. With this belief, we then have some relationship and responsibility to the source of our life because we have been called to life by a creator. If we are called to life, we have a calling. If we have a calling, we have a responsibility to discern how to live that calling. This doesn’t mean trying to figure out the exact plan which some machinist creator has for our lives. Rather, it means discerning the theme of our life; it means looking for the thread that weaves the fabric of our life into a consistent pattern.
Discerning our calling transforms the way in which we make our decisions. If we are discerning our calling, we are not looking to satisfy a list of wants but are instead looking for the thread of our life. Sometimes this thread shows itself to us even when we are not looking for it.
This happened to me. In my mid-twenties I was desperately trying to leave the church for all of the reasons listed in the first paragraph. I was flailing about and unhappy, looking for a new path. I was reading the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and was profoundly enamoured by Judaism. In Buber, I came across a passage that said something like this, “Don’t leave the house of faith that you have been given, you can stand at the door and let the wind of all other faiths blow upon you but stay at the threshold of the house you are given.” This word was both chastisement and an invitation. I was trying to run away from my given life by running away from my Christian Faith. but Buber invited me back into my life while giving me a place to breathe. I didn’t feel Buber was teaching me a universal truth in these words (though they may have universal value); rather, the words felt like a call to me in that moment.
I realized I needed to stay within my limits and struggle. Buber’s words did not speak to the content of my faith, nor did they speak to the goodness or badness of the Christian tradition in history. Instead, they told me that I had to be consistent with my creator-given life by staying with the church for unglamourous reasons; simply because this was the house of faith given to me.
Buber’s words fundamentally shaped my life because they freed me of the need to be excessively ‘happy’ in the Christian Faith. I was no longer constantly faced with a choice regarding my faith; instead, I was living into what was given. True faith for me came later, but this word kept me in the thread of my life.
Finding one’s calling is not always about staying. Sometimes, it is about going out into a new and unknown place. The scripture is full of stories about people being called out or forced into the wilderness to find a new place or a new way to be within the old. Abraham was called out of his father’s home into a new land. The Israelites were called out into the desert to wander for forty years before they went into the promised land. One of the most beautiful callings in the psalms reads “Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house, and the king will desire your beauty.” This is not a call to stay, but a call to come out, to come away. The coming of Christ is the ultimate breaking of all old wineskins into the new. Christ never promises a comfortable home in the Christian tradition; he promises that we will always be unsettled in the following which is the nature of our faith.
The choice to stay or leave is not in itself good. We are called to follow and seek, not for satisfaction or want, but for our life which is hidden in Christ in God even when we don’t understand it to be. This following can sometimes mean respecting the doubts and questions that make us uncertain of our faith. It can mean accepting the pain that accompanies us as we head into the desert of life, where we must leave the comfort of certain faith behind.
The words of Simone Weil leave us with a strange and wonderful hope:
“One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”
Kirsten Pinto Gfroerer is a counsellor and writer based in Winnipeg. She is part of St. Margaret’s Anglican where she served for a long time as a pastor. To learn more about her work visit the Anchorhold at: https://www.kirstenpintogfroerer.com/