The Gathering

Those who grew up in church may identify with the general feeling of this image, which was painted by my brother several ago around the time he led worship in the small town in Ohio that I always write about. At the time, most of his art was about feeling alienated and examining the spiritual aspects of religion. It sounds like a no-brainer to associate “religion” and “spirituality,” but for a church kid, it can be tough to do. It’s hard to claim an identity when a lifelong habit of following prescriptive behavior turns into all-out wrestle matches between the bruised flesh of life and a rather immature spirit.

For disheartened Christians, after awhile, everyone ends up looking the same, church is a chore and club, and Christ is nowhere to be found—except maybe somewhere in that old lady’s banana bread placed next to the coffee at the greeting table.  Struggling in this place, people find church to be toxic (as portrayed in this painting). When the routine wears off and the joy of Jesus doesn’t feel close enough for avowed Christians, the material and the metaphysical clash more viciously than ever. It is sad that this pain is often explained as sin or completely out of our hands, so there’s guilt or helplessness for the here and now.

Church sets imperfect people with high expectations and a great deal of baggage next to each other week after week. When there are mistakes and disappointments inside the church community, it’s all the more personal because “it” was supposed to be better than that. Inside the church, among church people, relationships break, hard questions are given unsatisfactory answers, and complex issues remain unsolved. So people leave because going to church feels emptier than spending Sunday mornings at home.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are times I still don’t feel entirely “at home” in churches or church circles because I don’t like “church” activities or worship music enough to get jazzed about it all the time; yet I don’t think I could ever leave it behind. I think fellowship with believers in a church is vital to growing closer to God.

The more soul searching I do, the more I find that I’m trying to feel OK, to feel comfortable, and to feel like I can take a rest from my head. I’m looking for my brothers and sisters and the customs that I grew up with instead of asking God to show me how to serve where I am and becoming familiar with the Body.

I’d be interested to see what the church would look like painted as a body with many parts, parts that sometimes need to be bandaged, nursed, and exercised so they can be used again (1 Corinthians 12). If the church really is a body, it’s a very strange one that often chooses to succumb to necrosis over going to the doctor. We constrict our vessels and cut off blood supply when something gets uncomfortable instead of massaging the area because it might hurt us.

I’m with my brother, and I don’t want a factory—whether that’s the sleek, coffee shop Christianity or the sleepy pew-warming kind. I need a body so I can know my soul.

painting by Andrew J. Ditlevson