Removing the guilty from the pleasure

by Kristin on June 1, 2009

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Jason Berg

It’s Sunday, and Jason and I spent the morning hours, when most Christians are in church, on the beach.

Well, actually we were still sleeping when some people were heading off to church, and we were out to breakfast when those 9 a.m. services were well underway. Then we were at the beach.

We’re celebrating our wedding anniversary with a long weekend at a cottage in Saugatuck, a place we go for a week each summer with our kids. This time, we’re alone, recuperating from a series of months that have been over-the-top busy and stressful.

Considering all of that, walking and relaxing on the beach, while taking in some of God’s most gorgeous creation, is a lovely—even fitting—way to spend the Sabbath. But because I’m prone to feeling guilty (most often about the wrong things, I suppose), I felt a tinge of that ickiness as we consciously weighed our options and made the choice last night: sleep, breakfast and the beach over church.

Fighting through the guilt to get to God

Let me clarify—I don’t feel like I’m a “bad Christian” for skipping church. Jason and I go out of town fairly often, and we don’t feel the need to hunt down a church wherever we happen to be on a Sunday.

But today was sort of different. First of all, it’s Pentacost, a fairly important day on the church calendar. Second of all, we had been invited to go to church with some friends and spiritual mentors who live in Saugatuck. That made deciding not to go feel more like a clear choice we were making—a choice God would clearly be disappointed in, the way parents are sure to be disappointed by choices their teenage children make.

Ugh! I hate that feeling—that concept of a “tsk-tsk,” head-shaking, finger-pointing God. I’m not saying I think God is thrilled with everything I do. But I am beginning to think my understanding of how he reacts to me is flawed.

The problem, I think, lies in my tendency to  understand God the way I understand a person, like a parent or spouse. The faulty logic goes like this: He (God or your husband or your best friend) wants you to do one thing, you want to do something else. If you get your way, your joy is tainted by the selfishness you feel, and by knowing you will have to eventually pay that person back.

Thankfully, God isn’t like that. He isn’t at all like us, a fact I’ve been gradually absorbing these past few years.

This confused way we go about our attempts to fathom God was actually described quite well in a book I started reading this weekend. I finally broke down and opened up The Shack, one of those books that everyone in certain circles has been carrying on about and referencing for some time. I’ve resisted reading it, maybe out of an “everyone’s doing it” rebellion, or maybe because I suspected it’s just not my sort of book. This jury of one is still out on the book as a whole (I’m only halfway through it), but I do really like this explanation by the “God character” of who she/he is—or rather isn’t:

The problem is that many folks try to grasp some sense of who I am by taking the best version of themselves, projecting it to the nth degree, factoring in all the goodness they can perceive, which often isn’t much, and then calling that God. And while it might seem like a noble effort, it falls pitifully short of who I really am. I’m not merely the best version of you that you can think of. I am far more than that, above and beyond all that you can ask or think.

So God isn’t like someone who says “OK, we did what you wanted to do this time, now you owe me.” (For the record, Jason and I don’t function like that in our marriage, either, but it’s not because of our enormous, generous hearts. It’s mostly because we tend to be in agreement on what we want to do/eat/watch, so it makes it easy.)

Trying to fathom what God really wants for us

As it turns out, this whole idea of church being a special holy place where people gather on Sundays probably reflects the thinking of people more than the thinking of God, too.

I’m pretty sure God’s greatest desire isn’t for us to be in a church building on Sunday mornings. His greatest desire is that we find ways to regularly commune with him, and with one another and his creation—that we can get a few steps closer to him, by bridging the chasm between heaven and earth. Often that happens in church communities, but not exclusively, by any means.

This morning, after Jason and I took a nice long walk along the beach, not encountering another person the entire time, we sank side by side into adirondack chairs, our books in hand. Eventually we abandoned the words on the page, to just close our eyes, soaking in the warmth and peace all around us.

Silence, except for the gentle waves. A mix of cool breeze and warm sun, balanced just right, making me highly aware of—and grateful—for each.

I realized, all at once, that everything happening in that moment was something our bodies, minds and spirits have been craving. I realized that’s also something God wants for us—to be whole, and healthy in body, mind and spirit. And I realized that is at the heart of making a holy place, a Sabbath. A time so full of pleasure there isn’t room for guilt.

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  • Blackwasp19

    Kristin, thanks for this. I think we do get caught up assuming that God spawns from our image rather than us being a sliver of who God is. While we strive to be Godly or Holy (the same thing) our maturity produces only a brighter reflection of who God is, not a duplicate. Our love may do great things, but God’s love does things that are unimaginable and God’s love is as eternal sustainability as compared to our flighty emotionality that we sometimes pass off as love.

    I do think that God wants us in the local church – ekklesia – it doesn’t need to be weekly, on Sunday, or in a “church” building, but we are called to regularly gather, worship and fellowship collectively. It gives proper systematic to the way we all grow in who God is, connects us with the walks of other men and women of faith and also reminds us that our faith is personal, but by no means private.

    I think the slight guilt you felt was guilt not from God, but residue from being socialized to see Christian fellowship as a Sunday morning stint.

    Have you read “Pagan Christianity”? If not, I think you should take a look at it.

  • TJ Hirst

    While I appreciate your perspective and understand your line of thinking and agree with some of the things you say, I hope I can share my thoughts without offense to you and your beliefs that you’ve put out here. I am not pointing my finger of scorn at you for “skipping church” I respect the need for a break. It renews our perspective of things that we really want to do. I also respect the right to worship how and where we each choose.

    I just disagree. I want to be in church on Sunday. It’s more than a place of fellowship for me; it’s my place of worship where I recommit, through a sacred ordinance of the sacrament, to God the Father through the atonement of His son, Jesus Christ. I know they love me and want the best for me, but mortal being that I am, I do fall short of who I can become. When I see that, I don’t beat myself up in this process nor do I make a self-justification for my actions. I listen to the whisperings of the Spirit within my heart and renew my mind, body and spirit in the process. I come away whole.

    Sometimes I feel like we want God to be all things

  • TJ Hirst

    Didn’t finish that thought. . . about wanting God to be all things. I find comfort in knowing Him and his nature. And in coming to do so, I haven’t found a harsh God, but one with expectations of us, but also a plan of mercy to help us meet those expectations.

  • Arathi

    Hey Kristin — I have The Shack at home too, waiting to be read.

    I think different people have different ways of praying or talking to God if you will — whomever (or whatever) that is….I know my husband does it when he runs on trails. You did it Sunday walking on the beach, admiring nature and being with each other, taking time to reconnect. The discipline of being in a specific place with specific people no doubt has its advantages, but it sounds like what you were doing had its own spiritual side.

  • Mark

    I have that skip-guilt often. People with children can appreciate how incredibly difficult it is to mobilize a family to be at a place for an hour or two. It’s a one day a week routine that is a killer. That’s the practical side. The spiritual side is that I rarely feel a connection in church. It can seem a contrived, intentional community. I understand the importance of being a public, professing community of believers but it often seems more like reporting for duty.

    Two weeks ago, I led the mutiny to go to the nature center rather than church. In one short hour, we saw the following: green back heron, hairy woodpecker, frogs, painted turtles, Great Blue Heron (almost landed on us!) Deer and an American Red Start []. That last bird is small, secretive and only passes through our area during Spring migration. I’ve only seen it once before. 2 of my kids got to see it and still talk about it. I was recharged and had ample ways of talking about God’s diversity with my kids.

    Also while there, we bumped into a guy and his two kids who I remembered seeing on a playground a few weeks back. After I initiated a conversation he remembered us (who wouldn’t, we’re loud). We talked for 15 minutes and then walked the park together. As we left my wife asked why we didn’t get his number? I felt silly.

    Two days later, Joel (the stranger) remembered where I worked and that his neighbor volunteered there and had him deliver a letter saying how nice it was to meet us and that he didn’t feel like our conversation should have ended. He qualified up and down about being a wacko. His comment that struck me was “if our children find it so easy to invite each other to talk and play, why should it be so odd for us to do the same?” Indeed.

    We spent this past Saturday getting to know Joel and his family. Two groups of perfect strangers sharing a picnic, looking at insects and enjoying each others company. Interestingly, Joel was at the nature center skipping church as well. I am guessing Kristin is saying it’s not all or nothing. We probably need both. There are times when I crave being at church. But I resent it when someone questions how I am being led by the spirit.

  • Mark

    Oh, and there are times when I just plain fail and don’t go because I am being selfish and being led by nothing more than a desire to drink coffee and be left alone.

  • Trina

    The whole world is our church.

  • Genevieve Charet

    Hi, Kristin–excellent post.

    I think this sentiment (I’m pretty sure God’s greatest desire isn’t for us to be in a church building on Sunday mornings. His greatest desire is that we find ways to regularly commune with him, and with one another and his creation—that we can get a few steps closer to him, by bridging the chasm between heaven and earth. Often that happens in church communities, but not exclusively, by any means.) is a vital one.

    I never felt close to God in Church, but I came to understand that the Church as an official body was not okay with my giving in to that feeling. I know many people who claim to feel wonderfully inspired at formal services, and who love going every Sunday. I think that’s great for them–but that is a very personal sentiment. Not everyone is inspired by the same songs, the same responses, the same prayers.

    I would never presume to know what God wants us to do (and my inability to see how anyone else could presume that was a big factor in my leaving the Church!). But I do have a hard time believing that any being that is all good would care more about a ritual or a rule than about our response to it. To have a healthy spiritual life, you just have to embrace feelings of gratefulness, joy, peace, and wonder–if you don’t, it’s spiritual neglect. So if you get that from nature and not from one cookie-cutter idea of what worship should be like…well, it’s not the Christian answer, but I think it’s the right way.

    Thanks for addressing this!

  • Emma

    Beautiful thoughts. A church is not holy. There are some sad, empty churches out there. But the gathering of believers, the “church = the bride of Christ” is high holy. When we gather together in worship, the Spirit draws near, teaching, elevating, restoring, uniting. He does it on beaches, too!: celebrating and refreshing the marriages and hearts that seek Him. Your post reminds me of a Chris Rice song, “My Cathedral.” Not foresaking the necessity and privilege of the gathering of disciples, an occasional Sabbath spent enjoying God, soaking up His creation, sounds purely, and not coincidentally, therapeutic. Which reminds me of another song, “Art In Me,” by Jars of Clay. Seems I’m feeling feeling musical today!

  • Dave Thurston

    I like to turn the tables. This time I’ll walk in God’s shoes (sandals?). This is what comes to mind:

    “Yes, yes, it is Pentecost and it happens every year. And I know that you get it. BUT look at this – I created Saugatuck! I put a beach over here, and water with great sounding waves just over there. Oh and the breeze – did you enjoy the breeze – I thought of you when I made it (I thought you’d like it). And . . . don’t ask me how I did it, but every Pentecost this beach seems to hold just one couple!

    “So, don’t worry about missing church services . . . you’ve made my day by spending some time (and appreciating) that whole Saugatuck thing that I put together.

    “I got a kick out of creating a whole bunch of these places and I really like it when you enjoy them. So. . .thanks.”

  • Kristin T.

    Blackwasp19, I really like what you said about why church is important. I agree, and am very grateful to have a church/fellowship that helps those important things happen for me, with God and others. I also think you are exactly right about this: “I think the slight guilt you felt was guilt not from God, but residue from being socialized to see Christian fellowship as a Sunday morning stint.” It’s important to undo some of that socialization from time to time, I think. (I’ll have to check out the book you mentioned.)

    TJ, I feel like my church is a very important place, too, but I have been at other churches that leave me feeling empty and distant from God, and there are moments when the thing I need most seems to be something very much *not* church. I guess what I’m realizing is that we each need different ways of connecting to God, at different times, and I think he is happy to work with us in that. I worry that I’ve always connected God too exclusively to Sundays in a particular building, and I want to become more comfortable meeting God in many different settings, any day of the week.

    Arathi, yes, the walk on the beach definitely fed me spiritually. Now that I think about it in that context, along with your husband’s runs, I realize that I feel most comfortable and focused talking to God when I’m walking, rather than sitting. Hmm…interesting, seeing as how church is definitely NOT about moving. Let me know what you think of The Shack. :)

    Mark, I love this story about your Sunday at the nature center. It’s beautiful, and is a perfect illustration of what I was trying to get at. By stepping outside of your usual Sunday morning routine, you opened yourselves up to beauty, magic, the unexpected, and even a new friendship. (I also really appreciate your honesty—sometimes people don’t go to church because they want to drink their coffee and be left alone. So true.)

    Trina, the world is our church, indeed! Or at least it can be. I suspect it depends on how we view it and work to transform it—what we bring to it, and how open we are to what it has to offer. And maybe that’s why I go to a church/fellowship most Sundays. It helps me recalibrate and align myself/God/the world. (I’m not sure exactly what I mean by this, but I’ll think on it more and fill you in if I come to any realizations!)

    Genevieve, you really nailed it with this: “I do have a hard time believing that any being that is all good would care more about a ritual or a rule than about our response to it.” I so agree! The rituals *can* lead to important responses, but not always, and it’s the response—the change within us—that should matter.

    Emma, I love the image you create, of God “…celebrating and refreshing the marriages and hearts that seek Him.” Getting away together for the weekend was definitely therapeutic. Thanks for your comment and for the songs—I don’t think I’m familiar with them, but I will definitely give them a listen!

    Dave, ha! I love that perspective. My idea of God is very often misguided, I’m afraid. He must grow so weary of the “God stereotype” traps and the boxes I put him in. Bit by bit, though, I’m learning that he’s so much outside of my narrow understanding of him. Thanks for helping to shift my perspective a little bit more.

  • Jeb Dickerson

    I go where I see God best. I hope that’s true for everyone. I know many people for whom church serves that purpose. And at times, that’s been true for me as well. But more often than not, I’m most connected with my source when surrounded by nature, appreciating the absolute & unrivaled beauty that can be found in every tree, every stream, every rock and every flower.

    Because of my upbringing, I spent a number of years feeling guilty about not attending church anymore. But now I see, just as you do, that God wants us wherever our connection to him/her exists. I expect that place is different for all of us.

  • Jennifer

    Again you have struck a resounding chord with your diverse and thoughful readers. Great job.

    Growing up a Preacher’s Kid, missing church was not really possible. We practically lived there. Wearing skirts was also a given.

    My family now belongs to a very young church in Tulsa and we are nearly its oldest members (and not quite 40 yet). This youthful church is prone to a relaxed dress code which is difficult for a Presbyterian at heart girl. When I put on shorts and flip flops and head in there, I know my dad would roll his eyes and say, “Jennifer,” in just that tone.

    But again, it’s not about the building. It’s not about the day, time or place. It’s not even always about with whom you are. It is making time for an important relationship and letting it grow. Wherever you are, and whatever you wear.


  • jenx67

    Seems worth mentioning something C.S. Lewis said – “The Church is the only organization that exists for the benefit of non-members.” That’s not to say that this is all the church is – but, salvation and reaching the faithless are the primary roles of the Christian church, not maintenance of the saints.

    Your time on the beach sounds like a divine appointment, a time in which you worshipped, which we can do every day, all day, in one way or another.

    Kristin, I have posted a link on my blog to a testimony of a dying woman – have you heard of her??? Rachel Barkey, 37. The 54 minute testimony covers why we suffer and our purpose on earth. You might want to check it out. <Death Is Not Dying.

    Blessings, jen

  • Kristin T.

    Jeb, I really wish everyone was in tune with where they see God best, and then willing to free themselves up to go there. I’m afraid it’s not true for most people, most of the time, though. And I think these constructs of religion around God—what Blackwasp19 called “being socialized to see Christian fellowship as a Sunday morning stint”—is unfortunately a big part of the problem. I’m glad you’ve been able to let go of that and find your place with God.

    Jennifer, that my readers are diverse and thoughtful are probably the two things I love most about them/you! It’s amazing to have you all out there to write for. I love hearing your PK perspective, and about how you’ve journeyed to a place where you can really let your relationship with God grow.

    jenx67, that’s a great C.S. Lewis quote to bring into the conversation. I think most churches have become really confused about why they exist and who they’re serving, or they’re focused on reaching out but doing it in aggressive, guilt-mongering ways. Maybe if we can get that straightened out, some of these other issues will work themselves out, too. That tends to happen. And no, I haven’t heard of Rachel Barkey. I will definitely check out her testimony as soon as I can section off an hour—it sounds like a very important thing to hear. Thanks.

  • Ken Stewart

    Kristin , Matthew 18:20 says, “…where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”

    I am encouraged by your maturing view of Him, especially as I grow in my faith as well. I’m glad you find comfort in your joy, and I’m sure it brings warmth to His heart that you and Jason can enjoy those things he has created.

    Carpe Diem,
    Ken Stewart

  • Kristin T.

    Ken, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. That verse from Matthew is a favorite of mine. I realize, though, that while I love the idea, I often forget to fully apply it, grasp it and believe it in my life.

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