Many of us have memories of fiery preachers on stage yelling at us to repent or we will go to hell... or church services that focus heavily on how sinful we all are, leaving us feeling rather depressed... or sitting in confession desperately trying to make something up just to get out of there.
Outside church we find we are free, free to do what we like in a world where we don't have a regular bashing telling us we we are sinners, or encouraging us to confess when we can't think of anything we've done wrong.
There is definitely a hefty emphasis within Christianity and church on sin, and how awful we all are and how we can never match up to God's (nor the churches) expectations. Much anxiety has been caused by this spotlight on our depravity - many people live their whole lives with mental scars, left by wounds inflicted by our churches long ago as they ingrained in us how terrible we all are. I know an older gentleman who has lived his whole life feeling worthless, his church upbringing having instilled in him this sense that whatever he did he would never be good enough. His core identity is that of an awful sinner, never good enough to God. This religious anxiety and feeling of unworthiness is experienced sadly by many, sometimes deeply affecting our lives and our wellbeing.
I remember one lovely friend of mine who wanted to attend the church in the area she had just moved to with her daughter. She went along and got talking to the people there, and mentioned that she was divorced. The atmosphere suddenly turned frosty, and the people who had been friendly towards her suddenly were noticeably different. She never returned, and lost her preferred way of expressing her faith. Others live with guilt and shame over unplanned pregnancies, abortion, or relationship choices, particularly those who are regularly condemned for sexual practices that simply represent normal human desires, and yet we are told they are wrong; excluded from church, and apparently from knowing God.
Within Christianity, we seem to have created a model of the ideal Christian - white, western, heterosexual, married with children, well-dressed, good jobs, tidy homes, good education, no tattoos and not too many piercings. Our churches are full of them. If we dare to go to church but don't fit this brief then we may be discussed in church meetings as to whether we should be allowed in or not.
Many of us live with hidden guilt or shame caused by church teaching and practice that has deeply affected our lives.
And it may not be right. This is what 2000 years of church history has said about us, not necessarily what God has said. In my book I tell the story of a wonderful woman who died and went to heaven and met God. She was dead for 20 minutes, but came back. What she found was that all she had been taught in her church upbringing about God, was wrong. Instead of the nasty, judgemental God sending us all to hell because we are so awful, she found love, acceptance, and the most incredible sensation of being loved and empowered by God. It was awesome, it was wonderful, and it was not at all what had been preached from the pulpit.
A lot of the things we are told are wrong are simply cultural preference, either within the church culture or society. And within Christianity there is such variation over what is right or wrong that what is ok in one church, you'll be told you're going to hell for in another. It is hard to know what is right and wrong. A lot of churches teach right and wrong from the Old Testament too - written to a particular people group thousands of years ago and with a culture very different to our own - and not meant to be law for all time.
There are of course certain things that are wrong, according to the laws of the land we live in. We can't do exactly what we want... but when we get to know and experience God, God guides us. Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8:7-12 say that God will guide each of us and we will not need to tell each other right and wrong. When we know and experience God, God lets us know if there is anything in our lives we need to change. If God doesn't; we're probably doing ok.
So why do we exclude people from our churches and from Christianity based on their life choices? Why do we focus on sin, hell and judgement? The sombre confines of our church walls look less attractive all the time. For those of us who love life and all the good, exciting things we can enjoy, such messages are simply rejected, an unnecessary despondency, a bit of doom and gloom we could all do without.
And all the while all we want is to know and experience that incredible phenomenon of knowing God... The amazing feeling of God touching the very depths of our souls, God reaching down and healing our deepest wounds. We want to experience that restoration, that excitement, that feeling our of souls being awakened with new hope and vision, filled with all the wonders of God! I have to admit come churches are excellent, they are places where clearly all are welcome and we can all find God there, but they are rare.
We can be free of the remnants of religious guilt, shame or feelings of condemnation that can hinder us, and we can move on with our lives. Thankfully, God does not care what we look like, do or believe. The church might, but that doesn't matter, because when we strip away church, Christianity and religion, we find we can stand before God, heads held high, proud of who we are and what we believe, and accepted and loved by God. We can watch as those residues of religious anxiety, guilt and shame and that sense of unworthiness can evaporate. We can have God; filling our souls and bodies with orgasmic, incredible, life changing power and awesomeness. We can experience all the wonders of knowing and experiencing God whilst living our lives to their fullest. Our lives can be changed in an instant as the power of God washes over our tired and desperate souls, and we don't need church or religion to have it.
So-called mistakes from our past are the building blocks of our future successes.
So let's find God, Naked At Last. God knows we need it... :)