My husband and I spent the last long weekend being tourists in our own town. We’ve lived here for over 20 years and we didn’t know the details of the town’s history the short-term visitor picks up while visiting various tourist spots. However, even though a tourist may know detailed bits and pieces about a town, they rarely know the town.
A resident, on the other hand, does. A town is a community and if a community wants to survive, it takes care of its members. People don’t always agree how to do that and some have hidden agendas but, ultimately, there is a consistent goal to make the town work and look after its residents. The residents may include the homeless, entrepreneurs, recovering addicts, Olympic athletes, the mentally or physically ill, those with a Ph.D., high school drop-outs, gang members, military… anyone who lives there.
I used to be a Christian tourist — not someone who goes on pilgrimages, but rather someone who tours various flavours of Christianity.
The church I attended as a child defined sin as doing the wrong thing, a series of rules and regulations which had to be obeyed or else God would be mad at you and you would end up in hell. It was a common parenting technique: behave or be spanked. But God’s punishment was scarier.
My teenage rebellion against parental authority included my rebellion against this version of God. My subsequent touring of different faiths led me to a place where I accepted Jesus as my Lord and saviour. My self-centered understanding of that concept made me a spiritually superior jerk ‘cause I had my ticket to heaven and anyone who didn’t believe as I did was a sinner who was going to hell’. Every encounter I had with people, especially my family, became an opportunity to preach the gospel as I knew it, whether they wanted to hear it or not.
I continued to tour, checking out a variety of one-issue churches. They all had appealing facades, sounded good and, like at most attractions, the tourists were tightly controlled.
At one church, I knew a woman who was encouraged by the church leaders to leave her husband because ‘he held her back from her ministry’. I met people who were told their faith wasn’t strong enough since they weren’t healed from a physical disease or they were struggling financially. They must have been sinning because ‘perfect health and financial success were marks of God’s blessing’.
Once I asked a ‘teacher’ about the struggles and the persecutions of the early Christians and apostles, and I was told ‘if they knew then what we know now (about faith) they wouldn’t have had to suffer.’
I knew a young woman castigated for missing Sunday evening services when she went skiing after the morning service on her only day off.
I saw marriages explode because people acted the part of good Christians while, in reality, they struggled with the problems and pain that their church said would disappear once they said ‘the prayer’. When their lives finally fell apart, they felt shunned by the church since they obviously were not ‘new creatures in Christ.’
These were churches that shot their wounded and hid the bodies out of sight while the stench announced a failure of their love.
This was tourist Christianity, a place that looks intriguing but is unable to sustain life.
True Christianity requires us to love each other no matter what. As a Christian tourist, I had a self-sanctified, holier-than-thou attitude that was not conducive to loving relationships. As an Orthodox Christian, at every liturgy I confess I am the worst of sinners and, compared to Christ, I am. This humility is the way to loving relationships that creates community; a group of people living with, and struggling to overcome their problems, who are strengthened by the love and care of those around them. An accepting community nurtures all its members and doesn’t kill the weak and shun the difficult. Sure, the passing tourist may spend money but it’s the community that, in the long run, sustains or destroys the people who live there full-time.
This is my Christianity and this is my community.
Anastasia Bartlett attends St. Aidan’s Orthodox Church in Cranbrook. The Pastor of St. Aidan’s, Father Andrew Applegate, can be reached at 250-420-1582.