I’ve been thinking about faith and religion and God and church a lot lately. Some of it was kicked off by some comments from fellow pastors that happened in the recent past. Some of it was inspired by conversations I’ve been having the Stonecutters bulletin board. Yesterday, I read this and it got me thinking about it some more.
I wasn’t raised in the church per se. I was baptized, and my mother taught me about God and Jesus and I sang “Jesus Loves Me” and my favorite game to play was “Prayer” where I’d put a diaper on my head (????), kneel beside my bed and see how long I could pray, but as far as church-going: we didn’t. We didn’t because my father was raised Catholic, and my mother was raised conservative Lutheran and neither family could believe their child was marrying the “enemy” and so the way my parents dealt with the issue was to simply not deal with it.
When I was seven or eight, my mother developed some sort of problem in her brain. I’m not sure what it was, even now. We don’t really talk about it much. But she was in the hospital for a long time, and Daddy was always with her. The 15-year-old girl from across the street stayed with us all the time, and her parents helped out, too. What I remember of this time was the uncertainty. When you’re eight years old, your parents are the world. They are the tallest people you know. They are the smartest. They are the strongest. They are invincible. And one night I woke up and heard my father sobbing…I crept down the hall to their bedroom and touched his shoulder. He looked up and I asked, “Daddy? Is Mommy going to die?” His answer? “She might.” And suddenly my entire little world titled wildly off-kilter, and I thought of my infant brother and how I’d probably have to be his mommy now and how sad I was that he wouldn’t get to know our mom.
Given the fact that Mum colors my hair and takes care of my daughter when I’m ill: clearly, she didn’t die when I was eight years old. Nor eighteen, nor twenty-eight. Keep up the good work, Mum. ‘Cuz I’m not any more ready to lose you, and I don’t think my world would be any less off-kilter without you in it now than it was 23 years ago.
But what that event did do was get my family in church. We began attending Atonement Lutheran Church in Missoula, Montana. My brothers were baptized. We met Pastor Tom, who had a daughter my age and who I loved and adored beyond belief. We met Pastor King, who was from Tanzania and who talked with this lilting accent that I couldn’t hear often enough–I loved listening to him preach and tell stories about Africa. I learned to navigate the Lutheran Book of Worship, and I learned to love the soft “whump” of people closing the hymnal at the end of the service and I learned to love the way the church smelled like birthdays after the acolytes extinguished the candles. I learned to love the aroma of coffee and the buzz of conversation during fellowship time. I memorized all the books of the bible in exchange for a Jolly Rancher bar (the BIG ones…not the tiny little dinky candies). I really liked church. I liked that they gave me a bible–for FREE–and I liked being in the Christmas programs, and I liked that my parents would let me sit with our neighbors, Dick and Dorothy, and their girls because Dick and Dorothy were very indulgent and would let me draw on the back of the worship attendance cards while my mother would make me follow along in the hymnal.
The point being: I have nothing but good memories of the church, up to the point that I decerned a call to ministry and the church affirmed that call and sent me to seminary. From that point on, I saw the dark underbelly of the beast. The backstabbing, the politics, the naked ambition and greed, the lying…and I was shocked. I was shocked that the place I had always associated with the word “sanctuary” was run by these sorts of people. And I was hurt that they justified what they did by claiming it to be “the will of God” when it was clear to everyone around them that it was the will of nobody but them, and they had the power to enforce it over all protests.
This sort of power and abuse was directed against me, as well. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s chromosomal, perhaps I wasn’t properly submissive to someone, perhaps my theology is too threatening, perhaps I wasn’t willing to ‘go with the flow’ and because of that I was ‘making trouble’. Without going into details that would bore anyone but me (probably) I will tell you that the Church almost cost me my marriage. A bishop tried to use me to bend M to his will, and the instant that happened, the instant that Bishop chose to further his personal agenda by disregarding not only our love but the vows we took in the house of God: I lost any shred of respect I may have had left for the churchly powers that be. And we were duly punished for that, being sent to rural Kansas to take care of five churches and when we protested were told (rather threateningly) that the only other places they could send us were even MORE rural, so we better shut up and take this if we knew what was good for us. Once in the ordained pastorate, I was able to ignore (to some extent) the politics of the church and just get on with the work God gave me to do. And it went fairly well…until I got pregnant and one congregation (a problematic one, I’ll grant you) went into major-meltdown mode and members began sending me emails telling me how selfish I was to want to have a child, and how now I would have even LESS time to take care of them, and how they thought I was totally irresponsible to have done this and how they thought I was a lousy pastor, etc. When it came time for my maternity leave, they tried to make me take vacation instead, because some of the more vocal women in the congregation didn’t get maternity leave when THEY had THEIR babies, etc. It was a mess. And I very nearly left. Except I was too pregnant to run away and so I stayed. After Linnea was born, things didn’t get any better. The hateful emails continued; my pastoral authority was ignored (nothing like showing up to lead worship and find the entire service different from what you planned); etc. It was not. good. at. all.
And so we got out. Fled, actually, before living there and dealing with those people did any more damage. M retreated to the comparative quiet of theological academics, and I settled into stay-at-home-momhood and then Shopgirldom. And it’s been good. I’ve appreciated the break from living life in the church. And once I stopped HAVING to be in church, I stopped being in church. And the longer we stayed away, I realized just how deep my hurt and disappointment and anger a The Church goes. I’m so freaking bitter…I have friends who have glorious pastorates–no drama, their congregations love them, they have fantastic bishops who bend over backwards to make sure that they have the tools they need to take care of the people. They’ve never ever been hauled before a council and forced to defend their theological beliefs; they’ve never seen the things I’ve seen nor heard the things I’ve heard and I’m so freaking jealous of that! I had no desire to embroil myself in churchly politics…I just found myself there. And once there, I found myself unable to get out and beaten to a bloody pulp.
I’ve been angry and resentful for years now. And now a beloved professor, the man who taught me what it means to be a pastor to those suffering in this world and who’s lessons I turned to every damn day as a pastor is being “asked” to leave his job. Those doing the asking cite “intellectual intimidation”….they want him to leave because he’s SMARTER than they are. And it’s all politically motivated…those making the complaint stand to gain much from his dismissal, and the hardest thing to swallow is that one of the main people bringing the complaint was someone who was his trusted friend and collegue. I hope the thirty pieces of silver are worth it for this particular individual.
So anyhow. The point of this incredibly long winded post is this: I’ve got a LOT of bad feelings when it comes to the organized church. Particularly the denomination in which I am a called and ordained minister of Christ. And I had let these bad feelings color so much of my relationship with God.
We go to church, sometimes. When one of us is in need of the Sacrament, or when we feel guilty for being gone so long. When we miss the rhythm. And when I go and when I sit and I listen to a crappy sermon and I wait and long for the word of the Gospel…I realize that I’m hoping against hope that God will do something to prove me wrong, to negate all my understanding of what the church is, or to do something that will redeem it in my eyes, something that will absolve the azzholes in charge of their wrongdoings. He hasn’t. He’s got bigger concerns. He’s worried about me.
A few Sundays ago, after sitting through a sermon where I literally had to bite my lips so I wouldn’t stand up and scream, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”; it was time for the Sacrament and the pastor presiding over Communion quoted Luther’s Small Catechism, that the people who can rightly receive are those who believe that “this is the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” and I started to cry. Again.
In all my years in the church (as someone preparing for the ministry and as a professional ‘church person’) I hadn’t seen much to convince me that God was in control of it. The actions that my denomination are taking are against Scripture, and it breaks my heart that the people are being deceived in such a way. It breaks my heart that people who are hungry for the Word of God’s love and forgiveness are being given pep talks from the pulpit, “God gives us all talents! Isn’t it great? You are a talented person!”
I had fallen into a trap that I’ve councelled countless people to avoid: don’t interpret the actions of the church to be the actions of God. (And good Lord, I could get in some serious trouble for writing that down and publishing it. But it’s true, no matter what the boys in charge want to believe or want to supress.) Don’t write God off because the church is full of assholes. Don’t think that God is any happier about this than you are. Give God a chance to reach you in spite of it all. Because he will. He’s wildcrazy in love with you, and he won’t let anything (not even the church) keep him from getting to you.
All my anger is rooted in a deep disappointment and hurt that the church has not been for me what I needed it to be. What I want it to be. What I expect it to be. What I know it can be–but probably never will be, at least on this side of the Resurrection. Perhaps you can sympathize. Perhaps you understand the words that I’ve written, because in some way they mirror your experience with the Church. Or maybe they don’t at all, and you’re reading, mystified at my story and thinking, “Well, clearly she’s not called to be a pastor. A pastor would never ever write–or admit to, at any rate–any of this. If she was truly called, it wouldn’t have been so hard.” Or maybe you’ve just skipped this deeply self-indulgent post entirely.
Whatever your response to what I’ve written, please know this: God is coming after you. He’s not going to stop. Your defenses won’t even slow him down. Your accusations, your excuses, your need to cradle your hurt close? Don’t concern him. He’s coming after you with the single intent of making you whole. Of finding those wounded places we all have and we all try and hide and heal them. I know this, because he’s doing it to me on a daily basis. It can be scary, to have the attention of the Creator of the Universe focused intently on you, but think of how big the love that motivates it is. Nothing is going to stop him from coming for you, because you belong to him. He won’t rest until you’re in his arms, and safe.
God. Think of being safe. Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?