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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Running On Empty

This post was actually begun on the Feast of Christ the King, but needed to wait til now to be shared.

MY FRIEND MICHAEL SAYS THAT THE CHURCH WILL SUCK YOU DRY IF YOU LET IT. By that he means, if you don’t allow yourself say “no” sometimes, you will find yourself on every committee and guild, and have guilt pangs if you ever have to leave before the last dish is washed and the last chair is stacked, despite the insistence of the EMTs carrying your stretcher towards the ambulance. There is a truthism that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person. The church seems to have taken this very seriously, maybe because it works. For them. For a while. But then what?

I read an article recently called “The Rise of the Dones”. Basically, the Dones are the people above. They have volunteered at the soup kitchen and taught Sunday School and stuffed envelopes and sat through all three liturgical cycles five or twenty times and heard seemingly every possible take on the readings from the pulpit. They grow tired of feeling that no how matter how much they do, it is never enough. Up your pledge, stay on vestry one more year, miss your TV show or your kid's game for that meeting. So, they bolt.

A dear clergy friend from whom I sought counsel told me it was totally okay that my partner and I left our church because it wasn't working out with the new rector. As she put it, we were not being fed. Her assumption, and ours, was that we would look around, find someplace else, and feel fed again. And we tried. We went to about twelve places with no expectations, and landed on one where the rector was everything his counterpart was not. We did our best to adapt to the way things were done differently, and struggled to fit in, until he abruptly left six months later. We stuck it out for another six months or so, and finally drifted away. Well, my partner drifted; I walked out in the middle of a service and never went back. That was over  a year ago, and I have not gone to church regularly in all that time. It is no-one's fault; it's just how things are right now.

Separately from, but related to that, I have concluded all but one of the ministries in which I am involved.  If you read my previous post "Hurt People Hurt People" you know as much about that as I do.

Am I a "done"? I don't know, but -- as my friend Matthew says -- I can sure see it from where I live.

I don’t want be a Done. It’s not that I don’t miss it. Sometimes I do, but it’s hard for me to articulate whether I miss something I actually had, or am pining for a kind of community that I have yet to find, or create.

I am being fed, through recitation of the Daily Office (boy howdy, those lenten psalms are rough, but apropos) and the Church of the Internet.  You can attend morning prayer online with a group and find wisdom and beauty from all quarters in music and writing.  The prophetic Jennifer Thorson wrote an absolutely brilliant sermon for Christ the King:
“The Rich and Powerful of today are not listening to Scripture any more than the Kings and Queens of the past who claimed that their leadership was a Divine Right. Earthly rulers may push and shove to get their way, they may see themselves as God-like, but the God of our scripture is a Shepherd King with dirt under his nails instead of blood on his hands, and the earthly powers are mere sheep, just as the exiled Israelites of Ezekiel’s time were sheep, just as you and I and the poorest of our brothers and sisters are sheep.”
I do go to actual church sometimes. During a trip to North Carolina, I visited a parish I helped my friends find and join a few years ago. They had a guest preacher (Jeffrey Pugh, Ph.D.) , and his take on the Gospel parable of the unprepared bridesmaids was to use the lack of oil as a metaphor for contemporary fatigue, confusion and despair:
“Immersed in a world that seems bereft of hope or promise, we still wait for the Not Yet. We wait for deliverance from empire that grinds us all down by its incessant demand for more power. We exist in the middle of a world where any lie is told to gain control over others, and wealth is used by an oligarchy to oppress those who do not have the ability to fight back. We await in the darkness of billions of dollars spent on weapons of destruction, and of political propaganda to maintain control, and it keeps us all -- especially the rich and the powerful and those who benefit from this -- in a great darkness that leaves us feeling our way along a long dark tunnel of any light. We are exhausted, and our light has gone out.”
A few weeks later, two friends and I “did church” of a different sort, driving 2 1/2 hours to Lancaster, Pa., to hear author Anne Lamott speak. Her voice resonates with me the strongest, here in the tunnel, because she makes no pretense of being any better at it than I am. Completely forthright about her own fractured upbringing, struggles with addiction, and “teeny control issues” she told us that God fully expects us to be messy, and grouchy, and selfish sometimes. That was a relief to hear, because I don't even have her dissonance-inducing compulsion to be perfect. But listening to her tell of her friends and family members, followed by the stories some of the other audience members shared, I couldn’t help but feel like a little bit of a jackass. Yes, our church experience got screwed up, but nobody died, or even stole my sticker collection. And I am surrounded by loving and talented people who give tremendously of themselves.

So maybe I need to shut the hell up. I can be fed, if I take the time to look and listen. And more importantly, I can make sure that others are. Pugh and Lamott had similar answers, on the theme of Don’t Become Part of the Problem. She suggested treating yourself to TV and m&m's for a few days, but ultimately, find someone to talk to. Or sit with a kid and make angels out of coffee filters. Her congregation of 32 people operates on the thinnest and most frayed of shoestrings, but she describes it as a place of unspeakable joy, and I believe her. I pray that I will have that feeling about church again someday.

Pugh says, “Christ returns to every heart that makes room for forgiveness and grace. The second coming happens every single day we choose to make peace instead of war; every moment when we extend mercy to those in need. It is not the constant watching that is the heart of faith; it is the preparation for the long haul. I can manage being kind for fifteen minutes in a day... but a lifetime?”

I guess we can find out.