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Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor

August 24, 2014

LCMany preachers, myself included, have much to be grateful for from the author’s sermons. Her theology is laced with practical, women’s wisdom. I was, therefore, saddened to read that she had ‘left the church’ and wanted to know what this was really all about. As it turns out, she hasn’t left the church. Nor has the (indelible) priesthood left her. She has only left full-time, paid ministry. Then again, perhaps the title was thrust upon her by her publisher.

 That practical wisdom is evident in this book. She likens pastoral care to her experience of rescuing a starling from death, nurturing it back to life but finding it hard to let it stand on its own two feet and finding it returning to her for safety when it should be venturing out on its won – the dependency culture of the church which, if you collude in it, will kill you.

 As a curate, she had worked a 60-80 hour work in a busy city parish and had lost touch with her instincts, was burnt out. Like many clergy, she probably enjoyed the book ‘If you meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him’. Herbert had been held up as a model pastor, yet his parish was small and he could know and visit everybody. Today’s large parishes make such a vision back-breaking, lethal even.

 So she sought out a rural parish. What she hadn’t reckoned on was the fact that there is no escape in a village: Of course people also knew where I got my hair cut, what I served my dinner guests on Friday night, and how fast I drove on the four-lane highway. The anonymity of my life in the city was over, along with many of the professional boundaries that had gone with it. One church member said he could help me find some better-tailored clothes while another offered to wash the red Georgia dirt off my truly filthy car. When I tried to enlist the parish secretary’s help in teaching people to make appointments if they wanted to see me, she gently explained that most of them did not keep day planners like I did. “If they want to see you then they’ll stop by,” Marty said, “and if you’re busy then they’ll come back later.” Meanwhile, she added, there were some people I might want to visit at home. Would I like her to make up a list for me?… In my case, the attention deficit was all mine. I had moved to the country in order to lie down in more blessed fields, to live closer to the Divine Presence that had held me all my life, but I had once again become so busy caring for the household of God that I neglected the One who had called me there. If I still had plenty of energy for the work, that was because feed­ing others was still my food. As long as I fed them, I did not feel my hunger pains.

 And that because it is the only Anglican church in the whole county, there will be a mix of churchpersonships and politics.

 Unlike those of us in the UK, we don’t encounter the KKK nor church signs that read “Give Satan an inch and he will become your ruler,”

 I very much like her section on transference: When another couple came out of church one Sun­day morning and asked me if I could arrange good weather for a family picnic that afternoon, I drew the line. “Sorry, but I don’t do weather,” I said. “I’m a priest, not a witch.” When they came out of church the following Sunday and thanked me for arranging the good weather, I had fresh occa­sion to wonder whether my priesthood was mine to define at all. It was not “my” priesthood, of course. It was Christ’s priesthood, in which the church allowed me to participate, but there were days when I wondered what Jesus would have done if he had been called upon to recognize graduating seniors in church, prepare an annual report for the bishop, or speak for fifteen minutes over chicken-fried steak to the Rotary Club. In his absence, I was called upon to do so many things that seemed to have nothing to do with the worship of God that I began to envy specialists like my father the psychotherapist, who could say things such as, “I’m sorry, but our time is up now,” or “I wish I could help you, but my client load is full.” On my worst nights I lay in bed feeling like a single parent, unable to sleep because I knew I did not have enough love in me to go around. God was the boundless lover, but for many people God was the parent who had left….

 And Jesus, in this view of him, didn’t help much either: When he tried to withdraw from these people, they followed him. When they tried to eat him up, he did not resist. “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you,” he said, holding out a loaf of challah to them. Like a single mother, he fed his spiritual offspring from his own flesh and blood until all of his reserves were gone. Then he died, and, though he rose from the dead three days later, this was quite an act to follow….To follow his example meant skipping meals in order to tend the people lined up at the door. It meant abandoning your plans to get away and rest for a while when you saw how many people had followed you to your resting place. It meant giving to everyone who begged from you, going the extra mile, and handing your cloak to someone who had only asked you for your shirt. Didn’t Jesus get in trouble for doing things on the Sabbath that he was not supposed to do? I decided to take a rest from trying to be Jesus too. No, I won’t. No, not today. Today I will consent to be an extra in God’s drama, someone off to the side watching the scenery unfold with self-forgetfulness that is not available to me at center stage. Today I will bear the narcissistic wound of knowing that there are others who can say my lines when I am not there, in­cluding some who can say them better, and that while God may welcome my willingness to play a part, this show will go on with or without me, for as long as God has breath to bring more players to life. Today I will take a break from trying to save the world and enjoy my blessed swath of it instead.

 Like me, she had fallen in love with God via anglo-catholic worship: When I discovered Christ Episcopal Church my second year, a whole new sea opened up to me. I read the poetry of George Herbert and John Donne, along with everything Charles Williams ever wrote. I learned my way around the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, attending High Mass until I could sing the Nicene Creed in my sleep. For the first time in my life, I had found a church where the Divine Presence felt as strong to me inside as it did out­side. When I entered that sacred cave, I not only lost track of time, I also lost track of my self. From the moment the thu­rifer passed down the central aisle, swinging the censer in a cloud of sweet smoke, to the moment the organist lifted his fingers from the last chord, I became part of a body far larger than my self. As this body stood to sing, kneeled to pray, and stood again to declare its faith, I did my part without feeling apart. The feeling of communion was already so intense that I did not go forward for the bread and wine. I let the body go forward for me, while I sat there sensing God’s pleasure. Before Christ Church, I thought that worship was something people cooked up by themselves. At Christ Church, I discov­ered worship that took place inside God’s own heart. The di­vine pleasure was the pleasure of a mother with her baby at her breast.

 I wish more would reflect on this: At the communion rail, people knelt to let themselves be fed. First the priest bent toward them with the bread, then I bent toward them with the wine. They reached for the chalice as I moved it toward their lips. When our hands met on the silver cup, there was a charged moment in which we became one body, less in theory than in fact. While I remained aware that it was Bill or Ann or a perfect stranger before me, I could not summon up any of the feelings that might have accompa­nied that identification in the fellowship hall or the grocery store. The recognition took place at a deeper lever, where one fully exposed human being rested for a moment in the pres­ence of another.

Artifice did not stand a chance in that atmosphere, which was why I focused on people’s hands instead of their faces. An unguarded face is a deep well; you don’t go there casually, without ropes or lamps. So I practiced what some religious or­ders still call “custody of the eyes,” not only because eyes are portholes, but also because one does not gaze directly upon the Holy and live.

 She was also repelled by its holiness: I could not imagine myself in brocade vestments, taking a lead­ing role in the divine drama that I witnessed every Sunday. At what point did a person decide that he or she was holy enough to do something like that? Being a priest seemed only slightly less dicey to me than being chief engineer at a nuclear plant. In both cases, one needed to know how to approach great power without loosing great danger and getting fried in the process. All in all, I was happier in the pew.

 She also wondered why, if priests were supposed to equip the laity for ministry in secular, they themselves left the secular. Yes, she was told: being ordained is not about serving God perfectly but about serving God visibly.

 Yet, the call was there; it ‘sparked’ her: When I served communion, visited the sick, taught the youth, and sat with the elderly, I felt lit up inside.

 She was given good advice: “Think hard before you do this,” one said to me when I told him I wanted to be ordained. “Right now, you have the broad­est ministry imaginable. As a layperson, you can serve God no matter what you do for a living, and you can reach out to people who will never set foot inside a church. Once you are ordained, that is going to change. Every layer of responsibility you add is going to narrow your ministry, so think hard before you choose a smaller box.”

 And she describes the literalness of the ‘weight of the calling: With my eyes closed and my heart hammering, I felt hands lighting on my head, my shoulders, and my back. At first their weight was comforting, like the weight of a winter quilt. I felt energy pouring into me until my skin went all prickly and my face got hot. Then more hands piled on, and my neck began to hurt. Some of the hands felt wobbly, as if people were leaning in to reach me and were losing their balance in the process. I tried to straighten my back so that I could push back, but it was too late. There was no room left for me to raise myself even a little under that great weight of hands. The singing had stopped. We had entered the period of silent prayer before the bishop said the prayer of consecration out loud, but I was not feeling prayerful. I was feeling panicky, wondering if I could make it through to the end without standing up and pushing all those hands away from me. Why hadn’t anyone warned me that the hands would be so heavy? Please, please, please, I prayed, while the entire weight of heaven and earth pressed down on my head. I was getting exactly what I wanted, but I had not realized how much it was going to hurt.

 Some accuse her of being ‘new age’. That’s because they don’t know the orthodox tradition: Later I would find the Celtic theology that went with the experience, in which God’s “big book” of creation is revered alongside God’s “little book” of sacred scripture.

 She shares my experience of silence: Every now and then I would forget to eat breakfast so that the loudest of all these sounds was the gaseous racket of my stomach. This may be the real reason many of us fear silence in church—because anyone sitting near us may hear the hissing, rumbling, wheezing sounds of a living human being, which do not match up with the attractive countenances that we work so hard to present to one another. Since these are the sounds of being human, I even learned to love hearing them while sit­ting quietly in church. For real hunger, for twisted guts, and for our in­ability to conceal them, let us pray to the Lord.

 She shares the paranoia of many in ministry: For one thing, I was sleeping less instead of more. If a bark­ing dog woke me up in the middle of the night, I would lie there for hours while every demon in the neighborhood came to play on my bed. I imagined being fired. I imagined losing my mind. I imagined discovering that the ache in my back was really a cancer that was eating my bones. After my second cup of tea the next morning, I usually recognized such fears as finding imaginative ways to be released from out the burden of making a choice.

 Like many of us, she despairs of creeping fundamentalism: the poets began drifting away from churches as the jurists grew louder and more insistent

 I wish she had always done this earlier: I quit answering the telephone on my days off.

 She was too much of a perfectionist: Even Sundays began to shut down on me. When the bap­tismal covenant was part of the service, I could feel myself stiffen as I approached the fourth question.

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons,” I asked the congregation, “loving your neighbor as yourself?” In unison they read the answer printed in the Book of Common Prayer. “I will, with God’s help,” they responded faithfully, while I stifled my protest. All persons? How could I possibly seek and serve Christ in all persons? Did the author of that response have any idea how many hungry, needy, angry manipulative, deeply ill people I saw in the course of a week? I knew that I could treat most of them with courtesy and care. I could offer the rest a fair hearing. I could even take a stab at mediating God’s love to them, but the idea of opening myself to every one of them as I opened myself to Christ had become out of the question….. Having tried as hard as I knew how to seek and serve Christ in all persons, I knew for sure that I could not do it. I was not even sure that I wanted to do it anymore, and I felt increas­ingly deceitful saying that I would. Feeding people was no longer feeding me….. The folders went on and on, convicting me by their sheer numbers of the sin of omnicompetence. Who could be good at so many different things? What had driven me to try? Accord­ing to a vocational test I once took, I would have made an excellent accountant or research librarian, both specialized vo­cations that might have allowed me to focus on doing one thing well. Instead I became a generalist, with a whole file cab­inet full of things that would never get done no matter how many hours I spent on them….. By my rules, caring for troubled people always took precedence over enjoying delight­ful people, and the line of troubled people never ended…. My quest to serve God in the church had exhausted my spiritual savings. My dedication to being good had cost me a fortune in being whole. My desire to do all things well had kept me from doing the one thing within my power to do, which was to dis­cover what it meant to be fully human….. Like every other clergyperson I knew, I believed I had no al­ternative. Taking a full day off was so inconceivable that I made up reasons why it was not possible. If I stopped for a whole day, there would be no more weekend weddings at Grace-Calvary or someone else would have to do them. Sick people would languish in the hospital and begin to question their faith. Parishioners would start a rumor that I was not a real shepherd but only a hired hand. If I stopped for a whole day, my animals would starve, my house would grow mold, weeds would take over my garden, and my credit rating would collapse. If I stopped for a whole day, God would be sorely disappointed in me.

 When she decided to quit, she worried about her assistant, who would also have to leave. I am surprised that this still happens. In the Church of England, a new vicar is expected to work with the team that s/he inherits unless there is an extreme incompatibility.

 Like many of us, she keeps card full of useful quotations and stories which might, one day, be useful for sermons: As I prepared to leave Grace-Calvary Church, these cards had my fingerprints all over them, but there was one card I did not have to look up because I knew the words on it by heart. The quotation came from Walter Brueggemann, prolific scholar of the Hebrew Bible. “The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you,” he said, “by the grace of God.”

 It can be very difficult to get out of circular arguments and into a different paradigm: “The church answered all my questions while I was growing up, but they also gave me the questions I could ask.”… Having left the house for the first time in twenty years, I did what most grown children do. I left the yard. I asked lots of questions. I sought out the grown children my mother had taught me not to play with, and in every case I learned that she had not told me the whole truth. While the world was an often frightening place, there was also a great deal of goodness in it. I met people of other faiths and of no faith at all who were doing more “to do justice, and to love kindness” than many of us who know where to find that verse in the Bible. I listened to the sto­ries they told about how badly they had been treated by Chris­tians like me. I read books that had never shown up on any seminary reading list, which raised keen questions about the origins of Christianity and the veracity of scripture that I had never heard anyone address in church….. If I developed a complaint dur­ing my time in the wilderness, it was that Mother Church lav­ished so much more attention on those at the center than on those at the edge.

 This is my ideal form of silent-ish retreat: Socializing with other residents was forbid­den until cocktail hour each day. The rest of the time I was ex­pected to write.

 Some of us have been saying this for years and I wonder why it took her long to come round to saying: If churches saw their mission in the same way, there is no telling what might happen. What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?

 Also, priests remain deacons yet she thinks priesthood somehow erases the diaconate: Perhaps I should have remained a deacon and never become a priest, but it is too late

 I am glad that she has found teaching to be ministry. I always eschewed ordination because it would remove me from this ministry which, as she says, deals with an age group rarely touched by clergy and rarely found in churches. She reckons that clergy normally spend too much time with the lay leadership in church and not enough time with outsiders. Well, I am glad to say that I hardly ever see my parish priest. The ninety-nine sheep are supposed to look after themselves while the lost sheep is sought out.

LC2 Quotations

 “… a great deal of Christian theology began as a stammering response to something that had actually happened in the world. Because Jesus dies instead of ushering in the messianic age, Paul responded with a doctrine of atonement. Because the risen Christ struck his followers as very close kin to God, the early church responded with a doctrine of the Trinity. Because Christians did not turn out to be much better behaved than anyone else, Augustine responded with a doctrine of Original sin.” (p. 108)

 “I will keep the Bible, which remains the Word of God for me, but always the Word as heard by generations of human beings as flawed as I. As beautifully as these witnesses write, their divine inspiration can never be separated from their ardent desires; their genuine wish to serve God cannot be divorced from their self-interest. That God should use such blemished creatures to communicate God’s reality so well makes the Bible its own kind of miracle, but I hope never to put the book ahead of the people whom the book calls me to love and serve.” (p. 216)

 I notice whenever people claim to solve their conflicts with one another by turning to the Bible: defending the dried ink marks on the page becomes more vital than defending the neighbor. As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God. In the words of Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas, “People of the Book risk putting the book above people.”…. I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conver­sion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith. In practice, this means that my faith is far more relational than doctrinal. Although I am guilty of reading scripture as selectively as anyone, my reading persuades me that God is found in right relationships, not in right ideas…

 I will keep the Bible as a field guide, which was never in­tended to be a substitute for the field.

 “heroic image of myself [and] a huge appetite for approval.”

 “Who did I think I was? More to the point, who would other people think I was once I put these things on?” (p. 21)

 “When it came time to decide what to do with my life, I decided to go to seminary. What else do you do when you are in love with God?” (pp. 27-8)

 “When I wake up in the morning,” E. B. White said, “I can’t decide whether to enjoy the world or improve the world; that makes it difficult to plan the day.”

 “My role and my soul were eating each other alive,” she writes. In addition to describing her personal issues that contributed to her crisis, Taylor also reflects on the church as an institution. Here too we discover familiar if frustrating experiences. While Jesus prayed for a kingdom of God, what we got was an imperfect church. The church guards its “center” and often persecutes those on the “edges.” Rigid belief enforced by “jurists” marginalizes the “poets” who would rather “behold.”

 “…Cleto took Ed to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where a Lakota Sun Dance chief named Elmer Running took everything away from Ed but one wool blanket and sat him out on a hill to pray for two days without food or water. When I met Ed at the Atlanta airport, I had a hard time recognizing him. He had shaved his beard for one thing. His eyes were like small suns in the middle of his sun burned face… On the way home he said many things, but the one that stuck with me was, ‘You make church too easy.’… Ed was deeply involved in Lakota ways. Since these are the ways of prayer, he was able to remain Episcopal as well, or perhaps I should say that he was only able to remain Episcopal because of these ways, which offered him concrete means of practising his faith that teaching Sunday school and singing in the choir did not.”

 “No one complained about the hymns. I did not sweat the sermon. The best part was the silence.” (p. 138)

“Whatever changes were occurring inside of me, I still looked waterproof to them,”

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