This is the first Sunday morning after the hubbub of Christmas and I am beginning an extended vacation as my ministry winds to a close. The hope is that at the end of this month, I will return to active ministry for three months of closure. Although I deeply appreciate the grace that this month represents, I am keenly aware that the thought of returning to active duty in the church makes my insides lurch. As I sit in my bathrobe sipping coffee on a Sunday morning, I have zero desire to approach a pulpit.
Quite unexpectedly I found myself back in my professional role this past week when my beloved’s step-grandmother died. In a scenario that is becoming culturally normative, this loving and unchurched woman was surrounded by a thick web of family that had no religious connections and no clergy. When the funeral director offered to provide a rent-a-minister, they remembered “isn’t that woman that Paul’s daughter married a minister?” Both because I didn’t know the woman personally and because the family’s expectations about religious jargon were limited, it was an easy funeral to lead. I didn’t feel compelled to used dated metaphors that chafe or descriptors that felt disingenuine but I was nonetheless aware of the weight as I pulled the pieces together.
I debated about wearing a clergy robe for the service. I have a bunch of them, mostly unworn these days as I have gradually let go of the religious trappings of my profession. Approaching this funeral, I wondered though if the garb would carry a helpful authority. In the end, I opted for what has become my norm – nondescript black street clothes to draw attention away from self, making room for the spirit, focusing on presence and breath. As the stories emerged, the only religious tradition known to this woman and her family was a Baptist one and I was grateful that I’d opted out of my robe. Although her children spoke favorably about their mother’s childhood in the Baptist church, and she herself had asked that “The Old Rugged Cross” be played at her funeral, they quietly told the story of her leave-taking from the church. Grandma was a young mother with six children (two in diapers) when her husband left her the first time. Tragically, in a fit of orthodoxy, her church family advised her that “given the situation”, she and the kids should perhaps stay away. Hearing the story, I was all the more determined to offer a compassionate funeral for Grandma as I exit the institution.
We need rituals to mark our entrances and exits and perhaps even just as importantly our transitions. But to what extent do these rituals need to be the domain or expressions of religious institutions? Is it helpful for these rituals to use metaphors and language that is otherwise inconsistent with life experiences? In an increasingly non-religious culture, can we create traditions that do not rely on disconnected professionals to stand before us in times of transition?
Looking in the rearview mirror is familiar and important, but I find myself increasingly curious about what lies ahead. If not church, then what? This is of course a professional and employment question, but it is so much more. My social and spiritual life has grown out of the context of religious community, and I am curious about where and how I will grow without church.
On this first Sunday in this space in between, we are going to Quaker meeting. On the one hand I am aware and cautious that this too is religious community. I may be trading one religious tradition for another if I transition into the Society of Friends. On the other hand, Quakers are religiously unreligious. (I often think that Quakers are to religion what Unitarians are to Christianity.) Although I grew up with the fundamentalist wing of the Quakers (Evangelical Friends), I have always admired the “regular” Quakers from afar. The service and witness of the Quakers is remarkable and I was particularly moved when our local embodiment of resistance to the endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan emerged from the community of the St. Louis Society of Friends. Quakers demonstrate a commitment to egalitarian community, service, and simple living. Famous Quakers include not only President Nixon (ugh) but also Parker Palmer and Carrie Newcomer. Particularly significant to me is that Quakers (the “regular” kind anyway) order themselves without benefit of clergy.
This morning, as I drink my coffee and look forward to my first Meeting, I realize that I am nervous. The last time I visited a church as a potential church home (not as a candidate) was 29 years ago. In each place I’ve lived, I’ve been aware of the Quaker community but also aware that (as an ordained minister, making a living on the words of worship) the Quaker practice was out of reach. In order to embrace the simple spiritual practice, I would have to let go the professional comforts. Often I would lament, “were it not for job security, I would be a Quaker.” Whether or not this local Quaker community is the community with which my partner and I will nest is yet unknown, but what is clear to me as I sit with my coffee at the keyboard is that this morning jaunt is deeply significant. Like the shards of memories that emerged in my naming of my orientation as a woman-loving woman, I move through this morning aware that my path is offering colorful jagged edged pieces. This too is a calling nested deep within.
As I lie on the river bottom allowing the trappings of my life as a minister to wash over and away from me, I am aware that my spirit grows stronger.