At the dawn of the millennium, when ministers with websites were cutting edge, I learned a wee bit of html code and built a site to share worship related writings. The site has grown over the years and the traffic also. For the last few years I’ve been aware that the site needs a pretty significant overhaul but to do so would be a major project and I didn’t have time. Now with the gift of time, I started puttering on the project this week, assessing the options in order to make a plan. But as I stare at the words gathered in phrases for public recitation, I feel a pause.
These early post-church days provide time and mental space to attend this long awaited project, and letters from literally around the world bear witness to some value in the endeavor, but for the first time I realize that I’m not sure if a post-church writer can authentically share worship words. I can rearrange the words already present, clean the site and allow others to use what is helpful, but as I stare at phrases like “in our church, we” I realize that the site was a public window on a working minister’s process. As such a window, it is no longer relevant.
Too I realize that I have ambivalence about the worship project in general. To be sure, I have cherished much about worship; I enjoy sitting with friends in song and poetry feeling the presence of the sacred. But the institutions that foster these gatherings are, in my experience, fundamentally flawed.
We are all too familiar, and perhaps have become unwittingly accustomed to, the big problems of religion. Organized religion has a sordid past and morally ambiguous present. Constantine’s Sword is a book that achieved some popular success a decade ago, detailing the bitter legacy of the church’s abuses. The scandal of the pedophile priests is the systematic way that the institution has aided and abetted the perpetrators perhaps without malice but certainly with culpability. The homophobic legislation in Uganda that rallies the world against this already struggling nation is all the more tragic when we dare to face the rhetoric trail; a small group of well financed American Christians exporting their hate. Religion is not a cause of the wars that ravage our world, but it is a potent tool for naming and shaping the hatred we would want to perpetrate.
Yet this is not why I leave church. For many years I have worked to create a religious community that was aware of and willing to stand over against these blatant and pernicious misuses of religious ideation. And it was very good. Had I never learned to pray, to be at one with the source of life itself, I suppose my path might not have diverged. For it was as I began to learn the gift of silence, to wait patiently for the still small voice, to recognize beauty in the yellow leaf of late October, that I began to recognize the deeper challenge for the church. The church is a veil through which we experience the sacred, a veil that perhaps draws attention but always secures distance.
Religious institutions create a parallel universe of imagery and sensory input that, while fostering immediate experiences that portend mystery, in actuality these experiences simultaneously deny the presence of that same mystery in the ordinariness of our lives. By suggesting that God is alive in the hymns we sing, we draw attention away from that same presence in the bird songs. By proclaiming God’s Word in a bible verse or sermon, we imply a hierarchy in which the sacred message of the seasons is preempted. As we produce experiences with God in segregated buildings using ritualized patterns on a particular day of the week, directly and indirectly we communicate the message that God has left our lives and has taken refuge in the church. And nothing could be further from the truth.
To be sure, in these early post-church days I am lonely. For literally all of my adult life my social circle has been my church community. To be honest, I have no idea how to create a social life apart from the one that presents itself in religious community. In fact this role of religious community is what the church that I served marketed, a place of belonging. As I think about the crowd that gathered to share a last sermon with me last week, I realize that there is possibility in creating spiritual communities that are post-institutional. The felt need that gathered the disparate group into community is real and deserves to be tended.
And perhaps this is worthy in and of itself. Certainly like an alcoholic in the first days of white knuckling sobriety I find myself church shopping in my head, reaching for the community experienced by those who gathered in Sunday’s pews. But my decision to leave the church isn’t about a particular church. To be sure the drama was plentiful in the last year of my ministry and no doubt hastened my departure; but also true is that the drama revealed the deeper truth that I feel called away from the institution.
So what of the prayers, litanies and rituals that I have penned over the years? As I walk away from their context, do I take them with me or is it time to also let go of this aspect of my ministry? Even as I feel the answer coalescing, I realize that I am not yet ready for this act of letting go. Daring to trust the mystery beyond my knowing, I simply acknowledge the awkwardness that I feel, write about the experience, and move on with my day. Today is enough for today.