On being lost, and found.

It is really fascinating to see different people’s reactions to when they hear why I don’t go to my old church any more. Every now and then members of that church come into the library where I work. Sometimes they ask why they don’t see me anymore. Sometimes they don’t ask and I tell them anyway.

I’ve pared down the story to what is essentially an elevator speech. It is short and to the point. I explain how the church experience that we are being served doesn’t match up with the Church that Jesus came to create. That it isn’t about us giving all of our tithe money to support a building but the Body of Christ. And that Body isn’t just the church members but everybody. I point out that Jesus didn’t tell us to have ministers or a division of lay and ordained.

It is interesting to note the reactions. Some people start to turn away from me, to actually try to leave. I think they feel threatened by my ideas. An alarm clock is certainly threatening to people who are asleep.

I would have had the same reaction to anyone saying what I’m saying about five years ago. How dare you attack my church?

But now I think about what church is, really. Who are we serving? Who are we following?

One person I talked to said that the church is being run like a business. He said that the former priest did the same thing. And yet he still goes. He said his wife refuses to go to that particular church because of the priest who is there. I’ve met others with the same sentiment.

But it isn’t the minister. It is the whole idea. We are doing it wrong.

The minister is being duped too. She’s bought into the system. She has the most to lose, so her ego is tied to it.

And sometimes I find a sympathetic ear. Sometimes I find another rebel. Sometimes I find someone who feels the same way and is also searching, also feels that something is wrong. Sometimes they tell me that they are going to other churches. They are shopping around.

They haven’t yet realized like I have that the problem is bigger than that minister or that parish.

We have to strip the whole thing down and start all over again. We can’t fix it from the inside. I tried that. I was viewed as crazy. I still am by many of those who still go to that church. Declaring someone as crazy is the fastest way to discredit someone, after all. It is the fastest way to silence someone.

I’ve not gone silent. I’ve just gone away. And in leaving I’ve found a large community of people who are just the same as me. They love Jesus, but they weren’t finding him in the church. We can’t all be crazy. Perhaps there is something more going on. Perhaps we are the only sane ones. Perhaps it is just like with “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – perhaps we are the only ones who are seeing things the way they really are.

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Ashes to Ashes

I was looking around for a church that did Ash Wednesday services. It is coming up. I go into work in the afternoon that day, so I need one that is early enough that it won’t affect my schedule. I can’t go to an evening service because I’m closing that day.

I looked around and there are very few options nearby. Not every church has an Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes service, so I’m already limited there. I could go to the nearby Catholic church, but I’d have to fake being Catholic. While that is easy to do from my many years of Episcopal worship, I resent that I’d have to. I resent the whole idea of exclusion in church. Jesus didn’t make any such rules.

Jesus wasn’t Catholic. Jesus wasn’t a member of any denomination. Any denomination that says they have a lock on the Word hasn’t read it right. Any denomination that says only members can participate hasn’t gotten the message that we are all members of the same Body. There aren’t any limits. We are all in.

I could go to an Episcopal service at another church. I’m not stepping foot inside the one I used to go to. But even if I did go to another parish, I feel that it would get back to the priest at my former parish. I don’t feel like giving her the satisfaction of feeling like I’ve caved in.

Then I thought I could go to a Lutheran or Methodist church, but by this point I realized something. I really just don’t like the idea church as it exists right now. I don’t like that it seems more social club than social justice. I don’t like the idea of the division of lay and ordained. I reject that whole idea as not being of Jesus.

Then I thought that I could do this myself, at home. I’ve got the palms from Palm Sunday from last year. I could burn them on Shrove Tuesday (which is also Mardi Gras). This is what is traditionally done. The very same palms that we waved to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday are kept for a year. They are dry and brittle by that point – and perfect for burning. They are burned in a fire and the ashes are sifted and mixed with a little anointing oil. It is then applied to the forehead with the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Easy. I can do this. I have all the ingredients.

And then I really woke up. What am I trying to do? What do I expect to gain from this?

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. It is the beginning of forty days of penance and sacrifice. It is in memory of the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the Devil. During all that time he gave up eating and drinking. During this time, many liturgical Christians traditionally just give up meat, at least on Fridays. Some go all the way and give up oil and eggs and a slew of other things in addition to meat, for the whole time.

Some people give up more than that. Some people will give up drinking, or chocolate, or playing video games. The idea is to give up something that you like. The idea is to then make space for something that you’ve not made space for. The idea is to make space for Jesus.

In Lent, we give up so we can take on. In Lent, we gain far more than we give up.

But the unspoken message of it is sacrifice, and in a way, that we are being punished. The unspoken message is that we aren’t worthy of God’s love unless we give up something. The unspoken message is that God has to be appeased in order for us to get anywhere, or anything.

And that isn’t the message of Jesus.

So I’m skipping Ash Wednesday. I’m skipping Lent. I’m skipping the whole idea of it, because the message of Jesus isn’t about making myself lesser than what I am in order to be considered worthy.

Jesus says I’m worthy just like I am, and that is good enough for me.

Crumbs

I’m amused/perplexed/concerned by the thing that my old church did after communion. All heavily liturgical churches do this.

Anything that was consecrated had to be consumed, locked away, or specially disposed of. Drops of wine and specks of communion wafers had to be dealt with.

After everybody had taken communion, the chalice bearers would do a little pre-cleaning while still at the altar. At this church they did it with their backs to everybody, in part to not be in the way of the priest and the crucifer who took on a quasi-deacon role. Of course, it didn’t matter that their backs were to everybody. They were standing at least 20 feet away from the first pew, and nobody sits in the first pew anyway. So it wasn’t like what we were doing was secret, but in a way it was.

Yes. I said we. I was one of them. I became a chalice bearer in part because I wanted to know what was going on up there. I love ritual. I love symbolism. And I love being on the inside of things. For some things you have to be “in” to get all the layers of meaning.

Plus, they were chronically short on chalice bearers. I was grateful to have the opportunity to learn as much as I did so early in my membership. It was so big at my old church in Chattanooga that there was no way I could have made a place for myself up at the altar. They were full up on helpers.

But I should have thought about the fact that they had so few people who were able or willing to do that task at this church. I feel it speaks to a certain lack of activity, or a certain fear of it.

Plenty people don’t feel “worthy” to be a chalice bearer. Some don’t even feel worthy enough to touch the chalice to help the chalice bearer guide it to their lips so they don’t get wine spilled on them. Some don’t even feel worthy enough to take communion at all. This is worth a whole post on its own.

But some don’t even want to participate, not really. They want to show up and get a sticker for being there and go home. They’ve done their duty for the week.

Back to the clean up part. The chalice bearers drink whatever is left of the wine in their chalices. Then they pour a little water in the chalice and a little water on the paten (the plate for the wafers). They swish it around to catch any crumbs. Then they pour the water from the paten into the chalice, swirl it around, and drink it too. They will use their linen napkins (called purificators) to wipe up anything left and put them in the chalice.

There is a special order to how the whole assembly is put together to be put back on the shelf for the altar guild.

The next place it goes is to the piscina.

The piscina is a special place that the communion ware goes after the chalice bearers are done with their bit. It is a special sink that is not connected to the sewer system. The drain goes directly to the ground. This way no unintentional bits of consecrated elements go into the sewer system.

To me, this seems all a bit excessive. Even if a crumb is dropped, it has to be eaten or disposed of outside on the ground. It can’t be vacuumed up. It can’t be stepped on and ground into the carpet.

Funny how the ministers care so much about the crumbs and they miss the people who are leaving.

I’m still a bit angry about the fact that I’ve been gone from that church for almost a year now and it was as if I never went. I went almost every Sunday for three years. I was up front serving, as a chalice bearer, a lector, or an acolyte – or all three, for the majority of that time. I wasn’t just a pew warmer. I was up and working. I was visible. My name was in the order of service. Because I was part of the deacon discernment process I was even being prayed for by name as part of the Prayers of the People.

But none of that means anything. I left, and it is just like I went off the radar and nobody noticed. I’ve seen a few people from that church in the library or at the Y and they act like nothing has happened. It is all very weird. It makes me think that I made the right decision – that they were all asleep all along.

Sure, some are awake and present. Some asked what was going on. Some took the time to listen to my concerns. But not nearly the amount I would expect, given my activity level. Surely some of them would wonder if I was OK. Surely some of them would call or email to see if I was sick, or hurt. The fact that a handful of people cared enough to talk with me about why I left just lets me know I was in the wrong place all along.

I feel like I wasted three years of my life. And I’m wary of committing to another church organization, of any form. I’m wary of getting sucked in only to get spit out all over again.

I’m wary of finding out once again that the crumbs are more important than the people.

Recovering church member.

Christians in recovery aren’t like recovering alcoholics. We are more like food addicts. We can’t do without food. We just need a healthy relationship with it.

When you are a recovering alcoholic you have to learn to live your life without alcohol. But you can’t live without food. You have to relearn how to eat. The trick is to learn what is a healthy relationship with food and what isn’t. The trick is to set up boundaries.

In the same way as food addicts, people who have been hurt by mainstream church (by the current definition of what “church” means) are renegotiating this relationship. They can do without the top-down leadership, the politics, and the obsession with money that comes with church as it is currently defined.

When we have had an unhealthy relationship with church, we have to renegotiate the deal. We often try to stay away from church. Sometimes we go back but to a different denomination and we find we are welcomed. Sometimes we find that welcome is short lived and we discover the same bad processes and unhealthy ways of thinking that plagued our old churches. Sometimes we start to think that the whole idea of Christianity is wrong, and we stay away from anything associated with the idea.

The only problem is that the thing that drew us to church, and the thing that got us to leave is the same thing. It is Jesus in both cases. Those of us who leave church don’t do it because we don’t love Jesus. We do. We just weren’t finding him in church, or at least any modern definition of it.

As for me, I wasn’t finding him in the activities that the church sponsored. I wasn’t finding him in the book clubs that featured books that had nothing to do with how to be a better Christian. I wasn’t finding him in the margarita karaoke evenings. I wasn’t finding him in the Bunco gatherings that were held in the parish hall. And I certainly wasn’t finding him in a minister who told me to stop talking about how God was and is interacting with my life.

I left church, but I couldn’t leave Jesus. The only problem is in trying to figure out how to have one without the other. Just like with food addiction, I need Jesus in order to live. I just can’t handle all the extras that have been added on top of him.

So much was put on my plate when I’d go to church that Jesus became the side dish instead of the main course. There were so many garnishes and condiments and appetizers and desserts that I couldn’t see him at all. When I left church and left all of that, I missed him, and I got hungry for him all over again.

I think this is true of many people I’m meeting. We love Jesus. We just don’t love how he’s been served to us.

Just like a food addict, we need to strip it all down to the basics and start from scratch. We need to reevaluate our relationship. We need to set up healthy boundaries. We need to figure out what we need and what makes us feel ill.

For me, one of the big things is that the group not have a permanent building. Jesus didn’t build a church with bricks, but with bodies. The church is the people, not the place. The more money that is spent on a church building, the less that is spent on helping people who need it.

Another thing is there needs to be no one minister. We are all ministers, by virtue of our baptism and our acceptance of Jesus into our lives. To have only one person sharing their story, and only one person making the decisions, is to take away the God-given power, voice, and ability that we all have.

So while I really like the gatherings that I’ve been going to, I’m still missing Jesus in them. I think we’ve all gotten so afraid of how we were treated at church that we’ve just dumped everything and been feeling it out. We are reassembling the jigsaw puzzle but without the picture on the box, and we are leaving out all the bits that we are afraid of.

While I like that the meetings are in friend’s homes and we all get to share our stories openly and honestly, I feel that we are missing something really important. We forget to invite Jesus to our circle. We don’t talk about him. We don’t have communion. Well, not openly. Tea and cookies can count, but it has to be intentional for it to count.

I think we feel that because we don’t talk about Jesus, because we don’t invite him to our circle, that we aren’t going to get hurt like we did the last time we were in a place that mentioned Jesus. And we might. We might get hurt because whenever we gather with other people, we gather with other people’s problems. I also think that we still need to try. Just like renegotiating a relationship with food, I think we need to renegotiate a relationship with Jesus. I think we need to invite him in, to help heal that brokenness and that hurt. I think if we don’t, then we will start to feel more and more empty.

Church refugee. On circle, and communion.

I’ve met so many refugees from church recently. We are starting to find each other. We are all people who went to church for many years because we love Jesus. We left church because we weren’t finding him there.

So many of us feel hurt by church. We were made fun of or silenced. We were mocked for our gifts and talents. It seems that all we were wanted for was our money. We were expected to sit down and shut up and listen to the minister and pay our tithes and then go home and be equally passive. If we read the Bible for ourselves and asked questions we were discouraged. We knew in our hearts that this wasn’t right. We knew that God wanted more of us.

We tried to make it work in church. We volunteered for more activities. We were on committees. We were in several different groups. We were active. We were the first at the church and the last to leave on Sunday morning.

But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough for us, and it wasn’t enough for God. We were trying to make it work.

So we left. Some of us left the churches we’d put a lot of time and money into. Some of us left the churches that we were raised in, that our families still go to.

Several of us have found each other in a circle gathering. We share time together, and we are honest and open. Each person gets to talk, and every person listens. This is so different from church as we know it.

But for me, there is one thing missing. We don’t invite Jesus into it.

This isn’t an interfaith gathering. We are refugees from church, remember? We are people who left church because we couldn’t find Jesus there. While many of us think that Buddha and Rumi are enlightened beings and we like to share their quotes, we are still afraid in these gatherings to invite Jesus into it.

Why is this? Have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater? Are we afraid to bring Jesus into our circle because we associate Jesus with the people we left? If people are hateful, they don’t have Jesus. If there is love, then Jesus is there. If there was love at our last church, we would have stayed.

We left because we felt undervalued, underappreciated. We left because we were silenced. We left because we knew that the car that is church was going off the road and to stay in it would have meant we were going to go off the cliff with it. We left because we’d rather walk towards what is right than go quickly towards what isn’t.

So while we are reevaluating what church is, what community is, we aren’t taking the Guide along with us. We aren’t inviting Jesus into our circle, into our hearts.

I’m considering hosting my own circle, and I want to have communion. From all I’ve read of the words of Jesus and from my personal prayer time I’ve realized that you don’t have to be ordained to do this. That is yet another method of controlling people. Jesus didn’t create the institution of priests. Jesus did away with all of that and gave the power to everybody, with no distinctions. Jesus made us all equal.

I’m learning more and more about Judaism, and it is amazing how diluted the Christian communion service is. It is simply a Sabbath meal at the dinner table. It has been boiled down to the bread and the wine. There are two candlesticks as well. The chalice and the paten are the Kiddush cup and the saucer. It is like Christians are playing house. The congregation doesn’t know about the Jewish roots of this ritual.

I’m thinking about making it as inclusive as possible – having kosher grape juice and gluten-free matzo. While I’d love to serve actual wine, it isn’t fair to exclude those people who are in recovery. While I’d love to serve challah, the bread that is served at the Sabbath meal, it isn’t fair to those who are gluten intolerant. And while some churches will have a separate line for those people who are gluten intolerant, and tell those in recovery to let the cup pass them by – that isn’t fair. We all need to share the same bread and wine. When you exclude someone, you are saying they aren’t the same. When someone has to exclude themselves for health reasons, they are making themselves stick out. If the elements of the meal are safe for everybody, then everybody is welcome and everybody is equal.

And that is really important.

Dream of Fields

I had a dream the other night that didn’t mean anything at the time but now feels relevant.

I was driving on a freeway and got off. I parked in a field, newly sown with seeds. There were hundreds of thousands of seeds. The land soupy, even bog-like, with them. I laboriously slogged through the field. The excess of seeds kept slowing me down.

After I had gone far enough from my car that I couldn’t see it because of the trees in the field and a bend in the land, I noticed that the field had an end. I saw a guardrail and the freeway again. It wasn’t an endless field.

I turned around to get back to my car. When I came back to it I saw that there were other people who had followed my un-beaten path and had also parked in the field. They had followed me, but they weren’t doing what I was doing. They weren’t walking in the furrows or studying the unusual amounts of seeds. They were taking pictures of the field, like it was a tourist attraction or a historical landmark.

I was a bit disgusted with them. They didn’t get anything about the field.

And how is this not different from my path?

I’ve left the road of church as usual. I’ve gotten off the path and found a field of green seeds. There is so much life and growth and vibrancy here that I am getting bogged down by it all. There are so many ideas for posts to write that I get overwhelmed at times with where to start.

I hope that my posts are helpful. I hope that they have spoken to fellow travelers. I hope that they have provided encouragement or enlightenment. I hope that they have shown a way out or a way in.

The last thing I would want is for anybody to follow me off the road and then treat it like it is a game or a show. It isn’t. It is hard work. It is like growing your own food or building your own house. There are some books offering suggestions but they can’t really show you exactly what to do.

By definition, they can’t.

Nobody can give you a blueprint for your life. It is your life and yours alone and they can’t really know what you need to make it work. They can offer advice from the sidelines, but they can’t play the game for you. They have a different perspective from seeing things from the side, but they can’t see it the way you are seeing it.

So I want people to read my words and get them, sure. I feel that I have useful things to say. I feel that they can help people get out of ruts or avoid falling into them in the first place. But I don’t want to be followed or iconized.

I want people to pull off their own roads and find their own fields and wander around them for a while. I want them to be inspired by my journey to take their own. I want them to question everything. I want them to be awake and conscious and intentional about life.

It all goes to fast to spend it in someone else’s field.

Poem – Stone (predictive text)

So it seems like we are
sent to be the ones.
So what now?

They don’t want to do it.
This may sound strange.
There are many different churches
that I have been deceived by.

Then the lights came up.

On to the shelter
our bodies house

Now I’m adrift in the middle.
Note that I am sure how to do it
no matter how.

Everything else is extra.

————————————————————————————————–
I’ve started a new thing with my predictive text poems. The Kindle offers words all the time while I write. It thinks it knows what I want to write even if I’ve just put down one letter. It is kind of like that annoying friend who won’t let you finish your sentences. I decided to let it help me write poems. Previously I’d just go with the flow and let it offer whatever it wanted. At a certain point it bogs down and starts only giving me two or three letter words. This is after the first word in a sentence. Most of the words aren’t nouns or verbs either, so this gets old really fast.

I decided to start poems with a theme or a trick. I’ll pick a word, and start each section with one letter of the word. When I put the first letter down, the Kindle offers me about ten words that start with that letter and I’ll pick whichever one seems the best at the time. It is kind of random, and kind of by feel. I have input – but I can only pick the words that are there. At the end of each line, reuse the letter until I have gotten to an ending point. Then go on to the next letter as the next section. I’m trying to pick a word that has a resonance with me, and if I remember I’ll put an intention at the beginning, as a sort of prayer request. The resulting poem is either the answer to it or a further meditation on it.

I write what I can, then email it to myself and edit it on my real computer. The Kindle assumes every line starts with a capital letter, and sometimes the syntax is a little off so I have to tweak it. Sometimes in the middle of the poem I feel it has led me to a place where I need to say something that it isn’t giving me the words for and I’ll free write. But in general, when I call something a predictive text poem, the Kindle supplied around 90% of the words. I just harvested them.

I especially like the tension in this one in the line “On to the shelter/our bodies house” because is the shelter the house, or our bodies? Is the body a house? I think it points to the idea that we don’t need a church because we carry it with us. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We no longer need to go anywhere to find God – God is always with us. Actually, this has always been the way, it is just that now we are coming to see this. We have been mislead for so long in thinking that we didn’t have any power and we had to go to someone or somewhere else to find it.