Don’t just do something. Sit there.

Do something

There is so much pain in the world right now. So much anger, fear, injustice and violence. It is hard to open our eyes to another new day when more people are grieving, or suffering, or are in conflict with one another.

It is hard to feel helpless to solve the huge problems that seem to be bursting into public view and demanding that we pay attention to how they harm us: racism, discrimination, gun violence, deeply divided politics, to name a few. And they are not isolated, of course. Each of these issues is important on its own, and each is intertwined with so many others, and embedded in our deepest hopes and fears.

How do we help untangle what is happening, and also help lower the anxiety and grief around us, all the while managing our own?

Sometimes we are called to do nothing. Or maybe, what we are called to looks like something very small, but could have larger consequences. By which I mean:

Listen. This is so basic, and yet so hard to do. Really, really listen to those who are in fear, anger, grief and pain. Be present, even on social media, and instead of offering any response, just hear or read what they are saying and receive it. We don’t have to agree with what is said. We don’t have to take responsibility for it or change it. We can just really hear it, even if it is hard.

It seems to me that even when people are saying two opposite things, deep down their message is the same: ‘I am afraid. I am angry. I am losing hope.’ Really hearing this is doing something, and it can change us in and of itself.

Look. The person who is expressing the opinion that seems so outrageous to us right now is not our enemy, they are our brother or sister. This is what we believe if we are Christian, and if we are not, it is still a pretty good belief!

Sometimes our outrage can make us separate and label each other in ways that dehumanize. The simple act of saying, even silently to ourselves, ‘my beloved brother/sister’ before the name of someone who frightens or exasperates us with their thoughts helps to bring peace to a situation. Not only that, but it shows us our common humanity, and that no matter how different the other person seems, they have something to teach us. We are not ‘right’ and they are not ‘wrong’. Fundamentally, we are all the same and most of us want very similar things: peace, safety, love. Seeing each other this way is the first step to changing anything.

Trust. As a follower of Jesus, it is part of my belief system that it is all good news in the end. Sometimes things are changing, we just can’t see it at the moment. Or they are changing in ways we don’t like, but it doesn’t mean that everything is falling apart. Or maybe everything is falling apart, but it will still be ok. Yes, we do have to put an end to hatred and violence. But believing that the larger force of love will always have the last word is in fact working towards that goal.

To say we are not ‘doing’ anything is not to say that we do not care about the suffering around us. It is not to deny work that needs to be done reforming our society and caring for ourselves and our neighbors. And it is not saying there are not times when we are absolutely called to direct action.

And yet, we can also be careful not to re-act in our own pain and helplessness, and risk inadvertently bringing the same spirit of fear and divisiveness that we are hoping to dispel.

To listen, to look, to trust. To be present and to pray. These are active choices, too, even if they are not always apparent. And they represent a belief in something larger than we are, an acknowledgement that we do not have all the answers, that there are some problems too big for us to solve on our own. That the power of peace and reconciliation is larger than us all, and that is very good news.

Don’t just do something. Sit there. Listen. Look. Trust. Believe.

Sheer silence

Sheer silence

I am a priest and a blogger. I know I should be saying something about the horrific shooting that took place in Orlando this weekend. And yet, I am somehow unable to find the words.

There are the words that describe what has already been said, many times over: shock, disbelief, anguish, fear, sorrow. Anger, despondency, helplessness. Tears, prayers, solidarity, support.

And there are the words that I don’t want to have to say anymore: hatred, bigotry, division, suspicion. Politics, extremism, isolationism, threats. Violence. Automatic weapons. The number of dead.

There are the words that generally help me get through times like these, but are not having the same effect this time: love, forgiveness, peace. Faith. Gentleness and kindness and hope.

I find instead, to my own dismay, that the only word that actually comes to me right now is: numb.

I don’t know how to help. I don’t know what will make things better. I don’t even know how to frame a sentence that would capture all the words that this dark event explodes into. How to try and make the world make sense again. Again.

How to try and not become immune to the pain. And not become immersed in the pain. How to find the words necessary to stay present without somehow normalizing the wars which now seem to be waged everywhere. Anytime.

‘… after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.’

Elijah retreats to a cave when Jezebel threatens his life, and he is ready to give up. ‘Just kill me now and get it over with,’ he says to God. But God says something else. In the silence, God says, ‘Get up, and return to life. And trust me.’ Not every message is in our words; not every message has words.

Sheer silence is not always indifference. Sometimes it is God taking a breath.

Not that strong

Strong

“You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Supposedly, Christopher Robin  said this to Winnie the Pooh, but I don’t believe everything the Internet says – do not even get me started on St. Francis and ‘preach the Gospel at all times…’, something he never said, despite how many times it’s quoted! Also, it may just be a false statement. My recollection of reading Pooh’s wonderful adventures leads me to conclude that however much his friend loved him, Pooh was not all that smart. Or strong. Or brave.

And neither am I.

This is not false modesty, or lack of belief. I am definitely not smarter than I think I am, because my problem is that I think I am smarter than most people! I do not doubt my intelligence, but I am occasionally chagrined into admitting that it is not boundless. So there’s that.

I am also not stronger than I seem. Again, I think I am pretty strong. When I first met my husband, he was moving, and I gamely offered to help. One of the last things left in the apartment was a giant TV – not a flat screen, but one of those from the 90s with the full mechanics inside of it, and it weighed a ton. We were carrying it down three flights of stairs and over to the dumpster to be taken away. Of course I thought I was strong enough to hold up my end! Was I? Not by a long shot. My wrist still hurts from where I was sure I broke it while I sagged under the weight, crying.

And brave? Well, not so much. Here I don’t overestimate my abilities; I am staunchly realistic. I just got back from driving to Houston and back again to North Carolina – over 1,200 miles each way, that was at times pretty harrowing. All because flying makes me panic. And it is not just air travel – I am easily side-tracked into worry and anxiety over just about anything: every strange pain makes me Google cancer symptoms; every time my husband goes for a bike ride I think of distracted drivers; when small things look difficult I think it’s disaster. I am not the least bit brave.

Most of my outward positive characteristics are undergirded by all manner of frailty, and that’s the truth. I think Winnie the Pooh would agree!

But I really don’t feel the need to be stronger, or braver, or smarter. I’m ok with where I am, just trying to be faithful. ‘Be not afraid,’ Jesus says, again and again, throughout the Gospels. And in this I do not hear an admonishment of my anxious ways, I feel an invitation into a strength I know is there but will probably never possess myself. I am afraid, but I don’t need to be – the love of God is stronger than anything, even death, and I believe that. Strangely, it doesn’t make me less afraid, but it does make it all ok.

Sometimes it seems like we are overwhelmed with people trying to get us to improve ourselves. I get it – I do get on board with being healthier or more fit or more productive. But underneath all of this can be a very subtle ‘or else’, way deep down in our reasoning. Because if we are not getting better – being better – than we were before, maybe we are failing. Maybe we can’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps or fake it till we make it or prove we are stronger than we think we are. And if this is true, then what? Growing braver, smarter, and stronger are great if that’s what we want, what we are capable of. But knowing our limitations is ok, too.

What I love about Christianity is that it makes me believe that God loves me in spite of my weakness. Maybe even because of it. And God loving me in my weakness does not make me stronger, only more dependent on God’s love. God knows I am not brave, I don’t have to be brave for God, and I love God all the more because of this. My life does not need justification – no one’s does – we are loved because we were made from love, and for love.

‘Little ones to him belong, they are weak and he is strong.’ Yes, Jesus loves me. And you, too. Even if, like Pooh, we know we’re just kind of averagely intelligent, aware of our weakness, and a little bit afraid.

Diary of a Free Range Priest: God talk

God talk

Some years ago, an acquaintance of mine and his wife asked if I would baptize their baby. I was a bit taken aback by this request, because I knew this person to be a fairly staunch agnostic, verging on atheist. So I asked them why they would want this. ‘Well, it’s a traditional thing,’ they said. ‘We like the idea of a naming ceremony, and we want all of our friends and family to come together and celebrate this child’s life and welcome her into theirs.’ This seemed reasonable enough to me.

But why ask me, an Episcopal priest, to administer a sacrament that has to do with religious beliefs they do not profess? ‘We don’t really believe in God, or want to belong to the Christian church,’ they conceded. ‘But we believe in the church of Cathie!’

As far as I could tell, what they meant by this is that they saw me as a religious person who was relatively non-threatening and available, who understood and cared for them, and who would not judge or impose my beliefs on them. As flattered as I was by this, I did have to gently explain that the ‘church of Cathie’ is, in fact, the Christian Church.

And that, while I could and potentially would baptize their baby, my doing so would necessarily involve welcoming her into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That in fact, I could do nothing else. The only authority I have in the world is religious authority, and so, if I baptize or marry or bury you, it is an act of faith and an act of the church, and a very specific set of Christian beliefs.

Still, I get why they asked, and I suspect, what they were after. As more and more people have stopped attending church, or are not brought up in the Christian faith (or any other faith), we are losing our connection to something larger than ourselves. We are losing our ability to ground ourselves in a tradition or a story. We are losing our framework to talk about how God works in our lives, and how we work in God’s. And while lots of people say this doesn’t matter, I think we are just beginning to understand that it does.

So much of this is evident when we are born, marry, and die. Words fail us when huge things like this happen. And not just words, but our own boundaries – our own human ability to make sense of the miraculous, the tragic, the profound, the infinite capacity of love and the ever-present reality of evil.

But these aren’t the only times when we miss the connection to something larger. Everyday events in our lives – losing a job, confronting an injustice, navigating a relationship – make much more sense when we have a deeper understanding of how we believe the world works, and our place in it. We can’t just make up our own moral frameworks – deep down we all believe something, and those beliefs inform our every action, big and small.

Lots of times we have vague ideas about how God is involved in this, but we are hard-pressed to explain this in terms of our faith, or our lack of it. If we are called to love and forgive because Jesus loved and forgave us, what does this look like in our jobs, our families, our politics? When we are born, and marry, and die, where do we think God is in this and how is God comforting, challenging, and carrying us through? If we reject belief in God, how do we make sense of these things?

These big questions are easy to ignore, but they follow us around everywhere, whether we like it or not. As a free range priest, I often say that I am a ‘theological interpreter’. By this I mean that part of my job is to remind us of these questions and, if not answer them, at least suggest ways in which the Christian faith provides a framework in which to consider them.

‘You are what you eat,’ the doctor says, and in so many ways this is true. We are also what we believe. And if we don’t know what we believe, then we don’t know who we are. Baptism, and other sacraments, are ways in which we understand our identity as children of God. Theology is how we talk about it. We all need these things to live.

Not a Stepmom

Stepmom

A couple of years ago, I married a wonderful man with three tween-to-teenage kids. I love being part of all their lives, and the kids are great: fun to be around, smart, interesting, and kind (they were extremely kind to give me permission to use their photo for this blog post). We are learning to be a family, day by day. The only thing I don’t love about our life together: when people call me their stepmom. I know, technically speaking, that this is a common term for the wife of a man with children, but it just doesn’t fit me. I am much more comfortable simply being their father’s wife, for several reasons:

1. They have only one mom. I am pretty sure my husband’s kids don’t need an extra mom, or an auxiliary one. ‘Step’ means ‘one up’ or ‘one down’, but either way, the standard is mom and the term ‘stepmom’ kind of crowds the two of us into the same space, the same role. I cringe whenever I hear a stepmom say, ‘I could never take mom’s place’. As true as this is, even having to say it means it has been contemplated. I know where my place is in the mom circle, and it is far outside. And even as a distant second, I don’t think the comparison is appreciated by mom, or kids. Or me.

2. I am related to them through their dad. Having a mom and a ‘stepmom’ puts the emphasis on the similarity of the roles she and I play in the kids’ lives. But I love my husband’s kids because I first loved him, and I love them through him and because they are a part of him. Thus, being ‘dad’s wife’ puts me where I belong – beside their father, loving and caring for the kids, and processing parental decisions with him and through him. If anything, this makes me more of a ‘step-dad’ than a ‘step-mom’ (but that’s a whole other post!).

3. I am not a parent. One reason ‘stepmom’ grates is that it shows a certain lack of imagination in terms of roles that loving adults play in kids’ lives. I am super-clear that I am not a parent and do not make parental decisions. When the kids are with us, I am part of what I call ‘roommate’ decisions – how loud the TV is (and what’s on it), what we’re having for dinner and where we’re going on vacation. But permission-level questions: can I stay up this late? Can I date? Where can I apply to school? Can I dye my hair blue? (an actual question in our household!) – these are answered only by mom and dad. I might offer my counsel to my husband if he asks, but regardless of what I think, I respect and abide by decisions set by the kids’ parents.

4. There is only one of me. Just as the kids have only one mom, their dad has only one wife. This means I am free to be an adult in their lives who loves and supports them, listens to them and has fun with them, all in my own way. I can see that, as with other adults in similar roles – a priest, a teacher, a favorite aunt – I can add gifts and perspectives to their lives, as they do to mine. And the boundaries around kids/mom/dad/dad’s wife mean that each of us gets the freedom to be who we are, where we are, the way we do it, with minimal bumping into each other in terms of expectations and roles.

5. We are all family. This is a faith issue for me, because what we call ourselves is important in the larger context of living peaceful and faithful lives. Being the wife of a man who has children has re-defined how I think about Christian community. Like it or not, we are all related, forever: my husband, myself and the kids; their mom and her friends and family; my friends and family, etc. This means that every day, we negotiate our lives in very real ways that require continually re-learning forgiveness, self-giving love, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile. For the kids’ sake, yes. But ultimately, also, for the witness of how we actually come to know one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Of course we don’t do any of this perfectly, and we learn new things and make new mistakes every day. And I am continually grateful to have such great kids, as well as such an awesome husband, in my life. And I am grateful to their mom, and all the other people who make up the community we are part of. But mostly, I am grateful as a child of God to learn every day new ways to love. As only dad’s wife can.

Not Best Friends

Best friends

I have lots of best friends – best friends from high school, college, seminary, various jobs; neighbor best friends and relative best friends and running best friends. I love them all (you know who you are!) For me, ‘best friend’ is a category, and I can quickly count about 10 people right now who are in it, who would drop everything if I needed them, who I can’t wait to call and catch up with. They are men and women, near and far, people I talk with every day and those I am lucky if I see once a year. My husband, however, is not in that 10.

I love my husband totally, trust him with my life, and share every detail of my hopes and dreams. But I am always perplexed when I hear other people talk about their spouses as their ‘best friend‘, because I never think of my husband in that way. There are a few reasons why:

  1. Our relationship is incomparable. I love my best friends so much, and could not do without them. And my relationship with my husband is something different, and I would never put him in a group category in terms of what we mean to each other. Likewise, my friendships are uniquely important to me.
  2. Our worlds are not completely enmeshed. We do talk about our lives at work, or with our families of origin, or with our other friends. But we don’t live in those worlds with each other. So if I want to hash out the meaning of a change in church policy, for instance, I will spend that time with any number of church friends. My husband will get the notes, if that, in our ‘how was your day’ time. He is interested in supporting me, but my church best friends are interested in the topic. The same goes for him and his work life.
  3. He doesn’t know everything. Even though I would never keep secrets from my husband, there is, I think, a time to keep some mystery. The bathroom door stays closed. I never floss in front of him. And there are some issues – health and grooming related, mostly – that I talk about in detail only with my girlfriends. Or Google. Which also leads to…
  4. Best friends’ is so… unsexy. Physical intimacy is the one easily definable thing that distinguishes my relationship with my husband from every other relationship. I like to keep that in mind, and in that sense we are definitely not ‘friends’. When I see him smile at me across a room, I assure you I am not thinking about how we divide the household chores. And I like that.
  5. ‘So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ This line from Genesis (and Jesus) still holds truth, even as my husband and I ponder it as divorced people, and others from a marriage that is not ‘a man and a woman’. Even in our discernment of how we fit into this framework, there is still, at its base, the idea that marriage is sanctified and secured by God. This sets it apart from every other relationship that we have, and this is something to cling to.

My husband is my soul mate, my lover, my partner in crime and my one and only. And I am happy to say he is not my best friend.

Diary of a Free Range Priest: Wednesday night Bible study

Bible study

When I was a parish priest, I was fortunate enough to meet a man I will call Arthur. Arthur walked into my church one Sunday morning because, he explained, he had been resisting the voice of Jesus that had been calling him every day for 20 years, and this day, he just couldn’t resist any more. He had never identified as a Christian and had never been inside a church except for a very occasional wedding or funeral. He picked the church I served because it looked pretty on the outside, and he passed it often enough that he knew where it was. Now that he had walked in the door, he wanted to know everything.

For a priest, this is a dream come true! I threw books and questions at him as fast as I could, and invited him to everything. He came to every service, he joined all the groups. He was eager to soak in the history and theology and liturgy of the Episcopal Church, the sacraments and the Scripture. He wanted to serve his neighbor and share his resources. He was the first person I called when the women needed another loaf of bread for the bake sale, or the men needed an extra hand at clean-up day. He fully embraced the life of the church, and everyone adored him.

And yet, there came a time when he asked me how to walk a little closer with Jesus. Did we have a group, or a time, when we shared our actual faith lives? How we prayed and what we prayed for? How we answered questions in our own lives based on our faith – in relationships, at work, in our own every day dilemmas and challenges? The reality is, we had nothing like this. We had an excellent Bible study, and some really good adult forums, and lots of times ‘real life’ questions came up in these, but we did not systematically get together to talk about how our beliefs shaped our everyday lives.

Arthur remained a faithful parishioner, but his enthusiasm waned just a bit after this. I tried to encourage a ‘faith-sharing’ group, but it just didn’t happen. Arthur started attending a non-denominational Bible-study that focused more on how the Bible applies to our life choices. I didn’t agree with every one of their interpretations, but I could see the appeal.

The Episcopal Church, by and large, is filled with lots of smart and well-educated people. And I think we quite naturally take to learning about our faith from an intellectual perspective – how to read the Bible, what church history and architecture and archeology can teach us, etc. And these things are great.

And yet, it does seem hard to find a community where the focus is actually on how our beliefs shape our daily lives. Do we really make space, at church, to share what we may be struggling with – careers, relationships, kids, aging, addiction, finances – and how we see God working in these or how we rely on our faith to frame our responses? What do we really know about what our own faith matters to us, or what our neighbor’s faith is? Even what our spouse or children’s faith is? It seems strange to me that we don’t spend more time talking about our own faith in church.

I wonder if part of the changing institution is changing from the model of classes and programs to the model of time and space for people to gather and discern – where and how is our relationship with God evident in everything we do? How do we strengthen our faith through considering that God is present and calling us in all our joys, challenges, and relationships, every day? Church meetings could be all about these things.

It seems to me that sometimes being a church – the necessary administration and communication and formation in the faith, can overwhelm our need to just be church, people who are following Jesus, whose primary concern is about how this informs the rest of our lives. Arthur helped me see that we really have a call to balance this out in our life in community.

Diary of a Free Range Priest: All things are lawful

All things are lawful

I was reading an advice column the other day, in which a mother wrote in to say that she overheard her young adult daughter speaking to her teenage sister about her (the older’s) sex life, and about having casual sex with multiple partners. The mother was very troubled by her daughter’s behavior, and by her sharing it with her younger sibling, wondered what to do. The advice columnist told her, basically, this was none of her business and that other than reminding her girls about (physically) safe sex, she would have to take her worries and ‘be uncomfortable about them in private.’ I have to admit that this advice perplexed me.

Have we come to a place where it is not permissible to say ‘I think this behavior is wrong’, or unhealthy, or at least not consistent with my values? In a world where we are increasingly careful to respect people as they are and where they are, and where there is such concern about ‘shaming’ others, have we not left space to be able to discern our behavior, especially within our families and communities?

Religion, and especially Christianity, has a reputation for being moralistic, for harshly condemning certain actions or even certain people. There is much to repent of when we use our beliefs to tell others there is something wrong with them, or that they should not be who God is calling them to be. However, this does not mean that Christianity has nothing at all to say about our behavior, or does not offer us a framework around which we can consider our life choices in light of what it means to love God and love our neighbor. And I think there are situations in which we are called to bravely say, ‘this behavior does not seem to be loving.’

As Christians, I think we are not so much called to worry about who we love, but much more so to be concerned about how we love. Everywhere and always, but especially in intimate relationships where there is so much more possibility of pain. And with due respect to St. Paul and St. Benedict, we have some idea of what loving relationships ideally look like: mutual, respectful, stable, kind, forgiving, self-giving, trustworthy. This is what we strive for in our relationship with God, others, and ourselves. This is how we weigh the spiritual health of our relationships.

Of course, not all of us live up to this ideal always (or ever!), and of course, not everyone is a Christian, but I think one thing we may be losing as fewer practice religion of any kind is the idea that there are any boundaries at all to our behavior, other than what feels good and right to us. Unfortunately, we are not very good moral authorities all by ourselves, especially when it comes to our own comfort or pleasure. And so I think it is not a bad thing to be able to ask ourselves, ‘how close does this relationship come to manifesting love: for God, for others, for ourselves?’ Or in the words of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, ‘how do we intend for this relationship to reflect our relationship with Christ?’

‘Love first, then do anything you please.’ This is a beautiful summation of Christian theology by Augustine of Hippo, who did a lot of both. I think it is easy enough to focus on the second half of that sentence and not on the first – how is what I am doing about love?

And within a community, or a family, I think it is perfectly appropriate to ask that question of each other. I would have advised the mother above that it would be very loving to talk with both her daughters about what was making her uncomfortable – that this behavior did not fit in with her own understanding of what is spiritually healthy. Physical safety is not the only concern in relationship – emotional and spiritual safety factor in, too. Being able to talk about this is part of our relationship with God.

‘All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial’, Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, a few chapters before he more famously says, ‘love is patient, love is kind…’. We can do anything we please as Christians. But when we love first, we may not want to do everything.

On going to bed angry

Angry

‘It seemed like you were distracted tonight, and when I was talking, you were somewhere else. I felt hurt and angry.’

I didn’t say this to my beloved, I said it to myself. Silently, before drifting off to sleep. When I woke up, I went running, and I thought about it some more. What was the anger about? Not connecting, feeling far from the one I love, feeling less important. What part of this was about what had transpired between us (or not), and what part of it was things I carry around with me – old wounds, childhood experiences, former relationships? Did I really believe that the person who loves me so much meant to hurt me, or was I just reacting to my own pain?

Feelings are indicators, not dictators. I think about how many times I have said, ‘this makes me angry…’ and realize that the end of that sentence was basically a command for the other person to stop it. If I am angry, then what you are doing is wrong, and so you need to quit doing that so that I will quit being angry. I realize, with shame, that this is manipulation: ‘I will be angry until you do X.’ I could keep doing that forever, demanding that the other person appease my feelings, and then wondering why we don’t feel closer.

I’ve started to get curious about my feelings instead, especially fear and anger. When they come up, I question them, to myself. What is this about, what part of it is about me? What part needs to be discussed with someone else? And am I asking the other person to change, or am I asking them to understand me better? There is a big difference there, I think. Asking someone to stop behaving in a certain way in order to make me feel better is a big burden. Asking them to know me more by understanding my feelings isn’t that hard, and it can draw us towards each other.

Following Jesus is starting to teach me about seeing others, especially the ones I hold dear, as the saints they are, my neighbors attempting to live their lives loving God and others, just as I am. This makes me see that just like I sometimes hurt others without intending to, my loved ones can cause me pain in all innocence. Sometimes without even knowing. And getting angry with them because I am hurt does nothing but continue to distance us. But acknowledging my feelings to myself, mulling them over, and then sharing them opens all kinds of doors.

By the time I get to speak to my beloved again, he beats me to it: ‘I am sorry I was so distracted yesterday. I have been feeling so overwhelmed lately and I didn’t realize it until I had time to think. I didn’t mean to push you away.’ ‘Yes, I was feeling hurt by that, but I see that you didn’t intend to be distant. Let’s talk about what has you feeling overwhelmed.’ Soon there is a whole new discussion about what is going on with each of us. And the original fear – that we were not as close as I wanted us to be – is dispelled by this conversation. It is a small miracle.

Common wisdom says ‘never go to bed angry’. It’s biblical, even. But I am learning this is not always good advice. Sleeping on my anger, or fear, or confusion, often leaves enough room for time and space and the Holy Spirit to help us each sort it out so that instead of taking our feelings out on each other, we are able to share them peacefully.

Love is our business as disciples, as humans even. I am grateful to still be learning it.

Diary of a Free Range Priest: Congregation for life?

Congregation

This is the actual state of my family’s church involvement: about once a month, my husband, his kids, and I attend an Episcopal church where we are members (well, they are. Very technically, as a priest, I am not considered a member of any congregation).

Every other week, the two younger kids go to non-denominational church with their mom – although they attend that church’s youth group every week. A couple times a month, it’s Jeff and the kids at our church. Sometimes, it’s just Jeff. Jeff’s oldest son, who is 18, very faithfully attends his own church, where he goes on his own and holds leadership positions. He is there a few times a week, whether or not he is worshiping with us. At Christmas and Holy Week, we all attend another Episcopal Church downtown, because we really love the liturgy there.

And because of the nature of my vocation, at least twice a month I serve as a supply priest in various other congregations, several of which feel like home to me in various ways. I also have my own ‘congregation of origin’ in another city, the place I became an Episcopalian and I visit as often as possible, and the place that feels most like my own religious community. Jeff’s Roman Catholic parents live in California, and when he visits with them he attends the local Episcopal Church, a place he has now been to enough that the priest knows his name and his basic story.

Individually or as a family, we make financial contributions to every one of these churches, and in some ways consider ourselves members, whether that term is official or not. It is making me re-think the very notion of church membership, and our definition of it.

Maybe my family is the exception, but I am starting to think we are not all that rare. Beyond being a blended family that includes a priest, it seems I keep encountering people who, for instance, go to the Methodist and the Presbyterian church; or whose kids or spouse attend a different, or additional, church, with or without them; or who consider themselves members of more than one congregation. Not to mention those who feel the need to take a break, for whatever reason, from one congregation and worship with another for awhile, and then they return to their church of origin, sometimes spending years at one place or another.

All of this has made me really ponder the presumed notion of joining one congregation and being a member there forever. The church system is set with this as the norm, and any other experience can be seen as temporary, abnormal, or even unhealthy (especially when someone leaves a congregation during a time of transition or conflict, although I am starting to question whether this is always and everywhere an unhealthy choice).

But in the same way as there seems to be a mental idea that ‘families’ consist of a married couple with children, despite the fact that most adult Americans are single and/or live in some other configuration than the standard nuclear family, I wonder if most congregations’ membership is really as unified and stable as we think. Or even should be.

My family gets huge benefits from our itinerant worship life – we have many different experiences, which leads to excellent discussions on faith, Christian practice, and various interpretations of what is most important to us in terms of belief and worship of God. We meet and engage with all sorts of different people with different perspectives, and have relationships across denominational and geographical borders. We have the stability of long-term relationships and the variety of something different almost every week. We learn what is important to question and what is important to embrace when it comes to our relationship with God and each other.

Part of my ‘free range’ experiment is contemplating the assumptions of mainstream Christian life and worship and wondering if everything has to stay the same all the time. How might we be called beyond the standard congregational ideal of one (or more) ordained leader serving full-time for a community of people that remains more or less the same over time, except when someone dies, moves, or we make a concerted effort to bring new members in? And are we already being called in different ways that we have not fully acknowledged yet? What actual benefits, in terms of evangelism, formation, and community dynamics, might there be from moving around and/or attending different congregations? Are we in some ways called to move beyond the sense of ‘my’ congregation or denomination or membership and into the sense that all Christians have the same mission and we are all supporting the same ‘team’?

Not everyone moves around, or feels any need to be anywhere except the congregation where they feel at home and find the love of God. Some people are born, live their lives, and die as members of one church in one place, which is a lovely thing. Some will claim membership in 2 or 10 or 100 congregations over their lifetime. I am starting to see the loveliness of this, as well.