Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Leaving Church

The first time that I read Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church, I was pretty cynical about the whole thing. By that point, having been a part of the blogosphere for around two years and a poster on various Christian forums before that, I'd read many stories from ex-churchgoers and ex-Christians, so Taylor's story wouldn't seem incredibly novel. In addition, I was annoyed at the thought of Taylor's built-in fanbase raving about how incredibly insightful and groundbreaking and revelatory her story is, when to me it would be one more after so many others. In other words, part of me was determined not to like this book.

Of course, a point of irony that would be lost on me until later: Why'd I end up picking up the book myself? Because Taylor had written it. Yeah.

I was drawn back to this book due to my sabbatical planning. I think that Taylor's story is about a sabbatical in its own way, as she recounts her extreme Type A personality that eventually leads to burnout. She tells of being a busy priest who discovers after a while that busyness has become her god, and has left her spiritually bankrupt. The second section of her book, "Losing," is all about forsaking that god and figuring out who she's really meant to be as a minister (in the "priesthood of all believers" sense of the word) and as a human being.

The institutional church takes some hits along the way, but I think that they're familiar hits to many pastors and laypeople. The central critique of the church is how it expects people to give of their already-busy schedules to the institution, equating itself with the work of discipleship. While I believe that the church can and does enact ways to encourage and inspire discipleship, there remains a notion that faithful membership is the same thing; that you aren't being a faithful disciple if you're not serving on a committee or volunteering to be liturgist or helping with the youth or maintaining a table at the bake sale. These things are the work of the faith community, sure, but they aren't the sum total of the Christian life.

Anyway, what drew me back to Leaving Church this time (my third time through, for what it's worth) is one brief account near the beginning of "Losing:"

On that first Sunday, even the prospect of public worship was too much for me. I could not go back to Grace-Calvary, and I could not fathom going anywhere else. I felt like a religious invalid, still weak from my recent fever and embarrassed by how I looked. I did not want to be touched. I did not want to be asked how I was feeling. I did not want to endure any real or imagined questions about what I was doing sitting in a pew instead of standing up front where I belonged. Once the sound of Ed's car had disappeared in the distance, I took a prayer book out on the front porch and read the morning office with the birds.

No one complained about the hymns. I did not sweat the sermon. The best part was the silence--mountains and mountains of it between the populated valleys of the words--with no reason to hurry for fear of holding anyone else up.
I envision a moment like this during my sabbatical; even during my upcoming vacation time this fall. I want to step out onto my porch (I don't have a porch now, but I will soon) with a cup of coffee and fully realize and appreciate that I am at sabbath; that my only task is to reconnect with the truth that my larger vocation exists in all of creation and not just in and around a church building.

I find ways to do this already, of course. Mondays are Coffeeson days, where my only responsibilities are to walk around with him outside, discovering all the rocks and flowers and pinecones and leaves, to feed him, to rock him to sleep, to watch Sid the Science Kid with him lounging on my lap. There are other times for re-discovering that larger vocation, but this is the clearest one to me.

I think that this is why Leaving Church remains on my short list of books that I read again and again: I appreciate the need to recognize one's call to ministry outside the institutional church, but I don't want to recognize it the way Taylor did. But it is her story that has become for me a guide for my own reflection. While I maintain certain criticisms about this book, the food for thought that it has provided has greatly outweighed them.