a dinner party the other night I was talking to a woman who
was surprised to hear that I’d left parish ministry a little
over a year ago. She knew I was a progressive pastor, both
politically and theologically, and that for a decade I had
served a congregation with a strong social-action mandate
in the work we did.
Why, she wanted to know. Why did I leave?
Well, the reasons are varied. Some seem trivial. Some more
monumental. Like, I have the kind of time to write now that
I haven’t had since I was a graduate student in an MFA program
over 20 years ago. That’s pretty big, especially since, if
you think in terms of vocation, which is religious-speak for
what-I’m-most-drawn-to-do, then writing has always trumped
my call to parish ministry.
I also no longer have to sit through what used to feel like
interminable meetings about things of minor consequence compared
to the larger challenges of genuine spiritual growth and social
action. (And this is not to say that my congregation was neglectful
of either of those aspects of church life; it’s just that
an awful lot of ‘being church’ means being a building that
needs upkeep, an organization that needs funding, a social
nexus where mountains of interpersonal conflict rise readily
from molehills. It’s exhausting.)
Besides the concerns that impacted me personally, I also left
because I fear that the larger church as a force for social
good and spiritual growth is becoming—or already is—moribund.
And it was hard to sometimes feel that what I was doing was
hospice work for a 2000-year-old institution.
These are all reasons that prompted me to want to leave the
church. But in some ways they are ancillary to the largest
reason of all: The Christianity that I see so much of in the
United States has little-to-nothing whatsoever to do with
what I see as the essence of the Christian gospel.
And frankly, I got tired of calling myself a Christian when
everybody already knew what a ‘Christian’ was. And I wasn’t—am
Because when non-observant people think of Christianity they
think: anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-socialized medicine, pro-gun
rights, pro-creationism, pro- abstinence and literalist when
it comes to reading the Bible.
I can’t give you the percentage of how many Christians identify
themselves in opposition to all those stances, but I suspect
we are a small minority in the pan-Christian camp. And being
a small minority, the temptation is to leave camp behind entirely
and wander in the wilderness. In some ways the wilderness
has come to seem a safer place.
Sure, I was appalled when the news came that Dr. George Tiller
was shot while serving as an usher in his church. But I wasn’t
I’m sickened when Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist buffoons
picket funerals and wave their “God hates fags” signs. But
I’m not surprised.
I’m aghast when I periodically check out Christian radio and
hear the preachers yelling their punitive gospels of judgment
and exclusion into the airwaves. But I’m not surprised.
And so when I read the June 25th New York Times piece
about Ken Pagano, pastor of New Bethel Baptist church in Louisville,
Kentucky, urging his parishioners to attend bring-your-gun-to-church-day—which
included a picnic, a handgun raffle and firearms safety lessons—I
was disgusted. But again, not surprised.
The Times piece quotes Chris W. Cox, legislative director
of the NRA: “We have a very active agenda in all fifty states.
We have right-to-carry laws in forty states. Twenty years
ago it was just in six.”
Of those 40 states, 20 allow guns in churches.
I gave the short version of all of this to the woman I sat
with at the dinner party. She nodded, then shared with me
her own complicated feelings of desire for and alienation
from the church—the misogyny, the theological and political
conservatism driving her away even as the potent ritual action,
music and poetry of faith drew her in.
I miss good liturgy, I said. I miss hymns. I miss communion.
She nodded. She had found two places where she could go and
feel it was safe to be in a church environment. You live in
New York, I said. You’ve got more choices. We laughed.
Of course, all of this conversation went on sotto voce.
We were at a dinner party full of intellectual people. You
just don’t talk about church at dinner parties full
of intellectual people. And if you talk about Christianity,
you’re sure to do with a full measure of disdain—even if,
inside of you, a part of you is wilting because you no longer
know how to identify yourself vis-à-vis a faith life or faith
journey. Or whatever.
I think she was disappointed I left the church. I do know
some people who are. I was supposed to stick with it, slog
through it, be the voice calling in the wilderness.
But sometimes I think that, in some ways, I am.