Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Baffling Church

Some semi-official ramblings from last week's Clergywomen's Breakfast at the Church of the Brethren's Annual Conference in Pittsburgh:

When Mary Jo asked if I would speak this morning, I was a little skeptical at first. It has felt, to me, like my voice has been heard in a lot of places over the last few years, and that really the church could benefit from listening to those from whom we haven't heard from recently - and there are plenty of our sisters and brothers who fit that description. But Mary Jo reminded me that the work I’ve gotten to do over the last few years has been mostly comprised of giving words and voice to other people's opinions and perspectives, which turns out to be pretty true, and so here we are.

The description for this talk is “reflections and ponderings” on “life, faith, and call to ministry.” I am pretty good at pondering, even better at wallowing, and sometimes – when I get really good – it all crashes over and I become great at what someone once called “paralysis by analysis.” Excuse me if this ends up being something of a rambling several minutes.

I used to get really angry, in seminary, when people would ask me to share my “call story.” As if everyone who was committed to God and the Church had one discernible moment when lightning reached down from the sky and struck them into the realization that they ought to be in ministry. I never had one of those. My story of call is much more ambiguous.

I think I want to start with the way I ended up in seminary. It was not a well-reasoned or intentionally discerned move. In fact, the imbalance of my current federal loan repayment bills and bank account confirm that it was a pretty foolish financial life decision. I majored in religion during college because when I looked through the catalogue, I wanted to take every course in the religion department. About half-way through undergrad, I discovered that I could keep on studying religion even after I graduated. Even places like HARVARD had divinity schools! This excited me beyond measure, because I was, and am, a gigantic nerd, and I love school. So, I applied to grad schools – divinity schools - and ended up at Emory University in Atlanta.

Now, Emory’s school of theology is actually a Methodist institution. Their mission is, in large part, to train Methodist ministers. I really hadn’t intended on going to school to become a minister – I just wanted to keep my nose hidden in books about God and religious practice for as long as possible. Nonetheless, the MDiv curriculum required me to take practical courses and a course called Con-Ed – a ministry internship combined with a weekly reflection course. About a year and a half into my three-year degree, it suddenly dawned upon me that I was NOT in graduate school…I was in SEMINARY.

I say that jokingly, and it is funny, but it is also completely honest. I really did not consider what I was doing “seminary.” I was at a giant research university, I got to take courses with brilliant professors and intense PhD students, and my nose was perpetually stuck in a thick book full of philosophy or theology. Ministry with real and living people didn’t make much of an impression on me, and I can remember the actual moment – sitting in my ConEd reflection group – when I suddenly realized that what I had signed up for and what I was paying a lot of money for and spending years of my life doing was SEMINARY. I’m pretty sure I cursed out loud during class.

Here’s the thing about being Brethren in a Methodist seminary: no one takes you seriously. With typical young adult bravado and a deeply instilled radical Anabaptist/pietist outlook, I entered into theological and practical conversations in seminary certain that my people and my tradition were right. I argued for hours about how pacifism was possible, how hierarchical organizations were unnecessary for being the church, how Jesus intended us to be a mustard seed movement and not a politically compromised institution. I argued until I was blue in the face. I argued until I had no more words. I argued with friends, with colleagues, with professors. Faith was about thinking clearly, and I was going to argue my way all the way to divine clarity.

Luckily, I was blessed with a community full of grace. They heard my arguments and saw my stumbling, and embraced me anyway. But they did not agree with me. Whenever I broke out a radical premise – that pacifism was possible, that the church did not really require ministers or buildings, that living simply and communally was a real and valid option – I was met with theoretical agreement and practical resistance. “Yeah, you’re right – that’s what Jesus meant…but there’s no way we could actually DO that!” In a course on pacifism and just war, a fellow student told me, “Yes, I really think pacifism is the right way, but we live in such a compromised world that it’s just not an option.” A professor’s comment on a final paper about communal and contemplative decision models told me that while my argument was elegant, the practical possibilities of doing something like this in an actual, living congregation were slim to none. During a discussion of living life in community, the professor disagreed with my comment only to be countered by a fellow student: “Yeah, but you have to remember where Dana’s coming from – she’s an ANABAPTIST!” As if we exist in an alternate world, exiling us to some alien planet so as to remove our example from the realm of possibility for what others might attempt.

In general, that was the response I got from my seminary friends: yes, you’re right, but that’s impossible. You can imagine how frustrating this was. I was excited and grateful to return to the Brethren world, to people who agreed with me, to the part of the church that heard the rest of the world’s “impossible!” and promptly ignored it to continue the work of Jesus. Right. Now imagine that girl – declaring over and over that the Church does not need buildings or pastors – leaving seminary and moving directly to the CoB denominational offices in Elgin, the place that specializes in maintaining buildings and pastors. Not a smooth transition.

I joined BVS because it felt like the right way to put into action all these premises that I’d been arguing. Right, and wrong. My BVS placement was with Mary Jo in the Office of Ministry. I lived in the BVS house and worked in the CoB offices in Elgin. In many ways, it felt like living two distinctly different lives. At the BVS House, we cooked and ate together, pooled our money, and hashed out conflict in messy but mostly intentional ways. At the offices, we operated inside a hierarchical corporate structure, had catered meals, and worked in fluorescently-lit, individual cubicles.

In addition to those glaring distinctions, I also got glimpses into the scandals and politics of the church – as seedy an underbelly as is possible for a bunch of church people descended from bonnet-wearing, button-spurning farmers. Stuart Murray, in his book The Naked Anabaptist, reflects, “as representatives of a tradition that so strongly advocates reconciliation and enemy-loving, Anabaptists have been unduly contentious.” And how. We like to fight with each other, maybe because we think we can’t fight with anyone outside the Church. Infighting and insult run rampant among us, in both our interpersonal and our institutional relationships. It isn’t a pretty sight.

I was faced with another jolting reality: my people were just as corporate and institutional and compromised and broken as anybody else, and all that I had railed against in seminary I now had to become a part of. Uncomfortable. Frustrating. Disappointing. Infuriating. I think each of you probably recognizes this feeling, when the thing you thought you knew turns out to be just flat-out wrong.

What I wanted was to find myself in the midst of a group of people who saw life in the Church not as an institutional power struggle, but as a GIFT – and to accept and treat it as such. Instead, I found myself joining in with people who talked about “us” versus “them,” with people who anthropomorphized an entire city – talking about “Elgin” with distaste, with people who condescendingly characterized a belief they disagreed with as “sad.” I did all this. I do all this. But I don’t want to. Like Paul, I do not understand my own actions: I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate.

Life together in the church – in the Church of the Brethren – continues to frustrate and infuriate me. I still find myself annoyed with our dependence on corporate business practices, with our inability to find common ground on divisive issues, with our unwillingness to shake off our historical lack of self-confidence and speak out to a world that continuously asks us to share our story. (Stuart Murray, by the way, has this to say about our unwillingness to talk about who we are: “Not speaking openly about one’s faith is now defended by some Anabaptists as a mark of humility, rather than as a hangover from a history of repression.”)

But working for the Church has also been a beautiful and heart-stretching experience. In my work for the Office of Ministry and with BVS, I’ve gotten to meet and work with literally hundreds of people and congregations who are passionate and committed and doing the “impossible” on a daily basis: volunteers who leave their comfortable lives and attempt to join in God’s restoration of the world; congregations committed to being a positive presence in their transitioning neighborhoods; communities of faith who are forming disciples simply by being a constant and loving presence in the lives of youth; young people both disgusted by and committed to the life of the denomination; seasoned servants spending their lives in service to the church; clergywomen joining in life-giving ministry that combines justice and beauty.

How can this one thing, this one tiny part of the Body of Christ, this infinitesimal corner of the world, be so frustrating and so beautiful at the same time?

Carlo Caretto, a Roman Catholic brother and writer, captures this ambivalence eloquently:

"How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you! How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely. And besides, where would I go?"

And besides, where would I go? I haven’t yet found an answer to that one. I’m certainly not a Methodist – or a Catholic, or a Baptist, or a Lutheran - and despite how hard I’ve tried, I can’t shake this conviction that we Brethren, at our best, have something distinct and important to contribute to the Body of Christ. Yes, we are compromised and messy and neglectful and sinful, but at our best, we try to take Jesus seriously. We do what he said: work for peace. Live simply. Love the least. Wash one another’s feet. And we refuse to give in and we refuse to give up. We refuse to listen to the voices that tell us, “yes, you’re right, but that is simply impossible.”

We keep trying and we keep failing, and yet we’re still at it. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a leader in the New Monasticism movement and founder of the Rutba House – an intentional Christian community in Durham, NC, describes life together in the church this way: "It's hard and it's painful and it can feel like death but it also opens a space for resurrection."

And isn’t that where our hope lies, in the resurrection life that is continually being given to us no matter how much we botch it up? Karl Barth famously said that, "If we really hope for the Kingdom of God, then we can also endure the Church in its pettiness." I love that line, and I remind myself of it often. Our hope is not in the Church, in its buildings or pastors or corporate structures, or even in its all-encompassing Annual Conference debates and decisions. Our hope is in the Kingdom of Heaven, and in the transforming God who is always at work within and among us, spurring us on to greater things, accomplishing more in us and with us than we can ask or imagine.

Who knows – like my sudden revelation that transformed grad school into seminary, we might all look up someday, watch a lightning bolt jump down from the sky to shock us into realizing that this is NOT just a tiny, inward-looking, argumentative denomination called the Church of the Brethren, but a body of Christ’s followers: transformed and transforming the Kingdom of God on Earth. And then, maybe, we’ll all shout confused communal curse words to the sky.


Ben said...

I'm so glad you blog. It's good.

Karen said...

Smart and beautiful...Carol was right on.