LEAVING CHURCH, a memoir of faith by Barbara Brown Taylor

I like to copy key passages from my favorite books. The practice started about 9 years ago when I first held in my hands “Awakening to the Buddha Within,” by Lama Surya Das. It had been loaned to me by a friend, and I knew I had to get what I needed as quickly as I could before giving it back, so I copied everything that struck me as memorable and meaningful, filling all 127 pages of an entire notebook. I’ve been carrying my little ‘Buddha Book’ around with me ever since. It goes everywhere I go, and it’s helped me through some scary, lonely, and sad times. I open it and read the words that jump out at me, and they invariably give me a new view of the situation, and a way to go through it.

Since then, I have copied favorite lines from many books, especially books I knew I had to return to someone. There have been many, and I’ve noticed that the book I need to read seems to just show up. It’s usually one I’ve never heard of. My most recent discovery is a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, introduced to me by the former Episcopal priest of my mother’s church here in Largo. We’d been talking about my having taken distance from my own faith community, and all the questions that have been surfacing ever since, most still unanswered. She came by the house the next day and dropped off a book for me to read. She loaned me her guitar as well, but it was the book that I couldn’t put down once I had taken it up. It was called, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” and reading it I felt someone had gotten inside my head and heart and told my story for me.

I’m on a second book by Barbara Brown Taylor now, called “Leaving Church.” It’s equally inspiring and affirming of my own experiences, and once again, I feel she has taken the words right out of my mouth. She tells the story of her love of God, her calling to minister, and her experience of leaving her post as an Episcopal priest to become a college professor. I’d like to share some of the passages that have moved me today.

In chapter 17, she quotes a friend and former parishioner, who said, “The good news of God in Christ is that you have everything you need to be human. There is nothing outside of you that you still need~ no approval from authorites, no attendance at temple, no key truth hidden in the tenth chapter of some sacred book. In your life right now, God has given you everything you need to be human”

With this thought in mind, I would like to share some of the excerpts that have spoken to me, and explain why when I can.

leaving church

Excerpts:
“It remains possible to see Jesus not as the founder of a new religion but as the exemplar of a new way of being human~ a new Adam~ who lived and died with such an authentic faith in God that he gave his followers the courage to try to do the same thing.”

“Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom, but it was the church that came.”

“The way many of us are doing church is broken and we know it, even if we don’t know what to do about it. We proclaim the priesthood of all believers while we continue living with hierarchical clergy, liturgy, and architecture. We follow a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own. We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our power to maintain our equilibrium.”

“God does not live at the seminary. God lives in the world.”

“What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?”

I think of something along these lines when I see a family picture of a small group sitting around the Thanksgiving Day table loaded with all the trimmings. There’s something sad about it, and a cloud crosses my mind as I think of the people that meal could have been shared with~ and the multiplication of joy that sharing it would have brought. In church on Sunday, I feel the same. What are we really doing for God here? Our service is insular~ week after week the same faces, year after year listening to the same message. Why are we all sitting here, passively being fed, when there are so many people out there in need of spiritual life? Once Rev. Moon suggested that we meet as a congregation only once a month, and the other 3 Sundays with friends and neighbors in our home. That makes more sense if we really are all priests, or mini-messiahs.

In the book, Ms. Taylor writes about her father’s death: “I discovered that faith did not have the least thing to do with certainty. Insofar as I had any faith at all, that faith consisted of trusting God in the face of my vastly painful ignorance…Since then, I have learned to prize holy ignorance more highly than religious certainty and to seek companions who have arrived at the same place.”

It’s comforting to think of ignorance as ‘holy,’ especially when you have lost your moorings and can’t say what the truth is anymore. The more we know, the more we realize that we don’t know. I’ve definitely become less certain about the BIG questions than I was when I was a young missionary, full of zeal and Bible quotes to back myself up. Now, all I know are the questions~ Who is God? Who am I? I’m searching for the answers, and it’s often very scary. I’m looking for people who have been here where I am, and have something good to say about being in the dark.

“In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says to the large crowd trailing after him, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’…I think it was his way of telling them to go home…If he could not shake the crowd off, they were all going to get themselves killed, or worse. They were going to venerate his path in place of finding their own. They were going to expect him to tell them things that they could only discover for themselves.” When I read this I immediately thought of Reverend Moon, and how so many of us spent so long following his vision, when perhaps we should have been out finding our own. It can be a rude awakening to realize that you are still behaving like a child who has never taken the risk of walking out the door and discovering who you are.

When asked, “Tell us what is saving your life now?” these were the writer’s answers:
1. Teaching school.
2. Living in relationship with creation.
3. Observing the Sabbath.
4. Encountering God in other people.
5. Committing myself to the task of becoming fully human.

Let me try to answer the same question, What is saving my life right now?
1. Swimming in the pool, warmed by the sun and looking up at a fathomless sky, being outside and held up by sparkling water, beautiful and blue.
2. Judy’s help, support, laughter, and understanding.
3. Callie, curling up next to me, and giving me love bites.
4. Writing letters, and recording my life to share with myself and others;
5. Breathing~ Deeply. Slowly. Being with whatever I would rather be running away from. Slowing down in order to recover.
6. Books: Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, and Leaving Church.
7. Laura, who’s always available when I need her, and who usually gives me helpful advice along with encouragement about how much I’m growing.

I’m really missing the teaching school part. It was the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had. I’d like to find myself in that place again, but I don’t know how at the moment. I’m trying to be in this ‘pause’ space without panicking, and just give myself time to look around at the inner and outer landscape. Becoming fully human is a work in progress, and it certainly isn’t easy. Running away from my sister today was a step toward being more honest about who I really am right now, and throwing off any pretense of being anything other than terrified. I don’t think I want to be the ‘good girl’ anymore. I want to be ALL of ME~ the good, the bad, and the ugly 🙂

I’m not sure how much I am able to experience God in other people. I have no trouble with animals. Gazing into Callie’s eyes is so calming. Stroking her, and receiving her purr-full response, and sometimes a kiss, makes me think of something so much larger than myself. But people? Wait. I just remembered Shallah at Culver’s hamburger place. We connected over the counter. I thought of her the next morning as I was brushing my teeth, that I could adopt her as a second daughter, and visit her occasionally, taking her little treats and words of kindness to help her through her 2 jobs and school.
And Ruthie, in the bed next to Mom at rehab. She is 99, and just suffered a stroke. Her grand-daughter was there visiting, and we pulled back the curtain dividing the room so Ruthie could see us, and observe the pleasurable social contact we were enjoying. Even though she can’t speak, she can see. I bent over to give her a kiss goodbye when I left, and she grabbed my hand. Something passed between us. Is that what Barbara means? Being touched by people, feeling my heart move…knowing you are seen and loved, even by a perfect stranger, who you see and feel love for in return?

I’d like to sleep out under the sky, and feel the night as it passes. Instead, I’m locked in and shuttered tightly against the fears I imagine out there. Maybe I will have the courage to take my sleeping bag out to the gazebo one of these nights. We’ll see.

Writing letters was an idea I got right before mom went into the hospital last week. I thought I would write one a day for a week, sharing thoughts about my life with people I haven’t been in contact with since leaving Belgium behind and coming to Florida. I remembered that only what we give comes back to us. As Barbara put it so well, “…we had nothing that belonged to us but what we gave to God and God gave everything back to us again so that we could share it with one another.”

My sister found and saved a letter I’d written to Dad when I was 14. That letter came back and is so precious to me now, bringing with it fully preserved a piece of my young beautiful heart, loving my father openly and simply, without guile or pretense. When I was a teacher at Kookmin University, I collected many stories from my students and thought I had saved them on my USB when I left. There were hundreds of them over the course of several years, but I only have the ones I sent to people to read, as all the rest were lost. It was a lesson I need to remind myself of. If you love it and want to keep it, share it. What you give will come back.

I’ll be taking the book over to Mom to read while she’s in rehab. A good book is like spending time with a good friend. The time goes by so pleasantly, and you don’t even notice it passing. She read Learning to Walk in the Dark, and loved it just like I did, so I think she’ll also be inspired by Leaving Church. We’ve both never really been church-goers. Even though I spent 35 years attached to one, it never spoke to ALL of me. Now that I’ve stepped out of the safety of it’s confines and limiting-ness, I have to admit that I feel like a piece of shit, with nowhere to hide. However, as Pema Chodron writes (and I’ll tell you more about HER book next time), “We can explore the nature of that piece of shit. We can know the nature of dislike, shame, and embarrassment and not believe there’s something wrong with that. We can drop the fundamental hope that there’s a better ‘me’ who one day will emerge. It’s better to take a straight look at all our hopes and fears. Then some kind of confidence in our basic sanity arises.” (from When Things Fall Apart, Heart Advice for Difficult Times)

Have I caught your interest?

Advertisements