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Rumblings at the Foot of the Spiritual Volcano

Kilauea, Hawai'i.

I went to see my spiritual director Tuesday for our monthly meeting. It was good; it always is. But it left me with some spiritual rumblings down deep somewhere – and rather than blowing my top it might be better to open up a little vent further down the hillside so I don’t cover everything I touch with red, angry lava.

I think I can do this without knocking over Leonardo’s house, so let’s see what happens.

She asked me a question, whether there’s a church I can go to close to home, a place that would feed me spiritually even if it isn’t everything I want it to be.

This is because I’m an Episcopalian and there aren’t many churches around here. To get to my home parish I have to get up two hours early and cross the DMZ; that is, the time zone line between Central and Eastern Time drawn three miles south of my house. I’m on Chicago time, while most of Indiana’s with New York. So I don’t go to church very often, only for the biggest services of the year, which are held the night before.

I’m a night person; I love the dawn when I see it but it doesn’t happen that often.

Her question, asked out of love because she knows I live in isolation and need to be part of a community, provoked a complex response, including this puzzlement: why does a person go to church at all?

I don’t assume that the readers of this blog go to church; my Gay Spirit Diary is open to everyone, churchgoers or not, believers or not, Gay or not. Keep reading if you feel like it; maybe you’ve got rumblings too.

Marcia is an ordained Presbyterian minister who for many years was the chief pastor of a prominent downtown church in the next county over from me. Then at some point things changed and it was time for her to go. I don’t know what the issue was, I’ve never asked, I’m not sure I care to know. Maybe someone decided she was too liberal; maybe she made a mistake. I don’t really think so, but it’s possible; I’ve never asked and she’s never said. I’m not going to pick at that scab. I only know that she is wonderful to me, joyful and loving and deeply faithful.

She has recovered nicely, has a part-time job as an adjunct professor of art at the local Catholic college, does “pulpit supply” on Sundays all over the area, produces marvelous paintings and is married to a smart, sexy guy who’s becoming a friend of mine. Ote (pronounced Otie, short for Otis) is a marathoner, an ex-farmer, a gourmet chef and all-around piece of work. I like having these particular heterosexuals in my life.

However, Marcia is left without a regular worshiping community, and so am I. We don’t get fed very often. Her question Tuesday afternoon left me wondering, Why is it we go to church? What motivates us to rise up out of bed, shower and dress and drive?

Could I find most of what I’m looking for in a congregation on this side of the time zone? Do they have to be Episcopalians, or will other Protestants or Catholics do? Is there anyone else around here who would satisfy me, speak to me, or is my only alternative trekking down two clock-hours (50 miles, but still, two hours) to my home parish? What do I get when I go there?

Do I go for the people? No, never have. They are not my “church family.” I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced a church family. Perhaps I’d like to, but I never go to church because of the people who might be there.

I go because of God, not my fellow travelers on the Way. I’ve never gotten much of anything from them – and maybe I’ve never given much either.

When I go to church the transaction’s between me and Him-or-Her. I go to encounter God, not to socialize, though it’s wonderful to meet people afterwards. I’m an Episcopalian because they help God encounter people more directly than any other church I’ve ever been to.

After that, coffee hour’s a real bonus; all these people who got up out of bed, dressed and drove for the same reasons I did. I like them; we understand the world the same way.

God does as much or more for them as s/he does for me. Of course I love meeting them! Church is a gathering of people who believe God loves peace, not war; justice, not oppression; inclusion, not exclusion. I love Episcopalians, and in my national tour two years ago I had a fabulous time. North and south, east and west, urban, suburban and rural, I was always at home with Episcopalians.

I don’t want to be triumphalist here; we are terrible sinners and we know it. It helps that we understand sin as corporate as well as personal. “Sin” is less who you fuck than who you screw.

And we have the gift of preaching clergy who seldom fail to point out who, as mostly privileged White Americans, we are failing to treat as God’s own loved ones.

One of the things I like best about my church is that the People are Biblically-grounded, that we try seriously to conform our lives to the faith and ethics Jesus laid down; that we consider the worship of God as high and transcendent art, demanding the best of us and lofting us to heaven in music, Word, preaching and Sacrament, in which we experience great joy. I can go to any Episcopal church in the world, whether we speak English, Tsalagi, Spanish or Haitian, and have a fabulous spiritual time because I’ve connected with God.

I don’t know any other denomination like this. I’m sure the same thing happens in congregations worldwide, regardless of labels and hierarchies, but with time and reinforcement, the Brand Name has come to matter to me. You always know what you’ll get at a Holiday Inn.

To Marcia’s question, challenging my denominationalism, I replied, “Maybe the ELCA, but there aren’t any here; all the nearby Lutherans are Missouri Synod (anti-Gay).”

How could I associate myself with churches that are anti-Gay? I can’t. With churches that think women are supposed to be subordinate to men, because of out-of-context interpretations of St. Paul? I can’t. With churches that think some White European is an infallible authoritarian pope? I can’t. With Methodists who seldom do sacraments despite Jesus’s clear direction to “Do this”? I can’t. For 1500 years the only Sunday service was Holy Communion, but Methodists are once-a-monthers, or once a quarter! I can’t.

So I heave a big sigh, and wonder why anyone goes to church. Because of the people, the “church family?”

I suppose if I got to know them and suppressed all my objections, I’d find that Disciples (with their lay administration and tossing the unused elements out to the birds) and Pentecostals (with their fixation on speaking in tongues) and Catholics (who pay no attention until the sanctus bell wakes them up) and Presbyterians (who think fucking matters more than screwing) are wonderful people. But I don’t go to church because of the people. I go to meet the one true God.

So despite Marcia’s excellent question, and the possibility that I may yet find a church family closer to home, I have to think of why I go to church at all, even though I rarely rouse myself to do it:

I don’t go for “Bringing in the Sheaves.” I don’t go for the shredded carrots in lime Jell-o. I don’t go for the Bible study, because half of it’s lies anyway. I don’t go for the coffee hour at the Episcopal church, pleasant though it sometimes is.

I go for the sacrament, and the immersion (baptismal) experience of the liturgy; for the high art of music that transports me, words that blow my mind and make me more than I used to be.

I’m Anglo, I’m a WASP, and by God we do words better than anyone else on earth.

God spoke Jesus into being as the Word; he didn’t speak English but we’re scrupulous interpreters. We don’t need to press our own agenda when he’s eloquent in any language.

Thus Marcia and I are left a bit bereft in this life, but hoping in the future. We do not have local congregations we feel part of. We’re sort of orphans here.

We could become volcanoes, but it’s better for us to open up and vent a little before we blow our tops.

Meanwhile there’s a lot to be said for finding Christ in a congregation, not in theology or liturgy or ritual, but in the living faith of real believers, trying to conform themselves to the Way of Christ even as they resist and resist and resist.

Marcia asked, “What should we talk about next time?”

“Fear,” I said, and I meant it. I know I’m being stupid to be afraid of the One who loves me – but I’m mortal, and it’s natural to me to be afraid of merging with the divine.

I’m afraid I’d stop being Joshua, though the evidence is clear that the result of the merger is that I would become more like Joshua.

If Christ ever saw me as I really am, I’d probably blow my top.++

Mt. Mayon, the Philipines.

4 Responses

  1. That wasn´t bad–I think you are only mildly eruptive this morning–and your thoughts/quizzines is quite normal to me.

    How many different ways do I go to Church (when I do)? Many different ways in different condition–emotionally, spiritually and sometimes even physically jumbled. There I go to hopefully catch the spirit of the moment in a often less-than disciplined way…no matter, it´s all about God for me. I´ve always been a God appreciating person even as a child–the wonder of it all truly grabbed my soul…as a kid I´d sleep out in the backyard in the Summertime (when the living continues to be easy) and stare up at the stars–the vast, huge endlessness of it all that terrified me when I thought about it–but then there were the shooting stars and the many visual attractions that took my mind off the very deep end of the sky–the inifinity that still makes me gulp when I think about the ongoing humbling vitality of it all–that is God who also takes my breath away? Sure but being able to trust God when one is falling upwards into such a unknowable gap of human understanding is the key more me, not so easy to not hold on for dear life–for years I had to drink myself into being comfortable with ¨being¨, because I was medicating/conditioning myself from the stark void in my level of everyday trust and lack of understanding some very important, to me, stuff. Who would I trust? Well, I trusted my Mom and she had proved to be exceptionally trust worthy, I trusted my Dad to provide for me/us and he proved to be exceptionally trust worthy and provided immediate ¨security¨–I didn´t trust my older sister because she attacked me (regularly and meanly)–it was like how can I find guarantees of stability when I could fall upwards through the cracks in my own life? There is not much in adulthood to HOLD ON TO when injustice, discrimination and persecution looms before us! Well, years later I discovered that I could stop trying so hard to figure it all out–sure there were obvious and understandably/real scary questions/actions surrounding LIFE and the WORLD around us but, heck, nobody can answer the questions at least not yet and I can only do my best and I´m not all that much in ¨the know¨–however the answers would come, one by one, that is if I want them and if I keep didn´t keep hiding from them because I´m afraid of falling upwards to a torcherous death of the unknown bigots and thieves making. I discovered I´m not going to find may way without a great deal of self-arguing, self-fearing and the finally, exhausted, some self-accepting–that´s how peace of mind comes to me, when I´m flat out exhausted (mostly)–peace of mind and a sense of well-being comes with letting go and trusting God–no matter how over the head I am with fears, real life issues/betrayl/concerns and loathing at hatred (mostly directed against bigots and Republicans these days but I think they may be the same people so I´m narrowing my focus)…so there I am, caught in my own war-path/striving and endlessly wondering WHY I can´t know what is on the otherside of the SKY in happinessland…afterall, after all I´ve done and been through I really ought know a little more about what promises of rest, peace, justice and glee await me beyond the big blue bonnet that´s always beens so capable of taking my breath away with it´s awesomeness (not to be confused with current ¨awesomen¨ catch word/slang).

    So there you have it…it´s when I can´t huff and puff anymore and find myself breathless with the vast burdens ¨of it all¨ that I stop and remember, that, in fact, it´s NOT about me–it´s never been ALL ABOUT ME and the moment I can become right sized I´m able to accept life around me and humbly ask God for ¨Gods Will¨ for me–acceptance instead of beating down the door demanding that all revelations of what has been and what will be coming to me–come to me NOW! Whew, what a joy it is when I can be the person that God created me ¨to be¨…that´s exactly who I am, nothing more or less–and that is a very honest and humbling experience that sets me free–when I´m willing to ¨let go and let God¨…in all my affairs (and beyond my affairs)…when I´m willing to care about the others around us too–when I´m no longer obsessed and lost in my own desperate attempts to know what I can not know.

    Trust (not Faith for me)

    I´ve erupted and now I´m gonna take a shower, it´s a lovely day, with birds chirping, in Guatemala.

    Love to you and Luke,
    Len

  2. Thank you, Len. That was a nice little eruption/display to look at here on the mountainless prairie of Indiana. One thing I take from it is that we are always meant to strive, to reach out and reach up, that while we’ll never “understand it all” we should and do keep thinking, keep being, keep relating to others, stay on the road to recovery/discovery. Only when we’re (re)united with the Godhead will we know the bliss and peace that passeth all understanding; now and today we only get glimpses. But oh, how lovely are those sightings, like shooting stars.

    I took one action as a result of Marcia’s question; I looked in the yellow pages and circled the phone numbers of churches around here – in case, in case there’s a worshiping community I’d want to be part of if I only knew about it. There may well be, in which case I’m an idiot for not being part of it.

    I didn’t say this above, but I should have: none of these people do coffee hour afterwards, you’d think it was an Anglican invention. The minute church is done everyone streams for the door, shakes the minister’s hand and gets in their cars. There’s no opportunity to socialize. So how can an outsider get to know the worshiping community?

    Here I am ready to set aside theology, the sacraments, music and art and everything I consider Best Practices (Episcopalian!) for the possibility of discovering God in other people – but if I never get to meet them, I cannot get to know them. So the whole prospect seems doomed before I start.

    However, a new opportunity has just come my way, again thanks to Marcia: she invites me to a Taizé type service at the Burr Oak Mennonite Church Dec. 21 on the Longest Night of the Year. I’m immediately interested. I also have a complex of reactions.

    • I don’t do solstices, even though I recognize that Christmas is timed to replace the old Druid tree-worship. I don’t do solstices. I turn into a crotchety Creed-spouting old man (Andy Rooney without the eyebrows) at the very thought. I’m so aggressively, reflexively orthodox I start quoting the Council of Chalcedon at the least provocation. For someone considered so radical as I’m alleged to be, I’m as conventional as Beaver Cleaver’s mother. I don’t do solstices.

    • However, this service of healing and meditation is sponsored by the Jasper County Ministerial Association, and you can’t get more strait-laced than them. June Cleaver’s baking the cookies for the party afterward!

    • My friend and spiritual mentor Stephen recommended Taizé to me eons ago, but I’ve never had the chance to attend and participate in such a thing.

    • This would be my first experience in a Mennonite church, and no one should ever turn down such a chance. I mean, if you can’t trust the Mennonites, you’re dead meat already.

    The Burr Oak congregation is a country church; there aren’t many of those left anymore. I have great admiration for Mennonite simplicity; indeed, many Episcopalians are moving closer to simple lifestyles the more complex and commercialized American society becomes. I also happen to know of the Amish/Mennonite history of this area; the Amish are now long gone, forever trekking off for greener pastures/more isolation somewhere else, but here is this small group of Mennonites, in the world but not of it, flexible enough not to define an electric lightbulb as the devil incarnate, free to drive boring cars so they don’t get run over in their buggies – and so dedicated to God that they maintain their little country meet-up in 2010 no matter how much madness surrounds them. Who would not admire them?

    So I plan to go. There’s nothing wrong with gathering together to observe a natural phenomenon on the night the earth is farthest from the sun; God arranged it that way and called it good, and I won’t say she’s wrong. I bet I have a wonderful time, being allowed inside this Mennonite place in the middle of nowhere and invited to approach God in prayer and quietness and joy.

    Maybe my worshiping community will turn out to be Mennonite.

    I will still be Episcopalian, I will always drive to Lafayette for Christmas Eve and Easter Eve, I will always sing the faith of my fathers and mothers, mentors and saints. Jonathan Daniels demands that, Ervin Faulkenberry, Harvey Milk, Father Ben.

    Meanwhile in this Chalcedon-spouting soul, a new litle window may be opening up; thanks be to God.

    josh

  3. none of these people do coffee hour afterwards–JT

    So where is the fellowship? I don´t like the smell of their non-coffee.

    Taize Services are heaven–yes, really. At my olde family Church in Haley, Idaho, Emmanuel Haley (Diocese of Idaho) we had Taize services with the Roman Catholic Church (which happened to be the anchor at the other end of the block)–really nice, soothing, almost hypnotic and that DID create a feeling of fellowship, of oneness–there was always beautiful candles in the dark and many times we had some kind of ritual where we touched our foreheads to a cross held horizontally at the foot of the alter–can´t quite remember why, but it was very soothing, reverent and moving–I think I ought start them here in this little indigenous village–the chanting would not seem even slightly out of place.

    The volcano is quiet tonight but smoked white clouds all day…too bad, it´s not a new pope.

  4. http://emmanuel.episcopalidaho.org/index.html

    Good Lord, I didn´t spell Haley/Hailey correctly–you would have thought, verdad, my Mother was born just down the road–so was my grandma and many others–the ¨old family¨ section of the Bellevue cemetery holds dozens of my pioneer relatives and my Mom and Dad and one day me–no wonder I´ve survived–it´s in the frozen blood (not to mention my English Dads Yorkshire blood).

    Sorry about the tangent but I wanted to go look at the historical old church that house our Taize chants…memorable.

    Abrazos,
    Len

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