Thoughts: Not at Church

church

It is nearly 9:30 as I sit at my diner and write this morning.

Normally, I would be in church, half way through my service, half way through my sermon. But the docs said I would not be up to standing that long so I have taken two weeks off from preaching, and from work, as I recover.

It has been a strange feeling, not being in church. In general, I am not a religious person. I am far more spiritual and I preach spirituality, that one on one, internal search and connection with God. But in the years since called to my little church in the tiny little town of Rupert, I have been reconnected to the power of what church can be.

I have seen way too much of what church can do to wound and drive people away from God in my days, There is an old saying that in the church we shoot our wounded in the church, and it is too often true. The bigger and more political a church becomes, the more people are wounded.

I came to the ministry late. I was around 60. I had been a part of churches all my life, often, mostly, in leadership roles. When my divorce hit, twelve or so years ago, all that ended. I let go my roles in the church, even though I was urged to keep them.

I was lucky. I had pastors around me who had long ago put aside their tendency to shoot first and ask questions later away. Carol Johnston was my pastor at Troutville Baptist and she was unfailingly kind, encouraging and supportive as I found my way. The congregation there was the same way.

I eventually moved to a new church, Welspring Presbytarian. The pastor there, David Blugerman, was a gift from God. Patient. Warm. Open. Kind. He lived grace when it came to caring for me.

Moving to Vermont was hard, I loved my church families and they had loved through a tough time. I cried a lot. I struggled a lot. It is a hard thing when you are a depressed mess to do an honest assessment of what parts of a divorce were your responsibility and what parts were not. Harder still if you are battling that alone. Fortunately, I was not.

And coming here, I lost that day to day support and love. Oh we have all stayed in touch since them. We still write and at times talk and visit and it’s wonderful. But there is no substitute for a community of people around you. And for a long time, I had trouble finding a place that felt right. I migrated between a couple of different churches, including the one I now pastor. But I struggled to find my place again.

I didn’t pull any punches when the church called me to do this. “You need to know my flaws.” I told them. “My failures and weaknesses and struggles. If you think I can be one of those precious holier than thou preachers, I can’t be. I am a collection of mistakes, blessed by a lot of grace from a lot of people and God. And that grace is at the center of any ministry I might have.”

They hired me any way. Four years in they seem inclined to keep me.

One of the first things I did when I started was start talking to people. Ten years earlier our church had had 75 people most Sundays. By the time I came, they had six or eight. What happened? What drove all those people away? I was surprised at the answer.

Shame,

Somewhere along the way, people made mistakes. Like we all do. Or lived in ways that weren’t bad, just not in line with the rules, written and unwritten by the church. They became wounded, and rather than wait around for the next shot from the church (in some cases the leader, In some cases, the congregation.), they left, never to return except for funerals and baptisms.

I know the pain of that. And what I have learned is that kind of wounding is more common than not. I am surrounded by people who love God, but feel betrayed by his church. I learned that my experience of church love after my divorce was not what most people experience.

I’ve spent my four years trying to build a community of love. We’re still small. 20-25 most Sundays. We are not perfect, but we love each other and those who come join us. We are not perfect, but you can make mistakes and be loved. You can be different and be loved. You can live on the edge of what most churches might call polite society, or society in general, and be loved. People who have been parishioners have permission again to love people in their families that might not be so loved in other churches. Gays. The addicted in the family. The emotionally wounded.

It is a simple church. When you reduce every thing to Love, and you have a definition of love (1st Corinthians 13). Life becomes simple. Relationships become simple. Politics become simple. And you can spend your time in church simply worshiping and praying and loving each other.

We have a long way to go. All churches do because churches are people and all people are on a journey, but this is a group of people truly striving to learn to love better. And I miss that. I have leaned on their prayers the past few weeks. I have leaned on the palpable feeling of their support. But it is not the same as presence.

This week I begin work again. Just a few hours a day. I will begin tomorrow to prepare the service and sermon for next Sunday. I am hoping I can stand through the service next week, but if I falter, it will be OK. They will help me out.

And I will be home.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

5 comments

  1. I am not religious at all. I like the teachings of Buddha. I love the stillness and peace of a church or a temple. I love religious music. From what I read here, I think I should like your church. Do you publish any of your sermons?
    Best wishes

    • I am like you. I love the stillness. I have published a few of my sermons, but it all got interrupted by this cancer battle. I hope to start again soon. If you are interested, you can read or watch them at twotinychurches.wordpress.com.

  2. I have not been successful at returning to your blog’s daily mailing system, but instead, I remember to find you online. I want to thank you for your kind words and gentle wisdom shared. I was particularly happy when you were able to take up the daily blog again after your surgery. I went looking for old posts today. One remarkable and touching one was when you described your father’s life example of moving forward and building anew from what was found–building not the same, but anew and forward. I passed it on to family members and friends.

    Sorry t hear you and your wife are both physically down. Blessings on your strong and loving efforts to carry forward with your surgery recovery. I’m checking in daily.

    I will be 91 in February. I have a twin sister and we Marco Polo daily–this past February we were blessed apenty to have a family celebration of our birthday with our entire families. Access by way of our digital world is such a blessing. When I was a child, mother’s family moved on to Caifornia and she and her sister married Idaho men and stayed there and raised families. Communication with family was an occasional letter (like mybe twice a year–phone access was miles and money away and never used–telegrams were to announce deaths. My sister and I communicate daily, see each others faces daily and share wonderful things online (very much thinking of the blog materials I share from your blog and as well that of Jon Katz, where I heard of your blog many years ago.

    Long note here. Just want to let you know how much I enjoy your posts and to feedback some gratitude and appreciation of your efforts and observations.

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