On February 19th, I preached my last sermon, at my last church, after twenty years of preaching in four different churches in three states.
Leading up to this last, I had envisioned walking away with a sense of accomplishment, peace, well-earned freedom of days.
Instead, what I’ve been grappling with is something more like confusion, regret, and a boatload of grief.
Maybe that’s because my leaving was on less-than-ideal terms. It was abrupt and clouded with worries about the budget and the direction of the congregation and the desire to get the air conditioning fixed. People who had been in the congregation for decades had drifted away during the pandemic, and new people had joined us, but the longing for those who had left seemed to be stronger than the desire to fully incorporate those who had joined. The atmosphere of gathering again in the building after 2+ years of meeting primarily online seemed less about relief and joy, and more about a sense of nostalgia for what had been decades before the pandemic.
Ultimately, I realized that the direction the congregation wanted to go was inconsistent with where I thought Jesus was calling us to follow.
This situation is not unique to me or to this congregation. Most congregations, post-pandemic are finding out that what they really want is familiarity.
I read recently that familiarity is the thing humans desire most. Not love. Not peace. Not even community. Familiarity. Comforting words, comforting temperatures, comforting routines.
Google tells me there are 7,530 cookbooks built around the idea of “comfort food.” Food that comforts us is such a standard go-to in times of trial that if we were to name some of the dishes, without consulting a single cookbook, our lists would likely be indistinguishable.
- Macaroni & Cheese
- Spaghetti & Meatballs
- Chicken Primavera/Picatta/Parmesan
Bonus points if any of these dishes are made from an old family recipe, passed down through generations.
Finding familiarity in my new daily routine has been a challenge. I too find myself reaching back, not three years, but decades.
I remember that I once enjoyed cooking.
I remember that I once enjoyed reading novels.
I remember that I take comfort in routines far more than I had let myself believe while I was working.
But the biggest surprise so far has been that I have a perspective now that I could not see clearly while I was pastoring a congregation. I have always known that millions of people have been hurt by organized religion. What I see clearly now is that those who are part of it, are simply not moved to do much about it.
Now that I’m on the outside looking in, it strikes me that perhaps the reason that Jesus was always reaching toward those on the margins was because he knew that those on the margins had important stories about how they got there, and that their stories were important for the insiders to hear.
When I was packing up my office for the last time, a funny video popped up on my phone. It showed a cat in various positions, with Losing My Religion by R.E.M. as the soundtrack.
Fun Fact: In 1991 the original video for this song was famously banned in Ireland as the images in it were deemed blasphemous. Meanwhile, in the USA, that same video earned two Grammy Awards and was chosen as MTV’s video of the year.
Michael Stipe, who wrote the song, explained in The Broken Record podcast that the phrase, “losing my religion” was commonly used in the south, where he and other band members had grown up. It meant, to fly off the handle; to lose your composure; to not behave in the way you were expected to behave at an occasion. He went on to explain that it was about a shy guy at a dance who is on the edge of the dancefloor watching the girl he wants to dance with and imagining what it would be like to be with her. The song is the story in his mind.
Knowing the backstory to the song, it is even more ironic that my phone offered up this parody video as I was packing up my office. A song about someone standing on the perimeter, longing to join the dance–depicted by a cat.
The difference for me is that I was in the dance. For twenty years. And while churches have helped millions of people over the years, there is no denying that organized religion has hurt a lot of people. It’s not just the big acts of betrayal: sexual abuse, conversion therapy, racism. It’s all the little cuts over time: gossip, shunning, an unwillingness to do the hard work of taking the whole “love one another” thing seriously and practicing confession and forgiveness in ways that are healing and transformative and serve to move communities toward reconciliation.
My experience has been that most people who participate in organized religion don’t seem interested in making amends for the pain they cause. In fact, few are even willing to acknowledge it.
I’m still trying to figure out where I go from here. But frankly, I’m a bit relieved to be on the perimeter, moving farther and farther toward the door. My new view intrigues me. If you’re looking for me, I’ll either be outside, walking Nala. Or inside, cooking, writing, over here. In the corner.
i can’t decide to sympathize with you or congratulate you . as you know i am in a time of transition myself ,but i’m 74 years old . you have much more time than that . change can be scary . i saw on a church sign “when you’re through changing you’re through . people in a.a, told me if you have one hand on yesterday and one hand on tomorrow you have anything to hold on to today with .i have no doubt you will find your way . check out eilen jewell .her music has brought me unbelievable joy recently . keep posting . may god bless you both now and forever !
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