Finally Leaving Church

Stealing Barbara’s line

I woke up around 2:00 this morning for my first trip to the bathroom which has now become part of the old man’s unenthusiastic routine. As I tucked myself back into bed, the book by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled Leaving Church kept flashing like a neon sign on dream street beckoning me to “turn in here”. And though I had read several of her books once upon a time, the prospect of leaving church, though somewhat differently from her experience, would take up the rest of my wandering mind’s activity for the rest of the early morn. After stumbling back to counting the rest of the damn sheep, I awoke to an unwelcome alarm, while the evening’s reflections still beckoned me to lean in and pay special attention.

The premise of Barbara’s book for her was that she had been an Episcopal priest for 20 years and through a series of her own contemplations on the “business” of church, and in her last pastoral role, she decided to well; leave church. For her, this meant to leave the full-time ministry and become a professor and spend much needed time to explore God in a new way without the vestments, sermons and bereavement visits that were once both her duty, delight and joyful profession. But as I reminisced in the morning light about revisiting her musings on the subject, it occurred to me that though I was never a successful pastor (whatever that means) as she was, that perhaps her church-exit epiphanies were a day late and a dollar short for my own restless soul.

How I Got Here

My own journey was similar, yet also vastly different from Barbara’s. For though I was just as eager and joyful about full-time church ministry as a 30-something seminary graduate, after a few short years I threw in the basin and the towel and gave myself and family a permanent address change from being a flunky pastor and into the world of business.

It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that despite the initial pain and even bitterness of my experiences of the past, the passion for what I had once felt called to was still lurking about in the recesses of my heart and mind. It was then that this man with no particular denominational allegiance continually hoped that I would perhaps find a congregation of people that might actually need this rebel with a cause. But the truth is, unlike Taylor, instead of 20-years of full-time ministry, I have spent the last 20 years chasing pavements that I somehow kept myself and my poor family believing in, foolishly trying to resuscitate an obvious flat line.

Part of this continual beating of a dead horse was because of that initial sense of calling and the church’s affirmation of the gifts that should accompany it. For instance, I knew how to preach. Most would say in fact that I could preach in any church among the golden tongued orators of the church landscape. And I certainly appreciated an occasional kudo along those lines. I also understood the inner workings of the church and felt that I at least had the ability to lead people and get them somewhere along the road towards the way of the master, at least to second base for goodness sakes. Yet the song that still remained the same was the recognition that transparency and brutal authenticity was not something the church ever wanted from me, and yet the only thing this broken man could ever give and still sleep at night. And so, after wasting more time that anyone has a right to in the quest of something that was not to be, like Barbara, I too am finally leaving church.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for

It was many years ago now that the song from The Joshua Tree album, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For was released. The album of course, was one of three U2 masterpieces in my humble opinion; and most who remember can probably recite the words from the entire album, as its lyrics are as memorable as any catalog of Beatle songs. And even though I am not the fan I once was of the band; I can remember the controversy this beautiful song posed for church folks who could not for the life of them understand how a self-pronounced Christian could both have salvation and still say, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”. Balderdash they said! But I, for one, knew exactly what Bono meant. At least now I know what I mean when I painfully reminisce about that stark reality in my own life.

You see, for me, it is to state simply that though I love Jesus Christ with all my heart and embrace fully the consummation of salvation that awaits us in the much-delayed eschaton, yet I am still woefully restless. Restless at the pain and deprivation of the world that only constant numbing can cause us to forget but for a millisecond or two, and equally restless at the lack of visible power; not only to live and offer healing as Jesus and the apostles did, but also at the lack of most of the church’s’ and my own witness of that same representation. 

Nonetheless, men and women of the cloth continue to insist they know best and persistently protect the finely oiled machine while scolding those of us who don’t join, comply or, God-forbid, ask questions. They hate the damn questions man. In fact, they’d rather die or show us the exit door than answer a fricking question! Meanwhile, for a nominal fee, to keep mostly the apparatus cranking out more of the same, they preach to their choir who simply regurgitate back their two-thousand-year-old lines now painfully devoid of any shoe-leather air. Unless of course, you count pastors in skinny jeans, rock n roll bands and a memorized playbook of techniques. Techniques that also, unbeknownst to them mind you, are driving people further away from what was once considered really “Good News”.

So, I guess you could say that after 31 years of walking with Jesus with albeit a distinctive limp, I too still have not found what I’m looking for, in the church. Or shall we say, as one who has even a smidgeon of a desire to join the “frozen chosen” anymore. And well; the truth is that I’m weary as Hell. I’m sadder than Eeyore on a rainy day in fact. I’m worn thin; along with my patience to boot. And I need to once and for all concede to the powers that be that have been reluctant to let this renegade into its holy club, that I now concur that I am not what they are looking for either. And the way it looks, the forecast for tomorrow looks about the same.

Becoming The Man I Now Know

Sometimes it takes a man and a woman far too long to understand who they really are, what they offer and when to declutter the many tedium’s that distract us from life’s real purpose. Part of this has to do with the fact that we have been raised in an American culture that puts financial and celebrity status success as the sine qua non of what it means to live with one’s authentic self. I for one, have fallen prey to its only partial and equally sensational telling of the truth. Far too many of us live for the praise of men and the approval of the gullible masses equally trying to get us to recite their community approved lines. This is sadly true whether it be from the judgmental glares of the church, a hypercritical family, fair-weather friends; or the far too many social media acquaintance masses who wouldn’t travel across the street to piss on you.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, and yet also a very liberating one. Because though we walk on the narrow path with Jesus, and community is to be somewhat part and parcel of that walk, there are fresh paradigms of those possibilities that can offer us great hope. Especially if we will look in minimally trodden places among the broken; the bruised; the renegades; and for goodness sakes with those who still haven’t found what they’re looking for either, and as those who can equally hold life’s many ambiguities in lock-step with resolute faith.

I guess you could say that I too am finally leaving church, or at least leaving once and for all the desire to be a part of its approved ecclesial men’s club. I’ll still hang out with the Catholics and Orthodox occasionally who will no doubt continue to debate their claim to originality. I’ll equally fraternize intermittently with the evangelical smorgasbord who equally chime in on much the same. Hell, I might even visit Anglicans who still don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. Meanwhile, I think I’ll be the best I can be with God’s help. I’m going to try to make my wife fall in love with me again, be a cool grandpa and be the best salesperson I can be. And who knows, I might even write a blog or two, and maybe even “finally” write that book I’ve been spouting off at the mouth about for far too long. I guess I just never knew it would take me leaving church to finally have an epiphany!


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