I would be the first to admit that I feel like I spend most of my days playing catch-up to those around me: especially in terms of my reading and thinking about my faith and my calling. I have, for most of life, done things in reverse order…I was an adult before I was a child, I had my old age before my youth (although I’m guessing I’ll get a second run at the old age thing), I worked as a librarian before I studied library science, I sang professionally before I studied singing, etc. etc. and so forth and so on. And now, I am coming to see that I have lived a life with a fairly low-key, lay-minister orientation, long before I ever confronted and accepted my need to study and deepen my faith and my ability to share that faith in a more formal setting (yes, that means a seminary).
Yes, I have spent much of my life playing catch-up; looking over my shoulder at what I don’t know to support what I am already doing; worrying that the bright and penetrating light I see at any given moment was seen long ago by those around me and that they are simply being polite as they listen when the words of my discovery come tumbling out of my mouth in a torrent of revelation.
So, now you know why I am always reading something (or several somethings)…looking for language, looking for the tools and the education that I think that I don’t have but desperately need so that I don’t make some naive mistake, as I did once at a dinner party in front of some very smart people.
It is important to know what you don’t know.
One of my favorite choices of reading material to help me in this quest is the spiritual biography of others…these works are generally very helpful for me, giving me language and process and and well, leaving me feeling not quite so alone in some of the things that are happening to me and around me and within me. I seem to be drawn right now, in particular, to the works and lives of a group of female Episcopal lay-ministers who over the years have written and taught and served their communities of faith and the wider community of the world of faith without the benefit of ordination.
First and foremost in this group for me right now is the teacher, writer, and church historian Diana Butler Bass. It was with one of her books that my friend and I began our morning reading program; it was one of her books that I was reading when I decided to join the Calvary Baptist Church; it was one of her books that I was reading as I started to really feel this strong pull of faith on my life. And so it only seems fitting that it would be one of her books that right now provides the fodder that fuels my thinking, at a moment that I suspect is equally pivotal for me.
The book of this particular moment is her Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community. I expected the book to move me; I did not realize it would fill in so many blanks for me (if you don’t understand what I mean you need to read Pastor Amy’s sermon from our current series, The Rules of Improv, by clicking here). So far, it has been almost an academic year’s education in itself, in terms of the language of faith that it has taught me and the opportunity it has given me to see my own faith experience played out in someone else’s life.
In this book, Dr. Bass tells the story of her journey from childhood Methodism through evangelical fundamentalism to a life of faith within the Episcopal denomination, and…well, the end of the story hasn’t been written yet. And she tells the story within the framework of the life of the various congregations in which she has worshiped and served as a lay leader. It is an amazing portrait of a faith journey that is contemporary with my own…and it speaks to me in ways that I understand.
There are some very important things I discovered in this book, most of which I will write about later (such as what it means to be an evangelical vs. what it means to follow what she refers to as the via media, the middle way), but today I am pondering the similarities in her experience recovering from the pain and doubt that came from being involved in the kind of power struggle and chaos that comes from a church struggling to find a new voice (particularly when there are those who don’t want that new voice or any new voice), with my own after a similar situation. She, like I, took some time off from “church” (although I think I took far longer as a respite), and she, like I, in the most unexpected place, found a healing and a spiritual home. She explains the experience much better than I ever could:
At the beginning I felt drained and confused. Not quite knowing what path to take, I simply put one foot in front of the other, attending to my spiritual life through the practices of faith. Slowly, by reading the Bible, worshiping every Sunday, and working at homey parish tasks, I began to understand the Christian life in new ways. I think that was true for all of us. By practicing faith together, the good folks of the Church of the Holy Family (substitute Calvary Baptist Church here if we are telling my story) became brother- and sister-pilgrims, an intentional family of faith on the verge of birthing a new congregation. We were only vaguely aware that this was happening or that we stood so close the Spirit’s tremors of re-creation. But we were profoundly aware that we needed one another in the order to get to wherever God was taking us. (pg. 124)
Bass has mirrored my own experience and taught me about a trend in church life all at the same time…the change from congregations made up of establishment churchgoers — those who are Presbyterian because their family has always been Presbyterian and who attend the same church in the same neighborhood where they have always lived and that believe in denominational loyalty — and congregations made up of intentional churchgoers, those for whom every thing about their lives from their personal identity to their worship choices to their family structure has been researched tested and chosen. For the intentional churchgoer, denominational loyalty and physical location mean little — they seek a gathered community of disciples, not an extension of their neighborhood or country club.
See, I’m always doing things backwards…I was living a trend and I didn’t know it. But now I have language. Thank you Dr. Bass, you’ve helped me catch up just a bit more.