As the consensus out of St. Louis seems to have crystallized around the “Traditional Plan,” it seems the United Methodist Church will soon be far less united. Meanwhile, Southern Baptists from Houston to Louisville are grappling with a recently unearthed history of sexual abuse in many of their most prominent churches over the last 30-40 years. And, not to be outdone, the Catholic Church continues regularly doing its thing as far as victim-destroying, institutional fidelity is concerned. Which leaves many of us wondering how exactly do we persist in believing there is a discernible trajectory to the universe, let alone a God in charge of such things?
A few years ago, when I was getting my start as a therapist following a stint as an associate pastor in a mid-sized Baptist church in East Tennessee, I worked as an intern in the counseling center of a tiny liberal arts college. There, I treated mostly first-generation college students struggling with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideations, identity, belonging and substance abuse.
During my time at the college I routinely hid or buried my identity as a pastor. I did so out of respect (or so I thought) to student after student expressing – in the midst of my questions about their family history – an abusive, destructive or toxic connection to Christianity in the Baptist style. Initially, as a beginning therapist eager to leave behind the baggage and pain of my own personal and professional struggles with Christianity in the Baptist style, I was rather frustrated at all the god-talk spewing out of my anxiously wordy clients. However, thanks to my own therapist and the gentle prodding of my supervisor, I finally began disclosing to my clients that yes I, their 31-year-old, unpaid intern therapist, was actually (dramatic pause) an ordained Baptist minister himself. In the case of one of my all-time favorite (we don’t have favorites) clients, that revelation led to this exchange:
Him: “No s____! Can we talk about God in here?”
Me: “Uh, yes, if you think that would be helpful.”
Him: “I’d love to, I think about God all the time.”
Me: “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
Him: “Are you trying to Good Will Hunting me?”
Me: “Yes, all of my therapeutic training comes from movies and syndicated episodes of Frasier because, like I mentioned earlier, I am a graduate student attempting (badly) to be your therapist.”
My Evangelical upbringing had not actually prepared me for the existence of a human who did not profess a belief in God, but wished to talk about God anyway to anyone who would listen. Instead, I was taught by my nascent Baptist tradition to defensively await the onslaught of disinterest, antagonism and derision raining down from “the godless” who found themselves on the business end of God’s (read: “our”) cut list.
Which is one of the reasons I quit my Baptist church job, became a therapist, and started exploring what it might look like to transfer my pastoral loyalties over to the Presbyterians. I had this idea that if I were able to join a tribe with whom I might possibly have more in common in the way of identity politics and NPR tote bags, then we might be able to do something more interesting than argue endlessly about the beliefs, sexualities and politics of people we don’t actually know.
During my time among the Presbyterians I routinely hid or buried my Baptist roots, only to soon find yet another group of people who were VERY interested in arguing about Evangelicals and identity politics, and who repeatedly used “theology” and “tradition” when they definitely meant “socio-economic status” and “ethnicity.”
Unexpectedly, it was the idea that neither I nor any of the people who introduced me to the way of Jesus were allowed to serve communion in the ornate sanctuaries of the Presbyterian tradition that finally did in my fling with mainline Christianity. Even amidst our shared love of recycling and talking about poverty without knowing any poor people, I simply found myself longing for a tradition where grandparents ordain you and ex-cons break the bread, pour the wine and remind you that many of the biblical authors themselves had no seminary training and struggled with recidivism.
Thanks to my own Baptist pastor friends, and the gentle prodding of another supervisor, I finally began disclosing to the Presbyterians that yes, I, their 33-year-old, poorly-paid, interim youth coordinator, was actually (dramatic pause) an ordained Baptist minister himself, to which one of my all-time favorite (we don’t have favorites) parishioners remarked:
Well hell, son, round here most of the rest of us are too. We just got tired of all the yelling. And this building is pretty.
At the end of the day, it took leaving my tradition, my calling, the whole of my identity and religious upbringing; it took leaving God in order to find God. It took leaving my tradition to find my tradition, to find my calling and the whole of what it means to believe in something, on purpose, because you choose to, and not because you have to or even because you always want to.
“God has new things to do, new ways to do them and new people to do them with.”
In his masterwork, Anatheism, philosopher and Boston College professor of religion Richard Kearney remarks on the unexpectedly sacral nature of no longer “believing” in the God of one’s tradition for a myriad of reasons. He notes:
In losing our faith, we may gain it back again: first faith ceding to second faith in the name of the stranger. This is the wager of anatheism. And the risk. For in surrendering our own God to a stranger God no God may come back again. Or the God who comes back may come back in ways that surprise us.
This is something the resurrection accounts in the biblical text repeatedly confront us with: the idea of God who dies, at our hands, but a God who returns again and again and again. However, when God returns, it’s with the reminder that we can no longer hold on to God as God is. God has new things to do, new ways to do them and new people to do them with – and if we remain cripplingly tethered to who we were and to who God was for us, we won’t recognize him, and we won’t know his work or his voice tomorrow or the day after.
So, to my Methodist brothers and sisters, I’m still not totally sure what these structural decisions mean for you – mostly because I find mainline polity endlessly confusing – but I do know they’re terribly painful, and I’m sure, dredging up all sorts of baggage and doubt and confusion. If there’s one thing becoming a therapist who was angry at who God had become in my faith tradition taught me, it’s that for you to remain true to your tradition, to your calling, to your identity, sometimes you have to surrender your God to death, even death on a cross.
“If you do have to leave your denominational home, I hope that you keep your eyes and ears open for a God you or your tradition can’t hold on to.”
All of us must acknowledge that when we surrender God, no God may return, or the God we are waiting on may remain in the tomb indefinitely. But for me, I can tell you that it took the death of my God for God to come back in ways that surprise me again and again and again. So wherever you may find yourself within your tradition – embraced, loved, rejected, alone or confused – may you come face to face with a God who dies, is doubted, rejected and abandoned all so that you might be set free. You could say your freedom, your salvation even, was always the point anyway for God; so if it takes doubt, rejection and death, even the death of institutions and long cherished beliefs to bring it about, I know God is famous for that sort of thing. Here’s God in the flesh talking about exactly that in the 13th chapter of Mark’s Gospel:
As Jesus was leaving the Temple, one of his followers said to him, “Look, Teacher! How beautiful the buildings are! How big the stones are!” Jesus said, “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone will be left on another. Every stone will be thrown down to the ground.”
Sisters and brothers in the Methodist tradition (and elsewhere), if you do have to leave your denominational home, I hope that you keep your eyes and ears open for a God you or your tradition can’t hold on to: a God at the bottom of the slippery slope, in a field Rumi famously described as one beyond right doing and wrong doing.
I’ll meet you there.