Now, 168 hours of a week hurry by like a commuter late for work and I never darken the proverbial sanctuary door.
I wonder why.
Last Friday, I cradled the hand of a dying woman and reminisced about the many hospice meetings weâ€™d survived together. Until her illness, she volunteered at several local non-profits, including where I worked. While others in the hospice meetings were medical professionals, we were not. We shared whispered comments, occasionally rolled our eyes at the terminology, and added a little humor to the serious proceedings.
Now sheâ€™s dying.
I visited her.
Talking was not easy, but it was easy enough. She asked me, in between old and real and made-up memories from the past few years, if I still went to church.
Honesty felt the reasonable choice when Death shadows a room.
â€œNo,â€ I said.
â€œWhy not?â€ she asked.
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Except for a few happy-go-lucky years in college, Iâ€™ve been a churchy guy. For over a half-century of being George and Franâ€™s kid and claiming a pew at the Baptist church, and then becoming (by the good graces and devilish humor of God), a United Methodist clergy, Sunday was habit. Sunday was the first, last, best, worst, busiest, bravest, loudest, quietest, most reverent, and reverently irreverent day of the week.
Oh, letâ€™s be truthful. As a kid, church meant someday Iâ€™d be old enough to play on the congregationâ€™s softball team. Iâ€™d seen Dad slug a homerun in a game and wanted to do that too. The LaRue boys and Mr. Richardson were the gods of the outfield, and playing with them seemed a noble goal. Iâ€™d sit through a thousand grim sermons about Godâ€™s displeasure with humanity to get a chance to swing the bat with the big boys.
While I selfishly dreamed of playing ball, mentors in church kept quietly revealing Godâ€™s love to me. I learned about hope. I felt my first glimpses of mortality when someone died. I croaked out (trust me, I have a lousy singing voice), â€œJesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me soâ€â€”and believed it. I also couldnâ€™t ignore the â€œRed, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sightâ€ lyrics. Radical Christian seeds of equality were planted in me long before witnessing how easily love-your-neighbor rusted like cheap metal siding when adult Christians selectively defined Godâ€™s laws and longing.
I was ordained over forty years ago. It was a hot night in Redding, at the northern end of Californiaâ€™s Central Valley. A bishop whose name I canâ€™t remember placed his hands on my head and declared me a minister of the Gospel. Proclaim the â€œgood news!â€ Administer the sacraments! Serve God, by following Jesus, with my heart and head, my feet and my used car, my bumbling prayers and twenty-minute sermons.
And lo, I did.
I had my degrees, divine guidance, and a denominationâ€™s blessings. Over the decades, kind (and often brave) church folks welcomed me as their new pastor. Theyâ€™d hand me the keys to the buildings as if I knew what I was doing. In churches suburban and rural, with stints as a hospice chaplain and campus minister, along with becoming a befuddled new church start pastor, I preached like the fool I was and am. I slogged through meetings. I did the bidding of my United Methodist superiors. I led a thousand people on church backpacks where the tall trees and granite spires proclaimed Godâ€™s creation better than me. I served communion, gobsmacked and humbled, to dairy farmers in Wisconsin, students in Oregon, small-town conservative Republicans, and loving left-leaning lesbians. I stumbled after Jesus with his radical, raucous notion of a beloved community. I witnessed that even the worst news we humans could crush others with, was never the last news in Godâ€™s gracious, fragile, eternal Realm of Love.
Now I donâ€™t go to church. Donâ€™t care to.
Maybe that will change later?
Donâ€™t know. Thatâ€™s the beauty of this mortal, flawed life we lead. Tell me what youâ€™ll do tomorrow and Iâ€™ll mutter the old clichÃ©: humans make plans, and the Holy laughs.
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â€œWhy not?â€ she asked, still dying. She gazed at me with her rheumy, bright eyes.
Still there and curious, Death edged close to listen.
I answered with, â€œI got tired of not seeing my wife.â€
Thatâ€™s the short version.
The long version is that I wearied of evening meetings and personnel issues. I was tired, though still inspired, of those Sundays where Iâ€™d preach and teach and return home exhausted. Then, predictably, weâ€™d arrive at Advent and Lent, and Iâ€™d work a more furious pace. But my lovely, ever-understanding wife, given the nature of her job as a professor, would greet the hectic holy days as her holidays. My roaring Easter was her spring break. My breathtaking Christmas was her between-semesters breather.
â€œI like to spend time with her,â€ I declared.
While serving in what became my last church, United Methodist higher-ups pushed for a â€œnew wayâ€ of ministry. We clergy were compelled to attend workshops on how to lead the modern congregation. Itâ€™s rough out there! Churches were stagnant! Clergy were confused! The world, Googled, Facebooked and Amazoned, had changed.
Gotta love the consultants, Iâ€™d heard versions of their prattle in the past . . . and some was righteously right. The church wasnâ€™t built for complacency or for kowtowing to cultural whims. And yet, between powerpoints and pontificating, the well-traveled, well-paid, well-meaning expert berated us with,
- Todayâ€™s pastors must make sacrifices.
- Todayâ€™s pastors should spend more time serving the church.
- Todayâ€™s pastors need to give all to Jesus.
(Okay, he didnâ€™t quite say it that way. Nonetheless, however he spouted his truthy version, itâ€™s what he meant. Give more, give better. Do more, do better.)
Yeah, I probably thought that then.
I was tired of not seeing my wife.
I was tired of not having a life.
In the last church I served, which was filled with the loveliest people I know, I just didnâ€™t want to be there anymore. Or anywhere, anymore.
I wanted to write. I wanted to play with my dog. I wanted to sip wine with my wife on Saturday nights. Though I didnâ€™t know it after leaving the church, did I also want to spend a little more time doing Jesusâ€™ bidding in hospice?
The dying woman listens to my answer, and then changes the subject to something else.
Bored with my answer, Death retreats to another room for a snack or to check recent tweets.
Why did I leave church?
Or have I?
How I must disappoint, and certainly bemuse God with my wandering ways! And yet I love Jesus. The Nazarene, that old and forever new storyteller, saunters ahead in the path toward the Realm of Love, and keeps urging me forward.