Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Preacher's Kid Finds a Home Among Friends

I've missed two weeks of meeting for worship due to my sister's visit. I am surprised to find that when I say I've "missed" two weeks, I find that I actually do miss those two weeks! How wonderful it is to miss meeting for worship! It makes me feel as though perhaps there has been some healing of the fracturing of my life when my father left the Church.

In those intervening years, I denied my need for spiritual community. I turned to my intellect to patch myself up. And though I studied spirituality both formally and informally all those years I was away from the church, I denied any true NEED for religion. I made myself believe I had grown beyond it because to acknowledge the pain of that leavetaking felt like a betrayal of my father's decision. So in these years, I have sown bitter herbs and thorns. Religion is abusive. Religious people are parasitic, judgmental ignoramuses who prey on the good men and women who choose to serve them. The entire thing is bullshit, a waste of time, a travesty, an embarassment. But now look at me! I actually missed going to meeting! Perhaps, to use Hildegard of Bingen's term, there has been a "greening" of the arid field of my heart.

It has been a long time since I felt the need to attend a worship service. For some years, Sunday has had no special meaning for me. It was a day like any other. But there was a time, long ago, when being anywhere other than church on a Sunday would have been unthinkable. I was a preacher's kid so when Sunday rolled around, we rose early and dressed in our Sunday best, ate our breakfasts and got in the car to journey to whatever church (or churches) Dad was serving at the time. When we were little, those churches were Methodist and Presbyterian. As teens, after my dad switched denominational affiliation, we spent out Sundays in Congregationalist (United Church of Christ) churches.

Perhaps other church-going children dreaded Sundays. Perhaps they were bored from the forced inactivity of sitting through long sermons. Not us. Sundays were work days for us. We helped fold bulletins. We helped with little housekeeping tasks in the church and listened to our father practice his sermon. Standing at our father's elbow, and subject to the fact that many people cannot distinguish what information should not be shared in the presence of children, we were acquainted with the politics, loyalties, sorrows, and joys of the parishioners. From an early age, we were expected to sit quietly, listen carefully, study thoughtfully, and to speak clearly. Church was more than just a Sunday morning affair. We arrived first and left last. We were the "royal family" at church suppers and fellowship events. We went to preacher exchanges and special holiday events. OH and the holidays were long for us! We had Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter Sunrise service too not to mention the bible study and sermon preparation that preceded it. We had all of Advent, Christmas Eve sermons and concerts and Christmas day services. We had the ridiculously long season of Pentecost. (We used to joke: Today is the 789th week of Pentecost...)

We also had the trials and sorrows of the poor souls who sought my parents' time and attention in the midst of all this.

Phones rang in the middle of the night. People found shelter in our home. Money saved for our vacations was given to families in deeper need. We followed Dad to nursing homes and sick rooms. We saw him at work at baptisms,weddings, funerals, and calling hours. We knew about spousal abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide, rape, poverty, grief, death and mourning at a very young age. Sometimes when we answered the phone we heard the desperately needy voice of a person looking for help from one of our parents. Some of these people were crime victims. Others were drug addicts or were suicidal. We learned to be tactful, discrete, and swift. My parents shielded us as best they could but as PK's we may as well have worn large neon signs on our foreheads advertising that we were good listeners. I learned very early to never show alarm or disgust at any story. I also learned to sense pain beneath a decorous facade. Even today though I have very intentionally avoided any career that would set me up as a counselor or confidant, I find that people often disclose to me.

The paid ministry is a dozen jobs rolled into one. Dad was a therapist. In fact, he did post-graduate work in psychology to handle his congregation's needs. He was an executive officer who must know the church's business affairs. He must be a musician, scholar, teacher and janitor too. And he was a performer. The church is a theater and the pulpit was his stage. We watched him transform himself from "Dad" to a person we jokingly called, "Father Daddy" in his sweeping black robes. He commanded that audience with his deep, resounding voice rising and falling in an enthralling cadence. Gait and gesture, costume and timing were as much a part of the service as were the elements of communion.

I loved to watch him as we sat in the pews with our mother, a regal and poised woman, in the front of the church. We sat quietly and devoutly next to our mother who, with her quiet, reverent dignity was even more imposing than our father. Apart from our parents' high expectations, we also were aware that the congregation watched us and so we behaved accordingly.

We were model children. Had to be. And we knew that after the benediction (which we had memorized, of course) we would rise to take our place next to our father to greet the people.

Learn to smile and nod and laugh appropriately.

Learn how to speak to the elderly men and women clearly and cheerfully.

Learn to keep your head up and your hands and feet from fidgeting.

And so it went from before I have reliable memory until I was college-bound. Every Sunday. Until it was over and my father moved on to a new career. Just. Like. That.

Then I was on my own. I studied religion and spirituality for the next fifteen years but I had no community. I tried a couple UU churches but it never felt right. So strange to go in and sit there. It felt disjointed. I felt disjointed.

I realized this week that one of the reasons I could not feel at home in the Unitarian Universalist churches I have visited was in part because I was there only as a body in the seat. I cannot be a passive participant. I am a preacher's kid and trained to that lifestyle. Religion was not something we did on Sundays. Religion was the essence of who we were. It was the breath in us. So I can't just "go to church." To sit there and listen to a sermon is nothing but a lukewarm version of the vibrant spark of my childhood religious experience.

And so I come to sit among Friends. I came because if I could not be the minister (and I cannot) I wanted to be one of them. I did not want to sit among people going through the motions. I wanted to feel energy crackle around me. I wanted to be surrounded by people whose spiritual voices were deep, resounding, vibrant, electric, devestating. I wanted the hard work. I need the hard work.

But I don't want to shoulder the burden alone. Although I have toyed with the idea of returning to seminary, I know I will not. I have no wish to be all things to all people and I have no desire to return to a religious community that I see as over-reliant on their hired clergy. I saw the church run my father down as they demanded more and more from him and gave little back. I wanted to be around people who were not content to ride on their preacher's coattails, not content to rely on his words or make his human efforts a broken substitute for divine revelation. What I wanted was to be a member of a community of ministers each with a calling toward service to the Divine and to the divine in each other. And on most days,that's what I have found. It is a beginning.

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