As she drives from Atlanta, away from a city church in the city lights, the darkness frames a distant memory: stars. Not just the dippers, but “stars between stars, a virtual curtain of stardust upon which the larger constellations were hung.” She’s following these stars to a one-room white clapboard church where she will become its first female rector. She’s also driving away from a certain striving – which it turns out, will follow her anywhere.
This beautiful book by Barbara Brown Taylor (BBT) offers a rare transparency from a person inside the clerical robes. The countryside speaks to her faith. Its pages are full of spiritual honesty and earthy appreciation, as if Henri Nouwen were on a nature walk with Mary Oliver.
My interaction with the book was restful – like walking with someone alongside summer’s river, elucidating my spiritual life without preaching a word. I will interact with the book here as I process some of my own Leaving Church journey. With a subtitle A Memoir of Faith, we might expect to know what its main sections relate to: Finding, Losing, & Keeping. But the surprise for her (and joy for me) is the conversation she unearths between faith and humanity, and how the losing of one can mean the finding of the other.
Where does faith meet humanity?
When the church ceases to be that meeting place, can faith exist outside the church?
Can humanity exist inside the church?
From the start, Taylor shares her longing for the priesthood in a way that honors its sacredness, declaring its purpose and beauty. She serves for years in a busy city church, working morning to night. However, when she dives headfirst into the country church of her dreams, something inside her sticks in the sludge, damming up the river connecting her and God. One of her few places of healing is working the land of a rural farm. But as she looks up from the dirt each day to the geese honking high overhead, she wonders why her soul calls out, take me with you. For all the love exchanged between her and the church over the years, has she lost a part of herself along the way? “I spent a great deal of time trying to be good,” Taylor says, “but was good the same as whole?”
Taylor had become overwhelmed with her church schedule, always helping others but never refreshing her own soul. Times of simply laying in the grass, enjoying the divine presence, were only memories. “Like the bluebirds that sat on my windowsills,” she says, “pecking the reflections they saw in the glass, I could not reach the greenness for which my soul longed. For years I had believed that if I just kept at it, the glass would finally disappear. Now for the first time, I wondered if I had devoted myself to an illusion.”
I resonated with this, but on a level that doesn’t offer clear explanation. I grew up in a Pastor and Pastor’s wife’s home that revolved around the church. I carried that all-encompassing, all-in sense into my adult church community. And I loved it! That is, until I resented it too. Inexplicably. If a life is pointed toward knowing and enjoying God, and the church exists by and for God, then shouldn’t we spend as much time there as possible?
Of course, I wasn’t without retreat. I enjoyed the divine creation as well: surfing, gardening, hiking, cloud-watching. Even work became a retreat of sorts, into the gears of the mind, clicking away in search of elegant solutions to non-spiritual problems. Like Taylor’s geese, I began to find hope in places I wasn’t supposed to long for.
But on an inner level, my connecting river was clogging. Even as questions arose, a sense of my own humanity seemed to be settling in. Acceptance was a practice I did not yet think of as spiritual. So also fear, curiosity, uncertainty, connection with disbelieving others, enjoyment of earthly moments, openness of thought.
How could I connect this expanding humanity to the God I met in church? If I couldn’t find a way, then was I connecting something less than my full-self to God? Wouldn’t that also mean my skinny river was connecting to a less-than-full image of God?
After staring from the garden to the geese long enough, Taylor left her parish post to be a professor at nearby Piedmont College. She doesn’t have a clear explanation for the sudden change. (In Holy Envy, written 20 years later, she still doesn’t have a singular reason, but I take to her suggestion that, quite possibly, “the same Spirit that led me to that church may have led me out.”).
Those around wonder if she’s giving up on church or God, and don’t know how to relate at first. Taylor insightfully observes that in her priestly role, people saw her as a skewed version of herself. It makes sense then, that as she sheds her priestly collar in search of her own humanity, those around are baffled.
Meanwhile she is beginning to feel more freely herself than ever, as she steps away from what she lovingly calls Mother Church. She reads my mind as she remembers the fear-based warnings we received growing up in the faith:
“Having left the yard for the first time in twenty years, I did what most grown children do. I left the yard. I asked lots of questions. I sought out the grown children my mother had taught me not to play with, and in every case I learned that she had not told me the whole truth. While the world was often a frightening place, there was also a great deal of goodness in it. I met people of other faiths and of no faith at all who were doing more ‘to do justice, and to live kindness’ than many of us who knew where to find that verse in the Bible. I listened to the stories they told about how badly they had been treated by Christians like me…”
In the end she says something about Mother Church that I resonate so harmonically with, I hesitate to put her quotations around it: “I was just looking for some way to stay related to her that did not require me to stay a child.” Have you ever felt this way?
It’s a challenging statement because I certainly was a child, and one who thrived under her protective wings. But at some point, it began to feel more like overprotectiveness, which ends up harming the very one it sought to protect.
How can a church both protect its young ones and set free its maturing offspring?
We come to God as children, but as we grow into church people, we become mother hens, parenting so much we forget we are also kids. When Jesus blesses the children, I read him as cherishing their wonder and their questions – maybe also their lack of worry – but not a glazed-over obedience. Everywhere he turns it seems – healing on the Sabbath, eating with the greedy, wasting anointing perfume – he upsets “The Parents”. And we love him for it, we’re drawn to this mavericky outlaw who dares to do. We admire him like children admire their crazy uncle, and when we’re new in the faith, we’re allowed to. But God help us if as we grow, we start to emulate our uncle when there is the serious business of parenting to do.
It’s hard for parents to let go. I know this well. As my youngest prepares to leave the nest, I have these recurring dreams of him as a toddler, with soft bird-wing shoulders that feel cool to my squeeze when I finally catch him. What I wouldn’t give to fit that little one into my arms and stubble-nuzzle his tummy again.
But a parent’s long-term job is not to hold the family together. It’s not about protecting ourselves. And it’s not about keeping things the way they were. Greater things than these can happen when parents think about making the world a better place, more than protecting what is already their good place. Greater things than these can happen when we, like a gifted educator , teach them to think for themselves. And then set them free to do so.
Jesus says to the disciples, “You will do greater things than these.”
Can Mother Church dare say the same to church children?
After contemplating all that she’s losing, and what’s she’s finding, Taylor’s final section is called “Keeping”. No longer in her role as priest, BBT realizes she is losing institutional power. But all is not lost as she begins to see her priesthood, “emptied into the world.” “No longer tied to one particular community, I began to sense myself part of the far larger congregation of humankind…Gradually I remembered what I had known all along, which is that church is not a stopping place but a starting place for discerning God’s presence in this world.”
Taylor doesn’t use a lot of seminary words to convince us that she’s kept her faith. I too have found that the further I journey into open pastures the less I worry about convincing others that I’m still in the fold. But by book’s end, we can see that her river is flowing again – a broader and more honest river connecting humanity and divinity.
As I learn from Taylor and others, I am getting the distinct impression that the river’s width is not limited in any way save for the honesty available at both ends. And I take God’s end to be pretty honest (How would you footnote that? My start: 1. the Scriptures: Psalms, Job, all the prophets up to and especially Jesus; 2. the Creation: animal kingdom, ocean’s gentleness and power, destructive storms, regenerating wildfires, super blooming wildflowers that die right there in front of God and everybody; 3. the Human heart God created: passionate love, depressing loneliness, selfishness, generosity, dreams and unfulfilled dreams). That’s God’s end.
The question is: how honest can we be on our end?
I’m thankful for Taylor’s book, awash in images of nature informing faith. In it we find her humanity, and it shows us a new side of divinity.
We’re left with an impression of her hands in the soil, geese flying overhead, and water flowing freely again. Perhaps only those birds can see the white robes of her religiosity breaking down deep inside that compost pile, but as is nature’s way, we may yet see them grow into nourishment for the road ahead.
♦ weekendswell ♦
Here are some of the questions I asked in this post that I would love to hear your thoughts on, in person or online:
- When the church ceases to be the meeting place between faith and humanity, can faith exist outside the church? Can humanity exist inside the church?
- How do you connect this expanded humanity to the God you met in church?
- How can a church both protect its young ones and set free its maturing offspring?
- If the river connecting us to God depends on honesty, do you take God to be honest? How honest are you in bringing all of your humanity to the Divine?
This is the first in a series of Impact Reviews: Books that affected me deeply. The second is All You Can Ever Know