familiar story

I have finally read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. I dared not read it sooner, lest it struck too close to the bone. But it was time now, and worth doing.

Her work has always felt familiar. Despite her fame, neither her sermons nor her writing seem so very different from what a lot of us do. I find delight and surprise in her words without thinking them impossible to have conceived or to have heard elsewhere. (I guess I expect rather a lot from preachers and writers.) And so it was with this. There were times when the book left tears burning, and times when I had to hold myself in place as my instincts rebelled.

What jarred most was this: there was grief, but no void. There was choice, but no real vulnerability. She makes much of the lessons of being unemployed, and what she says about finding life in the spaciousness of it makes so much sense to me. But the moment she realised she needed to leave her congregation, she received an unsolicited call from a college president asking her to teach. She had three months off before going to a job that was hers and that she wanted. It is not always like that, and there were moments when the weight of it didn’t quite ring true.

I was jealous at first, I suppose. But in the end, I was glad for her. For her it has worked. She was given a path; and that path has helped a lot of people. It is good.

Then I realised that, while I would love to receive the phone call she did, and would love to have a next step, a clear goal, a job — I would not actually trade my place for hers.

Years ago, on retreat, I consciously ran from the question ‘are you willing to give God everything?’ Last year, on retreat, I went back to that question, and still wasn’t sure of the answer. The nun I spoke with (both times) said, ‘but is that not what you did in ordination?’ Maybe. Yes. It’s what I thought I did. But most of us who are ordained have plans and visions too. They are about God. And often they are of God. But they are not always about giving God everything.

When I sat down to pray with that question last Spring, it led me to a path I hadn’t foreseen. I seemed to say ‘no’ all over again. I hadn’t the energy to try to give God everything. I wanted space for God and a room of my own; the possibility of silence and space for creativity; a life of self-offering but also a life that was not constantly eroded by the failure of dreams in the face of reality. I wanted out of Nineveh. But I tried going back. God gave me a bush, showed me how not to take myself quite so seriously, and then cut me free to choose life where I could find it.

I have found it, in many many ways. Silence and creativity. The blessing of a door to close. The freedom from constant demands; time and space to find myself again; time and space to fall in love with God all over again, and with people too. I was never not. But there is more space for it now — a space full of friendship, rivers, arches and the smell of rising yeast.

So, I understand Barbara Brown Taylor’s choices. I can sense freedom in stepping outside the church, pitching your tent elsewhere, broadening the vision. There are even moments when I am tempted to do that, and I realise it might be both wise and necessary to get on with it.

But I seem to be called to folly. Priesthood does not go away just because it becomes difficult. I stand further from the altar than I used to, and further from the altar than I would like, but that is where my vocation is centred, and where I know most clearly who I am in Christ.

‘Are you willing to give God everything?’ I’m not sure I will ever be able to answer, but I am willing to give God this: I will stand in the place of hope and vulnerability, trusting my vocation. I will hold to the belief that I am called to fulfil my vows as a priest through word and sacrament, through joy and sorrow, through life and death, no matter how much easier it would be to walk away from them. I will push at the door until there are no doors left, or until God shows me another way. But I will only push when it feels like the right door: a door wide enough for silence and creativity; for private and public space; for relationship and solitude; for prayer, communion and community. I will choose life, and choose church, and trust that both can thrive together.

I will keep asking the question, and let God to turn each no to yes.

Holy Week

It was bound to be hard, right?  A year out, a priest without altar.  No liturgies to prepare, no stresses at all, past the self-inflicted choice of a week of prayer-book eucharists to attend (chosen not for language, but for timing).  I’ve sensed it coming for weeks, as my body kept trying to gear up for the great week, and I had to slow it down saying ‘no, not this time…’

I knew it would be hard — but I didn’t know what, or how.
Until, that is, they began reading the passion.

The story will always catch us if we let it.  And that was part of what happened.  But this time the shock and pain came at realising that I could take no part in it — that I would not be reading it aloud for the first time since I was ordained deacon.

Reading the passion aloud in worship is an odd and difficult thing.  It is physically demanding.  It is emotionally demanding.  And — for me at least — it is one of the formative acts of ordained life.

It’s not the sort of thing I anticipated as an ordinand, of course.  I cannot remember a single conversation in which it was mentioned as an essential part of priesthood.  So it was a surprise to realise how crucial it is, how much it forms you.

That first year as a deacon, I was given it to read four times:  as the narrator on Palm Sunday, at the Roman Catholic ecumenical service (a hugely generous gift), at the Gospel of the Watch, and in the Good Friday liturgy.  I’ve read it at least twice every year since.  It gets harder each time, as it seeps deeper and deeper into my bones, and draws down every last drop of energy.

The narrator stumbled at one point yesterday.  I heard the odd ‘tut’.  But that was precisely the moment my heart leapt for him, because I could feel that it was the moment the reading had taken over.  He began in control, a priest and liturgist, tending pace and timing.  But at some point he just gave in.  The story took over, and he was subsumed. Who can say what someone else is experiencing, really, but this is how it seemed.  And I remembered the doing of it — the strain of yielding, and yet retaining enough poise and presence to go on, to proclaim, to speak and breathe and stand still.  It is harder than one might think.  And the absence of it tore through me.

I know this is not uniquely a preist’s task.  I remember powerful readings done without priests at all.  I don’t think it matters who reads it, or who reads which role, so long as it is read well.  But I do think it matters for the priest — to be able to read this, to have to read it, over and over again.

The physical act of reading the passion changes us.  It cannot be ignored, it cannot be tossed off or resented, and heaven help the priest who fails to realise this.  We are given this great task and privilege — to stand at the intersection of anguish and love, degradation and glory — and to find our identity there.

I will miss reading it this week.  Desperately.

And I pray for all those who are charged with the task of it: that they will live well through the doing of it — allowing themselves to be drained, and loved, and changed.