Tag Archives: John Mack

Wings and a prayer, but not in that order

As I mentioned yesterday, I was 30 when I first started dipping my toes back in the church-going water after more than a decade of abstaining from all church-related stuff except special occasions.  Being a preacher’s kid can do that to you.  The only reason I felt a sudden need to go back to church was because I missed the phenomenon that is congregational hymn singing and choral singing in the context of worship.  Being a preacher’s kid can do THAT to you, too.

I had been at First Church UCC in Washington, DC for not even a year when the pastor John Mack came to me to ask if I’d lead the “front end” of the service.  This was always led by a lay person, and involved providing the Call to Worship, introducing the first hymn, praying the Invocation, introducing the Prayer of Confession, leading the Prayer of Confession, and offering the Words of Assurance after the confession.  In true Joysian fashion, I agreed and then a week before it was time for me to take my turn, I called John in a panic.  I had no idea what to do or say.  Did I have to invent everything on my own?  Was there a collection of materials I could look through?  Could I really use ANYTHING?  I didn’t know liturgy from a hole in the ground, and in addition to being somewhat baffled by the terms themselves, I had no grip on the purpose of the whole structure.

John laughed and walked me through it, using small words and little Fisher Price people to illustrate.  Okay, he didn’t really use the Fisher Price people, but that’s probably only because we were talking on the phone and not in his office.  John said, “The Call to Worship is where you are inviting people to the party.  Then we sing a hymn to celebrate that we’re all together.  Then the Invocation is where you invite God to the party.  So for those first two parts, think about how you would like to be invited, and then how you would like to invite God to join us, and just say those things.”

Easy peasy!  As it turned out, in the 10 years I was at First Church, taking on this task was rarely easy, but it was always a lot of fun for me.  Often my brain would jolt me at 2 or 3 a.m. in the week before it was my turn, rattling me awake with all sorts of brilliant ideas (I don’t know about you, but many of the ideas I have at 2 and 3 a.m. seem to border on sheer genius.)  I’d write stuff down in the dark, and then wake up in the morning and have a good laugh at my own expense.  Either I couldn’t read what I’d written, or I could and I couldn’t fathom, in the light of day, how my brilliant 2 a.m. insight had anything to do with the task at hand.

One Saturday night before my turn, I had everything but the Invocation.  None of the stuff in John’s collection was clicking with me, none of my usual suspects of spiritual inspiration were clicking with wherever I was (Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, William Stafford, Marge Piercy, Robert Frost, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, e.e. cummings, etc.)  So I decided to write my own Invocation.  I ended up with a sort of word casserole that reflected my sensory experiences of going back to church after many years away.  It’s a series of snapshots of the different things I focused on to keep myself from running right out of the sanctuary at different times during any given service.  In those first few years (yes, years), I struggled so intensely to figure out — in between hymns — what the hell I was doing there when I didn’t believe in a singular, or even Triune, God, and I sure as hell didn’t think that God was some sort of hard-working, authoritarian single father who had only one son.

Loving maker of our days, hold us now in your heart.

For those of us with sorrows too deep for words, come as the piercing music of birdsong.

For those of us with pains too sharp for silence, come as the gentle quiet of a deep breath.

For those of us who are in several places at once, come as the singular, insistent glow of candleflame.

For those of us who float in dreams, come as the reliably solid bench of a pew.

For those of us eclipsed by darkness, come as a festival of colored glass.

You find us when we are most lost, love us when we are most afraid, and hear us when we are most silent.  To you who are ever at work in our lives, we give thanks — for life, for love, and for the daily opportunity to be at work in your life.  Amen.

When I called my mom for Mother’s Day this past Sunday, she told me that she has been reading this prayer at least once a week for years.  And, because she’s my mother, she also apparently shares it with just about everyone she meets.  For all I know, everyone who reads this blog has already received this prayer from my mom.  If that’s the case, well, just think of it as a re-run now available on a different channel.

There’s no point in having a prayer without wings, at least that’s what my buzzy brain tells me.  Maybe that’s because I think prayers, like poems, are words with wings.  As the songwriter says, why walk when you can fly?

Unorganized religion

My friend Renee said in a comment on a previous reflection that she’d give me extra credit if I could help her respond to her 10-year-old god-daughter about how she (Renee) can believe in god if she doesn’t go to church every Sunday.  Perhaps Renee doesn’t remember this from our school days, but I’ve always been a bit of a glutton when it comes to extra credit.  I started to write a brief (honest!) response to her comment this morning, but it became a much longer (surprise!) thing and so I decided to give it its own space.

First, there is no sin like church sin to turn you off of the entire enterprise that is known, somewhat laughably to me, as “organized religion.”  Church sin can be as big and broad as being told of God’s love while being condemned for who you are.  Church sin can be as small as visiting a church and having no one, not a single person, acknowledge you or talk with you.  Then there’s the whole struggle of “what do I have to believe to belong to a church?”  That one, plus general hypocrisy that is all too common among so-called Christian churches, probably drive people away by the thousands.

Just the other day I was chuckling to myself, wondering why people so often use the adjective “organized” to describe religion.  As opposed to what?  Disorganized?  I’ve been in churches that would best be described as practicing “disorganized religion.”  Reorganized?  That was the first word in the crazy-long name of the denomination of my youth.

In thinking about Renee’s god-daughter’s question, it seems to me that believing in god without going to church is a way of practicing unorganized religion.  I’ve done that, too, and the advantages are too numerous to count, including getting to sleep in on Sunday, poring over the Sunday New York Times while the news is still relatively newish, avoiding the toxicity of god always being a man, etc.  The thing is, I never stopped believing in god – I can’t ever remember I time where I didn’t believe in a limitless assortment of divineness and holiness in the universe that threads through me but does not have me (thank god!) as its center.  Old bearded white man godMy concept of god is best described in one word as pantheistic, in the sense that I don’t believe there’s one container, or three containers if you’re more trinitarian in your orientation, that contain that which is divine.  And my concept of god is surely nothing like the old bearded white guy god that so many people still carry around, to my continued astonishment.  [Note: The photo at the right is the actual freakish cover of an actual freakish book I found on the shelf in my local library while I was writing this very reflection.  The subtitle in red, to the left of so-called GOD’s freakish face is “How to Live the Full Adventure of Knowing and Doing the Will of God.”  Hold up.  Is the GOD in question THAT GUY???  No thanks.  Turns out I’m REALLY busy for the foreseeable future.  And by future, I mean this lifetime and whatever comes next.]

So, while I never stopped believing in god, it took me a long time to believe in the church, and I’m still a work in progress.  The church [and by “the church” I mean “organized religion”] has been in so many ways, for me, more an agent of condemnation than compassion, more interested in self-preservation than inquiry, more encouraging of doctrine than discussion.  In short, church was the last place I ever found god.  So Renee, a possible short answer to your niece is that previous sentence right there.  However, if you’re looking for a cure for insomnia, read on.

Somewhere along the way, I started flipping the issue upside down, or inside out.  I started thinking about the whole god and church issue as being one where maybe, just maybe, church needed ME so that more people could find god in church.  I tend to think that PW’s fingerprints are all over this particular twist in my road, since she has always been very open to my skeptical/heretical leanings, and because it sounds like the kind of thing she would say.  But lest I be committed to the nearest psychiatric ward for delusions of grandeur, what I mean is that as I started knitting together the still-unfinished afghan that is my theological orientation to the cosmos, it occurred to me that if I could find a church that had a decent number (say, more than 3) of curious skeptics in it (people with questions like mine, or people who would be willing to entertain questions like mine), then that could be a fun place to do my spiritual and theological workouts.  Bonus points for a church that was really living out what are, for me, the central tenets of Christianity – namely to help and advocate for the least, the last, and the lost.

I didn’t suddenly or randomly start flipping the issue upside down or inside out.  I had a lot of help and encouragement from some key people. In addition to PW, there was the husband and wife pastoral team at the first church I attended after abandoning church at age 18 when I left home for college.  I could, and did, ask John Mack and Barbara Gerlach anything and everything about theology and doctrine.  I once asked Barbara, “So what’s the big deal about Jesus?  Why don’t we also give air time to some of our modern-day prophets, like Gandhi, King, and Romero?” while we were organizing the closet where all the altar cloths were stored.  Another time I sent John an email rant with the subject: “I hate Palm Sunday and maybe Easter, too.”  Not only did they encourage my questions, they responded pastorally, sometimes playfully, often with more questions for me to wrestle with.  They also encouraged me to keep asking questions even as they invited me to become a more visible and active member of the First Church community.  So there I was, openly queer and openly skeptical of the whole church enterprise, and the pastors wanted me to bring my whole self to the table.  Call me a weirdo, because that offer was impossible to refuse.

The other weirdo thing that happened was that I started hearing love songs not just as interpersonal, but also as songs from a compassionate creator to me personally and to us humans generally, and vice versa.  As someone who is always looking for, and usually finding, the next great love song, I don’t remember exactly when this started happening, but once it did, it was like the floodgates opened, and now it happens all the time.  So rather than prattle on any longer, let’s just listen to a great love song sung by two of the best, Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris.  This is “Little Fire” from Griffin’s latest album “Downtown Church.”