Lately I have taken up reading memoirs. I have read stories of people who grew up in extreme poverty in the United States, one about a woman who hiked the Oregon trail, one about a guy who grew up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and now I’m reading one about a woman who is following her life story and associating it with the food she ate at different times in her life. All of these authors are from my generation, so I can relate to their memories of watching Different Strokes or eating Ding-Dongs and Cool-aid and Bologna sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise.
I like memoirs. I appreciate their honesty. Writing a memoir seems like good therapy.
I have been struck by two common threads in my reading. One is how God, faith, and church seemed to have very little real meaning in the author’s lives and second how each author experienced loneliness and desire for belonging throughout their lives.
Religion is mentioned like something other people did or as a control mechanism in early childhood to keep the author from smoking, or disobeying their parents, or having sex. But genuine connectivity with The Divine is missing.
I have been talking with colleagues lately about the shrinking church. “Where is everyone on Sunday morning?” Once people move to assisted living, or die, worship numbers drop and there is a is a feeling of loneliness in the building. Where did everybody go?
As a pastor I feel responsible for numbers. I feel like that’s on me to get people in the pews. That some how I need to be the dashing, white teeth, skinny jean speaker that will get them to worship. I recognize what a dangerous, egotistical mindset this is. Do I think I have so much power and charisma that I can enter people’s minds on Sunday morning and transport them to church? And once they are there, do I think I alone have the words to say that at the end of the hour they will think, “that was so amazing, my life is better for this, I’m so glad I didn’t sleep in. Hallelujah!”
No. This is offensive to the church. The church isn’t the pastor. Ever. She has been around a lot longer than any pastor and will outlive all of us. It’s offensive to her memoir to think we as clergy are the reason she exists.
If the church could write a memoir there would be stories of conflict and war, abuse and betrayal, pettiness and bickering. She would tell you truths from her long history that have been hidden from us still today. She knows. She has watched it all. She knows.
She would also tell you stories of faith and justice. How people did the right thing, when it was the hardest thing. How the Word poured out of pulpits like a waterfall and flooded the people with Living Water. How stones shouted, when those frozen chosen cracked a smile. How Samaritans were welcome. Misunderstood, scary people were not feared. How plates of steamy potatoes and roasted chicken were served out to the hungry. How people spoke the truth to power. How things were said and feelings were hurt, but people came around and forgave and moved on. How children were embraced, how the elderly were heard, how the challenges of the world were addressed.
She would tell her story from a place of strength and conviction. She would tell you she is only as perfect as the people who walk in the doors.
She would tell you that she will not die. But we all will. She would remind you that she knows death, and that it has been defeated. The One who sent her has given her all she needs. He did the suffering, the dying and the redeeming. She needs to do the living.
My God there is so much loneliness in the world. There is so much detachment from the awareness that we are part of something greater, that we belong to God. The church’s memoir would lament this truth. She is groaning in labor pains for her doors to be open and for life to spring forth.
It’s time to sing a new song. The story is far from over.