Monday, February 2, 2015
I birthed a church, and am ashamed of it
I loved my former church, and still do actually. But I'm mad at it the way you get mad at a child for doing things you thought you taught them not to do. I'm ashamed of it even.
My anger sparked a few days ago, at the funeral of our dear friend Nancy's mother. For years we've heard about this woman, who at 99 years old could still cause Nancy fits of sleeplessness and nausea, a woman who could not show the love and acceptance without which Nancy has been crippled. A woman who's idea of love consisted of disapproval and criticism.
It was enlightening to be in the places and meet the people who populated the stories we've heard throughout the years. We learned a lot about the family. We learned that Nancy's mother Rachel had been an accomplished pianist as a young woman, probably headed for a career in music until an accident destroyed her hand nearly to the point of amputation. We learned that Rachel was a gifted high soprano, singing with her Presbyterian church choir for many decades. She was so active in their music program that a few years ago she donated the funds for the creation and installation of a beautiful stained glass window, rich with musical symbolism and dedicated to the choir. The window glows vibrantly in the vaulted music room in which the choir practices.
As the funeral proceeded, the family's ongoing involvement in the life and music of the church was unfolded. We learned that the striking set of 5 ft tall wrought iron candlesticks flanking the altar had been made by Nancy's father. We learned that Nancy and her siblings had sung in the choir throughout the time they lived at home. Rachel had even urged Nancy to take voice lessons, something she has not yet done.
A stunningly gifted soprano was hired to sing at the service. We sat several rows behind Nancy, and could see the back of her head, and an occasional glimpse of her profile. When the opening strains of Schubert's Die Allmacht (The Omnipotence) began and the soloist started to sing of God's great power, we could see Nancy lean in, nearly rising to meet the notes of the aria that poured and soared toward us. We watched her head dip and tip as the piece unfolded, her right hand lifting and leading as she participated silently in the powerful performance that she later told us her mother sang even better. During the reception I thanked the soprano for gracing us with song, and told her how powerfully Nancy had been moved. She'd seen it, she said, and was so moved in response that she couldn't look at her and be able to continue singing.
When home in Rochester, Nancy attends my old church. I brought her there, knocking on her door one day to invite her to visit as part of a neighborhood outreach program. That was eight or so years ago. She's been attending ever since, but it pains her to be there. Music is a significant piece of the worship service at this church, and Nancy loves to sing. It's part of her genetic and cultural heritage. She pours her heart into singing and finds it to be the most elevated and intense form of her worship. Her voice is powerful. At times it rings out true and beautiful, rich with vibrato and feeling. At other times she tries to harmonize and the notes jar with the singing of those around her. It can be hard for others to maintain the melody because of that power. And so she has been asked not to sing, or to sing quietly, her joyful noises too disturbing to some of the people who sit around her.
She goes to church each Sunday, and rather than fight to constrain herself, she tells us that she mostly just doesn't sing. And afterword, rather than going downstairs to join in community and coffee, she drifts back down the street, alone, to her lonely house and her aging, crippled dog. She doesn't speak ill of the place. But she does speak great sadness.
I'm ashamed of this church, and of its leadership. I was one of the mid-wives who birthed it into being, and watched it develop and form. I heard its repeated claims of being a place for the least, the lost, and the lonely. I'm ashamed by its lack of creativity in handling this lovely, fragile bird, one of the loneliest people I know. This woman who considers herself the least in the kingdom, hoping simply to sweep and mop the floors of heaven. This woman who has lost hope in the idea of church as a place of healing rather than a source of pain. I'm ashamed of those who lead the women's ministry, and their lack of willingness to push through the protective barriers Nancy has erected, and to suffer the discomfort of her anxiety and awkwardness.
She'll keep going, of course, and giving of her financial abundance as her parents did. She'll listen to good sermons, and she'll receive the Body and Blood of our Lord to feed her very soul. But she won't ever be part of the community, won't be accepted, won't be encouraged in her giftings. She's too difficult, and it's too easy to not notice her slipping away, or to accept her denial of need.
That's not the church that I tried to form. And I'm ashamed of it.