October 10, 2004
My student days

Sorry I haven't posted in a while, but I've had a kind of stressful week, not least because I finally officially left the Lutheran church I was going to. On Tuesday evening I went to see the pastor and informed him of my decision. I had been hoping to have another church lined up before I left this one, but I realized it was basically impossible to go looking at the same time, especially with all these commitments I've gotten entangled in.

I left for several reasons, not all of which I want to go into here. But I was struck by how much my feelings were echoed in Dave's post about church authority. I wouldn't really say that I want to be bossed around, but there are certain qualities that I need in a church that were not there.

My former pastor has an odd trait: he's always worried that people are afraid of him. To me, he's such a good-natured person that he's about as frightening as an elderly cocker spaniel, but he insists that simply because of his position, many people are sure he's going to rain hellfire and damnation on them. I suppose that's true, but sometimes I feel he misreads people. In fact, in that very same conversation, after we had discussed my leaving, he said, "Well look, I'm not going to yell at you, I'm not going to beat you..."

"I never thought you were going to do that," I said.

"Well, when you came in here you looked terrified," he said.

I did? When I entered the room I felt sorrowful and pained at what I was about to do; my stomach was in a knot. I suppose I was anxious in the way that you're anxious when you're about to go through something you know will be unpleasant, like a flu shot. It was a shame, but entirely typical alas, that he took those feelings born of affection and read them into a conviction that he was going to attack me.

I don't know why the pastor is like that, but it could be a metaphor for the whole problem that Dave is talking about. A lot of churches seem to make it their main job to assert their own harmlessness, advertising a "safe, accepting environment" and that sort of thing. As Dave points out, this can be taken to weird extremes, to the point where the church seems to stand for nothing else.

Yet underlying this is an odd, almost arrogant assumption of power. Both my ex-pastor and the churches seem to assume that speaking of sin from the pulpit will strike terror into people's hearts, that refusing anyone sacraments or privileges will leave them feeling worthless and outcast, that a smile or a frown from the pastor will change the complexion of someone's whole day. That is true enough for those who were brought up in fear and trembling of the church. For my traumatized ex-Catholic friend who has a deep, mystical connection to God, a benignly accepting pastor who mostly stays out of the way is probably just the thing he needs right now.

But people like Dave and me, and probably a lot of other urban Gen-Xers, don't have that ingrained sense of awe about church. Churches have to earn it. And by "awe" I don't mean a terror of judgment; you don't feel in terror of judgment when you look at a solar eclipse or the Grand Canyon, but you do feel awe. It comes from witnessing something much bigger and greater than yourself.

At my former church, I ultimately did not feel the presence of something greater than myself. In fact, I sometimes found myself in an odd position of authority. At Bible study I seemed to know more about Bible scholarship than anyone else there, despite the short time that I've been studying it. The first time I showed up at a Christian Service Committee meeting, the members immediately started asking me for advice.

When I pointed this out to the pastor at our last conversation, he said, "Church involves both giving and receiving, and in that case you were giving."

Eh? To me it's not about giving and receiving, it's about teaching and learning. I'm supposed to be the catechumen, the student, not the teacher. Granted, I don't expect everyone to be as interested in things like atonement theories or Gnostic theology as I am, but I would expect longtime Christians to be able to instruct me on some dimension, spiritual, moral or behavioral.

I wonder, though, how much of this comes from my own comfort level in playing that role. When I was growing up I tended to get along better with adults than with peers; I'm the youngest in my family, my mother's a teacher, and I am certainly good at being a student. I think that being unbaptized and as weak in faith as I am is good enough reason to exclude me from church leadership, but I can't help wondering if one reason I'm stuck here is that I'm afraid to move out of this position. I'm not used to bearing much responsibility, and when I do find it upon me it usually feels like an oppressive weight.

It's also true, though, that today I find myself being a grownup and bearing various responsibilities much more successfully than I would have thought. I think it's because I work better as an apprentice, learning beside the masters and working my way up step by step, than as an entrepreneur who grabs at the brass ring from the start. It's not so fashionable a way to go about it in America, but it does explain my desire for a teacher -- or better, a whole body of them.

Posted by Camassia at October 10, 2004 01:17 PM | TrackBack

If you're after a community as you describe, check out the Orthodox Church in America. It's not for me, because it's their way or the highway, but they aren't hellfire/brimstone folks, either. You will find an accepting crowd of extremely knowledgeable Christians willing to take you in and teach you about their faith. They know and firmly believe in the story of their denomination. You could do a whole lot worse....

In Him,

Posted by: Jim on October 10, 2004 06:00 PM

Sister, I can only imagine the nervousness, hurt, frustration that led to and follow your leaving your "former congregation." I regreat that there was not enough substance to the faith there to claim your enthusiasm and involvement. As a catechumen (and since I don't know much of your story, I'll just work with what you've laid out in this post), you had the right to expect that you would face a kind of life-changing encounter -- education, challenge, dialogue. And while you certaintly had the right to demand that, you ought not to have been required to articulate what you wanted; that should have been in the congregation's game plan (and your catechist's, too, although in a serious sense, it is the congregation that is the catechist).

I am touched by your description of what the catechumenate is like: How I'd like you in my congregation to share my own journey to faith (and I'm a life-long, infant-baptized, formerly clergy Lutheran!). Alas, the commute to Minnesota might be a wee much every Sunday.

I certainly wish you all the best as you seek out a community that will perpare you for and welcome you into faith. I hope that doesn't sound patronizing. I believe that you understand that faith is not an either/or -- either you've got it or you don't. (Lutherans make that mistake a lot, lamentably. Thus our skimpy reflection on sanctification and growth in grace. We don't really believe it happens, so we can ignore it. Hence, no Bible study on a serious level; no education beyond confirmation -- if then; no seriouly bearing one another's burdens. Sorry, ELCA; that's true.)

Frankly, I think your journey will be an interesting one, fraught with frustration, perhaps, but also with excitement. There is, after, the Holy Spirit, and she is alive and active in the world.

While the earlier poster makes a valid point about Orthodoxy, and I am investigating that myself, I'm not at all convinced that simply changing traditional/denominational ships is quite the answer.

I shall watch with interest as this new stage in your journey unfolds. (What a good idea this blogging is; how helpful for the rest of us.)

Dwight P. (versuspopulum)

Posted by: Dwight P. on October 11, 2004 06:56 AM

Thanks, guys. Actually, there's an OCA mission just a few blocks from my apartment that I've been meaning to go investigate at some point. It would certainly fill the High Church liturgical yen I seem to have, and what I've heard of the theology is intriguing.

Posted by: Camassia on October 11, 2004 10:52 AM

You once reported that your (former) pastor had encouraged you to consider whether you might be a good candidate for the ministry, yourself. I think I commented that, while it is between you and God whether you are called to ministry, your pastor may have been casually identifying for you qualities he sees which are necessary for ministry: A strong intellectual capacity, compassion, a healthy skepticism, a seeking heart, humility, erudition.

Qualities that make for an excellent student. One of the best places for a student is in school. Since I began working at one such school, I have actually met a number of students who are here to learn, study, search, clarify, who want to be challenged--and who have absolutely no intention of going into the ministry. They have found that they just plain need to be here, studying to satisfy their own need to learn, not able to declare fully what it is they really know or believe. They're here because they are hungrier than most, and they aren't getting the nutrition they crave just by going to church.

Fuller's pretty close to where you live, is it not?

I'd like to echo Brother Dwight's well wishes for you as you continue on your path. You've been on my mind a lot lately, and in my prayers. Well, the community of the blogosphere is right here beside you, and we're going with you on this journey.

So, where're we going next?

Posted by: Dash on October 11, 2004 11:51 AM

Dash, that's the problem, though, that someone like Camassia can't find the nutrition she needs at church. Churches, not seminaries or other schools, are the places that should be equipped to form people in the Christian faith. That they aren't is quite an indictment of us.

Thanks for this post; it is a wake-up call to all of us. And as Dash said, we are here beside you.

Posted by: Jennifer on October 11, 2004 01:03 PM

But seminaries are the church! It's how the church offers nourishment for the minds of those who are keen to open a can of serious Hauwerwassian whuppass on a regular basis. You can get laypersons' classes, continuing ed, a three-month certificate in Islamic studies, Associate in Ministry credentials, Ph.D. M.Div., D.Min., M.Th., M.S.M., M.A., elderhostel courses, or just take a class now and then that interests you.

Seminary: It's not just for pastors anymore!

Posted by: Dash on October 12, 2004 06:59 AM

I've seen people coming to liberal Quaker meetings sometimes out of the kind of forbidding background your ex-pastor worries about. It's hard for me to relate to personally because I grew up Episcopalian and came to Quakerism as an adult, so I really haven't known terror or hellfire and brimstone, except as something alien that I've encountered on street corners, or standing beside a Gay Pride parade with angry signs.

The Episcopal church where I take my Education for Ministry class actually seems to have a lot of opportunities to be a student - two EFM classes, Kaleidoscope, some sort of class on the prayerbook (I'm not sure if that one is ongoing or was just last year), etc. So you might still see that sort of thing in the mainline.

There's a Quaker meeting in Pasadena, but obviously I don't expect it to satisfy any yen for liturgy :-).

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on October 12, 2004 08:33 AM

I'm familiar with the hunger for religious/spiritual teachers and mentors. I was amazingly fortunate to find a Jewish spiritual retreat center (called Elat Chayyim) when I was most in need of that kind of sustenance, and now I'm a regular retreatant. Might there be a religious community near you where you could become an oblate, and/or a retreat center where you could find teachers who could nurture you on the path that you're on?

Posted by: Rachel on October 12, 2004 11:47 AM

JPII asked Fr John Hardon to design a catechetical course for Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity. He did. Three courses, a basic, an advanced and a course on Masters of the Spiritual Life are available from www.lifeeternal.org

I'm doing the 2nd one and think its very good.
Check the site and see if it interests you.

The real deal and real cheap.

Posted by: Bob Herreid on October 12, 2004 03:45 PM

Sigh...I agree with Jennifer; it's a wake up call for all of us. There are a lot of people out there looking for somthing solid to chew on who are not getting it. Not that the Church is supposed to be an extension of graduate school, but with 2,000 years of tradition behind it, it should at least never be dull.

"a can of serious Hauwerwassian whuppass"...I just love that. Now if I can just find one professor in this entire theological consortium who would be interested in studying him with me...:-)

Posted by: Peter Nixon on October 12, 2004 10:02 PM

Unplanted Bulb

Alas, a lass
a wild hyacinth
adrift a raft
'pon a stormy sea.
Mature yet still
a home she lacks,
preserving her preconditions.
No harm, we pray,
will be our sway,
forgetting not Who ministers.

Posted by: anon on October 15, 2004 04:39 AM
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