There is nothing like writing a book called Leaving Church for discovering how many things people can make of a title like that. The church of the title is Grace-Calvary Church in Clarkesville, Georgia. Leaving is what I did in 1997 when I resigned from parish ministry. In the year since the book came out, I have received thousands of letters, most so poignant that I have to hold my heart while I read them.What I read above all is a rich mix of love and grief: love for the mainline churches that have formed the faithful, and grief that so many of those churches have run out of holy steam. The love part makes the grief part hard to articulate.
Several years ago I engaged in a public dialogue with a Roman Catholic theologian about prayers to the saints. I went into the discussion with my mind made up on the subject. We Protestants—especially we evangelicals—do not pray to anyone but God. Directing our prayers in any other direction is at best theologically confused and at worst idolatrous. I came away, though, a little less convinced that the theological case was as tightly shut as I had thought.
Once again it was a Lent of loopholes, of minor sacrifices deferred by family travels and travails and of minor irritations unredeemed, so that as Palm Sunday drew near it caught me in need of a new beginning, in want of a jump start.
Laughter was a hallmark of my family’s life as I grew up. Our family dinner table was so often marked by jokes and storytelling that we were the embodiment of those old canards about communities that know the jokes so well that all you have to do is call out the numbers and everyone laughs.
Most Christians are stubbornly fixed on being like Jesus. He is the gold standard for what it means to be fully human, in full union with the Divine. They tell me what it costs to love unconditionally, to forgive 70-times-seven, to show compassion for the poor—all essential hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry. What I hear less about is what it costs to oppose the traditions of the elders, to upset pious expectations of what a child of God should say or do, to subvert religious certainty, and to make people responsible for their own lives. Yet all of these are present in his example too.
In 2006 Charles Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, shot and killed five schoolgirls, injured another five and then took his own life. The Amish community immediately declared that it forgave Roberts for his heinous acts, and some of them reached out with compassion to Roberts’s mother. Roberts’s brother Zachary is now working on a documentary called Hope, focusing on his mother’s journey since the shootings. “How does the mother of a mass murderer move forward?” he asks. Forgiveness and faith have been the key ingredients in her life (Huffington Post, November 17).