Saturday, December 3, 2016

Had One of My Church Dreams Last Night: An Advent Meditation

Had one of my church dreams last night. Church dreams are, for me, often painful ones involving tears (the impossibly distant altar I can see from high in the eyrie at the back of the church to which I've been consigned, but which I cannot reach at communion time). Or, they are the opposite, ecstatic ones involving singing and a gladdened heart.

Last night's dream was on the latter side of the barometer: an adult Sunday school class with people letting me know I'm very welcome in their Baptist church as a gay, married man, followed by a visit to a sanctuary that was somehow transformed into a beautiful field of golden, ripening crops, a field through which I could walk to the front of the church, which was a little copse with a pretty house in it.

There's a reason I'm sharing all of these personal dream details that might otherwise simply bore you. When I woke from this dream about 4 A.M., I picked up my iPhone, as I often do if I wake in the middle of the night, and began scanning news articles and email messages.

One of the things I read was a report about the meaning of Advent — about Advent as a season in which churches think and sing about waiting, meeting, and listening. Reading that essay just after I had this dream has made me think about it as an Advent dream.

Given how churches have dealt with me and others like me, I want no part of church life. I've had it. Though I'm told some churches are welcoming for folks like me, when I look at these churches closely — in my area — I find they're still dealing with battles about whether people like me are welcome. Are fully welcome . . . .

Good neighbors invited us to an Episcopal church, their parish, last year, and we went — glad to do so. People were generally nice (the Episcopalian charism, perhaps), and we felt welcome. I thought of joining the Episcopal church, even met with a pastor of this church in those weeks to discuss this.

But . . . . Right as we went to this church, we learned that it was all akimbo over plans to allow a same-sex couple to marry in the church, a couple we know, our doctor, in fact, and his longtime partner. The couple did marry in the church last year, and had the support of the parish pastoral staff and many parishioners.

Still . . . . There was a group bent out of shape over this transition, asking stupid, mean, offensive questions like, "Well, but they'll kiss in the church or the parish hall, will they not? How can that be allowed?! Children might be present!"

This is why I've had it with church. I honestly cannot any longer endure the meanness, the stupidity, the offensiveness wrapped up in gospel sweetness — and so I don't want to interact with church people simply because I know I will have to rub shoulders with people like this.

And, yes, I know those people are everywhere and we cannot possibly avoid rubbing shoulders with them. "Everywhere" is not the same thing as church, however: church professes to be a space of love, inclusion, and welcome. When it fails to be that, it does deep damage to people who turn to church for those reasons and find themselves betrayed.

And so Advent — waiting, meeting, listening. As I think about those words and the essay I read about the meaning of Advent when I woke from my beautiful dream in the middle of the night, the question occurs to me:

Does anyone know of churches anywhere in the U.S. that are really trying to listen to the millions of people like me who have walked away, who have felt shoved away so that we have no choice except to walk? Does anyone know of forums for such listening in the Catholic church from which I've walked away?

Are the churches really waiting, listening, interested in meeting those of us they've harmed, shoved away, excluded, demeaned, sent packing? Or are those simply pretty, self-serving words designed to make people who remain with the church and sing the Advent hymns feel nice about themselves?

I ask these questions in all seriousness, because — unless my doorbell is not working and I have missed the ring — I haven't heard a peep from any church around me about why I no longer go to church, and why wild horses could not drag me to the door of a church. Nor do I know any other alienated former church member who reports that she/he has received such a visit, a call, a letter, a message that he/she is missed and the church would like to know what has happened to send this former member away.

Many churches — and this is very true of U.S. Catholicism, with its deeply tribalistic heritage — are simply cozy clubs for like-minded people. Welcoming strangers — reaching out to strangers — is not in their DNA. This is true of the smaller issue-oriented clubs that exist within the larger club of the church, too.

I find it very true of those smaller clubs within the U.S. Catholic community that work for the inclusion of LGBTQ people. Those clubs, too, are quick to exclude anyone who seems different, who doesn't have the requisite features or background or address to be a bona fide member of their little club. They, too, do nothing at all to reach out and listen — to solicit feedback from people who feel far less entrĂ©e in the big club that is the church institutional than they themselves feel, as they continue with a church that treats them like second-class citizens, and as they share the nice rhetoric about mercy, waiting, meeting, and listening.

When nice rhetoric really does nothing at all to change the behavior of people inside the nice club — and it surely did not when 8 in 10 white evangelicals, and 6 in 10 white Catholics and Mormons voted for Donald Trump — then what good does it really do, when all is said and done? And when these clubs cannot even make any effort to listen to the millions of people they have sent packing, when they cannot even solicit information from those people about why they have left, isn't the Advent waiting, meeting, and listening something of an empty game, signifying nothing, in a world that obviously needs something far different, far more real and redemptive, in the dark period it is now entering?

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