If you listen to "This American Life" on public radio you are no doubt acquainted with Sarah Vowell, the essayist with the droll, deadpan delivery suggesting a grown-up Lisa Simpson crossed with Peppermint Patty. She's recently published a book of her essays, Assassination Vacation.
I really like Sarah Vowell, even if she does frequently cause me to break the Fourth Commandment by shushing my mother in the car on the way home from church Sunday mornings, when "This American Life" is broadcast in our neck of the woods. You see, Vowell is an ironic smartass. So am I.
I crave the company of ironic smartass friends, and in fact have been blessed with many of them over the years. I used to work in an office with an entire department of wiseacres -- overeducated, underemployed liberal arts majors with an acute sense of the absurd -- and there were days when my sides literally ached from laughing; now, there's a job perk better than a dental plan. Ironic smartassitude is also high on my list of Significant Other qualifications, along with faith or openness thereto, relative sanity and, for potential candidates' own sake, low vision. (Said list being a torn, yellowed document that I seem to be hanging onto solely for sentimental reasons.) And -- this thought may constitute a mortal sin in some circles, but I definitely detect IS qualities in The CEO; there have been moments in my prayer life when a quietly mirthful aside has asserted itself into my thoughts and I've almost chuckled out loud.
Anyhow, last Friday I listened to Terry Gross' interview of Vowell on "Fresh Air." Gross asked her about what it was like growing up in a strict Pentecostal family; then Gross asked her if, as an adult, she missed having a religious faith. Vowell's response was thoughtful and, I thought, quite poignant; she did, she said, feel a kind of void, a loneliness in no longer being able to speak to God like an intimate friend.
This made me so sad. I wondered how many smart, funny, insightful people have been driven away from religion altogether by a relentless diet of grim, dim-witted, ham-handed, authoritarian Christianity. I wanted to talk back to the radio: "Sarah! Come to church with me! Hang out with my online friends! You're one of us! We want you on the bus with us! Be our partner in crime!"
The lay ministry program I'm involved in is called, for reasons I can't fathom, the Lay Missionary Training Program; this has always made me cringe because to me it conjures up images of a drooling fundamentalist lunatic attacking tiki statues and forcibly stuffing indigenous peoples into rummage-sale-reject clothing. My pastor -- something of an ironic smartass himself -- told me, with a twinkle in his eye, "You're a missionary to the Christians." After thinking about this for awhile I've decided that, if I'm going to be a missionary, I want to be a missionary to the Sarah Vowells of the world. I want the Church to be filled with reverently irreverent people who can help us all laugh until our sides hurt as we live into the reign of God.