Saturday, November 12, 2011

Losing My Religion; and What Does Community Mean?

Maybe not losing. Maybe changing. But changing usually involves losing.

Of all the things my recent medical emergency has done to me, enhancing my piety is not one of them.

I'll tell you the truth: One of the most unnerving aspects of waking up in an ICU, having no idea why I am there, is the realization that my checking out could have been permanent. And then that would have been the end of it. There was no white light at the end of a tunnel; no angels; no comforting retinue of departed loved ones there to greet me on the other side. Just...nothing.

Nor was my medical counsel all that helpful; because no one -- not the ER docs or the neurologist or my doctor -- is exactly sure why light anesthesia that I've had before with no ill effect would suddenly rebound in my system. Was it a function of sleep apnea? Something wrong with my liver? No conclusive "why" has shown up in any tests. This thing happened to me, and no one knows why, and no one knows if it will happen again or why it might.

For a full week after I got home, I was afraid to go to sleep each night because I wasn'the t sure I'd wake up again. I was well on my way  to zombiehood before my body finally cried "Uncle" and I surrendered to an 8-hour rest.

So let the record reflect: I'm not going gently into that good night.

There was that. And then -- I don't know how I can describe my feelings without sounding like a diva and a whiner, but...the response of my local faith community (as opposed to the rest of you all) other than our pastor, who showed up to help Fellow Traveler the night I went into seizure, was...well, kind of a whole lotta nothin'.

I got, I think, a total of three get-well cards from church folks -- one from The Ladies, our back bench of elders who are always good eggs about sending people cards -- but for a church where every Sunday we have letters read from strangers thanking us for the showers of cards they've received from our congregation...I couldn't help feeling as insecure as my five-year-old self in kindergarten: "No one likes me." The only fellow church members I heard from on an ongoing basis during my convalesence were people asking me to do things and then wondering why those things weren't forthcoming. I tried so hard to explain to them how unwell I still felt; truly, for more than a month after my hospitalization I was having problems with my vision, with fatigue, with short-term memory, with the general feeling that a dull dark cloud had settled over my cognitive function. But all I heard was, "Why isn't the church calendar online?" "When are you going to update the website?" "Can you______?" "Can you_____?" And this is what Fellow Traveler -- who in addition to taking care of me 24/7 was also battling walking pneumonia -- was hearing as well. It was incredibly frustrating not only not to be heard, but not to be cared about other than as the means to an end.

But, thinking about it....we really  don't have a lot in common with a lot of people at church. We really don't. A lot of them are part of a hard-living, hard-partying, country-music blaring, oppositional-behavior-embracing local culture that we don't find charming or fun or something we want to join.  We can count on the fingers of one hand households that we're on dropping-in-on-friendly terms with, and maybe another hand of households we'd consider first-name-basis acquaintances.  So why should we expect anything from the others? (The other day our pastor was asking me -- I guess I'm the resident social media expert -- about some cat-fighty Facebook drama with individuals at church who weren't getting along, and I had to admit that I didn't know who the hell he was talking about.)

I know that the mainline-denominational party line is to emphasize that we're part of a community, not all off having our own me-and-Jesus experiences in a corner somewhere. But, seriously folks -- real community is a rare commodity, and I think in an effort to reject me-and-Jesus-under-a-blanket-with-a-flashlight quietism we tend to oversell both how much of it exists in our churches and how church community informs our own faith.

And I also wonder how much community we want, deep down. I've observed Evangelical acquaintances where "community" has morphed into a near-cultish insularity and group control that includes "shepherding," tattling, peer shaming and a lot of other crap that most of us in Mainlineland wouldn't tolerate. When I think of FT's and my circle of friends and aquaintances -- we tend to like to spread our social capital wide instead of depending on one sector to provide the bulk of our emotional and social support.

Long story short: We're stepping back from a lot of our involvement in church, including the compulsion to provide warm-body ballast at random church activities and to be volunteers of last resort. We're tired, and we're just not feeling it. I've been doing  my assisting gig on schedule, but when the alb comes off I leave. And while my inner nag is telling me that I should feel guilty about all this, what I think is the healthier part of myself is telling me that this is something we need to do for our own health.


Beth said...

Wow. I've been off blogs for awhile, thanks to real life busyness. You've had a scary time.

And I'm sorry (but, sadly, not terribly surprised) at the lack of response from your faith community. Why, oh why, are Lutherans so bad at that?

Prayers for you.

Anonymous said...

Dear Lutheranchik,

I've read your blog for years now, and when I used to frequent Beliefnet, I always thought you were the single finest and most helpful poster there. (This despite the fact that I'm not even Lutheran.) I am really sorry to hear about your health problems and about the lackluster response from your church.

I don't have anything useful to say about your current situation, although your situation obviously sucks, and you deserve better. My own experience of church has usually been quite a bit like yours, so I am well familiar with how the absence of community care can be very painful.

I'd like to thank you for your wise and thoughtful words all these years. You and FT are very much in my prayers, for whatever that might be worth.

Airpatagonia said...

What a refreshing post. You dare to write down what so many of us feel about our "communities". I'm sorry you had to go through heavy illness for this, but I was relieved to read that there are other people who dare to re-assess their involvement with their respective community in their own (and not their "peers'" ) terms.

Get well soon!

PrJoolie said...

Thank you for this post. Very well written and heartfelt. I know the congregation I serve has a spotty record on aftercare, and like you observed, it's about relationships. I always bemoan my lack of relationship with my neighbors - I feel guilty about it because I preach all the time about the love of the neighbor - but I don't do anything about it. Thank you for naming a truth we don't like to face, and providing much food for thought. Peace to you as you continue to recover, and good for you for stepping back and taking care of yourself, in more ways than one.

Scooper said...

O Dear! Lutheranchik, I'm sorry you had such a bad experience. Also sorry that you didn't get the benefit of the classic NDE. Apparently it's not universal. The more usual experience is simply nothing, as you report. The Tibetan Book of the Dead claims that upon death a person becomes unconscious for three days, and then wakes up into the "bardo" realm between death and the next rebirth. Same number of days as Jesus between his death and Resurrection.

As for the deafening silence from your faith community, I experienced that after my father died when I was a boy. I reacted by going into 20 years of atheism. Fortunately, God called me back to faith.

Church is the community of believers. Such as we are. It would be Heaven on Earth if we were really the community that Christ calls us to be. Maybe that's something to pray about.

Crimson Rambler said...

"Refreshing" is the word. "Truthful" would also apply. Thank you for this -- you've put into good words a lot of my own disquiet, for which I am grateful.

Pastor Joelle said...

wow. I haven't been reading blogs for awhile so I just saw this. So sorry to hear what happen. How scary.

You know I often question how much or how little what goes on in the church has to do with Jesus. That includes real community. I'm not ready to give up on it because I kind of consider it my mission field. The church members are the heathen who need to be converted.

You know when my husband died and the bishop's assistant showed up the next day to help me figure out how to help the CONGREGATION deal with what happened, I realized, the church doesn't really give a damn about me. As a pastor I found that strangely freeing. If you don't expect, you aren't disappointed. But that should not be true for people who call themselves a community. I still think real community exists. I pray you find it.

Anonymous said...

Happened across this rather randomly. Sitting at the computer and thinking that no-one noticed (or they didn't say) that we've not showed up at the main family service since the summer, and here we are in Advent. Been going to the small 9 a.m. service with the - today - 10 others. They at most nod good morning and I don't know more than half the names. No pretense of community, and the focus is only the worship. The (so far) 3 month experience of this seems to suggest I have (at some point it will be 'had') many acquaintances in churchland, but few real friends. The health issues, like your's, are indeterminate and ongoing. Very well written post, and I thank you for putting it up for random folks to read.

Processing Counselor said...

I hear you.

asmac said...

I'm sorry to hear of your health concerns. I've enjoyed following your blog over the years--honest and refreshing voice.

A friend of mine, who is probably one of the most integrated faith/life people I know, is not experiencing "community" in our (Lutheran) congregation. As a leader in that congregation I hurt for her and am at a loss about what I could do that would help. I waver between a desire to scold and call others to account, or to cry "come on, people...what are we here for?"

Sometimes it feels like it would just be easier to walk away. Somehow I can't, at least not at this time.

Maybe this is why we hear so much about people who say they're not "religious" but they are spiritual. The institutional expression of our faith simply fails on so many levels. On the other hand...

In the meantime, I hope your health is restored and your relationships life-giving.

Billy Squibs said...

My bad experiences with church - which admittedly pale in comparison to yours - most certainly changed my faith. Emotional doubt has always been a wedge to allow other doubts in. More so now. After all, if seemingly pious people go on to spectacularly fail you then what does this say for the truth claims of Christianity? I haven't attended regularly attended church in years. And I do miss it so. I feel spiritually emaciated, and I don't think this is simply the lack of community (I was always a back bench warmer). I am missing a closeness to God.

The problem with church is that it is filled with people, each and every one a sinner. I guess my experience has shown me what happens when the clay feet of churchianity crumble. If churchianity means but one thing then surely it must be idolatry. Perhaps I'm getting too melodramatic there.

I wish you good health, good fortune and good community as you head down that leafy vista to God knows where.

Squibs - from SoF

Melinda McJames said...

Hi LC,

Happened to click on this link from SOF. Sorry to hear about your health dramas and hope that you're well on your way to recovery now.

A great, honest and challenging post about faith communities. You articulated my feelings much better than I could. I wonder if it is possible to find genuine community-however one defines it in church anymore. Whilst feeling overburdened by lack of interest and volunteers for a church fundraiser the other month, I sort of longed for a social-club church. I did belong to one a bit like that many years ago and at least in that church, your friends wouldn't let you carry the burden of activities on your own.

Rest up and may God sustain you even when your faith community can't.

Try said...

I admit that the title of your post frightened me, as did your sentence "And then that would have been the end of it. There was no white light at the end of a tunnel; no angels; no comforting retinue of departed loved ones there to greet me on the other side. Just...nothing. " One of the things that keeps me religious is my hope of heaven. In practical terms that means that I don't have to think of my Grandpa as gone because he's dead, and I don't have to be so terrified of dying that I never do anything risky or frightening. I can only hope that had you passed away you would have found God and all God's saints ready to greet you on the other side, even though you did not get a glimpse of that. I have known people who have apparently "glimpsed heaven" during a serious medical emergency- for one of those people it was instrumental in his finding faith.

As for the lack of support from your church community, that sucks.

Anglolutheran said...

The church Jesus said the gates of hell would not prevail against and any parish seem to be different things. Who needs the "gates"? The church seems to be doing nicely on its own.