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Down by the Riverside


     Some people may wonder why I speak so passionately and poetically about the natural world, yet do not speak in the same way about the church that was my life as a pastor for more than 35 years.

     Well, the woods never hurt me.

     And the church? Let's just say it's complicated.

     Apart from atrocities committed by the church through the ages—wars, crusades, inquisitions, and executions—I can think of too many times when people who called themselves Christians did physical or emotional damage to me or someone I love. Like the people who say that God considers my lesbian daughter an "abomination." Like the people who cheat their workers of fair wages on Friday and sing hymns on Sunday. Or Christian pastors who sexually abuse children, like my father abused me and other young women in the churches he served.

     It's enough to make you weep.

     And, I can think of too many times when I, a professed Christian, did damage to someone else. A vengeful act. A self-righteous remark. A turning away from someone who needed my succor or support. A hoarding of my wealth while someone else suffered want. When, by my silence, I allowed others to believe I condoned acts of bullying or injustice.

     There are prayers of confession, of course, for such sins of commission and omission, prayers that I learned from the church, which at its simplest, is a group of people who try to follow Jesus.

     Accounts of Jesus' life show that he never hurt anyone. He started out by proclaiming that God loved all people, but especially the poor and the hungry and the broken and people who'd messed up their lives. Religious leaders were so incensed that God might be lavishing love on persons they considered unacceptable that eventually these same leaders used the Roman government to secure a death sentence for Jesus.

     And Jesus had never hurt anyone.

     Nor would he let his followers hurt anyone in his name. When certain villages turned them away, and Jesus's followers wanted to call down fire from heaven on their ungrateful heads, Jesus simply said, "Move on." When the members of his inner circle tried to out-maneuver each other to achieve greater honor, Jesus reprimanded them. When the soldiers finally came for Jesus, and his right-hand man, Peter, drew his weapon, Jesus said, "Put away your sword." 

     Jesus never hurt anyone.

     Now that didn't mean Jesus was always nice. He called his opponents terrible names, notably, "a brood of vipers" and "whitewashed tombs full of dead men's bones," because of their hypocrisy. Jesus hated hypocrisy. (See paragraphs three and four above.) Jesus said that the very people these religious leaders were condemning would get into heaven before they did. 

     Yikes. It's hard to escape the conclusion that I am more like the religious leaders than the people they condemned. I'm a pastor, after all. 

     Which is enough to send me fleeing back to the woods. There is even a movement called Wild Church comprised of people who've had enough of what they call "indoor church." They do their worshipping out of doors. And, many, many other people have just quietly left the church I served for so long. Maybe they call themselves "spiritual, but not religious." Maybe they continue to do good in the world, righting wrongs or caring for people who need care, in the name of no particular god at all.

     So what do I do in the woods? Well, here's the funny part. Besides admiring the trees and dabbling my hand in the river and complimenting the wildflowers on how good they look today, I pray. I pray. Which sends me back to church, because, for better or worse, church is where I learned to do it first.

     I also have to say that some of the kindest, most generous, most self-sacrificing people are people I've met at church. Who have found the strength to care patiently for a parent with dementia year after year after year. Who travel around the country in their RVs to shore up walls or repair roofs or build homes for people who cannot afford it. Who decorate the church hall with rainbow streamers and black curtains and a disco ball, throwing a gala for LGBTQ teens so they will know that God loves them. At church I have met wounded people who have forgiven others terrible transgressions and simply moved on with their lives. 

     How do they do that? They say it's because of what Jesus has done for them.

     I was never prouder to be a United Methodist (my brand of Christian) than when thousands of us went to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina to muck out flooded houses and help rebuild. Supporting the volunteer work crews were the prayers and money of people in the pews back home.

     I also remember when members of my former church raised $5,500 in one month to purchase mosquito nets and to dig clean-water wells for people in Liberia whom they'd never met so that the children and the old people would not be blinded by malaria or die of dysentery. 

     Of course, the church has no monopoly on good people. Or bad people, for that matter. When I used to complain to my husband, an engineering manager, about some churchly idiocy I had witnessed, he would say, "It's no different where I work." Then he would mutter something about "adults behaving badly." People are people everywhere.

     So, what should I do? Choir practice has started again. We sit up front on the stage during worship services, and I don't know if I have the wherewithal to face a whole roomful of church people looking back at me week after week. And yet these are my people. Their faces are my own.  

     What should I do?

     I could ask you to meet me in the woods and consider how the leaf-strewn path opens before us. Or we could meet at church, since Jesus called people like us, flawed and noble, into his circle of friends. The apostle Paul went so far as to call us the body of Christ—as indispensable to Jesus and to each other as eyes or ears, hands or feet. 

     If, some Sunday morning, I should sit with you in a grove of glowing maple trees, or watch with you how sunlight slants through a stained glass window, it would be the same trembling luminescence that shines through both. The light within us and beyond.

     Come. I'll meet you there.


Scripture: "We, who are many, are one body in Christ… If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." –Romans 12;5, 1 Corinthians 12:26 (NRSV)

Playlist: "Holy Now," Peter Mayer, Million Year Mind, 1999.

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