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Book Club Discussion–Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

Some people know a lot about church and some know a lot about lying face-up in a field, alone, feeling the divine presence. And once in a while you find someone who knows a lot about both, and speaks fluently the languages of both.
Barbara Brown Taylor is one of those people.  “Like every believer I know,” she writes in her introduction to Leaving Church, “my search for real life has led me through at least three distinct seasons of faith, not once or twice but over and over again. Jesus called them finding life, losing life, and finding life again” (p. xi). Using both the language of the church pew and the language of the illuminated field, Taylor recounts her travels through those three seasons.
Her story goes from the first cathedral of “a field behind my parents house in Kansas, with every stalk of prairie grass lit up from within” (p. 22), to 15 years as a fabulously successful Episcopalian priest with an awe-inspiring ministry and obvious talent, to an unexpected departure. On that narrative framework, Taylor fills the air with a host of fascinating thoughts and insights about church, people, and life.
One of these thoughts is another beautiful and unusual blending of two ideas: the beauty and value of “the church,” and the failings and insufficiencies of the same. Taylor acknowledges both with frankness, expressing the zany, beautiful, and broken life of the church as easily as she tells about the spirituality of her husband’s Native American friends, her experience in the field, and the way she keeps Sabbath.
“The way many of us are doing church is broken and we know it, even if we do not know what to do about it,” she says. This is us, I think. This is what many of us are feeling about our churches, about Adventism. But why is it broken?
Taylor says it’s the discrepancy between message and life: “We proclaim the priesthood of all believers while we continue living with hierarchical clergy, liturgy, and architecture. We follow a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own. We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our power to maintain our equilibrium. If redeeming things continue to happen to us in spite of these deep contradictions in our life together, then I think that is because God is faithful even when we are not” (p. 220).
These simple words ring true; yet they pose an intimidating question: Has the structure and system of our church become something that is itself opposed to the message we believe and announce? And then, can the message itself be slowly altered and thinned out in order to fit the structure and system, until even our message is no longer clear and powerful?
At the same time as she throws these troubling questions on the table, Taylor admits that the church is too good to her for her to ever really leave. “I am too in need of the regular reminder that falling is the way of life. Where else do human beings recognize the bread of heaven in a broken body, or know that their lives depend on eating that food?” (p. 225). Instead, she says, “I may have left the house, but I have not left the relationship. After twenty years of serving Mother Church at the altar, I have pitched my tent in the yard, using much of what she taught me to make a way in the world” (p. 222).
The tent in the yard, however, is a challenge. Most of us have bought into an in-or-out attitude. If we’re upstanding and “in,” then we are defined by the church and she uses us as a tool to accomplish her mission. But what if that were to change? What if the church were instead our tool to accomplish the mission of Christ, a resource for us to define Christianity? “What if,” says Taylor, “the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?” (p. 222).
Taylor believes in a Christianity that’s about being “fully human.” In the end, that was why she left her church role. Worn down and finding that all her work to be near to God had left her with a gaping distance, she turned to the task of being the kind of person Jesus had demonstrated we could be, with or without a religious organization.
It is interesting, and on some level, disturbing, that Taylor had to leave her role in the church to personally realize full humanity and closeness to God — that while in the church, she was too busy, too overloaded. What about our own leaders? Are there so many expectations that they can’t achieve living Christianity? And if our leaders are so bound, how can we hope to move forward as a community in fully living Christianity?
Taylor’s step outside her leadership role allowed her to find new energy for the journey of faith and community. “I will keep faith—in God, in God’s faith in me, and in all the companions whom God has given me to help see the world as God sees it—so that together we may find a way to realize the divine vision… We may be in for a long wait before the Holy Spirit shows us a new way to be the church together, but in the meantime there is nothing to prevent us from enjoying the breeze of those bright wings” (p. 230).
Another moment that catches the Adventist eye is when the Sabbath suddenly shows up in Leaving Church. After leaving her role as a clergy, Taylor began to keep Sabbath. In her high school days, the star player on the varsity basketball team never played on Friday nights. “On the seventh day, he loved being a Jew more than he loved playing basketball, and he just as gladly gave all he had to the Sabbath… Sabbath was his chance to remember what was really real” (p. 137) .
So Taylor embarked on an exploration of the fullness of Sabbath. At the end of the book, when she talks about her answer to the question “What is saving you now?” she includes the Sabbath: “Observing the Sabbath is saving my life now… One day each week I live as if all my work were done. I live as if the kingdom has come, and when I do the kingdom comes, for one day at least… Sabbath is no longer a good idea or even a spiritual discipline for me. It is a regular date with the Divine Presence that enlivens both body and soul” (p. 228).
Taylor’s experience of the Sabbath gives it a richness and grip that makes all the old Adventist arguments about Sabbath blush with embarrassment. Of all people, shouldn’t we know the most about the beauty and power of this rare gift? Yet Taylor makes my little collection of Sabbath ideas seem utterly stale. The question has been how we “keep the Sabbath.” Perhaps what we really need is to keep a “date with the Divine Presence.”
Indeed, it’s Taylor’s simultaneously realistic and artistic approach to faith and life that make this entire book so rich. From the unanswered questions that will sit like night lights in your head to the insights of church life that leave one nodding in appreciation, Leaving Church is so full of rich, beautiful language, rich, beautiful Christianity, and rich, beautiful humanity that it can only make one reach for such richness in one’s own life.
Lainey S. Cronk writes from Angwin, CA.
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