There are places people go when life gets rough — separate places, safe spaces, sanctuary. My mother locks herself in the bathroom. My brother goes on long walks past the library and into the north edges of town. My father rolls down the windows and drives the back roads. My sister used to hide in bed with a book or her journal. I have a rock in the Owyhee Mountains. Just up the hill behind the Catholic church in Silver City, Idaho — past open mine shafts and sage-brush clumps — lies a red dirt path. That first time, I followed it because it went up, and I wanted to go to the top. I wanted to see. But I found more than a view. I found a separate place. Hanging halfway off the edge of the mountain, it felt like the top of the world. I climbed up on top and sat at the edge. Sitting there, dangling my legs off the edge of the edge, I could see for miles down the creek to Jordan Valley, up the creek to Silver City, along the road to Murphy. And I was alone.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my whole life looking for that rock, trying to find a place where I can catch my breath, see where I’ve been, and just be alone for awhile. Sometimes I wonder how other people live, people who haven’t found a rock. Sometimes I sense in the story of scripture a collection of people trying to find a rock, trying to talk about their journey and what they discovered along the way, trying to lead others into an experience of sanctuary. Sometimes.
Most of the time, it seems like I’ve missed the boat, lost my head, hands tied behind my back, barking up the wrong tree, washed up. People have stuff to do and places to be. There’s no time for side trips, no room for quiet, no space for space. And the Bible’s just a collection of dusty letters and foreign poems and depressingly inscrutable commands and old-fashioned feel-good stories. And the churches are PC clubs for white people with too much time (or guilt) on their hands. And Jesus is a TV personality who just wants to be friends with your kids and maybe try a little magic trick or two to lighten the mood. And then there’s the joke where Paul Tillich gets a letter from a critic of the faith. It’s filled with the details of a recent archeological find — coordinates, descriptions, lots and lots of photos. It seems they’ve found the bones of Jesus, and the critic finishes with a mean-spirited postscript, “There goes your resurrection!” Tillich turns over the paper, confused, and breathes — astonished — “You mean, he actually lived?”
Do we live in a world that’s moved beyond belief? Are there no longer separate places? Have we been doomed to frantic, fear-fraught lives? to standards un-bending? deadlines pending? stress un-ending? Are we burned out on religion?
I was. But when I first started contemplating leaving my home church, back in 2002, I struggled with the fact that so much of my identity was intertwined with church. I volunteered with the youth, drove the bus, worked on committees, changed the sign board, cooked for potlucks, showed up at business meetings, represented the local church at denominational events. Surrounded by people, busy with ministry, I felt unloved and unappreciated. And I was lonely. But who would I be if I left? What, if anything, would be left of me?
I’d worked for several years on the staff of a local church. But I felt like a foreigner. I didn’t fit. So I resigned my position. And then I stopped attending. That’s when the questions started: was I in conflict with the pastor? was I depressed? did I have secret sin? I wish I could have articulated what was happening. But at the time, I only knew that I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I wish that I could have told them how frustrated I was with church. I wish that I could have told them that so many of the spiritual answers sounded to me like empty promises, platitudes. I wish that I could have pointed out that many of the practices of church speak to a culture that no longer exists. I wish that I could have told them that church as we know it and practice it is dying.
But I couldn’t say any of those things. I didn’t even know why I was unhappy. I was desperate for truth. I wanted to understand reality and learn to live spiritually. I wanted to know God. I wanted to be fully myself rather than just playing a series of parts. I wanted to integrate faith and vocation with community rather than continuing a kind of compartmentalized existence. And I couldn’t find a way to fit all this stuff into church. The box was too small. So I left.
But I kept coming back, kept hanging around and showing up, watching and waiting for others to exhibit some of the same symptoms — not people who hate church but those who desperately want something bigger, something that transcends our limited notion of what it means to have faith. Today, I’m even on staff at another local church. Why am I still around? Because I know there’s got to be something better than what is. And I’m not smart enough to figure it out on my own. What I do know is that there’s something about places of sanctuary. What I do know is that people need separate spaces — for quiet, for peace, for perspective. What I do know is that a rock, hanging off the edge of a hill, gave me a place to sit.
After a little while, I stood up, walked down the hill and drove back to town. But I keep coming back to that rock. One of these days — some day soon — I’d like to take others there with me.
The box was too small. So I left.