This odd lyric snippet has been rolling around in my head for days now, like whites spinning in the dryer.
“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.” (Minnie Haskins – 1875-1957, UK).
When I graduated from seminary someone inscribed their well-wishes with this quote. I in turn used it in my first sermon as an ordained preacher at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette, Indiana.
I was petrified throughout the days preceding that sermon, profoundly aware of my own spiritual emptiness, not to mention aware (although much less clearly) of the alcoholism that was eroding every aspect of my health and character. What did I have to say to a congregation of older, well-educated, and far more conservative churchgoers than me?
Minnie Haskins’ words gave me my first sermon. I don’t have those yellowed pages any more and what, if anything, I said worth remembering, I don’t know. But I do remember that Minnie’s words framed the dread, anxiety and hope of the moment in such a way as to mobilize me. Thanks be to God.
I had managed to graduate from seminary without being truly assimilated to “Church”.
To both its credit and scandal, The Episcopal Divinity School helped someone like me to graduate without having internalized congregational culture – that vast constellation of unspoken customs, norms, and assumptions of denominational (and ethnic) manners and mannerisms. What I knew at age 24 was only by assimilation through a childhood of church going, but it was so localized it provided little guidance in the life of the larger Church.
Besides being dim when it came to picking up cultural cues, I was also so rebellious that my first reflex was to reject anything with the sound or smell of authority. God bless my mentor and boss at St. John’s, The Rev. Jack Potter. He must have wagged his head after nearly every conversation, bewildered about how I had made it through the winnowing process when other, more qualified candidates, were eliminated. But he was kind, thoughtful, wise, and generous with the amount of rope with which he allowed me to hang myself.
Please excuse my drift into the undercroft of memory. The reason I mention it is that I may have been one of first microbes of a virus that would come to infect The Episcopal Church from the inside out.
The Episcopal Church that was still a living, breathing body of inter-related congregations when I was a kid, and the version we learned about in seminary, is now mostly comatose – a body without brain function, waiting for the rest of the lights to go out.
The same is true for most Mainline Protestant denominations in North America. Some are further along in the process than others. We just don’ t know it.
The thorough secularization of our other social and economic institutions has cut the legs out from under the Church, and so religion is disconnected from nearly all other categories of modern thought. In short, religion is left without a credible voice.
The nasty wound we label as the “Christian Right” only appears to be a vibrant muscle, twitching strenuously upon the body. But in fact, it is the festering gangrene oozing toxins to the rest of us through bloodstream. Institutional Christianity in North America has Failure to Thrive Syndrome.
The late theologian, Henri Nouwen, had a term for the virus embodied in microbes like me. He called us “nuclear persons” – people historically dislocated in time. Because of when we were born and how we were socialized, we expect an apocalypse but one caused by humans not God. In fact, we see humans as more powerful than God, and that saps the energy of any authority once embedded in tradition, doctrine, or ritual.
The kingdom, the power and the glory Church-people seem to have in their DNA is bereft in Nouwen’s nuclear-people. Church-people know things about being religious that the general population does not know, but they take it for granted to such a degree that they don’t bother explaining it in a compelling way to outsiders. What they do inside church looks weird-to-the-point-of-stupidity to the uninitiated. It just doesn’t make sense, and the Church-people either can’t figure that our or don’t care.
So I have made a career of deconstructing “Church,” which has had the effect of: 1) scaring some Church-people away, 2) re-invigorating what had become rote and pretense for other Church-people, and, 3) been enormously attractive to nuclear-people who hadn’t known what all the religous fuss was about before.
I never planned it. I had no idea what I was doing, and it took nearly a decade for me to even recognize that what I was doing even had a pattern and rhythm to it.
The point, my final point, is that all those years ago I was actually putting my hand into the hand of God and stepping out into the darkness even though I didn’t consciously know it. I can see it now, decades in retrospect, but at the time I was just scared and looking for ways to feel better about being afraid.
I am still not very good at stepping into the darkness with my hand in God’s. But everything I know from the past, everything that has ‘worked’ in the past, all the best results I recognize, came from willingly stepping into the darkness while hoping against hope that God will find my tiny little hand before I am crushed by whatever danger awaits.
At the gate of 2017 there seems to be an inordinate array of nastiness and beastliness awaiting us in the darkness out there. We can recoil, get cautious, and gather our armies to do battle with the unknown, or step into the darkness with our hand in the hand of God.
This time, today anyway, I am choosing the latter.
In peace, Cam