I was recently asked to talk about my experience with church and the public square, and I immediately said yes – I am always up for talking. But then I panicked and could not imagine what I would say. After several days of muddled thinking, I realized that I need to start with where I have been before I can talk about where I am. For me, that is increasingly a response to questions about what I think, and I wonder if that is part of getting older….
As a child and young adult, I was unchurched. My parents, who were both raised as Lutherans – one grandfather was a Lutheran minister – had me baptized. Their story goes “we walked out of church, looked at each other, and said ‘why did we ever do that’”. I have no memory of attending a church with them, either as a child or an adult. In other words, church was not an embedded experience, apart from episodically attending a Methodist Sunday school with my elementary school friend, Mary Lou. I had nothing to rebel against.
I was also anxious because I have always considered myself a lackluster participant in the public square.I went to a small liberal arts college in the 1960s, and activism was part of the social and educational experience. About 10% of my peers were arrested in a civil rights demonstration when I was a freshman – I was not among them because I had stayed back to study. After graduation, I was humbled by the ways in which so many of my classmates figured out how to continue that activism to visible acclaim. Among my peers were a well-known environmentalist, a defendant in the anti-draft “Dr. Spock Trial”, and the founder of a non-profit litigating cases in support of women’s rights. Still others obtained top positions in national journalism.
By those criteria, a decision to become a sociologist who focused on education for the less advantaged seemed small potatoes in terms of being active in the public square.
Back to church….
When my children were young, I attended a Unitarian church in Lexington, MA, which was acceptable to my un-synagogued but Jewish husband. It was less a spiritual than a socio-historical experience because I loved just being in a 200-year-old building whose first minister was Ralph Waldo Emerson. And I liked the people. I began seeking a different relationship with church only as I entered recovery from alcoholism, where I encountered my spiritual self with a group who shared their experience, strength and hope on a weekly basis.
I was impressed with an old-timer’s anecdote: When he whined ”I don’t know what my Higher Power wants me to do”’, he got a simple answer: “All your Higher Power wants from you is to not drink and be a decent person”. Recovery gave me a space to seriously consider Teilhard Du Chardin’s statement that we are all spiritual being who are having – or suffering – a human experience. I also met Dan, raised casual Congregational, who was with me on my path. So, in my late 50s I started attending a liberal church. There are many ways in which in which the “spiritual but not religious” seek self-understanding and value-based action in a world that often seems meaningless. For me, all my disparate efforts to enact those – yoga, meditation, volunteering, recovery meetings – gave me a taste for something that church has fulfilled.
For me, church is the one institution that consistently brings together three important threads of my human experience: developing an inner spiritual life that helps me to challenge instinctively self-centered reactions, creating a supportive and caring community of thoughtful seekers, and carrying the wisdom of spirit and my values into the world in order to make a difference. The latter is important to me because it means thinking about the public square based on collective reflection rather than individual preference – in other words, taking others into account. The balance between these three elements of my church experience has varied over time, and I know that the weight different people bring to those basic human human challenges varies a great deal. But, for me, a church must be all three to feel that I really belong – I could get reflection and community in my 12 step groups and finding places that need extra hands to help solve the world’s problems is easy, but nowhere else do I find a dynamic connection among them.
But what about the public square – making a difference in the world, aka purpose? I have learned as a member of the churches that I have belonged to that (a) it is ok not to be an elected official, the founder of an organization, or a trailblazer in visible social equity initiatives; (b) I am obligated to look behind the invisible curtain that hides the possibility of something new, and (c) showing up where I am needed is often enough.
I can admire the Jimmy Carters of this world without feeling inadequate, but I do have a responsibility to use my time and talents as an advocate and support to those who are more visibly out there. In other words, now that I am almost retired, I can show up when showing up is important. Dan found a quote by Wendell Berry that summarizes how I think about what I need to do to bring my values into the public square:
We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption: that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.― Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace
And I am also reminded that what I think of myself is not always what others see in me. A decade ago, I was at a retirement event for a seasoned administrative assistant. We were joking about what we wanted on our tombstones (good retirement party conversation…) and I claimed, “Tart of Tongue and Heart of Gold”. The retiree looked at me and said, “Oh no – it should be ‘She Supported Women’”. All I did was show up and advocate when I was needed. But I also reflect on Richard Rohr’s observation that we show up when we are called to do so – and that is nothing to boast about, but simply listening for the voice that calls.