Tonight I talked about The Little Way To Ruthie Leming to the book group at First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge. It was all Q&A, and I had a great time. People were really friendly, and asked great questions. We went somewhat over the one hour time, but really, I could have gone longer; I enjoyed being with those folks just that much.
You know how allergic I am to kum-ba-yah posts, but I would be lying if I didn’t say how much I enjoy being with church people and talking about this book. It was especially nice tonight because owing to a crisis in her home church, Ruthie and her family worshiped at FUMC for the last year or so of her life. I spoke with a lady tonight who told me she had been in Ruthie’s Sunday School class, and had not realized for weeks that Ruthie had cancer. She thought it was a little odd that Ruthie wore a hat (Ruthie did this because she had no hair, from the chemo), but said Ruthie was so cheerful and engaging that she (the lady) had no idea that Ruthie was sick. That’s so Ruthie.
As you know, I started out as a Methodist from my youth, but drifted away from religion for a while, coming back to it in my twenties through Roman Catholicism, and eventually ending up in Orthodoxy. I was asked about my religious path tonight, respectfully, and I tried to convey to the audience how torqued up I used to get about doctrine, but how God humbled me in my intellectual arrogance. Rev. Susie Thomas asked me if the liturgy, icons, and aesthetic disciplines of Orthodoxy have helped me to get out of my head (= my chronic tendency to intellectualize everything, including God). I hadn’t quite thought of that, but hers was a great question, and I suppose the answer is, “Yes, they help, but I have a long, long way to go.” It’s not that Orthodoxy is anti-intellectual, but rather that it puts intellection in a lower place. Being stuck in my head — which is to say, compulsively analytical and self-conscious — is my natural state, and learning to be more prayerful and open-hearted is, for me, like learning how to write with my other hand.
Yet as I freely conceded to the audience tonight, I used to spend a good deal of time as a Catholic talking church politics and reading and thinking about doctrine and theology; if I had spent even a fraction of that time in prayer, or doing works of mercy, my story might have turned out differently. God gave me another chance in Orthodoxy, and I can’t let myself screw it up by falling back into old patterns.
All of this is to say that even though I have spent most of my life away from the Methodists among whom I was raised, I felt like I was home tonight, and not because I consider returning to Methodism. It felt like home in part because I thought about how it was in Methodist Sunday School that I first learned about Jesus (thank you, Mrs. A.D. Bickham and Mrs. Yvonne Barrow!), and everyone in my family that I love or have loved is Methodist. It’s partly because this church and these people were so good to my sister and her family in her final months. But mostly it’s because whenever I’m welcomed by people who love God, I feel like I’m at home. Life is hard and long, and I’ve come to the conclusion that most people in church are trying to do the best they can. That doesn’t make us all correct, nor does it mean the things that divide us aren’t important. But it does put them in perspective, at least for me, and make me try to be more merciful, because I need mercy too.
It wasn’t always that way for me, approaching faith like this, but the past decade or so beat the crap out of me, and my too-easy piety. Though I wouldn’t want to re-live the spiritual turmoil and pain that I’ve been through in this time, I’m grateful to be in this place.
I know, I know. Kum ba yah. But I mean it.
Cosimano just went outside to throw up.