Why Church Has Been Hard for Me

Church…under construction

Church…under construction

About a year ago, the Supreme Court struck down DOMA. That was the week when I started getting dozens more Twitter followers, and I didn’t know why. A little Internet sleuthing told me that the Huffington Post was rerunning the first, and probably most infamous, article I had written for them, “An Eastern Orthodox Defense of Gay Marriage.” That was July of 2011, when church became a hard(er) place to be in sometimes.

My alienation was subtle but sudden. Only a couple of my fellow parishioners wrote me condescending and/or threatening emails, but I quickly noticed how people stopped making eye-contact with me. It was not universal because not everyone knew what I had written, but those whom I knew had read my piece treated me rather coolly. I don’t blame them for this. It was the best they could do. The fact that the response was not more outrageous is a credit to the wonderful people in my parish. But I’ve always felt a bit out of sorts there. That’s not their fault. It’s just the way it is. Let me explain…

My first experience of Orthodoxy was in an “ethnic” parish. On my very first Sunday at the church in Indianapolis that I still consider “home,” the first person we met when we walked through the door was an older gentleman. He greeted us, cooed at our baby girl, and then warned us that we probably should not let him around her too much, because, “I’ll teach her to say ‘bull shit!'” I am not quite sure what the opposite of legalism is, but God knew that I needed it! A couple of weeks later, an older woman said, “It’s nice to finally see some white people around here.” But the church I attend now is full of white people. It is filled with evangelical converts. It’s hard to explain, but sometimes the place can feel very evangelical, just with incense. That’s not anybody’s “fault.” Maybe it’s just what happens when you live in the South. All I know is, I never quite felt comfortable there. My priest keeps his own political views fairly private, but like many evangelicals, a lot of folks in my parish seem to think that if you are a good Christian, you must also be a Republican. So I imagine coming out in favor of gay marriage came as quite a shock to them. I guess I am glad for the averted glances and cool “hellos,” if anything was said at all, because I am sure it could have been much, much worse.

Palm Sunday 2008

Palm Sunday 2008

The lack of warmth was especially hard for my wife. I am more of an introvert. She is the people-person. As far as I know, nobody ever confronted her about me, but I wonder if she experienced a bit of the chill I received by proximity. Some folks around here still tend to think of wives as appendages of their husbands. But, like I said, I have no evidence of that. More than anything, I think she was disheartened by how much a political disagreement could lower us in the eyes of so many.

Confession time: Our involvement with the church has been waning. This is hard to quantify. Our lives have truly gotten much busier since 2011. My children are older and more rambunctious. (As I write this, I am about 70% certain that they are about to shatter the storm door that separates the kitchen from the sun/play-room). I rarely work less than 55 hours per week. Often I work more. Such is the life of an independent scholar. I have a day job, and I have the job that does not pay, with deadlines (that I miss) for projects that I have agreed to take on. I am always playing catchup, which is why, to whatever degree my participation has waned off, I believe about 85% of it has been for “reasonable cause.” But then there is that other 15%. Honestly, there have been times when I have looked at myself in the mirror, looked at my cross hanging from my dresser, taken a deep breath, and said, “I just can’t do it today.”

I think a lot of people feel that way about church.

Kids at church

A rare, peaceful moment (followed by a major fight a couple of seconds later).

Sunday mornings involve getting three kids dressed and out the door without too many tantrums, keeping my youngest from yelling or damaging property during service, and trying to assure myself that people are not judging or staring at me when my kids misbehave. This stress is normal for all parents, I think. But for me, I also have to contend against this sense that I have lost something. Maybe it was just my naiveté, or perhaps some kind of ecclesial infatuation, but I do not think so. I have always known that I felt a bit out of place in my parish. Back when I was a catechumen, my (then) sponsor asked me how I was doing. I told him, “You know, I don’t really have crises of faith, but I am having a crisis of community.” I am okay with the fact that the church does not conform to my expectations. (Thanks be to God!) I guess there is just a difference between sensing an abstract “disconnect” and feeling the brunt end of it.

A few years ago, I would spend our “Coffee Hour” (after liturgy) talking with friends. In 2011, I noticed the conversations got terser. There is a very good chance that that had less to do with the people I was speaking with than my own anxieties about what they were thinking about me, but the cause is kind of beside the point. I am not trying to diagnose a disease here. I am trying to make a confession, to talk about my struggles. The people at my church are good people. I do not blame them for the distance, real or imagined. My point is not about where the fault lies, only that I feel a greater fissure between myself and my sisters and brothers than I ever felt before.

A tender moment of Godmother and Godson reminds me why I love the people at my parish.

A tender moment of Godmother and Godson reminds me why I love the people at my parish.

I am grateful for the friendships I have retained. The people who were my close friends have remained my friends. Others have sent me “warm fuzzies” over email or private messages. Last year somebody pulled me aside and said he read my article in the Huffington Post (this always makes me a bit nervous because the words that follow statements like that are not always pleasant). He added, “I thought what you said was exactly right!” I did not expect those words to come from that particular individual, and I appreciated the boost. It reminded me that people, and churches, are more complex than they often feel, and that most of us really are trying to do the best we can at any given moment.

If you are looking for some grand resolution or moral to take from the above, I am going to disappoint you. I wish I had a better conclusion to this post. There is no resolution, only a tension that I continue to inhabit, a sense of loss injected into love. I love and I grieve. Sometimes I despair. Sometimes I am angry. Sometimes, God forgive me, I stay home because I just cannot face the grief. I am sure the fault is mine. It is in my delusion that the church should be more than what it is – a place full of sinners, of whom I am chief. Pray for me.

11 Comments

  1. Joelle Heilemann July 4, 2014 11:42 am  Reply

    David J Dunn And that's it right there: we're afraid our fellow believers will think we're godless. I can't help feeling like our set idea about "church" is just all wrong, but try telling that to the church!! And yet, who am I answerable to, after all? Is it not the Head of the church? It's a real struggle.

  2. David J Dunn July 4, 2014 11:12 am  Reply

    Joelle, I think a lot of people can relate to this. I wonder how many of us are struggling in church, but not letting each other know about it, because we fear they will think we are godless.

  3. David J Dunn July 4, 2014 11:09 am  Reply

    My experience has been different, but I have grown to appreciate the big-tent that is Orthodoxy. I think it is important to remember that most of us want the same things. That is, we want to give our kids a better world than the one we live in. We want them to have opportunities to live lives they value and have reason to value. Politics are not always about morals, then. They are often about tactics – how we get from point A to point B. That has always made disagreement easier for me.

  4. Martha Deacon July 4, 2014 1:53 am  Reply

    Where you are is where I started, and kept going, though not for my opinions about gay marriage [wherein we agree]. The lack of fellowship, of we-feeling, of mutuality, is disheartening. I didn't join for the social life! But it's easy for me to see the polities as the cradledox, who don't really care, the convertsi, with their baggage, the occultists, who love to talk about nonduality and divide themselves from 'most people', etc, etc: ultimately, they are just other people. Love-bombs used to be available elsewhere, and we all seem to have avoided those, though some may have passed through cults on the way. Dealing with other people, without falling into the traps [I mean me, not you] of labels, or of thinking of them as the mass, is the challenge du jour.

  5. Angela Shaw Hays July 3, 2014 6:23 pm  Reply

    I grew up in a very evangelical Protestant & Republican setting. It was actually through my coming to the Orthodox Church and friendships made at your parish (our old parish) that I discovered it was possible for me to be friends with people much further left on the political spectrum than I am. The ONLY kind, balanced, loving but disagreeing political conversations I have had have been with fellow Orthodox Christians. It has helped me see that it's possible to love God, work toward a growing relationship with Christ and our fellow man and not always agree politically. I'm grateful for the diversity of thought I've found by being Orthodox.

  6. Dan Duncan July 3, 2014 5:12 pm  Reply

    Spiritual warfare on the boundary between the personal and the social.

  7. John Tzavelas July 2, 2014 10:32 pm  Reply

    Wow. I needed this right now. Profound stuff.

  8. Joelle Heilemann July 2, 2014 8:54 pm  Reply

    I can relate to so much of this, it's scary. Thank you.

  9. John Congdon July 2, 2014 7:40 pm  Reply

    I have felt the same kind of thing, also. As I have said before many times, "If this weren't the body of Christ, I would be so out of here!"

  10. Adam Roberts July 2, 2014 6:02 pm  Reply

    I felt like you spoke words in my own heart. I have often considered leaving our parish for "greener grass" but am finally at peace. I think we would be shocked to know the number of people who feel disconnected. Thank you for opening up. Expect a big smile this Sunday.

  11. Adam Roberts July 2, 2014 6:02 pm  Reply

    I felt like you spoke words in my own heart. I have often considered leaving our parish for "greener grass" but am finally at peace. I think we would be shocked to know the number of people who feel disconnected. Thank you for opening up. Expect a big smile this Sunday.

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