Leaving ChurchA Memoir of Faith
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Barbara Brown Taylor
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060771747
The night that Ed and I decided to leave Atlanta, we were nearing the end of our evening walk when a fire engine tore by with lights flashing and siren howling. If we had been inside our house, the whole foundation would have shaken, as it did every time a dump truck or city bus passed by. Outside the house, the tremor took place in our bodies, as we shied from the weight of the metal hurtling by. We were both used to this. Both of us had lived in Atlanta for half our lives by then, and up to that point the benefits of living in a big city had outweighed the costs. The human diversity was worth the traffic. The great restaurants were worth the smog. The old friends were worth the burgeoning strip malls; and the old neighborhood was worth the property taxes, even if my car stereo had been stolen twice in one year. I do not know why the balance shifted that particular night, but it did. When the din of the fire engine had receded far enough for me to hear him, Ed looked straight ahead and said, "If we don't leave the city, I'm going to die sooner than I have to."
I knew what he meant. As one of four priests in a big downtown parish, I was engaged in work so meaningful that there was no place to stop. Even on a slow day, I left church close to dark. Sixty-hour weeks were normal, hovering closer to eighty during the holidays. Since my job involved visiting parishioners in hospitals and nursing homes on top of a heavy administrative load, the to-do list was never done. More often, I simply abandoned it when I felt my mind begin to coast like a car out of gas. Walking outside of whatever building I had been in, I was often surprised by how warm the night was, or how cold. I was so immersed in indoor human dramas that I regularly lost track of the seasons. When a fresh breeze lifted the hairs on my neck, I had to stop and think, Does that wind signal the end of spring or the beginning of autumn? What month is this? What year, for that matter?
In the ICU, nurses wrote details like these on blackboards to help their dazed patients hang on to reality. Most days I could name the president of the United States, but my daily contact with creation had shrunk to the distance between my front door and the driveway. The rest of my life took place inside: inside the car, inside the church, inside my own head. On the nights when Ed and I walked, I sometimes talked with my eyes fixed on the moving pavement for more than a mile before an owl's cry or a chorus of cicadas brought me, literally, to my senses.
Only then did I smell the honeysuckle that had been there all along or notice the ghostly blossoms on the magnolia trees that deepened the shadows on more than one front lawn. The effect was immediate, like a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. All these earthly goods were medicine for what ailed me, evidence that the same God who had breathed the world into being was still breathing. There was so much life springing up all around me that the runoff alone was enough to revive me. When it did, I could not imagine why I had stayed away so long. Why did I seal myself off from all this freshness? On what grounds did I fast from the daily bread of birdsong and starlight?
The obvious answer was that I was a priest, with more crucial things to do than to go for a walk around the park. I had been blessed with work so purposeful that taking time off from it felt like a betrayal of divine trust. I was a minister of the gospel in a congregation of close to two thousand people, set in the center of a city of never-ending human need. When I went home at night, I drove past homeless people pushing rusted grocery carts down empty streets, and hospitals with all their windows lit. I carried with me all the stories I had heard that day, from the young woman who had just discovered that the baby she carried inside of her was deformed to the old man who had just lost his wife of fifty-seven years. I knew that I would hear more such stories the next day, and the day after that, with no healing power but the power of listening at my command.
I knew that there were wonderful stories out there too, but most people do not need a priest to listen to those stories. Plus, when you are tired, you cannot hear those stories anyway. You get jumpy, like a fireman who has just finished a double shift and cannot go out to eat without expecting to hear a big explosion from the kitchen. After a bad couple of nights on call, even the candles on the table can make you nervous. In my case, I knew I was tired when I started seeing things that were not there. Driving home in the evening, I would see the crushed body of a brown dog lying in the middle of the street up ahead, causing a great howl of grief to rise up inside of me. By the time I reached the corpse, it had turned into a crushed cardboard box instead. When this happened twice in a row, I knew I was tired.
I had remedies in place to help me keep my pace. I climbed the StairMaster at the gym. I paid monthly visits to a pastoral counselor. I planned vacations to exotic places where there were no telephones. Some guilt was involved in all but the first of these, since I had the . . .