Monday, October 15, 2007

My recent experience at Union church seattle

So I recently attended the sunday morning service of Union church Seattle, a presbyterian church which I have previously written about here.

So to use the old sandwich technique: There are a few people at the church that I have gotten to know through various means whom I like rather enormously. Tony and Diana are at the top of the list. Closely following them is Renee, and James B. Also Tracy. and Jo. and Jennifer. So I was glad to get to connect with some of these people.

I realized that because of my own stuff, church services are generally speaking quite toxic for me. This was the second week in a row I had attended union. I really didn't wanna go today, but I went on the off chance that I could promote off the map live, because I think that it would be really connective and broadening for a lot of the people at union to attend this conference. I think Union is trying to go in some of the same directions as Off the Map, and so forth. So anyway, I went for that reason against my own best judgment, and pretty much paid for it the rest of Sunday, in which I felt astoundingly crappy--a feeling I could trace quite easily back to having gone to church. Not that that's the church's fault--like I said--it just triggers a lot of stuff for me. I should just have known better than to go. alas. I can do one week ok, but two weeks in a row is just over my limit.

Anyway, we had a kind of interesting discussion at our table. Before the discussion, there was time for prayer requests in the larger group. Someone at another table told a story of their friends who had just had a tiny little baby, and on the way to the baby shower, the dad, who was writing a motorcycle, was hit and killed. To which I responded under my breath "what a fucked up universe!". And then when James B. was leading in prayer I was sitting there weeping quietly as I pondered the horror of the dad dying right after the smallikin was born.

then right after that, James B. introduced the sermon topic and asked us to discuss, around our table, the subject of God's generosity--how have we experienced it, etc. So I stayed pretty quiet, but eventually my turn came, and I said I was still dealing with the dad dying in a motorcycle accident right after the baby was born, and I didn't see how I could jump to the subject of god's generosity that quickly. like god didn't seem super generous in light of that. so then there were a couple really astoundingly annoying and offputting typical christian responses to that--like "Well, I can hardly talk, since I didn't go through that--but maybe it has to do with our perspective--maybe we should instead be grateful for the time the dad *was* with the family". blah blah blah.

Jennifer, who is a sociology prof at SPU, and whose ideas I've found provocative in the past, said something interesting. She said that we want to be able to switch rapidly back and forth between calvinism and armenianism. Which is to say, we want all the autonomy and control which the armenian view gives us, but then when something really bad happens, all of a sudden we're all calvinistic and want to blame god for it. she gave as an example that her students will say things like "Well, God put me into this horrible marriage with this awful man". And she asks questions along the lines of--well, why are you all of a sudden so calvinistic about it?

I thought it was an interesting take on it. But it also kind of bothered me because in the context of our conversation it seemed like she was saying that ... maybe it was a bad decision to drive a motorcycle and take that risk when you have a new baby. which seems to me to be an enormously cold take on things. but maybe that's just me.

It has been my experience in churches in general, especially in this country, that we are not allowed to engage our negative emotion. Like you're not allowed to feel really really angry and super super sad and at the same time to think "god's a bastard, the world's FUBAR". And if you do start thinking/feeling along these lines, you get corrected. But I think that's pretty toxic. Cause engaging the thoughts and feelings while they are happening means dealing with them right then in some way which is a lot harder to do later on, after your attempts to disallow them have led to depression and all sorts of other crap.

Just me rambling a little bit.

It also seems to me that there is a really nasty corollary to Jennifer's observation about the calvinistic/armenian thing. It seems to me that Christians are required to externalize all the *good* stuff--like be thankful to god when good things happen, or when things don't happen as badly as they might have, etc. But they are required to *internalize* all the bad stuff--not allowed to blame god for the super bad stuff. Seligman talked about some of this in his learned helplessness and learned optimism work. It seems that optimists do just the opposite of this christian thing--they internalize the good stuff and externalize the bad stuff. So when something good happens, they say to themselves "Wow--look at what I did to cause that to happen. I rock!". But when something really bad happens they say "Wow, that sucks, but it's not my fault--it happened due to circumstances beyond my control"

Of course we can go too far in that direction too, I guess. Addicts, for instance, want to think that they have no autonomy in terms of their acting out, when actually there is a long chain of events that leads to that, and during that chain of events there are generally multiple places where they are making a decision where they are allowing the chain to continue.

Anyway, there was one other thing I wanted to say. I learned in the 12 steps that the difference between the church model and the 12 step model is that typically in the church model, there is a sort of hierarchy, either explicit or implicit, where you have God, then the church leadership, then the laity. whereas the idea in the 12 step model is you have God, and everybody else. The 12 step model both *worked* a lot better for me and is far more attractive to me. What I realized last Sunday at Union is they that use the church model. Which in one sense is probably okay--I mean they are a church. But I realized that I can't do church with that model anymore. so I got to thinking that there are exactly 3 churches with which I am familiar that employ a more 12 steppish model. What makes these 3 churches so astoundingly kewl is that the "leadership" isn't afraid of the people. That is to say, they're not the least bit worried that the people might do or say something shocking, or disruptive, or .... fill in the blank. cause god's got things handled, so they don't have to "handle" things. So how that comes out experientially is that I, as a "people" (and thus not as a "leader"), found that the *normal* thing was that in a regular community meeting (generally known as "Sunday morning service"), there was both opportunity for and actual practice of the regular people getting to say things--to share their stories, to share their thoughts. Not just as "prayer requests/praise reports, but also as "We are a community. Does anyone have something to share with the community?" You didn't have to get permission to do that. There was no sense that there was a gate or a hoop through which you'd have to go to gain that platform, or what have you.

On the other hand, of course that's ridiculous. What kind of insane community would open themselves so broadly? I mean to be *that* intentionally choosing to operate against the leadership/laity or us/them paradigm is astoundingly dangerous. People are nuts, and if don't at least put *some* controls in place, anything is, as my dad used to say, liable to happen.

god i have carried on, haven't I?

Note to self: "Self--save yourself some pain, and limit sunday morning church® visits to once per month, including *never* two weeks in a row."

(the lovely thing about owning a blog is that I can carry on at great length like this, and I don't have to do a damned thing about it--such as go back, reread it, boil it down, make it more consice, cut out all the excess verbage, figure out what my point was and stick to that, fix the organization of it, etc. etc. I can just kick back and know that at some level it's readable simply because I've read so much good writing that I can write (nearly) readable stuff in my rough draft. Kewl!)


Megs said...

Love you darling. And i agree with you thoroughly, and think you expressed your inspiring ideas brilliantly. I believe in you!
Love ever,

Helen said...

Benjamin, my comments aren't as good as Meg's :) but anyway I love this...I reposted some of it over on CatE with my own comments - I hope you don't mine.

(I like all of it and I could have just reposted it *as is* - after asking your permission - but I wanted to add my thoughts and that would have got really long)

Maybe I should have asked your permission to do what I did but I sort of figured it would be ok with you...took a risk...because I really wanted to make it my today's post once I read it.

Nathanael said...

Kewl post, brother.
Really, really good!

Loved the honesty.
Loved the insertion of the 12-Step church...very fitting.

Good stuff.

eleanorburnejones said...

Thank you for helping me to discover through your writing why I feel so awful after going to church. :0)
Warmest blessings.

Joe said...

Right-on Benjamin. If church isn't for people broken on the wheels of living, then what the hell is it for?

I want to start a 12-steps church. Great idea.

Benjamin Ady said...


thankyou for expressing your gratitude. Kinda made my day.

Benjamin Ady said...


yeah--go for it!

if you want, I can send you links to the web sites of the 3 churches I was thinking of. And actually, I've now thought of a fourth--but I'm not really familiar with that one, just know *of* it.

Jim Henderson said...


you said
"It has been my experience in churches in general, especially in this country, that we are not allowed to engage our negative emotion. Like you're not allowed to feel really really angry and super super sad and at the same time to think "god's a bastard, the world's FUBAR". And if you do start thinking/feeling along these lines, you get corrected. But I think that's pretty toxic."

I had to leave church for some similar but different reasons. Bottom line Church is not and nver will be a support group or therapy group. Church is based on the "family" model which brings a lot of baggage and expectations and limitations. One of which is to not say everything you are "really" thinking.Families need to hold stuff in in order to stay together for the long haul.

All sounds quite innocuous until you compare it with some of the more radical things Jesus said which definetly look more like a group on a mission - where talking in real time is critical so you can accomplish what you need to together.

I think AA and 12 steps (not church version) gets much closer than church ever will.

I stopped going to church not becuase it pushes the same buttons it does for you but because it makes me crazy in other ways.

Now I go to church whenever I meet with people I like.

I know that I could not live up to your expectations if I was a pastor- Church requires some limiting realities. I chose to disengage from the Sunday morning ritual because I couldn't figure out what it is doing.

Thanks for hainging out with us

Anonymous said...

Love your post and several of the comments on it, Benjamin ... especially the comments on 12-Step church. The idea of a church that functions with the liberty, freedom and transparency of most 12-Step groups has been a long standing dream of mine, since the early 90'z. I would be interested in seeing this list of 3 or 4 churches you suggested in your response to Joe.

Earl T... from NW Washington

Benjamin Ady said...

Earl T.

Wow. This is an old thread you've commented on. Thank you for dropping by!

The sad thing is that since I wrote this post, 2 of the 3 churches I was thinking of have ... to some extent disbanded. Alas. The one that's still going is called Solomon's Porch--it's in Minneapolis Minnesota, and is pastored by Doug Pagitt, who is pretty kewl. they're pretty unconventional in multiple ways, and if you're ever in twin cities I suggest you stop by there.

The other two were home churches here in Seattle which don't meet anymore. Monkfish Abbey was led by Rachelle, but she and her husband moved away from Seattle not that long ago. The other was led by Dwight Friesen, who still teaches at Mars Hill Graduate School here in Seattle. Either of those two would be glad, I'm sure, to pass along any info they have on other outside the box churches they know of in Seattle or elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Dear Benjamin, I want to explain to you the difference between arminian and Armenian. The former is a theological stance, the latter is an ethnic group from a small country north east of Turkey. I am an Armenian, that is, my forbears came from Armenia (see a map and look NE of Turkey). I am not an arminian (though I am also not a calvinist). And I couldn't be an arminian by birth or heritage (unless of course I believed calvin was correct). Just wanted to save you the further embarrassment of having ethnic strangers led on a wild goose chase to your blog.
An Armenian NOT an Arminian