Christian without church (Fractured Prayer Part 1)

(This is an additional reflection on a previously published post.)

Now in Jerusalem next to the Sheep Pool, there is a pool called Bethesda in Hebrew, which has five porticos; and under these were crowds of sick people, blind, lame, paralysed.  One man ther had an illness which had lasted thirty-eight years, and when Jesus saw him lying there and knew he had been in that condition for a long time, he said, ‘Do you want to be well again?’  “Sir,’ replied the sick man, ‘I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is disturbed; and while I am still on the way, someone else gets down there before me.’ Jesus said, ‘Get up, pick up your sleeping-mat and walk around.’ The man was cured at once, and he picked up his mat and started to walk around. (John 5:2-9)

“Do you want to be well again?”  It may sound like a silly question–who has been well, gotten sick, and doesn’t want to be well again?  And who loves a sick person but does not wish for them to be well?  But perfectly sane people who fall sick for one or other reason may claim that they want to be well, but do nothing that could help that happen.  And sometimes, in the name of love, people tell their friends and family members to continue in ways that are only going to keep them sick.

Being well again sometimes means major change.  The last couple of years have been a time of deep un-wellness for me.  For most of that time, I appeared physically healthy, but inside I was dying.  My dream job of working on a ministry training program for a historically significant Church of England diocese was a dream of sorts–but more often a bad one than good.  I thought I had been hired for my knowledge, experience, competence and insight; it turned out that I was really there to take the fall for some gross incompetence that started years before I arrived, and continued until the program closed at the end of 2010.  I was there to buffer the inability of colleagues to meet deadlines or get information right.  And when I objected, I was firmly put in my place by my (ordained) line manager, who held meetings that could only be described as intimidation tactics–but could easily be denied because they were never properly recorded.  If I wanted to be well in a sick environment, I had to do something different–which involved antianxiety and antidepressant medication for more than half of the time I was in that job.  When the program’s closure was announced, I became a pariah–neither my (ordained) line manager, or his (ordained) line manager were of any help in making the contacts I needed to find further employment in the church; I became a pariah to the clergy of the cathedral where I was a regular attender (and who knew what was happening).  Only one of twenty students (all studying for one form or other of licensed public ministry) reached out to me.

I returned to the United States, without prospects of employment, but with at least the promise of a safe living environment with family.  Without a car, my church options were limited to what was in walking distance, and I lightly attended the Episcopal Church around the corner.  I didn’t get significantly attached, which is no reflection on the people there.  They were in an interim period of seeking a new Rector, and the woman who came is lovely, and I consider her a friend.  But at about the same time as the new Rector came, I found that I had such a bad reaction to anything churchy that I would get just the littlest bit of reflux every time I received Communion.  This is not “well”, and I do want to be well, so I stopped going in about the summer of 2012.

Late November came–I had secured a small amount of paid secular work, and I had gotten a car for next-to-no money.  My intention was to return to church for Christmas, but I still did not feel ready.  Then, I set Ash Wednesday of 2013 as my “back to church” date.  And I might have gone, but the universe had other ideas for me.

On 28 January, we were in the middle of our Western New York “January Thaw”–those oddly (relatively) warm days in the dead of winter where it rains rather than snows, when roads and walkways are wet rather than slick.  I was out running some work errands, went back to the office to retrieve some papers before going home for the afternoon.  I mis-judged the height of a curb, caught my toe, and went over directly onto my right knee.  It hurt like crazy, but I was sure that the worst injury was to my dignity.  Until I tried to straighten my leg and stand up, and heard sounds I hope never to hear coming from my own body again. Fortunately someone was looking out the window when I fell, and didn’t see me get up, so went to get some bigger, stronger men to help me off the cold wet pavement, into the warm building and a chair, and called for an ambulance.  They also notified my family so that arrangements could be made to meet me at the hospital,bring me whatever I needed, and figure out next steps once I had more information.

At 2:30 p.m. I had a perfectly functioning right knee; by 4 p.m. it could not take weight; by 7 I had had x-rays and pre-operative blood work to get me ready to have a fractured patella pinned and wired back together, and was told that I had one of the toughest orthopaedic injuries to recover from.  I had also scraped my knee, and blood was coming through my undamaged tights, and that had to be cleaned up and examined.  The emergency room nurse told me it was my choice, but taking my tights and skirt the usual way was probably going to cause much more pain and make the injury worse; it would be more comfortable to cut them off.

“Do you want to be well again?”  Yes, I do.  And I don’t want to hurt any more than I currently do in the process of getting there.

“Do you want to be well again?”  My response?

Hand me the scissors. I was pretty loopy on the Lortab and Dilaudid they had given me, and the language may have been a bit more colorful.  I know I had a bit of back-and-forth with the very nice ER nurse, who told me he would have to do it–the scissors count as a surgical instrument, and non-medical personnel aren’t strictly meant to handle that stuff.  (Although he did let me make a couple of cuts for myself.)  But the clothes came off as comfortably as can happen when your right knee doesn’t hold together, and they got me strapped up into a lot of elastic bandages and an “immobilizer” to take me through until my operation two days later.  A neighbor came with a bag that had a change of clothes, and got me into her car to take me home, with stops along the way to fill my pain prescription and get some ginger ale (as I was feeling queasy from both the pain and the meds to make it go away).

Helping to cut off my own clothes, I later realized, was spiritually significant to me.  It was a nothing-special skirt that I had bought while I had that incredibly damaging job.  Cutting that off was a letting go of a time, place, and group of people who had come to symbolize a lot of heartache to me.  And it turns out that the process of getting better meant that this nothing-special skirt wouldn’t fit any more, that I would need to replace it with better, happier things.  Things that I can associate with getting well, not with staying un-well.

“Do you want to be well again?”  In a way, I had to ask myself that question every day through over three months of physical therapy, when there were days I didn’t want to go, when I just wanted to stay in bed and feel sorry for myself.  Staying where I was, doing things the same way, without taking an active role in my recovery, would have been easier, but I would not have gotten well.  I am still far from 100%, I have had an additional operation to remove the pins and wires that were used to hold my knee together while the bone healed.  But I am walking, driving, and back to doing most things for myself that I did before.

And it’s been a time when I’ve had to think about what I want my future relationship to the church to be.  For the time being, I have decided I am non-parochial laity.  I am a Christian in the Anglican tradition, with liberal-enough leanings that I consider myself to be an Episcopalian rather than a member of one of the “continuing Anglican” bodies in North America.  But I may float between churches for a while, I may attend sporadically, I will offer my insights about being not-quite an outsider and how churches look to those who are not core members, if anyone wants to listen.  I’ll talk to whoever wants to hear what I have to say about developing alternatives to seminary for training lay and ordained ministers.

But I will be lightly attached, and ready to shed anything that is nothing-special, that causes more pain than it is worth to hang onto.

Because yes, Jesus.  I do want to be well again.

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