At the Edge of the Map

In case you haven’t noticed, I have spent the last year or so in a spiritual state of flux. I still attend church, and I even teach sixth grade Sunday School. But on the inside (and a little bit on this blog), I have struggled and questioned and doubted. For some people, that means that I’m not a strong Christian anymore. For me, faith IS wrestling, so I still think I’m okay. Some of my wrestling has been with the church of my past; some has been with the church I attend now. For part of the year I have dedicated time to prayer; at other times, I have found God in nature; at other times, I have found him books about “sacred feminism.” It’s been an interesting year.

I often write for Catapult Magazine, and a recent topic was Quitting. I started to write an essay, but I wasn’t able to finish it. (Hah! I quit my essay on quitting! Get it?) Anyway, my essay started with this line: I quit my church. My plan was to talk about some reasons why liturgy appealed to me and thus why I left Nazarenedom for Orthodoxy. But like I said, my essay never really panned out. Nothing I wrote was good. Nothing really captured it. In addition, I have to quietly admit to you that I’ve been missing the Episcopal church lately. We spent a couple of years attending an Episcopal church before we became Orthodox. Plus, ever since I wrote an essay about my experience at a Taize service, I’ve been wanting to attend a Taize service again. It’s not that I want to quit Orthodoxy. I simply go back to the term I used earlier: I am in flux.

Right in the midst of that emotional and spiritual discomfort, I began reading a book called Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor. The title itself appealed to me because it was exactly the headspace I was in. Leaving Church is about an Episcopal priest who began to question her vocation. Years of spiritual ministry left her own spirit dry and lifeless. As the daughter of ministers, I can understand that. Growing up, ministry was the top of the servant hierarchy. Ministers had a certain fame, value, and specialness that set them apart from the rest of the crowd. They were called by God. But the truth is that ministry is really difficult.

Taylor quotes something her bishop told her when she was seeking ordination: “Think hard before you do this. Right now, you have the broadest ministry available. As a layperson, you can serve God no matter what you do for a living, and you can reach out to people who will never set foot inside a church. Once you are ordained, that is going to change. Every layer of responsibility you add is going to narrow your ministry, so think hard before you choose a smaller box.”

I had never thought of ministry in that way before. I had never thought of laypeople having a more far-reaching ministry than actual ministers. Of course, for my parents, they were ministering to the world as missionaries. They were stepping into the middle of an unchurched, unChristian nation and bringing Jesus to them. Yet it’s true that most of their activities were in church, or at the Bible College, or within the small Christian communities in Bangkok. (In my mind they still get some credit for making a life in the midst of a Buddhist nation.) There is a lot of truth in that bishop’s words.

For me, the idea that a layperson can work for God anywhere is very freeing. I’ve almost been able to let go of it, but for a long time I’ve wondered if I “ran away from” a call to ministry. I’m beginning to see that I can reach out to people with love and truth from my small, ordinary life. I can reach people through my job, my writing, my work at home. In fact, every time I go to do an annoying domestic chore like the dishes or grocery shopping, I try to think of it as a way to love and bless my family. That helps a little. (But for the record: I hate having to go to the grocery every single Saturday!!)

The most beautiful part of the book for me was when Taylor described the Christian life as a map. “Like any other map, mine had both a center and an edge. At the center stood the Church, where good women baked communion bread, ironed altar linens, and polished silver that had been in the church family for generations . . . The Christian Education committee recruited Sunday School teachers, the youth group leaders planned pizza parties at the bowling alley, and the choir rehearsed from 6:30 to 8:00 in the parish house on Thursday nights . . . These people at the center kept the map from blowing away.”

Yes! The Church stands in our center, full of activities, full of teachings, full of fellowship, pointing us toward God.

But then Taylor began to talk about the edge of the map: “The edge of the map was not all that far from the center. It was not as if I or anyone else had to take a mule train for three weeks to find ourselves in the wilderness. All we had to do was step outside the Church and walk to where the lights from the sanctuary did not pierce the darkness anymore. All we had to do was lay down the books we could no longer read and listen to the howling that our favorite hymns so often covered up. There were no slate roofs or signs to the restroom out there, no printed programs or friendly ushers. There was just the unscripted encounter with the undomesticated God whose name was unpronounceable – that, and a bunch of flimsy tents lit up by lanterns inside, pitched by those who were either seeking such an encounter or huddling in their sleeping bags while they recovered from one. These people at the edge kept the map from becoming redundant. According to the Bible, both the center and the edge are essential to the spiritual landscape, although they are as different from one another as they can be.” (emphasis mine)

I read that, and my spirit roared.

Can I tell you something? I have always been in the center. No, I have not had the responsibilities of a minister. But I have been the Sunday School teacher umpteen times, in both Nazarene and Orthodox churches. I have sung in the choir. I have tutored immigrants. I have made communion bread. I have gone to confession. I have preached on Sunday morning and I have spoken to women’s groups. I have stood and given whole-hearted testimonies; I have sung and raised my hands; I have followed Jesus’ bier and wept; I have stared into the eyes of icons and seen my faith.

And I have, for the most part, loved it all. I may still be in the center for a while.

But I feel myself moving toward the edge. I don’t know what that means, but I know that it is coming. I believe that one can be saved at the edge as much as one can be saved at the center. I believe that the wilderness can speak to my spirit, too. All we have to do is look at the stories of wilderness living from the Bible and the saints to confirm that. There is a wilderness waiting for me. There are unscripted moments waiting for me. There is a God who cannot be corralled, who cannot be tamed by our dogmas and traditions, out there waiting for me.

16 comments

  1. Claire says:

    …but then, isn’t that what Jesus did/does? And St. Paul didn’t fit the mold, either–he was both center and edge. And the holy fools as well…

      • Claire says:

        Happy to!

        I think the configuration of HOW we might live at the center and the edge simultaneously must be different for each person, and for each person in different seasons of life. Very frustrating for those of us (me) who crave clarity.

  2. You KNOW I love this, Karissa. Like you, I lived in the center of the life of the Church for many years. (I’m almost 63.) But when I found myself in a similar spiritual struggle a few years ago, I began to move to the edge. And sometimes, that can be dangerous and a bit scary. But for me, it’s proven to be a good place. I’m still here, and I’ve found more peace with my church from this vantage point. I don’t think I’ll be moving back into the center again, but you never know. God moves in mysterious ways.

    • kksorrell says:

      You inspire and encourage me, Susan! This is what I want my second book to be about actually (if I ever finish the first one). Wilderness living. Honestly I think if you look at Orthodoxy there is a wealth of people who lived in the center, and a wealth of people who lived on the edge.

  3. Martha Bunn says:

    Such a thought-provoking essay. As a Methodist from birth I have experienced many peaks and valleys in my 86 years. I believe the spiritual person is always questioning and always in transit. Some days we move forward; others backward; some on rocky soil; some grassy but we know we are never alone in our journey and never rejected by our guide.

    • kksorrell says:

      Martha,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! My mom is Methodist, so I’m familiar. I appreciate your thoughts and you are right: It’s always a journey. I love your statement: “The spiritual person is always questioning and always in transit.”

  4. Margie says:

    Interesting and thought provoking, Karissa! So as I was thinking about how I see my role in the church body and I found this brief article by Fr. Alexander Schmemann as a great expression. (Because you know I do not write :) )

    http://www.schmemann.org/byhim/clergyandlaityinthechurch.html

    Especially the final number 5 at the end of the article section titled Some Errors to Be Rejected, and the Conclusion here:

    5. A false opposition between the spiritual and the material areas in the life of the Church: “let the priest take care of the spiritual, and we — the laity — will take care of the material things…” We believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God. He made Himself material in order to spiritualize all matter, to make all things spiritually meaningful, related to God… Whatever we do in the Church is always both spiritual and material. We build a material Church but its goal is spiritual: how can they be isolated from one another? We collect money, but in order to use it for Christ’s sake. We organize a banquet, but if it is at all related to the Church, its goal — whatever it is — is also spiritual, cannot be abstracted from faith, hope and love, by which the Church exists. Otherwise, it would cease to be a “Church affair”, would have nothing to do with the Church. Thus to oppose the spiritual to the material, to think that they can be separated is un-Orthodox. In all things pertaining to the Church there is always a need for the participation of both clergy and laity, for the action of the whole People of God.

    Conclusion
    Many mistakes have been made on both sides in the past, let us forget them. Let us rather make an attempt to find and to make ours the truth of the Church. It is simple, wonderful and constructive. It liberates us from all fears, bitterness and inhibitions. And we shall work together — in the unity of faith and love — for the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom.

    • kksorrell says:

      Margie, I can definitely appreciate the Orthodox idea that spiritual and material are not really separated. I see that taking place all over the church: through feasting and fasting, through Eucharist, through the postures and practices and work of liturgy. I think one of my question is this: Can the material outside of the church be spiritual, too? To what extent does God redeem everything in the world? To what extent is God present in people or things that are considered “secular” or “worldly?”

      • Margie says:

        Great questions! I can only “spout” the belief, which I do personally and sincerely hold, that God is ever present and filling all things; that when he came into the world, He came to redeem the world. Now what that looks like in the millions of diverse situations all over the world, I cannot specifically say, but then I am not required to specifically say. To me that is part of the mystery of faith I live with and I do not always live with it peacefully, but that is my choice as God is full of the peace that passes understanding and when I have sought this peace He has never kept int from me.

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