Monday, April 2, 2012

A Letter to my Future Pastor

Hello. I'm Ouisi. I've been part of this church for about ten years now--ten years in which this church took me from hard-core nondenominational fundamentalist to gung-ho Baptist. This church has nourished me through its community of friendship, its encouragement of learning, and a lot of Wednesday night dinners. I learned here that it was okay to be female, okay to ask questions, okay to have doubts, and okay to fall a little more on the "head" side of the head/heart axis. Most of the people here are from the wealthier and more educated part of the local population, just like at Grace where I grew up, but they don't ignore the poor, or insist that everyone interpret Scripture through a sacred litany of pop theologians.

When I brought Patrick here, people welcomed him and didn't try to convert him or make him feel like he needed to work at fitting in. They like to ask him questions-- how do the Catholics read this passage of Scripture? How does your parish celebrate this holy day? When Patrick and I got married, it was at the altar of this church. We were blessed and our hands were united by the pastor of this church, and by Patrick's family priest.

Now I'm working on increasing the size of this congregation by one. I don't want my kid to grow up with the same bad expectations of God and of Christians that I once had. So I have some things I want to ask you to do.

When our head pastor retired, I felt afraid. Not that we'd end up with something different from him, but that we'd end up with something like what I had before I came here. I wanted someone to come in and join me in worship, not run roughshod over me. Right now I'm easily spooked. I'm overly critical. I'm afraid of the past coming in and stealing what I have in the present. I'm afraid that this safe place is becoming that old place  where everyone outside the walls is my enemy, and where having doubts or disagreeing with my pastor is being a watered-down cafeteria Christian. Now the Bible is a book for men again, and the Gospel is a suicide story, the tale of a deity with anger-management problems who is able to avoid torturing me for all eternity because He found a legal loophole in his own righteousness. Now I climb the mountain to listen for a still, small voice and all I get is my bones rattled by thunder and earthquake.

This interim period has held a lot of noise. Noise that's come from inside my head and noise that's come from the pulpit. So I've been hiding out at Bethel UCC, where each service begins with silent meditation. In their prayers, they ask God to accept as an offering the busyness, the worries, the questions and the guilt buzzing through their minds. They pause midway through their service for silence. They end each service in silence, not hopping up to gather bags and jackets or to start talking to the people in the next pew. They understand silence, and that's the first thing that I want to ask you for. 

Be someone who understands the value of silence. No matter how important the words you say are, we still need you to sometimes be silent and not to fill up all the space around you. Let us soak in what you've already said. Let the other ministers have room to speak. Let us pray for a moment. Let us meditate on the words of the Scripture reading or the hymn. Let the bread and the cup be taken in silence. Let there be enough silence that we can hear the Spirit.

Second, I need you to be okay with non-Baptist Christians, and with Baptists who don't think and talk and worship exactly like you. Be okay with that, both in concept and in practice. See, this kid is going to be coming to worship with us, but isn't going to be brought up as a Baptist, and this kid needs to grow up knowing that that's nothing to be ashamed of. Respect my child. Respect my husband. Respect the folks at Walker Chapel up the road and at Rock Spring down the way. This isn't the Bible Belt, filled with fifth- and sixth-generation Baptists; churches are thinner on the ground here, and folks move from one place to another and take shelter as they find it. Don't talk down about Christians who aren't Baptist. This congregation knows that the world of Christian liturgy is much, much bigger than what we do inside our walls. We love our tradition, but please don't mock the other traditions that Christians have developed in the last 2000 years. If we can't respect a person whose conscience led him into a different way of worshiping God, then we need a refresher course in Baptist history. And if you absolutely must use the pulpit to say something nasty about Roman Catholics, at least check with Patrick first-- he can make sure you have your facts straight.

But maybe you're more gracious than that, and more open to grace. Then you'll find that your congregation here is an anchor in a very deep sea of Christian experience. Maybe you'll take advantage of the opportunity to get to know the neighbors. This is a high church hotspot. The Episcopalians and the Catholic bishop are down the road, and if you head 10 minutes up Old Dominion Drive you'll find the son of Justice Scalia celebrating Mass in Latin, stirring up the incense as he paces the aisles in embroidered robes. The Melkite rite meets in McLean, chanting the Psalms and pressing their heads to the floor.

Here's something you shouldn't miss. Just once, a few years from now when you're all settled in, delegate your Easter or your Christmas Eve responsibilities to the capable assistant ministers. Make a pilgrimage into DC to the National Shrine for a midnight Mass. This is worship in hardcore mode, ancient 3D IMAX.  Join with the thousands of people who pack into that cavernous space, sixteen stories high, and wait in the darkness. Feel the pressing of the years of waiting for the Messiah, the long hours of Holy Saturday. Beneath your feet the dead sleep in the crypt, waiting for the Second Coming. Wait with them in the darkness and the silence. Finally, hear the choirs burst into song that fills every alcove and watch the candles spring to life. See Christ Pantocrator filling the space, wide as your eyes can take in, glittering above the altar in countless golden tiles. Walk out in a daze and step into the night, and realize that the world is asleep and that you are carrying a miracle of light with you. Think about the midnights that have already come eastward of you, and all the midnights that are about to happen westward of you, as the candles ring the world with light.

So that's what I have to ask of you: leave room for silence and the Spirit here, and for all the rest of us. I promise we'll make room for you. I hope you're someone who can get comfortable easily. Be comfortable enough with your message that you can speak it, and then settle back and worship with us. Do you know why priests in some traditions stand with their backs to the congregation? It's because they are standing with us, facing God in worship. Come and worship along with us. 

Be comfortable enough with us that you can live with our Northern Virginia peculiarities. We'll welcome you, and feed you, and visit with you. We'll listen to you and learn from you. And this country girl from the Bible Belt will be waiting to see if you're going to welcome her child, Catholicism and all.


  1. Ouisi- Thank you for your thoughtful and helpful letter. All I can say is, I believe that you and I are kindred spirits, children of a good and gracious Father. Looking forward to the journey ahead with people like you. Blessings on you and your family.

  2. This was gorgeous, Ouisi. Thank you so much.