The Irrational Season
I’d like to tell you a story. It is a story about church—that word that bedevils so many of us. It is also a story that involves my wife, although I will only hint at pieces there, for her story is her story to tell. And it is also, as is most everything I write, a story about me, although in telling you about me my wish-upon-the-stars is that I can tell it in such a way that you’ll think about you.
I’ve always carried pictures in my mind of my preferred life—the way I hope things go. Very few of these pictures have come into focus exactly like I planned. There are our desired stories, and then there are our true stories. And while I will bang the drums for desire and want and dreams and hopes until I draw my final breath, I will also bang them for the real and actual and lived.
One of my preferred pictures is that of fidelity to a local church—to a people and also a place that over weeks and months and years I’ve given my life to, as they and it have given theirs to me. I’m grateful that has been the picture for some time, but it’s not any longer. Well, it is, and it isn’t.
Our church has been through a rough patch, and we’re not out of the weeds yet. About a year ago, our founding pastor resigned and drove away. That was seismic. About two years ago, our founding pastor’s wife died—a tear in the fabric of our church that refuses to mend. And about five years ago, our church began to think and engage in ministry in ways radically different from the ways we’d been. Some of us reveled in that change. Some of us bristled. A few of us left and the rest of us are hanging on by a thread of dental floss proportions.
Now, none of these experiences is novel—something that has never ever happened before in the life of a church. But they’d never happened here before. My wife worked for our church in an administrative role during those years. She witnessed firsthand the roughness, and she’s not out of the weeds yet. In fact, she’s not sure she can hang on.
“A rough patch” sounds precious, doesn’t it? The truth is sometimes the Bride of Christ can be a sumbitch, which shouldn’t be surprising because the church has always been an ark-full of sinners, of which I’m pretty high up in the rankings. But still, it continues to shock us when we see the reality of who we are.
Seeing as how my wife and I live together, eat together, sleep together, do most things together, I witnessed secondhand the roughsumbitchness. I’m still in the weeds too. But here’s the corker: While she is trying to determine whether or not she can hang on, I’ve felt drawn there—pulled almost—in a way I’ve never been. It’s a very irrational season for us. Just so you know, I was a pastor in what feels like another life now, and my wife and I experienced some rough patches back then which are eerily similar to some of the patches now. Our bodies remember how that all felt, and verily, verily, the body keepeth the score.
You might think, if you thought about it a moment, that due to such history maybe I’m to stay at my post and offer guidance or help to our church during this time. I mean, gosh, I might even emerge after this season has passed as a sort of rhinestone cowboy, getting “cards and letters from people I don’t even know / and offers comin’ over the phone.” Trust me, I’ve had that thought, but I’m old enough to know the hero’s itch and I have no need to scratch it in this situation. No, the pull I’ve felt is that simply my physical presence could be, as Carver wrote, “a small, good thing.” I know, I know, even the small can still skew heroic. I’m aware.
As I mentioned, my wife and I do most things together. But these late autumn Sundays find us not going to church together—a picture I never, ever thought would be a part of the story of us. That makes me sad. It makes her sad too. But that’s the truth of things right now, and I read somewhere that the truth sets you free, although I’ve learned it often puts you through El Ringer on the way to emancipation.
In this irrational season, we’re knee-deep in asking questions, one even being “Have you ever thought we might attend different churches on a Sunday morning?” Yes, that rustling you hear is the sound of my primitive hardshell Baptist grandparents roiling in their graves at the audacity to even entertain the thought that husbands and wives would not go to church together. Then of course there are the never-dying voices of the nutjob evangelical Greek chorus always in the margins of my mind chirping, “Might this be an instance of you not manning up and being the leader God called you to be?”
Well, to my grandparents I say, “I love you more than you probably even know, but you’re dead and I’m alive. You had your chance. Now it’s our time. Besides, I’m thinking that in light of where you are right now, that your hardshells have been softened considerably, maybe come apart at the seams entirely, and you’re both cheering us on with the joy, joy, joy, joy that was down in your hearts but has now spilled all over everything due to your getting cracked up.”
And to that immortal, slightly off-key chorus I say, “I love you more than you probably know as well. You were a nurturing bosom I will be forever grateful for. Yet while your milk grew me strong and tall, time has marched on, and I’ve acquired a taste for bread and wine. I just can’t go back.”
Yes, it gets quite noisy in my head some days.
The Irrational Season. Does that line ring any bells? It’s the title of one of Madeleine L’Engle’s books. But it also shows up in her poem “After Annunciation.” She uses that line to describe the season of Advent—a fact not lost on me that it’s right around the corner. Her poem is nothing less than audacious:
This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child.
It feels childish to try and apply any rhyme or reason to the season my wife and I are in regarding church. It doesn’t make a lick of sense. But because we’re trying to tell the truth of things, maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s better than okay. Maybe that’s good. Maybe something is struggling to be born in our marriage that wouldn’t have a prayer if we let the voices of reason and the expectations of others—even others who love us—snuff us out. Maybe, in our irrational season, as Madeleine wrote in her book, we are risking “that love which is not possession, but participation.”
Of course, maybe the entire circus of life is an irrational season, and we begin to see this in clearer albeit cloudier focus as we grow older if we promise to keep telling the truth. Those plans of mice and men and women and marrieds and singles and grandparents and evangelicals—nothing plays out the way we thought it would. Not a single thing. But life marches on, doesn’t it?
I have to wonder, if we could stop trying to orchestrate it all or possess it all and rather simply participate, then, well, I don’t know, maybe we could ask questions like “Have you ever thought we might attend different churches on a Sunday morning?” And maybe it wouldn’t feel like the end of the world as we’ve known it. As for the answer to such questions, we’d simply have to watch and see.
One of my literary uncles is the writer Andre Dubus. One day later in life, he stopped to help a couple involved in a traffic accident. The story goes another car came by and the driver didn’t see him and hit Dubus at fifty-eight miles an hour. The gregarious, flawed, and beautiful bear of a man spent the remainder of his life confined to a wheelchair. I’m willing to wager that was a picture he never imagined—irrational with a capital I. Little plays out according to plan. But Dubus continued to participate, kept to his daily writing sessions. In 2011, his son, Andre Dubus III, published a brilliant memoir—Townie. The son shares this snapshot of the father in those sessions:
By midmorning he’d be done. He’d count how many words he’d gotten and record the number. After each total, whether it was fifteen hundred or fifty, he wrote: Thank you.
My wife and I don’t know what we’re going to do during Advent. We love those days on the calendar, and for the last decade or so we’ve always celebrated the irrational season in a church setting, together. I guess, as is the spirit of Advent, we’ll watch and see. And hopefully, like Uncle Andre, keep thankful to the end.