Elegy for a Dying Church

* This is the image of my altar and the ordinary icons that represent Wits’ End for me: the card and candles I received last week for my help with the children, the card I received on my last Sunday there, the icon made from the same wood as a Wits’ End icon I helped write a few springs ago.

they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
    and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he brought them out from their distress… (Psalm 107:27f)

This Sunday, January 8, 2016, is the last Sunday my church, Wits’ End, is gathering. The church, housed in the basement of a Baptist church, sits on the northern tip of Seattle, nestled in a neighborhood of people I never had the privilege of meeting. (So many of us lived 15 miles south in West Seattle to 20 miles north in Everett. “Our neighborhood” never quite looked like the single-family homes of Haller Lake but the apartments, the homes nestled in the woods, the compact city houses.)

I write this 2,500 miles away, in Indianapolis, Indiana, in a coffee shop because I could not bring myself to church this morning. As much as I want to love the Episcopal church on the corner of 16th and Central, sitting in its wooden pews, eating its crusted communion bread just reminds me that it is not Wits’ End.

When I woke this morning, dressed for the church I would not attend, I lit a candle on my bedroom altar for my dying church. For the past few nights, I’ve dreamt about Wits’ End. I’ve been waking up remembering Wits’ End in a way I haven’t let myself in the past three months, since I learned of its closing.

Like the candle I lit this morning, I want to mark the end of the church that meant so much of me; I want to tell my story of sitting in its brown folding chairs for four years of my life.

The sections in italics come from a piece I wrote back in 2014 about my experience in church. I never did anything with it because it felt too confessional for publication. But now I wonder if I could ever write a better elegy for my time at this church of artists and therapists in northern Seattle.

*

“This poem’s about me, you know,” my poet friend told me. I had already read two drafts of his poem, a free-verse confession of his sexuality. The two men in the car outside Starbucks, watching the rain, holding hands. That’s my friend and his crush. I knew this of course. “I thought so.”

Four years before I had sat in the car with a woman at Starbucks, watching traffic and sipping iced coffee. “I’m gay,” she had confessed. My best friend—gay? “I don’t think so.”

    The summer my poet friend came out to me as gay, my boyfriend came out to me as an atheist. That night, I blocked him from my phone and listened to moody music, praying I had heard him wrong, that “I’m not a Christian” meant something else. The next day I imagined the quiet world that would become mine, if we ever married and raised atheist children, if I had to go to church alone forever.

I’ve been going to church alone most of my life. The pastor’s invitation to take Communion with a family member always embarrassed me—my stepmother was not my family, not really. And my friends—my best friend was asked not to attend our church because of her sexuality. Others just stopped showing up. At new churches, I’m asked, “Who do you belong to?” No one here.

 Someone’s coming out means my closing in.

I like to say that I found Wits’ End when I was at my wits’ end. I had spent the previous four years at my evangelical college unsure about the role of church in my life. I had been previously burned, by watching my friends and family get hurt by toxic doctrine, so I spent most of my college years avoiding church. Some Sundays I would drive to coffee shops, like I have today, to write — sometimes about my suffocating ecclesiology. Sometimes I’d do homework.

At that time I rewrote Emily Dickinson’s poem to my English professor’s dismay:

Some keep Sabbath going to church–
I keep it drinking coffee

My issues with church were both ordinary and specific to me, and I felt utterly guilty about it. Some of it was the interweaving of the country’s politics with the politics of Jesus, which felt counter to the Biblical narrative I knew so well. Some of it was a sense of unwelcome, that could not be fully put to words. I was raised to believe that church should not always “feel good”; church was a family, and sometimes your family makes you mad, right? While I wholly believe church is not about mere comfort and a feel-good gospel, I also believe language like this was used to keep me in place of spiritual abuse. And I know that’s true for others too.

        Christianity lost its spark when it preached its exclusionary gospel to my friends. When my best friend came out to me in the Starbucks parking lot, and I had nothing to say to her, nothing to prove that she and I would remain best friends, remain in communion, I started wondering what good is the Church, if it’s going to cut the ties binding girlfriends. 

It is peculiar, then, that once I moved out to Seattle, the summer after my college graduation, I sought out a church at all. Some tiny seed of hope, I suppose, was still in me — or maybe it was the Annie Dillard quote on church’s website — that sat me on a bus for an hour and a half north to Wits’ End Church.

*

No doubt my first year at Wits’ End was filled with ambivalence. I wanted to go, but oh, I so did not want to go. I was in my first year of graduate school, too, and it was easy for me to use homework as the excuse not to go to church, even if I could read on the bus.

Hardest were the few times Wits’ End would play familiar church songs. I later learned the language of “triggering,” how those songs brought me back to my experiences at my home church and church camp and chapel. I would find myself shaking, angry because my past experiences were infiltrating my beloved new church.

I once came wild and reckless into my youth pastor’s office: “We’re not going to camp this year?” He told me some things had happened last year, some things he couldn’t talk to me about. My friends thought the worst: maybe counselors snuck out of the cabins for sex. Already cynical, I thought maybe my youth pastor was jealous we would spend time with other pastors.

            I kept asking why, drying my slippery hands on my jeans. “That’s my camp, not your camp. I was baptized there.”

            “You just have to trust me.”

            The fire that rages in a fourteen-year-old’s heart wouldn’t let it go. My mouth, then, couldn’t form the words, not without fear of reproof, from my youth pastor, myself, or God. But my heart knew exactly what to say: Oh, fuck you.

My second year, I became a member of the church and joined a “small boat,” a group of people who became my closet allies every Tuesday evening. That year, too, I began working poetry into the church liturgy, a task that ultimately shaped how I understood the relationship of theology and literature.

In my third year, the church helped me get through a painful breakup, with soft words and warm soup. I remember crying on a parishioner’s shoulder two months after the split, two months into attempting a friendship with my ex. “Why won’t he commit to his decision?” were her words, a reverberation of his lack of commitment to our relationship. I wonder if they’re the words that finally got me into therapy.

In my final year, I was gone a lot, with my new boyfriend having moved two states away. My Tuesday group became my church as I traveled most weekends. They were the ones to cry with me before my move to Indiana, who quizzed me for the GRE, who would pick on me as the kid sister of the group.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sits before his best friends and his enemy; he takes bread, blesses it, and breaks it. “Take, eat; this is my body.” He takes a cup of wine, gives thanks, and says, “Drink of it, for this is the blood of the convent, poured out for all.”

            As a child, after hearing Paul’s warning about taking the elements in vain, I used Communion to confess every sin I committed that week, and for even now feeling cut off and distracted. Once again I needed God to know I was serious.

As I got older, I started to find in Communion just that—communion, intimacy with God and a space to grieve intimacy lost between my best friend and me, my mom and me, my boyfriend and the Christian God.

When Phil welcomes us to the altar and says, “Come, the table is ready,” he offers the bread and the wine to all, the way Christ offered His body for all. He offers it to the best friends and pen pals, to the Judases and Thomases, the sheep and the goats.

*

As a fledgling theologian, I’m grateful for last spring when a rag-tag team of Wits’ Enders rewrote the church constitution, a document only to affect six months of the church’s life. We knew I was leaving at this point, but the community let me contribute. My theology was shaped by my time at Wits’ End, and my voice, in turn, shaped the theology of the community.

In my four years at Wits’ End, and my four years as a student and teacher at a seminary, my theology of the church had developed — out of the frustration of my youth and young adulthood, into one of hope and possibility. I can envision a church where I am welcomed and seen fully for who I am. I can envision a church where I am allowed to doubt, where the gospel is read and lived, where the deep mysteries of the Trinity are held. I can envision these things, because I experienced them at this church.

Wits’ End is closing, not because its work is complete. There is much heartache, anger, grief, despair at its death — much of which I do not understand and am grateful I don’t have to. Wits’ End epitomized church for me, and, frankly, my ignorance has been a gift. In my memory, Wits’ End will remain a place where I was found and saved.

*

On my last Sunday at Wits’ End, I was invited to preside over Eucharist. The liturgy around Eucharist at Wits’ End had always meant so much to me. Finally the abundance of the gospel began making sense to me, as I dipped the warm, gluten-free bread into wine. Becca’s hands made this bread. Phil’s hands bore drips of wine as he held the chalice.

To honor my last Sunday there, I had planned to read Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day” — which I did, but sobbed my way through in messy, wet disaster.

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I continued: “I’m grateful to spend my last Sunday presiding over the Eucharist Table. Here Christ invites you and me to abundance. This is so representative of my time at Wits’ End: abundance. I’ve been invited into this community, have been cared for, loved, seen — in more ways than I ever expected to be in a church. I am grateful.

“But here we are at the end. I echo Mary Oliver’s words, ‘Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?’ And yet, there is something so comforting in the universality of this sacred practice, that no matter where I am, I will be partaking the bread and the wine just as you do every Sunday evening.”

When I partake of the bread and wine, I remember Wits’ End and how I felt the abundance of the gospel in its community. I believe I will continue to remember, long after this Sunday, after the death of the church. “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

At Advent, Wits’ End flips the altar on its head. It’s no longer a table, but with its wooden legs in the air, a manger. Instead of Christ inviting us to His table, we invite Christ to His cradle. Be with us. Stay with us. Phil asks me to read poetry through Advent, in place of Communion. Take, eat—hear, listen—I whisper to the congregants, many of whom still don’t know my name, this poem is me.         

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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