"Besides, I shall perhaps obtain actual relief from writing. Today, for instance, I am particularly oppressed by one memory of a distant past. It came back vividly to my mind a few days ago, and has remained haunting me like an annoying tune that one cannot get rid of. And yet I must get rid of it somehow. . . . For some reason I believe that if I write it down I should get rid of it. Why not try?"
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground
I sat at my desk, hands icy from blood that had suddenly drained out of them.
I sat at my desk, in the office I had worked so hard to achieve, at the job–the vocation–in which I had expected to spend at least the next decade of my life, knowing and yet refusing to accept what the unopened letter in my shaking hand contained.
I sat at my desk, the August afternoon sun slanting through the western windows, casting the grave faces of the two men sitting across from me into shadow.
Fumbling with the seal, the tearing of the envelope broke the silence billowing between us like a gym school parachute and I began to read.
The letter contained a statement of termination signed by our campus ministry’s entire Board of Directors, stating I had proven to hold harmful beliefs that may potentially endanger the eternal destinations of my students’ souls. It was therefore of the utmost importance that I be removed from my position immediately, without speaking to any students. This decision was not open for discussion or debate, there would be no public farewell, and I was expected to vacate the lead pastor’s office within the week (making sure to not steal any ministry-owned items). If I resigned immediately without creating any controversy, I would be allowed severance through the end of the calendar year. If not . . . Good luck supporting a family of five in this small town.
My wife, Mikala, was not forgotten: as she was not only my partner but also a fellow staff member, it was assumed she would no longer wish to serve and so her resignation was preemptively accepted. This was neither the first nor the last time in which this fierce woman—whose poise and grace had saved my life—was insulted and belittled by these older, white men, these “leaders of the local church.”
The letter fell in my lap and my eyes met those of the man in whom I had once placed so much trust and hope; the youngest board member, a professor at the university, who didn’t always agree with me but nevertheless saw my passion and skill as worthy of working with. As I looked up, he suddenly became very interested in his shoes and I stammered, “I . . . I don’t understand. What did I do? I thought I was clear that I’m not teaching anything controv—“
“Josh,” he said, suddenly looking up, voice thick with emotion, “please don’t . . . Not now.”
I tried to speak again, but he shook his head and anyway, my constricting throat wouldn’t have allowed for much more talk. I nodded, stood up, and asked, “Is that all?”
Both men rose and left, softly closing the door behind them. I waited until I knew they were gone, and quickly began to pack my things, feeling my heart’s dam beginning to crack. I quickly stepped into my associate’s office, offered him the letter and simply asked, “Did you know?” His eyes widened with disbelief as he read and he told me, “No, I had no idea.”
Hoping he was being truthful but not trusting myself to ask further, I nodded and said I would be leaving for the day and turned for the exit. Quickly walking the half mile home, my chest continued to tighten and tears built behind my eyes, small streams running down the concrete walls, levees beginning to shift. Not here. Not yet. I told myself. Just get home. I burst in the front door, Mikala and our dog sat on the couch while our baby daughter slept.
“Well hi!” She said happily, but her voice filled with concern as I crossed the room without answering and she asked, “What’s wrong?” I dropped my bag on the floor and fled for the bathroom, where I turned on the shower, fell to my knees, and finally allowing the pent up flood to overwhelm the dam, wept as the warm water cascaded on my shaking back.
This “worst day of my life,” is difficult to tell.
“Difficult” because, as my wife recently wrote, this was far from the worst thing I had been part of. “Difficult” because I have experienced tragedy in much more final ways. “Difficult” because I am still processing the fallout–and because this was neither the first nor the last time I was rejected by the church. So what about this moment, this day full of sultry summer light and obscuring shadows qualifies as “worst”–and what, if anything, can be done with those tears that fell down my shower drain?
That letter broke the final strand tethering me to the spiritual tradition in which I’d been born and raised as a pastor’s kid and in which I was educated. It represented not a termination from a ministry so much as a history, hastening my defection into the Episcopal Church, in which I would spend the next years attempting to join the priesthood.
This experience more than any other raised the sensitivity on my “bullshit radar” to the point that I became much more quick to cut bait when the time called for it: to say “it’s time to be done” with much more confidence and finality than I ever had before. So much so that, when I encountered similar attitudes in my new communion, I realized much sooner than I would have that the church is the church no matter where you go. This day gave me the fortitude to step away before I threw away years to another tradition’s inhuman process, and to imagine a new life–one without “pastor” as my defining byline.
However, it also hastened the sinking of my soul’s ship. To be fair, it had been taking on water for some time, but this moment submerged entire cabins, setting up the capsizing of my traditional Christian faith. So in many ways, this most terrible of days has left me in a state of unfaith and immobility: of knowing I can’t go back but still waiting for “the next right step” to appear beneath my feet.
But in the meantime, the draining of the institutional church’s power over me has allowed for that earth upon which I walk and watch my steps to burst into Divine life, giving the great gift of finding God in all people and all things–even those whose choices and attitudes have brought my family heartache. Once I was able to see beyond the confining walls of the church, I found The Christ. I no longer seek Him in the bread and wine that once meant so much to me: not because He’s not there, but because no one, whether they be conservative evangelical board members or liberal Episcopal bishops, can claim ownership over the Presence that permeates all things.
And so, carrying a heart swirling with pain and peace, I walk on, still grieving over what was and hoping for what may be, but seeking right now to glory in what Is.
Bio: Joshua M. Casey (He/Him), lives with his wife and three children in Bloomington, Indiana. You can listen to his (slightly) blasphemous podcast, Drunk Church History, or read more sober writings like this one at www.joshuamcasey.wordpress.com. Joshua is currently in seeking publishing of his first book, Tracking Desire: A Memoir(ish) Walk Through Faith, Failure, and Finding God Under My Feet.
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After surviving childhood sexual abuse - and eventually - a suicide attempt, here’s what I’ve learned: the acknowledgement of our wounds leads to the most authentic version of healing. Because we live in a polarized either/or culture, it’s easy to believe that admitting dark truths will invalidate our greatest hopes, but it’s not true. Deep sadness and intense healing can coincide - one doesn’t invalidate the other.
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