Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Review of Barbara Brown Taylor's "Leaving Church"

After just two days, I finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor's latest book, Leaving Church, and I was so amazed and overwhelmed by what it contained that I felt I should make an attempt at a review. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had read a review which included the statement that this book should be required reading for someone considering the ordained ministry. With the reading done, I can say that I agree wholeheartedly with that thought -- but I would take it a step further and say that it should be required reading for anyone who is in the midst of their own spiritual journey. Already, my copy is marked by many of those colored page markers, and I know that every subsequent reading is only going to provide me with the opportunity for more underlining, more highlighting, and more reflection.

The book appealed to me on many different levels, and unfortunately there wouldn't be any way that I could possibly try and cover them all -- it truthfully is something that is best discovered by taking the time to read it yourself. However, I do want to try and touch on some of the ideas and thoughts that jumped out at me. On one of the most basic levels, the story appealed to me because the church where she was rector -- Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Georgia -- reminds me in so many ways of the small country church in Virginia I attended in my teen years. Several important components were there: a small and tightly-knit congregation -- in fact, more of a loving family than a mere congregation; a historic old building; and a rich history and presence in the community. More than that, though, Rev. Taylor's description of her time there -- from her first Sunday to her last -- displayed vividly that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were all present and constantly moving through the church and the lives of those who attended.

As someone who has only recently been introduced to Rev. Taylor's work, I approached the book with an enthusiasm based solely on the positive comments that many others have made to me about her writing. However, nothing could have adequately prepared me for the powerful emotions I felt from the first page to the last. I could relate on such a deep level with so many of the emotions she experienced and feelings she felt, particularly as she completed seminary and came to the realization that the ordained ministry was for her. Reading about her experiences brought even more focus and clarity to the call I am feeling now: my desire to share my gifts and talents with a vibrant, growing, changing faith community; my desire to be a companion, a teacher, a friend, and a support for a congregation of people engaged in their own journeys, great and small; and my desire to come into a closer relationship with God, a deeper understanding of the life of Christ, and a greater awareness of the power and beauty of the spirit.

There are several sections where she discusses her great love of the outdoors -- remembering her childhood experiences and, later, relating the extreme pull to the property that she and her husband Ed bought outside Clarkesville and where they made their home. For three very important years of my early life, I lived on a 200-acre farm, and I cannot think of any time in my life where I was happier than having the freedom to explore the woods, wander the fields, and just enjoy the solitude and the sights and sounds of nature. I didn't realize it at the time, but it is impossible to get a full sense of God's presence in the world unless you are out in the world and experiencing every bit of it (sucking the marrow from life, as I believe the line from "Dead Poets' Society" went).

At its very core, though, the true power of the book -- aside from the power of the Spirit -- comes from the power of her words. Again, it would take a thorough reading to understand both the meaning and the context of what she has to say, but here are just a few examples of the beautiful, powerful, instructional, and loving words of Rev. Taylor:

"I did truly love helping people. It was not only chief among the reasons I had decided to seek ordination; it was also, I believed, why I had been born. To help lift a burden, to help light a path, to help heal a hurt, to help seek a truth -- these struck me as the sorts of things that human beings were created to do for one another...." (p. 47)

"I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them." (p. 107)

"Those who became ordained were not presented with Moses or Miriam as our models, so that we could imagine ourselves as flawed human beings still willing to lead people through the wilderness. We were not presented with Peter or Mary Magdalene as our models, so that we could imagine ourselves as imperfect disciples still able to serve at our Lord's right hand. Instead, we were called to fill in for Jesus at the communion table, standing where he once stood and saying what he once said. We were called to preach his gospel and feed his sheep." (p. 150)

I really feel that this book is a love letter in the truest sense of the word: a love letter to her husband, Ed; a love letter to her parishes in Atlanta and Clarkesville; a love letter to her students at Piedmont College. Above all else, though, I think it is a love letter to God -- the God who was patient through her own faith journey and her joyful acceptance of the Episcopal Church, the God who nurtured her through seminary and the ordination process, the God who guided her through many years of active ministry, and the God who held her hand and put an arm around her shoulders as she came to grips with the difficult decision to leave the smaller church and live more fully in the larger, more universal church.

Buy this book, read this book, and share this book!! You will be blessed beyond measure, be taught by an extremely talented and wonderful writer and minister, and be moved to the point where you yourself feel like you have taken the journey with Rev. Taylor and have come out the other side having grown and become a stronger and more aware Christian -- both self-aware and aware of the power moving through the world.


Dave said...

Wow, Matt, it's hard for me to imagine you or anyone giving a book any stronger of a recommendation! I have to be honest and say that I have so many books awaiting my attention right now that I don't think I'll be buying and reading this one real soon, but I will definitely give it a thumbing through next time I'm at a bookstore! The title "Leaving Church" gives me the impression that she's moved on in some ways...? I know that the book chronicles her decision to leave the ordained ministry - is that the extent to which she "leaves church?" I imagine that much of what she has to say is relevant to the current tensions between the ECUSA leadership and its conservative elements here in the USA and abroad. She does seem to have a gift for the evocative turn of phrase. I saw comparisons to Buechner in the Amazon reviews - I've never heard of her up until your mention of her book, even though she's apparently an institution among mainline clergy. I guess I'm not as informed as I thought I was (not that I'd ever claim to be thoroughly immersed in the world of mainline denominations in any case...)

Thanks for the review and your willingness to lay your feelings for this book open for all to see! I like that kind of enthusiasm!

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Hi, Matt. Thanks for visiting Bonnie's Books and leaving a message. I'll be back to read more of your posts.