Detachment. Recently, I’ve been giving in to the feelings of this my most famous and well-documented coping mechanism. Friends will tell you that I barely left my room during my second year of seminary except to go to classes and meals. Some days were better than others. I could stomach watching a football game in the common room or going to a birthday dinner at the Mexican restaurant. But on the worst nights — ones in which I had been invited out and had even made a vague commitment to going — I got dressed in going out clothes, laced up my going out shoes, paced the room, argued with myself, grasped the door handle half a dozen times, manufactured some phantom nausea, and put my pajamas back on. I hated myself for those nights. Back then I was coping with the loss of a long-term relationship; I dealt with the decoupling by detaching myself from everyone else, too. I know — not the healthiest of coping mechanisms. Indeed, I needed a coping mechanism for my coping mechanism. But more on that in a moment.
Before you start calling in a crack squad of psychotherapists, this recent bout with detachment is nowhere near as severe. Like Spinal Tap’s amps, the detachment a few years ago went up to eleven. This time, the severity is at about a two or three. But enough of the shadow of that previous time hovers in my memory, making me all too aware of the dangers of detachment. Back then, a loss of relationship made me pull away. Ironically, a similar set of responses is happening as I form new relationships at my new parish. Of course, with the new relationships come the ending or transforming of other relationships. Suffice to say, the constellation of relationships in my night sky is changing, and something in that change is causing me to fall back on my erstwhile coping mechanism.
Enter this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Paul discusses various practices that some find objectionable and others find completely acceptable. Each group thinks they are the ones who are truly honoring God. Paul tells them that both sides are giving thanks to God by different actions, so neither has a right to pass judgment on the other. In this context, Paul writes a verse of surpassing beauty and profundity: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
As I contemplate my recent relapse into old patterns of detachment, I realize that these words have been with me from my first week at my new parish. Since the beginning of August, I have been a part of three memorial services — liturgies during which people come together to mourn and laugh and grieve and celebrate the life of a loved one who has died, and in so doing, celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the beginning of each service, the priest intoned these same words from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Each time I heard these words in the last month, I got that spine-tingling feeling that happens when God drops an ice cube down your back to remind you that God’s still there.
These words of Paul speak the beautiful and profound truth that we belong to God, or as the Episcopal burial office puts it: “We are the Lord’s possession.” This reminds me that however much I may feel the need to detach, to disentangle myself from life or friends or responsibilty, God never severs the relationship with me. Hearing Paul’s words during those special memorial services kept me from disengaging in the midst of all the changes and chances my life had been through in recent months.
This is why “church” is so important. In the context of the community of faith, the Lord spoke words of renewed invitation to me. I’m sure you’ve heard the popular epithet that describes someone as “spiritual, but not religious.” I think I understand some of the cultural and sociological forces that have contributed to the emergence of this category. One of these forces, sadly, is a misunderstanding on the societal level of what “religion” means. In the modern era, the terms “religion” and “church” took on the connotation of “edifice” — of imposing structure and immutable establishment.
But “church” has very little to do with a building and much to do with a people gathered. While structure and doctrine have their necessity, “religion” does not mean structure and doctrine. When you get right down to it, “religion” means “reconnection.” Re-ligio. Just look at the word and think of all the football players (most recently Tom Brady of my beloved Patriots) who have had surgery for torn ACLs. An ACL tear is repaired by reconnecting the torn ligaments to the muscle and bones of the knee. Likewise, “religion” is all about reconnecting us to the One who holds us all in possession. And “church” is all about celebrating that reconnection with one another.
The musical Rent offers a stark view of the reality of our society and shows the utter need for these resources of connection and relationship. Near the end of the show, after the characters have dispersed and gone their separate ways, Roger and Mark sing about that special Christmas Eve last year when their group of friends came together to celebrate life and love. They sing: “What was it about that night? Connection in an isolating age. For once the shadows gave way to light. For once I didn’t disengage.” Opening themselves up to that connection with others leads them to joy and pain and life and death and the grittiness of a love that has survived all the assassination attempts by the forces of isolation.
When I begin to let myself detach from those around me, I must remember that God has already repaired the torn ligament and banished the shadows of isolation. I am the Lord’s possession. I am the Lord’s when I die. And I am the Lord’s while I live. I just need to make sure I’m living while I am alive, to make sure that I stay connected to those around me and celebrate the love of the God who knits us all together.