Saturday, November 6, 2010

letter from nikki visel

My friend Nikki wrote this letter to the leadership of our church to explain to them why she's leaving the congregation. She said she considers it to be public domain and gave me permission to post it here. She expresses so well the struggle against literalism that goes with faith and how that struggle is worth fighting, and reading this gave me a lot of comfort while I'm grieving this so hard.


To the Session of Grace Seattle,

Over the course of the last four weeks, I have decided that the time has come for me to leave Grace Seattle. While I’ve never pledged my membership at Grace, I have called it my home for over 10 years and feel compelled to share the reasons behind my decision.

In my experience, worship is not a place of escape, but rather a place of reality. A place where the seen and the unseen mingle. A place where the rough edges aren't smoothed out; they’re explored. A place where we don’t have to hide. Difficult ideas aren't simplified so that we feel better, but are allowed to stand openly in their complexity. To worship is to engage both imaginative thinking and concrete thinking. It is both formulaic and intuitive. We must practice worship and also wait for it to happen. Worship is demanding.

For most of my life, I've had to shut down my "intuitive knowing" in order to sit in church, because my intuition can smell untruth about 30 miles away and while technically every intellectual idea and construct presented may be true there is also a falseness, a shallowness that makes itself known and unsettles me.

By intuition I mean that my physical perception interacts with a "felt" inner sense of something: its truth, its presence, its beauty. Thoughts arrive on my peripheral awareness, and I feel the edge of an idea, but can't find the whole thing – like trying to recall details of a dream. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about, since we all rely on intuitive thought in one way or another. For me, intuition is essential. It’s how I relate to the world, how I process ideas, how my creativity emerges.

For years, the only way I could make it through church service was by turning off my intuition and sticking with the facts, which is pretty depressing for someone like me. In fact, it’s debilitating and maybe even spiritually deforming. But since that was the only way I could worship, I sort of thought that must be what God wanted me to do.

When I came to Grace over 10 years ago, I slid into a pew and was stunned by the fact that the music awakened part of me with its truth. A song written in 7/4 time might not be the easiest to sing, but its structure acknowledges that we live in a broken world. A tune in a minor key might feel dark and scary, but that's how my interior life feels much of the time. The lyrics we sing are sometimes simple and sometimes difficult to understand, but their poetry is honest and has often withstood centuries. So there I sat. ALL of me fit into that pew, and I felt the corset on my heart begin to come unlaced. For the first time in my life, I took a full breath during church. Years passed, and over time I decided it would be ok to let some people at church actually know me. My relationship with God deepened, and Grace became my home.

After my last letter to the Session, I have hesitated to speak again, because I believe that the Session has the best of intentions. I hesitate because leading a church is difficult, and I have watched members of the Session rearrange their lives to help individuals understand and process the decision that has been made. I’ve witnessed the Session taking ownership of the ramifications of their leadership. These things are the marks of good leaders, but my heart aches and that sick feeling I get when I "know" something that I don't "know" won’t leave me.

I have spent a great deal of time reading and re-reading the Worship Vision and new Worship Arts Director job description. I do not use hyperbole when I say that they made me nauseous and I wept over them for days. The very format of these documents is of rigidity and their language demands conformity – but not a conformity to God, a conformity to human made power structures. And suddenly my intuitive knowing became very concrete and with those documents I felt my heart’s corset begin to tighten again.

I am heartbroken that Phil is gone. But that's not what is eating at me. I don't want to see the worship music dumbed down so that people can sing it while mentally mowing the lawn. But that's not what it is either. It's the part of me that spent the first 30 years of my life trying to squeeze my head and my heart into a pew and not die in the process that has reared her head. It is the part of me that reads the new "Worship Arts" job description and sees a church using the word “Art” and then describing a technician who will create only a world that the Session can see, thereby minimizing the gifts God has given the artist. I suspect that we are now a church moving in a direction where efficiency is key and effectively reaching goals is the primary objective. And I cannot ignore my intuitive knowledge just to fit into the new Grace paradigm.

I beg you to consider one thing as you move forward. Is a nine-page outline, lead by a “goal statement” the best way to describe how Grace will approach worship? The way we frame ideas shapes the way we respond to those ideas, the format will play a large role in determining how the document “works on us.” How would a contemplative approach the same task? What would it look like if Annie Dillard wrote it? Luci Shaw? Thomas Merton? Perhaps the issue of “format” seems a small issue to you, for me, it’s huge. I cannot have a “goal statement” govern the way I worship God. I do not want business language, linear measurement, footnotes, or technical textbook language coloring the way I approach the Creator of the Universe. Nor do I want those elements to impact the person who is helping to lead me into worship.

Some of you have encouraged me to stay at Grace, and while I am grateful for your expressions of hospitality, the truth is that in order to implement the Vision at hand, you need me to leave. You need people like me to be part of the collateral damage that comes when a church body makes changes to integral parts of its DNA. Perhaps God has called Grace to a bigger, broader future, but I suspect that He has prepared me for small things. For the places of God where people who have a hard time sitting in a pew might find a place to worship and be transformed.

As I leave Grace Seattle I ask you to please pray for me; pray that God will use me and that he will not let me go. In turn I will pray the same for Grace – and I will always be grateful for the home that it provided me all of these years.

Blessings on us all,

Nikki Visel


Kara Root said...

WOW. May I share this letter with my session? What she describes in the first few paragraphs is what we have been striving for in worship - a place of honesty where every part of us can come and be present with God and one another... her experience bleeds off the page. Thank you for sharing. We will hold your congregation in our prayers tomorrow in worship.

Still Breathing said...

Whenever I come across a church using business methods instead of just relying on God's way it makes me sad. When that starts hurting God's people it makes me angry because it is a sign that they are not doing things God's way.
Stephy, you know that I am in a similar position here the UK and in human terms I can see no way forward. It is at times like this that we must be prepared to let God guide us and trust that he wants only good for all his people.

God bless and, as always, prayers from across the pond.


Still Breathing said...

I just realised 'A song written in 7/4 time' - I wish I'd heard that. I'm sure I must have sung in 7/4 at some time (apart from singing along to Money by Pink Floyd) even if only as a bass trying to catch up and get back on the beat in 4/4!

Bill said...

This letter makes me weep. I didn't think a place like Nikki describes could exist, and now to find it in a season of waning seems unutterable, except that you and Nikki have managed to put words to it.

May God guide us all to the small things he has prepared us for. Quiet thoughts and prayers from one more, sisters and brothers.

Spinning in Air said...

WOW indeed.

She is so able to describe thing I've never put into words before.

and I am so very sorry to see that this church is taking the direction it's taking.

Anonymous said...

Nikki, you have really encapsulated the way I and others (I'm sure) feel about the worship vision at Grace. I am concerned myself about the application of a business model to worship. To me, it is inappropriate and misplaced, and violates the spirit and purpose of worship.