Friday, June 14, 2013

The Past is Not Past

In this internet age, the past is never really past.

High school classmates we spent four years trying to escape, and haven't thought about since we tossed our graduation caps into the air, suddenly want to be our "friends."  Intentionally long-lost relatives reassert their dysfunction over our newsfeeds.  Old flames we thought had lost the power to unhinge us prove us wrong as sidebar spectres: People You Might Know.  Social media limits our ability to leave people behind, and somehow, the people who come back always seem to be the people you most wish would not.

Or maybe it just feels that way to me today, while I ponder the reappearance of a person from my past.  This wasn't the first time that he's dropped in on my web world, and in theory that's fine.  If I'm not open to comment from anyone, I shouldn't post things publicly on the internet.  In this particular case, I invited his return by writing about the phase of my life when he knew me.  This wasn't the first time he judged my theology to be not truly Christian.  It was, however, the first time he attacked me personally, telling his perspective of those years, observing that I was (and implied, still am) difficult, unteachable, divisive, dramatic, feisty, and ambitious.  And so it wasn't just this person who loomed out of my past, it was also my college self.

For the record, I was (and sometimes, still am) all of those things.  Because I am all of those things, I have about a million things to say about all the accusations he leveled at me.  I want to defend my faith, my doctrine, my interpretation of Scripture.  I want to defend difficult personalities; have you ever read the Bible??  I want to defend my twenty year-old self, new to faith and wrestling with God and with everyone around her to define her identity and calling.

All that defensiveness, all that desire to legitimize myself, all the emotion shaken to the surface by this person...I thought that was past.  Caring that much about what anyone else thinks is a trait that belongs to a much younger me.  Except, apparently it doesn't.

It turns out that it's not just the internet that bears our past back to us, although it generously gives our triggers another pathway to reach us.  In some sense I am still all the phases of myself that I have been.  The past is never really past.

So, today I write to gently push back the past and remember to be who I am now, past twenty.  Thirty-five year-old me can read criticism, has read quite a bit of it, has dealt with a lot of disapproval and lived to tell the tale.  Time hasn't done much to blunt my tendency toward sharp reactions, but it has given some perspective and the ability to step away, to accept what is true and discard what is untrue.  The authenticity and accuracy of my faith is between God and me, and the congregation I serve and the classis to which I am amenable.  My personality is, well, it's in progress.  My past may not be past, but it doesn't rule my present.

And when the past pops up to bid me its less pleasant greetings, at least it's clear that I'm not the only one for whom the past is not really past.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Comments Closed

I wish that certain topics in life had an option, like blog posts, to close the comments section.  Unfortunately, that is not the case, and so I need to say this about comments about other people's relational and procreative statuses:

Please, just stop.

We, the single and/or childless of the world, have heard enough.  We have answered and refused to answer enough.  We are done.  On an internet forum, we would call you trolls and joke to each other about not feeding you.  In real life, we have to stand there and nod politely and think about your good intentions, and it's terrible.  Please, stop doing this.   
Do you really not realize that these sorts of comments cause nothing but pain for the person you allegedly care about?  This is not expressing love and concern, this is exerting the pressure of your own anxiety, and imposing your own assumptions upon people who likely are carrying around plenty of pressure, anxiety, and impositions of their own.

I keep hearing about rude and hurtful comments made to people I know.  Goodness knows I've received plenty myself, because God forbid you should make it to thirty-five as a single, childless person without having endured a constant barrage of prying, from the time you turn twenty until you fulfill the cultural expectations and grandparent dreams of your loved ones, or if you don't, until you die.  The reason I've heard so much about these comments is that the recipients were very much by them.  You're asking about very intimate and personal parts of their lives, parts that often are already tender.

That woman to whom you just said, "You better hurry up, you're not getting any younger," has been on thirty horrible dates this year trying to hurry up and silence the inexorable internal ticking.  The man you urged to settle down already splits his evenings between scanning online dating sites and trying to "get out there" and meet people in the local bar scene.  When you asked that couple when they were going to get around to starting a family, maybe it didn't occur to you that they've poured thousands of dollars into fertility treatments in an attempt to do just that, only to suffer a fourth miscarriage last week.  There is a very real possibility that the person you are talking to is actually in pain over this very topic at the moment that you choose to make your well-intentioned comment.  I have good friends who cry every day because the thing they want most in the world isn't happening, and you keep pestering them about it, as though they could just wave a wand and make it happen.  Stop.

And then there are those of us who are actually pretty happy with our life situations, who have chosen to be single or childless or both, or who would be happy with being partnered or having kids but are also okay with not.  I know, this is a crazy concept for some.  The good thing is, when you ask me about when I'm getting married or having kids, you're not going to throw me into an emotional tailspin.  You are, however, going to make me really irritated, because I know that there is no good way to answer your nosy inquiries.  If I tell you you're rude, then I'm defensive and overly sensitive.  If I try to explain to you that I'm not necessarily headed down the life path you assume, you either think I'm hiding my real feelings, or you just don't get it and keep pestering me with annoying questions.  If I happen to be having a bad day, then I start irrationally second-guessing my life decisions and wondering whether I'm going to wake up one day and be miserable and lonely, which is frankly not something anyone needs to spend time worrying about.  We don't need to feel bad about NOT having these particular unmet yearnings, just because you think we should have them.  Stop, please.

Occasionally, we aren't really single, or we're already expecting a child either through pregnancy or adoption, and we just don't want to tell you.  Possibly because you are nosey and thoughtless.  Believe me, if we were close enough that I wanted to tell you about these topics, I would have done so.

Unfortunately, I cannot keep people from trolling all over my friends' lives, but I am done dealing with it myself.  If you care about me, don't ask me about the things I lack; ask me about the things I have and do: my interests, ideas, friends, work, travel, etc.  There's plenty of material there for conversation.  As for my familial orientation, the comments section is now closed.   


Friday, May 17, 2013

Collect Call

"Collect call from (unintelligible).  Press 1 to accept."

I press 1, as I always do, although in this cell phone age, most of the collect calls I receive are from Ellis Hospital or the Schenectady Police Department.  Their subjects are pretty easy to predict.  Do pay phones still exist?

Confusion on the other end.  "Is this Patty's Place?"  Right, the number forwards to my phone during the week, with no way of identifying that it isn't a call directly to me.  The woman on the other end needs a place to stay, for her and her fiance.  She's also not sure her gas tank will get her anywhere she needs to go.  She's not sure exactly where she is, so taking care of that problem is a challenge.  She got the number from the hospital.  I'm immediately annoyed, that she didn't stay there where she would be easy to find, that someone at the hospital gave out our number while clearly not understanding what we do.

I try to clarify gently that we are a drop-in center for women who engage in sex work, not a shelter or a general case management service.  She's flabbergasted that this is the kind of place she has called, that such a place exists at all, that someone thought it would be useful for her.  She's embarrassed to ask for anything now, but obviously desperate as well.  She starts crying because she can't find a pen to write down the numbers for places that would be more helpful.  And I'm frustrated, because I know that it won't do me any good to call for her.  Every service in town needs to speak with her directly.  Even if they didn't, I couldn't call her back to tell her if I found her a placement.  She can't describe to me where I can find her.  I'm pretty much useless, except to give her a phone number when she finally finds a pen, advise her to walk to one of the nearby businesses to identify her location, and tell her to call me back if my reference doesn't work out.

I hate feeling useless, but I also realize that it's not really about me and how I feel.  It's about this desperate person who doesn't even know where she is, let alone where she should go.  There are services here to help her, but without the knowledge or ability to access them, she's going nowhere.  I can only hope that the next stop down the line can find a way to help, that this isn't an endless chain of useless collect calls.      

Saturday, May 4, 2013


"Left, left, left," I repeat to myself as I turn through the roads of Oban.  The highways were fairly easy, but in the city I always want to turn into the wrong lane, and get frustrated when there is a car there, until I realize that car is exactly where it should be; it's me who is trying to go the wrong way.  I'm forever a little disoriented.  "Left, left, left," has become my mantra in the UK, much as I get my bearings in a new place by finding north and then staying constantly aware of it.  North, north, north, trying to orient myself.

You'd think that keeping a part of my brain attuned to a direction would distract me from noticing other things, but it's not true.  I am actually more attentive to everything when there is a part of me that is on high alert.  Being disoriented has the odd effect of making me more aware of the things around me, and also of my own internal state of being.  I know, in an existential way, that I am disoriented, and so I feel more deeply all of the other things that are going on within me.

This trip has been an experiment in disorientation in many ways.  I didn't realize how rooted in my own community I have become until I was somewhere else for a prolonged period of time.  It's good to be rooted, but it has also made me a little automated and numb, expecting all the same sights, within and without.  During most of this trip, I have had no idea what I would see at any given moment, and no idea what I would feel, either.  I have seen mountains rise out of what I thought was only mist, raging rivers where I expected trickling brooks, whole islands that weren't on my map.  I have felt deep joy, anger, peace, frustration, anxiety, heartbreak, vulnerability, and intimacy...usually at the "wrong" moments, the moments when I predicted that I would feel something entirely different.

I have spent this journey being challenged, by people, ideas, landscapes, weather, roadways, accents, emotions.  I have been disoriented by just about everything.  But in disorientation, something of my haze has been blown away.  I am aware.  I am alive.  Would that I would always be so disoriented.    

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Barriers and Inhibitions

One of the things I'm supposed to be doing while I'm on Iona (this would be a self-imposed "supposed to," but it needs to get done) is answering a question for a grant application, about the barriers and inhibitions that keep me from being fully alive to and for my vocation of ministry.  Now doesn't that just sound fun.  My initial thoughts on this are a bit much for a grant application, so for now they're going here.

I can identify two major personal inhibitions.  The first is simple fear of failure, that I will try something big and it will be a disaster, and I will no longer feel a sense of my own competence.  That self-definition takes up a pretty big part of the "who I am" pie chart, and the loss of it would do something truly devastating to me.  Of course, living in fear of falling off that precipice, such that I never really try anything big, isn't so great either, or terribly competent.  Which is why I make myself do at least one small thing that makes me feel a little stupid or afraid every day, but that's another post for another day.

Second, I fear that someone might actually take me for a minister.  That is, I fear that ministry will so subsume me that I will become all the things that really annoy me in other clergy and in the church (some of which I have already become....grrr).  I fear that I will stop pushing buttons, or only push the ones that don't matter.  That I will stop playing music because it's just too hard to have a gig on Saturday night and preach on Sunday morning.  That I won't have time to spend with street kids and sex workers and my friends, because committee meetings start being more important.  That I won't be fun or interesting, and I'll stop having anything to say to anyone outside of the church (which seriously, THIS IS ALREADY HAPPENING).

But enough about me.

I also struggle with the persistent sense that the church as we know it is not long for this world, and that maybe the way we know it needs to die, because that's the only way resurrection happens.  Learning new forms to express the same old things seems futile and self-serving.  New liturgies and new programs are not going to transform the world.  New life, new ways of being and believing, maybe.  I love the church, but I don't want to be about administering life support to a comatose institution.  But I don't know how to lead toward really radical change, change that may mean death of what we know and hold dear.

Okay, that was still about me.  But the fact is, I'm experiencing some disorientation at the moment, so I'm kind of in my own head to an excessive extent, and also, this is my blog, so I get to write about myself.

Mulling in Mull

"The task of the minister is to guard the great questions."  Barry Taylor

I instantly liked this quote, and saw several others responding with an "oh, yeah!" sort of look.  But it keeps bouncing around in my head, and I'm not so sure I agree with it.  I've persistently tried not to be a guardian in ministry, except perhaps a guardian of those who cannot guard themselves; certainly not a guardian of ideas, or questions.  Information, ideas, questions...these are things to be shared, not guarded.  But somehow, something about the quote still catches in me.

Those of you who resonated with this comment: what do you think it means?  What is it to guard great questions?  What are great questions?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sorting out some of my muddled thoughts about IOG13

As I've thought about the event last week, and started reading of some of the thinkers whose names came up who I had not read, it seems to me that there are two related but different phenomena happening in the worlds of theology and philosophy.  I probably would have realized this sooner, but I've been a bit outside of the philosophy world since I graduated from seminary, and didn't know much about most of the contemporary philosophers who were discussed.  It seems there has been a movement amongst these thinkers toward a conversation that is neither theistic nor atheistic, and certainly is not dealing with either category in an apologetic way, but rather is moving beyond those categories into this new a/theism territory.

At the same time that philosophers were working through the inadequacy of strictly defined theism/atheism, parts of Christianity were beginning to realize that the faith and practice we inherited are lacking in their ability to address our present world.  Some Christians reacted to that lack by moving in directions we now think of as the emerging church, embracing variations on traditional doctrines and worship styles that enabled them to engage more fully with both their faith and the realities of the world around them.

A side note: I can hear the protests now, that Christian doctrine is and must be timeless and changeless.  Sorry, I don't buy it.  Few of my more "orthodox" brothers and sisters would argue that the church should have remained the same during the Reformation.  Contrary to the typical line that it was just the corruption that changed, a number of doctrines that had before that point been thought of as crucial to the true faith were changed, first by the reformers, and later by the Roman Catholics themselves.  Corruption in the church may have lit the match, but the tinder was already laid on that funeral pyre.  Medieval doctrine and practice were no longer sufficient for the church at that time.  Similarly, I believe that we face a time in which many of the traditional doctrines and practices we have been taught will no longer be sufficient.

The more I thought about what was said last week, and especially what Pete was saying, the more a nagging sense grew in me that I was somehow not quite getting it.  I was missing something significant.  Today I think it might have hit me (although something else may well come to me later; I'm sure I'm missing many things about what most of the people there were saying).  I wasn't getting it because I was framing everything he said from my perspective, which is a particularly church-centric perspective.  An emerging church perspective, but still church, which I've noticed that he and ikon resolutely do not call themselves.  They use some Christian imagery and language, and so the emerging church has sort of adopted them as one of their own in their search for new and creative forms of Christian community.

But this is not the church.

Or maybe it is, in some paradoxical way, but they're not claiming that.

So I've been trying to wrap my head around the great collection of things that other people said and I thought last week, and there was a LOT said and thought.  But one thing I realized today is that I have been approaching radical theology all wrong by expecting it to play nicely with church, at least with the emerging church.  Not that they can't be in conversation, of course.  But part of me wanted to be able to use radical theology to insert some more honesty and more experiential practices into the existing structures, and not actually confront how different it might be.  I wanted these ideas to fit neatly into the existing church.

Because I am deeply invested in the existing church.

I'm a theist, a Christian, a questioning Christian, but a Christian nonetheless, and a minister besides, whose education and livelihood and identity are tied up in the church, whose years have been spent learning the church and caring about things like the Book of Church Order, who poured a ridiculous amount of energy into getting my denomination to FINALLY officially say that ordained women are equal to men.  And I think these things matter.  Some days I think they matter a lot.  But I feel the lack in what the church has become, and failed to become while the world changed around us.  I'm intrigued by how closely intertwined faith and doubt really are.  I long for (and fear) greater honesty, vulnerability, and responsibility for our own beliefs and practices.

I guess what I'm really asking is, how much will I let myself be challenged?  And if I do open myself up to that, will there come a time when a major part of my life doesn't make sense anymore?  What then?