Friday, November 28, 2008

Outside in

From the time I was a kid, ever since I got old enough to challenge my mother's cautionary wish that I not roam the streets by myself, I've taken walks in the evening and looked into the windows of other people's houses.

I know... that's kind of creepy, kind of voyeuristic, and I promise that if I ever saw actual people through the windows, I looked away immediately, guarding their privacy and my anonymity. But it was an automatic thing for me to do when I went out walking, and sometimes the only thing there was to do as a kid was go for a walk. I did this, too, when my Mom, brother and I would go on rides through back-country roads, following my Mother's favorite habit of trying to get lost and seeing if we eventually ended up in Blacksburg, which happened with surprising frequency. We'd roll along two and sometimes one laned roads, up mountain sides, through narrow valleys, beside rushing brooks, and I'd strain to look up on the hillsides at the little shacks and bungalows and occasional ostentatious mansions, trying to peer into the windows, trying to understand the people who lived so far away from the city proper.

I found particular satisfaction in my night-time walks past windows glowing with yellowed light, looking into houses decorated according to a sort of redneck quasi-Better Homes and Gardens sensibility, complete with images of geese and ducks and artistically painted sheep on the walls which always struck me as surreal, but comforting in their banal domesticity. There were houses I particularly liked to look into, and I would sometimes plant myself in a location I thought was partially hidden, making myself as small as possible, studying my favored window, and feeling the warmth of that room spread through me, growing steadily happier as I dreamed of a life I might enjoy in a beautiful little room like that... but somehow knowing it was far more satisfying to hunker down on the street corner beneath the stars and dream of it than to actually walk inside such a scene and try to live it.

I don't do these walks with the same frequency now. I appear unmistakably grownup and am much more likely to be arrested if someone sees me gazing steadily into their windows, particularly in these Tough Economic Times. At some point though --I don't remember when-- I came to see this image of me standing outside looking in as one of my particular defining metaphors... always on the outside, always observing, a studier of persons and their lives, but never quite able to fully inhabit mine. Whatever the reasons for this are, I attributed it –again at some mysterious point now lost to memory—to a fear of marriage, of the slow grind of domestic life that is so beautiful when viewed from the outside, but can be truly unpleasant on the inside. I knew how awful marriage could be, and I considered it capable of bringing out what was truly worst in people. I've also come to acknowledge that it brings out the best in people, but through the worst, right? It's a very raw, craggy best, like a sore throat on the mend... you know there is goodness and healing on the way, but the memory of the badness that you had to pass through clings to that goodness, forming a dark aura, leaving you with that sense of rawness long after you've mended.

I guess my preference for standing on the outside comes from a kind of idolatry of the ideal domestic life and of romantic love. I don't want to traverse the bottomland of my personal worst, of my deep dark selfishness and my lack of concern for those closest to me. I know this, and I also know that failing to submit yourself to the realities of what love actually entails consigns a person to a sort of shallowness, a two-dimensional emotionality... or at least, it means all the familied people in your life can think this about you without a crisis of conscience, and can hold you at an emotional arm's length as though you smell of 2 day old tuna. In my defense though, I was a Calvinist before I went to kindergarten. My illusions of personal good are hard fought and hard won, and I'm loathe to give them up.

I’ve been musing on the domestic life and my lack thereof (again) for the past week due to my time at the Common Table Retreat and due to several days of solitude recovering from some sort of horrible stomach ailment. At the retreat, everyone was constantly surrounded by children and most people seemed to be trying to ignore this to some degree most of the time. Parents wanted to have adult talk. Non-parents didn’t know how to handle the sudden onslaught of children who seemed to be constantly running or hurling toy trucks down steps for reasons that were entirely opaque. It was like there was this wild band of very small gypsies running around in a pack, and the knowledge of their presence controlled the goings-on at the retreat somehow, tethered us to the common knowledge that any one of them could hurt themselves at some point and we would all feel responsible.

I wasn’t sad to go home at the end of the retreat.

That being said, though, being home, by myself and very ill, gave me plenty of time to think upon the virtues of having someone around to help care for you when you’re in that sort of state. Our good family friend Karen Zimmerman once told me that I should only marry a man that I knew would take care of me when I was sick. That made more sense to me than almost any other advice regarding marriage I’ve ever had, and maybe partially explains why I’m still not married. Marrying an obviously selfish person makes NO SENSE, as does marrying someone who has no domestic skills, male or female… because at the end of the day, the pragmatic reason why folks aren’t meant to be alone is that we all find ourselves helpless from time to time, and we all need care. By the same token, having someone to care FOR takes our minds off ourselves, and believe me, I was dying to not have to think about myself anymore the past few days.

So. I think, as time has passed, for better or for worse, my efforts have slowly turned towards inhabiting my own life, solo. I buy lamps that cast a soft yellow light like what I saw in my favorite windows. I place candles in the windows and light them on these damned winter evenings when it’s totally dark by 5pm. I have friends that I see and talk to regularly, and they are like a family. I’ve started hanging things on the walls of my one-bedroom apartment that I like, and that tell my own, particular story of places I've been and things that I've done. I have company over, and now have a routine for preparing my couch for guests. Except for times when I am ill, or lonely, or libidinous, I’m ok with what I have.

I have, finally, created my own enviable window.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

If he would listen

This is a morning
for the spiritual discipline
of watching falling leaves.

Here is why:

Every leaf has its story,
every one began as a bud on the branch
every one grew, soaked in the sun.

Every one, now grown radiant in their dying
--red, yellow, flames upon flames--
descending to the ground

will nourish the earth in their death.
Every leaf is necessary.
Every leaf has its story.

Every leaf gives its life
to nourish the ground beneath
the tree that gave it birth.

We are all too important to be ignored.

I met a man who is
trying to outrun his grief
at life forever altered and love lost.

He is a man of unfinished sentences,
of constant, frantic movement.
He is trying to ignore his own story.

He doesn't have time to listen,
but if he did, I would tell him of
the spiritual discipline
of watching falling leaves.

You are too important to be ignored.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tribe and Grace

Image from

So anybody who knows me for very long knows that I was excommunicated from the Presbyterian Church of America in 1998 after being received into the Roman Catholic church in December 1997 in Bayswater, London. To this DAY I don't know anybody else who has had that happen to them. Of course, it's not the kind of thing that's likely to come up in your average conversation on a night out:

Me: (laughing with a beer in hand) THAT was funny! So, who else here's been excommunicated??

So, I was excommunicated... had a Scary Letter sent to me telling me that I was no longer welcome to take communion in a PCA church. They considered my conversion an act of rebellion and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church to be Very Bad, Indeed... basically they really didn't consider me a Christian now that I'd Aligned Myself with Rome. They didn't tell me I couldn't darken the doors of a PCA church, so I still went to church with my folks when I was at home after graduating from Covenant that May, but when they had communion, I was not welcome. I obeyed this directive, with a considerable sense of irony and a little bit of bitterness at their denying communion to someone who WAS a Christian. One of my coolest memories of my Mother was of her also quietly refusing to take communion. I passed the plate without taking anything from it, and so did she, without ever saying anything to me about it. I love my Mom.

I thought The Letter was really Much Ado About Nothing. As far as I was concerned, you either loved Christ and accepted that He was the fulfillment of the OT Messiah or you didn't. THOSE were the salient categories to me, the Christ-lovers and the non-Christ lovers. In a sense, my joining the RC church WAS a rebellion, but it was a rebellion against all the Theology Hounds up on the mountain at Covenant who acted like Christ's incarnation in no way necessitated that their faith be similarly incarnate, i.e. primarily concerned with continuing Christ's work of healing and ministering to the sick, lonely, poor. They seemed to be more interested in creating the Perfect Theology above the clouds while Chattanooga suffered in The Valley Below. They weren't particularly childlike in their faith, either, which I considered to be absolutely essential, and to be a pretty clear directive of Christ's... basically "come to Me as a child, humble and trusting, or you're never ever ever going to get what I have to say. I'm more complicated than you could ever understand, but what I want from YOU is really simple, and pretty difficult, and you're going to think it's dumb and an awful lot of effort."

The letter pissed me off more because I Knew The Guys That Done It -- had known them since I was a kid-- and I didn't recall any of them really trying to talk to me about my faith. They didn't know that my prayer life and my commitment to Christ had literally kept me from killing myself multiple times as I dealt with a dark, deep depression that hit when I was 12 and didn't let up at all until I was about 16 (gotta love puberty). They had no idea what my Catholic conversion meant to me, didn't know the Catholic guy I'd fallen in love with that precipitated so much of it, didn't know how alienated I'd felt at Covenant. They didn't seem to understand my faith as a living relationship with Christ... didn't understand that I found all the theology interesting, that it was a part of me intellectually, but that it was utterly separate from the God who met me in my room at night and stopped my tears, who went with me through the day and comforted me when I was overcome by social anxiety, who spoke to me through my Bible and who gave me hope for the future. THIS God was God as I really understood Him, relationally, and if there was no space for that God in their theology, then I doubted THEIR Christianity. So I turned my back on the PCA with no regret and very little pondering on the matter. That was 10 years ago.

I've mentioned last week's Pete Rollins conference thing. I didn't mention that Five of the Coolest Guys I Know and I stayed with Bob and Grace Haymes. Bob was pastor of Highlands Church (PCA) in Lafayette, GA when I was at Covenant. He was MY pastor, and my friends and I loved his church dearly because it was a church of Just Folks... such a far cry from the crappy Race to Be the Most Truly Reformed going on up on the mountain. Don't get me wrong, Bob's theology is in order. He is still very PCA and he's currently serving as an elder at New Hope Presbyterian in Philly. But he gets that theology must be incarnational. He gets that any theological system has the life of Christ as its ultimate referent and the standard against which it must be judged. So Bob and Grace and their little family were this wonderful little oasis for those of us who just wanted community under Christ.

Last weekend, watching Bob and Grace talk to my buds, I was at the verge of grateful tears the whole time. They're incredible hosts... both sick with a nasty cold/flu thing but both so obviously digging having us around, so engaging and engaged in the conversation, which was often about theology (we were up there to hear Pete Rollins, so of course it was going to come up). The thing that had me almost crying was a) my memories of them and how kind they've always been to me, and to my brother when he was going through a really really hard time at Covenant (he and I both briefly lived with the Haymes at different times for different reasons), b) their beautiful transparency which made the conversation flow and endeared me to them again, and c) that nobody backed off an inch really from their theological standpoint, but that we found common ground... and that common ground was almost always related to the life of Christ.

Last night, I had dinner with Domi and Kitula, friends from Tanzania, who are also very PCA. Kitula and I's friendship began when I found out he'd gone to Reformed Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, FL, and had classes with Richard Pratt, a good friend of my Dad's (they founded a church together with some other folks in Roanoke when I was a little kid). I haven't seen D,K, and their gorgeous baby Peter in months and months... hadn't been to their house in a year... but it was like we just picked right up where we left off. The conversation, of course, turned to theology, and I did my best to explain the emergent thing to them (Christianity engaging postmodernity, basically... right?), and Kitula was receptive and gracious about it. Before Kitula drove me home, he asked to pray over the three of us, so we joined hands and he said the most gorgeous prayer, thanking God for His grace, thanking Him for our friendship, for all the blessings that God has given, and how He has directed and protected all of us, especially me. So there I was, choking back tears at the amazing grace of PCA folks for the second time in less than a week.

A new friend of mine called me a Calvinist recently and I said "I'm NOT a Calvinist. Well, I am in the sense that cradle Catholics are always Catholic." and indeed, that's true. I started taking communion in the Reformed Presbyterian church when I was 4 years old because I had already memorized most of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It's in there at some deep level, and I probably live it out in ways that I don't even begin to understand. The PCA hasn't been my tribe in a very long time, though, and it has felt so good to reconnect with these amazing amazing people who understand that one of the best things about Reformed Theology is its emphasis on Grace. They've shown me Grace... lived it for me and with me. and I am profoundly blessed by it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Deconstructing the funhouse and uncovering home

"O God, You Who are the truth, make me one with You in love everlasting. I am often wearied by the many things I hear and read, but in You is all I long for. Let the learned be still, let all creatures be silent before You; You alone speak to me." Thomas a Kempis

For years now, I've had this quote from Imitation of Christ as my email footer on my yahoo and hotmail accounts. I'm not a fan of email footers in the way I'm not a fan of personalized license plates, but I remember when I first read this quote, and knew that I was going to have to carry this around somehow and communicate it to people... it got right to the heart of my faith, which survives through everything because of experiences I've had where God was very very close, where He Himself comforted me. Some of these experiences happened when I was 10, 11 years old, some later, and those experiences of His closeness, of the Truly Real wafting into my awareness and gently overpowering me, are the bedrock of my faith. That's one reason I find it really hard to focus on complicated theological conversations... they seem surreal, beside the point. Combined with my tendency towards intellectual sloth, this has resulted in my ambivalence, and sometimes my outright hostility, towards theological discourse.

I guess you wouldn't necessarily know that from my bookshelves. I've always been drawn to theologians and to churches, because these are the people and the places where God is being pursued most visibly, and it used to be true of me that the pursuit of God was really at my core, or at least I believed it to be. I've always been drawn to the explanations that emphasize the Mystery of God, the relational, the difficult to describe. I have had these direct experiences of God in my life, but most of the time it's as though He is in my peripheral vision. Most of the time, the moment I try to grab at Him, He fades. My favorite poetic illustration of this is from the last part of "The Waste Land", where T.S. Eliot alludes to the Road to Emmaus:

"Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead, up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you,
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
--But who is that on the other side of you?"

I've had many times where I've been with other believers, and caught myself repeating that line to myself over and over again... "who is that on the other side of you?" I hope I've never actually said that out loud... but it's possible.

So this weekend, I headed up to Philadelphia with five of the coolest guys I know to hear Pete Rollins speak. I was excited, but honestly, I didn't expect to "get" it. I've read most of How (Not) To Speak of God, and I've been having this persistent sense that he's saying things I feel but could never put into words myself... at least, I would never be able to frame them as philosophical arguments because I just straight up don't have the education to do so. I'd frame them in what I guess is the typically feminine language of relational dynamics, in large generalities about what I believe the nature of God to be from my experience. Of course, people politely listen to me when I pipe up, but frankly it is easy for folks to be dismissive of that kind of argument and my awareness of that makes me weak in my defense of my perspective.

Anyway, blah blah blah. Sitting there listening to Pete yesterday, I was struck by a couple of things. One was that he was non-linear, which was a great relief to me. People who try to talk about things as big as the nature of God and a radical re-thinking of the church piss me off when they try to be all linear and sermon-outliney about it. Something about that approach suggests riding a squeaky tricycle when you could be roller-blading, ice-skating or even jet-skiing. It lacks grace and it seems absurdly simplistic. I was picturing Pete painting on a canvas, throwing a blotch of color here and a shape there, and as he talked, the picture started to fill in and make sense. It was also like listening to a complicated jazz or classical piece, where you can't quite take it all in, but you'll hear a repeated theme, or a phrase of music, that takes your breath away, stops you in your tracks, and you're singing it for the rest of the day.

Another thing that struck me was a throw-away comment he made about some of his most profound experiences of God happening to him when he was alone in his room. I thought BAM! Just like me!... and I wondered if what I see in the emergent movement is a LOT of people like me, who are in love with God... even if they're really shitty at showing Him that love... and who are still clinging to that, taking their frustrations with the tribalism of the collective church experience, with so much that seems to distract from the primary objective of just being besotted with God and Christ, and coming together with the strangeness of these shared experiences of the Love That Will Not Let Us Go, experiences that you'd find damned difficult to coherently speak about on the best of days. So we're just trying to intuit and sniff out... "are you like me?" cuz you can't REALLY talk about it.

By the final worshippy bit, led by this really good group from Canada named The Filid, I was ready to face It... why I was here... and it sort of came at me all in a rush, this sudden recollection of who I used to be and how much I used to chase after God. I'm not unusual in the fact that other things have crowded it out... that happens to pretty much everyone... but I think I've tried to kill it, too... the pursuit of God, the longing for Him, because it hurts to want Someone who stays at the periphery, and it hurts to wrestle with all of the competing ideas folks have chucked at me about Him and it hurts to really REALLY struggle with my darker side. At the final song, "Water", written and sung by Dave Warne, I dissolved into a teary, runny-nosed mess of remembering and wanting and longing and regret and probably some confusion (along with an occasional mild sense of revulsion at all the snot pouring out of my nose)... and was astonished at the sudden sense of homecoming at the end of a day of philosophical talks. Ain't that just the durnedest thang? Really though... something happened, something cracked open. Not sure what to think about it yet, but there you go.

Ack. This post is too long. I'll leave it there. To be continued...