The older women seated at my table DEFINITELY didn't like me.
That was my first, strong impression of the CAC Emerging Church Conference in Albuquerque, NM. It was Friday afternoon, and I had been up since 5:30am ET and in transit since shortly before 7am ET. I had not slept well, and I had a kicking headache, but I gathered up all the energy I had so that I could engage with the folks at my table. There was one couple --Episcopalians who were also lay Benedictines-- who were immediately friendly and welcoming, if somewhat reserved. I sat with my new friends Kate and Kim and their friend Tim on my right. We didn't know each other terribly well, so there was that getting-to-know-you discomfort, but they're all pastors and basically friendly folks. They were also all about my age. Kate's Mom was to my left, and was also friendly, open, warm.
But after that was a row of four women, appearing to be in their 40s and 50s, who greeted every word out of my mouth with something like a barely repressed eye-roll. In every attempt I made to engage with them outside the table, they were curt, somewhat irritable. When I invited one of them to sit next to me in a worship service, she refused. Given how fragile I already felt about this conference, and how open I was trying to be, it was kind of like being socked in the gut every time I tried.
Thankfully, each morning of the conference began with 20 minutes of contemplative prayer... a room full of people seated in total silence, meditating on a word that came to them in response to prayer. As I tried to pick My Special Meditatin' Word on Saturday morning, my mind was quivering from the Claritin and Excedrin Migraine I'd taken to ease the headache, and I was agitated by my thoughts on how to thaw the icy cold coming from this little knot of women. I went through word after word after word in my mind, trying to think of one that felt ok in my gut. If I was going to be focusing on this word for 20 minutes, it would have to be a really good one... otherwise, my thoughts were going to continue churning on this little relational problem I was having. I finally settled on "surrender"... every time I thought of that word, it felt right. Something in me relaxed.
So, on Saturday morning, and on Sunday morning, and again on Sunday afternoon, I meditated for 20 minutes on the word "surrender". And it really, really helped. The women never became friendly... in fact they became less and less friendly as Saturday wore on... but when I felt the anger and embarrassment in my gut as they failed to respond to my attempts to communicate and connect, the word "surrender" came to me without me trying to bring it up. Their issues were their issues. They didn't know me from Adam, and if they were stonewalling me, that had more to do with their discomfort with themselves than with me. I tried to pray for them some, too, for their peace, for the ability to do whatever they needed to do to open up.
As it turned out, those women were the only part of the conference that didn't kinda fill me with crackling electricity or laughter or peace or wonder. I mention them because they, to me, represent all the people I have let get in my way in past church experiences... the ones I felt I desperately needed to like me because they so clearly needed a friend, and because in their stiff silence they seemed to hold some sort of moral and religious superiority... the ones whose rejection of me hurt and hurt deep.
Once I committed to surrender my concern with these women, stuff started happening quick. Laying in the grass outside the conference space after the group table discussions were mercifully disbanded, I ran into Jonathan Brink and Jeromy Johnson, whom I recognized from Facebook. I nearly got whiplash from sitting up so fast, and I think I dropped the phone I was talking into. We sat on the grass in the warm sunlight beneath one of those perfect blue skies that looks like someone painted it, having a free-wheeling conversation about our "heretical" theological beliefs and past church hurts. Something in me started to glow. A friend of theirs came up and joined us, bringing his wife and daughter with him. The conversation broadened into their similar stories. Then Heather --a young woman from Louisiana whom I'd met when I started some earlier conversations-whilst-laying-in-the-grass-- joined us, clutching a large margarita which she promptly spilled on her shoe, and laughed out loud at herself.
This was definitely more like it.
That opened up into some stimulating dinner conversations (at a table composed mostly of men, come to think of it), then to a time of praise and worship, and then out with Kate, Kim and Kate's brother Kevin for a time of drinking and laughing so loud that we all had tears streaming down our cheeks and the bartender avoided us entirely.
Sunday, I walked into the conference and made immediate eye contact with Karen Sloan (a friend whom I love in a kind of gut way because she understands the beauty of a Presby-Catholic faith) introduced me to a woman who is both a PCUSA minister and a Benedictine sister... our conversation gave me chills (the good kind) and I was amazed and humbled at how this Pastor/Sister is clearly, publicly, faithfully living the ecumenism I'm so deeply committed to, but which I very infrequently publicly defend. I was also touched by how well she listened, even as an older woman who could have dismissed me as being excessively passionate, idealistic, etc.... a healing and marked contrast to the older women of the day before.
There was a panel discussion where the presenters responded to questions, and then they opened it up to folks from the audience to talk about how they were practicing emergence in their communities. Everyone that got up appeared above 50. I looked around at the hands that were raised. No young people. Ok, then... I raised my hand and stood up, shaking, imagining a crowd of people eyeing me cynically, thinking me young and silly and pathetic. I gave the story of Common Table and of my own journey, getting a good hearty laugh from the crowd when I introduced myself as a Presby-Catholi-Episcopa-Mennonite... which is, of course, what I am. People seemed to be listening... they laughed when I was trying to be funny and didn't laugh when I wasn't. Several folks came up to me over the next day to tell me they'd really appreciated what I'd said. Overall, I had a sense of acceptance, of healing, and of surrender to the possibility that some in the crowd find my theological mash-up offensive. That's their issue, not mine. I've gotta go with the light I've been given and trust that there's a reason I've been through what I've been through and am the way I am.
The worship service that followed was nothing short of gorgeous. It followed the Catholic liturgy, but it departed from it in all the right ways. The singing from the crowd was big and gorgeous, and the readings and worship and the homily were all so reverent and simple and beautifully done. Communion was laid out on long tables, and folks formed lines on either side and served Communion to one another. It was fantastic.
There's not enough space to tell it all... worship led to lunch with J and J and K and K and K, which led to going to FINALLY see Slumdog Millionaire with J and J (it ABSOLUTELY deserved all the acclaim, and all the Oscars, it received), and then an evening of Extremely Controlled Facilitated dialogue with some conference participants, which led to 20 some of us going to a restaurant across the street and more conversations with more people and more friends...
but the best thing was Monday. Monday at around 11:45am or so, to be exact. We'd been in a session all morning, in small groups having discussions about particular issues that had arisen in the session the night before. The conversation I was in was going really, really well... myself and 4 guys who ranged from a bit older to me to a LOT older than me, mostly Catholics. The Facilitator was revving up for more Extremely Controlled Facilitated dialogue with the bigger group, and I just couldn't take any more of that control. Something was stirring inside of me and inside of our group, and I couldn't handle having that reined in. I went outside and sat in the lobby. I saw a young woman, Bernadette, whom I'd met briefly the day before, come out of the room at almost a run. I called out to her and she said "I can't take it either, let's go outside!!"
We found a small group outside, mostly young folks, with my new friend Heather among them. It was clear that something was going on between Gerald, an older Irish guy, and this younger guy with whom I'd had some good conversations and whose name I'd pay 20 bucks to be able to remember. I'll call him Tim, cuz I think that's close. Anyway, it was intense. The conversation meandered and moved about from person to person but it always came back to Gerald, who had a really strange, metaphorical way of expressing himself. It made you pay attention, and it was clearly irritating Tim, because Gerald was, for all his indirectness, obviously trying to get Tim to realize that he was carrying around a heavy spiritual and emotional burden and he needed to dump it.
I realized suddenly that he was a prophet. Now, I'm kind of a dramatic person, but I don't necessarily call every person with a cool accent and an interesting turn of phrase a prophet... but that certainty came on me like when you're staring at one of those Magic Eye things and you suddenly realize what the picture is supposed to be. So, me being me, I said it out loud. I said that he wasn't going to let up on Tim because he was a prophet and he had a responsibility to that.
I don't know if things shifted in the group then (they did for me, obviously), but 20 minutes later, Bernadette and Tim had both completely broken down, one after the other. The whole group laid hands on them and prayed, just like we all knew exactly what to do, and what to say. Some of us did speak during that time. I did, even though I felt very awkward doing so, but again it was like stuff just was there in my head, clear and plain and straight, and it was there for me to say. When it was all over and B and T had released what they needed to release and we were all done hugging each other, I sat back in my rocking chair, looking up at the sky, shaking. What had just happened?
I found out later that at the same time things broke in our group, they broke inside with the big group as well. A woman got up and walked across the room to a Franciscan and asked his forgiveness for the hatred she'd held toward him in her heart for what he represented. Jonathan told me that after that the room just broke, with people all over going up to each other and asking for forgiveness, men and women alike crying, Catholics and Protestants apologizing for their anger and hatred directed at each other due to denomination, their gender, their age. Inside and outside, God had us where He needed us when the Spirit fell... which it did, minutes before the end of the conference, just in the nick of time.
Inside, I still feel kind of like I did sitting in that rocking chair. I'm still shaken, and I still don't know how to interpret what happened. I also have no idea what's going to happen next, and I don't want to harbor the thought that nothing could happen next. I guess all I can do is pray with all my heart that it doesn't stop here.
Don't forget to hope
2 days ago