Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Flaw in the Pottery: God's Entry Point

With this blog, it’s a daily challenge to stay focused. My focus is wide, and as a result, the blog seems to draw a disparate group of readers—for which I’m glad. As the list of topics I’m pursuing here (the list is on my profile page) indicates, I talk about spirituality and social activism, the religious right’s absurd pretense to own God, the injustice churches practice towards LGBT persons, bullying of LGBT youth in schools, and building a more humane society. I’m happy to talk with anyone and everybody about these and other topics.

The challenge I have in staying focused doesn’t have to do with the disparate topics I’m pursuing. It has to do with my commitment—to myself first of all, and then to readers—to focus on the truth. It’s so easy to get nudged away from that place inside ourselves from which any truth worth claiming springs. It’s easy to get drawn away from transformative truth, which is the only kind of truth worth writing about.

It’s easy to get disconnected. For a number of years, I meditated daily on one of my favorite phrases from E.M. Forster, his call to readers in Howard’s End to connect. To make myself hear that call, I painted Forster’s saying, “Only connect,” on the wall of my office, where I could see it scrolling like a rainbow above my computer every time I raised my eyes from the screen.

To me, the significance of the phrase has to do with inner life: we must connect inside ourselves. We must connect to ourselves. In a world of competing voices, each of which lays claim to our loyalty, we have to struggle to hear our own unique voice—which is, in the language of faith communities, the voice of God speaking in the depths of our conscience.

It’s not easy. It’s much easier to disconnect, to stop listening, to let the babble of voices all around us flow over us and lull us into complacency. In some ways, nothing in life is harder than listening to our own depths, connecting to them, living from them, speaking, writing, loving, ministering from them. But it’s worth the pain: the truth we offer others when we retain a vital connection to the voice that speaks truth in our own depths is uniquely powerful.

And we are lost when we stop connecting to our own depths, when we let other voices overpower the voice of conscience inside ourselves. Nothing has more claim on us than that voice of authenticity inside us—that is, we should never let anything establish a greater claim on us than the voice speaking in our depths.

I say all this in part as a challenge to myself as I undertake a new project, one that grows out of this blog. For some time now, I’ve been encouraged by a number of friends to turn several stories from my own experience into books. These are stories that have fallen into my hands by “accident,” and which others consider it important for me to tell. They are stories that connect to my own life.

I have resisted the encouragement to write about these stories. I have not made time in my life to write. I’m frankly afraid to write—in the concentrated, depth-connecting way a book demands.

And yet, it seems I have no choice. The encouragement just doesn’t go away. In fact, the more I blog and the more others read this blog, the more the encouragement pours in. And there’s that inconvenient, nagging voice inside that tells me I have to listen, since the persistent call of others for us to do something surely lays claim to our attention.

So this is an important week for me, because one day this week, I’ll spend time with someone who has some crucial pieces of information about one of the two stories about which I am being urged to write. In fascinating ways, all kinds of pieces of the puzzle keep emerging and falling into place, to make it possible—well, to make it imperative—that I pursue this story and see if I can find a voice to tell it. Doors have opened, beyond my imagining or control, and I seem to have no choice except to make my way through them.

I will be grateful to readers for holding me in the light as I set forth on this journey.

Speaking of readers, of the disparate group of folks who continue to nudge me to think and write, I have been remiss in not noting the support of Jason and Amanda Gignac, both of whom have mentioned this blog on their own wonderful blogs in the past several weeks. My list of e-friends has links to Jason’s blog “Moored at Sea,” which discussed one of my postings a few weeks ago, and to Amanda’s blog “The Ramblings of a Hopeful Artist.” Amanda recently mentioned Bilgrimage in a family blog she maintains, “Gignacery.”

As best as I remember, Amanda and Jason got connected to my blog discussion when I happened to mention Emily Dickinson in a previous posting. I have found their feedback challenging and refreshing. When I taught, one of the things that I valued most about the teaching experience was being forced to listen to what students thought I had said, to hear my own words from an entirely different perspective.

For anyone who interacts with thoughtful and engaged younger folks, dialogue is a constant experience of having one’s feet put to the fire—and that’s a good experience for someone who thinks he’s the teacher and the one to whom he’s speaking is the taught. It’s seldom that way. In fact, it’s usually the other way around.

I’m thinking of this today after I spent over an hour last night chatting online with one of my nephews. We are much alike—prone to give ourselves to passionately to a smorgasbord of causes, prone to promote our passionate causes vociferously, quick to think others haven’t heard us clearly enough.

When I learned recently that my nephew had been bamboozled (what, me impose my worldview on someone else? Never!) into choosing a third-party candidate in the coming elections, I went on the warpath. Politely, you understand, in that sly way Southerners always do within the family circle.

I began to bombard his brother, who’s away at school with him, with articles about how the party that wants to neutralize student votes in the coming federal election is funding the campaign to seduce college students into voting for the third-party candidate. I asked said brother to convey the information to my nephew, in a way that wouldn’t make him feel I was attacking him.

We saw each other this past weekend, my nephew and I, and, in retrospect, the encounter had a certain tension attached to it. The gathering was a celebration of sorts of my aunt’s 80th birthday. My oldest nephew also had three friends from grade school visiting him, one Indian and the other two Korean, and the youngest two nephews had one of their African-American friends with them, so it was both a birthday party and a United Nations gathering with a number of folks I had never met. Talking to new folks across cultural boundary lines requires skill. It also requires energy.

By the time the youngest nephew arrived at the dinner table, I was talked out. I am a Meyers-Briggs INFJ who feels totally at sea in any large gathering—too many people to attend to carefully, too many signals and too much information pouring in through my intuitive-feeling filters. I often withdraw into a kind of shell and let the extraverts and sensates, who don’t have to contend with all that emotional and intuitive “stuff” pouring in, carry the day.

Steve’s a sensate, by the way, and a thinker, though we share the introvert and judging characteristics. It’s interesting to compare our takes after a gathering. I’m always amazed that so much that seems crystal clear to me—so much that has flowed into my psyche through the intuitive-feeling side—just goes right over his head: who’s fighting with whom; who’s unhappy and why they are unhappy; why X said that zingy thing to Y, etc. On the other hand, he sees thing—sensate things—that are right in front of me and which I completely miss, because I’m too busy fine-tuning the feeling and intuitive channels on my receiver.

My hour or so of talking online to my nephew last night was instructive. I needed this reminder that young people see things we older ones miss, and that young folks can perceive our distraction as a sign of disinterest in them. It was important that I have this discussion—which got heated on the political front as well as the interpersonal one—on the very day I blogged about the need of churches to reach out to searching youth.

Those younger folks keep us older ones honest. The process of ministry and the process of educating are two-way streets, in which the minister must be ready to become the ministered to, and the teacher must be willing to be the taught. Churches engaging in youth ministry ignore these dynamics at their peril.

As I thank readers who seem to come to this blog from a number of disparate paths, I also want to thank Julie Arms for her comments on yesterday’s “Camp Out” posting. I appreciate the information that there are United Methodist readers circulating my postings. I had suspected this might be the case.

I’m also aware of some ELCA readers, whose interest in the blog I appreciate as well. Knowing that people within the faith communities don’t find my critique of the churches unredeemingly harsh, and knowing that I am somehow tying into a theological dialogue within various communities of faith, keeps me thinking and writing.

Last week, I had another reminder of the significance of continuing to speak about the issues I enumerated at the start of this posting, when a mother of a boy bullied in a high school, who is reading this blog, contacted me to ask for support. And—if I needed further confirmation of the importance of this project—today when I opened my email, I found an invitation to support the Trevor Project, a national project dedicated to combating suicide of gay teens (see www.thetrevorproject.org/home2.aspx).

Since this is one of those “to speak of many things” postings, I want to add some notes on a number of stories that have come to my attention recently. This past Sunday, a Catholic priest at the Newman Center on the University of California campus at Fresno, preached a courageous homily about the initiative to withdraw from gay Californians the right to marry—Proposition 8.

I first read about Fr. Geoffrey Farrow’s homily—in fact, I read the homily itself—on Pam’s House Blend blog yesterday morning (www.pamshouseblend.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=7392). Since that time, I’ve noticed links to the story on a number of other blogs, including www.afterelton.com/blog/brianjuergens/catholic-priest-comes-out-against-proposition-8-comes-out-gay?&comment=55467, www.towleroad.com/2008/10/fresno-priest-c.html, and the “Deep Something” blog of my e-friend John Masters at http://deep.mastersfamily.org/2008-10-06/courage-in-the-face-of-hate. These postings link to an ABC news report of the story at http://abclocal.go.com/kfsn/story?section=news/local&id=6431105.

Geoffrey Farrow’s homily focuses on the choice of the Catholic bishops of California to support the proposition to withdraw marriage rights from gays. Not only have the bishops made such a choice, they are also encouraging all priests in California parishes to read pastoral letters supporting the bishops’ decision. It was an act of courage for Fr. Farrow to announce publicly that his conscience forbids him to support the bishops’ political initiative against the human rights of gay citizens.

In his ABC interview (in which he also made public his own gay sexual orientation), Fr. Farrow notes that we have an ultimate obligation to listen to and obey our conscience, since we will one day die and will then be asked by the Lord whether we lived in fidelity to our consciences. It is highly likely that Geoffrey Farrow will be severely punished by the church for following his conscience in this matter; in fact, news reports indicate he had already cleared his belongings out of his rectory yesterday and was staying with friends.

I happen to be reading Scott Pomfret’s Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir (NY: Arcade, 2008) as this news breaks. Interestingly enough, just after reading about Geoffrey Farrow’s homily, I came across a passage in Pomfret’s book that lists seven American priests who have come out publicly as gay men in the period 1987-2006 (pp. 88-89). As Pomfret notes, many gay priests refuse to come out publicly since, “For many, coming out costs them dearly” (p. 89).

In a church in which a significant proportion of priests are gay, priests are expected to support and actually preach in favor of political initiatives that cause misery to gay human beings. That same church quickly retaliates against a priest who states publicly that he is gay (or a woman who is ordained), while shielding priests who repeatedly molest minors.

Something is rotten here, clearly. It is an act of astonishing cruelty for an institution that proclaims that every human being has fundamental rights and fundamental worth in the eyes of God to require its ministers to violate their consciences (and their own personhood) to pursue morally ambiguous—if not outright evil—political goals.

And, while one would like to imagine that such cruelty is confined to one particular church, my experience in United Methodist institutions has led me to see that the special kind of cruelty the churches reserve for gay individuals is hardly restricted to the Catholic church: it is apparent in many churches, where people who proclaim themselves to be followers of Jesus do not think twice about humiliating and violating the rights of gay human beings in ways designed to scar us decisively, who are the objects of this behavior. What was done to Steve and me at one of these institutions, by a good Methodist leader, was designed to hurt and to humiliate. And it did hurt and humiliate. And not one of the Methodist leaders sitting on the board of that institution has ever raised his or her voice against the injustice done to us.

Since I’ve mentioned Scott Pomfret’s book about growing up gay and Catholic, I want to close with a brief notice of one of the important themes of his book. Throughout the memoir, Pomfret draws on a theme of native American spirituality: he notes that native American potters often deliberately introduce a flaw into their pots, since it is through the flaw that creative energy enters the world.

Pomfret’s story focuses on the assortment of misfits with whom he has been associated as a gay Catholic who has sought to retain some connection to a church that bashes him: people who seem to belong nowhere, who find a place nowhere other than in the church. It is among these believers, with their conspicuous flaws, that he finds grace and welcome.

Among those who aren’t flawed—or those of us who like to believe we have no flaws—not so much . . . .