An occasional series where I reflect on the things I learned from writing my memoir, The Love That Matters.
The things we learn by doing. And can only learn by doing. If I had it to do all over — writing my first book — knowing what I know now, I’d finish the final draft, hand it over to my editor, and say, “let’s let it sit for three months so I can cogitate and contemplate for a while, and then I’ll go through it again.”
Because I learned a lot, about myself and my life, saw things I’d never seen before, writing this book. And since we didn’t do that — it felt like a rush, and then nothing for months while the finished book sat in Wipf & Stock’s editorial queue — I’m going to use my blog to contemplate some of what I learned here.
Audrey West really puts her finger on things when she describes my life as “a quest for ‘home,’ and experience of safety and rest.” I’d probably go a little farther and say my struggle was to find a place and people to belong to. But she nails it, solid. I’m glad she saw this. Because i’m not certain I could have. Not in so many words.
If there was a thing that simply did not work in my young life, it was belonging. It was fitting it. It was conforming. It was being accepted. It was finding a place among the people I was with in which I was valued, in which I contributed something useful, was wanted, was accepted on some level for who I am.
My mother told me a story a couple of years ago, and I struggled with including it in the book. Because I couldn’t testify to the truth of the story — it wasn’t something I witnessed — I decided not to.
I do remember some pressure my freshman year, it was fairly subdued, on the part of some folks at Upland High School, to have me play football. (In this, I have to thank Coach Beresford, who was really quite kind and supportive during the two years I had to take physical education, which I dreaded, and which he made whole lot easier.) I don’t remember much, and my answer was always no, sports simply did not interest me. (At SF State, when the athletic department took out an advert in the student paper looking for football players, I gave the matter some thought — at that point, it seemed like something worth trying at least once, at a place where winning couldn’t possibly matter.)
But my mother tells a different story. At parent meetings, they got a lot of pressure from other parents (and maybe from teachers?) that I should play.
“But he doesn’t want to,” was my mother’s answer.
“What does it matter what he wants? You should make him play,” was the response, according to my mother.
I believe her. In part, because I saw that happen to a couple of high school students at the church where I served my first internship. I wish my parents hadn’t shielded me from this, if for no other reason then I needed to know that they were actively taking my side on something.
But in part I experienced this part of “life together” in other ways.
Our children are strangers when they arrive in our midst. And our calling is to turn them into friends and loved ones. We form them, help them figure out who and what they are and how they belong. But in the process, their presence in our midst should change us as well. We should be formed by them at least as much as they form us. It is, or it should be, a real relationship, in which a functional human being is formed and fashioned and in that process, we continue to become more human ourselves.
ADDITION: We don’t do ourselves any favors when we treat people as mere means to an end. That the only value they may have, and their only use, is the one we ascribe to them. If we’re just giving them something, or worse, compelling them to do or be something against their will and without any sense of who they might be (or might be called to be), then we do nothing but cause trouble. Because some people need more work, and more help, than others do.
I feel like I’m not putting this well.
One of the things I came away with from growing up in Upland, California, is that there was nothing I brought to the community that the people around me valued. I did not find people willing to meet me in any meaningful way. Unwilling to be formed by my presence in their midst. How could I really meet them if they wouldn’t meet me? Whether I triggered something that simply brought the abusive out in them — Ms. Johnson, my fifth grade teacher, is the prime example of this, though there have been others — or they simply found me too puzzling or perplexing, and because of that they simply did not know what to do with me or what to make of me, it hardly matters. There was no reciprocal relationship here, no attempt to form me and no willingness to be formed by the encounter with me.
Upland was a very conservative Southern California suburb, and the community was deeply attached to social roles (to the extent they existed in an atomized bedroom community). And this appears to work, more or less, for lots and lots and lots of people. It didn’t work for me. The place had little imagination or patience to deal with those who needed a little — or a lot — more work to figure out who they were and how they belonged. You can’t hand me an identity, a place in the community, or a social role out of box that I would or could easily or willingly accept. This was something I needed to craft with my own bare hands, and I desperately needed the help of others, and there was likely no way this was going to be easy no matter where I was or who I was with.
It wasn’t easy at seminary. But I found people at LSTC willing to do the hard work of helping me become the person I was supposed to become, and in that process, they were changed by me.
One of the things I have learned is that I am a deeply relational person. As gruff and fiercely independent as I can be (and I am; my mother will attest to how difficult it was to raise me at times), I really truly do best when I am deeply embedded in a community of people where I am valued and I belong. I truly needed others to help me figure out who I was, and I was lost otherwise. “What will I be?” was never merely a question of best career choices for me. It was existential. It is existential. And I still struggle with it. I am called to preach and teach, and was formed in that calling by a church which decided in the end that I am unfit for that calling. At least in their midst.
That ought to hurt more than it does. But it doesn’t because of one of the other things I have come to accept: God is not fair. In fact, God is deeply unfair and unequal in the treatment and attention doled out. The fairness of God is a conceit of our democratic modernity, which tries to create a banal universalism and meaningless equality when, in fact, God shows love and attention and affection to some far more than others.
This is not a good thing, however. Because I understand completely St. Teresa of Avila when she said, “God, if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!”
Because this deeply unfair love of God is troublesome. Some people are marked, given wounds and burdens, are made strange and different in ways that strike us as deeply unjust. I ache to belong to people, to a community, in a way that I will likely never be able to belong. (In fact, the very belonging I seek is some unobtainable combination of Grampie and Grammie’s ranch and White Sands. I still ache for the Army!) Our modernity tells us this is a problem to be solved, with therapy and medication and modification and punishment. Because there is no unfairness, and no inequality, not in nature, not in the creation. There is no one that doesn’t fit, or can’t be made to. (God loves each and every one of us THIS MUCH! And no more!) Anything that appears to be bent or broken can simply be straightened or remade. There isn’t anything we can’t or shouldn’t try to fix. Or apply technology to.
But the wound is a witness. The ache is a witness. The longing is a witness. The seeming incompleteness is a witness. It says something to the world that the world needs to know. I’m not sure what that is, aside from the profound love of God for the world, and even that must simply be apprehended, and not reasoned. Perhaps it says something about the God in whose image we are made. God as God really is, and humanity as that very real image, rather than some idealized and perfect (and well-adjusted) mankind.
Maybe it’s a mirror to hold up to a world that prizes ordinariness and normality and conformity that God is present in the strange and the odd, in the misfit and the malcontent, and perhaps more powerfully there than in the order of the ordinary. It’s a testimony in face of the belief that all things should be the same, that all substances should be as they appear, all appearances should match every substance, that no, in fact, God does plant strange seeds in our midst to grow up crooked and curious. That some appearances belie the substance they cover. That taking the time to appreciate this has value.
Finally, I have learned that my life does not belong to me. (And if you’d told me that at 16, I’d of kicked and screamed and run away, because it meant my life belonged to you. I needed to fight for my life, and find value it it, in order to have something I could surrender utterly to the divine. Otherwise, you’d of been taking something from me that I wasn’t sure you valued — wasn’t sure entirely that I valued.) My life makes sense to me, but now, it makes sense in the surrender to that call. Not in trying to assert some idea of who or what I am. And that’s how I can live with being a witness to something greater than me. That I am complete, aches and wounds and all.
And I belong. Aches and wounds and all.
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This was something of a ramble, and I’m not sure I say any of this well. *Sigh* I will have a whole lifetime to figure out how to do this.