Becoming Me, part 2

I don’t exactly know what started me down this path of sharing a bit of my background on this blog. I thought that I was just looking for something to write about and frankly I was thinking in terms of quilting. But in my casual skimming of files and photos I was brought up short by a draft document that I had failed to delete years ago. I know that it was the Spirit that kept me from passing over it and wants me to share some of it but for what purpose I have no idea nor which parts. So I move on trying to be carefully sensitive to His ‘nudgings.’

I believe I was given a partial answer my questions in this mornings quote from Frederich Buechner:

WHAT I PROPOSE TO do now is to try listening to my life as a whole, or at least to certain key moments of the first half of my life thus far, for whatever of meaning, of holiness, of God, there may be in it to hear. My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.

Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days

The first few years after the death of my father are difficult ones for me to recall.  What I do remember is that I retreated into my place of comfort, in a place of my own making particularly through art. In my art I would create homes–horse farms mostly–families and scenarios of happy times. Books and my love of reading were truly a Godsend. Reading lifted me out of the world I was in and took me to some amazing places. In my books I met characters who became friends and would visit them over and over again. In fact I still have many of them in my library today. Music was also a large part of my world and was also an avenue into other places.  I remember the song that I sang often during this time was, “How Far is Heaven.”  It was a song about a little girl whose father had died and she wanted to know how far it was to Heaven so that she could go see him.  It must have been a difficult song for my mother to hear me singing, but she never asked me not to sing.

In a very real way, these were days of isolation.  I was left to my own devices and had few friends, none that were close.  As I look back I can see that God was on the edges of my life.  I always managed to find a Sunday School near my house and got myself there regularly. My parents were always in favor of my going but never made an effort to help me get there.  They simply allowed it. I always felt drawn to this world but few of the people there seemed to feel drawn to me.  No adults from any of these Sunday Schools stand out in my mind. I never had any relationship with any of my “teachers.”  This fact came to play a role in my own ministry in later years.

Mom found a new job, bought a house and settled down with her two remaining daughters.  Life became “normal” but I was unsettled.  Mom began to date and I thought that she would find us a new father and we would become the normal family that I read about in books, and that I saw on TV. I needed a father.  I missed Daddy terribly and yet somehow in my young mind thought he could be replaced, only “fixed.” No alcoholism this time.  But it never happened.  While Mom did remarry once, it did not work out.  She remained single but regularly dated a railroad man that came through town a couple of times a week.  

In August of 1963, I found my Father; my heavenly Father.  I began going to church at The Salvation Army and found a whole new family.  An intact congregational family that gave me the love and discipline I so desperately needed. 

My timbrel brigade and in the middle of the first row my Lieutenant. She was awesome! (Not to mention one gal standing second from the right who became a lifelong friend.)

Becoming Me

Like many Americans I have been concerned with much that is going on within our culture. What I especially find troubling is the lack of honest discourse because of the fear of being branded hateful, bigoted, or fear of being on the wrong side of an issue. The tragedy is that the only way to learn how you truly feel about any issue is the exchange of ideas and perspective with others. The result of this kind of fear is that everyone places themselves within “camps” of people who are like minded and then are seldom called upon to defend their ideas and assumptions. It is in thinking through–developing–your position that you gain real understanding of any given issue. What really hurts me is that our young people are being betrayed by the very individuals that should encourage and mediate this kind of debates–no matter the subject. Growing up in the sixties I still recall the heated debates that were going on around me and not only on campus. Without these discourses we miss out on the richness of diversity found in our country and remain locked in our ignorance and misunderstandings.

Anyway, I did not start down this avenue to simply vent and if you are still reading thank you for hanging in there. No, I began this because I recently found a paper that I wrote in college. The overall course was about leadership but the paper was part of a required personal case study. While skimming it I found myself experiencing a bit of the emotions that doing this case study had evoked. This led me to a sense of gratitude to God for the way in which He has worked in and through my life over the years.

I debated with myself but in the end I just felt led to share a part of it with you all. No worries, I am not sharing it in total just a few paragraphs.

In 1968 Sammy Davis Jr. sang the following song:

Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong
Whether I find a place in this world or never belong
I gotta be me, I’ve gotta be me
What else can I be but what I am

And to quote Shakespeare:

This above all: 
To thine own self be true,
for it must follow as dost the night the day,
that canst not then be false to any man. 

(Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3)

I could not help but think about this bit of prose from Shakespeare as I worked through this paper.  The purpose of this paper is to do, in essence, just as Shakespeare exhorted:  to be true to myself and by doing so, I can then in turn be true (genuine) to those I have been called to serve and lead.  However, in order to achieve this knowledge it is essential that one delve into one’s past to discover the truth of one’s nature.

Reggie McNeal in Practicing Greatness (Jossey-Bass, 2006) breaks this down into three disciplines: the discipline of self-awareness, discipline of self-management, and discipline of self-development. God develops a person over a life time of experiences as well as their choices and decisions made by the individual.  There are tests of character that God uses to hone and fine tune those he calls out. 

Having set out the context I share with you a part of my story.

The night was so dark that you could not see your hand held inches from your face. There were no street lights there in the mountains of West Virginia; actually there was no street there at the head of the “holler” where my grandparents lived.  The red glow of cigarettes looked like dancing stars to my four year old eyes. It was late and my sisters and cousins were sound asleep but I was drawn to the noise of revelry caused by men who had too much to drink. What drew me to peek out at this scene was Daddy.  My father was out there with his brother and other men I did not know.  I was ‘daddy’s little girl.’  I was the “spittin’ image” of my father.  I was thrilled to hear things like, “you look so much like him he’ll never be able to disown you;” “aren’t you Arvil’s daughter?  You look just like him.”  I wanted to be in my father’s presence even if I had to sneak out into the dark corner of the porch to do so.  

After four daughters, my mother was determined to name this last child, boy or girl, for her husband.  I do not know if I was a disappointment to my parents, but I can honestly say that I never felt any kind of disappointment from them for being female. I became, in essence, daddy’s “son.” I was a ‘tomboy’ that loved to do all of those things usually attributed to boys: climb trees, fight, play ball. But in spite of this, I have few memories of actually doing any of these things with my father.  He was so trapped in alcoholism that there was never any time left to be the father that his children needed.

As I look back over these days I see a little girl who is her father’s daughter, knew that she was loved but nonetheless often felt bereft of her father’s attention.  My relationship with my father shaped my life in ways that laid a foundation for the person I have become.  

“Baby, Daddy’s dead.” Those words hit me like a physical blow.  I thought he was getting better.  I should never have thought about what life would be like if Daddy died. Was I somehow responsible for his death? These kinds of thoughts flooded my nine year old brain as I ran into my mother’s arms. 

I am going to leave the story here and will continue with it in installments as it is difficult to tell and time consuming to edit.

As Sammy sang in ’68:

I’ll go it alone, that’s how it must be
I can’t be right for somebody else
If I’m not right for me
I gotta be free, I just gotta be free
Daring to try, to do it or die
I gotta be me

“Jesus, You’re Doing it all Wrong”

This weekend we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. We call it Epiphany or Theophany because now His divinity is revealed and expressed in no uncertain terms.  The knowledge that Jesus is God tells us something about who He is, but it also reveals to us something about Who God is.   In the hymns of the feast we sing that “the Worship of the Trinity is made manifest.”  God is not only One, but Three.  God is now not only Spirit, but flesh.

And what is John the Baptist’s response when he sees Jesus wade out and stand before Him, waiting to be baptized?  He tells Jesus, “Wait, you’re doing it wrong!”  Like when you see someone bite into a Kit Kat candy bar without first breaking off the pieces.  NO!  THAT’S NOT HOW YOU EAT IT!  “Jesus, you’re doing it wrong.”  St. John says. “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?”  “Tut, tut,” says Jesus,”Let’s just do it this way for now.”

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to tell God how to do His business.  Moses was sure God had the wrong number when he answered the phone and the burning bush told him to go have a face-to-face with Pharaoh.  Moses had a whole list of reasons why God was wrong about that:  he couldn’t speak well, He had no authority, they wouldn’t believe him.    Wait, God, you’re doing it wrong.  But God insisted, and so he went.

Nor was this the last time someone would question Jesus’ judgment.  St. Peter himself did so right before Jesus’ crucifixion.  When Jesus wrapped himself with a towel and began washing the feet of His disciples, he came to Peter who said, “Jesus, you’re doing it wrong.”  Jesus replies that “I know you don’t understand just now, but you’ll get it later.”  Peter, however, persists.  “You will never wash my feet.”  Only when Jesus tells Peter he would have no part of Him otherwise, does he relent.

Both John the Baptist and Peter tried to correct Jesus because each time Jesus took the servant’s position.   In the first case it is a passive position.  Jesus consents to be baptized and allows someone else, John the Baptist, to be the master of the event.  He does it, He says, to fulfill all righteousness.

In the second Jesus again takes the servant’s place but in an active position.  He seeks to serve his disciples by washing their feet.  In this case it’s implied, rather than stated, that this is how righteousness is fulfilled.

Jesus was washed in order to Himself wash others.  This is a model for us.  The Son of God became incarnate to renew humanity and to show us what a perfect man is and does.  He doesn’t insist on the high places, he doesn’t shun the dirty work, he makes his fellow men his principle concern.  First by showing solidarity with them and then by crouching down and washing their feet.

How often do we take the opposite approach and say to God, “Stop it, you’re doing it wrong?”  We say it every time we commit an act of so-called piety simply for the sake of being seen or to gratify ourselves.  Like John claiming to be unworthy of baptizing Jesus and Peter claiming to be unworthy to be washed by Him, we say things like “God willing” when we really mean “I hope things go my way.”  For instance, occasionally someone’s reply when asked how he’s doing is simply “Thank God.”  Thank God for what?  It is altogether appropriate to thank God in every circumstance, but then why not answer the question?  “I’m doing well, thank God.” Or “I’m having a tough time, but thank God I’m getting through it.” We must take some responsibility for the conditions with which we contend and how we do so. We can’t always blame God. It’s an attitude of piety that inadvertently acts pridefully by taking the passive role when it ought to be active, the way that St John the Baptist did.

The other way we try to tell God he’s doing it wrong is by being active when we ought to be passive.  We cannot by our own efforts make ourselves worthy of God’s grace, worthy of Holy Communion or of any of the sacraments.  No matter how many  prostrations we make, no matter how many self-deprecating acts of piety,  no matter how many times we come to church, if we are not plugged into and participating in the sacramental life of the Church then we are leaving that grace—the only means for becoming like Christ—on the shelf unused.  We must be washed by Jesus as St Peter was whether we like it or not.  It happens first in our baptism, and then is constantly renewed through Holy Confession and Holy Communion.

St John Chrysostom offers another way to renew our baptism in addition to confession and repentance:

But let us all humble our own souls by alms-giving and forgiving our neighbors their trespasses, by not remembering injuries, nor avenging ourselves. [Because] if we continually reflect on our sins, no external circumstances can make us elated: neither riches, nor power, nor authority, nor honor; nay, even should we sit in the imperial chariot itself, we shall sigh bitterly.

If we only ever focus on how unworthy we are, then we will never get up off of our pallet, pick it up, and get to work.

As we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, we should remember our own baptisms, and how we participate with Jesus in His death, burial and resurrection.  We can do that best by evaluating the present cleanliness of our baptismal garments and then washing them in the tears of repentance in Holy Confession.  Moreover, we should think how we, like Jesus, are baptized to serve.  We begin by being receptive to the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments, we continue by serving and loving our neighbors, and we will end—if we persist (Not “God willing” because we know that it’s His desire)—by participating in that eternal communion in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

We must stop saying, “Jesus, you’re doing it wrong.”  So that when the time comes Christ will say to us, “Congratulations, you did it right.”