I have already confessed a great fondness for the music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. They arrived, if you will, at just the right moment in my life. I was young, impressionable, and all that, of course. Additionally, the lyrics, melodies, and arrangements all provided a variety and richness beyond the simpler rock and roll I knew up to that point. I think "texture" may be the category I am seeking here. My ears and mind encountered a musical texture that I had unknowingly yearned for.
Be that as it may, another of their songs popped into my head this evening as I was looking at another segment of my life.
"The Dangling Conversation"
It's a still life water color,
Of a now late afternoon,
As the sun shines through the curtained lace
And shadows wash the room.
And we sit and drink our coffee
Couched in our indifference,
Like shells upon the shore
You can hear the ocean roar
In the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs,
The borders of our lives.
And you read your Emily Dickinson,
And I my Robert Frost,
And we note our place with bookmarkers
That measure what we've lost.
Like a poem poorly written
We are verses out of rhythm,
Couplets out of rhyme,
In syncopated time
And the dangled conversation
And the superficial sighs,
Are the borders of our lives.
Yes, we speak of things that matter,
With words that must be said,
"Can analysis be worthwhile?"
"Is the theater really dead?"
And how the room is softly faded
And I only kiss your shadow,
I cannot feel your hand,
You're a stranger now unto me
Lost in the dangling conversation.
And the superficial sighs,
In the borders of our lives.
Copyright: Paul Simon Music
The reason this particular song, one of my favorites, came to mind was reflections on a photo I found while cleaning out boxes of "stuff" in my garage. I came across this photo, done for a church pictorial directory.
I posted it on Facebook, noting that it was scary. A very ambiguous comment and responses have been interesting. One college classmate did note that the smile seems a bit sinister. Maybe all clergy have something of the oily used-car salesman about them? I suspect it is only scary to me.
Life is complex, as are our motivations and actions, our interpretations and evaluations. I will save for another post a discussion of factors that led me to feel called to ordained ministry and the struggles related with that. Now that I am officially retired from same and, in fact, keep all things ecclesial at a distance, this photo seems removed from my current reality and identity by more than the eighteen years that have elapsed.
A friend who knows me well speculated aloud, but without elaboration, that one might wonder just how good a fit the church and I were. That is quite a speculative bombshell, given that I felt called at age fifteen, pursued ordination as a Baptist until hands were laid on me in 1972, and then after I became an Episcopalian pursued it all over again--complete with all the obstacles of being openly gay and eccentric--until hands were laid on me again in 1990.
I did genuinely care about parishioners, grieving when they wept and smiling when they rejoiced. I sought to feed them with the riches of Christ's grace and never felt I was anybody's savior. I tried, as best I could, to be faithful: to God, to the People of God, to the Church. There were things I was good at and areas of pastoral ministry where I sucked. I had my share of those parishioners known in some circles as "priest killers." I came away with some deep and serious wounds in my home diocese and in the one where I now live. Also with some great joys and satisfactions.
Over time I have realized that my life is actually "in the world" and not "in the Church." Probably the most effortless, effective, and well-received ministry I have ever had has been in the business world and in everyday encounters in which I function with no collar or title. So, unlike many old photos, this one does not strike me as "me." I look at it and the words of the song rise up: "You're a stranger now unto me...."
Yes, I recognize the features of my face and I cannot deny the history of my life. But that fellow seems like an alien. Sort of creeps the hell out of me, to tell the truth.
And this guy? Taken about the same time but mercifully minus the collar. Shot at some social in the parish hall, crazed and exaggerated grin, one gold crown shining amongst those teeth. But that feels like me. I still have that shirt and that down vest.
Few things can make me cringe more than being introduced as "Father Paul." It sometimes leads to someone wanting to share their religious journey (and gripes about organized religion) with me in a social situation, sort of like asking a physician for a medical consultation at a cocktail party. No, this is not the time and place to discuss your spiritual gallstones and no, I don't care. Sorry. Share your life journey with me and I may find you interesting and engage but I don't talk church-speak anymore. Call it a language I have forgotten, or am trying to forget, while I work to learn Italian and keep my French and Spanish alive. If you have been damaged by bad theology, so have I. It is not that I lack sympathy; I just don't want to hear about it. I have dealt with it for six and half decades and I am tired, sick, fed up. Too many toxins for me to deal with anymore. The gymnastics involved in sifting out the gold from the dross in the biblical tradition has become draining and I have better things to do with my life.
Mind you, the last congregation I was with exemplifies, to my mind, what church should be. The people worship God, love one another, and serve the community in which they live. They do so with hear, mind, soul, and body. It is a joy to be in their midst. The only reason I am not in their midst is that they meet in church, and church does not speak to me. My discomfort would, I believe, have a negative effect on these wonderful people. And I am quite happy doing anything else on a Sunday morning. I admire those who still minister as clergy and theologians and count some very fine ones among my friends. I just cannot do it anymore.
I am not saying religion is a crock of crap. That is not what I believe at all. Nor do I think "organized religion" is some ogre in the universe of spirituality. Saying one is spiritual but not religious sounds like meaningless tripe to me, but since almost everyone I know says that I won't confront them on it. I take it to mean you have some experience you sense is spiritual and you reject anyone who would tell you what your categories of religious experience should be or what it should mean. You are a modern individualist (or spiritual narcissist, but I will give us all the benefit of the doubt at first). I think you should reject spiritual straight jackets! (Chances are the categories you use to do that come from some tradition, but we can pretend you reject all traditions and are going with your gut and that you invented the wheel.)
My roots are deep in a specific tradition: Christianity. I was raised a Protestant with heavy Calvinism polluted with the modern heresy of Dispensationalism, but rejected that and went for deeper roots in Western Catholicism (not Roman) and increasingly steeped myself in a piety that is Eastern Orthodox. My home is still full of icons and candles. But, like the banyan tree, I have not only an original taproot but have branched out and sent down other roots, most notably in Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American spirituality, and an earth-centered orientation that is friends with the neo-pagans of our time. All of these and more nourish me and my fantasy fiction has its own mythology and parallel "Christianity" that blend. Just because I do not use the language of my tradition(s) in everyday life does not mean they do not form me deeply and constantly. "You can take the dude out of the Church but can't take the Church out of the dude" or something like that.
Yet I stand with those outside the Church and feel at home with them outside those walls, outside those rites, outside that imagery (for the most part). And the nagging question remains: How much of a fit was there between me and the Church? Deeply and essentially. I do not know the answer. I believe I did much good and certainly some harm in my years of ministry.
It just seems like it all happened in a galaxy far, far away.
And the man in that photo is a stranger now unto me.
But me? I am knowing myself and liking myself better all the time. Feels good.