Friday
May052006

« To My Former Youth Pastor Judy »

I just wanted to start by saying that I'm glad we've been able to be in touch again. However, this is stupidly long, so why not print it out and digest it a little at a time in the comfort of your recliner instead of at the monitor? I think it will be worth the time though, I'm glad to report.

Things have been going satisfyingly good here in a very real way. It's just a week before Kelli wraps up her first year of seminary at your alma mater, Claremont. I'm really excited for her to be doing this. Through all the stress and strife of the academic world, what is clearly happening is she is coming alive in a very real way. Sometimes she is completely electric with this knowledge buzzing about her and causing her to see things like it was all new. She met with the C&M committee of the SD Association and apparently she bowled them over, despite her near hysterical panic on the drive there! She forgot to even mention that she was doing our liturgy now, and had been teaching Sunday school for a couple years. Even with those slight omissions, the committee seems to have taken well to her as she listed and discussed various ways she's been involved in ministry in one form or another, or has taken part in the life of the church.

Now, one would expect that she was in for a change, but what I didn't expect is how it would affect me. This year has been amazing for me, even being in her shadow. I had always supported her decision to go to seminary, initially because it would put at least one of us on a professional path sooner than later with the resulting ability to live apart from our old lives, but after that silly and self centered notion wore off, it was just because she would learn and grow and be compelled to take that to the world that drove me to back her up. The reflection on discerning her call was good for conversations that got us deeper into our relationship. By the time she started school and had some texts in hand, I would sometimes skim and periodically dive into some of it. Last summer, we took the Martin Buber class that Jerry taught, but of course for me, the extra doubling of years since I took it the first time (from 16 to 32), and the experience of being married made it resonate wildly. I think things of the sacred sort finally started to come alive for me.

But in the last month in particular, I've been able to indulge more of this. My corporate audio visual job laid me off during the April lull in business (the overture to firing me a few days ago), and in my time off, I delved into more and more things that are helping me to find my way on a more satisfactory path. One book I read way Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak which is a great book for the vocational discernment process, one part of which admitted that clinical depression is a valid part of all that and if worked with in a productive way, could be the basis for finding one's real mission in life—at least another iteration of things you and Jerry told me all those years ago, but on this reading, it was confirming and validating of the times I've had that almost consumed me. I read that book in one day early in my layoff, and it sort of set the tone for other things. Some CST staff wrote a book that I read entitled Choosing Peace Through Daily Actions. Some of it provided some radical hope for peace, methods for prayer, and other things that just evoked mystery and beauty even in the face of the harshest of the harsh things we encounter every day. Today, I am reading Spong's book Sins of Scripture. Last week it was one of Kelli's professor's books called the River of God (Gregory Riley's metaphor for Judeo-Xtian history as a river with varied tributaries to a main trunkline of Christianity and a delta that again reverses the process into fractious denominational divisions). I revisited the really cool Harville Hendrix MFT book Getting the Love You Want which Kelli and I used for some of our therapy work. I started to read Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship but Kelli had to take it away for a class. Another book I read, actually a little before these two was one that didn't arise out of a theological background but touched on it in the course of the story was one called Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. It was about a man and his new wife who left their urban life of comfort and lived a year and a half in a place that even the Amish considered backwards (a very old line Amish community that didn't develop even as much as the Lancaster sect did). I read this 230 page book in one day too (I've been on a roll lately) while in a truck in a loading dock at an LA hotel. Five hours of that and a couple to wrap it up at the hotel afterwards. This came at the time when I swear I wanted to throw all my computers and music gear off a cliff into the ocean and go live in a cave. I've been moving that way, at least mentally, as good as email and chat can be to solve one problem of life, they create many more. They utterly destroy I-Thou opportunities the more they are used instead of the face to face encounters that make up real life. So I've been moderating my time on the computer in hopes that I can slow down and at least read more paper items, or make real meetings with real people.

I've been on a movie kick lately—anything that somehow makes me feel will do, thankyouverymuch. Or, anything with Samuel Barber's Adagio For Strings. Hah! Actually, who would have thought that I'd derive equal parts joy in Platoon and The Elephant Man? But it all does something to me. Remember the time when my old man didn't let me go see Last Temptation of Christ with you and the others? Oh, the first time I saw that movie in 2003 in my growing depressive phase, I just bawled. I think that movie was one of the first things that really made Jesus accessible to me—a flawed, sometimes confused, but ultimately human being that modeled all that we could be. I can only wonder what that movie would have done had I seen it before, but then I think, maybe nothing. Maybe it arrived at the right time and place in my life. But, since I have had other similar instances with movies that I neglected to see or rejected altogether, I've felt like an overwound spring that finally got released. All of a sudden, everything I was exposed to in 1989 but never really understood started to make sense in a real way. The days of being sheltered are past. I can finally "get" Buber, or "get" Steinbeck, or "get" a number of things that I was simply not ready for. A favorite movie of mine is American Beauty, which I saw sort of late but it is sort of the model for how one can awaken from "real life" and finally start to see the reality behind all things, and that the mystery is where it's at, not the controlled and sculpted version of it.

A few years ago, in the rise to my clinical depression, I got myself all worked up about how terrible it was that I didn't have a tribe to amount to much. Oh, dead grandparents, an estranged father, mother and siblings. No big Italian weddings with 900 friends and family. Oh, the woe! No rituals, no one to share life with, blah blah blah. Then I arrived at my lowest point in September 2003 which was already well within the period since I returned to church at the start of 2002, when Kelli and I got together. We got married just under a year after the total nadir of my life to that point. Reflecting on how CCCPB was the real tribe that got me past my potentially disastrous teen years, I started to agree that my blood tribe was a lost cause in most regards, and that CCCPB was really where I belonged, and that of course, Kelli and I had a whole future ahead of us, both together as a couple and in solidarity with the larger group. When that realization took hold, things got better faster. And of course, being chased out of my house last year deepened that realization. Phil Calabrese and his partner Nancy have been exceedingly good to both of us in many ways. The inclusion in their family's parties and the Urantia Book readings has given us both a place to lose the orphan status and be able to interact in something bigger. Cindy still is amazingly supportive of us, and she too appears in some of these same events, giving me one good example how grace is present in life—one could reason that Cindy and Phil would be driven to distance no matter what, but they aren't. They still participate in each other's lives to some degree, and when its Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter and everyone is there, it is all just amazing to behold for me, a person who watched my family slowly die one member at a time, either literally or figuratively. So, the tribe thing has not been an issue. In fact, its the new strength that seems to hold everything up. At home now, right next door to Phil and Nancy, we will have some shared dinners here or there. Our roommate Suzanne is a friend of Kelli's, and a Catholic, but she is active in our little world now, and she too is invited to Phil's for the same engagements we attend. Suzanne has MD and uses a wheelchair but is very capable in most regards. We made her an offer she couldn't refuse—cheap rent with us, and I moved her down here from La Jolla. She's a PhD in some sort of educational pedagogical sort of field, and she too has an advanced outlook on people and life. Get the three of us together and it's quite a talk. Mark, Nancy's son is less active in our home life but he is generally a better person to share home with than other unconnected roommates. Most of the time he is self occupied, but sometimes we get to partake as a household.

I am in an odd spot. My grandmother died five years ago on April 23. With her died a lot of family knowledge that neither my father nor I took the time to learn. So I am using my imagination. Sometimes I sort of have to romanticize a bit about the details, but given some of the ugliness that passes for family relationships in this family, maybe a little creative nonfiction isn't so bad. But one thing that I have been working toward is reestablishing some level of sacredness about the meal time. It's fast becoming my theology that the meal, the communion, and the dialog is all that matters. All else hinges on being fed and acknowledged, and that that must operate in circular fashion. It's hard to imagine it being built on anything else. By extension, I am urging Kelli to be a partner in practicing hospitality, to enlarge the circle. A way of illustrating the need I have for this is best done by illustrating its negative counterpart in my life: once upon a time, on Thanksgiving 1999, when my grandmother was still at home, she was taken care of by the neighbor family who did a far better job of that than either my father or I were able and willing to do. They were nice evangelical Christians who did do a lot of great ministry (though I didn't like their theology—wayyyyyy too conservative for me), and they invited me to their Thanksgiving dinner. Somehow, I saw fit to ignore that offer and to stay in my little isolated windowless studio trying to play some drums to a track that was just too hard to get right. It was horrible. I was throwing sticks by the handful at the walls in disgust. Meanwhile, Virginia was enjoying the best company she had had at a family dinner since who knows when. This day has been my marker of how bad things got—the total dissolution of my family, and my inability to even partake in receiving a gift from someone, and on top of that, my own disgust with my ability as an artist, something I held up for a long time as the only thing worth living for. It's from this total trough of life experience that I am trying my hand at the opposite. These days, I don't hang on to my suffering artist side, I can go to the neighbor's house willingly and, though my grandmother is gone now, I see that her role as the woman who first led me to God is now reborn in Kelli who revived that whole part of life for me, and of course is the person with whom I can start to patch up the old wounds and be whole again. I've been adamantly convinced and vocal lately that marrying Kelli was the best thing I ever did. It is amazing at how it can transform, marriage. Or more specifically, intentional marriage.

With all this time for reflection and some listening to the nagging voice of vocation, I have started meeting with a very spiritually alive but delightfully subversive man named Lee Van Ham who is a key figure in a nonprofit group he helped found: Jubilee Economics Ministries. We had met last year as I was starting to be an activist around peak energy resources and the reckless attitudes that ignore that issue. He and I talked about some of that but eventually, I have come to find that the reckless attitudes stem from something that he addresses: the abandonment of the notion that God provides enough for all. I sort of gave myself over to being absorbed into his cause, because I asked him to sort of give me a venue to learn some essential biblical values and have a place to apply them. So, he is sort of an advisor as of this last few weeks. He serves roughly the purpose you served for me a long time ago. He and I talk about things the same way, but these days, with a little more idea of who I am and what I stand for, I find it time to act more in a way that even CCCPB might not offer. But I hope that some outside activity in JEM will give me something to take back to CCCPB. Just last night I sent my fellow trustees a document that Lee wrote that urges congregations to examine their practices—from taking out the trash responsibly to who we do business with, where we bank, etc. —to see if we are really living the mandate to do justice and foster sustainable practices to benefit community. This is the point where my secular efforts around peak oil and sustainability can be absorbed into a larger and deeper context. I still have a lot of shadowing around Lee before it really becomes my ministry too but I think its the most logical place to start to apply myself.

Oops, did I say ministry? Furthermore, beyond this reading, movie watching, and all this other stuff, I spent a couple days at school with Kelli where I sat in on four of her classes across two days. It was great—my layoff started just before Palm Sunday, and Holy Week just resonated with me because I had no real obligations to honor that would distract me. So I went to school and got a taste of that, and we had marvelous talks on the way home. I also got to all the church services too, and had a marvelous dinner with some of the newer church folks on Good Friday. I dropped in on a couple services at the new church that Bonnie Tarwater has started—a real progressive congregation hosted in the building at University City. I stopped in at the PB Methodist church's homeless dinner one night on the urging of one of the guys who had been doing it for some months. I even went to Suzanne's Mass at the old Mission de Alcala in Mission Valley. (It highlighted how great UCC is compared to Catholicism! I left that mass feeling like a sinner—for I am one, or so I was told many times!) —er, yeah. It has been an amazing month. It's great what you can do with life when you don't sweat the life of corporate-capitalist slave. It's so liberating. No, I didn't solve my money problem, but to depart from that world for a while is amazing. It's a step short of the things I read about in Palmer's book, and in the book about leaving technology behind. I say, I'd love to do some longer term residential program but to even mention it gave Kelli a shock, so it's just as well that Lee and I hooked up a week later and began talking about doing things like I detailed above. But I wonder (and you are the first I might be officially mentioning this to), is this the sound of a call? One of the classes that I sat in on was Kelli's vocational discernment class, and I heard some stories that were surprisingly like my own. Even at the end of the first year, there was a vagueness in some stories, but a certainty that other things pointed to something that must be followed. Some people, at seeing me at school, were so forward to ask if I was called (!) Its hard to say for sure, but the feeling persists that something is afoot. I don't mind if that is what must happen, but I do fret that my academic life is behind the program and it would take some years to catch up to what I feel I should be doing in that world, or should have done. I am in an odd space where Kelli and I talk about her graduate level stuff, and I get some of it, or even different aspects of it than she does, yet I have no BA or even AA! Any knowledge I do have is not documented, and it would be some time to rectify that. But that issue aside, I can see that I am becoming more and more unsettled with the options that are available to me in the work world. Or, more than that, the Dominant Culture is drying up for me. I've long since stopped watching TV as a regular thing. It happens mainly because someone else has it on but I never engage it myself. I find it too obscene in its fear and hatred and emptiness.

I wonder, can you do me a favor? That is, would you be willing to send me a periodic email of your sermons and anything else you write? Of course its been a good long time since I had any of that and I would have a far greater appreciation and ability to digest it now. I talked to Jerry about whether he had any of his old stuff and he told me that if it wasn't in an old Communicator or somehow preserved by members, it might not exist. With my recording program at church, I have preserved 3.5 years of sermons on CD, and I threaten to transcribe some of them, but want to first find out what he has in digital form already, so as to make the venture a smaller one. I did transcribe one sermon—the first I recorded back around Thanksgiving in 2002, and that one just blew me away. Transcribing it deepened that too. I wish I could have had a clue about what either of you were saying back when I was in high school. All I know is that you were my best friends that never let me down, and led me to grow in ways that the rest of the world never did. I'd like to read your work now in the light of new discoveries.

Okay, I have said enough. For now, its the closest thing to getting lost in a few hours of conversation that we can't really do now. Say hi to everyone for me, and I'll be presumptuous enough to tell everyone hi at church on your part!

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