“Possum and Stump.” Sounds like a name for a bluegrass band.
On my walk this morning I walked past a fence that used to be obscured by foliage. A couple of years ago the city decided to cut it all down. In a few cases they were too late. Some of the bushes had grown through the fence, and they couldn’t be removed without taking the whole fence down.
As usual, I see a metaphor.
There are parts of ourselves we would like to be rid of–old habits, memories, even a relationship or two. But they become part of us. Even if we manage to kill them, their effects remain. Life goes smoothly until KA-THUMP! YEOWWW! You stub your toe on that old stump.
In contemplative spirituality, we find that those old stumps are not to be ignored, but acknowledged. The least we can do is remember they are there so we can skirt around them. But eventually we can even come to appreciate them and learn from them. Ask questions like: “What did that part of my life teach me about myself? What are its gifts now that I look back on it? What does the sadness about that tell me right now? How can this actually be of use today?”
Lately I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I finally decided to face the insomnia and ask it what it was trying to tell me. (I know, sounds a little like “kondo-ing,” how Marie Kondo tells us to thank inanimate objects. Stay with me here.)
After some exploring my inner landscape for a while, I found that old stump that has dogged me off and on for years: the search for significance. When I thought about the feelings I have when I should be drifting off to sleep, they are panicky and anxious. The specter of fading away unnoticed came into the light. Of dying without having made an impact or even being remembered.
The fear of insignificance–that old ghosty, jittery critter. He usually hangs out at night. I think he knows if I get a good look at him in the daylight, he’ll get his walking papers.
He likes to show up when I’m anxious about other things, like a new job (check) or a loss (daughter getting married; change in relationship). Funny how anxieties in one area get the whole gang riled up.
So. Today I stopped to ponder the stump with a fence in it, or a fence with a stump in it, depending on how you look at it. Something moved. A ghostly possum lumbered by.
Never would have seen the possum if I didn’t stop to ponder the stump. Funny how a dead tree can remind me what’s going on inside myself.
I share the sadness of thousands who were shocked this month
at the death of Rachel
Held Evans. The experiences she
wrote about in the church and beyond the faith of her upbringing resonated
deeply with me. I attended all but one
of the “Why Christian?” conferences she led with Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. I sang traditional hymns alongside a thousand
others at those gatherings, with tear-filled eyes. It felt like genuine worship I didn’t realize
I’d been missing, unbridled by exclusivism and dogma.
Rachel’s struggle with loving God and the church while
challenging its culture and beliefs was a public one. She endured a lot of flak for it. But her honesty was a balm to many of us who
felt what she did as she worshiped in her beloved Baptist church: “I was
surrounded by the people who knew and loved me best in the world, yet it was
the loneliest hour of my week. I felt
like an interloper, a fake.”[i]
Rachel and her husband Dan left the church they had loved
and supported for a lot of reasons.
Although it wasn’t the tipping point, the church’s endorsement of a proposed
Tennessee bill (#368) to condemn same-sex marriage, with the banner “Vote Yes
on One” (Marriage = One Man + One Woman) uncovered the dichotomy in herself
that led to their departure. She could
no longer leave her heart and mind at the door and tolerate her own silence in
the face of her church’s treatment of LGBT people. And here’s the thing. Part of her struggle came from suspecting
deep down that some people in that congregation would listen and engage with
her about it. But she couldn’t deal with
her internal tension any more. [ii]
I get it, Rachel.
Your integrity would not allow you to settle on a dualistic mindset. It would be so easy to condemn the people
whose minds seem closed to the new dimensions of faith you were discovering in
the Bible. Taking off the blinders of
your childhood faith, you were letting the Jesus of the gospels question the
assumptions you had been weaned on. What
inspired my respect was that you also let that same Jesus form your love for
the people who keep uttering those assumptions like a mantra. Somehow you could
still appreciate them as your spiritual parents and friends.
Thank you, Rachel.
It is that refusal to be defined by bitterness that has meant
so much to me. Your books explore the
spaciousness of God’s reign but don’t dwell on the drawbacks of other
perspectives. I don’t know if it was
intentional, but you and Nadia did not allow negativity or snark to hijack your
gatherings. It would have been so easy
to take potshots at the “other side.”
But you stood fast in your commitment to the focus on God’s faithfulness
and mercy that promise hope for the whole
church, not just your version of it.
This is a monumental achievement in our current culture, both
ecclesiastical and public.
How many times have I checked my sarcasm because you showed
me how to be honest but not mean? How many
times have I not reined it in, and regretted it? And then remembered your belly laughs at
yourself for such slips and felt forgiven for my own pettiness?
My husband and I were returning from a funeral when I saw
the news of Rachel’s death. I was heartbroken. When I got home I was glad to have the task
of mowing the yard ahead of me. I had to
muscle out my grief. After the yard was
done, I picked new rhubarb and made a pie, feeling some of the nurturing spirit
I sensed in Rachel. I chopped, rolled,
sprinkled, and baked out more of my sadness.
I brought the still-warm pie to the musicians who shared the
pit that night with me in our community theater production of “Mamma Mia!” As we did the mic checks, the aroma of lard
crust with cinnamon wafted upward, and a few cast members noticed it. They peered into our midst and asked what
smelled so good. I smiled and explained,
“Sorry. The musicians are having pie
before the overture tonight.”
My growing sense of unease at some of the assumptions of my
faith and my church has nagged me to the point where I, too, had to take
action. I simply could no longer
tolerate living in tacet agreement with ideas and practices of my congregation
and denomination. Something told me that
God is more loving and life-giving than a religion based on transactional atonement
and purity rules. I had to respond to
the faint but insistent aroma of something
more, something fragrant and delicious, like the pie in the orchestra pit.
I have no idea how much Rachel had to wrestle with the
temptation to condemn people on the other side of today’s theological arguments. It has taken up a lot of my own time and
energy. It seems that the sorting
process of changing my thinking comes with the impulse to think in black and
white terms: this is good, so the other is bad.
But theology, biblical interpretations, even the church are
not so simple to parse. Like the many
mysterious aspects of faith, ideas and practices are complicated. There is much to appreciate (usually) even
when the assumptions don’t line up with the perspective I’ve gained. We are the church, united in the cross of
Jesus (Ephesians 2.14), and we cannot condemn the way other people see that
cross, no matter how much we want to.
So I sit with my family in the church I left, whenever I can. I also go to another church down the street, and I preach in pulpits where the diverse understandings of God are represented by the faces turned to listen. I find the islands of common ground among us and stand on them to gently push at the assumptions about God that have proven too small and harsh for me. I try to point out the sea monsters that threaten us all and proclaim the same kind of hope Rachel insisted upon.
Because you have taught me to be gracious, Rachel Held Evans,
I can do it with love in my heart. Thank
Evans, Rachel Held. 2015. Searching
for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. (Nashville: Nelson