Sunday, January 25, 2015

Losing My Religion, Part VI: Spiritual But Not Religious

Metanoia Peace Community, 2011--a year before it disbanded, unable to continue without the leadership of its now-retired pastor, John Schwiebert.

Big things happened to me in 2000. My second marriage was officially over December 30, 1999. My career as a United Methodist minister ended about two weeks later. The church I was serving as associate pastor and music minister had seen almost from day one that I was damaged goods, that I had suffered far too many defeats and humiliations, and that, at the very least, I needed a break from ministry. They had rolled the dice on me, creating a new position that matched my skill set, but I was only delivering on a portion of my job description. Seeing this, but wanting to honor their commitment to me, they worked out a deal with the conference office to place me on disability leave. The conference would pay the disability portion of my salary, while the church would continue to pay the remainder, as well as my housing, through June 30, with no expectations of me other than that I would stay away from the church. It was the clergy equivalent of the New York public school system's rubber room.

It was a far more generous solution than I was able to see at the time. As much as it felt like I'd been pushed off a financial cliff, I was being given six months to figure out how to land. I began exploring my options immediately, looking into returning to school (always a safe, if utterly unaffordable, option), taking a temp job with the Census, and for the first time in nine years, attending a church because it was my choice, rather than my job.

Picking the church was easy. Since 1985, I'd been intrigued by everything I heard about John and Pat Schwiebert, the couple at the center of the Metanoia Peace Community. I've written about this intentional community of peace activists and spiritual misfits many times in this space; search "Metanoia" on the index page of the blog, and you'll get at least two dozen entries. There were many things that drew me to the Sunday evening services--the commitment to pacifism, the dedication to welcoming sexual minorities, the profound compassion extended to people experiencing grief in any form, the neo-monastic lifestyle of the Peace House--but what mattered most to me at the time was that, even after fifteen years of studying and practicing homiletics, John Schwiebert's sermons challenged me as no other preacher ever had. Like me, he explored the hard passages, the uncomfortable moments in the Bible that make people squirm in the pews (or, in Metanoia's case, the couches and easy chairs of the Peace House living room), finding angles on them that were both intellectually sound and surprisingly innovative. Here was a man who, like my father, had sincerely wrestled with his faith and vocation for his entire life. And here was a community that welcomed people of any theological persuasion, including those questioning their identity as Christians.

I never knew Metanoia to ask anyone to leave, but I did know people who decided on their own that Metanoia was no longer for them. In this place, the quest of the seeker was affirmed, even if that quest took one to a wholly other place. I knew two Buddhists who were members, one who left because she just could not deal with the "Jesus thing" anymore, the other who remained active until the community disbanded two years ago, finding its radical Christianity completely compatible with his Eastern spiritual path.

I lived at the Peace House for three years, wrestling with whether I could be a Christian who was not actively employed by the faith. After just a few months, John found me a job playing piano at Church of the Good Shepherd, a small African-American congregation which embraced me and put me in the pulpit once a month. In some ways, this was a cheat--I was still being called "Reverend" and receiving a small salary--but really, I was easing myself away from the work, figuring out whether there was any place for me in ministry.

After September 11, 2001, out of a sense of needing to be back and service, and having something to offer, I spent several months trying to come off disability and back into ministry, but the conference said no, not yet. That rejection led me to turn back to teaching, first as a substitute, then as a full time music teacher. In 2003, I moved out of the Peace House, settling in Sherwood, where my children lived with their mother. Two years later, she moved them to Idaho Falls.

I could go on in great detail about how all these events impacted my faith, the ups and down of my church work, the ways in which I grew more and more disenchanted with even the Metanoia version of Christianity; and I have, in this space, talked about all those things. What I want to address now is where I have finally landed, and will probably remain for at least the remainder of this stage of my life: a category I used to deride, but which now see to be as descriptive as they come of my own spiritual state. I am spiritual, but not religious.

I first encountered these words on and other dating web sites I used in the early 2000s to meet potential romantic interests. Most of those dates went nowhere, something I'm not going to explain here for reasons you'd thank me for if you knew what they were. What I saw on these web sites is that people of my generation and younger who live in the Pacific Northwest are unwilling both  to claim denominational affiliations, and to acknowledge that their lack of such an affiliation makes them agnostic or atheist. There was and is no good word for this status other than the descriptive words "spiritual but not religious."

Throughout my ministerial career, I scoffed at the idea that one could be spiritual apart from a religious community. I most often heard about it when I was brought in to perform a funeral for a man I'd never met, but whose wife had not missed a Sunday service in decades. Widow and children would say "The outdoors was his church," and I'd nod, even as, beneath the surface, I was rolling my metaphorical eyes. I believed very much that the spiritual life needs a community for nurture, that without such a community the spark will die and the faith vanish. And, in truth, that was one aspect of what had happened to me: without a community to nurture my own struggling beliefs, they had withered, especially during my four years in Yamhill County, serving rural churches on my own, with no one to hash out my theological struggles.

Now I was out of the church, finding myself increasingly at odds with the religious institution I had devoted a significant portion of my life to serving. The only community that felt right to me was one that stood in opposition to Methodism's bureaucratic rejection of homosexuality and its co-opting by corporate and military interests, and even there, I had found myself turned off by even the most radically progressive interpretations of Christianity. To work within the faith, I was coming to believe, was itself to be co-opted by a global institution that was responsible for countless atrocities over the millennia. Christianity and I were through.

But if I was no longer a Christian, then what was I? I still had a spiritual life. More and more, though, it was, like the spirituality of all those unchurched husbands of church ladies, centered outside the four cozy walls of church, chapel, and even Peace House.

Canyon Creek Meadow, 2011: this time, with Amy by my side, I took time to stop and smell the wildflowers.

I'd begun to realize this during a personal retreat in the fall of 1999, when I spent several days in the central Oregon Cascades, including a visit to Canyon Creek Meadow, one of my favorite places on earth. It's a gorgeous spot at the foot of Three Fingered Jack. The day I hiked there by myself, I spent half an hour seeing it through the viewfinder of my camera, seeking out picture after picture that could somehow capture its beauty. It was only on my way out, the meadow falling behind me, that I realized I'd only seen it through that tiny window, and had not once permitted myself to experience it with my own senses. I made a commitment to myself then to look, listen, and breathe the next time I was in a place of natural beauty, with the camera an accessory, rather than the entire point of whatever expedition had taken me there.

In the fifteen years since then, I have pushed myself again and again to live out that promise, and it has paid off. I am more wholly at peace atop a mountain then anywhere else--though this is really only true if I've gotten there under my own power, whether that's on foot, on skis, or on a bicycle. I need some time to physically transition from the hell of the highway to the heaven of the summit.

There were also marathons, though none since 2001, that chewed me up and spit me out, full-body cleanses that also broke down all the scar tissue of my psyche. Being outside, exerting myself, sweating, aching, sobbing with the effort of it, breathing as deeply as I ever had, absorbing the magnificence of my surroundings, I am closer to the ground of my being than in any edifice of stained glass and marble.

That's where I've ended up. I still believe that connection to human beings is essential to spiritual well-being, and I continue to seek out community that helps me to become more fully human, but I have concluded that, at least for myself, such community must be independent of institutional structures and requirements. It's those requirements that turn any kind of faith into a religion: the hierarchy of leadership, the rules and regulations that keep the doors of its buildings open, its ministers in the pulpit, its parishioners part of the financial gravy train that pays for all those services. I understand that participation in religious communities is an essential part of the spirituality of billions of human beings, and I do not begrudge them that. I understand that, without institutional organization, most of those communities could not exist, and all those billions of people would be without the spiritual food they provide. But it's not for me, anymore than the book-worship of Christianity and the centuries of atrocities that have grown out of it.

I speak its language--how could I not, after all those years of study and preaching?--but at the age of 53 (going on 54!), I believe I have finally come home to what I am: an independent spirituality of human relationships and connection to the beauty of the world around me, which inspires me to compassion and service. Whether God is involved in any of this is unclear to me, and ultimately irrelevant to just being, and becoming, as fully human as I can with the time remaining to me.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Losing My Religion, Part V: Preacher, Convert Thyself

It took me ten years to get here.

June, 1995: a moment of victory, acclamation, as the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church finally welcomed me into full membership as an elder, a fully ordained minister, with all the rights and responsibilities thereunto appertaining. I had worked so hard to reach that point at which the Bishop, my District Superintendent, my father and one other elder of my choosing, and my daughter (in lieu of my soon-to-be-ex-wife) laid hands on me, I placed my hand on Jason Lee's Bible and took the vows of ministry, and my father's red stole was placed around my neck, that I should have felt overwhelming joy. I made it! A life of faithful service lies before me! I will never again have to worry about hunting for a job!

The fact that the last celebration topped my list is a hint of where that career was headed.

Before I get to that, though, I have to talk about several other things that made this moment far more bitter than sweet.

Let's start with the superintendent. I became the pastor of the Estacada United Methodist Church in July, 1992, two months after my son nearly died at birth, one month after my father suffered a heart attack, and just weeks after my wife and I took in a troubled teenager. The year before that had been a hell of an introduction to ministry in the real world: both of us appointed to the church in Medford, serving under a senior pastor whose mood swings and triangulation set our marriage firmly on the path to divorce. Estacada was an hour-long commute from our new home in Sherwood, and I was also serving a 1/4-time appointment at a church in the Lents neighborhood of Portland. Coupled with my never-ending doubts about my faith, this was all a recipe for depression, and I got it in spades. The Estacada people saw this, but thought they could help, and recommended I get some counseling. They also asked, in response to the Bishop's annual survey, to have me back for another year. The superintendent, also brand new that year, thought he knew better, and went to work on having me essentially laid off. I managed to change his mind by embracing counseling, agreeing to give up Lents but stay 3/4-time in Estacada, and throwing myself into ministry, but he never let up on the intense scrutiny. In April, 1995, after initially recommending me to the Board of Ordained Ministry for full membership, he changed his mind, leading to a two month battle between the Board and the Bishop's Cabinet. The night before Conference officially began, both he and I met with the Board. After his interview with them, he slammed the door on his way out of the building. They were much gentler with me, chose to sustain their decision, and rather than have the fight move to the floor of the conference, the Cabinet agreed. Two of the people laying hands on me that night did it under protest.

Now let's turn to that sweet 6-year-old. A year before this night, I had stood proudly at an ordination ceremony at which my wife became an elder. I had looked forward to having her return the favor the following year. That didn't happen: our relationship had already been souring, and by December, it was completely on the rocks. By June, we had filed for divorce. So my little girl took the place of the spouses who stood with every other ordinand, including my brother Jon, who became a deacon that same night. What was supposed to be a moment of cementing our mutual calling was, instead, me entering a life of solitary ministry.

It was my baptism all over: the heavens remained stubbornly shut, the dove never left its covey, and the voices welcoming me into my new state of grace came from two men I neither respected nor trusted.

The bad seed of that night germinated poorly. I remained in ministry for four and a half more years, struggling all along with whether it was right for me. I felt in some ways trapped--I had student loans, credit card debt, a car to pay off--and couldn't see any way out of this work that didn't include bankruptcy. I think it was concerns like these, as much as the loneliness of rural ministry as a single father (two weeks after conference, I moved from Estacada to Amity), that caused me to rush into a second marriage which, true to type, also ended in divorce.

Much more than these difficulties, though, what really chased me out of ministry was losing faith in the few things that remained sacred to me after seminary. As I explained in my last post, seminary taught me to demythologize and unsentimentalize Christianity, reducing it to a kerygma that could not warm the heart of any but the most intellectual and theologically advanced parishioner. Using this tool set to lead Bible studies, I had seen many of my students have "Aha!" moments as they discovered a deeper, more honest way of reading scripture; however, I had also seen a few collapse in despair as the dogma that kept them faithful was debunked. In truth, my own faith had been stripped of every molecule of padding, to the point that it really was nothing more than a theological platform from which to view the world.

What still gave me comfort as I left seminary was my faith in two things: marriage and the church.

As I noted above, marriage had abandoned me six months before my ordination. The church, on the other hand, had been working on its divorce from me from the moment my first wife and I arrived in Oregon. Between the year in Medford and what ultimately turned out to be six years under that superintendent, I had all my faith in the goodness of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference, its Bishop and superintendents, United Methodism, and ultimately in Christianity ground out of me. By 1998, when I finally had a new superintendent, there was little left for her to work with.

Arriving at my final appointment in July, 1999, I knew I was ministering on borrowed time. This position--music minister at a suburban church--was make or break. If I couldn't find the inspiration to rock this job, I should take myself out of it, find something else to do with the rest of my life.

The day before I was to start at this new job, my second wife asked for a divorce. The job lasted until January, when the church put my career out of its misery by placing me on disability leave.

I went to seminary in 1985 hoping to shore up my faith, to find a way for my probing mind to experience God without gagging on sentiment or scoffing at contradictions. I left seminary with those aspects of religion boiled off, but there was little left without them. Most of my preaching as a pastor was aimed at questions and concerns I had. In the end, however powerful my arguments, I could not convert myself. It was time to leave.

But where could I go? What faith community could provide a safe haven for one so scarred as me? My first wife invited me to worship with her congregation, which would give me more time with my children; but that place felt sterile to me, and the sermons never dug as deeply as I wanted them to. That was not a place where I could share my inner struggles and find healing.

Fortunately for me, there was a place for me, an island of misfit Christian toys that embraced all manner of former congregants of one variety or another, people who had been rejected by or walked away from churches that just weren't right for them. That place was the Metanoia Peace Community, where I didn't just come to worship. I moved in.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Losing My Religion, Part IV: Where Faith Goes to Die

If you're a young person hoping to strengthen your tentative faith in God, seminary is the last place you should go. And yet that's exactly what I did.

I need to back up a bit here: in the fall of 1984, I took my newly minted Masters degree in music education to the only school in Oregon that would hire me. The place was North Powder, a tiny community halfway between La Grande and Baker City. I lasted eleven weeks. I spent the rest of the year subbing, growing more and more disillusioned with the profession I had believed was my vocation. In March, 1985, I attended a convocation for persons considering entering the ministry, heard several preachers (including Bishop Calvin McConnell and John Schweibert) say things that spoke directly to me, and decided on the spot to enter the candidacy program. I applied to two seminaries, Boston and Perkins (part of SMU), because they were the only Methodist schools with sacred music programs, and at this point I didn't want that Masters degree to go to waste. Boston appeared to lose my application, and Perkins accepted it, though to enter the sacred music program, I'd have to audition, something I didn't think I could afford to do until I was on campus in August. And that was it: after one unpleasant year, I was abandoning teaching.

To be fair, I had been reading the Bible, from cover to cover, since the previous summer. Initially it was a scholarly quest, a search for contradictions and inconsistencies I could use to do battle with a fundamentalist friend who kept insisting on the existence of hell. While I found plenty of those scriptural glitches, I also found the book winning me over as it hadn't on the previous occasion when I read the whole thing, my junior year of high school. I was hoping then that it would deepen my faith. It didn't. But now, in 1984-5, I found many passages speaking directly to my quarter-life crisis, as the career I'd sacrificed my youth to seemed to be rejecting me.

In August, I drove down to Dallas to begin seminary. I was thrilled to be heading back to university, an environment that had always felt safe and secure to me. I arrived on campus late at night, unloaded my paltry possessions, and the next day, auditioned.

I didn't make it in.

In retrospect, I know my skills as both a pianist and a conductor were still rough at that point in my life. I'd had very little experience, and I was only 24, extremely insecure about my singing voice, and had little knowledge of the sacred music world apart from being in church choirs. The professors who'd auditioned me told me I should go ahead and take all the Master of Divinity classes--which I'd intended to do, anyway, hoping to come out of seminary that rare bird, a fully ordained music minister--and inviting me to audit the sacred music seminar, and if I was still interested after a year, to apply again. I agreed, doing my best to hide my disappointment.

Then classes began, and so did the tug of war on my fragile faith.

Studying the Bible electrified me. I found I could analyze scripture in the same ways I'd learned to analyze music. It didn't take me long to realize that much that I had believed about the authority of scripture was problematic. Clearly this was a human document, and all the claims made about its divine inspiration were specious. Over those first two years, I constructed a more nuanced role for scripture in my spiritual life. Even though reading the Bible had gotten me to seminary, I would never again view it as the chief cornerstone of my faith.

Studying theology mystified me. I quickly found myself out of my depth. Whenever professors talked theology, they used the language of philosophy, a discipline I had never studied. To master this field, I would have to spend a great deal of time reading, discussing, and thinking about the very framework of religious thought. It took me my entire seminary experience, including three years of supervised work in the field, to begin to think of myself as a competent theologian.

Studying ministry frustrated me. What I wanted most in that first year was a class on how to do basic pastoral tasks: what to do on a home visit, a hospital call, during a counseling session; how to pray with people, bless church dinners, lead study groups; and so on. The thought of performing all these tasks was overwhelming. The introduction to ministry class was the exact opposite: impractical, theoretical, a useless waste of our time.

There was a lot to study. There was also a lot to do: a formation group where I met with other first year students to hash out our hopes and fears; evening devotions; early morning communion; twice weekly chapel services; the seminary choir; continuing candidacy studies with an assistant dean; a food co-op. There was my church job, directing a youth choir at a Presbyterian church. There was also the case study I performed on a progressive Methodist church across the street from the one where I worked.

For all that activity, I was desperately lonely my first semester, to the point of deep depression. I began seeing a counselor at the health center, journaled, prayed. Why, in this place where I was supposed to be figuring out exactly who God was, and how to share God with ordinary people, did I feel God's absence so starkly? One Friday night, sitting on the floor of my dorm room, my journal before me, I wrote in capital letters: WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? Then I collapsed in tears. As I wept, I had a gentle sensation of hands on my shoulders. I sat up, startled: I was still alone, and yet somehow I felt comforted.

That's the only time I had that sensation. Many times in the following years, I yearned for something like it, and never got it. For that one brief moment, though, my mind concluded I had been in the presence of God. Now I could go on.

I finished that year more confident of many things. Part of that confidence was new-found love: after 24 years of celibacy, I was finally having my first, then my second relationship. Now I was engaged. I was also receiving encouragement from my professors, who seemed to like what they saw in me. Finally, after a year of auditing the sacred music seminar, and of being in the seminary choir with sacred music majors, I concluded that was decidedly not for me. It was too much like musicology, a field I'd been encouraged to enter while an undergrad, but just couldn't imagine myself doing.

As for theology and Biblical studies, the two areas I more-or-less majored in: I immersed myself in the intellectual rigor, reveled in the subversive pleasure of deconstructing truth-claims, myths, and poorly examined beliefs. I loved it when a professor reminded us that the Bible is a book, not an idol; when another irascibly threw out the notion that anything that is too hard or dangerous for theology to explain is a "mystery"; and delighted in the schadenfreude of seeing an evangelical reduced to tears by the relentless logic of the academy. This was my bread and butter: dissecting dogma, challenging its inconsistencies and contradictions, discarding beliefs that couldn't hold up to the scrutiny of rationalism.

If you're wondering how this prepared me, or any of my classmates, for ministry, the simple answer is that it didn't. The goal appeared to be distillation, boiling off our minds to clean them of all the folderol we'd amassed sitting through Sunday School lessons and half-baked sermons. Purified of that nonsense, we could then begin replacing those ideas with something more intellectually honest. Of course, those who practice pure academic theology are called professors, not pastors, and as I was to learn, first on internship, then in England, and finally back home in Oregon, that's not what feeds the flock.

I don't regret seminary. Far from it, I'm grateful for the way it equipped me to take on the claims of religion, to fight back against contradictory doctrines, and to think through my spiritual struggles to their logical conclusion. The absurdity, though, is that I went to seminary to learn how to have a stronger faith, and instead, was given the tools to dismantle what faith I had. By the time I graduated in May, 1991, I was solidly on the road to agnosticism.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Losing My Religion Part III: Heaven Is Other People

Growing up immersed in religion meant there was nothing for me to be converted to, but arriving at adolescence awkward, lonely, and insecure meant I had plenty of things to be converted from. That's probably true of most high school freshmen, fed up with being children, their moods swinging without warning, clearly unready for adult pursuits. The reboot I had hoped would come with baptism never materialized, so I needed something else, something more radical, powerful, effective. It took me two years to find it, two years of privately sobbing into my pillow behind a locked bedroom door, two years of longing for a deeper, more sincere connection than I could find at school or at church. It wasn't even me who found it. My parents learned of a church camp for artistically oriented teens, and sent me to it.

MADD (Music, Art, Drama, and Dance) camp was exactly what I'd needed: a place where I could mingle with (mostly) safe Methodist youth, playing my trumpet, writing, learning to take better pictures with my Instamatic, singing in the camp choir, and really connecting in the heightened, accelerated way teenagers do at arts camps. Everyone there was sensitive, creative, empathic, an outsider back at home. Introvert that I was, I faded somewhat into the background, but I still made friends. This being a church camp, we spent time each day with our "theologian in residence," a popular pastor who had a real knack for preaching to teens. The last night, we had a closing communion at which everybody cried, a final performance of all the things we'd been working on, and a seemingly endless roving warm fuzzy party. The next morning was similar: a short devotion, a goodbye circle that went on and on, and finally the leave-taking.

That camp meant the world to me. It was the first time I had felt emotionally, physically, and spiritually connected to people my own age. Almost forty years later, I can still remember the warmth of standing around the campfire, arm in arm, struggling to sing songs I'd never heard before but which would be my favorites for years to come. This, far more than my baptism, was my spiritual coming of age.

Of course, like all good things, MADD camp couldn't last. It was six days long, in fact. I can't remember how I got home--I know I'd been driven out to Camp Magruder by Ernie Bell, a pastor from a neighboring town taking his own kids to camp who would, many years later, become a mentor to me--but within hours of being back in Philomath, I felt the letdown set in. I remember walking down to the post office to check the mail, and having someone be curt with me, being shocked at how it felt to be back out in the cold, cruel, real world.

Later that summer, I went to Scout camp, and had a fine time doing very different things. It was great fun, marked by earning merit badges, goofy skits at the campfire, long games of "I Doubt It" (Scouts can't say "Bullshit"), and, as one of the privileged older Scouts, getting to lie out late one night watching a meteor shower. Scout camp is typically a great bonding experience for a troop, and it worked that way for mine. But it wasn't MADD camp. I didn't feel once in that week what I'd felt at Magruder: like I was in the presence of God.

I went back to MADD the next year, 1978, and had another shot of redemption. Later that summer, I went to DeMolay leadership camp, and was surprised to find a similar sense of fellowship, including the same spiritual depth I'd experienced at Camp Magruder. After both camps, the real world was, again, a letdown, something I was to feel every time I came home from camp, whether I had been there as camper, counselor, program staff, theologian-in-residence, assistant dean, or dean.

College introduced me to a new way to experience this spiritual high: touring. I toured several times with my college band. In seminary, I toured with the choir. Every tour was, like camp, a growing sense of connection to a small affinity group, some members of which I had been acquainted with prior to the experience, but none of whom I felt deeply in sync with. In a matter of days, the ties grew exponentially, and everyone on the bus was knitted together as never before.

Post-ministerial life has brought me into yet another environment in which such attachments can grow: the Orff world. Orff trainings are a lot like camp, and those who've been through them together often relate to each other like members of a high school or college class who've had four years to get acquainted--as opposed to the two weeks of most Orff courses. I'm still in touch with many of the people I met in Ghana, and seeing a number of them in Nashville was a highlight of that conference.

The Bible has a word for this feeling: koinonia. It refers to the communion of saints, the ties that bind a congregation together. The love associated with this fellowship is called by another Greek word, agape. In Methodist theology, this experience is valued above almost any other. Every meeting is supposed to be a form of "Christian conferencing," during which the business of the church 
becomes almost sacramental. As long as I was in ministry, I toed this party line, enjoying Annual Conference as a time to come together with fellow Methodists from across the region, pretending I wasn't bored spitless by the endless reports and the tedious debate of budgetary matters. Leaving ministry, though, I began to realize something: the church did not have a lock on koinonia. In fact, there were plenty of church meetings I'd been present at, some of which I even chaired, when the koinonia had been in short supply, and members had bickered and postured as immaturely as at any secular administrative function. In fact, I soon realized, the wonderful warmth I'd felt at all those camps was not so much a function of God being a part of it as of people coming together in a beautiful place to enjoy each other's company and have some fun. The same was true of tours and, as I mentioned above, of Orff trainings.

In fact, I have come to believe, koinonia is an essential part of being human. It's something we all crave: belonging to a group that believes in us, and that we believe in. We are social creatures, even the most introverted of us, and we crave the company of others. If that company happens to share some of our interests, and we enjoy our time together, a bond develops between us. One could argue that this is how God made us--as Genesis 2:18 tells us, after creating the first man, God decided "it is not good for [him] to be alone," and so woman was created. Of course, there are plenty of social species in the animal world, so it's not as if humans have a lock on togetherness.

If the quest for fellowship was unique to the religions of the Book (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), one could make the claim that this really is a gift of the faith. In fact, though, most religions, and many secular movements, also value koinonia, as do plenty of pagan activities, from music making to sports fandom to Amy's weekly mah jongg night. And it's in realizing this larger truth that I felt the wedge between myself and my faith began to cut deeper.

Fellowship was one of the things I valued most about the church. It had pulled me through some dark times, from job loss to nearly losing a child to divorce to even the end of my ministry, as the Metanoia Peace Community enfolded me in its idiosyncratic arms. Knowing, however, that the well of fellowship ran far deeper than simply the Christian stratum, I began to question what was so special about the church. Looking back on the closest friends I could remember having, the diverse and ecumenical "Element Gang" at Willamette, I saw that the one thing we all had in common was each other. We came from many denominations, some conservative, others progressive, and we had varying degrees of involvement in our church homes. One of us was in a fraternity, the rest fiercely independent. Some of us were Republicans, the rest Democrats. Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, gay, straight, Black, White, majoring in music, psychology, art, political science, economics, forestry--the only thing we had in common was that we loved each other.

The one claim that keeps believers in a religion long after they've grown disillusioned with it is exclusivity: nowhere else can you possess the truth that is known here. "No other name" is how this is often phrased, as in "there is no other name by which you can be saved." To the extent that this bond works, it begins to loosen when the believer realizes other religions or groups can make the same claim.

It took me many years, but I finally came to realize that koinonia was all around me; and when I did, a whole layer of Christian scales fell from my eyes, and I knew I could find spiritual joy beyond the confines of church, Christianity, and even God.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Losing My Religion, Part II: Legacy Faith

Portrait of Faith: Victor, Elam Sr., Elam Jr., Colena, and Frances Anderson, c. 1932.

Christianity was never meant to be a legacy faith.

Reading the oldest portions of the New Testament, it becomes clear that the first generation of Jesus' followers never expected a second generation to arise. In Mark 9:1, Matthew 16:28, and Luke 9:27, Jesus says that "there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power." In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul counsels the church to practice celibacy, so as not to be caught in flagrante delicto by the parousia. Of course, the Second Coming never happened, at least not in the way it was expected to, and every generation of Christians since has had to find a way to live eschatologically in a world that isn't going anywhere. The evangelical urgency of the gospels--of converting the entire world in fear of the wrath to come--lost much of its edge as churches had to shift their focus to forming the faith of children born Christian. The call to convert became a missionary vocation, as dedicated preachers ventured into pagan territory to win souls for Jesus. During the Crusades and the Inquisition, this drive took on a nasty tone, as conversions were now forced, at the edge of the sword or under pain of death, from persons who were themselves members of established world religions, some of them older than Christianity. With the Protestant Reformation came a new view on conversion: it was no longer good enough to be born into a Christian household, to grow up practicing and believing church dogma. One must make one's own decision for Christ, and have a personal relationship with him as Lord and Savior.

It didn't take long, though, for the evangelical churches to fall into the same trip as the early Catholic church. The first generation of Protestants were all converts, whether from watered-down Catholicism or ungodly unchurched working class lives. Their children, on the other hand, grew up very much like their Catholic forebears, immersed in Protestant culture, rarely experiencing anything resembling a conversion. This didn't stop the more evangelical churches from continuing to hammer away at the importance of a conversion narrative, a personal story of how one came to know Jesus for the first time, however well-acquainted one might have been with him growing up. Over time, most Protestant churches adopted the Catholic practice of confirmation, the religious coming-of-age ritual of catechism and acceptance into full membership. It was hoped that the study and spiritual discipline of the confirmation program would trigger a personal conversion experience in the young person. In fact, though, I don't think I've ever met another Christian who came to Jesus through confirmation.

I was no different. My family's Christian legacy is ancient: Swedish Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, perhaps a few other flavors I'm unaware of. The stories I know best are of my grandfathers' journeys away from the faiths of their own families. Frank Richard walked away from Catholicism to become an American Baptist. Elam Anderson Sr. did the same thing, leaving behind the conservative Swedish Baptist faith of his parents to become a progressive American Baptist. Both experienced rejection by their families of origin, but eventually were welcomed back.

My father and his siblings were all born in Shanghai, where my grandfather and his Lutheran wife (she didn't become a Baptist until they returned to America) were educational missionaries. Despite their faith, my grandparents were not in China to make converts, though the schools they oversaw had a religious component. China was gradually entering the modern era, and their work was to educate and equip young Chinese nationals for that transition. The Japanese occupation of China led my grandparents to abandon their work their and return to America, where my grandfather was president of two Baptist colleges prior to his death. My Aunt Fran remained active in American Baptist circles for the rest of her life; I'm not sure what Uncle Victor's religious life was like; and my father, after wrestling with his own vocation, became a minister.

I expect my father's struggles with faith and calling were much like my own. Growing up in a household of religious intellectuals, he didn't have anything to be converted from, so the evangelical preference for dying from a sinful existence and being reborn into a life of piety was moot. I assume that's why, in raising his own children, my father never pushed us to have such an experience, either. We had the legacy of our ancestors, and every Sunday, we learned the lessons of faith in classes and from our father's sermons.

This would, at first blush, appear to be an ideal atmosphere for forming young believers. In fact, though, our Christian education didn't stop with the lessons of Sunday School and sermon. Growing up in the parsonage, we were exposed daily to the seamy side of religion: the power games played by lay leaders, the judgmental glares of child-intolerant church ladies, and the bullying of the communities we lived in. We also saw the ways in which, for all his hard work at being the best Christian he could, our father occasionally slipped, storming up the stairs bellowing scripture to break up a fight between brothers, losing his temper during an argument, allowing an occasional oath to pass his lips. Most of all, we experienced the ongoing anxiety of always owing our livelihood to a community of cranky Christians.

For all the disillusionment, I still wanted very much to be a Christian. I just wasn't sure how. It would've been much easier to learn about Christianity in the same way I discovered jazz: have it shared with me by an enthusiastic friend or teacher, find that it worked miracles for my psyche, and want to learn all about it that I could. Instead, I came to the table of conversion already loaded with more knowledge than many Christians acquire in a lifetime. In truth, I was born into this faith. Rebirth was going to be much more difficult.

Losing My Religion, Part I: So Very, Very Wet

Freshly baptized, I begin my journey into doubt.

"I want to believe."

Those words sum up most of my adult life. It's an odd credo, indicative as it is of the lack of a creed, but there really are no other words to describe my spiritual journey.

I began wrestling with unbelief when I was in middle school. I idolized my father, the small-town minister, and even though my pubescent sensibilities wished there was more adventure in his sermons, I loved hearing him preach. The old church in Emmett, Idaho, was a safe, comforting place to me. Outside its walls, though, I was suffering the worst years of my childhood: merciless bullying; constant reminders that, as a non-Mormon, I was an outsider; and worst of all, the knowledge that, as much as I admired my father, most of the town looked down on him. Why, my young mind wondered, would God allow such storm and stress to fall on our family? Despite these growing doubts, I took confirmation classes from Dad, never thinking for a moment that I had a choice--I was, after all, his obedient first-born son. It was more than family loyalty, though: deep down, I hoped I could learn to have faith.

That's not what happened, as much as I wanted it to. The class ended, and we moved to Philomath, to the only Methodist church in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference that had an immersion baptistry. Most Methodist children are baptized with a sprinkle as infants, but I, and two of my brothers, had been born while our father was still a Baptist, so rather than receive that symbolic drop of water, we were "dedicated"--essentially the same ritual, but without the water. The idea in both rites is that, having been born into a church family, the child will be raised to embrace the faith when he or she comes of age. For a Baptist, that meant receiving baptism at that time. Unbaptized as a baby, I needed that now, and with an immersion baptistry right there in the church, of course I was going to receive the full treatment.

Maybe this would do the trick, I told myself. Going under, coming up, just like Jesus in the Jordan River--how could I not have a profound religious experience? The heavens would open, a dove would descend, I'd hear the voice of God announcing, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." At long last, I could replace my doubt with faith.

The night before the service, I was in the sanctuary with Dad, practicing my part of the ritual, as he filled the baptistry, a tank the size of a hot tub set into the wall behind the altar. It took a lot of water. Dad was filling it with hot water, expecting it to cool to a comfortable temperature by morning. I was nervous and excited, hopeful for a final conclusion to my spiritual ambivalence.

The next morning, the moment came in the service when Dad and I left the sanctuary to change into our baptismal robes. They were white, and reached to our ankles. The hem at the bottom was weighted to keep it from floating. As the congregation sang hymns, we climbed up, then down, the steps into the baptistry. As soon as my feet entered the water, I knew I was in trouble: despite having almost twelve hours to cool, the water was still uncomfortably warm, probably ideal for soaking sore muscles in a Jacuzzi, but not something I was going to want to plunge my face into three times.

Even so, I stood in that hot water, immersed up to my navel, answering the questions my father asked me: Yes, I believed in Jesus; yes, I wanted him to be my Lord and Savior; and yes, I wanted to be baptized. Then he put an arm behind my back, put his other hand on my forehead, and tipped me backward into the water.

He couldn't get my face under.

I wanted to go all the way under, wanted desperately to be fully immersed, but instinctively, my body fought it. The water was just too hot. It was over my ears, my hair was completely in, but my face would not go an inch lower. I felt Dad gently pushing on my forehead, trying to get me the rest of the way in, but he didn't force it. With my ears under the water, I never heard him say the words: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit." (He might have said "Holy Ghost"; it was 1975, and the old language was still in the ritual, but as I said, I couldn't hear.) Finally the pressure eased up, and he let me stand again, and led me out of the baptistry, back to the changing room.

Walking back to that room, I was numb with disappointment. There had been no light from heaven, no dove, no voice of God, no inner sense that now, at last, I could believe. I felt no serenity, no joy, no awe, no gratitude at finally being reborn into the family of God. All I felt was wet, the same way I felt a couple of years later when, during swimming lessons, I had to jump in the pool with my clothes on just to feel what it was like, should I ever need to escape from an overturned boat or submerged car. It was a thoroughly unpleasant feeling. I unzipped and hung the dripping road, peeled off my drenched underwear, toweled myself off as thoroughly as I could, as did my father, then dressed in my Sunday clothes, the white shirt and high-waistbanded pants, the dress socks and shoes, and followed Dad out to the sanctuary to be confirmed, answering the remaining questions about supporting the Methodist Church with my prayers, presence, gifts, and service.

And that was it. I was baptized, I was a full member of the church, I was as ritually reborn as it is possible to be. For all that, the exact opposite of what I'd hoped for had happened: I'd discovered there was no magic in the symbolism. If anything, baptism had cleansed me not of sin, but of what passed for faith in my 14-year-old heart. For several months, I wondered if I was to blame for that: perhaps, I speculated, if I could have just overcome my instinctive resistance to being parboiled and let Dad plunge the last inch of me under the water, it all would have happened as I hoped. Perhaps I wasn't even really baptized since, as the joke about Billy Graham and the Scottish Presbyterian goes, "It's the top of the head that matters."

Forty years later, I know that my baptism actually was a rebirth. It was the moment I truly set out on a spiritual journey that would take me far beyond the inherited dogmas of being born into a church family, to fantastic and beautiful places, to the depths of despair, to summits of exaltation, to a fifteen-year exploration and practice of ministry, and ultimately to a place of pious agnosticism.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Decline, Fall, and Apotheosis

1990: the remodel of the front staircase nearly complete, my father rests from his labors.

You don't know Elam.

Please don't be hurt by that statement. I don't know if anyone ever truly knew my father. Despite being deeply, sincerely compassionate, he was a thoroughly private man, only sharing his feelings when he believed it was vital to communicate a matter of extreme importance. Some of that was, I think, cultural: the grandson of Swedish immigrants, I suspect lagom, Swedish reticence, ran deep within him. Another part of it was generational: prior to the 1960s, men were not raised to be publicly emotional, and people in general valued their privacy to an extent later generations would consider harmful. Finally, as much as he enjoyed conversation, I think my father was more introvert than extrovert. He worked best in a quiet space, by himself, and never complained about alone time.

I know from personal experience that introverted pastors have a very hard time winning over congregations. Whether visiting in an emergency room, a parlor, a fellowship hall, or the "Nice preach, Rev!" line after the Sunday service ends, a pastor is expected to make every person he or she comes face to face with feel that here, at least, is my best friend. Successful pastors do this with ease, especially if they're naturally extroverted. Introverts can learn to do it, but in my own experience, it feels forced, insincere. I suspect that's how it was for my father, too, and it's probably why he changed appointments so often, and why, despite living after retirement for almost 25 years in McMinnville, he never really connected with that community.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The next thing I say, the most personal thing I can say, I've already said: I didn't really know my father. This saddens me, because I believe he wanted me to know him better, but just couldn't find the words to express that to me, though he did write to me several times once I reached adulthood about how the distance he sensed between us grieved him. It's not that he was a mystery to me: I knew many things about him, could predict how he'd react in a variety of situations, understood many of the difficult decisions he made. I knew, for instance, that, however hard ministry was for him, he stuck with it because, living as close to the financial edge as our family did, he knew we could never afford the years it would take him to retrain for a different profession. It's the same rationale that kept me in ministry long past the time when I realized I wasn't truly suited for it--though in my case, the church ultimately eased me out, as gently as it could, but decisively, and with no room for protest on my part.

A steady diet of hard choices and disappointing results had to take a toll on him. When I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, I learned from Mom that Dad was going to have a procedure to screen him for cancer. For two days, I couldn't think about anything else. Sensing my fear, Dad came up to my room in the middle of the day (I was home sick from school), and told me he'd had the colonoscopy, and that a few polyps had been removed, nothing to worry about.

And yet, as routine as that might have been (though I'm not sure how routine it was in 1976), it was, for me, the moment at which my father transitioned from being a powerful man of action to becoming an older man with health issues. Three years later, my first semester of college was interrupted by Dad's first small stroke: he'd started seeing double, and had tried to keep it to himself, apparently driving with one eye closed. In the end, he had to tell Mom, who insisted he go to the hospital. I got on a bus and traveled home from Salem to Harrisburg where, for several days, I had a knot of anticipatory grief in my gut. In the end, tests revealed nothing out of the ordinary, and double vision corrected itself, and Dad returned to work. In the years that followed, though, he had more incidents like this one, often repeating the pattern of keeping it from the family. These were, it seemed, connected with stress in the workplace: arguments with church members who opposed his openness to socialism, gun control, evolution. With retirement came the hope that he could let such conflicts go and, in the process, outgrow the tiny strokes that were causing the vision issue.

For two years, that appeared to work. Dad threw himself into renovating the house in McMinnville, polishing floors, swapping out appliances, creating a kitchen island, papering and painting the walls, installing new light fixtures, turning a closet into a shower room, and transforming the huge back yard into a productive vegetable and fruit garden. Finally he had a life of tangible results, along with the security of a home that would be his as long as he chose to remain in it.

And then he had a heart attack.

It was June, 1992. An angioplasty cleared the obstruction, and Dad was soon out of the hospital, back home, taking walks, eating a low-fat, low-salt diet, and apparently as good as new.

Until New Year's Day, 1995, when he had a real stroke.

As I noted above, he'd been having little ones for years that mostly affected his vision. This was different, weakening one side of his body and partially paralyzing his vocal cords. He fought back from this one to the point that, while he was slower, especially on stairs, he seemed physically to be almost his old self. It was his voice that never recovered. The preacher was not silenced, but the singer was. For the rest of his life, he sounded like a man with laryngitis. Eating--something he had always relished--also became much more difficult, frequently interrupted with coughing spells as he aspirated some of his food.

Bit by bit, incident by incident, my father was becoming elderly.

Despite these challenges, he remained active, attending ministerial association meetings where he tried to get all the churches in McMinnville to cooperate, traveling extensively with my mother, squeezing all the enjoyment he could out of retirement. As he turned 80, he was as happy and fulfilled as I can remember him ever being, taking all his growing physical limitations in stride.

And then he fell.

It was November, 2006, and he was at the public library looking up and printing out an image for a Christmas card. Getting up from the carrel where he was working, he caught his foot in the cables under the desk and went down hard on the inadequately padded carpet that covered the concrete floor. His hip was broken.

The eight years that followed were increasingly hard for him, perhaps harder for my mother, whose role had to evolve from dietary watchdog to full-time caregiver. He had surgery on the hip, physical therapy, was in and out of rehab facilities, learned to walk, very slowly, with a cane, but never regained enough mobility to leave the house. He was also now in his 80s, and his body began to wind down. Cursed with a redhead's low pain threshold, he cycled through medications as doctors struggled to balance toxicity with relief. His skin thinned, his joints eroded, his organs became weaker. He had more coronary incidents, more strokes. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Hearing loss coupled with growing mental confusion made conversations with him extremely challenging.

Perhaps the biggest blow to him was the emptying of the driveway. I remember a day when he tried to prove to me that he could still manage coupling the travel trailer to the car by himself--and failed his own test. My parents' days of travel independence were over. There would be no more driving vacations. Not long after that, my brothers and I finally got him to surrender his car keys, as well, though this was, for him, more about how hard it had become to get in and out of the driver's seat than about safety. It was not long after this that he had to give up the upstairs bedroom. We moved the double bed down the stairs to the den, where it stayed until he transitioned to a hospital bed and a wheelchair.

Toward the end, he was able to get out of the wheelchair for a daily circuit of the house with his walker, but we could all see, to use the Biblical cliche, the writing on the wall. The night before he died, he literally saw writing on the wall, a plaque he couldn't quite make out, visible only to his delirious eyes.

And then he was gone.

Macy and Sons, the McMinnville funeral home, did a fine job of restoring his dignity for us without enbalming or cosmetics. Two hours after he had been pronounced dead, I saw him lying in his hospital bed, the covers pulled up, his eyes closed, appearing to be peacefully asleep. A few hours later, I saw him at the funeral home, now wearing a shirt, his hands folded. Two days later, I visited his body for the last time, and saw him now dressed in his preaching robe and stole, in which he was cremated sometime later. Despite the illusion that he was sleeping, that his chest was rising and falling, I knew he was gone. His struggles were ended. Whenever I'd seen Dad napping in those last years, he'd been on his side, folded up almost into a fetal position, and I'd felt pity at how vulnerable he appeared. No more: all the pain, all the worry over what part of him might next give out, was over. He wasn't the man I remembered him being in that robe, standing tall in the pulpit, exhorting his tiny rural congregations to open their hearts to God and their minds to the needs of the world around them; but he was very much the way I needed to remember him now, at the end of his earthly journey.

A week ago, at a far-too-sparsely-attended service, my brothers and I, with some help from my daughter and a few others, spoke at great length about our father. We displayed tokens of his life and beliefs: the Chinese symbol of heaven, the stained glass character "An" (peace or tranquility in Mandarin) he had made, his Scout merit badge sash, his Master's hood. We showed slides of his life and work, sang songs from his autograph hymnals, handed him off to whatever spiritual forces usher us out of this life and into whatever follows, and did it with joy and sadness. Then we went home to the house where he spent his last quarter century and continued to share. The concentration of stories and memories in the last two weeks have given me something I never had while Dad was alive: a sense that I am, finally, coming to know him.

The one form of immortality even atheists can aspire to is the way we live on in our children. Whether or not there's a heaven, any human who has lived a good and faithful life finds apotheosis in those who remain once he or she is gone. My father lives on in his wife, his sons, their partners and spouses, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As the years pass, those who follow will find it more difficult to attach his name to his influence, but it will live on, just the same. When, in a hundred years, some Anderson descendant has the flash of insight that earth's crammed with heaven, that the blackberry growing through the fence from the neighbor's unkempt yard contains within itself everything one needs to know about the goodness of Creation, Pastor Elam will be a part of that moment. That this hypothetical great-great-great-grandchild may not think to put the name "Elam" on the insight is irrelevant. Name recognition never mattered to Dad. It was always enough for him to know that he'd made a difference. In fact, the man I know more fully now than I ever have would simply rejoice in another soul being touched by the immanent ineffability of God.

That's the paradox of this moment: that it takes death to weave together the strands of a life lived well into a tapestry that can do it justice. I hope the words I have written about my father have, in some way, given you a sense not just of who he was, but who he is even now becoming in me and mine. In the words of the funeral ritual I spoke so many times, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. Henceforth, says the Spirit, they rest from their labors, and their works do follow them."*


*Revelation 14:13

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


August, 1975: the day I was baptized, and the distance began to grow.

This one's going to be rough.

It's been nine days since I last wrote something in this space. I put it down to a great confluence of events: school starting up again, my kids arriving for the memorial service, and the service itself. With all these things going on, I've had few private moments to express my grief in the way I do it best: my fingers on a keyboard. (I use that word in both senses: piano and computer.)

Dad's service was four days ago, and it was a great celebration for those who attended. It went on for two hours, with music, memories, video, images, and much more. Those who missed it missed out. Sadly, there were many who missed it: the church was, at best, half full, mostly family, plus the Lake Oswego United Methodist choir. This despite emails, Facebook posts, an obituary in the local paper, death notices from the conference, and possibly a few other means of announcing the event that have slipped my mind. The church that baptized my father and licensed both him and his father to preach, and of which his mother was unofficial matriarch for half her life, provided maybe a half dozen people. There were more out-of-town Methodists than Baptists in attendance. Mostly, this service was for Andersons.

I realize that it's hard to stir up interest in a man who has been mostly absent from community events for eight years, who rarely attended the church hosting the event even when he was healthy, and who, especially in his last few years, was increasingly confined to his home. Dad was never a pastor in McMinnville. He retired there from churches so far removed by time and space that those who still remember him were probably too old and infirm to make the trip.

So that's the good reasons for lack of attendance. There's one other, though, that is more challenging to admit: my father was not popular. In fact, at times he was, as the popular description of founding father John Adams puts it, obnoxious and disliked.

He was a man of integrity, and such persons are rarely well-liked. Being true to his principles came before currying favor with church dignitaries, and so he never climbed the ecclesial ladder to larger churches and the superintendency. Most of his appointments--including his last--paid minimum salary. He never complained about this, and was always diligent in the performance of his pastoral duties, visiting every person in his small congregations, including those who vehemently disagreed with his progressive opinions about social issues, theology, and science. At times these visits probably devolved into tense debates, especially around the topics of evolution, gun control, and communism. Some of the small strokes he began experiencing in 1979 may have been triggered by the stress these debates induced in him.

Growing up, I sensed the strain his work placed on him. He rarely talked about it, but there were times when he seemed far too tightly wound for his own good. As a young child, I was oblivious to these things, but once I entered junior high, I began hearing just how disrespected he was by my classmates and their parents; and I'm sure some of the bullying I experienced was at least partly a result of people knowing whose son I was. (It was also junior high, and I was a total nerd, so I can't put it all down to that.) Moving to Oregon freed me from that oppression, but it did not lighten my father's struggle to be true to his principles while pastoring people who disagreed with them.

I know it took a toll. We moved every three years, a frequency that is high even for Methodist ministers. We would have moved after three years in Philomath, too, except that my father pleaded with the Bishop to remain there an extra year so I could graduate with my high school class. This is where it gets difficult for me: during those years in Philomath, even as my father was fighting for me, I, being a teenager, was craving distance from him.

Part of it was that, in many ways, my father just didn't fit in with other parents. When he dressed casually, he looked shabby, unkempt, preferring clothing that was well past its "best by" date. He was older than the other kids' parents, well into his 50s by the time I was a senior. And, of course, he was the Methodist minister. Everything about him stuck out, and when I was around him in a place where other teenagers might be--say, a Scout meeting--I found his presence excruciating. I surreptitiously rolled my eyes, wishing he could be somewhere, anywhere else than this event where I wanted to be respected by my peers, rather than embarrassed by my father.

He didn't deserve this, of course. Throughout my childhood, my father was never anything but a loving, attentive parent, doing his best to teach me the skills he thought I needed to become an adult. But that's true of many parents, and it doesn't keep any of their know-it-all teen-aged children from rolling their eyes at everything the hopelessly square grownups have to say and do.

More to my shame, the distance didn't stop with high school graduation. I continued to grow away from my father. I think some of it was a delayed adolescence: I didn't feel fully an adult until I was well into my 20s, and I never really rebelled. But Dad could tell something had changed, and it bothered him. He wrote to me several times in the 1980s, grieving this distance he sensed, blaming his own parenting for it, particularly something that happened when I was just a toddler and he, a brand new parent at 36, lost his temper over a toilet training incident.

Of course, it had nothing to do with that. It was just me creating the distance I needed to truly leave home and be my own person. I understand this now, but neither Dad nor I did while it was happening. As the years passed, Dad and I tried on many occasions to bridge the gap. We could have bonded over professions, over music, over theology; mostly we had shared experiences that never really gelled into deep sharing.

It didn't help that the major stroke of New Year's Day, 1995, was laid at the feet of my first divorce. Realizing I was being blamed, knowing that the family had no patience for my own suffering, I found other means of solace in Estacada, the community where I was living and working. I made friends, and they cared for me. I began to think I might not need my parents after all.

But then I had to leave Estacada, to take up an appointment in Amity, just a few miles from McMinnville, and suddenly I was seeing my parents several times a week. They came to church in Amity, hosted me and my children for every special occasion, giving them and me a home when my own was so empty of joy and warmth. When I remarried, my second wife and her child were welcomed into their home, and I came to appreciate just how generous and open-minded they were toward the families of their sons. When that second marriage ended and, soon after it, my ministry career collapsed, they were gentle, compassionate, understanding in ways they had not been five years earlier. Perhaps they had lacked the capacity. More likely they'd grown.

For all the love my father offered me, I still felt distance. Once he had his accident, breaking his hip in 2006, the distance began to grow. I felt him resisting the limitations his health and age were placing on him, wanting to keep driving, keep tinkering, keep active in his community. I could sense his frustration with his body; and yet I wanted him to let go of these things, to give up his independence, and it bothered me that he was so stubborn about them. Finally it became apparent even to him that his driving days were over, not because his always marginal driving was clearly getting worse, but because he couldn't get his aching body into the driver's seat anymore.

Was this so bad? Of course not. It's a transition every elderly person has to make, and my father was hardly an exception in resisting it longer than he should have. And really, when the time came to give up his keys and sell the car, he took it with better humor than I probably will when it's my turn. That is when he truly became housebound, though. It's also when I found myself running out of things to say to him.

I don't know if I really talked with my father at all in the last three or four years. I always embraced him when I visited, kissed his raspy cheek, told him I loved him to which he always hoarsely replied, "Love you too, son." Within me, I felt an aching need to tell him so much more: to thank him for all I knew he had done for me, to let him know that any distance that was between us was all my fault and not his, to let him know that, distance or not, I was proud to be his son.

That's what I wanted to say. But I never did.

I last saw my father at our family Christmas celebration December 28. The whole clan was around him, all his sons and their partners, most of his grandchildren. He was insistent that we sing "The Twelve Days of Christmas," and several times before it happened, he pulled on my sleeve, offering suggestions on how it should be sun. Every time, I assured him it would be fine, that we could do this. Finally we sang the song, holding up the signs he had made decades earlier when we were all small. In the video, you can see him singing along as best he can with his stroke-ravaged voice. He's having the time of his life. Once we finished, he quickly slipped back into the mild delirium he'd been experiencing for weeks, and soon asked to be taken to his bed for his nap. He was still in bed when my family left. I stepped into his room briefly to retrieve my coat, saw that he was asleep, quietly closed the door, and never saw him alive again. He died the next morning.

Driving to McMinnville the next day and seeing his body, first as he lay in his bed, later at the funeral home, I was overcome with guilt. Tears running down my face, I leaned over him, put a hand on his forehead, and whispered "I'm sorry, Dad. I'm so sorry." Writing this, I'm feeling it all over again. As many times as I told him I love him, I never acted to close the distance I had felt for decades.

My brothers assured me it was all right, that what Dad most wanted from his family was to be surrounded by them at that party, to hear them sing, to see how happy we all were with our families. And we were: most of us have been through hard times in the last decade, but all of us are now in places of strength and security. I've never felt more fully myself, and I have never been happier. This is the confirmation Dad needed before he could let go of his lifelong concern for his children's well-being. Now he can rest from his labors, and his good works can follow him.

Even so, I wish I'd had that talk with him while he was still able to hear it, and know that, whatever distance there might have seemed to be between us, he will always be my father, and I will always love him.

Sunday, January 4, 2015


David in the sandbox, Philomath, c. 1977.

We always had a sandbox.

Dad was a maker. He built marvelous things from scrap lumber. I may be wrong about this--my memories of life in New Hampshire (1964-69) are spotty, and those from California (1961-64) pretty much nonexistent--but I know that starting in Filer, Idaho, as soon as we arrived in a new home, Dad slapped together a sandbox for us. If there was a tall tree with a limb that could bear his weight, he'd hang a swing from it, the seat either a board or a piece of tire rubber. It had to hold his weight for two reasons: to be sure it was safe enough for us to use, and because he enjoyed an occasional swing, himself.

He made other toys for us. Here's the "Three Bears Playset" he constructed for David, and which subsequently became a favorite plaything for every grandchild to pass through the house in McMinnville (my daughter Sarah is depicted here):

The bears and Goldilocks were made by our mother, herself a toymaker par excellence, creating stuffed animals, busy books, and more for children, grandchildren, and, I expect in the future, great-grandchildren. The baby bear's chair came apart, of course (naughty Goldilocks broke it when she sat in it), and the pieces of the playset nested ingeniously for storage. 

In Philomath, Dad taught himself to build models from toothpicks. He constructed this model of the Newport Bay Bridge which eventually found a home in a Newport museum:

In retirement, he honed the skills he already had in glasswork, and created this window for the upstairs bathroom of the McMinnville house: 

As gifted as he was at creating things, he was even more ingenious at repairs. I learned to drive on a 1968 Ford Fairlane station wagon with a jury-rigged transmission. The column-mounted shifter had given out soon after he purchased the car, in 1972. Rather than pay to have a mechanic repair it, Dad punched holes in the floorboard and rigged two levers that, when pushed and pulled in just the right ways, made all four gears (three forward plus one reverse) accessible. Both gears also had a neutral position. Shifting was never easy, but once I mastered it, I knew there wasn't a manual transmission in the world I couldn't learn to drive.

In December 1984, while driving between LaGrande and Halsey in a snowstorm, I lost control of my Celica on I-84, and collided with the traffic divider. I managed to get the car home with just one headlight. Dad set to work immediately doing all the bodywork himself, straightening the frame with brute force, patching together a replacement headlight assembly from wrecking yard parts, and, after buying a new fender from a parts dealer, matching the paint and reassembling the front of the car. It never quite looked right--Dad didn't have a polisher, and hadn't purchased quite enough paint to get the new part as shiny as the rest of the car--but the car drove perfectly for another seven years, none the worse for the crash.

I could tell many other stories of Dad's genius at building and repairing things. He taught me to do many of these things myself: mending a broken curb, replacing a window pane, soldering electrical connections, and more. I never quite got the shop bug from him, but I did engage in my own jury-rigging over the years, creating my own metal brace for a futon frame that came apart the day I bought it (that'll teach me to move large furniture without any assistance), designing and building a sandbox for my own children, and a few other projects I did without instructions. For the most part, though, I've stuck to crafts that came in kits: models, a dollhouse and furnishings, many a ready-to-assemble desk or entertainment center.

The impetus for many of Dad's projects was thrift. Raising a large family on a pastor's minimum salary, he just couldn't afford to buy new, or even to have someone else repair something that had broken down. He also had a conservationist bent: he hated to throw things away. Somehow, he reasoned, he could make that appliance or clock work again, if he just took it apart and studied it closely enough with the macro-vision his extreme nearsightedness gave him. This also made him something of a pack rat: even if a device was clearly beyond repair, its parts might someday find a place in some other object, or something new he built from those parts. Thus my old student desk supplied the lumber for two rocking doll cradles, gifts for granddaughters Sarah and Melissa. Later in life, he began shopping garage and yard sales, picking up odd bits of junk in which he saw potential, even if he had no idea what they might fit into at the time of the purchase. When, a few years ago, I cleaned his shop, I disposed of many such bits and pieces; but I was also struck by how many jars of nails and screws, salvaged from who knows where, were strewn throughout the room. Organizing the whole mess took days.

Dad's greatest project was the House of An, the home his mother purchased in 1946 and lived in until her death in 1988, and which he and Mom moved into at retirement in 1990. Working with my youngest brothers, Dad renovated the house from basement to attic. There is a rough-hewn quality to some of that work--as with the fender on my Celica, Dad's big projects usually lacked polish--but when one considers how much went into the house, it's amazing what he accomplished without relying on contractors. Once he'd finished the house, my father rested from his labors. Subsequent projects were on a smaller scale: toys, stained glass, knick knacks. Ultimately, failing health made it impossible for him putter in his shop, even sitting on a stool, and he spent more and more time in the house. He did manage one more toothpick project--a lovely covered bridge model with better detail work than any of his previous pieces--and then that, too, ended.

For all the making, Dad really was more of a fixer than a builder. This is best summed up in these words by my daughter, Sarah, which will be part of her remembrance at next Saturday's service:

The greatest gift he gave me was the ability to be resourceful.  The man could make anything out of absolutely nothing.  When my cousins and I were little, he would build the most beautiful toys for us.  Somewhere, probably in the attic of the McMinnville house, is the cradle he built for the dolls my grandmother sewed for me.  If a toy broke, he would come up with an inventive way to fix it, and when I broke, he would quietly piece me back together.  

Friday, January 2, 2015

Weeping through My Pores

The one who's not smiling is me.

The date was March 24, 1982. It was my 21st birthday. I was home from Willamette University for Spring Break (my birthday has always coincided with Oregon's Spring Break week), and gathered around me was my entire family. Mom had prepared my favorite cake: angle food with seven minute frosting. There were balloons, gifts, iced tea, and enough goofiness to life anyone's spirits--except mine. The reason? Just a few days earlier, I had awkwardly confessed my love to a classmate, who had gently told me that, as much as she valued my friendship, that was all we would ever have.

Heartbreak and disappointment are hell for a young adult. I don't remember crying much over this particular blow--in fact, I may have just stoically soldiered on, even as I was internally bottoming out. In fact, I don't remember crying for most of my 20s, except on three occasions: the deaths of my grandfather, aunt, and grandmother.

I cried more when I was a child, and as a teenager, I would occasionally lock my bedroom door, throw myself on my bed, and sob into my pillow. The reason was usually a deep sense of loneliness: while I had friendships in Philomath, I wasn't sure how to deepen them, and really had no one to hang out with outside of school hours. This was an essential part of my teenage years that wasn't fulfilled until I was at Willamette, and found myself part of a close community of friends, the breaking of which on graduation day had me crying all the way home in the back seat of my parents' car.

Disappointments could hit me especially hard. The evening I lost the election for Master Councillor of my DeMolay chapter, I was inconsolable. On arriving at home, I went to my room and sat on my bed, sobbing quietly. After a few minutes, my father came into the room, sat down beside me, and put his arm around my shoulders. He'd known more than his share of defeats and disappointments, and I could tell his empathy was genuine.

This may be giving the impression that I'm a weeper, but in fact, I can go for months without crying. It takes a major dose of heartbreak or stress trigger tears, and usually I restrict myself to a sob or two before collecting myself and wading back into whatever task is before me.

My father, on the other hand, told me many times that he envied my ability to weep. He just didn't have it. I'm sure part of it was his upbringing--men of his generation were a stoic bunch, not given to displaying any signs of grief or admitting weakness in any way--and the rest was probably the Swedish cultural expectations communicated to him by my grandfather. Swedes are a reticent people, holding their passions tightly to their chests, maintaining an almost elvish composure in times of both joy and sadness. Their word for this personality trait is lagom, and it sums us up to a tee. Most of the time, we just don't feel the need to emote. Those feelings we might share are implicit: of course we're hurt by that slight, of course this trauma frightens us, of course we're sad at the passing of this loved one. Everyone knows it, so why wear it on our sleeves? We're fine in the company of others who possess this quality, but problems arise when we deal with someone who has a more volatile temperament, and may mistake our stoicism for not caring.

That was probably one of the main reasons my father struggled to connect to his congregations: people wanted more extremes to his emotions. I knew he felt these things, just as I do, but expressing them was not easy for him. It's not for me, either, and like Dad, I had trouble during my pastorate communicating my emotions outside of the pulpit. Given time, I might have forged some deeper connections, and did in a few cases; but convincing an entire church membership that I felt these things, especially the extroverts in the congregation, was a struggle for me, as it was for him.

I wept a lot on Monday, the day Dad passed away. It was cleansing weeping, and I didn't feel at all stuck in my sadness--a fear I had in my 30s, when work stress and divorce could put me in a depressed state that felt like a prison cell. I wept from guilt that I hadn't been able to truly talk to my father in several years, from regret that I would never have the chance to correct that, but also from the sad realization and acceptance that I probably could not have accomplished such a conversation, no matter how hard I tried. Dad was ready to go. His intellect has been fading for years. The few interactions we had on Sunday--mostly him expressing concerns about how the family would perform our traditional rowdy rendering of "The Twelve Days of Christmas"--were as engaged as he was able to be.

Since Monday, I've misted up a few times. I will probably have my share of tears next Saturday, during the memorial service. For the most part, though, I think I've cried out all the toxins I need to through my tear ducts. That doesn't mean I'm not weeping, though. Tuesday at Body Pump, Wednesday and Thursday at spin classes, and in a few minutes as I take my first run since before the holidays, I'll be weeping through my pores.

It's something I discovered during my first divorce: when it comes to cleansing my body of the toxins generated by stress or grief, intense exercise works as well for me as crying. My mind roams freely during exercise, often dwelling on whatever is troubling me, but rather than weep it out, I sweat it out. (I also vent ample quantities of moisture through my mouth and nostrils, an admission which, while probably true of any endurance athlete, is a secret we generally keep from the less fit masses who are likely to respond with "Ew!") Every time I got up on the pedals for a hard push, I could feel the bereavement pain welling up from my core, feel the pressure to let it out in tears and sobs. Instead, I pushed it through my legs, my arms, my lungs, panting, gasping, perspiring. The end of the workout was much like the end of a good cry: I felt lighter, relaxed, ready to continue with my day, my soul unburdened of all that had been pulling it down.

Grieving in this way has carried me through some very hard times: divorces, breakups, job loss, involuntary separation from my children, and on and on. As long as I'm still exercising, I can vent all the stress and sadness I feel on the trail, in the gym, atop my bicycle, and when I'm done, it's so much better.

I think my father practiced this to some extent, but not as much as he would have liked. For his generation, exercise was something one did to accomplish some other goal. One walked to get somewhere, or to give the dog a bathroom break. More extreme exercise might be prescribed to improve one's health, but not as an emotional or spiritual enhancement.

At the conclusion of the last four of my seven marathons, I found myself, as I neared the finish line, beginning to sob. Throughout the four-plus hours of each of those races, I had meditated, wrestled, fought with inner demons, breaking each of them down and pushing it out through my feet into the road, and through my pores into the air around me. Now, as the end was finally in sight, I had one last bundle of pain to vent, whatever was left over from the 26 miles that had come before. Vent it I did, tears streaming down my face, moans accompanying each gasp. Wrapped in a mylar blanket, a finisher's medal around my neck, I would find a tree to lean against as the pain and relief billowed from my lungs. With that done, I was ready to limp over to the food table and start replenishing my empty energy reserves with bagels and bananas, washing it all down with Gatorade.

I could go on much longer about this sweat-grief connection, but it's high time I put on my shoes and headed out on a run.