roughly 568 steps, kind of a heretic, but right where i’m supposed to be, i think

Posted: March 14, 2018 in Uncategorized

Step 1:  When I was in college, I saw a flier for a “reconciliation retreat.”  I understood that this was about race, and I was hungry to know more, to grow, to open up my world.  Having come from a very rural, extremely racially homogeneous area, I “knew of” a few black people, but knew exactly zero.  It was my senior year and a horrible financial aid package left my family living in a housing project, my first “interracial” experience.  I was stunned at how segregated we were, even living beside one another.  At the weekend retreat, I spoke about this, but I mostly listened, as I was very much in the racial minority for the moment.  Being among these beautiful women was like landing on another planet.  They talked about different things, in different ways.  Their humor was different.  Their hair care was different…something I’d never suspected.  I watched and I listened and I hungered to learn and change.  It was just a weekend, but it was a start.

Steps 2 through roughly 562:  I worked to learn about people who are not like me.  I read voraciously – books, newspapers, magazines, the internet, anything I could lay my hands on.  I studied photo essays.  I focused hard on history.  I sought out helpful TV programs, documentaries, etc.

Step roughly 563:  I worked at a domestic violence shelter, filled with an ever-changing population of women and their kids from all economic and racial backgrounds.  I did intake interviews, asking questions so heartbreaking that I’d apologize up front for asking.  I helped them set up their rooms when they came and I helped them pack to leave sometimes.  I was the rule enforcer to people who weren’t in the mood for rules.  I watched, I listened I learned.  I saw in myself that I judged things that didn’t need judging – that had no moral positive or negative.  Not wrong, just different than my own background/perspective/habits.  I saw my judgmental, small self and recoiled, fighting with all my might to peel it away from me forever.

Step 564:  I got an unplanned foreign exchange student from Switzerland.  I thought he’d be best buds with my son, but in the end it was me that he spent the most time with.  We talked endlessly, seeking to learn about each other’s cultures.  I helped him with vocabulary, referring him to urbandictionary.com for the racier stuff, much to his delight.  He taught me about his country.  I quickly figured out we couldn’t even compare our schools to his – the two were just too unlike to say, “a junior in the USA is the equivalent of ___ in Switzerland.”  I heard about his family, his school, his friends – a whole world apart from anything I’d ever known.  I took him for his first fast-food drive-thru – he’d never eaten or drank in a car.  Oh, I corrupted him with all manner of junk food (I surely owe his mom an apology – I’ve learned a lot since then!)

Step 565:  My exchange student went home when the school year was over.  Shortly thereafter, his lovely, generous parents made me the offer of a lifetime as a “small token” of their gratitude for their son’s year with me:  an all-expenses paid trip to visit them.  My world was so small, I was too afraid to drive to Chicago and fly out of O’Hare – they kindly spent the extra funds to fly me from my local, non-scary airport.  I got my passport and eventually off I went.  They were kind beyond words.  They toured me around the whole country.  It was sparkly clean – everywhere I went, it seemed like someone had just spit-shined…well…everything.  The public transit system was astonishing – no cars actually necessary.  There were no power lines beside the roads (all buried).   There were no semi trucks on the roads on Sunday.  Plants grew on all the roofs, even at the airport.  Those were just a FEW of the surprises along the way for me.  It was like being on another planet.

Step 566:  As part of our driving tour, we visited my exchange student’s father’s side of the family, who were all Italian.  It was a fairly small 2nd- or 3rd-floor apartment with the biggest dining room table I’d ever seen.  These people wanted me to like them – they had printed off my photo with my student from the internet and stuffed it in one of the photo frames on the wall.  I wanted these people to like me – I want EVERYONE to like me, but I really wanted to make a good impression with my student’s family.

But somehow, I kept causing offense without meaning to.  Early in the meal, I was offered wine and politely declined, causing the whole table to kind of give me the stink-eye – I could tell they thought I was judging their drinking.  My student’s dad explained to them what we’d discussed at their house – it was just my thing.  It wasn’t a statement.  (Honestly:  it was just that I belonged to a Southern Baptist church, and when I’d joined, the vows included a “no alcohol” clause, backed up with scripture.  I was very clear:  I did NOT agree with their interpretation of that scripture, but also alcohol had caused some real heartache to someone close to me, so I wasn’t opposed to swearing it off.  So…I didn’t drink because “I promised”…not because I had any notion that “it was wrong.”)

Anyway…back to our story.  Assurances were made that I wasn’t judging, but those assurances weren’t felt very well – this much was clear.  Later in the dinner I didn’t take enough of the antipasto, at which point I was helped to understand that this might be taken as refusing their hospitality (there were just A LOT of people at the table and I was trying to leave food for the others…!)  And then later there was conversation, and I was asked about my favorite TV shows, at which point I confessed that I didn’t do TV.  More stink-eye, with clarifying questions about specific series, all of which I had HEARD OF for sure.  I tried to answer warmly and affirmingly, but clearly they were feeling like I was quite the uptight b*tch who neither drinks nor watches TV.

The conversation turned to soccer.  Did I like it?  I confessed that I don’t care for sports.  This was when I learned from my student (while hard looks were passed among the others) that hockey is part of the Italian national identity – EVERYONE loves soccer and has a favorite team.  Not liking soccer is just not done.  Oops.

After dinner, it was time for espresso in tiny cups.  I was excited about this.  I love coffee!  As I heaped sugar into mine, someone across the table asked if I wanted cream.  Now…I was NOT going to ask for cream…but if they were offering…heck yes I wanted some!  I smiled, nodded, and said yes please.  At this point, a look of horror and panic passed between several of the women, and they all got up and left the room.  My student, laughing to himself, let me know:  one does NOT put cream in espresso in Italy.  The ladies were off finding a proper cream server and hunting down cream and there was much to-do as they did so.  My student laughed and quietly said to me, “You’re lucky they don’t shoot you where you sit for this!”  with his best just-playing face.  Oh golly.  Too late to back out now.  They brought the cream, handing it politely to me with body language that let me know I was basically a monster.  I thanked them, stirred it in and swallowed, wishing I could fall in a hole in the ground.

The conclusion of the meal was more wine and more stabby looks at the silly American lady who does not drink.  Now let me be clear:  in the midst of the dinner was also lasagna so delicious it nearly made me weep, repeated attempts by the family to make nice conversation with me, and a whole lot of funny/entertaining things.  It was NOT a misery meal.

But:  despite my desire to be pleasing, I had managed to offend these people at every turn – and I don’t believe for one moment that they came to the table wanting to be offended.  Despite the fact that Italy is a western country, despite the fact that English was one of the many languages they spoke, despite our commonality of all loving my student…I just didn’t understand this culture and couldn’t navigate it well.

Step 567:  A few years later, I pulled up stakes and left to live in an intentional community in Chicago.  Communal life was like a whole other planet.  Big city life was like a whole other planet.  I lived in one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in all of Chicagoland – hearing foreign languages and meeting non-white people on the street was the norm now, but opposite as humanly possible from my upbringing.  I loved it.  I relished it.  I never wanted to leave.

And now we come to the point of this essay…what were all those steps toward?

The opening of my perspective.  The introduction and reinforcement of the idea that there are many worlds, many beliefs, many traditions, many perspectives, many habits and customs, many many many many things outside my little ideas of what the world is and how things work.

And then came step 568:  my journey of listening through the Bible in a year.  I did it first in 2016, and again in 2017, and now I’m on round 3.  I tell you this not to brag – LISTENING through the Bible is not work like reading is.  It’s SO EASY, logistically.  I tell you this to set the context:  my relationship with the Bible is changing and changing and changing again.

The first big bump was after dinner with the Italians.  I thought hard about this:  their culture is more like mine than not, and yet the gulf of understanding was so wide and so hard to navigate.  If I can’t even understand people from my time, from another western culture, who speak my language and watch the same TV shows available to me…how exactly is it that I’m so sure I can pick up my Bible, written so long ago, on the other side of the planet, in nonwestern culture with SO MUCH DIFFERENCE from ours, originally written in other languages….how exactly am I so sure that when I read a passage, I am truly understanding all that was intended at the time of writing?  How exactly can I be confident that I am hearing all the stuff the Holy Spirit is saying to me through it, when there’s SO MUCH CONTEXT there that I have absolutely zero clue about?  How exactly?  It knocked my certainty out from under me about my understanding of scripture, and I’ve never regained that certainty (really…I’m not sure I even want to).

Other stuff jiggled me along the way, but the massive bump that followed was that first year listening through the Bible.  Listening made it “real” to me in a way that reading never had.  It became less “a story” and more “actual people having actual experiences.”  I couldn’t push it away to focus on the lessons – I was forced to interact with the pain of the people in the moment.  Many times it left me yelling at God, “WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO ABOUT THAT?!”  Sometimes, some semblance of an answer came.  Often, I was left with simply:  trusting that God is good, and my lack of understanding about these passages is a lack of understanding, not an indictment of God.

So today I don’t say, “the Bible says it and I believe it.”  I don’t say that, because I have no confidence that an American in 2018 has the full context to be sure what the Bible MEANS when it says some things.  Especially one who’s not a Bible scholar or extreme historian.  Today I’m left with knowing that God is good and always with me, and that God and I are working out what I’m supposed to do with the Bible.  But for sure I don’t worship the Bible, and for sure I don’t pretend to be sure of everything I “know” from it.

It’s where I am…more and more what the Southern Baptist version of me would’ve considered a heretic.  But more and more at peace with God.  More and more not needing to have answers sewn up.

What’s next?  I don’t know.  I’ll just keep walking, and I’ll see what God’s got in mind.

(Publishing with zero edits, and letting it go!)

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