Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Leafy Suburb Church

Off I went to Leafy Suburb Church last night; I probably could have attended a service more locally, but I wanted to touch base with some people there. It takes me an hour and a half to get there and the same again to get back, and it's a rather fiddly journey with three changes. People sometimes speak of "thin places", places or times where the boundary between heaven and earth seems especially fragile... and I think I don't usually like that language, because the word "seems" is so easily dropped and then we start to think that one bit of Creation is somehow more holy than another.

But if I believed in these "thin places" I think Leafy Suburb Church would be among them, for me. I am particularly susceptible to a strong awareness of God while I am there, and even better, to a feeling of belovedness, a sense of being loved and cared for by God.

Some of that is because of the ministry of two women, one of whom was so very dear to me even before she started there, and one of whom I hardly know but who has been full of welcome. It pains me to admit it, but I do feel safer with women in charge. That isn't a reflection on Gentle Vicar who leads Nearest Church, or on the kindly, rather grandfatherly vicar at Long Walk Church, or on various other male clergy I have come across... it's just that I am slow to overcome past hurts. And so I thank God for women's ministry in general, and for these two women's ministry in my life.

Some of it is the choir. They have been as welcoming as can be.

The the choir were kind to me when I was in touch about a sort of secret project (long since completed). Last Easter I could hardly be said to have embraced Christian faith -- I'm still not sure about some of the essentials -- but on that Easter Sunday I did know, pretty clearly, that I really would rather be in the choir than in the congregation. I guess the choir knew it too, because I was welcomed with open arms. Now when I am there I sing in the choir if it is a choral service.

I started attending Leafy Suburb Church because I wanted to visit Ambassador for Compassion, and to do a bit of research for the aforementioned secret project... the "church" bit was rather secondary. The congregation were as friendly and welcoming as the choir later turned out to be. AfC made sure I had someone to sit with, but always people greeted me, and mostly they remembered me. At last night's non-choral service I was reminded of this by someone who doesn't usually attend the Evensong services I can get to; she came up and introduced herself, and without actually asking if I needed anything seemed to make clear that if I did, I could ask. It may well be that there is some committee or other that deals with whose turn it is to be welcoming but it didn't feel like that. It didn't feel stilted or contrived or something she was doing because it was her "turn"; it felt like the most natural thing in the world to happen there.

Even the building helps, I think. It's not a large church, but it is an old one, and those ancient stones feel cozy rather than constricting, comfortable rather than claustrophobic. We all have to sit rather closer together than we might choose to in a larger space and this is, I think, good.

It is all rather wonderful, in the sense of being full of wonder. I'm sure it isn't perfect, but the overall effect is such that going there stopped being just about seeing AfC quite some time ago. It has become something else, something halfway between retreat and pilgrimage, a place to sit and rest and a place to grow, a destination and a step along the journey. I leave with happy reluctance, feeling well-nourished, ready to go out into the world but also ready to stay in church much longer.

Thanks be to God.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Swings and roundabouts

I'm feeling better than I was the other day. Thinking about big stuff from my past always takes it out of me a bit; it's just tiring.

I'm still uncertain about some things. I still have a stinking cold, which always makes me more vulnerable to feelings of uncertainty. I still have more to do than I can actually think about, though I think I'm getting through some of it pretty well.

I asked Sweetie to look after me a bit, bring me some soup and some comfort food and put me to bed early, and he did and it helped. I stepped away from the comment thread that was making me think about all this, even though someone is wrong on the internet. I've been trying to get things done but I've also given myself permission to postpone some things and back out of others while my body and brain sort themselves out, and that also helped. I've allowed myself the delight of getting distracted, despite being very busy, by this wonderful season of planting in the garden, pottering and re-potting, starting to grow food for later in the year. That helped too. I spoke to a wise friend, and there was prayer and understanding there, the like of which I can't easily explain. That helped a lot more than anything else has. I understand a bit more of what is going on in my head, why this particular thing has spooked me, how to approach it safely. I have been reassured that my judgement is correct by someone who I know would tell me if she thought otherwise, and whose own judgement I respect. And somehow, knowing there are two of us asking God for guidance on the matter makes it a little easier.

I'm feeling a lot better today.

So of course, now I have hurt my foot. In the immortal words of Donald Swann: "What a pity!"

I'm sure it will be fine in a day or two.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


I've been thinking through some stuff about childhood and abuse and memories that keep cropping up, partly precipitated by conversations elsewhere. It's... all a bit too personal to go into much detail here, I think.

In more general terms:

People talk about breaking a cycle of abuse as if it's a black-and-white thing, as if someone is either a monster or a saint. That isn't true. When I look at how my stepdad treated us compared to societal norms, some of what he did was pretty bad, and it's hard to see how anyone could do that. When I look at it compared to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his family, and I consider that he didn't have any sort of ongoing support or stability or guidance except from my mother (who was definitely as much a victim of his abuse as I was), I wonder how it wasn't much, much worse.

Abuse is systemic, even if it isn't systematic. For my stepdad to be abusive toward me, my mother had to not stick up for me. Later on that may have been because I didn't tell her, but earlier it was because she was also afraid. Why was she so afraid, too afraid to speak for her own daughter? Her own childhood, her own difficult background, a history of conditional support from others. It's very easy to talk about this and say that she was also responsible for what I went through, to apportion some sort of blame or fault. But that isn't useful, and I'm not trying to blame others for who I am now, just to acknowledge what happened (admittedly not easy when I'm also trying to protect anonymity). But breaking the cycle of abuse, if it can be done, is not only about teaching abusers other ways of relating to people: it's about teaching victims not to be accomplices, not to look the other way.

Given that my stepdad is clergy some who don't know the details would say that I have an obligation to report the abuse, in order to protect others who might be vulnerable. But despite my own experiences, I do not believe my stepdad is generally dangerous. His abusiveness was in the context of family life, not in the context of church work. Oh, he was (and to an extent still is) a bully and that permeates everything, but honestly? There are so many minor bullies about, people can deal with it. The physical abuse was generally poor anger management and would never get that far at work; the sexual abuse was rare and, I believe, accidental (no, I cannot explain this without going into detail. But what he thought was okay, what was an attempt at building intimacy and trust into a fractured relationship, was not okay with me, and I didn't tell him any differently because by then I'd been terrified of him for a decade... and yes, I think that is abuse, even if it was not severe or violent), and again would not happen in a work context where there are stricter guidelines.

However, I'm also aware that I can't think about this without bias... that my own issues make this frightening to me, to the point that I might rationalize away my responsibility. Maybe I am messed up enough that I could think he is not dangerous, even if actually he is; maybe what I went through is the tip of the iceberg rather than the worst of it, and I should be shouting from the rooftops in case anyone else has been hurt.

And yet I do not want to bear false witness.

I guess I need to have a good long talk with someone about this, someone who is going to be confidential about it no matter what and who won't automatically advise one way or another. I've always compartmentalized it... spent three years talking to the brainhacker about the emotional problems and a bit of the physical stuff but didn't have the courage to go further, have alluded to the sexual abuse without really discussing it properly. I don't know if the latter is protecting privacy or another form of false witness.

Meanwhile today I am remembering that the man who terrified me throughout my childhood also stood up for me. I had a paper route, and one of the kids from school lived on it, and he used to throw things -- tennis balls, rocks, whatever -- at me when I went past. One particularly bad day (I think there might have been broken glass involved) I came home crying about this, and my stepdad noticed (unusual) and asked why, and I (reluctantly) explained. And we walked to the house, there and then, me terrified the whole way, and knocked on the door. And he told the kid's father, calmly, what had happened, and the kid's father said he'd talk about it. I hope beyond hope that it was just talk. But that kid didn't throw stuff at me any more.

I'm really looking forward to Mass later.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Growing into love

Chatting briefly with a friend about an impromptu children's passion play earlier today, I was struck by how the children seemed to understand, on some wonderful and very basic level, that God loves them.

I hear similar tales from this friend fairly frequently and it always warms my heart.

Tonight I found myself wishing I'd had something similar, growing up. Oh, I went to Sunday School or Youth Group or whatever else was available at whichever church we were at, providing it didn't conflict with musical activities. But always I was playing a role, being the minister's daughter, having the right answers. I was never really allowed, let alone encouraged, to ask the questions. Or maybe I was just too scared.

So I grew up in the church and somehow just didn't get that the whole point is that God loves us. I don't quite understand, now, how I missed it. Was it the disconnect between what we professed on Sunday mornings and what happened in our lives the rest of the time? That disconnect is present in most of us, I think. No matter how good I hope to be, I am imperfect. That doesn't mean I shouldn't state the hope. But perhaps not addressing the contrast was part of the problem.

Was the theology at fault? It's hard to say. My stepdad preaches well; I have accepted this. I can't remember ever finding much fault in his sermons, which were logically coherent and, from what I recall, doctrinally sound. But I don't remember, now, any of the content. Half-snippets of phrases, perhaps. Yet some of the preaching I have heard (or in some cases, read) since I started attending church again has stayed with me. Maybe that's because now I'm listening differently...but the sermons that have bothered me stick, too.

This goes along with my complete inability to remember any of the content of my confirmation classes, other than having to learn by heart the order of the books in the Bible (long since forgotten) and the Lord's Prayer (which I had already committed to memory), though I do remember the more general content of many other lessons.

But I do remember some of the Sunday School classes. Either the message that God loves us didn't get remembered, or it was lost among all the cutting and sticking... someone forgot to say, because they were more concerned about having run out of glue sticks.

And the liturgy? I don't have any service sheets ("bulletins") so I can't be sure. But we definitely had the Apostles' Creed, we definitely had the United Church of Canada Creed. We definitely had at least two readings per service. There were some antiphonal responsive things that I now think may have been psalms but I don't really remember. How is it that despite all this I did not make the connection?

There were the hymns. Some of those did make an impact, I think, but one I'm only really becoming aware of now, gradually, in fits and starts. Hymnody wasn't enough to keep me in church. It's more something that I'm discovering is still there now that I'm coming back.

I remember the pain of it, the searching that led me first to reject Christianity and then to walk away, too, from Judaism... and I see what is happening with my friend and the children she works with, and I think, "I wish I'd had that." I wish I had had such an environment. I wish I had been able to understand such amazing belovedness.

Oh, I don't always understand it now... but how is it that I knew, beyond any doubt, that God exists, and yet grew up in a church that tries to proclaim God's love and I didn't have an inkling of it? What would it be like to grow up knowing you are loved, unconditionally and beyond your wildest imagination, by Someone completely reliable, all-powerful?

But now I am veering off into the "what-if?" game. What if I'd been born somewhere else, what if my parents hadn't split up, what if my mum hadn't married my stepdad, what if, what if, what if? It all boils down to what if I'd been someone else.

As much as I wish things could have been different... I also have to take into account that if this love which I am somehow becoming aware of, somehow growing into... if this love is real, then I am loved for who and what I am, and that includes my painful experiences and my reactions to them. That does not mean I should not work to alleviate others' suffering -- far from it -- but it does mean that the yearning, the loneliness, the pain of feeling utterly unloved, which have shaped me and formed me, were not for naught. They are part of who I am, and who I am is a beloved child of God, even if that sometimes seems impossible to grasp.

As much as I wish things could have been different when I was a child, I don't think that I'd go back and change them if I could. The last few years have been such a journey, such a discovery. If one little thing had changed, perhaps I wouldn't have moved to England. Perhaps I wouldn't have met Sweetie. Perhaps I wouldn't have a household with him and with Intrepid Anthropologist...while our domestic situation is trying at times it is by far the most rewarding I have ever lived in. Perhaps if my path were different I would not have encountered Ambassador for Compassion, who convinced me by actions rather than words that some people really do walk the walk. Perhaps I would not have started blogging here and found you lot, for that matter. I still have so much to learn, so much to discern, but of late it seems that God shouts, not whispers, to get the message across. Christ on the cross (with his arms out to embrace the world) isn't just waiting patiently for me to get there. Instead I have this sense that he's running to meet me, and somehow already with me when I stumble.

I don't imagine that the times of feeling forlorn are over. It only takes a bad night's sleep, a missed meal or a particularly uncomfortable joint pain day to put me right back into self-pity mode, and I'll be surprised if those are the most difficult things I have to face. But for tonight I rejoice in the children who are growing up being told they are loved by God, and I wonder at my own growing into such love, and I give thanks for all those who have helped me on the way.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

That time of year again.

Been rather busy lately; several creative projects on the go at once, as is usual, plus things are getting busier at Nearest Church in the run-up to Easter.

Margaret said, "Lent is never quiet, never a time for reflection or spiritual house-cleaning. Not if you work for the church." She's right, of course. For those who are called to shepherd others, to provide the time and care and infrastructure for helping people along their various meandering spiritual paths, it can be quite difficult even in ordinary times to carve out the time for one's own needs. It can be well-nigh impossible to attend to discernment and or even just find time to relax into God's presence. Yes, there are spiritual directors, yes, there are retreats, but the system is never perfect, and I know an awful lot of people who go hungry because they're so busy feeding others.

So I pray for all who work for the church, lay or ordained, at this particularly busy time. I pray for all who are struggling to carry their own burdens as well as those of others -- all who are dealing with bereavement, uncertainty of employment, illness or injury in themselves or loved ones. I pray for all who are weary and exhausted, all who are trying to fit their work for the church into secular work in a secular society, all who are feeling academic pressure. I pray for those in obvious leadership roles and for those working quietly behind the scenes. I pray for the hopeful and for the discouraged, for the ones who minister with joyful eagerness and for the ones who are more reluctant.

Thursday, 11 March 2010


Had a chat with Gentle Vicar this week.

I knew about this but hadn't said much here, just yet. Networking Organist is leaving Nearest Church in the autumn and has recommended me to be his replacement. Gentle Vicar is happy to employ me on the strength of that recommendation. That's a little daunting; I think Networking Organist carries a higher opinion of my skills than I do.

The money is not brilliant, but it is regular. Professionally, there's a reasonable amount of flexibility, a reasonable freedom to experiment... the music at Nearest Church is in a bit of a sorry state, but building something out of that will be a valuable and rewarding experience, if trying at times.

I have concerns about some of the relationships within the community, concerns about my own leadership ability, but Gentle Vicar does seem to be, for the most part, my kind of heretic; he's someone I do think I can talk to about these concerns, as well as some of my hopes and tentative plans for what could be done. I think, I hope, that we can also be quite reasonable about the hat-swapping -- sometimes I will be the organist, sometimes I will be the parishioner. Sometimes Gentle Vicar will be my boss and sometimes my parish priest. I think we can deal with that.

The organ is in a rather sorry state, too. But you play the instrument you have. It won't get repaired if it doesn't get used.

While my physical problems are painful at times, they're unlikely to stop me playing in the near future. When they do -- if they do -- loss of function should be gradual enough that I can give appropriate notice. Gentle Vicar is supportive about that, too.

I said yes. I think I'm going to make a huge number of mistakes, but I said that, and I said yes anyway. We'll sort out the details nearer the time.

I don't know how much I'm going to blog about it. I want to protect some of my anonymity. I guess I'm just another organist in a suburban parish church with an ageing congregation, though.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Keeping on.

Still ticking. Last day on the stronger tablets today, though I've been managing with food rather better this week than the one before.

I'm working on a project. It has to do with psalmody. Ultimately it's going to be something I'll attach my real name to, which means I can't discuss it much here. If you do want to hear about it let me know. I'll e-mail you if I have your address. Some of you have heard about it already.

The more I do research for this project, the more I let the psalms get into my head and my heart, the more it seems really important that I do some sort of direct voluntary work with people who are homeless. I wrote about this before, at the end of January. I don't know what the connection is; I don't know if my interest in psalmody will mean that the psalms are somehow directly involved in the work I eventually do, or if they "clear the lines" somehow so that discernment is easier for me, or if I'm going to need to know the psalms inside out and backward to deal with what I might find and this is a sort of preparation period for that. I only realised there was a connection fairly recently, after I'd written that other post.

This is way off the beaten track for me. The psalmody project itself is far more research-based than my usual work, but I can at least see a connection, a drawing together of various threads. But direct work with the homeless is unfamiliar in just about every way possible. Using my existing professional skills doesn't seem to be the requirement, and everything I can think up that uses them is definitely not the right thing.

I've spoken to some friends about this. I've spoken to my spiritual adviser/director. I've prayed. I've thought and thought and chased my tail.

I've found a night shelter/day centre within walking distance of where I live and printed out a volunteer application form.

I'm just going to have to try it and see what happens. I can't think this one through any further without taking action.

Right then. Thy will be done, and I hope I don't screw it up.