Friday, October 12, 2012

On Art and Ministry and Telling the Truth

At the forefront of my thoughts: I miss art. I miss writing. I write scheduled Facebook statuses for our church, but I don’t think that counts. The New Yorker’d never be interested in my compilation of updates.

Here’s another thought—a lie, this time: Art and faith may not marry. They are first cousins; marriage would yield genetic mutation, deformity in whatever springs off their union.

And here’s the follow-up, another lie followed by others:  Art and ministry together are a codependent couple. Messy. Art displays pain and ministry is a balm for it. Art swears and stings and cuts and smokes pot and is promiscuous and uncontained.  True ministry helps to heal; it is faithful, sometimes containing and sometimes setting free, and rarely swears. And probably never smokes pot. And for sure doesn’t drink too much.

I said these were lies, but I suppose they are half- or three-quarter-truths.  I am working out what it means, what it could look like, to live a life of ministry with its healing and setting free and sometimes-containing and at the same time being a maker of art, of the stuff which, among other things, reveals the need for ministry in the first place.

In my country, I think the church is sometimes afraid not so much of art for art's sake, but of honesty.  Back in the 90s I remember chatter about artists leaving the church because the church couldn’t make a home for them, because their truth-telling--whatever the medium--was disconcerting, unsettling, and at times downright unpleasant. I imagined flocks of sheep, hundreds and thousands, fleeing the pen through the gate.  The artists were leaving! The artists were leaving!  The rest of us were going to keep staring at bare cinderblock church walls, forever singing the only songs we’d ever learned and never any new ones.  I wanted to go with the artists to New York.

Now, as a minister and as one who has remained faithful to the church, I want to embrace art and whatever truth lies in the stories that it tells. But let me admit that I don’t find every story to be overtly truthful. So, I’m not so much interested in the dishonest ones that glamorize or, worse, darken my mood and my heart for no noble cause. But if art can point to something true, even if that truth is unsettling, I’m in. I’ll watch, but I might peek through my fingers.

I read a story a few weeks ago, an essay by a transgenderChristian, writing about her experience first as a husband and father, and then as a woman (all in the context of her Christian faith and an active life within the church). 

I am the first to note the gazillion theological questions that can spring to mind at this mention no matter who you are, no matter what your politics, beliefs, or sexual orientation. But here’s something: this was someone’s life. It happened. It was wrestled with. It was true.   I’d rather look at that than not.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Where to begin?

I wrote the following back in May and never published it. Ran out of time. All the packing, all the kids home for summer, but here it is now. In October.

We almost made it through the school year.  I think my kids no longer hate us for moving.  In fact, Oldest is planning her bday party in a few weeks with new friends from her new school.  Oldest will be a decade old and we will celebrate with flair. She will also get an increase in her allowance and be required to buy her own gifts. And do her own laundry. Not sure she’ll think this is a good deal. But I do.  Oh, Oldest, you are growing up too fast.  And in a few weeks we’ll head to Africa together, she and I. Already, we are reading accounts of the third world, of war-torn Mozambique in the early 90s and our hearts are breaking together in our living room over all the poverty, all the despair that a human life can endure.  “I feel so lucky I get to eat these frozen peaches,” she confided the other night while pulling a bag out of the freezer. “Some of the kids in Mozambique don’t even get fruit.”

I am glad for this new awareness. I think it is shaping her to be more generous, more open-handed, more grateful.  And it’s all happening to me as well as I prepare to go somewhere stripped of hair dryers and product, in long skirts and tennis shoes (because this is Muslim territory). But that’s the easy stuff to give up.  The harder: there are no toilets in the bush. No running water. My friend Amy described her experience last year at a village she stayed at. There was a pit in the ground. And maggots crawled all around the edge of the pit, right where you’d want to plant your feet and squat.

I’ll be honest and say this won’t come easy for me.  But I’m willing to walk through it because I think on the other side of all this stripping away I’ll get something I need. Yes, I’m going to help others. I’m going to be of service.  But I think Mozambique will be of service to me, stripping away all of the trappings of humanity that masquerade as humanity itself. 

It did strip away. And what I saw was something I'd seen before except it was all in plain sight this time. And what "it" was I can't fully quantify in words, which is why I haven't written a blog post in three months. And all of you lovely readers who helped to send me and Una halfway around the world have been waiting so patiently for a report. Yet, I'm still speechless.  I think it will have to come out in bits and in pieces.