02 February 2008

The Weight of the Cross

In Spring 1973, near the end of my first year of college, I fell into a severe depression. Although I still believe it was largely a product of feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of my situation, my experiences of Depression since that time suggest there was likely a chemical or organic component.

In the deepest sense of the term, I longed to "go home"; but at the time, the only way I knew to satisfy that longing/relieve that ache was to return to New Albany IN, the town where I grew up. The only place I'd ever lived up to that point. But I didn't feel better when I got there. It wasn't "home". It was "my mother's house" in a familiar town. The place hardly brushed my skin. The longing persisted.

After a week or so of "rest" I returned to DePauw to say goodbye and collect my belongings. A few days after return I was drinking coffee and reading in the student center when my "boyfriend" (I'm sorry to use so many quotation marks. These words are so loaded that I am actually cringing as I type them--the fit is so inaccurate.) entered with a couple of other students I didn't know.

Both Steve and I were baffled about the status of our relationship. He'd been struggling with a heroin flirtation for a few months and I'd been dealing with depression when I left campus. Neither of us had much to offer toward a healthy relationship but we hadn't made an official break. Some attraction remained but we lacked the maturity and skills to know how to handle it gracefully or healthily.

He introduced me to his new friends who turned out to be members of a campus Bible group. Loosely Christian, they gathered several times a week to read and study and discuss the Bible. Their proselytizing sought converts but they did not speak in terms of salvation. They wanted people to study the Bible with them and change their lifestyles to align with the understanding of Christ's message--as mutually discerned in study sessions.

I never attended a study session but I did begin to read the Bible alone in my dorm room. I don't remember anything about the individual students I met that day with Steve. What I remember was being struck by their focused passion. It looked to me like a balm for my painful yearning for "home." It looked like an escape from my suffering. And it looked it looked like a simple, reliable reference point for moving forward in my life.

I packed what little I owned. My roommate was rarely around, spending most of her time at her boyfriend's frat house. The room was quiet. Unadorned. In the two days before my father drove up to collect me, I prayed and read the Bible and fasted and fell into a swoon of naive devotion. I remained in this altered state all summer.

Back in Kentuckiana (a local term that refers to the area on both sides of the Ohio River just above the falls which includes New Albany IN and Louisville KY), I found a compatible group of people my age who met for Bible study regularly but spent most of their time on the streets, spouting scripture with a strong latter-day-hippie spin.

I loved it then and I smile now to think of how perfectly that lifestyle fit my needs: performance, religion, ecstatic devotion, family, teaching, music and art... Singing and praying and preaching at sundown on the Belvedere overlooking the river. A very special, amazing time.


So I know something about bringing a proud testimony of religious or spiritual belief to the public arena. And I believe some measure of the same naivete and need that marked my time of fervent public witness is present in the pervasive, sometimes virulent, Jesus-talk that I encounter regularly in southern Mississippi. I think people mean well but are also on deeply personal journeys. Even as they speak with the confidence of a "member" of what "pastor" or the Bible teaches "us," there are critical personal needs or questions or issues being served through their evangelism.

Understandably, I try to stay in a place of compassion when dealing with the current local version of Christian evangelism but sometimes the lack of self-reflection--willingly or otherwise--by the Christians that approach me here bothers me a lot. Impatience tinged with anger starts to seep in. I begin to feel oppressed. The urge to answer or defend or instruct rises.

Who do you think you're talking to? trembles and strains in my gut and the back of my throat. But, so far, I've never spoken those words. Your presumptuousness offends me! Pushing your God, your faith down my throat. Do you care to know what I believe? Do you want some of mine in your throat?

I listen. I nod. I count to ten. To eighteen. I focus on my breathing. I am polite.

I have been crafting a response for several months now. Something nonjudgmental that a) allows a quiet statement of my own beliefs, b) offers a gentle but provocative invitation to consider the world beyond the borders of their insulated reality, and c) respectfully requests they abstain from future attempts to sell me their faith. I've been thinking about it and I've also experimented interpersonally.

Evangelism, even the hippie street ministry version, often includes a tacit requirement to "win souls," to convert those lost in ignorance. In my day, I mostly felt I'd found something wonderful and wanted to share it with others. Though I wouldn't have easily admitted it then, I also felt I was "right" and nonbelievers were "wrong"--a logical extrapolation since I'd felt "lost" and "wrong" myself before finding "the way."

Whenever we offer anything to anyone, there's the possibility our motives are mixed.

Whenever we accept anything from someone, there's the possibility our motives are mixed.

Interactions that don't acknowledge this potentiality, at least a little bit, usually feel a little creepy to me. And in cases of the outright insistence and conviction of certain strains of Christian evangelism, it moves from creepy to oppressive very quickly. But without my cooperation, I cannot be oppressed.

I'm not interested in formulating a defensive response. Defending defines the interaction as adversarial and that's not where I want to stand. Yet, we are two people talking and one of us is consciously or unconsciously trying to convince the other. If the Other plays it off, just doesn't acknowledge the intention and adapts an orientation of "So, that's what you've got. OK. Here's what I've got," sort of a show-and-tell spirit, can we get through the encounter with a minimum of stress?

That's what I'm trying to do.

I'll let you know how it works out.

Get With It

Feeling my wannabe status about now: Mardi Gras is just too damn early this year! I didn't grow up down here so it's really throwing me for a loop: Groundhog's Day and the last weekend of the carnival season on the same day?! Not to mention it's cold enough for my furnace to still be kicking on.

True New Orleanians must take this in stride with a lifetime of festivals under their belts, falling early, late and everywhere in between. But for this wannabe-cajun, this just feels wrong.

But I quick got up and made some coffee and popped Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas on the CD player and got my decorations hung this morning. Living in Gulfport it's taken me this long to get my act together. It's hard to feel the spirit from way over here. I caught about a minute of a parade on TV the other night and that's been the extent of my participation this year--so far; someone invited me to a Mardi Gras party in the Quarter so if I can afford the gasoline, I'll drive over on Tuesday and catch an in-the-fray whiff before Mardi Gras 2008 passes me by completely.