Who Is For Me?

Who is for me_

My ministry and, indeed, one could say my entire way of being, is quite different for some people. This isn’t a shock. I’m an abortion doula. I help women access reproductive healthcare and I construct theologies that support reproductive justice. It’s not standard church fare. As such, I’m used to being either a little ostracized or feted, depending on the crowd. There are times when people love what I’m doing or they fear it. You really need good support system to do this work.

Yesterday was an interesting lesson in who my supporters are. When I turned off the lights and climbed into bed last night, the people I thought I knew who had my back when I got up that morning had changed and I was physically sick with apprehension. It was a day filled with intense anger, some of the most white hot fury I’d ever felt in my life, and a day of abject sadness and isolation. It was also a day in which I found myself more grateful than ever for the people I love.

***

It’s really hard sometimes being an aspiring clergywoman who advocates for the positives of abortion care. But one place where I’d felt completely supported in my work was in my doctoral program. After all, its here that I’m studying the spiritual lives of abortion care workers and everyone knows what I’m doing – or so I thought. I had been struggling for about a year with a couple of people in my program who weren’t quite sure what I was doing regardless of having read my work. At first, I thought perhaps I hadn’t been very clear myself. So, I send out my lit review to a few outside informal advisors who assured me that my work was quite clear. So, I persevered with the two in my program until it came to a head last week. The details are unnecessary but the summary is this: these two had negative views about both abortion and feminism that were making it difficult for them to be able to understand the crux of my work. Unfortunately, it was these same two people who had the responsibility of conveying my progress to the doctoral committee. In short, I realized that for an entire year, no one at the school had the facts about my work, nor did they know anything about my background, my education, or my experience. For the last year, I had been looking like a joke, like a loose cannon who was writing a “dissertation” on how great abortion is and that everyone should have at least ten of them.

I was alarmed and immediately met with the appropriate person at the school to express that alarm and hopefully find a solution. This person was very sympathetic to the situation, thankfully, but they, also being on the committee, had no idea of my background and began to ask me questions based on assumptions they had made from imperfect information.

She said that she remembered that I said I ran a bible study. It’s called Bible Study for the Rest of Us and is a way for people who have no interest in being converted can study what scholars have said about the bible through the ages. It’s a safe place for theists, nontheists, and post-theists to find common areas of appreciation for wisdom literature. But while this might sound harmless to most of us, she asked me a question that lit a fire of fury in me. She said, “Where do you get the confidence to think you can teach this?”

In other words, what gives you the right to engage in this ministry when you’re not a bible scholar. She said she was worried that people taking part would see that I’m a student of theology and have “certain expectations” that she seemed to think I wouldn’t be able to fulfill. “Why,” she asked, “do you think you can give them answers?”

And right there we have the problem, folks. There are still people (especially in the academy) who believe that laypeople and even students of theology are not equipped to read bible scholarship and talk about it amongst themselves (by the way, this would make every single church bible study illegitimate). The implication is that without a formal degree (yet, or ever) somehow no one has or ever should engage in learning on their own.

Friends, this is EXACTLY the bullshit I try to push against every day in my ministry. “How can you help people get abortions and be a Christian?” “How can you be a Christian and not believe in a theistic God-being?” In other words, how can I or anyone else be exactly who we are? Ironically, it is because we HAVE studied and we understand the long traditions that support both post-theism as well as reproductive justice. It’s a process called theological reflection that is as second nature to us as breathing. I shared with her that I didn’t feel I needed permission and that the confidence came from an intimacy with scripture and the support of those who felt I could introduce them to it. Moreover, I said, I come from a liberation theology perspective which believes that both theology and biblical interpretation are built from the ground up, not handed down from on high.

I was then told as an aside that when I speak of being ordained in the Anglican Church, I need to make sure I tell everyone that it is ordination to the diaconate and not the priesthood. The assumption here seems to be that the diaconate is an inferior order and that we don’t want people to think I’m in any way getting above my station. But the truth is that in the Anglican Church, the diaconate is a “full and equal order,” not a lower part of a made-up hierarchy of awesomeness. Moreover, I am always happy to talk about the diaconate but who the hell knows what that is? I don’t have the time during an introduction to talk about the history and significance of the diaconate so, when I meet people, I tell them that I am discerning ordination in the church. If they want to know more, that’s great, I will happily tell you why I chose the diaconate over the priesthood or, rather, why God made this choice for me.

At this point in the meeting, I was very upset inside but kept it together on the outside. I left as soon as I could and drove home, literally screaming the whole way with the windows up. I had never been this angry in my life! Seriously! Like, EVER. Once I got home, I curled up into a ball on my stairs and sobbed. I felt that everything that I am, all that I hope to do, was deemed inadequate by the powers that be, the people that apparently get to decide these things.

My question for them is, “WHERE DO YOU GET THE CONFIDENCE?”

Where do you get the confidence that you hold the answers?

Where do you get the confidence to assert that only those with multiple theology degrees get to tell everyone what’s what?

Where do you get the confident belief that laypeople haven’t read extensively, haven’t studied constantly, haven’t had a passion for wisdom that is worth sharing?

WHERE DO YOU GET THIS CONFIDENCE?

***

I sat there sobbing on my stairs until my priest and great friend Colleen texted me to see if I was okay. She suggested I stop by for knitting and tea, so we could chat about what had happened. Colleen is kind of the most amazing human being ever. She is open, sunny, and very easy to talk to. In fact, as I cried in front of her, I was startled to realize that she was the first person I had never apologized to for my crying. We chatted (well, I ranted) and she gave me what I absolutely most needed at that moment – reassurance that I wasn’t delusional, that I was doing good work, and that my research was important. Because as much as I rail against pointless authority and ridiculous assertions by the academy, something in them makes me doubt myself a little. I told Colleen all of this and about how a lot of it stemmed from my mother not really believing that I was capable of college, let alone an advance degree and ordination. I told her how ridiculous I felt that at almost 40 any of this still mattered.

But it did matter. I DO have moments of doubt. That’s what its like having ministries like mine or being someone who thinks a bit differently. We’re not the people who get famous or win massive adherents to our way of thinking. We’re the people who continue to do our work, even when in pain, because we can’t NOT do the work. God has called us to something for some damn fool reason we don’t quite get and our lives aren’t right until we answer.  We’re told in scripture, specifically, Romans 8:31 that “If God is for us, who can be against us,” but I’m not so good at claiming that I know what She is about. But I do know that God wants me in this stupid, agonizing, lame-ass struggle.

And this is why human support is so vital. No, I’ll never be famous. I also know I may not have the support of my program. I’ll never have more than a handful of supporters but that is all I need. I just need someone to feed me tons of tea and Chocolate Crack and tell me that the work that I love so much matters.

Embodied

I lay down on the table, still wearing my underwear as requested, still unsure how I feel about being pointedly asked to wear my underwear for my massage. I like to have as few restrictions, pullings, and bunchings as possible. I lay face up and wait in this room with too loud lighting. My head aches, my shoulders feel as though they are pulled up to my ears in tension.

A knock and M enters the room, the faint smell of cigarette smoke following behind him. He is a large man, both tall and wide, and he begins speaking as soon as he comes in. “An author, eh? So, you sit a lot?”

“Yeah, definitely. But I’m also a powerlifter because apparently I like extremes.”

“Oh!” he exclaims with grin, “That throws everything into question!”

“Well, I’ve got chronic muscle tension so basically you can do anything you want and it will be a win for both of us.”

He begins by vigorously rubbing my skull. I like this. I hold so much tension in my head and face and I can feel the blood surging, lifting a bit of my headache from me as though it is a dissipating cloud. I close my eyes and he speaks again.

“What you need to do is breathe deeply from your diaphragm and exhale through your mouth, like this.” I hear a loud intake of breath and a sudden release followed by the smell of his last cigarette break. “It’s called diaphragmatic breathing. You’ll want to do this the whole time.”

I’m not keen on this. Breathing deeply for long periods always induces anxiety in me and I usually confine it to just a few minutes before my daily meditation or at moments of intense pain during my regular massages. I don’t really want to experiment with an hour of it. I just want to relax after my nine hour flight yesterday. I have a regular massage therapist who I see once a month. She deals with the shitty part of massage – the pokings, proddings, kneadings, and other painful things that go along with therapeutic massage. All I wanted today was to walk into the equivalent of  Massages-R-US and relax with some light tension release. M has other ideas. In fact, it turns out that he has lots of ideas in general.

“God helped me get through college,” he says, “and through massage school. I told him, ‘I need your help because I want you to work through my hands.'”

I expect him to go on but he doesn’t. We sit in silence for a minute. It’s not awkward though. It never is for me when religion comes up. I think about asking him a question about this but he suddenly orders me to keep up my deep breathing. I’m already reaching near panic stage with my anxiety but I decide to trust him. So I take a few more deep breaths as he begins energetically rubbing my face, causing my entire body to shake on the table. Finally, I find my chance to prod him.

“You mentioned God. I’m really interested in hearing more about that. I’m a theologian so I find other people’s experiences very interesting. Do you go to a certain church?”

M tells me that his parents are Hindu but that he doesn’t believe in the “twelve Gods”. “My girlfriend is a born again Christian and that’s what she calls me too. I work six days a week so I don’t go to church. She goes for me and then tells me what they said.”

M tells me that though he is born again, he believes in reincarnation. “I like that I’m from two different cultures. It let’s me see what they have in common which is actually a lot. I think reincarnation makes sense in Christianity.”

“The thing I can’t figure out-” I begin.

But M interrupts me to tell me about reincarnation. I generally have a hard time with men who explain basic concepts in my field to me, especially when they interrupt, but he’s now working on my arms, squeezing them painfully, so I just let him go on and continue when I find my opening.

“The thing I can’t figure out though is this idea within reincarnation of having to learn a particular lesson or set of lessons. Why those lessons in particular? I mean, even when a person learns those lessons, they are still a flawed human so what is the actual criteria for moving beyond the cycle?” This is a genuine question for me because I have never heard an answer that makes sense. M goes on, not really giving his perspective but that’s okay. I’m just interested in hearing about how he thinks about his life. It’s clear he thinks a lot and the conversation is clearing up the anxiety.

“I’ve had a lot of near death experiences”he says. “That’s how I know there is an afterlife. In one of them, I looked back and saw my body and didn’t even realize it was mine until I got up close to it.”

I think for a minute and say, “That is an interesting detail. I wonder what it says about us and about our belief that our bodies are what make us ‘us’.”

“Our bodies are just a shell,” says the massage therapist. “And I’ve seen demons. I invited one into my house.”

“That must have been a trip.”

He laughs. “Yeah, it was. But I’m not crazy.”

We talk for a bit about the nature of truth, about whether it is confined to facts as we understand them in our post-enlightenment age. He tells me more about his family and the contrast between their Hinduism and his Christianity, about how his living in two worlds allows him to ask questions about both. I tell him about my research focus on the imaginary line between theism and nontheism and how I love how Hinduism negotiates this. He begins to tell me about his three near death experiences when we realize my time on the table is up. I thank him and tell him to keep asking the hard questions.

My anxiety is gone now.