Yesterday I traveled for almost two hours to deliver a speech on the relationship between women's spirituality and women's rights to a chapter of the American Association of University Women. The speech was well-received which pleased me considering that I had developed laryngitis after a week of the flu and had a much-diminished speaking voice. Still, after speaking in barely a whisper all day, I put on my nineteenth-century dress and bonnet, stood before them and managed to project that raspy voice across the room for the duration of the speech and then for the questions and conversation that followed. The event began at 6:00 and we finished up after 10:00. So I'm tired today and my throat hurts but...
There is something about speaking in front of groups that fills me up in ways that I cannot describe. I feel strange taking a check for the work because I feel they have already paid me. That a group of people will allow me in their midst, will hear me, will let me move them...I owe such a debt for this gift.
When I was little, I watched my father don his clerical robes before the service. As I watched him, I saw him transformed from "Daddy" to clergyman. The most impressive were the black robes with their rich fabric and black velvet trim that emphasized the sweep and flow of his gestures. As he stood before the congregation, I was enthralled by the force and beauty of his baritone voice which projected easily to the back pews. There were times when he spoke of God and raised one hand toward heaven just as a ray of light streamed down from the stained glass windows.
How could this be the same man who, when dressed in jeans and sweatshirts would be far more likely to ask me to pull his finger than to turn to God? It just was. People in our congregations were sometimes troubled when they realized that he was not a saint. Over the years, there was an accumulation of injury to my father's gentle soul perpetrated by those who thought the role of a minister is to a sacrificial lamb to be exploited and used up. There were few to feed him. Few to hold his spirit in the light and finally, he burned out. There is a special brutality reserved for country preachers by their congregations. Today my father, who calls himself an atheist, would tell me it was all just theater. It was all "bullshit", an act and nothing more.
But I don't buy it. When I was a baby, my father had a dream that changed his life. As he and my mother sat in church one Sunday, he turned to her and told her he had something important to tell her. "You're going to join the ministry." she said unexpectedly. He could not understand how she had known. Turns out that she too had a dream that night. From that point on, my parents and I moved from home to home so he could complete his M.Div. and then provide service to multiple country churches. Being a Methodist minister's kid is a bit like being an army brat. We moved around a lot. The bishop would call and we would move. It was not until I was older that my father became a Congregationalist and we were able to settle down. Even so, the church was at the heart of everything we did. Until it wasn't.
When my father left the church, it was life-altering for all of us. It was, in fact, a relief. All members of a clergyperson's family are pressed into service. No getting around that. It was good to have some fresh air, to say "f-u" to all the nastiness and vindictiveness of those churches. It was good to have the freedom to explore our spirituality away from the confines of even the limited orthodoxy of the liberal Protestant tradition.
It was also jarring in a way that I am just now beginning to explore. What does it mean to me that my father has rejected what he always described as "his calling"? Was it all some grand delusion in which my entire family, our congregations, and communities participated in for almost twenty years? And what of my calling? What of that? Am I deluded there too? or is there something More at play here