This is a story I told at Tenx9 Melbourne, a bit over a month before my ordination.
I always thought I knew my story. I always told it the same way.
I was raised in the church, my Dad a minister in the Wesleyan Methodist brand, and dwelt in a very particular type of Christianity; the kind that deals in some judgement language and some simplistic metaphors and some fervent, literal interpreting of things, and fellowship lunches on long tables, all of which later I shrug off nonchalantly as I ask brave questions and determine that the rigid structure I find myself in doesn’t have to be the way it is, that there is a more spacious way for me to be a person of faith.
In the mean time my relationship with my father, altered dramatically when he left our family to try to start another, deteriorates more and more over time, I move to Melbourne to meet real people and to try to figure out what stirs me, and find excitement in community work, I make friends here, a life here, I finally go to university and then, despite having decided smugly earlier on that all churches were probably full of shit, I end up working for one. Cue the “can you believe it?” face.
This is all true.
Also true is that I have read and struggled with more theology in the last three years than I ever thought I would. That I still feel too uncoordinated to do any real job, some days. That I never thought I would find a shape, a role, a task for me. I never thought anything would call to me like being an ordained minister did, partway through my second or third year working for the church that changed my mind about churches.
So, sung to by the hope and promise of a collection of people who might try to make things better, and of a man who lived a long time ago and who I think is somehow, against all odds- relevant, I went back to school, terrified of learning and of not learning, and discovered I could do it,
and discovered a community that held me well for the most part.
I discovered, to my dismay, things about the gathering of people around the warm fire of a faith-story that made me feel like an old traditionalist at times, chiding the young folk for wanting to play that rock music.
I discovered, that this church thing can actually be spacious in a way previously unknown to the younger, angrier, completely unoriginal girl I was once. It’s possible it has rooms and movement and lightness and flavour all of us young and once angry and unoriginal girls and guys coudn’t imagine.
It’s possible that this spaciousness can be a hard thing to wrangle, but that it’s worth the attempt.
I moved out of my house at the end of December, all my stuff is in boxes in my friend Alister’s garage. I’ve been staying on my mate Jess’s couch and waiting for the next thing to begin, and learning that I don’t do great without some concrete things to drive me.
And so I float in this weird time, no job, no real home, and I remember when I first properly moved to Melbourne and had no job and stayed at the house of my friend Kate’s parents and knew somehow it would be ok and then we rented a truck and moved our meagre things across town to Preston.
And as I float I recall the last three years; pointed so thoroughly at this new thing, this final, ultimate thing- the making of me into a minister, that I now know- though I can forget- that rings in my veins and tells me to keep going even when it seems bogus. Whispered to this odd and spacious place that has been a part of my skin and blood for so long, which I held at arms length for so long, that I’m still so often selling short and not holding to account enough. That I’m still learning the right way to love.
During this odd, floaty time in which all things feel ill-fitting and I am spat out into the world from my very specific cocoon, and I remember fondly the house I cannot live in any more and the time of preparation for this time now, that I knew couldn’t last forever, but that I miss like a familiar face…
-during this time my lovely friend Sarah is ordained and I go to watch her be made a minister and I hear the preacher quote Mary Oliver, saying “be untidy in your exuberance” and I cry and I can’t forget it and I don’t want to.
Then at a gathering at Sarah’s house with a beer in my hand I talk to her friend Ange, who is pretty with a shaved head and a nose ring and she asks me what my story is. So I tell her.
And at the end, she smiles a slow dreamy smile and says this:
“We shall not cease from exploration,
And at the end of our exploring
will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time”
And I say: “what?”
She smiles again and says “it’s an Emerson quote”. And I ask to hear it again.
She actually sings it to me once or twice.
What has happened is Ange with the sweet smile and the nose ring has heard my story in a way I hadn’t quite yet. In it she heard repetition, both lovely and new.
It is talking to her on the grand verandah of a Carlton mansion that I hear myself tell it, and realise there are other things that are true too.
That though the church which framed my whole life when I was little was restrained in some ways, though I learnt about judgement a little, and sex in an obviously unhealthy way, though churches of this kind and others have hurt multitudes, and though my father I have often portrayed as the seller of this false, or cheap religion that inevitably hurt us all, and though our relationship has been complex, that’s not all that all of it was.
I was raised by loving parents, my Dad sang to and with me, and we laughed together and he did what he thought was right a lot of the time. I was surrounded and held and formed by stories of courage, of huge, daft whales, of people who crossed oceans, of love and of faith. I had supernatural friend I talked to when I was afraid of the dark. I believed in angels. I sang songs that, though perhaps cheesy, told me that I was loved. I learnt the cadence of church speak and the commitment that goes into every egg sandwich made for a fellowship lunch. And I was made myself inside that world, given the ingredients which would go on to be this self who finds her person now going to take on the task her tall, black haired father did for years before and after her birth.
I am, in a way, back where I started. The place I spent so long moving assertively away from.
We go to new places and we compare them to the old, or we complain because things look different here, things are altered beyond recognition, but perhaps all we ever do is recreate things, building ourselves again into the people we know and the trees we walk past and the small scrawled graffiti on Sydney road walls, forming our familiarity into the shapes we’ve found gathered around us now.
Perhaps it’s all always circular in some ways. Perhaps like me we might often find ourselves back at something that looks- if we squint a little- a bit like the beginning, but now, furnished by all that has gone before, we are ready to see it- to know it- as if for the first time.
Oh and I googled that quote for tonight and I’m sorry Ange, but it’s T.S Elliot.