Monday, September 16, 2019

Why I Dropped Out of Seminary and Other Faith Journeys

Reverend Donna Schaper from Judson Memorial, my home church for reluctant, misfit churchgoers, asked me to pinch-hit for her this weekend. So I wrote about it all. Thanks for the support as always Judson! Thanks for situating it all Rev Michael Crumpler. Thanks to Caroline Shepard for listening to an early take, before sending me out to Judson. It's amazing to have a place to tell your story.

In  late August,

Donna called me summer asking if I’d like to give a sermon at Judson.

My immediate reaction was what do I have to preach about?

My family is basically atheist.

I have to bribe my youngest to come to Judson with me.

My older daughter only comes every once in a while.

My wife has gone from agnostic to atheist in the time I have known her.

I never enrolled in Divinity school.

But getting there was a huge part of my faith journey.

We all have faith journeys.

I guess I can talk  about mine.

It’s been several years now since my family and I walked the  Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage hike in Spain.  The destination is less important than the journey.

But the final stop,  where St James’ bones are said to rest, suggests we can all  find homes, and places to rest.

Most of the time, St James is the farthest thing from our minds. 

Hiking with anarchists and hippies, people with cancer,

suffering life’s harms, you never quite know if you are on a faith journey or just a journey.

The roads are long, the afternoons hot.

On one particular day, we were  hiking to

Villamayor de Monjardin, a small town located at the foot of the Castle of San Esteban of Deyo,

With some 653 kilometers to go to get to

Santiago de Compostela. 

Within the first  four or five  K of the day, Scarlett our little one said. "I've lived eight good years. I've seen a lot. I'm ready to die now." And she meant it! As Caroline  recalled, just then an old man...70...came out of nowhere speaking Spanish with two ripe peaches and insisted the girls have them. He pointed to where we were heading, wished us a 'Buen Camino" and was off. The girls ate the peaches and were revived and completely forgot the misery of moments before. We then passed through the most beautiful countryside, and came upon a large flock of sheep. That little gesture turned our spirits as we a laughed for at least a half kilometer further. We then continued through a magical countryside until we came upon an ancient fountain where pilgrims washed.

Only a few more to get to our destination for the night,

 the castle overlooks the countryside.

We are close. But something feels odd, even other world.

We pause at the Fuente de los Moros, a gothic fountain associated with the Moores just outside of this little town,  dipping  our feet in the water.

Looking around, sitting in the fountain as countless others have,

the mystery of it all envelops us.

Dutch and American volunteers greet us outside the abbey, when we finally arrive, offering us a beer.

Dinners is at 6:30 and meditation is at 8:30, they explain.  The elder man is from a Dutch religious group, the younger American a seminary student. 

Another volunteer plays her violin through the afternoon.

Looking at the young American,

I think about what life would be like if I had chosen the monastic life, taken a different turn away from the city to live a life of the mind and spirit as the protagonist does in Narcissus and Goldmund.

The story of a boy who meets his doppelganger, two lives complement each other.

“We are sun and moon, dear friend;” writes Hesse.

“… we are sea and land. It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is: each the other's opposite and complement.”

The self and the other are connected through time.

Yin and  yang,

The citizen and the immigrant, 

The  inside  and the outside of  ourselves.

We play cards enjoying the small town and plaza overlooking the Romanesque Iglesia de San Andres.  I walked in and take a look at the quiet space, lit by natural light.

When I come back to the room, I meet a German pilgrim who is staying with us. 

Caroline chats with her all afternoon before a lovely pilgrim meal.

Over dinner, we share stories about what brought us all there.  The Dutch volunteer had been a doctor in a small town, where he’s between 600 births and countless losses, including his own daughter to cancer, thinking about what it meant to have a peaceful departure from this world.  He saw spirituality helped those he worked with and watched die.  But what about the wounds of religion, of the organized religion, I ask.

“My parents were skeptics,” he explains.  They used to comment on the town priest. He’s lovely on Sunday but what about Monday through Saturday when he treats everyone like dirt?

Number two and I excused ourselves, skipping outside to play as the sun descends, the moon rising.

We walk by the church again, where people are meditating.

And I joined a few of the others for a quiet moment.  Its actually hard work.  At first the images of friends, of people lost before their time, they flow across my mind, then its everything as the music plays and we all sit together.

Back in our room, the girls are enjoying the sunset.  Number two goes outside to sing, as the sun fades.

The next morning, we wake early.  Enjoying some juice and cafe con lecce and hit the road before  7 AM, the sun just making its way back across the dawn. 

Off to Lorca for a twelve k walk.  I had had odd dreams the night before – my grandparents on hand at a party, remote strangers I talked with along with my dad.  Hadn’t been thinking about dad too much along the trip.  Walking through the fields, we stumbled upon a juice joint and enjoyed an orange juice.  Drinking it, “Empire State of Mind” comes on the radio.  Jay Z rapping about New York and the Brooklyn Bridge.  A tint of homesickness grasps, a very warm feeling of knowing I had a home, even if Grandmom and Grandad, as well as  my Dad were gone.  Walking forward for a bit the idea of home continued to linger, a home we could not visit.  Brooklyn awaited us in a few weeks.  But the feeling of actually seeing Dad for a football game and a welcome home as Dad has done every fall for the last quarter century or so since I left Texas, that home was more elusive.  The ways we lose a parent, a friend, a welcome home, those departures are far more permanent and jarring.  Part of the Camino is letting go and finding new stories.  But letting go of this one would be difficult.  Letting go of Dad’s story would be difficult.  Letting go of the habit of visiting Dad in the autumn or calling to tell him about a trip, this trip would be difficult.  Walking and crying, this is just what the Camino is about explained our German friend the night before.  She’d agonized crossing the Pyrenees.  We all suffer and experience pain in our own ways along the way. I was carrying Dad’s memory, imagining him walking with me, and certainly he’s here. 

But the conversation never quite stays the same. 

It continued in Paris when I met Donna for the COP21 the following  fall.

It continued last night at a Bar Mitzvah with people I’ve known for 13-years, our kids have growing; we’ve seen divorces and deaths, and are still looking for something.

Trying to learn to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against  us.

But really it began in those years when I flirted with going to divinity school.

I didn’t even enroll.  Scared to stay at Yale, away from the city.


Talking with my father,  a lawyer poet turned priest who famously told his parishioners that he did not believe in God.

God is unknowable he repeated paraphrasing Paul Tillich.

Its all a mystery, an encounter with something much larger than  our consciousness.

Giving a eulogy for Dad that spring we  all hiked the Camino, I  talked about his journey to faith. The priest at Dad’s church in Houston said he could not see how a man of god could  not believe  in God.

Easily I said.

He said it all the time. 

It feels impossible to tell my faith story without thinking of Dad’s story.

Like us, he grew  up with an estranged relationship to the church and himself, raging and searching.

The existential questions were always with him.

A trip to the hospital in the early seventies for open heart surgery with one in twenty odds of  survival brought Dad back  to god.

If you get me out of this one, I’ll dedicate my life to you, he prayed.

Dad survived.

And began attending church faithfully, services weekly, then daily.

Trying to make sense of the relationship of poetry to the sublime,

Wondering about the nature of god,

Looking for meaning in the theology of narrative.

Having a hard time putting his fingers on the right questions about his demons.

Jesus always said only drowning men could see him, he told me as we listened to Leonard Cohen records.

He took me to Sunday Guitar masses in  Texas.

Where we played  old songs.

Will the circle be unbroken

Amazing grace.

Let Us break Bread Together.

He spent  his life looking  for answers.

Sometimes it was on the highway between South Georgia and Texas.

Or between Cambridge and San Francisco,

Or Chicago at Seminary reading Jung,

Gradually, I drifted away from the Church.

Into the city.

Where the suffering was more than I could imagine,

HIV and homelessness everywhere.

One Sunday morning when I was  kicked out of a coffee shop,  for  just ordering  a coffee,

I walked  back into a church.

Fr Mark Stranger, an ex Catholic Priest  who was  HIV positive spoke.

He preached on Romans 7:15

“I don't really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it. ... I do not understand what I do; for I don't do what I would like to do, but instead I do what I hate. ... For I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do. .”

A child of an alcoholic Dad with a temper myself, I felt a kind of kindred spirit within this meditation.

“I don't do what I would like to do, but instead I do what I hate.”

The ego, super ego, and id dueling it out throughout the text.

Love and hate,

War and  peace,

We are always at odds with ourselves.

Hereditary demons.

We all have these demons that  we  are battling.

Certainly dad did,  I do.
This is just part of being alive.

God is unknowable.

But you catch glimpses.

In the hurt child.

The fight between god and the devil.

We can grasp glimpses.

Its all part of the dialogue.

Talking with Dad, who by then was in seminary in Chicago, he suggested we continue unpack this complicated relation between god, the spirit and ourselves.

When you use the word God, think Unconscious.

Read City of God this way, he advised.

Conversely,  read unconscious as god in Freud’s work.

In Memories,  Dreams  and  Reflections, Jung writes:

“We cannot tell whether God and the unconscious are two different entities. Both are border-line concepts for transcendental contents...”

Dad was meditating on the nature of god, reading Jung as much as he could, trying to understand the psychology of faith and religion.

Living in San Francisco and working  with people with AIDS in San Francisco, I felt something rumbling, both inside and  out, a  call to move.  Read as much Sartre and John Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr as I could, tracing the history of non-violent civil disobedience in the work we were all doing, along the trail between MLK and ACT UP.

Recognizing Jesus ACTed UP.

He also wondered what it meant to be human.

Struggling with desire and intentions, I thought of Roland Barth’s contention.

"What I hide by my language, my body utters."

 I wondered about desire and activism and the theology of AIDS Work.

Whose in the third chair, a women I worked  with  asking, about the third empty chair in the room where we talked.  Whose in the third chair? No one I replied.

Look again she laughed.

No one.

She laughed.

Think about it, she  suggested the holy trinity was right there with us. 

In  this  room. 

The holy ghost. 

Father Bob Arpin, HIV Positive priest, shuffled off that spring.

We are all fearfully and wonderfully made he wrote. We are all part of this big frail abundance.

This body of God. This big Buddha.

With bodies crumbling weakening, people with AIDS looked inward.

A cohort found a spiritual vocabulary to cope with the carnage.

I was learning a new theology from people with AIDS.

From  AIDS  activists.

Our bodies are fragile.

Our desires vital.

But our spirits were thriving.

There was still a relationship between the self and the other,

Between inside and  outside,

bodies and  spirits,

Sex and social  justice,

That needed to be unpacked.

We could carry the weight of the stranger,

Of the leper on our backs.

Carrying the weight of the other.

I thought it would be social  work  and  seminary,

My road lead me to the city.

To place with cafes, where we read the existentialists,

As Sartre wrote in the Flies.

Orestes: “I say there is another path – my path! Cant you see it? It starts here and leads down to the city.  I must go down – do you understand?  I must go down into the depths among you. For you are living, all of you, at the bottom of the pit.  That city is my city…I’m still too light. I must take the burden on my shoulder, a load of guilt so heavy it will drag me down, right down to the abyss of Argos.”

Its hard to be a saint in  the city.

But I made a city here.

As soon as I got into seminary, I dropped out.

Strolling  around the Yale campus,

it looked  like it would be a lot more  Bible  study than direct action with John  Lewis.

Always saying I was going to go back one day.

But never quite taking that other road.

My church was act up.

It was a space where we sang Broadway tunes.

It was a place to  remain humble.

Poets rubbed shoulders with punks.

My friend Lynn Breedlove, a trans punk poet came as close as anyone I know to answering dad’s question about the nature of poetry to god.

We read poems together at the Green Archade bookstore, down the street from where I worked a quarter century prior in San Francisco,

Lynn ended with a story about

about how to write a book and explain everything.

Ride bikes,

Talk to the dead

Apologize to those who you let down,

Take it all in,

“open the lab top,


And start writing….”

Preached Lynn.

On stage, I asked Lynn

Can a punk rock show be church?

Just like act up was?


That was a lot of fighting.

Replies  Lynn.

Queer Nation was a lot of fights.

Ahhh, the fight,

The dialectical twin sister of the friend.

Embracing the other.



a punk rock show

can be.

We can’t wait for the show to start.

Words matter.

Chords matter.

Phrases mater.

Words matter.

Strangers we come to know as life flies by.

Even if the kids think God is for losers.

Find new words.

There is room for

spirituality for skeptics.

We’re still  looking  for the right chords,

The right words,

If you open yourself to see the coincidences

Connect to the life around you,

See things that which always there.

Lynn hopes.

You start to notice.

Hopefully we all can.

When I hear the old songs I remember that feeling  of home.

That warm feeling of knowing  and not knowing.

And I feel like I might have an answer for Dad.

For that feeling of what might be between the spirit and the interior, between god and our unconscious and ourselves.

It would  be easy to wrap it up in a nice bow.

But Dad died with his demons.

His temper still  there.

Inner generational traumas skipping  from father  to son.

God is there. But so is the devil.

So is that feeling  that we are all a part  of that  big buddha that father Bob talked about

All  those years ago.

Although I still have no idea who is sitting  in the third chair. 

Will the  circle  be unbroken?

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