Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Sneaky Guise of Selflessness: Part 2

At the risk of beating this particular tired, nearly worn-out horse past the point of usefulness, I have a couple more thoughts to add. One was a moment of self-understanding (that may border on self-justification) about my desire to blog what I feel like blogging without having to worry much about whether I'm being helpful to others.

"Ahhh, yes," I thought in a flash of recollection. "Writing sermons all those years (22, to be more precise), I was altogether focused on what would be helpful, elucidating, enlightening, encouraging, or challenging in a positive way. No wonder I not only find it hard to allow myself to do otherwise but also have a burning desire to follow a different (i.e., self-determined) path of inspiration!"

I suppose this bit of awareness should have been obvious to me--I'm sure it has been clear at various times. It's just one of those slippery fish that easily wriggles free of my grasp. I have put in my dues in an other-focused profession. Even if the stuff I wrote was drawn from within myself and the quirkiness of my own creative process, the writing and speaking of all those sermons took place within externally determined boundaries and a fairly set liturgical framework, for a clear purpose that had little to do with free personal expression.

Preaching is an an art form, for sure, but one in which the goal of the particular religious inclination can clash mightily with the hungers and longings of an individual creative person. My soul has borne the brunt of that clashing of agendas, goals, longings.

"But you can exercise your creativity in your sermons," people used to say.

"Yes, but..." I used to try to respond. Often as not, I would give up trying to articulate the struggle, the intensely felt clash of forces, because no matter how I tried to frame it, my desires for true creative freedom to express myself however I chose (meaning, in whatever medium or language I chose and on whatever topic I felt moved to speak) always sounded

How can the fires of individual self-expression ever come off sounding as morally or religiously legitimate as the ideals of serving others? Especially from within an institution whose stated goals and norms are the service of others in the name of and in the spirit of Jesus?

I remember a poet leading a poetry workshop I attended while still in seminary, who took a rare (among the rather bohemian poetry world of that workshop) positive view of my religious affiliation. He suggested I read one or two poets who wrote what he thought of as "religious poetry," even if not overtly religious poetry.

I'm not sure I could have said so very clearly at the time, but I think I knew even then that I didn't want to write "religious poetry!" Over the years my poems, when I wrote them at all, were a means (or at least kept alive a hope for such a means) of keeping alive some other voice within me, a wilder, truer, sometimes even a deliberately irreverent or skeptical voice, a voice outside the boundaries of the church.

And my pursuit of other art forms over the years sprang from a similar motivation. My forays into drawing, painting, knitting, dyeing yarns, weaving...

"Oh, wonderful!" at least one parishioner said after I had learned weaving during one of our sabbatical breaks, "you can weave new altar hangings for the altar!"

I remember how suddenly and totally my heart sank when I heard those words (and the moment was at least seven years ago). And I remember how a fiery, feisty energy had risen up almost as suddenly, ready to defend my creative pursuits as my own, to mark off a place where my own quirky, peculiar, authentic to myself as possible self-expression would be guarded from that seemingly insatiable hunger of the church to own it all, to own all of me, and for parishioners to want to claim my creativity for themselves.

As you can imagine, there's still more to tell of this story. But right now I'm off to deliver some paintings to the church where that very same exchange happened seven years ago. For the second year in a row, I will step into that building (that I still love very much), not as a priest but as a painter. Somehow I think I would do well to repeat that last sentence to myself many times over, and to savor it.

And then to keep telling about the "sneaky guise of selflessness", and especially about the time when I finally saw it for what it was and dared to choose a different path.

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