Practicing the Practice

Here is something wise my friend Melanie wrote me a few months ago:

I think there’s something dangerous about assuming that because we have gone through our own phase of enlightenment about something that everyone else has necessarily gone through the same realizations and that it’s no longer worth discussing. … this process of reflecting on practice is integral to the overall learning that we are constantly doing about the world and the people we encounter. It’s not wrong to acknowledge it, that the learning is still taking place.

What most often keeps me from writing in this blog, aside from distractedness and weariness and busyness, is the creeping thought that everything I have to say exists in a middle space that is of no use to anyone. Melanie’s words above were in response to my telling her I had thought about writing about my affirming theology, or about the first time it occurred to me to question the idea I’d grown up with that women shouldn’t be ordained as pastors.

When I picture the reactions to posts like that, I hear either “well, duh” or “heresy!” And I don’t want to hear either of those things! I like people to like me and I like to believe the words I write might mean something to someone, and I can grapple with those things being at odds and having to choose one, but it is much harder for me to think that neither one will happen. I also believe that a lot of growth is largely individual and personal, so even when we do exist in the middle places, maybe it’s performative somehow or oversharing to write about it publicly or show it to other people. And then there’s this feeling that, when I learn something new or adopt a new practice or make room in my faith to let a new idea in, I don’t want anyone to know I didn’t already know/do/have it. How embarrassing to be behind! And I certainly never want to admit to not knowing something right now, much less having not known it yesterday.

But my spiritual director called the process Melanie describes above as “practicing the practice,” the idea that we are constantly working out our faith (/lives/views). And although I’m still working on dealing with the anxieties in the paragraph above, I am really drawn to the we-ness and the communal working out, and maybe someone else is, too! Instead of continuing to be vague and noncommital about this, I’m going to use the women pastors example.

When I was in undergrad, I took a sociology class taught by a woman named Cindee whom I immediately hero-worshiped. She was so smart and funny and I hung on every word she said. I can still hear her slowly and sarcastically saying “We’ve come a long way, baby,” striding across the front of the classroom in her leather boots and pushing her glasses up her nose after making a point about some regressive policy or mainstream viewpoint. I stayed after class often just to find out more about what she thought about whatever: education, faith, marriage, politics, pets, haircuts. She was a Christian, and I learned quickly that she used to attend my church—My Church, the one in which I spiritually “grew up,” the one that meant so much to me in high school, the one in which I would eventually get married. She stopped going to My Church because the pastor, another super-smart person I hero-worshiped, wouldn’t let her preach.

OK. I have a distinct memory of her telling me this, and I have a slightly less distinct memory of when I started to think that was wrong. But those two things did not happen on the same day. So how did I react in the moment? I do not remember. Now, it is clearly absurd to me that this deeply intelligent, spiritually mature woman wouldn’t be allowed to preach to anyone and everyone based on the idea that, what, Christian men had nothing to learn from her? I reject that out of hand and have for years. But I didn’t at the time. (See? Embarrassing.)

I took two classes with Cindee and briefly considered changing majors or adding a minor in sociology, but it turned out that I did not love the field of study, I just loved being taught by open and earnest people who were smarter than I was and challenged me to think about my thoughts. To practice my practices. I also was part of a Bible study she led after I wasn’t her student anymore, and I have another clear memory of her gently speaking to me about “righteous anger” while I cried because I couldn’t stop being angry at someone and felt like I wasn’t wrong but also “knew” that Jesus didn’t want me to be angry. Before there was Rachel Held Evans in my life, there was Cindee.

That’s a half-joke but it’s also kind of what practicing the practice means to me. And it’s what I think my friend Melanie meant when she tried to tell me to chill with my endless circular thinking and self-rejection. Cindee taught me a lot, including some sort of extended release things I didn’t fully learn at the time, and they made me a little different, and Rachel Held Evans’ books built on that and taught me more things and made me a little different, and that version of me looked for other teachers and leaders and learned more and become a little different, and current me is constantly buying “religious non-fiction” books from online indie bookstores and can’t stop listening to a podcast called Reclaiming My Theology, which is like drinking from a fire hose, and I’m still very much pre-Cindee me and also a little not.

But/and, I still love the pastor who caused Cindee to leave My Church. It will always be a great joy of my life that he married me and my husband. My hunger for an intellectually engaging faith comes from having learned from him for so many years—that’s a constant, even if it looks different now. But/and, I am currently contemplating going back to school for some kind of theological education, and I’m in the very early stages of that—looking at schools, comparing degrees, thinking and praying about what I might even do with this theoretical degree—and I would love to seek advice from any number of people who have been influential to my spiritual development to this point, but I don’t know which voices would help current me get to the best next me. But/and, I want to always leave room to respect the journeys of people who read and learn and reflect and practice the practice and end up in really different places than I do. It’s hard to hold all of that at once, but it all matters. I don’t think any of us ever reaches a point where we’re done, we’ve acquired the last piece of the puzzle and finally are the perfect thinker, the perfect activist, the perfect friend, the perfect theologian. We’re always practicing the practice.

Lately, along with many of us, I’ve been thinking about this most in the context of anti-racism. There was a flurry of activity a few weeks ago when many of us (us in this case meaning white Christians interested in social justice) bought a bunch of books and followed a bunch of people on social media and maybe hoped it would make us instantly perfect accomplices in the mission of racial reconciliation, which would be a swift victory now that we were all working together. It didn’t happen! But/and, that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. We have to actually read the books, and then we have to do something with our new knowledge. We have to actually listen to the new voices, and then we have to share what they taught us and discern what is ours to say. There’s a lot of getting it wrong to be done in any process of practicing the practice. That’s why it’s practice!

I hope for all of us the freedom from fear of getting it wrong, or not being liked, or not having anything profound to say. I hope for all of us Cindees and Melanies to challenge us and pull us forward. I hope for all of us grace for ourselves and for each other as we continuously try to figure it out, whatever it is at any moment.

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