Saturday, June 02, 2012

A quick look back at all that

At the time, if I could have known I‘d deny my evangelical faith within a year, I would never have agreed to lead the group of 100 college kids at church camp four years ago. And I would not have chosen to explore the topic of Christian apologetics, because once I delved deeply into it, I was unable to emerge safely.

I didn't agree lightly, and not right away. I consulted with a trusted confidante, who knew something of my spiritual waverings, about planning the conference talks and activities. But it seemed an honor, and I knew I was capable. I was pleased that they'd asked a woman, since only men could be pastors and elders (or even deacons, in many cases) in the Reformed Presbyterian denomination. In the end I said yes.

The program, which I titled "A Reasonable Hope," was aimed at "tackling some of the common doubts and objections that confront our peers and perhaps our own souls with regard to the gospel." Those doubts and objections kept confronting me. They never left. The more I studied in preparation for the conference, the more unsettling the questions became. What once belonged under the more gentle label paradox degenerated in my mind to simply contradiction. And the more I pored over scripture, the more some of its contents troubled me. These observations called into question the idea that the text was inspired, supernaturally imbued with the absolute authority of God. But I had to talk in front of these young people, my juniors by just a few years, and I had a responsibility to convey some shred of confidence.

Most of the speaking I delegated to co-leaders—pastors, in fact. But I did present an introduction to the topic, a 30-minute talk titled "That's a Good Question." Nervous, I planned it out word for word. It concluded with a poem by Emily Dickinson:

How brittle are the Piers 
On which our faith doth tread—
No Bridge below doth totter so— 
Yet none hath such a Crowd.
It is as old as God— 
Indeed—twas built by him 
He sent his Son to test the Plank 
And he pronounced it firm.

Elsewhere, Dickinson writes that if she were to suppose "falsehood" of God, that thought would "undermine the Sill/ To which my Faith pinned Block to Block/ Her Cedar Citadel." I didn't quote that poem during my speech. 

A couple weeks after the conference in 2008 I received a phone call from one of the pastors whom I'd enlisted as a fellow speaker. He said overall the program had gone well, but there was one main thing that he thought needed to change at the next conference. I waited on the other end of the line, ready for him to challenge my positive remarks about postmodernism or to say I seemed a little theologically fragile to be in charge of such a group. But no, he affirmed my organizational and speaking skills. He said I had good things to say. It wasn‘t that. Rather, the very fact of my role as the program coordinator "did not encourage male leadership."

I didn't say anything in response. He continued.

"All the speakers in the adult program were male, and so were the high-school and junior-high speakers," he said. "There's a pattern there, and having the buck stop with you as the primary coordinator of the college program … it just didn't encourage male leadership. I‘m planning to make this known to the conference board, and I didn't want you to hear it secondhand."

I was angry, but I wasn't all that surprised. And his wishes have apparently been granted, so good for him (yes, sarcasm): the 2012 conference website makes sure to list any lady-parts-bearing leads, in any adolescent-or-older age category, only in conjunction with a husband.

In high school I spent two weeks studying theology at the denomination‘s seminary with eight of my peers. There were many sobering lectures and activities, but then there was this--the leader's address, the final one, and it is the one that stuck: "Guys, the main point I want to drive home tonight is that the church needs you. We need you to seriously think about going into the ministry. There are congregations with empty pulpits, without pastors. We need you to strongly consider that calling."

The retreat leader abruptly paused, as though the make-up of his small audience--four teenage males, five teenage females--had suddenly dawned on him. He continued more tentatively: "And ladies, we need you too. We need good pastor's wives."

I see the church of my youth exhibiting not less but more rigidity and certitude and nearsightedness in a world sorely in need of other things, and while that makes me sad and even angry at times, I also feel a great deal of relief. Leaving it three years ago was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but now I'm so glad for the break. I'm not afraid of being honest anymore, and I'm encouraged to contribute to the world whatever I can rather than admonished for those attempts.