I am sitting on the somewhat battered third-floor deck of a beach house on St. George Island in Florida, wearing a Key West t-shirt and typing despite the sun glare on my laptop screen. Some things don't change so much.
But others do. I've been quiet for about six weeks, thinking about what I'm thinking about. I've tried a few posts, but they remain in draft form, wholly unsatisfactory. I don't know whether I'll keep posting sermons or not, as they speak increasingly to a specific small community in decline, a community which I hope will open itself to an expanding spiritual life even as it makes some hard decisions about whether to continue open its physical doors at all.
Meanwhile, for myself, I've been wondering about a few things.
The first: How important to life are balance and symmetry?
In my denomination, as in many others, would-be pastors are required to complete 400 hours of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) ~ a clinical experience in a hospital, or a hospice, or some other setting in which people are in need of the care of a chaplain ~in order to qualify for ordination. People generally think of CPE as a program for "learning to be a chaplain," but, in reality. most of CPE is focused, via lots of reflective writing and individual and group conferences, on issues which extreme stress reveals about oneself, and on learning to manage one's interior life while serving others.
Our CPE supervisor was found of challenging us with questions about things that had happened in our lives and in our ministry, questions designed to make us uncomfortable and questions which often made me feel as if I were responsible for the bad things which happened to this generally good person. The result? Since my CPE summer, which was quickly followed by the death of my son (and anyone who has lost a child, especially to suicide, knows that the question of responsibility looms large), I've become more, rather than less, reluctant, to focus on such questions.
More recently, however, it has occurred to me to look for common threads in my life, not in order to ascribe blame, but in order to ask what they tell me about the experience of life, life as I have lived it and as it might be of help to others. Thus, the questions of balance and symmetry.
Think about it:
A broken ankle and sprained foot, a severe and debilitating injury, one which for nearly five months now has affected my capacity for balance and my ability to do much of anything for which two feet and two legs are required.
Breast cancer, which destroyed the symmetry of my appearance in a fairly significant way. Once I had recovered from all those surgeries, my exterior life remained unaltered and, having previously lost a child, a cancer diagnosis ranked fairly low on my personal scale of measurement. Still, when I take off that Key West t-shirt, what I see is a fairly ugly scar where I once took symmetry for granted.
The double-vision crisis a few springs ago. That one introduced me to the profession of neuro-opthoamology, but resolved itself in about ten weeks, and I've largely forgotten about it. But for most of that period, I saw everything in pairs and at an angle, which made any sort of physical maneuvering a doubtful proposition. No symmetry, no balance.
The death of my son. It is difficult for me to imagine any life-event more destructive of one's sense of balance than the death of a child, especially a death to suicide. Everywhere I go, he is missing. Everywhere I look, one of my twin boys is nowhere to be seen. Every day is an exercise in life experienced as walking along the edge of a vast and bottomless cavern into which one of the most beloved of people has vanished, knowing that if the light of life does not outweigh that terrible darkness, then we are all lost. Perhaps, then, balance is not important at all. Perhaps the crucial factor for survival is that the lightness of being outweigh the heft of absence.
And, as has occurred to me only recently, the death of my mother. I have lived almost my entire life without the balancing act usually manifested by a two-parent household. And it's not as if the missing half were still out there in another form, as in a divorce, or as if it happened when I myself was more or less grow to wholeness. I have walked the whole of my conscious life's journey without the person who most made it possible, and with the sense that the sands upon which we journey are in a constant state of flux.
What does any of this have to say about the future, or about serving others in ministry?
Perhaps I have merely been misled by the obvious patterns of symmetry in much of the created world, misled into ascribing to balance a value it simply does not possess. Perhaps that is a near-universal misconception, and is why we feel so thrown off-kilter when our lives are shattered in ways not possible to repair.
Perhaps lack of symmetry and shifting terrain are the foundational realities of our existence, and the sooner grasped, the better. After all, the earth tilts on its axis, and spins on the far edge of one of billions of galaxies.
Perhaps rather than seeking coherence, something I've been doing for quite awhile, I should be embracing the expansion, of the universe and of my own very small life.