Smokes! I met Annie, today’s contributor, actually, I’m not sure how I met her, but I really like her; her voice, her humor and her truth. Her piece today on identity is lovely and challenging. I hope you’ll leave her some commenty goodness. Then go take a gander at her blog: Marginal Theology.
During my first year of graduate school, I was sitting on the steps outside the chapel, reading a book. I can’t remember what I was studying. I suppose it isn’t important. A professor walked by me and as he passed, he stopped and said something to me. “Keep at it,” he said, maybe sensing I was feeling overwhelmed by my studies, “because one day you’ll look up and you’ll be a scholar.” Ten years later, I know he was right and not just about scholarship. The little things that I practice day to day slowly change me until one day I wake up and don’t quite recognize myself.
I had one of those moments about a week ago. There I am, standing next to a picnic table in a beer garden with a can of Dos Equis in my hand, plucking up my nerve to introduce myself to Leslie Cochran, Austin’s favorite transvestite. He’s working the party, hiking up his zebra print skirt to show off his thong to anybody and everybody. He’s the guest of honor at this party and I’ve not yet met him, even though he figures in my book project. So I stand there and throw back my liquid courage and think, how exactly did I get here?
As it happens, this party is a long, long way from where I’m from. I was baptized in a tiny Southern Baptist church made of cinder blocks where my grandfather was the pastor. We were King James reading creationists and I grew up hoping for heaven and scared of hell. I think I asked Jesus into my heart three times a day from ages 5 until about age 12, just in case it didn’t take. I grew into a rigid and brittle faith. In fact, I found a journal I kept when I was 18 in which I complain at length about friends from church who didn’t seem to take their faith as seriously as I took mine.
(I can assure you I was a lot of fun).
Standing there drinking a beer, I’m sure I don’t look like a conflicted former fundamentalist, even if I am. It would be easier in a way if I could say I’d left all that behind but the truth is more complicated than that.
On top of everything else, I usually avoid homeless people. Don’t mistake me. I like the idea of helping the homeless. I certainly believe that Christians are commanded to help the poor. But when it comes to sharing space with unwashed human beings, I have a strong tendency to dodge.
It turns out that’s probably okay with Leslie—he doesn’t really like homeless people, either—but it is admittedly odd for a person engaged in writing a book about the homeless. But that’s my reality, too. If I weren’t writing the book, I don’t think I would have turned up at Leslie’s party in the first place.
I can’t totally account for it. I just looked up one day and I was the kind of person who got invited to Leslie Cochran’s birthday party and then showed up. There were probably a hundred small decisions and experiences, a hundred mundane practices that worked on me until that was true.
This is the way of being a human in the world. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are laboring on a new identity all the time.
In a way, this is what my book is about. When people ask me, I usually say the book is about sin—my sin, I add quickly, and no one else’s. My sin is not myself, though. Sin is less than self because sin interferes with my humanity. In sin, I am less than human. Out of it, I am free to love.
The only way I know to root out sin draws on the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers—4th century men and women who rejected the world and went to the Egyptian desert to live a life of prayer. They tell me that every day I must make a new beginning. Every day I should work to overcome whatever keeps me from love.
The book is about naming my sin, looking inside myself at what drives it, and working against those processes. It’s about living into love as my true self, my true identity.
If I’m doing it right, I should be embracing love more fully every day. I should be naming my sin every day because there will always be failures of love. Each day, start fresh. Put behind me whatever I was and set out to be a new creature.
When I was about five years old, I had my first and only unmistakable transcendent experience. I was standing between my mother and my grandmother in church on a Sunday morning. Someone played “Holy, Holy, Holy” on an out of tune piano and we sang. I watched the sun streaming in the windows, shafts of light making the dust sparkle and I felt happy and content.
Then, without warning, there was the sound of a deep rumbling, like the lowest bass note on an organ. It wrapped all around me and in the middle of the whirlwind, there was question: who are you? I answered the question with my name. Two times I answered but the question came again: who are you? I thought, I don’t know. And then it was over.
I’ve never been quite sure how to interpret this experience but there’s something true about it. I am not my name. That much is certain. I am something more than that. Whatever I am is still a small thing. I’m still a little girl in love with the sunlight, enveloped by the hum of the universe. I am that girl and I am a woman striving to be a conduit for that divine love.
And I guess I might be a friend of Leslie’s, too.
Whatever else I am, I am always, always changing.
Annie lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and three children. She has her PhD in Religion from Emory University and has taught Church History at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She is currently working on a book entitled Real Austin: Theology on a Downtown Bus (Cascade Books).