Oil and Water (or What Happens in Church Does Not Stay In Church).

The oil clings to everything. It is an intrusion; it follows me home, persists, demands decisions. To be rid of it, scrub the skin. But I do not want to be rid of it; it recalls too many things hallowed. I am not ready to reach up to my forehead and, with one simple swab, remove it.

It has already begun its migration. I’ve touched my face, hugged myself tightly, brushed my fingertips along my daughter’s hair. The oil is omnipresent.

I’ve inhaled this before, as it wafted up from a street vendor’s table, usurping the stalks of Black Love incense and the low-end imitations high-end fragrances. I have seen it in a twist-top vial, its name hastily scrawled and Scotch-taped to the front. Frankincense, it reads, or maybe myrrh.

* * *

In the car, we are three women leaving a service of confirmation: grandmother and mother and child. The windows are rolled against the cool night air, and the fragrance rushes ’round floor and ceiling. It occurs to me then that, like so many things at churches, the oil is decidedly masculine.

I am thinking over what was said, deciding whether I feel betrayed, wondering if everyone’s looks of concern afterward meant that, now, they see me as a danger to myself.

They would not be entirely wrong.

Scent is an association. We are our associations.

The last man I dated smelled of deodorant and fabric softener, which means, for better or worse, I pine for him as often as I pass any clean man in freshly laundered clothes. Before him: a man whose scent recalled potting soil; for eight years, I tried to plant sustainable things. I do not remember the smell of the preceding man — perhaps line kitchen and bar soap; I was rarely with him and, at the six-month-mark, eager to leave. And my first boyfriend, the 24-year-old I dated at 18, always smelled of an oil, something airy, almost unisex, rarely overpowering.

My father smells of aftershave and cologne with aggressive top notes. What he wears is not oil- but alcohol-based. It absorbs, burns off, rarely lingers.

* * *

The five of us who had taken adult bible class for three weeks stand gathered ’round the altar when called. Our regional bishop, having traveled from the Midwest for this purpose, is seated, a pillow at his feet. This is where we are to kneel when it is time. He takes the three on the left first; they are being received, not confirmed. They are already of this denomination and now they are joining this parish. They, like 98 percent of our small congregation, are white.

My mother and I are aloft, on the other side of the aisle. In our 30 years of churchgoing, we have never been part of a denomination. I am here because I like the liturgy. I am here for the parts of this I can comprehend — and also for the marvels we are happy to leave unexplained.

There are four priests in front of us, standing at the seated bishop’s right. On his left is our pastor. He has instructed the four to impart “a word” to each of us, if they feel led.

I know what is coming.

The three people being received kneel when called, and the bishop presses a cross of oil onto their heads. He tells them about their lives: you are hurting; you have a gentle spirit; you’ve overcome something insurmountable; you are going to serve faithfully here. He has lifted a veil on their futures, glimpsed in, and backed away. They are discreetly weeping, but mostly composed.

Prophecy makes me uncomfortable. It has since I was nine and a young visiting minister stopped mid-sermon to ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him: an author, and he told he several things: that I would not be like other children, that I would write many books, that I would never have a day of lack. It was recorded and I kept the cassette till college.

I do not like predictions; they apply an uncomfortable pressure.

I am 33, unpublished, and I often feel invisible, the very definition of ordinary, even as I know I am not.

Also, I have not been behaving. If obedience is better than sacrifice, my life is often a landscape of lack. I have tried out autonomy, doing as I wish, loving who I want, in whichever ways seem right. I have not followed the letter of the law.

So I know what’s coming.

* * *

In the churches of my youth, prophecy began with “I hear the Lord saying,” and ended with any number of messages, though the most memorable were “rebukes.” No one wanted to be rebuked; it meant someone would have to “pray a spirit off” of you — and there were spirits for everything. Spirit of poverty, spirit of promiscuity, spirit of depression or rebellion.

I had few greater fears while sitting in service than when a minister paced the aisles, pointing out congregants and calling them to stand or walk toward the pulpit for prophecy.

This is, in many measurable, relief-filled ways, a different kind of church.

But I know how I live. The blank after, “I hear the Lord saying…” could fill with flotsam fairly quickly.

I kneel when it is time. The bishop rests his hands on mine, says that what he sees is compassion. This is not what I thought was coming: he says that I have a good heart.

There are other things about hardship, how I’ve seen some, how I’m likely to see more. And then, it becomes about men. Perhaps I’ve been abused; abuse comes in many forms. He says that I do not trust men, that it is hardest to find love in men who have not been fathered. “So many men haven’t been fathered….”

There is more, but I am crying and thinking and wondering where You are. I am wondering if even this can be trusted, when another priest jumps in to say I’ve been searching here and there for comfort — any kind of comfort. The comfort God gives will not leave you, he says.

This is what I expected: to be told, in front of onlookers, that I have unresolved father issues, that I’ve become the classic looking-for-love-in-all-the-wrong-places clich√©, that I need, in some fundamental way, to change.

The priests are not wrong.

Yet another chimes in and says that a wall I’ve built is breaking tonight. This, I have also heard in churches before. I have heard about my walls, everywhere, for all my life.

I am no skeptic. But I do not like feeling so exposed. And I do not understand why anyone would want to be told by relative strangers, before a cloud of witnesses, what lies in the reddest, sorest recesses of her heart.

The bishop says he feels led to embrace me and when he does, as all look on, I cry a bit harder into the folds of his crimson and ivory vestments. I am not sure why; I am exactly sure why.

This has been my experience of faith: to remain ever uncertain and to be certainly present.

In this way, I, myself, am the oil, meant to stain and to blur and to stay.

* * *

Lord, You’ve been a long haul, and I’ve been resistant. Your burden has not felt light. To feel as weightless and unyoked as I should, I would need to more of what happens in church demystified. Prophecy has always made that difficult, itself an act that mystifies.

You know better than most that I do not mean to be resistant. Were I a simpler woman, I would float along the water, or better, I would walk upon its surface. I’d let you bear me up. Were I uncomplicated, all the wounds that were reopened would be healed in the rushing current. Instead I am a slick, amorphous; I am moving in ways I can’t control.

And yet again, I’m left asking You: can living water ever commingle with oil?

Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice.

Christmas hasn’t been a favorite holiday of mine since I was a child. It feels claustrophobic and excessive and so, so impossibly gaudy and red. But the pocket of time between 25th to the 1st has always been hallowed for me. I treat it with seriousness and give myself wholly to reflection: on the Nativity; on the subsequent Massacre of the Innocents; on those who go hungry; on the children who have to square their shoulders, lift their chins, puff their chests, and let their eyes become stones, when they awake on Christmas morn to the same bleak cots in a shelter, to the same loss or absence that claimed a parent near some Christmas past; to the same dearth of gifts or of cheer.

Joy does not always come easily to the world these days. And despite our best efforts to tinsel over everything that ails us and others, there are many who cannot forget their struggles through caroling or office holiday parties or heavily spiked punch and nog.

What is so heartening is how vigorously we try. Every year, we volunteer; purchase that extra unwrapped toy to take to the nearest giveaway station; write checks for international causes; give bonuses to civil servants; reconcile with estranged loved ones; make peace with our long-feuding neighbors; light candles and place them in our windows, as if to alert to all who pass by: Cheer is welcome here. Hope is present here.

If you read this blog often, you know well that I am big proponent of hope. And the last week of a year seems to be when mankind is most open to it. We have suspended our cynicism, in preparation for the swell of possibility every countdown to a new year provides. And suddenly, the world’s ills seem solvable.¬†Galvanization seems sustainable. True love seems well within our grasp. And every dream in default is made current.

The New Year is the Great Equalizer. Even for those for whom the holidays feel unbearable, there is a great sense of relief at their coming and going. It means that there is something we can definitively put behind us. It means there is a mystery. For all we know, this is year we will finally feel at home; we will sail the seas; we will find a job; we will beat a repossession, a foreclosure, an eviction; we will graduate; we will marry.

This is the year that will satisfy some large and persistent longing.

For me, the end of the year is about eradicating regret. It’s about our realization and, perhaps, our relief that we come here, to this earth, in part, to falter. It is the only thing that earns us empathy and humbleness. Whatever the next annum will bring, it will certainly include our mistakes. Often, the mistakes–more than any of the things we get right–are what carry us to the next year’s shore, altered, enlightened, matured.

And that, more than lit trees, wrapped gifts, and a cheery array of confections, is worthy of the effort it may take to rejoice.

Constants for the Wanderer: Mali Music.

I hadn’t heard of Mali Music before the Gospel Music Channel started incessantly airing Deitrick Haddon’s debut feature film, Blessed and Cursed, which I LOVE for reasons that could probably fill a whole other post. Another day. But yeah, Mali Music played Deitrick’s cohort who “backslides” because he experiences a betrayal as a member of Deitrick’s choir. He then becomes instrumental in setting Deitrick’s character up, inviting him to a club where he encourages him to get completely smashed, while someone tapes the whole drunken mess and takes it back to the Bishop who employed him as a worship leader.

Mali Music doesn’t have very many lines. His most memorable one is something along the lines of, “I’m sick of church. I’m sick of gospel. I’m sick of Bishop. I’m done.”

While I’ve never been there, I understand.

My mother’s marriage fell apart while she and my stepfather were serving as part of our church leadership staff. At the time, I was writing and performing a lot of Christian spoken word—this was before it was en vogue; it was almost unheard of back then, in 1999 and 2000. Arts ministries are relatively new and while drama and liturgical dance were in full bloom, poetry was just becoming a viable ministry medium.

So our family was high profile at our local assembly. My parents were well-liked, sought after, even, when congregants had problems they wanted discussed with discretion, compassion, and respect. And I was kind of this retreating enigma–as soon as church dismissed, I tended to duck out to the car and hide while my parents spent an hour or more post-church-socializing–until I was behind a microphone on the pulpit, rapid-fire reciting admonitions and observations about the crumbling state of the church. (It was your typical fare: get right, we’re too judgmental, be who God made you, don’t conform… but it was delivered so quickly no one caught that it was kind of critical.)

I got a lot of, “When you gon’ write me a poem?” and a lot of requests for performances–at weddings, children’s birthday parties, and funerals. I even did a housewarming once. I felt defined by what people called My Gift, as though I wasn’t much more to anyone than a performer–and a niche one at that, only marketed to church groups and youth conferences.

So I stopped.

My parents left our church. A year or so later, they broke up altogether. I felt like I couldn’t discuss that with anyone at church—it would’ve been a betrayal to my parents, who were still held in high regard by the congregants—but it was a really difficult time for me. Their whole 11-year marriage had been a difficult time for me. And though I enjoyed church–the hallowed way I felt upon entering, the utterly cleansed way I felt walking out, the warm embraces of people who didn’t know my secrets and didn’t need to, to be warm and welcoming–I was always quietly recoiling from it.

I didn’t belong. Anyone who attended church with me, at any point in my life, would disagree. I was a model church member. I dutifully turned to scriptures, took copious notes, highlighted key verses. I raised my hand to answer biblical questions in youth group. I performed at church block parties and washed cars to raise money for the building fund. I passed out bag lunches and Chick tracts to the community. I told strangers that Jesus loved them. I made my all my decisions, particularly those related to private and public conduct, with the very earnest belief that I was being constantly surveilled—by Christ, a nearby congregant, or both.

And these things did give me great joy. I loved everyone I prayed and worked and believed alongside.

But I never felt like I was one of them. My mind was always somewhere else, concocting stories. Writing about “secular things.” I didn’t have much interest in only being a Christian poet or a Christian novelist or a Christian anything. I tried it, making sure that all my stories had a wayward, tortured soul who had a conversion experience by narrative’s end and all my poems referenced scriptures and the Savior. But that felt false somehow–or if not false, then certainly forced. I wanted to use the gifts and talents God knew I’d have when He created me, in any way I saw fit. I didn’t feel a responsibility to contain them, so that they were only functional within a Youth Sunday or special service context.

I just wanted to be a citizen of the world, a writer, a wanderer. I wanted to be like Jesus: everywhere and ever speaking in parables.

But how do you explain that without sounding like a heretic?

You don’t.

You don’t.

But back to Mali Music. I was struck by his character’s frustration in Blessed and Cursed. It stemmed, as a lot of frustration does, from being misunderstood, from being treated with distrust when your intentions are noble. And his response to that frustration was, like mine, the wrong one.

I don’t know much about this artist yet. Sunday, he appeared on the BET Awards, in one of its Music Matters segments. In a post-awards interview, some artist who performed on Music Matters last year, said of Mali Music, whose name he didn’t remember, “His performance gave me chills.” It was unclear whether or not he knew that Mali Music was a Christian artist; it seemed that he didn’t. But he was moved, repeating that phrase twice: “gave me chills,” in a tone that suggested that he didn’t understand how it had happened.

I was on Twitter when he performed, and my timeline had a similar response: “Googling Mali Music.” and “I didn’t know this cat was gospel. He’s not wack.”

I began to feel about him the way I feel about anyone I encounter these days who has cracked the code, who’s found a way to be like Jesus–a citizen of the world, a philosopher/artist/thinker, a wanderer–everywhere and ever speaking in parables–without being confined or cast out.

I think, “Good for him.” I think, “That could be me.”

This morning, I found a song of his from two years ago: “Foolish.” It’s part of a project I didn’t know existed, called Gumbo Red. And the lyrics convey that resonant frustration, this idea that people have to be who we expect them to be in order to be ministerial or even Christian: seminary graduates, skilled musicians, scripture memorizers. The through-line is that God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, which is a scripture oft-misinterpreted, if you ask me. Sometimes, people just trot this verse out when they want to use an Isley Brothers sample in a gospel song.

But this song seems to get the scripture right–at least as I understand it. Sometimes the role of art in the Great Commission is just to leave someone feeling moved, without expressly stating why you’re able to do it. This seems to be something Mali Music understands.

There’s another piece to this, involving the Holy Hip-Hop Movement that got its start a few years before I started reading poetry at church and how Mali Music definitely seems to exist within the confines context of that movement, even as his work seems to transcend it. But again: different post, different day.