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 cliché, 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?

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

Get Real, Get Right.

Like Truman, I had walked to the end of a soundstage, expansive and domed, a manmade construct where I’d dwelled since the day I was born. I followed a once-holy script, so weighted with rewrites the original text seemed illegible, and in its appendix, a map of circuitous arrows. This was a province governed by a trumped-up paranoia, a place where God watched like a hawk with the imperative to smite at any time. He sat high and looked low and, though he was love, He was also a wielder of swords; just the threat of one’s wing or the promise of another sword’s knighthood, whole lives could be held in check. Though the God they’d confined to this land necessitated lifelong service to the poor, the men and women who believed themselves His ambassadors amassed wealth at the people’s expense and boasted often of their riches to impoverished congregations.

These leaders were not like John the Baptist, wild-eyed eccentrics momentarily stricken with doubt but ultimately willing to die for their gospel. They were not like Moses, weary and at times uncertain but obedient even after 40 years of wilderness.

They were more akin to Ananais and Sapphira, apportioning unto themselves not just money, but truth and hope, compassion and power, which belonged to an uncompromised God and, in turn, to an underserved people.

At the edge of the world, at the age of 25, I clawed free, broke through an uncharted dimension. On the journey, many people passed by, headed into the land that I’d left.

I didn’t warn them of the sanctimony that would meet them there, did not tell them that though its pew-sprinting, alter-fainting, frothed-mouthing practices may seem the height of religious freedom, they were not headed for liberty but instead a new snare.

Beyond the only world I’d known, I met many obstacles. Uncharted terrain is always treacherous. I stumbled through jungles, nearly missing the garroting vines. I fielded the unbidden questions, the doubts, the stalking of betrayals so intense I longed for amnesia. And eventually, it came.

I forgot the kind of God I used to worship, a deity diluted and delivered on tin trays through the slats of a confined life. I forgot how it felt to be shackled.

There were seven years of vertigo. Mostly silence. Neither God nor I seemed angry, but we made little effort to connect.

I emerged with a girl, tiny and worshipful in ways that reignited memory. She sways at the lilt of a hymn, lifts her eyes toward a heaven she recognizes, stretches her lithe little arms at the crooning of cantors, opens a door.

I know that, in order to effectively mother her, I must talk to the God she knows, must engage in a faith like hers, must love without suspicion.

So I take her to–of all places–a VFW hall, where men in robes make the sign of the cross over their hearts and minds. A jazz guitarist and his wife lead songs that initiate conversations with God, rather than discussions with each other about how they should converse with God–or how they should feel while doing so. The holy eucharist is shared every week, and questioning is welcome. It is an entirely unfamiliar place. I approach it as the refugee I am, with guardedness and more than a little fear. But louder than the din of my doubt is the prospect of hope.

I am learning unabashed belief from the little girl, whose eyes grow wide during worship, who ceases her busy tinkering during prayer, who smiles at the priest who crosses her before I partake of the sacrament.

These days, I follow her lead. Later, she will follow mine. And someday, she will walk to the edge of the world and feel confident she knows the God who is beyond it.

Get Real, Get Right.