Rachel O'Rourke said of me from the stage at her SPARK women's empowerment summit, by way of introduction and to explain why I was the only man in s theater filled with three hundred women: "James has this beautiful blend of masculine and feminine energy." Those words seeped into my flesh, a reflection of a hope that I couldn't yet name. Rachel named the truth of me, out loud and in public where I couldn't hide.
Like Jacob wrestling the stranger-god until he was blessed with a limp and a new name, I would not let go of seeming contradictions in my faith, my work, and in myself. I have always seen paradoxes as puzzles. The harder they are the bigger they hit of brain candy when the tension releases into the wonder of a both-and synthesized from patience and creativity! Holy fucking shit!
In trying to be a good pastor and a good Christian I took the words of Jesus seriously, that to love my neighbor I must love myself, and to love myself I must love every human as my neighbor, with special care from the privileged and powered given to the marginalized and oppressed.
I took seriously the tension between justice and mercy, truth and love, contained at the naming of the power of the Hebrew divinity and their child Yeshua. I took seriously their claim that I bear the same divine image, as do all my neighbors.
And so I wrestled. I tried to "contain and constrain meaning," which Pádraig Ó Tuama says is the "tense vocation of language," in his sexy Irish accent. For a time I worked on my Grand Unified Theory of Love. I had formulae! I tried to math the shit out of love.
It didn't work out. But I kept trying.
First I had to learn to love myself, and after a hard day at the grocery-mines, as a customer-service emotional cum-dumpster for another thousand or so reactive, wounded people on behalf of a toxic corporation that engaged in less-than-ethical-but-still-technically-legal negotiating practices, that's not easy. For me yoga cleared space for me to hear myself, to practice loving myself (well just liking myself was a challenge at first, but my body basically refused to move after my first shift at the grocery store, so I had to like myself enough to get to work the next day). But that space, sometimes only thirty minutes in a whole day, gave me a sense of balance and progress that I could return to again and again.
I finished my first thirty-day challenge on the Yoga With Adriene YouTube channel on my fortieth birthday. It was on YouTube and at home because I was too steeped in the toxicity to dare go to a public yoga class (that's still on my goals list). I felt like a puppy with a life preserver. I barely made it, but Adriene held space for what I could handle at the time. She taught me the wisdom of meeting my appropriate edge.
Pema Chödrön taught me the wisdom of stillness and meditation. Brené Brown taught me vulnerability and courage. Sara Bareilles taught me to be brave, and Qveen Herby that I'm beautiful. I steeped myself in wisdom gleaned from books from the library consumed along with microwave burritos while sitting outside the corporate greed-factory on my union-mandated breaks.
Mostly I learned from the ancient wisdom of my wife when I had the courage and patience to listen. As I worked to love her I could listen and hear truths that she felt safe enough to name to me. Truths about how women have to cope with pressure and fear every day because of toxic men. First it was Earl, the creepy guy who hit on her when she was eighteen working at an office for the summer in college. I wanted to fight Earl (confession, I've still never come to blows in anger, the closest was a shirt-grabbing match that got very shovey and slouchy).
Since Andrea and I have been married we've worked hard to create a container with intentional check-ins and practices, she has grown in trusting me with the, as she calls it "training" that women pass on as wisdom for navigating the bullshit of the patriarchy. Her gift of sight shared with me has taught me both the naming of the bullshit and the ruining of most movies (because now I can't not notice these things!).
I was trying to enact courage and wisdom, to show up for life as it is rather than as I think it ought to be. And it was the hardest, best thing I've done. It led me to touch the darkness in me that I thought would consume me. But it only blinded me to truth I didn't want to name about myself and the world. Truths about my codependency and fear, about my masculinity and femininity, about my sexuality and relationships, about the privilege I benefited from but wouldn't name.
By journaling daily, doing yoga, practicing meditation, going to counseling, reading constantly, and finding creative outlets (poetry and the Irish tin whistle), I've cultivated a practice of pursuing wisdom and courage. From there I've gradually learned what it looks like for me to take the next best step towards love (I don't know what's beyond the next step because the future where our choices commingle has yet to be made).
It is taking me years of work to disentangle from all the bullshit I'd accepted growing up about how men and women, boys and girls ought to be. I learned early the risks of being soft and loving beauty. I gathered armor to hide the parts of me that were deemed to girly, sissy, pussy, gay, faggy, and queer. And over time my flesh grew into the shell, it became me because I never took it off. But the same armor that protected also suffocated my heart. Anger--besides humor the only acceptable male emotions-- superated from the chinks in my carapace, splashing hot acid on those around me.
But piece by piece I've been peeling away the hardened residue of toxicity, and releasing the patterns that served me when I swam solely in the waters of white supremacy, Christian fundamentalisms, and patriarchy. I'm not done; I'll never be done. The work is in seeing, naming, challenging, and releasing the currents of toxicity, competitive othering, and obligatory self-harm that keep me from swimming in the deep oceans of love.
Over the course of two years since leaving my job as a pastor I've had to release my identity-of-value that I thought made me worthy. I've had to sit with the grief of losing the dream I'd pursued for thirty years, since I first preached as an eleven year old (I talked about what it feels like to not fit in). But my wife and my counselor have helped me to see that dream could use some unpacking and updating. But first I had to see it for what it was: a story I was telling myself.
Seeing our patterns and the stories we tell to reinforce these patterns is the first step to growth and love. Once we see them we can name them for what they are. The dream I built is not my destiny or even the only way to tell my story; I can tell new stories now.
Naming the patterns brings them into the light and shows what's mine to own and what's not. Some of my patterns are pushed by the flow and currents of society, culture, and family. Some are driven by my own stories trying to make sense of a chaotic world. When I name what I see I can disambiguate my internalized white supremacy, sexicm, and homophobia, for example, and begin to move away from the larger societal and cultural currents that reinforce those patterns in me.
Challenging these old untruths is a fight with gravity and entropy; it is ancient and unending. It is to walk into the wilderness, to be unraveled and dismembered, it is the surgery to remove the exoskeleton of fear and shame only to stand naked and true in the searling light of love and acceptance.
First is self-love--naming the truth of your worth into existence, not based on the stories of competitive self-harm or worth based on achievement--by which you allow others the space to love you.
And in that space of love, given and received, we can release the ties of that pattern. Our stories are about how we get love and belonging. Mine was to be a pastor and church planter so I would be loved, so I could earn my belonging. Now I'm learning to write a new story that seeks balance instead of dominance, and finds love in authenticity rather than achievement. It's a story that has echoes of the old one, but resonates with new power. It is a story of wisdom and courage in pursuit of love. It is a story that continues to unfold.
(if you're grateful for these words please let me know)