Notice To Visitors

Visiting my parents’ church at Christmas – or really anytime –  is a problem for me.  Let’s just say it’s complicated. There is too much history, too much spiritual violence that I have witnessed and experienced in my time there. I cannot shake the full-body feel of distinct unwelcome in the space, with the people, and in the liturgy. My coping strategy of attending other, more welcoming churches has become more difficult over the years; my parents seem to understand less and less why I would go to a church other than theirs, even as I become less and less willing to do so.

Earlier in December I attended a retreat with members of one of my “families of choice” on the occasion of one friend’s birthday. We spent a day of creative reflection at the North American Cultural Laboratory in Highland Lake, NY, thinking about work we do in our own lives for social justice, and how we can live more fully into that hope. On the bathroom wall something caught my eye: Henry Miller’s “Notice to visitors,” which he posted on the front door of his Big Sur Home in the 1940s. It is playful and irreverent, welcoming and engaging yet honestly clear in setting the boundaries essential to his continuing his creative practice.  I know little about Henry Miller, other than that he wrote overtly (hetero)sexual books that were banned in the US and that he was a lover of bisexual Anais Nin. Queer perhaps in the political sense. But I was particularly surprised that he offered this closing to his notice:

Let us do our best, even if it gets us nowhere. In the midst of darkness there is light. “I am the light of the world,” said Jesus. He said a mouthful. Light, more light!

At the time I mused at Miller’s behest for  “more light” and especially wondered why I had never seen, or perhaps never noticed, reference to this quote in any MLP writings over the years. I wondered about the relationship between his desire for more light and ours. But what resonated most for me in the context of the retreat was that first bit: Let us do our best, even if it gets us nowhere. This is often the reality of social justice work – since our work in the PCUSA formally began in 1974, how many General Assemblies, how many Sunday School conversations, how many presbytery meetings did we attend, only to witness little perceptible change!

And for all the change MLP has ultimately achieved in recent years, my parents’ church appears unaffected. Its “notice to visitors” is some kind of unspoken Ozzy and Harriet code of white, straight, well-to-do with a thick frosting of denial, which becomes less and less tolerable to me as society and even the PCUSA move on. This year I found the pressure to attend my parents’ church turned up by an invitation to our family to light the Christ candle Christmas Eve. I agreed to go, and to participate by leading a responsive reading based on John 1.  Before the service, we went to the vestry and spoke with the pastor. He did not remember me, which was sadly a relief to me.  A dysfunctional church family that echoes my own, outness so readily denied or forgotten, for appearances’ sake. I figured I’d better not remind him. I tried not to dwell on it but then I saw the children’s ministries director who lied to us when our youth choir director died of AIDS complications in 1984. I cannot escape the haunting reminders.  I stood there in the chancel reading from John 1, my queer body inhabiting the space where homosexuality had been condemned in the wake of the 1991 General Assembly, my very existence an act of resistance. It should not be this way after so much has changed in the national denomination, but it is as if nothing happened here.

But then there was the gift of this very queer text I had before me to read. The Word, once introduced to me as Biblical “proof” of the Trinity in confirmation class, at the time only raised more questions than it answered.  I had the opportunity to consider the text from a very different perspective when I took a class on Gnosticism in college and compared John to the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. We asked what is the relationship between the Logos (Word) in John, Sophia (Wisdom) in Proverbs, and Gnosis (Knowledge), for which the Gnostics are named? How does John’s “I am the Light of the World,“ compare with the Gospel of Thomas’s “It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the all.’”  I remember thinking at the time that Jesus “comes out” with these “I am” statements throughout John, revealing himself to a world that doesn’t get it. In the Gospel of Thomas, this is a matter of life and death: “if you bring forth what is within you; what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”

The gifts of the text from John kept coming.  Proclaiming “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” evoked my retreat with my family of choice and Henry Miller’s Notice to Visitors. And so I read the mysterious words of John 1 with the full force of these layers of meaning built over the years in different communities.  I knew these meanings were not shared by this church family, and the gulf is not likely to be closed. I could do my best, even if it gets us (k)nowhere.  Light, More Light!

By Donna Riley on August 15, 2014
Donna Riley

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