Posted by: HAT | October 8, 2014

Dredge not, that ye be not dredged?

Hi, Gang!

A picture of a rotating dredge as designed by Leonardo da Vinci

How to dredge like Leonardo da Vinci

In the past year or so, I’ve heard people use the metaphor “dredging up the past” a lot, off and on. I usually hear it in reference to the “transition process” my congregation is going through. The “transition” is from one pastor, the last one, to the next one, and it is taking a long time. Being a Presbyterian congregation, at least nominally, we are officially committed to doing things “decently and in order,” at least on the surface. If having a lot of something means you like it, we must like committees and meetings. In the case of pastoral transition, being Presbyterian means calling an interim pastor, conducting a congregational self-study (or self-assessment or mission study – different names, same thing), writing a CIF (congregation information form) and posting it on the denomination’s website, forming a PNC (pastor nominating committee), soliciting pastors’ PIFs (pastor information forms), interviewing candidates, having everything blessed by the COM (Committee on Ministry) of the Presbytery (the governing body that oversees the congregations in a particular area) and ultimately, calling a pastor. If the congregation moves swiftly, that whole process can take as little as 18 months. If not, it can take longer.

In our case, it has been not, at least so far. The last pastor preached his last sermon on February 24, 2013. The interim pastor preached his first one on January 26, 2014. The first specific all-congregation activity that was part of the self-assessment was August 3, 2014; it was the first of 6 weekly classes designed to prepare people to undertake the self-assessment. (My Mom had a saying: “Fixin’ to begin to commence to start.”) The first self-assessment meeting was this past Sunday, October 5. I am not complaining or saying any of this is a Bad Thing. Some Members, however, have been saying we need to get on the fast track already, or at least on a faster one.

One of the things Some Members say along these lines, one reason we don’t need this much time for this “transition process,” is that “we don’t need to dredge up the past.” I heard this again on Sunday. It especially caught my attention, then, too, because I realized, suddenly, that I don’t know what “dredging” means.

I used to think it meant “we don’t want to talk about the past” But on Sunday I realized, suddenly, that people talk about the past a lot. People talk about it voluntarily, happily, proudly and enthusiastically, all the time. Because there were many voluntary, happy, proud and enthusiastic references to the past on Sunday. What we did one time. How long we’ve done this or that thing that we love doing. Remember those Special Members, what they did, what we did together, what that meant, how important and emblematic that was? How that’s an example of who we are, what we’re like? All that voluntary, happy, proud, enthusiastic talk about the past does not seem to qualify as “dredging.”

But, upon reflection, “we don’t need to dredge up the past” also does not seem to mean “we don’t need or want to talk about bad things that happened in the past.” Because people talk about bad experiences that happened in the past pretty often – I’d estimate, at least once a meeting. And if a conversation gets onto church matters, and goes on long enough, in the right mood (relaxed, off the record) and setting (basically private), people will get around pretty readily to some story about something that happened that made them feel bad. Really bad, even. That they’re still even a little, or a lot, hurt by or ticked off about and hope never happens again. People analyze, theorize, share their conclusions, try to understand: “the problem was …”; “what went wrong was …”; “our big mistake was …;” “we should’ve …”; “we should never have …:” If having a lot of something means you like it, we must like discussing some of the bad things that happened in the past. And if “dredging” is something we are tired of and don’t want or need to do, this kind of talk about the past, which we seem not to be tired of and to continue to want or need to do, must not be “dredging.”

So what is “dredging”? I looked it up. According to the National Ocean Survey dredging is “the removal of sediments and debris from the bottom of lakes, rivers, harbors, and other water bodies.” It involves heavy equipment. The metaphor of “dredging up the past” seems to tap into the ideas of making a big, deliberate effort to bring up unpleasant matter, from beneath the surface, exposing it to view.

There are reasons to undertake actual, not metaphorical, dredging. According to the National Ocean Survey again, it’s a routine necessity, either to keep the bodies of water clear for navigation, or to remove pollutants in the sediment that contaminate the water and endanger wildlife. These ideas of movement, and restoration, might be embedded in the metaphor, too – although I don’t think “we don’t want to dredge up the past” means “we don’t want to do what it takes to move forward” or “we don’t want to get rid of the stuff that’s poisoning our life together.” At least not consciously.

In context, it seems to mean something like “we don’t want to have one of those horrible congregational meetings again,” where Some Body thinks “getting it out in the open,” whatever It is, is a good idea, and what ends up happening is that The Faithful sit in a big room looking at one another through their profound and personal, and therefore publicly inexpressible, judgments and passions and furies and anguishes for an hour or two while some ostensible religious professional “facilitates,” and then a bunch of people leave the church. If that’s all dredging means, I, too, vote “no.”

But I still wonder. In a 12-Step program, the purpose of the work on the past – steps 8 and 9, making a list of “all the people we have harmed” and becoming willing to make amends to them all, and then making the amends – is to identify the mess on one’s own side of the street, and clean it up. It probably comes after steps 4-7, the work on one’s own character, for a reason: namely, it’s hard to look at or even see your mess when you are a mess. There are promises in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous associated with those steps:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 3d edition, New York: AA World Services, Inc., 1976, pp. 83-84.)

None of this is “utopian.” The 12 Steps are practical real world measures. (Though they are connected, way back via the Oxford Movement, to a Pauline Christian theology that you might think would be pretty congenial to Presbyterians.) They are grounded in experience, designed to promote spiritual recovery and with it total physical, mental, emotional and social well-being. Their effectiveness is well-attested. Dealing responsibly with one’s own present and one’s own past is core to that program.

I sometimes wonder whether “dealing responsibly with the past” is the “dredging” we don’t want to do. I am pretty sure no one would say, or even intend to say, at least consciously, “we don’t want to go dealing responsibly with the past. We’re tired of that, and we don’t need to do any more of it.” But walking the walk of dealing responsibly with the past, getting clear enough about who and what we are now – regardless of who and what we used to be – to identify not just our strengths but our weaknesses, to recognize character defects that we will need grace to get over, to name people who might have been hurt, including those we ourselves might have hurt, in the processes of coming to be who and what we are now, and becoming willing to make amends for those hurts, and to get to work making those amends – I expect all of that will probably feel dredge-ful, at least at first, and at least from time to time after that.

But it also can’t really be “utopian” to think the church would make the same kind of promises to its members that Alcoholics Anonymous makes to theirs, and make them just as seriously. I wonder how much the experience that those promises “will always materialize if we work for them” depends on dredging up the past, if that’s what you call it, when necessary to get clean and to move forward.

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