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Temps perdu

18 October 2011

When I was undergraduate, I had to read only the first part of the first volume of the seven volume chef-d’œuvre of Marcel Proust: À la recherché de temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time. If you do not have to read Proust, I would not recommend it, especially in French. However, this first part of the first volume, Combray, contains one of the most marvelous pieces of French literature: the scene with the madeleine. Years after the period of time he is writing about, Proust soaks a piece of a madeleine pastry in a spoonful of a lime infusion. Eating it, he is transported back to his childhood and has vivid memories that inspire 1.5 million words’ worth of reflection.

We all have these “madeleine moments,” where a sensory experience transports us back in time to memories we did not know we still had, or even to rediscover people we did not know we still were deep within. But I had never had as many of these in such a short period of time than I have since coming to divinity school. I had been warned that this would happen by friends in years above me, even before getting here. Divinity school will bring those suppressed demons to the forefront, and force you to look them in the eyes and deal with them. “Yes, yes,” I said, “that is why I am here: to deal with those very demons.”

Oh, little did I know how much harder that would be than I could have ever imagined. The Marquand Gospel Choir sings every other Tuesday  in Chapel and the first time I heard them, the Southern Baptist within me (which I had shoved back into a corner and told never to come back) made himself known. And since then, every other week I revisit that person and look him in the eyes.

But, yesterday, things got real. The theme this week in chapel is “Yes”, God’s affirmation to us at our very core. After a very moving sermon, we sang the song “He Knows My Name”, using gender-neutral language. By the second verse, I had to stop singing. Tears were welling up in my eyes, my voice was giving out, and my hands were trembling. Any song from that period of my life is still laced with undertones of hatred, judgment, and condemnation. But the lyrics themselves communicate the exact opposite:

I have a Maker,
He formed my heart.
Before even time began,
my life was in his hands.

I have a Father,
He calls me His own.
He’ll never leave me,
no matter where I go.

He knows my name,
He knows my every thought,
He sees each tear that falls,
and hears me when I call.

The chords of the song’s introduction immediately brought me back to a place of shame, guilt, and self-hatred of my adolescence. But the “yes” communicated by the lyrics, by the sermon, by the community that was surrounding me singing—the emotions flowing were opposite, intense, and overwhelming. Then the resistance fell, the Spirit rushed in, and God took that scared Southern Baptist inside by the shoulders, looked into his eyes, and said, “Yes.”

Chapel is my madeleine. And what a blessing that is proving to be. Uncomfortable and challenge, yes, but a blessing.

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