One thing we’re told when preparing to preach is that you have to maintain an appropriate emotional distance between yourself and your subject. You don’t want to be too distant, because if you don’t care about your topic, why should your congregation care? But if you speak about something that you are too close to, your vision is compromised, or if it is an event or a trip that happened too recently, you might not have had enough time to fully process everything. So wait, we are told, until you have the proper distance before you bring it up in the pulpit.
It’s good advice. And being a student, my pulpit time is rather limited. So when I am offered a chance to preach, it’s not too difficult for me to find topics where I can keep an appropriate distance.
Yet here I have this blog. In a sense, this is my pulpit, and you, dear reader, are my congregation. At the same time, this blog functions as something of a personal journal for me, and you are the friends I invite to read along. On the one hand, I want to keep an appropriate distance; on the other hand, I want to present my thoughts and feelings to you, fresh from the world in which they were created.
That is the main reason I started this blog last summer. I wanted you to be able to come along on my journey, to experience my travels with me, whether they took place on the other side of the world or in my own living room. I endeavor to do you the service of not serving anything completely raw; to use the Emersonian phrase, I pass it first through the fire of thought. There have been some entries where an immediate, unprocessed update was more powerful than if I had waited; and there have been other entries that weren’t posted until weeks after I had originally drafted them.
My point is that distance is a tricky thing.
When I was blogging from Chiapas, Mexico last June, I spent every moment of free time writing. When I wasn’t near my computer (which I kept hidden in our hotel room), I carried around a journal and had a pencil tucked behind my ear, ready to jot down notes or transcribe an entire presentation for future reference. I stayed up well past bedtime trying to get everything written.
Everyone assured me that I didn’t have to be working so hard to get everything written; there was no requirement asking me to do so. It wasn’t even part of my grade for the class. But my response was this: “I want to get everything written down while I still have the language that’s available to me here.” Sitting in a cafe, surrounded by people who didn’t speak my language, whose skin and hair did not look like mine, whose money had a stranger’s face on it, whose food tasted different, and whose landscape was foreign to anything I’d seen before—that was where I stayed until the blog was finished. I used the words that my context provided for me, and I think my writing was stronger for it.
Then in July and August, I roadtripped to Phoenix and back. I posted every day to this blog, mainly to let concerned friends and family know that I was alive and hadn’t been kidnapped by a psychopath while I filled up my gas tank. It started out with entries that sounded mostly like travel writing (I saw a rainbow and some prairie dogs/Cows here aren’t like cows in Wisconsin/Did you know Utah is pretty? etc.).
Then I arrived in Phoenix, and entries took on a much more immediate political bent. I posted daily at that point to give updates on the protests and my reaction to having spent the night in jail. I had no distance between what I was feeling and what I was writing here at that point. I remember being a little frustrated, even, that I couldn’t get out of my own head long enough to process and post updates about what was happening with other people in the protests—I could only see what was happening to me. That was fine for a personal blog, but that’s exactly what we are told to avoid when preaching from the pulpit.
My trip to the Philippines wasn’t like any of my previous experiences, specifically when it came to blogging. Simply put, there was no opportunity to blog. I tried to give it the attention and dedication that I had practiced during my Chiapas trip, but everything just kept slipping through my fingers. Even my ability to take notes by hand was made difficult by language barriers. I worried that I was failing myself by not blogging, that I would get home and remember nothing, that my friends and readers back home would not have a chance to hear the stories that were so important to the people who shared them with us.
I worried about the distance.
Now I sit in my living room, listening to the electric hum of my refrigerator and the background silence of a dry winter night, trying to take my mind back to the sun and the rain and the sand and the noise and the crowds and the food of just two weeks ago. It seems so very far away. So distant.
Even so, it is there. Like a quiet song in my heart, I can hear the words that want to be used, and I wonder if, perhaps, this distance has allowed me to process my experiences into something stronger. I plan to write those words for you, dear reader. And I invite you, once again, to come along on this retrospective journey as I attempt to close that distance.