NYC Week Seven: When memories flood forward

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

You can’t know who you are until you leave everything you’ve ever known.

Not because being in an unfamiliar place surrounded by unfamiliar people brings you to some basic, almost neanderthal form of yourself. Not because everything new and strange helps you realize the person you’d rather be. Not because the concrete jungle forces you to realize your true strength, smarts, and potential.

We are formed by our pasts. The childhood memories, the adolescent experiences, the formative moments (traumatic and pleasant) from sports games, first jobs, extracurriculars — all of these influence who we are today. And it’s not until all familiar things connected to those memories are stripped away, that we realize how big a part of us they are.

For four years beginning in high school, I worked on a book called Locked about a girl in the foster care system, who finally moves into a home where someone cares for her, but is so crippled by her past experiences — always flashing back to a memory of being beaten or derided — that she doesn’t know how to respond to love. The story was driven by flashbacks, where something in the present time brought a memory flooding forward that was so strong, she couldn’t operate in the moment she was in. This week, I experienced a flashback just like this.

For the afternoon church service on Sunday, Faith Baptist held a church business meeting. The pastor had just announced in the morning message that he and his wife were preparing to launch a new ministry separate from the church, and the meeting was to introduce, via resume, a possible candidate to replace him. Some individuals were upset they hadn’t been told about the pastor’s next step prior to the morning message, and quickly, not even ten minutes into the meeting, the meeting devolved into an argument with accusations and hostile words being thrown from one side, while the other side tried to get a word in without yelling or being equally disrespectful.

It was ugly, and I don’t want to go into the details for a number of reasons: One, those who caused the problem are not representative of the congregation; they’re the people who come Sunday mornings and that’s it. Two, it’s difficult to understand the dynamics of a church business meeting if you’ve never been in one, and if you’re not a Christian, I don’t want any account of one to turn you off to the Gospel. People screw up a lot of things — and one of those things, sadly, is the church. 

I will tell you that this meeting was ugly enough to bring me back to my childhood when, as a seven-year-old in a rural upstate New York town, I experienced the repercussions of a church business meeting gone wrong.

My dad’s a pastor, has been since I was three and a half, and at the same church all these years. Every church has its ups and downs, its goods and bads, and its share of troublemakers, complacent believers, or people too afraid of conflict to speak up and silence those in the wrong.

When I was about seven, if not younger, a man in our town started attending our church. It started off fine and dandy — picture bright sunshine-y meadows, with green grass and dandelions. He engaged with the congregation, came on Wednesday nights, contributed music and guitar-playing. He looked like Santa Claus — fat with a white beard — so he seemed harmless. But somewhere along the timeline, this changed. He wasn’t a member, but he began attending church business meetings and, there, he stirred up trouble.

I was too little to understand exactly how this worked and, of course, I didn’t attend the meetings, but I remember running around in the church yard during one Sunday afternoon meeting and hearing raised voices from inside the sanctuary. Through the stained glass windows, I could hear the adults inside yelling at each other, in some sort of argument over some sort of church/pastoral issue.

When the meeting ended, the trouble had just begun. Home came my parents. Home went the rest of the adults. And later that week, to my home, the parsonage next-door to the church, came the troublemaker — to ring the doorbell, greet my mom when she opened the door, and immediately start yelling at her. This, while my siblings and I (all under the age of twelve) tried to do our schoolwork at the dining room table.

I can’t compare this experience to any instance of domestic abuse — there was no physical damage (though physical threats were sensed) — but seeing my mom screamed at until she retreated in tears, yelled at by a man we’d at first had no problem with and actually liked . . . I couldn’t wrap my mind around it then, and I have a hard time wrapping my mind around it now.

In the past fourteen years, I haven’t spent much time thinking about this episode from my life as a pastor’s kid. Crap happens; people are stupid — that’s pretty much what I left it at. But last week, when the yelling started at Faith Baptist, these memories flooded forward and with them, all the pain I’d never fully dealt with. Immediately, I folded into myself and started crying. Tears flowed straight through the two and a half hour meeting; five hours later, it was still obvious I’d been crying.

When memories flood forward — memories you’ve ignored because you wish they weren’t there, memories with the potential to make you throw your hands up in defeat and say, “forget it,” or to stop you in your tracks, make you forget about your current life — you have three choices: push them back to the recesses, where you kept them before; let them control you (freeze, give up); or let them inform you, by seeking to understand how they impact you today and what purpose God may have for them now or in the future. (This blog post is my attempt at the third.)

My memories paralyzed me for two-plus hours, reducing me to a sopping wet mop of tears incapable of forming a coherent sentence. That fact alone says a lot about the damage done by those experiences.

I’ve been processing since Sunday, writing up thoughts here and there about my memories, my views of the church, my thoughts on God’s perspective (that His pain when the church is divided is even greater than mine). I haven’t come to solid conclusions on myself, yet, but I’m beginning to see where my past — the painful parts — impacts my present. At this point, I can identify myself as a Christian who believes in the importance of involvement in the local church but hesitates to tithe or become a member because of what can happen in business meetings. 

This identification is good. It means I’m conscious of myself, my own memories, and their impacts on me. It also shows I’m aware of contradictions within myself, which translate to areas in which I need to grow. It shows I am capable of taking painful memories, thinking them through, and seeing how they impact me in good and bad ways. I am capable of embracing my past and using it to inform me, rather than allowing it to use and control me.

You can’t know who you are until you leave everything you’ve ever known. I left my church and all the people and settings tied to it and the memories of business meetings there. But in a different church, in a different business meeting, those memories came flooding forward, overwhelming me and forcing me to deal with the pain and hurt, and find a way to make sense of it without giving up on the church, God’s people, or myself.

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Church & business meeting.

Monday: Internship.

Tuesday: Work.

Wednesday: Internship. 1.4 mile run in 10:33. Choir practice and church.

Thursday: Work. Jazz musicians in the subway.

Friday: Work. Attended first half of the dress rehearsal of “The Inner Circle” with a fellow City Limits intern. Peaced out early to get home at a decent hour.

Saturday: Street evangelism with Faith Baptist. Choir practice. I also found out about this conference, which I really want to attend, and I watched this short film which reminded me of Locked:

Sorry, no photos from this week. This is what happens when a girl gets a job and is exhausted just about all the time. Street musicians, though, are the highlights of my days. Make sure to check this out.

Published by meredithsell

Freelance writer and editor. Nerding out over health & fitness, women's history, and untold stories.

2 thoughts on “NYC Week Seven: When memories flood forward

  1. WOW! ‘I am capable of embracing my past and using it to inform me, rather than allowing it to use and control me’ .Amazing insight. Thank you for sharing this. I hope you can go to the conference.


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