Tag: Church

30Jul

Cracking My Shins on Wildflowers

This last Sunday, we went to our church for the first time in two months. “Are the Bassetts actually here today?” one lady asked us, feigning shock. “No,” I said, and we all laughed. I was only half-joking though. I was there, but not all there, and for that, I blame the wildflowers.

Wildflower altar 2

I started reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World on our vacation earlier this month, but I didn’t make it very far because I kept returning to the first chapter over and over for refills of the same heady draft. The chapter is about cultivating an awareness of God in the world, and in it, Taylor (Brown Taylor? BBT? B to the Bitty?) follows a line of thought that rang at the frequency of my own heart during our time in the Italian Alps:

“What happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls—even four gorgeous walls—cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees?… Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”

Wildflower altar 3

I cracked my shin on an altar pretty much the minute we stepped out of our hotel in Sestriere, an alpine village so far west of Turin that it’s nearly in France. I had to look that last bit up on Google Maps, by the way. My sense of geography is marvelously awful. All I knew of location while we were there was that we had stepped onto the dance floor where earth and sky practice sweeping each other off their feet, and that’s all I cared to know.

Wildflower altar 4

We hiked every day, unable to stay indoors a moment longer than necessary, and while the girls skipped ahead gathering bouquets and improvising marching songs to the tune of “Let It Go,” I planted myself in wildflower meadows. More accurately, my soul planted me there. It wound roots down through my kneecaps and into the ground, anchoring me in a posture to notice flower couture, the stunning individuality of petals, the communion of velvet-trimmed bees, and the extravagance of it all there, untended and largely unseen, the original guerrilla art knit across the mountainside.

Wildflower altar 5

There is no path to reverence quite like realizing you are it—the one guest at the gallery opening, the sole occupant of the chapel, the only human being who will ever brush against this exact strain of beauty. I am the only person in existence, past or future, to photograph those flowers above; even flopped there on my stomach with camera in hand, I couldn’t quite absorb the whole of it. I didn’t need to though. I didn’t even want to, truth be told. For all of my devotion to reason and fact, I still like to take a hit of undiluted awe every once in a while.

Wildflower altar 6

“Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces?” BBT asks, prompting a little fist-bump of recognition from my heart. I realize that church is many different things to many different people, but I personally look to it as a mind-elevator—something that will draw my perspective back into the bigger but less visible realm in which God-with-us changes everything. Sometimes actual church accomplishes this, but other times it’s a meal with friends or an act of selflessness or a line of poetry said aloud under the stars or a line of music so lovely I fall straight into it. Or a field of wildflowers hidden up in the Italian Alps just for me to find.

Wildflower altar 7

16May

Curse-Word Hymns

One of the best things about road-tripping with Dan is getting those long, uninterrupted miles of time to talk. Early in our relationship, I worried that we’d eventually run out of things to say to each other, and I suppose there’s some validity in that. After all, we live together and work together and can pretty much catch up on each other’s news over a three-minute espresso break. Our day-to-day interactions tend to cluster around the present though—how work projects are going, what to do about Parenting Challenge #5,000,008, which brand of toothpaste is on sale at the grocery store, who’s going to take one for the team and vacuum—and while these are all incredibly glamorous and sexy topics to be sure, they don’t exactly cover the scope of human communication.

In eleven years of marriage, we haven’t left many conversational stones unturned, but coming back to them is always a new experience. I’ve changed so much in the past decade. My views on any given subject are liable to be 180º degrees from what they were when we first talked through it, and part of me feels guilty over that, as if I got Dan to choose me based on false advertising. His love has proven to be expansive though, more than enough to cover all the different iterations of me. Through Dan’s unconditional fondness for me, I’ve been able to grasp the idea of a spacious God… and that’s where one of our road-trip conversations led us last weekend.

We were talking about how people commune with God, and I confessed that no matter how much I’ve tried over the last several years, I just cannot get my soul to click with religious music anymore. Christian bands, worship songs, pretty much any churchy phrases set to chords chafe at me like an outgrown hat. This makes me sad sometimes. I remember what it was like to agree with my heart and my vocal cords with the sentiments of an entire congregation, to float out of my body on the strains of communal devotion. I don’t have that anymore.

But talking with my husband about it helped me re-remember for the umpteenth time that I don’t have to fit in a mold to love and be loved by God. I don’t have to speak or think or vote like a stereotypical Christian (whatever that might be) in order to align my life with Jesus. I don’t have to accept traditional spiritual practices as the only way. And I don’t have to connect with “religious music” to have a religious musical experience. In the end, this thrills me far more than it saddens me. Finding God in unexpected places makes spirituality real to me in a way that predictable experiences never do, so if God is meeting me through rap rather than hymns, I can only take that as proof that my ever-changing self is still very much covered by love.

I haven’t done a Non-Churchy Songs for the Soul roundup in a while, but today feels just right for sharing eight more unconventional tracks that are pulling at my soul-strings these days:

1. Glósóli by Sigur Rós
I can’t watch this video without crying. I know that drum-beating rescuer with the kind eyes, don’t you see. This is the story of Jesus… and of the tremulous hope, the rag-tag trust, and the dizzying joy of freedom that have become my story too.

“And here you are, Glowing Sun,
And here you are, Glowing Sun,
And here you are, Glowing Sun,
And here you are…”

2. Rambling Man by Laura Marling
All of Laura’s songs are poetry, but this one in particular folds me into a higher mindset. It’s introspection and self-evaluation and a determined authenticity, and the video above should give you a clue as to how I interpret the rambling life.

“It’s a cold and a pale affair,
And I’ll be damned if I’ll be found there.
Oh give me to a rambling man,
Let it always be known that I was who I am.”

3. Starting Over by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
I have proven myself incapable of doing anything but sitting up to listen when Macklemore’s on the stereo. This track is one of the best biographies of grace I’ve ever heard, and it always makes me grateful for the hard, beautiful work of being human together. (Just a heads up that this song involves decidedly non-churchy language.)

“We fall so hard,
Now we gotta get back what we lost.
I thought you’d gone,
But you were with me all along.”

4. I Want to be Well by Sufjan Stevens
I’ve posted this song before because it so fully expresses my gut feelings/thoughts/prayers when PTSD yanks my breath out from under me. (Note: The following does not involve polite language either.) What comes to mind when I listen to it is a question from the Bible that Jesus asked a lifelong invalid: “Do you want to get well?” How many times had that man wailed to God, “I’m not fucking around”? And to learn, after all those years, that neither was God…

 “I want to be well, I want to be well,
I want to be well, I want to be well.
I’m not fucking around, I’m not, I’m not,
I’m not fucking around.”

5. Me and God by The Avett Brothers
Now, you know I’ve got to love anyone who admits to using curse words when they pray. (See: previous two songs.) I can still remember what it was like to read in the Bible, of all places, that God just wanted our honest, simple selves—no church-sanctioned polish, no middle men on pedestals, just us. The relief of it still makes me grin wide.

 “Well I found God in a soft woman’s hair,
A long day’s work and a good sittin’ chair,
The ups and downs of the treble clef lines,
And five miles ago on an interstate sign.
My God, my God and I don’t need a middle man.”

6. When Death Dies by Gungor
I’m fudging my own rules to include this self-proclaimed Christian band on the list, but I’ve never heard a beat-boxing cellist at church, so I think you’ll forgive me. This song is everything I believe about heaven, everything I believe we get to dream of one day.

 “Where it comes, poor men feast.
Kings fall down to their knees.
When death dies, all things live,
All things live.”

7. Bible Belt by Dry the River
This is another one that speaks directly to my experience growing up under fundamentalism. It’s sad and beautiful and ultimately shining bright with the hope that comes of bravery and companionship. And if I said that Jesus was the one waiting for me on the 5:45 to whisk me away from the Bible Belt, would you believe me?

“Cause we’ve been through worse than this before we could talk.
The trick of it is, don’t be afraid anymore.”

8. Take Up Your Spade by Sarah Watkins
Sarah’s always had a way of making life sound uncomplicated and pure, and this little hymn to new days and new grace helps get me out of bed when the morning dawns heavy. Plus, that’s Fiona Apple singing with her. Perfection.

 “Shake off your shoes, leave yesterday behind you,
Shake off your shoes but forget not where you’ve been,
Shake off your shoes, forgive and be forgiven;
Take up your spade and break ground.”

What about you? Any songs been tugging at your soul-strings lately?

Previous roundups:

Sweaty Horns, Cracking Voices

Reggae and Redemption

Upside-Down Art: Jaw Harp Jam

22Oct

Family Resemblance

The speaker this past Sunday morning came as close as anyone ever does in our quiet Italian-Brethren church to thundering from the pulpit. My ears, grown allergic over the decades to Preacher Voice, clamped down in a protective gesture around my mind so that I only caught snatches. Something about how the people sitting in the back were showing indifference to God. Something about the proper protocol for coming to meet with the King. Something about all those noisy children, the heads of households not taking enough control. 

I didn’t hear any more; I just saw. White, then red, then white again. The speaker’s words had flown direct as an arrow from his front-row domain to my pew in the family section at the back and pierced old wounds of mine with uncanny precision. I might have gotten up and walked out if that wouldn’t have seemed to reinforce his point. Besides, far too much attention was already being directed to the back, to We The Young Parents, to we the irrelevant and the irreverent. The last thing I wanted was additional scrutiny. I just wanted the Sunday morning spotlight to lose its fixation on me.

For a university writing class nearly ten years ago, I wrote a poem called Preacher’s Kid. I cringe now at how one-dimensional and bitter it comes across, but the creative exercise provided relief that I dearly needed at the time. In it, I strung together the many dos and don’ts that had dictated my childhood behavior at church. Clothing, facial expressions, speech, movements—every last detail of appearance was accounted for and regimented under the eyes of God. If I didn’t wear a frilly enough dress or if I ran in the hallway or if I didn’t sit close enough to the front or if my younger siblings made noise while in my care, it was counted unto me as unrighteousness, a personal affront to the King we had come to impress.

No matter how many times I heard 1 Samuel 16:7—“Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”—I sensed that it didn’t hold any water inside our church doors. Appearance was everything when it came to communal encounters with God. Wear the wrong thing or use the wrong jargon or lift your hands during the wrong song, and you could dismantle the painstakingly curated spiritual atmosphere in one fell swoop. And we children, with our high energy levels and short attention spans, were the worst offenders. At least, that’s how I understood things. It’s hard to sort out in retrospect which guiding principles of my childhood were church policy, which were merely the opinions of church members, which were unique to my fundamentalist family, and which were constructs of my own vivid imagination. The result was the same however: I felt welcome in church only if my appearance fit a particular mold.

Do you know what that kind of thinking can do to a young girl? How deeply it can lodge the barbs of conditional love into her frame of reference? How much anxiety and shame it can infuse into her perception of God?

I could recite dozens of New Testament passages from memory as a girl, but only as an adult did I start to catch sight of their protagonist. Jesus, teaching his followers to approach God with as much simplicity and honesty as they could muster. Jesus, holding up the disruptive children his helpers had shooed away as examples for the adults to follow. Jesus, scandalizing the religious community by choosing people over protocol. Jesus, encouraging soul-thirsty crowds to stop worrying about what to wear.

The Jesus I found in adulthood gave me permission to unlearn all those crushing childhood lessons about God and love and religious etiquette. Still, old habits die hard, and I’ve never stopped having to consciously shrug off appearance anxiety when I walk into a church. Sometimes, fellow churchgoers help me shed that burden more easily with their wide-flung smiles, the way they dote on my girls, or their delighted off-pitch singing. Other times, well-meaning congregants can make things worse, such as when they pointedly insist that I study up on Christian modesty or when they rate my devotion to God by my proximity to the stage.

In my six years here, I can’t recall seeing Sunday morning’s speaker ever sit in the section of the auditorium that has him so fired up… but I have logged plenty of services in those back few pews, and when I look around me, this is what I see:

I see babies—fussy babies, giggling babies, babies trying to share slobbery bites of cookie with each other, babies shrieking with the joy or indignation of any given moment, babies missing their naptimes, babies who want more than anything in the world to try out their awesome new walking skills on the center aisle. (Every once in a blue moon, I’ll even catch a baby sleeping. Their heads of household always look distinctly relieved.)

I see children intent at work on coloring books, children singing along to hymns they only half know, children like my serious-minded eight-year-old absorbed in storybooks, and children like my energetic five–year-old dropping Zoobles under the pews and occasionally forgetting to whisper. I see children quietly snuggling with their parents and children vibrating with pent-up enthusiasm. I see children who picked out their own outfits for church.

I see their parents—moms rocking spit-up stains on their sweaters, dads trying desperately to guess which toy their baby is squawking for, couples who were twenty minutes late getting out the door but came anyway. I see the sleep-deprivation pouches under their eyes, the ripples of annoyance that our church has no nursery, the complete adoration they feel for the small squirming humans next to them, the effort that goes into managing their children’s church experience while trying to have one of their own.

And I see myself, a girl who spent years sitting in the front rows for all to see and to evaluate, a woman who now clings to the truth of unconditional acceptance even when it goes against policy, a mom who is unwilling to perpetuate the same cycle of legalism with her own children, and a church member who sees Jesus most clearly in the merry disruption of the back pews.

We don’t come to church to “meet the King,” a phrase implying pomp and ceremony and a discouraging sense of rarity. Neither do we come to church to shine spotlights on each other’s weary heads. Instead, we come to church the way families come together for Thanksgiving dinner, a welcome reunion of relatives who wouldn’t necessarily want to live together but are nonetheless united in their enjoyment of the feast.

That’s how I got through Sunday’s sermon in the end. I stopped picturing the speaker as legalism’s bowman and instead thought of him as an eccentric great uncle who is so far removed from childhood that he can no longer remember why we allow children at the table. Maybe pomp and ceremony are what get him out of bed on Sunday mornings, and those of us with our focus ping-ponging between devotion and dropped Cheerios tarnish some of the glitter for him. Maybe he has the same allergic reaction to crying babies that I have to Preacher Voice. Maybe the spotlight has too often lingered on him and he felt he needed to redirect the flow of criticism. Whatever the case, he was simply trying to promote the conditions that help him best enjoy the feast. He wasn’t purposefully seeking to hurt or alienate anyone.

So there we were on Sunday morning—the squealing babies, the rambunctious kids, the distracted parents, and the irritated great uncle—gathered around a common table to savor different elements of the same celebration. My ears stayed closed (sometimes keeping the peace requires turning down one’s hearing aid for a while), but my eyes stayed open, and you can’t continue seeing red for long when you choose to focus on family resemblance instead.

18Oct

Back When Jesus Wore JNCOs

In the end, I don’t know which is harder for me to process: my trigger-happy cynicism over religious light and sound shows, gimmicky church programs, and spirituality styled as peer pressure… or the fact that each of those things was beautifully instrumental in helping me survive my teens.

~~~

This is not something I’d ever imagined myself writing about. Religion has the power to stir up Big Feelings like few other topics do, and those times I do venture to share my own patchwork spirituality leave me with what Brené Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover.” You would not believe how many naps I need after posting my thoughts on gender equality in the church or showing glimpses into my fundamentalist childhood. I agonize over how others will take my beliefs, those delicate links of conviction and hope forged from a painful past. Even if readers think I’m crazy, I long for them at least to understand my heart.

But what happens when I’m the one recoiling from the crazy?

However fragile I may feel after opening up about my current beliefs or about the ones forced on me long ago, it is nothing compared with how I feel about the period between. If I even so much as look at one of my journals from the mid to late ‘90s, the emotional reaction that comes over me is not unlike that of Sideshow Bob stepping on a series of rakes:

Those were the days of second-wave Jesus freaks—long-haired Christian rockers with chains swinging from their low-slung JNCOs, curvaceous pony-tailed cheerleaders with fish decals on their convertibles, goateed pastors who turned youth group annexes into coffee house/rave hybrids so that kids could meet God over steaming bowls of cappuccino in the trippy purple of black lights. And I loved it. There is no getting around or glossing over my fervor for the Evangelical Christian culture of the ‘90s; I was all in.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the ways I embraced my affiliation with that era:

  • By performing interpretive dances to Jaci Velasquez, Jars of Clay, and Newsboys songs with other members of my church youth group (thanks be to God that were no camera phones or Vine accounts back then)
  • By memorizing every word in the neon green CD inserts of my favorite bands, often while doodling chest hair and ballpoint-black nail polish onto their photos
  • By dutifully filling out every page of my spiral-bound teen devotional (though I was stumped by the just-for-fun activity page on “emoticons;” :I clearly stood for Indifferent, what the hey were the others supposed to be??)

 Student Plan It Calendar 98-99
You guys. I even still have the CD.

  • By re-selling boxes of a newfangled food product called Krispy Kreme to fellow churchgoers to raise money for my Teen Mania mission trips
  • By journaling all sorts of cryptic poems and drawings so that if I was ever martyred at a prayer rally, people would be able to take great meaning and closure from the symbolism therein (though it’s hard to remember what I thought a bereaved community would get out of a poorly sketched Garfield asleep on a lasagna of souls)
  • By closing my eyes in a darkened room full of thousands of teens and fearfully loud, wonderfully loud music and feeling the promise of heaven reverberate through me with each strum of the bass guitar

The teenage years were incredibly hard for me. Even in our church youth group, I was a social leper, my naivety from growing up a homeschooled fundamentalist not exactly scoring me points with the cool kids. I participated in everything I could, but friends were few and far between, and my most Christian-y peers were often the cruelest to me. Things were no better at home. The reality of our family life drove me to suicidal face-offs with God, his imagined replies transcribed in words-of-Jesus red ink on journal pages spotted with tears. My chest wasn’t growing fast enough, my on-again off-again boyfriend was playing me like the relational chump I was, and the version of God my parents subscribed to hated my stupid teenage guts. My life sucked… if, of course, you were to raise the word “sucked” to the power of three hundred and add liberal doses of misery and hormonal angst.

I could have looked for solace is so many other places—substance abuse, promiscuity, a knife sidling quietly up to my wrists—but instead, I found it in the earnest energy of Evangelical teen culture. In a stadium pulsing with electric passion for God, I was no longer the leper my classmates thought I was or the rebel my parents thought I was but a piece of kindling in a collective bonfire. The hype lifted me out of my sad self and into a strobe-lit imitation of heaven where I could see Jesus in his Doc Martens and ponytail and kind brown grin. I could believe that he might want to share a bowl of cappuccino with me.

It would be easy for me here, on the other side of decades and spiritual upheavals, to say that none of it was real, that it was all a show designed to make kids like me believe we were experiencing God. In fact, that is more or less my typical response to memories of that time. I cringe that I could have been such a chump in matters spiritual as well as romantic. I’ve stifled all impulses to write about it until now; my embarrassment was too raw, my feelings of betrayal by the church too sharp.

This is unfair to my experience though, because no matter what motives or soundstage techniques went into the creation of my teenage spiritual haven, it still sheltered me. I found more peace and joy singing along at a DC Talk concert than I ever did between the gilt-edged pages of my Bible. Grunge-themed devotionals kept me safe from the lonely dark of my room, and black-light Jesusfests from the demons haunting my Saturday nights. Until I was far enough removed from my childhood to begin understanding it and dealing with its repercussions on my life, youth group leaders in spaghetti straps filled in the gaping blanks in my heart that had told me for years I was unlovable. WWJD bracelets identified me as an insider no matter how the other kids saw me.

I have little patience these days for churches or organizations that wield God as some kind of party trick. When I look at trendy Christianity, all I can see is a glaring lack of authenticity, and I wonder if anyone can possibly get anything real from it. As reluctant as I am to admit it though, I know the answer is in the affirmative. I got something from it. Once upon a time, the same hyped-up, choreographed, style-conscious approach to God that I find so distasteful now is what kept my battered teenage heart from drowning. Life sucked, but Doc Marten Jesus cared. It was enough.

~~~

Linking up with Addie Zierman today in honor of her new release When We Were On Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over, which I can’t wait to finish reading. (I might need to bust out my old WOW 1998 as background music first.) If you could relate to my post at all, then chances are you’re going to love her book as well; make sure to check it out!

13Dec

For What She’s Worth

I am not an angry feminist. In fact, I’ve never thought of myself as any kind of feminist; gender inequality was never more than an infrequent blip on my radar, and part of me secretly thought that outspoken feminists were like kids whining because their friends have more toys than they do—technically correct, but irritatingly focused on the comparison game instead of gratitude for their own unique lives.

Which is why I was a little shocked to catch myself writing the following in an email to Sarah Bessey about her upcoming book, Jesus Feminist:

I grew up a pastor’s kid and have been a full-fledged member of eight separate churches, plus a visitor at many, many more, and rarely have I heard a women’s Bible study discuss anything except 1) submission, 2) homemaking à la Proverbs 31, or 3) modesty. We as women in the church do not discuss the power of our prayers. We do not discuss our spiritual gifts or how God might have uniquely equipped us to use them. We do not discuss the strong female leaders of the Bible. We do not discuss the fact that our church-approved roles as women seem to be cobbled together from a select mix of Paul’s instructions and sitcoms from the 1950s. We do not discuss the damage done to our hearts every time men in the church label our gender as defrauding, disruptive, or deceived.

No. We discuss how a too-tight shirt will cause our brothers in Christ to stumble, how assertiveness or reluctance in the bedroom will drive our husbands into sin, and how not keeping our homes in order is a matter for repentance.

Boom. Apparently I’m not as apathetic toward gender inequality as I’d thought. I know I wrote about male-female roles last week, but that was in a very personal scope, untangling my own thought processes from fundamentalism. This is something bigger. This is about a lie that is such a universal part of the human experience that we only recognize small parts of it at a time.

Like the part that says darker skin is inferior to lighter skin.

Or the part that says inhabitants of one country are inferior to those of its next-door neighbor.

Or the part that says people with empty wallets are inferior to people with 401(K)s.

Or the part that says humans with higher estrogen are inferior to humans with higher testosterone.

This lie that has so thoroughly infiltrated our way of thinking says that one category of people can be worth less than another… and nowhere is this more disheartening to see in practice than among followers of Jesus.

I grew up in a very extreme subculture of Christianity which relegated women to husband-helpers, children to automatons, and Democrats to hell-fodder. Rare varieties of prejudice thrived in that sealed-off environment, and I happily recognize that the perspectives I grew up with are not the norm. However, most mainstream churches still support the doctrine that women, by sole virtue of their gender, are less qualified than men to make decisions, offer advice, or—God forbid—lead. If a woman believes that her true gifting is that of a pastor, most Christians would either take that to mean she is deceived (Eve’s contribution to our sex) or channel her controversial calling into “acceptable” outlets, like teaching children’s Sunday School or possibly running a women’s-only group.

Most churches don’t forbid women to braid their hair, though a Bible verse speaking against that very thing is followed by a verse calling wives “the weaker partner.” The latter is accepted as God’s truth and used to demean women’s minds, skills, and hearts while the former is understood as a) metaphorical, or b) culturally irrelevant. The same thing happens over and over again throughout the pages of this book we call our foundation. I know of very few pastors who still teach that women are saved through childbirth, but the following chapter’s mandate that deacons be men is followed unquestioningly. Women are no longer required to remain silent in church, but they are usually prohibited from teaching men—which makes two different interpretations of the same verse. Reading a single line of Genesis, we latch on to the fact that woman was made to be man’s “helper” while failing to read the rest—“a helper comparable to him”—or noting that the Hebrew word for “helper” is most often used throughout the Bible in reference to God. (Providing help makes God worthy of devotion but women worthy of disrespect? Please explain the logic of this to me.)

How can we believe that both male and female reflect God’s image but the male reflection is superior? How can we think that men have individual and divinely-inspired purposes in life but that women are universally designed for one lifestyle? How can we possibly justify thinking that one soul carries more weight than another because of the body attached to it?

I see this men-lead/women-submit mentality as just another facet of the insidious lie proclaiming that some demographics have the right to lord over others. Once God’s name is attached to the lie, it becomes harder than ever to uproot… and meanwhile, women are absorbing the idea that God thinks of them as less and men are shouldering burdens that were always meant to be shared and the church is missing out on the beautiful power of men and women contributing their strengths in harmony. It’s heartbreaking and discouraging and utterly maddening… which I guess qualifies me as an angry feminist after all.

28Nov

Grace as: Permission to Celebrate

 [Photo: circa 2009
Nisse hats: Danish, via the whimsical Rachelle Mee-Chapman
Sophie’s pantslessness: Her idea]

I’ve never set foot inside a church that seemed entirely comfortable with Christmas. Their relationship always strikes me as more of an uneasy truce, one side agreeing to adopt a festival with pagan origins, the other agreeing to be picked apart at Bible studies and put back together as a subdued and thoroughly de-Santafied version of itself. A sermon on “the true meaning of Christmas” is usually a given, though even the pastor starts to squirm when it comes to discussing practical applications. It’s easy enough to condemn materialism from the pulpit, but few clergy are willing to look into the eyes of their congregants’ children and denounce Christmas gifts as evil.

Not to say that doesn’t happen too. Our family didn’t celebrate Christmas for years, and I still have Christian friends who see the tradition as unjustifiable. After all, Christmas isn’t in the Bible. Jesus’s birth? Yes. A bank holiday to commemorate it? No. For so many Christians I know, red and green are the team colors of GUILT, and even just enjoying a glass of eggnog can set their minds scrambling to find a moral, a Scripture reference, something to assure them Jesus would approve.

And I get it. I do. I am an over-thinker at heart and a religion-wrestler by birth, and I have grappled plenty of times with the web of cultures, histories, and traditions linking the Nativity to roast goose. To be honest, I have trouble enjoying anything if that enjoyment hasn’t been earned or justified or sanctioned by a higher power, and the holiday season is especially great at breeding angst. My fellow serious-hearted belief-wranglers? Consider this a virtual fist bump. (And to those of you whose hearts are naturally merry and light, feel free to commiserate—or whatever cheery thing it is that you do—with my husband and/or play him with cookies.)

I remember the day I let go of the Christmas debate though. Dan and I were at a Bible study, and the leader opened by asking how we thought consumerism fit with the true meaning of Christmas. Perhaps because it was such a loaded question or perhaps because it was the tipping point at which a phrase like “the true meaning of Christmas” goes from annoying to nauseating, but I realized that I was done. Done trying to legitimize the joy I felt in picking out gifts for loved ones. Done hunting for Bible verses to sanctify the fun of putting up our imperfect little tree. Done vilifying Santa Claus and the Whos of Whoville and every cautiously cheerful cashier who wishes me “Happy Holidays!” Done debating, done nit-picking, done shouldering assumed guilt, done.

Here’s the thing—The Bible makes no mention of December 25th, but it does talk extensively about being part of our communities, taking an active and empathetic part in each other’s lives, extending love at every opportunity, and living with joy. It talks about opening our eyes to wonder and lavishing generosity. It tells us that the details of everyday life are made holy by the who and the how rather than the what (“TURNING THIS SHIT HOLY,” as Momastery puts it), and that a life lived in cahoots with God is spacious, expansive, and freeing. Paul calls it “The new country of grace.” I call it “Let’s get some rum in this eggnog already!”

All of those times I’d thought I was wrestling with my conscience, I had actually been wrestling with the restrictions and anxieties woven like a dark pattern through church tradition. That guilt was never mine to own because what I truly believe—what my soul and the divine glow in it whisper to me as truth—is that we were designed to love the liturgy of candlelight and cake. Whether you observe Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus, it doesn’t really matter, does it? There is so much joy wrapped up in the practices of giving and inviting and feasting, grateful remembrance and togetherness, and it is a gift straight to the core of my too-serious heart that I have God’s personal permission to celebrate.

~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via TwitterRSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

3Nov

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

The amount of glitter covering our house right now is fearful and wonderful to behold. I’ve dusted purple sun-shards off the sofa cushions, rousted them from behind the television, and swept them into iridescent mountain ranges, but our house still channels a Disney diamond cave. I imagine we’ll still be catching jeweled glints from the floorboards six months from now, and the thought charms my whimsical side as much as it horrifies my inner June Cleaver.

If not for the glitter, you might not know that anything out of the ordinary happened at our house this week. Of course, that’s counting on your not noticing the tray of leftover caramel apples on the kitchen counter or the bags of crumpled giftwrap waiting to be recycled. You’d also have to mistake the heavy brocade of fatigue draped across my forehead for sleep deprival or sun damage instead of what it actually is: introversion, post-party.

We had twenty-six children in our living room on Wednesday—twenty-six(!) children(!) in witch capes and vampire teeth brandishing fistfuls of glitter and construction paper while their parents chatted in the wings. I hadn’t expected all twenty-six to accept Sophie’s 5th birthdoween invitation, and while my heart warmed at having so many of our neighbors and friends under one roof, my personality had to fight hard for stable footing.

This is the tricky thing about being a textbook introvert who strongly values relationships. I’m always searching for the balance between life-giving alone time and love-strengthening social time, but sometimes circumstances don’t measure out the magic proportions. Sometimes, say, I find myself standing behind a locked bedroom door with a freshly burnt finger, wet glue on my jeans, and the shouts of two dozen sugar-high kindergarteners bouncing off my eardrums while I try—as my friend Erika would say—not to lose my freaking shit.

And right there, in the chaotic dark, is where religion most often becomes real to me. If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you know I don’t mean the kind of religion that happens behind church doors or sanctioned by committees, but the kind that meets us on unexpected roads and whisper-nudges our hearts, the thrillingly unorthodox reality of God-with-us that I can only seem to glimpse through my peripheral vision.

That’s why I wanted to tell you about the party, about the moment I stood behind a locked door with drained batteries and flat-lining hospitality and whispered “Peace, peace, peace,” and about the following moment when I unlocked the door to a wave of noise and color and four-walled chaos and felt it. Reserve power tingled all the way to burned fingertips and overloaded eardrums, and a sense of calm spread like mood lighting through all the tapped-out corridors of my mind. Friends, I stepped out of that room directly into a pile of glitter, caught a toddler swinging from the bunk bed, smelled grilled cheese on the verge of charcoal, and was cornered by four miniature witches asking a total of thirty-two questions at once… and not an ounce of shit was lost.

~~~

I’ve never once in all my life understood clearly what we Jesus-followers mean by the word “grace.” In Sunday School as a child, I absorbed the idea of grace as undeserved divine kindness that I should forever be working to repay, a guilty obligation we owe to God. That understanding didn’t sit well with me, and I’ve gravitated toward more beautiful and hopeful definitions over the years. However, none of them quite explains the quality that I sense when I brush up against the divine—that electric pulse of all-made-right-ness which fills the depleted parts of my personality, underwrites my true self, and consistently bowls me over by how it sees worth and makes beauty and flips expectations on their heads for the sake of greater love. It’s not the kind of thing to be summed up neatly in Webster’s.

I want to understand this word better, to graze its contours with my palm and catch its molecular dance-beat, to track it into the wild and record strains of its native tongue. I know instinctively that grace—whatever and however it is—has everything to do with who I am today, so I’m going to be exploring this more here over the coming weeks. I have no agenda except to try and capture my own peripheral glimpses, whether they be of glitter in the floorboards or windswept lines of song, and I would love it if you joined me for this adventure. {You can get automatic updates by RSS or email, and I’m honored as always to hear your take in the comment section!}

  ~~~

What do you think? Does “grace” hold religious connotations for you, or do you have a different definition (or impression, or story, or empty question-space)?

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