Tag: Church

22Jun

Sweaty Horns, Cracking Voices

I woke up grumpy this morning… not your average, garden-variety grumpy but the truly pernicious grumpy reserved for Sunday mornings with too little sleep. I know myself well enough by now to treat church as a soul-gobbling monster on these mornings—respect it by backing sloooowwwly away. Or run away screaming like the flighty blonde in a B-movie. Unfortunately, neither was an option this morning as my in-laws’ church group met at their house.

The caustic dialogue in my head jump-started with the first song. Why are we singing that? What does this even mean? Am I supposed to get something out of this? That line isn’t even true! And on it went, while I tried to move my unwilling lips along with the lyrics for appearance’s sake.

This disconnect with worship music is a fairly recent development. Church and I have had sundry problems over the years, but music was always my saving grace. When I was a child, a teen, a college student, and a budding world traveler, worship music was the alchemy that transformed divinity into something dear. Through it, I could feel God’s warmth. But now… Honesty, or maybe an earnest kind of cynicism, keeps me unable to sing along with church choruses. The words catch in my throat and slap against my ears. My connection with worship music is gone.

Or at least what most people consider worship music. In collaboration with the lovely Rachelle, a pioneer in soul sincerity, I’d like to share eight songs that connect me to the divine… now.

8 Things *8 Things: [Non-Churchy] Songs for the Soul

1. Cold Water by Damien Rice
 This song has to be first. It is raw and tender and fierce and so perfectly honest. Damien Rice has a gift for reaching deep down into unknown vulnerabilities and coaxing dry emotions into a flood; try making it through the Buddhist chanting at 5:34 or the cello at 7:04 without breaking open just a little bit.

“Cold, cold water surrounds me now,
And all I’ve got is your hand.
Lord, can you hear me now?”

2. Dance ‘Round the Memory Tree by Oren Lavie:
I put this song on repeat nearly every day of this past winter, and on some of the bleakest mornings, it alone kept me turned toward life, future, and the magic of hope.

“Winters have come and gone, you know…”

3. I Gotta Find Peace of Mind by Lauryn Hill 
My friend Q introduced me to Ms. Hill’s “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0” in college, and this song has yet to release its grip on me. At its most simple, it makes me want to love God. And when Lauryn cries while singing “What a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, merciful God” 8 minutes in… the beauty is almost too real to bear.

“Please come free my mind,
Please come feed my mind.
Can you see my mind, ohhh…
Won’t you come free my mind?
Oh, I know it’s possible…”

4. Doubting Thomas by Nickel Creek
When I haven’t found the courage to pray over the past few years, this song has prayed on my behalf. It has all the gritty candor and fearful longing of those uncharted territories of religion, and I find myself meaning every single word.

“Can I be used to help others find truth
When I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie?
Can I be led down a trail dropping bread crumbs
That prove I’m not ready to die?”

5. What Child is This Anyway? by Sufjan Stevens
Three Christmases ago, I was frantically busy with a job I hated, and the holiday loomed like a garlanded menace. I put Sufjan’s Christmas CD on, fully expecting to dislike this song as I always had before, and instead found peace.

“This, this is Christ the king,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing…”

6. Christmas Song by Dave Matthews Band
Yes, another Christmas song… but really an Easter song and a Thanksgiving song and 4th of July song and a Sunday morning song and a 2:00 in the afternoon song and one of the best Bible summaries I’ve ever heard.

“Drinkers and jokers, all soul searchers,
Searching for love, love, love…”

7. Live High by Jason Mraz
Sometimes I need a reminder that spirituality does not need to equal stress; it can be as chill as walking down the streets of France with a guitar and a comfy hat.

“Live high, live mighty,
Live righteously, that’s right—
Just  takin’ it easy…”

8. World Without End by Five Iron Frenzy
This song might be the polar opposite of Damien Rice, but it reaches the part of me that loves concerts and Goodwill t-shirts and too many friends crowded into the booth at Denny’s. Somehow, sweaty horns and cracking voices convey more of the sacred to me than pipe organs ever could.

“In the soundless awe and wonder,
Words fall short to hope again.
How beautiful, how vast your love is,
New forever,
World without an end…”

Play along, won’t you? I’d love to hear what songs feed your soul as well.

31May

Holy Writ Hives

“I like gypsy moths and radio talk
‘Cause it doesn’t remind me of anything…”
(Audioslave)

I was one of the coolest twelve-year-olds to enter our church’s youth group, oh yes. All the other denim-clad girls envied my broomstick skirts and the knitted granny shawl I wore as protection from the A/C.  I was widely admired for my mad worship-band-understudy flute skillz, and the guys were always ogling the sexy training bra outline on my cookie sheet chest. Everyone cheered when I alone took on the youth pastor’s challenge and memorized the entire biblical book of James to get a free trip to youth camp. Oh, and a mere two days into that camp when I was sent home with a case of the mumps? Well, that cemented my position as the most popular teen in church history.

Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha. Oooooh, boy. ::wipes eyes::

I know I’ll be dashing some hopes here, but this entry is not about junior high fashion. (Sorry!) Nor is it about the many reasons to vaccinate your children, youth camp being one of the more compelling. No, this is about the holy tradition of Scripture memorization and why I think it sucks.

See, my brain is a neurotic sponge. I never had much trouble memorizing, whether it be Shakespeare or sacred texts or shampoo ingredients. I routinely dazzled my Awana leaders by breezing through the required ream of Bible verses to then learn hefty chunks of the New Testament. I blasted through the competition to win first place in regional Bible drills. I could even recite the lineage of Old Testament kings by heart. (See above re: popularity.) I memorized and memorized and memorized and memorized and didn’t learn a thing.

It turns out that the proper ordering of words does little to reach a heart. In fact, the tuneless march of verses through my mind made reading the Bible impossible once I reached adulthood. I found myself paralyzed by each familiar page, with memories of the words leading to memories of the past leading to fog-banked panic. The holy writ gave me hives. It wasn’t until a friend bought me The Message (and, uh, it sat on the shelf under my suspicious glower for a few years) that I was able to understand what Jesus and Paul wrote. The Bible finally made unrecognizable; what relief!

As I’ve discovered the power of newborn words to seep far below my skin into soul territory, I’ve shunned attempts by family members to help Natalie memorize Bible verses. I don’t want forced familiarity with God-commissioned words to breed contempt before my daughter even has the chance to work out her own beliefs. This has kept me consistently uneasy about her Sunday School class, as week after week, Natalie’s classmates recite Bible verses for a gold star sticker leading to a yearly prize. Should we make her memorize the verses too so she’ll fit in? Should we remove her from the class, risking a million kinds of confrontation? Should we keep ignoring the issue?

This morning in Sunday School, things came to a head. In preparation for a church presentation next week, the children had been memorizing Psalm 23. Never before has a peaceful poem of cross-stitching fame wound a person as tightly as it did Natalie’s teacher. “Why can’t you say it all together?” she yelled at the group of preschoolers shifting in their hard-plastic chairs. “THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD—Fabio! Straighten up this instant! Ester, sit down! No, no, no, Gabriele, be quiet, we’re starting from the beginning, QUIET! THE LORD IS—Laura! Why aren’t you saying all the words? What is wrong with you? Well if you’re tired, you should have gotten more sleep last night, huh? No, Beniamino, you can’t go to the bathroom until we get the whole thing right. STEVEN, QUIET! Do you all want your parents to be disappointed in you?”

Still fuming at how badly the children had been treated, I got in the car with Dan after church and told him, “Those kids are never going to voluntarily memorize another Bible verse for the rest of their lives.”

And then…

I grinned.

10May

Gentle Tsunami

I was walking home from the park three days ago hand-in-hand with my daughters, smears of frozen yogurt on our cheeks and playground gravel under our fingernails, when it hit me. Grace. Like a gentle tsunami, it washed over that moment. Then, at half-past-naptime in the afternoon. There, under the silver-glinted olive trees. My hands clasped with the two little girls who make me crazy with love (and sometimes just crazy)… and I whispered “Thank you” into the springtime sky.

Mommy with her girls 1

I remember another Sunday years ago when I sat in our church’s youth group after a particularly terrifying lesson. I was already a veteran victim of religious terror, and our church had raised the bar impossibly high with the unit study on demons when I was in 5th grade. Still, this particular Sunday’s message was the most frightening of my life: You are doomed to commit the same sins your parents did. It was an interpretation of Exodus 20:5 that many Christians accept, and it scared me into a hopeless panic.

“Please, God, no!” I prayed over and over like a character in a scratchy black and white film. “Please, God, no! Please, God, no! I don’t want to hurt my own children one day, I don’t want them to end up like me. Please, God…” I muddled through vague resolutions not to ever fall in love or get married, not to ever, ever make a baby. I was heartbroken. Damned.

In college, I met, kissed, and married my husband within ten short months, irreversibly losing my anti-marriage resolve. However, my fear was still alive. I felt it in the secret passageways of my anatomy every day of married life. I tasted its metallic bitterness. It compounded in my chest when I leafed through Anne Geddes books, wondering what kind of monster a baby would unleash in me. I did not want to find out. I adored children, so I was particularly cautious not to have one myself.

Another Bible study turned the tides. I worked through Beth Moore’s “Breaking Free” with a group of college friends and learned that faulty translation had created all this mess. Exodus 20:5 in the original language says that the “sins of the fathers” (oh, what a sinister phrase) are taken into account by God. As in, God understands how the misdeeds of older generations affect younger generations. Other Bible passages such as Ezekiel 18 go into greater detail on how people’s choices and consequences are solely their own… but this isn’t meant to be a Bible study. It’s the story of how my fear let out a surprised “Oh!” and vanished in a wisp of smoke.

That very next summer, I got pregnant with Natalie. And while I still had some freakouts and hyperventilations to work out of my system, I welcomed her to the world with a fuzzy, warm, king-sized happiness. I met my baby and turned into a mother.

Meeting Mom

Four years and two months later, I played with my daughters all afternoon at the park. We picked Sophie’s favorite miniature daisies and flew on pink horses that Natalie conjured up. We ran all the way home for a potty break and then back out for frozen yogurt topped with white chocolate, strawberries, and heaps of colorful sprinkles. We walked home giggling, and I realized with the full profundity of a once-afraid soul that God answered. For all my faults—getting frustrated with the incessant toddler messes, blocking out every third hour of the incessant preschool chatter, saying “We’ll do that later” far too often—I have been spared the pain of becoming an abusive parent. My own hurts are even healing under the skilled touch of grace. The fear is simply a forgotten nightmare; grace is my here-and-now. Grace is why today, I can hug those little girls with a heart full of our delicious memories and say, “Happy Mother’s Day to you too.”

Mother's Day toes
4Jan

Trail Marker

Enough time has passed since I’ve written about religion to revisit it, right? I usually imagine blog readers running for the hills at the first whiff of a controversial subject… but controversy is not what I’m carrying around these days. Instead, I’m wandering through new spiritual territories with a backpack of honesty and little else, and you’re more than welcome to come along.

Church was one of the first topics I wrote about on this blog, and though we’ve changed continents and denominations in the meantime, little has changed. Our current church fits me like a glove… on my ear. A few of the points make actual contact with me—for instance, the friendly people and the bustling social functions—but the rest flops senselessly off the side of my head. Nothing about the services connects with me, not a single song or prayer or message. The only bit of liturgy I find meaningful is the entire congregation sharing a glass of wine and a loaf of bread. I love the unity it symbolizes (and relax, no one that I know has contracted a sanctified strain of mono as a result), though I think the original intent of the Lord’s Supper would translate better to sitting down to a meal together and reminiscing about Christ. (Side note: Dan and I once suggested doing that at our home in the States, which, heresy alert!!! Apparently, bread and Jesus are only compatible within church walls, officiated by an ordained minister. Our bad.)

The thing is, one can’t exactly be picky about churches in a country with extremely limited options. Unless we want to attend a Catholic church, which studies show would turn me into a prune within the month, we’re left with a missionary-run Baptist church (no offense to missionaries or Baptists, but ::shudder::) and ours—part of the Italian Brethren network. It is sincere and brim-full of warm-hearted people I’m thrilled to know… yet my Sunday mornings still trickle down the drain.

Here’s what I don’t need one drop more of: scare tactics, sin management, crucifixion details, calls to repentance, shadows of doubt, words found in the King James Bible, theoretical sermons, fire-and-brimstone, self degradation, righteous anger, controversy, squabbles over which side of the stage the piano is placed, “preacher voice,” hard-backed pews, clichéd sentiments (“God is in control,” anyone?), or legalism.

And here’s what I’m parched for: conversation, open minds, collaborative creativity, practical messages in a practical format, spontaneity, field work, fresh ideas, meaningful-now traditions, questions, answers (or at least journeys toward answers), committed honesty, acceptance without conditions, extravagant generosity, and a tribe of soulsiblings (as Rachelle would say).

Is sitting through three hours of Same Old Religion every week worth the friendships I gain as a result? I think yes, it is… but I sure wish I didn’t have to feign participation to be part of our church group. The role of charlatan doesn’t suit me. I think often about a friend of ours, a former pastor, who caught this strain of religious disconnect and couldn’t keep up the pretense. He publicly announced his doubts about God and left the church under a shower of criticism I can only imagine. I find his choice incredibly courageous, incredibly sad, and incredibly not for me; I’m not ready to cut loose from the church, no matter how it fails to inspire me. But what other options exist for those of us with hearts and minds split down the middle, wide open and raw in the fresh air, unsure where to go from there? If and when I ever figure it out, I’ll be sure to put up a trail marker.

7Jun

In Hiding

I just realized I’m in hiding. I haven’t been to church in three weeks, and I’m feeling nauseous at the prospect of tomorrow. We haven’t entertained guests in even longer; I actually cancelled an invitation to have lunch with friends last week. Grocery trips broadside me, the unfamiliarity of aisles and aisles, the threat of another language. I’ve been grasping at solitude, even tucked away here at home. An hour alone, headphones on.

Is it just cowardice? Maybe I’ve depleted my stores of bravery in these last ten months of culture shock. Or could it be dysfunction finally taking over my sense of logic and social responsibility? All I know for sure is that I’m tired. Inspiration comes in fitful bursts but never stays long enough for me to build up energy. I have projects on the burner, but the pilot light is out. No more fuel.

Sweet Dan gave me the afternoon to write my short-short fiction piece for a contest next week, but the instant I sat down, I slammed into a brick wall. It doesn’t feel exactly like writer’s block since I’m bursting with ideas. It just feels like can’t. So I bit my nails and beat myself over the head with guilt and read bits of Jen Lemen’s beautiful blog in search of inspiration until I found this paragraph in her archives:

Sometimes an internal monologue of shoulds is a sign that some little voice is calling the shots, and it’s not me. At least not the me that understands deep down that love is always the way, that TRUST melts into opportunity, that the joy of discovery is the most creative, fruitful enterprise every single time, that I always finish best in an atmosphere of grace not just pressure.

I desperately need that atmosphere of grace. I suspect I am the only one keeping myself holed up in isolation until the imagined pressure of church and guests and writing deadlines is too hard to face. So here’s a teeny flutter of a plan:

  • Tomorrow morning, I’m going to go to church without worrying what I look like and say hi to people because at least that I can do. I will breathe.
  • Right now, I’m going to feed my crying baby and put the computer open on the table in front of me. Maybe I’ll come up with a sentence in between spoonfuls. Maybe I won’t, but it’s okay. This week is not my last chance to write.
  • And later? I’m going to go to bed early. I’ll stretch out and make happy, comfortable noises and not worry about a single thing because all I should be doing at night is getting enough rest. So I will. It’s a start.
28Apr

Shouting in a Meadow

Writing publicly about religion makes me cringe. And hit delete buttons. And back s-l-o-w-l-y away from the computer as if the Inquisition itself were making a digital comeback with online dudgeons and high resolution torture devices and glinty-eyed execution-bloggers.

So I can be a tad dramatic. However, I’m starting to realize how much I still censor my thoughts to stay away from explosive topics like U.S. economy and home schooling and Ashlee Simpson and, of course, religion. I know that whatever my thoughts on the subject, I am sure to offend someone, and the prospect makes my insides wilt.

The thing is, though–I still don’t really know my thoughts on religion. I wrote a while back about the immense loneliness and confusion of finding I don’t like God. Now that I’ve had some time to marinate in that concept, I realize that what I actually dislike is my view of him. The portrait of God in my head is painted primarily in crap, and I was exhausted of sifting through it for the occasional fleck of real color.

Back in January, I indulged my inner heathen and scribbled the following during church (because that’s how I roll, yo), but didn’t show it the light of day for fear of Inquisition, etc. Now, though, I find it incredibly important:

 I can’t hide nearly as well in a tiny church. In this child-sized room, loosely populated by friends and hardly anyone else, I find I’ve lost my invisibility. I can’t fade comfortably into the woodwork. I can’t ignore the voice of reality in my head: “You’re a fraud, you’re a fraud, you’re a fraud”–sing-song, like those infuriatingly perfect Disney princesses.

I feel so out of place sitting in church with my overflowing suitcases of questions. Baggage doesn’t belong here. I don’t belong here. I know where I want to be though: an enormous open meadow, fiercely guarded on all sides by mountains, muffled by waterfalls and wind and the complete absence of other humans. I would SHOUT! my questions, all of them, as loudly as my lungs would let me. And God would be right there. He would answer and put my heart back in place and be real to me again.

Where am I supposed to find God in my claustrophobic world where life is whatever fits between walls and ceilings and floors? My questions are too big for home, for church. They are certainly too big for other people, and I’m floundering under the belief that they’re too big for me.

And then I filled pages with those questions–deep, aching ones that I had to rip out and lay bleeding on the paper.

Since then, not a single question has been answered. However, I’ve been able to step back and see the dung-smeared portrait and survey the multitudes* of people with their widely differing ideas that they call “doctrine” and “truth” even though they’re really just interpretations.

When I first read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian several years ago, I remember feeling like a huge weight was lifted–that weight being the dogmatic rightness of traditional American churches. McLaren proposed that the church’s tactics were outdated and irrelevant to today’s people. Duh, I know. But it was a revolutionary idea to me at the time, and I lost approximately 300 pounds the moment I accepted that church was not the same thing as religion.

Then I read Donald Miller and John & Stasi Eldredge and Eugene Peterson and went down 15 emotional dress sizes and started smiling when I thought about Christianity… the real thing, not the big-haired pastor kind. But I still have a LOT of pre-conceptions to sort through. I mean, I was practically brainwashed into a certain brand of religion as a kid, and it’s not easy figuring out which of those teachings–if any–have merit.

(Note: Here comes the part with the cringing and the wilting and the slowly dislocating of very important limbs on an html rack.)

Maybe this is common knowledge to most people, but I was in college before I learned that the Bible–militantly defended as a sacred text–is just a compendium of stories and letters and historical records compiled by various groups of men, copied, lost, translated, retranslated, reretranslated, and printed off for people to make of it what they will. The Bible covers thousands of years and many different cultures, yet religious leaders pull out certain lines and call them “precepts.” Mennonites with head coverings? Christians who won’t eat pork? Churches that don’t allow female teachers? All bits and pieces pulled from ancient cultural laws and applied to now.

I’m not saying the Bible isn’t important, though its history does raise a lot of difficult questions for me. I just wonder when church-goers stopped reading the book of Matthew: “You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do.”(23:8-10, The Message) Self-proclaimed religious experts threaten dire consequences for veering from their explanations of “truth.” They warn against any spiritual search outside of the Bible (just mention yoga to a group of Southern Baptists, and watch the paranoia about “New Age” practices; seriously, you’d think yoga involved slaughtering kittens at midnight over a bubbling cauldron of fermented demon juice). They loudly condemn people with different beliefs to a future more horrifying than death. They set up a hierarchy of sins (homosexuality! abortion!) and prescribe rituals for holding onto salvation (morning devotionals! prayer before meals!).

I feel the wind knocked out of me just typing this paltry list. The aggressive application of “doctrine” does nothing to alleviate my soul-thirst. What does refresh me is art. Creativity. Beautiful movies, beautiful music, beautiful books. The great outdoors. Talking to people with giant hearts. Random acts of kindness. Intimate discussions with small groups of friends. Quiet. Sometimes the deliberate peace of Buddhism, sometimes the grandeur of Catholicism, sometimes the passionate worship of Pentacostals, but usually no organized religion at all.

Sometime, I hope to be able to add the Bible to the list of things that fulfill me spiritually. I just need to get further away from the cultural classification of God so I can read each “book” as it was meant to be read at the time and take my own truth from the words.

I just deleted that last line and retyped it a thousand times, by the way, because I’m a scaredy-pants. I know the pastors of my childhood would accuse me of “relativity” and “denying the truth,” and my pants are most definitely scared. But I’m trying to stay real and honest because those rusty hinges in my head are creaking open, and I want others to see the wide, untamed meadows beyond the gates of traditional Christianity–meadows with room for dancing wind and wildflowers and the hard
est questions coiled inside.


* Bonus point for using a Biblical term!!

1Jul

Donald Miller is the New Ex-Lax

So the title of this blog may contain coffee and clarity, but I’m enjoying neither at this moment. *Sigh* The problem is religion. (The problem with clarity, that is. The coffee problem is more likely caused by the desperate shortage of Starbucks nearby.)

Still reading?

Thanks.

It’s not just our current church, though the Presbyterians are [much] more liturgical than I prefer and find an enormous amount of foreshadowing in the Bible that I suspect may not actually exist. (“And we can clearly see that the hundred raisin cakes mentioned in 2 Samuel 16 foreshadow the glorious ascension of Christ.”) I’ve felt the same sense of utter deflation in nearly every other church service I’ve ever attended.

Admittedly, I’m still viewing Christianity through the sticky residue of a childhood in which every heartbreaking moment was called good and attributed to God. Perhaps that’s really the only problem. All I know is that I often leave sermons affected more by the absurdity of straight-backed pews, unspoken dress codes, and the word “partake” than by any relevant message.

I know that churches are really just groups of imperfect people who want to love God together. I know that many of these imperfect people radiate a rare kind of joy and genuinely care for each other. I know that church services are often built on decades, if not centuries, of tradition that has proven meaningful to many. I know that most pastors speak from a genuine desire to impart God’s relevance to their congregations’ lives. I know.

Yet when I sit in church, I find Prohibition-era morality presented as Biblical doctrine. (According to American theologians, Biblical accounts of wine refer to grape juice, and the term “drunk” actually meant “not drunk.” Just wait till Europe finds out!) I find self-deprecation taught as spirituality. I find petty issues like the sin of envy given more stage time than pressing questions about God’s identity and the point of Christianity in daily life. I find conditional acceptance based far more on personal appearance than on heart quality. I find long, lofty prayers full of words that no one but reverends and King James himself would ever use.

I don’t see curious neighbors, friends, or previously “unchurched” visitors. I don’t find church members talking about their personal troubles or concerns — especially not spiritual concerns. I rarely find a view of God that makes me want to spend eternity with him. He is the God who commanded puffed-sleeve dresses in the ’90s, after all. (Just kidding. Put down the pitchforks.)

I have no solution, but I feel more hopeful every minute I spend with people who can manage to love God while drinking beer and using language their grandmothers wouldn’t. (Just for the record, damn damn damn damn damn.) My general feeling of religious constipation lets up when I read Brian McLaren, Philip Yancey, and Donald Miller. My fingers are crossed for the “emerging church,” and I pray I can one day find my place in a group of people who are ready to rediscover God outside the box of American Protestantism.

Until then…?

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