Tag: Doubt

6Sep

Flames vs. Fairy Dust

In retrospect, I’m not sure whether to laugh or to cry.

I was young, maybe ten, when I saw the drama “Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames” in a huge Southern Baptist auditorium. Gold tinsel was draped over one side of the stage, while the other side featured a black papier-mâché prison with tissue paper flames engulfing the roof. Heaven, hell.

The drama was very simple to follow. People would die during different circumstances and immediately be sent to the tinsel or to the prison. Two women were gossiping when a bus ran them over; a group of demon-thugs in ski masks dragged them straight to hell. A man passed out from drinking too much whiskey; off to hell. A broken-hearted woman cried at the loss of hope in her life and shot herself in the head; hell. A freshly-scrubbed family dressed in lace and bow-ties walked out of church where the youngest daughter had just invited Jesus into her heart—a fortunate coincidence, since their car crashed on the way home. Gold tinsel for the whole family!

When we got home that night, I asked my parents what happened to aborted babies or even little kids who die before they get a chance to say the all-important Sinner’s Prayer™. No answer. Apparently hell-according-to-the-Southern-Baptists did not discriminate based on age. I lay awake half the night imagining tiny mangled infants being dragged off to burn with Satan. That, my friends, is horror.

I’ve done some thinking over the last few years, and some reading… but mostly thinking. Among other things, I’ve been trying to figure out why the self-proclaimed “good news” can lend itself to a theatrical horror show. Eternal torment for gossipers, alcoholics, depressed women, and babies = the worst possible news. Plus, it makes God unthinkably cruel and vindictive, sending demon-thugs after anyone who forgot to say his or her prayers.

Within the last two years, I decided to focus on the problem instead of repressing it. I tried reading the Bible, but that splintered my heart even more; I couldn’t see anything beyond damnation. I put away the Bible, etched my too-heavy questions onto paper, and asked myself over and over how a deity could claim to be love, then doom his own creations—us, who he made imperfect. No answer. Just my honesty, tinted first by anger, then by dejection, then finally by tired acceptance of an era’s end. Very simply, the doctrine of hell burned up every particle of trust I used to have in the goodness of God.

I am sharing this for two reasons: 1) I don’t believe I am the only person to wrestle with the apparent inconsistencies in my religion, especially when the accepted theology is so unfathomably gruesome, and 2) What I took as abandonment these last few years was time. As a result of marinating in my questions for so long, I’ve learned what I’m willing to believe and what I cannot. I’ve let years’ worth of pretenses slide, even writing about my journey some here (which, un-religious honesty about religion? strictly forbidden by the Association of Preachers Who Wear Ties). This has been a very new perspective for me—standing outside Christianity, looking in, wondering why some of those people look so happy—and only now are the answers coming.

A wonderful friend who’s also sludged through this path introduced me to a book called Hope Beyond Hell that said (and I paraphrase):

Ready for a few perspective gymnastics? Good. What you’ve been taught about hell is based on centuries of tradition. In fact, the Bible has buckets and wheelbarrows and industrial-sized cargo boats full of promises that not a single person will be left to burn with Satan forever. Hard to believe, right? Well, take a look…

It wasn’t hard to believe, actually. It was fairy dust, and my translucent wings were instantly unstuck from the swamp; for the first time in years, I’m flying, glad at long last to still be a fairy.

I am not going to list all the reasons or technicalities here—if you’re interested, check out the book—but I am coming to genuinely believe these things:

That this:

God speaks

(besides “reducing holy mysteries to slogans,”* using fear tactics to force people into religion, and just plain being annoying) is misguided.
* Matthew 7:6, The Message. Jesus says not to do it, by the way.

That some parts of the Bible were never meant to be taken literally, and that some parts have been translated poorly due to the translators’ perspective. That many people have formed dogmatic theologies without studying the original words within their original contexts.

That centuries of pulpit-pounders have done untold damage in spreading the idea that God is ready to throw us in a lake of fire when we die.

That God is a better parent than we are and that his kindness endures forever.

That the multitude of different beliefs, different approaches, and different spiritualities in this world will ultimately lead to the same beautiful new beginning.

That we will see all our loved ones again someday.

That there is hope.

21Aug

Conservative Hippyism

Dan turned on Audio Adrenaline this afternoon just especially to annoy me as I finished cooking lunch because he loves me so.

Remember this?

I used to like them because even though they were Christian (a requisite for my mid-‘90s music collection), the long-haired bass guitarist used to paint his nails. SUCH A REBEL. Anyway, I hadn’t listened to them in 150 years or so, and some of their lyrics startled me today:
“You can take God out of my school
You can make me listen to you
You can take God out of the pledge
But you can’t take God out of my head.”

I was still brainwashed a good conservative Baptist girl when the issue of prayer in public schools stirred up tremendous controversy in the church. I earnestly believed what I was told: that you would be arrested for having a Bible in your backpack or praying at your desk. Of course that was simple misinformation, spread in hysteria by panicked churchgoers. (If any of you are interested in the actual details of Supreme Court rulings, here ya go.) It never has been and probably never will be illegal to pray in schools; it just isn’t legal to force everyone else to participate. (I am so tempted to go ask the hysterical doomsayers of my childhood how they would have reacted if it had been Muslim prayer or Native American rituals or Wiccan chants being banned… but I guess that is just the heathen in me.)

The subject launched Dan and I into one of those long coffee-fueled conversations that remind us how glad we are to be on the same page. (He calls us “conservative hippies,” a fabulous description for two people feeling out the balance between standards and open mindedness.) We’re coming into that delicate stage of parenting where our preschooler absorbs every word she hears and works it into her own context of the world, and I desperately want to protect her from all the damaging teachings I grew up with. For Dan, who grew up in a different (and more, uh, functional) culture, the challenge is in noticing all the subtle hints of religious dogma that pop up.

For instance, I was reading a new picture book to Natalie today—a gift from relatives who no doubt found the story wholesome. However, I almost threw it away when we got to the page when the spoiled little mice realize how ungrateful they’ve been and start to cry. “I’m so dreadfully ashamed of myself,” sobs the girl mouse, who had refused to eat her parsnips on page 6. Wham. One little sentence packing a life-long punch of obligatory guilt. I know it all too well. (I decided not to make a big deal out of it at the time and finished the story—Natalie has a few years yet before she needs to learn about the religious-cultural doctrine of shame—but that book is never going back on her shelf.)

Dan reminded how much of this idea of making oneself miserable to be moral comes from ancient Jewish culture, and later, Roman Catholicism. (It’s not, by the way, from the Bible. In fact, Paul wrote a lengthy letter directly to the Romans explaining that forgiveness was God’s job, not theirs, and was free, free, free, free, and did he mention free?) It’s incredible to me that shame, a monumentally damaging emotion, is held up as a hallmark of holiness in so many circles.

I’m still unsure how to cultivate the spiritual side of my daughters in a way that will be relevant to them now. I can guarantee I will never be hammering the concept of obedience into their heads as the path to preschool Godliness. (We do teach them to obey us, by the way, just not in the vein of “morality is the point of life, now clean your room.”) Neither will shame or deeply burrowing regret ever be sensations we teach them. We’ll let them read the Bible in time, once they are able to process context and applicability, but there will be no gruesome history lessons for now. (Do you know how many Noah’s Ark-themed gifts I’ve had to throw away? I would like to punch whoever keeps insisting that the story of worldwide homicide and destruction is good for kids just because some animals were involved. And Jesus’s horrific torture, murder, and abandonment by God? They deeply traumatized me as a young child, and I am not willing to put my girls through that at such sensitive ages, no matter how foundational the story is to our faith.)

That only leaves the question of what do we teach them now? I still find myself a bit undone spiritually, decades of righteous BS unraveling while my true un-churchy beliefs begin to form. I feel bad that the girls are not benefitting from a mother who has her own convictions figured out like the mothers of my past all did (or pretended to), but perhaps my honesty in the matter will be enough. Maybe my lack of pretensions can accomplish what severe doctrine failed to do for me: inspire their spirituality to grow and breathe and seek out the truth with confidence.

22May

Bibbidee-Bobbidee-Boo

On Tuesday night, Dan and I went on a double date with our friends Tom and Lindsey to a magical little agriturismo tucked away in the Umbrian hills. As with most meals here, the combination of gorgeous food and wine led to the kind of eager, overlapping conversation that Italians are famous for. And somewhere between the Sagrantino gnocchi and the profiterole, I found myself telling our love story—the well-worn details of meeting and connecting and promising.

It struck me later, as we walked through herb gardens back to the car, that this was the first time I had recounted our romantic history without feeling defensive. See, Dan and I got engaged only two months into dating, and I often felt like I had to justify our relationship to others, lay it out in neat mathematical terms so they would approve. It wasn’t easy. We went to a small Christian university where students were concerned with finding the Right Person to marry. Ironically, the divorce rate among our former classmates is higher than average, but I suppose it makes sense—a lot of Mr. and Mrs. Perfects showed themselves to be less-than-perfect after the wedding, and oops! Destiny must have loaded the wrong program. Ctrl + Alt + Delete, UndoMarriage, Restart.

I wish someone—maybe Dr. Phil?—would have sat the lot of us confused college students down and said, “Listen. Life is not a fairytale. There is not one custom-made person floating around somewhere in the world with your future happiness in his hands. Prince Charming? Is gay. So stop worrying about perfection and marry someone who helps you bloom into a better, brighter self. Choose someone you can laugh with and cry with and charge into the future with, and then be prepared to work hard for your relationship ‘til death do you part.”

I never knew what people meant when they told me, “You’ll know which one is The One.” No divine decree conked me on the head when I met Dan, and I often doubted our relationship simply because no fairy godmother was singing “bibbidee-bobbidee-boo” at us. However, I adored him. We could walk comfortably through each other’s minds, and our personalities clicked from the start. More than all, we wanted the same things in life, and our future together shone with delighted promise. I hated having to explain our relationship to cynical friends. They were looking for complicated magic—a mile-long wish list being checked off by one person—whereas what we had was simple: We loved each other, and we were willing to put our lives’ efforts into caring for that love.

I don’t often blog about marriage because I feel like there are fine lines between the honest and the pretentious (“We have it all figured out”), the sugar-coated (“Our marriage is a 24-7 makeoutfest!”), and the complaining (“My husband is a horrible person who would rather see me writhe in agony than put his dirty socks in the laundry basket”*). And while parenting is often a one-sided struggle, marriage is a very intimate haven requiring respect and discretion. Not open for public viewing

At the same time, I’m always encouraged to hear about other couples learning how to love each other through life’s inevitable storms and whirlpools and doldrums. Also, I can’t help wondering if there’s some other woman out there wondering if she’s chosen the right husband, terrified that any argument could lead to divorce. So this is what (nearly) five years of marriage have taught me:

Making time to talk about little things is hard.

Making time to talk about big things is harder.

Making time (and finding courage) to talk about the huge and ugly things, the ones you really don’t want to bring up, the ones that make you scared or weepy or furious, is incredibly hard,

BUT

Those conversations are the ones that propel a relationship forward, and if you can get yourself to say the unsayable, to work slowly and painfully through problems together, and maybe even to hug in the middle of a fight, you’ll delve deeper into the kind of love that far transcends checklists and fairy godmothers.

* For the record, my husband always puts his socks in the laundry, no writhing required. I like him, yes I do.

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!!

28Jan

Focaccia

Pearl Jam is exactly the right music with which to have a religious crisis. You just know that Eddie Vedder is singing from the depths of his own dreadful, gravelly crises and that he would understand if you suddenly shouted a very bad word into the angsty void. (I like Catherine Newman’s use of “focaccia” without the last two syllables.)

I am writing this knowing full-well that it is not socially acceptable to have a religious crisis, at least not in the Christian world. I imagine most other religions are the same way though, too convinced of their own rightness to allow wiggle-room. Admitting weakness to churchgoers inevitably spawns a feeding frenzy, and you haven’t met sharks until you’ve ticked off a Southern Baptist. I know. I used to be a Southern Baptist poster child, a preacher’s kid with curled bangs reaching up to heaven and more righteous indignation than the Bible. Yes, I would very much like to smack my former self too.

I managed to survive the “God loves my parents and thus hates me” crisis when I was thirteen, and then the “God might not exist” crisis prompted by my Christian apologetics class at age fifteen (Feel free to bask a moment in the irony. Are your pores opening yet?), and then the “God doesn’t listen to me,” “God doesn’t talk to me,” and “God is a misogynist” crises in college–all without telling a soul. The idea is to get over your shameful lapse of faith quickly and quietly and then tell everyone your “testimony” of how God brought you through.

If you’ve ever hit a rough patch in your spiritual journey, you know just how much it sucks. You feel like you’ve done something horribly wrong. You feel embarrassed for not having it all together. You feel like a hypocrite for not understanding the system you’re supposed to promote. Most of all, you feel a bottomless, inky-black loneliness. If you can’t talk to God, who’s left?

If I were to name my current state of loneliness, it would be “God exists, but I don’t like him.” What does one do with that, not liking God? Everything triggers it–mealtime prayers, bedtime stories with Natalie, news reports, movies, that sharp doorway that deliberately gets in the way of my elbow. When we eat, I think about all the people starving across the world. How can he say he cares more for humans than for birds? When I hear news about the Middle East, I think about the endless violence and terrorism. How can he say the government is on his shoulders? When I cuddle my precious Sophie, I think about the baby he sent to be tortured, murdered. How can he call this the “good news?” When I read the Bible, I can’t see past the God-sanctioned warmongering, the murdering, the animal-sacrificing, the salt-pillaring, the earth-swallowing, the flooding, the exiling. How can he call himself good?

You have no idea how much I feel like the first un-closeted gay right now. I mean, am I normal? Do any others exist? How do they… uh, do this? Will acceptance possibly outweigh the judgment aimed in my direction? Will anyone be able to help me without just trying to cure my “condition?” Where is the backspace button for my mouth?

It doesn’t matter; I’ve said it. I don’t like God, at least not right now, and hopefully that’s not as scary in his mind as it is in mine. I also hope he’s not offended if I take this opportunity to say exactly what’s on my mind, that being FOCACCIA. (Imagine that being growl-screamed, Eddie Vedder style, please.)

24Sep

Love’s Interest

I encountered my first personal miracle on a crystalline December afternoon nearly five years ago. It snuck like whispered lightning into the suitcase-sized booth at Coney Island Hot Dogs where I was sitting with my boyfriend of one month, our knees kissing quietly under the table. We had reached the silent place in conversations where eyes start filling in the unsaid words, and I was thinking despite my best intentions…

Dating was not new territory for me, even though only one of my previous boyfriends could stomach the meager commitment of being called such, and then I was the one saying, “Oh, let’s not use labels.” In fact, the dating mantra was simple: Girlfriends are to be touched and not heard. I eventually clued into the fact that the guys in my life so far had been… well, something impolite to say (hint: starts with “jack” and ends with “asses”), and decided to become a nun.

Then I met Dan. Technically, we met the first day of Stupid English when he started whispering to me without realizing I was the tutor… and I oh-so-graciously shushed him. But I blocked don’t remember that particular incident. I do remember him coming over to see my roommate, me telling him she wasn’t in, and us suddenly realizing we had been talking for three hours. And then realizing we still had more to say.

I suppose that a relationship between two people who are preemptively opposed to the idea can only start as a series of small accidents, like falling deep into a conversation without realizing how. Like ending up on a movie date after all your other friends back out. Like listening to your own thoughts grown from a different soul. Oh, we convinced ourselves that we weren’t attracted, that our conversations were like Scotch tape that could be pulled off in an instant. Even after the awkwardness of knowing set in, we played it off as the stress of school.

After our third date (thought I was kidding about the denial factor?) and two solid hours of whispering, Dan finally admitted–as much to himself as to me–that he was falling for me. You would think after three dates, I would have come to the same conclusion, but my ego was clinging tenaciously to the idea that I. did. not. like. him. Even though it was already 3 a.m., I stayed up with my journal, trying to untangle a barrage of sticky emotions from the crevices in my brain. However, all I could come up with were two words: “It’s him.” I wrote them on a sticky-note and then threw the sticky-note away.

A week later, after I decided from a purely-intellectual standpoint to “officialize” our relationship, I very intellectually started freaking out. Nothing in my entire life has ever scared me as profoundly as holding Dan’s hand for the first time. I still don’t know why. After all, I adored our times together–how he challenged me, how he encouraged me, how he made me laugh. He emanated the kind of unassuming strength that I could lay the fragile bits of my heart open on. Plus, he had the cutest butt I’d ever ogled seen.

I guess I fell squarely within the cliché of women scared senseless by the prospect of true love. I wanted to keep emotion out of the picture. I wanted the safety of distance. I wanted desperately to break up before our hearts had a chance to intertwine. I knew I was hinging each day on irrationality, and I’m sure that Dan knew it too, but his endless patience provided just enough of a tether to keep my irrational, confused, terrified heart from tearing away.

So, despite my efforts to remain unattached, I wound up in a tiny Maryland town for Christmas break, meeting The Parents, putting up Christmas decorations, and walking through the snow with my fingers contentedly tangled in Dan’s. And, of course, sitting in a tiny restaurant booth trying to process the short history of our relationship. I looked up from my thoughts, straight into Dan’s smiling eyes…

…and in that instant, I fell in love.

Old Couply Pictures

One month later, I was dizzy from the sparkling significance of a new diamond ring. Six months after that, I was falling asleep curled in my new husband’s arms. And 4-1/2 years after that, I’m missing him ridiculously after only a few days apart. Of course we don’t always feel romantic–sometimes, we don’t even feel much like friends–and it’s easy to let familiarity dull our appreciation for each other. But love has a knack for expanding the treasures of memory, like money temporarily forgotten in a bank, and every time I revisit them, I realize I am richer than I ever thought.

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