Tag: Faith

11Apr

Birds of the Air, Hamsters of the Faith

When I wrote the following entry in my journal this morning, I was intending it just for me. I already had a blog post in the works, and I just wanted to get these thoughts off my chest first. However, when I caught myself writing that I need to stop apologizing for the way my mind works, I decided to stick it to shame and let you into my real Thursday morning headspace. Welcome.

~~~

I was listening to This American Life while straightening up the house and making my breakfast this morning when a short story by Shalom Auslander came on. In the story, two pet hamsters are starving to death and trying to make sense of why their owner is neglecting them. One of the hamsters says their owner has forgotten them, and he tries to forage for his own food with only limited success. The other hamster says it’s a test of faith; he sees signs of the owner’s care which, when successfully debunked by the unbelieving hamster, become additional tests of faith. He prays in thanks to the owner for starving him in order to show him his sin of ungratefulness. Finally, as the hamster is praying, the owner comes in the door. He’s with a woman, and as they fumble their way toward the bedroom, he turns off the lights.

I know that Shalom Auslander came from a severe Orthodox Jewish background that makes mine look almost liberal and that he has no shortage of bitterness toward God. I totally get it. And it’s because I totally get it that I felt sacrilegious and scared listening to the hamster allegory. The story didn’t denounce the existence of God or his roles as creator and provider; it simply made the argument that God doesn’t care about us, and that hits too close to my own doubts for comfort.

When times are hard, as these last two years in particular have been for us, we’re confronted with three possible perspectives. One is that the hardship proves that there is no God, that we’re utterly alone in this world. The second is that the hardship proves that God doesn’t care about us or that he will only help us if we prove our worthiness by pulling ourselves out of the hole. The third is that the hardship is part of a bigger plan for our own good and that God’s care for us is a constant we can cling to for comfort.

The first option doesn’t work for me because I do believe in God. I can’t help it. I’ve seen too much evidence of a divine force participating in our lives to doubt God’s existence. Choosing between the second two perspectives is tricky though. On one hand, hardship sucks. I know that if Natalie or Sophie were going through extreme financial and relational stress and I had the power to alleviate their burdens, I would do it in a heartbeat. That seems like the only loving option to me. But on the other hand, I know it’s ridiculously subjective to say that my displeasure with circumstances makes them categorically bad. I don’t know the bigger picture, and the idea is that God does, so we can trust that the ultimate outcome will be good… “good” in a philosophical sense only God can understand, that is. It’s never far from my mind that God’s idea of good could involve our destitution or death, and trying to call any pain that we experience “good” because God knows best makes me feel as pathetic and delusional as the praying hamster from Auslander’s story. Granted, we’re not destitute or dead right now, and I can’t go basing my view of God on other people’s circumstances that I only glimpse from the outside.

Obviously, I vacillate a lot between the two beliefs—God loves us, he loves us not. I prefer the loving option, but when all evidence seems to point to the contrary, I don’t know what to stake my trust on. I don’t have the kind of faith that can declare God good and caring no matter what happens to us. It does matter what happens to us! We matter! Our pain matters! When religious institutions try to placate people like me into blind faith with platitudes and Christianese and churchy aphorisms, it makes me want to abandon ship. We are not such spiritual beings that our physical realities don’t count. We have to have some kind of reason for our beliefs, and at least for me, faith comes from seeing a spiritual God interact with our physical world. Call me a weak Christian, but I can’t just glibly attribute both good and bad circumstances to God’s love. I can’t.

Some days, I take comfort from what Jesus said about God caring for us, meeting our daily needs, and answering our requests as a loving father would. Other days, I can’t stop considering that Jesus said these things shortly before he was tortured to death. Honestly, what am I supposed to take from that?

I feel like I should apologize to God or Jesus or the Pope or someone for putting that last paragraph into words, but I’m tired of apologizing for my mind. I’m tired of trying to silence questions and misgivings that don’t fit within church-approved mindsets. Censoring my doubts doesn’t make them go away; it just makes me live dishonestly, and how can I love God with all of my mind if I keep trying to lock parts of it in the basement? For better or worse, I’m stuck with this brain until death do us part. The tendency to overthink and question everything is hardwired into who I am, and apologizing for who I am is nothing less than deferring to shame.

So this is me, authentic and unapologetic, admitting that I can’t figure out this morning whether I’m one of the hamsters from Auslander’s story or one of the birds of the air from Jesus’s sermon. If I decide that God is indeed taking care of us no matter how life looks through the porthole of today, am I shutting down logic and deluding myself? Or if I decide that God has left us to fend for ourselves, am I discounting the many forms that grace takes in our lives?

This no man’s land between the two perspectives is not an ideal place to set up camp, but it’s not unfamiliar territory for me. In fact, I’ve often encountered God here in the breathing space between the opposing swirls of doctrine and rationale and emotional charge. Grace for now is accepting that my doubt-disposed brain is fearfully and wonderfully made and resting in the certainty that life does not depend on my perception of it. What’s more, God’s character does not depend on my understanding of it. Either we are being taken care of or we are not; my outlook changes nothing except how I feel… and what I feel right now is a blanket of peace wrapped around my questions, a gentle assurance that I don’t have to have God all figured out. This, more than anything else this morning, is helping me to navigate back toward the belief that whatever my reality right now, whatever my physical circumstances or spiritual uncertainties, he does care.

15Jan

Life, with Style

We’ve been an exclusively freelancing family for a year now—not a drop of guaranteed income since December 2011—and just to write that requires a deep breath and several pinches on the arm to verify that I’m still here, that we’re still here. It doesn’t seem possible. We’ve had nothing more substantial to stand on than the prismed airstreams of faith and hope and inspiration, and I’ll be honest, the hardest part of our year came after my post on accrued miracles.

We landed on the doorstep of 2013 as shaky and windswept as if we had been flung off a roller coaster, but just as exhilarated too. For all the instability of this lifestyle and the havoc it wreaks on my imagination, we feel like we’re en route to our best selves, and that’s been enough to overrule surges of panic and impulses to snatch up ill-fitting jobs. We pray like schizophrenics, listen to heart-nudges, eat lots of soup, and try to keep our forward momentum into new realms of possibility. It’s a morale-saver, that possibility.

It can also be a soul-snuffer, at least where my manic work philosophy comes into play. Without a clearly defined workday or bite-sized goals, I view all that possibility as my direct and urgent responsibility. Must! accomplish! All The Things! NOW! Inevitably, after three or four days of frenzied work and no play, Jack isn’t simply a dull boy; he’s a burned-out, scary-eyed, hormonal mess of a zombie housewife.

(This is what happens when a lover of hyperbole is allowed to freelance.)

I’ve always been quick to prioritize the life out of my time, though I know well how it leads to a cycle of dissatisfaction and burnout and despair and snooze button abuse, followed by a reluctant admission that my brain belongs in rehab and a resolve to do better (which I add to my to-do list because I’m also a lover of irony). Really, though, that is my mission for this year: to put the life back into my lifestyle. To recondition my sense of accomplishment and let myself feel happy dammit!, even if the only thing I’ve managed to do in the day is love well. To choose margins for my time instead of wallowing helplessly in too-much-to-do. To care for my physical, spiritual, relational, and creative self, you know, on purpose.

This is probably the hardest resolution I could make for myself right now. I’m more comfortable with sacrifice than I am with solace, and I’ve adopted versions of this goal in the past without it sticking any better than my resolve to give up sugar (I tried that once in high school for a whole day; I know better now). I have to figure this out though if I plan to enjoy our second year of freelancing adventures.

Which I most absolutely do.

14Sep

Deus ex Machina

The girls started school two days ago, and all week has felt like a series of false starts and double takes, even if we have managed to get them to bed on time every night. (Us parents, not so much.) We’re stumble-adjusting to a new schedule and forgetting some things and vastly overthinking others, and when the water and electricity both went out on Wednesday, I took it as the universe personally heckling us. It’s been a hard summer, and I often just want to hit a pause button on all forward motion and let the days pile up around me until I finally feel there are enough to go around. I’m worn out. You already know this.

But here’s what you probably don’t know—

This week last year, my husband went to his last day of work for an employer who then announced he would not be paying Dan for the previous few months of work and vowed to thwart his freelance venture.

That same day, we received notice from our rental house in the States that our tenant was being evicted for failure to pay.

During the eviction process, a drug lab was discovered out of our basement there. The police got involved, and our resulting legal and house-repair bills were staggering.

The investors for Dan’s new project backed out without explanation and stopped answering their phones.

A very large, very needed check bounced.

And then this happened.

We had no money left, our freelance prospects were uncertain at best, and as I sat in a deserted train station off a deserted country road on the last day of September while our car was being towed away for a month-long rehabilitation, I honestly didn’t see how we were going to make it. I couldn’t tell if God was listening or not, but I sent him an earful of uncensored panic anyway. It was all very Children Of Israel circa Moses, convinced as I was that God had led us to the freelance-desert only to abandon us here.

Looking back at that moment from a whole year ahead produces something in between panic by proxy and mute gratefulness. It’s not that we’ve had the easiest run since then, but the miracles! I once heard someone say that the American ideal of self-sufficiency doesn’t leave much room for experiencing divine provision; we tend to hide our struggles from each other and subdue problems with a credit card, and this immediate stamping-out of neediness can also stamp out miracles in the making. It was a hard concept to get my head around as I tend to see self-sufficiency as next to godliness, but in the year since our sky fell down around us, we’ve seen the truth of it so many times.

Just as the investors were backing out last September, a company Dan had bumped shoulders with over the summer called to offer him contract work in his field. His first business trip after our car broke down paid the exact amount we needed to get it repaired.

Then on Christmas week, the very day we were going to be deported from Italy, we received the last piece of paperwork we needed to renew our visas. This was a bureaucratic impossibility, yet it happened.

On an impulse, we decided to fly out of Munich where, at the check-in desk, we discovered Natalie’s passport had expired; however, because we had never been residents of Germany, they were obligated to let us return to our country of citizenship. Had we tried flying out of Italy, we would have been stranded. (You can read the whole story here: Of Stupidity and Love.)

Two weeks before our January return flight to Italy, a series of unforeseeable “coincidences” allowed Dan to get the special kind of work visa he needed.

Two days before our return flight, our prayers for Disney World were answered.

And ONE DAY before our return flight, my visa was also granted.

We made it back to Italy together, and that in itself would have been marvel enough for the year… but fast forward two months when, the very same day that we were going to lose our house in the States, new tenants singed a year-long lease. The very. same. day.

I couldn’t make this stuff up, and even my diligently skeptical brain can’t construe this last year as a string of coincidences. We are still here, in our beautiful Italian home, with our car and our health and our work and our possibility-filled future, and to write that down is to look a miracle full in the face and say “I see you.”

Lest you think this saintly stoicism is a way of life for me now, you should know that I’ve spent plenty of days this summer panicking in God’s direction. I’ve got the Children of Israel routine down pat—You delivered us from deportation and foreclosure and living under a bridge only to abandon us in the freelance-desert again! Also, this pasta from the sky thing is getting old. This is why it’s so good to have anniversaries, to look back and see former crises as water under the bridge we were never doomed to call home.

Had we not reached such extremes of neediness, we might not have recognized God’s touch for what it was. To be really, uncomfortably honest, I probably wouldn’t have acknowledged any of those miracles above had the situations not been so desperate and the timing so precise. I default to doubt when there’s any wiggle room for interpretation. We ran out of wiggle room last September though, and the resulting provision we experienced was an undiminished gift. Safely ensconced now in a new September, even with its false starts and double takes, I am keenly grateful for the reminder that we’re still in this crazy, wonderful, epic story of ours… and that our writer has a particular affinity for Deux ex Machina.

9May

Trumped

I decided years ago that I was done with the creation vs. evolution debate. As a Jesus-follower, I often hear earnest sermonizing that God created all life forms in six literal days and that science is trying to undermine the truth of our Bible, but I no longer take on that conversation. My personal belief is that the creation story in Genesis is highly figurative and that God in science are on the same team, but I could be mistaken. Honestly, I don’t care. I see a divine fingerprint on the world around me, but the method of its origin has no bearing on my faith. It’s simply a non-issue to me.

I’ve taken the same approach with the sexual orientation subject too. Nearly all Christian denominations openly condemn the homosexual and transgender, but I never saw the point in getting worked up over it. After all, I’m straight. I can hardly claim to understand, much less consider myself an authority on those with other sexual orientations. Yes, there are passages in the Bible decrying homosexuality, but the Bible is a complicated book, and I didn’t see a personal need to delve into the linguistic and cultural nuances behind those passages in order to polarize my stance. The issue simply didn’t affect me.

That was before someone very dear to me shared the story of her husband—a conservative pastor and Quiverfull dad—admitting that he actually identified as female and of their transition to a same-sex marriage. I was stunned. My lack of a position on the whole subject left me in a philosophical no man’s land as I tried to wrap my mind around their story, and my own longsuffering spouse can attest to the many hours I spent talking myself through it. I kept trying to put myself in Melissa’s position, but I just couldn’t imagine finding out that my husband had always felt his deepest identity to be female. More, I couldn’t imagine coming out myself and continuing our committed, affectionate relationship as he became a she.

It finally dawned on me that I was trying to understand things from the wrong angle. My body and soul genders match each other, and my romantic inclination is as conventional as it comes; I’m not going to be able to conjure up the transgender or gay experience any more than I could picture myself a tsar. But I don’t need to. I don’t need to feel what my friend is going through in order to hear the emotions of her story, see the awe-striking love she and her spouse have shown each other throughout, or understand the way people’s reactions affect them. I don’t need to twist my mind around in search for empathy. It’s been right here all along… and so has my stance on the issue:

Love matters most.

Jesus said that when a religious leader asked him for the greatest commandment, and it’s one of my favorite things in the Bible. All those lists of laws and thou shalt nots are both summed up and solidly trumped by love. You would think, according to some sermons I’ve heard, that Jesus accidentally forgot to exclude homosexuals when he said “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But this same Jesus met with scathing criticism from the churchy crowd for his habit of hanging out with prostitutes, cheats, and other flagrant sinners. He had dinner with outcasts and approached people considered too vile for interaction, and you know, he never once remembered to launch an anti-gay campaign. He was too busy teaching how to cultivate peace, live authentically, and stop burdening our fellow human beings.

I realize that unconventional sexual orientation has become a huge moral issue to many people, and it’s often seen as grounds for terminating friendships. In the case of Christian communities, many adopt the strategy of trying to shun the offending person into repentance. Bullying can take the form of anything from hate crimes to prayer meetings to constitutional amendments, and we’re only kidding ourselves if we claim that our repugnance is rooted in the Bible. The Old Testament puts pride, eating pig meat, and doing things to gain popularity in the same category as gay sex, but the cultural stigmas on those actions have long since been lifted. If you pick up a clam on the beach today, you’re not going to face a religious firing squad even though touching shellfish is listed as an abomination in the same section of the Bible most often used to bash homosexuals. Like it or not, every single Christian interprets the Bible through a cultural filter, so I think it’s about time that we acknowledge our prejudice for what it is.

I imagine that some people are ready to jump down my throat right now with theology books in tow, but I’m less willing to join in the debate now than I was during all my years of disimpassioned neutrality. It really all comes down to this one truth beating in my heart:

The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination!
But love matters most.

God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman, period!
But love matters most.

If I remain friends with gay people, they will think I’m condoning their behavior!
But love matters most.

They’re unnatural and perverted and mentally unsound; they need to be cured!
But love matters most.

What if my child turns out gay?
Love matters most.

No matter our fears or aversions, our power as a majority group to put others down, or our arsenal of theological ammunition, love matters most. Jesus summed up centuries of religious law in this, and I don’t believe for one second that he meant “love” as an abstract semantic device that we can claim over the people we’re shunning. Jesus’s love was always hands-on—touching the sick, embracing muddy children, tearing off hunks of bread for the hungry, washing his followers’ feet—and he charged his believers with carrying out his heart for people. He charged us with grace, freeing us forever from the responsibility of judging or condemning each other. His is a legacy of radical community, beautiful in its unconcern with convention or religious respectability, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be a part of it… right alongside my friend.

~~~

I’ve linked to this before, but it’s worth a second read: A Mountain I’m Willing to Die On

24Feb

A Personal Kind of Grace

[Photo of Vesuvius snapped on Easter morning 2010]

Everywhere, it seems, I’m reading about Lent, and I’m trying to let the words sink in, but they float just above my level of comprehension. Ashes, fasting, sin, mortality, dust to dust… Maybe it’s because I’ve never attended a church that practiced Lent (though I know that’s not a prerequisite to participation). Maybe it’s because I’m on such tenuous terms with organized Christianity. Maybe it’s because words like “sin” and “fasting” shut me down trigger-quick with oppressive memories.

My being with you this year doesn’t just refer to posting more often. The internet offers a shiny, gilt-framed backdrop for whatever image of ourselves we want to project, but it’s a hollow allure, this self-sponsored PR. If I’m only offering a mirage of who I want you to think I am, any attempts at connection will vaporize with the illusion, and I believe that connection is the reason we are on this planet together. Thus, with = authenticity.

Are you ready?

As far back as I can remember, the Easter season has symbolized a very personal kind of brutality to me. The story of Jesus’s crucifixion is horrific, no matter the religious paradigm. A man who devoted his adult life to teaching kindness, spreading hope, standing up for the marginalized, and living out compassion is tortured to death by religious leaders who feel their legalistic system threatened. The injustice is instantly recognizable, the tragedy deeply felt. And it is all my fault.

That’s what I was taught from the beginning, that the shards of glass ripping his back to shreds, the iron spikes hammered into his wrists, the agonizing hours on the cross as his lungs collapsed were all my fault.  It sent me into hysterics as a young child. Hearing the unthinkable details of Jesus’s suffering and then being told I was responsible was too much for my heart to handle intact. Jagged, uncontrollable laughter spilled through the wound, and my guilt doubled. No punishment was enough.

“Jesus died for your sins.” I swallow hard every time I hear this line at church, wondering what concept it is shaping in my daughters’ minds. I know that many people take it as a message of hope and love, but I have trouble seeing the barbarism behind the statement. Death by torture is somehow the sacrificial equivalent of my imperfection? Is it not enough to acknowledge my need for redemption without also accepting the blame for Jesus’s death? More often than not, these questions have led me down a spiral staircase of doubts from which I couldn’t see hope, not even a glint, through my anger at God for orchestrating such horror.

I can’t turn off my mind or cauterize the raw edges of my heart against pain, but I have learned to look through new eyes. A few years ago, my friend Rachelle Mee-Chapman’s article Your Kindergartner Did Not Kill Jesus, and Neither Did You helped me see the Easter story as a powerful continuation of Jesus’s life rather than a violent tit-for-tat. Gerry Beauchemin’s book Hope Beyond Hell showed me a God of love instead of torture. Other resources, music, and open-minded conversations have helped me find a third path beyond blind acceptance of religious dogma and angry rejection of the whole Christian construct. I can now love Jesus honestly, without having to shoulder or celebrate his death.

I admire those of you who make sacrifices during these forty days in order to draw closer to God, and I want you to know that I respect your ashes. They aren’t for me, though, at least not in this stage of my life. I’ve spent so long pinned in the dust by Jesus’s suffering that meditating on it now would be like returning to a prison. Perhaps I will be able to do it one day when my new perspective is strong enough to cocoon old wounds. But for now, I’m focusing on words and life instead of sin and death, meditating on the kindness Jesus taught rather than the evil he suffered. My soul was designed not for guilt but for grace—bright, sweeping, extravagant grace that becomes especially personal to me when I meet with God here on this third path and (s)he loves my split heart a little closer to wholeness.

26Jan

Prayer and Pixie Dust

This might sound crazy, but I prayed for Disney World.

By the tail end of our month in the States, our Christmas trip was beginning to resemble a parade of unavoidable expenses—tolls, Urgent Care x 2, gasoline x a million, and ever-mounting bureaucratic fees for the paperwork we had traveled to get—and despite the gorgeous generosity of friends and family who welcomed us in, we just couldn’t swing a day with Mickey Mouse.

That realization hurt like a choke chain yanking us straight back to our credit card bill. There we were in Orlando for the last time in our foreseeable future with a few days to spare and two little girls who spent a solid 45 minutes in the Disney Store pretending to be princesses.  The girls weren’t expecting anything more, and maybe that was part of why I ached so much to take them… especially Natalie who softly read every Disney World billboard we passed on the way to get her broken arm set. So I prayed.

You should know I’m no good at praying. The church traditions of my past have left a script in my mind from which I rarely find words to deviate. I don’t know how to be honest with my head bowed and eyes closed. Instead, I’ve learned how to feel, careful not to muddy my heart’s surface with thoughts, and I imagine that I’m directing that feeling toward someone who cares. This time, logic scolded me for asking God for something so frivolous when people all over the world struggle with very real needs. My brain followed this up with a cynical laugh because really, I expected someone to just up and offer $400 worth of tickets to a strange little family from Italy? My heart wouldn’t stop hoping though, so I blocked out cynicism and logic and felt as earnestly as I could, following up with “please.”

And wouldn’t you know, someone just up and offered $400 worth of tickets to our strange little family two days before we returned to Italy.

Words can’t express.

The girls leading the way - 2

We’re back in Italy now, adjusting to the time difference and unpacking far more than we remember packing, and if jet lag weren’t already doing the job, my gratefulness at being home would keep me in a waking stupor. A string of miracles is the only thing that got us there and back again, which anyone who’s ever approached Italian government offices with a deadline can confirm. We’re starting 2012 with little certainty but with enough hope and possibility to make up for it fifty times over, and each time the choke chain has started to tighten this week, I’ve relaxed back into the glow of this—answered prayer, extra pixie dust included.

Disney World collage

27Nov

Year of Plenty

I don’t know how to describe this year. I keep trying to find words and coming up just short of unintelligible emo lyrics croaked over a wailing guitar. I realize that after the upheaval of 2007, this is saying a lot, but we’re nearing the end of our most challenging year as a family to date. It seems that every week since July, there has been some new circumstance beyond our control, and we’re currently dealing with some things we never would have imagined having to face. It all compresses on our mindspace, pulls us thin.

And yet, despite huge losses, we haven’t gone without. Even in the midst of betrayal, injustice, and good old-fashioned misfortune, we have always had enough food and love to go around.  I keep trying to weave our circumstances into the cosmic net of suffering, but when I take a step back, all my raveling ends connect to the simplest reality: plenty. Every fall from security this year has landed us in unexpected provision, and somehow, impossibly, we have always had plenty of what we truly need.

That’s what we opened our house up to celebrate last weekend. A group of friends who have been like family to us, who continue to overfill us with companionship and kindness. A house large enough to host them, to invite the sprawl of Thanksgiving in to linger. An enormous turkey which had the whole supermarket talking and barely fit in our oven. Side dishes and laughter and everyone at the grown-up table and Cheers! in an overflowing circle. Plenty.

 Our eighth turkey together... awww

I’m especially thankful this year for impossible provision, for these chances to re-learn the whisper of miracle, for far-flung hopes, for the beautiful souls buoying us, and for hunky Italian poultry named Luigi (naturally). What are you celebrating this year?

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