Tag: Spirituality

6Oct

A Field Guide to Unfurling

“No one ever influenced Tolkien—
you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch.”
– C.S. Lewis

/ / /

Like most people who have grappled with their childhood faith, I’ve learned that I can’t base my understanding of God on what other Christians are like. Even the most pious of pulpit-pounders are still human, and the ones who claim the most loudly to speak for God are the ones who raise my highest defenses. My best strategy for avoiding spiritual disillusionment is to keep firm mental boundaries between who God is and how people portray him. However, I’ve also learned this: that when you see Jesus in someone, you don’t easily forget it.

Erika Morrison is one such person. To her, everyone from the homeschool mom to the homeless cross-dresser reflects one facet of an infinite God, and she lives like it. When I started getting to know her four years ago, her words somersaulted my perspective of Christianity onto its head. The way she defined freedom and art and identity and community made me want to exhale three decades of pent-up weariness and then invite everyone I knew to a dance party. This is a lady who believes down to her toenails that God wove our quirks and creative impulses into us not so we could spend our lives trying to overcome them in the interest of uniformity but so that we could fill the us-shaped voids in this world. You just try not busting a move as that realization sets in.

I wanted to introduce you all to Erika not just because she’s rad—though she absolutely is—but because her book Bandersnatch was released into the wild today, and this makes me glad for humanity. It’s her gift of sacred unconventionality put to paper (or, uh, Paperwhite), and I don’t imagine that many of us who pick it up are going to be the same when we put it back down. At the very least, we’ll be several pounds lighter in exhaled cynicism.

Now, without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Erika:

/ / /


Bandersnatch (Full Length Trailer) on Vimeo.

The cardinals make it look so easy. The honeybees make it look so easy. The catfish and the black crow, the dairy cow and the cactus plant, all make being created appear effortless. They arise from the earth, do their beautiful, exclusive thing and die having fulfilled their fate. None of nature seems to struggle to know who they are or what to do with themselves.

But humanity is the exception to nature’s rule because we’re individualized within our breed. We’re told by our mamas and mentors that—like snowflakes—no two of us are the same and that we each have a special purpose and part to play within the great Body of God. (If your mama never told you this, consider yourself informed: YOU—your original cells and skin-print, guts and ingenuity—will never ever incarnate again. Do you believe it?) So we struggle and seek and bald our knees asking variations of discovery-type questions (Who am I? Why am I here?), and if we’re semi-smart and moderately equipped, we pay attention just enough to wake up piecemeal over years to the knowledge of our vital, indigenous selves.

And yet… even for all our wrestling and wondering, there are certain, abundant factors stacked against our waking up. We feel and fight the low ceiling of man-made definitions, systems and institutions; we fight status quo, culture conformity, herd mentalities, and more often than not,

“The original shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out of all our other selves, which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.” ~Frederick Buechner

So, let me ask you. Do you know something—anything—of your true, original, shimmering self?

Read More »

21Nov

Jesus Gives (or, How Is This Thing Worth It?)

Possibly the most significant search of my adult life has been for honest theology.

By that, I mean I’ve been seeking out ways of understanding God that don’t require me to shut down my curiosity, ignore my doubts, or twist pieces of the puzzle until they finally fit into the bigger picture. This isn’t to say that I’m against any sense of mystery in my spiritual journey. In fact, getting comfortable with not-knowing has helped me more than textbooks full of pat answers ever did. I just want to be sure that the experts who talk to me about God and the Bible and the difficult points of Christianity have wrestled their way through the kinds of questions that I do. I want my doctrine to come with rug burns. 

I’m sharing today at A Deeper Story about one such question and the grammar lesson that helped me toward an answer. There’s no expert advice here, but I can guarantee you this—

It’s honest.

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

My philosophy professor was a bright-eyed man with a Shakespearean sense of humor, but even that did not help me feel goodwill toward him the day our class discussion turned toward Jesus. It wasn’t that our views on Jesus were so very different. After all, we were at an evangelical Christian university with a strong Southern Baptist bent; folks there might disagree on whether the wine of Jesus’ first miracle wasn’t in fact Welch’s grape juice, but we all took as a given that Jesus was God incarnate and the basis of our faith.

It was the why behind my professor’s faith that made me feel as though a swarm of midges had invaded the classroom.

“We follow Jesus because he is The Truth,” my professor declared, all but dusting his hands with the certainty of his words. “Seeking truth is our greatest motivation in life, and God is true. That’s why Christianity has flourished throughout time. It’s why all of you are Christians today.”

I had to fight back an impulse to jump to my feet spluttering like a shaken can of Coke.

Instead, I raised my hand and explained—hopefully more calmly than I felt—that I disagreed. That not even God expects us to follow him out of a pure, Buddha-esque devotion to truth. That the Bible is full of incentives: healing, hope, blessing, joy, the divine trump card of salvation, even imperviousness to poison. That we follow God not out of some sense of philosophical duty but because he makes us an offer we can’t refuse.

My professor looked at me like I had just stepped off the madman set of King Lear, and I spent the rest of the class silent, fuming, and a little shocked by the intensity of whatever was fizzing around inside of me. So what if my professor approached spirituality as a quest for truth? Why should his view on the matter provoke such wild resistance in me?

The answer, as I was later able to articulate to myself in the privacy of my dorm room, was that I’d already experienced enough Truth to last me the rest of my life and then some. My childhood faith had been mapped out in the stark lines of right versus wrong. I’d learned to follow God because he demanded it of me, and how else do you react to a deity holding all the cards? You play along. You nod your head yes sir and no sir. You worship as instructed. You sing “I love you Lord” while trying to convince yourself that the emotion sweeping you isn’t actually the definition of holy terror.

College is where I finally began to extricate myself from the tyranny of Truth. Friends prayed with me weekly that I’d be able to absorb the idea that God loved me—really loved me, with the kind of crinkle-eyed affection that might just mean he liked me too—and I started to curate bits and pieces of a new perspective on Christianity that would welcome my heart and soul and experiences and emotions and curiosity in addition to my mind. I was only toe-deep into this process though when my philosophy professor declared that our ultimate goal is Truth and sent my fragile new setup spinning.

Why, REALLY? I wanted to ask him. My soul had been chafed threadbare by esoteric arguments; what I needed was for God’s goodness to be real, observable, woven through the fabric of everyday me. I needed someone to look me straight in the eyes and tell me what drew them back to Jesus when the costs began to mount. How was following God worth it?

/ / /

Just over a year ago, we moved from one side of our neighborhood to the other, a distance of about half a mile. My husband and I decided to move partly because it would reduce our rent by half (one small plus of the economic crisis) but also because we felt cut off from our purpose in the beautiful large house on the hill. The image that we felt ourselves projecting from that house was one of wealth, self-sufficiency, and pulled-togetherness, even if reality sang a different tune. To be honest, it was gratifying to be seen as people winning at life. However, we felt the hollowness of that as well, the vertical distance it was creating between others and us. Our pulled-together appearance was only an illusion, but it was an isolating one, and after four years there, Jesus’s words on social justice had stopped making sense to us.

So we moved. We found a fifth-floor apartment on the other side of the neighborhood that would meet our work-from-home needs, and we began to understand just how much of a difference half a mile can make. Where my writing desk used to look out over olive groves, it now faces a row of gray government-subsidized housing. Our girls play with neighborhood kids on the concrete patio beneath our building instead of in a private backyard. The cloak of respectability is worn thin here, and we see brokenness lived out on the public stage of our block every day—domestic disputes, child abuse, mental illness, shouts of “Whore!” and “Bitch!” reverberating through broad daylight.

We’re out of the bubble just as we’d hoped. We’re finally getting the chance to wrap our arms around neighbors in crisis and engage meaningfully with our community. The cost though… Oh friends, the cost. I’d anticipated the sacrifice of our time, our mental energy, and our convenience, but I hadn’t considered that we’d also have to let go of our expectations. I hadn’t realized that the happy ending clause I’d tacked onto my willingness to serve was going to be rendered obsolete almost immediately. I’ve had to face that, in all likelihood, the people I help aren’t going to reward me by getting better,and it’s shaken up old questions to splutter and fizz around inside me.

Why continue? Why carry out Jesus’s directives to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and love the enemy when I don’t get to claim any [immediate or measurable] benefits? How is following God worth what it’s costing me? What gives, Jesus?

For better or worse, I’ve always needed to know what God offers in terms I can wrap my hopelessly practical mind around. “Fire insurance” isn’t a good enough reason for me; neither is the search for truth or the promise of heaven or any number of moral pats on the back. My impatient streak takes over and requires that I know exactly what Jesus is bringing into my here and now.

Which brings me to the major difference between my questions twelve years ago at college and my questions today: an answer.

A few years ago, I was reading through Raising Hell by Julie Ferwerda when a certain paragraph stopped me short. In it, the author points out that John 3:16 was originally written in the present progressive tense instead of the future one that most of us are familiar with. (Any of you allergic to grammar, just bear with me a second.)

“For thus God loves the world, so that He gives His only-begotten Son, that everyone who is believing in Him should not be perishing, but may be having life age-abiding.” (Concordant Literal Translation)

Ferwerda argues that the use of the present progressive—is believing, not be perishing, may be having life—is intentional and meant to convey that both salvation and soul-death are current processes. “Think of it like a green plant thriving by a water source, or withering away for lack of water,” she writes. Spiritual life or death now. Heaven or hell here. Salvation not as an insurance policy but as an active component of the life I lead every day. Kingdom, come.

The name Immanuel has been breaking me open and putting me back together lately because I really can sense God with me, setting the world right through touches of divine nonsense–my door opened to a neighbor who’s not going to change but who needs love anyway; a neighbor’s door opened to me even though my savior complex is showing; grace in the present progressive for us all. This grace is the why for me, the offer I can’t refuse. It’s what redeems the everyday moments and the cost of persistence. It’s the truest evidence of Immanuel to me, the truest expression of healing and hope and salvation-in-real-time, so true in fact that even I might be persuaded to call it The Truth.

 

image source (art by Banksy)

23Sep

Prayer is Not My Prayer Language

When I began this blog back in 2007, I in no way intended to write about my spiritual life. In fact, I intended not to. Marching into the depths of my topsy-turvy faith with a notepad was a prospect so scary that I rarely even attempted it in the privacy of my own company. I planned to blog about parenthood and living overseas and maybe, occasionally, the quirks in my personality, but not spirituality. Never spirituality.

As you might have noticed, that resolution has held up about as well as a toilet paper kite in a thunderstorm.

It hasn’t gotten any less scary for me to write about my evolving relationship with God, just so you know. Blogging requires significantly more pep talking and espresso than I originally conceived, and I go into full-blown vulnerability hangover mode at least once a month. The freedom to share what’s going on behind the scenes of my heart, though, is worth every bit of discombobulation (as is the opportunity to use words like “discombobulation”), and I’m honored to the depths of my quirky soul that you’re here to read this.

Today I’m confessing to a new bit of unorthodoxy over at A Deeper Story, where I’ll join you once I’ve issued myself another pep talk or two. You bring the coffee?

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

 “Sometimes, when people ask me about my prayer life, I describe hanging laundry on the line… This is good work, this prayer. This is good prayer, this work.”
– Barbara Brown Taylor

Rarely do I call on God’s intervening powers more fervently than when someone looks around the circle and asks, “Whose turn is it to pray?”

Mine. It’s almost certainly mine. In fact, I’ve been shirking my pray-aloud duties for so many years that I probably owe the Christian community about 3,708,000 consecutive blessings at this point.

The Bible study leader or head of the holiday table knows this and looks straight at me, but I have retreated into my one and only evasive maneuver: the Preemptive Head Bow. I close my eyes and fix my face in a half-smile as if I’m already agreeing in spirit with whoever is chosen to pray. NOT ME. God, for all the love you bear me and my remaining scraps of soul dignity, make them choose NOT ME.

It usually works. Most people are reluctant to call on someone who looks to be already busy communing with God. Every now and then though… “Bethany, we haven’t heard from you in a while!” I then whisper to God the most honest expression of my soul in that moment, which is Dammit.

It’s not that I don’t know what to do in this setting. I grew up a worship leader’s kid in a Southern Baptist church. I know how to pray aloud, from the first “Father God” to the final “in your name we pray,” and I can still whip out a passable blessing under social duress. The problem is that every word of a proper prayer feels like a stumbling block in my throat. The corners rasp against my lips even as I will myself to sound ardent, bad acting made all the worse by my complicity in it.

No one has ever pointed out that my prayers tend to come out like strangulated haikus—Dear God thank you please / something on togetherness / in your name amen—but I still project my unease onto those listening. I imagine them getting together later to compare notes and plan some kind of spiritual intervention for She-Who-Tries-To-Avoid-Praying. I wouldn’t blame them either. After all, what kind of Christian doesn’t want to talk to God? That’s like being the kind of chef who refuses to touch food, or the kind of Red Sox fan who just shrugs when the Yankees win.

Something fundamental is clearly missing. At least, that’s what I used to think.

I kept an uneasy truce with prayer—accepting it as a necessary discomfort, a kind of religious underwire—until my college years. Like many students, I found the gift of unknowing in lecture halls. My professors challenged me to question and research, to unclench my perspective so I could learn. And I determined I would. I marched myself into Mardel Christian Books one Texas-bright morning and left with a stack of prayer guides as deep as my desperation. This collection of expert theology, surely, would activate my latent prayer gene.

If you’ve ever read more than two Christian how-to books in your life, you already know how the next part of this story goes. Prayer is an exercise in blind persistence, the first book told me. No, no, no–prayer is a magic spell, said the second. If you have enough faith, God will give you your own prayer language, insisted the third. Yo knuckleheads, stop bothering God with all this talking business and just listen, countered the fourth.

I’m simplifying, of course, but the whole thing felt far from simple as I abandoned book after book in frustration. Prayer was supposed to be the baseline of any Christian’s relationship with God, but I couldn’t even do it in the privacy of my own mind. I couldn’t come up with words that rang true for me, much less ones that would transport me to the park bench where God was waiting to chat. And forget about a personal prayer language. I knew five-year-olds who could speak in tongues, but God was obviously not wasting that gift on me. It was just my voice, stammering in plain old Christianese, and the answering silence.

I never felt further from God than when I tried talking to him.

So finally, several years and several hundred arid please-and-thank-yous later, I just stopped. I stopped trying to untangle the telephone cord between God and me. I stopped forcing words into the blank space between us. I stopped pretending, at least to myself, that I was the kind of person who could start a meaningful conversation with “Dear Father in heaven.” I wasn’t. I didn’t know how to be, though God knows I’d tried. For whatever the reason (was I not sincere enough? did my soul come with a manufacturer’s defect? did God just straight-up not care?), prayer had never worked for me, and I was done trying to act like it did.

And there, in the dusty aftermath of doctrine, is where we had our first heart-to-heart.

I was in the kitchen reaching for something in my baking cabinet when an impulse swept down into my arms, a sweet, warm rush that brought my fingers to life before my brain quite realized what was happening. I knew, without knowing, that I was making brownies to take to my neighbor suffering from homesickness. More than that, I knew that I wasn’t alone.

For the next fifteen minutes, I sifted cocoa and flour, whirled sugar into butter, and greased baking pans, and every motion was a prayer. I could feel my neighbor’s struggle like a heavy and precious weight against my ribs and God as the lifeblood pulsing between it and the whisk in my hands. Not a single conscious word interrupted our rhythm. Our care, mine and God’s, went into every stir of that brownie batter, and I sensed the full truth of Jesus’s words: “At the moment of being ‘care-full’, you find yourselves cared for.”

My body was the spiritual conduit that my mind had long failed to find.

These days, I still pray best through baking. Mixing up carb-loaded comfort is my liturgy and taste-testing my sacrament. Hold your eye rolls for one second while I tell you that the secret ingredient is love. (And butter. But mostly love.) This isn’t the only way I’ve found to interact with God though. We communicate when I photograph mountain wildflowers, when I lie back to watch the stars, when I cuddle my sleepy daughters, and even when I go running—each physically emotive act expressing my soul better than words ever did. I’ve come to realize that this kind of physical-emotional intentionality is my personal prayer language, the completely unconventional way that God has chosen to connect with me.

I still haven’t figured out how to explain to Bible study leaders that I only pray with my body, sorry. People tend to think I should be more orthodox as it is. One of the most wonderful surprises of my adult life, however, is that God always meets me in my unorthodoxy. When my wounded heart can’t bear a certain interpretation of the Bible any longer, God meets me outside denominational lines with a new perspective. When who-I-am fails, once again, to fit religiously sanctioned roles, God affirms my identity, the unique image of [her]self that I have to offer the world. When I admit that I can’t talk to God, he gives me a prayer language that doesn’t require words. That he would meet me in the wilds of my baking cabinet, far from the park benches of conventionality and the rhetoric of experts, says more to me about his love than a by-the-book spirituality ever could.

image credit

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

30Apr

The Spiritual Practice of TED

I was not born with the gift of waking up. During the night, sleep clots in my veins while my eyelids turn into miniature lead aprons, and while I might be able to force uprightness on myself the next morning, I can guarantee neither alertness nor attractiveness. (Ask Dan sometime how he feels about The Walking Dead as a reality show.) However, as much as I may rage, rage against the dawning of the light, my best days are always the ones that start an hour or two before I absolutely have to be up.

I call that hour or two my Spiritual Recharge Time (SRT) for lack of a better term. I grew up calling it Quiet Time, but that now reeks of obligation and guilt to me—falling asleep over Bible pages I was too tired to make any sense of, Psalms about morning prayer wagging their fingers at me, preacherly voices admonishing, “You don’t love sleep more than you love God, do you?” Give me a break.

I do sometimes read The Message for SRT, but I might read something else or journal or listen to music while the first cappuccino of the day warms my brain back to life. I have to figure out on a trial-and-error basis which practice will work for me on any given morning, and that’s not always easy. One morning, perusing the Bible will make my mind glow; the next morning, it will make me feel like stabbing something. Same with music and journaling and reading. I wake up (which in my case is always a euphemism, but still) with expectations of connecting with God, but sometimes trying to find the right spiritual practice feels like combing through a wardrobe of ill-fitting clothes. The frustration of this can leave me further from God and closer to zombiehood than I was upon “waking.”

I recently found a solution to this nothing-fits scenario though: TED Talks. It’s not that I’m just now discovering these “ideas worth spreading;” they’ve been on my radar since Liz Gilbert’s brilliant talk on genius in 2009. However, I never thought of them as spiritually relevant until one morning a couple of months ago when I gave up on SRT in frustration, opened my computer, and landed on Louie Schwartzberg’s presentation about nature, beauty, and gratitude:

“When people see my images, a lot of times they’ll say, ‘Oh my God.’ Have you ever wondered what that meant? The ‘Oh’ means it caught your attention, makes you present, makes you mindful. The ‘my’ means it connects with something deep inside your soul. It creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard. And ‘God’? God is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we’re connected to a universe that celebrates life.”

I felt it. Watching his stunning time-lapse photography filled me with the Oh my God that had been so absent from my other meditative attempts that morning. It rescued me from the confines of my own small mind and replaced my frustration with wonder. Wonder. That was the missing piece, the perspective I hadn’t had the strength to conjure for myself.

The talk finished, and I clicked to another one. I watched Paul Nicklen befriend a dangerous leopard seal, Sue Austin go deep-sea diving in a wheelchair, Amy Cuddy prove that we can change our internal chemistry with body language, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discuss the power of our stories. Their innovations and perspectives helped me sense the scope of the universe a little more clearly. It felt like tapping into an existential undercurrent, one powered by creativity and open-mindedness and awe… and what was that undercurrent if not God?

Watching TED Talks has become my go-to spiritual practice when none of the conventional ones seems to fit, and I’m sharing this because I know I’m not the only who struggles to connect with God. Religious institutions have worked a number on many of us. The Bible has been used so often to manipulate and oppress that its words wound rather than heal some of us. Faith traditions straight-laced with rules and shoulds and penalties have convinced some of us that they control access to God, and why even bother trying when it’s all so hard and heavy, when all our attempts at devotion seem to turn our souls industrial grey?

This is why: Because God is bigger than the walls put up to safeguard religion. This I believe with all my heart. If we’re not finding God within other people’s traditions, that’s okay. In fact, there’s an expansive kind of joy in brushing up against the divine where you least expected to find it—in the zombie hour following dawn, for example, when all the usual spiritual channels have failed and all that’s left is the entire wonder-full universe.

24Feb

Becoming My Name

Let me tell you about my friend Erika, the Life Artist. She applies soul to life the way Pollock applied paint to canvas, and the resulting swirls of color and energy keep me glued to my front-row seat. The way this lady loves her husband and her little punks and her city and her God is like nothing I’ve seen before. Her stories are a mix of the gritty and the gorgeous, and each one leaves me looking at life with new intention. (I don’t think you could look at a Jesus-following reality the same way after reading her tale of Plus One.) I am flat-out honored to be posting at her place today—a story of names and close encounters of the spiritual kind—and would love it if you followed me there to soak in a little life art for your Monday.

~~~

Out of all the insults leveled at me as a child, my name was the hardest to bear.

Bethany.

In its syllables, all the other taunts—“goody two-shoes,” “cover-up chicken,” “freak”—condensed into a three-pronged weapon that I sharpened with my own arsenal of self-loathing. I didn’t meet another Bethany until my teens, so for years, I imagined myself the sole embodiment of the name. I was told it meant “house of God.” I knew better though.

Bethany meant little girl, over-young, embarrassingly naïve. It meant one deserving of abuse. It meant unworthy, unlovable, the lowest common denominator in all of God’s harsh kingdom. It mocked me with an air of churchy pomp that was neither warranted nor wanted. When I heard my name spoken, no matter the context, I cringed. It felt like a prison sentence, this identity printed as bold bureaucratic fact on my birth certificate.

My middle name was even worse, a Christian buzzword that sounded oversized and ironic coming from my lips. I had been told what it meant too, and the theological implications spoke of a God who saw the worst in me, who obligated me to eternal servitude by deigning to save a wretch like me. I never said my middle name without flushing inmate-orange. I vowed never to tell it to anyone who didn’t absolutely have to know.

Our church nurtured a conviction that names are destined by God and hold powerful meaning, and I knew that going by a nickname would be counted unto me as sin. Nevertheless, as I entered my teens and began to carve a new facet of myself out of each new inch of freedom, I asked friends to call me “Beth” or “B” or “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” if they had to. Anything other than the name-nooses in which I had been choking. Anything to forget, however temporarily, the shame and condemnation that were my birthright.

{Continue reading over at Erika’s place}

4Dec

You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party

I’m starting the day by trying to get my head around this Frederick Buechner quote:

“The grace of God means something like: ‘Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.’”

Actually, his entire definition of grace is worth mulling over on repeat, because I know that I will only ever be able to grasp its meaning in flashes, during unintentional slips in the vigilance of my mind. Logic tells me grace is absurd, and the perspective grown from the sum of my experiences and inner workings tells me that grace is a big fat lie. Glennon Melton’s latest blog post explained that in order to be love to others, we first have to be still and let ourselves feel how beloved we are, and something in me immediately began fighting against her words. Feel myself beloved? Accept that the party wouldn’t have been complete without me? Let the implications of a divine love directed quite personally and deliberately toward me slip past my defenses?

No. I can’t do it. I absolutely cannot.

I can feel myself broken, accept that my role on earth is that of a penitent, and let every implication of humanity’s moral failure permeate my outlook. That I can do, and I’ve been honing my self-shaming skills for three decades now. I’m good at it. I’ve gotten comfortable with my brand of existential despair. Because of this, I’ve never been able to stay in the same room with grace for very long, no matter how hard I’ve tried to kick back and relax in its company. Grace is on par with douchstaches and post-shower selfies for making me uncomfortable.

Buechner closes out his piece like this: “There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can only be yours if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.” His words flash me straight back to Sunday School surer than a time machine. I grew up schooled in the “free gift of salvation,” and I alternately mocked and pitied people too dense to just take the damn gift. Why wouldn’t you take eternal solace, wrapped and ribboned and lying right there on the church doorstep? I had no capacity back in my fundamentalist days for seeing all the strings attached to that gift, nor could I see that some people simply didn’t have the strength to pick up such a thing. Myself included.

I see it now, what a complex process acceptance can be, right on the outermost verge of impossibility. I feel as incapable this morning as I ever have to claim ownership of the love that people like Buechner and Glennon and Jesus say is mine. I feel a thousand shades of undeserving. I feel that life should always be hard for me and tinted with sadness. I feel that love is less true than the circumstances of my past and the struggles of my present. I feel and feel and feel, so much and so strongly.

As deeply as I feel, though, I know that emotional impression does not equal reality. It’s my perspective, yes, and I’ll always have to operate within my own limits, but I can occasionally glimpse the truth beyond myself. And what I know to be true, even when my feelings rally in protest, is that every life is valuable. Every human is a work of art, a treasure, and though others may undervalue that treasure or mistreat it or pawn it off for pennies or forge it into a weapon, that person’s intrinsic worth never lessens.

Which means, necessarily, that I am a treasure too.

This is so hard to accept. The only thing harder to accept is that God is the one treasuring me. God is so often distant and mysterious, more concept than being, and while I’ll take that over wrathful-micromanager-God any day, it’s difficult to feel loved by a concept. Encountering God as a being, as a Her (which I prefer to Him, as it doesn’t carry the same religious baggage for me) takes concentration and time and the staggering effort of pushing my preconceptions and feelings aside. This just seems to reinforce my impression that life is meant to be a Sylvia Plath poem.

Sometimes, however, I do manage to bridge the gap between my theology and my heart, and when that happens, living becomes as easy as drawing breath. Whenever grace finds a new inlet into my perspective, everything unclenches for a while. I can see it all clearly, how you matter and I matter with the same extravagant worth in our world, how we are loved, how we are going to be okay. Gravity starts to lose its grip on my mind.

Inevitably, all the damaged and wary factions regroup to close my borders down again. Denying happiness is a form of self-protection, I suppose. But every moment that I spend in the greater reality of light and love makes it easier for me return in the future (not easy, mind you, just a side-shuffle this way from impossible).

This morning, I find myself wishing for possibly the trillionth time in my short life that spirituality could be a respite for me instead of my daily battleground. All these struggles against my own mind, all the old wounds that need rebandaging, all the feelings that so effectively block out chances at joy… I wish I could just stop, stop trying and stop believing in one fell swoop. Existence would be so much easier.

But it would be easier in the way that dry seabeds are easier than oceans to navigate—simpler, but devoid of life. If I were to cut grace from my soul’s vocabulary, my internal landscape would deaden into a dust-cracked field and the moments of transcendence that I most value would become untrue. I wouldn’t have to fight anymore, but I wouldn’t have anything for which to fight either. I would shrink to nothing. I know this; I’ve been at the knife’s edge of that nothing before.

Which leaves me with no choice other than to consider Buechner’s words as true, to walk them through my mind over and over in hopes that the guards will start to recognize them and lay down their arms more readily.

“Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”

Grace. Her grace. A party invitation worth battling to accept.

© Copyright 2015, all rights reserved.
Site powered by Training Lot.
Password Reset
Please enter your e-mail address. You will receive a new password via e-mail.