Tag: Spirituality

3May

Liturgy

The storm hits, and I have been too distracted to notice the boiling clouds or cobble together a shelter until it’s too late. I am drenched in a fury outside of anyone’s control, at the mercy of merciless elements. Unwelcome memories soak me to the bone. Doubts thunder, and anger illuminates my universe in stark flashes. It is simply too much. My feet give out from under me, and I let the torrent sweep me away.

In these times, I don’t know which way is up, much less whether or not God exists. All I can see is the pounding blackness of my immediate reality, and I start to think that disavowing religion altogether might keep the storms at bay.

But my soul doesn’t actually want a retreat; it wants a fight. It wants a shouting match with someone who can stand up in the force of all my turmoil. It wants a defense from the one I sometimes believe orchestrates the storms, and it wants to be convinced that I’m blaming the wrong things. It wants answers for now and answers for then and answers tucked into the pockets of my future. It wants a way of belief that validates my logic and my experiences, my ever-racing mind and my ever-tired heart.

Above all, it wants peace… and here in the darkness of cloud cover, the anchorless tumult, and the weary absence of intention, I catch an unexpected glimpse of it:

“May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you wherever he may send you;
may he guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm;
may he bring you home rejoicing at the wonders he has shown you;
may he bring you home rejoicing once again into our doors.”
(from Common Prayer)


11Feb

That Damn Proverbs 31 Woman*

The story goes that once upon a time, an aging queen sat her son down for a chat. “Listen, Lem,” she began, “Those girls you keep bringing home? Well, I ain’t saying that they’re gold diggers, but they ain’t messin’ with no broke goatherds, capisce? You’re a king, so let’s cut to the chase: WHAT IN THE HOLY HOLISHKES ARE YOU THINKING? What you need is a virtuous girl, by which I mean one who can knit—designer knitting, mind you, that generates enough income to fund her real-estate business. Obviously, she’ll make all of your clothes too… yes, even those scarlet ski pants of which you’re so fond. She’ll arrange a steady stream of extracurricular activities to keep the kids busy while you’re hanging out with your buddies so she can work her daily shift in the soup kitchen, and it probably goes without saying that she won’t have time to sleep. Ever. Now go find her!” And all the maidens of the kingdom fled in terror. The end.

That’s more or less how the Biblical book of Proverbs wraps up, and it makes for one of the most horrifying Bible study topics I’ve ever experienced. Groups of women meet up to wade in guilt together and discuss how they can start measuring up to Mrs. Proverbs 31, which is kind of ridiculous when you consider that Lemuel’s gal would have had no time for Bible studies herself. Things get desperate, and if you don’t think modern women would start stitching dresses  just to be more virtuous, think again. Even the ladies who go with a more “letter of the law” approach leave the Bible studies with dark circles forming preemptively under their eyes.

I doubt King Lemuel’s mom imagined her motherly advice would ever be construed as God’s Will For Womankind. Furthermore, I doubt that the womanizing, perpetually hung-over Lem ever found a wife to fit his ideal (er, make that his mom’s ideal). The virtuous wife was a fantasy spun from parental reproach, a strong work ethic, and good old-fashioned hyperbole, and there is no evidence suggesting that such a superwoman ever existed. In fact, the latter third of the Bible makes it clear that God is much more interested in our sincerity and love than in how late we stay up knitting.

I guess what bothers me so much about this famous chapter is that King Lemuel’s mother adds one more voice to the chorus telling us women we’re not enough—not productive enough, talented enough, skinny enough, smart enough… fill in the blank. And when the aging queen’s advice is taken as God’s decree because it shows up in the Bible, the not-enoughs take on the full weight of divinity. It’s no longer a simple matter of “I am not enough;” it becomes “God thinks I am not enough.”

Yet Jesus is the one who comforted a housewife flustered over her massive to-do list: “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.” It didn’t matter that what she was worked up over was Jesus’s dinner; he would forego a feast to enjoy her company. And to another woman who wasted a year’s wages on a perfume bath for his feet (rather than giving that money to the poor as Jesus’s dinner hosts angrily insisted she should have done, as the Proverbs 31 woman would have done), he extended kindness, gratitude, and the grace she had been craving.

I’m not saying that Lemuel’s mom didn’t have some good points—as long as they’re taken with a grain of salt and a glassful of cultural perspective—but I find myself wishing that King Lem had acted a bit more kingly to start with and let that damn Proverbs 31 woman rest as all women should: in peace.

~~

* Title and topic inspired by a dear friend.

9Dec

Reggae and Redemption

I haven’t been to church in a few Sundays for various reasons, feeling like death among them, but I’ve stayed spiritually attuned (ha) with the help of my earphones. A year and a half after writing my post about non-churchy songs for the soul, I still haven’t eased back into the worship music scene. I approach it like an outsider now, mystified and sometimes uncomfortable listening in on an outpouring of theological convictions I don’t necessarily share.  However, my need to connect to God with my senses hasn’t shut down just because the Christian standard doesn’t work for me anymore. I still sing when no one’s around (you’re quite welcome) and  unwind in the mesmerizing dance of words and music, so without further ado, here are eight more unconventional songs for the soul:

1. O Holy Night by Seven Day Jesus 
In honor of the approaching holiday, here is my favorite rendition of my favorite Christmas song. Yes, it falls awfully close to hymn territory, but it speaks of yearning, of social justice, and of the love that continually draws me to God in spite of my chronic non-churchiness.

“Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name, all oppression shall cease…”

2. I Will Be Light by Matisyahu
Matisyahu’s “Light” is my running album, but I always find myself slowing when I get to track six. It’s like a double shot of perspective that both satisfies my daily craving for purpose and energizes my drive for compassion. I hear God’s reggae roots in it, and I’m always running again by the end of the song.

“You’ve got one tiny moment in time
For life to shine, to burn away the darkness…”

3. Let Go by Frou Frou 
This song ends one of my favorite movies with an unexpected rush of joy. The beauty of breaking down, of jumping from a carefully orchestrated tragedy into a deep unknown, is one I know well, and the freedom I’ve found since is well worth playing on repeat.

“So let go, just get in,
Oh, it’s so amazing here,
It’s alright,
‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown…”

4. Light and Day by Polyphonic Spree
The band is undeniably nutty and almost a little too happy (here is the alternate music video which is basically a three minute LSD trip), but I love this song’s positivity. It’s easy to get caught up in moody introspection, and a cheery reminder to seek the light is always welcome. (Though really, guys… fairies?)

“Just follow the day,
Follow the day and reach for the sun!”

5. You’ve Got the Love by Florence + The Machine
I’m there far more often than I wish, wading knee-deep in the mess of my own life wondering what’s the use. It’s the human condition this side of eternity, I think. However, the amount of love spilling over onto this side is more than enough for the road.

“Sometimes I feel like saying ‘Lord I just don’t care,’
But you’ve got the love I need to see me through…”

6. Get Me Right by Dashboard Confessional 
Chris Carrabba was my introduction to emo music years ago, and he has a gift for wrenching personal struggles out of the shadows into the stage lights. This song is particularly candid and makes no attempt to dilute his ache for redemption. I especially like his terminology of God as the one who makes things right; it’s a belief I grasp with all my heart.

“I don’t mind the rain if I meet my maker,
I’ll meet my maker clean…”

7. Let the Rain by Sara Bareilles 
This is a recent discovery, a poignant reflection that echoes my own wishes for change—release from oppression, from stifling tradition, from fear and cowardice and incapability and status quo—a cleansing deluge of newness.

“And I always felt it before
That the world was filled with so much more
Than the drowning soul I’ve learned to be,
I just need the rain to remind me…”

8. Roll Away Your Stone by Mumford & Sons
I had a tough time choosing just one song of theirs. The entire album so perfectly captures the experience of waking up to life and identity, wholehearted awareness, grace… and this song, well, I dare you not to get swept away on its rollicking current. It’s one church service I wouldn’t mind attending in the least.

“And so I’ll be found with my stake stuck in this ground,
Marking its territory of this newly impassioned soul…”

Any that you’d like to add?

14Apr

Defined by Wonder

Out of all religious celebrations, my least favorite is Easter. I’d rather not get into reasons why, though lacy short sleeved dresses on the coldest Sundays in Texas history have a minor role. (Seriously, the Texan weather gods must spend three quarters of the year siphoning away stray breezes to be released all together the moment flimsy Easter dresses emerge.) Our church here in Italy does not officially celebrate Easter, but nonetheless, I prefer to distance myself from institutions for the weekend. Campgrounds work nicely. Campgrounds in Sorrento work very nicely.

Shoreline - Sunday morning 1

Our experience this year was different from last year’s in that we didn’t drive the entire coastline, stumble into any creepy processionals, or need the sunscreen, but the defining factor of our trip was still wonder. The wonder of waking up to Mount Vesuvius drifting above the bay on a floe of sky-blue mist…   the wonder of the girls running themselves giddy beneath succulent orange trees… the wonder of following an unknown path down a cliff face to the water’s edge where cats napped on volcanic remnants and boulders presented themselves for the jumping… above all, the wonder of putting our busy life on hold while we shacked up with beauty for the weekend.

Oranges in bloom

Thanks to a fitful forecast, we put our Capri plans on hold and had the kind of see-where-our-feet-take-us day we love so much. The first place our feet took us was… back inside the tent to play Curious George Uno, sneak a few chocolate eggs, and wait out a cloudburst. Admittedly, it wasn’t the worst way to spend Easter morning, but we were still glad to see the sky take its emotional issues elsewhere. After all, there were pigeons to chase! Merry-go-rounds to conquer! Strawberry gelato to dribble deliciously onto our mother’s jeans! We wound our way through the Sorrento shopping district scoping out lemons for Operation Limoncello 2010 and followed an inkling down the coast to pretend stray cats were panthers and ogle the waves, still turquoise beneath their cloud cover. Once little legs tired out, we drove down the block to Positano, so brim-full of color and bustle that we never had a chance to miss our derailed Capri trip.

Positano 2

The next day brought with it an impromptu detour to the excavation site of Pompeii. I’m glad I had the chance to be properly impressed by Herculaneum last year because Pompeii so thoroughly surpassed all previous experiences with ruins. I mean, there are ruins, and there are RUINS. Acres upon acres of stepping-stone streets, villas, tombs, bars, theaters, brothels, temples, shopping malls, gardens, and what my girls claimed as their own personal “beautiful castles.” It felt both heavy and oddly exhilarating to poke around a city where people lived 2,000 years ago. No denying that Vesuvius’s famous eruption was tragic, but getting to peek into an ancient culture without the distraction of progress felt like a gift—a head-warping, perspective-zapping, imagination-thrilling sort of gift to carry home on tired feet.

Little Miss Natalie

I know I’m not scoring points with the Spanish Inquisition here, but God is more real to me outdoors with the girls chasing butterflies or skipping over ancient crosswalks than in a meeting hall where we’re trying to make them behave like doorstops. Fresh air has a big impact on our spiritual lives, I think. Incidentally, the God we pitched our tent with—the one painting gold across the horizon and setting magpies in flight and coaxing wild poppies into the open—is the one that makes me feel religious celebrations have merit after all… though, if I’m going to be honest, I’d still take a camping trip on the Amalfi Coast, breathing in the fragrance of citrus trees and drinking up wonder, over lacy Easter dresses any day.

11Mar

Conscience on a Ledge

Over the last few weeks, throughout early morning writing sessions, late night socializing, and the swirl of multicolored tasks that make up the in-betweens, my heart has had trouble resting easy. For once, it’s not due to any great dissatisfaction with life. My days tip more toward busyness than boredom, but I’m grateful for the creative luxury of molding my own time, for the daily check-up with my priorities. I’m happy with our family life too and our current balance between stability and excitement. Strong friendships are in the works. Opportunities abound. We can see the light at the end of the credit card statement.

However, my thankfulness and energy buzz have slunk away in shame following each new mention of Haiti. Stories like this and this, not to mention the news reports, aid auctions, and countless pleas for money, forced tragedy into my periphery. Millions without shelter or food or medical supplies… airports blocked, adoptions halted, supplies looted… impulsive relief groups stealing children… the chaos of some trying to do the right thing and others trying just to stay alive compounded with whether I should donate €10 with a text message or buy a cookbook or bid on a painting or empty PayPal’s pockets into any number of beseeching hands… I felt like I was examining calamity through a thousand microscopes.

Around the same time, a friend asked me to read her boss’s new blog exploring social justice issues like human trafficking, burdensome charity, and water allotment. Our church took up a drive to help impoverished leprosy victims in India. Compassion International brought bloggers to Kenya to report on local children’s living conditions and the need for sponsors. I heard the refreshingly-controversial Derek Webb’s “Rich Young Ruler”… and my conscience went into dizzy overdrive.

What am I supposed to do with the whole world’s sorrow at my fingertips?

It’s an honest question. I believe we humans were made to care, deeply, about each other. I see it as part of our divine imprint, the throb of compassion when we see someone in pain, the ability and drive to meet each other’s unique needs. Discomfort over suffering in our world shouldn’t be shrugged off easily; it’s what makes us humane. However, the accessibility of information makes it especially difficult for me to find my place among seven billion wishful thinkers.

Should we stop paying off debt, forget about retirement savings, and send the money to charity? Should we move back to the States where we could make a lot more and live on a lot less? Should we do away with date nights, family vacations, and birthday presents?  How can we possibly choose between the desperate situations stippling the globe?

My heart chimes in from time to time to talk my conscience off the ledge. It tells me that unfocused guilt is neither healthy nor helpful. It looks me in the eyes and says that I cannot cure the world and that even if it were possible, my job is not to do so. My heart is convinced that the needs I should be attending to belong to the people already in my life—a refugee mom at church without baby blankets, a lonely landlord eating supper alone, neighbors with health problems, a friend who’s struggling in her marriage, another caught in a messy divorce, yet another mourning the death of her child. Every day, I have opportunities to ease specific burdens, to spread kindness face-to-face.

This strikes me as true religion, every bit as significant as disaster relief for third-world countries. It’s how I can make a positive, lasting difference even with limited resources and my own family to care for, and it feels fundamentally right. So why is my conscience still crouched halfway out a windowsill obsessing about the wide, wounded world that needs a cure?

18Nov

Cherry Tree Creed

I’ve hinted on here before about my rather extreme religious upbringing, but I’m hesitant to say much more about it. One part of me goes a little giddy at Anne Lamott’s quote, “If my family didn’t want me to write about them, they should’ve behaved better.” Yes, yes, yes! I cheer, until it comes to actually putting the ragged parts of my story into words and I inevitably whisper No. I can’t tell whom exactly my people-pleasing brain is trying to protect, but it balks when my honesty tries to reach back more than a decade. Some details are too ugly for the light of day.

Nevertheless, the way I was raised is relevant to who I am today. Painfully relevant. After all, the frequent religious apologetics classes and brainwashing camps were my introduction to doubting God’s existence. The behavior I saw in the churches and cults our family was involved with taught me about the tight-lipped smiling delusion so many people define as Christianity.  The forced hours of Old Testament reading every week took me beyond disbelief in God into the dark territory of hatred. You get the idea, at least in part.

I  spent most of my life under such a heavy religious terror that my sense of logic had to be locked up along with my emotions and honesty. The most redeeming thing that could have happened was when I gave up caring and let my doubts and anger tumble out of hiding. Depression helped, oddly enough. I already felt so low that keeping up my pretense of believing God no longer mattered. Deal with it, I told him. I may have tried punching him a time or two as well.

I see now that it had to be completely destroyed, that old belief system with its blackened stone walls and bloody gouge marks.  I had to lose enough hope to operate the wrecking ball myself. And slowly—slowly enough to be revolutionary in the we-could-die-and-face-judgment-any-minute mindset I had been taught—a new belief system is being reconstructed in my heart. It has floor-to-ceiling windows and an indoor cherry tree, and I suspect it will be some kind of spa once it is finished. There are no longer any shadowy nooks for shame, eternal damnation, party politics, or generational curses to hang out in.

A friend lent me The Shack to read a couple of months ago (the amount of time I’ve spent “forgetting” to return it makes me think I should probably just buy my own copy already). Reading it felt very much like having my rib cage pried open and all of my struggles with God exposed to the operating room lights… and then gently re-formed into such an expansive hope that my body has trouble accommodating it. Between the fresh perspective offered in that book (I can’t tell you how much I love that God reveals herself as an African-American woman) and the radical kindness of Jesus’s words, many of my questions are finally finding their perfect fit in answers — ones that don’t traumatize me or require me to suspend logic or darken my soul atmosphere. I don’t have everything figured out yet—for instance, I’m still searching for an explanation for the contradictory, violent God depicted in the Old Testament—but I am so relieved to finally have a creed that lets my heart breathe deep:

(I refer to God with female pronouns because in that way I  can comprehend her differentness from the patriarchal judge of my childhood.)

I believe that:

The Bible…
is a picture of who God is and what a relationship with her is like,
not a comprehensive encyclopedia for all the facets of existence,
and not a textbook,
and not a list of rules
(as if we could follow the rules anyway).

Free will…
means God values humans enough to give us the freedom of choice
and limits herself by not overriding those choices,
even the bad ones
(which hurt her too),
but always providing opportunities even through the bad choices
for us to clearly see her love.

God…
does not instigate tragedy, only works through and beyond it
as the life-force of the universe,
the energy, the concept of light, the goodness,
merciful enough to do away with justice
because she is love
(and not gender specific ☺).

Jesus…
is God in human form,
not a human with divine superpowers but human-human,
with emotions and needs and frustrations,
whose life flowed from his relationship with God
(who neither orchestrated his death nor abandoned him,
only worked incredible good through it).

The Holy Spirit…
is their divine presence—undiluted love—
landscaping the beautiful mess of our hearts,
the piercing loveliness we feel during a certain song
or a beautiful day or moments of profound peace,
always here and never finished.

Prayer…
is simply the ongoing dialogue
as the four of us live together,
acknowledging that the unseen is real
and that relationship is all that truly matters,
and that God cares…
which could probably be called faith.

Life on earth…
is a process that won’t culminate until all is made new,
blessedly temporary
(which I know when I agonize over the too-few hours each day),
but  a good time for the element of choice to get worked out—
a messy and necessary step for a God who respects us
and who continues to participate in our stories
outside the bounds of time and breath.

Then heaven…
will be all this as it was meant to be
without the violation of a single free will,
every heart finally connected to God’s,
finally capable of channeling her extravagant love
and enjoying complete creativity and fulfillment along with her,
seeing the beautiful face of our planet unscarred—
life on earth, redeemed.

And I…
am not a convert or a heretic
or a warrior or a one-size-fits-all
or a guest of honor on the doorman’s list
or a project to be finished
but one member of a completely unique relationship with the Divine
who values me enough not to impose rules or limitations
and promises  a never-ending process
toward fullest life,
beautiful change accomplished hand-in-hand,
and a love I am just beginning to absorb.

15Sep

A Signature Faith

Faith and I have hit a rough patch lately. It’s only the five zillionth time or so that I’ve found myself alternately doubting God and storming against him; my inner teenager is determined to become a proper heathen, I think. In these times when my thoughts about religion smolder and char, the Bible reacts like gasoline, every word going up in an angry blaze. (I’m a joy to have at church, can you tell?) And anyway, I’ve never bought into Sola Scriptura for the same reason that I don’t believe Fox News when it claims to be the only unbiased channel—conflict of interest and all. I just cannot bring myself to blindly trust a source alleging to be the only truth.

So I sift through experience and impressions, listen to my instincts, taste the air for clues. I don’t have God’s character figured out, but I have to trust at least this: that he left his imprint on creation, that some remote corner of me bears his signature. And when I tune out theology altogether, I can almost start to make it out.

The first belief I find inked onto my heart is heaven. Doctrinally, the subject has always made me feel homesick and even miserable—hard golden streets and individual mansions in the sky for God’s groupies. No, no, no, my soul whispers. You were made for trees, whole unscarred forests of trees, and waterfalls and snowcapped mountains at sunrise. You were made to climb inside of symphonies and breathe art. And the puzzle pieces lock together in my mind: the moments I find myself on the cusp of pure creative energy… the healing, cleansing effects of beauty… this drive for more, always more out of life… the profound sensation that this world is broken… These compel me more than decades of sermons could that we were meant for eternity.

The other thing I can’t help believing, no matter how I feel about God, is Jesus. Maybe this makes no sense considering the Bible and I aren’t on speaking terms, but everything he said and did resonates so strongly with me and has so little to do odious churchy representations of him that I feel I must have always known him. I believe in him, not because I was told to (which only makes me want to go vandalize something), but because he wasn’t repulsed by doubt or greed or prostitution or shame or immaturity or nakedness or insanity. Because his commitment to world peace and soul-honesty would have offended many of the uppity religious personas today who profess to follow him. Because he drew people’s perspectives away from materialism and perfectionism toward extravagant generosity and fierce acceptance. Because he was radically different from anyone’s expectations and had love strong enough to forgive the people who butchered him.

The idea of heaven is counterintuitive to our five senses, and a kick-ass Jesus is counterintuitive to our religious traditions, and somehow, this helps convince me that they are true. And if these two things are the shape of God’s signature, then this helps convince me that faith is worth every minute of struggle.

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