Tag: Spirituality


Sweaty Horns, Cracking Voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Winters have come and gone, you know…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Holy Writ Hives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then…

I grinned.


Conservative Hippyism

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

Remember this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shouting in a Meadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Bonus point for using a Biblical term!!


Mondo Beyondo

Note: I didn’t intend to post this, the results of a therapeutic journaling session, for a few reasons:
~ I feel like I’ve already bored my readers to death by writing about this last crazy year.
~ Speaking of readers, I have readers. Readers who will read this.
~ I’m still new to this full honesty concept, and it’s terrifying. (See above.)
However, reading other people’s “Mondo Beyondos” has made me feel so affirmed in this harrowing business of being human, and I want to share that feeling–that we’re all real, with jagged edges and soft, spongey hopes, and that these twelve-month blocks we order our lives around matter more than we might ever realize. So:

“What do you want to acknowledge yourself for in regard to 2007?”

I’m proud of myself for jumping off the deep end into dream-chasing mode, for letting go of control and the need for stability. I found my secret stores of flexibility during a summer of three moves–the last, a one-week dash to another continent–and I found my secret stores of bravery during an autumn of jarringly new surroundings.

I’m proud of myself for saying goodbye to handwritten journals and a new hello to online publishing–exactly what I needed to kick start my writing again. Beginning with this impulse blog project in June, I’ve found satisfaction and resolution and incredible enjoyment through writing again. These increasing pages of text have helped me explore my voice and find clarity. Even more importantly, they have convinced me that writing is my love, my dream career, and thus my aspiration.

I’m proud of myself for learning how to care for two little girls at the same time. Despite all my previous assumptions to the contrary, I found the courage to leave the house… then to drive (stick shift, on hills, with Italian drivers, oh my)… then to run errands with both of my daughters in tow. I have been a good mother, as evidenced by the perpetual smiles on my girls’ faces, and I think they will love remembering these times through photos and wisps of memory and the letters I recently started writing them.

I’m proud of myself for digging far past my comfort zone to unearth new layers of honesty this past year. I’m also incredibly proud of my decision to stop regretting my past, my present, and everything about myself. It has certainly been a challenge for someone so accustomed to self-deprecation, but it has been freeing. I’ve found myself in the shower, mulling over blunders I think I’ve made, then pulling up short–No, this isn’t me anymore; I no longer regret myself. And perhaps this will turn out to be 2007’s greatest gift to me.

“What is there to grieve about 2007?”
I grieve that my relationship with God traveled beyond doubt and anger and simply dissipated. I need to forgive myself for leaving my Bible unopened on the shelf and my questions unasked simply because I didn’t want to face the pain.

I grieve that my relationship with Natalie moved into such rough territory. I need to forgive myself for yelling at her during bouts of frustration and for not giving her enough of my undivided attention.

I grieve that I spent so many days of the year battling depression… or not even finding the strength to battle it anymore. I need to forgive myself for being chronically tired, needy, human. I also need to forgive myself for letting the “shoulds” conquer my mind and saturate me with frustration. And I need to forgive those around me for not magically making me better or knowing the solutions that I can’t seem to find.

I grieve that I accomplished so, so little throughout the year–that I didn’t learn Italian fluently or finish my book or complete art projects or practice my instruments or cook new foods or exercise regularly (or at all) or make progress on reading lists or teach Natalie more or do volunteer work. I need to forgive myself for being one person, for being unable to multitask, and for needing so much sleep.

“What else do you need to say about the year to declare it complete?”
2007 was deep and raw and intense, dark chocolate with pepperoncino eaten from the blade of a knife. It hurtled between welcome adventures and terrifying ones; it pulled us far into the joy of close friendships and then slung us away. It taught us about generosity and flexibility and courage and communication, about how we face fears and changes and the future. And even though I know it’s okay to reel in 2007’s dizzying wake for a while, I’m ready to move on.

I declare 2007 complete.

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