Tag: Theology

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}

6Feb

Two-Part Answer

I went through high school in a sort of homeschool/private school hybrid where I would go to certified teachers’ houses to take courses with a handful of other students and then continue my coursework during the week at home. This setup allowed me to get a solid academic education while still sheltering me from the much-feared religious and pop culture educations I might have gotten at public school. At least, sheltering was the idea. I still learned the Salt ‘N’ Pepa lyrics, and my theological doubts only chafed more the longer they were constrained, but I kept it all in a sound-proof vault as if my authority figures were the ones needing sheltering from all that I knew. However, the academic side was everything I could have asked for. Between Shakespeare and AP English, I established my permanent love affair with this language of ours, and I learned more in my ninth grade biology class than in three semesters of science electives once I went to university.

Recent events have stirred up a memory from that ninth grade biology class, and I wanted you to know about my educational construct at the time—strong value on academics, strong fear of secular influence—so that you can understand the weight of our final assignment for the year. Our biology teacher, a pragmatic woman with a twinkling sense of humor, decided not to teach the unit on earth’s origin directly. Instead, she had us pick teams and spend our home study time preparing a debate on evolution versus creationism.

I, being a ridiculously earnest pupil who hadn’t yet developed a sense of humor, picked creationism. Obviously. I’d already read Ken Ham’s “The Lie” about how families were being destroyed by false scientific theories, and it was perfectly evident to me that Darwin’s followers were sponsored by Satan himself. If you believed in evolution, you were against the Bible—God’s encyclopedia—which meant you were against truth. I’d been to Carl Baugh’s Creation Evidence Museum and seen a human footprint alongside a dinosaur one. I’d freaking memorized Genesis 1. Armed with so much truth and the absolute assurance that God was on my side, I looked forward to crushing the “evolutionists” in our class debate.

And here’s what happened: The evolutionist side (made up of homeschooled teens, remember, who were probably loving this chance to play devil’s advocate) pulverized us. They presented scientific facts that left us creationists flipping through our notebooks, “ummm”ing in panic until we had to admit that we had absolutely no rebuttal. How do you argue against photographic proof of genetic variation using the Bible? Where are the verses that debunk carbon dating? Why wouldn’t the other side just accept the biblical account of God’s six-day creating spree? It was bad.

And all the while, a quiet smile grew on the corner of our teacher’s mouth. I didn’t think much of it then; I took it for granted that she, as a Christian, would be a young earth creationist. In retrospect, however, I suspect that she was brilliantly directing us to discover what she wasn’t free to say out loud in our circle. She never did summarize her stance on the creation vs. evolution debate. She simply smiled, and that smile stands out to me today as the first glimpse I ever had of someone at peace with both God and science.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing many other Jesus-loving scientists in the years since, and it no longer seems the least bit strange to me that someone can think deeply and believe deeply without the one contradicting the other. True, if you’re going to accept that God created life millions of years ago by means of biological evolution, then you have to read the Bible differently—not as an encyclopedia but as a literary compilation full of allegory and poetry and various writers’ experiences. I don’t see this is as necessitating a crisis of faith however.

I remember one afternoon at a fundamentalist apologetics camp in my teens, the speaker pretended to be a theistic evolutionist arriving at the pearly gates of heaven. “Well gee, God!” he blustered in a hillbilly accent, “When you said ‘day,’ I thought you meant four billion years!” God was having none of it. Straight to hell went the hillbilly who had dared to read Genesis 1 figuratively. And there, caught up in the theatricality of the moment, were hundreds of kids absorbing the message that our God would condemn us if we believed the wrong brand of science.

(Which appears exactly nowhere in the Bible, just for the record.)

That moment still makes me heartsick… for all the kids who have been terrified out of [using] their minds, for all the bright thinkers who have been convinced that faith is incompatible with fact, for a love-starved world that sees Christians get publicly bent out of shape over issues more appropriate to a lab than to a Bible study. I have to ask—Is it worth it? Is dogmatizing one interpretation of a Bible story worth driving a wedge between others and God?

I am more grateful than ever for my ninth grade biology teacher who chose not to attack our beliefs but instead guided us into challenging them ourselves. That experience helped loosen the tight, terrified fists clenched around my mind, letting it slowly expand toward a view of reality in which soul-truth and science-truth can be a two-part answer to the same question.

I’d like to hope that by the time my girls are grown, science vs. God will no longer be a source of strife. However, considering that Bill Nye this week earned himself the same label applied to Galileo by Christians four centuries ago (rhymes with “shmeretic”), I’m not sure we’re any closer to unity on the issue. What I can do, however, is try to raise my girls with active minds and open hearts to the world around them—both the spiritual world and the natural one—and trust that the God I know will be watching them research and question and make mistakes and learn with a smile ever growing on the corner of his mouth.

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.

22Oct

Family Resemblance

The speaker this past Sunday morning came as close as anyone ever does in our quiet Italian-Brethren church to thundering from the pulpit. My ears, grown allergic over the decades to Preacher Voice, clamped down in a protective gesture around my mind so that I only caught snatches. Something about how the people sitting in the back were showing indifference to God. Something about the proper protocol for coming to meet with the King. Something about all those noisy children, the heads of households not taking enough control. 

I didn’t hear any more; I just saw. White, then red, then white again. The speaker’s words had flown direct as an arrow from his front-row domain to my pew in the family section at the back and pierced old wounds of mine with uncanny precision. I might have gotten up and walked out if that wouldn’t have seemed to reinforce his point. Besides, far too much attention was already being directed to the back, to We The Young Parents, to we the irrelevant and the irreverent. The last thing I wanted was additional scrutiny. I just wanted the Sunday morning spotlight to lose its fixation on me.

For a university writing class nearly ten years ago, I wrote a poem called Preacher’s Kid. I cringe now at how one-dimensional and bitter it comes across, but the creative exercise provided relief that I dearly needed at the time. In it, I strung together the many dos and don’ts that had dictated my childhood behavior at church. Clothing, facial expressions, speech, movements—every last detail of appearance was accounted for and regimented under the eyes of God. If I didn’t wear a frilly enough dress or if I ran in the hallway or if I didn’t sit close enough to the front or if my younger siblings made noise while in my care, it was counted unto me as unrighteousness, a personal affront to the King we had come to impress.

No matter how many times I heard 1 Samuel 16:7—“Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart”—I sensed that it didn’t hold any water inside our church doors. Appearance was everything when it came to communal encounters with God. Wear the wrong thing or use the wrong jargon or lift your hands during the wrong song, and you could dismantle the painstakingly curated spiritual atmosphere in one fell swoop. And we children, with our high energy levels and short attention spans, were the worst offenders. At least, that’s how I understood things. It’s hard to sort out in retrospect which guiding principles of my childhood were church policy, which were merely the opinions of church members, which were unique to my fundamentalist family, and which were constructs of my own vivid imagination. The result was the same however: I felt welcome in church only if my appearance fit a particular mold.

Do you know what that kind of thinking can do to a young girl? How deeply it can lodge the barbs of conditional love into her frame of reference? How much anxiety and shame it can infuse into her perception of God?

I could recite dozens of New Testament passages from memory as a girl, but only as an adult did I start to catch sight of their protagonist. Jesus, teaching his followers to approach God with as much simplicity and honesty as they could muster. Jesus, holding up the disruptive children his helpers had shooed away as examples for the adults to follow. Jesus, scandalizing the religious community by choosing people over protocol. Jesus, encouraging soul-thirsty crowds to stop worrying about what to wear.

The Jesus I found in adulthood gave me permission to unlearn all those crushing childhood lessons about God and love and religious etiquette. Still, old habits die hard, and I’ve never stopped having to consciously shrug off appearance anxiety when I walk into a church. Sometimes, fellow churchgoers help me shed that burden more easily with their wide-flung smiles, the way they dote on my girls, or their delighted off-pitch singing. Other times, well-meaning congregants can make things worse, such as when they pointedly insist that I study up on Christian modesty or when they rate my devotion to God by my proximity to the stage.

In my six years here, I can’t recall seeing Sunday morning’s speaker ever sit in the section of the auditorium that has him so fired up… but I have logged plenty of services in those back few pews, and when I look around me, this is what I see:

I see babies—fussy babies, giggling babies, babies trying to share slobbery bites of cookie with each other, babies shrieking with the joy or indignation of any given moment, babies missing their naptimes, babies who want more than anything in the world to try out their awesome new walking skills on the center aisle. (Every once in a blue moon, I’ll even catch a baby sleeping. Their heads of household always look distinctly relieved.)

I see children intent at work on coloring books, children singing along to hymns they only half know, children like my serious-minded eight-year-old absorbed in storybooks, and children like my energetic five–year-old dropping Zoobles under the pews and occasionally forgetting to whisper. I see children quietly snuggling with their parents and children vibrating with pent-up enthusiasm. I see children who picked out their own outfits for church.

I see their parents—moms rocking spit-up stains on their sweaters, dads trying desperately to guess which toy their baby is squawking for, couples who were twenty minutes late getting out the door but came anyway. I see the sleep-deprivation pouches under their eyes, the ripples of annoyance that our church has no nursery, the complete adoration they feel for the small squirming humans next to them, the effort that goes into managing their children’s church experience while trying to have one of their own.

And I see myself, a girl who spent years sitting in the front rows for all to see and to evaluate, a woman who now clings to the truth of unconditional acceptance even when it goes against policy, a mom who is unwilling to perpetuate the same cycle of legalism with her own children, and a church member who sees Jesus most clearly in the merry disruption of the back pews.

We don’t come to church to “meet the King,” a phrase implying pomp and ceremony and a discouraging sense of rarity. Neither do we come to church to shine spotlights on each other’s weary heads. Instead, we come to church the way families come together for Thanksgiving dinner, a welcome reunion of relatives who wouldn’t necessarily want to live together but are nonetheless united in their enjoyment of the feast.

That’s how I got through Sunday’s sermon in the end. I stopped picturing the speaker as legalism’s bowman and instead thought of him as an eccentric great uncle who is so far removed from childhood that he can no longer remember why we allow children at the table. Maybe pomp and ceremony are what get him out of bed on Sunday mornings, and those of us with our focus ping-ponging between devotion and dropped Cheerios tarnish some of the glitter for him. Maybe he has the same allergic reaction to crying babies that I have to Preacher Voice. Maybe the spotlight has too often lingered on him and he felt he needed to redirect the flow of criticism. Whatever the case, he was simply trying to promote the conditions that help him best enjoy the feast. He wasn’t purposefully seeking to hurt or alienate anyone.

So there we were on Sunday morning—the squealing babies, the rambunctious kids, the distracted parents, and the irritated great uncle—gathered around a common table to savor different elements of the same celebration. My ears stayed closed (sometimes keeping the peace requires turning down one’s hearing aid for a while), but my eyes stayed open, and you can’t continue seeing red for long when you choose to focus on family resemblance instead.

7May

Respectfully, No

We’ve always known that one of the biggest challenges of raising our children here in Italy would be religion. Here, Roman Catholicism is so entwined with the Italian culture that it’s practically a genetic trait. Everyone identifies as Catholic—even our irreligious friends who only darken God’s doorstep for Christmas Mass, even our grumpy old neighbor who thinks the Pope is a fraud, even the famously corrupt Berlusconi. But we don’t.

I suppose we’d consider ourselves non-denominational Protestants, which comes across as inoffensive (if annoyingly non-committal) in English. However, the term in Italian is evangelici, and the Vatican has repeatedly warned against the divisive strategies of Evangelical “sects.” With that one word, we’re painted as part of a subversive and politically sponsored movement deployed to steal ground from Catholicism, so we’ve learned to anticipate the awkward moments when new friends try to decide whether we’re cultish insurrectionists or just weird Americans.

Fortunately, Italians are as warm and welcoming as their food, and my heart swells a few sizes in appreciation for this culture every time someone initiates another respectful, curiosity-driven conversation about our differing beliefs. Those conversations are treasures for me, both because respect is such a commodity in these days of online mud-slinging and because I really do want to know more about what my friends believe, what fuels their spiritual journeys, what makes their souls tick. I’ve written before about laying down my own prejudices against Catholics, and I’m honored that they do the same for me. Friendship through diversity—it’s a glimpse of heaven on earth.

But I’ve also written before about my discomfort with religion being taught in the Italian public schools, and the older our girls get, the harder it is for me to navigate this cultural divide with confidence and grace. By law, we have the right to opt out of religion hour, and we do… though with some misgivings (especially because Natalie is sent to sit at the back of another class during that hour, which counts as illegal discrimination). One of the other mamas told me that the class teaches completely objective universal truths, and the slight sharpness underpinning her voice made me think that maybe we are being ridiculous, that maybe we’re sadly overprotective parents who are raising our girls to mistrust authority and fear differences of opinion. The religion teacher for Natalie’s class has been trying to convince us as well, assuring Natalie that the only thing they’re teaching this year is friendship.

Natalie spoke very carefully when she told me about this, using the same humble and slightly tremulous tone that poor little Willy Wonka used when he suggested to his tyrannical dentist father that maybe he wasn’t allergic to chocolate? maybe he could try a piece?

Maybe it would be okay to stay in the class because it’s about friendship? And we believe in friendship? And I don’t even have to listen? I could just be in the room?

Dan and I talked it over for a long time last night, knowing all too well that our daughters’ hearts will be affected in one way or another by our decision. We didn’t take it lightly. Though we both agreed that there is no way the religion class is objective (I mean, really), I thought that perhaps she could be. Natalie is thoughtful and intelligent, and even at eight years old, she might already have what it takes to filter various religious teachings through the lens of objectivity. Besides, we don’t want to force the girls into the molds of our belief system; we talk to them about what we believe of course, but we want their faiths to be personal and organic and informed. Maybe the class could be a good thing.

However, there is still the issue that religion is being taught as an academic subject. I agreed with Dan that second grade is too early to expect a child to differentiate between the universal truths of multiplication and spelling and the controversial gray areas of spirituality when they’re all being taught in the same format, graded in the same red pen. We would be putting our sweet eight-year-old in the position of either doubting her teachers or doubting her parents. I don’t want her to have to do either. I don’t want religion to be an issue at school. I don’t want to make my children question the whole academic construct, nor do I want to force them to take a stand for my beliefs.

Maybe we were just blowing everything out of proportion. Maybe if we stopped worrying and just let the girls attend religion class like all the other kids, everything would turn out fine. Maybe…

But then Dan brought up the one comparison I hadn’t considered—Sunday School at a fundamentalist Christian church. Would I let my children attend an hour a week of patriarchal teachings and expect that they could maintain perfect objectivity? Would I trust that doctrines of hell and atonement and salvation that I categorically disagree with would simply float past the viewing windows of my daughters’ minds and then dissipate? Would I really, honestly believe that my little open-eared girls could be taught dogma without any of it taking root?

No. Nonononononono. I wouldn’t even take the chance. And even though my experience with fundamentalist Christianity makes me think it is so much more potentially damaging than any other religion, and even though I respect my Catholic friends and don’t feel I’m in any position to call their beliefs harmful, I can’t simply decide that my girls will be vulnerable in one religious classroom but not in another. I can’t pretend that conflicting descriptions of God will affect them in one setting but not in another. Either my eight-year-old is already strong enough to hear all religious perspectives with curious detachment, or we should still be guarding her spiritual merge lane as best we can.

The Sunday School example settled the question for me. In future years, we probably will let the girls decide whether or not to attend religion class, but second grade is too soon for us. We had a family conversation about it over breakfast this morning, Natalie obviously disappointed and me feeling like Sauron himself but our hearts on the same page. Dan and I explained to the girls that our family believes some things differently than their classmates’ families do and that that’s okay—we’re all trying to follow God and do good and love each other well—but that we’d prefer them not to learn religion at school for now. I’m not sure the reasoning made sense to them, but both girls accepted the decision; we spent the rest of breakfast talking about saints and songs and the different things people believe, holding tight as a family to the value of respect—both for others’ beliefs and for the sacred spaces of our own hearts.


Photo: Basilica Papale di San Francesco in Assisi

11Apr

Birds of the Air, Hamsters of the Faith

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21Mar

From the Other End of the Power Spectrum

Trigger warning: child abuse.

We were at a dinner party some time back when a conservative Christian dad at the table joked about how many hours he had to wait after his babies were born before he could begin spanking them. I immediately focused on my lap, not trusting myself to look at the man. I was afraid that one more glimpse of the self-satisfied grin on his face would sever every attachment I had to civility. I twisted my napkin into cardboard and tried not to listen the precious dinnertime chatter of his little girl with mine. Even after all these years, a child’s laugh can undo me, and no one wants a dinner party to turn into a nuclear meltdown.

I still think about what I would have said to the man had I been unable to keep a lid on my thoughts that day, but it’s a futile conjecture. For one thing, common sense says that no one’s mind is likely to be changed by a dinner party debate. For another, conservative Christianity usually holds that men’s opinions and theological interpretations are superior to those of women; God-given authority is a trump card that would have rendered my hand ineffective from the beginning. However, the most disturbing reason my words would have been discounted that day is that I have lived through child abuse. I would have been viewed as emotionally compromised and irrational because I have intimate knowledge of the topic at hand.

In the thirteen years since beginning to work through the repercussions of my childhood, I have heard two common reactions among fundamentalist Christians when the word “abuse” is attached to fundamentalist Christian practices:

  1. “I’m so sorry that you were abused, but your situation was extreme; what I do isn’t abuse.”
  2. “You have a distorted and psychologically imbalanced perspective of what constitutes abuse; you are making up this victim mentality for your own selfish gain.”

One response sidesteps blame; the other flings it back. Neither acknowledges the victim’s validity as a first-person witness or the relevance of his or her first-person pain.

Perhaps I should take a step back and clarify what I mean by abuse, especially within a Christian context. I work by a very simple definition of “abuse”—using a position of power to harm another person.Therefore, sexual abuse is forcing sexual harm on another person, physical abuse is forcing physical harm on another person, and spiritual abuse is forcing spiritual harm on another person. The first example is universally accepted as horrific, but the latter two are especially prevalent within fundamentalist religious lifestyles.

Take the concept of “divine authority” assumed by many church leaders, husbands, and fathers, especially throughout the Patriarchy Movement in which I grew up. Wielding a position of spiritual power, these men can manipulate their congregants or families into serving them, submitting to them, and accepting their every word as truth. Actually, I see very little difference between spiritual abuse and the more mainstream emotional variety; they both employ shame, withheld approval, verbal aggression, and intimidation. Spiritual abuse is simply emotional abuse on God’s letterhead.

The harmful effects of spiritual abuse might be difficult to quantify, but they’re real enough to those who face the herculean task of working through them. I can personally attest to just how mentally and emotionally draining it can be to push back against the teaching that you are inferior in God’s eyes. Imagine having your sense of who-you-are systematically destroyed while your protests are decried as sin and then having a new, subservient identity installed in its place. No more freedom to think for yourself or make your own decisions, no relief from the fear that you will anger God (or his henchmen), no confidence, no autonomy, no self-worth—these are the effects of spiritual abuse, and no matter how often the term “godly authority” is thrown around, bullies are bullies are bullies THE END.

Physical abuse is a less obvious practice of fundamentalist Christianity, but brave souls like Elizabeth Esther have done much to raise awareness of the parenting techniques often endorsed as God’s will and focused on breaking the child’s. By spanking their children for infractions ranging from direct disobedience to grumpiness, many parents believe that they are training them in accordance with the Bible, and some actually believe that spanking will save their children from hell. While I grant that most parents would never take this philosophy to the extremes that have landed a few families on primetime news, and while I do not think that spanking one’s children indicates a lack of love, I would like to bring up the following points that shape my thinking on the topic:

  • Can we be honest that “spanking” is simply a euphemism for an adult striking a child? If a child repeatedly strikes another child, whether it be with a stick or a pipe or his hand, we call it “hitting.” If an adult does the same to another adult, we call it “beating.” When an adult does it to a child as a disciplinary tactic, we call it “spanking” and often overlook violence that would disturb or anger us in different settings.
  • Inflicting physical pain on children can certainly condition their behavior and subdue their independence as promised by spanking proponents like Michael Pearl, but it neither imparts a change of heart nor teaches anything specific about the behavior being punished. Some parents say they are teaching their children self-control, but spanking is not a natural consequence of any choice a child might make, so I would argue that their children are learning coping strategies rather than genuine self-control. (Protective coping strategies I picked up as a child include lying, redirecting attention toward a sibling, and hiding.)
  • While some Bible verses from the Old Testament book of Proverbs can be (and are) used in defense of spanking, Jesus both speaks at length about and demonstrates in person what loving our fellow human beings should look like. He preaches non-violence and inspires people to changes of heart through kindness. He flips notions of power and authority on their heads, and just in case we might not think his teaching applies to how we treat children, he gathers a group of unruly kids into his arms and tells us that his kingdom belongs to them. When in doubt over the Bible’s seemingly contradictory teachings, I go with Jesus.
  • Spanking depends on parents’ sheer physical dominance (or, in the case of older children/teens, parents’ ability to withhold food, shelter, human interaction, etc.) to purposefully cause pain to those in their care—using a position of power to harm another person. Beyond the fact that this sends a deeply confusing message to children, who themselves are not allowed to use physical dominance to get their way, it fully fits the definition of abuse.

I realize that criticizing a popular parenting technique like this is not too far off from coming unglued at a dinner party. To be honest, I’ve put off writing about this for a long time because I didn’t want to face the effects, both the emotional strain of dialing up my childhood and the potential backlash from parents who feel attacked. It would be fifty shades of hypocritical for me to tell others what they should believe and how they should raise their own children, and “abuse” is not a word that can be applied lightly. I’m wading through serious territory here.

But the seriousness of abuse is precisely why I’m taking the chance to speak up today. Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week is bringing survivors out of the woodwork, and I’m standing up with them—not because I enjoy playing the poor pitiable victim or because I want to spread another layer of guilt on this grace-starved world but because the truth matters. You deserve to hear the whole story, the practical conclusion to bookshelves’ worth of theory, the reality on the other end of the power spectrum. You deserve to know the emotional impact of philosophies that many people accept as God’s will despite their misgivings.

In turn, I trust you to accept my perspective as valid rather than irrational or compromised by my being “too close” to the subject. This isn’t an FBI investigation we’re talking about; it’s life. It’s experience. It’s the intersection of theology and practice, the correlation between what we believe and how it affects others. If we believe in a God of love and grace and peace, then we need to be closely examining philosophies that produce the opposite, and that means listening to the uncomfortable stories, taking them to heart, and working to right wrongs however we can.

Here is my own uncomfortable story: I am a survivor of child abuse. Under the approval of fundamentalism and the Patriarchy Movement, I endured years of severe spiritual and physical abuse, including some that veered over the line into sexual abuse. I helped the perpetrators to cover it up, even when instinct screamed at me to protect myself and my younger siblings. (That dinner party joke about spanking infants is no joke, and I don’t know if I can ever fully forgive myself for the things I enabled through my silence.) I grew up fearful and ashamed, with helpless fury often spiraling downward into depression. I battle those same feelings in adulthood, with the addition of panic attacks and other physical manifestations of PTSD, and there is not a single aspect of my daily life that is not affected in some way by what I endured as a child. Not one.

My saving grace has been a long, slow discovery that God is not the mastermind behind my abuse. I’ve had to shed thousands of assumptions along the way, prying my clenched fingers from fears and shames that I had thought were part of my identity, and there are thousands still to go, but I know that the divine source of light and love is not responsible for the way power was used to hurt me all those years. I do struggle heavily with why God allowed the abuse to happen, but it comforts me to think that he didn’t send down preventative lightning bolts from heaven for the same reason that he didn’t make me spend the rest of my life in a falsely constructed identity: because he does not abuse his power. He doesn’t force or manipulate or use his position to demand subservience. He is about as far from the patriarchal standard as a deity could get.

And in coming to recognize this, I’ve been able see ways in which God was with me all along—providing moments of comfort and flashes of joy, stopping me at the brink of suicide, guiding me toward a life far, far away from my past and its triggers where I can heal in peace. I know it doesn’t make sense to some people that I would have anything to do with the God whose name was plastered all over the abuse I endured. However, uncovering God’s real identity is helping me more than anything else to uncover my own, and if this makes me emotionally compromised, then I’ll wear the stigma proudly.

This is my uncomfortable story, this is my song. (Part 2, about parenting after abuse, here.)

~~~

More uncomfortable story-songs from this week:

The Day I Died by Caleigh at Elora Nicole

Paved With Good Intentions by Hännah Ettinger

God is Love by Sarah Moon

The Cult That Changed Everything by Kiery King

How Spiritual Abuse Has Affected Me by Jessica Bowman

Spiritual Abuse and How It Shaped My Identity at Defeating the Dragons

After Steubenville by Ann Voskamp

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