Tag: Theology

24Feb

A Personal Kind of Grace

[Photo of Vesuvius snapped on Easter morning 2010]

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

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

Are you ready?

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

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

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

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

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

13Feb

Like a Child

Last September, Sarah Bessey shared an incredibly touching post about the prayer of a two-year-old girl when she didn’t know how to express hurt over her parents’ failing marriage. The little girl simply prayed through her tears, “Jesus. Mommy. Daddy.” and trusted that he would understand.

Perhaps that post touched such a deep chord with me because I don’t know how to put words to prayers either. In the religious culture of my childhood, prayer was a minefield requiring spiritually PC language and doctrinal gymnastics while we conjured up select interpretations of scripture like robed genies to our aid. Talking to God required as much ceremony and flattery as approaching a volatile dictator; it was more strategic groveling than anything, and it wounded me all the more for being labeled as love.

I knew the right words, but they came to represent a complicated and soul-mangling kind of subservience to me. Even now, if someone puts me on the spot to pray aloud, I can feel the old scripts grind into my heart with muddy boot heels. (Hopefully, no one notices me tripping flat over the initial “Dear God…”) For all my belief in a rule-breaking, boundlessly loving God and in miracle answers, I still can’t bring myself to frame requests with words. I won’t go back to groveling for scraps of divine favor.

So I feel prayer, and I soak it in through my headphones, and I breathe it on the open air, and I feel our connection the way I sense light through my eyelids. However, none of it quite replaces the intentionality of conversation… and so I turn to this.

Jesus. Dan.

Jesus. Natalie.

Jesus. Sophie.

Jesus. The friend being torn slowly apart by divorce proceedings.

Jesus. The friend heartbroken by infertility.

Jesus. The loved ones facing major life decisions.

Jesus. Our own major life decisions.

Jesus. Our finances.

Jesus. Our marriage.

Jesus. This complicated soul-life I wrestle and grow and wake with.

And I trust him to understand.

26Jan

Prayer and Pixie Dust

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

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

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

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

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

Words can’t express.

The girls leading the way - 2

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

Disney World collage

30Jul

Breaking the Rules

I’m sitting halfway out of an open window, bare feet double-dipped in sunlight, espresso and milk on the rocks in my favorite mug. It’s just what I needed after a week of sulking weather and self-doubt. It’s also the first time in awhile I’ve been able to sit and corral all the little thought-bytes sifting around my soul, and seeing the bigger picture of what I’ve been processing piecemeal lately is its own kind of sunlight therapy.

Here’s the thing—

If traditional, commonly-accepted Christian interpretations of the Bible are true, then I am a better parent than God is (even when I’m grumpy).
The “good news” is just one facet of the worst news imaginable.
Free will is a test designed to fail.
There is no such thing as unconditional love.
The end justifies pretty much any means.
Jesus was a terrible evangelist.
It really is all up to me.

I have done enough mucking around in my soul over the last decade to say this with absolute certainty: If traditional, commonly-accepted Christian interpretations of the Bible are true, then I want nothing to do with God.

Nothing.

My philosophy professor in college taught that we are only motivated by a desire for truth, and I want to argue with him as strongly now as I did at my desk nine years ago. The idea that a God whose master plan involves eternal torture for most of humankind might really be truth is the thought that sends my spirituality into hiding the most quickly. If it’s true, then I’m damned anyway because I cannot—and would not, even if I could—love the orchestrator of infinite cruelty.

The spin on all of this is that I have felt God. I’ve looked miracles full in the face. I know the thrill of a nudged heart, the mystery of peace replacing panic, and the deep-rooted sparkle of love breaking rules, and the rule it’s breaking down right now is that I have to choose between my own conscience and truth… or at least other people’s version of truth.

Here in the sunlight, this statement doesn’t seem to carry the weight of all its sleepless nights and shadowed days, but I’ll say it anyway: I believe in God. This belief isn’t a thing I can dismiss any more than I can will away cloudy Julys or untannable skin or a questioning mind, but I’ve come to recognize it requires sacrifice on my part. I have to give up the notion that any of the seven translations of Bibles on our bookshelf is a perfect, untouched directive straight from divine lips. I have to let go of the mental hierarchy we make of religious leaders/teachers/authors with us laypersons on the rung marked “Irrelevant.” I have to say goodbye to my reputation as a good Christian and welcome labels like “heretic,” “apostate,” and “disturber of the peace.”

In essence, I have to give up the three things much of Christianity is built on—Bible worship, traditional teachings, and the appearance of holiness. I would never have imagined sacrifice for the sake of my beliefs looking like this. (Avoiding miniskirts and cigarettes? Well duh. Martyrdom? Sure. But voluntarily free-falling off the edge of orthodoxy? Uh… no.) However, if my path lies somewhere outside of traditional, commonly-accepted Christian interpretations of the Bible,
and if Jesus was a glimpse of the true God,
and if the heart-nudges I’ve felt are merely previews,
and if unconditional love matters, wins, is
then I’m willing to give up everything I’ve ever stood for—and then some—to find out where this belief will take me.

If I’m not mistaken, this is what they call faith.

 

25May

Untethered

I don’t know where to start writing about this, even just for myself. It’s too big for me, too heavy, and my soul just wants to stretch out on a beach chair in some blissfully deserted part of the world and fall asleep to the sound of waves. How do I write through where I am now without coming across as fickle or, as more than one person has suggested, deluded?

It’s true—my perspective was warped by years of religious brainwashing and abuse in God’s name—but if nothing else, growing up with people who swallowed someone else’s ideology taught me not to do the same. I refuse to adopt a belief system just because others tell me to, and that applies to Christianity as well. Have I ever believed in God because my own story and experiences led me there? Have I ever even had that option?

I once thought that every good thing that happened to me was an act of divine benevolence. Scholarships, job offers, relationships, fast recoveries, relationships—each a personalized stamp of God’s approval and generosity.  What does that mean for my friends who had to work their way through college though? What of my friends living off of unemployment? What of those who didn’t meet Mr. Right or never recovered or had their homes destroyed by a natural disaster or went bankrupt or lost a child? Where I used to see God’s puppet strings, I now see coincidence because I can’t deal with the implications of an all-powerful benefactor playing favorites.

It doesn’t mean God isn’t good. Rachel Held Evans wrote about the same internal debate, and I’m relieved to know that the struggle isn’t confined to my own head and that others have found other ways of measuring God’s goodness. In nature, for instance, I can’t help seeing the beauty of its blueprint… but I don’t see perfection, and I don’t see personal intention. Whether the sky cooperates for someone’s outdoor wedding or a hurricane devastates thousands of families, I simply see a flawed universe set to random.

And I understand now more than ever why some Christians I know cling to their beliefs at the expense of everything else in their lives, even peace of mind. Coming untethered from a doctrinal picket line is a frightening experience, and there is only a hairline difference between feeling liberated and feeling lost (I tend to vacillate between the two). I can’t turn off my questions any more than I can turn off my instinct to breathe, but I wish I could. Some days, I am absolutely certain I would choose unthinking acceptance over this mind that tracks down holes more easily than it does happiness.

I have problems with a lot of people who claim to take their marching orders directly from God, and this casts doubt on the whole notion of a converted life (at least a life converted from assholery). I have even bigger problems with the Bible, questions that I fear have no answers aside from churchy platitudes, and as much as I might want to, I cannot sincerely subscribe to the whole traditional Christianity package. I cannot accept that a loving God created people for heaven and then set their defaults to hell. I cannot believe that a Jesus who taught turning the other cheek represents the same deity who went around wiping out heathen nations in the Old Testament. I cannot see my way past the violence or the inconsistencies or the staggering injustice of what some call the “Good News.” I just can’t.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this leaves me. I’m not rejecting faith, but I can’t flash a denominational membership card either, and even the space just beyond the old tether’s radius is unfamiliar territory. My biggest hope is that God isn’t tied to the picket line either and that my uncertain journey forward will bring us face to face, maybe in an open-air café without closing hours where he can answer every question I’ve ever penned in my journal or posed to uncomprehending pastors or sensed without being able to articulate. More than anything, I want God to be real and different than I was always told, and I think this longing counts as faith for me right now. And if I am simply deluded, I  pray I’ll eventually stumble across that beach chair.

 

5May

Eucharift

Our church doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas. I’ve heard of other churches that choose not to as well, most citing pagan or consumerist holiday origins as the reason, but ours shies away from it for the opposite reason: it’s too religious. More specifically, it’s too Catholic.

I sympathize with their need to differentiate themselves from the national religion. Here in Italy, the Pope is held up as truth incarnate, and the small Brethren congregation with which we share Sunday mornings is anxious to dispel the notion of religious royalty. In fact, we don’t even have a paid pastor. All church members are seen as equal participants among each other and with God, and the inclusive environment is incredibly welcome for those like me who run screaming from the word “orthodoxy.”

I’m not sure how welcome a Catholic visitor would feel though. While it isn’t often said aloud, the general consensus seems to be that Catholics do not know the real God; they base their lives on superstition, worship idols, and enslave themselves to greed (the clergy) or fear (the parishioners). They need to be saved just as badly as Buddhists or even Wiccans do.

However, I simply can’t make the stereotype match up with the Catholics I personally know. It’s easy enough to say a certain denomination (or religion, depending on your viewpoint) has it all wrong, but can I honestly make that verdict about my Catholic friend who prays regularly for me and launches heart-to-hearts about our life’s passions? What about my ex-fundamentalist friend who finds solace from her oppressive past at Mass every week? What about the devout family friends who uprooted their lives to keep a mentally disabled relative from losing her inheritance?

How can I say that I, with my ever-evolving doubts and struggles, have exclusive rights to the God we all seek?

I twice attended Mass when I was living in the States, and both times, I stayed conspicuously in my seat while the rest of the church filed to the front for the Eucharist. I reasoned that I was merely an onlooker of a foreign religious ritual and that participating would be on par with apostasy. (Never mind that my own church’s monthly communion service was essentially the same thing, give or take a priest.) If I were to go back now, though, it wouldn’t be as a tourist. Rather, I’d go as a fellow believer, doubter, stumbler, and seeker. And while I probably wouldn’t agree on a lot of doctrinal points, and while the reverent liturgy of the service might chafe my nonconformist sensibilities, and while my current church could have some strong opinions over it (thankfully, we don’t do excommunication), the slot vacated by my superiority complex would be just about the right size for a concept called loving my neighbors… and maybe even learning from them too.

Rally to Restore Unity

[Joining the Rally to Restore Unity going on this week on Rachel Held Evans’ blog. Want to play along?]

10Mar

Sigh No More

One of the first pieces of literature I ever memorized was a Bible verse familiar even to those who have never set foot in a fundamentalist Christian home: “God is love.” It’s a nice sentiment, and it probably sounded adorable in my toddler lisp, but I was already on my way to a very unhappy understanding of the verse’s meaning.

“God is love” meant that he was willing to defile himself by sifting through the filth of humanity and saving a worm like me.

“God is love” meant that he would inflict (or sanction) whatever pain necessary to insure my soul against hell.

“God is love” meant that he would play the gentleman and let people make “unbiased” decisions between Christianity and eternal suffering.

(Alternately, it meant that he had predestined me over less lucky humans for salvation. I experienced my fair share of Calvinism.)

“God is love” meant that he had paid my debt, so I was forever in his.

In practical terms, “God is love” translated into fear. God’s love was conditional, you see, and it wasn’t particularly affectionate to start with. When I was Baptist, any little mistake would put my salvation into question. (You couldn’t lose your salvation per se, but if you messed up… well, Jesus clearly wasn’t alive and well in your heart.) When I was Presbyterian, my soul was secure, but God didn’t love all of my friends and family enough to choose them. From my earliest memories, the unthinkable torment of hell—burning alive forever and ever and ever—dangled over my head  and that of everyone I knew. And this was God’s love.

Which brings me here:

Maybe you’ve heard about this. Maybe you don’t care. Maybe you care so much that you’re brandishing every weapon in your arsenal against heresy. Or maybe you’re like me, wanting to weep for the hope of it all.

Even though “Love Wins” is not yet released, prominent theologians have already consigned the author to hell… simply for suggesting that perhaps God is not torturing the majority of his creation for eternity. A dear friend writes about the divide between real, aching hearts and those “who are more concerned with winning than with loving,” and I want to ask those people, those self-assured theologians and heretic-slayers, Why? Why would you rather follow a God who allows babies to be born knowing that nine out of ten will burn forever… who handpicks some for his utopian afterlife but not all, or who makes our fates dependent on accurate guesswork… who expects us to rejoice while billions die… whose love only concerns itself with right vs. wrong… Why would you rather follow that God than explore the hope that true love doesn’t require us to shut down our hearts?

I was terrified the first time I posted about hell; I expected anger, hatred, and Molotov cocktails (approximately the treatment Rob Bell’s been getting), but it was worth the risk. I couldn’t not share the spacious peace I had found outside of religious tradition. The idea that God actually could be love—kind, unconditional, crazy-about-us love—is worth spreading no matter the cost or the dissenters. In fact, it might be the first piece of truly good news some Christians have ever heard.

Play us out, Marcus:

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