Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Thing About Prayer

"I just wish there was something I could do."
"You can pray, Honey."
"That isn't doing anything.  That is doing something that is exactly like doing nothing."

Yes, I actually had that conversation with my mother tonight.  I'm exhausted and feeling particularly candid at the moment.  I'm waiting for news about one of the most important people in my life.  She is there and everything is going on there and in everyone else's hands and I am here.  I am sitting on my couch, drinking a glass of wine, with Gilmore Girls playing in the background (the one with the B&B), my laptop on my lap, boys sleeping in their room (as they should be since it is after midnight), all alone since Ryan is at work, and I am here.  She is there.  My heart is there.

Of course I am praying.  There is a continuous thread of prayers running through my head.  I am pretty sure that even if for some reason I decided there was no God to believe in, I would still pray in my head in times of stress or crisis, simply because I never remember a time when my inner voice didn't talk to God.

However, I realize that there are a lot of time that people pray for things that don't happen.  And that kills me.  And makes me feel totally helpless.

Like how I feel now.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


For anyone who either grew up in the church or is familiar with the more often-told Bible stories, you probably know the story of the woman caught in adultery.  If you are not familiar, here is an excerpt from John 8:  
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her....” At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
I've seen this story come up multiple times in discussions over certain social issues around which there is much debate and disagreement.  When I read this story, two things stand out to me.  The first is, where the hell is the man?  Unless I'm misunderstanding something, it takes two people to commit an act of adultery.  Was he in the crowd with a rock in his hand?  What injustice that only this woman is facing death for a crime committed by two equal participants!

The second thing I see is how Jesus stands up for her, this scorned woman who is facing the judgment of the religious leaders of the day.  He not only saves her from a brutal death, but treats her with dignity.  What a scene that must have been and what confusion she must have experienced at this shocking change in her fate.  When I read this, I see a story of mercy, grace, and love, but also of justice -- the woman is treated equally with the man and does not receive solo punishment for the sin of two. Those are the things that stand out to me in this story

I've noticed, however, that what some people focus on in this story is that last line, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  In the KJV translation, it reads, "Go, and sin no more."  To some, it seems, the main point of this story is that Jesus tells her to stop sinning.  Sure, the rest of the story is nice, but look!  Jesus made it clear that she had to lead a blameless life for the rest of her days!

It has always troubled me, this split in how the story is explained and how some seem to use it like a weapon against those they believe are sinning in a way that is less acceptable than their own sin.  I would always be baffled that the proverbial "moral of the story" could be so completely different to people who all seem to agree on the basic tenets of the Christian faith. 

I just finished reading a book by Richard Beck titled Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality that shed light for me on why there is such a difference in approach when this type of story is discussed.  I wish I had read this years ago.  I have re-read this section of the book (below) numerous times, and now that I've had time to consider it, it makes perfect sense.  For anyone who has spent a lot of time studying psychology, this may be old news.  For me, well, mind = blown.
Given that the experience of the divine is often regulated by disgust psychology, conversations about God, sin and holiness are often being torpedoed at some deep level. A dumbfounding is occurring. These dynamics make conversations about God inherently difficult because our experience of the divine is being regulated by emotion rather than logic, affect rather than theology. I think people in churches have always known this, and felt that people in conflict within the church were generally talking past each other....
Conservatives make appeals to the Purity/Sanctity foundation while liberals restrict their moral judgments to the foundations of Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity. This is simply another way of saying that liberals, weakly or strongly, reject appeals to a vertical, transcendent dimension... in favor of the horizontal dimension of human affairs.
Conservatives will contend that there are times when the sacred...should be privileged over the... call for justice or equity.... For liberals, the metaphysical (“the sacred”) isn’t a category worthy of consideration if real world harm and injustice are at stake.... (emphasis mine)
 I highly recommend reading Dr. Beck's book, as this excerpt really doesn't do justice to his thorough examination of the analysis he offers, but I hope you can see what he is getting at here and what his words illuminated for me.  When I read it, I immediately thought of the different responses to the adulterous woman story. Due to our life experiences and the way our minds work, some of us are thinking more of what is fair, caring, and just when we consider what is "right" and what is "wrong" or what we focus on in certain issues.  Due to the same factors, others are thinking more of what is righteous, pure, or acceptable when considering what is "right" or what is "wrong."

I know this insight doesn't actually change anything.  It doesn't make me more likely to think about the story of the adulterous woman in a different way or change my mind about other frequently debated issues.  I will still disagree with people over where I stand.  However, it does help me see that there will be times when I need to step back and appreciate that I'm arguing in a completely different right vs. wrong "language" than another person.  It doesn't make either of us bad people, it just means that our brains work so differently that we may never be able to agree on that subject.

This knowledge reminds me that there will be times when I need to determine if my relationship with a person is more important than trying to get them to see where I am coming from.  I may never truly grasp the point of view of someone whose mind works differently, but there may be ways to compensate for this difference.  We may never gain full comprehension, but maybe we can get to understanding in the sense of "a state of cooperative or mutually tolerant relations between people."  If we can find a way to relate to those on the other side of this divide, cooperation may be possible.  I have to believe that even if we never get there, it is a goal worth pursuing.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Repent or Perish.... But the Greatest of These is Love

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.  Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." - Luke 13:1-5
I hadn’t really noticed this passage before, but I happened to re-read it a few weeks ago and it caught my attention.  In my Bible, it has a heading prefacing it that reads "Repent or Perish," so I guess I previously skipped over it as some kind of revival fodder.  I’m not pretending to be a Biblical scholar here, nor am I trying to come off as some sort of theological expert, but I’ve been mulling this passage over and over for weeks now and it is the rest of what Jesus said in it that stands out to me.  What if, Jesus wasn’t meaning this as some sort of off-the-cuff altar call, but as a call for us to examine our hearts and repent of when we blame other people for their circumstances?

What if Jesus was saying that the world just sucks sometimes and that the bad things that happen to people aren’t to punish them or teach them a lesson?  It seems to me that he was telling us to stop using our our words, our actions, or our thoughts to judge people who suffer.  There are so many things outside of each individual’s control – from where they are born to if they are stricken with a terminal illness to if some unforeseen tragedy befalls them - and these things are not the result of their sin.  The sin actually happens in the thoughts and actions of those of us who act like we have it all figured out whenever we know or hear of someone who is hurting.  When we judge those people or try to “fix” them by telling them what to do or how to feel or where they went wrong, we are the ones who need to repent.   Not looking after the sick, not visiting those in prison, not helping those in need of food or clothes or drink, feeling superior to someone who is different (aka a stranger) – aren’t those things that Jesus told us in Matthew 25 would separate us from God?  Didn't Jesus tell us in Luke 10 to love others as we love ourselves?

I think we need to take a step back here.  We are so conditioned with canned responses and clichés that we respond to heartache without thinking of how we would feel in the same circumstance. I’m speaking to myself as much as to anyone else.  I know there have been times when I feel that someone is in a bad spot because of what I consider to be bad choices and I've reacted terribly.  I’ve actually thought, “Well, that is sad, but if they wouldn’t have chosen to [fill in the blank with a "bad" choice], then maybe it wouldn’t have turned out this way.”  I realize this may be a defense mechanism that helps me pretend that I would be immune to that circumstance because I wouldn’t make that choice, but what I'm really saying there is that I am better than that person and wouldn't "deserve" for that to happen to me.  How terrible.

The other myth this passage in Luke blows out of the water is the whole everything-happens-for-a-reason bit.  When something bad happens to someone that isn’t directly a result of their own choices, so many attribute it to some higher purpose or lesson to be learned.  Why do we do this?  My guess is that trying to assign a lesson to something that could easily happen to any of us lulls us into thinking we should or could be exempt from the same thing.  In the words of Jesus, "I tell you, no!"  I am no better than anyone else.  Life is horrifying sometimes and none of us have some special exemption, as much as we wish we did.

Going back to Luke 13, I really do think that Jesus was trying to tell us that it is wrong to react to heartache in any way other than to offer compassion, and to repent if we don't realize that any of us could easily be in the same situation. The humility we gain from that will allow us to reach out with kindness and understanding and love.... that last thing, most importantly.  As I mentioned before, Jesus is also known for telling us that loving others as we love ourselves is one of the most vital things in life.  Regardless of how we may want to rationalize the circumstances,  we must not give in to that.... lest our hearts harden, our souls perish, and we forget that love is one the most important things of all.  

Postscript:  I really did just happen upon the scripture in Luke, but I felt even more compelled to write about it because of two things -- 

The first was how there are always those persons who speak out whenever a natural disaster occurs, to blame the victims for somehow incurring the wrath of God with their horrible lives.  This has always bothered me, as the victims who typically get the brunt of such disasters are those who are economically disadvantaged, not those who are "morally deficient."

The second was watching from a distance as a family I care deeply about has had to endure the most idiotic "justifications" for why their beautiful and vibrant Zeke was so horrifically and tragically wrenched from their earthly lives and arms.

Please.  PLEASE.  I beg of you.  If you hear of someone enduring heartache, be it in your community or on the other side of the world, think these two things before responding:
1.  That could happen to me.  Perhaps not the exact same thing, down to the exact same detail (for example, in Ohio, there are no hurricanes... or perhaps some people are childless/have no young children), but something frighteningly similar could happen to me or to someone I love very much.  
2. How would I feel if that same thing happened to me and how would I want people to respond to me if it did?
Once you have truly considered these two things and really taken them to heart, then you should be better prepared to respond.  If you find either of these things too difficult for you to wrap your mind around, it is probably better to be silent and send up some prayers or positive thoughts for those affected and leave the comments or displays of sympathy to others.

Monday, September 10, 2012


I owe a great debt to Barbara Brown Taylor. I've never met her, but I have been irrevocably changed by her words.  I'm working my way through her books, experiencing a sort of rebirth as they pierce my heart.  When I read her thoughts, I feel something I haven't felt in a long time.... a stirring in my spirit.  It's something that, if I'm honest, I had thought I may never feel again.

I know I've written before about my conservative upbringing and how, over the past few years, I've diverged from that upbringing quite a bit.  I would imagine that at least part of my experience is similar to anyone who has been raised in a certain tradition, become disillusioned with that tradition, and then found themselves feeling lost and unsure of how the frame their life from there. The process has been extremely awkward, like some kind of spiritual adolescence.

At the beginning of this experience, I was focused on shedding the old beliefs, walking away from where I was before.  It was painful and difficult, as I was not sure how much of the old had to be stripped away. I doubted everything.  I was worried that clinging to too much would feel like being weighed down with baggage.  I think once I'd made up my mind that I no longer believed so much of what I'd grown up thinking, the old way seemed bad.  I was so frustrated with my "before" that I began to see most of it as wrong.

Some of those "before" things had to do with how easy it is to have the appearance of certain aspects of faith, without really "meaning" any of it.  It is ridiculously simple to go through the motions of many faith traditions because you know people are watching you and expecting you to behave a specific way, yet without any of it changing your life.

Once I realized that I did not "mean" some of these things, I didn't know how my faith experience should look.  At the risk of being associated with some of my old ways of thinking, I restricted any faith experience to philosophical discussions with people I deemed safe and I kept everything else to myself.  When I did try to open up to people outside my safe little circle about what I was going through, I can see now that it had to seem like I was lashing out -- not from my own struggles (as was the reality), but at those people for not being in the same place as me.

I've only recently begun to feel that I'm moving away from that into a new realization of my faith.  This involves the awareness that I must have grace for the faith process of others which may or may not lead them down the same path I've traveled.  It also includes having grace for my own process.  This has been a long time coming, but I feel like I'm right there, on the cusp of freedom.  I can think and believe what my own journey has taught me while accepting others right where they are.  I can understand and appreciate that the minds of others work differently, based on their personalities and life experiences and environment.

Thanks to my introduction to Barbara Brown Taylor (as well as to several other authors and bloggers), I'm realizing that I am not alone and that growing to a new place doesn't have to mean abandoning my faith out of distaste for some of the ways I had framed it in the past.  Neither does it mean rejecting others who may still be where I was before and may never be where I am now. I can be cognizant  that the right place for me is not necessarily the right place for everyone else, and vice-versa. 

In her book, "Leaving Church" Ms. Taylor discusses that when your journey takes you to a place away from your roots, it can be difficult, but freeing.  It also allows you to connect with people you otherwise would have been completely isolated from. Life on the fringe of your tradition can be scary and lonely, or it can be rich and affirming.  We don't have to rely on clichés and dogma; we can be at peace with uncertainty.  She explains:
I have learned to prize holy ignorance more highly than than religious certainty and to seek companions who have arrived at the same place.  We are a motley crew, distinguished not only by our inability to explain ourselves to those who are more certain of their beliefs than we are but in many cases by our distance from the centers of our faith communities.... This wilderness experience sets up a real dilemma for some of us, since we know how much we owe to the traditions that shaped us.  We would not be who we are without them, and we continue to draw real sustenance from them...
I will keep faith - in God and in God's faith in me, and in all the companions whom God has given me to help me see the world as God sees it.... We may be in for a long wait before the Holy Spirit shows us a new way to be the church together, but in the meantime there is nothing to prevent us from enjoying the breeze of those bright wings.
 All this is to say that I feel like my spirit is emerging from the dark place where it has languished for so long.  This isn't any sort of Now-I've-Arrived statement, but more an attempt to convey the hope I feel that I'm catching glimpses of a way forward. Connecting with the stories of others has contributed to this hope and given me a sense of belonging.  I find myself reaching for my Bible and feeling my spirit stir as I find new meaning in passages that had seemed flat and confusing before.  I know I have a long, long way to go.  I know this journey will likely take me to places I would never expect, and that a year from now (or even tomorrow) I could look back on these words and wonder what the hell I was thinking.

I'm still questioning and learning and growing and emerging and changing.  I don't know where I will end up or if I will at some point feel like I'm back where I started.  But, for now, I feel like the pieces of my tradition are coming back together in a way that awakens my spirit.

And for that, I am grateful.