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Archive for December, 2009

Belated Merry Christmas and Happy Solstice, Diwali, Hannakhah, and also birthdays to my cousins and housemates who have birthdays.

I have spent the past 2 weeks busily engaged in, but not limited to, the following:

Hosting my soon to be brother in law, a soon to be graduate from a prestigious or despised (depending on where your druthers fall when it comes to religious versus secular higher education) Christian university. His visit was fun and thought provoking in equal measure, as he seems as interested as I am in theological conversation (yay!) while coming from a vastly different place (yay!).

Hosting a fundraiser for three different local non-profits, which also kind of served as my fiance and my Christmas party for our friends.

Celebrating the one time a year my sunday school kids get to run the show at church with our annual holiday children-led service, always a fun and exhausting time.

Giving out Christmas presents and listening to heartbreaking stories of loneliness and inspiring stories of grace from the clients who I serve through my job.

Trying hard to exhibit a graceful and loving and patient spirit towards my housemates who were seriously somehow managing to touch on every nerve of irritation in my body. (Hint: the culprit here is not my housemates when it comes to this kind of thing).

Finishing “Patience with God” by Frank Shaffer, starting and finishing Genesis (by God?), and starting and finishing “The Year of Biblical Living” By A.J. Jacobs.

Fleshing out, during plane rides, a biblical argument for Christians to engage in political neutrality when it comes to “cultural war” legislation (namely legislation regarding gay marriage, but I think it’s pretty applicable to many other things).

Thinking with some nostalgia and bittersweetness of my southern-state cousins, who joined my northern-state cousins for Christmas, and missing them all very much.

Spending the holidays with my fiance’s family, who are fantastic people who, like my future brother in law, come from a very different place, religiously, than I do. Celebrating one of the holiest days of the Christian year with a very Christian family when I am, despite my general pro-Christian sentiment, not a Christian, was fascinating, beautiful, stressful, painful, interesting and full of grace and love.

All of which I look forward to writing about later.

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Oh Boy.

So because I’m working on a project in my larger life, I didn’t get to bed until midnight, which is generally ruinous for all things, and was particularly ruinous for Bible reading. I also didn’t take the Bible with me to work, because the one I have is a bit of a family heirloom and I lose things easily. And also, I’m just not ready to have whatever conversation this would result in with my coworkers.

I did, however, bring Shaffer’s book and read the first three chapters.

His book is billed as a response to people who feel a spiritual urge or want to find God, but don’t like religion or atheism. I feel this kind of describes the shifting demographic of the US right before September 11th, before there was a kind of rigid polarization; perhaps his book is signaling of a zeitgeist again? In any case, this is one of the very very rare occasions when I think I might be *the* target audience for this book!

In the first three chapters, he draws some powerful parallels between some of the more vocal modern proponents of Atheism and past instances of other kinds of true believers and they versus us thinking, and he makes a pretty strong case that when a person actively advocates that their answers to the big questions, and their answers alone, are the truth, and any other answer is dangerous- well, that person is being a fundementalist, regardless of the content of their answer. I don’t know if the word fundementalist is the one I would use, but I agree that it is pretty darn anti-social behavior (in that that kind of absolutism tears at the social fabric, particularly of multicultural societies). Sam Harris comes across as particularly strident, but the whole first couple of chapters make me feel that, to do justice, I need to go back and re-read the whole ouvre of anti-religious works that have come out in the past few years, which is unfortunate for me because I kind of hated reading them the first time. However! No pain no gain, and perhaps this time around I’ll come to a less frustrating and more deep or nuanced understanding of the ideas shaping Positive Atheism?

I like reading Shaffer’s book because it gives me a sense of not being entirely alone in my experience of both my spiritual life, and also in my observations of the religious war sort of happening in the world around me, perhaps best and most tragically embodied by the utterly idiotic War on Christmas et all nontroversy that has actually become a thing that is happening in the country, sort of. I like not feeling utterly alone in my experiences. But I don’t actually know that I am learning anything in particular?

Anyway, hopefully, tonight, Genesis.

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Ok, I’m doing it.

I’m starting with Genesis. I’m doing it tonight, at bedtime, while my darling fiance plays Mario Cart. I don’t entirely like Mario Cart all that much, but there is a good chance it will be a powerful temptation tonight.

(Actually, when we get to the prophets, that is usually when I start checking out big time.)

If anyone has a good suggestion of a guide (historical? religious?) to have as a reading companion, I will take you up on it!

I’m also, to sort of balance this out, or not, reading Patience with God (faith for people who don’t like religion or atheism) by Frank Schaeffer, and Believer Beware; First person dispatches from the margins offaith, selected by Jeff Sharlet, Peter Manseau and the Editors of Killing the Buddha..

(Killing the Buddha is a web site that rivals the internet monk in it’s current hold on my religious imagination).

I’ll keep you posted on this experiment in getting into the brains of other religious people (always, in my experience, a pretty strange and dislocating experience!).

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When I think about a proper search for religious truth, I think about it in the following terms: it is simaltaneously inward: an expression and articulation of what feels true to you, followed by a ruthless exploration of *why* it feels true to you, and outward: an exploration of how the divine reveals itself to others, and what that means, and what is the Divine trying to say. I think that both approaches are crucial. But why? Why is that so important to me?

I guess that’s a good question to look into to.

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One thing I really admire about my faith tradition is how important it is to us to instill in our children, and involve ourselves in, active works to transform our communities, to heal, to protect. I teach a group of 5-9 year olds, and recently I asked them to each chose something in their community they wanted to make better or protect. The response has been overwhelming- from animal shelters (locally) to working towards sponsoring clean water wells in India, the kids in my class had such incredible insight and awareness and compassionate response. It was pretty inspiring today, talking about how they want to impact the world, what kind of changes they want to make in it, how they want to get there. I love how much love they pour into this project. It inspires me to get out of myself a bit.

I get really crabby about the theological stance of my church, and so I complain about that, sideways or headon. But the truth is I love my church and my congregation dearly, and I am in awe of the dedication which my denomination goes about actively making earth into a beautiful, just, joyful place.

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Good morning! It’s a great day to be riled up about something, thinks I, and I am riled!

Here is the source of my ire:

http://www.conservapedia.com/Conservative_Bible_Project

The Conservative Bible Project is an attempt at Bible Translation that removes the liberal bias from the Bible. It seems to operate under the idea that any liberal idea in the Bible is inserted by deceitful humans, while ideas about free market capitalism are meant to be in their by God’s Will.

Ok.

Translating the Bible, the self proclaimed word of God, is a tedius and difficult business, fraught with the complexities of trying to take the literature of a culture that existed 2000 years ago (some of which is itself the written account of previous oral traditions that exist some 4000 years prior to that!) map onto our current cultural landscape in a way that is not completely senseless and jarring. It’s also a vibrant task, done in the companionship of people who try to find words (and meaning) that can relate to the language of the time. There are clearly huge rooms for interpretative bias, and over the course of time Biblical translations leaned one way or another, depending on the whims, outlooks and political power struggles of the time.

(Perhaps the strongest argument for there being something to the Bible as at least one of the methods of Gods communication to us is how fervrently people want to distort it to serve their own ends!)

Anyway, I have no doubt that there are, among the many many translations of the Bible available, elements of liberal Bias. Just as there are elements of conservative bias, of monarchial bias, of gender bias, etc. But it seems to me a dishonest, and kind of blasphemous, assumption that God would of course necessarily agree with one’s own political values and desires; it seems ruinous to assume that when the Bible runs counter to ones personal political stances, it can *only* be because your political enemies tampered with it first. Removing something because it is liberal, rather than because it has been dubiously translated, seems to open a very particular gate to God’s displeasure, I would think?

On the other hand! If the Bible is actually God’s Living Word, then surely God has a vested interest in making sure that the crux of it, whatever that is, remains intact for searchers. And giving the multiplicity of Biblical translations out there, it could be really interesting to stack different biblical translations against each other and the Conservative Bible Project to see how it holds up.

Ironically, I have to admit that I’ve been dancing around actually reading the Bible (again!) for awhile now, and the Conservative Bible Project has motivated me to drag out my KJV! I’m pretty curious- will I, or won’t I, find lots of liberal ideas cleverly masked? I did always assume that Jesus was a kind of liberal guy. Perhaps this has been a plot all along!

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On a lighter note

An ex boyfriend of mine was a Christian when we dated (in high school), remained a Christian when I heaved mine over the Grand Canyon of my adolescence, and is a happily married Christian today. (Two ex boyfriends of mine fit into this category, incidentally- this story is only about one of them!).

This ex boyfriend, let’s call him M, is a pretty big deal to me. He was always a great person to me, even during our breakup, even after our breakup, even years afterwards. He was older than I was, and infinitely patient with my young, silly, self, and counseled me through lots of challenging situations while in college and moving on with his life. Which I promptly repaid by falling out of contact with him. Excellent. Through the wonders of the social networking tools, however, we reconnected about a year ago and it has been a really good reconnection, for both of us, I think. A lot of grace, and the rediscovery (for me) of a really good friend. We’ve become somewhat confidents- he tells me about his frustration at working with coworkers who disrespect his religion and his politics, and shares his pride in his children (I can only imagine him as being pretty close to the world’s best dad, my future husband being the future world’s best dad). I tell him about the ludicrous things that come from living in a city, pester him with hypothetical moral dilemmas, and bring to him my curious reverse crisis of faith (I was so happy not being a Christian! What the heck!).

I love talking to M about my perverse relationship with Christianity, because he is the ultimate in non-judgemental. It makes perfect sense to him that I’m drawn to Christianity- for him, it’s the truth. But he doesn’t think I’m crazy for having left it in the first place. And he doesn’t say much more than “that’s interesting” or “makes sense” when I talk about my struggles, except to help me find the stories in the Bible when I’m floundering with my rusty Biblical knowledge (particularly of the new testement) or send me mildly perverted jokes when the conversation gets too heavy.

I feel like M cares about me, but isn’t anxious about me. He is content that all of it is in God’s hands. I suppose this means he is certain that I’ll become a Christian eventually, but he doesn’t come across as smug. Just unanxious. I like that a lot. I feel if I all the sudden dived into Sufism instead, he’d be just as steadfastly unanxious.

There are a lot of people whose faith, or lack thereof, seem sort of parallel, and therefor not essential, to their goodness, but M’s faith and the deep goodness of his person seem entwined, somehow. I’m glad we dated in high school, basically, and glad to have found him again, and glad he is willing to hear out my attempts at understanding what is going on.

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Well, now that I have successfully bored off an readers from a month of not writing anything (mwa ha ha ha ha)- I guess I can write whatever I want! Whoo-hee? Life is kind of a lame excuse for not doing what you want, but life has sort of been that excuse this month. Which is not a bad thing- it has in fact been really instructive. One notable observation- all I ever want to do is write, and yet I go for a month making choices to not write anything. Interesting, yes?

No, not really. What is interesting is redemption. I find redemption interesting. In fact, I find redemption to be the most interesting thing in the world. (Earlier today, at work, on a break, when I tried to sort of pin down the much more exciting than work thoughts I have *during* work which distracts me *from* work, all I could write down in my little “notebook of ideas to write about later” was “Redemption!” In very thick script, with underlines underneath. It is clear, in retrospect, that I meant it with great seriousness!)

I find redemption interesting because, frankly, I experience almost minutely the need for it. I wake up in the morning and forget to water my rubber plant, and then spend the day accumulating guilt for being such a negligant care taker of a living thing. I am asked by a homeless guy for a dollar and say I don’t have it and then spend the money on coffee that I don’t really need and am struck with the guilt of my selfishness and deceit. I snap at the teenager living in my house and know in my heart she is scared, broken kid and I’ve just tore her down that much more. Etc to infinity.

When I was younger, somehow I had a more blind eye towards my own misdeeds. I could easily point to the good I did in the world, and that seemed enough for me. I read about this recently- about the tendancy of people who are invested heavily in one particularly “good” thing- the environment, ending poverty, whatever- to be especially lax in other areas, as if there is a kind of internal sense of having paid ones’ moral dues. I think when I was a younger woman, I did this a lot, and felt really comfortable with it. Like I had built up a resevoir of good karma, and beside, only puritans (and Baptists, a group I had only recently escaped from!) are that rigid with themselves.

I don’t think I do more bad deeds than I used to, or less good ones. And I don’t think there is any concievable good in expecting perfection. What has changed is that as I’ve gotten older, I think I have become more profoundly aware of consequences. When I am snappish, it hurts my teenagers’ feelings- and I can remember vividly instances when I was a teen and someone took my so fragile self and just ground it into dust beneath the heaviness of their words, their anger. No one meant to do that, and I certainly forgive them- but I remember that and cringe at myself. Not giving a dollar isn’t the worse crime in the world- but that man, knowing I’m brushing by him, that he is worse less than a cup of coffee to me, worth so little I have no qualms about a casual and obvious lie- what does that do to his dignity? And my poor rubber plant, with only me to take care of it, parched from my thoughtless sloth and desire to sleep in. These things, they accumulate, they tear at the world.

I think of myself as being on average moral, and I think in general people are pretty good, so I think I am pretty good. But increasingly, it seems to me, that pretty good is not, really, good enough. It doesn’t negate, in any way, the pain of those moments of not good at all.

Here is where redemption comes in. I am amazed- and I marvel, daily, minutely- at the way the world gives second chances. My rubber plant doesn’t die from my neglect- it lives, droopily, for me to remember and honor it, to wipe down it’s leaves with milk and feed it water and minerals. The homeless man offers me a second chance to remember humility, generosity, to connect with a human being and share in the grace of his presence. The teenager returns each day to tell me stories of her school, her persistance greater than my grumpiness.

And more than that! I wake up in the morning, each morning, a chance, a new chance! My family forgets my blunders, my arrogance, my stupid judgmentalism and welcomes me into their collective arms each time I visit. My friends forget my thoughtlessness, my inattentiveness, and share their lives, their space, with me. The sun shines on me, the rain falls on me, whether I remember to seperate my recycles or not.

And it’s deeper than that. I was talking(ish) to a Christian today, and we were talking about moral codes and what does it mean when immoral behavior results in goodness. What does that say about the world? The prodigal son. Jacob’s theft of Esau’s birthright. Or, not in the Bible- when people do the wrong thing but good comes of it? Premarital sex that results in the birth of a beautiful, wonderful human. Divorce that results in two people freeing each other to lead joyful, forgiving lives. What to make of this? (For the record, I don’t think that premarital sex is a sin- but for the purpose of discussion, it made a good example).

What I make of it is that God, whatever God is, is a God who does not tolerate waste. God takes whatever is at hand- goodness, sin, pain, joy, beauty, terror, whatever- and works it to his purposes. The ultimate muralist, the ultimate collage artist, the ultimate rag rug weaver- this is what I think God is.

I’m divorced. Have I mentioned that? Well, that part is true of me. My marriage, and my divorce, were painful, messy things. That I divorced at all was a lightning bolt of self-alteringness that struck at the core of my being. My whole life I believed that marriage is forever, that this was the core of my self, that I made this pledge before God and my family. Then I walked away from it. Certainly, I believe, and my loved ones believe (and even my ex-husband believes) that this was justifiable, maybe even necessary. No one seems to think that I should have stayed in that marriage. But that doesn’t change the fact that I made a choice that went against the core of my value system. Short of murder or rape, I cannot think of a choice that would have been more abhorrent to me.

This was a very personal, maybe even irrationally personal, conviction. I never felt like divorce was wrong for everyone. So maybe on some level, on some deep level that is sombering to think of, I believed that I was better than everyone else that divorce was ok for? I wonder. It’s yucky to think about, but it’s probably part of what was going on with me.

In the years since my divorce, the thing that amazes me most is that I am still allowed to be a good person. I am still allowed to love, and take joy from loving, and be loved in return. I’m allowed the grace of forgiveness, and of being able to forgive, my ex-spouse, and to find a friendship with him, a common thread, a shared narrative.

And I’m allowed to go forward. I’m allowed to find someone who trusts me to build a life with, and who I trust, and who I learn to trust myself with.

I thought of this a lot this past Thanksgiving, when I went home to see my family. My father has fallen off the wagon again, into his so sadly familiar place of substance abuse, alcohol abuse, terrible behavior towards us. This follows a year or so of sobriety, of remending and repatching the constantly frayed relationships he has with the rest of us. Subsequent conversations with my mom and brother reveal their hurt, their sense of anger and betrayal, and a sense of being done with him. I understand all of this really well- earlier in my life, I shut him out of my life completely for a year and a half for behavior similar to this. I understand the need to remove someone from your life who is hurting you, and shows no willingness or desire to stop.

But also, for whatever reason right now, I understand the pain of being a person who screws up. I understand my dad’s sense of helplessness, because, really, but for the Grace of God, there go I. I have no idea why I haven’t fallen into my dad’s trap of self destructive behaviors, but I certainly see it within me, and I can feel the edges of that pain, and it terrifies me.

As my family works out their decision making process, I find myself turning to the evidence of God’s tremendous mural making skills, and I find myself turning to difficult points in my life where the difficulty and pain served as a kind of tool to shape me into something better, stronger. This is mysterious, and not always evident. It’s hard, unless you have a particularly keen love and grokking of a Paul Auster novel, for example, to begin to see anything redemptive about the life trajectory of some of my elderly clients, alone and desperate and sick and dying, addled with bad luck and terrible decision making and the result of that. Maybe there isn’t any redemptive element in that? I don’t know- I don’t know how much is delusional and how much is faithfulness to a God who is utterly foriegn and mysterious to me, and whose goodness I rely on stubbornly, intuitively. I don’t know at all. But I do know my dad, at his core, is more than who he is being now, and I do believe that core is stronger than his stupid choices now, and I do believe that God is the great salvager.

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