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Archive for January, 2010

We can’t help but look to our culture for guidance about how to interpret the larger, deeper, more mysterious spiritual signs we are offered- as hard as I am about what I call American Christianity, I know that any other version is doomed to as much subjective interpretation and open hearted forgetfulness, to as much myopia, as American Christianity. And perhaps I am only cantankerous because in this particular area- this realm of winning and losing- I am perpetually at odds. Maybe it’s genetic. I side with the underdogs and the losers at every turn, and I have an almost visceral reaction against self-satisfied success. I could spend hours and hours writing diatribes against the notion of the self-made man and meritocracies, hours which would impress a sympathetic audience and fail to impress a skeptical one, but none of my arguments really can tell me *why* I feel the way I do. A scarred middle school experience? A truly genetic predisposition to mistrust the outcomes of contests and games? A lifetime of misplaced or overplaced empathy?

Whatever it is, I find consolation in another American notion (which, arguably, is influenced by and influences Christianity)- our notion of equality. Written into the fabric of our national existence- “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal “– the notion of equality dogs and confounds us, tugs at our national heartstrings and conscience, and is central to our arguments about ourself. Our battle grounds- from the personal (the role of legislation in abortion) to the sociological (the role of government to provide for our wellbeing in the form of health care and education) to the corporate (the role of government in regulating business)- on some level, these are all arguments about what it means for us to be equal, to live among equals, to actualize equality in a world of stark, uncompromsing differences. Where does this equality lie, when we can’t see it in our schools, across county lines, in the stratifications of rich and poor, resource plenty and resource less? Beyond the issues of class, how are we to consider ourselves equal when some are fantastically talented and some strive just to muddle through their existence without pulling catastrophe down on their ears every morning- some are gracious and draw and admiring crowd and some people come across like fingernails across a blackboard. Some people are beautiful to look at, others are hideous. Etc etc. In all areas- luck, love, professional success, gardening skill, etc, there are huge disparities. In the midst of this, how can we possibly talk about equality? What can that even mean?

I was raised to believe that when we spoke of equality, we spoke of potentials. Everyone, potentially, had the possibility in front of them of doing something, of being someone. This mysterious, intangible (but also, apparently, essential) essence fascinated me as a kid, and I’d look for it in everyone, and use it to excuse everything- the more bizarre or inexcusable the behavior, I reasoned, the greater the heights of that future potential. I imagined my own potential as a well deep inside of me, a place that was inaccessible to anyone at present but somehow represented the *true* me, and excused my own misdeeds and grudges and hurts.

This idea about being equals in terms of our ultimate selves is a beautiful idea, and I still really hope it’s true. But it’s much harder, for me, personally, to rest with any comfortable faith or certainty in this notion, at least right this moment. People die- all the time- without reaching that potential. I’m not questioning that their souls carry on and continue with the overarching education and rarification that existence might be- but the fact of death- abrupt, rendering- leaves it difficult to find a practical application for that notion. What does it mean that I am the spiritual equal of a person who is unredemptive about, say, child molestation? What does it mean to say I see God in the face of the person who beats his wife? How am I to begin to see the potential in a person who seems bent on choking out that potential? How do I do that while being fair to the people they hurt, or not killing myself?

And, also, how can I believe in that essential goodness on days when I am confronted with my own rottenness, impatience, selfishness, cruelty, dishonesty, etc? How can I honestly confront myself and at the same time hold on to my notion of essential goodness? And, if I can’t find it in myself, where do I begin to look for it in other people?

I came across a really different notion of equality the other day, which seemed radical to me, but also it rung all the parts of me as being true, and it reminds me, again, of what Christianity has to offer the world. The reflections are here: http://crosscut.com/2009/12/25/religion/19468/ , and I urge you to read it, because the writing is clear and beautiful.

The essence is that we do not meet each other in our places of success- which are always fragile anyway, always prone to revisions. But rather we meet each other in our brokenness and in our failure- that these, our faults, are the true levelizers. And (here comes the radical gift that Christianity offers (though by no means do I think that Christianity is the only hand which offers this gift! It’s just the one I know best!)) the thing that redeems this mess of awfulness is that it is also in this place of brokenness that we can redeem each other (and be redeemed ourselves)- through loving and caring for each other, as is.

This notion- that love, that care and regard and affection and even joy- are things which we can give and draw out, irrespective of them being earned- is a radical, impossible, scary notion. I can only hold it in my head for a minute or two- it burns so brightly, but it is dangerous, and scares me. I am sure it is impossible. But it is also the most valuable, the most precious of notions- and I think in my heart of heart, it’s the thing I want to believe in the most. That I am capable of being that sort of loved, and that I am capable of loving in that way.

I think that our notions of self- the things we congratulate ourselves on, and the things we work towards, and the cracks we try to pave with our success- get in the way of being able to know our own brokenness, and of recognizing that bond we share with others. It is in this way that the pleasing ideas of American Christianity damage us, I think- by focusing on a rosy material future that is no farther away than God’s next blessing, we seperate ourselves from those who see no blessings, and we seperate ourselves from that part of us which needs so much more than a new car, a new job, a breakthrough, nice teeth- so so much more than that. We suffocate that part of ourselves, but if we are truly beloved creations, that those parts of us are created and loved too, and we do God a disservice to amputate them.

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This sunday, a member of our church gifted me with two books of stories made for storytelling- they are books in a “healing” series, and the particularly titles are something like “Storytelling-healing for families” and “Storytelling- healing for communities”. I didn’t have much of a chance to ask him why he thought to give me these books, as it was the sort of rush and frenzy of the last fifteen minutes before service begins, which every week is it’s own form of predictable yet nerve wracking mayhem (and which always turns out fine, even when no one brought the keys to open the building, when the heat is broken on the coldest Sunday in history, or when the lectern is, mysteriously, missing). I’m not sure if he passed them along to me as a professional courtesy, or if he senses the general period of wondering in the wilderness I am experiencing. But in either case, beyond the content of the gifts themselves (which I really am looking forward to getting aquainted with!), I was touched by his offering them to me, and it reminded me of a much missing fact from my current life and spiritual excursion- religious and spiritual truths are to be found in much in community as in silence and reflection. I generally live a life that is utterly in community (I live in an intentional community, my family functions very much like an extended community, my friend base is a community, I work in community, I worship in community- and I see the transience of my bus ride and my walks around the neighborhood as functioning within community- not to mention the far flung internet communities I find myself a part of, etc)- and perhaps because of that bodily ultra involvement in community all the time, I tend to withdraw my spiritual and personal self into a very private place, and share my ideas and struggles either simply with my partner or with God or with no one, depending on how vulnerable or frustrated I feel.

In striving for more physical space for solitude, I think I also need to be mindful to open myself up, emotionally and spiritually, to the communities in which I am involved- and in particular, to open myself up to the wisdom and guidance of my communities, collectively and individually.

Another thing that happened in church- I told a member (who is a fantastic, fantastic storyteller) that I had thought of him when watching Jim Henson’s The Storyteller with my fiancee, relaxing before bed. We got to swapping our favorite gaelic, welsh and russian folk tales, and he told me one bittersweet one which moved him to tears. It stunned me (this man is rather self contained), and made me mindful, again, of the gifts that we give each other. He shared story that close to his heart.

Sunday seems miles ago to me because that was a day taht seemed rarified and beautiful, and today is a day when I am petulant and crotchety, but those two gifts from people within my church are weighing on my mind and soul, little white moon pebbles on the road in front of me, or little bony fingers pulling me away from myself and my selfish fascination with my petty problems and frets.

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Hi Ringthebells-

I don’t know how much time you have these adays, but when you stop in, do you want to try to start our conversation here? You can post a response of where you’d like us to pick up- the conversational thread had gotten kind of muddled, perhaps?

I hope your teaching and grading and new year are all going really, really well!

Rabidlycurious 🙂

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When I say I am cheering for “Team Christian”, I need to be clear- I’m not cheering for “Team American Christianity”. The Christianity of the megachurches- the all entertainment all the time, the very white teethed smiles and really bright clothes, the emphasis on youth and youth activities and relevancy- this is not the Christianity I am cheering for. It’s not that it doesn’t have it’s place- certainly, obviously, it does, or else those megachurches would be entirely empty. But whatever place it has, it is my prayer that that place is site specific to our times and culture, and that once the peculiarities of our culture (the overconsumption, the need to constantly be entertained, the disconnect from the natural processes of life and from the well being of 80 per cent of the world) have morphed into whatever peculiarities exist in the next culture, the project which American Christianity will also morph, or cease. Because I think that in at least one major way, American Christianity has abondaned a major tenet of what I think Christ’s message was all about: American Christianity is all about winners. Christ was not. Christ was for the losers.

It’s not just Christ himself, though, clearly, that’s a big deal. Within my faith tradition (a tradition which doesn’t quite align itself with the winners or the losers- we kind of think we are for the eccentrics, which is painfully truer than we want to acknowledge- eccentricity is just lunacy with money, and our congregations are disproportionally well off financially and well educated to boot, and also, even though we are maddened by this, very very white), we say that the “Universe arches towards justice”, and we mean that, if examined in a proper light, the long, slow, torturous march of history is one of enlightenment and inclusiveness, albeit on a glacial scale. I believe this is true of the Bible- that amidst the incredibly bizarre stories, the skittish narrative and the flat out contradictions, the Bible arches towards a particular place- and that is a place of redemption. And that itself implies something, because who needs redemption, after all? Right. Losers.

Winners don’t need redemption. They don’t need to be brought back to the fold or made new. They don’t need outside assistance. If God is on their team, it’s only because it makes sense- who *wouldn’t* want to be on their team? They are winners! They are fine as is and only getting better.

The further away you are from that, the more you need redemption. Historically, this has been understood in the general assumption that the more likely you were to be poor, the more likely you were to be pious and religious. Marx was not taking potshots at religion when he called it “The Opiate of the Masses”. Religion is what you get when you don’t have anything else. When your life in this world sucks and there is no immediate change of it getting any better, what do you have but the hope of outside help, outside redemption?

I find myself slightly on edge when people tell me they pray for something (a new car, a baby, a better job, to win the lottery) and it happens. Or when people say that faith will help you conquer your material woes. Really, I want to ask? Tell me a little about Rawanda, then. Tell me about the Holocaust. Tell me about domestic violence. Tell me about schizophrenia. Tell me why your pretty teeth are more important to God than any of the lives of any of the victims killed by war, genocide, hatred, greed in the past year. Tell me if their prayers were less full of need, of desperate, desperate faith. But I keep that to myself. If I asked that question out loud, it would pull both of us over a cliff whose bottom I fear. I just smile and make an interested face, and it’s true- part of me is glad when people tell me their prayers have been answered. Part of me is just glad when people are happy, and part of me likes the interaction between the seen and unseen worlds, no matter what they are.

Because- and here is what gets me all the time- when a person prays like that, the person is, in that moment, putting their weakness on display. “Lord, I know I am vain, but please, please- fix my teeth. Lord, I know I am weak but please, please- get me that promotion” I don’t think anyone can honestly go in front of God and not have a momentary flash of their utter weakness and brokenness. Whatever our private hopes and pleas are, however noble or self serving, we cannot escape in that moment of contact the deep awareness of how truly small we are.

I say these words, and I am reminded of 11th grade English this time, where we read “Sinner’s in the Hands of An Angry God”, and the image of a spider, twisting in desperation on it’s broken thread, is dangled above a fire by a loathing God. What a horrible image, I thought then, and what a stupid idea about God! (And, not incidentally, what a flawed idea of spiders? I loved spiders, who kept our house free from houseflies and spun incredibly webs of intricate beauty. What would God hate a spider for?) One of my friends at the time was atheist, and pointed to this sermon as a demonstration of why he was atheistic, which also baffled me. Can one be atheist as a rebellion against God? Does that even work? But that problem was less important to me than the one before me- what to make of a God whose relationship with his creation was one of abhorrence? If we were so horrible, what did that say about our maker?

The only way I could love God at the time without losing all trust in his goodness was to see the good in the world, what was beautiful and untainted. And, like I mentioned earlier, I was pretty young, and my own body miles (years) away from any kind of physical taint of imperfection, of decay. It was a lot easier than I realized, taking that stance.

And I was American too. This needs to be remembered. I may have been an American with hippie parents who challenged the wisdom of capitalism, unfettered patriotism, and regular hair cuts, but I was American none the less, and mixed along with all the rebellion was a steady diet of individualism. “You can” a given- you can do anything you want was the message we all heard, and if we failed to believe it, then it was from obstinance on our part, not from any kind of rational observation of the really endless number of people around us who had failed in just that- doing it. Being successful. Being saved.

I’m still American. But I’m not 17. My body is still strong, still brings me tremendous joy, and sometimes for all that I’m no longer a teenager, brings me smiles of acknowledgement, flirtation. But I am definitely no longer blissfully ignorant about loss. Death, yes, but also the stranger, deeper mortification- the loss of one’s splendid shape, the loss of one’s temper in a way that irretrievable wounds a friendship, the loss of a marriage, the petty betrayals that make up the silent stormy sea in a heart. Personal loss makes me more keenly aware of the vibration of communal loss, world loss- the horror of Haiti today means more to me than simalar devestations ever could when I was 17, and the countless homeless men and women weigh on my mind more than they did when I was a child, because I am aware that there are not always happy endings, and that there is genuine, honest despair in the world that can’t be salvaged through cheery optimism.

When I look to God now, I look to a God who has his eyes on more than pretty things. I look to the God who loves the leper, the sparrow, the diseased woman bleeding blood (can you imagine? The smell of her, the despair, the disgust?). I don’t want the God of Jonathon Edwards stern imagination- I make an image of that God already in my heart, who judges me and all around me perpetually, woefully inadequate in any way. And I don’t want the God of my tender youth, who delighted with me in all the beautiful things, shrugging of the sadness of the world for tomorrow. And I don’t want the God of easy salvation, of exhortions to make your life a tribute to him by way of new cars, fancy houses, good teeth.

I want the God who can reach into a person’s brokenness, a world’s brokenness, and love the entirety of it- brokenness and all. I want that sort of God with the ability to love that radically, that completely.

Christianity offers that kind of God, I believe. But at a price. To find him, I think you need to lose everything else.

A misfortune, I think, for the American Church, which seems to have embraced a baseball tradition of winning, winning! But how lucky for the rest of us- we who, whether we will acknowledge it or not, are always, at every single second, losing.

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Part 1

Did you ever hear that in the middle ages, monks would spend hours meditating on human skulls, the better to make more immediate and real to them the inevitability of their death, their body’s decay? I remember hearing this gory rumour in 12th grade AP English, while we were studying (of course) Hamlet. In my memory of it, my beloved teacher, Mrs. H, was particularly irritated with us for something or other, and seemed to think the practice might have some practical benefit for us and our heathen souls: I loved Mrs. H with all of my heart and looked on her with utter devotion, but the idea that I should find a half moldy skull, and then sit and think of the own inevitable state of my *own* was bizarre and repugnant. Spend your living moments contemplating death, and not just the exciting “after you die where does your soul go” parts but the actual physical decay of your flesh? I was 17 years old at the time and my predominant experience was of waking up before dawn to watch the purple light of morning pour through my window, my body young and beautiful beneath the blankets, every single atom in me thrilled to be alive- such vivid immediate aliveness does not suit one for contemplations of death and decay, and without much thought I rebelled against the idea. Death was resolutely not for me, at least not the gory contemplation of it of the physical mortifications of the flesh part of it. (Perhaps not unrelated, it was about this time that I decided that cremation was a smart way to go).

I’m thinking about this right now, because it seems strange to me to imagine Christians contemplating death. Both the Christians I know personally, and the ones who seem to represent American Christianity in the media do not spend all that much time talking about death, itself. The afterlife- yes. But the actually part about dyinig, the mortification of the body, the triumph of bacteria and the grisly misplacement of things that ought to be safely inside, outside- I just don’t hear a lot about that. And it perplexes me a bit. It’s true- we aren’t dealing with the plague, and our grandparents no longer live at home with us, and are instead sent to nursing homes to shelter us and them from the indignity of knowing them with catheders and without memories- however, while the mechanisms has changed, death is still all around us. You can’t read the news without being made immediately aware of how vulnerable we all are, at any minute- and while the deaths retold are less of the slowly rotting variety and more of the blown to bits or crunched beneath speeding steel, etc- still, it’s death, it’s the wrenching of life from the body. Added to that heart attacks, cancer, diabetes- and the constant presence of the two wars our country is engaged in- and it seems strange to me that we don’t have a better mechanism for contemplating the inevitable cessation of our bodies.

I think it has something do with fear, but increasingly, I don’t think it’s death that is feared so much as something deeper, more shameful. Losing. Death is the ultimate loss- loss of loved ones, loss of body, loss of autonomy, loss of self. Culturally, American Christianity is situated in a culture that despises losers. We are a culture that believes deeply in a “pull oneself up by the bootstraps” mentality, and implicit in that belief is the notion that we are able to rescue ourselves from any or all adversity- and American Christianity seems to assume that God wants us to do that. Or at least, once we except Christ as our Savior and get on “Team God”, God wants us to be a winning team. Not just when it comes to saving souls or spreading the Gospel, but in all the outward manifestations of life. In our accumulation of wealth and security, in our choice of friends, in our children’s habits, in our corperal bodies. (Lately, when I look at posters or advertisements for churches in the US, I find myself bizarrely fascinated by the smiles. If you were visiting from a country where you had never, ever heard of Christianity and didn’t speak English, I think you’d believe they were all advertisements for dental whitening processes. You get the feeling gleaming bright smiles are a pretty big deal for God).

People who don’t do that- who don’t get on that success bandwagon, who keep their stained teeth, maybe not even smiling apologetically and covering up their smile with their hands!- those people are an affront to us. In whatever form they embody- drug addicts, overweight women, poor people who shop at the corner mart and eat a steady diet of corndogs, the perpetually married and unmarried, leering guys who grope at teenagers, folks with poor hygeine, people without homes or living in subsidized housing- the insane, the terminally ill with all of their terrible smells- these people are an outrage. They challenge the notion of bootstrapism, for one thing, and challenge our cultural and social mechanisms, but more importantly, they threaten us. Is *this* supposed to be my brother? My sister? Is *this*- this person who adores that politician I think is an utter, crass manipulator with a pretty haircut, this person who constantly uses the wrong “its”, this person who sends cringe worthy chain emails- is *this* person my peer? My equal? Someone I am called on to not only refrain from mocking, but respect and try to understand, try to honor? (And, unspoken- the terror- is this *me*? Is this where I could go, could end up? Is this what I am like underneath? Is this my future???)

Yeah, says my heart, yeah right, in pretty much the exact tone of voice it used 13 years ago to dismiss skull contemplation as a useful or worthwhile pursuit.

I don’t think I’m alone in reacting that way. I don’t think those thoughts are unique.

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