Tuesday, October 28, 2008


I'm not sure I can truly be classified as a skeptic even now, since I still have quite a few pesky little irrational beliefs that aren't going anywhere, but I have to admit that I was far from it as a little kid. This provided great entertainment for those around me.

I was always the first to believe that Girl A was dating Boy B, even if they were the most unlikely pair on the face of the earth -- it wasn't faith in the power of love, just being utterly willing to believe anything.

My father had me convinced for years that the Mima Mounds (an odd geological feature in the south Puget Sound area) were Indian burial grounds. I didn't find out until many years later that nobody actually knows where they came from, but since the explanation seemed to get longer and scarier every time, it perhaps should have clued me in to the fact that this was an elaborate story.

I seem to have blocked out the worst incidents of people telling me long and complicated stories just to see how long I'd believe them, but I have many vivid memories of a burning face, tears coming to my eyes even as I shamefacedly laughed, "Well, I didn't know."

I guess it's not too surprising for a woman to turn to at least low-level skepticism in simple self-defense, if you're talking about a woman who did not stop to think until her twenties that they didn't really have to go out looking to find a real Wookiee to play Chewbacca.

(And yes, "gullible" IS in the dictionary. I looked.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

God, Peace, and the Placebo Effect

I read a highly entertaining online discussion recently in which a large group of intelligent, rational adults were asked, "Is there anything you know is complete bunk, but you still do it/use it/buy it and love it anyway?" The answers were varied, and equal parts thought-provoking and hilarious. Professional wrestling. Cold-Eze. Chiropractic. Aliens, telekinesis, and Bigfoot (sometimes all at once). American politics. Multivitamins. God. Recycling. Ghosts, UFOs, and Zen. The lottery. Expensive moisturizer. The Los Angeles traffic gods. Acupuncture. Fortune cookies. Feng shui, lucky dice, and free will.

One of the consistent themes in the discussion was the efficacy (or lack thereof) of various pseudo-medical treatments. Large quantities of vitamin C may or may not shorten the life of your cold, but a lot of people think it does. Same with Cold-Eze, Airborne, multivitamins, and all manner of natural remedies and homeopathic approaches to illness. For those who believe, the placebo effect can work wonders.

Since the discussion ranged from the absurd to the divine and hit most points in between, it was impossible not to start thinking about the similarities between this group's admitted beliefs in all sorts of silly things. Professional wrestling isn't real, but if you can tease your brain into the required suspension of disbelief, it is apparently very entertaining. If you think the orange juice is helping your cold go away, maybe it does. If you think God is giving you peace ... I think you can see why this line of thought started to bother me.

When I started questioning the value of prayer years ago, it immediately became harder to pray. I had spent my life praying for anything and everything, and one of my most common prayers as I grew older was for peace. Peace about decisions, peace in times of stress, peace about the questions and doubts that increasingly plagued me. Often, I would pray and feel a sweet wave of peace wash over me, and I would be so thankful. But just as often, I did not. I prayed, nothing happened, and I hitched up my boots and kept walking.

In retrospect, I wonder how much of the "peace" was simply a largely unconscious self-calming method, learned early and practiced often. I think back to those moments of peace, and realize that they happened more often when I was in full sunlight -- I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, so it makes sense that this soul-warming sensation might be found more often on sunny days. The act of stilling one's body, breathing deeply, closing one's eyes, and focusing the mind on a peaceful sensation is a time-tested relaxation technique even if you leave God out of it entirely. The times when "the peace that passes understanding" didn't come, it is likely that I was simply too busy and preoccupied, or maybe just that it was cloudy and dark, or perhaps I had some valid reasons to be upset that day.

The problem now is the increasingly elusive nature of the inner calm I sought so desperately. A participant in a research study who discovers that they were part of the placebo group cannot be expected to continue taking their sugar pills and hoping for improvement, and I find myself in much the same place. If I recognize my former answers to prayer as subconscious biofeedback and clear skies, it is difficult to send those same requests winging up into the sky. So much is so wrong, and deep breathing seems a poor substitute for real peace.

One of my dear friends is dead and buried, and two more are losing the long and painful fight as I write. Children suffer unspeakable things every hour of every day. Friendships are broken, love is lost, words are shouted in anger that leave permanent scars. Some days, a little sun doesn't make much of a dent.

I still want to find peace. "Pax", the Latin word for peace, is tattooed in a sunny shade of sky blue on my wrist, and it is only my lingering concerns about public opinion that keeps me from adding a few more tattoos of the same idea in other languages. It is something I take deeply seriously, and something I want for myself and for the world at large. It seems, though, that the more I know, the farther it slips away.

I took my sugar pills for thirty years, but somewhere in there it seems that I took Neo's red pill isntead, and found myself dumped unceremoniously out of the comforting matrix of my Christian beliefs. If there is peace here, outside the grid, I have not yet found it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

When Does It End?

The questioning, I mean. When do you stop asking questions and figure enough is enough?

I was thinking about this today when I was folding an 8-yard-long piece of flowered material that I plan to use for nightgowns for my daughter and myself. I had laundered it earlier this morning, and the easiest way to fold such a long piece of material is to stand at the top of the staircase and hang it over the 15-foot drop to the entryway below. I shook it out and started to fold it end over end, and noticed how surprisingly heavy eight yards of fabric is. After a week of diving into Bill Bryson's marvelous overview of the sciences, A Short History of Nearly Everything, my first thought was not so much the weight of the cloth as the amazing force of the earth's gravity. (If I turn into a science nerd, it's all his fault.)

It occurred to me that I don't question gravity. This is a good thing. If I questioned gravity on any kind of practical basis, I would be attempting to fly, an experiment which would be exciting, short, and squashily definitive in its results. Since I prefer to enjoy the view off my back deck rather than becoming one with it, I trust in gravity.

Why? I can't see it. I can see its effects though, when I get out of bed in the morning, when I throw a ball for the dog, when I drop an ill-fated egg on the kitchen floor. And that is sufficient for me to believe in it.

But again, why? There are plenty of things I've never seen. Some I believe in, some I don't. I hav never seen gravity. I have never seen wind. I have never seen the Crab Nebula, Connecticut, or the bottom of the Black Sea. I have never seen ghosts. I have never seen God. I have never seen aliens, or grace, or the healing power of acupuncture.

My friend Scott believes in gravity. He believes in anything that can be scientifically proven.

My friend Greg believes in wind. His house would still be standing if the wind hadn't carried the wildfire's flames.

My friend Michael believes in the Crab Nebula. It's documented by lots of astronmers.

My friend Lisa believes in Connecticut. She went there on vacation.

My friend Jon believes in the bottom of the Black Sea. My friend Jon believes in a lot of stuff.

My friend Michelle believes in ghosts. She says she saw one once.

My friend Kristina believes in God. She says he gave her hope after three of her babies died.

My other friend Scott doesn't exactly believe in aliens, but he doesn't not believe in them either. He believes in superpowers and chi and government conspiracies too.

My friend Susan believes in grace. She says that is how she forgave her ex-husband after he ruined her life.

My friend Rebecca believes in the healing power of acupuncture. She says it cured her allergies and straightened out her internal electromagnetic flows.

So maybe my friends are not the best indication of what should and should not be believed in. Between them all (and I love them all), they believe in almost everything. And after a while, I have learned how to pick my battles with them, and most of the time that means I don't pick any fights at all. Beck will never be talked out of the efficacy of acupuncture. Lisa will never be convinced that there is no such place as Connecticut. Granted, there are varying levels of proof for these two hypotheses, but where do you draw the line?

In my gradual and wobbly drifting away from faith, I find not that I have less faith, but that I have more than I thought I did, in all kinds of things. I don't have the faith that I once had in religion, or in the nonsense that has built up around it over the centuries. But the more I look around inside my brain, the more I discover odd pockets of faith in all sorts of things, from political viewpoints to questions of health to social theories to gravity. It's not that I don't want to challenge irrational beliefs, but some days my head gets tired of the questions.

One of the fundamental tenets of skepticism has become one of my greatest causes of frustration. Skeptics, at least the version whose current incarnation is as debunkers of popular myth (crop circles and homeopathic medicine and psychics and the like), place great value in the scientific method. They reiterate -- and correctly so -- that so many things which appear to be magical can be explained in concrete terms by scientifically proven fact. And as a result, those things which cannot be proven are dismissed (and I think often correctly so) as nonsense. Homeopathy = placebo effect. Psychic cold readings = good guesses by highly observant people. Crop circles = clever engineering students with access to heavy-duty farm equipment. Much of the time, the scientific method clears up questions of nonsense quickly and often with delightfully educational results.

However, my reading of Bryson's book was enlightening in an unexpected and squirm-inducing way. The scientific community, from the Greek philosophers up to today, has proclaimed many contradictory things over the centuries. New information overturns old theories, and sometimes the new discoveries verify what appeared to be the ravings of a madman. How many great minds, decades ahead of their time, said of some scientific theory, "I cannot prove this, but I know it to be true", were mocked in their lifetime and then found to be embarrassingly prescient decades (or millennia) later?

If even the scientific method is only as good as our brains and the number of years we've been working on a particular problem, is it really worth putting so much faith in? Will my grandchildren laugh at our generation's stubborn insistence that there is no such thing as ESP, if advances in technology enable them to precisely and accurately quantify what appears now to be unsupported claims of magic?

What is enough evidence for belief, in anything? How do we stop asking, "Well, how do they know, and how do their teachers know, and how did their professors know before that?" How do we accept that so many of our questions end, uncomfortably and inevitably, in faith?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Small Skeptics

You've heard it, the stereotypical image of a 4-year-old child: "But WHY, Mommy?"

It's a fun question when you're four. You get to find out all kinds of interesting things, like why leaves fall off of trees but branches stay on, and why Kool-Aid makes a stain but water doesn't, and (if you ask it enough times and your mom remembers what she learned in grade school about light and wavelengths and color) why the sky is blue. Plus, it keeps her talking with very little expenditure of energy on your part.

The simple brilliance of it is that it is its own follow-up question. "Mama, why is that ant carrying my sandwich crumb?" To take it back to the nest. "Why?" To share it with the rest of the ants. "Why?" Because ants all share their food. "Why?" Because they are social insects, and instead of eating what they find, they bring it back so that the ant queen and the other ants can eat it too. "Why?" And by the time your mom loses patience, you've learned quite a lot about ants, and maybe a little bit about people too.

You have to be kind of careful with this one-note line of inquiry though, or things get metaphysical. Ask it too many times, and you'll get a snappish little "Because God WANTS the ant to be that way, that's why." (Asking why God wants it to be that way will probably end up with you being sent out to play or inside to clean your room.)

Somewhere along the line, we lose that. We stop asking some of the questions because we always get the same insufficient answers. We stop asking some questions because we are perpetually redirected to encyclopedias, which may or may not tell us what we really wanted to know. We stop asking some of them because we learn to trust our books and our teachers and our friends, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but dangerous if it becomes the answer to too many questions. Some questions, we stop asking because nobody knows the answer yet. And sometimes the reason is less complicated ... we stop asking simply because we move out of that childish phase of wonder and into a world with more immediate questions: "Can I call Madison, can I get my ears pierced, can I spend the night if her mom says yes?"

I think, though, that we need that questioning spirit more as adults than at any point since age four. We need it desperately, and sometimes half the battle is discovering that we need it at all.

We need it for the questions whose premises are so entrenched that people forget that there are more questions to ask. "Is global warming really our fault? How do you know? What studies were done? And if so, can we fix it? And if not, should we fix it?"

We need it for the questions that the media blithely answers for all too many people, without the prerequisite of even a moment's actual thought. "But WHY does Oprah recommend that? Did Barack Obama do his research? Has People magazine looked at the science behind that claim? Can John McCain back that up?"

We need it for the questions that pick up where our mothers' answers left off. "Why does God want it to be that way? How do we know? Did he say that? If not, why do we think he does? If so, do we have any responsibilities to change our behavior? How do we know he said anything at all?"

More than anything, we need it for the questions that have not yet been answered. We need it for the tiny (the insects, the viruses, the insides of atoms) and we need it for the immense (the stars, the gods, the outsides of universes).

We need to teach it to our young, to live it ourselves, and to remember it when we are old. We need the neverending Why.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Oh, thank ... somebody.

After six weeks of intermittent research, occasional stewing, encouragement from optimistic friends, and trying not to think about it, I went to my appointment with the neurologist last week. He informed me that while I do indeed have spots in my brain, they are very typical of people who suffer frequent migraines (which I do), and that they are not an indicator of a more serious condition. He saw no hint of degenerative disease in my brain, not from the CT scan, the MRI, or the questions he asked during my appointment.

This is, unquestionably, good news.

My Christian friends would say it was an answer to prayer.

My non-believing friends would say nothing of the sort.

Who's right?

This is, in a neatly wrapped package, one of my biggest frustrations with what Christianity has become. Believers say that good things are an answer to prayer, and they gleefully point to the study or two which indicates that patients who were prayed for (even in scientifically managed double-blind experiments) got well at a higher rate than patients who were not. But so many who believe do not get well, and so many who believe in nothing at all come through their trials with flying colors. It seems so random, and there is so much about our existence that is random that it's hard for me to keep trying to find patterns in that which is attributed to prayer.

We are a pattern-seeking species. If you don't believe me, lie on your back on a summer day and watch the clouds -- give it half an hour, and I bet you a dollar you'll see a squirrel, a ship, or maybe a guy with a funny-shaped head. You remember your best friend's phone number by the patterns in it, whether they are really there or not -- the little design it makes on the keypad, or maybe her prefix is the same as your house number when you were a kid. Stare at the "snow" on a television set and think "circle", and you'll see a circle. Did you know that? It's true. You can do it with a square or a triangle too, and it gets harder with more complex shapes, but if you think about it long enough, your eye will produce it.

So if we want something badly enough, our mind will give us hope. We hope for such absurd things, our frail human minds ... we hope for healing where there is death, reason where there is chaos, love where there is apathy. I'm not complaining about it, don't get me wrong. Hope accomplishes amazing things, and as a beneficiary of electricity, penicillin, and the United States of America, I am all for hope. Edison, Sir Alexander Fleming, and the Pilgrims hoped, and hope bore fruit. But their hope had actions attached -- ten thousand attempts at the light bulb, endless hours in the laboratory, and a mindbogglingly optimistic launching of an entire miniature society across the Atlantic Ocean.

What is it, this notion of prayer? Where do we get it? The Scriptures used to support it are nebulous at times and sometimes patently ridiculous. Is it because it works? Or do we just want it to work so badly that we decide that it does, regardless of its track record? My sister-in-law's body is decaying in the damp ground four miles away from my comfortable office, the passage of time reducing her to bone and dust and unanswered prayer. My sister, on the other hand, lives a content and productive life in Los Angeles, bearing the scars of multiple surgeries but still alive and vibrant and full of faith in the power of prayer. Their mothers both believe that God is in control. I am not sure I want to agree.

All I know is that six weeks ago, I got bad news. I did my research, and then I put it aside. I worried about it from time to time, my friends encouraged me, and I put it aside again. I got very stressed out the day before my appointment, and then I went and had my fears officially put to rest. I did not spend the intervening six weeks in an agony of prayer, hoping against hope that I was holy enough for the right answer. (I know, I know, it's not about how holy you are, but tell that to yourself when you've been praying for a month for something that's totally out of your control.) I did not lie awake begging God for health and wholeness. I did not plead for healing.

And my brain is fine. Should I have prayed, do you think?

Friday, May 9, 2008


I have heard, as you have, the term "freedom of religion" turned into "freedom from religion", and used with equal passion on both sides of the argument. I understand what it means -- the idea that if we are free to worship in our nation, we must also be free not to worship.

But in conversations about the personal application of religion or unreligion, this idea of freedom drifts down from its lofty place in our rhetoric and bobs alongside us, a little balloon of ill-defined hope matching our steps through the humdrum of daily life. That giant freedom we wax eloquent about in religious and political discussions becomes something smaller and trickier when viewed up close and personal in the fretful silence of a doctor's office.

My Christian friends claim that religion sets them free, that they are "free indeed" through Christ. And I understand this. I understand the belief that we can be set free from worry and fear since God has it all under control and means it all for our good. The practical outworking of that always seemed to be beyond me, but the principle makes a certain amount of sense.

My non-religious friends claim that their lack of religion sets them free, too, free from the mythology and self-flagellation that seems to accompany organized religion in nearly every form. I understand this, too. The concept makes sense, although I admit that the practical application of this philosophy also seemed a little difficult to me, since it often felt like perhaps a little too much freedom -- too much, in the way that a wide open plain can be frightening for its sheer vastness.

This week, though, I understood the second viewpoint a little better. I had a migraine a couple of weeks ago that was frightening enough in its secondary symptoms that my doctor sent me to the emergency room, and later ordered an MRI, "just to be sure." When she got the results of the MRI, she left a message on my cell phone saying that she wasn't worried -- but to please call her right back before the end of the day. What she wasn't worried about turned out to be a few small spots on each side of my brain, hardened areas that would be typical of smokers, diabetics, the elderly, people with high blood pressure -- none of which applies to an otherwise healthy 34-year-old, and now I am scheduled for a complete neurological workup, "just to be sure." This time, though, she told me what it was we were making sure I didn't have, and I finally had to force myself to stop googling the diseases that are connected with this symptom.

Five years ago, my first reaction would have been to throw myself wholeheartedly into prayer. I would put this news on the church prayer bulletin, call my family and ask them to pray, post on my online forums and ask them to pray (or send good vibes, as the case may be), and launch into a personal prayer assault on the gates of Heaven. I would have prayed for healing, prayed for peace, prayed for wisdom, prayed for the neurologist, prayed for anything and everything I could think of that would be even slightly relevant.

But beneath this whitewater rapid of prayer would run a smooth undercurrent of doubt, cold and familiar and dark. I would wonder if I was praying enough. I would wonder if I was praying for the right things. I would wonder if I had enough faith to be healed. I would wonder if some unknown sin had caused it. I would wonder if God was "trying to get my attention," a root cause of disaster and sickness that Christians are all too prone to diagnose for each other. I would wonder if I was going to die, and if so, if it would sort of be my fault.

This time, I understood a little better how "freedom from religion" looks in the day to day. I got my news, and I will be the first to admit that a healthy shot of whiskey in one's cola isn't the most holy approach to bad news, but so it goes. The next day, my mind immediately went into the familiar track of prayer, and it occurred to me that I really didn't want to do this, not this time. I didn't want to pray and wonder if I would be heard, or if all of the prayers would drift into the atmosphere and I would end up in the same hospital bed at the same time as if I'd never prayed at all. I was surprised to find that there was a certain peace in not wondering if it was my fault, and in not trying to guess what God might want from me in order to make it go away (or not go away, according to His will, of course). There was a certain freedom in knowing that whatever was going on in my brain was going to continue to go on with or without my anguish and hope and soul-searching.

It is an uncomfortable freedom. It is also a welcome and unexpected freedom, and it is one I am not quite prepared to give up for the sake of tradition and habit.

Monday, April 21, 2008


"For Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul."

So many questions, so many doubts ... but there is a certain appeal to falling back into the warm depths, letting the waters of religion close over my head and sinking back into the quiet, happy oblivion. When my estate does indeed seem helpless, the idea of someone loving me more than life itself is undeniably attractive.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Reflections Upon Doubt and Pre-Menstrual Syndrome

I have to say that one of the most freeing things about losing my religion is the occasional privilege of being a complete and total bitch.

I have a raging case of PMS. I haven't slept well in the last three months, which is another story for another day. My minivan (also known by its proper name, the Damned Minivan) is clearly on the verge of a spectacular, expensive, and protracted death. I can't find a good funny book to read, just serious and educational ones that I'm not particularly in the mood for at the moment. I don't want to eat what I have planned for dinner, but I can't quite justify ordering pizza. My hopes for a PR at my next 5K are pretty well dashed due to being sick for most of the last three months.

And that's just the stuff I'm going to tell you about.

Of all the things I do not miss about religion, incessant guilt tops the list. Now don't get me wrong, I still have it, and frequently. But not nearly as often as I used to, and while that may not always be a good thing (particularly when it comes to my rather flexible view of speed limits on the freeway), sometimes it feels damn good. Christians feel guilty about so much, and after a while it can't help but wear you down.

Today, in an e-mail conversation, I told a dear friend to f**k off. I sent an apology two minutes later because I am congenitally nice. But the truth is, he sort of deserved it, and I don't actually feel all that bad about it. I kind of like that.

I am tired, I have cramps, and I don't feel like being a good mother at the moment. I'm going to wave my Bitch Flag high and take pride in my freedom.

At least until my kids come home.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

I've Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy.

Now that I have a daughter of my own, I've started hearing this half-remembered childhood song around my house. "I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart", followed by the somewhat speedier "I've got the peace that passes understanding down in my heart," and then the tongue-twisting "I've got the wonderful love of my blessed Redeemer way down in the depths of my heart." It's a fun, bouncy song, and like so many other camp and Sunday School songs, it gets the blood moving and teaches a Bible verse or two in the midst of the giggles.

I am coming to believe that the grown-up version of that is somewhat less innocuous. The happy shiny image of the perfect Christian flourished in my church community in the eighties and early nineties, exemplified by the former touring choir members who gravitated to the music program at my church. I suspect that their near-clones could have been found at many evangelical churches in that time period -- the women with their highlighted hair combed and sprayed just so, their floral brocade dresses coordinating with their husbands' patterned ties, and the blinding smiles of those who have the joy of the Lord (and also a stable income, good dental work, and friends just like them).

The next decade saw a shift as the church began to catch up with the postmodern world outside its doors, and the women started to look a little more sophisticated and businesslike, the men more likely to learn the electric guitar than to sing in a gospel quartet. The grins stayed the same on Sunday morning, but in private Bible studies and at the ladies' retreats, tears and self-disclosure became the norm -- all the angst of, you know, just being sad and stuff, and sometimes not knowing what the Lord wanted you to do and it's just so hard! But we just know he's with us, and that brings us such peace, just in time for the Kleenex box to run out at the end of the hour.

Then AA hit the church, or its sanctified 12-step equivalent. I went for a while, and in this subculture of the church, getting it all out there was the name of the game. There were tears and epiphanies, and I think that for some of these people, it was a much-needed bridge being built between the religious community and their legitimate needs. But I am equally sure that some just liked the idea of being able to come every week, fill out the notebook, sing the songs, and get the payoff of a few moments of emotional ecstasy.

Maybe it's just my church. Maybe it's just the filter I'm seeing it through, and that's a strong possibility. But it seems like the last few years I was there, more and more people were getting tired of smiling all the time. I know I was. I lost the ability to find that joy, and I got tired of "joy" being redefined down to an act of will, not an actual emotional response. Maybe you can decide to be joyful, and maybe joy is just the determination to trust God to get you through the hard times. But I'm not really convinced of that. The end result of that redefinition was the nagging sense of guilt about being unhappy, because apparently I didn't have enough faith to be happy. I had too many questions, too many griefs, to be content with the willful ignorance that religious happiness seemed to require.

The problem is that I have yet to find a secular answer I can live with. An acquaintance who pours his energy into living out the sixties' philosophy of "If it feels good, do it" is a functional alcoholic and deeply in debt. A friend who attempted to find her sole happiness in her children became reclusive and imbalanced, paying the price in her marriage and her friendships. An aggressively agnostic acquaintance nearly quivers with anger at his Christian upbringing, decades after leaving the faith. None of these avenues are especially appealing after watching their outcomes.

I don't have enough money to be an epicurean. I'm too busy to be a mystic. I like my stuff too much to be a communist. I'm too pigheaded to be a determinist. I have two kids, which pretty well rules out hedonism. I'm too steeped in religion to be a full-on naturalist. I'm too pessimistic to be a utopian. I know too many jerks to be a committed humanist. I understand the appeal of existentialism, but as an avenue to joy? I can't see it.

I see flashes of it here and there, in the usual trite forms -- laughing children, sunrises, raindrops on roses. I see it occasionally in somewhat less orthodox places -- the emerging muscles in my legs as I become a stronger runner, the warm tingle of a sip of good-quality whiskey, a perfectly timed bit of sarcastic repartee. I'm not looking for the proverbial mountaintop experience, a lifelong runner's high, a constant buzz. But it seems like somewhere, somehow, there must be a way to wade through the darkness inherent to our human state and find some consistent hope. Even if we are up to our knees in despair and history and pain, somewhere there must be fresh air.

I want more. I just don't know any more where to look.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Behind the Curtain

I love the stretch of freeway between Salem and Eugene. Most Oregon residents would look at me oddly to hear that, and I understand why -- it's 60 miles of straight, nearly featureless road, only occasionally broken by intersecting highways and a small town or two. At night or on a cloudy day, it doesn't particularly move me, but on days like today, it is magical.

I was on my way back up the freeway from a rambling weekend road trip down the Oregon coast. I drove when I felt like it, pulled over to viewpoints when I felt like it, ate when I felt like it, slept when I felt like it, and was generally responsibility-free for 48 hours. It was delightful, but today it was time to come home, and I had forgotten how amazingly beautiful the quick route back from the southern coast can be, on the right sort of day.

The land glowed gold and green from the early evening sun, glimmering with the rain that danced across the fields from time to time. The land on either side of the road is flat, quilted with the fields that give the Willamette Valley the nickname "Breadbasket of Oregon." But my favorite part of the scenery is the foothills of the mountains, dominating the land on the east and merely hinted at in the evening haze on the east. The mass of mountains in southern Oregon branches out into the coast range and the Cascades just south of Eugene, and their foothills cradle the valley -- some are collections of high, rolling hills, and others are startling eruptions of rock that punctuate otherwise level plains. And when the vast sky is populated with immense drifting clouds in the evening, their shadows roll across the hills and fields, and I can't help but gasp in awe.

Today I saw this, the shadows of the clowds sliding across the hills and hugging the rocks, and just as I breathed a sigh of wonder, I felt an almost audible click in my head. It is the same click I felt when I looked at the clear, cold sky last week and saw nothing behind the stars. It is the same sense of unfair loss I felt at the sight of the waves crashing on the coastal rock formations, their power telling me of nothing but the tides and the currents. I have felt this vague disappointment more than once in the last few months, but this is the first time it stopped me cold with the sudden dismay of a child biting into a chocolate, only to find it hollow.

I have grown up hearing that "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork." And I suppose they might, but I am no longer convinced that every raindrop comes directly from his hand, or that he personally makes every grain of wheat grow. I am not sure he is that interested, or that all of these things actually need his personal attention. I am not sure that he watches every sparrow in its flight.

Today I thought of Dorothy, yanking aside the curtain to find that the great and glorious magic of Oz was simply a little man with a clever idea and a good sound system. I feel, sometimes, that I am peeking around the edges of that curtain, and I am not sure what I will find. Maybe not the God I grew up believing in, who makes every tiny thing happen in its course and its season. Maybe he is not so involved, so interested, so loving as I was told.

And I wonder sometimes if I will pull back the curtain, and find that there is nothing there at all.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

New Wine in Old Wineskins

I attended Easter services this morning at what I suppose is technically still my church. I haven't been there since the beginning of February, and I didn't miss it at all when I was gone. Missing church is not why I am now typing through a blur of frustrated tears.

I often have a surreal sense of dual realities when I sit in church, and I expected it again today. Usually when I walk into the auditorium after a long absence, it is as if I haven't missed a Sunday -- I still have to catch myself from heading up to the piano instead of finding a seat with the congregation. I still know all the notes to the songs, and I still enjoy the sound of the voices and the instruments blending together in imperfect, human, wonderful harmony. I still find that the old hymns resonate with me in a way that dips under the persistent doubt. But my usual Sunday experience also invariably includes the cognitive dissonance from some of the more ridiculous phrases in the songs, the logical leaps in the sermon, and the frustratingly repetitive thoughts being offered.

This Sunday, I had expected that sense of double selves to be even stronger with the celebration of the resurrection. I expected to be overwhelmed with memories of my childhood church, and to be hit with a wave of guilt for not immediately confessing every sin I could think of from the last few years of drifting away from the faith. I expected to squirm in my seat through the whole service, feeling my past and my present pulling me in increasingly different directions.

And instead, I felt very little at all. I enjoyed the old Easter hymns, but all I could think about was the strangeness of the century-old words. "I know that he is living, whatever men may say ... you ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart!" As I sang the remembered alto line from the red hymnal of my grade-school years, my mind chimed in with a fretful counterpoint: "Well, that's not very good logic, is it? What do I say when I ask myself how I know he lives? Do I just keep telling myself I do, and that I really should believe myself and quit asking so many questions?" I soldiered on: "Where, O death, is now thy sting?" and the little voice in my head chattered, "What kind of question is that? Death's sting is unavoidable every time I lose one more person I love." My mind was busy, but my heart was silent.

The sermon was no better. There was little talk of hope and life and light, just a convoluted explanation of how the power of God could help us make the changes we need to make in ourselves, as long as we had faith in him to do it. I understand what the pastor was saying in his frame of reference, but my mind reeled from the repeated insistence that inner change was impossible without faith in an invisible deity who does not speak. So much of what he said, I simply can't make myself believe any more.

My overwhelming sense this morning was of something no longer fitting. The wrong puzzle piece, the shirt that never quite hangs right, the square peg's corners bruising themselves on the implacable curve of the round hole. The words of Luke echo in my head: "And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. " Something has drained out of me, something valuable that I knew I was losing but found myself unable to catch before it trickled between my fingers. And now I am empty, and as I fill up with new thoughts, I feel the pressure on my seams and edges. This warm, insular little world no longer fits me, and I fear that if I do not find something new to hold my thoughts, to hold my self, I will come undone.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Wonderful Plan For Your Life

Anybody who's ever been targeted by an enthusiastic Campus Crusader has seen the ubiquitous Four Spiritual Laws pamphlet, and you could probably find one in the information rack of most fundamentalist Christian churches. I grew up with it, and while I couldn't tell you Laws 2-4 any more, the first one has been echoing in my head today:

"God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life."

I've heard all the metaphors, about how God is like a parent who disciplines us when we need direction, how he is the potter and we are the clay, how he is the fire that burns away our chaff and dross and sticks, leaving good grain and silver and gold.

I start to wonder, though, if this really is part of a grand divine plan, or if it's just a way for people to tell themselves that bad experiences and tragedy actually mean something. It's a practical response -- if you're looking for the lesson in the trials, you're more likely to find it, and the idea that God is sending the trial (and thus in control of it) makes it a little more palatable.

Some days, I'd just like a break from the fire. The fire, in whatever form it takes -- a dreary, rainy day; a long string of sleepless nights with a fretful mind that can't rest; the machine-gun persistence of an autistic child's questions; the sullen glare of an 8-year-old who's practicing for her teen years; damaged friendships, distance growing between loved ones, buried heartaches and hurts. Nothing earth-shattering, just the everyday slings and arrows that batter and bruise and prick the soul, until the thousand tiny collisions leave me gasping for breath.

I am tired of trying to find the little mental twist that will make it all come together in one coherent shining picture, like a Magic Eye stereogram made up of the day's worries and pains. I have grown weary of the search for deeper meanings, and of the relentless anxious energy of those who throw themselves time and again at the too-high bar of holiness.

It is easier, some days, to think that perhaps this is just how life is now and then. Today, I think I would rather curl up with a warm blanket, a book, and a bit of chocolate -- to listen to the rain, let my mind drift away from my aching heart, and release myself from the burden of turning it into a teachable moment. Days like today, a little bit of rest sounds vastly preferable to another round of the celestial chess game. This little pawn is going to take a few hours off, and the grand plan will just have to get along without her for the afternoon.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Rewriting History

There are many aspects of losing faith that are deeply disconcerting. Many are obvious -- some because they are superficial, and some because they are so huge they can't be ignored. Others are below the surface, deeper currents that are only recognized because of the faint, telltale swirls on the surface of my mind.

Missing church, that's one of the obvious ones. For three years, I missed church as often as possible. I was sick a lot. (Chocolate martinis on Saturday night can reliably produce an upset stomach on Sunday morning.) I'd refer to the local race calendar and run 5Ks that were scheduled for Sunday mornings. I'd stay home to take care of a marginally sick child. About a month ago, I finally told my husband that I just wasn't coming to church for a while, and quit going entirely. It took a while to get used to figuring out what day of the week it was without the mental anchor of Sundays.

Another obvious one was the realization that I had completely broken the habit of random prayer for unimportant things -- making green lights, getting somewhere on time, finding my keys, all those things that used to make me feel so thankful if they were "answered", and so frustrated if they weren't. Without that running mental commentary, I still have an occasional sense of ringing silence, like the nearly tangible absence of sound when a noisy radiator or refrigerator shuts off after your ear has ceased to consciously hear it.

The loss of Christian community is a change so big that it can't be ignored. It happened gradually, over the course of a few years, but its loss is no less painful for that. The Christian community can be exasperating for myriad reasons, but it is also an easy place to find companionship. There are people to talk to who think like I think, whose experiences mirror mine, whose goals and life choices and hopes are close variants of mine. When my thought patterns changed to the point that our common ground shrank to only include the things we would have had in common if we didn't go to the same church, much of that connection was lost. Without a new community to replace it, that loss still leaves me reeling at times.

As real as these changes are, they shake me in a different way from the other questions that quietly eased into existence while my attention was on the loud clanging of the immediate paradigm shift. What about the first thirty years? What about my earliest memories of Sunday School, of watching my parents start a church, of learning to arrange beautiful piano solos from the old red hymnal? What about church camp, Vacation Bible School, the commitment I made at the winter teen retreat? Were those real, or just an extended course of indoctrination?

As the child of the pastor of a small church, the members of our church were our community. They were my teachers, my friends, the parents of my friends, my role models, my encouragers. I cannot look back at those good people and believe that they were misguided fools, blundering through life with religious blinders on. But I also cannot accept much of the structure of their belief system, and the conflict between old memories and new thoughts is dizzying.

I think back to the church camp I attended through junior high and high school, and loved so much that I worked on the kitchen crew all summer for pennies an hour just to spend more time there. It was wholesome, fun, uplifting, all of those good things. I made good friends, sang fun songs, and experienced many moments of deep spiritual conviction and joy. Or did I? Was it just the natural emotional and physical high of being outside all summer with kids my age, getting lots of sunshine and exercise, and indulging every possible adolescent desire for self-expression during the "sharing times"? Was I just being swept away by twice-daily services that were calculated to walk us through a time-tested emotional arc, where we were ramped up with music, made to laugh, calmed down for the speaker, manipulated into feelings of guilt, and finally brought to tears of repentance with the intense pressure to raise our hands and go forward for the confession du jour?

So many things, not just church and camp ... I can barely stand to think of the beautiful old hymns that I have played so many hundreds of times, hymns that guided my beliefs, comforted my tears, challenged my mind. Their comfort and teaching was real, but now that I question what they taught, their comfort begins to fade and that breaks my heart more than almost anything else in this rocky journey. I want clarity of thought and honesty of mind, but the cost is mounting and I must wonder what price I will eventually pay in memories and comfort lost.

Whether I like it or not, these things have shaped me, and unmaking these memories feels like unmaking myself.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Such a Strange Way

One of my favorite professors used to quote the Scripture that reads, "Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind," and then follow it up with "In my class, two out of three is not a passing grade." He wanted to engage our minds, not just the heart and soul part of us, which all too often was done in an all too "Heart and Soul" way -- four chords, inane words, lather, rinse, repeat.

The more I exercise my mind, though, the more saddened I am by the fact that the tenets of my faith seem to require a suspension of disbelief that would stretch even the most dedicated Trekkie. (Granted, this may have something to do with the fact that it's easier to learn Klingon than to really get your brain around the concept of eternal life.) At the heart of our faith is a resurrection. Our God is invisible and inaudible. Our holy book is inconsistent. The heartfelt convictions of ten different believers may lead them to ten different conclusions, each equally sure that God is leading them, none with any proof more credible than the others.

I've grown up around Christian intellectuals, and as much as the unbeliever might scoff and mutter about oxymorons, they are for real. They are deep thinkers, committed scholars, writers, teachers, brilliant minds dedicated to a pursuit of truth. My father is one, and while his thoughts have led him away from some of the more nonsensical and hidebound traditions, he is still a firm believer in the core doctrines of Christianity. I cannot bring myself to call him illogical and misguided.

The problem is that the logical construct of Christianity seems only to work with minimal outside interference. The advent (or plague, depending on your perspective) of systematic theology that arrived with the Age of Reason built a complex, interdependent structure of concepts that purports to explain everything from the problem of good and evil to the reason for the prohibition against divorce. From the inside, the concepts work -- they tend to be predicated on God's holiness and our ignorance, which is a neat catch-all for anything we have difficulty explaining, but they do work.

But from the outside, which is increasingly where I find myself standing, they are like a beautifully constructed Jenga tower. Remove one block, and the tower stands. Remove a few more, and the theology still stands. But the more you remove, the more careful you must be not to touch the others, or the whole thing will collapse in a meaningless muddle of dogma.

If God had the opportunity to express himself to the world, why do it this way? Why the confusing, conflicted words of Scripture? Why make the road narrow? Why not make it wide, downhill, and with clearly marked street signs? Why require so much blind faith that a thinking person feels obligated to check his brain at the church door, parking it next to the coverless Bibles and forgotten umbrellas?

A Christian music group from the nineties used to sing, "This is such a strange way to save the world." A strange way indeed ... I must admit that I would be more attracted to a plan of salvation that could also be embraced by the inexorable logic of Spock. Heart, soul, and mind -- without the third, I find it harder and harder to engage the other two.

Such a strange way to save the world.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Into the Unknown

When you grow up with an omniscient heavenly father and a book which is said to have all the answers to life, the universe, and everything, "I don't know" can be a tough concept. The Christian community likes answers. Now, I'll grant you, that doesn't mean ALL Christians -- I have met a handful of intelligent and thoughtful Christians who live very happily far outside the box, and if I ever return to faith I hope I turn out like them. But for your rank and file Bible-believing church member, it is very uncomfortable to admit that there's anything we don't know.

I have sat on a padded chair on a Sunday night and listened to far more "creation science" presentations than I care to think about. I grew up with the six thousand year universe age, the "appearance of age" theory, the missing link problems, the fanciful artwork of how things might have been when dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together, the whole nine yards. Then I grew up and read a respectful approach to theistic evolution, and was tempted to buy into it wholesale. After a few years of thought, I came up with a better answer: I don't know.

I have spent many years wrestling with the problem of evil in the world, as far greater minds than mine have done, and with comparable lack of success. I've seen all manner of answers to the question, some cynical and bitter, some wrapped in glowing faith, and none of them convincing. I am coming to a new conclusion on the matter: I don't know.

My son is autistic. I don't know why. He had his vaccinations, and according to the more rabid members of the local autism support network, maybe that's why. My grandmother almost certainly has Asperger's Syndrome, so maybe that's why. Maybe it was a special blessing from God, although I sure as hell hope not or he's got some explaining to do. Maybe it was just the luck of the draw. This would infuriate the women in the autism groups who march and rally and evangelize about every new therapy and potential cause that comes down the pike, but I'm starting to be OK with my answer: I don't know.

It doesn't mean I don't care, about these issues or countless others that could have the same final answer. Your view of the reason (or lack thereof) for man's existence affects how you see humanity, morality, and our responsibility to the environment, far more than most of us are willing to consciously consider. I will probably never be fully comfortable with the co-existence of the beauty of our universe and the creeping death that is built, apparently intrinsically, into its very being. My son's autism will be a part of my life for as long as I live, and I care passionately about him and his future.

But I am seeking some kind of peace with not knowing the answers. So many are unknowable in the first place, and asking the same questions over and over achieves nothing but frustration. On the flip side, though, if I can accept that any given question might not have an answer, I might be a little braver about asking the questions. For too many years, I have shied away from asking questions where I didn't have a pretty good guess at the answer, and that's no way to think.

One of those thinking people used to exasperate me with his catch phrase, "Enjoy the ambiguity." Enjoy it? I'm not sure about that. But grow accustomed to it, find peace with it, find freedom in the new questions it raises ... that, maybe I can live with.

I don't know.

I'm OK with that.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Good Things

A few days back, I wrote about the frustration of trying to disentangle simple pleasures from a lifetime's habit of subconsciously categorizing all good things as a gift from God, and all bad things as tests of faith / sent from the devil / the unfortunate consequences of sin in the world as a result of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. That's a little more black-and-white than I want to be right now, but grey can get a little exasperating at times.

So, here are a few things that aren't grey, black, or white -- they're outside the monochrome spectrum of moral values, and are (at the risk of going all Martha Stewart on you) just plain Good Things.
  • freshly sharpened pencils
  • my really good-quality hand lotion from my secret pal last year
  • losing twenty-one pounds and having a discernible waist once again
  • the funky green velvet purse I got from the organic grocery store last summer
  • my current hair color (thanks to my longsuffering hair stylist, who once again talked me out of my misguided request for red)
  • waking up without an alarm clock because I've finally had enough sleep
  • my 5-year-old son's buzz cut (fuzzyhead!)
  • my Solar Power running socks, a gift from a friend who laughs at me when I say I'm solar-powered and hold up my hands to the sunshine
  • chocolate-covered peanuts
  • hot baths, accompanied by a new novel, a few Hershey kisses, and a screwdriver mixed with good-quality orange juice
  • the pungent scent of the lavender I occasionally steal from my neighbor's yard
  • putting the last stitch in a year-long needlepoint project
  • movies with neurotic heroines (usually played by Meg Ryan, as it happens)
  • crispy new dollar bills that have never been folded
  • the powerful, fulfilling sense toward the end of a good run that I could run forever
  • Richard Dean Anderson (SG-1 era, not Macgyver)
  • the "peace" kanji poster my husband brought back for me from Japan
  • my "pax" tattoo
  • salted oil-roasted cashews, which should probably be illegal from tasting so good
  • my daughter's unerring ability to "find a friend" at the playground
  • the achingly sad tones of Bach's Prelude in B-flat minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier
  • a bottle of Gentleman Jack that's been kept in the freezer
  • pressing my nose against the airplane window as it comes in for a landing into a city I'm visiting for the first time
  • crossing a finish line, sweaty, exhausted, and beautiful
  • Katharine Hepburn's laugh
  • finding old cards from friends I'd forgotten receiving, so it's almost like they're new
  • rude T-shirts
  • the second movement of Paul Creston's Sonata (for saxophone and piano), Op. 19, which is so deeply sensual as to be slightly unnerving when I'm performing it in mixed company
  • extra-sharp Tillamook Cheddar cheese
  • the scent of snow
  • the Golden Gate Bridge emerging from the fog
  • the roaring laugh of a friend
  • slowly falling asleep on a Sunday afternoon on the couch with my novel gradually drifting down to my chest

So many things to enjoy ... so many good things. It can't stay this dark for always, not with so many good things.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Whatever You Ask

I never had the view of prayer that some children have, where you ask for ponies at bedtime and expect to see them out on the lawn the next day. Instead, I had an educated and informed view of prayer, in which we ask for things that we believe are within God's will, having faith that he will answer. If we get what we ask for, then it was God's will. And if we don't, well, then I guess it wasn't God's will after all.

It makes sense if you don't think about it very hard. But as an adult, it occurred to me that there was no way at all of proving that this was an accurate approach. Whatever happened would happen, and it was only after the fact that we would find out if it was "in God's will." Christians jump excitedly on the research studies that claim to prove that prayer makes a statistical difference in people's healing, even those who don't know they're being prayed for. But if it was so wondrously effective, why would people even need to do the studies? Wouldn't it be common knowledge, even to the unbeliever?

You'd think so. But it isn't, and I can no longer engage in the mental discipline required to make every event in life, great and small, be an answer to prayer.

I overheard a conversation recently between two men who were planning a very tightly scheduled, complicated 10-day tour for a college band and choir. A day's worth of their schedule had apparently fallen through, and they were weighing the options for the affected events. This was an unwelcome and frustrating last-minute hitch, and they were both trying to maintain their composure. The student said, "Well, if it doesn't work out, at least we know it was all part of God's plan." The professor nodded sagely and agreed. And I thought, "Huh?"

Did it never occur to either of them that maybe it was just a screwed-up coincidence that they were going to have to plan around, and that one day of the spring break musical tour of a small Christian college might not be part of a grand cosmic plan? I doubt that the possibility ever crossed their minds. To think of it in those terms would be to consider that very little, or perhaps none at all, of their so-important plans were part of anything grander than the perfectly respectable goal of making good music for people who would enjoy hearing it, and seeing some beautiful parts of the Pacific Northwest along the way.

I understand their desire to believe that every aspect of their travel schedule was overseen and directed by God, because I grew up with that same perspective. It infuses your plans with confidence and a sense of holiness, because after all, you asked God first! But then what? What happens when the plans fall through? What happens when the hosts cancel and part of your tour collapses, when the money pledged to the building project doesn't materialize, when you choose your education, your relationships, your career, all in good faith, and it turns out you chose wrong? The standard answer is straightforward -- it wasn't God's will. But I am coming to believe that it's a bad answer, because the whole premise is wrong from the beginning.

On the subject of prayer, we have the following useful comments from Scripture:

"This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him." (1 John 5:15)

"Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. " (1 John 3:22)

"Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, ... you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done." (Matthew 21:21)

And the most blatant of the bunch, "And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." (John 14:13)

Even a moment's thought reveals these promises to be patently untrue in any practical sense, so we immediately set to work to make them be true, because they're the Bible, they must be true. Some have caveats built in -- we must ask according to his will, we must have faith and not doubt, our hearts must not condemn us. But some don't. Some passages just say, "Ask, and I'll do it." Which is simply, unavoidably false. And so the logic gets more convoluted, the semantics more complicated, and the point more lost, all in an effort to explain away a principle which then turns out to be a foundational part of our faith.

Against all reason and proof, we continue to believe that God will hear and answer everything we pray about. The result, all too often, is that we spend time praying that perhaps we should have spent researching, planning, investing, doing. We don't make backup plans because God is our backup plan. But what if he doesn't come through? What then? What if he said he would do whatever we asked, but he doesn't?

Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.

Whatever you ask, I will do it.

Whatever you ask.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Questionable Theology

"And He walks with me,
And He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own.
And the joy we share
As we tarry there
None other has ever known."

And we wonder how we grow up with mistaken views of God ...

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lightning Bolts

In a conversation today about my spiritual struggles, I heard a concept that I have heard many times before, and it infuriated me. The idea is that if you don't listen to God, he will do something horrible to you to get your attention. Whenever someone's struggling and something awful happens, when their house burns down or their spouse leaves or their child gets hit by a car or their business fails, we say smugly, "Well, I guess God was just trying to get their attention."

I'm sorry, but WHAT THE BLOODY HELL?

I think if God wanted to get my attention, he damn well could have done it some time in the fifteen years that I begged and pleaded for him to hear me, to answer me, to show me what I needed to change in myself so that I could know him better. How about then? Or would that have just been TOO FUCKING EASY?

No more. I tried. For years. And he chose not to answer.

Job rose to the occasion in the face of God's silence and said, "Though he slay me, I will trust in him." My first thought is, "Wow, what faith." My second thought is, "Um ... wait a second, then you'd be dead, so how could you trust him? Does he want you to be dead?" And my third thought is, "Wow ... that is really, really screwed up."

I'm not quite brave enough to shout an anti-prayer to the heavens, but the temptation is there to proclaim that no matter what he does, what blessing or what horror is visited upon me, I will continue without him rather than trying to twist events into divine statements. I heard nothing for too many years to start trying to hear words in the wind now.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Skepticism and the Book of Job

Job lost nearly everything, his wife was horrible, and his friends were worse.

Job railed at God.

God said, "Stuff it, I'm bigger than you."

The End.

Not the most satisfying ending, is it? But at least God talked to Job. I know, it's a literary work (i.e., not exactly a documentary), and maybe that's not quite how it all went down. But suspending disbelief for a moment as we must with all stories, Job talked and God talked back, and I think that is the material point.

I have never been able to see that God in any way answered Job's questions. He goes on at length about the animals, the ocean, the storms, his power, his omniscience, and apparently anything else that comes to mind, but he completely ignores the very valid "WHY?" I've heard many sermons, and a few very good sermons, on why this is. Most of them come back to the general principle that God is so much higher than Job that God has no responsibility to explain his actions to Job. I take issue with that, of course, because I do think that being a living breathing bleeding poker chip in a high-stakes celestial bet should have earned the poor guy a few answers. But that's really beside the point.

God answered. Not in the wishy-washy "I really feel this was an answer to prayer" way that believers and semi-believers and pseudo-believers all seem to use. Not in a probable coincidence that could look sort of like an answer to prayer if you look at it sideways and kind of squint so it's a little blurry. Not as a warm fuzzy feeling in the cerebral cortex that is then interpreted as the peace that passes all understanding. Rather, the answer was out loud, using words, real words that hit Job's physical eardrum with real waves of sound.

At this point, I almost feel like I wouldn't care what he said, as long as he said it out loud. I have grown weary of reading the signs and portents in daily life, turning the day's events this way and that like an old crone over her tea leaves. We are told that God's silence builds our faith. But sometimes it also builds our doubt and our skepticism, and from what I can see, the cost to his people and his church is immense.

I have not talked to God in a long time. I am no longer able to shake and rattle the facts like so many dice, rolling and re-rolling them until they fall in a pattern that resembles an answer to prayer. I have come to believe that a little silence may build faith, but that too much silence breaks it.

Even so, in the dark hours of the early morning when I am sleepless and worn thin "like butter scraped over too much bread," I confess that even these tired, skeptical ears would like, for once, to hear the voice of God.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bending Spoons and Truth

Not to offend any spoonbenders out there, but I thought this was pretty dang funny. At least I did right up until the part where he said, "Yes, well, maybe the psychic energy does flow through my hands." I got the joke, but I couldn't help but think of my last thirty years of hearing prayer requests and their corresponding answers.

We pray for so much, and we receive so much. But how many of those answered prayers are only the natural result of people and things working the way people and things normally work? How much of it simply has to do with the fact that we live in an industrialized nation with so much abundance that even the poor are richer than much of the world?

Prayers went out daily for my 26-year-old sister to be healed from cancer. And she was! After a mastectomy, six rounds of chemo, a new wig, extensive reconstructive surgery, and hours upon hours of painful physical therapy. Was that an answer to prayer?

Many people at my church prayed for the "car situation" of a man whose wife had left him with three children and an increasingly nonfunctional car. It would be very expensive to repair, so they prayed. And God answered! After thousands were donated, repairs were made, the car died again, and another one was purchased. Was that an answer to prayer, or a fine example of philanthropy?

My cousin prayed and prayed to have a baby. And she did! She had two! After years of trying, money and time spent visiting doctors, in vitro fertilization with multiple embryos, bed rest, and a premature delivery. Was that an answer to prayer, or was it a barely achieved triumph of medical science with the assistance of the insurance company?

More importantly, if my sister had died, the car had broken down on the freeway, or the twins had never been conceived, would those have been answers to prayer, or would they simply have been another path that chance could have taken? The standard Christian answers to these questions are simple and often repeated. God works through the doctors and the surgery and the chemo, he inspires the anonymous donors to give money to the car fund, he is the one who finally makes the babies grow in the womb. And if he hadn't, then it would have all been part of the larger plan. The answers are simple, but there is nothing easy about them.

These good things happened, and I am glad that they did. But I am no longer convinced that they are works of God, any more than I believe that Hugh Laurie can bend spoons with his psychic powers. At some point, if the invisible force itself cannot accomplish what it intends without a strong and independently functioning conduit, one must question the power of the invisible force.

On the other hand, if there are any spoonbenders out there whose telekinetic powers extend to disentangling hopelessly knotted necklace chains, I'll reconsider.

(My thanks to Amanda at Skepchick for posting this video there and making me laugh.)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Be Ye Holy, For I Am Holy

I have spent my entire life with this unreachable definition of success. Due to my particular set of genetic idiosyncracies and psychological tendencies, I absorbed this and processed it into a peculiarly mediocre form of perfectionism. I set high standards for myself as a student, a musician, a housewife, a mother, but this didn't always translate into the internal drive required to make these things actually happen.

Don't get me wrong, even my half-assed efforts got me farther than plenty of people in many different areas, and there are areas of my life in which I have unquestionably done well. But even these triumphs were always dogged by the sense (corroborated by my teachers) that I could have done better, should have done better. That I had fallen short.

Those tendencies were reinforced over the years with the constant drumming of Christianity's philosophy of personal insufficiency, and self-flagellation became second nature. One of my favorite things about a good friend of mine is his frustration with my constant apologizing. He sees, as I so often cannot, that not everything is in fact my fault. Not everything that is imperfect about myself requires an apology, and I have gotten better about that in my conversations with him over the years. I wish it was easier to convince the rest of my brain of this.

Especially now. I have, by any standard of measure, failed in my faith and in my marriage. I am still walking through the forms of both, but less and less enthusiastically, and I am quickly losing the will and the desire to continue fighting on either front. I know the standard party line, that I should just rely on God and he will get me through it. And so I fail there, too -- he didn't "get me through it", actually, and I have lost interest in making another attempt at depending on someone who is silent, invisible, and impossible to understand.

It seems a little like cheating to give up on a personal standard and find an easier one, just so I can stop feeling like a total failure. On the other hand, I run 5Ks because I know that a 100-mile endurance run would be a standard I would fail to meet, every time. And I can succeed at a 5K, every time. I make no apology for running 5Ks, and perhaps I should stop apologizing for looking for a new standard, one that doesn't have my failure woven into its every line.

I am human, after all. Maybe a human standard of measure isn't such a bad idea.

Friday, February 15, 2008

God's Guide to the Galaxy

At the recommendation of a friend on a similar journey, I checked out Bart D. Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus" from the library. I am prone to carrying novels around, reading while I'm eating lunch, reading while I'm cooking dinner, reading in the bathroom, really pretty much any time it's quiet enough to get in a paragraph or a page or two. Usually that's with books like "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", though, not treatises on textual critism of the Bible.

This has been gripping, to say the least. It's relatively readable, especially with my familiarity with the texts in question. Having at least an elementary understanding of the translational issues with ancient Greek helps too. But what's really getting me is the upending of so many things I took for granted about the Bible and about the people who wrote it.

I remember thinking even as a teenager that where it says at the end of Revelation, "And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city," it seemed like a bit of a stretch to apply it to the WHOLE Bible. But that's how it was always presented, and it was easier not to challenge the wise, good men and women who taught that viewpoint. It hadn't ever occurred to me that John might have just been begging people to please, PLEASE not take liberties with the text when they were copying his manuscript.

In all my years of Sunday School, morning and evening services, church camp, youth group, youth conferences, and studying a Bible minor at a Christian college, nobody ever mentioned the apparently well-documented practice of scribal editions to the original texts. Lots of editions. Some of them to the point that we really don't know what the original said at all.

I am almost less bothered by this information than I am by the methodical suppression of it. Wouldn't you think that was a relevant piece of information? But it's inconsistent with the traditional view, so it wasn't ever even mentioned. It seems like it would have been better to bring the issue up, confront it, and give a response to it, and that makes me wonder exactly what the religiously conservative scholars' response even is.

There are a handful of verses that indicate that God's words will not pass away, that they shouldn't be changed, and that he will preserve them. But I have to say I'm having a hard time seeing that now. How much change can there be to the words before we admit that we really don't know what the words were, and how can that be said to be God's preserved Word?

At least with the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, everybody knows up front that it's biased, random, subjective, and liable to contain drink recipes instead of truly useful information. Plus, it has the added benefit of the words "DON'T PANIC" on the cover in large, friendly letters. I can see the appeal ...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Because I said so, that's why.

I'm a mother, so I've used that line plenty of times. At first glance it appears to be the tiniest possible specimen of circular logic, but there's a little more to it. The conversation goes like this:

"But WHY do I have to clean my room?"
"Because I said so, that's why."

The same conversation, with subtitles:

"I don't want to clean my room. I kind of like it messy, and my little brother dumped out all my doll's clothes and I don't think I should have to clean that up. I'm reading a really good Magic Treehouse book right now and I'd rather do that instead. The stuff on the floor has to go in too many different places, and I don't know where to start."

"I know, honey. I don't like cleaning any more than you do. But I've got the advantage of 25 years of experience on you, and I know that you'll have a lot more fun in there if you can actually find your toys instead of having a chaotic whirl of junk covering every flat surface. Besides, I gave birth to you, I feed you, I clothe you, and I paid for pretty much everything in this room, so that by itself is good enough reason to do what I asked you to do."

Usually, we do the short version of this conversation. But sometimes if she is more frustrated than usual, I will sit down on her rumpled bed, take her in my arms, and explain the long version with even more love and care than I expressed above. She doesn't always get it, but at least she knows that I love her. And in another 25 years or so, she'll very likely be having the same conversation with another little girl that she loves as much I love her, and she'll figure out what I was talking about.

Like every Christian, I grew up hearing about God as our Father, and all of the inevitable applications to our daily life. He loves us just the way we love our own children. He knows things that we don't know, just like a parent knows more than the child does. We'll understand it better bye and bye. When we all see Jesus, we'll sing and shout the victory. Et cetera.

The parallels are obvious, but I question how valid they are. Human parents seem to be a little more compassionate in the short run, not just the long run. Human parents talk to their children. Human parents "have skin on", as the much-repeated (and probably apocryphal) tale says. We are here, up close and personal, talking and living and failing and succeeding in front of our children. We communicate with them more than once every two thousand years. When they cry, we hold them with real arms made of muscle and bone. They don't need to use their imaginations to find us.

And so, I return to the issue of circular logic. "Because I said so", with no further analysis, seems to be a fundamental characteristic of Christian reasoning, and it worries me.

If we question the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture, we start down a slippery slope. If you question one part of it, you have to question all of it.

And this is a valid reason not to question it?

We can't question the deity of Christ, because if we do, it puts everything we believe about salvation into question. All cults start out by questioning the deity of Christ.

Well ... but what if he isn't 100% God and 100% man, like I learned in youth group? Isn't it worth at least asking the question?

I Corinthians 15:19 -- "If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied."


Wednesday, February 13, 2008


My head is whirling from the unaccustomed directions of my thoughts. I can't say I've had a paradigm shift since my thoughts haven't landed anywhere yet -- paradigm earthquake, maybe?

I've been reading the thoughts of confirmed skeptics, cynics, agnostics, atheists, and former Christians. Some have found a place of calm in (and because of) their doubts, but so many are belligerent and loud about their unbelief. Is that any better than the aggressive right-wing lout who blasts his opinions to all within hearing range at the grocery store checkout line? I want neither of these extremes, but I am too near the beginning of this process to have any peace.

I am too shaken to identify with the glee of the atheists and the giddy relief of the deconverted. Sometimes this feels like a cool wind of change blowing through dusty rooms, windows thrown open to the breezes of new thoughts. For the most part, though, pain and loss have been the hallmarks of this process far more than freedom and release.

Perhaps my mind is being opened to new thoughts and horizons. But I confess to a certain fear that I am only engaging in the philosophical equivalent of the Middle Ages practice of trepanning. Am I boring holes in my own head to let out demons that only exist in my own imagination? Am I opening the way for new thoughts, or is this just a long and complex way to bleed?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

It Doesn't Matter.

It's not a very catchy slogan, is it? I can't really see putting it on a bumper sticker, and if I wore it on a T-shirt people would assume that a) I was being ironic or b) there was something else on the back to explain it.

I'm sure there's an "ism" for it, but I can't put my finger on it. It isn't quite nihilism, since I want to keep existing. Not quite stoicism -- lots of things don't matter to a true stoic, but that's because everything else fades in the light of his core disciplines of fortitude and self-control. Depressionism? Maybe that's closer, because I certainly am not a very cheerful person at the moment, but I don't think it really works as a life philosophy.

I don't know what you call it, but I am adrift in it. Without my accustomed anchor of spirituality and its accompanying values, I find myself floating randomly through my day. Laundry remains undone, the dishes sit in the sink, and I only finish my running workout because I am still a mile from home, not because I particularly care about it. I look at the mess and think, "It doesn't matter. None of it matters. If I am not going to try to be the Proverbs 31 woman any more, with her perpetually busy hands and God-fearing self-discipline, why bother?" I know, because we will eventually run out of underwear. But for someone used to having a higher calling in all things, clean underpants is a pale motivation.

I can't help but think of my old nemesis James and his writings: "He who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind." But since the poor sailor is floundering because his own doubt hinders his prayers, there seems to be little hope for him -- he is trying to pull his own self from the water, and simple physics will quickly tell us his fate. There must be some other way, some life preserver that doesn't require you to inflate it yourself while your lungs fill with water and your heart with despair.

There must be some hope for the day-to-day that doesn't require every action and thought to first be dipped in holy water. There must be motivations that stand alone without needing to be sanctified. I can list them (clean house, stable finances, healthy body, sharp mind), but my mental muscles are weak from decades of making everything be about something else -- something higher and better, granted, but still something else. I have not had to think for a long time about the intrinsic value of the things I do. And when that higher calling ceases to draw me, I find that I flail to find the drive and motivation to do the things I've always done.

One of my least favorite contemporary Christian songs wails, "It's all about you, it's all about you, Jesus." The Beatles shoot back, "I, I, me, me, mine." There must be something in between those two extremes, some non-faith-based balance between altruism and narcissism where I can finish a project and take satisfaction in a job well done without it having to be a star in my eternal crown. It doesn't seem like everything that brings me pride should have to drag along its unwanted companion, Guilt, for the sin of not giving God all the glory for the thing that I did.

On second thought, maybe a little bit more "I, I, me, me, mine" might not be a bad idea for a while.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Coming Out

I wonder how you go public with losing your religion.

Maybe I should ask some of my gay friends. It's probably not too different -- the sneaking suspicions in the back of your mind that grow to certainty, making your head spin with half-guessed ramifications. The increasing discomfort of your lifestyle, pinching and tugging at you like too-small clothes. The growing conviction that things can't go on this way, and the daily battering down of that conviction by the equally strong knowledge of the consequences of honesty.

I suppose there are a few ways you could do it. Of course there's the all-out flamboyant approach, where you parade into Sunday School in a NIN T-shirt and black low-rider jeans, shout "Fuck this shit!" and run back out. (I wonder if they'd count that as your attendance for that Sunday. Probably not.) I'd hate to be responsible for anybody's heart failure, though. And some of those people, I love. That makes a difference too.

There's also the sad but determined approach, reyling on logic and bureaucracy to get the ball rolling. You could write a kind but firmly worded letter to the church requesting that your membership be dropped, and use all sorts of correct terminology: "I feel that it is best for me not to be a part of this church for the time being, as my doubts have made it difficult for me to participate in its activities in a meaningful way." Better, but it still has to be brought up at the business meeting, and that's no fun.

There's revelation by attrition, where you just sort of drift from one thing to the next, and after a while people sort of figure it out. I guess that's what I've been doing -- skipping Sunday School, then going to second service Sunday School so I could skip the morning service without actually being there any fewer minutes, but no longer being present for the singing and the sermon. Gradually drifting out of ministry, smiling politely and giving nothing away when people hint that it would be nice if I, you know, did something again. Being sick a lot, and having Sunday races, and being on vacation, but still showing up just enough times that nobody from the office has to call.

I don't really know how to do it, and I think that my combination of fear and laziness have done half the job for me already -- I haven't been a part of the life of my church for nearly three years, and since very few people have noticed, I have few relationships left to damage by leaving entirely. I think, though, that I may have drawn my line in the sand this week, at least in my head. I am not going back on Sunday, and I'm going to try hard to stick to that even if there's a special service or a lunch date or whatever else might surface as an entirely legitimate reason to go. I need to be home this week. I need to be home next week too, and for a few more weeks after that. I can't listen any more, and my not-listening is soon going to be obvious to more people than I care to deal with.

My dear friend A has been out for years, including a same-sex relationship of two years and plenty of dating. She still has not come out to her father (preacher's kids don't have it easy with lifestyle changes, I'll tell you that much). They have a tacit "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, and in some ways that is the most appealing of all. I don't think my parents could do it, and I wish they could. Telling my parents I can't live in the faith they brought me up in is more than I can imagine doing right now.

It is bad enough to have my own heart broken without having to break those of the people I love best. I don't know how you do it, and it must be done. It is not a comfortable conundrum.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

I Want, I Want, I Need, I Need!

Remember "What About Bob?", and the clingy title character who wants and wants and needs and needs? He knows exactly what he wants -- validation, attention, and a large bowl of mashed potatoes.

I'm not Bob.

I don't really know what I want. I know a lot that I don't want, and I guess that's as good a place as any to start.

I don't want to say that I feel anything I don't really feel, and I don't want to imply that I think anything I don't really think.

I don't want to feel guilty for not believing that good parking places and green lights are a gift from God. And I don't want to feel guilty for not believing that red lights were divinely sent to keep me from getting in an accident two blocks down the road.

I don't want to see myself as irretrievably broken. I think we are all broken -- Camus says, "We all have the plague. We are born with it." But I am tired of a system that purports to heal me while simultaneously holding me up to an unreachable standard of behavior.

I don't want to clap my hands unless it's at a ball game or a concert.

I don't want to listen to any more sermons where I can fill in the blanks on the outline before I've even heard the message. I am tired of the feeling that I can say the pastor's words along with him just because I've heard the same lines of logic so many times.

I don't want to feel pressured to believe anything that somebody made up out of their own head. As far as I'm concerned, my mental jury is still out on how much of the Bible I want to believe, but I'll be switched if I'm going to buy into the purely manmade aspects of it any more.

I don't want to hear one more person say that Jack Daniels is off-limits to Christians because our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit lives in the ghetto too, and I think he can handle a little bit of whiskey without compromising his principles.

I don't want to smile at anyone just because we are both dressed nicely and standing in the foyer of the church.

I don't want to pretend to be friends with someone just because we share some beliefs. If they are my friends, they will act like my friends. I am finished with the concept that all Christians are my friends.

I don't want to say the words "I just really felt like the Lord was leading me to ...", ever again. It would be fine by me if I never heard them again either, but I don't think there's much I can do about that.

I don't want to worship God until I can find a way to reconcile his verifiable behavior with his supposed character.

I don't want to hold anybody's hand just because the speaker says it's time to do so.

I don't want to continue to maintain the intellectual disconnect required to listen to people have repetitive, self-centered discussions about Scripture passages that are taken so far out of context you can't even remember what they were about in the first place.

This probably isn't a sound basis for a system of belief, but now that I think about it, I really would like some mashed potatoes.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Church Membership, Hooray!

Today I took pictures and hugged my daughter after she gave her testimony and was accepted into membership at the church.

Today was my last Sunday.

There are just too many levels of irony for me to say another word on this subject at the moment.

Friday, January 25, 2008

With the Eyes of an Unbeliever

"When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Sherlock Holmes' famous quote came to mind today. I certainly can't say I've eliminated all impossibilities, but another option came to mind.

The greatest difficulty of my journey of questions lies in the fact that I still believe the core doctrine to be true. I question much of the nonsense we have built up around it, but I do still believe the essentials of it. And as much as it galls me to admit it, it is in fact a very functional way of life for millions of people, and its principles have built the foundations for many of the best things in the world today, from human rights to hospitals to the preservation of human life. I can't deny the good it has done, or the comfort that it is to so many people.

This evening I remembered, though, King Agrippa and his vaguely surprised-sounding "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." (Funny, isn't it, how the new versions all change that wording?) What of the person who believes it all to be true, but is not chosen? Who has intellectual faith, but not faith of the heart?

What if, for example, someone was brought up in a Christian home and never had the option of being anything but a Christian, at least if they still wanted to call their life their own. Imagine that someone grew up and knew all the words, believed all the words, could teach all the words in a three-point outline, and had no reason to believe the words were not true. Imagine that she read and learned and studied, and could find any verse, any proof text, for virtually any question that any Christian presented to her.

I had a vibrant and emotional faith as a teenager, and poured out its overflow onto the people around me. People knew I was a Christian and respected my beliefs, and I was the positive impact on their lives that I desired to be, for the most part. But I wonder now how much of that had to do with being a Christian, and how much of that had to do with being a teenager with all of the emotional ups and downs that comes with it. So much information, so much knowledge, and so much emotional energy, where else would it go but up, when everything in my life was directing it that way?

College was much the same, but reality was sinking in a little by then. I had more questions, but was learning more of the pseudo-logical doublespeak Christians use to get around the difficulties of faith. Anything unavoidably illogical, we pause and frown and rub our chins thoughtfully and say, "Yes, that is very difficult." And then we smile and gallop gaily away, full of pride that our faith allows us to accept such difficult things. When Nancy died, some of the questions hit me squarely between the eyes, but I was too busy finding a husband to think about anything that bothersome.

By the time I was 24 and trying to start a family, my heart's desires had come to three sharp points: To have a deep and real relationship with the Lord, with my heart AND mind. To bear children. And to have the love and desire for my husband that (I thought) God had promised. I got one out of three, and possibly a little more than I bargained for on that one, since one of my children may well be a child forever in many ways. But the other two prayers, while equally sincerely offered, were ignored. And you know, those would have been damn good prayers to answer if God wanted me to follow him and serve him with my husband in our church.

I left the worship team when Peter was a year old, supposedly because he needed me to care for him more full-time with his emerging autism, but I had actually left for a year earlier, not sure exactly what year it was. I was exhausted with the politics and the personal bullshit, and I was tired of trying to be involved in worship that I so rarely felt myself. I loved the music and the camaraderie, but my heart was rarely engaged, and this made me tired. Around that same time, I stopped teaching at ladies' Bible study in spite of an obvious gift for it, because I felt hypocritical trying to talk about a relationship toward God that was not one I strongly felt. I knew it was there intellectually, but it was hard to drum up the emotional counterpart to the thoughts.

And now, here I am, years down the road with that prayer still unanswered. I still can quote chapter and verse on just about anything, and the accompanying doctrine. I can still play the piano just as I always could. I can even still write music -- I sat down at the piano last week and a tune emerged along with ideas for lyrics. I can still come to church and shake hands and encourage people and look happy.

But the only time I have read my Bible in the last three years was for the church challenge to read it all in three months -- I decided to read it with the eyes of an unbeliever, just to see how it would look. It looked very scary, which is another story for another day.

Prayer left me a little more slowly than the Bible study did, but it eventually did as well. I have tossed up a few desperate "if you're listening" prayers for children who are lost, but all too often if he hears, he doesn't act, and those prayers are harder. I believe that my last authentic prayer occurred last January when Sharon, a Wiccan friend, died of cancer. I took a walk in the bitter cold, and stared up at the misty sky full of stars, and I said, "Well, God, you've got her now. What are you going to do with her?" Since I already knew the answer, I didn't feel any need to keep praying.

The music has always been one of the things that hung me up as far as questioning my faith retrospectively. How could I write anything that honored the Lord so much, that led people to worship, without it being a result of the Spirit? This was a real question, and this was always one of the things that gave me hope that I might someday find my way back to faith -- it was one of the evidences that my faith had at one point been real, and had borne real fruits.

Then I remembered Mozart. (Enough said, don't you think?)

That fruit, though. Remember the parable, about the seeds that fall all over the place and do what seeds naturally do under those circumstances? Remember the one that fell on the good ground but was choked up by weeds and died? Did you ever wonder about that seed? We always get hung up on the one that is planted in the shallow earth and then dies, because we want to know why people get saved and get all on fire for the Lord, and then a year later they're off being unbelievers again. It's a good parable for getting around that pesky verse about nobody being able to take us out of his hand -- voila, they were never really there! Shallow earth! Fake sheep! Phew, that had me worried.

But what about that one in the weeds? How tall did it get, do you wonder? Was it just a little sprout? Or was it maybe a tall and lovely tree? Did it go through autumns and winters and springs and summers, growing and bending in the breeze, bearing fruit, real fruit, and providing shade to those around it? Was it held up as an example of what a tree should be? And then did the ivy creep in, tangling in the roots and picking at the bark, blocking its light and stealing its nutrients? Did the tough vines wrap around the tree's branches, pulling and breaking them so that the leaves and the fruit died? Did the trunk finally snap and fall, cracking branches off its neighbors on the way down?

And was it the tree's fault? Was the tree like the Pharaoh of Moses' day, who served only as a warning to others? I remember the sickening realization that the Israelites were not the victims in the early chapters of Exodus -- Pharaoh was, and his son and all the sons of Egypt. We delight in the interplay between Moses and Pharaoh, the staging and the pageantry and the rhythm of the language as the Israelites' fate swings between freedom and death. But did you ever stop to think of how many times Pharaoh said they could go, only to have changed his mind by morning? We move past the words "God hardened his heart" in a hurry, rushing ahead to the next plague (can you say all ten in order for Bible Trivial Pursuit?) and we never stop to say "He did WHAT?!"

GOD hardened Pharaoh's heart? WHY? Just to make a good tale to tell around the Jewish firesides for centuries? And how did Pharaoh feel about it? When he awoke that morning and screamed his throat raw with the loss of his son, did he wonder what irresistible force had caused him to deny the Israelites their request after nine horrible plagues had destroyed his kingdom? Was Pharaoh really so bad, or did there just need to be ten for the story? The Israelites got away, and I have no problem with that. But Egypt was destroyed, crops gone, the river ruined, the economy destroyed, and broken mothers laying their sons into the ravaged ground. Why do we lay the blame at Pharaoh's feet when the text says something entirely different?

I have thought so many times of Pharaoh and his hard heart. There is no question that my heart is hard, but more and more I wonder if "hardened" is a more accurate description than the simpler but less descriptive "hard". If God has hardened my heart in the face of years of desperate and earnest prayers, how much of that is my fault? And what for? Am I simply to serve as an object lesson, another wounded soldier to point to and say "That is why you should never take pride because if she could fall, so could you"? Will my grief come in threes, or sevens or tens, to make a good tale? Will my brokenness make a good Flannelgraph?

What if I am that tree, that broken weed-choked tree whose reach for the light ends in the mud? Was my faith genuine? Or was I simply an incident in a parable? Was that music inspired? Or was I simply a talented tool in the hands of a God who wanted his people to worship, a modern mimicry of the brilliantly talented and brilliantly wicked Mozart? God can use anyone for his purposes, we always say. Any situation can be used to his glory. And what of those people, those unfortunates who were used to further his kingdom but never asked to be part of it? What of those who know, but are not called to believe?

When I read the true and living Word of God through the eyes of an unbeliever, what if those were the only eyes I had with which to read?