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?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I Once Was Found, But Now Am Lost

Yes, yes, I know, not lost lost because of eternal security and everything. He loseth none of his sheep, he holds them in his hand, and NO they can't jump out of his hand, quit asking all those questions and color your sheep picture.

Still ... lost.

I haven't the faintest clue what I believe any more, and it is surprisingly disconcerting. That's one of the issues with building your life around a framework like this -- when it gets mushy, there's not much left to hold things up.

I had yet another very, very bad day today. It appears that whiskey was a bit more of a coping mechanism than I thought, and the combination of several factors (including sobriety) crashing together in the last few weeks has made me cry more this month than I think I did in the whole year before. I really hate crying, so that is significant.

It started with marriage stuff, but drifted into spiritual stuff, and it's all so interrelated when your marriage and your life and your family is built on the foundation of your spirituality. When the foundation begins to crumble, it's not too surprising when the rest of it starts to go. (What DO unbelievers build on? It must be something, or they would all just be walking around crying all the time.)

I was so sure of everything I knew before, and everyone around me was so sure, and there was no reason to question it. There were lots of reasons not to, that's for sure. We were told so much about how wretchedly unhappy unbelievers were without the Lord as their Rock upon which to build their lives. The funny thing is, I'm not all that sure it's true.

Now that I actually know a few unbelievers as an adult, not just the kids I once knew in high school, I am realizing that I was sold a line of bullshit. They're not miserable! Some of them are pretty damn happy. They do not envy me and my holy lifestyle. They do not want to be just like me. They do not, deep down, wish that they had something more solid to hang onto. They do not appear to have a God-shaped hole in their hearts.

Instead, they look at Christians and the way we act, and they say "Um, thanks but no thanks." And it's not even just the really awful ones, who go blaring about sin and homosexuals and The American Way. Even the nice, normal ones who simply talk about Christian things the way they would in Sunday School end up being offensive just by virtue of what they say.

They say we are judgmental. Well, even if we aren't personally judgmental, our doctrine is by its very nature. It sets forth a standard that nobody meets, so of course people are going to feel like they're being judged -- they ARE. Of course we say it's GOD doing the judging, not us, but since He doesn't seem to talk very loudly and we are the ones saying the actual words, it sure as hell sounds like we're judging.

They say that our religion is exclusive and narrow-minded. It is. They are right. There is no arguing it. It excludes everyone who doesn't believe, because if they don't believe, they are wrong. It is narrow-minded because we walk a narrow path -- being less narrow dilutes the doctrine into something that no longer holds meaning. So they are right, and we have no real defense.

They say that our religion is barbaric. They are right. It is. We do believe that all who don't believe will spend an eternity suffering untold punishment, and (to add insult to severe injury) it's THEIR FAULT. We also believe that some are chosen and some are not, but even for the ones who are not chosen, it's still their fault. There really isn't a nice way to admit that yes, we do believe in a literal hell.

They say that our religion is irrational. They are right, and we have the nerve to take pride in it. We say, "Yes, you must have faith", with the stage-whispered subtext of "I am so wonderful, I have faith." But faith is by definition irrational, and to someone who has no faith, there is nothing to draw them to our belief, nothing to make them WANT to give up rational thought. What even slightly intelligent person would want to try to believe something absurd, an invisible silent God whose plan for your life somehow involves an historical figure who is supposed to have died, but then come back to life in defiance of the laws of physics and nature itself? Where is the appeal?

And I guess that's my question. Why would ANYONE want to become a Christian? From what we believe of election, the only reason people seek God out is that he draws them to him. So why are we so surprised when unbelievers look at us as if we have lost our last remaining marble? We make no sense, and we wave that fact as our battle flag! Why would they want to find out what we mean, what would motivate them to dig into the murky circles of logic by which we find comfort in spite of the various horrors of our belief system?

How, tell me, how is this love? How does this show the love of God, that he set up a system that would repel the curious even as it excludes them? Why is it so offensive? Why are we not angered that it is a stone that makes men stumble and a rock that makes them fall? Why build men's minds for logic, why drench them in sin from their first breath, and then make their only hope of salvation dependent on a faith that requires the abandonment of that logic? Why make them, if only to be destroyed?

Would we honor a mother who killed three of her four children and explained that it was their fault for being bad? Would we expect the surviving child to praise and love her because he was grateful at having been spared? Would he write poetry and sing songs in her honor, and declare her mercy at having not drowned him in the bathtub?

Or would we just arrest her?

I think the framework is real. I think it works for those who can avoid the world outside it. I just don't know if I can do that any more.

But I Don't WANT To Go To Church on Sunday.

Interesting e-mail exchange with the new unofficial worship pastor (because God forbid we actually hire one). I told him I didn't want to be back on the rotation after all because I am still struggling, and because of how I feel about the church in general, Bethany in particular, and Tim in really particular. He said one of the first actually thoughtful (as in using the brain) things that anyone has said in this whole process:

"I hear what you are saying and you may have every reason to want to pull away from the church, God or whatever."

What? You're kidding! Doubt and anger might be, you know, valid? What a concept!

I call it a process, but that's too formal a word, and that's part of what makes me so fucking mad. There hasn't been a process. I left, for somewhat nebulous reasons, after the first Sunday of April 2005 when I realized that a) I shouldn't be playing for Communion if I couldn't take Communion, b) Tim was never going to listen to me even if I said the exact same thing once a week and put it on a poster in his office in big red letters, and c) no matter what else changed, I was still going to be a girl and Bethany don't do deaconesses, so leadership of a mixed group was going to be right out.

And there was a great outpouring of prayer and support for me in my time of trial, and people surrounded me with love and offered to help with Peter and pray for me and help me have a coherent conversation with Tim. Wow ... it's kind of hard to imagine how differently the last 2.5 years might have panned out if that had happened.

Instead, it was just the occasional "We sure miss seeing you up there!" Which was nice, in its 3-second little way, but I can't help but think it is odd that a person could go from my level of ministry to barely attending services without anybody noticing. I can't help but think that if I didn't take the kids to Sunday School and put money in the offering plate, it would have gotten noticed a little sooner.

So, here it is, almost three years later, and of all things a quick e-mail about the worship team schedule produces the first truly human response to my leaving. (Now there's an odd thought. I typed "human" when I think I meant "godly", but I think maybe I did mean what I typed. Another essay for another day.) And he even has the good sense to acknowledge that a little distance might be understandable. Not sure what to make of that.

I guess what I'm coming down to is that regardless of my struggles, regardless of how I left and what I said then and what people chose to believe (which are not the same thing), they have lost the right to swoop in and make me come back. We are so good at "lovingly confronting" people when we have our little step-by-step instructions. But after nearly three years of floating free without notice or concern, I no longer feel obligated to submit myself to those instructions. Tim is only my pastor in that he is the pastor of the church of which I am a member -- he is no way my pastor. He gave up that right long ago. The deacons and shepherds who watched this servant bow and buckle under the strain of unacknowledged leadership are not my deacons and shepherds. I may claim a few of the church members as family, but I can hardly say the church family as a whole is my church family. They like what I wrote, but what I wrote and who I am are practically separate realities now. In what way am I under their jurisdiction?

I still need to sort out what I do and don't believe, and to what extent I can worship or pray or study. For now though, I want to do that as separately from the church as possible. I don't think it has particularly helped me in the last several years.

They say we shoot our wounded -- how much kinder that would have been. How much more cruel for them to bend over my bleeding, aching body and say, "It's so nice to see you today! We really miss having you carry your part of the load. Hope you can come back some day!"

This is not my army now. They will have to march without me.