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.