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.