Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Do or do not, there is no try

I love the start of Lent. Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite services; going up to have the priest put the sign of the Cross on my forehead gives me chill bumps every time. It's one of the few religious activities I can count on to be emotionally meaningful every time. And as many have noted, the beginning of Lent is great because you feel all spiritual and shit and get a thrill from your penances/ devotions/ whatever you decided to do. It's beautiful in a clean, pristine way, kind of like snow. Sometimes you even get that cool blue skies and sunshine over thick snow.

And then it gets grim. The snow starts melting, and in the city it's just gross. There's nothing pretty about that devotion anymore, and the penance starts to feel like penance. Instead of freshly fallen snow, you get that chilly, icy rain when it's 34 degrees that the weather channel calls a "wintry mix."

So it was cool when I got to see tulips on my way to the Easter Vigil, even though I'm struggling to feel the whole "Easter joy" thing. Usually I'm Easter's biggest fan, mostly because I love spring and am wimpy about cold. This time around, it feels anticlimactic. Maybe it's because we're moving the third, not the last, week in May, and I'm scrambling to get a new job. Maybe it's because we've discovered that those experiences I had working at a rape crisis center are still haunting me, that I'm not "over it." Maybe it's because the therapist says "it will be a long haul," and dear Jesus we've already had a long haul. We're ready for this 4-year Lent in our lives to be over.

I don't have a pithy statement to wrap it all, make it flowers and sunshine and beauty. At this juncture, spring is a choice, not just something that happens around April and May. I can choose life, choose to pursue healing and growth with a vengeance, or I can give up and throw myself into the fires of Mount Doom while clutching the ring, my precious despair and pride. I can smell the flowers or cough up the ashes, gorge myself on animal fodder or relish the feast. There's nothing I can do to pull myself up by some non-existent bootstraps, but I can turn in the right direction and stubbornly crawl.

"But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to new strength. Sam's plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair no weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue."

Friday, April 25, 2014

Seven Quick Takes: Easter

Everyone needs an Easter tradition: mine is breaking something. I don't mean breaking a plate; that's what normal people do. Last year I broke a glass coffee table that didn't even belong to us - as well as my husband's homemade Medieval helmet he had just finished making for a future Halloween costume. This year I broke the glass front of our microwave. It really takes the joy out of leftovers when you don't have a microwave to heat them up in. How did people survive when they had to use the stove or oven?

When you join a liturgical church from an evangelical or non-religious background, they really should warn you about the effect on your knees. I thought I was set thanks to all the gratuitous kneeling and genuflecting my church likes to do. Unfortunately I'd forgotten just how intense the Good Friday service is; I should have been doing squats and lunges.

Last year I tried to do way too much, so this year I scaled it back a bit. Unfortunately I still hadn't learned that your apartment should be completely clean prior to the Triduum, because you won't have time to touch it until Sunday, and then you're exhausted. Not to mention cooking a feast for 8 in a tiny kitchen. 

Proof that I'm still a novice at this: I wrote Trivium instead of Triduum, then decided I'd best look it up. I should probably figure these things out before we have our first church.

Don't talk to me about your gracious hospitality. I was scraping mashed potatoes into the serving dish as our guests arrived, hollering to know if anyone wanted wine or beer while I tried not to get potato in my hair.

That's why I steer clear of certain lifestyle-typed blogs. You know the ones: the gorgeous pictures of their newly painted furniture and crafts and homemade Advent wreaths and delicacies baked with homemade crusts. I almost cried when I read one blog say "Of course I had the table set and decorated by 9 a.m. the day of the party." 

Thankfully, my lack of housekeeping was supplemented by a dear friend of ours who brought delightful butternut squash and gluten-free chocolate brownies so I could have dessert. They didn't even taste gluten-free. The best part is that on Monday I had leftover chocolate brownie for breakfast. It's still Easter, don't judge me. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Thoughts on Ecumenism

There are holy, loving folk who throw themselves into Christian unity out of the goodness of their hearts. I've met them, and they are delightful people who see nothing extraordinary about their actions.

And then there are those of us who care about ecumenism because life forces us to.

When you grow up conservative Presbyterian, attend a Southern Baptist school, and marry an Episcopalian called to the priesthood, there's no choice. You have to deal with the fact that you and your parents now see the world differently. You have to deal with the fact that you will hear sermons at home that spur panic attacks - or rage. You have to deal with the fact that people you grew up and love would never take communion at your church. The pressure is great, even for people who move from one Protestant tradition to another. Heck, all I really had to do was get confirmed - imagine the pressure for those who have to be rebaptized. I can only imagine what it's like for Protestant converts to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, or vice versa. And at the very worst end of the spectrum are those whose parents disown them or their spouses divorce them, sometimes simply for changing denominations.

For those of us who speak multiple faith languages, there's a kind of dual citizenship or double consciousness. We end up being ambassadors for "the other" at every turn, or as interpreters in religious debates. (I can't tell you how many times I've said "Well, what he means by formation is sort of like discipleship -  we're not becoming pod people," etc.) We bilinguals are tempted to pride and arrogance too. Look at me, I can talk to everyone! Check out little miss peacemaker over here! Or more subtly - well, it's so nice that I straddle the fence, since now I can avoid the mistakes of both sides. I'm above all that. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Episcopalians who like to say "via media.")

Except you're not above anything - you're floundering in a sea of pride, hurt feelings, and confusion. And by you I mean me.

I'd love to write some insightful tips on becoming more ecumenical. Unfortunately, my own house stinks. I mock those I grew up with, eager to separate myself, to prove that I know better now. I pretend to be tolerant and then blow up over minor issues. I want to be part of the body of Christ as long as I can avoid the parts I don't like.

I have only one tip, and it's really a plea. There are many Christians who grieve for someone because they've fallen away - because their evangelical son became Eastern Orthodox and has an icon corner in his living room, or their daughter left the Baptists and joined the Catholic church at Easter, or their sedate, Episcopal husband had a religious experience and now attends the Pentecostal church where they speak in tongues, or their grandchildren are being raised as Methodists so the Calvinist grandparents sneak Lacrae CDs into their Christmas stockings. Did I miss anyone? OK, let me bring it home: my daughter decides that the Bible explicitly teaches Reformed theology, becomes OP because the PCA is too liberal, and has a classical homeschooling group with her church.

Now that we're all offended or worried, let me be clear: it's not our job to show them the light. They are adults. They are well aware of what you think, and they made a conscious decision to move elsewhere. You owe them respect - the respect of making their own decisions, teaching their children what they believe, and marrying someone who shares their thoughts.

And if you're the son/daughter/ husband/ wife, then take a good long look in the mirror before you get uppity.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Problem with "Giving Your Testimony"

Do you remember applying to colleges? You probably had to send your high school transcript, your SAT or ACT scores, a list of references, an essay, maybe a resume or list of extracurricular and volunteer activities. 

If you were applying to a Christian college, you could add writing your testimony to the list. 

Many Christian colleges require a testimony of some sort. For instance, to apply to Covenant College, the liberal arts college of the Presbyterian Church in America, you need to write an essay describing "your conversion experience, your assurance of salvation, and your walk with the Lord." More liberal colleges such as Asbury in Kentucky may ask for a character reference, which allows for the possibility of ethical but not evangelical applicants. Patrick Henry, a fundamentalist college that actively recruits homeschoolers, asks prospective students to discern "how your Christian faith affects your thinking," which makes sense for a school that produces politicians and activists. It takes different forms, but the main point stands: you are asked to produce a written document proving that you have a valid relationship with God. 

As a senior in high school I applied to Covenant and was accepted, though by the grace of God I went somewhere else. I don't think they've changed the essay question since then, because I remember agonizing over those first two phrases: conversion experience and assurance of salvation. I also remember that what I wrote was a bald-faced lie.

In any classic evangelical testimony there is a conversion experience. It has historical roots in various Protestant renewal movements, particularly the Methodist movement in England and the Second Great Awakening in America. Many of the religious conventions evangelicals take for granted came from these movements, especially the notion of a lightning-strike "road to Damascus" conversion experience. For some folks it really fit: I've heard stories of alcoholics and drug-addicts who hit rock bottom, the gutter experience as they say in AA, and were rescued from their plight by Jesus. The other popular iteration was the backslider story: a young boy who was "raised right" but went astray in high school, started hanging with the wrong crowd, got tattoos and piercings, got a girl pregnant and forced her to have an abortion, started selling dope. Eventually they see the error of their ways like the prodigal son and return to God and church and clean living. 

Of course, if you were raised in the church, gradually came to know God, and kept out of trouble, your story was boring as hell. 

The Baptist kids I went to school with all had the same testimony. Susie gets baptized as a little kid after going down the aisle at a church service and praying the sinner's prayer during the altar call. Since Susie's family is hard-core Baptist, she grows up going to Sunday school, "adult church," Sunday night church, and Wednesday night church, as well as VBS in the summer. She attends AWANA, can do a mean sword drill, and knows how to wield a hand puppet. She's stumped around in over-sized robes as an angel in the Christian play, and she knows all the words and hand motions to He's My Rock My Sword My Shield. 

Then Susie hits puberty, and middle school, and starts having crushes and boys, and starts her period and has to try on bras with her mom and an elderly sales clerk. Naturally this creates great drama, and in all the emotional turmoil Susie begins to question her identity, wonder who she really is and what she really believes. Somewhere between 12 and 14, Susie decides that she really didn't know what she was doing when she got baptized at 5, so she talks to the pastor about it and gets re-baptized. This is considered every bit as valid as the first baptism - more so in fact, because this time Susie is older and her opinions are more developed. 

Unfortunately, baptism doesn't solve her problems. It's hard to know if you're really truly saved, if you really truly know that you'd go to heaven if you died this minute. Certain catalysts were sure to cause this crisis: watching The Passion of the Christ, hearing a "back from the brink of death" story, going to summer camp and hearing all the counselors tell their testimonies, revival services, even a particularly poignant sermon. At each catalyst, Susie "rededicates her life to Christ," probably by walking down the aisle during an altar call and filling out a piece of paper. She checks the box that says "I want to rededicate my life to Christ," and for awhile she feels safe. Then the doubts come niggling again. 

So when Susie reads a college application that says "tell your conversion experience" and "give your assurance of salvation," what is she supposed to write? She hasn't had a conversion experience - she's had an emotional roller coaster of faith littered with little conversions. Worst of all, in the dark when she's alone, her heart admits that she has no assurance of salvation. She has nightmares about hell; she worries that demons will infect her soul if she becomes friends with an atheist; she has questions about evolution but stifles them, terrified that her soul is in jeopardy from these questions. She has a purity ring but secretly longs to make out with the cute boy in math class. Unfortunately, these normal adolescent feelings have been spiritualized and blown out of proportion, so that even a normal crush is seen as a spiritual crisis. Susie believes, intellectually, in once-saved-always-saved, but that doesn't really answer the question. How does one know? What is this assurance of salvation, and how does one get it? 

Big questions Susie, but this is crunch time. You've got a stack of applications to fill out, all to colleges you long to attend. You could go to a state school, but you've had your eye on a couple of Christian colleges, wondering if you could get a scholarship. Your grades are good, you've gone on mission trips to Mexico and taught backyard Bible clubs and coached the church T-ball team, so your chances are good. This essay question is all that stands in your way. 

Sighing, Susie begins to construct an answer that will satisfy the college admissions board. It can't be outrageous, but it can't be exactly the truth either. Thankfully it doesn't matter, because no one knows her doubts and fears. Her pastor's reference won't reveal anything amiss. 

She starts her essay with "As a child brought up in the fear and admonition of the Lord, I was always aware of God's presence. However, as a teenager my conscience was pricked by a desire to go deeper...." 

What Did I Miss?

Being away from blogs during Lent was a really, really good thing. This is not to say that I was holy and pious and kept to my plans with tenacity (yeah not so much). This is just to say that it was a nice re-set button for me.

One thing I realized is that the world can do just fine without my input. That's obvious, and I knew it already, and yet I was constantly commenting, responding to other people's comments, keeping up with all the drama. It's good to know how small I am.

Another good thing was that life became more localized. I stopped being a wannabe Catholic and accepted that, for now anyway, I'm Episcopalian with some Catholic-leanings, and I'm content with that. I realized that my local parish has been my rock and support while I was far away from my friends back home, and it hit me just how many people to whom I owe a great debt.

I also recognized the parts of blogging that are beneficial. I enjoy making connections with people from other faith traditions and other parts of the country (and sometimes even other countries!). I enjoy reading insightful pieces and learning new things. And I relish the "newsy" aspect - like when I checked These Walls on my way to work to learn that Julie gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Congratulations!

And then there's the underbelly. For instance, I completely missed that whole dust-up about a bride-to-be making naive remarks about marriage in Catholic Exchange until I saw a write up on Darwin Catholic (which was actually quite lovely). My initial response, I'm sad to say, was to start up the search engine and dig up all the posts - to see what Simcha and Lecretia and all the rest had to say. But just thinking about it made me tired. Drama is exhausting, and at the end of the day I would learn nothing new. Besides which, it's yesterday's news - maybe now there's some other Big Idea Which Must Be Discussed. It will probably be equally inspiring.

Sarcasm aside, I'm glad to be writing again, and I'm glad to be checking in with folks. So since I did in fact "miss everything," what gems did you see along the way? How was your Lent and Easter? And what's new in your lives?