Losing my religion

24 04 2015

It’s no real secret that religion and I have parted ways.  It’s been long enough that I’ve written about it here, talked to all my family members, and even changed all my profile descriptions on the various social media platforms.  There was a time I apologized for it.  I tried to hang on to my lifelong label of “Christian,” with the clumsy modifier of “…but not one of THOSE Christians.”

My distrust of organized religion has only grown in the years since I left the church.  I follow a few progressive writers, and I appreciate what they say.  Some of them have found a way to return to church; for a time it gave me a pang that I couldn’t find a way to do the same thing, but now it gets not much more than a shrug of acknowledgement.

Other writers are in the same place I am, and speak eloquently of why they left and didn’t look back.  Their postings are almost inevitably followed by comments that tell them why they are wrong and weak and willful and not really Christians.  Okay, then.  I give.  The Real Christians can have the label.  They say I don’t deserve the label they wear.  They’re probably right, and I don’t really want it anyway.

It is discouraging.  It would be so easy to snark about how they are demonstrating precisely the problem that is killing their Real Christian Churches – and there is surely a lot of that type of response in the comments section.  I just can’t.  Jesus would not have ever responded by telling me that my pain just meant I was wrong and weak and willful and not really someone he wanted to know.  If I really do want to hold to Jesus’ revolutionary and transformative example, I can’t come back at the Real Christians with sarcasm guns blazing.

There’s a lost-in-the-wilderness feeling about this.  The mainstream atheist community can get every bit as condescending and pretentious as conservative religion.  Progressive Christianity can get caught up in No True Scotsman arguments, which get nobody anywhere.  Those of us who genuinely long for that mystic experience of communion – both with creation and with each other – are left without the community we hope for.  We instead end up in solo practice.  We see each other when our paths draw near, but the paths rarely seem to join.  It is a blessed relief to meet a kindred spirit out here.  But it comes with the certainty of transience, that you will be moving on from this place of meeting and communion.

This is, perhaps, another manifestation of the new normal.  That the faith community I once relied on as being so solid and unchangeable, simply evaporated from around me; what I thought was solid ground was really just fog.  Now the journey is more like lace – open, airy, strands twisted together and then separating, with a design that makes no sense up close.  I want to believe that my life journey, along with the journeys of so many others, is making something beautiful.



20 11 2013

Today the governor of Illinois will sign the law that legalizes same-sex marriage in Illinois.  Not just civil unions… actual marriage.  After years of hoping and working, this is finally becoming a reality.  And I am overjoyed.   It has been far too long in coming and will be nothing but a blessing – to those who can now finally have the legal status they always deserved, to the families they are building together, to the friends and family who love them, and even to those who say that it doesn’t affect them.

Of course it doesn’t stop the conservative, religious, “pro-family” types from spewing their own particular brand of venom.  We have a bishop down in Springfield who will be doing an exorcism today – on the governor? the legislators?  someone? – anyway, to rid Illinois of the evil spirits of (I guess) inclusion, love, and tolerance.

Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, predictably, penned a sniffy letter that went out to all the churches in his diocese.  In a moment of apparently unintentional irony, he wrote this:

We are called, by reason of our belief that every person is made in God’s image and likeness, to love and respect all of our brothers and sisters, without exception. But we express this respect within the context of our belief in how God has made us and made the world.

So:  Right after the words “without exception,” we see the word “but”.  This is precisely comparable to the construction “I’m not a racist, but…”  Dear Cardinal George: You have made it abundantly obvious that your “love and respect” comes with limits.  But by all means, continue to lead your church into what you’d like to think of as the moral high ground.  Where you’re actually leading them is into the shallows of irrelevancy.

And at this point I must include my favorite blog comment on our cardinal: 

Since he has the word “Cardinal” in his name, he should stop talking about gay marriage and start doing more cardinal-ly things, like going around in a bright red suit to all the local bird feeders and climbing the tallest tree in the neighbor and singing so that all of the other cardinals in the neighbor know this territory is his. 

As much as I love this image (oh, how I love this image), I’d like to see the cardinal – and  by extension, the church he leads – addressing actual social problems like urban violence (not that we have any of that in Chicago), poverty and income inequality (yeah, none of that either), homelessness (naah…), or pedophilia in the clergy (what pedophilia?).  Instead of spending the millions of dollars opposing the legislation, how about putting the money some place where people would actually be helped instead of hurt?

I will never in my life understand what is so threatening to religious conservatives about same-sex marriage, how their own marriages can somehow be mysteriously affected by anyone else’s.    The sanctity of a marriage comes from the people in it.  It isn’t magically conferred by either state or church, and isn’t taken away by people who don’t do marriage the same way you do.

Thankfully, there are people of faith who are responding to this legislation with love and joy.  On the day that the bill passed the Illinois house, the Right Reverend Jeffrey Lee, Bishop of Chicago, wrote this:

I believe that marriage is a sacred vocation. The union of two persons in heart, body and mind is a school of holiness, a way of ordering our lives so that we might learn to be more faithful servants of Christ. I also believe that the faithful, loving, and lifelong union of two persons–of the same sex or of opposite sexes–is capable of signifying the never failing love of God in Christ for the church and the world. Such unions can be sources and signs of grace, both for the couple and for the wider community. And I believe that we need all of the sources and signs of grace that we can get.

Amen, my friends.  Grace to you, and to all of us, on this day of widening equality and justice.


20 06 2013

I’m leaving for a two week vacation in France on Saturday.  Today is Thursday.   I have reached the “Okay, I’m done with this week” point, and I still have two more work days to get through.  It’s not like it’s awful here at work.  I just have my mind pointed somewhere else right now, and coming in here feels like an annoyance more than anything else.

Weirdly, one of the things weighing on me this week has been my former church.  I’m still connected to a bunch of people from there on Facebook, and it seems that this week was their meeting with the presbytery.  And at that meeting my former church was dismissed from PC-USA to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  Many of the Facebook postings expressed their joy at the outcome, which would be hard on its own given what this split did to so many people.  But then there are the added notes of how they’ll now be able to follow Jesus.  And those kind of make my head explode – in a furious, rage-y, not-at-all Christian sort of way.

“Now we can follow Jesus.”  Implications: We couldn’t before.  The people who left us didn’t and still don’t.  PC-USA and the people in their churches don’t.

So it turns out that this whole thing still does have the ability to make me angry.  I talked briefly about it with my mother yesterday.  She is undoubtedly more level-headed than I am about this – in her view, she doesn’t wish them any ill, and hopes that they can make it on their own terms.  While I’m seeing the congregation as it now exists as a festering pool of bigotry, fear, and misogyny that deserves to go down in flames… and I’m hoping that it does.

I’ve been reading in atheist blogs for the last few days – oddly enough, even before the news from the former church came out.  Greta Christina has been especially helpful to me.  She wrote a brilliant column six years ago on why atheists are angry, and she pulled very few punches.  It really is one of those “shut up and listen” pieces, where I need to turn off all my defenses for faith and religious practices to hear what she’s saying.  I need to check my own privilege, to not automatically fall back on “But I’m not like that!”

The truth is that I have been part of a religion that has systematically oppressed and marginalized huge swaths of humanity.  And while I wasn’t an active participant, I was still there as a passive presence… those years, decades, in the former church, knowing that they stood for something I didn’t, and telling myself that I could make a difference from the inside.  It was a lie.  I didn’t change anything; all my presence did was let them believe that I consented.

I’m as angry at myself as I am at them.

I found myself thinking last night about my history there, what I would feel if the congregation did go under.  I don’t know what the presbytery’s decision was regarding the building; historically the church buildings have belonged to the presbytery, so if a congregation wants to leave the denomination they have to leave the building behind.  I suspect that the presbytery in this case let them keep the building, or I would have seen more shouting on Facebook.  So I was wondering how I’d feel with seeing the church shrink and die, unable to keep up with the maintenance of a 150-year-old building, given how much of my life was tied into experiences in that building.  I had the oddest sensation of grief past, how you feel when you remember a great loss.  I haven’t entered that church since the day of the congregational meeting.  That was the day that my church died for me.


2 04 2013

If you see Jesus’ death as part of the divine plan, as part of the will of God, that suggests that God required the suffering of this immeasurably great man. It is never the will of God that an innocent person be crucified, and to suggest that is to suggest something horrible about God.

If, on the other hand, we understand the language of Jesus’s being the sacrifice for sin as a post-Easter interpretation of his death that emerges within the early Christian community, we can then see that, metaphorically, it’s a proclamation of radical grace. The connection is this: If Jesus is the once and for all sacrifice for sin, understood metaphorically now, it means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God. It means that God accepts us just as we are and that the Christian life is not about getting right with God. God’s already taken care of that. The Christian life becomes about something else, namely, living within this framework of radical trust in God and relationship to God that makes possible our transformation, and, ideally and ultimately, the transformation of the world.

—Dr. Marcus Borg

I spent most of my life in what I thought was a mainline Protestant denomination.  The church was nominally part of the Presbyterian Church – USA, which overall wasn’t nearly as restrictive as, say, Southern Baptists.  We could drink, we could dance, we could play cards.  Over time I got a sense that my congregation was on the rightish edge of PC-USA, but I figured there was enough theological wiggle room to make it work.

I’ve written before about the crisis that finally forced me out of that church, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it here.  The pain of that parting was intense and lasting, and it has kept me out of organized religion for the last year.  But it has also freed me to find my own way to God, to reinterpret  what the church told me for years.  And it has given me the freedom to reject completely the theology of guilt and fear that I accepted as a given for most of my life.

For much my life I accepted the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the idea that man was so evil, and God so unbendingly “just” that someone, somewhere, was gonna get it for all that sin.  It was presented as almost out of God’s hands, that the biblical (and therefore godly) definition of justice meant that someone had to pay.  And because mankind was so irredeemably rotten, Jesus was the sacrifice, the utterly innocent atonement for all our sin.  As a child, it made sense; as an adult and more importantly, a parent, it fell apart.  I couldn’t (and still can’t) fathom the idea that someone completely undeserving of the fate was pretty much created and born just so God could get His vengeance on.

That doctrine leads to fathomless guilt – “Jesus SUFFERED and DIED for YOUR SINS!!!!”  I heard again and again that I had to rely on grace, because my own sin was such an integral part of me that I could never, ever be good enough – but that didn’t let me out of the obligation to work harder, strive more for holiness, even as all the effort was utterly futile.  The same people supposedly proclaiming the grace of God were handing out a list of rules for how to be more godly, and at the same time telling me that nothing I could do would ever get me there.  None of it would ever be good enough.  Grace was necessary, but not sufficient, and it came filled with hooks.

Last year, in one of the few times that I attended a service post-crisis, the minister preached on grace.  But what she offered was real grace, true good news – that Christ’s act in going willingly to the cross was enough, sufficient for all of humanity, and that grace flows in abundance for all of us.  Grace washes over us like a river – all of us, whether we reach out for it or not, whether we profess belief in Jesus or not… grace is simply there, as God’s overwhelming love for the creation and all the lives in it.

And I realized, after five decades as a Christian, that I had never really heard the good news.

I cried through that sermon.  My eyes fill again when I think of it… remembering how my heart rose up and finally said yes, this is truth.  Saying that God is love is not some remnant of the 1970s Jesus movement, but instead a powerful statement of absolute truth.  God so loves humanity that God became incarnate – actually put on flesh and blood, and signed on for several decades of sweat and smell and desire and frustration, just to understand our existence fully.  That’s how enchanting we are to our creator, how much love we’re bathed in.  And that isn’t a God who creates a perfect sacrifice just so He has someone worthy of smiting.

So, God is no distant deity in some pure heaven far away. God is with us on earth in our horror, our terror, our violence, and our suffering. God refuses to add to the evil and violence, but instead responds with vulnerable, compassionate love. That’s how God wins. The resurrection of Jesus proclaims that love is more powerful than hate, compassion triumphs over oppression, and vulnerability overcomes power. Jesus invites us to put our trust in God, even in the face of horror, oppression, cruelty and death. God is with us. God feels and suffers deeply with us. And, what God does best is to bring life out of death.

—Lowell Grisham

The Creator loves you.  Infinitely.  Freely.  And what you are, right here and right now, is enough.  Because when Jesus whispered “It is finished”… he meant it.

I will live

4 03 2013

(Listen to the song here.)

Since the crumbling of my relationship with my old church, I’ve found it very difficult to find my way back to any kind of worship.  Even sitting in a church makes me feel uncomfortable – it feels psychically cold and damp, all hard surfaces and windows too clouded to admit light.  I don’t know how to explain it, the kind of damage the old church did to me; probably dwelling on it doesn’t make it any better and maybe even makes it seem worse than it was.

Nonetheless… I miss the feel of church.  The sense of fellowship, of being lifted up by the music to a spiritual awareness of joy in God.  I did find a more modern church to join, one that is much more inclusive of gender and sexual identities.  The minister is a woman.  She is a good, loving, compassionate Christian who speaks eloquently to the Christian life.  I think maybe I’m in a place now where theology isn’t working for me any more.  I want to feel the presence of spirit.  You can’t talk your way to that place.

I’ve known for years that music will reach me when nearly nothing else will.  When I shut down in response to sorrow or stress, I may not be able to hear the voices of those who love me – but I can still hear music.  So on Saturday I went to a gospel concert sponsored by our community college.   I went  with my mother, and we were in a really REALLY tiny minority of whiteness. (Which is sad… and maybe the subject of another post some day.)   The theater was filled with people of color from all over northern Illinois; I think local churches were promoting the concert to their congregations, so it was like each church had its own enthusiastic cheering section.  And when the concert started?  No longer a concert… but a heartfelt response of joy and acclamation that rose from the audience and the performers for nearly four hours.   There was the initial discomfort of being in the middle of people who pretty obviously had some different church habits than I did – Presbyterians aren’t called God’s Frozen Chosen for nothing – but it passed and was replaced by a spiritual uplift that I haven’t felt in years.

Charles Jenkins and Fellowship Chicago opened the second half.  And before they even got into what I would call a song, Jenkins reminded the audience of Jesus’ promise of “abundant life” (John 10:10).  That particular verse has been twisted into the prosperity gospel, where if you are Jesusy enough, you get rich.  (Yeah.  I do have a problem with that.)  Saturday night, though, I heard that abundant life means having the tools to live… to engage with life, be part of it, to take the chances and the risks to taste and smell and feel and experience all of it.  An abundant, fully engaged life is what we are meant to have – not just something that occupies the brain, but that touches our hearts, invites us to feel and love without fear.    Or more precisely, to feel the fear and to love anyway.

The framing on Saturday was Christian.  It doesn’t have to be.  I know what I felt on Saturday, though, claiming my right to live, and live fully.  There have been some rough things in the last few years that have hit hard – I lost my husband, my church, my career.  The temptation after a few blows like that is to keep my head down and stay with the herd – so I am surrounded by a sea of churning legs, but at least I have the illusion of being safe.

I want to live.  Abundantly.  Fully.  Probably not safely, or at least not in the way I’ve been thinking of safety.  And not within the confines of narrow theology, of God contained in dense verbiage.  I’ve listened for years, decades even, as preachers and ministers tell me I can’t trust my own feelings and my own experience of God, that flesh can’t be trusted, that nothing can be trusted except their version of the Word of God.  The safety of theology denies the abundance of the human experience, an experience so real and true and vital that God became incarnate.  How can the church take that incarnation, something so central to their belief system, and turn it into the vilest sin?  And why has it taken me 50 years to get here?

I want to live.  I choose to live.

(For real… listen to this.)