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.


Strong is hard

1 10 2014

I have written of my son’s lovely partner, of the illness that her family is dealing with.  It came to an end a few weeks ago when her father died, felled by a cancer that had been diagnosed three months earlier.  Three months.  It is no time at all.

It is normal, in the face of great loss, to rationalize that what you’re going through isn’t as bad as what others have gone through.  So in the days after this wonderful man died, his widow held my hands and told me again and again how my experience had been so much worse, how she didn’t have it so bad because she had had the time to say everything that needed to be said.  I get that.  I lost my husband very suddenly.

But we too had said everything that needed to be said.  We spent a lifetime doing it, and the last thing we said to each other was “I love you”.  There is nothing else.  And I didn’t have to see him sick, or in pain, or suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy.  I didn’t have to see him afraid of what would happen to his family.  He lived until he was done.  And then he stopped.  It was sudden, and shocking, and I was left in the aftermath.

But that is true of every death, regardless of how you get there.  A lingering decline or a sudden exit, the final silence is a shock.


His widow told my son a few nights ago that she wished she could be more like me, that I was so strong and independent.    I am.  I don’t always feel that way, but overall, yes.  I take care of things.

And she will as well, for the same reason: there isn’t a choice.  She will take care of things because nobody else can or will, and these things must be done.  She will take care of emptying the house, of figuring out what the next step is.  She will deal with the loneliness of an empty bed.  She will straighten out the finances, cook for just herself, shovel her own walks when the snow begins to fall.  These things are hard.  She will become strong by doing these hard things.

Being strong is good.  People speak admiringly of strength.

Becoming strong is hard.


25 04 2014

I ran into this on Facebook this morning:

Ok prayer warriors. I need some help. I’ve been on meds for 4 days, and am truly feeling a good deal better. However, the cough is just not getting better. I intend to call the doctor in the morning, but on the meantime, would you seek The Lord with me that he will heal. I am a very impatient sick person, but just really want back to the task of ministering ASAP.

On the one hand: it’s awesome to know you need help, and to be able to ask for it.  A lot of my own suffering is of the self-inflicted I-can-handle-this type.  Heaven knows how much easier my life would be if I would sometimes sit back and say, you know what, this IS too much for me to handle.

But here’s what I don’t get: the concept of the Prayer Warrior.  Let’s not even get into the weirdly violent imagery for something so deeply personal and internalized.   It seems predicated on the notion that God isn’t going to notice that you’re sick or in need unless you pray about it.  And that same God is going to notice more if lots of petitions come in for the same issue.  Does God have an administrative assistant keeping track of inbox messages?  Some sort of automated tally counter that decides what should be intervened with that day?

What kind of God is that?  What kind of creator doesn’t take care of a beloved creation unless asked to do so?  What parent would see that their child has a need, and then wait for that child to ask for that need to be met?  “I would have given you breakfast, but you didn’t ask for it…” Really?  Is that the kind of God people actually believe in?

It’s not that I dismiss the power of prayer.  I think it is quite powerful.  But I think it has absolutely zero impact on the Creator Mind.  The intelligence and awesome power of that mind is already abundantly aware of what’s happening in the universe.  Prayer, if it enters that consciousness at all, is merely a reminder of what the Creator already knows.

So what is the point of prayer?  There are different kinds – there are petitions like what the poster above is asking for, divine intervention in a situation that seemingly cannot be fixed by human means.  There are prayers for guidance.  Prayer of gratitude, of thanksgiving.  But what unifies all of them is not the Creator’s response to them.  What those prayers have in common, what they actually do, is to bring us into closer communion with the Creator.  Ideally, prayer brings our own frequency into harmony with the resonance of the universe itself.

Less than ideally, though… there is such a thing as bad prayer.  There are people out there sincerely praying for death, destruction, mayhem… think Westboro Baptist, but they are far from the only ones.  It is tempting to dismiss them as crackpots who don’t matter, to live happily with the illusion that if you ignore them, they’ll go away.  But their prayers and petitions are clashing disharmony.  They foul the universal music for everyone.  Returning their anger and evil with our own wrath does nothing to rebalance the harmony. It serves only to make the noise louder.  Only the steady and rising power of relentless love and true justice can finally resolve that dissonance.

They say prayer has the power to change the world.  They’re right.  But the power of prayer isn’t in the response from the Creator.  The power is in the response from us.


16 01 2014

My chorus has started working on the music for our next concert.  We tend to do our most dramatic pieces in the March concert, due in no small part to what this time of year signifies in the Christian liturgical calendar.  We’re doing MacMillan’s “Seven Last Words From the Cross” and Lauridsen’s  “Lux Aeterna”… first we crush you with the crucifixion, then we comfort with the promise of eternal light and rest.

I was raised as a Christian.  And even though I have recently veered more in the direction of Unitarian Universalism, all those years of living through the repeating church seasons left a lasting mark on me.  As a child, Christmas is of course the big one. Singing angels!  Rich kings bringing presents!   Everyone bringing presents!

It’s only as you get older that you come to understand the significance of Easter; for me, the importance of Lent was even slower in coming.  I remember vividly the first time I fully participated in Holy Week activities at our church in St. Louis – from the jubilation of Palm Sunday, to the intimate contemplation of Maundy Thursday, to the darkness and despair of Good Friday.  The tenebrae service in that church was unflinching – as the pieces of scripture were read, telling the story, lights were turned out one by one through the church.  The service ended in darkness and we went home in silence; it was the first time I had ever experienced real grief over the crucifixion, and it lingered into the next day.  Easter Sunday, then, was an explosion of joy and thanksgiving that I had never felt before.

That experience has never left me.  So the music we sing during the season of Lent and Easter still moves me in profound ways, and I love singing this music with my chorus.  Rehearsing the MacMillan last night was deeply moving, and I could see it doing the same thing to those that I know don’t have the same religious background I do.  And I found myself wondering – could I find myself similarly moved singing something like this about a religious figure I hadn’t been raised with?  The Christian narrative is familiar to nearly everyone in the United States… but how many other narratives are out there that I don’t know about, that I won’t ever get to sing about?

The answer is that of course I could find a way to connect with another narrative, because as much as this piece is framed by Christian belief, it is also the story of a good man who spent his life loving and encouraging others, only to see the wheels come completely off in the space of a week.  My connection to this wrenching story isn’t based on Jesus as Messiah.  Whether or not you accept the idea that Christ knew who and what he was, and what was expected of him, the story of that last week is brutal and terrifying.  If you really believe that Jesus was fully human, you have to also believe that he was afraid of what he knew was coming.  His night in Gethsemane showed his anguish in not wanting to go through with it, in actually praying that it wouldn’t happen.

The story told during Holy Week – or Passion Week, if you prefer – is tragic and awful.  It’s literally sickening if I spend too much time thinking about it.  I think we have to, though.  Most churches (and really, most Christians) focus very strongly on the yay-we-win of Easter, and not so much on the actual meaning of Christ’s excruciating and humiliating final hours.

I’ve mentioned in other postings that I no longer subscribe to the idea of substitutionary atonement.  I don’t believe that Jesus was created just so God could beat the crap out of him to prove how just God is – because really, what kind of justice would that even be?  But there are things that I do believe about the crucifixion and the resurrection:

I believe that God has reached out to God’s creation again and again.  Countless times that have been recorded in the scriptures of the world, and probably many more times through people who never had books written about them.

I believe that God sent Jesus to the world, reaching out to reconcile the world to God.

I believe that Jesus resisted this idea for a while.  Other biblical heroes have stories of telling God “You’ve picked the wrong person!”  I believe that Jesus had a similar story that didn’t fit the early church’s framing of what Jesus was for and about, and so it never got included in the scriptures.  But I think there’s a reason we don’t hear about what Jesus did for over fifteen years.

I believe that when Jesus did embark on his ministry, he gave himself completely.  Whatever life he had in those intervening years, he walked away from, in favor of pouring his life out in those he loved and wanted to help.  He offered freedom from the law.  He told them that God was already in them, that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  Not in the sense of “God is coming… straighten up!” but in the sense of “God is here already, in you, and you have the power to change the world”.  The law wouldn’t save them, but they could save themselves and each other.

I believe that Jesus entered Jerusalem in that last week pretty sure that it would end badly, even as he hoped for a different outcome.

I believe that his capture and eventual death showed his willingness to love through the worst that Roman justice could throw at him.  Even in the extremity of pain, exhaustion, and thirst, he reached out to those who were being crucified with him.  He showed complete and sacrificial love to those that had followed him; in doing so he changed them forever.

I believe that his resurrection was a triumph over common-sense expectation and authority.  People who die aren’t supposed to rise again. People who have been punished by (in this case) Roman authority were supposed to stay punished.  And yet, Jesus rose.  Enough has been written about the significance of the resurrection that I can’t add much more… but to put it simply, love wins.



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.