After carefully picking an age-appropriate book about Jesus (Easter story! – not just the cutie-pie Christmas story which was way easier) and adjusting the book’s version of the story to make sure the history and theology are right, my three year old sweetie looks at me sincerely at the end of the book and says, “So there are not going to be monkeys in our house?” “Um, no, sweetie, no monkeys.” Sigh. Will try with this one again in a bit. I guess resurrection is just a bit much for him right now. #theologyfail
I’m just going to be upfront and say that on Tuesday, I looked up Ash Wednesday on Wikipedia. There. I said it. I mean, I knew that it was the start of Lent. Which is the time before Easter. But between the Baptist church I attended as a child, and the two very low-church Methodist churches I went to as a teenager and Campus Crusade for Christ in college and then the whole leaving the church and then becoming Unitarian Universalist and then staying that but also sort of reentering Christianity, let’s just say that the liturgical calendar wasn’t really a big part of my church life. (Who need the liturgical calendar when you are being RADICAL for JESUS and have, like, four Bible studies to go to every week!?)
And, as Nick Cave says, I don’t believe in an interventionist God, so I won’t say that God somehow pulled me to Ash Wednesday services (or [back to] to Christianity for that matter) but if I did believe those things, that is what I would have said about the services I went to yesterday.
Early this week I was thinking about standing outside of divinity school a few years ago, having missed Ash Wednesday services around campus and seeing everyone with the ashes smudged on their heads and asking my friend Nicole what exactly it was all about and sort of musing that I somehow liked it. And dear Nicole reached up on her head and took some of the ashes from her forehead and put a small faint cross on my head with her ashes, telling me that the priest [she is Catholic] says, “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.” We talked some about the time before death and resurrection and praying in the desert and burning leaves from Palm Sunday. But what I remember is this power and this feeling and almost like a little collapse inside of me when she gave me some of her ashes. Like, right there, she could perform something sacramental, and I could be a part of things, and a part of this long history of people smudging and praying and confessing and hoping and it didn’t have to be earth shattering or The Great Return to Christianity or The Great Confession of Sin. It was just me and my friend Nicole who is an amazing minister and this moment or more like a washing over me of this circle of life and death and hope and return and leaving and all of it. It was both a big deal and not a big deal.
So at the last minute yesterday I called the local Disciples Church (our Unitarian Universalist church here does not have Ash Wednesday services) to see when their services were. And amid my sweet little son gobbling on his cookie and trying to read me Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See?, I was awash again in this flood. I am not sure what it is a flood of, exactly. Of this idea that we are finite, that there always remains hope, that we can begin again, that we are all hurting, that we are invited into a time of reflection and doing things differently, and that this can shape us, and that God is always present. I love our Unitarian Universalist Church here in our new town, but I miss God. For me, I find God in ashes and bread and wine somehow in a unique way that I sort of feel like I need. Who knows why.
What I like somehow is that there are not Answers to be given on Ash Wednesday. At least not how I have experienced it. We are together. We anticipate the crucifixion. We acknowledge our brokenness. We sit together and confess. We sing. We listen. We leave, marked, together, that we are part of the Church. And, in a day, that fades and we are back to our unmarked selves, trying to love, trying to pray, trying not to eat chocolate or whatever other big but really absolutely small thing we’ve decided to do for Lent and we are just praying and waiting and preparing both for something terrible and tragic, yet knowing that only through that can there be new life. For whatever reason, that makes a lot of sense to me right now.
So, I was never really one of those moms who was like, “And, the second I saw him and held him in my arms, everything changed. My whole life was different and new and I would do anything for my baby.” This is not to say that I did not love my little cuddle bug A LOT when he was born. I did. I was thrilled to have him and I still am. But, for me, I was pretty much the same person before he was born as after he was born, except with an adorable baby and sleeping much less.
I am also not a mom that is totally awed by all the amazingly wonderful and brilliant things my baby does. Yes, he is really quite cute. And seems to be a bright little bee. But I am pretty low key about him and his magic. I think in a pretty good and healthy way.
I say all of this for two reasons. First, because sometimes I feel like maybe a sucky mom because I don’t run around saying how wonderful life has been since he has been born and how it has changed everything and the sun rises and sets differently and all. I think there is this cult of motherhood that tells women that you have to just love your child and have him or her change your world and it will be immediate and like magic. I think this sets people up to feel pretty terrible when they are in month number six (or in my case, 14) of not sleeping through the night and all of a sudden your house is chaos all the time and you only see your partner in passing while one of you is changing a diaper and the other is… oh, I don’t know… studying for her general exams in October. Anyway, so on Mother’s Day when everyone is crooning about how magic mothers are and how much they love mothers and flowers and roses and all of that, I guess for whatever reason I felt inspired to bring it down a notch for all those moms out there who sometimes wonder if they are doing it right even though the fireworks of love and peace and perfect joy didn’t/don’t go off like they “should.”
The second reason I wrote about all of this is so that the next thing I am about to say about my little toddler boy doesn’t sound like the ultimately cheeziness. That is, it isn’t my style to go around crooning about the boy, so when I say something like how he taught me a really profound lesson, it doesn’t get lumped into the pile of 101 profound and beautiful things my baby did THIS MORNING.
Geez. I did too much lead up to this. I do this in my papers too. I go on and on in the intro setting everything up and then I have two and half sentences of substance to say.
Anyway, our boy loves to drink out of classes. Sippy cups are okay, but he really prefers to drink either water or apple juice out of the big glasses that are obviously too big for a one year old. But we’re pretty flexible, so we do it even though it often means that when he is done he pulls the glass away pretty fast and the juice or water gets on him or us.
And he has taken to insisting on sharing his drinks, and then tonight, his strawberries. He is insistent – he takes a drink, and then puts the cup to mine or my partner’s mouth in a very insistent way and we take a drink and then he takes another drink. He mushes the strawberries up between his fingers and sort of shoves one in into my mouth, with such a pleased look on his face, and then squishes one up and puts it in his mouth. And somehow this led me to “get” communion in a way I never have before. Regular readers of this blog know I have a highly ambivalent relationship with Christianity and can never decide really if I am Christian or not. And for some reason I have always loved communion – there was something that was so special about it – like this thread that went back throughout my life and childhood and then back throughout time. It felt like a very connecting sort of ritual. Like I was part of something really special. Yet, for the last few years, I never take part because I just feel like I can’t do it until I know more where I stand. This has been sad for me.
Yet, somehow through sharing my apple juice and strawberries with my boy – I got something. This idea of table fellowship. Communion not as some ritual that we do in church – that marks us as in or out – but as joyful sharing of nourishment, in communion with each other. It is an intimate thing to feed and give a drink to someone else. This is why the bread and wine is not sat out on a table for each person to go up and get themselves, but we give it to each other.
I think with a lot of things, the meaning of a moment can’t quite come through so well in words. The sweet smell of my little boy and his juice. His pre-linguistic self knowing that there is something important about me taking a drink and then him and then me and then him. The clear joy and satisfaction he gets from making sure that we are sharing – that we are a team, that in many ways we are one.
It helped me better understand why I am so drawn to communion and miss it so much. Yes, yes, I know there is that whole bread/body, wine/blood thing. But that is for another post. For now, I will commune with my little one, and appreciate what he has to teach me about life and love and faith.
Long-time readers of this blog know that I come from a Christian (mega-church-Baptist-Catholic-Methodist-ish) background, once identified as Christian, probably don’t now, but still sort of want to and long for some parts of that tradition and familiarity and… long for that something that I felt and knew during my years in that world.*
But I haven’t been able to get over several parts of Christianity, like, for instance, the centrality of Jesus, and the atonement thing, among others. I know, I know. Big issues. But that is for another post. The point here is that I just got done reading an amazing paper by someone in one of my classes. The paper will eventually be posted online, when it is, I will link to it.
But her beautiful paper (she is an academic theologian and a Christian) inspired me to imagine for a second or two that I would be able to convince myself that I could reside both in Unitarian Universalism and in some sort of Christian tradition.
And I thought, if I could do that, this would be how:
It would mean placing myself in a tradition of struggle – a struggle to do right, to love God, to love our neighbors and to apprehend mystery that is beyond mystery, beauty that is beyond beauty, suffering that is beyond suffering. It wouldn’t mean that I would believe differently – but that I would situate myself in a tradition, a context of grappling with this crazy world we live in and trying to make sense of it all by drawing from certain texts, being nourished by a community of believers trying to do right, trying to do good… just plain old trying. It is such a diverse and beautiful and rich tradition because it is just so damn hard to understand the divine and to live well. It takes so many different tries and thoughts and practices just to even begin to get close. It would mean placing myself in a tradition, a tradition that I still long for and miss, that hopes even when hope seems unreasonable. It means acknowledging that people do terrible things to each other, yet we also love radically, believe that things can be better, and imagine that God is within us all (the holy spirit), can walk among us as Jesus did, and that God is everywhere and everything. Christianity can be read and practiced in other ways – hurtful ways, exclusive ways, unjust ways. It has and I understand that. But I could decide to identify with the parts that call to me. I could, at the same time, be a part of the tradition and faith, and transform parts of it.
Maybe I will someday. For now, I am where I am and the Mystery and Love I know is okay with that and glad that I am still struggling, hoping, praying, and trying to make a way in this world – to make a way that is just, joyful, peaceful, and beautiful. It is amazingly hard to do this well and I realize I get so much of it wrong – and this allows me to be more understanding of the ways that others appear to me to get it wrong. It is, I think, so difficult just to stumble through life and not do lots of harm – to ourselves and others. I give thanks for those that journey with me in so many different ways, and for my Unitarian Universalist faith that wants me even given my struggles and failures and longings for something more.
*This would be in addition to/concurrent with/woven into (not as a replacement of) my Unitarian Universalist faith.
To the extent that there were Bibles in my life growing up, it was the King James Version all the way. I was a competitive child and wanted to win every contest, including the Bible verse memorization contest at Mt. Zion (the church where my Baptist family goes and my dad grew up). I memorized this verse in this context (along with, amusingly, lots of verses that are not significant at all but were easy to memorize and, thus, win the contest). This passage still speaks to me even though I rewrite it a bit in my head these days.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
I love this for so many reasons. A God that restores my soul. That invites me to lie down in green pastures, and walks with me along still waters and is with me when I am walking through the valley of the shadow of death. I don’t even know really much what a rod and staff are, but reading it in this passage, it just sounds comforting. I always sort of skip over the part about the enemies, and get to the part where God anoints my head with oil. Have you ever had your head anointed with oil? I have, and it makes you feel so special. (As a side note, I tried to figure out a way to incorporate this into a healing service at a UU church a few years ago, but it was just a little too much, I think, for the congregation at the time. I have not given up though.) Surely, I will dwell in God’s house forever. And ever. Sweet. I just love the idea that no matter what I do, or where I go, God has built this house of love around me – full of still waters and pastures and, yes, even valleys of the shadow of death – but in all of this God is with us. It is coming back to these sort of verses – with such a long tradition (I can see myself right now saying this along with my Mammaw and my Dad and my Aunt and all the elders of the church who loved me so much) that I miss Christianity and think maybe I could become Episcopalian. I know I can’t. And won’t. And don’t want to. But sometimes the thought sneaks in.
I thought of this verse now because every once in a while I am just knocked over by how much my cup runneth over. I sit in my nice warm apartment, two cats at my feet and one sleeping on my rocking chair pillow behind my head, eating frosted flakes, drinking tea, with my supportive, kind, lovely partner in the other room. We are both working on our computers – him for his job (we feel so lucky he has one these days) and me for my school in my doctoral program that I am so lucky to be a part of. And I just think, geesh. What a life I live. Full of love. From my friends and my family. A faith community we love. Gosh, it even makes me feel thankful for our neighbors downstairs who are playing very very loud base right now. Ah, the lessons they have taught us about loving your neighbor! It is hard when it is literal and your neighbors are not very lovable. But I suppose the idea was to do it especially to those who are not lovable.
So I am thankful this evening. And, as a side note, procrastinating on a paper that is due. But it doesn’t take away from how thankful I am. And how ashamed I am, sometimes, that I am not able to better be thankful for all that is good in my life instead of focusing on all that is not that good. Gotta work on that. Or even, as they say, pray about it. Give it up. Hand it over. And know that I will fail again and again, but must just keep opening myself up to change and transformation and keep in mind what I wrote about for the New Year. Trying harder isn’t always the way to go. So, maybe I will not try harder to be thankful, but see if I wait, and walk in green pastures and beside still waters, listen, rest, praise, and worship… maybe my thankfulness and gratitude have been there, and I just need to be able to see it and let it wash over me.
Or something like that.
Much peace, E
I am of two minds on the Rick Warren matter.
My first reaction is to say, “Look, I don’t like the guy either. I don’t agree with his theology. I don’t agree with his politics. But it isn’t like he was chosen to be the minister-in-chief or something. He is giving an invocation. I know it has a lot of symbolic meaning, but it doesn’t have any practical consequences in and of itself. It is a gesture of the president elect to say, ‘I am not a president only to progressives or to liberals, but a president to the whole country.’ And, there are big parts of the country that can identify with Rev. Rick Warren. And, as conservative evangelical pastors go, he is one of the less offensive ones who has at least made some overtures toward changing the tone of the rhetoric. My hope is that it is a gesture that will soften the hearts of those who would tend to be more opposed to Obama and his policies. It will not solve many problems, but it is a gesture of unity, which people are always talking about. You know, one country, working out our differences and that sort of thing. By saying all of this, I don’t mean to say that I don’t understand why people don’t like it. Heck, I don’t like it either. But I see it as a strategic move that may help in the long run with things that matter more than who gives the invocation at the inauguration.” (It is of course another matter whether there should be invocations and benedictions at inaugurations anyway.)
That said, it occurred to me how often discrimination against women or the GLBTQ community can often be chalked up to theology, while few people will stand for discrimination against ethnic minorities chalked up to theology. I try to imagine if someone gave the invocation that said that they still supported slavery based on theology. Or that women should obey thier husbands based on theology (heck, Warren may agree with the second of those statements). What would it mean to have someone give the invocation as a gesture of unity and goodwill who was known to support legalized discrimination against women – that they should get paid less, that rape should be less of a crime, that they should not have inheritance rights? Hmm. No matter how symbolic or strategic that would be, I would be feeling really unhappy about this. So then I started rethinking what I said above.
And now I just don’t know. The thing is, so many of these difficult issues are totally intrackable. “We” dig in our heals. “They” dig in their heels. We write on our blogs about why we are right. We affirm each other at our churches about why we are right. We are smug. We know whose side God is on. And where does this get us? What is the way forward toward better understanding each other, finding common ground to work on together, even, dare I say it, finding areas where compromise makes sense. I am not talking about any particular issue, but rather all of these very intense social and political issues that are so close to our hearts – all of our hearts – and where it seems so difficult to move forward.
I’m guessing having Rick Warren give the invocation at the inauguration isn’t the answer. But I wish we could come up with a better one that just insisting on how right and just we are and getting offended and indignant. Not that I am somehow immune to this. I do it to. But there must be a better way…
Wow. There is a post over at www.feministing.com, a third-wave feminist blog which I tend to really like (although the style is not always exactly my style), titled Can you love God and feminism? I was a little shocked by the title, but thought that perhaps it was simply meant to be provocative.
Um, I think it was actually serious. And even if it wasn’t meant to be serious, many readers are taking it that way. The post is about a very conservative brand of Christianity that is very sexist, and then somehow asks, from that, if feminism and loving God are somehow incommensurable. I think the author of the post does not really think this, but also has not thought out (well-enough) the implications of her framing. It leaves open the door for the worst framings of Christians and feminists… Christians who must somehow be incapable of valuing equality and the full humanity of all people, or feminists who are somehow incapable of connecting with or unwilling or uninterested in the divine. I feel like to ask, “Can you love God and love feminism?” is like asking, “Can you love men and be a feminist?” Or “Are all feminists feminazis?” It is just a bad way to frame the question that doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the issues or people involved.
As someone whose job and studies as a doctoral student and, you know, like my entire life calling, is, in many ways, at the intersection of feminism and faith, reading many of the comments was like a huge punch in the stomach. I suppose it is good. A good reality check. A good time to reach out to people. A good encouragement to post more about this on my own blog.
I encourage those of you who are are feminists of faith to include your voices in the comments over at the post on feministing. You have to register once in order to comment, but it only takes a second. There are so many posters on there who have clearly been convinced by more conservative parts of religion, particularly Christianity, that the patriarchal versions of Christianity are somehow all there is of it. There are likewise rather naive framings of Paul and Jesus and the bible as all totally feminist friendly. Oh, is there outreach work to be done. What surprises me so much is so many self-identified feminist posters who are so dismissive of the experiences of people who are feminists and people of faith. Like just totally excluding them as valid, dismissing them as “duped” or tricked or just wrong. How very unfeminist.
One question that someone posted that perhaps readers here could help with is: Does anyone have suggestions on where to get your feminist Christian fix? I’ve been trying to find some sort of blog or magazine or anything, and I know there’s a lot of academic work out there, but is there anything a bit more…I don’t know, enjoyable to consume?
Sadly (I need to remedy this) I am much more familiar with the academic work, and not more popular stuff. Anyone have any ideas?