I Was Me but Now He’s Gone

These are lyrics from Metallica’s Fade to Black, a 1984 rock ballad about James Hetfield’s struggle with suicidal inclinations (Hetfield was the singer and lyric guitarist of the band).  I have these lyrics and I have a three-day late post because last week a friend of mine killed himself, and Reader, that really fucks up your schedule.

This is not my first loved one to die.  It isn’t even my first suicide.  But that doesn’t matter; if you’ve lost someone by any means, you know that this never gets easier.  Each new death is a suckerpunch, a chalk outline of that person in your life.  I have no real problem with death, but suicides are hard.  Suicides carry not only grief and sorrow but anger, doubt, guilt, frustration—that whole cocktail of “what did we miss” and “how dare he” and the sheer suddenness of it.  It’s a mess, a stupid, painful mess.

I suppose the one good thing about suicides is that no one tries to comfort you with the usual empty platitudes like “it was his time” or “God needed him” or whatnot.  Hint, from someone who has worked as a pastor and a hospital chaplain:  that sort of nonsense is unhelpful.  I get that we who are not part of the grieving circle want very much to help our grieving friends, and I get that grief makes everybody uncomfortable because we humans so desperately want to fix hurt even if that’s not really the best thing to do, but don’t do that.  God doesn’t yank folks out of the realm of the living because some hourglass ran out of sand or because He needed someone with the specific skill set to hang a new wall rug or something.  Even if either of these were true, they are awful to say to someone who is in grief because it downplays that grief, makes it seem selfish to feel that loss.  I mean, there’s a reason our English language calls it “loss”—it’s not because we’ve misplaced someone but because there is that hole in our lives that is no longer filled, that sense of missing a piece of ourselves.  I have lost my friend.

He lost himself.

And it’s funny, in a sad sort of way, that I’m at a divinity school and I reached out to several of my friends here and back home in the Land of Pilgrims, and it took about five conversations with people before anyone was willing to go theological with me about this.  Thankfully my friend Prudence gave me space to say hey, I’m absolutely on board with what The United Methodist Church says about how suicides aren’t automatically damned but my friend was of no faith before that, what does that look like?  How do I mourn someone who turned his back on not just the Church but the God Who started it?  How do I square the many, many conversations he and I had because my friend was tickled pink to have a religious leader like me around to ask questions of when he found the courage to do so?

Telling me that it isn’t my place to judge where people go after death and that God is much bigger than my imagination misses the point completely, so please don’t do that.  What Prudence understood was that I am an exclusivist in my theology, which means that I do believe in a Heaven and a Hell and I do believe that dying isn’t an automatic ticket to Heaven, although I also don’t believe in the laundry list that’s usually trotted out of reasons people go to Hell and I also don’t believe that Hell is a fiery mess of torture or that it’s even limited to the time after death.  I think we can create Hell just fine right here while we’re alive, and I think my friend may have been in it for suicide to seem like a good plan.  But I don’t know, and I never will, and that’s as much grief and pain in itself, and Prudence let me work through that without trying to answer it for me or let me get to a place where it felt answered.  That was good.

But my friend is still dead.

grief-straight-line-and-jumbled-circleAnd will remain dead, and in my estimation will die a hundred thousand more times over the coming years when I reach moments where we usually did something together and he isn’t there, or when I think to text him something funny and remember he won’t answer, or when I want to invite him to things and know he can’t come.  Mr. Honest suggested I think of moments like this as ways to say hello to the memory and the spirit of my friend, to invite him in.  Mr. Honest is far more compassionate and optimistic than I am.

Amidst this is the fact that I went to a birthday party this weekend, and a cookout for a friend who’s about to be married, and last week before this news I went to a wedding, and it is good to have a plethora of friends who are living to help me constructively grieve this one who is not.  Because the grief comes in waves, and is not a linear process that tapers at one end.  Now he’s gone.  I am a different me.

 

 

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous,

But the Lord delivers him out of them all.
He keeps all his bones,
Not one of them is broken.  (Psalm 34:18-20, NASB)

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People of the Books: The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

I truly did not mean to stay away for a month, my apologies.  Every time I think I have a handle on this semester, something else comes along—however, now that we’re in midterms (can you believe it?) I think I might be finding a rhythm.  This is a semester where I spent A LOT of time actually in class, which is unusual for graduate school.  I’m hoping this is not the case next semester; be patient with me, Reader, and stick around.

I have a great many books that have been piling up and it’s been some time since I did a review, so I present The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley.  I don’t remember where or when I got this, but I do remember picking it up solely because Huxley (of Brave New World fame) wrote it and I was fascinated to see what he’d do with devils.

It is, I discovered, a historical overview of a spate of supposed possessions in a convent in Loudun, France, in the 17th century.  Or it’s an indictment of 17th century Church corruption.  Or it’s a showcase of what happens when you tell people sexuality is bad but then make it enticing.  Or it’s religious theory.  Or it’s psychology.  Or it’s poetry.  Or it’s comparative religion, drawing on Taoism and Buddhism as well as Christianity and Judaism.

Or it’s all of that.  Huxley isn’t writing a novel (which is what I originally thought this was, especially having read The Devils by John Whiting, which is a play based on these same possessions.)  It reminded me a lot of The Cheese and the Worms in terms of taking a historical event/text and extrapolating with stories and theories about the personalities and relationships involved.  And Huxley has a lot to work with:  as I mentioned, it’s about possessions at a convent in France.  A priest named Urbain Grandier was accused of bringing a whole slew of devils to torment (mostly via impure thoughts and some flopping about and such) a nunnery; he was eventually convicted and burned to death as a sorcerer.  Along the way, though, Huxley goes through how the politics of religious France allowed this, what relationships Grandier was having that would have set him up for such a claim, what the abbess of the nunnery was doing in claiming such possession, and whether or not the entire affair had any grounding.

Huxley comes down hard on the side of this whole thing being a frame-up because the nuns were sexually frustrated and Grandier slept with all the wrong gals, but fortunately he doesn’t dismiss the reality of the situation for the people involved.  He’s pretty good about not judging the actors through 20th century eyes, which not every historian can pull off.

Be warned:  there are a lot of times when Huxley will quote from some document or other in French or Latin and just move on without translating.  That can be frustrating if you don’t quite know what’s being said, but fortunately it’s never anything on which the argument turns.  And there are sparse citations in this book; there are a few footnotes, but they’re as random as the choices to translate.

Huxley goes through so many tunnels to get at his objective of totally dismantling this entire mess and tearing apart the politics of the Church and the fear of evil, especially as it manifests in sexuality.  I found myself feeling awful for pretty much all of the characters because they got caught in this machine they’d foolishly started and then couldn’t stop, ground in its gears without mercy or tempered judgment.

Let me share some quotes with you that I found particularly of note:

“A Church divided by intestine hatreds cannot systematically practise love and cannot, without manifest hypocrisy, preach it.”  (27; oh modern Church, do you hear?)

“Christ delights in the lilies precisely because they are not prudent, because they neither toil nor spin and yet are incomparably lovelier than the most gorgeous of Hebrew kings…[they] enjoy a glory which has this in common with the Order of the Garter—that ‘there’s no damned merit about it.’  That, precisely, is their point; that is why, for us human beings, they are so refreshing and, on a level much deeper than that of morality, so profoundly instructive.”  (85-86)

“Such was the atmosphere in a convent of demoniac nuns, and such the persons with whom, in an intimacy that was a compound of the intimacies existing between gynaecologist and patient, trainer and animal, adored psychiatrist and loquacious neurotic, the officiating priest passed many hours of every day and night…The long-drawn debauch took place in the imagination and was never physical.”  (121, on the weird sexual tension between the possessed nuns and the exorcists brought in to cure them)

“[A]ll the evils of religion can flourish without any belief in the supernatural…Few people now believe in the devil; but very many enjoy behaving as their ancestors behaved when the Fiend was a reality as unquestionable as his Opposite Number.  In order to justify their behaviour, they turn their theories into dogmas, their by-laws into First Principles, their political bosses into Gods and all those who disagree with them into incarnate devils.”  (125; oh, that doesn’t sound familiar at all here in 2016…)

“And Montaigne concludes with one of those golden sentences which deserve to be inscribed over the altar of every church, above the bench of every magistrate, on the walls of every lecture hall, every senate and parliament, every government office and council chamber…’After all, it is rating one’s conjectures at a very high price to roast a man alive on the strength of them.'”  (133)

“For the first time in his life he knew the meaning of contrition—not doctrinally, not by scholastic definition, but from within, as an anguish of regret and self-condemnation…Father Ambrose pronounced the formula of absolution…and spoke a little about the will of God.  Nothing was to be asked for, he said, and nothing refused.  Except for sin, all that might happen to one was not merely to be accepted with resignation; it was to be willed, moment by moment, as God’s will for that particular moment.  Suffering was to be willed, affliction was to be willed…And in the act of being willed they would be understood.  And in the act of being understood they would be transfigured, would be seen, not with the eyes of the natural man, but as God saw them.”  (203)

“At Saintes, for the first time in ten years, Surin found himself treated with sympathy and consideration—as a sick man undergoing a spiritual ordeal, not as a kind of criminal undergoing punishment at the hands of God and therefore deserving of yet more punishment at the hands of men.  It was still all but impossible for him to leave his prison and communicate with the world; but now the world was moving in and trying to communicate with him.”  (297)

 

Rating:  3.5/5 stars  3-5-stars

All in the Family–Whatever That Is

family, n.  “A social group of parents, children, and sometimes grandparents, uncles, aunts, and others who are related.”  (Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary)

family, n.  1)  “A bunch of people who hate each other and eat dinner together.”
2)  “People you love and love you back, not neccessarily blood or biological, but you trust them and they trust you, and they take care of you and you take care of them.”  (Urban Dictionary)

I’m having dinner with a friend of mine tonight.  She has a slew of small children and both she and her husband work, so when she was in my office the other day she was preemptively apologizing for the fact that it would be a Friday night and the house would be a mess and then she said, “Whatever, you’re family.  It’ll look like it looks.”

On Wednesday I had dinner at a different friend’s house with his family; he has a slew of teenagers who are coming and going from their various things, he works fairly late, and they have two dogs.  It was a casual affair of showing up and making sandwiches eaten on paper plates because I’m family.

I went to visit a college friend and her parents over the Christmas break and rang the doorbell as I have every time I’ve gone to that house for the last ten years.  The mother came to the door and let me in and said exasperatedly, “What are you doing?  Just walk right in and shout, it’s unlocked and you’re family!”

I hope, Reader, that you can supply plenty of your own anecdotes of people along the path of your life who have taken you in and called you family, who have loved you fiercely and fought with you and laughed with you and celebrated the twining of your lives.  This is something that matters so much to me because “family” is an incredibly laden concept for me.  The family to whom I’m related by blood isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy and we aren’t exactly besties.  But so many people have “claimed” me in some way, these secondary families who re-appropriate the word to mean something new and beautiful.  It is, in fact, one of the coolest things in the world to me when Interpreter calls me “sister,” meaning that we are brother and sister in Christ.

We are currently in that strange part of the liturgical year in between Epiphany and Lent, that time of treading water until the Next Big Season.  In this time is the growing up of Christ; in this time He grows from a boy to a man.  We don’t get many of the stories of this time (unless you want to argue for the canonical attributes of the infancy gospels, which you’re welcome to do); we don’t get the family raising Him (except for when He steps out of their jurisdiction) or the friends who became family for Him.  But once we dig into His adult life, He has some intense things to say about what family is and He models a fascinating family structure with His friends.

It’s been an unexpectedly fraught week here, Reader.  I have officially officially started the candidacy process toward ordination—as attested by the proliferation of paperwork in my life, among other things.  I am For Real in this idea of going into the ministry, which is scary and awesome and exhausting and overwhelming and many other things besides.  And some of the stuff that I need to do in this process is hard, wicked hard in such a way that I need to be able to reach out to others and have them remind me I’ll be okay, that I’m not making up this Call, that it isn’t better just to stay where I am.  These people function as my family, my support network, whether or not they’re related to me by the accident of blood.

I wonder if the disciples were like this for Jesus; He had to go find them first, of course, but they are the ones who gave Him room to discuss His ministry.  They are the ones who told Him that what He was doing was necessary when His blood family just wanted Him to come home.  (Of course, they are also the ones who encouraged Him to run when it got super scary because they were far more interested in keeping their Friend around than fixing the world.)  They are the ones who, in their own incredibly human ways, were His family—what Jesus did would not at all be the same without them.

Perhaps today, Reader, I just want to give a shout-out to my family here in the Land of Pilgrims.  I want to appreciate my brothers and sisters (some of whom style themselves mothers and fathers sometimes), my cousins and aunts and uncles in the faith and in humanity.  Last night was rather rough as I was dealing with some health frustrations and a song came on the radio called Stand by You.  It was the most intensely apt song I could have heard at that moment because I am surrounded by so many people who have walked and will continue to walk through Hell with me—and there are people who have asked me to walk through Hell with them, and that is its own incredible honor and test.

Family, I think, are the people who know what you sound like when you laugh and when you cry, and they are ready to handle both.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they know everything about you—the disciples didn’t know an awful lot about Jesus—but it does mean that they know you, the core of who you are, and they love you in flawed and flawless ways.  How good to have family!  How wondrous not to have to do this alone!

 

 

“This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.  There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”   (John 15:12-13, NLT)

All Hallows’ Eve

I must admit that Halloween is not in the upper levels of my favorite holidays, not least because I’m a coward.  I have no patience for being scared, and no tolerance for things that are scary.  I don’t even do well with the trailers for horror films—the films themselves?  Forget it.  I have a mind that holds onto images FOREVER which is a terrible, terrible thing for a day built around images designed to creep you out.  I still remember a scary email from 12 or 13 years ago that freaked me out in the middle of the day.  No threshold for that sort of thing.  So Halloween?  Hell.

Most Halloweens I relish being able to stay inside and watch Ghostbusters (the limit of scariness for me, really) and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, waiting for the world to return to some semblance of sanity on All Saints’ Day.

I do like jack-0-lanterns, though.

(Unless they’re meant to be scary.)

So sitting here at my desk on this blustery, witching-cold Halloween (or Hallowe’en, to recognize the contraction of “even[ing]”) and listening to the soundtrack for Nightmare Before Christmas and Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor and getting feminist-ly upset about how utterly sexist and stupid adult costumes are these days, I’m trying to think back to the point of the holiday.  It was a day meant to appease the dead, who may or may not have had unfinished business with the living.  Scary things are scary because they are unknown, right?  And what is more unknown than Death?  It would be pretty awesome if he were actually as snarky as Terry Pratchett’s version, but somehow I doubt it.  And people of faith get kind of stuck, because we’re not supposed to be afraid of death—I mean, God’s got it covered, right?

Right?

Not to be overly morbid on a Friday afternoon, but it’s still super overwhelming to me to consider how much we skirt the line here in the 21st century between this world and the next.  We don’t have nearly the comfort with the idea that people did when Halloween was still All Hallows’ Eve—or better still, Samhain—no matter how much we talk about how much more “civilized” or “evolved” we are than those weird Dark Age medievals.  In modern Western culture, we don’t do death with any real engagement—and so it gets pretty scary.

The idea of the unsatisfied dead is a hard one, especially for modern Christians, again because we have everybody classified.  There is no waiting room of the afterlife—there’s Heaven, there’s Hell, and if you’re an old-school Catholic there’s Purgatory, which was one of the original terrible sequels.  People don’t wander the earth seeking comfort or vengeance or forgiveness because God the Judge gets that all ironed out.

And yet.

How often do we reach for a person who is no longer there?  How often do we wonder if they miss us as much as we miss them?  How often do we hope that someone who was miserable in life found happiness in death?  A person dying doesn’t mean s/he ceases to be a person, especially to those of us who knew that person well.  The idea that they linger—and that that might not be a good thing—is powerful.

This is not to say that I do or do not believe in ghosts, because honestly I’m not sure how I feel about that, but it is to say that we as a culture (and we as a people of faith) kind of suck at handling the death thing.  We honor the fallen but not our connection to them; we honor the idea of grief but not the seemingly infinite nature of it; we remember our dead but generalize The Dead into TV shows and sexy costumes.  We take what frightens us and mock it, these days, which is really great in theory and kind of sucks in practice as “what frightens us” dwindles from the Great Big Ideas into things like rabid bears and zombies.

Not that I’m trying to rain on the Halloween parade (although I would like you to note, Reader, that’s it’s snowing in earnest now here in the Land of Pilgrims, which is the first snow of the year and makes me unreasonably and perhaps unhealthily happy), because I understand that it’s a night of daring and adventure for many and can spawn hilarious jokes and other curiosities.  It’s just that it’s interesting to me as someone about to ignore a world of frightening things for an evening and then go to church on Sunday and hear about those who have died in the last year.  There does indeed need to be room for both the remembrance and the uncertainty, because things change and things go bump in the night and it’s not always clear where God actually is in all of that.

That’s really rambling, for which I’m sorry.  I can only plead the fact that I’m distracted by snow, and that I started the morning with an hour-and-a-half long meeting of frustrating-ness.  But I find myself implicated by my own refusal to face the Great Big Ideas that frighten me, the relationships left unfinished for one reason or another, the ghouls and skeletons in my own closet.  And that’s tough, because Halloween is meant to be a day of fun and candy and things that aren’t real—not moments of realization that are very real indeed.

 

Lord Jehovah, my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid? Lord Jehovah is the strength of my life; by whom am I shaken?  (Psalm 27:1, ABPE)

People of the Books: Dracula by Bram Stoker

I realize this isn’t quite the expected review to pop up in a religious blog in July; in my defense, I did read it around Hallowe’en (told you I was way behind on reviews).  It’s one of those books that are classics not in the sense that everyone had to read it in school (looking at you, The Great Gatsby) but in the sense of everyone kind of knows what it is and references it a lot but usually hasn’t actually read it.

So I picked it up…somewhere…years ago and finally said, “Yes, I will read this.”  And I did.  All 502 pages of my incredibly poorly edited Scholastic edition.  But it rewards return; I would come back to it when I finished other books and it welcomed me to the story with never a word dropped or confusion on re-entry.

Here’s the thing.  Of the history of spoiler alerts, Dracula reigns pretty high up there.  If you live anywhere near anything having to do with the U.S. or England or Western civilization in general, you know Dracula is a vampire.  (And if you didn’t know that and I just spoiled it for you, know also that the Titanic sinks, Moby Dick is a whale, Gandalf isn’t dead, and Superman is Clark Kent.)

You may also know about Lucy’s fate, because this book has spawned films, books, musicals, plays, satires, and spin-offs of spin-offs of spin-offs.

Bram Stoker being a genius comes in the face of this–how can a book be a thriller when everyone knows who and what the bad guy is? I don’t know; I don’t know how he does it, because I am not a genius. But Stoker (in his Victorian fifty-words-are-better-than-five way) actually does build tension. He draws out the relationships around this shadowy villain; shadowy not least because Dracula really doesn’t figure in much of the book. The best kind of thriller is the one where the evil/monster is juuuuust offstage most of the time, where the only hint you have is the hairs standing up on the back of your neck because when you turn around, there’s nothing there.

Stoker can do that.

He’s also a genius in writing style. This would never have worked as a straight-up prose narration, so we get the story through people’s diary entries, through letters, through telegrams and newspaper clippings and memorandums to friends, through doctor’s notes and meeting minutes. We get the life of the story, and that helps make the characters themselves feasible. They explain that they’re writing because they have a moment and want to record this fantastic horror, and we believe them rather than feeling the presence of The Author needing us to know something.

Yes, there are all sorts of idiotic moments of women being frail and simple and men being burly and stupid, because it’s Victorian fiction. If you can’t handle pre-feminism, don’t bother. You’ll be missing out, though, because this truly is one of the weirdest love stories ever. The men are stupid because they love in their own stuffy English way. The women are beautiful in their simple strength, shining at the end as they step to the front of the cast to really drive the narrative. And sexy sexy Dracula (because really, snacking on the bare throats of sleeping women while their loved ones are IN THE NEXT ROOM? If you missed the innuendo there, you haven’t been paying attention to the Victorians) who stealz ur ladiez is just brilliantly understated and creepy in his present absence.

But why is this on this blog?  Because the entire concept of Dracula is that he is evil, represents evil—this is why he’s not so good around things like crucifixes and sunlight (although the garlic thing is a mystery to me).  Evil, in Stoker’s world, cannot co-exist with good and will be utterly destroyed by it.  The travesty of Dracula turning Lucy is only partly because now she nibbles on kids:  most of it is that her soul is now kept from God in the worst kind of hell her over-protective and clueless menfriends can imagine.  The language when she is freed (again, spoiler alert) has everything to do with this dichotomous knowledge of Good and Evil:

There, in the coffin lay no longer the foul Thing that we had so dreaded and gown to hate that the work of her destruction was yielded as a privilege to the one best entitled to it, but Lucy as we had seen her in life, with her face of unequalled sweetness and purity.  True that there were there, as we had seen them in life, the traces of care and pain and waste; but these were all dear to us, for they marked her truth to what we knew.  One and all we felt that the holy calm that lay like sunshine over the wasted face and form was only an earthly token and symbol of the calm that was to reign for ever.  (285)

In the 21st century, thankfully we are trying to stop thinking about women as sweet and pure puppets, but we’ve also kind of stopped thinking of evil as a real thing.  It’s a concept, a nebulous malice Out There.  And I think Stoker had hold of something in making it a very concrete and present person—partially because Dracula is a good villain, but partially also because the idea of Evil in the world has a lot of reality to it for folks who have faced it.  Not to get all evangelical on you, Reader, but I have met the minions of the Adversary, and they are pretty intense.  I think we do ourselves a disservice if we scoff at embodiments of evil—not that we should all start believing in vampires, but that we should understand that the things that go bump in the night really aren’t just chemicals in our heads sometimes.

I’m totally down with modern science and I’m not calling for the return of burning demoniacs, don’t worry.  I just think that books like this that acknowledge the idea of calling God “Savior” comes with the idea that we are saved from something are worth reading.

Also, it’s just a really decent thriller.  (Except for the ending—seriously, Stoker, WORST LET-DOWN EVER.  It was so incredibly underwhelming I wanted to throw it across the room.  WHAT HAPPENED, STOKER?!)

 

Rating:  4/5 stars

Lent, Week Seven: Ceci n’est pas une conversion

I help teach a confirmation class at my church, which means I try to help explain and model faith for a bunch of middle schoolers.  It’s both the coolest thing ever and hell.  (Not usually at the same time.)

When we started Lent, though, my fellow teachers and I wanted to make sure they understood what we were doing.  “What do you know about Lent?” we asked.  “You give up stuff,” they all responded.  And that’s how pretty much everybody sees Lent—you give up stuff.  There are varying degrees of knowing why you give up stuff, but everyone seems to be agreed that Lent is a time of deprivation.

What’s funny about Lent is that many people give up something and realize later that they actually gave up something totally different.  When I gave up God for 40 days in college, I failed:  I never gave up God, not really.  I gave up my suppositions, my assumptions, my adorable box I had papier-machéd for this god I thought I had.  As it turned out, I had no idea—which is why the giving-up-god thing worked.

I have a journal entry (yes, I do keep a not-for-you journal, Reader) from the last week of that Lent these seven years ago that cracks me up:  “Right.  So.  I think I’m going to give myself back to God on Easter, maybe.  At the end of this whole Lent thing, I’ve realized that He was right there beside me the whole time, and He never let me go.  I just need to suck it up and embrace Him.  Screw the doctrine and the religion, I’m about ready to go home to God Himself.”
Yeah, that’s actually what it says.  Collegiate Christiana was still finding her writing mode.  But what I find curious is that I said I would give myself “back” to God.  So technically, this isn’t a conversion story.  It’s a return, like the prodigal son who needed the space to fall flat on his own and figure out that, perhaps, his Father wasn’t such a jerk after all.  In fact, this Father loved him the whole time—loved him even after he’d been a complete idiot and debased himself in just about every way his culture would have abhorred.

One of my favorite lines in Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is about God’s love:  “I imagined [God] looking down on this earth, half angry because His beloved mankind had cheated on Him, had committed adultery, and yet hopelessly in love with her, drunk with love for her.”

I like the idea of God’s being drunk with love. Only a love deep enough to be intoxicating could keep a Man on a cross professing forgiveness and concern for the people in front of Him who were just fine, physically. And if Someone is drunk with love, is love, He can withstand all the many ways I try to remake Him and myself and say I’m still with you.

This is not to say that things were all roses, that Good Friday or this one.  I was sick over the idea that I was just going back because Lent was over and that’s what you do; Easter comes and you binge on the chocolate you haven’t been eating and you deliberately eat steak on Friday.  Also, I’m a huge fan of symbolism.  And that might have been part of it.  But more than that was the realization that I could live without chocolate and steak and soda pop and swear words (well, maybe not those) and all the other things I’d given up for Lent because my grandmother told me to.

I wouldn’t do so well without God.

And I only realized that because I was doing rather better without the god I’d told to buzz off.  I had given God so many costumes of who I thought He should be and how I wanted our relationship to work that there wasn’t a relationship at all anymore, which is why I still count this as my conversion story.  When I took communion on Easter in a super cold and wet circle of stones at hella early in the morning, I was indeed saying “I accept this God of Christianity and choose to give my life to Him.”  Whether it was the first time I’d said that or not doesn’t matter so much as it was the first time I understood what I was promising.

But it was—is—slow going.  I rebuilt from scratch, because I refused to just go back to the patterns and the god I had from before.  That’s not what that Lent was about.  I had to wait, and listen, and ask Who God was, and who I was, and who we were together.

One of the things I realized that Lent was that faith or lack of faith isn’t a badge.  Being an agnostic or an atheist or a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or whatever means nothing if you consider it on par with being a brunette or being Asian or being tall.  Those are things you are, things that genetically or geographically were decided by someone other than you.  But faith?  Faith deserves to be something you choose—it deserves to be something that changes if it is no longer valid for you because acting a faith of inheritance renders it shallow enough to hold nothing.  In that Lent, I realized that if I was going to be a Christian, it had to be because I believed it, not because it made me look good.

That Easter, my mother gave me The Gospel According to Harry Potter and The Gospel According to Tolkien.  Her note in the card was this:  “For a girl who doesn’t read the Gospels according to themselves, this should be interesting.”  And she was right; I had put my Bible in the lockbox while I sorted this out.  Of course, then I’d had to dig it back out for Bible Tuesday and for my theology class and my philosophy class, because my giving up God didn’t mean He’d given up me.

And He still hasn’t.  And so it is a Good Friday, because neither death nor I can hold God down.

That’s worth following.

 

 

Lent, Week Five: Hell and Heaven Are Other People

I’ve always really appreciated that saying of Jean-Paul Satre that “hell is other people.”  As an introvert, this is true on a number of levels.  And in the midst of a week of remembered loves and weighty conversations and SO MUCH happening at work, it’s kind of hilarious to go back to these memories of that past Lent and know that, just as much as hell is other people, so is heaven.  God was in so many people as I ricocheted around the world of faith, it’s a little laughable.

The broad indicator was commercials.  While I won’t here debate about whether or not Christianity is dead in the U.S., I will point out that fish commercials and specials at fast food places are everywhere during Lent.  Seriously.  Turn on the TV and let me know how long it takes before you hear about Culver’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, or whatever, and how their fish is awesome/cheap/featured.  Of course, no one ever says why, but do you see fish being lauded in September?  Nope.  Because Catholics and semi-Catholics focus on fish on Fridays during Lent, not Ordinary Time.

So any TV that I happened to catch during that Lent in college was laced with these fish commercials, little 30-second alarm clocks that we were in this season, that I was still fighting this fight, that I wasn’t winning.  It was very annoying, to be honest.  It still kind of is.  And I even like fish sandwiches.

That was the background noise.  On top of it were all the people with whom I interacted, which is everyone at a small midwestern college.  I found all of the right people who were “spiritual, but not religious,” which for us meant that we recognized there was something going on in the universe but didn’t want to be bothered to care about what. I found the people who weren’t even spiritual— there was no point to any sort of faith for them, no difference big enough between all of the faith systems they could think of that would matter more than studying through the week and drinking at frat parties on the weekend. This laissez faire approach to the whole idea made sense to me; I had enough to worry about getting through college, getting over my first true love, trying to figure out what was going on with my life—who’s to know the big questions anyway, right? This is why some people are theology majors—I saved myself the headache and befriended several of them. Hopefully they’d give me the right answers if ever I cared enough again to ask the questions.

And here’s the thing:  I tend to dislike Christians.  I understand that this is a terrible bias and, these days, rather self-incriminatory, but there it is.  So it’s very interesting to me that, then and now, I tend to befriend theological types—not just the preachers and the preachers-in-training, although I know a somewhat alarming amount of those, but also the mystics, the agnostics, the atheists, the anti-religious folk; all of those who have truly and lengthily considered the studies of the Divine and hold fast to some idea of how it all fits together.  I like these people; they push my buttons, but in good ways.  I had a slew of them around me during that Lent; like I mentioned, a lot of them were living in my apartment with me.

There’s a friend of mine (whom I don’t think I’ve mentioned on here, but trust me, she’s awesome) who says brilliant things a lot.  She’s a Catholic now, but in college she was still navigating, and she decided part of navigating was getting into the text.  We were all humanities people at a liberal arts school, so this is no surprise, but her pitch was this:  Bible study without thinking of it like The Bible.

Man, I wish as I were as creative as she.

A lot of us came from churchy backgrounds to some degree; what if, she posited, we looked at the Bible like it was a book of stories?  It was a throwback, for me, to how I’d originally been introduced to the book—not as a Tome of Faith but as a work of great literature, in line with The Odyssey and Great Expectations and Anna Karenina.  It was something to be understood, referenced, and admired; somewhere along the line I’d gotten kind of afraid of it because it had all this other baggage attached.

So, in the heart of this God-less Lent, Bible Tuesdays were born.

Yeah.  Try telling me God doesn’t have a sense of humor.

They weren’t terribly successful because we were all super busy, but what meetings we did have were marvelous and uncomfortable and odd.  There wereabout six of us (give or take, depending on schedules) who would get together for an hour or so, usually in my room, and talk.  Sometimes we had reading beforehand, sometimes we just let it drift to whatever we were thinking, but it was all about digging into this text with all the skills college had handed us and really fighting with what we found.  It was, frustratingly, one of the best building blocks of faith I could have found, because it was challenge and honesty and realization that the Bible is a seriously messed up book.  Reading it outside of faith made it a whole new experience—in fact, I’ve only ever been in one study since that even came close to that level of growth and, in a strange sense, spirituality.  Sure, a lot of it came from my friend being one of the most brilliant and mystical people on the planet, but it was also the permissive state we created to tear this thing apart.  We allowed each other to get angry about things, to dismiss things, to engage or disengage with the text.  We created our own little community that would have made Paul proud, composed of roughly half believers and half we-are-so-over-religion folks.  And we learned.  Together.

 

To be continued…