Egypt and Other False Hopes

Why yes, I am writing this instead of the sermon and two papers I need to be writing.  Welcome to divinity school.

Just so you know, it has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad few weeks.  Even in Australia.  Part of it being so bad is that all the spheres of my life are currently out of whack.  My friends and I have been in some weird spaces, school is frustrating and exhausting at best, my three jobs are financially unhelpful and not terribly life-giving, my faith is a wild mess, the political scene is terrifying and sorrow-inducing, and my car now has a crunched bumper and a tail-light magnificently patched together by Interpreter and jank as all get-out.

Nearly everything is not good.

Perhaps that laundry list resonates with you, Reader—I sure hope not, but if it does know that I hate everything right now, too.  I’m weary; not just tired, but worn to strange edges that constitute no recognizable shape.  I’ve found myself wondering a lot lately why I moved here to the Wicket Gate, why I left the Land of Pilgrims, why I’m in divinity school.

In short, why I left Egypt.

I don’t pull in the metaphor to say that the Land of Pilgrims was at all comparable to slavery (far from it; part of it was home in a way I’d never experienced before, but part of it was completely unhealthy), and I know I’m not the first to connect the complaining Israelites to modern angst with God’s leadership.  But I’ve never felt so clearly that connection.  I am soul-sore, spiritually thirsty, and starving for hope.  Of course I’m going to say to Moses that we should never have left, that at least in Egypt we were fed, that selling my soul wasn’t so bad—at least it was safe.  And it was; I was by no means rich in the Land of Pilgrims, but I was stable.  I didn’t have the fanciest place to live, but it was mine and it was home.  I hated my job, but my church sustained me.  I had community.  I had a life.

And here, in this in-between place, I don’t have that.  I have a banged-up car and more student loans and disappointing professors and damn it, God, why did You make me leave Egypt?

Because God had other plans—plans to which I agreed as I sang my little self across the dry Red Sea, as a I said okay, God, I trust You so much I’ll even get a tattoo to commemorate it.  I left my Egypt because it was killing me to stay and every one of my beautiful, caring friends saw it.  I left because the wilderness was terrifying but wide open in possibility.  And I left because God said come on, we’re moving, and I said, okay.

I now have three jobs in which I regularly practice pastoral relationship even as I am learning what that even means.  I helped a friend move this morning and then we sat on his stoop in the chilly sunshine and just were with each other, which is one of the best ways I re-energize in a relationship.  I got to simply be with Interpreter last weekend while he patched up my car and patiently answered my questions about how it’s put together because I know zilch about cars.  I get to go back to Egypt this summer for an internship that will probably kill me but will definitely change me.

13This wilderness is not accidental.  Do I need to change some things to make it healthier?  Yes.  Moses had to pull water from rocks and the Israelites ate raining bread; the wilderness isn’t mean to be experienced without change.  And it isn’t meant to be itself a destination; the Israelites were looking for the Promised Land.  I am looking to be ordained (which sometimes feels as far from a Promised Land as possible, but hey).  And sometimes, the wilderness lasts longer than intended—it took the Israelites forty years to go a distance that should have taken a month at most.  But even on the worst days when you are freaking sick of bread and your feet hurt and your throat is parched and you have run out of travelling jokes completely, going back to Egypt is not a helpful choice.  I could indeed go back to the Land of Pilgrims and, I’m sure, settle into a lovely and comfortable life.  But it would be turning my back on all that God is asking of and offering to me, all of the ways that I am growing and changing and learning, all of the impact I’m having on others even as they are impacting me.

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the day that kicks off Lent.  In the Lenten season Christians remember the forty days in the wilderness that Jesus spent, itself an echo of the forty years of the Israelites.  We hold all of who we are to the Light in preparation for the incredible celebration of Easter, the central point of our faith in which we proclaim a risen Christ Whose love overturns even Death.  Easter is a party—but the wilderness is my current reality, even as it itself is shot through with Easters.

Walk the wilderness with me, Reader.  If you feel comfortable, let me know some of what your desert looks like.  Slough off the idea that going back to Egypt is going to help.  And please; remind me to do the same.

 

 And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why hast thou dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt?   Is this not what we told thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.  (Exodus 14:11-12, JUB)

Lent, Week Five: Marriage

So I’m not gonna lie, it is not-so-secretly nearly every clergyperson’s hope that s/he will get to perform a wedding with these lines at some point because they’re hilarious.  (And if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride and don’t understand this, you now have an assignment for Movie Friday.)

But marriage itself isn’t terribly funny.  I myself am unmarried, so everything I have to say about the institution is secondhand.  But I do have a lot to say about it; don’t worry, I won’t go into diatribe mode here.  I’m also not going anywhere near defining marriage; I believe it should involve no more and no fewer than two entities and that both of those entities should be adult, consenting humans.  Beyond that, I myself am still working through how I understand the relationship and do not wish to take this particular platform to start that conversation.

This is another of the sacraments that’s only a sacrament for Catholics (there also known as “holy matrimony”), and I think that shows in many of the ways we talk about marriage as a culture.  I’ve watched an awful lot of marriages fail, some pretty spectacularly, in my life.  I’ve been to and in an alarming number of weddings.  I have quite a storehouse of advice from watching for so many years, but no experience.  All that I have is humanity.

The thing about this sacrament is that it means a lot to me as a sacred thing precisely because I am unmarried, precisely because I have only watched it.  Our relationship with God is primary, must be primary, in life.  But secondary?  The spouse.  This is a contract of the highest order; legally and morally you are binding yourself to another person.  That’s…that’s kind of a big deal.  Look at the very language (that, admittedly, is rather out of fashion now, but still often used):

I…take you…to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.

Until death do you part.  Is it any wonder that this is considered sacred, a holy rite of the Church, when Death Itself is on the line?  And this is a contract through everything—through sickness and poverty and health and wealth and the in-laws and the children and the inability to have children and the new house and the old car and the retirement adjustment and the outrageous habit of never quite closing the refrigerator.  Marriage is every day deciding that this person is still the one you choose as spouse.

This is not to say that there are never grounds for divorce.  I absolutely believe that some couples should not stay together—again, I have watched some pretty phenomenally dangerous marriages tear themselves to shreds and I rejoice that those people are no longer together.  There are people who make us worse versions of ourselves and we should not be married to them.  There are also people who tell us that we are worse versions of ourselves, people who control and abuse and torment, and we should not be married to them, either.  (As a note of human and slightly pastoral concern, if you are in this secondary kind of relationship, please do not hesitate to seek help.  Find a trusted friend around you, find a shelter; you may even leave me a comment here if you wish, as no comments are posted until I review them and post them myself.  If you have no one else and get me that message, I promise I will not publish it but will most certainly try to help in whatever way I am able.)

But much of what we file in the overflowingly messy legal drawer of “irreconcilable differences” as we burn our marriage licenses is an exhaustion of relationship.  Relating to another is hard.  Relating to another with sex involved and money and life and possibly kids and a history is way harder.  How can I possibly stand a lifetime with him when he doesn’t understand…?  How can I be expected to grow old with her when she doesn’t listen to…?

Yet God calls us to relationship.  God is Himself a relational God, living constantly in the Trinity connected to God’s self and also in relationship with us, Her creations.  God manifested in human form to further cement the ability to relate, to be connected to us that deeply.  So when we stand before God and say I take this man/woman to be my life partner and offer him/her all of who I am, do we say these words in truth?  Do we weigh them carefully, knowing the holy space in which we stand with this other and this Other, wrapping ourselves in the words of promise?  Do we accept the covenant of deepest relationship with a fellow human, refusing to give up on this pairing of imperfect people?

I do hope so, Reader.  And I hope that if I ever stand in that space, I will feel that weight, heavier and more beautiful even than gold.

 

 

“So they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore, humans must not pull apart what God has put together.”  (Mark 10:8b-9, CEB)

Lent, Week Three: Reconciliation

The image quality isn’t very good, I know; I thieved it from a PBS article and am working on an older computer that doesn’t do image capture all that well.  But you get the idea—each red balloon is a mass shooting in the United States.

In 2016.

Reader, it’s not even March yet.  I come to you on this Saturday in Lent because my Friday was thrown off, my whole week was thrown off by the fact that my town is now on this map.  My town now has a little red balloon saying that some are dead, some are injured, all are now on statistics lists of this country’s numerous dead born out of an unnatural love of violence.  My town now has made the national news, the international news, as another place holding vigils and wondering why; as another name that scrolls across the screen while talking heads say maybe this time, maybe this action will be the one that causes us to unfurl our fingers from our guns and step away from the fear that drives us to this mortal embrace.  My town now is another in a chain that will not be that time.

And Reader, I am so, so angry.

The sacrament this week is that of reconciliation, formerly known as penance.  Reconciliation has three aspects:  conversion, confession, and celebration.  Conversion is the recognition of being in the wrong, of turning back toward Christ and the life and choices He would have us lead and make.  Confession is the telling of what went wrong to another—for Catholics, this is a priest; for many Protestants, this is God Herself; for some, this is a pastor or deeply trusted friend.  (You can ask your pastor to do this; it’s not an official sacrament, but many clergy will hear confession as part of spiritual growth.)  Celebration is the recognition that a new way is forged, that the wounded are healed, and that the freshly forgiven are charged to go out into our lives and forgive others in the courage and love of the Spirit.

I find this a somewhat perfect sacrament this week because it is so easy to demand that the shooter be brought to justice.  It is so easy to demand that he be the one to confess, to be crushed by the full force of the law even as he senselessly crushed the lives of so many others.  It is so easy to call for celebration that the wicked shall be judged by a righteous God Who cries with us at the rising death toll.  It is, in fact, too easy.

Reader, I confess that I have harbored anger against a brother, a fellow creation of God.  I confess that I have numbed myself to the suffering of others because I cannot stand the spineless promise of prayers from politicians anymore.  I confess that I have not done as much as I could to petition those same politicians and everyone I can find to change this, to see the way our culture is killing itself one bullet at a time.  I confess that I have walked away from important conversations because I felt too empty to argue any further.  I confess that I have not returned to the spring of living water to fill that emptiness because I am filling it instead with wrathful frustration and scathing cynicism.  I confess that I no longer try to bear the sorrow.

The shooter was wrong.  He was wrong to take life that was not his, he was wrong to drive a community into shock and fear, he was wrong to be so careless about his fellow humans.  I am not in the least advocating for any judicial lessening of this understanding.  But Reader, we cannot continue to demand the reconciliation of the violent without acknowledging our own places of turning away from God.  I cannot rage at the empty speeches of those far away and far removed without acknowledging that I don’t continually write their offices to tell them to fix this.  I cannot despair at the American love of weaponry without acknowledging the many ways I glorify the rough-and-tumble violence that promotes it.  And I cannot call this man evil without seeing that I am not perfectly good.

My heart aches with my anger at this, Reader.  It aches with my sorrow and the pain and my ever-dimming hope that we might one day say we have had enough.  But the only way to soothe that ache is is to turn from my part in creating it, however small; to confess that I have had that part in creating it, that I have left undone various aspects of the Kingdom building God asks of me; and to celebrate that I have been set on a new way that will never be easy and will require more and ever more reconciliation but that will continually bring me closer to my Lord.

Psalm 13 begins, “How long, o Lord?  Will You forget me forever?…How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?”  How long shall we stand vigil for the lost and pray for the fallen?  How long, o Lord, will You leave us to this violence?  Yet verse five is the psalmist’s hope:  “But I have trusted in Your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.”

I do not have the answer to this violence, Reader.  I do not have the shooter’s confession.  I cannot say when we as a nation will turn away from this path.  But I can seek reconciliation for myself; I can ask forgiveness of my God and His people that I might go out into this fallen world and forgive.  And in that, I might celebrate the Spirit that breathes within me to allow forgiveness even of the enablers, even of the silent, even of the shooter.  For God’s love manifests in unconditional forgiveness, drawing us ever and again to Himself that we might never be lost or left behind; in gratitude, may we strive to do the same.

 

I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.  (Psalm 13:6)

Lent, Week One: Holy Orders

Welcome to Lent, Reader.  I sort of have to say this to welcome myself; I’m having a hard time situating myself in days and times lately.  I think it’s because I have a few too many things going on (well, always, but now in particular) that bleed into each other and cross the days and seasons without care for anything but their own deadlines.

Choosing schools is rough, yo.

But we persevere, and despite the fact that I forgot both that today is Friday and that it’s the first Friday of Lent (hello, innocent turkey sandwich that totally triggered all of my childhood Catholicism but only AFTER I’d eaten it…sigh) it is indeed Friday in Lent.

I think part of the reason (besides the Million and One Things) I’m so disoriented is that both Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday were super weird for me this year.  Normally Mardi Gras is a festive gathering with a few friends eating muffalettas and listening to crazy swing jazz and then Ash Wednesday is a whole drawing in of myself, almost literally preparing for the wilderness.  Both days had those usual elements, but in entirely new ways.

Mardi Gras was a kids musical and a pancake dinner at my church (I know, we’re getting all Episcopalian up in here).  It was great, but it was a day of so much people and meetings and class and craziness.  It was also somewhat unhelped by the fact that people kept coming up to me after the show to ask what my part had been, utterly flabbergasted that there would be a church event in which I was just another congregant.  I’m not terribly comfortable with the idea that this expectation has been created that I’m essentially staff; I don’t like that church, in many ways, has become somewhere I cannot simply be.  I realize that’s the direction I’m headed with the career, but I hadn’t intended to arrive there quite yet.

It was an evening of all sorts of unexpected ministry moments, really, which is what I bring to you.  I like doing a loose series for Lent, if only to keep myself from wandering too far into the desert (but sure, also to learn to see thematic connections for when I’ll be doing sermon series.  You have to know I’ve been practicing on you, Reader, and that I appreciate you letting me).  So this Lent I’m taking the awareness that I’ve been walking away from the sacred in favor of focusing only on the profane (in the sense of mortal, earthly) aspect of things and I’m using this series to walk through the sacraments.

I’m going to have to cross denominational lines for this (no, say it ain’t so!) because we United Methodists only recognize two sacraments and there are a few more than two Fridays in Lent.  So I’m reaching back to my Catholic days (or, more likely, my medieval theology semesters) to pull forth the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church.

Still with me?  Good, because I want you to understand that I’m not going to give you a lecture on the sacraments for forty days.  I’ll let you know what’s what, for sure, but I want to see where I see these holy things in my own life—outside of the box, as it were.  So what even is a sacrament?  It’s a ritual of the Church considered to be of enough significance to be seen as a foundational aspect of charting holiness—literally “a sign of the sacred,” sacramentum.  You don’t have to do all seven to be faithful, of course, but they’re sort of the compass points of the thin places where we brush against God.  Steer by these.

So, week one?  Holy orders.  Of course, right?  This takes on a different shine as the Catholic sacrament because it means only the official, professional ministry within the Church, so only baptized, unmarried males can make it to this sacrament.

But I am no longer Catholic, so I can broaden this.  Although I lose track of it a lot, I do firmly believe in the concept of the ministry of all believers—yep, you sign on to the Jesus train, you too are a minister.  (Don’t worry, I won’t make you come to seminary with me.)  And this shows up in the most quotidian places; I spent almost half an hour talking with a teenager friend of mine on Mardi Gras because she is freaking out about becoming an adult and she needed someone to say that’s okay, you’re not wrong to do so, God will be with you in adulthood too even though you’re going to make the wrong choices sometimes (a lot).  It was incredibly humbling, that unexpected pastoral moment, but it reminded me quite forcefully that ministry doesn’t wait for official sanction.

I will not be in ministry after I finish school; I will not be in ministry after I can wear an elder’s stole (although I’m not gonna lie, I’m pretty excited about building that collection some day); I will not be in ministry after the United Methodist Church has a bishop lay hands on me; I will not be in ministry after I am appointed to my first church.  I am in ministry right now, because God is not bound by our rules.  Holy orders are a sacrament, a sacred thing because they are indeed orders that are holy; they are an invitation to us as the people of God to get involved in this Kingdom-building nonsense, to get our sleeves and stoles dirty in the day-to-day honesty of ministry.  We are all of us called to this, to these holy orders; we are all of us called to this place of the sacred wrapping its arms around the profane.

So holy orders for me are talking with that teen.  They are a young woman opening several sets of doors for me and learning my name.  They are me buying doughnuts for my office mates.  They are Magister empowering a friend to stand on his own in teaching the faith.  They are that friend teaching the faith.  They are the friends who stand with Hopeful in the tempestuousness of having a newborn.  And they are all the many ways, Reader, that you shine the reflected Light in your world.

Sacred indeed.

 

 

And [you] yourselves, as living stones, are being built up [as] a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:5, LEB)

The Who (and the Why)

It is the last week of Epiphany, Reader, the last week before we turn our steps to the wilderness wandering, holding tightly to the warmth of a stable that seems unreal in the midst of the chilled winds of Lent.

At least, that’s how it feels for me.  Lent pulls all of my self out, and this year has the added bonus of being the time in which I need to choose a school and set the course for at least the next year if not three of my life.  No pressure, of course.

In contemplating this recently, I’ve been aware of a space between God and I, a dearth of conversation as I get deeper and deeper into Church work.  It is a paradoxical thing, but the more involved I get in the Church, the easier it is for me to ignore the God Who wants me there in the first place.  I first encountered this when I worked the slides during worship at my last church; I realized that I never actually paid attention to the worship itself because I was working, and that work needed attention.

Which it did, but not at the cost of my connecting to the community and offering myself and my praise to God.  The same is true now; I do firmly believe God is calling me ever deeper into His Church, but never at the cost of my connection to Him.  I am a perfectionist, a detail-oriented administrator who will readily get so buried in the “what” and the “how” that I completely miss the “who” and the “why.”

I was at a worship conference this past weekend which is, in some ways, the height of Church work in that it’s thousands of people coming together to swap ideas of how to understand and do worship and the connectivity of the Church.  It’s a fabulous resource, but I was tired and disconnected—even more so by mixing the conference with an overnight for my middle schoolers (I would advise against ever trying that, Reader, especially if you’re an introvert.  I’m still tired from the people overload that was).  I was getting very useful and handy information, but I wasn’t so much paying attention to why I needed it.  I was absorbed by the “how.”

Then I went to vespers, worrying along the way because the vespers for which I had signed up was a play entitled “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”  There is nothing quite like the theatre for me; I worked in theatre for nearly ten years, some professionally, and still have my fingertips trailing the edge of it.  I love the theatre, love its ability to make the ordinary extraordinary and the extraordinary possible, love the energy and passion of it.  I have the greatest respect for actors (I was much better at being a techie) and their ability to pull from themselves the depths and heights of humanity without losing their own centrality.  So I went to this vespers because I knew that even as the story would be a suckerpunch for me, I had to know how it would be staged, had to know the “how.”

What I got instead was the “Who” and, far more than I could ever have imagined, the “why.”

I have seen a great many Passion plays in my life.  I have been to many Easter vigils, I have spent the majority of my scholastic career discussing the theatrical representations of the Crucifixion in medieval England, I have read the Passion narrative in all four Gospels many times over.  I have always had my heart ripped out by it, coming to Easter with an emotional limp bearing the scars of Good Friday even still, never quite made whole in this glorious Resurrection.  Yet this play hit me square in the soul with its incredible use of the word “but.”

An odd choice, to be sure, this adversarial conjunction, upon which to hang a spiritual dose of cold water.  Yet there it is; I had never connected the death and the life so viscerally before.  If you have 25 minutes to spare, Reader, I highly recommend you see what I’m talking about; the play I saw was performed again, later, at a church in a different state.  It begins here at 8:50 and continues here, ending at 15:50.  If you haven’t 25 minutes, than take five alone and watch the second video starting at about two minutes in.  The “but” that so attracted my notice is at about the seven-minute mark.

Perhaps it is a spoiler to tell you what happens, but the play was indeed the Passion narrative continuing into the Resurrection and the walk to Emmaus and the Assumption of Christ.  The “but” announces the mystery of an empty tomb, the wonder of a risen Jesus; “but,” the actress says, her face shining in joy that the story does not end there.

This is the “why,” Reader:  the story does not end there.  It pauses there, but for me so often that pause becomes a resting place, a halfway house that stretches into fullness because I do not get up and keep going, because Sunday is so far away from here on Friday evening.  That play reminded me, told me for the first time, redrew for me the outrageous nature of Christianity:  we follow a God Who beat Death.

What a thing that is!  What a miracle!  What a marvel!  What mind-bending joy to dwell in that space with all of these other conference-goers as all of us shared in the laughter of these disciples that our Friend Who was dead is now alive, that we have hope, unyielding and incredible hope because the One we follow is utterly unstoppable—that His love is utterly unstoppable, even by our very best efforts at ending all that He was.

And this God, this Jesus, this resurrected brother is calling my name.  He knows it, knows me, and wants me to serve with Him, for Him, to be Her child and care for His children and yes, I do what I do for the Church because I am in love (in a complicated way) with the Church and with Her people, but I do what I do because I am in love with the God Who called me.

It is so hilariously appropriate that this should be the takeaway for me just before Lent, that this time of darkness should be so firmly bookended by Light.  Good Friday will come, but.

So will Easter.

Thanks be to God.

 

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.  And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.  (Luke 24:1-3, ESV)

Lent, Week One: Talk to Me

Welcome to Lent, Reader.

I feel a little surprised by it this year; perhaps because I’ve been really preoccupied with other stuff, or perhaps because I feel like I’ve been wandering the wilderness for a while already (don’t worry, I won’t go totally emo on you), but I haven’t quite settled into the fact that we’ve switched out of Epiphany yet.

Lent Madness, however, has begun.  I’m rooting for Hildegard, or maybe Cuthbert.

Because I need some structure in life right now, I declare Lent to be a time for a series—specifically, a series on prayer.  It’s the bedrock of Christianity, in many ways.  We go there first when something happens:  “you’re in my prayers,” “I’ll pray for you,” “I ask for your prayers.”  I’ve been drenched in prayer through the healing process of my ear (which, by the by, is behind schedule but doing well according to the doctors.  I got some of my restrictions scaled back, which makes me happy).  We talk about “prayer warriors,” about “the power of prayer,” about its necessity and its foundational aspect in this relationship with a less-than-chatty God.  I’ve asked for your prayers more than once, I know.

But it takes us a minute—it takes me a minute, at least—to talk about what it is to have nothing to say, or to bring only anger to the conversation, or to recognize that being silent is not the same as listening.  Thankfully, these aren’t topics that are never discussed; publications like Relevant Magazine and Plough take a run at it, folks like Jan Richardson and Anne Lamott write about it.  We as a culture recognize the fight of this prayer thing, and talk about it.

Quietly.

Because we want it to work, you see.  We want to go to a God Who listens and pour out our shit and feel better afterward.  We want to beseech our Mother to tenderly hold friends in pain and sorrow and fix it.  We want to hear that there is a plan, a point, a purpose to us running around down here making mistakes over and over again.

We want relationship.  So we pray, and we hope, and we try to find silver linings in the rough patches when God seems to be elsewhere, when the friend dies despite a whole nunnery being on the prayer chain, when that job that seemed like such a great fit falls through and we are left at the beginning again.  We talk about sitting down to pray as though it’s hard now but it gets better, just keep working at it, like Pilates or Sudoku puzzles.

I make no secret, hardy Reader, that much of this blog is my giving myself space to figure out my own things and asking you to come along for the ride as accountability and reflection.  So I’m taking this Lent to preach at myself (a phrase that terrifies me considering the very real possibility of actually preaching at anyone some day) about prayer.  My prayer life is currently a bit of a mess because of some places I’m flat out not allowing God to dwell, and having gotten my forehead all ashed up this past Wednesday I am very aware that that shit won’t fly.  “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” Prudence said to me as he traced his blackened thumb in the cross.  “May God take the middle,” I surprised myself by responding.  And oh, how He would like to—if I would simply get out of the way and let Him.

“Talk to Me,” He says gently while I’m throwing yet another tantrum.  “Do not shut Me out.”

We’ll see.

 

Pray without ceasing.  (1 Thessalonians 5:17, JUB)

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.