Friday, March 27, 2009

How'd I end up here?


Fine Point
December 22, 2008

Why go to Sunday school, though surlily,
and not believe a bit of what was taught?
The desert shepherds in their scratchy robes
undoubtedly existed, and Israel's defeats--
the Temple in its sacredness destroyed
by Babylon and Rome. Yet Jews kept faith
and passed the prayers, the crabbed rites,
from table to table as Christians mocked.

We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely--magnificent, that "surely"--
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life,
my life, forever.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

He’ll stop the next war

Sophia looks to heaven

My current source of stress is an article I’m writing about American perceptions of poverty. I’m having a really hard time with it. I don’t know how much I have to say about poverty. I do believe that after growing up in the vast, dirty necropolises of Bangkok and Manila that I have a better conception of what global poverty really means than the average American. I believe that much of my angst and uncertainty and depression, and that of my brother and sister and fellow missionary kids, is due to having experienced the reality of suffering around the world. I also believe that almost all Americans don’t want to hear about it.

We learn this lesson young, as missionary kids. We learn to stifle our knowledge, to stuff it down, to become chameleons, able to adapt to the culture we’re surrounded by and ignore all of our previous knowledge. We learn that American kids don’t want to hear about Thai kids. We learn that Thai kids don’t want to know what America is like, don’t want to hear us brag about all of the fancy stuff we’ve seen. We learn that the lines that separate the poor from the rich are very distinct, and we learn that we’re on one side of the line in one country and another in the other.

I didn’t choose this topic. It was chosen for me, by an editor. I’m realizing why many writers have problems being given assignments. While the subject is close to my heart, it’s almost too close--so close that I have a tough time writing objective sentences. Poverty IS suffering. Poverty is what’s wrong with the world. And poverty is our fault. Poverty is MY fault. I also know those are not helpful ways to think about it, and that, in order to deal with poverty, I have to put those facts out of my mind.

The fact is: no one wants to hear about it. No one wants to hear about those whose suffering is worse than their own. No one wants to hear about things that they can do nothing about. What does it help to feel the pain of the poor more deeply? I don’t know.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

High on the hill

I watched this clip today, sent to me by a friend. I completely believe this, 100 percent. So why do I feel embarrassed saying so?

Maybe it’s because so many other artists and writers are skeptical of this kind of romantic, spiritual creative process. Primitive cultures aren’t, for sure. They believe that art taps into divinity. Generally, the artists and the shamans are the exact same people. So what place does art have in a world of scientific rationalism? I don’t know. Maybe that is why all artists go crazy and shoot themselves with shotguns in cabins in Montana.

Then again, all artists don’t. A companion piece, a point-counterpoint to the Gilbert speech, is the recent article about Ian McEwen in the New Yorker. Here is a writer who has abandoned all hope of the mystical, who has completely embraced the dominance of science in all areas of life. I, too, believe in science. But what, specifically, do I believe about science? That science always leads back to the mystical, even when everything is completely explained.

Current scientific theory holds that the universe curves back in on itself at the outer edges of time. The human brain remains an almost completely unexplored phenomenon. We’ve been unable to replicate even the most basic scientific process--photosynthesis--manually. I always think of the Mandelbrot Sequence, the exquistely beautiful graph of numbers that delves into infinity, explored in one of Arthur C. Clarke’s obscure books (I don’t even remember its title). That is science, that is art, that is God.

That doesn’t mean that I believe in a god of the gaps. I believe that God IS the gaps, that God IS science, that the creative process is as scientific as anything else, and that being able to explain something scientifically doesn’t take away its mystery.

The McEwan article reminds me of my favorite quote from Maus, where the lead character quotes Samuel Beckett as saying, “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”

“Yes,” responds his mouse-masked therapist.

A beat.

“On the other hand, he SAID it,” says Maus.

“He was right,” says the therapist. “Maybe you can include it in your book.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Don’t cry

One of my life's great loves

So I decided to take myself seriously, and listen to my own advice. If I’m going to have faith, then I have to have faith that Secret will find herself a new owner, with as much love for her as I have, and that she’ll go on to have many wonderful adventures. I enumerated things I was procrastinating yesterday, and seriously listing Secret for sale is at the top of the list. Yesterday I put together a listing on eBay. I already have bidders! Exciting, but also nerve-wracking.

The real reason I hadn’t listed her up to this point is that I didn’t want to. I’m having profound difficulty abandoning the sailing dream, giving up on all of the memories that Secret holds. I know all adventures come to an end, but I really believed this one had a future. I had hope, even now, that I’d get back to her, and I have deep, deep guilt for letting go.

I have to let that dream go. God has plans for me, and if sailing is again in my future, I’ll find another boat. In the meantime, I can use the boat to move forward, instead of having an additional chain tied to my ankles.

So, any takers? You have a week!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Cradle and all

This is what I believe today. Maybe not yesterday, and maybe tomorrow. Today, at least, I can believe.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

This tornado loves you

How you parents avoid posting endless cute pictures of your children I'll never understand.

What will make you believe me? I love unspoken and unexpected synchronicities in life. They are things, maybe the only things, that give me real faith. I believe completely in the power of divine coincidence. My father says, when things like that happen, that they are “of the Lord.” My vocabulary is different, but our thought is the same. I’ve had friends call me a fatalist, and maybe that is true religion. I should have been an ancient Roman. The fates weave the threads of my existence together, and if I can begin to listen for their echoes, I find myself believing that there is a plan. That someone up there is looking out for me.

My cousin used to believe that every time she found a penny God was telling her he loved her. It was a reasoned belief, a choice, the truth she was choosing to accept from the universe, but once she made that choice there were pennies everywhere. So many pennies; too many pennies. Too many pennies to not believe that there was a divine purpose behind them, that God knew what she had decided and that he was consciously telling her something. That behind the seemingly random patterns, there was, in fact, a personal intelligence.

Buddhists believe something similar. Because the universe is ruled by karma, the infinite intricate belief in cause and effect, nothing is random. “The environment mirrors the inner lives of the people who live there,” says Nichiren Buddhism. “You make your world.” Jung is the one who named the principle synchronicity, and defined it as the fortuitous inter-meshing of events. He said, “When coincidences pile up in this way, one cannot help being impressed by them -- for the greater the number of terms in such a series, or the more unusual its character, the more improbable it becomes.”

Of course, science has a rational explanation, calling the occurrence a “delusion of reference,” where one interprets all new data in such a way as to confirm previous beliefs.

Indeed. Is all faith, then, a delusion of reference? I don’t know. I chose a line from a random song I was listening to as my subject line for a blog post about Papou--I had never heard the song before, didn’t know it. Pandora, my newest favorite music site, was playing it to me as I wrote. A week later, my sister had the sudden urge to buy a song she had heard only once--at midnight, on the radio, stopped at a stoplight. The song evoked for her that single moment in time, in a way that only music can do. I looked up the lyrics and found my single line, from the song I had not heard before or since.

Today, while beginning this blog, I was listening to the playlist from a friend’s blog, and it played the same Neko Case song that brought me to tears yesterday, on the radio, as I drove through an exquisite spring day that seemed to mean nothing, a day so much like that beautiful day when my brother almost died.

What will make me believe? Evidence. Proof. I don’t know if synchronicity is enough for everyone, but some days, the good days, it’s good enough for me. At least good enough to play my music library on shuffle.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

My dad’s gone crazy

He hasn’t, actually. But he may if he ever reads my blog. I’m afraid to check my comments today, afraid to even check the blog, so I’m writing off-line, in a safe text document. Does everyone hate me now? I feel a little like I’ve come out of the closet. I seem to be an equal-opportunity offender--capable of offending the nonbelievers in the crowd with the primacy of my faith, and offending the believers with my counterintuitive politics.

Oh well. Can’t please all the people all the time, can I? Didn’t Abraham Lincoln or Bob Dylan or someone say that? In reality, I feel much better today, freer, as telling the truth does. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said “the truth will set you free.” Truth, though, is a difficult concept, another one that theologians spend their lives writing incomprehensible juried journal articles about, thus elucidating the concept not at all. Pilate asked “what is truth?” and no one seems to have been able to answer him.

I like Emily Dickinson’s answer: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” Jesus didn’t even answer Pilate with erudite theology (he saved that for the Apostle Paul). Jesus answered with a slant-y story, first a series of difficult parables that he refused to explain, and then the ultimate parable of his own death. Tell the truth but tell it slant. “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn--and I would heal them.” In short--tell stories.

My dad and I did have a good conversation this morning about art. I made the point, as I always do, that one of the first elements of all of the world’s cultures is story-telling, that story-tellers always have a place of honor in primitive cultures, often the highest place of honor. Human beings have a need for art, a need for explaining their experience through the language of pictures, the language of music, the language of story. We even need to tell ourselves stories, paint ourselves pictures, in order to stay sane, every night as we sleep.

It’s the Puritans who took that from us Americans, with their black clothes and their work ethic and their suspicion of anything that smacked of papist Roman froofiness. Architecture? Paintings? Stories? Gasp. What we need are good sermons, and, if we’re feeling particularly soft, a nice stern a capella hymn in 4/4 time. We’re still suffering under their curse. No wonder all our writers flee to France.

I recently took a trip back to western Michigan, my dad’s homeland, where I braced myself for the continuing onslaught of questions. Yup, still no husband or children. Still no nice career that can be handily summed up in one word, like “teacher,” or “accountant,” or “engineer.” Still no mortgage and house in the suburbs. The only way my art will earn legitimacy with that set is by earning a lot of money, and even then it will remain suspect. If I make a million dollars from a novel, what have I done, really? Only string a bunch of pretty words together. Nothing that puts meat and potatoes on the table.

These are tough demons to fight. They are legion, and they rise up in my consciousness every time I hesitantly touch the nib of my pen to paper. The war is ongoing, and I take arms now for my next, new battl

Friday, March 13, 2009

I am doll parts

After I wrote yesterday’s post, I found myself thinking a lot about humility. Humility may have been the reason I decided to return to my faith. I decided I didn’t need certainty, that I didn’t need systematic theology--that what I needed to have was humility, and that its lack was exactly what was so wrong with most evangelicals. Micah 6:8, one of my favorite verses, reads: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

I can think of very few better prescriptions for life, very few other verses that some up the whole of the Christian life. But so many Christians forget about it, especially the “humbly” part. My grandmother insists that everyone who voted for Obama is going to hell, solely because he is pro-choice. By voting for him, you are voting for the death of babies, and thus deserve to burn. I see so many problems with that logic I don’t know where to start, but I know that that is not a humble position. When I decided to return to faith I realized that there were many things I couldn’t know. I can’t even believe fully in the existence of heaven and hell. I see little evidence for those doctrines biblically, certainly not as they’re commonly understood. I’m not sure why I have to believe in the trinity. I certainly don’t think there’s much proof in the Bible that voting pro-choice is a damnable sin.

So I am a Christian, but I believe in gay rights and same-sex marriage. I am pro-choice. I am an environmentalist and a feminist and a socialist, more or less. I believe in art and literature, and that beauty changes people’s lives. I believe in science, and evolution, and global warming. I believe that all truth is God’s truth, no matter where it’s found. I don’t believe in the after-life, at least not in any way I’ve heard it explained. I believe that all of us were created in God’s image, and that Christ came to earth to call all people to himself.

But you know what else? I don’t insist that everyone else believe all these thing. Because you know what? I might be wrong. I have made a great effort to believe everything I believe with humility, to accept that my grandmother might be right. For that matter, Osama bin Laden might be right. I don’t believe he is, just like I don’t believe I’ll be damned for voting for Obama. I believe what I believe, and I’ll explain to you why, but I also can’t insist that I’m right. All I can do is live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Never my love

I read this poem today and it recalled to me, somehow, the problems I used to have with faith, problems that still haunt me now although not with such immediacy. My fundamental problem with faith of any kind used to be the nature of evil. I know, easy, right? Only the biggest problem anyone’s ever dealt with in the entire history of humanity.

It struck me for the first time my senior year of college. I was taking Systematic Theology, like every good Christian girl with an unfailing instinct for self-torture, and we were discussing this exact problem at the same time that my teenage brother fell unexpectedly ill, into a violent and terrifying coma. We later learned that it was a rare form of mosquito-borne encephalitis, but at the time, no one even knew what was wrong with him. I may have been reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved for my African-American literature class, a book that does not do much for one’s perceptions of the goodness of humankind. Or God for that matter.

So we prayed. We prayed like crazy. I had the president pray in chapel. I was stranded outside Chicago, desperate to hop on a plane to Chattanooga, but it all happened so fast, and they didn’t even tell me how serious it was until it was really, really serious, and no one still knew what it was.

I remember one cloudless, exquisite day, walking down from the chapel where everyone prayed for my sick brother, looking at the flawless blue sky and the sun that seemed to have been storing up all its light for exactly this moment in spring, across Blanchard Lawn to the Billy Graham Center for my theology class. And I thought: all this beauty for what? All this beauty, and my brilliant, funny, breath-taking brother could be dying? What does it matter? What does it mean?

It may have been that very day, or these events may just have coalesced in my memory, when my professor passed around a current copy of Time magazine. It was opened to a picture of a young boy, barely over ten, with his throat slit, being pulled up from the bottom of a well. He had been killed in some nameless African war, the result of ethnic conflict, natch--a boy, younger than my brother, his life worth no more than a rat curled up in a hole somewhere.

My brother got better, miraculously. No one knew why, or how. It was luck, or grace, or fate. Everyone praised God. But instead of proof of God’s goodness to me it seemed merely evidence of the randomness that controlled our lives. For every one like my brother, how many young boys died in hospitals or on battlefields or with guns to their own temples? Did it mean any more that he lived rather than that he died?

I’ve come round since then, after the senseless nihilism and agnosticism that invaded my life after that year. I don’t know what made me turn the corner. Some people probably believe that I still haven’t turned the corner, that my faith isn’t real enough, or Christian enough, or biblical enough. But unlike that day, I now believe that there is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how they will. I believe in Jesus Christ, who died to take away that evil. I can’t say any more than that.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Slice paper wrists

The young philosopher

Wow, this has been harder than I expected. Seriously. Any Lenten discipline is hard, I know, but it’s a tall order to be completely honest about my faith every day. So hard that I’m not even doing it, even though I’ve had a remarkable quantity of positive feedback. Why is it so hard? Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to push two magnets together at their opposite poles, trying to force them to stick, just to ask myself these questions, just to look at what I believe full in the face.

When I was in Chicago, Sophia decided to watch Spiderman, her favorite movie, on the computer before she went to bed. Spiderman is her favorite character to pretend to be, and she’s seen the second and third movies, but not the first one. Erica and I were chatting, talking, and completely forgetting how scary the Green Goblin character is. She eventually crept into the living room, slowly, and said, “it’s scary.” We felt immense qualms, and I went in with her to watch the rest of the movie with her, and we discussed it all in depth--how it wasn’t the Green Goblin who was bad, just his costume, why he went to try to hurt Aunt Em, why Spiderman had to kill him in the end.

I could see her processing all of this information, and maybe some people would say that’s too young for a superhero movie, but Erica and I have a firm belief that what’s withheld from people when they’re young become forbidden fruit, forever irresistible. I didn’t have any television available to me until after I graduated from college, and to this day I have to hold myself distant from it or I glut myself. It’s an ongoing war. Besides, we had it brought about a great philosophical conversation. What made her feel afraid at first eventually made her feel safe, as we discussed all of the people capable of defeating the Green Goblin.

“You know who’s stronger than the Green Goblin?” she said.

“Who?” I said.

“Baby Iris. You know who’s better than Baby Iris?”

“No, who?”

“Daddy. You know who’s better than Baby Iris?”

“Me.” Etc.

When he died, she said simply, “He went to be with Jesus.” No qualms, no questions. He wasn’t judged because he was a bad guy, because he hurt Aunt Em, because he was Spiderman’s enemy. He was forgiven.

There’s a reason Jesus himself tells us to have the faith of a child. If I have to say one thing about my faith today, that’s what I can say. I want to have that humble, simple faith, and if I spend the rest of my life returning to it, it won’t be long enough.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009



My sister, her children, and I spent twelve hours in the car yesterday on a fantastic road trip that included two Starbucks stops (tea for me, Americanos for her, chocolate milk for Sophia) and one hourlong McDonald’s playland stop in southern Indiana. Items of note: all female children under the age of ten in southern Indiana wear pink head to toe and the playing of Christian radio in public places is encouraged. Also, I did not see a single non-American-made car during the entire stop, except for our lone Camry. At least southern Indiana is doing its part for the American economy.

My sister and I also had amazing conversations about our faith, our dreams, our last couple of years of life, our friends, our relationships, for the entire trip, with one conversation or story tripping up the other as we tried intensely to catch up. The great thing was knowing we had hours of talking as the babies snoozed, so we didn’t mind being interrupted or interrupting with story atop story atop story, knowing we’d get back to our original point eventually, and learning more about ourselves on the way. We talked a lot about the struggles we both have had with our Christianity in the past few years. I love that this blogging process is making me think seriously about my faith, and making me think is making me talk, and talking is causing me to clarify what I really believe, succinctly, in ways that I haven’t done in years. This is what Lent is really for, I imagine.

One of the things I’m realizing about faith is that the problems I have with it are not with the Bible itself, or with Christianity as a faith, or Jesus. My fundamental problem with my faith is the church, and other Christians. Hypocrisy is a harsh word, but so much of what I see in the contemporary American church is hypocritical. So much of what I was taught growing up let me astray. So little of what is taught do I actually see in the Bible.

I know these are not excuses. The worst thing is when people use other people as excuses to keep them away from other things that are important. I can’t react against other people’s mistakes, allow them to drive me away from truth. Some of the things are difficult for me to overlook, but if I can’t overlook them, then I become a hypocrite myself.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Always be waiting for you

Mom's hands, as seen by Sophia

So early in Lent do I stumble. Oh well. Mistakes are not the point. The point is to keep going, and to not use the mistakes as excuses. Maybe I’m stumbling because I’m not sure I have much to say, or maybe it’s because I’m trying to purge the negativity from my life. Trying to not let it affect me.

Maybe I should just blog about that. One of my big problems with the Christian community is not faith itself, not doctrine, but peer pressure. Didn’t Gandhi say something about loving Christianity except for the Christians? I know, as all of evangelicals did growing up, that no one could choose their faith based on their companions, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about just how difficult it is to maintain one’s independence..

Dogmatism is never good. Ever. Most churches I’ve attended are the kinds of places where a person can’t even express a divergent view, let alone have it honestly discussed and debated. One of my favorite quotes from college was that “the church is the only hospital that kills its wounded.” There’s this internal pressure to believe everything that everyone else believes, even if it doesn’t quite make sense, to not express doubt, to not rock the boat.

In high school, I remember my endless torment during Faith Fellowship, our on-campus Sunday morning service. Should I raise my hands during the praise choruses? What did it mean if I did? What did it mean if I didn’t? Was I doing it honestly because I was praising God? Or because I wanted people to think I was more spiritual than I actually was? Even if I was doing it to truly praise God, was raising hands something that people should do at all?

What the debate did was draw me completely away from any sense of worship, from any connection with God. It made me angry and frustrated. It still does, when I go to raising-hands kinds of churches. Didn’t Jesus say to hide in a closet when we prayed? I had the same feeling, the same utterly angst-ridden and crippling self-doubt, whenever we would pray as a group in our dorm. We were supposed to pray out loud “as the Spirit led,” but what did that mean? If the Spirit was leading me by making me completely uncomfortable while we all sat in silence, or if the Spirit was leading me by making me feel guilty because I hadn’t prayed out loud in two weeks, then maybe the Spirit was leading me. If not, then maybe our praying out loud had a lot more to do with showing off than it had to do with communicating with God.

I still worry about what Christians think, and I worry about what everyone else thinks, too. I worry about what you think reading this. I worry about what atheists think and what fundamentalists think. I wouldn’t go to church in ripped jeans and a dirty sweatshirt, with greasy hair, not because I don’t believe God would accept me, but because I don’t believe my fellow Christians would In the last year, I’ve spent more money on clothes so that I can feel comfortable in church than I have on any other apparel. Is that right? Of course not! It’s exactly the people in the stinky sweats who should be welcomed at church with open arms. Jesus made that perfectly clear. We all know it, and we all know that they aren’t.

So what does this mean for my faith? I didn’t go to church this morning, even though I desperately wanted and needed to, because I have a morbid terror of coffee hour. I want to meet God. I don’t want to justify my existence to a bunch of strangers.

I know that’s harsh. I know a lot of it has to do with my resistance to participating in any kind of intimate community, and maybe with having been forced into too many strange Sunday schools as a child. Ultimately, it’s irrelevant. But other Christians are still a huge obstacle for me. An obstacle I have to acknowledge and move through.