Why I’m Praying Again

bcp

http://www.gracechurchnb.org

Three and a half years ago, I shared about my almost-nonexistent prayer life.

I talked about how it’s hard for me to pray while in a perpetual state of doubt as to who, if anyone, is listening. More than that, I shared my fear of being transformed, challenged, and changed in the act of prayer. In short, I fear the intimacy it calls me to experience.

After this summer, though, my prayer life changed in dramatic ways.

It changed, because I finally decided to stop trying to save the world.

Back in June, I went to a vigil to honor the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting. The participants met in front of the circuit court building as a summer storm brewed in the distance. I saw a few people I knew, but they were with their own friends and families, whereas I had come on my own. There was a group prayer and a few speakers.

But in the midst of all of this, I felt a deep loneliness.

I felt no fire in my bones, even though the circumstances under which we were gathered caused me great grief. The speakers’ words, meant for empowerment, encouragement, and action, went in one ear and out the other. An oncoming storm threatened to crash the party, so while a good number persevered through the rest of the event, I slipped out.

I got into my car, and as I drove home through the torrential storm, I wept.

I cried tears of exhaustion, with myself and the world around me. I wept, because I went to the vigil seeking empowerment to save the world, but all I found was the same message I had heard elsewhere: those people are bad, we are good, and if we could just do this, then everything would be OK. The meeting had an agenda, and my grief wasn’t part of it. I only saw a need to control the world out of deep fear and anger, and it finally sank in that this was not enough.

So in the car on the way home, I decided to give up on saving the world.

Instead, I decided I would start praying again.

At the time of this vigil, I was halfway through a couple of courses on spiritual formation, which involved group and individual prayer and spiritual direction every day. A different student or professor would lead worship each morning, and we concluded our day with examen, in which we reflected on how we noticed God’s presence in the day. I took a class on spiritual direction, which involved both giving and receiving direction with my classmates. I took a class on worship and how it must be handled with care and joy when teaching a congregation how to do it well. We went on a retreat soon after I experienced an intense weekend of anxiety, and the practices I engaged began healing my wounded and weary soul.

Initially, re-engaging with prayer was exciting and life-giving. But as I continued, I realized that in the act of praying, I do something I fear and hate: I submit.

As a female leader, men and women alike threw this word at me like a weapon, demanding that I remain subordinate and let the men do the hard work. But this isn’t the submission to which I am referring.

I realized when I pray, I submit my desire to be God.

I want the control that prayer calls me to relinquish. When I meditate, I allow myself to relax into God’s presence, which requires me to let go of my desire to control the experience. When I pray the morning prayer from my Book of Common Prayer, I ask for God’s will to be done, not my own. Every practice of prayer is an act of surrender to God.

But I don’t want God to be in charge, because I don’t always trust that God knows what’s best for me or the world. God seems too slow to bring about the change and growth that need to happen now.

This is why the story known by many as “The Fall of Humanity” is irksome to me. I am angry that God punished humans for seeking to be God-like, because most days, I think I could do a better job. If God won’t do the work that needs to be done, why shouldn’t I? Every day, I pluck the fruit from the tree of knowledge and put it on my lips, but before I take a bite, I challenge God: “If you don’t want me to be like you, then start doing your job right.”

This might be considered blasphemous, but I doubt I’m the only one who does this.

I keep trying to pray, though, and do what I can to push through all the resistance I put in my way. I do this not to earn points with God, but because I know how much I want control everything and how little control I ever have.

I can’t control people or most of my circumstances. I can’t control the students in my Sunday School class, my family, my friends, or the weather. I can’t control the election, the Church, or the decisions made in those contexts. Some days, I feel as if it’s hard to even control myself in the midst of my obnoxious, intrusive thoughts.

But when I pray, I remember that I am a creature, not the Creator. I am a creature with my own flaws and failures, strengths and beauties, and as I am, I am enough for what is before me. When I remember that I am a creature, I can stop trying to be the Creator. I can, day by day, word by word, breath by breath, begin relinquishing the control that was never mine to have.

I continue to pray, and as I do, I hand the fruit of knowledge back to God and even let God touch it.

I still hold onto it, though.

It’s a work in progress, and I’m trusting that there will be grace enough for the journey. I’m going to need it.

 

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Where are you going?

Two weeks ago, I left Slippery Rock, PA after a 3-day visit to my family. My Gammy had commented throughout my visit that she had received no rain for quite some time.

The rains were kind enough to choose my departure date to unleash.

I sat in my car on the PA Turnpike with countless others as we struggled to navigate the slick roads. We were traveling a sluggish 45 mph when we should have been going 70. My Waze app kept bringing up flood warnings, and I could barely see the car in front of me despite my slashing windshield wipers. I have driven in rain before, but never like this, and never for an extended trip. I was pretty nervous.

And then I saw this sign:

Where-Are-You-Going-Heaven-or-Hell

http://gospelbillboards.org/

And as I peered out the windshield, past the furious windshield wipers, the cautious cars, and the flooding Turnpike, I cried out: “I don’t care about either of those. I just want to get home.”

In that instant, the last thing I cared about was my eternal destiny. All I cared about was living through this drive so I could see my fiance, snuggle with my cats, and sleep in my own bed. I didn’t want to worry about where my soul, or the souls of the travelers around me, would go if this trip resulted in fatality. I wanted to focus on getting home alive to be with other living loved ones.

I don’t worry about my eternal destiny as much as I once did, and for a while, I thought I was “wrong” to let that fear go. The thought comes up every now and then, but most of the time, I focus on how I’m acting in the here and now, whether or not I’m showing God’s love to those around me. Most of all, I am trying my hardest to live, to be fully alive and present to this world and life around me which I only get to live once, because sometimes, that alone is a struggle for me.

This desire to live and be alive to the world around me is a major reason I have walked away from this “heaven vs. hell” theology. It has nothing to say to real human beings in our very real lives. It only commands us to worry about our death.

This theology had nothing to offer me and the Turnpike drivers as we trekked through a dangerous downpour. It has nothing to offer my anxieties, real and imagined. It has nothing to offer anyone in difficult situations, or who are living real lives. It only provides an idea of escape, a way to not care about what’s in front of us or be attentive to the very real concerns of our neighbors around the world, because this can’t matter in light of the eternal destiny of heaven or hell.

So what’s the point of it? Why do so many of us spend so much time and energy trying to determine a fate that isn’t ours to determine? Why do so many of us lack faith in God that we worry about where God will put us forever? Why do so many of us lack faith in ourselves and God’s love for us?

Because I see both a lack of faith and a lack of love in these billboard signs.

I see a lack of faith in a God we claim loves us unconditionally when we say that being a part of this love depends entirely on a guilt-initiated, one-time choice, instead of a difficult, daily commitment to living into God’s love as embodied in Jesus.

And I see a great lack of love in allowing for this type of escapism to persist in times when those who claim to follow Jesus close their eyes to the broken world around them, which Christ died for, as they blindly gaze up at heaven.

Don’t worry about the heaven and hell, whose gates and guidelines are not yours to manage, and don’t be led astray by those who say they are. Look for the people who care enough about Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of Heaven that they do their hardest to find and make it on earth as it is in heaven, who live real, difficult, beautiful lives reflecting God’s persevering love for all Creation.

Why This Story?

As I’ve shared before, there have been times in which participating in the Church is difficult. There have been times in which I am less engaged due to everything from boredom to fear of being and expressing myself. But through engagement with theater, TV shows, and comic books, I’ve discovered my desire for a connection with God and others through story.

An instrumental story in this process is The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman.

sandman

http://comicsalliance.com/

In September 2014, I began reading The Sandman at the recommendation of a fellow comic lover and survivor of the Bridgewater College Philosophy and Religion department. I bought the first issue online and lost myself in the world of Morpheus, the lord of dreaming.

One of my favorite Sandman stories is in issue 4. After an occult leader imprisons him for 70 years (as depicted in issue #1), Morpheus/Dream escapes and begins searching the world for his lost totems of power. One of these totems is a helmet, which a demon is Hell withholds from him. Dream enters hell and finds the demon, and the demon agrees to hand over the helmet only if Dream defeats him in a battle of wits, or what they call the “oldest game.” They start with small forms (hunter defeats wolf, hunter defeated by horsefly which harms his horse, etc.) and begin building until the demon declares himself as the form Anti-Life, “the dark at the end of everything.”

Everyone in hell thinks Dream is beaten. After all, what can defeat the Beast of Judgment, “the end of universes, gods, worlds…of everything?”

After a brief pause, in which all the demons of hell wait with baited breath, Dream replies, “I am hope.”

And the demon has no retort.

Dream leaves Hell with his helmet and a little more power, and I move on with the flicker of faith within me burning a bit stronger than before.

This small line has saved my faith more times than I can count. I am anxious and pessimistic about the world around me and the Church to which I pledge my allegiance. It is easy for me to look at world and Church and lose hope in them. In these times, I tell myself to look into the Story which I  say I am a part of, but all I see are stories retold so often and in such dry ways that I see little life remaining in them.

Yet this one line, this tiny sentence, written by a man who many in the Body of Christ would claim is not “one of us,” is sometimes the spark which keeps my faith alive.

Why, when I claim to be part of the Greatest Story Ever, is this story the one which keeps me going? What has happened to our Story, and how can it come back to life?

 

A Psalm by a Postmodern-Millennial-None

Augustine

St. Augustine, because this is a confession. Get it?

I couldn’t decide which label to use for this psalm, so I applied ALL the labels.

Also, this is me speaking for myself, not ALL millennials, postmodernists, or “nones.”

I am frustrated.

I am frustrated with being seen as a brat kid who wants everything, including Church, to be “my way,” when I challenge how things are done. Perhaps even more frustrating than asking the questions is having them met with scripted, empty answers.

Not only am I frustrated with asking too many questions; I’m frustrated that I seem to be the only one asking them. I can’t be the only one who wonders if there’s an alternative to substitutionary atonement in regards to the meaning of the crucifixion. I can’t be the only one thinking about racism and white privilege, but it often feels that way when I’m greeted with defensiveness when I bring it up. 

In the atmosphere that surrounds me, in the articles and books I read for classes, in the words and lack thereof of the people around me, it seems like I’m mostly alone in this. 

I feel lonely, even when surrounded by others, like the last person awake at the slumber party wanting to fall asleep so she feels a little less awkward.

So I’ll actually ask something of the Church, and of God. Again.

To the Church, to the schools which educate us, to the families who raised us and the communities who surround us:

Please. Listen.

Let me and others challenge and doubt without feeling the need to give me an arbirtrary answer to fill in the awkward void.

Let me claim my own voice without assuming I want nothing to do with community. Let the voiceless claim their voices, those who are silenced for their race, ethnicity, sexuality, or religion, or because of the violence done against them. Don’t call us entitled brats when we do so. Instead, listen humbly and welcome us in, and repent of the times you stuck your fingers in your ears and closed your eyes when you could have acknowledged the divine image and voice within us.

Stop slamming individualism for taking people away from community and structure, when it has been responsible for people finally finding real community instead of the shallow unity (or conformity) you think community is.

Be willing to deconstruct and break down what makes your worldview. Be willing to hear the perspective of another who is unlike you in as many ways as possible. Yes, it will be uncomfortable and challenging and scary, but it might deepen your faith and understanding, and it might make you realize how certain ways of living are very damaging to those already marginalized.

Let’s stop focusing on “bad theology” as only bad belief, whatever that even means. Instead, focus on how bad theology is more often than not bad practice.

I’m not only frustrated though. I’m still hopeful.

Oftentimes, I find this hope in the Church. There have been people who have sat with me and my questions. Some have debated with me and challenged me with their own insights without discounting my own. Some have held my fear and pain and helped me work through the tangles. Contrary to popular belief about postmodernists/nones/millennials, I find hope in the Church’s rituals, especially communion, in which we come together as God called us around the Table, where differences aren’t washed away in the name of conformity, but instead are welcomed to the meal.

But I also find a lot of hope outside of the Church, in the places I’m often told aren’t considered “holy enough,” because they aren’t in a church building or aren’t called “Christian” events. I’ve found amazing sacred space in the theater, in the smells of paint and the sounds of reading lines and loud laughter, and especially the time I sat with a group of predominantly LGBTQ people as we shared stories of how we’d been hurt by the people who claimed to love us and love God. I’ve found sacred space in Fort Lauderdale, FL with my Dad, stepmom, and siblings, all of whom are Muslim, as we talked theology, made flavorful Arabic dishes, and (in the case of me and my sisters) fangirled over Sherlock.

I’ve seen the sacred spaces, the holy ground present wherever two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, and in some of those spaces, Christ’s name isn’t even mentioned.

But I believe his name doesn’t need to be invoked for him to be there. I believe the power of our own presence with each other demonstrates God’s constant presence with us. 

So while there are days in which I am frustrated, there is an even more stubborn hope deep within me which says it will be worth it. And if it was worth it to those who have struggled before me, who faced silencing and oppression and violence of which I could never dream yet pushed forward and shouted all the more from the mountaintops, then I will keep moving forward.

True, But Not Real

I have struggled a lot with my reformed Christian identity, a transition from certainty to an openness to doubt and questions. One of the hardest parts of this transition has been engaging with the biblical text. After two decades of being taught that the Bible is an infallible textbook, a major faith crisis blew all those assumptions out the window. After that, it was hard for me to pick up the Bible I had lovingly and consistently read for guidance. It didn’t have anything “real” anymore, so how could any of it be “true” to me?

So, instead of pursuing the Bible, I’ve been engrossed in books, movies, and TV shows. I know that these stories I love aren’t always based on real events. I also know that I can learn as much, if not more, from a work of fiction as I can from a textbook. Because I don’t worry about whether or not these stories really happened, I focus on their messages.

I witnessed an alien’s adventures through time and space, the love he felt for his companions, and his heartbreak over their later losses. I read the stories of a man traveling cross-country with gods and of a child meeting the cosmic beings who lived in the farm down the lane. I saw a family travel across a war-torn galaxy to be reunited.

In these stories, I listened to these fictitious characters explain real-world experiences: life involves love and loss, pain and joy; we are capable of tearing each other apart and bringing each other together; people will go to great lengths for their loved ones to know love and safety.

I didn’t know if I’d ever find stories like this in the Bible. After viewing the Bible as a textbook for so long, I didn’t believe I was allowed to see it any other way.

And then, unexpectedly at worship one Sunday, I finally heard such a story.

It was a story about the people of Israel crossing the Jordan River. The priests walked before them with the ark of the covenant, and in a parallel to Moses crossing the Red Sea, the waters of the Jordan parted so that everyone walked across dry land. Then, 12 men, one from each of the tribes of Israel, took a stone from the dried up river bed. When they reached the other side, they formed the stones into a makeshift monument. This would remind them of how they came to the Promised Land, given to them by God. It would be a story passed down to their children, and their children’s children, as a testament to the God of Israel’s provision for the people. It would be a story to give them hope in their most difficult times.

Normally, I struggle with miraculous stories like this. I’ve seen them used and abused by proclaimers of the Prosperity Gospel, and their use in this way has caused me and others to stumble. Because of this abuse, I find them hard to believe, and as a result, I tend to immediately discredit them. But this one Sunday, I wasn’t concerned with the seemingly impossible physics behind parting an entire river. This Sunday, I heard and listened to the story differently, because I didn’t worry about whether or not this story actually happened, whether or not it was “real.” Instead, I thought about how true this story was to the people of Israel.

All I could think about was what the stones in this story meant to the Israelites, who would endure falls from grace, exile, and persecution throughout their history. I thought about the truth this story told these people, and what it would continue to tell them time and time again.

They were not alone. They were chosen and beloved by the Creator of the Universe. They would always be known. The Name would always have a plan for them, so that maybe the world would remember their Creator.

And I think I was able to accept this idea of a story being true, but not real, because of all of the “non-biblical” stories I’ve been absorbing. I think because of the Doctor, Neil Gaiman, A Wrinkle in Time, my comic book heroes and anti-heroes, and so many more, I’ve learned that something doesn’t have to be an accurate account to carry a true message.

https://thebiblehistorybooks.wordpress.com

Could these stories have truly happened? Could it be that the power of God physically parted the Red Sea and the Jordan River? Yes. What keeps me going, though, isn’t the certainty that this literally happened.

What keeps me going are the stones by the river, that remind me and all God’s people of the Lord’s provision. What keeps me going is the meaning of the name Emmanuel, God with us, which reminds me to be God’s presence in a broken world. The truth of God’s love, mercy, and guidance that I find in these stories and many others are what keep me going when nothing else seems certain. These truths, not their “realness,” are what matter the most to me.

We don’t need more certainty. We need more faith that the stories are true.

S.O.S.

ring

Is there anyone out there, in this sea of faith, who has more questions than answers?

Is there anyone out there being pulled endlessly by the current of doubt?

Is there anyone out there who is sick of pat answers as life rafts, or the pressure from others to provide them?

Is there anyone out there who despairs the absence of the “I don’t know,” hoping that those will be what someone throws to help you stay afloat?

Is there anyone out there who seems to edge a little closer to shore, only to be yanked out in another riptide, maybe due to culture wars, good questions, an ounce of logic, or the pain seen everyday?

Isn’t someone out there feeling this way? Am I the only one, in religious education or otherwise, who experienced a faith crisis and lost everything I once held dear? Why do I feel so lost in this sea of uncertainty? Why do I feel like the only one asking certain questions, challenging certain assumptions, and being infuriated by certain ideologies, methods, and theologies?

Consider this an SOS. If you’re out there, know that you’re not alone. If you’re out there, please, let me know I’m not alone. Let me know I’m not in the surging waves and the roaring winds by myself, with only God to both hold me afloat and push me around.

Please. If you’re out there, please say so. And if you’re able, please throw me a life preserver, because these waters are rough.

What Kind of Christian Am I?

Snoopy

I feel as if I am at odds with everyone – I’m too liberal for some and too conservative for others. I’m too radical to some groups and not radical enough for others. I’m in love with tradition yet challenge and even contradict it vehemently.

But most of all, I feel at odds with certainty.

Which is quite odd, the more I think about it. The truth is, I want certainty and clarity. I want to trade one form of fundamentalism and certainty for another. I want to be right in all of my arguments and never have to admit defeat.

I want certainty, because more than anything else, I am terrified of being wrong.

If I’m wrong, that might give me less power over those I once thought were wrong. If I’m wrong, others may be free to completely discredit anything I ever loved or believed. If I’m wrong, I fear that the God I always thought would stay with me will abandon me. If I’m wrong, I fear that the Church I call home will reject me.

Despite all I have been through so far, these fears paralyze me. Despite my Philosophy, Religion, and Seminary courses, there are still nights where I toss and turn and worry about all the things I might have gotten wrong. Despite the resurrections I’ve experienced in my faith journey, there are days when I’m tempted to go back to all of my old, dead ways of thinking because at least I could hide behind certainty’s security.

Because even if it’s not entirely me anymore, at least I felt certain about things, and at least I knew that neither God nor the Church would abandon me.

Yet despite these fears, I’m slowly but surely learning that clarity and certainty are allusions; they’re unattainable ideals like perfection, golden calves which we make and barriers we build to distinguish who is “In” and “Out.” If Jesus demanded certainty as a prerequisite to following him, how many followers would he truly have? If certainty is so crucial to Christianity, why do we call it a walk of faith?

Maybe it’s no longer about what I know to be right but what I am willing to be wrong about. Maybe it’s no longer about pursuing this “greater good” to “glorify God” but whether or not my thoughts, ideas, and actions are bringing more love or less love into the world.

Maybe I’ll never find a “perfect” denomination, a “perfect” Church, or a perfect Christianity. Maybe I’ll never find a Jesus who completely agrees with me, either. Maybe I’ll always be at odds with a lot of “orthodox” theology and tradition. What I know for now, though, is that for better or worse, God has me in the Church, and it would take an act of God to keep me away from this Body.