Saturday, February 23, 2008

the twenty year itch

I know all of you are so excited to hear that I'm suffering from another malaise of the spirit and faith. These come up every few months, often in tandem with, well, women's complaints. This time is no exception.
I've been feeling a bit weary with my faith lately.
It started when I forgot my Book of Common Prayer at our house, and thus couldn't use it at my parents. This went on for weeks, and I happily ignored the nice little routine I'd built up of checking in with God every once in a while. Why happily? Because I'm lazy, and there is so much reading material out there that demands my eyeballs. Demands.
Funny thing--when you skip prayer, God starts seeming awful distant.
Add in the feeling still out-of-sorts at our church. Not to blame my church, but Dyami and I haven't quite found our place there with our post-childbearing lifestyle.
So then Lent rolled around, and I decided to use the cycle of the holiday to try to reconnect with God, and so I started reading the New Testament, rather than reading all that other reading material.
This has been a mixed success.
  • On the plus side, I've really enjoyed the New Testament. I haven't read it in big chunks like this since college, and it's a fascinating read. I'm just reading it like any other book (rather than studying it, as was my somewhat obsessive habit in college) and I almost see more of the text when I'm not trying to be a scholar or a monk or something. Paul's personality, Jesus' personality, these really come through reading the whole thing in long chunks.
  • On the minus side, I find myself kind of annoyed by Jesus.
This really bothers me. I mean, if you're a Christian, are you supposed to be annoyed by the guy that is kind of the point of it all? Many people are annoyed by Paul, who is kind of a harpy sometimes. I on the other hand, identify with Paul. He's so clear, even when he's snarky. Live this way! This is what everything means! Give holy kisses! Amen! I mean, he's not easy, but I think I understand his personality.
But Jesus? I read a lot of his speeches in John and was just frustrated. Like: why are you so hard on your followers? How are they supposed to know Who the heck you are? and Can you just please speak clearly? and Who are You, exactly? And what difference does that make? and Why do You sound so religious? I want You to sound fresh, not like I've heard a million sermons on these words so much so that they've ceased to have meaning.
Of course, this latter complaint makes little sense. Jesus can't help that I've been a Christian for nearly twenty years. Or that familiar words are, well, familiar. I'm priviledged that I can read and understand the central text of my faith (I was stunned and humbled in Three Cups of Tea when a villiage headman wanted school for his children because he wanted them to be able to read the Koran like he'd always wanted to). But I hate going to church or bible study or reading a passage of beauty and thinking "Been there--done that."
And then there are all the textual criticism things that pop up whenever I read the Bible--like, how literally should I take all this stuff? And what does it mean that the Bible is "God-breathed?" and how do I balance intelligent reading with faithful reading?
Sigh. All these questions make my head spin.
Then I started reading Eat, Pray, Love. Which was really quite fabulous. And an interesting portrayal of this woman's search for God and faith and herself. Especially interesting because it is similar, in some respects, to mine, while being absolutely different all at once.
I could really hear her describing the God I know and love in many passages and experiences. And then there were passages that I disagreed with. Those same passages often made me envious, though. That she could so easily decide to take up the mantle of another faith tradition (well, not easily, exactly--the process sounded a lot harder than anything I've ever attempted with faith)--and assert that we should do the same if ours isn't working for us? That, in the end, the faith traditions are all seeking the same poetic metaphors?
This niggles at me. Sometimes...well, my faith doesn't work for me. Sometimes I feel it is heavy, and difficult. But I wonder: is it my faith, or is it me? Other days, when I remember Who exactly the God I serve is...those days, I realize the faith I have chosen is, well, easy, and it's burden is light. The other days, the God I'm serving is usually one of my own creating. Ie, small and petty and graceless and demanding.
I would like a Christian wiser than me to help me learn how to incorporate the meditation techniques and traditions of other faiths into my own practice. Because I think they have a lot ot teach Christians. So often modern Christianity is so head and intellect based that it leaves my heart out cold.
And I yearn for the transformative experiences Gilbert describes in her book--they sound awesome. So much so I wanted to (at moments) go to India to study with her guru and pray to Shiva.
Except my understanding of Christianity is (as she points out in her introduction) intertwined with Jesus' claim that he is The Way. The Only Way. Which always leaves me wondering how much I am free to pick and choose from cool portions of other faiths, and how much I am supposed to look and not touch.
I kind of feel like I've been married to Christianity (and perhaps not always to Christ. Which may be the problem) for a very long time, and the description of someone else's tumultous and wonderful affair with a different faith is leaving me, well, a bit itchy (then there's the 'seduced by books factor, which always gets me. I beleive everything I read, really).
Except--I'm not a big believer in divorce. What I mean is: I don't want to discard my faith because it isn't sitting right, or it isn't actualizing me. That seems kind of self-centered to me.
Indeed, much as I respect and admire Gilbert for her path--much as I hope I can have as much courage to seek my faith as she had to seek hers--some of her book seems self-indulgent to me. I think, perhaps, at the end of the book, I want to know what's next. Sure, she has come through hell, and healed herself, found God in an amazing way. But is that all? Is that all God leads us to--being right with ourselves?
It's the same problem I often have with Evangelical Christianity--that with all the talk of personal salvation, people forget about helping the poor. That they join six bible studies, but never go visit prisoners. I'm as big of a hypocrite in this area as any one else, I'm sure.
Is faith's ultimate goal just fuzzy warm feelings? Is it just self-esteem? Is it just about finding what I want, what suits me? I don't want to belittle Gilbert's encounter with God--I think good works will flow out of really understanding God's love and acceptance and character--heck, that's why I like Jesus, when I'm not annoyed at Him--but it bothered me, a little bit, that she doesn't make that leap. Perhaps it goes without saying? Perhaps her experience in Bali, helping her friend buy a house, points that way? I don't know.
Sigh. I am all bent out of shape about this post. I don't feel like I'm expressing myself very well, or giving enough credit to what was a wonderful book. Or enough credit to the hard road of finding faith these days. Sometimes it seems to me like we're all so lost, in our modern world of choices. Everything we choose is a freedom. And yet, all that choice--what we eat, what we wear, what our career should look like, our gender identity, how we raise our children, our music, our faith or spirituality--is dizzying. And sometimes I'm skeptical that each of us, locked in our own limitations will be able to find a God that is any bigger than our limitations. And that in discarding all of our traditions--in neglecting them, or disdaining them , we've lost our center and our wisdom. But what other choice (oddly) do we have?


Todd Stadler said...

I've been meaning to say something since you posted this -- your entry has been in a tab in my browser since then, daring me to reply. Turns out non-parental types can also be very busy. Or, say, easily distracted. Anyhow.

I want to respond with lots of words. Not to correct you or tell you what's what -- it's more like you've presented a lot of interesting sentences, and I'm pretending that we're having a conversation over a nice cup of coffee (French press, strong) and adding in my thoughts here and there. I say this because I know I have a, um, reputation perhaps for being stubborn and whatever else. I'm not trying to come across like that. But at some level, I figure if you didn't want replies from the likes of me, you might not have posted this at all.

That said, I go through these things, too. I've always wanted to graph my depressions, euphorias, manicness, super-tiredness, and spiritual doldrums, to see if there's any periodicity. It's the geek in me, I suppose -- if we can graph it, well, we can turn it into a pretty picture. And that helps, I guess.

And yeah, I notice that my spiritual nadirs tend to correlate to my turning my back on God. Usually not so obviously -- I'll just forget to read my Bible one day. Or two or three. And then I'll be grumpy from that, and think that I'm tired of reading my Bible on the bus ride to work, I really should finish reading the Omnivore's Dilemma, which is much more fun reading. Only, honestly, that just makes me more grumpy. And God feels so far away by that point, as if somehow he'd left me. No, he's right there, I'm just ignoring him. And using the resulting malaise to justify ignoring him even more. Which, you know, is a rather vicious circle. Not to say that coming back to the Bible suddenly makes everything hunky-dory, though I'm surprised by how often it does.

I think it's funny you like Paul. I mean, I'm glad. But stereotypically, liberals* have a hard time with him. His words are harder to dance around than most modern folks like. Many liberals* that I've read prefer to dismiss Paul out of hand, as if his writings were less representative of Jesus' teachings than John's or Matthew's. Frankly, I find this odd -- none of the New Testament writings were written directly by Jesus. That some people assume that text in red is more representative of God's words than is text in black makes me think that they don't understand what the Bible is or who wrote it.

*Honestly, I'm not entirely sure how I'm using this word. Political liberals? Theological liberals? Both? I'm the former, but not the latter. I assume you're the former, but I'm not sure where you'd put yourself regarding the latter. Hello, footnote!

I wouldn't argue that Jesus and Paul have a different message, since I believe that the whole of the Bible is God's word, and thus of a consistent message. That said, I have no trouble believing that Jesus and Paul had different personalities that might appeal to different people at different times. I'd just chalk it up to God making sure that he communicates with everyone he needs to throughout the course of human history. The more I read, though, the more I see it all being of a piece. Scripture interpreting scripture and all that.

For me, church and Bible study groups, rather than instilling the "been there, done that" feeling in me, often give me a chance to see God's word through other people's eyes. I might get tired of reading the Bible if I only ever brought my own thoughts to it, but my pastor probably has an interesting take on things that I never would have thought of. Your mileage may vary, but that's why I think God wants us gather together to worship -- we're not supposed to just teach ourselves. If we were, I imagine there'd be a whole lot of error in what I eventually arrived at.

I can't say that I don't occasionally struggle with understanding a particular passage, perhaps in light of another passage, but I generally don't have a problem with wondering how literally something should be taken. Usually, the passage itself makes it clear if it's being literal or metaphorical or poetic or whatever. Just me?

Anyhow, for me, when I find my faith lacking or feeling pretty lame, I've noticed the problem isn't with Christianity, it's in my application of it. Christianity can -- indeed, should -- be very transformative. Every time I read Acts, I'm like ... hey, this is a pretty cool faith! I should join it. Except I already have. But I let it get drowned in the stupid things of this world, to the point where it's almost unrecognizable. I'm so beholden to my things, to my status (such as it is) with my friends and coworkers, etc. Where is my love for my neighbor?

The thing is, though, that I really, really love what Jesus tells me when I realize how poorly I'm being a Christian: that he loves me and forgives me. I'd really hate it if Christianity was only about loving the poor and doing good and working really hard. Because all that would result in is a lot of self-doubt. I mean, if Mother Theresa doubted that Jesus loved her after all she did, then I don't think works is a really calming thing.

Anyhow, I, too, have lost the thread here in my comment. But I typed a lot of words! And that's ... that's ... a lot of words.

Heather said...

wow, people, you've been giving me great comments. And here I thought people would be calling with a friendly prescription for Zoloft. Go figure!
Todd, I absolutely love your penultimate paragraph. (yes, sirree, penultimate): "The thing is, though, that I really, really love what Jesus tells me when I realize how poorly I'm being a Christian: that he loves me and forgives me. I'd really hate it if Christianity was only about loving the poor and doing good and working really hard. Because all that would result in is a lot of self-doubt." I think one of my imbalances right now is the do-gooder in me has really been wanting to just do good (wanting: I make no claim to actually _doing_). Which is all fine and good, but is a little exhausting sometimes.
And I agree that's why we need to have community around us. Only it's hard to have community for us right now, when we very rarely get to sit through a whole sermon (child that doesn't like the childcare) and can't join a small group (child needs to go to bed, no terribly easy babysitting available). So, that leaves both D and I a little high and dry.
But I already feel encouraged by some of the conversations I've had over the past few days b/c of this blog post. Which just goes to show.
Oh, and I vote for a bar graph. That would be cool. You take green, I'll take day-glo orange.