Graceful argument

In the patchwork quilt that is my spiritual journey, grace was a piece of the design I didn’t understand. I heard numerous preachers extol the miracle of grace from the pulpit. But what did it mean?
My confusion mostly stemmed from the fact that most faith traditions don’t exactly agree on what grace is or isn’t. I’ve read a number of books and scoured the web to get a handle on it. The simplest, most straightforward definition I came across was by Mary Fairchild at About.com: “Grace is kindness from God we don’t deserve.”

As virtuous as we try to be, our human frailty leads us astray. Sin is at the very root of our nature. No matter how hard we try, at the very least we’re going to covet or blaspheme along the way … probably without even realizing it. Grace is the gift that redeems us from our transgressions. Christ died for all the sin humans have committed and will commit. Here’s where the arguments get hot: does this mean we get a free pass to party like rock stars because Christ died for our sins?

There are an infinite number of answers to that question. Which of those answers is actually correct is part of the Divine mystery. Depending on your concept of Hell, all but a select few of us will end up in eternal damnation … or all of us, no matter how large our sins, will ascend to the Pearly Gates. But it’s even more complicated than that! Casting aside those who either do or don’t believe in Hell, we still have to factor in the varying views of Purgatory. For some, Purgatory IS Hell. For others it’s the waiting room between the two places … while still others view our earthly lives as Purgatory. Our life on earth is simply marking time.

Where does grace fall in all that?

There are those who believe you are only granted God’s grace if you take a vow of poverty, donate every cent you make to charity and devote your life to Christ’s mission. There are those who believe as long as one person suffers none shall be granted eternal life. Still others believe so long as you say God and Jesus are A-OK in your book, your place in heaven is waiting. But who is right?
Seems like a cruel guessing game, doesn’t it? But this isn’t some Diving game of Clue, we’re talking about our eternal souls here, right? We can all argue about grace until we’re blue in the face, but the answer to this mystery isn’t going to reveal itself until each of us is unable to tell anyone else what the true answer is.
All we have are human beliefs and convictions about what God’s message is. The piece of that message that was always most clear to me was love. Love one another regardless. No matter differing ideologies, religions, race or creed God is pretty clear that he wants us to love and care for one another. While we bide our time on this mortal coil, I think that’s one of the best things we can do … if only to make a worthwhile endeavor out of this whole mystery.

It’s not as clear as we’d like it to be

Even the messiest among us likes some small amount of order.  We are creatures who like categories and labels … a short hand that helps us process through an issue or a person without much thought.  In our busy lives, it’s just easier to use this short hand to deal with the world.  We only have to engage in that which we feel is truly important.

But what are we missing?

So much of life falls outside the neat little boxes and rules we try to cram our existence into.  We uphold the Ten Commandments as a core of our values.  But do we really look beyond just the surface of the Decalogue?  In a very real sense, many of us break the Commandments daily.  But is that truly the intent of these laws, that we should strictly adhere to them?

“You shall not kill,” seems like a straightforward rule to follow.  But how does it apply to the soldier fighting in Afghanistan?  How does that command apply to the woman and her daughter being brutally abused by the woman’s spouse?  She comes home to find her husband strangling the child and ends his life to save her daughter.  How does she fit into the neat box?

“You shall not commit adultery,” is thorny as well.  A man divorces his wife because she refuses to stop abusing drugs.  He fears the impact her addiction will have on their son.  He divorces her and remarries. He provides a stable, loving home for both his son and the son of his new wife.  Technically, he’s committed adultery.  But was staying with a wife who chose drugs over her husband and child some how less ethical than committing an act of adultery?

A young man tells his parents he is gay and they subsequently throw him out of their house.  He is rejected by both immediate and extended family.  The young man is now forced to provide for himself to survive.  How is this young man to honor his father and mother when has been utterly abandoned by them?

We desire our questions of morality to be more black and white than these.  We want to be able to have a clear choice:  right or wrong.  But life is far more complicated and disorganized than that.  Most of the issues we are faced with have multiple answers in varying degrees of right and wrong. None of us can have all the right answers. We can only make the choices that speak to our hearts as being the best and most just.  Beyond that, we can only pray about those things that fall into that murky, gray area.

The Tenth Anniversary

We all remember where we were that day, that terrible day ten years ago.  I was staring stupidly at the Today show, I had just watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center.  Academically, I knew what was happening.  Emotionally, I was refusing to believe my eyes and ears.

I already felt horrible.  The afternoon before, I’d had an asthma attack.  I was home in bed waiting to go see the doctor about adjusting my medication again.  I remember blurting out to my empty bedroom, “We’re under attack?”  It was a question, not a statement.  My mind still reeled from the images and sounds coming from the 19 inch television on top of my bureau.

It seemed so small.  It seemed so far away.  Then it all came crashing in so very, very close.

Reports were chaotic.  We heard a bomb had gone off at Times Square, then the Capital, eventually those would all be unconfirmed.  But then one of the local Washington stations reported a plane had hit the Pentagon.  I heard the news anchor say, “Can we confirm … Ok, yes, we have confirmation that a plane has crashed into the Pentagon.”

I felt my throat start to close, I was freezing cold despite being under the bed clothes.  I yelled to an empty room, “Daddy!”

Every morning from 1993 until 2008, my father traveled up I-95 from Woodbridge, VA to Rosslyn, VA where his office was.  It’s about a 28 mile drive.  The commute took him through the wind of spaghetti like roads surrounding the Pentagon.  Having done the commute with him several times myself and knowing the time he left, I knew that he’d be heading  into that area just about that time, just about the time that plane crashed.

I must have dropped my phone three times trying to dial my father’s cell phone then my mother.  When she picked up, her voice was tight with panic, “Hello!”

“Mom, have you heard from Da – …”

“No, I thought this call was him.  Get off the phone, I haven’t heard from him,” she hung up abruptly.

As, I hung the phone up it rang again.  I snatched up the receiver only to find my doctor’s office on the other line asking me if I could come in earlier than my appointment.  They wanted to close early.

I drove the five blocks to my parents’ house, shaking the whole way.  I sat with my mother on the couch, watching the images of the plane hitting the Trade Center over and over again.  We also both warily eyed the cordless phone on the coffee table, willing it to ring.

It didn’t ring for three hours.

As I had feared,  my father had been right at the Pentagon either as the plane hit or shortly after.  He dialed 911 furiously on his cell phone, but to no avail.  Circuits had been overrun or shut down.

It took him over an hour to go the seven miles from the Pentagon to the parking garage at his office.  He didn’t say much when he called.  Just told my mother he was okay and that his office was closing early.  He was going to do a few things and then try to make his way back home.

My family has always been the stiff upper lip sort.  None of us are big huggers or criers.  My father spent 35 years of his professional career as a journalist.  From the short time I spent as a journalist, I know the profession numbs you to many of life’s tragedies.  You form a hard outer shell around your tender emotions and don’t get too close to anything, simply out of self-preservation.

When he got home that afternoon, for the first time in my life I saw my father cry.  He hugged my mother and I very tightly.  Then he sat for several hours, staring dumbly at the television.

The fear we all felt that day was horrific, worse still was the bitter anger.  So many of us felt the need to lash out and often in totally the wrong direction.  Worse still, so many us either lost a loved one or knew someone who did.  There was a constant need to feel like we were doing something about this, but precious little to do.

That Friday, a group of us booked the large conference room at the office.  Everyone brought candles and at 3 p.m. went up to that room, turned off the lights and lit the candles.  One of the women in the group began to quietly pray.  Slowly, we all joined in saying the Lord’s Prayer.  It wasn’t much, but we were finally doing something.

Love in discomfort

Talk about simple: first-century Christians met in homes or other places to worship and share Christ’s message.  There were no special buildings set aside for church.  This was an organic gathering of people who shared beliefs and faith.  For the first Christians, worship was a much more intimate thing than we experience today.

Many of us lose sight of the fact that, in the beginning, Christianity was a radical, grassroots movement, a subculture, and not the norm.  Now that Christianity is mainstream, in some circles, we’ve gotten a bit big for our britches.  For just a moment, think what it would be like if the opposition to our faith was similar to the opposition the efforts to legalize same-sex marriage.  First-century Christians often had to meet in secret and be “in the closet” about their faith.

In some ways, we have grown complacent in our edifices of worship.  Our sanctuaries offer a certain safety from the rest of the world and a buffer from other streams of thought.  This can lead to passivity in our faith.  We’re more willing to have our faith spoon fed to us rather than actively engage with one another and God.  Truly, this is not what discipleship is about.

The question we should ask ourselves is this:  How can we be more faithful to incarnating the presentness of God in our lives in the here and now?

Do we stop worshiping in the same place?  I’m afraid that genie is long out of the bottle.  Instead, let’s think of the ways our sanctuary confines us.  Do you feel that the only time you connect with God and the people of your community of faith is on Sunday morning?  How do you go beyond that?  How can  you start connecting with God and others right now?

It is cliché to say faith is something we live and not something we do every Sunday morning.  We all know this.  But do we practice it enough?

Our community of faith has a long history of standing for social justice in our community and in the world at large.  We share of ourselves when others are in need.  We show compassion to strangers.  We take this part of our faith very seriously.  Can we do more?

While we reach out to those in our community, do we do enough to show that love and compassion to people in our own community of faith?  Are we too choosy in the groups we do reach out to on the outside?

Can we do the hard work of reaching beyond the safety of our church walls and spending time in a place or with people who are beyond our comfort zone?  It is scary, but thinking back to those first-century Christians, I’m certain it was far more frightening for them.

Think about it.  How do we show more love and compassion in a world that often rejects those offers?

More about less

Doing with less sounds seems almost like a punishment, doesn’t it?  We often feel we never have enough, why on earth would we want less?  But the deeper question is:  do we appreciate what we already have?

Sure, we can simplify by eating less, buying less, driving less and recycling more.  We can only buy sustainable meat and produce.  We can choose to only buy fair trade and products made of “green” materials.  We can plant a garden or have a yard sale and donate all the proceeds to charity.  We could also just donate some of our excess material goods to a worthy charity.

While all of those are commendable, there is more to it all than simply modifying our conspicuous consumerism.

Appreciating one another is one simple, sustainable thing we can practice.  Turn off the television, the computer, the cell phone and the iPod so you can play a game with friends and family.  Take a break from our hectic schedules to have a simple meal at home.  Entertain yourselves with good company.

Volunteer with a favorite charity.  Write a poem.  Paint a picture.  Find ways to engage the creativity God gave us.  Don’t worry if anyone else will think it’s good, just concern yourself with appreciating being self-sufficient.

At the very least, take some time to think about the things you could live without.  More importantly think about the people and relationships you can’t live without.  Spend time with those people … and remember to tell them just how much they mean to you.

One thing that assuredly does matter

In the battle of “does theology matter or not,” I’m loathe to pick sides.  Both Dr. Browning and Matt’s arguments were compelling.  Last week I argued theology did matter.  At this juncture, and after Sunday’s sermon, it would seem logical to contradict myself.

However, like Matt, I’m a bit of a contrarian.  I won’t be doing the expected, instead I’m simply going to shift gears and tell you what I am certain matters.

Faith matters.

I’m not just talking about faith in God or faith in Christ’s path.  I’m talking about faith in one another; faith in humanity.  It’s safe to say that kind of faith is bound to let you down from time to time.  But for once in my overly cynical life, I’m going to play optimist here.

There’s a country song about thanking God for unanswered prayers.  I submit that life provides, not always what we want, but what we need to grow as people.

I don’t want to sound fatalistic and say that our lives are planned out for us before we are born.  I truly believe that God’s “plan” for us is one we forge through a relationship both with God and those around us.  God provides a path, we either choose to follow or not follow.

That said, each person and each experience we encounter in life is a lesson and an opportunity.  This is where faith comes in. Rather than seeing the things that happen to us as merely happening, we need to see those things for what we learn from them.  We need to have faith that while the lesson or opportunity may not immediately be clear, eventually our experiences will make us stronger, better people.

When you stop and reflect on all the good and bad things that have happened to you over the last year, I’m sure you’ll realize there are takeaways from each of those events.  Those takeaways provide a guide for the steps to take as you continue forward.  Often life’s bumps and starts are precisely the knowledge you’ve been seeking.

Have faith in the people and events that come to your life.  While they may not seem significant or beneficial at first, a few years later you may realize just how much that event helped you along the path you’ve chosen to make for yourself.  Even just stopping to reflect on those things help all of us to be more alive and engaged with one another.

As Pastor Laura says, “May it be so.”

Not following blindly

Does theology matter?  Dr. Browning’s sermon this past Sunday was thought provoking.  I certainly agree with his assessment that there are pieces of theology that are too dense and arcane to wrap my mind around.

For many of us, church is just something we do.  Like mowing the lawn, taking a shower or going to work, our religious life isn’t always something we think about.  We have an inherent sense that it is right and good to go.  But often the thought process stops there.  How often do we really question what we believe?

In some communities of faith, questioning is tantamount to heresy. You’re merely expected to show up and take what’s given you without thought or question.  The person in the pulpit has far more authority than you, so sit there and listen like a good congregation.

But how wise is it to blindly follow someone just because the appear to be an “authority?”  One look at Nazi Germany and we get a taste of just how bitter that policy can turn out.

The extreme example of Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist church comes to mind.  The members of that church are there for any number of reasons I won’t attempt to guess.  Yet it’s safe to say they blindly follow Phelp’s hate-filled crusade against the LGBT community in the name of God.

I find it incredible that these folks have so twisted Jesus’s words to blame the Gay Community for all of America’s ills.  How does a message of love and peace become one of hate and animosity towards a fraction of the populace?

For some of us, it defies logic that Phelps’s game of suing community after community for violating his First Amendment rights is seen as God’s work rather than a lucrative scheme for a disbarred lawyer.  Talk about blind faith.

You may be scratching your head thinking this example is one that would indicate theology is bad and shouldn’t matter. But I submit I’m arguing the opposite. Letting a so-called authority dictate theological doctrine to you is what is bad. Understanding theological doctrine so that you can make informed decisions about your faith practices is good.

Blessed be those who question.  They shine a light for those of us too shy to find the switch for ourselves.

Regrets, I have a few

Regrets, regrettably, are a part of life.  If you don’t have regrets, you’re likely not paying close enough attention.  That said, at the very least, regrets are learning opportunities.  They are a chance to recognize a past wrong and make it right.

For eight years, I existed in Washington, DC.  I say “existed” because what I was doing was assuredly not living.  I had few friends or connections.  I buried myself in work and a half-hearted attempt at a marriage.

Each day was the same churn of long commute, long work day and too little sleep.  The whole thing was mind numbing … which is precisely what I wanted.  I was hiding.

I realized there was something different about me from the time I was 18.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on why boys didn’t interest me the way they did my other female friends.  I chose to believe I was this way merely because I was too focused on school and rowing.

Even then, I was turning a blind eye to reality.  It would be 14 long years before I could admit to myself I was gay.  It would be another three before I could admit it to my then husband and family.

I regret being so naive as to dismiss what was so plainly before me.  I regret denying who I was because I was afraid of what others would think.  I regret choosing to be miserable for so long.

Mostly, I regret the pain I caused my ex-husband and his daughter.

When I moved back to Missouri in 2006, things snapped into place in my brain.  I realized I had to do the right thing and start being who I was rather than who the world expected me to be.  It was painful and hard, like most life lessons.

I finally told myself, my husband and family the truth.  While it was terrifying, it was also freeing.  For the first time in my adult life I felt unburdened.  I started sleeping full nights for the first time in three years.

As I made peace with myself, I also made peace with my ex-husband.  After our divorce, he gave me a bracelet for Christmas that reads, “To thine own self be true.”  I cried when I found it on the nightstand.  I was relieved and grateful he realized my struggle.

I regret not getting to know who I really was until I was 35 years old.  However, I decidedly don’t regret finally taking the step in that direction.  The person beneath that numbing professional drive and extreme capacity for self-denial is far more interesting, compassionate and fun.  She has friends and is connected to her community.

Most importantly, she’s learned from her regrets and beginning to learn to avoid most of them in the first place.

Learning to live in my spiritual skin

I have a checkered past, at least religiously speaking. My father was fairly anti-religion and my mother was a go-with-the-flow sort. I didn’t attend my first church service until I was six years old.

Given my precocious nature and since my father was so against religion, I was intensely curious about it. When my family moved to a small town in Kansas, my best friend was the Baptist minister’s kid. I’ve since developed a habit of being befriended by Preachers’ Kids.

When I reflect on the people who have been spiritual mentors to me, family and pastors have played a lesser role than friends, a Buddhist nun, and those preachers’ kids.

Preacher’s Kid number one, Holly, introduced me to the Baptist faith. After explaining to me that one doesn’t splash in the baptismal font, she got me involved in her church. I went to youth group with her, and she convinced me to go to my first ever church camp as well as get saved. I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with all of those things, but I knew it was important to Holly so I should probably pay attention. Holly sparked my curiosity about faith even further. Yet, since I only attended with her occasionally, religion was still just out of grasp for me.

When I was a young adult, first out on my own, I began attending a Methodist church with my boyfriend. Church going became more of a regular occurrence for me during that time. I learned to appreciate hymns and prayer. I began to demystify religion for myself at that point. Once exotic and foreign to me, it became comfortable . . . perhaps a bit too comfortable.

When the boyfriend and I broke up, my church “family” broke up with me. If I dared go to church, folks wouldn’t look at or even speak to me. It was painful and hard for me to believe that in a community of 500 believers, not one of them could find anything more redeeming in me than being a member’s girlfriend. When I stopped being his girlfriend, I stopped being important.

And religion stopped being important to me.

The next several years were somewhat tumultuous. I was not only struggling with a sense of self as an adult, but also with my own spirituality. While organized religion wasn’t important to me, my spirit was. From the age of 28 to the age of 35 I was going through quite the identity crisis. During this time I went to work at PBS, where everyone in my department was Catholic.

I’d been to Mass and many of my friends growing up were Catholic. This rowdy group of former preschool educators were oddly comforting to me both in their professional and religious backgrounds. Like Holly, faith mattered to them. More importantly, people mattered more to them. While I wouldn’t get close to their religious practices, I did get close to them. Even from my distance, their comfort in their faith comforted me.

Nonetheless, I was still searching. I read books on paganism, mysticism and Buddhism. I learned to meditate, anywhere. Given the long commutes I endured during my time living in the Washington, DC area I learned how to seek quiet on the Beltway and the subway. The lurch and flow of traffic had its own rhythm. The high pitched thrum of the lightrail had a soothing quality. In those moments, which were often the only ones I had to myself, I found space to breathe and think.

When I moved back to Missouri in 2006, I found a meditation group. The woman who led the group was a Buddhist nun. She was a tiny, quiet person with a shaved head and round glasses. Our small group met on Saturday mornings in a yoga studio on Walnut Street. It was during those meditations I came to terms with my sexuality as well as my spirituality.

Of the things that shaped me as a person of faith, oddly enough coming out of the closet was probably the most notable. It likely goes without saying that being gay and Christian isn’t easy. Many Christian faiths reject or even persecute gay and lesbian people. As I was coming to terms with who I was, I once again found myself in the lurch of spiritually. Where was it, exactly, I was going to fit in?

I’m told the Preachers’ Kids have me on a rotation. As I was asking myself that very question, a Preacher’s Kid simultaneously appeared in my life. As she is also gay, I was surprised when she told me she went to church and was very active in her church. I could hardly believe what I was hearing.

I don’t know whether she tricked me or I was finally ready, but she got me back through the doors of a church. In 2007, I started regularly attending National Avenue Christian Church. I even became a member. While my time there has not been without its ups and downs, I’m beginning to learn that those ups and downs are very much a part of what shapes us not only spiritually, but as people.

While many of wonderful pastors I’ve come to know have guided me along my crooked spiritual path, life experiences, friends and even co-workers have been on that path with me. Their experiences, along with mine, have done the most to make me comfortable in my spiritual skin.