Sunday, April 24, 2005

My Chiksa Exodus

This past week I suffered a bad bout of TLF -- Temporary Loss of Focus.

It all started on Beliefnet -- that mixed blessing and bane of my online life -- on the Lutheranism forum, where I got into it with an individual over The Troubles in the ELCA and the upcoming Churchwide Assembly. Frankly, I have been loathe to discuss this issue a lot, partly because it tends to throw me off my game spiritually and partly because it makes some people less willing to listen to me when I am talking about basic God stuff, which is my primary motivation for spilling my guts all over the Internet in the first place.

But -- get into it I did. And my antagonist -- one of those "This hurts me more than it hurts you, but...," kinder-gentler bigots -- said things that cut me to the quick. Now, I have been known to give as well as I get in these Internet rowdy-dows, and I responded in what I thought was a pointed, yet measured and thoughtful, way. But it just got to me. And it got to me in, of all places, my vehicle, as I was on my way to a speaking engagement for work the next day.

I couldn't get this individual's smiley-face hatred out of my head. I imagined it multiplying exponentially. Worst of all, I imagined it metastasizing into my own congregation. I was overcome by sorrow.

I found myself crying, there in the car. And I couldn't stop. It went on for miles and miles, despite my best efforts to pull myself together. Our local public radio station's classical music host had impishly added the London Symphony's version of "You Keep Me Hanging On" to the playlist that morning, something that normally would have me laughing out loud and perhaps even singing along, but now I was sobbing to what seemed like the saddest music in the world. I finally pulled off at a gas station and just sat there for awhile until I could compose myself and repair my rapidly liquifying makeup. (This was in a community that's become regionally famous for an ongoing price war between local service stations, so perhaps the proprietors and customers thought I was weeping in relief over finding $1.87-a-gallon gasoline). Somehow, I temporarily stopped the tears from flowing, got to my engagement, mumbled something about the heartbreak of pollen season and did what I had to do. Then I got back in my car...and cried all the way home. Help me, I prayed -- Ms. Liturgical having run out of anything else to say. Help me.

Help was on the way. As it always is, even though I am inclined to forget that.

A couple of weeks ago a friend and I had been talking about Henri Nouwen's Return of the Prodigal Son, a book that had come out during what I call my religious tantrum period and that I hadn't read even though I'd been a fan of Nouwen's back in my college days. (Nouwen was such a kind and good person, who modeled his Christianity so powerfully in ways that I personally find so difficult -- whenever I think of the phrase "the saints in light" I think of Henri right in their midst, interceding for all of us.) I'd special-ordered a copy, and when I got home I learned that it had arrived.

This was exactly the book I needed to read. It's a meditation on the parable of the Prodigal Son as depicted in Rembrandt's painting "The Return of the Prodigal Son," one in which Nouwen also shared, in a very intimate way, his own struggles to feel loved and accepted, and his tendency to seek these things outside the circle of God's unconditional love and acceptance. He spoke of identifying with both the younger son's sadness, shame and fatigue, there in "a far country," and with the elder son's cold resentment of his father's impartial, unconditional love. He spoke of his resistance to living into a more mature and kenotic faith -- of wanting to remain the perpetual needy adolescent instead of answering the call to serve others as the giving parent. As Nouwen journeyed into the story, I felt myself moving from role to role along with him. And something clicked.

Then...I went on retreat this weekend. There is something very energizing about being in a small group of people who are in love with God and want to do something about it. And it's not that we're always shiny, happy people holding hands. Several retreatants were having major issues with our visiting theologian, who had to spend a lot of extra time explaining the difference between "truth" and "factuality" to some highly skeptical people in various states of upset over the thought that "Moses" might be a composite character, and that the Exodus might have been less like the Cecil B. DeMille version and more like the Joads loading up the jalopy and heading to Californ-i-a; and during our breakout group time people were getting testy about everything from the Terri Schiavo saga to inclusive language. But -- we all hung in there together. And people amazed me: a very quiet, shy woman leading a really beautiful devotional she'd written herself; a discussion of Bonhoeffer's Life Together that underlined for me my companions' longing for and commitment to that kind of in-it-for-the-long-haul faith; extemporaneous intercessory prayers that blew me away in their sincerity and eloquence. We ended celebrating the Eucharist; because of our retreat themes of Exodus and the Sacraments, our retreat pastor asperged us with a cedar bough that had been dipped into the baptismal font, so we passed through the water again, so to speak, as a reminder of God's saving acts large and small.

Bonhoeffer wrote that whenever we take our eyes off Christ, we get into trouble. I believe this. We get into trouble when we start looking for validation outside the embrace of the God who calls us beloved, who loves us constantly and without reservation. And we get into trouble when we curve in on ourselves, as Luther put it, and lose our Godward perspective. Both things wind up enslaving us; placing us under the tyranny of the world's approval and our own perpetually dissatisfied inner critic; burdening us with disappointment, with shame, with emptiness, with the weight of our own heavy hearts. I found that out the hard way this week. But help is always on the way -- always -- help that lifts us out of our sad state as self-exiled strangers and aliens, and helps us hold fast to the promise that we are beloved children in the household of God.

"Once we were slaves in the land of Egypt..." No more!

"Miriam" by Shraga Weil Posted by Hello


*Christopher said...

This is again why I refuse to engage in these discussions. These discussions affect me bodily. And I take good notice of that. We cannot justify ourselves before G-d or humans, we are justified by the grace of G-d, and that funny enough is radically freeing from having to give an answer at all. So I've been working hard at the discipline of being free in Christ not to respond, especially on-line where these often spiral into non-constructive debate.

LutheranChik said...

I wound up with a cluster headache -- the kind where it feels as if my brain matter is trying to extrude itself out of my eye sockets. Which was actually a kind of mercy, because it was enough of a distraction to calm me down and stop the ruminating.

But I know what you mean...I have to learn a better way to deal with these kinds of conversations.

bls said...

I know what you mean about the metastasizing, though; I've had that same worry, and it's the worst one of all.

My solution to this worry is to just accept that all is in God's hands, and for that reason the outcome will be better than any of us can imagine. If it metatasizes - well, it does, that's all. We'll always have Paris. And we've still got the blogs.

And something better will rise from the ashes, if that's the plan. All things work together for good to them that love God.

For some reason, I've stopped worrying about it, once I accepted that I can't make anything happen the way I want it to. (And thank God for that!) Who knows how long this calm will last, but that whole idea seems to work.

bls said...

(I've had similar crying jags, though, so I definitely know what you mean....)

katherine105 said...

These folks may be the smiler with the knife, or they may be ignorant, or they may be the walking wounded themselves, or they just may disagree with what you were saying period. That's all.
When I was Lutheran,there were some folks who told me to my face that they didn't think I was pastor material, and after I got through pouting, I was smart enough to ask why and take their observations seriously.
All I know is, whenever I find myself saying "those people", I need to step back and take a closer look at what we're both saying.
Disagreeing about theology, or the way we do and live church is just that sometimes, a difference of opinion. I see people castigated for disagreeing with certain viewpoints (just disagreeing, mind you, not suggesting that bunny rabbits be boiled in oil)and then be labelled as hateful and hate-filled.
There's a difference between legitimate disagreement over issues of faith, belief and praxis and hate.

bls said...

I was just informed by someone, point-blank, that "avowed homosexuals" would not be welcome at his parish. And of course, this statement is not, by far, anything out of the ordinary. And nobody seems able to any sort of rational explanation for this stance.

Apparently many people have a hard time empathizing with this - probably for good reason, since it doesn't happen to anybody else. It's quite clear that huge numbers of Christians simply want us gone, so they don't have to deal with the issue. Thus in most places in the world we are completely cut off from any spiritual life at all, except whatever we can create on our own. And this is the least of it; in some places, gay people are faced with the death penality, or imprisonment.

Not quite the same as being told by another individual that we're "not pastor material," is it? Sorry, but this comparison is simply not correct. And the problem is the Church's, not ours; it's about time the Church started listening to what we have to say instead of talking about us, or over our heads.

LutheranChik said...

The thing that got me in my little interchange was the realization -- and this is pretty naive, I know, but...well, sometimes I find myself getting whacked upside the head by the obvious -- that there was really nothing that would make me truly acceptable to this first he thought I was a "bad" other, and then when I set him straight (so to speak) about the realities of my own "lifestyle" (I'm sitting here chuckling at that term, at least as it applies to me) he conceded that I might be a "better" other... but I knew that I was still other to him.

In Return of the Prodigal Son Nouwen talks about God's non-comparing love; how God loves each of us for ourselves, in a unique way, and how, both when we set ourselves up as judges of another and when we let that judging person undermine our self-worth, we're demonstrating a lack of trust in the God who created us and who loves us as unique individuals. And that's something I need to remind myself, and not get so personally upset when someone feels a need to draw a line between himself/herself and me. On the other hand, it's not all about me; so I feel compelled to respond to attacks on other people.

Sheryl said...

I know it's small consolation, but some good did come out of that "disagreement" on Beliefnet.

I've mentioned over there that I've been struggling with the choice of whether or not to leave the Roman Catholic Church. I've really found welcome with the ELCA congregation where I've been attending services, and I realized as I read all the theology I've been reading over the past months that I've probably been Lutheran for a really long time and just didn't know it.

But one of the things that was holding me back was the fear that what I was experiencing was a bit of the proverbial "honeymoon" period. I was hurt very badly by the RC congregation I worked for, and I didn't want to make such a huge decision with a grass is greener outlook.

(I'm trying to work in as many cliches as humanly possible - how am I doing? {grin})

But anyhow, through that discussion, I realized what I already knew - we are all flawed people trying to be church. Disagreements are bound to happen, and that's the way it is. In a weird sort of way, it's comforting.

And then this weekend, the pastor at that congregation said in his sermon that he read once that when you build a stone wall, if you use stones that are all smooth and the same size, the wall will collapse in the first strong wind. You have to use stones with all kinds of sizes and imperfections in order for it to stand firm.

I don't think I've ever heard a better description of Church.

LutheranChik said...

Sheryl: If you've read "Life Together" you know what Bonhoeffer has to say about "wish dreams" -- projecting our own unrealistic expectations of what's going to happen when a bunch of flawed human beings try to be the Church together.;-)

But I know what you mean about the "honeymoon period," LOL When I started going back to church, I basically kept at arm's length from the life of the church, and every time something in church irritated me or troubled me I'd think, "Other shoe dropping! Other shoe dropping!" LOL But my pastor really gave me the courage to hang in there, even though I've never actually sat in his office and engaged in full-blown gut spillage.;-) He's had his own rocky relationship with the church as an institution, and he told me, "I keep coming back to Lutheran theology and how it's all about God's grace, and that's what's kept me here." He also told me that, while he's aware of the frictions and issues simmering under the surface (sometimes not so under) in our congregation, he also knows the particular burdens people carry; he said that when he's up there serving Communion it's a very poignant moment in the service for him just because he knows "the rest of the story" for so many people, and the world of hurt that they're bearing when they hold out their hands for the bread.

I'm really glad you're finding a good church home, Sheryl. I was kind of a free agent there for awhile, and I really don't know what would have happened had I not stumbled upon my present parish. Not that I think it was an accident.;-)

katherine105 said...

I was actually responding to the discussion that tawonda refers to, and it involved the pastor issue which is why I brought it up. Otherwise it would not be germane to my comment.
Now I'm going to be sarcastic here - since you know nothing about me, how can you assume that I have never suffered as you have suffered? Of course, because your suffering is special and deep and mine is just your common garden-variety suffering. Therefore I am an ignorant bigot. How simple life is, then, with that shorthand. We have no need ever to try to get to know one another.
If we have can have no commonality, no common experience, even of suffering, since yours will always be "different" (greater, perhaps?) and I can never understand, then why should we ever even bother to try?

Anonymous said...

katherine, if you think you can refute what I've said - if you think that gay people aren't, in fact, persecuted by the Christian Church - then please do go ahead and refute it.

If you think that "disagreement about theology" is comparable to being refused admission to the discussion to begin with, then please defend that point of view.

I'm no longer interested in pretending that the things you talked about are equivalent to what we experience when they aren't, or that the Church is loving and warm towards everybody. It isn't. It's the main source of the destruction of gay lives. The Church continually attempts to make our lives as difficult as possible and to deny us any kind of human rights at all. And that's the very best of it, as I've also already mentioned.

The issue is simple: if you think the Church's actions are defensible, then defend them. I'm simply pointing out what's wrong with your argument; I haven't personalized it to you or said anything about your suffering or mine. And I haven't called you a bigot, either, BTW.

bls said...

Sorry, that last post was mine. Don't know why my name didn't show up.

bls said...

Here's what the Church is doing: it's destroying the lives of some of its best people, all because it doesn't want to deal honestly with this issue. It's too lazy to bother looking at its own theology, so it sacrifices people who don't fit neatly into the patterns it prefers. It doesn't care for Reality, so it creates its own Fantasy world.

It can't acknowledge that it's not infallible, IOW. So obviously other people need to sacrifice themselves and their lives to maintain the facade.

I'm tired of the facade. Anyway, the facade is what's keeping the Church from being effective in the world today. Everybody will be better off and happier once it completely breaks down. What amazes me is that the Church seems to have absolutely no confidence in its own faith system; otherwise, would it have exploded this silly issue into the major ridiculous catastrophe it's become?

katherine105 said...

So much for dialogue.
Therefore, according to you, I have no right to an opinion or belief. Whatever that opinion may be - since you really don't know what my opinion is, but have assumed that you know.
And that is that I am an ignorant bigot who will never be able to not only comprehend (forget comprehend!)but even notice suffering such as yours.
Because you have already judged me and found me guilty.
On the evidence of three posts.
And this doesn't sound familiar to you somehow?

LutheranChik said...

But the thing is, Katherine, it's not about disagreeing with someone else's opinions or arguments. It's about, at heart, disagreeing with the inherent reality or worth or goodness of someone's very existence. It's an ontological attack.

And that's the part that hurts.

bls said...

katherine, again: I haven't personalized this, and I haven't called you ignorant, OR a bigot. I haven't said what you have a right to, or don't. I haven't judged you or found you guilty.

I've disagreed with you, plain and simple. I've said that your argument is incorrect. I've described what's wrong with the Church. And I've asked you to state your case, if you think I'm wrong.

I don't think this is in any way illegal or immoral. That's what these forums are for: debate. I think you're completely wrong in what you said, and I laid out my case for why. I don't see the point in "dialoguing" about it, or in pretending I agree with you when I don't.

bls said...

The new Pope of the Catholic Church has written that homosexuality is a "tendency" towards an "intrinsic moral evil." He has written that "allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such unions would actually mean doing violence to these children." This is official teaching.

So does anybody think that the Catholic Church is going to be believed in the future, if it should use the word "evil" in a circumstance where it actually applies? Does the Church care nothing for its own credibility? This is all done because the Church can't admit its own error.

Is anybody surprised that the Church is declining in the West?

LutheranChik said...

And it's not just that.

This story was on the CBS Evening News last night: Alabama Lawmaker Seeks to Ban "Gay Books" . I mean...I honestly feel as if a war is being fought against me, and as if there are a whole of "good Christians" out there who do not want to share the oxygen on this planet with me. Why do these people hate me this much? And you wonder why we're so angry and defensive and upset?

LutheranChik said...

Interestingly, on the CBS News, the Allen story was paired with a feature on podcasting , whereby individuals with iPods can basically broadcast and promote their own one-person radio shows. I think progressive Alabamians with iPods should all start broadcasting readings of potentially banned books. (Which would include Henri Nouwen, come to think of it, since the books don't actually have to be about homosexuality -- Allen doesn't even want gay authors on library shelves.) Among other things, such a grassroots protest might raise the collective cultural literacy rate down there.;-)