Thursday, May 20, 2010

Love the Sin?

What exactly does it mean to love someone unconditionally? I think it means to love someone in spite of whatever faults they may have, to continue to love them even when they do things you think are misguided or wrong or sinful. "Hate the sin, but love the sinner." That seems to sum it up. When you love someone unconditionally, you can support them even when they make and act upon decisions you don't agree with. It's a difficult concept for me to grasp, though. Does supporting someone in that way mean you condone the decision, that you tacitly agree with it? On the surface of things, it would seem to be hypocritical. I know there are times when I can't get past the thing I don't like to support someone I love. But there are also times when I think a friend has done something almost guaranteed to land her in an untenable situation, and yet I can still lend a sympathetic ear and an open heart to support her through the unpleasant consequences of her actions (and without saying "I told you so!"). This kind of unconditional love is something I aspire to achieve more often. It's the kind of love I associate with God.

As if loving unconditionally weren't a daunting enough challenge, now I'm told there's something even purer, and much harder to comprehend. In a recent sermon, Daniel described it using the phrase "Love the sinner... and love the sin." This love goes beyond merely accepting flaws to actively embracing them because they are an integral part of the loved one. You don't just love the good parts while tolerating the bad parts - you love the whole being, the bad along with the good. Whoa! I love the concept, but I'm not sure I believe it's possible, even for God. I know in the very core of my being that God loves me unconditionally, even when I fall short of what I think he wants me to be. Even when I break one of the commandments, or commit one of the deadly sins, both of which I do on a distressingly regular basis, he still loves me. But I just don't see how even he could love the part of me that seems to compel me to do wrong.

A wonderful thing just happened when I wrote that last sentence. I still don't understand how he does it, but I suddenly find myself accepting, in my heart of hearts, that God's love for me is just that kind of all-encompassing love. I'm not sure any of us mortal beings can hope to achieve it, but I can at least try. And I can rest secure in the knowledge that I am loved by God, totally and eternally.

Depression – The Not-So-Bad Days

On not-so-bad days during my latest bout of depression, the thought would occur to me that perhaps God hasn't stopped loving me at all. Perhaps it's his love that sustains me through the pain and hopelessness. Finally, in the Book of Job, some words of hope: "If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation… He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouting." And so I can sit quietly, and listen to the silence, and look for ways in which he might be working in my life, even when I'm sometimes so sure he is no longer there. I can (most days) find the strength to do the things that absolutely must be done. I can rouse myself to care for my cats, who depend on me for everything. I can, no matter how I'm feeling, get myself to church every week, to spend time in a place where I can always feel his presence, and with people who know me and care about me. I can remind myself that I have cherished friends who love me and support me, who willingly shoulder some of my responsibilities until I am once again able to carry my share, and I can allow them to do that.

And so I struggle on, trying to trust that things will be better, that I will survive this, that I might even emerge a little stronger for the experience. And, even on days when I'm sure there's no one listening to my prayers, I pray.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Depression – The Bad Days

A new, and scary, anger emerged during my latest bout of depression. I'm so angry at God for allowing me to go through it, and frightened to express or even acknowledge that anger. But if he loves me as much as I've been taught he does, how could he make me suffer like that? Why did he not protect me from the people who were supposed to protect me but abused me instead? How can he stand by now when I sink deeper and deeper? I feel abandoned in a way I don't remember feeling ever before. Feeling abandoned by God, whom I love so much, whom I depend on, whom I want to serve in any way I can – that's an indescribable pain. How can I go on without him in my life? And if I do admit to the anger, then surely he will punish me by withdrawing completely. But then, in the Book of Job, I find permission to express my anger, following Job's example: "Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul." Yes, my soul is bitter. I think I can accept that for now, and accept that I feel as if God has left me. Even Jesus felt forsaken by him at the end, and yet he didn't reject his Father.

That's how I feel on really bad days.

Monday, May 10, 2010

God’s Fan Club

I recently saw a bumper sticker that read "I have no problem with God – it's his fan club I can't stand." I've pondered that statement since then, wondering what exactly it is that triggers that response. The best I've been able to come up with is something I've heard often, drawing a distinction between spirituality (good) and religion (bad). To some people, religion means blindly following the leader, without thinking things through for oneself. They look at all the things that are done by rote, the rituals that are repeated over and over, and conclude that the people participating in such things do so in a superficial manner, and that there is no real meaning in what they do. Being spiritual may be OK, these people think, but religion is for sheep with no minds of their own.

Well, I'm proud to count myself among the members of God's fan club, because I have a whole different take on the things that these skeptics think differentiate religion from spirituality. First of all, I don't mind being a member of the flock – not when the flock is under the care of a shepherd like mine. What comfort there is in being part of a beloved family, tended by a loving father, knowing that each individual sheep is as important to the shepherd as every other! Far from being mindless, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about what I believe. I'll admit that my beliefs aren't always logical, but I think that believing things that don't seem to make sense is part of what faith is all about. It doesn't take any faith to believe something that can be scientifically proven, does it? If I can't prove it, but know it to be true anyway, that's faith.

My automatic responses to certain phrases don't feel mindless to me. When my pastor says "God is good" and the entire congregation responds with "all the time," I feel an immediate and strong connection to everyone there. Joining in that response reminds me that I'm a member of that particular flock, that I belong. Recitation of memorized prayers is a powerful experience for me. The Lord's Prayer connects me directly to Christ, who taught us to pray using those words. When I recite the Apostle's Creed, I am grateful that someone, long ago, was able to put into words the mystical, wordless feelings I have. The prayer of confession we normally include in our worship gives me a starting point to confess my sins and shortcomings. St. Francis's prayer brings me back to what's important. (Hint – it isn't me!)

And oh! those rituals! What could be more powerful than participating in something that has been performed basically unchanged since Jesus Christ himself first performed those actions two millennia ago? On Maundy Thursday of this year, I allowed my feet to be washed, just as the disciples allowed Jesus to wash their feet the evening before his crucifixion. It wasn't the first time I had participated in the ritual, but it felt very different this time. I had always thought of it as an act of humility on the part of the washer. In the homily that preceded the washing, Daniel made the point that it is in fact an act of love. As he washed my feet, I was nearly overwhelmed by the love I could feel in his heart. The most beautiful part was that there was a profound sense that Christ's love for me and for his disciples and all his children was included in the love I was feeling. In washing my feet, Daniel symbolized Jesus' washing of his disciples' feet, and his love symbolized Christ's love. That's the beauty of ritual. It becomes much more than it appears to be on the surface.

My favorite, hands down, is the sacrament of Communion. There are layers upon layers of meaning to it. Again, it repeats the act of Jesus offering his body and his blood to his disciples the night before he was crucified. What an act of love and reassurance that was! Knowing he was going to die, he sought to show them that he would always be with them. By accepting what appears to be nothing more than a morsel of bread, I am accepting his body and making it part of my own body. By accepting what appears to be juice, I am accepting his blood and making it part of my own life's blood. I am taking Jesus into myself and making him an integral part of myself. For a moment, at least, I feel like we are one, inseparable, indistinguishable. I am deeply humbled by the thought of the millions and millions of people who have participated in this same ritual, becoming one with Jesus, over the past two thousand years. I am connected to the spirits of all of those bygone believers, and to the hearts of the believers who are still living and still partaking of the Lord's supper. Their faith strengthens my own, as I hope that mine strengthens theirs. I am nothing without them, and we are nothing without God.

So, yes – I'm proud to be in his fan club!

A Doubt-Full Faith

"That which does not kill you makes you strong." I hate hearing that when I'm going through difficult times, and yet I think it's true that overcoming adversity leaves us stronger than before. Similarly, exercise creates tiny tears in our muscles that, when healed, leave the muscles stronger. So why have I been thinking that my faith is supposed to start out and always remain strong, without those pesky doubts sneaking in? I'm finally beginning to see that questioning my faith, and working my way through the doubts, leaves me with a stronger foundation, a surer faith.

For three years, ever since I found God again, I've been convinced that I'm not a good enough Christian because I so frequently have doubts. I also have a lot of trouble with the concept of prayer – I don't know how to do it properly, I don't remember to do it often enough, I don't do it long enough. I get distracted and find myself thinking about all sorts of things, so that my prayers, rather than really ending, just sort of fade out. And I've been convinced that I'll never learn how to do it. So what kind of Christian does that make me?

I never quite give up, though, and it's finally paying off. During my recent experiences with recurring depression, I have wondered how a kind and loving God could allow me to suffer like this, and have at times been convinced that I'm not going to make it through to the other side. I'm finally seeing some improvement that I think is going to continue – I see that as a reminder that I haven't been alone in this, that God has been through it with me. He may not always work as fast as I think he should, but somehow things always work out in the end.

I can't remember how many times I've been convinced that some situation was hopeless, or dreaded facing something because I was sure it was just too awful to contemplate. I've been wrong every time. The next time I feel that way, I remind myself that nothing has ever been quite as bad as I feared it would be. Rather than taking comfort from that thought, though, I always answer myself by saying "Yeah, yeah – but this is the time it will finally be true." But this week I realized that I'm looking at my current unemployment differently. It's been upsetting, and I really don't know how things are going to turn out in the end. But, for perhaps the first time ever with such a serious situation, I have no doubt that things will indeed work out. I have no idea how, but I know they will. Somewhere along the line, while I was busy doubting, the foundation of faith has gotten much stronger than I realized.

And somewhere along the line, I also seem to have opened myself to prayer. Last night I started out with my usual spiritual mumbling, got distracted, dragged my mind back to praying… And then I seemed to settle into the prayer, and was able to express myself more eloquently than I've been able to while praying. After some time I started to recite the Apostles' Creed, as I often do. But this time was different – as I spoke the familiar words, I was nearly overwhelmed by the feeling of my heart swelling, a physical sensation that made it hard to even breathe for a brief moment. I have never felt so at peace, so sure that my prayers were being heard.

I'd like to think that I'll never doubt again, and never feel awkward about praying. I know better than that, though. But perhaps I'll move on to new and different doubts, giving me a chance to move on to a new and different faith. And if I lose the sense of ease I felt about praying last night? Well, at least I can pray to recapture it!

(March 2010)

What Jesus Means to Me

Shortly after I agreed to testify about what Jesus means to me, I found myself thinking "What was I thinking?" You see, I'm not sure I really know what He means to me. During his sermon last week, Daniel said that why we are here (in this church) is a mystery. For me, it's not only a mystery; I think it also involves a minor miracle. Perhaps exploring how I got here will help to clarify why I'm here, and what it all means to me.

I grew up in Rochester, in a household that paid lip service to God, but not much more. My parents sent my brother, my two sisters and me off to Sunday school every week, but never came with us. We said a simple child's Grace at every meal. Mom or Dad came upstairs every night to tuck us in and listen to our bedtime prayers. The words didn't actually mean anything to us; they were just phrases we rattled off quickly, out of habit. My parents made sure we became members of the church, although they themselves only went to church on Easter. I've often wondered why they even did that much, since it was pretty clear to me that none of it really meant anything to them. Perhaps it was because they wanted to avoid arguments with my grandmother, who was a deeply spiritual person.

As I was growing up, I was fairly involved in church activities: I attended church regularly. I sang in the junior choir. When I was in high school, the church formed a folk choir, and I played guitar and sang in that. I assisted one of the Sunday school teachers with her class. I went to a youth program at the church every Sunday evening. And one of my clearest, and favorite, memories of many Christmas mornings is of my brother and sisters and me sitting in my brother's bedroom, reading aloud the story of the Nativity from one of the Gospels, while waiting for my parents to get up and let us come downstairs to open our presents.

And yet, during this whole period I never really thought much about God, or Jesus, or what they meant. I was touched by what seemed like the magic of Christ's birth, but mostly took the whole religion thing for granted. It was there, but I figured it had nothing to do with me. By the time I graduated from high school, my brother and sisters and I had all pretty much put religion aside, and considered ourselves agnostics.

Things started to change when I started college. My brother had started attending a Pentacostal church, and my sister was thinking about converting to Catholicism. John eventually returned to the Methodist church we were raised in, and is now a minister in Iowa. Jody did become a Catholic, and remains deeply committed to and involved in her church.

I was briefly involved with a campus Pentacostal group during my senior year of college, but after that, I became a once-a-year churchgoer like my parents. For some 27 years, my church experience consisted of occasional Christmas Eve services, and weddings. When I joined a 12-step program, I found some comfort in the idea of a higher power, who, for me, was 'sort of' God. I wasn't entirely convinced He existed, but it was too scary to face what I was facing without Him. After a few years of that, though, religion once again faded from my life.

During this long period away from the church, I would occasionally pause and briefly consider the idea of God. This was mostly due to my grandmother, I think. As I said, she was deeply spiritual. I didn't have very much contact with her, since she lived several hours away from us, but I was always moved by the comfort she obviously found in her faith. When my life seemed to fall apart, I wished that I had something equally comforting to sustain me. I didn't understand exactly what she had, but I wanted it!

Some 15 years ago, I became involved in a local Buddhist center. It seemed to fill a spiritual void in me, and for a year or so it provided me with a sense of community that I sorely needed. Then it was back to not following any religion. About two and a half years ago, a close friend suggested that I try attending a church – any church – to get back that sense of community. I resisted at first, thinking it would be hypocritical to go to church since I didn't believe in God. Eventually, though, I decided I did believe in something – I just wasn't sure what to call it. Of all the neighborhood churches, Old First was the closest to where I lived, and it had a positive association in my mind, dating to 9/11, when the church opened its doors to anyone who needed a place to sit and pray, or think, or cry. So here I came. And now comes the miracle I started off talking about. I came in search of a community, and I certainly found that. But I also realized immediately that being here filled a large hole in my soul. I loved the music, the liturgy, taking Communion… And much to my surprise, I loved all the talk about Jesus. He became real to me in a way He never was when I was growing up. I began to try to make faith part of my everyday life. In a strange way, I think my years of living in a spiritual void made it easier to settle into the beginnings of faith. I had a better idea of what was missing from my life, and was more receptive to it when I found it. I still have a lot to learn about Christ, and the Bible, and having faith, and how to live in the way that God wills for me. But I'm here, and I'm learning, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to continue doing that.

Part of last week's scripture reading talked about how God is love. If you don't love, then you obviously don't know God. And that's a big part of what Jesus means to me. Jesus is love. I'm merely one more flawed human being, and I don't think I really deserve His love. But I firmly believe that He loves me anyway. I don't have to deserve it – it just is. Jesus will protect me no matter what, as long as I love him. Having Christ in my life means I never face anything alone. I don't always remember that, and my faith seems to waver a lot, but I always come back to it, and it sustains me. I sometimes wonder how I would have felt if I had been around when Jesus was on the earth. Would I have believed in Him? Would I have feared Him? Would I have been one of those who mocked Him? I'll never know. But I do know that now I can't imagine ever shutting Him out of my life again, and take
enormous comfort from knowing that He won't shut me out either.

(April 2009)

Signs and Wonders

"I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord… I believe in the Holy Spirit…"

I say these words often, and I mean them. Yet last Sunday's Scripture readings and sermon left me with the realization that I have a lot of work to do before I can claim that my beliefs drive my day-to-day life in the way I would like them to. What first stopped me in my tracks was the idea of "signs and wonders." Do my actions serve as a sign to others, pointing the way to faith? Do they make people wonder what the driving force behind my actions is?

I do more service now than I've ever done before, in various capacities within Old First. I don't discount that commitment, but I'd like to exhibit more wide-spread evidence of my faith, having it more directly color my responses to people and situations. Could I be more patient with others, more understanding and tolerant of their differences, instead of only relating well to those who are most like me? Could I learn to shrug off minor annoyances, and consider the possibility that people who do things I don't like aren't actually doing them specifically to annoy me? Do I have to be the main focus of everything in my life?

I'm embarrassed to admit how many days go by where I hardly think about Jesus, or God, at all. I'll get to the end of the day, and realize that I haven't uttered or thought a single word of prayer all day. Why is that, I wonder? I know that when I do keep Him more in my thoughts and heart, my day goes better, and I feel more grounded, more centered, more patient, more contented, more serene…

Listening, every week, to the testimony from various members of the congregation about what Jesus means to them, I realize that I really don't have a clear idea of what He means to me. Sure, He's the guy in the picture on my grandmother's wall – the one with the wavy, light brown hair, whose upturned face seems to glow from within. He's the subject of many fantastic stories, and He's had a lot of really beautiful music written about Him. But surely there's more to Him than that. Figuring this out is part of the work I need to do.

Perhaps the work starts with finding out more about Him. I'm not nearly as familiar with the Bible as I would like to be, so studying the Bible seems like a good place to start. I've always been an avid reader, and reading about Him seems to bring Him closer to me. (Well, actually, I'm sure He's always close to me. What I really mean is that it makes me more aware of His presence.) I recently started reading St. Augustine's Confessions, and discovered that it strengthened my awareness of faith, and the role it plays in my life, even as I sat there reading on the subway. (Fancy that – God's on the C train!)

Simply put, I need to set aside time, every day, to devote to nurturing and deepening my faith. Now that I think about it, that's not such an onerous task, after all!

(April 2008)