Forgiveness.

I once heard Marie Howe say

that being present

hurts

a little bit.

 

Some people call her

a religious poet.

She says she isn’t sure

that fits.

 

I do think,

however,

Only a religious person could admit

any of this.

 

Religion,

That word.

It means to re-ligament.

Or, to reconnect

 

what was once adjoined.

Now separate.

 

It’s in the body,

That gap,

And also the way back

Together.

 

She’s right,

you know.

Being present hurts a little bit.

 

You have to say you’re sorry

every time.

For having ever left

 

And forgive,

and forgive,

and forgive

 

And come back.

 

Right here,

Right now,

Re-ligament.

 

I’m sorry,

you say.

And then you let go

 

Of

Getting caught up

in all your separateness.

 

Shame,

or blame

My excuses are limitless.

 

These human traps,

sticky,

and seductive, and so real

when we feel it.

 

But not true.

 

Have you ever seen a pebble shame itself?

Or a raindrop cast around blame?

 

The lilies of the field don’t worry about their clothes.

 

What did Rumi say?

“I’ve gotten free of that ignorant fist

that was pinching and twisting”

me into an illusion

of separateness.

 

So we forgive,

but we don’t forget

It’s very hard to stay.

 

Right here,

Right now.

I’m sorry, you say.

 

Followed by, “it’s okay”.

 

And then, come back, come back,

come back.

Re-ligament.

 

Of course, that hurts a little bit.

 

Nevertheless,

it’s all still here for each

and every one

of us

 

Right after forgiveness.

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Nothing is wrong with you: an Easter message.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to hear Anne Lamott speak about her new book, “Hallelujah Anyway”. The conversation was so honest, and soul-stirring that I followed it up with a couple days of binge-listening to several different interviews Anne has done in the last few years. During one of these interviews, she mentioned something a Jesuit priest once said to her about what he called the “5 rules on how to be a Good American”, which we are all forced to learn as early as possible.

1. Don’t have anything wrong with you.
2. If there is something wrong with you, fix it immediately.
3. If you can’t fix it, hide it.
4. If you can’t hide it, stay home—just don’t show up or you’ll make other people uncomfortable.
5. If you insist on showing up anyway, at least have the decency to feel ashamed.

Some of my earliest, earliest memories involve a growing, nagging, sweat-inducing certainty that something was terribly wrong with me. One of the primary reasons I fell so completely head-over-heels into the psychological refuge of Christianity was that it seemed to possess the answer to this precise problem.

“Yes”, Christianity said to me, “there is indeed something very wrong with you. Of course, this will continue to be painful for you and everyone who knows you for as long as you live. But, BUT: if you believe in exactly precisely this one thing, in exactly precisely this one way, and try your best to imitate exactly precisely the attitudes and actions prescribed by this one thing, your reward will be this: immediately AFTER you DIE, you will then finally become perfect”.

What a relief.

So, naturally, I swan-dove into this ideology at 12 years old, and really didn’t start to look underneath the hood of any of it until I was about 22 years old.

Eleven whole years of messy, beautiful, clumsy, miraculous, painful, healing, mentally ill, and spiritually sublime moments later, I have decided that this is not at all what Jesus tried to teach us. In fact, I now believe that to the degree with which we have confused his actual message with the nonsense described above is the degree to which we will wind up abusing ourselves and everyone around us.

So then, if not that painful personal pretzeling our way to salvation, what do I think Jesus did try to teach us?

Well, when I read the gospels now, I hear – over and over – a message that sounds more like this: “Oh, you beloved over-anxious, grasping, clinging children. I need you to try really hard to put your listening ears on for a whole minute while I explain this to you again. Heaven is not somewhere else, it’s right here. Communion with God is not later, it’s now. The Holy Spirit is not behind a curtain in the temple, it’s in your own body”. (Paraphrasing, hi).

Don’t believe me? Read it all over again for yourself. Start with Matthew, finish with the first part of Acts. Consider setting aside your preconceived or previously conceived interpretations, and going very slowly through the story again. Because it’s all right there – every beautiful, relieving, grace-soaked word – hidden in plain-sight.

From book, “Healing My Religion”.

During the spring semester of my freshman year of college, I decided to enroll in a class being taught by one of the most popular Religion professors at my university. The class was called “Psalms and Old Testament Wisdom Literature”. The course title alone was enough to convince me that by the end of the semester I would become a 19-year old near-expert on ancient biblical wisdom.

Turns out, here is the only thing I remember from that 4 1/2 month long experience: President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq.

My professor, an Ivy League educated Baptist minister and Vietnam War veteran, walked into class the morning after President Bush made his announcement with a guitar under one arm. After closing the door behind him, he was silent for a long time. When he finally spoke, he invited us to pray with him. When he prayed, his words were thick with grief. After he finished praying, he got out his guitar and put melody to the most mournful of the biblical Psalms:

Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint;

O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish.

How long, O LORD, how long?

Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.

No one remembers you when he is dead.

Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from groaning;

all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.

(Psalm 6:2-7).

My 19-year old self was stunned.

No “man of the cloth” – and certainly no professor in a business suit – whom I had ever known had engaged with a political crisis in this way. The only explanation I can really remember him offering to our class on that day was this: “How many of you have been to war? None? Well, I have. And let me tell you this: war is hell. Hell on earth”. He said this with a kind of solemnity that shocked me.

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?

O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.

(Psalm 22:1-2).

“You’ve heard people say, ‘there are no atheists in a foxhole’?”, he asked us. “Well, in my experience there were only atheists in foxholes. The idea of benevolent God seems impossible when you are surrounded by hell”.

My heart is severely pained within me,

And the terrors of death have fallen upon me.

Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me,

and horror has overwhelmed me.

(Psalm 55:4-5).

He continued to sing until his singing faded into silence. The silence that followed continued until the clock on the wall signaled the last second of our scheduled time together. I don’t remember who left the room first, or how we managed to do this at all, but I do remember that when I did finally walk out of that classroom, I felt ill.

“Of course war is hell”, I thought. “Why has no one else ever said this to me before?”, I wondered. “And why in God’s name have I never really let myself consider this before?”. The day before when I had learned about the President’s declaration of war, my response had been very detached. I remember that I said a quick prayer of protection for the troops, resolved to trust God with the outcome, and reminded myself of the promise of eternal peace in the after life. “What the hell was wrong with me?”, I marveled.

Suddenly – and I do mean suddenly – I was extremely troubled. Troubled by the thought of war, and troubled by the realization that I had never been truly troubled by it before then.

The idea of war was so far removed from me – both historically and geographically. Born in 1983, I only had vague recollections of yellow ribbons being tied around trees during the Gulf War. My dad had been drafted to Vietnam, but was excused from duty because of legitimate health concerns. My maternal grandfather had done clerical work in WWII, and my paternal grandfather had served in the Navy in WWII. Yet, neither one of them had ever discussed it with me – other than to tell me about their visits home, their relief when the war ended, and the people they met along the way.

The following Sunday while attending church, my pastor mentioned the war, and prayed that the men and women fighting in the war would “seek God’s face”. He then invited us to trust in “God’s sovereignty” and the promise of eternal life for those who believe in him, and then moved on to the regularly scheduled programming.

I sat in my row of chairs feeling supremely disappointed. “Is it possible that I learned emotional detachment from the church itself?”, I wondered.

After the service was over, I sat alone for awhile and tried to recall a time the church had invited me to weep and groan in response to human suffering the way my professor had earlier that week. I knew that I had cried quite sorrowfully over my own ‘sinfulness’ on many occasions, and that I had shed happy tears during baptisms and faith conversions, but I couldn’t remember having ever been shown how to get down onto the ground level of human despair alongside those who were feeling it.

Later that evening, during my regular end-of-day reflection time, I thought about how Jesus responded to the pain of the world.

I didn’t doubt that he had faith in God’s goodness, of which he preached about regularly. Nor did I doubt that he trusted God during times of great pain, which he demonstrated quite dramatically. And yet, when confronted with human pain and suffering, he wept. He healed. He reached out. He cried out. He touched the people no one would touch. He talked to the people no one else would talk to. He lived amidst pain. He died in pain. He went willingly into hell himself, and he emerged with physical, touchable scars. Nothing about his life, ministry, death, or resurrection was removed from the pain of being human.

He was human himself, after all.

It took me weeks, maybe months, or perhaps years to understand why and how my “Psalms and Wisdom Literature” professor’s real-world engagement with the Bible impacted me so viscerally, but it made me feel thirsty for more of the same.

 

 

Let’s talk about poverty.

Along with a related personal story, a friend of mine recently shared the following quote on her own blog:

“This is what we seek: a compassion that stands in awe of what the poor have to carry, rather than standing in judgment of how they carry it”. — Father Gregory Boyle

I don’t know about you, but I am in a position to hear a lot of opinions about how federal and state social services foster “dependence”, and/or encourage poor people to “take advantage” of the system. A vast majority of the people who have said things like this to me also call themselves “Christians”.

In a moment, I am going to have a little ‘come-to-Jesus’ with Christians who feel that this kind of attitude towards the poor is reasonable. But before I do that, I want to offer up this PBS documentary, called “Waging A Living” (click the green link). There seems to be an incredible amount of misinformation and assumptions in the world about what it’s like for people who have a full-time jobs, or several part-time jobs, and still don’t make an income above the poverty line.

Now, beloveds, I would like to kindly but firmly remind us what the Bible says about the poor:

Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. – Proverbs 14:31

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. – Deuteronomy 15:7-8

When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. – Luke 14:14

Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses. – Proverbs 28:27

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. – 1 John 3:17

There’s more, but I’ll leave us all with that for now. Seems crystal clear to me: shall we not aim for Father Boyle’s aspirational compassion? (Prayer hands).

Grace and peace,

Whitney

Excerpt from my book…

Healing My Religion (Working Title)

For my daughter, Evelyn. My hope is that I might leave you in this world with a sense of how the Sacred is alive within you.

And for my grandmother, also Evelyn, who loved me like Christ loved her.

Disclaimer:

This is not a story about a prodigal return to my Christian origins after years of living in sin. By many people’s standards, I am probably still ‘living in sin‘. Instead, this is my literary attempt to wrestle with my own religious tradition, acknowledging both the pain and the joy it has offered me.

Part I

Chapter 1 (In The Beginning)

I was born and raised in a suburb of Kansas City, KS – just outside of the “Bible Belt”. My parents took us to church every Sunday, and taught us to pray before dinner and before bedtime every day. I don’t think I knew that there were people who called themselves Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus or Sikhs until well into my early adolescence, and I did not get exposed to a single piece of thoughtful dialogue about any of those spiritual perspectives until my junior year of college.

This is the backdrop for my earliest religious sensibilities.

My parents were – and still are – very decent, very hard working, and very generous people. They have always modeled to me a general benevolence towards humanity, which they would likely ascribe to their religious sensibilities. For me, however, being raised by socially responsible parents did not completely inoculate me against some of the uglier aspects of church culture.

Like most busy parents of small children, my mom and dad could not supervise every single Sunday School lecture I received, nor mediate every interaction with other kids or their parents in our wider Christian community. And at some point along the way, one of my Sunday School teachers (note: these were often volunteer parents, and not necessarily seminary graduates) explained to me that the only way anyone could expect to get into heaven was if they believed Jesus Christ was God’s only Son.

So, I’m 7 years old, and I repeat this revelatory new information at school one day.

I don’t know why I said it, other than that it had been said to me, and I had a pretty bad habit of sharing the secrets adults shared with me. I want to believe that somewhere in my 7 year-old brain, I must have thought I was trying to be helpful. Like, “Hey guys, FYI, there’s this religious test coming up that you do NOT wanna fail – the consequences are brutal. So, here’s the cheat sheet! Catch you on the flip side!”

Appropriately, many of the children in my elementary school class were upset by this announcement of mine. My teacher, and my parents were also very upset. And thank God they were, because it was my first big lesson in how religion could hurt other people, and that made an enormous impact on me.

(….. more later).