The Cost of Discipleship, the Cost of Being a Woman and Other

Let me just get this out of the way: I am not really enjoying this quarter. This is good information. Sitting with this discomfort is educational, insightful. But not fun or juicy or exciting. I surprise myself every week with just how Not Christian I am. Oh, do I miss the practices and mindsets of the previous two quarters! I can’t not practice, so I lightly say my prayers and do a few breathing exercises. But oh, how I miss my practice.

Revisiting things that once held meaning for me is both tedious and informative. For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. I studied Bonhoeffer in college. I wrote my senior history thesis on him. And I barely remember anything about him, other than: influential Lutheran German pastor, who resisted the Nazi co-option of the German church and joined the resistance movement, eventually being sent to concentration camps, where he was killed just days before the liberation. I believe I wrote about how he reconciled his Christian pacifist ideology with joining the resistance movement, which worked to assassinate Hitler. At least, I think it was. You might remember that my memory from this stretch of my life is minimal, at best.

I remember really liking The Cost of Discipleship. I’ve kept a copy on my bookshelf all these years. I connect Bonhoeffer with integrity in my mind, with doing the right thing in trying circumstances, with staying true to one’s beliefs and treating his fellow prisoners, as well as his captors, with dignity and love. Those thoughts haven’t changed one bit in my re-reading. However, I’ll be removing this book from my library. I can’t understand what about it I could have possibly found edifying (ha! great Christian word there).

Before we go any further, let me admit: I haven’t finished the book. I only re-read the first third. I can’t do it. I just don’t care. Besides Bonhoeffer being far more traditional and conservative than I remember, his book is basically by a man for men who need a male saviour.

In the beginning of the book Bonhoeffer writes about how grace has been cheapened. I think he would weep were he to witness the rise of mega-churches, prosperity gospel preaching, and mainstream American evangelicalism (which I think is basically cultural Christianity and not much connected with the gospels). “The real trouble is that the pure Word of Jesus has been overlaid with so much human ballast – burdensome rules and regulations, false hopes and consolations – that is has become extremely difficult to make a genuine decision for Christ.” (p. 35)

The majority of the first part of the book is about obedience: obedience to The Call, to Jesus. Let it be known that obedience has never been my strong suit. Rules apply to me only if I like the rules. This has been a sticking point for my spiritual development my whole life. But I also have a romantic view of discipleship. I intellectually recognize the wisdom that obeying can have – I’d better, I’m a parent! But the extent to which Bonhoeffer insists we obey Jesus – no questions, just following – worries me. Bonhoeffer writes about the ways in which we use our questions to attempt to ‘outsmart’ our would-be saviours, to avoid the hard work of Becoming (my language). He makes a really good point here. But the opportunity for maturation is not the point. He goes on to say that “…only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.” (p. 63) “Doubt and reflection take the place of spontaneous obedience.” (p. 73) Yikes.

While I can see that excessive questioning can be a form of self-delusion and avoidance of actually doing the Work, I think it is healthy to question. In fact, I think it is our duty to question. Jesus challenged the Powers that Be, the status quo. The implication that we ought never question our spiritual authority (be that God or the Bible – a document put together by men, even if I agree that it is divinely inspired, or a pastor) because we are only sinful humans steals our human agency from us. Many Christians don’t have a problem with this. I believe the example of Adam and Eve in the garden is all most people need to say ‘yup, humans can’t be trusted.’ But Jesus was also fully human, even if he was infinitely wiser than we are by virtue of being also fully divine,* he was still fully human, and he was not satisfied with the status quo. Blind obedience is problematic for all living things. It is even more problematic for women and other marginalized people.

Women suffer uniquely in communities where questioning is discouraged. The kind of Christianity described by Bonhoeffer may win points for its integrity, but not for its compassion or sense of community. The pastors in Christianity like this are almost always male, and if a woman were to question her lot in life or her struggle then she would likely be told that she is questioning God’s Order. I have no sources to cite from this particular book, but after years of studying feminist theology and from living my own life I know there are scores of books (and blogs) that address this very phenomenon. God (who is He and male) knows best, the Bible (in spite of being written 1900 years ago in a specific time, place and culture) is the Way It Should Be, and Pastor (likely male) knows if you’re being obedient. All Others need to tow the line and know their places.

Obedience usually leads to a discussion of suffering, and this book does not disappoint. Like Roman Catholic theology, suffering is the center of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity. The point of Jesus is rejection and suffering. His crucifixion “must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity…” (p. 87) Why?? Why does giving of self have to equate with rejection? I reject all of this as completely untrue! Even in a Christian context I reject this as Not True. I believe that Jesus could have still accomplished the Christian message if everyone present at that time was mortified by his execution, if his followers and fellow Jews hadn’t rejected him but had instead embraced him. Suffering is NOT a divine necessity.

Suffering occurs in this life. We cannot have life without suffering. Learning to make sense of that is important, whether or not we follow a spiritual path. Jesus, by being part of this human existence and by fighting the Powers That Be, had to embrace suffering. What is to me the heart of the Christian message is that when suffering and death and rejection occur (because they occur to us all at some point, in some form) resurrection is possible. Suffering is not the core of the message, resurrection is. We rise again, in glory. We rise again, glorified.

“Suffering, then, is the true badge of discipleship” (p. 91) says Bonhoeffer. Once again women and other marginalized people lose out when this is the core of a theology. We already have noted the culture of not questioning. A woman in an unhappy marriage, a slave being a …well, slave, a child being abused by his parents – they are true disciples because they are not questioning the systems of the status quo and are enduring their suffering. People who choose not to suffer are then considered disobedient, less faithful, not True Christians. People who choose not to suffer are denying Jesus, in this context. Who are true disciples of Christ, according to Bonhoeffer? “They simply bear the suffering which comes their way as they try to follow Jesus Christ, and bear it for his sake.” (p. 109, emphasis Bonhoeffer’s) How can we bear anything for Christ’s sake? If he bore all for us, what can we possibly bear for God? How does our suffering improve or profit anything?? It profits nothing. I see it as a way to prove that one person is holier than another, or worse, a way to keep women and other marginalized people in their place.

I have no problem with a theology that has place for suffering, but when it is the crux of the faith then the only way into heaven is through suffering. To that I say, every one deserves in to heaven then, because everyone suffers. Or, change the fulcrum on which the tradition balances. I choose not to be obedient or to suffer, not in the Christian context, not according to patriarchal tradition of Western civilization. I will not be obedient to a deity or spiritual leader that insists I deny my own suffering, that I increase my suffering, that I submit to patriarchal status quo systems of injustice, on the flawed logic that we live in a fallen world and only Jesus will make it better…. in the world to come.

To some it may seem like I’m taking Bonhoeffer way out of context or addressing him in anachronistic terms. He was man writing during World War II. When he says things like “What can the call to discipleship mean to-day for the worker, the business man, the squire and the soldier?” (p. 38) am I being a deliberate trouble maker by pointing out that he has excluded women from the list? Sure, a woman is a worker, but so are business men. I believe he is listing by class. He doesn’t mention the mother, which might be the main ‘job’ of women at that time. No, women are left out of this entire discussion of discipleship.

In this book there is an entire chapter titled “Woman.” Great! I thought, here he will address the 51% of the population! No. It’s an entire chapter on Jesus’s teaching on divorce and whether male disciples should marry. This chapter is not about women at all. If this is the only context for women, then we are merely equated with male desires and functions.

After getting to this point in the book I just threw my hands up and decided it’s time to move on. This is one of the reasons I quit my PhD program. I am beyond tired of this sort of theology: written by men for male believers in a male saviour who saves men.

*I actually think we – all of us – are fully human and fully divine already and that the point of the Incarnation was revealing that to us. The work of the spiritual life is to embrace both, to be Whole.

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A Musical Interlude

Each quarter I load up a Spotify playlist with music that channels the tradition I’m embracing. I enjoyed the rhythms and chants of Hindu inspired music. I listened to a lot of Bjork and Florence + the Machine during my Pagan quarter, two artists I adore. They may not be Pagan themselves, but their lyrics and sensibilities sure are. But this quarter? Contemporary Christian music is just so bad. Bland, cheesy, and trite.

As I was lying awake in the wee hours of the night, I had a realization.* The vast majority of Western music is based in Christianity. Gospel music, spirituals, a lot of folk and roots music too. And let’s not forget most choral music. I am embarrassed it took me so long to remember this: I have twenty years of classical singing under my belt. Sheesh.

So, below, I present to you some of my favorite ‘Christian’ pieces.

The first up is the Dies Irae movement from Verdi’s Requiem. I am a huge fan of requiems. This particular movement is a key piece of the form. It means ‘day of wrath’ and is all about God’s judgment. I have always thought Verdi’s the best example of the dies irae. The trumpets, the timpani, the singing… it really does sound like God and all his angels are coming down the heavens right now to kick some ass. I never fail to get goosebumps. This is usually sung by 200-400 voices. I would fast for a week to be able to sing this entire requiem with a quality chorus and orchestra.

I also adore Mozart. His requiem is a classic for good reason. Below is the Lacrimosa  movement, a movement about grief.

Next up is the second movement from Brahms’ German Requiem, All Flesh is as Grass. This was considered a more secular requiem, as it breaks from the standard form and lyrics.

Obviously, I have a thing for huge choral productions. I also love the various versions of Ave Maria and the Stabat Mater, both in honor of the Virgin Mary, but I think I’ll make those a post of their own when I eventually get to writing about My Lady.

Now for something simpler. Mahalia Jackson. She’s only simpler because she is a single voice – but what a voice! It’s hard to pick just one for her. Here she is singing Moses Hogan’s Elijah Rock. You’ll need to turn the volume up, because the recording is looks like it’s from tv in the 1960s. The following piece is a jazzier version of ‘Wade in the Water’ by a singer I quite like.

Speaking of gospel, has anyone seen the new Queen Latifah film ‘Joyful Noise’? It looks like a cheesy feel-good movie, but if it’s got good singing I just may take myself to the theatre for some Christian-ish distraction. Enjoy all this good music. I’ll be here on the couch, reading and sucking down tea.

*I had several. I was awake for two or three hours. I have a cold. Are we surprised? I am not. I’ve been trying to plow through Bonhoeffer’s book, but everything is moving a bit more slowly right now.

Fifteen Years in the Wrong Shoes – part two

Thanks to my experienced readers I was reminded that the word for this type of biography is called a testimony. Thank you, readers!

Let’s continue my testimony. (You can read part one here.) In this installment I get personal and talk about things I’d rather not.

We last left off as I approached college. I considered myself a Christian, but was wary of Christian culture and of people who grew up in youth group. So you can imagine my enthusiasm when the summer before leaving for college (leaving Alaska to go to Washington) I got my roommate assignment in the mail. Her name was Jennie, she was from Washington. Her phone number was listed and I called. Turned out she was very active in her youth group. ‘She’s nice,’ I thought, ‘but we’ll never be good friends.’ When I arrived at our dorm in September I noticed her tape collection held the delights of Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant. I was not impressed.

I like telling that story because my randomly placed roommate ended up becoming my best friend and within weeks we were inseparable. I can probably blame Jennie for my deepening my activity in mainstream Christianity. She had had a great, trauma-free experience growing up Christian and she wanted to continue to seek that out in college. I followed her lead as we checked out various campus Christian groups, eventually joining Campus Crusade for Christ rather regularly. Yes, you read that correctly. I attended CCC, which I used to jokingly call KKK. I was not the most mature wit, I will admit. CCC was, surprisingly, the middle path for Christians at my uni – neither the most conservative, nor the stereotypical mostly social youth group on campus.

I can also blame Jennie for showing me how open, ‘normal’ and healthy a practicing Christian could be. Her entire family was a revelation to me. Her parents honestly enjoyed their kids and were interested in them as individuals. Her parents came from fascinating religious backgrounds: one raised in the Cameroon by missionary parents, the other raised by a pastor who taught in Lebanon and in the deep, segregated South. And yet, this family was not afraid of difference, of non-Christians, of questions, of the wider world. Instead, they were genuinely interested in people and ideas. This family was a safe haven for me and an example of what a fully lived, healthy Christian life – and just straight up healthy family – could look like.

My spiritual experience in college was much like my experience in high school, only more so. Personally I was seeking a deeper connection. I woke most mornings and read a passage from the bible and prayed/pondered over it. I think I did this regularly for over five years straight. I’m grateful for this as the daily practice of quiet, meditative reflection is nearly universal and has been perhaps the single most beneficial practice to growing my ‘faith’ and spiritual strength.

I also continued to seek knowledge from books. I shuffled around my majors. I went from vocal performance to history, emphasizing religious history, with a minor in religious studies. I wrote papers looking at the influence of the Sermon on the Mount on Gandhi, on the influence of the Catholic Church on the Solidarity movement in Poland; I gave a 45 minute presentation on the works of CS Lewis and a workshop on how Mormon’s weren’t Christians. I also read pseudo-intellectual books, such as More Than a Carpenter and stuff on Pascal’s wager, stuff that now would make the academic in me cringe, but at the time I thought was well-reasoned writing! I had absorbed the idea that if not the Christian god, then nothing.

Socially, I struggled with insularity and us-vs-them ideology. I struggled with Christian culture. I remember one time early on in my first semester of school hanging out with some people from one of the youth groups. One of the guys asked me what church I went to. ‘I don’t go to church,’ I said. ‘Are you a Christian?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘But you don’t go to church?’ He was terribly confused. ‘No.’ ‘Have you read the bible?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, beginning to get defensive. ‘I’ve read the entire New Testament a couple of times, and most of the Old Testament. How about you?’ That shut him up. It also reflects a lot of what I experienced as a type of ‘outsider,’ a status I both could not escape due to my upbringing and one that I cultivated by choice by not joining in. I still wasn’t comfortable with the Father God prayer language or the waving of hands during praise songs.

I shouldn’t play down that I went through waves of evangelical fervor of my own. My faith was important to me and I wanted other people to know God too. In the mid to late ’90s Alaska was debating whether or not to amend its constitution to say that marriage was between a man and a woman (it eventually did so). I remember having a debate with a friend’s gay brother that marriage was just that: between a man and woman. Oh, the irony (which you’ll read about in part 3).

The summer between my second and third years of college I had a what I can only describe as a ‘dark night of the soul,’ also known as a depressive episode. It didn’t help that I spent the summer in a crappy almost-relationship with a dude that later date-raped me and then refused to talk to me for the rest of the summer. I spent that summer feeling spiritually numb (that started before the aforementioned event), reading through Psalms for solace. Before then I had hated the smarmy poetry of Psalms, but I gained a new appreciation for them. David too had struggled. In fact, some of the Psalms involve him wondering just where God was. He got angry! Depressed! And he lusted. Just like me. I also loved the nature themes and the rejoicing themes. I particularly loved Psalm 98.

When I returned to school for my third year I was restless. I lived in a house with other Christian women and we all attended the same church. The church had started as a 50 person church, split off from one of about 200 people, which I had attended once or twice pre-split. Two years later the church had hundreds of people and was meeting in an old department store space. I sang with the short-lived choir. I joined bible study/small group. It was all very nice, but I was restless, wanting more. I thought about transferring schools again (the year previously I had applied for and been accepted for transfer to the Berklee College of Music, but backed out at the 11th hour; this time the all-girl Smith College sounded fantastic). Instead I got hooked into YWAM, an international youth ministry. Their entry-level program was a 5-6 month program of classes, small group and ministry training, usually culminating in a ‘mission’ to a second location (usually a third world country) to ‘save the lost.’ I think I equated ministry with mysticism. I was wary of the evangelizing and ended up choosing to go to Ireland, where instead of going to a different country, that branch stayed put and assisted the local church.

To complicate things, shortly after signing up for the program, I fell in love – with a non-Christian of course. Before leaving for Ireland for 6 months we got engaged. It was spur of the moment. I crazy about the guy, and he asked. I said yes. No one else thought it was a good idea. In retrospect it was stupid. But I didn’t know any better.

My time in Ireland was truly amazing. Again, I was the odd one out. I didn’t quite mesh with the program. But I gained a lot from all the time to read and pray and think. I met incredible and diverse people from all over the world. One Czech woman, with whom I’ve long since fallen out of touch, was a devout Roman Catholic with a devotion to the Virgin Mary. I didn’t know too much about Mary then. My friend went on a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, a mountain that she hiked up barefoot. She brought me back a rock, which I still have and it sits on my altar today. Overall, while I was deeply uncomfortable with the evangelical aspects of the organization, I loved the social aspects and the ways that YWAM supported young people’s personal faith and growth and gave them skills for some sort of future in the religious world. I really wanted to stay on as staff in the west of Ireland. I think my desire to stay was mostly the pull of the land, which spoke so deeply and intensely to me. But I went home to get married.

During my time in Ireland my issues with anxiety came up in full force. Again, I prayed and prayed and cried. I thought something was just wrong with me or that maybe I wasn’t listening right to God. More than one person suggested that I not marry an unbeliever.

After my wedding I fell into a profound depression. I was married, back at school and struggling with anxiety worse than ever. I forgot all the lyrics to my audition piece for the excellent concert choir – the choir which I had sung with for two years! This devastated me and I retreated more deeply, spiraling into a depression that I didn’t come out of for more than two years.

In fact there’s not a lot I remember from those two years.

I do remember feeling frustrated with church after my return. I stopped going to Christ the King. I was distrustful and uninterested in the conflation of culture and religion. Being a ‘good’ Christian often looked like being a certain kind of man or woman, but I knew that wasn’t actual Christianity. Bible studies were often separated into men and women, the women’s studies often talked about being a good wife. I think this was the period where I discovered feminism.

After my positive experience in Ireland, living with both Catholics and Protestants, I started attending a Catholic church. I love me some liturgy, so it was a good fit. I remember flippantly dismissing a family friend’s suggestion that I check out the Episcopalian Church, saying that it’s origins were dubious. Oh, what an ignorant smart-ass I was. Now I think it would be a pretty good fit for me, were I to remain in the Christian fold. But Catholicism was Grand and had History and Theologians and was There First. I read the entire catechism, cover to cover. Because that’s what I do. I wasn’t very impressed with the Church’s opinion of women, and yet parts of the catechism were so beautiful.

My husband and I moved back to my hometown after we finally graduated from college. I joined the local RCIA (Rites for Christian Initiation for Adults, a study group for adults considering converting to Catholicism) and realized around the same time that there was an older strain of Christianity – the Orthodox Church! And there was one in my town! Alaska has a long tradition of Orthodoxy.

All of this time I was still reading scripture and praying every morning. (At least I think I was, the last few years are hazy, remember.) My depression was severe, even though I wasn’t aware that’s what it was. I was seeking. I was miserable. I remember sitting at the computer, going through the Sacred Space daily devotional and just sobbing. I sat and prayed over and over and over again to God for help. I didn’t know what to do. This was the only time I have ever ‘heard a voice.’ I heard an immediate disembodied response. It said ‘You need to choose. You need to make a choice.’ And I realized that God couldn’t help me if I was refusing to act. I either needed to get help and fix my marriage, or get help and leave. I had to choose to stay or choose to leave. The wasting away I was doing wasn’t actually choosing. But either choice was terrifying.

What happened next takes us into part three.

In my next post I’ll write about my re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s The Cost of Discipleship. I wrote my college senior thesis on him and I haven’t read his works since then. I remember being impressed by him and have kept this particular book in my collection since college, even though I’ve never opened it since. We’ll see what I think it of now.

The Book of Matthew

I can’t remember the last time I sat down and read something from the bible. In my academic studies I did a lot of work with the first three chapters of Genesis. Occasionally I’d pay attention to the scripture readings at church services when I’d sing there. I was surprised, and I’m not sure why, to discover just how terribly boring is the gospel of Matthew.

Something I remember from my religious studies days, and which was clear as day to me as I read Matthew, is that this gospel was written with a Jewish audience in mind. Jesus is written to parallel Moses – climbing up on mountains and receiving wisdom (Sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration), the flight of exile into Egypt (this one doesn’t occur in any other gospel). The genealogy in the beginning of the book is there to establish Jesus’s Jewish cred. Jesus very specifically mentions a couple of times that he is not here to preach to the Gentiles and even instructs his disciples not to worry about the Gentiles. (‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans…’ 10:5)

And that, plus all the references to ‘Old Testament’ scripture, drives home the fact that I don’t feel like this religion is for me. I know full well that there is a mystic strain in Christianity that I quite like. I find it the Eastern Orthodox tradition and parts of the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, and in the Gnostic side of things. That mystic essence is beautiful, powerful and fully part of the greater Christian tradition. But if I actually read the Gospels and read what Jesus says…. well, in spite of all his wisdom (and there are great, universal truths and wisdom for the ages that I think almost all spiritual/religious people can agree on) I am not Jewish and he is not speaking to me.

Something that surprised me as I read along was that parts jumped out at me – verses that I hadn’t thought about in years but are so deeply ingrained into my memory that I could tell which parts I had given a lot of thought to once, parts I had prayed over. I have taken the words of Jesus deeply into my person. It’s fascinating to realize how important his words have been in shaping my morals, my spiritual strength, my view of the world. I notice that I have especially taken to heart the verses about knowing a tree by its fruit (12:33).

See, even then and even now I see Jesus as an agent of social justice. I also see him as a Jewish radical – hoping to shake up his faith and also the secular powers that be, but most importantly he wanted spiritual renewal among his people; chapter 23 is especially harsh toward the Pharisees. Cool. I can totally support that. All aspects of the status quo need shaking up from time to time. ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ (10:34) Jesus in the temple at the tables of the money changers sure sounds like the Occupy movement/s to me! (12:-13)

I love the admonishments to get one’s own person in order and eschew public praise for holiness (6:1-8, 6:16-18), to forgo attachment to wealth and things, to be humble (7:1-5), to pursue mercy, and to basically pursue the spirit of the law over the letter of the law (7:12; all of the Sermon on the Mount, in my opinion).

A favorite passage: ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (6:19-21)

I also like the parables that talk about the worth of the kingdom of heaven, which for me is not so much the Kingdom of Heaven as it is the spiritual life. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold that he had and bought it.’ (13:45)

I’d love to know what Jesus really meant by the ‘Son of Man.’ I’d love to know if he was as cantankerous and joyless as the gospel suggests. Surely he must have been extremely charismatic – beyond his acts of magic (because that’s what miracles are, and I don’t doubt that he healed and did some amazing things).

The book of Matthew starts out as what feels like a history lesson full of great spiritual insight and slowly gets more militant and concerned with the Messiah’s return/apocalypse. And that’s something else that’s bothered me for a long time: if Jesus was the Messiah and he was here on earth (‘God with us’) then why are we still waiting around for him to return? Why did Jesus himself talk about the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ and all of his parables about lamps and oil and brides and bridegrooms (24:36-25:13)?

I also admit I dislike the tremendous amount of slave/lord language. I can dismiss a lot of this knowing that this books was written in a vastly different time and place. What is more troubling to me is the continued insistence on using Lord and Master language today. The feudal context does not sit well in modern times; it is not a worthwhile metaphor anymore.

We all know how the story ends (SPOILER ALERT): crucifixion and resurrection. The hero dies. But he doesn’t really! Jesus has been foreshadowing this… ok, straight up telling us his death is coming for a while now. But I find the scene in the garden of Gethsemane very moving (26:36-56). Jesus is vulnerable and praying. He wants his friends with him. He says to God, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not what I want but you want.’ This is one of the few moments where I see Jesus as an emotional, multi-dimensional person. He might actually be scared. He might not actually want what he sees as inevitable. Much of the language in the Christian church goes on and on about Jesus dying for sins and the will of God, but here, we see it wasn’t an easy thing for Jesus to do. (This is not to say that I subscribe to the idea that we all are responsible for killing Jesus because of our sin. I have huge problems with the economic and juridical theories of salvation.)

I also find the mocking of Jesus (27:27-32) particularly sad and pitiless. Who mocks a man on the way to his death? Who mocks a man dying before your very eyes – or even as you are dying as well?? (27:39-44)

So there. I’ve re-read the Gospel of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount wasn’t as amazing this time around. I know too much. I still find the first half of the story to contain an incredible amount of worthy spiritual advice. But I was not all that moved, nor have I gained any new insights.

Details

Firstly: I think I must be doing something right. My son, now 3.5 years old, just stood in front of the altar (which is still not fully set up), put his hands together, and prayed to the Ancestors to bless the dead and everyone in this house. Then he went back and said ‘Mother, I love you with all my heart. Bless my parents and all my friends.’ Oh, my heart.

Secondly: This site will be down tomorrow in observance/protest of SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act).

Fifteen Years in the Wrong Shoes – part one

Something I remember from my years in Christianity is the practice of telling one’s story of how they came to Jesus. There’s a name for these stories, but I can’t remember what it is…. maybe ‘witness’? Last quarter I had planned to write about how I found Feri but the move took up so much of my brain that I let that go. Now, hanging out with friends, the question has come up – what was my upbringing? What was my time in Christianity like? But every time I start this post I get caught up, tripped up, in my own stories. After thinking about this topic every night for several weeks I think I’ve figured out what I’m going to do: I shall tell you my spiritual ‘biography’ as it relates to Christianity, interspersed with me revisiting texts or exploring new ones.

So here goes.

I was raised without religion. I used to say I was raised nothing, but now I realize the word for that is ‘secular.’ My family wasn’t even all that culturally Christian. We had a Christmas tree and I got Easter baskets, but we did not attend church, unless we were staying with my grandmother in Australia. We didn’t even have a bible on the book shelves. (I later found, one day while my parents were out and I was snooping, a leather-bound bible given to my father by his namesake for his christening, shoved in the back of a high shelf in my parents’ closet.) I had friends who attended various churches: Catholic, Mormon, Episcopalian, and several Jewish friends. I went to church and Sunday school with them occasionally, even church camp and vacation bible schools. But none of it sunk in. I went merely for the social interaction.

Was it from these outings that I developed an understanding of God? I don’t know. But from a young age I thought about God. I wrote letters to God and buried them in the side yard where I buried the birds and mice that my cat would kill and leave on our front step. I figured, if people get buried in order to go to heaven where God lives, then surely if I bury my letters they will get to God. I didn’t know anything about prayer.

When I was 12 or so my uncle, who was about to move to Ethiopia with his wife and 6 month old son as missionaries, sent me a New Testament. I read it like any other book, mostly in one sitting and cover to cover. I distinctly remember being impressed with Jesus – what a complicated person! I was particularly impressed by the Sermon on the Mount. I taught myself the Lord’s Prayer and would pray it at night. I thought Paul was cranky, and I remember telling God that when I got to Heaven I wanted to have a few stern words with Paul. I remember seeing televangelists on tv and thinking that they were missing the point of the New Testament. How could they have gotten such a different idea than I did from the same little book?

Thus did my life begin as a self-professed Christian and as a theologian.

Growing up I had assumed that if you weren’t Jewish you were Christian. In the 8th grade I wanted to be a nun, but I wasn’t Catholic, so I ruled that out. I look back and see a budding mystic, a girl who had no language or context for what she was experiencing or desiring. I grabbed what I could: Christianity. Not a bad thing, and I don’t regret it. I’ve learned so much over the years, even though Christianity wasn’t the right fit.

One summer (between 8th and 9th grade?) I went to the local Christian summer camp: Echo Ranch Bible Camp. So many things about it were great: the social aspect, the rustic qualities (no electricity, wooden bunk beds, yes I actually liked that), the setting (so beautiful). The hard parts for me were the chapel and all the Christian culture bits – it was just so foreign to me. I didn’t know the words to the songs, or the words to the prayers, or when to wave my hands, or what. I also felt pressure to pray The Prayer. The prayer that makes a person a Christian, as far as evangelicals are concerned. It goes along the lines of ‘Father God [always with the Father God], I’m a sinner, but you died for my sins, please come into my heart and be my saviour.’ Something like that. I prayed the prayer. Did it make me a Christian?

Even after camp I stuck with the Christian crowd as one set of friends, even dating a Good Christian Boy for about five minutes. I borrowed some one’s Petra tape. I did not mesh well with Christian Culture and I still didn’t go to church. While I have an appreciation for church in theory now – community is a good thing – I even then understood that church attendance had nothing to do with the message of Jesus. I struggled with the ‘no sex before marriage’ thing too. I understood that it was a Big Deal in Christian culture, but it didn’t seem like it really had anything to do with Jesus.

As usual, I did what I wanted to do.

I also struggled with horrific nightmares and crippling anxiety. I didn’t have enough understanding to put the word ‘anxiety’ to what I was feeling, but I would pray. Oh, did I pray. I took very seriously the line from the Gospel of John, ‘If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’ (John 14:14) What to do when it didn’t happen? It’s not like I prayed to win the lottery or for a pony. I prayed for the nightmares to stop, for the midnight presences to stop appearing, for the fear to disappear, for my voice to sing to steady and sure. I’ve since read various theories about why prayers aren’t answered, but they are intellectual masks. I took Jesus at his words, with the faith of a child. I think I’m more disappointed now than I was then.

Going off to college opened me up to a lot more, as the experience is supposed to do. I’ll cover that in the next installment of My Story. My first reading assignment for myself is to re-read the Gospel of Matthew, the gospel that contains the Sermon on the Mount. Even though I’ve spent a lot of years reading Christian theology I wasn’t a biblical scholar and avoided the bible as much as possible, with the exception of the first three chapters of Genesis.

Next post: Niki reads the Book of Matthew.

A House Blessing

Friday, January 6th, was Theophany (according to the Eastern Orthodox Church) and Epiphany for the rest. I’m not sure why, but it is on this day that house blessings occur in the Orthodox tradition, my preferred flavor of Christianity. A priest comes around to the home and blesses the structure and its inhabitants.

I’ve just moved into a new home. I usually do a house blessing when I move anywhere new. My past practice has been to use various incenses to cleanse the space, then sprinkle salt in the doorways, and sprinkle water I’ve blessed across all thresholds – within and without, while invoking peace and love and admonishing all that would harm us to keep out. I was pleased, but not all that surprised, to find that this is very similar to what the Orthodox do in their blessings.

On January 6th I was in my new house, me and the kids, waiting for my husband and father-in-law to arrive with the Truck of Stuff. Earlier that day I had gone out and purchased what I needed for the blessing…. only to realize after I’d set up my altar nook with my icons that I had forgotten to buy matches to light the candles. Oh well.

I then decided to wait until the full moon, which was only a few days away. But that night I was exhausted from the unpacking and the organizing and the corralling of children, so I passed on ritual. I’ve been exhausted a lot lately. This moving thing is hard. Maybe if my baby was sleeping through night I’d be more rested. I started to beat up on myself for not doing the blessing when I was supposed to (whatever that means) and then I just decided that was a waste of my energies.

About a week later I was cooking dinner. The stew needed to simmer for about 45 minutes. I was feeling good. The big stuff had all been unpacked. The night was crisp, clear and star-filled. Perfect timing for a house blessing!

Temporary altar, with icons, in what was an old phone nook in the wall

The altar was set up with the icons from earlier. It’s not the finished altar, as I don’t have a space for my other sacred objects yet. I lit a candle in front of my icons of the Theotokos (aka, the Blessed Virgin Mary). I put some salts from the Dead Sea in a cup of water and blessed it. I consider myself the priest of this house, so I didn’t feel any qualms about assuming the role of priest in this ‘ceremony.’ I said a little prayer for the house and I walked around to all the rooms flinging salted water with my fingertips at all the windows and over the thresholds.

The next part of the ritual called for holy oil. Thankfully, I have some of that! About ten years ago an Orthodox priest friend of mine gave me a small bottle of holy oil ‘from the vigil lamp at the reliquary of the Holy Hierarch St. John, Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco.’ This part of the ritual involves lighting candles at the four external corners of the house and blessing the structure with the holy oil. I didn’t want to leave lit candles outside, so I took my candle from the altar and the bottle of oil and circumnavigated my house, blessing each corner in the name of the Trinity, and marking the corners in a cross with the oil.

Coming inside I set up my censer and walked through the house three times, letting the frankincense and myrrh fill the house. The scent competed with the aroma of my delicious dinner simmering away on the stove.  Once the house was blessed it was time to bless the inhabitants. My son objected to my actions. I’m not sure why, but he really did not like what I was doing. I blessed my husband, my children and myself with some of the water and oil, using a mark of the cross on the forehead. Son smeared it off as soon as I put it on.

And then we sat down to a delicious, hearty meal.