Understanding God by listening- both sides of my coin

My quest for church is also my quest for understanding the thing we call God. Notice I didn’t just say ‘God’? That’s because I don’t think it’s that simple. I’ve mentioned before how we all have an idea of who God is. Even atheists who think God is fictional have an idea what a person means when they start to talk about God. But people’s ideas can sometimes be so drastically different as to beg the question whether this could even be the same entity. How can we know who God really is? The two answers I’ve received are 1) reading the bible 2) communing with God through prayer. Now, I think the bible has some serious problems. Although it is an actual physical thing we can hold, I’m not sure how good a ‘proof’ it is in terms of telling us definitively who God is. I’ve spoken to this before, but in short it’s an ancient reretranslated book that few people can agree on how to interpret. So I’d like to instead speak to communicating with God directly by praying and listening. Here are my conflicting sides of this ‘talk to God’ coin.

Side one:
Only my stupidest, most frivolous and inconsequential prayers have ever been answered. I once asked for a parking space, boom! There was one. I asked for the elevator to hurry up, ding! There it was. I asked for God to allow someone’s asthma attack to end. It got worse. I asked for God to spare the life of my friend’s sick infant. No. And so on.

I have been told that God listens to his children at prayer and gives them good gifts. My own experience suggests that God does this only for very small matters, as if he either does not care or hasn’t the power to work on larger matters.

Side two:
Something like a decade ago I occasionally had the ability to predict unlikely things. A coworker at a kids camp lost his wedding ring at the camp. I mean- a camp full of dirt and trees and a large lake. I told him, “Don’t worry you’ll find it.” He did. How did I know this? It could have been at the bottom of the lake for all I knew. The second clear example I remember was when a friend of mine was sick with cancer. I was thinking of him and almost in this meditative state asking in my head, “Will he be ok?” In my mind I saw a thick book open to the middle. There was text on both pages too tiny to be read. Overlaying both pages, right across the middle of the book in black text I saw the word YES. And my friend recovered and is in remission.

The other side of my coin tells me that something special happened to me during that brief period if my life and I was able to see answers before they came about.

What do both sides of my coin mean? Well they perplex me. I know that many people have also had similar coin sides. Many pray and still lose loved ones. Many pray and are seemingly granted a miracle or divine contact. I’m still thinking about this one; still open to possibilities. I hope it isn’t too corny of me to say I see God in those possibilities.

Peers in church

This is something I’ve been mulling over for several weeks but haven’t come to any big new conclusions or revelations. I’m wondering about the role of peers in church. I think we all have a certain expectation that a church should feel like our home. One way of making sure a church feels familiar and comfortable is to find a church populated by our peers. It certainly helps to find a church of the same variety or denomination we were raised in. Apart from that there are other factors that make a church group feel like our peers. What do the attendees look like? Do they resemble ethnicities we are used to interacting with? Are they from our socio-economic bracket? There are many factors that make the people we meet easier or harder to relate to. Something as simple as growing up during the same handful of years and watching the same television create a shared background. I find these factors increasingly relevant to the church project. It takes more effort to relate to the churches of predominantly black attendance. It takes more effort to relate to churches that speak another language during service. It takes more effort to relate to churches with members who have not had the financial privileges I’ve had. For me the project is partly about intentionally pushing myself beyond this boundary. I could stop at any of the churches I find full of the familiar. But I think I need to see more because there is more to be seen. I don’t see an ending yet, so I don’t know how this will all wrap up. I just know I don’t want to stop. Not yet.

The cross a pictorial symbol

So, out to lunch with my friends John and Evelyn we discussed churches and finding the right fit. One of the things that came up was a nice pictorial symbol involving the cross itself which I had not heard before. The cross in a literal, visual way is two bars crossing each other. One points upwards and the other crosses it horizontally. John described this as two keys to one’s faith experience. The bar pointing upward represents a focus on God and his honor and worship. The bar crossing horizontally represents social justice. Put differently, this is the great commandments: Love God and Love your neighbor. Seems like a solid way to think about one’s faith.

Gender Essentialism ramblings

Right now there is a lot of talk in some evangelical circles about whether or not patriarchy is harmful as a model for Christians.* I am mostly seeing this peripherally because I am not in such circles. I follow exactly one blog that speaks to this issue, so I can’t claim to know all the specifics of what’s being said. Patriarchy among Christians refers to separate roles for men and women in families and in society, with the expectation that women are subordinate to men. In its very mildest form this is sometimes referred to as complementarianism. Both terms could be classified as gender essentialism. Those who subscribe to gender essentialism believe that gender is so important that it can and should dictate the proper role for you in some, if not all, aspects of your life. Common roles assigned to women are those involving childcare and housework, with the expectation that men are better suited to working outside the home. There are Christians who believe that women should never attend college, instead staying home until their father finds a worthy husband for them. On the other end of the gender essentialism spectrum, there are Christians who believe women can get a higher education, work outside the home, or pretty much anything men do, but a wife should defer to her husband for final decisions of import to the family. All along this spectrum wives are expected to subordinate to husbands in some way. Sometimes this extends to fathers directing and controlling their daughters. Often this also means females are seen as unfit for Christian leadership positions. My travels have shown me many churches in which there is a clear prohibition of women to pastorship.

I think it’s time Christians ditched gender essentialism. Some already seen to have done this. I strongly suspect UCC has no specific instructions anywhere for how females should act differently than males. In fact, in 2011 they made a resolution regarding sexual orientation and gender identity that suggests churches should do more to fight discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. I think Christians still debating approval of same-sex relationships will find themselves on shaky ground if they try to toss out one-man-one-woman, but keep gender roles intact. And vice versa. Once you decide same-sex relationships are ok, it seems to me gender roles automatically have to go out the door as well. If you base your marriage ideal on different roles for the man and the woman, what will you do when there is no man? Or no woman? Some might see this as an argument to keep both gendered roles and ‘traditional’ marriage. I see it as exactly the opposite. I resist the idea that as a female I need to like pink, or enjoy shopping, or cook, or care for babies, or any of a hundred different things society sees as my place. By the same token, I resist the idea that I must submit to my husband as a matter of course, or be barred from pastorship if I felt called to it. And if I’m deciding gender should not define what I do in my life or my marriage, I can’t very well tell others that it should make a difference in their marriage. It all goes together; gender essentialism and woman/man marriage are a package deal. Keep it all or lose it all. I favor losing it all.

I see much of the gender essential viewpoint as stemming from the teachings of Paul in the letters of the New Testament. In recent years I have started to recognize the heavy emphasis on Paul over Jesus indicated in certain Christian teachings. I think this is a mistake. There is a reason we call ourselves Christians and not Paulians. In many cases Paul taught things Jesus did not. I think it’s possible Paul sometimes overstepped his bounds in what he taught the new Christian communities. I also think it’s possible we overstep in how we view these letters, which are just that- letters. As I recently pointed out to a friend, I would never pick up a love letter someone wrote to his wife and decide it could tell me how I was to live my life.

There are some real problems with gender essentialism I think don’t fit with the good Christianity purports to do in the world. Putting people into different boxes makes it hard on them in case they need to get out of those boxes. Husband ruling over wife might work just fine in some cases. What if the husband is abusive? What if the husband makes bad financial decisions? What if the wife wants to make even one decision on her own? How many exceptions to the rule are needed before we can get past the rule and throw the boxes out altogether?

*The primary story involves Doug Phillips of Vision Forum. This itself is a lengthy story, but to be as brief as possible, it’s a sex/sexual scandal. Phillips claims he fell into an “inappropriate relationship” outside his marriage. The woman in question claims she was “methodically groomed” for abuse and manipulation by Phillips because he was set up as a figure in highest authority over her from age 15. This directly speaks to patriarchy because of its implications that women are to answer unquestioningly to men.

Easter, JC Superstar Again

The other day I was singing through the album Jesus Christ Superstar with my atheist housemate. It’s something I like to do around Easter. The musical speaks to me strongly and forces me to really think about the Easter story and my own beliefs. This year the thought occurred to me: I think we do ourselves a disservice by not imagining Jesus as a human. Jesus Christ Superstar very much paints Jesus as someone who is fully human, who doesn’t clearly understand God’s purpose for him, who hopes he’s getting it right and, ultimately, someone who fears death. The pain Ian Gillan expresses as Jesus is clear, and horrible. To see Jesus as God who knew what was coming and could expect to wind up in heaven as basically a prince at the end, misses a huge part of the story. Seeing Jesus as human allows us to imagine that it could be us there on that cross, in pain and dying, wondering what it all was for. Seeing Jesus as human lets us feel his death in a more real way.

But wait, I can hear you saying. Most Christians make a point of saying that Jesus was both God and man! True. But conceptually this is not an easy thing to understand. The early church worked itself into hysterics trying not to swing too far in either direction. Since then the terminology has always been along the lines of “fully God and fully human”. But in taking this superposition-like stance I think we lose something. When we try to see Jesus as both God and man, we wind up seeing him as neither. Jesus death as death is almost a revelation to us. I think we need to try to see Jesus as merely human at least once in the course of our faith journey, if for no other reason than to remind us how barbaric the human race can be. Once upon a time we considered questioning the established rules as so dangerous, that we tortured and killed a man over it. Have we come far enough since then? Putting aside the foreordinance of Jesus’ death, it becomes a great tragedy, one we must avoid repeating. Putting aside the idea that Jesus was God, the story is still terrible; the story of a human who died, in great pain, believing himself almost completely friendless. Putting aside even the emotional agony, Jesus’ death is still a death, and one that was orchestrated and carried out by humans on purpose to another human. We need to be more shocked by this, and by the knowledge that even two thousand years later we haven’t completely figured out how to stop killing each other.

Ask and you shall receive

About two weeks ago I was wondering if this project would allow me to make connections with people that felt actually meaningful. Today I was invited to lunch by a delightful couple I met at this week’s church and had some engaging, thought provoking conversation with them. I’m psyched that this happened. Turning over thoughts in my own head can only get me so far. It’s nice to have some other minds to interact with over religious topics. I think I’ll have plenty to think and write about during my upcoming travel weeks.

More churches, nobody home.

Today (3/2/14) was meant to be a visit to First Methodist Church of Rensselaer. It shows up in a web search, appears to have a service at 11am, and a pastor, and a phone number, and the website in question even has the number ‘2014’ on it, like it was updated two months ago at most. So I arrived where my GPS said to go, parked nearby and tried to find it. It’s a small, but still churchy looking building of brick labelled with signage declaring it “First Methodist”. The door opened when I pushed it, and I went in.

The place was completely deserted. No one at all was around. I checked upstairs and found a sanctuary in decent shape except a chip in one wall. Oh yeah, did I mention it was also filled with stuff like some kind of giant storage closet? I then checked downstairs and found another gathering spot with moveable chairs and a basic altar. Still not a soul around. I called out “Hello, hello?” hoping not to startle the caretaker or whoever opened the building. Nothing. It’s not like I accidentally opened a locked door, that door really wasn’t shut at all. And when I entered the building it felt warm inside; someone had the heat going. I find myself totally baffled. After heading home I tried the church phone number. It was out of service. I’m wondering if I should change the blog name from TheChurchProject to DerelictChurchProject. I just keep finding these apparently deserted churches.

Transcripts, Fanfics, and the bible

So I’ve been transcribing episodes of this show I love called The Aquabats. I had already watched one particular episode several times and decided to try transcribing from memory. I do have a fairly good memory, so I figured I had a decent shot. I got many of the lines noticeably wrong. In fact, even while watching episodes scribbling furiously, I found I got lines wrong. Five lines would be said and I’d pause the DVR and try to get them all written down. The first line would be wrong. I thought for sure Ricky said, “No thank you. I swore off donuts in the name of fitness.”
In fact he said, “No thanks. In the name of fitness I swore off sweets a long time ago.”
And this was something I’d just listened to, with the actual intention of faithfully recording it. And I still got it wrong. Now try to imagine I heard it and then waited several years to record it. Now try to imagine someone else heard it too and wrote it down after several years. Theirs would almost unquestionably be different from mine. Perhaps a great deal different. Now translate them both into a second language and wait a couple thousand years…Do you see where I’m going with this? This is the bible; heard by several, written by others, translated across centuries. My own attempts at transcription bring this home to me so forcefully. I got it wrong within seconds of hearing it. This is the reason I do not hold with the idea that the bible is a book to be read as the actual words spoken by God and Jesus. As soon as Jesus said it, someone probably misheard it. I challenge anyone who disagrees to try transcribing a television show without pausing, and go back after and see what you were able to recall correctly.

There’s something else transcribing a TV show as a fan made me aware of. There’s this thing called fanfic; the word is an abbreviation for fan fiction. It is a story written by a fan of something. The something could be any existing story with characters and a universe. The fan fiction is written for these existing characters and universe, and often written to sound like the author who wrote the original story. It’s not just the further adventures of… but also a style parody. Good enough fan fiction makes you feel the original author may have written it. Biblical scholarship suggests the bible has this phenomenon as well. Several of the New Testament letters attributed to Paul are now thought to be composed in the style of Paul by someone other than Paul. It would seem the bible is partially fanfic.

What to make of all this? I used to have much more trouble with this idea. After all, there are pastors who see the bible as a perfect faithful recording that has never been mis-copied or translated, the phrases and words picked apart for meaning in every little word and phrase. In fact, I’m not even sure I have a problem with this approach except that it is touted as a source of further information about God. Perhaps in the case of word by word examination it should be thought of in terms of the gaining information on the ideals of the scribe/translator. Dig a little further and use a bible that examines the original language, giving footnotes, and you can look into the mind of the original human author, whether it be Paul or some fan of Paul’s. Listen to the overall story and try to find out what life was like for Jesus and what he was telling us about it.

In the end it’s all these things that make the bible special. When people use the clichĂ© that something is like a rich tapestry, I think I actually get what they mean. Some kind of huge woven thing is just a bunch of threads. And you can look at the threads, if you want, and decipher who made them, how strong they are, and what their composition is. You can step a little back and see the twists and turns the threads make and figure out how the weaver did the work. You can step further back and see the patterns going on- admire the beauty of the colors and how they strike the eye. Take one last step back and you can take in the work as a whole and see it as one giant scene, a cohesive, or perhaps contradictory unit of some kind- busy with life and feeling. This is the bible. Taken many ways, taken together. But the thing about tapestry is, it’s a work of art. And with art you are supposed to see what you see and not what others see. No one else can tell you how to experience it- only how they experience it. You have to experience it yourself.

First Century Sex

So I was curious about sex during the time Jesus lived because I presume this makes some difference in how we read the bible’s instructions on sex. I’m not one to try and claim that bible is a foolproof answer for everything because so much of it was tailored to the times. Mentioning shepherds and sowing all the time, for example, is not something I find super-pertinent because I rarely grow crops or deal with sheep in any way. But learning more about sowing methods and shepherds work gets at the meaning of certain stories better. So presumably we might better understand what the bible has to say about sex if we got more information on sexual ideas and practices at that time.

Wikipedia has a lengthy section on Sexuality in Ancient Rome with 500+ references, so I checked it out. I know this doesn’t quite represent the ‘microclimate’ if you will, of sexuality during the first 100 years of the Common Era (0-100 A. D.), but I thought hey, it’s better than nothing. So it sounds like male Roman citizens had the most freedom in terms what kind of sex was legal and generally thought of as acceptable. A male Roman citizen would be expected have a wife to have heirs by, but it was seen as normal that he also had other women or men, as well as the possibility of sex with male youths or any of his slaves. The women and slaves had it worst in this scenario because they didn’t have any legal basis for saying no to either a husband (wives) or owner (slaves). Wives and slaves were treated as property of male citizens, although women had slightly better standing; sex with a slave without the owner’s permission was not even considered rape but simply ‘property damage’. And I’m not even getting into the fact that prostitution was widely available too. So it sounds like sex back in the day was some seriously messed up stuff.

In a world like this, some people would be kind enough to consider the wishes of those they could use for sex, but not all. I have read previously that Christianity in its early form appealed especially to women and slaves. That makes a lot of sense in this case. Early Christians were often abstinent, sometimes even within marriages. Telling everyone to avoid sex, while very simplistic, was still an improvement over giving men the go-ahead to have sex with a variety of people without asking.

For another perspective on biblical sexuality from this time period, I’m going to point to a website I ran across called:
The Flaming Heretic
The post I’ve linked was very informative. It discusses how Paul (you remember Paul, he wrote most of the New Testament?) thought that sex should be avoided because the craving for sex harmed the spirit. His provision for those who ‘burned with passion’ to get married was really a way to cut this craving down to a minimum by allowing some sex once in a while. Presumably (and this is my conjecture) monogamy within said marriage would prevent more than two people from extra exposure to spirit-harming sexual feelings.

I don’t really think I can get behind Paul’s view on this. I don’t think sex is intrinsically harmful. But I do wonder if he was equating sex with all the harmful practices at the time and going overboard regarding how to fix it. I do agree that it’s a ridiculous situation to restrict women and slaves to someone else’s agenda. Christianity seems a really progressive alternative because of the choice it offered: to refrain from sex.

Mount Moriah, Glenmont, gave me a nonsense book

So I went back to Mount Moriah church randomly earlier this year because I was hoping to hang around afterwards- something I did not get to do last time. The service seems to run rather late and the second visit I couldn’t even stay to the end as I had work in the afternoon. So one my way out the door, one of the deacons or somebody came after me to ask if I was leaving. When I said I was, he gave me a book titled: Surprised by God in the Midst of Hell, A Pastor’s Story of Surviving Horrors in the Church World by Meredith Giles.

I’m not going to apologize for saying how bad this book is, since they chased after me to give it to me. Obviously they are looking to have people read it and that’s what I did. I will say it wasn’t as bad as the other bad book I reviewed on this blog. There wasn’t anything grossly offensive in it, it was simply a jarbled-up mess that made me sad.

The book seems to be both the story of the formation of Mount Moriah AND a sort of workbook to guide one through a crisis based on the author’s own crisis. The only problem is, it sounds like some of the worst parts of this crisis could have been avoided. While it’s clear the author experienced significant suffering and anguish, I think many of her decisions (like taking on half the church and the local denomination) made the problem worse. Quite frankly, it sounds like in some cases, she manufactured or subconsciously ramped up all the negative feelings she describes. Either that or she’s just a terrible writer who cannot describe the actual situation adequately.

Looking in the first chapter I find a story about the young couple, husband and wife, pastor and pastor, trying to find a placement in a church through the usual channels of their chosen denomination. They get an interview in New York State (Albany area obviously) and Meredith starts feeling apprehensive. She decides this church is wrong for them. Why? Beats me. Here are some passages that sort of almost explain it.

Where we came from, everyone was comfortable with each other, personable and friendly. Oh yes, people here were nice enough and seemed excited about us being there, yet it wasn’t the same…The congregation was thrilled that I happened to be an accomplished pianist and worship leader. This seemed to raise the enthusiasm of everyone to a higher pitch than I had seen in the stuffy board meeting. Of course, my husband preached a stirring message, explaining to them what he would expect if he came to be their pastor. I didn’t think they would think much of that. It seemed like a very conservative group and change may not have been the thing they were really looking for…Yet even as he spoke, people were responding as if receiving a drink of cold water after a long time in a dry, dusty desert. “Oh, no,” I thought. “Lord, You really wouldn’t make us come to this place!”

Well I’m completely failing to see the reason Meredith is freaked out at this point. And this type of thing continues throughout the book. The author spends more time describing her emotions than she does explaining what bad or good thing caused the emotion in the first place. She clearly felt strongly enough about this stuff to write a book on it, but I can’t feel any empathy for her situation because she never quite describes what is going on during all these feelings.

The book continues, describing the couple landing this New York job and setting up here. They realize after some time that the congregation is growing and a newer, bigger church facility is in order. The story meanders a lot with plenty of time spent on minute problems and visions and dreams, but the gist of it is, the church decides to purchase land and start work on a new building (again presumably the current Mount Moriah location). Trying to fund and manage the building project causes a rift between a person only referred to as ‘Deacon’ and the pastors. They wind up with a schism that turns into a nasty legal battle. But what I just said in two sentences, Meredith takes 233 pages to say. She spends a huge part of the book detailing her own emotional/spiritual turmoil but gives very little story. What she does give is blurred by lack of detail regarding the physical reality of the situation, and way too much focus on describing how the devil is behind it. This makes for a difficult read.

Another difficulty I had with the book was Meredith’s stereotyping of non-church stuff as negative. In chapter one she casually mentions that Christianity is in her blood. I’m not even sure what she’s getting at. Is her position as pastor more legitimate because her family includes pastors? Is she saying church is some kind of genetic predisposition? What would that even mean? Then there’s an incident she describes regarding a guy named Obie. She is in the throes of what sounds like a depression, in her room not moving. Obie stops by but she won’t come out and see him. He drops off a bouquet of flowers for her and leaves again. Meredith finds that this gift brings her out of her sadness makes her feel able to function. She explains that it’s not like Obie is really a church person and this is how she knows the gift is really from God. Somehow she manages to devalue this guy’s kind gesture, suggesting he could never have done it if the Spirit of God didn’t direct him. It’s almost as if she is writing this guy off as incapable of such a gesture on his own agency, simply because he does not regularly attend a church. That’s at best, rude.

I’d also like to mention that the notes at the end of chapters aren’t working for me at all. I don’t know who they are meant to work for. One chapter, for example, details a reporter appearing at Meredith’s office to try and get a juicy story. Meredith rebuffs her and warns the family to go to the neighbors so to avoid the reporter following them home. The end of the chapter offers the following questions ‘to ponder’ :

Do reporters have the right to barge into someone’s office with cameras rolling without permission?
What would your reaction have been?
What should the reaction be towards these women who were slandering?
Discuss the statement, “Be as wise as a serpent, yet as gentle as a dove- only be ninety percent serpent and ten percent dove when it comes to the tricks and attacks of our adversary and those he works through.”

These strike me as extremely leading, and pointless questions. The first two sound like the type of third grade reading comprehension questions designed to make sure little kids are getting something from the text. As a grown-up, I feel I’m past this. And that last question makes no sense to me. Is it advocating trickiness? Is it saying to defeat the devil, be like the devil? God’s ok with deceit now as long as you use it to flummox Satan?

This brings me to my next point actually. Much of what Meredith describes regarding “Deacon” uses imagery of the devil. She is convinced God is on her side and the devil is against her. Several times she describes messages coming from God. The problem with this is, the other side seems to believe the reverse is true. Her own words describe a meeting with their denominational leadership in which the higher up (presumably her supervisor) says he has a solution from God. His answer is to allow the two pastors and any of the congregation who wish to follow them, to leave. Presumably this means setting up their own church, possibly creating a new denomination. Meredith thinks this plan is terrible…except in the end, this very thing happens! They do break off from the denomination and they do set up their own church. They just do it with that nice new building. The crux of the matter is the land bought and the shiny new church to be built on it. What I really can’t understand is why Meredith and her husband drive themselves so hard to get this building from Deacon. If she really thought God was telling her to lead an offshoot group, why not just leave and start fresh? Trust in God and he will provide, right? She subjects herself to a giant headache of a legal battle and I cannot fathom her reasons. There is clearly pain on both sides from multiple parties. I’m sure I could write a book from the Deacon’s point of view along with his half of the church and it would say that God was with him and the devil against. All for a thing, a building. And it sounds like nobody won in the end.

Far from being inspirational, much of this story made me sad. From the protracted legal battle and petty jabs to the fact that Meredith’s obvious symptoms of situational depression, I just feel terrible for everyone in this story. Meredith never mentions once if she went to a therapist for all her anxieties even though it sounds like she really needed to. I worry about her and the church she is leading. She seems to think God speaks to her and that she and her husband have the market cornered on what God says. This has some very dangerous potential and has already been detrimental to her based in the pain she describes in this very book.