bearing witness

“Though it may alienate your family/ And blur the lines of your identity/ Let go of what you know and honor what exists/ Daughter, that’s what bearing witness is.” —David Bazan, “Bearing Witness”

The first time I heard this song on my Pandora station, I was in the car, driving my sons to some kind of appointment or another. It was a routine kind of morning, just trying to accomplish that small miracle of getting everyone where they need to be when they need to be there.

Something in those first words — “I’ve clung to miracles I have not seen/ From ancient autographs I cannot read” — had me straining to catch all the lyrics. By the final notes, my eyes were full and my chest was tight with that ache it gets — high and to the left — when I feel like someone else is saying my words for me. I almost had to pull the car over.

I’ve played it repeatedly — sometimes on repeat — ever since.

It’s like a love song you obsess over in high school. You know — the kind of song that somehow perfectly captures the essence of your beloved, or your longing, or your loss, or your hopes for the future. So you listen, and you listen, and you listen.

Except, if this is a love song, it’s an ode to honesty. Or doubt.

Maybe it was reading Cat’s Cradle for the first time. Maybe it was my confusion over bloodthirsty Old Testament God and Jesus being the same Person. Maybe it was the first time I thought about hell as a real percentage instead of only as a real place. Maybe it was the first Sunday I slept in, or that first Sunday, six months later, when I tried to walk back through the doors.

I don’t know when it started, exactly, but it’s been coming on, this doubt, for years and years. It started out as a sincere search for what I felt was a grossly misrepresented Jesus. Clearly, it took me further than I intended.

This last year, something shifted; a line was crossed. I could no longer make the religion of my childhood make sense. Doubt became disbelief, and I realized I wasn’t likely to “find the right church.”

I have grieved. Hard.

I’ve wondered who I am now.

I’ve wondered if it’s possible to retrace my last few steps, find my way back.

It’s not impossible. But thus far, it hasn’t happened, and when I’m fully honest with myself, I admit I’m not sure I want it to. Fundamentalism is safe, but the costs are high.

Anyone who knew me in my teens and early twenties might be surprised by such a radical turn. Or maybe not. Maybe my hangups and pain-in-the-ass question asking and distaste for cliche were early indicators of a heretic’s nature.

But for anyone who knows me now, this admission can’t come as much of a surprise.

Though my mother had her suspicions, both of us were unprepared for the fallout from a recent conversation — in the car, on that same road where I heard my song, it occurs to me now — where she asked, “So . . . what do you believe?” I’m schooled enough in the tenets of our faith to understand exactly why she feels as she does — her disappointment, her questions of where she went wrong, even her anger. But I’m certain my feelings are an enigma. For the life of her, she can’t figure out why I’m “doing” this. At 34. With sons — and their eternities — to consider.

Chances are, if the question wouldn’t have been posed so bluntly, I’d probably have kept my mouth shut several more years. I’m a coward, and I hated — still hate — the idea of hurting or offending anyone, least of all the community that raised me. Decades of putting on a proper church face — flip the switch, keep up appearances, don’t embarrass anyone — don’t just vanish.

But there’s a relief in this, a freedom, that comforts me in the midst of a very real heartbreak.

For the first time in a very long time, I feel able to speak on behalf of my own life, my own heart. I’ve accepted that this will stretch some of my relationships with people who care about me deeply and are deeply devout. I mean to speak kindly. But I’m no longer willing to pretend that wrong things were right, that guilt and fear and indoctrination were somehow idyllic and I’m lucky to have had them in my head all these years.

I often feel like I’m starting from scratch these days. Struggling to find and piece together meaning in new ways, trying to find a more loving path forward for my family and the little boys I’m supposed to protect and guide. I’m sure lots of people have done this before, but for me it feels like completely uncharted territory. It’s all thrilling and terrifying and outrageously beautiful, like someone’s turned up the color saturation levels on my entire life.

I’m not out to convince anyone of anything — I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime, and besides, I haven’t particularly landed on anything I’m certain of myself. But if you’re here in a similar place, or if you find yourself here someday, I hope, at the very least, you won’t feel alone.

2. Head Angel

It was like the circus had come to town. The team arrived with a huge shiny foil backdrop and high-tech lighting effects and a famous script. They handed us a play, and by filling the roles and inviting our friends, we handed them an audience.

I was Teenager #2. My mother was Head Angel.

Scene after scene unfolded, all of them clichéd nods to one of fundamentalism’s favorite calls to the altar: “If you were to die tonight . . .”

Our heroes, of course, chose to accept Jesus into their hearts prior to their varied untimely demises. When their moment came, my mother, Head Angel, consulted the Book of Life, saw their name written there, and with a wave of her arm, welcomed them into Heaven and Jesus’ loving embrace. At that moment, the lights would go up on the foil and the whole church sanctuary shone with His Heavenly glory.

And then there was me, Teenager #2.

Scene: I’d skipped church to go get drunk with three of my friends and — surprising to no one — we all died in a car accident on the way home.

The lights came up. The Head Angel consulted her book, but our names were not written there. She drew her arm across her eyes and hid her face as her finger pointed us away from God and His heaven.

We were lost.

The room went dark, except for flashes of lightning. Thunder clapped. And when the music reached its fevered pitch, the Devil and his demons slunk onto stage, their faces painted black and red. They grabbed us by our arms, began dragging us to our fiery eternal torment. The lights came up, red this time. We screamed and tried to wrestle our way free — we begged for help — but the angels hid their faces. Jesus was nowhere to be found.

After we were dragged off stage and out of sight, the four of us giggled about it in a way that only 14-year-olds who’ve said the Sinner’s Prayer about a thousand times could.

Downstairs in the Fellowship Hall afterward, my mom said that even in a play, sending her own daughter to hell had been very difficult for her. She’d wanted to change the script.

I said something mock rebellious, and she drew her arm up over her eyes one more time for comedic effect. We all laughed. If there was a whiff of irony in the air, I can tell you we never sensed it.

 

Veni, veni Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

What a strange Christmas this is.

On one front, a chaotic but satisfying joy surrounds me. Three other stockings join mine on the mantle, a miracle in itself (a second wonder: our toddlers have left them hanging in peace). Our grand fir is, after a few small mishaps, properly bare on its lower third. The lights didn’t get hung and the cards didn’t go out this year, but inside our doors, our home is a cozy backdrop to the memories we’re making. With two mischievous little boys underfoot, that feels like more than enough.

But in moments of quiet, there’s a sadness to the season this year, a hollowness.

I miss the holy awe I once felt every year as I sang carols in my church surrounded by family and friends on Christmas Eve. We shared the wine and the bread. The pipe organ played. At midnight, we held candles and passed the flame from person to person until the place was filled with small dancing lights.

I admit there was a little out-of-place giggling early on, usually in my pew. High octaves and fire and hot dripping wax didn’t bring out the best in us, it seems.

But once the whole room was glowing, all that was forgotten. The beauty of it, that one flame holding us all together as we sang, was overwhelming. Transcendent.

Very little holds us together today. Very little of that faith remains. If anything.

I miss that glow, that belongingness, but I won’t be back.

And yet, for all my frustrations with how Jesus’ name has been misused, how his gospel has been twisted — for all my irritation with Paul and patriarchy and power and arrogance and apathy and abuse — for all the preposterousness of religion — there’s something about the Jesus story that moves my heart even now to something very like . . . awe.

So come, then, God-With-Us.

Be here in my not-yet, in my faltering attempts to live, if not devoutly, honestly. Be here in the middle of my disillusionment and doubt.

Be present in the prayers I cannot find the faith to utter.

Book — God Laughs and Plays

A few days ago, Justin and I found ourselves in Portland, on the way back from a wedding in Bend. We’re not in Oregon often, but fellow bibliophile friends told us: “If you’re ever within 50 miles of Portland, you HAVE to go to Powell’s Bookstore. It’s like Mecca.”

We liked Mecca, a.k.a. Powell’s City of Books.  It’s literally a city block of books. More than a million of them.

I’d like to return to Mecca again sometime when I’m not almost 7 months pregnant and grouchy due to poor sleep. We almost didn’t stop. But I can tell you, the 2 hours we spent there were well worth it.

I spent all my time in The Blue Room (Literature and Poetry), and as I was perusing, a curious title jumped out at me from the shelf. God Laughs & Plays by David James Duncan.

Huh.

Enough friends have recommended David James Duncan’s work to me, especially The Brothers K, that I know of him and respect him (I really gave it a good shot with Brothers, but I couldn’t see past the baseball.  I may have to give it another try).

I flipped it over, and here’s what I read on the back:

“In this multiple award-winning and bestselling diagnosis of the contemporary American spirit, David James Duncan suggests that the de facto political party embodied by the so-called Christian Right has turned worship into a self-righteous betrayal of the words and example of the very Jesus it claims to praise. In a bracing and often hilarious response to this trend, God Laughs & Plays offers churchless sermons, stories, memoir, conversations, and cosmological reflections that scorn riches and embrace the poor; bless peacemakers, not war-makers; celebrate creation, diversity, empathy, playfulness and beauty; and insist that Divine Mystery is indeed mysterious and compassion is literally compassionate. The spiritual kingdom described by Jesus, this unusual book reminds us, is located not “in the Sky” or beyond a disastrous future, but within us, to be sought and embodied in the here and now.”

Churchless sermons?  I’m in.  It’s how I’ve felt about all of what I call my kindred-spirit authors… Anne Lamott, Fred Buechner, Annie Dillard, Thomas Merton, Robin Meyers, Philip Yancey.

The prologue, entitled “Bush Administration Sacks Narnia,” didn’t disappoint.  While reading this together a couple nights ago, Justin stopped after this section and just said, “Wow. Beautiful.”  I happen to agree with him.

Intense spiritual feelings were frequent during my boyhood, but they did not come from churchgoing or from bargaining with God through prayer. The connection I felt to the Creator came, unmediated, from Creation itself. The spontaneous gratitude I felt for birds and birdsong, tree-covered or snowcapped mountains, rivers and their trout, moon and starlight, summer winds on wilderness lakes, the same lakes silenced by winter snows, spring resurrections after autumn’s mass deaths — these became the spiritual instructors of my boyhood. In even the smallest suburban wilds I felt linked to powers and mysteries I could sincerely imagine calling the Presence of God.

In 15 years of churchgoing I did not once feel this same sense of Presence. What I felt instead was a lot of heavily agenda-ed, fear-based information being shoved at me by men on the church payroll. Though these men claimed to speak for God, I was never convinced. So on the day I was granted the option of what our preachers called “leaving the faith,” I did leave — and increased my faith by so doing. Following intuition and love with all the sincerity and attentiveness I could muster, I consciously chose a life spent in  the company of rivers, wilderness, Wisdom literature, like-minded friends, and quiet contemplation. And as it’s turned out, this life — though dirt-poor in church pews — has enriched me with a sense of the holy, and left me far more grateful than I’ll ever be able to say.”

Anyway.  I know these kind of kindreds can be few and far between, so if you’re interested, pick up a copy. Just be forewarned — if the marriage of fundamentalism and political conservatism bothers you even one iota, this book will also get you dangerously fired up between lovely nature passages . . . I think I accidentally started a flame war on Facebook within hours (outlined my reasons for thinking Glenn Beck is destructive, had an acquaintance from my hometown church call me an angry offensive liberal, among other things).

More on Bush sacks Narnia in a future post.  Duncan’s exploration of Narnia and our current nationalist + religion blend was brilliant.