God in a Foxhole

It’s Good Friday again and I’m totally not feeling it. Or wanting to feel it. I’ve spent years struggling with the centrality of crucifixion in my Christian faith, and I know I’ll continue to. Instead of talking about it, here’s what I’ve got today:

Yes there are atheists in foxholes
And if there’s a god
Then God is there too
Breathing and bleeding
Cowering and killing
And wishing to die
And dying alone
And crying for home
When there is no home
Because bombs broke it up
And there’s no one to go home to anyway
And sometimes not even God believes
In the mud of a foxhole
In the arms of despair
But if god is there
Then God is there 

Normal

I’ll be 43 this week. And still, I’m writing songs like this one, processing my childhood and the life that grew from it.

We are all shaped by histories we had little to no control over. Our agency grew as we did. Looking back at my history, some things seem especially strange now that felt completely normal then, as that was the only reality I knew in my short life span.

But of course I’m not unique in this. It’s a human thing.

There are several facets to the idea of “normal” in this song. There’s what I mentioned already – that what feels normal when you’re born into it can look anything but normal in retrospect.

Another facet for me, because of my particular history, is that I’ve struggled with feeling like a normal person much of my life – in two very different ways. First, when I was growing up inside fundamentalism, I learned that we the faithful were the chosen ones. We were “a peculiar people” and that wasn’t supposed to sound funny – because it was in the Bible, King James Version, which was the most highly regarded and the one I grew up with.

(We also believed that everyone outside our construct was destined to eternal damnation, burning forever in a literal hell. Sometimes I wonder if the “chosen people” idea was a way to help us cope with the horror of this belief. If you are constantly reminded that your “unsaved” family, friends, neighbors, grocery cashier, letter carrier, etc., etc., are doomed to that kind of suffering unless you can somehow convince them to join your club – I mean church – it might help to imagine them as somehow a lesser being than you are. Maybe they won’t feel the pain like you would. In this case I wouldn’t exactly call our outlook on “the unsaved” dehumanization because I think we were imagining ourselves as slightly above genuine humanity. We were “reborn,” “converted” – humanity plus. But it probably had a similar effect on our outlook.)

So that was one side of my struggle with feeling normal, the one I lived with while growing up in that environment.

The other side has been in the years since, exiting from fundamentalism, and feeling like an outsider trying to learn a new culture. For a long time I didn’t feel legitimate, because I had missed out on so many of the experiences that were common to my generation’s growing-up years. I don’t have memories associated with the music and movies of my generation, because I wasn’t allowed to listen to that music or go to theaters. I was married before I was even offered my first drink. The wildest oats I sowed was an all-[cis, straight] girls strip-and-run through the woods in my college years. Once. I think we might have howled at the moon for extra tension release.

Deeper than that, I just didn’t learn the everyday street-smarts that many people get growing up in a less sheltered environment. I was naive, shy, fearful. All those years of working hard to keep a long list of rules had ill-prepared me to live in a world where the rules weren’t always so clear, if they existed at all. I went into every situtation wanting to know what was expected of me, what I needed to do to make people like me, and I couldn’t always figure it out.

Only in very recent years have I learned that in most situations, there just isn’t a list of expectations for me to check off. There’s nobody standing by with a clipboard grading me. I don’t have to perform in order to be deemed a real live human being. I just am. And so is everyone else. I’m nothing special, and I’m the only me there ever was or will be. And the same goes for you.

That’s what I mean by normal, at least as I was writing this, my song for week 42 of #songaweek2018: (Wow, only ten weeks left!) The suggested theme was “socks,” so I stuck in some socks for good measure.

I used to live in Indiana
In a trailer park on the edge of town
There was a field where we ran and played
And I liked to pick Queen Anne’s Lace

It was normal, all so normal
Like shoes and socks, baby dolls and blocks
And black and white TV

I used to pledge allegiance to the Bible
And the flags of my faith and country
Every morning at the Christian school
Where they gave us all the answers

It was normal, all so normal
I was good as gold, did what I was told
And I won a lot of trophies

That was a long time ago
I still don’t know what I don’t know

I’ve moved a dozen times since then
Geographically, theologically
I own a single-family detached dwelling
And I took my trophies to the thrift store

This is normal, all so normal
I’m a bona fide, genuine
I have always been and I will always be
like every one of you looking back at me,
An honest-to-God human being.

Open the Door, Pull Up a Chair, Make Friends

At my church our pastor often starts the service by leading us in taking a deep collective breath, literally. Silence, breath, space.

Last week, week 39 of #songaweek2018, my song was inspired by the contrasting sources of episode 656 of This American Life, about immigration policy and practice under the Trump administration; and the policy and practice of my church, whose website declares what it lives out: “Welcome. You already belong here.”

This past summer a group from our church attended our denomination’s nationwide youth event. One memorable idea from the event was that if a new person walks up to your group and you’re not sure if you have room for one more, make room. Say “pull up a chair,” invite them to join you and expand your circle.

I need to believe in the power of open doors and extra chairs. But many times I find myself operating from the same fear and greed that motivates my country’s immigration policy – fear that if I open up, hold out my hand, offer a seat at the table, there might not be enough good stuff left for me.

That’s why the last verse is important – it’s not “we” vs. “they.” Even if I’m not making public policy or being unkind or unwelcoming, I can still find myself prone to hoarding and hiding.

And that’s at least partly why I still tie myself to a faith community, despite my skepticism, despite my personal history with spiritually abusive church environments. I’m still here because I need to remember I’m not the center of my life. And it helps me greatly to gather regularly with a roomful of other people, and breathe, and confess our failings, and affirm love and welcome, and begin again.

Face it, no one needs to go away
Hold it, there’s poison in the words they say
Let it sink in, I am not the living end
Open the door, pull up a chair, make friends

They twist the truth and crush the poor
They study war forevermore

Stop it, this drawing lines and closing minds
Keep it, that ancient faith that love takes time
Every generation new ears will hear again:
Open the door, pull up a chair, make friends

They devastate all that they take
Establish empires on heartbreak

Name it, this tendency to hoard and hide
Own it, my part in shutting out the light
Take a deep breath, feel the lifeblood flow again;
Open the door, pull up a chair, make friends.

Phoenix (Beauty for Ashes)

The first time I heard “women – you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them” was from a boy in junior high. That’s kind of how faith has been in my life. It’s never been something I’ve felt comfortable living with, or without. So I continue to believe, and doubt. Hope springs eternal even as despair dries everything up. My faith goes up in flames, and is reborn.

This song could have been written for Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent in the church calendar – 40 days of fasting before the biggest day of the Christian calendar, Easter. On Ash Wednesday, the pastor or priest says, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” while making the sign of the cross with ashes on our foreheads. (These ashes are usually made from burning the palms we waved last year on Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, when we celebrate Jesus’s big “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem where he was hailed as king and crowds waved palm branches to celebrate before turning on him a week later and crucifying him.)

I’ve been keeping journals since I was ten years old. And lugging them around the country with me, every time I moved. A couple years ago as I was in the midst of trying to simplify my life and my possessions, I began to resent that heavy box of journals in my basement. And then I came across an idea from Courtney Carver, to burn journals after filling them. Of course it seemed almost blasphemous to me at first – utterly destroy my painstaking record of my precious inner life?

But I couldn’t stop coming back to the idea. I imagined how freeing that could feel. Over the years I’ve gone back and read old journals quite a bit, and to tell the truth, it started to feel like hearing old voices I just didn’t need to keep around. I had lived those years. I didn’t regret them. I don’t regret writing through those years. I’m so glad I did. But I didn’t really need to continue to enshrine my written impressions of my past.

The more I considered it, the readier I became to let those journals go. I boxed them up over the winter and stowed the box in the garage, waiting for an opportunity to start a backyard fire.

This song became the perfect opportunity. I didn’t plan which pages to burn, just tore out a few pages, threw them in the fire, watched the flames overtake the baggage of my past, felt my present moment come into focus, felt my heart lighten.

These songs, too, and my body, and my life itself – are here for a season. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I can’t make any of this last forever. I have no idea if anyone – even God – can. I remain skeptical about such things. And I dare to hope. But that’s not what moves me moment by moment.

What propels me is this: I do believe – and experience – that right here, right now, every day, everywhere, beauty can follow ashes. Loss, death, endings are real and horrible. And then, beauty. That too. Over and over, and that is life as I know it.

This song (for week 16 of #songaweek2018) was a good exercise in stretching my musician muscles. I wrote most of the lyrics in one sitting and then thought I had a good tune and chord progression but the more I played it, the more same-y same-y it sounded to me. So I tried to mix it up with a more interesting chord progression. Being a music major I should be able to explain what exactly I did here, but those theory classes were years ago! The main thing is that I shifted from an A major chord to a C major chord, so I would sometimes sing a C natural and sometimes a C sharp. It became an engaging challenge working all this out in so many layers of harmonies.

Now I lay me down
With the dogs of despair
Hunting for hope in my dreams
I’ll sleep just like a baby
Wake up in the dark
wailing for a mother I can’t see

Good God it’s not easy
Dear Lord it’s so hard
This living and loving and losing
Sweet Jesus believe me I’ve made it this far
On the fumes of a faith that keeps going up in flames

I’d like to do like you
To fast in the wilderness
Feast on the bread of heaven
Take it as it comes
Breathe my last and be born again
Moment by inevitable moment

Remember you are dust
And to dust you shall return
And I will give you
Beauty for ashes

 

Angel

We buried one of my best friends from college yesterday. Tomorrow my sister-in-law and her family bury her younger brother. My friend Troy lived with Parkinson’s disease for a decade. Jen’s brother Zach died suddenly in a plane crash.

“Angels” was the suggested theme for week 15 of #songaweek2018. I didn’t have much interest in using it. I’ve never been a big angels fan (baseball or otherwise). Too sentimental, too kitschy, too many ceramic travesties foisted on the world. I did briefly start a song tentatively called “Don’t Blink,” but couldn’t sustain an interest in it.

So I pulled up some old song ideas from my files and found a recording of a tune and some chords, no words. And then it all started coming together, a song woven from the threads of my life that week.

Zach’s sudden death. Troy weakly hanging on to the last moments of his life. Two men’s lives tragically and senselessly cut short.

Winter refusing to leave my neighborhood, breathing cold and snow over everything, week after wearying week. An insistent reflection of my own middle-aged angst.

The physics book I’ve been reading, Reality is Not What it Seems, and its discussion of a 3-sphere, a current understanding of the shape of the cosmos; and how Dante envisioned it long before Einstein did, possibly from looking up at mosaics of angels in the Florence Baptistery.

The visions of painter and poet William Blake, which thankfully are something else my mind calls up when I hear the word “angel.”

In writing this song, I more deeply felt why angels have been consistently present in stories and art. There are moments, especially the moments around death, in which we reach out for something like us but not. A being of great beauty, power, intelligence – but also one who brings deep comfort. Not a god, not a human, but someone who knows more than we do, who has seen further into the mysteries of existence and can still say to us, “fear not,” can guide us from what we know into what we don’t.

Hold me while I freefall
While the winds of death squall
Keep me in your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel
Let me sing forever
Where the clouds can never
Take me from your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel
Lead me from this dark cave
Sail me cross the light waves
Fill me with your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel
Fly me through the shadows
Lift me from the cosmos
Add me to your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel

Small World Little Squirrel

I set out to comment on this post by Thom Ingram, and realized instead that his writing had inspired more than just a comment. I’m not going to rehash his post; just read it for yourself because it’s a beautiful mindful struggle with the meaning of life.

I haven’t studied – or even read – multiple spiritual texts as Thom has – but I have this sense that in addition to the commonalities across texts that he mentions, there is also a shared thread of being fully present in the here and now; of living compassionately and empathetically towards myself and all others. And I think that is actually based on – and counterweight to – the commonalities he does bring up – that there is more than we know or sense, that we are more than we know or sense, that so much of what we think we are apprehending is not by a long shot the last word or the ultimate reality.

For me the idea of presence and humble empathy is often embodied in the squirrels I see out my window, just a representative for me of all the small and mindless little creatures living out their seemingly ultimately pointless little animal lives. I imagine what life is like in a squirrel’s mind. I empathize with this tiny furry rodent feeling warm sunlight and wintry winds on its body, its heart racing as it scurries illogically across the street in the paths of roaring automobiles, its simpleminded squirrelly chuckling laughter from a branch high in my backyard tree directed at my outraged terrier below. I think of it feeling hunger, cold, pain, and also delight, contentment, even rodent-level joy.

In the cosmic scheme of things, I am that squirrel. Except that my kind have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and there can be no unknowing, no returning to the simple thoughtless life of the squirrel. I – and you – live in a cosmos that is beyond even our most-exalted-of-all-species intellectual capacities, but we have this extra level of knowledge that as far as we know, no other animal possesses: we know we’re going to die, that no matter what, every one of us is housed in a body that is falling apart, destined for the dirt. And beyond that, our knowledge fails us**. It appears to be the last word on the reality of the human body, as far as we’ve been able to ascertain through the senses and mental capacities of these bodies.

So we turn to imagination, art, faith, drugs, anything mind-altering, to see if somehow we can transcend the painful reality of the knowledge we can’t unknow, this knowledge of the ultimate decay of all things. And sometimes we can, and do. But that transcendence never gives our intellect the words and ideas it needs to feel satiated.

Thom says in his post, “I want to be in this world. In the here and now. I want to be centered on this place. But it’s all an illusion.”

And that’s where I turn to my powers of squirrel empathy for a little help. Whether it is all an illusion or not, this is the world where I have found myself. It is the reality I know, and you are here too. You are, right? Because maybe if everything is an illusion, then all the people around me are an illusion too, and it doesn’t matter how I treat them or what becomes of them.

I wonder, is this why the Genesis account of the tree of knowledge treats the tree and its fruit as so dangerous? If I understand that the world I think I know to be real is merely a virtual reality created by my senses and fed into my mind, why not seek to rise above it all? Why not make myself a god, the god of my own life, the god of this reality? Why shouldn’t I pilfer the planet and its people for the things I want, since it’s all a sham and even that is ultimately all falling apart anyway?

But back to the squirrel. The humble life of the squirrel. Breathe in, breathe out. Sunshine. Wind. Fear, laughter, hunger, and joy. And then, the human, who asks why? Always why, always, but why, what for, where is all this going, what’s it all about?

I don’t think asking why is ever a problem on its own. Instead, I find it concerning when we stop asking why because we think we know it all and we’ve come up short, disappointed and disillusioned with all we know, and throw up our hands and sigh, who cares, it doesn’t matter anyway.

It’s a hard fight some days, and others it feels small, pointless and never-ending – but I keep trying to faithfully live like a humble squirrel and an inquisitive human. I don’t think the fruit of the tree of knowledge is only bitter poison. Maybe if you squeeze out the sweetest part of it, let it ferment and share it with your friends, it can bring you some joy too.

 

**Of course humans are intellectually much smarter than squirrels, making discovery upon discovery, building wizard-level technological masterpieces – but that to me is just a way more powerful version of the squirrel brain. I’m referring here to consciousness, a sense of me and my place in the world, and its most painful realization of death and decay, that we haven’t knowingly encountered in any other species.

 

Bonus material – here’s a song I wrote last year and the origin of this post’s title:

 

 

 

Technocratic Wizards, Wishful Thinking, and Whatever

So while I was writing a song a week last year and devoting my blog pretty much exclusively to that effort, I was coming across an increasing pile of articles about the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), and why everyone should at least try to understand what’s going on and what may be coming down the pike.

Tim Urban at Wait But Why did some pretty substantial summing up in two posts – The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence and The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction. This two-part series is a long read but worth it if you want to get some background and do some thinking on this topic.

Which might get you scared or excited at what could happen within your lifetime. I mean, immortality or extinction?! That’s kind of a big deal.

But then for some humanizing balance, I recommend Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People. Its author, Maciej Cegłowski, points out that those espousing AI’s potential to immortalize or annihilate our species are making some pretty bold assumptions about what intelligence ultimately is, and that some of this smells a bit megalomaniacal.

A story about computers taking over the universe (and then either saving or destroying humanity as we know it) captures our imagination more than a story about technocrats gradually sucking the soul out of human society by pushing for increased levels of surveillance and invasive technologies in their quest to prepare for the anticipated AI revolution.

Ceglowski’s article includes a quote I fell in love with: “If everybody contemplates the infinite instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera.” A search for the author of the quote, John Rich, turns up that he’s a country music singer/songwriter.

Superintelligence, I would like to believe, if and when it does arise, will not be supercerebral. It won’t just encompass the intelligence of computer geeks, but also musicians and plumbers and the infinite depth and breadth of being – of which we humans have only a limited understanding and a small share.

Which spins everything back around for me. Religious and spiritual traditions tell us that a superintelligence like that has already arisen – in what we call God or whatever other name has been given to the supreme being – and that this God brought all we know into being.

So ultimate being, superintelligence – do we project this back to before life began, or forward in time? Do we give rise to it, or did it give rise to us?

Or is this all my less-than-superintelligence asking all the wrong questions, thinking in a linear timeframe, boxed in by the laws of whatever computer simulation or created universe this is?

Thinking is fun!

 

 

A God of Mythic Proportions

What if God really is a construct of the human mind, collective human consciousness, generations of human culture? Does that mean we’re not still on to something? Our stories about transcendence, our yearnings for immortality, for perfect love and world peace – are they really only wishful thinking, or could they be baby talk in a real language we hear but cannot comprehend or speak yet?

I suspect we the human race have never gotten it right in our attempts to fully describe it – and it’s possible we’ve not hit on anything remotely close yet to the reality of that being/force/substance/unimagineable I Am/none of these things.

Are we truly naive and destructive for reaching, seeking, asking, theorizing? Of course not, not for those things. But for insisting, grasping, lying (willfully), closing eyes to the observable truth, claiming superiority, excluding, and faking – therein lies religious humans’ ignorance and destructiveness.

I can’t think like I used to – or pray like I used to – can’t sing or talk or go to church or get into a Bible study – not like I used to – but I can’t let it go either. Is it embedded in my psyche because it’s what my ancestors did? Partly, I’m sure. I can never know what it would be like to encounter my faith tradition with the wisdom and discretion of an adult. I can’t completely separate personal nostalgia from the stories of my faith, can’t divorce the little-girl wonder and comforting taste of church potlucks, soft embracing arms of Sunday School teachers, smell of glue and construction paper, sound of rich organ strains, from the doctrine of the Trinity, the gospel of Jesus.

I also can’t completely filter out the shaming looks and words, the hateful tones used of people different from us, the arrogant proof-texting and the general dullness and deadness – the constricting sameness, the denial of humanity in its richness, brokenness and wildness – that hummed around me like the radio station always tuned in and played low.

No, all of that is there, mingled with the body and blood of Christ, between the lines of the King James Version Bible memory verses filed away in my brain.

But it breathes like a living thing in me. It does not lie there mutely like a sterile model under museum glass, oblivious to my scrutiny.

I respect my fellow humans who see no sign of God. Their ideas have given me courage to explore my own – to go down deeper, unafraid (well, less afraid) of people’s opinions of my excavations. I have been changed, and am being changed – I am plunged more into myself, more into humanity, more into life and truth and this shattered, shining world.

The God of my past looks increasingly like a puppet, stitched together from Bible stories, religious aspirations, moral intuition; and animated by power-hungry men. But somewhere in there, I feel so sure, is a beating heart.

Lately I’m letting go of the fairy tale god who came prefabricated for me, all outlined in the Christian school curriculum, and pursuing the living God who cannot be contained in anyone’s mind, or so the stories go. Maybe this God is only a myth in the not-real sense of myth, or maybe this God is deeper and weightier than anything I’ve experienced, which is why this God for now resides in myth.

I journey on, a pilgrim in search of God – and I think it will be a lifelong quest, which only underscores the worthiness of the One I seek.