Some Soil

He spoke in a parable. He said

Some soil is just about dead

Walked over and worn out

Impervious to seeds,

A feeding trough for birds.

 

Some soil is stony:

Seeds sprout quickly,

Sprouts stretch to sun,

Sun scorches leaves,

Plant withers and dies.

No roots, he explained.

 

Some soil is preoccupied

Crowded with seeds of stubborn stock

That choke anything fresh

Before it can flower.

 

Some soil is just right

(To quote a golden-haired girl),

A dark loamy bed

Where seed bursts open in eager love,

Dying with life-force;

And soil honors seed’s sacrifice

Faithfully nurturing newborn sprout.

 

The seeds

I have gathered

Don’t come in uniform packets

Stamped with precise planting instructions.

They are scattered grains of life

Sown from everywhere:

Love letters and report cards, ocean waves and office buildings,

Toddlers’ tantrums, neighbors’ gossip,

Even radio talk shows and preachers’ sermons.

 

I have also

Discovered the soil

Doesn’t come in a bag

Purchased with indulgences and poured into the soul.

The best soil is made of wasted moments:

The garbage and leftovers of everyday life,

Piled in the back of the mind to rot,

Food for tiny creeping thoughts who give it back changed

Breaking up stony places

Crumbling softening

Light loose reborn

Hungry and thirsty for righteousness

A good place to put down roots.

Heaven, Hell, and Rachel Held (Evans)

I haven’t been posting much lately. First, February always gets me down. It is the most melancholy of months for me. But it’s March first now, and I’ve emerged from yet another February, though I’m sure I bear extra wrinkles and gray hairs as evidence of the struggle.

Another reason for less postings, I suppose, is more typical of blogging – I said a lot of what I’d been storing up for years.

Another, is that the *even* more I learn these days, the things I have to say often seem repetitive or only halfway-thought-out. Songwriting continues to be my first love, I think because it’s easier for me to express myself through poetic language and music than through reasoned (or un-reasoned!) essays.

Anyhoo, I came here to post a link to someone else’s blog post. Here it is.

The faith question continues to spin in me, and personally, I have a difficult time even believing in an afterlife of any sort these days. But I try to hold on to hope even when belief fails. And I am refreshed to hear evangelical Christians stirring the pot about this whole eternal damnation thing.

Here’s to honest people and their courageous questions.

 

Further Thoughts on Redemption

Commenting on my last post, Nnox sees no grounds for a redemptive view of things. I said that redemption is not my observation of the way things (usually) work, but my hope. I wanted to add that this doesn’t make me a helpful optimist and Nnox a harmful pessimist. On the contrary, it has been mentioned by others with good reason that many people who believe in “happily ever after” tend to trivialize life (“so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly-good”), while some who don’t believe or even hope in a happy ending to the cosmos are deeply-committed humanitarians and joyous lovers of life. In their perspective (as I understand it), birth to death is all we have, so we may as well enjoy it and do our best to help others enjoy their lives too.

But it’s painful to know that many – maybe most? – of the men, women, and children who live and have lived and will live on this planet have not, do not, will not enjoy a life like the one I was born to. I expect to eat whatever I want, go wherever I want, live wherever I want and with whomever I choose, have uncensored access to information, stay warm and dry, receive proper health care should I need it, and above all that, find my calling in life and live it out in a fulfilling way. It’s difficult even to make a list like this because all these “basic needs” are met without my really even thinking about it. It could be a book-length list. (When was the last time I felt grateful for the well-maintained streets in my town?)

So why do I get this, and a woman in Haiti does not? It regularly breaks my heart to gaze at my beautiful children, so safe and healthy, well-fed, well-dressed; and see in my mind’s eye pictures of another woman’s children starving.

Do I hope in redemption because it is a good excuse for me to get on with my beautiful life? Otherwise, how can I justify these discrepancies between my life and most other people’s lives? And yet, suffering seems hardwired into existence. If I live long enough, I will inevitably lose someone I love, become terminally ill or injured, or simply experience the pain of aging and the unknown cliff-edge of death as it looms ever nearer. If I don’t live that long, then I will have died young and tragically missed out on living a long, full life.

In earlier years of my life, awareness of the pain and loss and seeming futility of existence would drive me to tears, moodiness, some winter evenings even to what felt like the brink of sanity.

Then I had children, and after the predictable (for me) post-partum blues with my first child, the dark and heaviness lifted. Why was that? Is it a typical survival instinct, something to ensure I bring up nurtured and well-adjusted children – who will at some point learn enough about history and current world affairs to question me about my beautiful life and insensitivity to the suffering of others?

My ready response is, “I am not God. Even if I devoted all of my energy and resources to lifting others out of suffering, it wouldn’t be enough. So I’ll live with the painful awareness of worldwide suffering, and make lifestyle choices with that in mind. I won’t try to shield my children from the truth. And I’ll hope in redemption, because to be aware of so much senseless violence and global inequity, and not to trust in a final remembrance and making-right of all this wrong, will either desensitize me or drive me to insanity.”

And so, perhaps I am a good illustration for those who hold that God is an invention of the human psyche. Maybe this is just the best coping mechanism we as a species have yet come up with. It is certainly a persistent one.

Some people say that God speaks to them often. What do I know about that? I have no grounds for disagreement. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard God speak, but there are three distinct times when I thought it might have been God – and these are the words I heard:

“They don’t own me. And neither do you.”

“Take your time.”

“Don’t be scared.” (yes, “scared” is what I heard, not “afraid;” let the reader decide whether this could possibly be the language of a proper God!)

No tidy conclusion here. Further thoughts tend to lead to further questions, and this post is a prime example.

Guys and Dolls and God After Darwin

Recently I discovered the old news that a songwriter hero of mine had divorced from his wife of 24 years. At concerts, in song lyrics, she had always felt present, even when not physically there or mentioned by name. I had read dozens of interviews with him, and even had a few conversations with the two of them when my nonprofit day job included working with them at a summer music festival. News of their divorce left me feeling duped. I had been hopeful and naïve enough to see them as forever joined.

The aforementioned songwriter hero remarried a woman who also plays music and tours and performs with him. With this bit of observational data, my brain kicked into gear producing a theory about what makes love last, especially for artsy singer/songwriter types like my aspiring self. That brain, desperate to protect my own marriage, noted that just like Songwriter Hero 1, the longish first marriage of another songwriter I admire ended in divorce and sequelled with marriage to a woman who now sings and performs with him.

This led me to posit that love, at least for musicians, works best when the lovers share their life’s work. I thought of Robin and Linda Williams, Buddy and Julie Miller, and young but oh-so-fitted lovers Nataly Dawn and Jack Conte of Pomplamoose.

There it was – my comfort that all would be well for me and my marriage, because my husband Nathan and I make music together, and have been doing so quite happily ever since we met fourteen years ago. I shared the bracing news about my newly-composed theory of happy musician lovers with Nathan, who listened patiently to my list of loving couples and then said simply, “Sonny and Cher.”

Oh yeah, I said, crestfallen, and Sam Phillips and T-Bone Burnett. Oh, and Gene Eugene and Ricki Michele.

There are many more happy musician lovers and many more sadly parted ones who could be added to these lists, but just these were enough to get me off my work towards a grand unified theory of marriage for musicians. As an interesting aside, I learned only recently that Tom Petty was married for 22 years to his high school sweetheart, who he married just before he hit the road and got famous. Who would have believed an international rock star could last so long with one woman? I suppose we could discuss Bono too.

But let’s not. Instead, I’m going to rehash another post of mine. Labels, when it comes to human beings, are mostly unhelpful. No one I have mentioned deserves to be stuffed wholesale into the niche of classification called “musician” or “artist” or even “happily married” or “divorced.” These are descriptors, words we use to talk about what someone does or what has happened in their life or how we perceive things to be going for them at the moment. I don’t want to flatten people under labels.

I also emphatically do not want to flatten anyone, including myself, under the past. The book Nathan and I are currently reading together, God After Darwin by John Haught, is throwing its light all over my thoughts these days, including these thoughts about love and splits. Haught speaks of a metaphysics of the future. The future, he says, is always arriving, always presenting itself. This, he says, is the fundamental spirit of religion – that rather than calling anyone back to a “perfect past” (the mythic but poetically instructive Garden of Eden) God instead is drawing humanity towards a wide-open future.

Long after the adrenaline rush of first love faded in my marriage, the future keeps arriving, every moment. True, someone called Julia has been married to someone called Nathan for twelve years now, but confidentially, new people keep showing up in the house, and they don’t spend much time pining for the old ones.

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.

More Thoughts About God and Violence

Two post-evangelical memoirs (am I inventing a genre here?) I read recently, Losing My Religion by William Lobdell and Reasons to Believe by John Marks, make for some interesting comparisons. Both these authors are journalists who for a time embraced an evangelical form of Christian faith, but who lost that faith, including belief in a God of any kind, through their work of chronicling human suffering. Both concluded that a God who would allow such things as priests raping children with the knowledge and collusion of their superiors (in Lobdell’s case) and a father living in the false hope of reuniting with his sons who the journalist knows to be dead in the Bosnian war (in Marks’ case) cannot be any sort of superior being.

Both also encounter suffering people who devote their lives to God through Christ, including an adult survivor of horrible childhood sexual abuse by his priest (Lobdell) and a middle-aged couple whose adult son, once headed for success, spirals through mental illness to an early death (Marks).

This has me wondering. To the thoughtful but detached observer of suffering, the thought of God is understandably offensive. If God is like me, standing there watching such things, but infinitely superior to me in being all-powerful and completely good, how can God allow this? How can I justify accepting such a God?

But many who suffer greatly tell us that God is extraordinarily present with them in that suffering. Of course, many others who suffer have also found nothing, no one, no god, and their voices deserve our ears and respect.

Though I keep hoping for news of something else, for now I have concluded that there are really only two ways of dealing with evil – either to destroy it with violence (which inevitably is only a lesser evil and never seems to ultimately get the job done) or else to go on living in the face of evil and refuse to return violence for violence. This often works like salt in a wound, drawing out the worst of the poison, but in so doing exposes the evil for what it is, making an appeal to justice which is often more powerful at defeating a particular evil (think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others . . . “one more in the name of love”).

Assuming there really are only these two options, is it possible that God chooses option two? Certainly we humans have attributed great acts of destruction to God, when we felt that destruction was justified, the lesser evil to bring about the greater good. (Read the Old Testament, read much of church history, read the billboard on the side of Interstate 35 that says God is speaking through twin towers and hurricanes but no one is listening.) Is it possible, though, that God only ever has chosen option two, to simply be, the “I AM,” present with people, which means that by definition, the “I AM” is always suffering? And yet that by virtue of being God, as shown in God incarnate in Christ – if this is true – that God has power to bring life from death, and therefore make evil as we know it ultimately powerless?

And that God’s presence with the suffering ones records the truth about what has been done to them, even as it sometimes reveals to the sufferer the humanity – and therefore the suffering – of the perpetrator? And that somehow in this mediating presence there is the possibility for peace and love to erupt?

I tread very lightly here, mostly ignorant to any depth of human suffering, cushioned and cut off as I am from pain, privileged and rich, comfortable like only a slice of humanity has ever been, expressly because others suffered – and suffer – to make this unsustainable lifestyle of mine possible. Do I have any right even to speak of suffering, to treat it lightly as a subject for philosophical conversation?

Is there any valid response to suffering other than being present with the sufferer? Is that what Jesus meant by enjoining those who would follow him to “take up your cross”? Shut up and listen, hush up your condemnations and your ideologies about who’s right and wrong and love everybody, dammit?! I do know enough to know that love, the unconditional kind, the non-respecter-of-persons kind, cannot last long without suffering of some sort.

I agree with Lobdell and Marks that Supreme-Righteous-Ruler-of-the-Universe-God just doesn’t make any sense with the way things are. A God standing over and above all things, watching Rwandan machetes and Nazi gas chambers with unblinking eyes and idle hands is no god I want to worship. I’m an atheist too when it comes to this god, and wary of the religionists who follow this god.

A suffering God, though – a “least of these” God, a “with us” God; I can consider this, even as the thought of it condemns me. Of course it is hard for me to sense a God like this – I am mostly the perpetrator and rarely the sufferer.

These thoughts are hardly conclusive, just another untried idea kicking around in my brain. To quote a song I’ve been writing for six years now, “there are rocks in my heart and holes in my thoughts but I’ll keep pounding this pavement with my genuine rubber soul.”

The Myth of the Present

“By the time you look at something it’s already history,” sings Bruce Cockburn in his song “Tie Me at the Crossroads.” I’ve been pondering this fact a lot lately. Every image, every event, must be perceived by the observer through senses that take time, however fractional, to perceive.

The eye takes in light (which even before it hits the eye has already traveled away from the initial event), then processes the light and sends that picture to the brain, which must itself process the picture to give the observer information about the event.

So too with the ears receiving sound waves, the nose taking in smells, the tongue reacting to tastes, and the skin registering the pressure of touch. Our senses give us their impressions of the past. We never truly experience the present in the present; we are constantly processing our sensory experience of history.

But what even is the past? Is it anything more than the collected observations of various people, ultimately the picture of events painted inside their minds based on their own limited processing capabilities?

Recently I finished reading Andrew Parker’s The Genesis Enigma, in which he notes this fact with the observations of a scientist. Parker has spent much of his career studying the inner workings of the eye and tracing its development throughout biological history, yet he says that only recently has it really sunk in for him that we truly live in a virtual reality world.

He is referring not to digitally-created realities – which in this understanding now become  secondary virtual reality – but to the world we all – and each – perceive. Parker reminds us that the “real world” actually does not contain colors, but only light waves of varying lengths. It is the apparatus of our eyes and brains that makes color a reality to us the observers.

Birds can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, so their eyes see markings on flowers and insects that humans’ can not. Dogs’ range of hearing and smell, most of us know, are greater than those of humans.

What if, Parker asks, there is all sorts of information around us that actually exists, which we simply cannot access with our range of senses or our current scientific instruments?

For thousands of years people have held that there are two modes of reality, two worlds, two tracks. The physical and the spiritual; the material and the mystic; the temporal and the eternal. But what if there has only ever been one reality, one unified system of everything?

What if those “spiritual” sensibilities we speak of having, impressions of truth, beauty, sadness, love, longing, and such things which cannot be scientifically explained, actually come from something as real, as material even? – as the light waves hitting our eyes, the sound waves received by our ears?

What if these impressions are just as measurable as cold or pain or depth or distance, but science has yet to fashion the instruments needed to detect them or explain how humans have the access we do to such things? What if they are just as real as anything else we observe, but at this point we can only dimly access them?

Would this prove or disprove anything about the existence of God?

This is me thinking out loud. I’ve got no hidden agenda or point to make, except for one brief observation that both atheists and science-denying religionists often begin from the same basic assumption – that “God” must be defined as a supernatural being responsible for all the things that science can’t explain. I’m going to leave it at that and ask readers to think out loud here along with me. What do you think?

About God

I’m currently reading It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian by Samir Selmanovic. Selmanovic’s life story includes growing up a cultural Muslim and philosophical atheist in Croatia before converting to Christianity as a young adult.

Often as I read this book, I find myself nodding, smiling, tearing up, reading passages to my husband, or exclaiming, “I’ve got to buy this book!”

Here’s a thought from the book to mull over: “Both faith and doubt are opposites of certainty and therefore part of the same whole.”

And another to help me feel sane, said by his friend Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: “If you are not doubting the existence of God every two weeks, you are theologically comatose!”

The Second Big Bang?

Good grief. Here I go again. Thanks to those who are reading and journeying with me through the dark and doubt. I don’t particularly enjoy these posts, but nevertheless feel compelled to put them out there – probably because I believe I’m giving voice to something felt by more believers than just me. Take comfort – you are not alone – and you can be angry and bewildered with God and still be faithful (in fact, if you are angry and bewildered with God, being honest about it is the only way to be faithful!) Maybe we can call these latest entries in my blog the “angry Psalms” section.

God says, in Ezekiel the book of the Bible, through Ezekiel God’s prophet to Israel, “I’ll slaughter these people – I’ll obliterate that nation – then they [Israel] will know that I am God” (my paraphrase of much of the book).

In church these days, it’s fashionable to say, “God is good all the time.” I can’t say it without wincing anymore. That doesn’t sound like the God of Ezekiel. I am quite aware of what the beaver said about Aslan, the Christ-figure of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” I even admit that when Aslan slashed Aravis’ back in The Horse and His Boy, to help her feel the pain she had carelessly inflicted on someone else, it seemed right to me. Maybe it even seemed good.

But how could God’s total annihilation of a nation be good? What is “good,” if it includes threats like those in Ezekiel? What is “good,” if we are to believe that the prophet Samuel was truly speaking for God when he said to Israel’s King Saul – “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ ” (I Samuel 15 – a mercilessly decreed holocaust that was actually carried out)? How is it good that God commanded the slaughter of babies? Or is it possible that God is not good all the time? I hope not, but an honest reading of Bible passages like these begs this question.

Whatever his reasons, God’s destructive ways towards people never seemed to stick in convincing Israel “that I am God.” Some might say that the most concentrated destructive act of God – in slaughtering the innocent Christ, in being slaughtered as the innocent Christ, has resounded as the most convincing of God’s ways of communicating “that I am God.”

In the crucifixion, they may say, God threw out the angriest, deadliest arrows imaginable, fully worked-up righteous wrath, lashing out completely; and then traveled at the speed of light out through the universe, circling back, and absorbed every shot. The anger and the agony met in their most intense moments, in the person of Christ, in the center of God, and the big bang of that moment set in motion a whole new creation, one that is spreading like the indestructible mustard plant all through the old world order, transforming it from inside – even destroying evil systems and pulling down evil power structures – and maybe that is good, but it is surely not safe.

Some might say that. I said that not long ago, and it sounds profound and poetic. But underneath it all it just sounds like more destruction. I’m weary of violence being the only problem-solver, unwilling to accept that God’s ultimate fix for a sick world was self-destruction.

These days, my faith has lost its resting place. From without, from within, it’s being pulled forward down a path of uncertainty, of wondering and wandering. How does one live faithfully when faith itself comes unglued?

Or maybe faith was never meant to be glued, nailed down, safe and snug in a resting place. Maybe that’s why Jesus’ call to his disciples was “follow me.” Movement. Road trip. Flux. Big bang setting everything in motion. Doubting believer faithfully tussling with the living God.