Marriage…is what brings us together…or is it?

I’ve been thinking about this blog post for some time. Marriage. Dean and I are well into our 32nd year of being exclusively committed to one another, have zero regrets about our decision to marry and hope to be blessed with many more years together.  It would seem likely that if one has been successfully married for this length of time, the best thing to write about would be how it has been possible, especially when living in a country where over 50% of all marriages end in divorce and many single adults are simply choosing to partner up without it. I could say a few things about that but will have to save that for another time because what I really want to share with you about the topic has little to do with it.

I’m writing today because after reading the book Committed: A Love Story by Elizabeth Gilbert, I have been able to put together some very interesting pieces of another issue that I have and will likely wrestle with for the rest of my life; my faith. I discovered that no matter what one’s religion, or lack thereof, marriage is a big deal. If it becomes bothersome to a religion’s followers it is just a matter of time when the avoidance of it will rattle cages and break open boxes in the life and culture of everyone in one’s circle of influence.  Add to that the layers of legal ramifications of not marrying and the issue becomes even more complex.  I honestly had no idea just how complex until I read this book.

I learned so much about life itself through Elizabeth and Philipe’s journey but one part in particular was especially meaningful to me. It was her take on marriage in western civilization and specifically the history of marriage in both the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible. Not representing any particular Christian denomination or bent, she was able to look at the topic from the entirety of the Bible without any obligation to obey what she saw there. In her study she simply researched the origins of marriage in the Western civilization.

Here is what she said that first blew me away, but in the end made me realize that THIS was the faith message I had been hearing all of my life from my own personal interactions with God. This perspective was also something I could never begin to allow myself to articulate because my own religious boxes would not be able to contain it.

“Even when marriage has been defined as a union between a man and just one woman, its purposes were not always what we might assume today. In the early years of Western civilization, men and women married each other mostly for the purpose of physical safety. In the time before organized states, the wild B.C. days of the Fertile Crescent, the fundamental working unit of society was the family. From the family came all your basic social welfare needs–not just companionship and procreation, but also food, housing, education, religious guidance, medical care, and, perhaps most importantly, defense.”

“Those extended families grew into tribes, and those tribes became kingdoms, and those kingdoms emerged into dynasties, and those dynasties fought each other in savage wars of conquest and genocide. The early Hebrews emerged from exactly this system, which is why the Old Testament is such a family-centric, stranger-abhoring, genealogical extravaganza–rife with tales of patriarchs, matriarchs, brothers, sisters, heirs, and other miscellaneous kin. …the driving narrative always concerns the progress and tribulations of the bloodline, and marriage was central to the perpetuation of that story.”

“But the New Testament–which is to say, the arrival of Jesus Christ–invalidated all those old families loyalties to a degree that was truly socially revolutionary. Instead of perpetuating the tribal notion of “the chosen people against the world,” Jesus (who was an unmarried man, in marked contrast to the great patriarchal heroes of the Old Testament) taught that we were all chosen people, that we are all brothers and sisters united within one human family. …You cannot embrace a stranger as your brother, after all, unless you are ready to renounce your real biological brother, thus capsizing an ancient code that binds you in sacred obligation to your blood relatives while putting you in auto-opposition to the unclean outsider. But that sort of fierce clan loyalty was exactly what Christianity sought to overturn. As Jesus taught “If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” Luke 14:26

As a highly sensitive person and one who genuinely doesn’t want to hate anyone, those words have driven me crazy for much of my life. It wasn’t that Jesus seemed to encourage us to actually hate our parents and siblings because I didn’t take that literally anyway. It was that I did know that with almost 100% certainty that sincere faith in God can take one away from one’s tribe of origin and when it does, the sparks will fly.

I have also heard the above text quoted as evidence that when one is joining with another tribe, their family’s resistance is proof that they are in fact following Jesus the Christ. The real one. I’ve heard this from:

  • Catholics who became Lutheran
  • Jews who became Christians
  • Lutherans who became Catholic
  • Lutherans who became Baptist
  • Mormons who became Baptist
  • Baptist who became Mormons

Get the picture? We all want to KEEP OUR TRIBES TOGETHER and marriage is one of the most important institutions within our religious persuasions that will accomplish that. It is why my grandmother’s first question was “Is he Catholic?”. We, of course were Lutheran so that would be the worst possible thing we could do to our family were we to marry a Catholic. Dean and I were both rebels leaving the Lutheran faith of our family because we had became Evangelicals in high school. Oddly enough, we were equally committed to perpetuating our new tribe in the very way our grandparents had hoped we would theirs.

As time has gone by for us, we have realized that though we continue to share a deep faith in God together, we had already bought into the concept presented here in Elizabeth Gilbert’s little book about marriage. We both believe that Jesus did come on the scene with the very message she discusses here. Jesus was in fact single. He’s recorded as having loved, visited and healed all kinds of people who were outside of his Jewish faith. He declared to the ancients that faith was not necessarily something you were born into. His actions recorded throughout the Bible make it really clear that if one wants a God oriented life, it is right there for the asking no matter what your tribe. AND THAT was so revolutionary that they crucified him for it.

 

Why I am a Christian…or What it Looks Like at 54

This past week a writer, thinker and theologian I have found very helpful in my faith journey, passed away. Marcus Borg, a Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, has written several books that have clarified important pieces to the puzzle, the mystery, and the experiences that have been mine along the way of following Jesus. They have been a guide to help me figure out why I just can’t quit my faith even though I would often really like to.

Today as I was thinking about Marcus Borg’s passing and the many Facebook posts I saw about the impact of his life, it brought to mind recent conversations with others about faith roots and the spiritual journey. I decided to look again at Borg’s book,  Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and was very glad I did.

In its pages I rediscovered my own personal reality all over again.  I now understand what it is that keeps me going back to faith. It is that I sincerely believe Jesus lived a life of spirit that I too have experienced. Like Marcus Borg, my understanding of God is this:

“…God refers to the sacred at the center of existence, nonmaterial ground and source and presence in which, to cite words attributed to Paul by the author of Acts, “we live and move and have our being”.

THIS is my faith. It has always been my faith, even from the time I was a very little girl, I have known this center of existence. This grounded sense of being in my own life is the force that has transformed my relationship with the Bible, with churches and even more with the world I live in. I have wanted to live with deep awareness of God’s spirit for as long as I can remember.  It was this awareness that led me to become an Evangelical Christian.

My involvement in various churches and ministries within this worldview allowed me multiple opportunities to learn and grow with other sincere people of faith. I read, studied and memorized the Bible, I prayed alone and with others, but one thing that I was never comfortable doing was sharing the Evangelical gospel with the express purpose of saving people from hell.  I think it was because fear of hell really was not an issue for me. Though I eventually adopted a belief in a literal hell and learned to act like it mattered, deep down it never really did.  My life wasn’t about being saved from eternal damnation as much as it was about being present and awake to God in the here and now. That said, I didn’t ever really understand that until I moved to place in the mountains of northern Utah where living near the mountains rocks, streams and amazing displays of light allowed me to immerse myself in nature. Something profound woke up in me and I knew that whatever it was, it was where my genuine real faith found a home. Often there were no words to describe the knowing at all.

It has taken me over a decade to process my faith experiences from my religious experiences as both have been very different. Various authors like Sue Monk Kidd, M. Scott Peck, Tony Campolo, Brian D. McClaren, Rob Bell and more recently Marcus Borg have allowed me to understand a great deal about my own personal journey. Most profoundly though, a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward landed in my lap just as my entire world seemed to crumble and has guided me through a very real work of the Spirit of God that I have always known throughout my life. This same Spirit, my ground of being, has helped me come to a place where I am ready to let go of what lies behind me and move on.

Today Dean’s and my social network extends beyond any one church and much to our great joy it is full of misfits, uneducated, scholars, rich, poor, straight, LGBTQ, as well as the occassional breath of fresh air we suck in when we find people of other ethinic groups to enjoy bread with.  I am finally looking forward to what is yet to be in my life.

In conclusion, I must return to Marcus Borg and say to him, “Rest now, faithful friend of Jesus, you have left much for us to ponder for years to come.”

Unity or Uniformity, There Is a Big Difference…and it really matters.

This blog is being written exclusively for my friends who are church-goers. If what I say applies to you outside of church, great. Either way, thank you for taking the time to actually read this.

Today I am compelled to speak out in response to a few conversations I’ve had in recent weeks where someone was describing a problem they have had in their church and someone in the congregation interjected something like the following.

As we begin to discuss______ it is important that we first commit ourselves to unity because that is the most important thing.

Most often such a statement is followed by…

God wants us to be unified more than anything else and here is why…various Bible verses are quoted and suddenly the room becomes eerily quiet with everyone afraid to speak up.

I know the paradigm very well because for way too many years not only did I embrace it, I taught it. I also hurt several people and most painfully for me, I hurt my own children. The thinking is that if you teach your little ones to submit without question, they will be able to submit to God without question. (well, and church leaders too) I will save my thoughts on raising children for another time because for this blog I simply need to talk about the differences between unity and uniformity.

Anyone who has donned a uniform at work can easily understand what it means to function in a role with uniformity. Take for example the level of compliance expected of one working in a military uniform. We all expect certain behavior when we see a person dressed in the marine dress blue vs. the army camo green because well, they behave differently and wear the specific uniform to create that expectation. The concept of unity based on uniformity works quite well as long as everyone is trained to act a certain way and to wear the same clothing.  Take those uniforms off, however and what makes those men and women unified is who they really are and often that is reflected in what they choose to wear.  As I think about church behavior, there are times when we literally shoot ourselves in the foot (hands, arms and legs too) by the demand of uniformity through submission to authority. I don’t think there is any question that when Jesus hit the scene of Judaism he ruffled multiple feathers because when he started out in active ministry he refused to comply with the very uniformal Jewish authorities.

One of my favorite portions of the biblical text is from Luke 4 where Jesus comes into the picture and makes some very well dressed uniform oriented people pretty upset. In my other blog entry I called A Broken Box , I talk more about this but for this entry let me just say, Jesus was the prime example of what REAL unity looks like and it took place in many, many diverse places and with many, many diverse people and I might add caused no small amount of trouble. Have you ever thought that he was actually crucified for stirring up so much trouble with their very comfortable and predictable system?

Experience has repeatedly verified for me that all too often churches are really the least actually unified places in America because the expectation of uniformity is so incredibly high, the beauty of the mosaic that is said to be the real Body of Christ on the earth cannot even present itself. Think about the people Jesus went to, the people he ate with, the people he partied with, the miserable lot he chose to ask to follow him! THEY were given ideals to embrace in order to tranform their own hearts with the hope that as they did they could empower others with what they understood. The forming a church with doors, windows and crosses had nothing to do with it.

Our lives have been greatly impacted both by Jesus and by the pressure of church uniformity over the years. When our daughter’s struggle with mental illness and our son’s declaration of atheism arrived at our feet, we had a choice. We could hang our heads in shame for not measuring up (I taught at our church’s Christian school and Dean and I both led lots of ministries devoted to children) OR we could actively listen to our kids. We chose them. As we did that, THEY opened up the real for us.  They were astute at identifying the hypocrisy in our lives, the incongruities in our faith and most of all, the absolute ill fit of the uniform we’d devoted our lives to. We had to deal with a lot of pain and hurt but it has been so very worth it.  If we have done anything right as parents, it has been that we have valued our children and honored who they are in this world and dropped any expectation that they validate our own choices in life.  It has worked out beautifully.

I write to unload my heart’s burdens…

God in Control?

As a young 🙂  52 year old I am continually questioning my faith, my relationship with the mystery that is God, and life in this world. I call it contemplation.

One aspect of my life that has been through this process multiple times has been how I view the idea of whether God is in control of our lives and/or the lives of all human beings or not.  I’ve thought about this so much that it’s really been a mental and spiritual wrestling match.  In my early days of faith as an Evangelical Christian I would proclaim that there was no doubt whatsoever that God was in control – absolute control. His way was always perfect and He was good so even if life sucked, it was God’s will for me. I no longer buy it so fully. I no longer think of God as exclusively Him either 🙂 .

One of my great challenges in life has been Hannah’s diagnosis of bulimia nervosa followed by a diagnosis of major depression/severe after having been born as my “miracle” child. She was born 3 months early after my water broke at 13 weeks into the pregnancy. My pregnancy and her birth were considered miraculous from the most profoundly rational scientific doctors caring for her. I remember during that pregnancy the sense that God was ever present with me was profound and very real.  I have multiple memories of being told some doomsday scenario about my pregnancy upon entering the emergency room and then praying about it, reading my Bible and coming out on the other side with faith that God’s “plan” for us was a miraculous intervention. Following that I repeatedly  heard technicians, nurses and doctors say, “I can’t believe you are still pregnant!” or “I can’t believe you have a baby!” It was an amazing experience to see her be born alive at 28 weeks.

Fast forward to her adolescent years and what you will see is all hell breaking loose in her mind and our family standing there numb and beside ourselves with how to help her. Over the last 12 years we have come to understand that the trauma she experienced in utero as well as with her colon constricting and undergoing multiple surgeries before she was even 9 months old, greatly impacted the way her brain developed. The parts of her brain that process emotions were greatly compromised by those traumas and the interrupted bonding process that takes place when you spend the first month of your life outside the womb in a box in the hospital. We could not hold her for a month.

These years have been spent with great vigilance in offering support and understanding to our daughter and seeking to help her heal however we possibly could. It has taken everything we have had and much support from friends and family to get to where we are today. It has been anything but a straight line and I personally have had a very difficult time processing it all. I still struggle with wanting to understand the whys involved but I know that would be an unimportant and fruitless pursuit.

The idea of “God being in control” is something I once thought I clearly understood but I guess at this point in my life I have come to the conclusion after weighing the evidence contained in my personal experiences, that it is simply a paradox. I do believe that somehow God is in control though it is more of a mystery than ever but I also believe that I have a lot more control than my Evangelical faith would have given me credit for.  M. Scott Peck says that great truths are contained in life’s paradoxes and tonight all I can say is I sure hope so.

Follow the Peace?

I have heard it said that to heal and thrive we must each “follow the peace”. What exactly does that mean? When I first think of peace I think of a cessation from fighting as in a war after the white flag is flown. Dictionary.com defines peace as : cessation of, or freedom from, any strife or dissension. I like that.

I’ve been back in the area where I spent much of my life. I moved here with my parents when I was 12 from Wyoming. Before that, I had spent most of my life in the panhandle of western Nebraska in a low income neighborhood, close to the Sioux Native American community and with an influx of hispanic immigrants during the sugar beet harvest. I met my first African American there too. I think I was six years old. My worldview became one of community in the context of diversity as those early childhood experiences made their imprint on my life.

Here in this place, I also lived in a low income housing area. It was one of the the nicest houses we’d ever lived in but it was a development funded largely by HUD loans. For the first time in my life someone in my school asked me how much money my father made. I had no idea and wondered just exactly why that mattered. I learned quickly that when you move to a small town in the Midwest, your business quickly becomes everyone else’s and what the group thinks is vital to your well being. It was not cool to come from this particular area of town and my peers made that very clear.

As humans we seem to establish much of who we will be as adults during that first decade of our lives. It certainly shapes how we will approach adolescence. My parents, brother and I were rather free spirits when we arrived here. After that first year in this low income development, my parents realized rather quickly that it would be better for us to move into a new area. The difference in how people treated us after that was very clear. It still kind of ticks me off that it mattered that much but it simply did.

As time went on my dad found a way to invent something and start a business. Poverty like we had when I was young didn’t enter my life after that. I also started working myself so that changed things as I grew up. I was the first one on either side of the family to leave home and go to college. I was also the first on both sides of my family to graduate from it as well. When I left the area for school, I really didn’t ever plan to return. I met my husband in college and we planned to go on staff with a Christian organization in Africa. Circumstances prevented that from happening as soon as we hoped and as a result we chose to come back to this area and participate in a church with a zeal for Evangelical Christianity, Christian community and world missions. There are many days when we still think, “BIG mistake”.

The decade we spent in the church was continually full of anything but peace. It was as if the original group-think I came to experience upon moving into this small town was put on steroids. The church started as a result of a conflict among the leadership’s interpretation of the Bible. Fundamentalist look at the Bible in a very literal way but few realize the impact of early childhood experiences and social imprinting that create one’s view of the world. We interpret the Bible as WE are a lot more than we do as IT is. Each person reading it and discerning for one’s own self what the verses mean and bringing their truth into the group should be a rich and meaningful experience. All too often in the world I knew as an Evangelical, this approach becomes a fight for spiritual and social control where one’s own personal interpretation and experiences are exalted above others.  Demands are made, with God’s will “clearly” identified in each person’s study. Since my time as an Evangelical I have witnessed no less than, and very likely more than, a dozen group conflicts that hands down have  always ended  in someone being very hurt, some pitching their personal faith altogether, and all too often one finds one of the groups banding together to  leave and start their own “perfect” church where THEY have every confidence that GOD has led them. I now understand why I found life in “Mormonland”, aka Utah so easy.

When Brigham Young led his people to the Salt Lake Valley, he was armed with one persons truth. Joseph Smith interpreted his gold plates and created what he called “the true church”. He and his followers went off into the west after much persecution. Their suffering on the journey and in the early days of their faith created a solid foundation for them to build upon. The Mormon culture is a very top down culture. The prophet speaks and everyone listens (for the most part :). While there I listened to Gordon B. Hinkley speak during their annual conference. He was a gentle, wise man. I also spent time and got to know many from the LDS church. It’s really pretty healthy to raise your family in that culture. At the same time, as someone “else” with a strong faith of her own living among them, I became a safe place for those who thought their upbringing and church involvement was something they couldn’t wait to shed after they completed their mission for their family. They were often eager to know my story. At the same time as one from the outside, I also met many others who were on the outside of the church altogether. Anyone not Mormon quickly finds other nonMormons to relate to. My life there was simply “my” life. I went to church but the church I attended didn’t claim to own me or my children. It was a free space for me. My heart connected with Christ in many unusual places. Then abruptly, my husband got a call and we were on our way to relocate in Minnesota. Reverse culture shock is anything but peaceful.

We moved into a very conservative town of 8,000 people with no less than a dozen and likely more Evangelical churches. Life outside of those churches is very difficult. We are on the very north edge of the Twin Cities. We tried visiting a liberal Methodist church with a vision much like our own but I’m feeling a bit too old to cross over the denominational hurdles and though I do enjoy the people there, it doesn’t seem like a good fit for me.  A week before this visit home, I spent time with a new friend I met at our local bookstore. She took me out to a place called the ARC. Action, Reflection and Celebration is what ARC stands for. It’s an ecumenical retreat center with an onsite community that provides hospitality for those coming out for a retreat. I felt at home there. I felt peace there. Conflicts are welcomed there. It’s a place where you go to find your peace with God and man so you can serve God in the world you live in. I may seek to volunteer there as time permits.

I want community. I want peace on earth. I know that I can no longer contribute to it through the old wineskins of church the way I once knew it. It is way past time for us as people of God to stop trying to control one another through exalting our interpretation of ancient texts above those of other pilgrims on the journey through life. God is spirit. God is life and breath. The Bible is a gift from men who walked with God at a very different time and in a very different world than the one we live in at present. It is not God and studying it doesn’t make us God either. God is love. The two greatest commands Jesus left us with were to love God with our mind, body and soul and to love our neighbor as ourself. That’s what I want to be busy doing wherever God has me. I find this is how I will “follow the peace”.

Bathsheba

I’m not a biblical scholar but I have spent a lot of time reading the pages between its covers. Life and experience have taught me that anyone can read a biblical passage and come up with any number of versions of what it “really” means and what we are to do with its meaning.  We each interpret biblical stories in the same way we do much of life, much more as we are than as they are in their raw form. It is with that awareness that I come to Bathsheba’s story in the book of 2 Samuel.  I write today, as a 52 year old Christian woman living in a time when women have stronger voices than they ever have but with a very deep awareness that for far too many, their voices are silent.  The story begins…

“Now when evening came, David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful in appearance.” 2 Samuel 11:2

It is my guess that Bathsheba thought that wherever she was bathing, it was a place of privacy. David violated her privacy but it is never mentioned as such. After doing this, he violates her further.

“So David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, ‘Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah, the Hittite?’ And David sent messengers and took her, and when she came to him, he lay with her; and when she had purified herself from her uncleanness, she returned to her house.” 2 Samuel 11:3&4

David looked… David inquired… David took… David “lay with her”. Perhaps the concept of rape was invented after David’s time, so if that’s the case, I’ll let the author off the hook by saying as though it was just a fact, “he lay with her” instead of that he raped her. Webster says, “rape is the crime of having sexual intercourse with a woman or girl forcibly and without her consent”. David’s position of authority put him in position of immense power over her before he ever touched her.  Any woman summoned into a relationship by a king would have faced great consequences had she refused him. She would have been summoned during a time when her own husband was away fighting for the king’s cause. One could argue that she was raped as she was taken to his door.  In every way, David’s position forced this woman to engage in sexual intercourse with him.

“And the woman conceived; and she sent and told David and said, “I am pregnant.” 2 Samuel 11:5

David’s response?

“Then David sent to Joab, saying, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” …

The short of the story is that David got her husband out of battle, sent him home with a gift to follow, and expected that he would lay with his wife and so cover his tracks. Uriah seems to have a bit more integrity however, and in spite of how much he would like to go home and be with his beautiful wife, he mentions that his men are out “camping in the open field” apparently vulnerable to attack. He can’t imagine going home and living it up at a time like that so he stays in the king’s house. David continues trying to manipulate him into going home one more time but even being drunk, Uriah has enough integrity to stay where he is and not go to his wife. So, what does David do? He arranges for him to be placed on the front lines of battle and basically murders him in order to keep his secret. David takes Bathsheba as his wife, she bears him a child who becomes very sick and eventually dies.

What distresses me about this story is that Bathsheba’s voice is lost in the telling of this story but it appears to have been lost all along the way.  Do you see anywhere in this recording of her story where she is given any choices? At all?  She first lost control of her privacy, then her body, she had to purify herself for her uncleanness caused by another’s violation of her, then without any say at all, she lost a husband and a child. Bathsheba is a voiceless woman.

I, for one, want to hear Bathsheba’s voice. I want to bring her here to my house and hear her speak, but even more I want to give her power to say to a man who would look at her from a roof while she was bathing, “Stop looking at me.” Then I want to see him acknowledge her voice and agree to stop.

I want to hear Bathsheba say,

“I will not come into your house. My husband is gone, it is late, I’ve taken a bath and I’m tired. I am not going.”

I want to hear Bathsheba say,

” I do not have to “lay with” you simply because you are a king and you command it by your summons. I am a woman, and I determine who I have sex with. I actually love my husband and I am faithful to him by choice as he is to me. We are equals in a beautiful relationship of mutual respect and trust.”

I want to hear Bathsheba say so many things.

Today, in her honor, I will purpose to claim my voice. As quiet or as strong as it is, I will endeavor to be faithful to it. I think it is utterly beautiful to know that Jesus, the great upsetter of religious life, came into Bathsheba’s culture and led the Apostle Paul to write to the Galatians that, ” There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”