Monday, December 07, 2009

Let’s Talk About God and Jesus and Religion and Me, Shall We?

I am no Jesus expert, but I bet if Jesus had a choice, he would rather be associated with the American/Canadian holiday of Thanksgiving and not Christmas. Even the most faithless and heart-hardened of people will start at least one sentence with “I am thankful for…” on that day. But Christmas is all about Santa Claus and presents and Christmas trees and little penguins and polar bears with pom-pom hats on and, in certain parts of the world, apparently, figgy pudding. Doesn’t exactly scream “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” to me. Poor Jesus, he gets lost in the commercial-y, tinsel-y shuffle.

Maybe it is the time of year and the crèches I see springing up in front of churches in the starting-to-look-a lot-like-Christmas land of Massachusetts, but I have been thinking a lot about God and Jesus and religion these days. It is an understatement to say that I was not raised in a religious family. In fact, I was (am) so uncertain of my religious roots that I would frequently ask “Wait…are we Protestant or Lutheran?” I am pretty sure I got a different answer each time I asked. And I am still not sure: My grandparents’ funerals were in an Episcopal church. What? I was never baptized, which is something that bothers me to this day. I am so shaky on some of the basic tenets of religious study that it is embarrassing. Who was John the Baptist and why are there so many churches named after him? What are the differences among the major religions? And what is the deal with the Holy Spirit anyway?

I have wispy memories of going to Sunday school as a child. But all I can conjure up are piecemeal memories of little paper Peanuts cups filled with sickenly sweet Juicy Juice fruit punch and store-bought cookies in earnest arrays on paper plates with paper doilies. While the adults were upstairs robotically singing hymns and dozing through sermons, we were downstairs coloring pictures of Jesus in his trademark pose: Serene smile and arms spread out, with animals and children at his sandaled feet. In the spring we would run around in the cemetery. I can still see those yellow and purple crocuses peeking out of the season’s last remnants of snow; such tenuos life amongst so much death. But this plus singing “Jesus loves me, this I know, cuz the Bible tells me so” does not a believer make. And I don’t think that was the purpose of Sunday school anyway: I am pretty certain my parents (who did not attend church) used Sunday school as a free babysitting service once a week and not as a place to build a religious foundation.

Most of my friends growing up were Catholic, and I was jealous of that. As a person who loves rituals and routines, I longed for — and still do — the weekly church visits, the stand-kneel-sit-kneel-make-the-sign-of-the-cross directives and the Midnight masses on Christmas Eve. There was an invisible thread that connected them. I wanted to be on the inside jokes of religion; to be allowed to complain about how I have to go to Mass on Wednesday night; to talk about how awful a certain sermon was. To be able to talk about God and say “Thank God” and “bless you” after someone sneezes and not seem like such an imposter. I would go to church with my friends and go through the motions and even take communion (which apparently is not allowed?) and think “I can be a part of this!” I was the religious equivilant of a garish American in Paris, wearing a beret and nibbling a croissant and smoking Gauloises cigarettes (inhaling the French way, of course) and talking Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and thinking “Wow! I really blend!” A part of me felt like people could see right through me and I stuck out like a sore thumb.

In college, I took a course on Christianity. I thought this would be a piece-of-cake class; a guanrenteed A. I finished the two-hour final exam in twenty minutes, and not in a good way. I left the essays blank and guessed on the multiple choice. By the end of the test, I wasn’t even reading the questions; just coloring in random letters on my bubble sheet and praying (ha!) for the best. Surely God would help me with this? I did not study for it and barely paid attention in class and rather cockily assumed that I would somehow just know everything. I think I expected the fill-in-the-blank portions of the test to be questions like “______ is the son of God” and “Dead people dressed in white with wings and carrying harps are called ______.” After the final, as fear of failure (and existential religious doubts) started to seed itself and sprout like a weed, I went back to my room and drank a 40 ouncer or two of Olde English (that extra “e” at the end of “old” is how you know it’s old) and ate a packed of string licorice, followed by vegetable tempura for dinner and an Erasure dance party in my room. I don’t think I need to go into details on how that evening ended. Where was God when I needed Him? Certainly not helping me avoid that awful hangover or pass that test.

When I am the beneficiary of something miraculous (blessed? So many concepts have a reliogious word and a sanitized word to describe them), like the birth of two healthy girls after a long road of trying, or the beneficiary of something amazing, like a vacation home in Massachusetts, I want to get down on my knees and thank God. I want to think He is responsible for it for all the good that comes to me. But if I give him praise for the good, then I also have to blame him for the bad, right? Is that not the old-as-the-ages question? Is the God who orchestrated my miracle babies also the God who presided over my miscarriages? “I damn you to three dead babies [insert gavel pound sound and lightning strike].” What kind of God would do that? On a less self-centered angle, what kind of God would let a billion people starve to death every year? Was God on vacation when millions of Jews were killed during the Halocaust in the most atrocious ways for believing in Him in their own way? These are the things I have a hard time reconciling in my head. It is easier to assume that my girls the results of an expensive boxful of drugs and intramuscular injections and a team of extremely capable doctors. And my vacation home is a tangible representation of Nicole’s hard work and not God’s handiwork.

That said, I am not God-less. I am not atheist. I don’t believe in nothing. The only proof I have for the doubters of my personal version of faith: My email password is a message to God (and, no, I can’t share it, since that would obviously render my email account vulnerable). But I am also not a follower of organized religion. There is not some neat slot for people like me. I feel like a poser among the faithful and an outcast among atheists. I can see both sides, but my views rest somewhere squarely in the middle. I think God is good God. I don’t think he hates me because I am married to a woman. I don’t think he gave me miscarriages to punish me for some transgression, minor or otherwise. He forgives and forgets. I don’t believe in the devil, but I believe in devilish qualities, like greed and selfishness and self-centeredness. And I don’t believe in every word of the Bible because it is in my nature to question everything I read. My friends and I sometimes have a hard time piecing together stories that took place twenty years ago. I can’t remember the name of the main character of the 700 page book I read a month ago. Believing every word of stories written thousand of years ago? Hard to believe there isn’t even a modicum of artistic license/hyperbole going on there. I’d like to think if the Bible were rewritten now, it might include passages that support gay marriage. Just like if the Constitution were written now, there might be some more parameters about the right to bear arms. Alas, both are open to interpretation, which, unfortunaletly. Usually leads to death, destruction and war. Not very God-like.

But while I don’t subscribe to any one organized religion, I like to take comfort in the some of their slogan messages and cliches: That God won’t give me anything I can’t handle and that I am never alone and that I can let go and let God and that He is everywhere. In the details, indeed. That Footprints in the sand story brings a tear to me eye every time. I like to think I can pray to God to help find the answer to a perplexing problem. After all, isn’t praying just deep thinking? I like to think there is a pre-determined framework for my life; that there is a plan for me; that my life isn’t just a random string of events. That I am exactly where I am supposed to me. That Nicole and Madeline and Avery were destined to be mine. That my friends are my friends for a reason. That I am here for a reason. Isn’t is comforting to think there is a plan? Isn’t it comforting to think there is something behind it all? How great if we all could believe in a force completely, the way a child believes so fully in Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. Even if we die and there is nothing there, what harm does it do to spend our lives surrounded by a benevolent force? Even if it is just a farce? Believing in something doesn’t seem like such a bad way to spend a life.

And I think Jesus was really cool. My friend Jen was telling me how she describes Jesus to her kids, and it is a beautiful image. He was a man who loved and forgave and tried, even when people hated him, didn’t believe in him and, in the end, killed him. Now that is a good person. There is a cold woman who lives in my building who refuses to say hello to me and everyone else, and when I see her I am filled with mean thoughts of “I hate you!” OK, maybe “hate” is overstating the case, but I think we can agree that Jesus and I wouldn’t have the same thoughts here. I match her scowl with my very own and turn away from her the way she turns away from me. Not very Jesus-like of me.

Jesus seemed easy-going and so very Zen and not terribly preachy, even though he was a preacher. What a skill that is! If he were alive today, he would be the guy friend who would insist on coming over to my house when I had a bad day and cheer me up with a pint of Haagen Dazs and a bag of Herrs Sourdough pretzel nuggets (feel free to amend this image with your own treats). He would watch a cheesy Lifetime movie with me and after the movie and salty/sweet snack, he would reassure me and tell me that it will all be ok. But I don’t pray to Jesus, and I don’t know why. I pray to God. But the idea of Jesus makes it a little easier for me to feel God.

Praying does not come easily to me. When I pray, I feel like a mic-less background chorus voice on the giant Metropolitan Opera stage. Does He even hear me? Does it matter? I feel silly sometimes, talking to someone who may or may not be listening. I feel like it is too selfish to pray for myself. And yet, when I have gone through difficult times and my friends tell me they are saying a prayer for me (my friend Jen and her toddler twins would every night), I am filled with such hope and honor and sereneness and gratitude. When random strangers smile and say “God bless” to my children on the street, I say “thank you” and mean it. When I was going through infertility and miscarriages, I prayed for strength, patience and faith. And that, if you look carefully, is in order of easiest to hardest for me. Strength, yes: I can be strong, physically and emotionally, mainly through my ability to live in denial. Patient: Ehh. I have never been one to wait my turn. I even have a hard time waiting the one minute for my Airborn tablet to fizz up in my water. And faith? I have been let down and knocked down enough in my life to make believing in things I can’t see a tad difficult. So I prayed to God and asked for those three things and not for a baby. And in the end, I got two babies. How can that not be an answered prayer? Regardless of whether or not there is a God, that is indeed an answered prayer.

I am reading Mary Karr’s latest biographical masterpiece (she is amazing), called Lit. When I was getting my hair cut recently, I tore through about 15 magazines. I can’t remember which one I read it in but there was this Mary Karr quote about how a friend challenged her to pray every day for a month, guaranteeing it would change her life. She thought it was ridiculous. But she did it….and it did. I am hoping she touches on that in this book.

Religion is not just about my personal quest/satisfaction/curiosity anymore. I want to raise my girls with some sort of religious foundation. I want them to grow up appreciating the views of different faiths and, when they are old enough, decide for themselves whether they want to formally declare themselves a part of a certain religious family. Or not. I want them to know that Santa isn’t the only reason for Christmas. And not just know that, but also feel it. I want them to adhere to the fine print of most religious groups: Do unto others… and love your fellow man… and judge not. Share. Love. Give. Forgive. Repeat.

But, as I said to a friend recently, this will be a challenge. It is like saying I want my girls to grow up and love eating sushi, but I never take them out to Japanese restaurants while they are growing up. It isn’t going to happen organically. How are we going to do this? Nicole is a lapsed Catholic and I am ignorant Protestant/Lutheran/Episcopalian whose personal religion fits into no category. Nicole does nurture a very academic interest in God and Jesus and religion and religious studies. There is always a nonfiction book about religion on her nightstand and she listens to the NPR religion podcasts. She has more religious morals than almost anyone I know. And yet together we have not figured out a plan. We don’t go to church, since we aren’t a card-carrying member of any religious group and also, if I am being truthful, because trying to wedge in a few hours of group worship each Sunday seems impossible. But even though I don’t want to sacrifice our precious weekend time for that doesn't not make my commitment to God and religion and a growing faith any less. I can find my God where I want.

My religious education, which never quite got off the ground as a child, is starting to take flight now. As I said earlier, I think about God and Jesus and religion a lot now. I am trying to figure out how I can be baptized and not be a member of a particular church. I am trying to figure out how I can be a part of some religious community. I am trying to figure out who God is to me. Is He the first responder? Or last resort? Or everything in between? One thing I DO have figured out: He is something to me. And right now, that is all I need.

There. I feel better getting this all out.

And if you need any proof that there IS a God: My children slept to an improbable 9:00 a.m. today, which gave me time to pound out this post. Hmmm….

Pictured above: The stocking are indeed hung by our chimney with care. Reindeer? Check. Snowmen? Check. Christmas trees? Check. Jesus? Ummm…. Missing in action. And, the house in the snow! And a picture of ice on trees. Let me warn you: I take a lot of pictures of ice/snow on trees, and I will post them. And the girls and their cousin.


Malea said...

Jesus is there. He's just waiting for you to figure out how to let him in.

I too wonder how you give your kids a spiritual foundation when the religious right is so hostile toward our families that we gay adults don't really "gather together" any more.

Plus being a preachers kid i don't relish going to church becoming a mandatory thing 4 times a week again. I think i've put in enough pew time that i've got a credit on my I've been a willing student of Jo.el Ost.een TV ministries ever since i left those buildings of brick and mortar years ago.He's a teacher and not much on preaching.Just mt sytle.

I'll have to get past the unkind words and hateful actions to help my kids find a peace and kinship with God. Remind myself that it's man NOT God who is the problem and that the accuser(devil) is always on duty to make this LIFE unpleasant using whomever he can to do it.

I really enjoyed this blog Jennifer and had something similar rattling around in my mind along the lines of why not let our kids believe in Santa Claus,the Tooth fairy,and bugs bunny:)Faith has to start somewhere.

This time of the year gets us all thinking in a good way.

calliope said...

awesome post. I used to be very into church (liberal episcopal) but I had to take a break from God when I was feeling alone. I am slowly coming back to a faith of sorts. it is just hard because I can't deal with all of the hate that many religions preach.

the house is beautiful!!!!!

kim said...

I too have written about this. I echo much of what you have said. I was baptized as an adult, raised in the home of a lapsed Lutheran and a "cultural" Jew. My first experience in a church of any kind was my grandmother's funeral. I took a "Judaica" class in college taught by a Rabbi when I thought I was going to be Jewish, whatever I thought that meant to me at the time.

I still have trouble reconciling bad things happening, and an all-knowing, all-loving God. But in the Episcopal church, that questioning is allowed, encouraged, and not shamed. That is where we have found our home. It helps that we have an amazingly open and loving Dean (Senior Priest) who is the first in line for marriage equality and is probably more passionate about full inclusion than anyone I know.

Yes, faith has to start somewhere. I like the 30 days of prayer idea. I might have to try that.

Good luck in your quest -- although I'm pretty sure that religion is more about the journey. At least, it should be.

nycphoenix said...

Good luck in your search. I'm grateful after many years of no religion I found a home at MCC.

Jeannine said...

Beautiful post. Sounds like you already have more of an understanding of faith than most regular church goers. As a lifelong Catholic (mostly cafeteria Catholic these days as I disagree with a few tenants of our doctrine, but we do attend church as a family), I understand your longing to belong to a group like ours. I have always found a tremendous amount of strength and comfort in my religion. But it is not religion which feeds the soul and sustains us, it is faith. Faith and religion can and do exist as separate entities. You don't have to find a "church" to belong to to have faith in God and Jesus. I went to Catholic/Jesuit school my whole life (k-college)and learned so many wonderful ways to express my faith outside of just attending church: Being generous, of yourself and your things; being kind, especically to those who are unkind, and always thanking God for the good things (especially the little ones) along with asking when need arises. As Christians, Jesus is the example of how we should live to make the most of our limited time here, and hopefully, to fully enjoy what's coming next. Good luck on your journey, I'm sure you'll find the place that's right for you. Oh, and one more thing, Lutheran is protestant. The majority the non-Catholic Christian religions are considered protestant because their founders "protested" the rules of Catholicism.

S. said...

Thank you for this post. I feel like you were writing about my life and thoughts. You articulated it beautifully. I've heard wonderfual things about the Unitarian church in downtown Noho - it might be a good place to start. They are open to anyone, is what I've heard.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. I hope I don't sound like a creepy converter, but do you know about Unitarian Universalists? My wife (grew up Catholic) and myself (agnostic but grew up in non-practicing Jewish household) have found a wonderful spiritual home and community in the UU community which is completely welcoming of LGBT folks. It makes me feel good that our son will be raised in a spiritual community that will nurture our family. Again, don't mean to be creepy but if you feel like you need to fill a spiritual void in your life, UU might be something to at least check out.

K J and the kids said...

I have to say that being raised in a religion I have a whole different view on religion. I want to be able to some how dissolve all of the threats and guilt they burned in to my brain. Because even ok with myself as a gay person I am. I still have this "still small voice" :) in my head that says...GAY IS EVIL. GAY IS BAD.
But aside from the gay issues. I have a hard time with religious folks using religion to support them in their judgement of others, their bigotry and hatred. Not very Christ like right. Instead of embracing others it's to fill the minds of their members with guilt so as to stop them from doing things they don't agree with. To make their church the only church the right church which then makes the other churches wrong. Wrong isn't a good thing.

I have found a lot of these same questions popping up in my head too.
I have my own ideas and thoughts on God. He exists. He has ALL of the control but doesn't use it. That's ours to do.
That was the other thing. People who pray and light candles and add names to temple lists to be prayed for to get better/live....if they live they say it was because of the prayers. If they live then it was God's choice to take them ????
That has never made sense to me.
I think we all have a journey that we are following. One that has been predestined. Make it what you will...happy....good...positive. That is up to us. If you need God then find him in Church or the quiet hours of night. Meditate. Sing. Dance. Whatever it is to make the journey better for you.

In the name of Jesus Christ Amen :)

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