April 11, 2009

Religion, Part Two

"I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen." - Martin Luther

It was late. Both kids were soundly sleeping in the next room. I was sitting on the bed, book in hand, bawling. Between sobs I told my puzzled husband, "I think I'm going to be a Protestant!"

I was reading -- muddling through, really -- a book of Christian history that was far over my head. It was written by a Lutheran theologian, it so happens. I got to the part about the Reformation. To my great dismay, I was rooting helplessly for the reformers.

After much soul searching, I decided that the only thing my conscience would allow me to do was to begin worshipping in a Lutheran church. I wonder if anyone not raised Catholic could understand my great sorrow and reluctance. The world had been divided for me long since into Catholics and non-Catholics, and now I was non-.

My reluctance never abated, but I acted in obedience to what I believed then -- and believe now -- to be a call from God. For seven years I lived as a too-Catholic Protestant. Today, I am a too-Protestant Catholic.

Religion is how I have always understood and defined my faith. Rote prayer and spontaneous. Lectionary and Bible. Tradition and scripture. Authority and freedom. Alpha and omega.

Today, I have to face this solemn and painful truth: Neither the Catholic nor the Protestant iterations of religion has encompassed my lived experience. The rhythms of the mass resonate to my core. The scriptures do too -- when I study them and come to my own understanding of them as history and story and truth. Sacrament embodies the reality of the Risen Christ. But I am saved by grace through faith.

Nine years ago I became willing to abandon my Catholicism as a way to respond radically to God's call. I received in return nothing less than Christ, who can never now be taken from me. Am I willing today to abandon the desire to fit into a single religious mold, Catholic or Protestant, and discover what I may receive from God in return?

Religion, Part One

'A man arrives at the gates of Heaven. St. Peter asks, "Religion?" The man replies, "Methodist." St. Peter looks down his list and says,"Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8." As the man walks past Room 8, he hears raucous celebration, but he heeds St. Peter's admonition and tiptoes past. A woman then arrives at the Pearly Gates. "Religion?" "Jewish." '"Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8." She complies. Another woman. "Religion?" "Baptist." "Go to Room 11 but be very quiet as you pass Room 8." The woman pauses and asks, "I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?" St. Peter pulls her aside and whispers, "Well, the Catholics are in Room 8, and they think they're the only ones here."'

I grew up Catholic -- not the traditional rosary and incense and saints kind, but the post Vatican II, felt-banners, guitar mass, nuns in street clothes kind. Traditional or not, as far as I knew, the world was divided into Catholics and non-Catholics, and I was a Catholic.

I never dreamed of being anything but a Catholic -- unless I could somehow be Jewish. Perhaps I didn't quite have the Jesus part down. What I did understand is that being Catholic, even the felt-banner kind, means being steeped in ritual, and so does being Jewish. That was the heart of my experience of religion, of God. Sunday morning mass was all there was.

That, and bed time prayers. They were rote: The Lord's Prayer, a Hail Mary, and "God bless Mommy and Daddy and my sisters, and make me a good girl. Amen." Long into young adulthood I could not go to sleep without this little routine. It had become like a lucky rabbit's foot or a four-leaf clover. I was afraid not to do it, as if the ritual itself had some power to ward off demons.

But it wasn't enough. The demons encroached. Finally, in young motherhood, I was in a deep spiritual crisis. I wasn't a "good girl." Oh, I tried to do all the right things, but life was proving too much for me. Bed time prayers weren't enough. Ritual was not enough.

For a long time I had sat through sermons, listened to the gospel stories thinking, How could Sunday morning and bed time prayers be all there is? This Jesus was saying something far more radical. What was I supposed to be doing about it? Now I was desperate for an answer. If God could not be found by just showing up on Sunday morning and at bed time, how would I find him?

In desperation, I did what I had scarcely ever in my life done: I asked for help. I reached out first from some younger but more spiritually secure members of my family, and then from whatever books I could get my hands on.

There were the many spiritual volumes sitting on our shelves from our Catholic college days. There was the 12 inches worth of shelving at the local public library devoted to religion. I didn't even know what I was looking for as I searched. For God, yes, but what did that mean? So I just read and read and read.

I don't know what happened next or when it happened. If I were a Christian of a certain stripe, I would say I was saved. Converted? I don't really know. I can't say the day or the time. But I didn't know Jesus, except in a vague, historical character/mythological figure sort of way. And then I did.

And then he asked me to do something I never, ever expected.

April 5, 2009

Chapter and Verse

"The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them." ~Isaiah 50:4a (NAB)

I didn't grow up with the Bible. I had a children's Bible, which I received as a gift. I remember looking at the pictures, but never reading it.

My grandmother's family Bible was a missal. I loved it, because it was the closest thing I knew to a holy book. I still have it. The ribbons are in tatters, but I can still read my birth record and my sisters' on the inside front cover. I wrote in my own children's.

When I was a young teen, I asked for a Bible for Christmas. I am a book-lover, and it seemed like a book I ought to have. On our annual Christmas shopping trip, my grandmother obliged me with a tiny, red-bound copy of the King James Version.

When I opened my Christmas present, I moved the red ribbon to where the tiny type read "Genesis." Begin at the beginning. An unoriginal novice, I got about half-way through Exodus before quitting in boredom and despair. How were you supposed to read this thing anyway?

Needless to say, I did not grow up memorizing chapter and verse. But I used to lector at mass. For many years running I read on Palm Sunday. Isaiah 50:4-7 and Philippians 2:6-11 were the first scriptures I learned by heart.

And "by heart" is precisely what it was. Not memorized. The words became part of my heart, became flesh.

Today I can quote many verses. "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13) "I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me" (Revelation 3:20). "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).

But none can compare to Isaiah 50:4-7 and Philippians 2:6-11. As I hear them and recite the words along with the lectors, I think about the time when they were all I had, what I have since received, what is yet to come.

"Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear; And I have not rebelled, have not turned back." ~Isaiah 50-4b-5

April 4, 2009


"When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God's breath hovering over the waters, God said, 'Let there be light.'" ~ Genesis 1:1-2 from the Robert Alter translation, Genesis

I don't read Hebrew, although I wish I could. Maybe someday. In the meantime, I pretend by reading Robert Alter's biblical translations. He endeavors to retain the poetic feel of the original.

Here's his note on "welter and waste": "The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one.... Tohu by itself means emptiness or futility..."

Housework sometimes feels like that -- welter and waste, emptiness and futility. Then one day, I was folding the clothes. How many loads of laundry have I folded? Hundreds, certainly. But on this day, something new occurred to me. I looked at the pile of rumpled shirts and socks and sheets and underwear, and I thought of chaos.

Then I thought about other household tasks waiting to be completed. I thought about dirty bathrooms. Uncooked food. Littered floors. Full trashcans. Unmade beds. Chaos.

And then I thought about God. The whole cosmos was once nothing but chaos, welter and waste. The fundamental task of creation was bringing order out of chaos. The Word was spoken and there was light. The waters were divided by a vault and gathered together. There was dry land and grass and trees and fruit and evening and morning. Fish and birds and beasts and cattle and creeping crawling things. There were man and woman, you and me. There were -- and are -- variety and multitudes, but within and among and all through there is a strange and mysterious and indubitable order.

When I sweep and scrub and especially when I fold, I bring order out of chaos. It is hallowed work, God's work.

April 3, 2009


"Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" ~Isaiah 53:1

'He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’ ~Luke 16:27-31 (NRSV)

If you hang around Christians long enough, you're bound to hear it. A friend went to a funeral recently and heard it there. The gist is, Christians will be happy in heaven while everybody else will burn in hell, so make sure you're on God's good side, the Christian side. Or else.

When I was in high school I had two friends whose families were of this ilk. One's mother believed, without doubt, that her own mother was headed for hell. The other, Bible firmly in hand, once left a Buddhist classmate in tears.

What argument can we make if "they will [not] be convinced even if someone rises from the dead"? Must we who believe somehow convince, cajole, bully, berate, or threaten those who do not, cannot, will not?

Paul says to the recalcitrant Corinthians: "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Not Jesus Christ raised bodily from the dead. Not fire and brimstone, hellfire and damnation. Crucifixion. Suffering. Brokenness.

When God's image was finally, finally borne in the world, it was upon a Roman cross. Humanity, at last, revealing God's glory.

Here, only here, have we ever, will we ever, see the arm of the Lord revealed.