Thursday, February 27, 2014

When We Have Crippled Ourselves with Absolutes

photo by Jennifer Upton
 "If you understand it, then it is not God." 
- St. Augustine

When I was a child, I made messes, as children do.  And, as parents do, mine would ask me to clean my room.  I would begin, not by tidying but by enlarging the current mess.  This perplexed and frustrated my parents, and I in turn would also feel frustrated, because they could not see, could not embrace my process.

When I set about to clean my room, I could not do it in an orderly way, spot cleaning here and there until the entire room was done.  I felt only able to work with the room as a whole.  So my cleaning process began by emptying every shelf and surface, loading the bed with books and figurines and all manner of childhood treasures.  The floor was nearly impassable when I was in cleaning mode, and if my parents passed by while I was in process, they would shake their heads and throw something like "I thought I told you to clean your room" at me.

They did not, could not comprehend that the extreme cluttered state made room for dusting, polishing, evaluating, organizing, experimentation, and -- finally -- the clean state that they so wished I could accomplish in a more comfortable-for-them manner.

But that is not who I was.

* * *

For a country that has been called a melting pot of cultures and people and thought, we Americans are shockingly rigid and seeking of sameness.  I know I was.  I saw America as the pinnacle of global societies, and pitied those who couldn't live here.  I saw those who were different as less than.  That I embraced this ethnocentrism was to my detriment, and my current shame. 

We are so comfortable with those who are like us.  We fear those who are not.  The ones who it seems should be less threatened by difference -- the Christian white male, who currently holds the most power in our patriarchal society -- seem to be the ones who are most threatened.  The other -- the non-whites (and especially the African-Americans), the women, the homosexuals, the poor, the children, the not-Christians-- are degraded as they are disempowered, in the name of safety, of status quo.  But, as Dr. Horrible* says, "The status is not quo."

I have been doing a lot of and wrestling and waking up lately.  And let me tell you -- it is hard work.  It is not something I undertake lightly.   And while it is Life-giving, it is also very distressing.

It is distressing because now my eyes are open.  Now I have seen.  I have seen this, and this, and this.  I cannot unsee them.  I cannot look away.  I can no longer tell myself that the status is quo when I have seen the truth, and the truth is a chasm of grief.  When the truth is a yawning, primal howl of despair and rage at the knowledge of unfathomable injustice and sorrow and horror. 

I cannot look away.  I will not.  Can you? 

* * *

It is odd to me that Christians hold some of the most militantly rigid ideology when the God-Man who started it all was so very flexible.  We have injected his free and grace-filled way of being with rules and moral codes and harmful, polarizing, absolute beliefs.  

One man looks at the Bible in a certain way, has certain thoughts, and decides that those thoughts should be everyone's thoughts, and so fundamentalism is born.  This is obviously an oversimplification, but it seems to be the way we operate in the church in general.  

And why?  Why, when our faith is built on a text that procalims, "Faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of you equal with each other, whether you are a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a man or a woman" (Gal. 3:28) and "I will love them freely" (Hos. 4:14) and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31) and "It’s God’s own truth, nothing could be plainer: God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from—if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open. The Message he sent to the children of Israel—that through Jesus Christ everything is being put together again—well, he’s doing it everywhere, among everyone" (Acts 10:34-36)?

This makes no sense to me.

* * *

I am tired of being told that I'm doing it wrong, where "it" is anything from faith to life to parenting to my physical appearance to my career to being a daughter/wife/friend/woman.  I'm tired of a religion that calls me bad, when in reality I am -- we all are -- intrinsically valuable, divine and brimming with holy.  I'm tired of a religion that likens God to a loving parent, then goes on to give him attributes and actions that are far more characteristic of an abusive parent.  

We Christians, we love our absolutes so much that we have missed that the God we say we know and love and worship (and fear and cower before in an often unhealthy, un-free, and un-Jesus way) is anything but absolute.  Richard Rohr writes in his book The Naked Now:

"For some reason, we forget that every time God forgives or shows mercy, God is breaking God's own rules, being inconsistent and rather non-dualistic.  Once you have known grace, your tit-for-tat universe is forever undone; God is everywhere and alays and scandalously found. . . .  In fact, there is no place left where God cannot be found.  The Gospels never record Jesus having a single prerequisite for any of his healings; no affiliation with the right group, no moral worthiness, no attendance at the right temple, no purity codes, nothing except desire itself. . . .  Jesus is in effect saying that if God is everywhere, then God is not anywhere exclusively."

And yet, and yet . . . we practice this exclusivity.  The ones who are in power or used to be in power or want to be in power shovel our so-called unworthiness and not-rightness into our mouths, and we chew and swallow and nod because we believe that we are made wrong, that God is angry, that God is a loose cannon that we can only appease by our do-good-ing and toeing of man-made lines. 

We've forgotten that Jesus didn't draw lines -- that he instead erased them.  

And when we are so focused on talking down our monstrous and (in my opinion) mythological deity, we forget about the world's tangible hurts that cry out for healing.

We forget that Jesus was (is) in the business of healing.  

* * *

It seems to me that many people are uncomfortable with what I (thanks to Mandy Steward's book*) call my thrashing -- this existential flailing, trying to find a way of being in this world physically, emotionally, relationally, and physically that is true-feeling to me.  I have so long felt like I am that proverbial square peg trying to shove herself into a round hole, and I've finally come to the point that I am no longer willing to keep bruising myself and my soul by trying to be something or some way I am not.  

This threatens people.  It threatens those who believe they hold the one absolute way of freedom and grace, who don't realize that freedom and grace are by definition without one absolute way (I was one of these not very long ago, so this is more observation than criticism, and where it is critical I hope that it is constructively so).  

And it threatens people who don't like mess, who say that they encourage the seeking of truth but who in reality don't like it when someone is tracking spiritual mud and clumsy, earnest questions around their painstakingly cleaned castle.  They (we) want the seeking to be clear, linear, direct, and quickly and easily finished.  

But this is not always the way of it.  What's that old saying about life being about the journey, not the destination?  Some of us need, crave, are suffocating without the journey, the wandering, the mud and clumsy groping in the dark.  Some of us like it here in our dank, musty caves with only a single flickering flame holding back the night.  Some of us find Holy here.  Will you allow this?

Actually, this is a moot question.  Because we will be in our caves whether you allow it or not.  But if you can be okay with the cave-dwelling, even if you are unable to understand it, we will all be the better for it -- yes, you, as well as me, them, all of us.  I can hand you a midnight discovery, and you can pass me some sun-drenched revelation.  

Both are needed.  Both are valid.  There is no one way to know God, to truth, to deep being.  There is no one way to clean a room.  There is no one way to __________.

* * *

When I clean nowadays, a grown woman in her own house that she shares with a husband and her own child, I still make a mess first.  I can't help but see the house as a whole, instead of small catastrophes.  I sometimes wish I could be different, could avoid creating more chaos before I clear it.  

But I can't.  Or at least, I don't.  And that's okay.  My way is different than your way, or his way, or that family's way, or my parents' way.  Just because it is different doesn't mean that it is bad, or wrong.  

I wish we could all remember this at all times, for all things, with all people (myself included) -- that different is okay.  That we don't have to be at war with each other, especially when we could be at war together against poverty, injustice, climate change, disease, and all the rest of the world's too-many horrors.  We are called to be stewards of the earth, but instead we have become a pillage planet and a pillaged people in the name of God.  I am not sure that God is okay with this.  In fact, I'm am more and more certain that she is not.

It's not too late.  We can change this, you and I and we and all of us.  It just takes a few raindrops to form a drip, and then only a few more to form a rivulet, and then before long we will be a thundering river washing toward the ocean.   

Will you jump in?  The water's fine, even though that we know the world is not, because we're not sitting around on our hands and our platitudes and our creature comforts anymore.  

Let's see what we can do when we join hands and love each other with a real, true, deep, and fully unconditional love.  I am holding out my hand to you now.  Will you take it? 

"Comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, then a master.  And then it becomes a tamer, with a hook and whip it makes puppets of your larger desires."
- Kahlil Gibran
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  1. I started copying and pasting things I wanted to say, "Yes!" to, but I'd just have to copy the whole thing. So yes. Yes to all of this. Let's all do this.

  2. I've only begun to start doing it "all wrong" and I think I shall keep doing it all wrong!
    Amen to all of the above :)

  3. I clean rooms the same way, Beth!
    Oh, so much of this is epic. I found myself saying, "yes", along the way to so much.
    The analogy of cleaning your room and thrashing is perfect for my journey. I can also relate to the cave dwelling. I spent most of 2013 in my cave. I have poked my head out of the cave in 2014. Thank you once again for sharing your beautiful heart and being so fearless xo

  4. This is just everything I have been trying to articulate in the last few months!! I find myself in a almost identical place as you, and at first I was scared to death, now I am learning to embrace it...Thank you...

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  6. Oh, brave Beth, I so enjoyed reading this. Thank you for giving us insight into your journey, knowing that it will not be like anyone else's who is reading it. Love you so much.

  7. Oh Beth. Brilliant! I love your description of "tracking spiritual mud and clumsy, earnest questions around their painstakingly cleaned castle." and wholeheartedly agree that "I can hand you a midnight discovery, and you can pass me some sundrenched revelation. Both are needed." Truth, my friend. so beautifully explained. thank you.


"I am glad you are here with me."
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King