To Everything, Turn.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.  – Ecclesiastes 3

My family said goodbye this week to our patriarch.

My grandfather was nearly 100 years old, and his presence in this life was powerful. He was loving and strict, easy to laugh and just as easy to eagle-eye you into a corner if he was concerned about your direction. He fought the Nazis. He gathered wildflowers. He ran businesses and raised a family. He loved life, and life loved him right back just as hard.

So saying goodbye has been a challenge. I spent the first week after his death in a weepy haze. I know it’s perfectly natural that a person this old should pass away, and yet I just didn’t really know how to let him go. He has presided over all of the most significant moments of my life to date, and thinking about how to anchor anything without his involvement has been difficult. I just kept thinking, “He’s gone.”

Then, it happened. At a 30-plus family member dinner on Saturday night, the cousins started dancing.

These were the little ones, ranging from 3 years old up to 10.  Some of them knew my grandfather, but many were too little and lived too far away to have any memory of him. I had been agonizing over the fact that they would never really know him, that without his guidance and influence our family couldn’t go on as it had been, that this gathering would be the last of the great family gatherings because without Poppa we would not really know who we were going forward.

“Look,” my husband said nudging me, “It’s a cousin conga line!”

All of the little ones had lined up and were kicking, dancing, and laughing their way through the restaurant we had reserved for the night. I can still see Jennings’ face. My first cousin once removed, he is a live wire and known to be the child who took Poppa’s death the hardest to heart. This was his first real family loss to death, and yet here he was, leading the party.

In that moment, I found myself looking away from the past and toward the future of my family. As The Byrds’ song suggested, I turned. Instead of seeing what was lost through heartbreak, I saw all that is dancing before me into the future.

Such moments are a rare gift. When I was younger I can remember older generations losing loved ones and me wanting to scream, “They are gone! I am right here!” Now I see the pivot point.

And now I turn.

(This piece first appeared on January 22, 2013, on The Mommyhood, a blog of The Charleston Daily Mail.)

 

God-Talk: Acknowledging the Individual and God

(P)rogressives have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.

You might say the same thing about conservative Protestants (i.e., “evangelicals”). But the thing is, their people pretty much know what they think of God. It’s well-known and on the record.” — Tony Jones, A Challenge to Progressive Theo-Bloggers

“Well-known.”

“On the record.”

“PR problem.”

These are some of the phrases that jumped out at me when Tony Jones issued his challenge to write about what I believe about God.

I’m not supposed to tell you what I believe about Jesus, or social issues, the church, culture, or society. This is specifically a request to write about the nature of God. Frankly, this is what I prefer to do anyway, and I’m with Mr. Jones in that I think slipping away from strong and articulate conversations about the nature of God is not doing progressive believers any favors. Part of the problem is feeling revulsion at the twisted theologies of God as politician, angling for a particularly powerful nation-state rise to global domination. Defining God as uniquely interested in one society over another is definitely not part of my God-talk. This makes me neither atheist, nor agnostic, nor unloving toward my own country.

I believe the nature of God is individual, and I wonder sometimes if this may be a major divide with believers who identify as evangelical or conservative. There is the “two or more gathered in my name” teaching, but all indications are that those are two or more individuals with a common devotion and general intent born of an individual relationship with God.

I believe the spirit of God seeks to be alone with every person on Earth. I will go so far as to say I believe that only that still and exclusive connection can save a life. I shudder when I see large groups of people pursuing some “lost soul” who they believe is in need of their assistance to be saved. I have to assume that their intentions are good, but God doesn’t need a gang. In fact, God “needs” nothing but the listening and sincerity of the individual.

I believe that Christians must be vigilant in our desire to know the difference — or to at least try to know the difference — between our agendas and the nature of God. The only way to approach clarity in this complicated zone is to, again, find a way to be alone as an individual with God and be willing to practice discernment in our faith journeys.

I often go back to the film Dead Man Walking. Matthew Poncelet has a close and devoted human friend and counselor in Sister Helen. He would never have reached his redemption moment without her unrelenting message of confession and forgiveness. But only he could choose to encounter God’s grace. In the end, he was alone with God. I believe that is the nature of God. God’s love and saving grace wants to mend a shattered soul, but it happens only when we say, “Enough of everyone else. I choose to be alone with you.”

Choosing to be alone with God is serious business. It is not just sitting quietly and thinking nice thoughts. It is choosing to let down walls you may not have acknowledged yet. It is choosing to be willing to hear that you need to put down your nets. We like our nets, don’t we?

I think progressive believers need to work through these questions of how to honor beliefs about God’s connection to us as individuals without being co-opted by the right-wing politics that claim the individual is all that matters. This will require getting more comfortable with keeping our social justice leanings out of every conversation, and doing more to talk about how individual devotion to God can change the world.

You can read some of my other writing about:

Faith and Sciencehttp://essediemblog.com/category/faith-andor-science/

Spiritualityhttp://essediemblog.com/category/spirituality/

An excerpt from an essayhttp://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/2011/05/where-is-god-in-chronic-illness.html

Lion of the Morning

Some mornings I wake up with a persistent image in my mind.  Sometimes I know why, but more often than not I really do not have a clear understanding of what brings a picture to the forefront of consciousness so soon after sleep.

Today before the sun rose I was rubbing my eyes and trying to see the coffee pot, but all I could see was the face of a lion.

It was a male lion with a scarred face.  It was not at all frightening but it was awe-inspiring.  The photo posted here is the closest thing I could find to what I saw.  My lion’s eyes were less distant and his face was wider.

I spent some time talking with a good friend yesterday about our personal spiritual beliefs, but mostly we talked about how challenging it is to have constructive conversation with our friends and associates about issues of faith and science.  My friend and I have what seem to be very different beliefs about some things, but honestly at the end of the day I still don’t think we are that far apart in what matters.

Case in point from our conversation:

Me:  I feel kind of bad about this, but I stand up all the time and say I believe in the virgin birth and I don’t really.

Friend: You don’t believe in miracles?

Me: I do.  Just not that one.

Friend:  Really.  Why not?

Me: I guess because everyone is so hung up on sex and it would get in the way of the story if there were a guy.  Who’s the guy?  Do we like that guy?  Was he her husband?  As a woman, I see and live a lot of social judgments that get in the way of what is really important.  I think the story of who Jesus was is told with a lot of myth, but that doesn’t make it untrue.  Myth for me actually tells more truth than science sometimes.

Friend:  I believe in Adam and Eve.

Me: You do?  Why?

Friend:  I just do.  I think there is a line of demarcation when God put his spirit into human beings and we became different creatures because of it.

I avoided any talk of apples and snakes.  But I’m kind of down with his point even though I would never say it the way he did exactly.  We are going to keep talking.

And I’m going to keep thinking about my lion.

Image credit: ODP

Recognizing Jesus: Some Thoughts on Faith and Reason

I recently heard a distinguished professor of religion and ethics discuss some of the more complicated elements of the New Testament. He was a fantastic speaker and knew his material so well he needed no notes and spoke almost nonstop for two hours, holding his audience of students spellbound with both his knowledge and humor.

My favorite moment was when he spoke about the body after resurrection.

“And then there’s the question, what is going on with the body after resurrection?   Jesus has a body.  But he seems to walk through walls.   Then he sits down to eat a meal with his disciples.   I guess the food is disappearing and going somewhere….and then he apparently meets up with people who know him and they don’t recognize him.   They don’t recognize him? Hello?  Why not?  Is he wearing Groucho glasses?”

The class fell out laughing, but it’s a serious question.  What does this mean anyway?

Our professor suggested this: “Maybe when you read something in ancient texts, and it doesn’t make any sense, maybe just maybe you’re not focused on what the writer is really trying to tell you.”  Of course, his big maybe was a polite and gentle way of saying that people get into all kinds of arguments about things that are not really the point.

I get nervous sometimes writing about my personal beliefs about God, in part because we do tend to focus on the wrong things. I worry that if express my questions and doubts in a public way that I will be judged, excluded, and distrusted.   I just read about someone I consider to be a very interesting thinker (John Dominic Crossan) who gets a lot of blowback for questioning some “unquestionable” tenets of the Christian belief system.

I don’t know that I am with Crossan or not, as I have not read his work; but I know myself, and from what I have read I am fascinated.  I also want him and anyone else to ask these questions, to talk about history and scholarship, and to facilitate an open conversation.   I think our understanding of history, of ancient cultures and people, of spirituality and religion, and of the human experience is only enriched by our ability to have respectful dialogue about the most mysterious questions.

Mother Theresa had doubts. It’s rational to admit that if she felt this way and struggled, then there is no one who doesn’t hit the wall.  To some extent I think the closer to the teachings of Jesus one tries to live, the more logical it is that doubts and questions will arise.  Is this really how I’m supposed to do it, because this is very often not one bit of fun, and I’m not sure anything is getting better for anyone as a result.  Do I understand this right?  I really, really don’t want to be doing this the wrong way, or it’s all for nothing.  (I think JC had that moment himself, as I recall…..hmmmm…….)

I like the idea from the lecture I attended, and from Crossnan. If it doesn’t make sense, the answer may not be I need to “have more faith.”   Maybe, just maybe, I’m not paying attention to the right thing.  More egos in the religious community need to allow for that very real possibility.

This Easter I’ll be on the lookout for my best understanding of the man we call Jesus of Nazareth.  Note to self:  If I don’t see him, it’s probably not because he’s wearing Groucho glasses.

Image credit: 3oneseven

Rebranding a Life: Spirituality and Chronic Illness

I contributed an essay to the collection, A Spiritual Life, and the advance reviews confirm that the entire book delivers on its promise of engaging a range of meaningful and personal perspectives on spirituality.  What does it mean to individuals to live “a spiritual life”? 

Writing my essay was a very personal process of articulating the experiences I had after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis twelve years ago.  I spent a long time in a state of “unreadiness” to disclose my condition, much of that stemming from fear of the unknown.  My spiritual journey propelled me into a braver, stronger, richer place as a child of God.  Perhaps one or more of these essays will do the same for you!

I hope you will read the reviewers’ comments below and consider pre-ordering the book for yourself or someone you love.  Publication will be in late April 2011.

A Spiritual Life: Perspectives from Poets, Prophets, and Preachers (Westminster John Knox Press), will be published in early 2011.

“Don’t look for a traditional approach to faith or a unified voice in this diverse collection. You can, however, count on graceful prose and an honest, reflective search–and that, I found, was enough to make my own pilgrimage seem more authentic and less lonely.”
Philip Yancey, author of What Good Is God? and Prayer: Does It Make a Difference?

“In A Spiritual Life, Allan Hugh Cole, Jr. has assembled an impressive group of twenty-four “poets, prophets, and preachers” to write about that elusive thing called their spiritual life. What emerges is not a tight and tidy definition of the spiritual life but a glorious topographic collage of the ways in which people infuse their lives with God. These two dozen compelling writers expand not only our notion of the depth and breadth of the spiritual life, but maybe even our understanding of God.”
Sybil MacBeth, author of Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God

“Too often Americans think of “spirituality” and “the spiritual life” in ways disconnected from the quotidian challenges of our daily lives. This rich collection offers a powerful and poignant counterwitness, displaying the complexities of engaging God in the midst of the ordinary. You will be stimulated, comforted, and challenged by these wonderfully gifted writers.
L. Gregory Jones, Duke University, author of Embodying Forgiveness

“A spiritual banquet, prepared by some of America’s finest writers and thinkers. If you’re looking for a fresh wind to blow through your life of faith, look no further than this gem of a book.”
Philip Gulley, author of If Grace Is True and the Harmony novels

“These meaty essays, generously spiced with personal stories, provide valuable food for thought about ministry, preaching and everyday life in Christ. What a rich feast! Savor this book.”
Lynne M. Baab, author of Sabbath Keeping and Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World

“One of the great gifts of my work is that I often get to ask the question of friends and folks I’ve only just met, “What is God up to in your life?” There are few things I’d rather do than listen to an honest response to that question. Here is a book full of responses by folks who write both honestly and well. Like so many of the folks I’ve listened to face-to-face, these authors give me hope that the Spirit is stirring to bring new life, even in the most unexpected of places.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, author of New Monasticism and The Wisdom of Stability

Proving It – The Soul of Science

A major personal challenge I’ve encountered in the past decade is the pressure to support the idea that positive thinking, or the “right” thinking, will create a person’s reality.  Any skepticism or even gentle questioning of true believers usually leads to vehement assertions that I just don’t want to be happy, or a winner (that’s a whole different post unto itself), or that I’m afraid to be successful (as if there is one way). 

The thing is, these assertions are often followed with opportunities to pay money to a cult figure via DVDs or books or speaking fees to become a happy, successful, wealthy winner.

The whole dynamic frustrates me to no end, but I usually don’t actually care enough to argue about it.  I also don’t argue because I don’t really know what to say beyond, “I disagree.”  But last week’s NYT essay Fight ‘The Power’ has freed me from my hesitancy. The essay breaks down the actual science behind why the human mind is so susceptible to believing that our thoughts control our reality. At last, even if I have to just read it to myself, I have in black and white why I can’t support books like The Secret and The Power.  I’m simply too much of a scientist in my soul.

Christopher Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College. Daniel Simons is a psychology professor at the University of Illinois.  Chabris and Simons, authors of the Fight ‘The Power’ essay, warn, “Whenever you hear someone appeal to impenetrable physics to explain the workings of the mind, run away — we already have disciplines called ‘psychology’ and ‘neuroscience’ to deal with those questions.”  They go on to explain what they see as the fundamental hook of the pseudoscience behind some of the most popular publications that use this line of thinking:

The message of “The Power” and “The Secret” might best be understood as an advanced meme — a sort of intellectual virus — whose structure has evolved throughout history to optimally exploit a suite of weaknesses in the design of the human mind.

It does seem that we are not too hard to fool, we humans; and a fool and his money are soon parted.  We tend to do things like assume sequential events are cause-and-effect; to think that the more people who say something the more likely it is to be true; and to assume we understand things that when pressed we can’t explain in even the simplest terms.   There is also a human susceptibility to voices of “authority” and what is called the “illusion of potential.”  Who doesn’t want to believe we could all do and have anything at any time, that we are just holding ourselves back?

All of this said, it is fine line for me to explain that ultimately I do think it is important to manage what one runs through his or her mind.  It’s not that I think we are creating “particles” of energy that are shaping the universe — poppycock.  I do think, however, that how things seem on a day-to-day basis has value that is real beyond what may actually be scientifically demonstrable.  I remember specifically talking with a physician once about symptoms that were bothering me from a chronic health condition.  I asked about a medicine and he said, “That won’t fix the underlying problem.  It will just make you feel better.”  Right, Dr. Genius. That is why I’m here, to feel better.  If I can’t get better, feeling better is an excellent second choice.  Feeling better is its own kind of reality.

It is important to keep what one thinks and believes about managing life as something that ultimately belongs to the individual.  In the movie Contact (based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name), Ellie (Jodie Foster) and Palmer (Matthew McConaughey) represent the ongoing debates of science and religion.  Ellie simply cannot comprehend Palmer’s way of thinking, with its relative nonchalance toward the hard proofs of science.  He is dialed in to a spiritual approach to life that is sometimes compatible with science but entirely independent of it.  Ellie likes Palmer, and does her best to not disrespect him in their conversations, but she finally conveys to him that she thinks he’s just not using his mind.

Palmer asks her one question.  “Did you love your father?”

“Wh….What?” Ellie responds, stunned and knocked off guard.

“Did you love your father?  Yes or no?”

“Yes,” she says softly.  “Very much.”

Palmer has one request.  “Prove it.”

Probably there will always be things that science can’t explain, and I would venture to say most of those things involve bursts of human greatness more than our frailties.  The sins, the crimes, the failures – these seem graph-able and biologically understandable.  But what of the redemptions, the victories, the forgiveness and yes the love that make no sense around the dinner table, much less the laboratory?

I’m just a scientist in my soul.  I can’t prove any of this.  But because I truly believe it, I will wake up tomorrow and be someone who does things that make the world a better place, and that is reality.

Photo credit: Warping History: Analytical Methods in Historical Cartography