This is long. Not particularly interesting.
Written over time, actually, but finished today. So, here it is.
I attended Bible college. Admittedly, there's a bit of a confessional feeling in saying that. I know the stereotype, and remember a time when I happily cozied myself up to it (and preached it, and breathed to its beat, and waved it around like a holy flag). And though I'm now less comfortable with much of my former mindset, I have realized that my years in the Praries hold a lot of value; in a different way than I expected, though. The things I learned about life at Bible College aren't church-friendly.
It is important to swim upstream.
I remember what it felt like to watch a good friend challenge the status quo. She read up on other religions -- from a non-Christian perspective. She asked questions no one else would dare ask, and in class, to boot! She breached uncomfortable subjects like sex and women's rights with boys. Christian women were to be submissive and soft spoken; this girl was anything but. Outwardly, I played the part of fisherman. Inwardly, I was conflicted, and perhaps a little jealous. We would sit, friends and I, for hours sometimes, trying to get her back. To what? To the way we had been taught. We so believed in, and so relied on, our rightness, that we couldn't see the value of what she was doing. We couldn't go there, or we'd collapse.
I remember the first time I started to ask questions in church. I was in my early twenties. It was very uncomfortable, and I was losing friends. So I stopped. Mid-twenties, the questions began again, only this time, I was less afraid and more pissed off that nobody would stop to answer or converse. Glazed looks, uncomfortable pauses, brilliant re-enactments of the character of Polly-anna. Hours spent by friends, trying to get me back. Way too many one-shoulder-squeezes to count. But no honesty. No one would go there with me. God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. But what about when it seems he isn't? And isn't he big enough to go with me to the edge? According to the church I attended at the time, or rather, the people I was speaking to, the answer is No. God is not big enough. The God I was being coerced and convinced to believe in was small, fragile, and tempermental.
They say there is value in trying to see yourself in others. But when I saw that version of myself, that guilty clingy plugged-ears version, I recoiled. That version didn't love me, it wanted to correct me for the sake of itself, to reprimand, to corner. I wanted to believe in a God that was big enough for questions; I couldn't find him in the church.
I think of a younger me, looking at my friend with awe and disbelief. I couldn't fathom how she could go around asking questions; I couldn't figure out how her entire belief system didn't collapse. I didn't yet realize that mine needed to.
Sometimes it is important to swim upstream, and sometimes it's important to switch rivers. In the first you build the strength to change, and in the second, you discover the courage to swim as you wish.
Dancing with Natives.
One of my strongest memories from college was the year the Natives came (the band was Broken Walls - check out Holy Is Yahweh, or River of Life). I'd never experienced God like this, so loud, so artistic, so....free. I knew God like the baptist girl I was: neat, tidy, studied and packaged. I knew God like the Christian I was: obedient, conformist, afraid of the water. But these people with their beads, drums, dancing, and voices in unison, floored me. I'd spent my life sitting quietly in a pew, and now I was encouraged to get up, hold hands with these aged women and vibrant men, to dance in their circle, to be unashamed of wanting to move to the music. I spent that weekend in the chapel, letting the drum move my feet, and beat my heart for me.
I remember one of the men was speaking at one point, about the drum. It was huge, majestic, prominent. It accompanied all of their music - like I said, I spent the weekend to the sound and feel of it. It was also controversial. Traditionally, he said, this drum is used to call up evil spirits. Since he was now a Christian, could he play it? His culture and tradition historically opposed his use of the drum in a new context, and the Christian tradition certainly opposed it. Could he sing to the Lord to its rhythms? He broke belief and decided: objects are what we make them. Could the drum be reclaimed? Could they use it, instead, for worship of a different sort? Surely they could. And they did. Using their drum, their music, their stories, they've traveled the world. They've been invited into countries and colonies that would normally not accept outsiders, simply because of who they are. They used the drum for good.
Through them I learned to want a God that would move with me when the world shifted. I came to want a God that would let me make noise, go against the norm, feel him deeply through the rhythms of reclamation. That weekend marked the last time I felt truly comfortable in a tidy pew.
Context vs religion
I'm a big believer in context. No truth is full without the story surrounding it. Growing up in the church, I was told a lot of things. Mostly, I was spoken to in blacks and whites. I should read this book. I should not want to read other things more than this book. I should question what I hear from outside the church. I should never question what I hear inside the church; ideas that come from anywhere but here are heretical. People who don't believe what we believe need to be corrected, or made to feel uneducated for their beliefs.
About half-way through my first year of college, when I was 18 and happily sheltered, I still liked to hold hands with my friends. I remember taking a new friend's hand after a service as we skipped up the aisle. She lost her smile and step immediately, throwing my hand back at me. "I don't want people to think we're lesbians," she said quickly and quietly. "Oh," I said. I was shocked. The idea had not crossed my mind, and once she put that thought out for me to think about, I realized I still didn't care (either what people thought of me or lesbians).
We'll call this one of my first noteable gray experiences. Suddenly, in that aisle on our way out of chapel, the context of my love mattered more to me than the rigidity of religious opinion.
hiding is everywhere.
I'll always remember a friend's response to why she and her kids participated in Halloween festivies. It's Satan's day! Said the church. It's an unholy day! "Satan doesn't get a day" said my friend. Instead of hiding in her house with the lights out, she lined her walkway with candles, opened her door, and met the neighbors.
Some time ago, a conversation about yoga popped up in my aquaintance circle. I'll save you the dogma, but it went something like this: an elementary school teacher leads her kids through yoga inspired stretches, breathing exercises, and hand movements. The teacher does not teach them the spiritual beliefs behind yoga, but simply has them breathe calmly, stretch, and move. This mom was considering pulling her child from the school because of it. To be clear, I know the roots of yoga, and I know how it can be practiced. I don't ascribe to the belief system, but I view yoga like that drum: it is and will be what you make it.
Between hiding from the world and doing what they do, we find ourselves in the murky Christian veiwpoint of being IN and not OF. If we are IN, we are surrounded. If we are OF, we are motived by, or seeking the approval of, or drawn to be more like. When it comes to the frights of THINGS!!!! I would rather my child know the truth of the power of God - because I do believe in it - than run in fear from anything different. I would rather my child be equiped to handle observation, dissection, engagment, questions, and conversation. Quarantine is neither necessary, nor safe.
Downward dogs and deep-breathing won't send you to hell, nor will banging on a piece of animal skin. Neither will I. I've read the Bible, too, and despite what those people on the street yell at you when you pass: it's not their place to condemn you, either.
I digress. What matters is why you do, what matters is the what-for. Bricks and mortar are amoral; it's what you do with them that counts.
In the world.
Maybe the point of belief isn't seperation, class or caste systems, magic wands to make good feelings. It probably isn't to create heirarchy, or determine worth or value, either. Belief in God isn't a guarantee, a waiver, a safe-haven from the stuff of life. Belief in God won't make you rich, happy, thin, successful, or good. It certainly doesn't make believers smarter, better, or wiser. The point of belief is to do something about it.
We're not high-ranking keepers of a secret, we're stewards for a Kingdom. Get to work. Feed the poor instead of whining that God doesn't feed them. Be a voice for the voiceless, instead of complaining about the lack of justice in the world. Go IN to the world. Stop hiding from it, praying yourself out of it's troubles. Get IN there. Get your hands dirty. Come alongside the people you encounter, don't smack them with your Bible. Bible thumping gives me a headache, and I believe what's in it. Anything done without LOVE as a motivator is useless.
It came as a surpise to me, at some point, some time ago, that God is not here to make me feel good. Oh, He listens, and comes alongside, and speaks, and gives. But these things he gives me are not meant to stop with me. He's here to give me what I need so I can care for, provide, give to, and serve others. It's one thing to notice trauma, it's another thing to sit next to somone experiencing it. It's yet another thing to try and stop the bleeding, if stopping the bleeding means I ruin my favorite sweater. This is all a terrible metaphor. My point is this: saying I care about hungry bellies and cold nights on the street, abandoned children and the needs of the refugees, well, that's one thing. Actually doing something about it? Yikes.
Listen, I'm terrible at this. Full disclosure: this final rant is for me. I'll read it later and go, "yah, I know," and I'll struggle to leave my house. I'm not putting this out here as a method of building up my soapbox. Actually, I am very much attempting to dismantle the rickety thing anyway.
Upstream Believer (hey, that sounds like that one song)
Bible college was my holding-tank. It was the final resting place for my childhood experience of church. It was prep school for all of the ways in which Life would disappoint. It was many things, and it was beautiful, but it was not the solid ground I wanted. It was, instead, the catalyst for questioning, observation, and journey.
I expected a lot from it, and even more from my life after. I didn't get what I expected, at all. Instead of perfection and order I have, over the years, earned stripes of imperfection, and seasons of disorder. Loving God has not left me full and strong, it's left me weak and in need of him. My witness does not come from my mouth, but from how I live and treat others.
I am not called to live in a bunker, I'm called to live IN the world. I am called to get my hands dirty, not obsess over their cleanliness. I don't worship the holy, I worship God. Truth is a public forum and anyone can take it; it isn't mine to give out. I don't teach, I converse. I don't demand, I listen. I don't comment, I act.
At least, I am trying.