Category: God and Faith

The American Dream and the Offensiveness of Grace

One of the greatest myths in our society is that if you work hard enough, you can be/have/do whatever you want. Of course most of us have realized, somewhere along the way, that while there is great value in earning what one wants, sometimes no matter how hard we work, things still don’t go our way. A level playing field seldom, if ever, exists. Some people are born into comfortable and safe circumstances, while some are born into poverty and violence, and have to strive much harder only to arrive behind those not facing such challenges.

Still, this myth persists in our politics, our pop culture, and sometimes even in our churches. It’s like we’ve forgotten what people across the ages have known: Life is not fair.

Or is it?

vines-wine-grapes-vineyard-fruit

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a story about what the Kingdom of God is like. The parable of the eleventh hour describes a vineyard owner who hires a worker who is waiting for work in the market square early in the morning, who agrees to be paid a denarius (a day’s wages) for the day’s work. Then the vineyard owner hires more workers mid-morning, more in the early afternoon, and then even hires some who are still waiting in the late afternoon (the eleventh hour).  Then at the end of the day, they are all given the same pay of one denarius.  The guy who started working early in the morning is pretty pissed, thinking that he deserves more then the eleventh hour guys who only worked an hour.  But the vineyard owner says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first and the first will be last.”

I’m no theologian; I don’t speak Greek, Hebrew, or anything aside from English and my own mangled version of Spanish. But as far as I can tell, this parable is about the grace of God. It’s about what God in his mercy chooses to give, regardless of what we do to try to earn God’s favor.

It offends our sense of fairness that the worker who worked the longest should not get the greatest reward. But that is the offensive thing about grace – it’s free. We’re not deserving of it and we can’t earn it.

I’m reminded of when I gave birth to my daughter and brought her home for the first time. My son was just two, and he didn’t really like her. When my dad held the baby for the first time, my son burst into tears. And I get it. It offended his little sense of justice, and that was mainly because he felt that he had ownership of Poppop’s attention and love, and was entitled to it – all of it.

rafi and lil

Just like the worker who started early in the morning felt entitled to a greater portion of his employer’s money. Just like we think we are entitled to God’s blessings, that we are more deserving of them because we have them.

If my son had been older, more mature, he would have understood the importance of his sister’s needs being met. He would have understood that there is no limit to the love of a parent (or grandparent) for their children, that there’s plenty to go around, that through his sweetest moments, and his most trying moments, he is still utterly loved, just because he is our child. And so is she. And his most natural response would be to give that love back.

That is the best way I am able to understand God’s mercy.  We are so often like the older sibling or the early morning worker saying, “That’s not fair! These blessings are mine! I earned them! The new baby is not worthy! The eleventh hour workers are not worthy!”

We are right to value justice, but we are wrong to believe that God is unjust for offering life and grace or blessings to those who we do not deem worthy.  Mercy triumphs over judgment and we all deserve judgment.  But God offers us a denarius, a living wage, a purpose, life, which we cannot earn on our own, waiting in the market square.

And if others receive this grace, if others receive blessings, the correct response is not to view it as unfairness but to rejoice in the generosity of the vineyard owner, and to pass on the mercy so freely given.

As recipients of grace we should be eager to show grace to others, whether it be through understanding, compassion, forgiveness or generosity in sharing our blessings (sometimes in the form of actual concrete blessings like food, shelter, medical care, etc.).

Let’s not let our assumptions about earning the good things in life get in the way of us remembering that grace (both the gift of God for eternal life and many of the good things in this life) is unearned and offered by a vineyard owner who is vastly more loving and generous than we have imagined.

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Life Lessons 1-10

I was at a doctor’s appointment the other day, and I filled out all the forms, writing my age as “31.” Then a few hours later, I said, “Wait a minute,” remembered the year of my birth, did some counting on my fingers, and realized I’m 32. I’ve reached the age where I can no longer remember how old I am.

Since I plan on living till I’m 96, I’m really only a third of the way through life, but I have learned a few lessons along the way, so I’ve decided to write one of those “I’m old, so I can give advice about life” lists. Here it is, in no particular order:

1.) Stop trying to gain self-worth from other people’s opinions of you. Promiscuity, perfectionism, and people-pleasing are just different paths that begin at a very desperate place of insecurity and unworthiness, and lead to a place of a whole lot more insecurity and unworthiness. It becomes easier to get off of those paths when you realize that you are already more loved than you can imagine.

2.) Commit yourself to God. You’re never going to solve all the mysteries of the universe, or maintain a constant feeling of joy and peace. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore and accept the tenants of your faith. There is nothing irrational or inauthentic about committing to something bigger than yourself simply because you can’t always feel it, or understand all aspects of it. If you could, it wouldn’t be bigger than you.

3.) Cut back on the drinking. We all struggle with moderation at times. Unfortunately, if you drink heavily enough, often enough, your regular self will start looking more and more like your drunk self, until eventually you become a stranger. When we are drunk, we numb our real feelings. We trade authentic connection and our powers of reasoning for sloppy, artificial sentiments and unnecessary confusion. We trade our treasures for trash.

4.) Don’t do drugs. See above.

5.) Feel your feelings. We don’t like to feel things like disappointment, guilt or anger, but feelings tell us important things. Guilt tells us when we need to change certain behaviors. Anger or fear tells us when we need to protect ourselves from further hurt or turn down our stress levels. Sadness tells us we have lost something we loved, and we need some time to grieve. I’ve done crazy things to ignore reality, and not feel my feelings. It has never led anywhere good, so I’m learning to walk through those valleys, knowing that eventually those things that feel unbearable now, will become bearable, and then become merely uncomfortable, and eventually they will become wisdom.

6.) Understand that love is not a feeling. Falling in love is easy. All it takes is some romantic music, a sexy outfit, and plenty of alcohol – just watch The Bachelor sometime. But actually loving someone is hard. It’s hard when there are little ones running around, and jobs, and so much to do, and it’s hard when someone acts unlovaScreenshot_2016-04-07-13-29-13ble, as we all do from time to time. And it doesn’t always feel worth it, either, despite all our platitudes. But then again, actual love isn’t a feeling, is it? It is actions and service and sacrifices and forgiveness and choices. And sometimes it is in those painstaking, daily decisions to act in love (even when you don’t feel like it) that feelings of love are rekindled.

7.) Practice forgiveness. It’s easier to forgive than to hold on to bitterness, which is incredibly painful. Not forgiving is a way of holding on, of keeping the hurt close, and forgiving is letting go, so that it no longer occupies your mind and your heart. It doesn’t mean that you have to forget, or that your relationship with the person who hurt you has to stay the same. It does mean you have to understand that you are also forgiven.

8.) Savor the moment. Even though we hear it all the time, it’s hard to accept that we can’t change the past, and that the future holds no guarantees. But once we accept that, it’s easier to enjoy the moment. And that sunset won’t last forever. You won’t always be able to enjoy a cup of tea with your grandparents. And some day that child will not want to sleep with his arms in a vice grip around your neck and his face smashed against your ear, so you might as well enjoy it now.

9.) Understand that everything is not going to be OK. People get sick, and they don’t get better. People do their very best and still don’t obtain the desires of their heart. People hurt each other in profound ways. People give up. Sometimes life is far more painful than we expected, and at some point, we will all face deep disappointment.

10.) But then again, everything is going to be OK. We see such a tiny fraction of space, and hear just a millisecond of the story. Human beings are tremendously resilient, especially when they harbor a belief that there is always a reason for hope, and I don’t think that is a coincidence. While I will never fully understand the complex interaction between free-will and divine providence, I believe that God can take our biggest hurt, our greatest failures and even our most asinine decisions and still make something beautiful. And if we look for it, sometimes we are fortunate enough to see it.

 

Clinging to a Mustard Seed

The night is hurtling towards the early morning hours but I lie awake with my mind spinning. A sleepless night with no distractions is my enemy. I push away memories like ping pong balls in my head, only to have them return, jolting, distorted, as soon as my body begins to relax.

And so I seek desperately for a solution to an unsolvable problem. My heart aches and my mind turns round and round for a resolution, an answer, relief, but there is none. Time (and work) heals all wounds, but I am impatient. I am tired of feeling.

My husband touches my elbow. I am pulled back, as if from outer space, to the present moment. To a half-asleep caress. To a bed, with soft pillows and warm blankets. We have so much. Our home is quiet and at peace in this moment. For now, the past is blown away in the sound of a stormy wind. I am sheltered in a warm home.

As the wind picks up, a whimper from the little one’s room turns to a wail. After a moment, I go to her. She settles immediately, like she just missed me. We rock a little while in our hand-me-down rocking chair. The stuffed and faded arms are scratchy, and it squeaks softly with each rock.

Soon her weight is limp in my arms, her fat, velvety cheek squished against my chest. I rock slower, then I stop rocking.

Be still and know that I am God.

She smells like milk and cookies, and feels as warm as toast. I breath in the moment. Then I lay her down in her crib and go back to bed. And there they are, still – all my worries. There on the bed, waiting for me, in a heap. Kids, marriage, job, money, home, parents, health, the state of the world, the state of myself.

Is everything going to be OK?

Some questions have no answers. The wind rattles the windows. I can see the tree branches shaking against the hazy moon. The ground will be littered with them in the morning, if they’re not strong enough.

Be still, be still, be still…5bdb5539-b0c8-4bd3-9971-67820b30e383

All things work together for good.

In this moment, the words are lost in translation. They do not make the journey from my head to my heart. But they are true, nonetheless. So I wait. I endure.

I focus on five things I can see, four things I can feel, three things I can hear, two things I can smell, one thing I can taste. I ground myself in the night. I count my breaths. I say another prayer. The same prayers, again and again. Then I listen. I remind myself that the silence does not mean that I am alone. The wind dies down. And before the sun rises, I sleep.

Want to see other stories of faith in the dark or add your own?  Click on the link.

Night-Driving-Synchroblog (1)

 

A Response to the Ten Non-Commandments of Atheism

In my last post, I introduced this response to the 10 non-commandments of Atheism that some dudes compiled. I don’t believe these dudes or this list is representative of all atheists any more than I believe the Tea Party is representative of all Christians. But, this list does represent a fairly common set of beliefs for our culture, which we often accept without questioning. I have encountered the larger ideas and attitudes behind these beliefs at various points in my life, and I’d like to respond to them now.

So without further ado, the ten non-commandments:

  1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.

The implication here is that if religious people would only stop being so close-minded, and really consider the evidence, they would alter their beliefs.  And probably the most commonly noted example of this would be a little thing called EVOLUTION.

moses and then ten commandments
The real question is:
Charles Darwin
Who has the superior beard?

More on science in number 3, but I do want to mention first of all that if we have historically believed that the God of the universe could simply speak everything into being from nothing (think big-bang), why could God not also use an evolutionary process to accomplish creation? I’m certainly no expert in whether the creation account in Genesis should be read as six literal days or as six long ages, but I see no reason that science should not help us better understand God.

But I also think we could stand to use a little caution in our estimation of what we learn through science because, after all, the scientific method is a self-correcting process, and what it tells us is “most likely to be true” sometimes changes. In other words, while evidence matters, there is no need to elevate the scientific method above all other ways of understanding the world, and it doesn’t always get it right.

Just take the example of cholesterol. Remember how eating foods high in cholesterol was the worst thing ever for most of your life and then, about 5 seconds ago, science decided it’s actually fine? Thanks a lot, science, you filthy liar, for making me feel terrible about my love for bacon and eggs.

However, bacon is still not good for you. Sorry, Dad.

Anyway, for the theist, the evidence for God is everywhere. It is the astoundingly beautiful and intricate order of the natural world, the profound depth of feeling and desire for meaning and connection that we experience as human beings, our innate understanding of morality and sense of justice, our insatiable and powerful desire to know and be known. For many of us, it is not that we are closing our minds to the idea that we could be wrong, but that the evidence for the existence of God is too overwhelming for us to deny.

  1. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.

I agree with this statement in that we should have the integrity to believe what we think is most likely to be true, not simply cling to something irrational that satisfies our needs. I disagree with the larger implication that this is what religious people do.

In my last post, I wrote a little bit about my own experiences with trying to live apart from religion, and how I became quite adrift and depressed. I described my return to religion as a return to peace and life. Does that mean my religion is a crutch? Maybe so. But does the idea that we might need a crutch mean that we invented religion to meet our needs? Or could it mean that we were invented with the need to connect with something greater than ourselves?

  1. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.

Can you prove that statement is true by using the scientific method? No?! Then why would you believe it to be true, you silly silly person.

It’s not that I don’t think science is important. The scientific method has been an invaluable tool for understanding the world and making it a much better place. It’s just that when we regard the scientific method as the only reliable way of establishing truth, we forget that there are some things that science simply cannot tell us, and that these things are at least as important as the things it can tell us. We place too much faith in what ought to be a tool for understanding the world, not a process by which we define our existence.

I realize I made a leap from “most reliable way of understanding the natural world” to “only reliable way of establishing truth,” but well, I think that is what we have done as a culture. Because things like morals, values, good and evil are not scientifically “provable,” they have been relegated to the realm of imagination. But are things that can be established scientifically, like the dietary guidelines for cholesterol for example, really more reliable than things that are outside the realm of science, such as the moral judgement that slavery is wrong?

  1. Every person has the right to control of their body.

If we consider the natural world, we see quite a lot of violence. If it is wrong to control someone else’s body, it is certainly not because this is a law found largely in nature. It is a law which depends upon our understanding of the value of being a human being. I’m not sure how dependable such a suggestion is in a world where we are all just slated for death anyway. Of course I believe that persons have the right to control their bodies, but I think that this is a God-given right.

  1. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.

This depends on who defines “good.” If God does not exist, and we define what is good ourselves, then yes, of course we can live a good life (according to ourselves.) If we decide that without the existence of God, certain attributes and actions that could be defined as “good” in absolute terms still exist (kindness, compassion and integrity, for example), then yes, an atheist could certainly display such attributes and perform such actions (and they often do.) But to acknowledge the existence of “good,” I think we might have to throw out non-commandment number 9.

6.   Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.

Unless you don’t get caught. Then you actually don’t have to take responsibility. Because you’re just going to die like everyone else, regardless of your actions. Sure, it might feel good to do the right thing. But sometimes? It feels really good to do the wrong thing. And it’s super easy to talk yourself into feeling OK about doing something that’s really not OK. I’ve done it, and you probably have too. Responsibility Shmeshmonsibility.

7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.

Good advice.  So good, it may have been recognized 2000 years before this current enlightened age, when Jesus Christ said the following: “And the second (of God’s two greatest commandments) is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”

8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.

If all there is, is now, why am I responsible to consider anyone else? The lives of future generations will be as fleeting as mine. See number 6. Responsibility Schmeshmonsibility.

9. There is no one right way to live.

If that is the case, why would I abide by any of these commandments? You are writing commandments that you think are right, but you don’t think that right exists! Come on, people!!

Saying there is “no one right way to live,” suggests that there are many right ways to live – at least I think that is the intention. This is true in the sense that some people may like gospel music while some people prefer classical. Some people enjoy a soak in the tub, and some people prefer a shower. Some people like to eat sushi and some people like to eat chimichangas, and all of those are OK. Especially because eating cholesterol is FINE.

But  could there be, “one right way to live,” if you are talking about morality? Could it be that there are certain beliefs that prescribe certain actions, and that are true? For example, if we believe that across time and place it is true that people have inherent value as people, should we then take certain actions, such as treating them as we would want to be treated? Isn’t that the right way of living? And isn’t it non commandment number 7?!?

I think that this item is indicative of a broader societal attitude that we can all be right, except the people who don’t think we can all be right – those people are wrong. See how that works? It is a pleasant idea that completely contradicts itself.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t respect the beliefs of people with whom we disagree. But I also think that in the name of pluralism we have decided it’s somehow inappropriate, or even wrong, to publicly acknowledge and debate our opinions about things like religion and morality, and that instead of engaging in respectful dialogue we should just accept that “we’re all right, in our own way” (except for those who disagree with this tenant.)

  1. Leave the world a better place than you found it.

See number 8. There’s a lot more to say, but I’m going to stop because this is a blog, not a book. And also because when I ponder existential questions for any length of time:

mind blown
This is how I feel

A Pre-Ramble to my Response to the Ten Non-Commandments of Atheism

As I was poking around the world of internet news a while ago, I discovered an article about some dudes who wrote a book about what to do once you decide you’re an atheist, and then created a contest for people to send in what the ten commandments, or “10 non-commandments” as they call them, should be for those who choose to live without religion. They got quite a few submissions.

“A lot of atheists’ books are about whether to believe in God or not,” one of the dudes says. “We wanted to consider: OK, so you don’t believe in God, what’s next? And that’s actually a much harder question.”

I agree with the author here. If one doesn’t believe in a power beyond the natural, physical world, it can be hard to construct meaning. If everyone is headed for death and oblivion, what really matters? Why labor for success, fight for justice, or help other people if we are all just a tiny, accidental blip in the vast expanse of time?

The answer that I have heard that most resonates with me is “because we want to.” If nothing really means anything, we can invent our own meaning as we see fit. So we construct our own concept of what is good, and seek after it.

But is that enough? What about when we aren’t successful? What about when it’s really hard to fight for our fabricated idea of good, especially when we are faced with the understanding that nature doesn’t agree with our idea of good (the strong prey upon the weak, after all – violence is rampant) and that we are nothing more than a part of nature? How do we then motivate ourselves to labor on behalf of other people? What about when we face a chronic illness or become depressed? What about when our idea of good begins to look more like what is most convenient for us? When I look inward, at myself, or outward, at society, I am not convinced that we don’t need something more to make life meaningful and good than our own desire.

But that is simply my reaction. There is plenty of substance out there for anyone looking for scientific, historical, or philosophical debate on the topic of theism, some of which I have read but on none of which I am an expert. I am only an expert of my own experience, a bit of which I’d like to share now.

I grew up in a Christian home with a clear belief in God and the Bible. But like countless other young people, I began to come across what I viewed as contradictions and things that made me uncomfortable with religion as a teenager. This happened gradually but at some point I decided I no longer wanted to be a Christian.

who am i

This worked out well for a while, but as I became more nihilistic, I became more depressed. I surrounded myself with secularism and stopped seeking answers to my questions about Christianity. I struggled with feelings of worthlessness, because if life is meaningless, why should anyone have any worth?

I want to quickly interject here that I do not view depression as simply a spiritual problem. Research has clearly shown that it is a medical problem for which medical treatment is effective, with a variety of complex causes, and it can happen to the religious and non-religious alike. But I do believe that there are times when our spiritual state can affect our mental health, and this period of my life was one of those times.

I began to see myself (and everyone else) as a collection of chemical and environmental responses, and as such felt that I had very little control or responsibility for my actions. Predictably, I made selfish, irresponsible, and hurtful decisions, and ultimately become rather apathetic about what happened to me.

By the grace of God, I came back from that period of my life to a much deeper understanding of what I believe to be true about God and Jesus and life, and why. I never had a breathtaking conversion or re-commitment experience, but instead encountered a gradual pulling, a s20150403_211804tep-by-step letting go that was quite painful at times and ultimately freeing and life-giving. That doesn’t mean I never feel depressed or have questions about my faith now, but it is different. Underneath the challenges, like the proverbial river, runs peace.

People have many very different experiences that inform their beliefs, and I am interested not only in sharing mine, but in hearing about how others see meaning in their lives. So if this is a topic of interest for you or you’d like to share your views, drop me a comment, write me an email (MercyInTheMadness@gmail.com), give me a call, knock on my door, throw rocks at my window, etc. Except don’t really throw rocks at my window – my husband might try to come at you with a baseball bat.

Anyway. My next post will be a quick response to each of the 10 non-commandments. I’m writing this not because I have any interest in attacking atheism, but because I am interested in questioning the validity of some of our very prevalent cultural ideas that I think inform the 10 non-commandments. You may like it, you may hate it, or you may think I need to get a life, but in any case, I’ve tried to write thoughtfully and I hope you’ll take a look. As always, thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Raising My Voice at Christmas

I am at work, on the phone with my husband, and I am trying not to raise my voice.

“Can you at least try? You’re not even trying.”

I am in my office, with papers piled around my desk, none of which I will touch until I put down my cell phone, let my adrenaline settle, turn my mind to more mundane tasks, less threatening things.

I’m talking to the person I love best in the world, and our words are like sharp stones grating on each other.

It is almost Christmas. He tries not to raise his voice.

CAM00821

“I’ll do what you want. Just please let’s not fight now.”

We retreat to our quiet hearts.

A call on my office phone brings me back. I take a deep breath. I put on my professional face. I answer. The man on the other end wants to “discuss work over lunch.”

I have fallen for this before. He discussed nothing but how rich he is, nothing but his thoughts on the inherent sexuality in male-female relationships, subtly tiptoeing around what he really wanted, feeling out whether I might have some inappropriate interest.

“I am a very interesting man,” he had said.

And you don’t always drink beer. But when you do…

dos equis

I will be smarter this time. I am careful not to raise my voice.

“What specifically would you like to discuss?”

The man on the phone drones on, buzzing like my anger.

Seething, simmering, slowly watering itself down until it melts into a sloppy puddle of calm.

It is exhausting trying not to raise your voice. But it is Christmas.

I go home early and put the kids down for their naps. Rafi keeps getting out of bed, interrupting my quiet. I feel as though he is pushing my buttons on purpose. I try not to raise my voice.

“You will stay in bed now.” He feels the rough edge of my words and sulks back to his room.

I start scrolling through my Facebook feed and see yet another ignorant post.

There seem to be more and more. Something stereotyping people of color as violent criminals. Something stereotyping police officers as over-aggressive bigots. The ones that oversimplify complex issues so that it’s easy to cast blame. The ones that suggest that black people or gay people or Muslim people or undocumented people are not really people made in God’s image with individual hearts, but categories to be looked down upon. The ones that say that liberals are ruining America or that conservatives hate progress.

They make me feel defensive, and I want to respond, I want to RAISE MY VOICE, but it’s Christmas.

We are celebrating the birth of the only person who had the right to throw the first stone, but chose not to.

When I think I am righteous, it is exhausting trying not to throw stones. But knowing I have been shown such grace, they all but fall from my hands.

“Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

This is why he came. To help us drop the stones. To preserve justice and mercy.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart,”

To teach us to love people, all kinds of people. The God of the universe, humble, arriving as a helpless baby to serve and to ask us to do the same. Gently telling us to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and visit the prisoner. Redeeming people – tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, little children.

“and you will find rest for your souls.”

There is no rest in throwing stones.

There is rest in receiving grace.

So this coming year, let’s try to respond to one another gracefully instead of raising our voices in anger. Instead, let’s raise our voices in praise for the hope that we have. Let’s resolve to speak the truth, but with kindness and humility.

I Peter 3:15 “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

And let’s bear Christmas in mind all year as we interact with our families, our Facebook frenemies and even the dos equis men in our lives.

Stay thirsty my friends.

(For the word of God.)

(Obviously.)