Sunday, March 22, 2015

How can you expect me to believe this stuff?

If you know me at all, even from just my blogs and Facebook, you know that I am a wanderer. I wrote many years ago that my faith is an ocean in which I swim, occasionally washing up on the beach, drying out and looking around, and then plunging back in. That describes me in the full strength of my faith, however. The fact is that many times I have dried out, looked around, then got up and left the beach to wander the highways and byways that lay inland. 

Always, always I came back ... obviously, because here I sit, talking to you from the beach itself. It is a Sunday morning, though, and I note that I am on the beach and not in the ocean, not at church joining in worship with my brothers and sisters, and hearing the message brought by my pastors and teachers. I am sitting here and all of me is dry except my heart, which is a soggy sad mass inside me, and an occasional tear that reaches my eye.  Be aware that as I write this, I am in the process of withdrawing from antidepressants, so I am feeling a little more emotional than usual. What exactly that means I am not sure. It could mean that I am completely delusional and feeling sorry for myself. But it could just mean that I am allowing myself to acknowledge and feel things I usually suppress. I am never going to claim to be an expert in My Self, so your guess is as good as mine on this.

I have questions. I suspect it's not really cool to talk about these questions. I know they are not unusual. I know that even the strongest Christians have doubts and questions. I know it, however, because I have seen them nod their heads gently in church when it is mentioned. But when I saw this, I was astounded by it. It's not something people talk about that I have heard, probably because they are not loose-lipped blabbermouths like I am. And it just may not be okay to talk about these things, because I don't want to dissuade those who are leaning towards faith to step away, or to cause those who are holding tenuously to their faith to abandon it. I know that I have been at least partly responsible in the past when those who were strong in their faith lost it and walked away, and so far have not returned, and that breaks my heart over and over. So please, here is the essential thing ... I'm still here. If you are a human being with a brain, you are going to have questions. That doesn't mean you can't also be a believer. It is called "believer," not "knower." "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." (1 Corinthians 13:12) But I am going to say these things anyway, first because I know I am not alone and if you are like me you don't have to feel alone either. And also because I am still waiting for someone to come up with an answer better than any I have, so PLEASE, if you are the person, leave a comment here! 

So, let me tell you where the wave that washed me to the beach this time originated. It was last week, after church, and I stopped by Barnes & Noble because I had a coupon and I wanted to get a moleskin journal. (Moleskin is a brand, by the way. It is not made from mole skin. Just to be clear.) While I was there I wandered over to the Bibles section because I have a probably completely unhealthy love for the Bible as a physical object. Seriously, you should see how many of them I have in my house. I never read the same book twice in the same Bible, because I have to make fresh highlights each time. There are a lot of books I like to read over and over again, so I make use of all these Bibles.

But we are digressing here. On the top shelf of the Bible section there was this thing called "The Brick Bible." It's basically a comic book version of the Bible, which uses photographs of Lego figures to tell the story. I was browsing back through Revelation, interested to see how that might look in Lego-land, and I came across Revelation 2, the message to the church at Thyatira. There was a picture box for the verse that says, regarding "Jezebel," "I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am He, who searches the mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works." And there were these Lego people, their little faces filled with grief, holding dead babies, while other dead Lego people lay on the floor. 

My heart just froze within me. 

I have always had problems with some of the parts of the Bible that present God as Judge, or more to the point, that paint God as a Mean Guy. I'm sure I have mentioned that before. Nor does there seem to be any answer that really stills this protest within me.  I have read "Erasing Hell" by Francis Chan twice, and just might read it again before all is said and done. I love Francis Chan, by the way. But he basically says that nobody wants to believe in God as Judge, but if God IS Judge, are you willing to believe in him anyway? It's really the only answer I've heard that makes sense, and yet I still get washed ashore when I come across these verses.

I have been exploring some other ways of looking at things, actually recently read "A Generous Orthodoxy" by Brian McLaren ... which seems to say that there are various ways of looking at the Bible. Well, yes, this is true. But when you hear hoofbeats, do you think "zebras"? I've always figured you might just as well think horses. I intend to think about this further, but what is the end extension of this? The Old Testament, for example, is not simply presented as a history of a people. It is full of "God said." McLaren talked about the book of Joshua and the Israelites having to fight to establish their home in the Promised Land, and how that was pretty much the norm for the day, for a nomadic tribe to have to fight brutal battles in order to establish a home for themselves. Well okay, but I read the book, and the situation is a little more complicated than that. (If you haven't read the book I'm not going to tell you what it says, cause I wouldn't want to give any spoilers away.) And what of Ezekiel? And Jeremiah? The Jews were conquered and the prophets were just giving an explanation for it, rather than the conquest actually being the Judgment of God? 

I don't know. And how can I know? I suppose it is possible to view the Bible as the chronicle of a nation's relationship with God rather than the chronicle of God's actual dealing with a nation, reflecting the understanding of those who wrote it rather than God's dictation. This was a difficult concept for me to grasp, because my first thought was that it would render my beloved Book kind of meaningless. But I just realized (just this very second in fact) that it would not. 1 Timothy 3:16 says, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." Whether or not every single word in the Bible was dictated by God, he breathed into it, literally inspired, so that when we read it, it speaks directly to us. (Once upon a time if I'd read the sentence I just wrote, I'd have exploded with, "error error!" If my wandering has had one impact on me, it is shaking the judgey part out of me.) We Christians read the Bible that way all the time. Take Isaiah 29:11-13, one of our favorite verses:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.... 
This scripture is a promise, and we count on it. You, who may be reading this right now, you can count on this promise. But the fact is that it was written for someone else, in a specific situation. Verse 10 specifically addresses it to the Israelites in captivity: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place." Yet because it was inspired, breathed out, by God, we can open our Bibles today and read it and God can speak directly to us in our situation today. You can open the Bible randomly and if you need speaking to, God will take you to a scripture that will do that. And this is true regardless of anything else, regardless of whether God dictated the Bible with every-word-as-truth, or whether he breathed into the stories written by those who loved him, which don't have to be literal truth. 

So many times in the past my beach-sitting turned into wandering, but I just seem less able to do that these days. My land legs are gone, and I have been morphed into a sea creature. Yes, that's me, the sea lion! I can say, no God, I don't like this, let me go, and God says, "But you told me not to let you go." Cause I did, you know. I prayed and asked God not to let me go, and the next time I wandered, I got a good start into the woods but it was a short one, before God put up a "Stop! Turn around!" sign. Thoroughly tired of this wandering, I changed my prayer and said, "God, bind me tightly enough to you that I can't fall, much less wander away." 

And you know, he has done that. Little signs all along the way, everywhere I turn. In this week, when the doubt and questions first cropped up, a blog entry by Pastor David Silvey appeared in my email. Pastor David is not a frequent blogger, so this is a fairly unusual occurrence. But it began, "Maybe it started weeks earlier, maybe months or years, who knows. Whatever the case, somewhere along the line an attitude was formed in Jonah. These things never happen overnight. A little here, a little there, and before you know it you can begin to drift away...." Uh, okay God. I hear you. 

Still ruminating in a slightly rebellious way, a couple of days later a client came to sit at my desk in my office and said, "Oh, is that a necklace on the floor?" It was! It was my cross necklace, which I love and wear 24/7! I figured the chain had broken, but no ... it was perfectly intact. It had apparently just unfastened itself and had fallen to the floor. The cross was even a little bent, where I had apparently run over it with the wheel on my chair. I straightened it and put it back on, amazingly easily by the way (I usually have trouble with the clasp because of my nails). It shook me, though, felt kind of like a warning, and I said a silent prayer, "Don't leave me Jesus! I promise I won't leave you!"

Honestly, truthfully, this is the first time in my long life as a Christian that I have actually been afraid of wandering, and the reason is because God has drawn me back so many times in so many ways, has worked so hard to keep me, I cannot just shrug it off and say it's not true. And because of that, in spite of what you may think on reading this, I am also concerned about being wrong.

Still there are a couple of areas in which I am not in agreement with perhaps the majority of Christians. The big one has to do with gays. I have just kept my mouth shut about it for a long time, but honestly there are a few things that dwell at my core, and this is one of them. I do not believe being gay is a sin, and I fully support gay marriage. Yes, yes, I know the verses, even in the New Testament, that address this. But there are verses in the New Testament that say women should pray with their head covered, and that women should not have short hair (1 Corinthians 11:13-16), but no Christian women use head coverings anymore, and probably the majority have short hair.  I remember once some study Bible or another had a commentary on these verses that said there was a temple to the goddess Diana in Corinth and the cult prostitutes were required to have short hair, and that the Christian women in Corinth were instructed not to wear short hair so that they wouldn't be confused with the temple prostitutes. I don't know how much sense this makes in the context, but if so, it is also a fact that homosexual practices were part of the worship of many pagan religions, so might that be the reason for the various times we see this practice spoken of in the New Testament? Well, I don't know. Could it be a cultural thing? If the Bible is inspired rather than dictated, this could easily be so. I do know, however, that it is not the only thing spelled out in the Bible that is ignored today for one reason or another, and I'm not referring to Old Testament law. Even Jesus said that if a man divorces his wife and marries another he commits adultery, but there are second marriages happening in our churches every day.

But I know, and dearly love, a lot of gay people, and being gay is who they are. If being gay is a sin, then they are a sin, because it is not an activity, it is an identity. Being gay is not about their sex lives ... it is about their love lives. Yet I know that this thinking is not accepted in the churches which I attend, and I am not quite sure if there is anything that can be done about that. I mean, I can love you, but can you love me? Can I serve in the church while also supporting gay marriage? Many years ago I began attending a Foursquare Gospel church in San Leandro, and although I no longer attend that church, I essentially do still, because both of the churches I do currently attend contain branches from the original church as both have pastors who were on staff there. But I must confess I am feeling an essential loneliness in these places, because I feel that the people who share their hugs and smiles just might not love me so much if they really knew me. So here, this is me. I am Sharon. I think too much. I talk too much, and it is very hard for me not to. And I believe in love, even among those who are not heterosexual. And I believe in God's love and forbearance as well. Hey, you guys remember David?  

There are a number of verses in the Bible about Christians being "called." This has always spoken to my heart, because that is exactly how I feel. I feel I have been called. From a very young age, with no religious background or training, I had this desire for God, and specifically to understand the Bible, even though I'd never possessed one, had never read it or had it read to me, and even though I had found what "Bible stories" I had been exposed to pretty boring. This call followed me through high school and into college, until finally at the age of 20 I actually picked up a modern translation of the Bible and began reading it, starting in the book of Acts. Nobody ever witnessed to me, I didn't go to church and answer an altar call. I found God in the Bible, and here I am today, 40 years later, still seeking him there.

Please, to anybody and everybody reading this blog, I welcome your comments. Just be nice. No name calling. I will tell you right now that I may be many things, but I am no hypocrite. Whatever I am, it is completely and totally genuine, and sincerely motivated by nothing but love. Nor am I saying I am right and you are wrong. I am just in my stumbling, falling down way trying to work my way through the intellectual webs surrounding my faith. In the end, faith is not an exercise of the intellect but of the heart and spirit, and in that regard, it seems I am bound to it. I have it engraved upon my arm, and engraved upon my heart. I have been through many dark places and have chosen the light, or the light has chosen me, or both. That doesn't mean I know all, or understand all, so if you do, if you have any answers for me, please share. And on the other hand, if you hear God calling you but have been held back from answering because you have questions, just know that you don't have to understand everything in order to answer.