Leave Taking

In a month or so (August 31st to be exact) I have to be out of our house, because we found a renter for September 1 (actually, one of my present housemates is going to take over, and get more housemates – and he already found a bunch.) I'm quite thankful for that, because the housing market is so bad, that for the two months our house was on the market, no one even came to look at it.  Yes, Virginia, the housing market around here is that bad. Our realtor said that basically nothing listed for more than $200K was selling. Sigh.

So …

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Why I am going to call myself a Christian

I came into this world a daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Christians, most of whom were active churchgoers, some of whom were in ministry. I was baptized first in the Presbyterian Church, when I was a baby. I spent the first years of my life as a Presbyterian – our family went to a fairly liberal church in Queens, NY. The minister of this church was, and still is, a good friend of the family.

When we moved away from the neighborhood of that church when I was 9, to a largely Jewish suburb on Long Island, called Great Neck. We didn’t attend church anymore. I missed it. I don’t remember why I missed it, but I know I did. I finally asked to be confirmed in that church, which required some effort on my parent’s part, to drive me to church regularly to take classes, etc.

At 16, my best friend began to go to a church in Valley Stream, NY, which was a Nazarene church (part of the holiness tradition.) She went because another friend of hers had started to go, and she met this guy there, so she became invested. They had a Friday night coffee house – designed for young people. She invited me to go, and I went mostly to please her. But there was something I found there. And I kept going back to coffee house, then finally, to Sunday service.

I soon became heavily involved for the year before I went to college in 1977. I’d sometimes be there 4 times a week (Tuesday night bible study, Wed night service, Friday night coffee house, and Sunday service, sometimes also going to Sunday night service.) When I went to college (Bennington College, in Bennington, VT) I fairly quickly found a church to go to, called the Missionary Alliance Church. It was a small church, of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination. Both the Nazarenes and the C&MA are fundamentalist and evangelical. They believe in the inerrancy of scripture, the true virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus, the rapture and second coming, etc. I quickly got very involved in that church, made friends that I’d spend time with, as much as I could during the school year. During the summers, I went back to the Nazarene church.

I’ve had several explanations for why I got so involved. I think if you asked me why back then, I’d say I wanted to find and worship God, and I found a compassionate community to live in. Right after I left fundamentalism, I think I would have said that I was so involved because I was brainwashed. Many years later, with a long period of self-knowledge and therapy under my belt, I’d say that it was because I found, in that environment, things I needed desperately. I needed to understand a painful and lonely world, and there is nothing better to explain the world for you, than the black-and-white thinking of fundamentalism. I needed people who accepted and took care of me. What I now know is, all of those reasons are true: my desire to worship God, live in compassionate community, brainwashing, and my emotional needs being met. It was also during this time, that I first felt my call to ministry. I was fairly sure I was going to be a missionary, given that that was all I could do as a woman. I was also baptized (by immersion) for the second time in the Vermont church. It was a very significant event for me, it felt like I was making an agreement with God, and that God was holding me.

After I’d been involved in both churches for a little over 4 years, the summer I turned 21, I stopped going. There were a number of reasons that I stopped going. First, I’d met and gotten to like a lot of people who didn’t believe what those in the church did. I never completely went for the fundamentalism thing. I never completely swallowed creationism, the inerrancy of scripture, rapture, or heaven and hell. I began to find my willingness to constantly hear doctrine I had a hard time swallowing was waning. I couldn’t believe in a God that would punish people to eternal damnation simply because they didn’t adopt a specific set of beliefs. I had first-hand experience in a home of one of the men in my Vermont church, who had nasty behavior, and abusive to his wife and family (his wife was very sweet, and had invited me several times for dinner.) So this guy was going to heaven, while my friends who were loving and kind, good people, were going to hell? It didn’t make any sense to me.

And, I couldn’t stomach the sexism. As someone who felt called to religious leadership, I felt stymied. I also felt pressure to find a husband, and I began to realize that I was a lesbian, and that wouldn’t work either. I chose to reject the worldview that didn’t allow me to be a lesbian, instead of feeling sinful and rejected by God. I think it was because, for me, the entire worldview was crumbling. There were so many other things I could no longer accept, so that was just another one. So, I not only left the church, but I left that entire worldview, and, indeed, all of Christianity behind. I tossed the baby out with the bathwater, but the baby grew up anyway, and came back.

One of the things that has shaped my life since then, and shaped this process, is that I was, in fact, brainwashed, in terms of what a Christian was supposed to be. So much so, that I ignored my own history, my heart, and my own family’s experience. To me, a Christian was a fundamentalist, and it wasn’t possible to be a Christian unless one was fundamentalist – you weren’t real. Before I left, it meant that people who didn’t adopt the set of beliefs I’d tried to adopt, weren’t really Christians. If you weren’t “born again” you weren’t a Christian. And if you weren’t a Christian, you were basically going to hell. And when I left, this equation reversed, but didn’t change. I didn’t want anything to do with anyone who called themselves Christian, because, they must be like I was before. And, as time went on, and the religious right more and more defined what it meant to be Christian, I found it impossible to even consider it, even in the face of people I knew to be Christian, but were not fundamentalists.

My spiritual journey after leaving fundamentalism was meandering, but, in reality, I wasn’t lost. I avoided things spiritual for about 4 years after leaving fundamentalism, but I soon found myself called to explore my inner spiritual life, which has been, it seems, a constant thread in my life, one I can’t escape. I explored Tarot, Taoism, Wicca, and finally Buddhism, in 1989. I started a spiritual practice of Buddhist meditation that I still have today. It started out slowly, with a few retreats here and there. I started to go to one or two retreats a year, and began a somewhat regular practice of silent meditation. But eventually, I hit a wall with Buddhism. I liked to sit, and I saw how incredibly valuable it was for me in my daily life. But whenever I tried to investigate more advanced aspects of Buddhist philosophy, beyond the most basic issues around meditation practice, or the four noble truths, it just didn’t stick. I’d hear a dharma talk on, for example, dependent origination, and I’d be hard pressed to tell you anything about it, even if I’d heard it before (which I had, many times.) Some relatively simple concepts took me literally years to understand (like the 5 hindrances.) And then one day, in 1998, I went to a concert that was being given by some Tibetan monks – with chanting and dharma combat. And I realized, in that moment, why I’d had such trouble: Buddhism wasn’t mine, it wasn’t my tradition. It was a foreign tradition that I couldn’t own. I couldn’t find my home in it. I continued my Buddhist practice, but was myself drawn back toward Christianity. I bought (and read, for the first time in many years) a bible. I bought Peter Gomes’ book “The Good Book,” which I liked a lot. I started going to a Unitarian Universalist congregation in 2000.

I have always, in my life, been drawn to work that I felt had meaning, that would leave the world even a slightly more positive place than it was, that would have positive impact on people’s lives. I am coming to realize that I’ve had a call to ministry for pretty much my entire adult life, but I’ve not been able or willing to follow it. I’ve substituted things that were positive, and helpful, and had meaning (like science, and nonprofit technology), but were compromises. These things included the elements of ministry (teaching, service, continued learning) but without the spiritual focus. Around 2003-2004, I was in a process of re-evaluating what I was doing, and why I was doing it. I didn’t think I was prepared to change anything in my life, but I was drawn to explore. In early 2004, I began to explore the idea of ministry, after 4 years of being very involved in my UU congregation. Once the idea entered my head, it wouldn’t leave me alone. At first I thought, OK, this is something I can do when I’m 50 or so. But it became abundantly clear to me that I wasn’t supposed to wait. So I didn’t wait, and applied to seminary for the 2005-2006 school year. Which is where I sit, right now.

In the process of discerning my call to ministry, I also have been re-introduced to that baby I threw out 25 years ago. She’s all grown up, now, and ready to enter into my life. After reading Peter Gomes, I read a succession of books by Christians and about Christianity. Thomas Merton, Simone Weil, Karen Armstrong and others. I took a course in the Fall of 2004 called “Women in American Religious History,” which largely dealt with women who were Christian. I fell in love with Dorothy Day, and some early African American women preachers. Before I left the Amherst area in the summer of 2005, I went to the Amherst Congregational Church a couple of times. I was, honestly, astonished at how much I loved it. I liked hearing about God, I liked explicitly worshiping God.

Since I’ve started seminary, I’ve found myself going worship services 3 times a week – Sunday service, a Wednesday service that is Taizé (an ecumenical contemplative worship service), and Tuesday Chapel. They have all been Christian-centered worship. And what I have found is that I have been incredibly fed spiritually by those experiences, and I find myself at home, in a way I never felt at the UU church. It’s hard to say that, and take that in. When I first started at the UU church, I was comfortable. I found a community of people that I loved being a part of, and contributing to. I thought that I’d found the spiritual home I’d been looking for. It was close. I can’t imagine that I would have been able to handle any of the services that I’ve experienced in the last few months when I first started going 5 years ago. I still had that boxed-in perspective about what it meant to be Christian – that it had to be fundamentalist, and I couldn’t go back to that. But there always was something missing at the UU, something I couldn’t articulate, until now. It was a structure, a container to hold my faith. One that is flexible, yet solid, open to influences from outside, but whole. It was a sense of the worship of God that I was missing.

I said once, in a credo statement, that “my fundamental beliefs have not changed tremendously – but have ebbed and flowed. There are some beliefs I’ve discarded, some rediscovered, many I’ve always had.” The truth is, I’ve really not changed much at all in the many years since I was a child. I have just articulated things differently. I never let go of the idea of a larger, ineffable, unknowable whole that is in us and outside of us. It’s just now I’m willing to call that God again. I’ve never let go of the idea that we all are interdependent, and that treating each other with compassion is the most important thing we can do. I’m now willing to call that living by Jesus’ example. . I never let go of the idea that I ended up in the right places at the right times, and that I needed to follow a path with significance. I’m now willing to call that following the will of God. I can be clear about the things I adopted as a fundamentalist, but am gladly leaving behind. And, I also can see what I discarded when I left fundamentalism that I want to pick up again.

So, why am I going to call myself a Christian? I know that Christianity does not hold a monopoly on truth. It would be possible to not to call myself a Christian, given my willingness to accept and embrace all religious traditions. I could straddle the fence, call myself a UU with Christian and Buddhist influences. I’d be safe that way. I wouldn’t generate surprise and concern from people I know, consternation and pre-definition from people I meet anew. My political and social views have not changed at all. Given the people I know, and the life I’ve led in the bluest subcultures of the bluest parts of the blue states in the country, it’s the easier road not to. But there are three reasons I will. First (and foremost) it’s because my heart is leading me back. In some senses, if I follow my heart, I don’t have a choice. Maybe it’s the comfort of a familiar context. Maybe it’s that I’m listening to God. Maybe it’s something else. I don’t know, but I know it’s something I have to listen to.

Second, I will call myself a Christian because it gives me a spiritual home, and a context to live within, that makes real sense to me. Because I am finally healed of my fundamentalist brainwashing, I know that there are many ways to be a Christian. As I am learning in seminary, the good parts of Christian spirituality and history are worth exploring and embracing. As a friend expressed, I could explore this context and history for my whole life, and never get done, or bored. I have my work cut out for me, in dealing with some sticky theological wickets, and their meaning for me, but I now understand that I have the freedom to approach and embrace varied meanings of things like the trinity, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. There is an incredible richness of thought and writing on these issues that I am eager to explore. I don’t find myself eager to explore dependent origination, or mysteries and truths of other traditions.

The third reason to call myself a Christian is that I get to be a part of the larger conversation about what being a Christian is, what it means to be a Christian in this day and age, and in this context. I get to speak out, and lend my voice in a strong way in the larger progressive Christian movement. Being a Christian now is both troubling and exciting. There is long, long painful history behind, one that needs to be addressed and healed. There is the challenge before of those who would close God in a box, and tell us exactly what being a Christian means. But there are many people of this faith that are open, of good will, and interested in creating a Christianity that is truly one that Jesus would be proud of. And, I get to be another good example of what a Christian can be: open, pluralistic, compassionate, and progressive.

This is all a work in progress, these reasons to call myself a Christian, and ultimately my life. But somehow, in the last few months, it’s all come together in a way I never expected it to.

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Cleveland, OH

Ruth and I are in Cleveland, OH – taking a break from her two-week long residency teaching poetry at Ashland University's MFA writing program. I joined her for the week, and have been doing a bit of work, and a good bit of writing.

I'm sitting at a cafe, namely Arabica's cafe, in University Circle. This Arabic was not here when I lived here 20 years ago. There was a single Arabica that had just opened up in Coventry – a fun place to hang out, with people playing chess and go in the back.

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