Sunday, 14 March 2021

Athiesm for Lent?

 So ... "Athiesm for Lent" ... Lent is a time when we give up something we hold precious in order to draw nearer to, and depend more upon, God. Isn't that right? I may not be totally clear on that, seeing as I wasn't brought up in a Lent-practicing arm of the church, but that seems about right to me. I'll just leave a space here to look it up later, but right now I want to write down my personal thoughts before I lose them, which often happens when I go online and get distracted.

(later insert after researching "Lent": searching for God among the brokenness of life; replicating Jesus' sacrifice and withdrawal to the desert for 40 days; discover purpose and make a difference; penitential preparation and repentance for Easter; praise, pray, worship the Lord; purification; weaning from sin and selfishness; coming close to and communing with God ... ha! that last definition is the one I relate to).

Anyway, why would I want to delve into athiesm at Lent in order to draw nearer to God? Okay, so I can understand letting go of my "picture" of God, which has been taught to me by church culture in which I was brought up, and "confessions" and books on "basics of the faith" and lists of "beliefs" and courses on "apologetics" (how to defend your faith) ... and threats/fears on what might happen in one does lose the particular beliefs instilled through all those means ... like hell instead of heaven ... and doubts about the existence of God himself (sorry, I'm not going to deal with gender pronouns just now) if one lets go of any of these "denomination distinctives" (it's a "slippery slope" you know--just look at Darwin and his exploration of nature and science and where that took him ... and then many fine young Christian men (what about ladies? Hmm?) who went off to seminary and "lost their faith" ... and all those leaders of "mainline churches" who turned their "calling" into nothing more than a career/money-making endeavour that they truly no longer believe in, and in the process, lead astray so many people who follow them and trust them because they supposedly are educated representatives of Jesus ... and, of course, the descent into madness of people Neitzche when he went from a pious youth to a total athiest ... and/or perhaps, "mystics" who believed so fervently that they ended up going kind of "crazy" in the opposite direction ... not to mention extremely charismatic folks who left the "safety" of accepted, fundamental(ist) beliefs ....

To be honest, I really don't need a study of athiesm to accomplish giving up my picture (okay: understanding ... even "belief" ... and--oh dear--relationship) of/with God.

When I was a child, I easily memorized the facts about God that I was presented with and even won lots of Bible sword drills, and got prizes for memorizing scripture, and earned the top prizes and a gazillion badges/pins in Pioneer Girls and Christian Youth Crusaders, and knew all the "answers" in contests about the facts of the Bible and/or Christianity (at least as accepted by the branch of the church I was brought up in). We had family worship at home every single day and went to church and Bible camps and evangelistic meetings multiple times a week, and I read through the Bible myself at 9 years old and multiple times thereafter. I even won an airplace ride (a big deal at that time) for getting the most points in Sunday School.

But, with all my "head knowledge" I really did not "get" the whole "heart knowledge" thing. I knew the theory about "giving your heart to Jesus" and "having a personal relationship with Jesus" (and being ready, at all times, for heaven, and not "backsliding" and losing my salvation). But I just couldn't seem to muster up the emotion (many tears) I was supposed to show, or feel the necessary remorse for my sins (which perhaps was the result of having internalized and mostly lived up to the list of rules of living ... a lot of "Thou shalt nots" but perhaps not so much just knowing God in a real, intimate, personal way). Anyway, I was pretty much a "good little girl" and had a strong "intellectual foundation in the faith" which did well for me, at least until my early teens.

Funny thing: in grade 7, I was one of 20 students my age chosen from our entire school district to be bussed every day to the "Major Work Program" (what would later be referred to as a "gifted program"). My parents seriously didn't want me to go because they feared I might end up outside the "protection" of the life I'd been carefully brought up in (in other words, I might to think too much, and start to question things...). And, indeed, the teacher was a proudly avowed athiest and did challenge everything we'd easily accepted in the past. Still, armed with my arsenal of "Christian beliefs" I really did stand up for what I'd been taught previously. 

But oddly enough, what really made me start "questioning" (doubting? wondering?) was attending a Christian youth camp when I was almost 14 and having a "cabin counsellor" who had been a longtime missionary, and told all of us young teen girls that if we were going through anything in our lives that we couldn't share with our parents, we could confide in her and she would counsel us and never tell anyone else. I have no idea now what dreadful secrets or thoughts or ideas I "shared" with her (I was so innocent at the time that they must have been really minor...), but she immediately spilled all my deep, dark secrets to my dad ... who immediately freaked out at me. That was the beginning of the end of a good relationship with my dad ... and of my "trust" of "very Christian" people (we were brought up to highly admire missionaries). Who'd have thought such a thing would start me on the slippery slope of doubt about my "faith"?

I was a pretty typical teen and was curious about the "fun" my friends were having, and I did hang out with some of the pretty "tough" kids and "dabbled" in things--though I was really innocent compared to them: in fact, one group called me their "mascot" and literally protected me against people in the group who wanted to remove said innocence! Anyway, I started to drink alcohol a bit in my mid-teens, and smoked a bit of marijuana later on, and so on. But at the same time, there were "revivals" going on in our area which a lot of previously non- or nominally-Christian kids were enthusiastic about, and I really did try to be part of that, too. Sadly, when I didn't instantly turn into a perfect, serious saint after "going forward to the altar", my dad was really upset with me, and I pretty much gave up on that.

When I went off to University, I was attending a nice, middle-of-the-road-evangelical church, including faithfully attending a Bible study group (and running the Sunday School program for the elementary age kids). Sadly, again, I made the mistake of asking questions about some of the "basics of the faith" and was asked to leave the Bible study group as I was apparently damaging the faith of new Christians (I think maybe the group leader just didn't have any answers and was himself afraid of my questions). It was at that point I realized that I really did have a lot of questions and wonderings and so on. 

After University, I started my teaching career, and really got into drinking, and pretty much quit church, and started "living in sin" and had a "baby out of wedlock" (though definitely on purpose. Having a baby sobered me up, because I'd seen a lot of kids with fetal alcohol and knew I didn't want to damage my babies, for sure.

I really did "return to the faith" as much as I could for a long time, as we had 5 children in 8 years (yes, we did get married), and my husband even went to Bible College. I took a course there in "apologetics" which unfortunately made me wonder about a lot of what they were defending. As I tried so hard to be a "good Christian" in those child-rearing years, sadly (this does seem to be a pattern... sadly...) we ended up in a series of churches which ended up "splitting" and/or in which my talents/skills were appreciated (teaching Sunday School; church office admin skills; etc.) but my deep, honest questions were seen as suspect at best and perhaps even heretical in some cases. I ended up, for a time, not attending church at all (although, ironically, I was hired to run a church office during that time).

Then my mom developed dementia and I became the "primary caregiver" from our family. I could not understand how God could let such a truly "saintly" woman (she really was) go through such a terrible decline, and I became terrified it could happen to me, too. In that same time period, my dad suddenly died of cancer, and mom eventually died of severe dementia. I had job losses, and church losses, and my kids grew up and left home (and church), and all my careful plans went terribly awry, and I was teaching at a "Christian school" where I ended up losing some more of my "faith," sad to say. In the end of all that, I went through a period of deep clinical depression, which really changed my outlook on life. It has been a very long and slow "recovery" over 10 plus year, and my emotions were very flat (self-protection?). Surprisingly, though I feel like I "lost my faith" in terms of many "points of doctrine," I started to gain a deep certainty of God's reality (although I did--and still do at times--have intellectual doubts about God from a traditional doctrinal perspective).

Lately, there have been some new "stressful" events in my life in which I really have longed for that deep "bedrock knowing" of God. And then suddenly I am confronted by this "Athiesm for Lent" course which our church gathering group decided to explore. And it seems like all the "doubts" and "wonderings" I've confronted in my life (I'm 65 now, so for over 50 years) are being dug up again. The ironic thing is that as I'm facing these in a really heavy, condensed format, at a stressful time in my life, the reality of God, for me, has been strengthening ... which, perhaps is what Lent really is about, after all!

The other people in our little group seem to be very interested, even maybe enjoying, learning about and thinking through athiesm and the "death of God" etc., but I feel like I've been there, done that, and I have no desire to go through it all again. This week I haven't even bothered exploring the daily reflections in preparation for today's (Sunday) gathering, and am not even sure I want to take part in it or even just observe it.

The reality of God, for me now, is "outside the box" of doctrinal definitions. But it is far more real--maybe what I've really been seeking/wondering about/looking for all these years. Maybe I've already been through the "psychology" and "philosophy" and "intellectualizing" and "institutional doctine" of it all and just don't need (or want) it any longer. I feel like I'm maybe on the cusp of a new part of my journey with God (I was going to write "spiritual journey" but that's a loaded phrase these days that doesn't reflect where I'm at, though I gone there, quite recently in fact ... and it isn't a "church journey" for me either, which is what this blog started out to be). I've "been there, done that" with the other things I've mentioned here, and I have no interest in rehashing or reliving them, especially "intellectually."  

I feel like knowing God is far beyond human reasoning, although I sure tried that path. Which is probably why dementia has terrified me so much. I've depended on my intellectual "giftedness" but now it seems so ...  I don't know ... so shallow, perhaps, in view of the "knowing God" which I am beginning to finally glimpse (like the glory of the sunrise this morning out my window here, after the deep darkness of the sky before it). I've always wondered about, and longed to see/experience, the "glory of God." And I'm not interested in wading back into the mire I've gone through (though I realize it is part of my journey, too. 

I've also realized it is important to allow others to find their way through their journey with God, in whatever way he might have for them. This is another thing I'm understanding about the immensity of God--beyond immensity, in terms of human understanding--which I'm starting to glimpse and experience--and KNOW. The journey's details are unique for each person, I believe (yes, I do believe). Maybe part of my long meanderings has been trying to follow/imitate others' apparently successful journeys. When God has a journey with me that needs to be walking with him, however that turns out, rather than trying to fit myself into others' ways and experiences. That's a huge relief, actually. And so much more real that any imitation of other humans, no matter how "saintly" (or not, if one depends on "definitions" of saintliness) they might be.

This is enough. For now, anyway. Maybe more later... in this journey.

Friday, 1 January 2021

Am I a Liar? Maybe More Than I Realize?

Do you tell lies? More to the point, do I tell lies? A good question, maybe, for the beginning of a new year when we're encouraged to resolve to improve ourselves, eh? It's a question I've been pondering a lot over the past year, seeing as there seems to have been an ever-increasing amount of fake news, alternative facts, and other truth-stretchers-and-twisters whirling around us moment by moment, and which for a good many people seem to be totally acceptable—even approved. Of course, it's easy to judge others for their twisting of truth, but what about our own "little white lies" (are those really a thing? Another good question for another post, perhaps).

From the time I could string two or three words together, the adults in my life took pains to impress upon me that telling lies is a terrible sin. Adam and Eve picked it up immediately from the "father of all lies" himself, you know. And being caught in a lie (however "little" and "white" it might have been) was a sure path to getting my mouth washed out with soap. This was an effective punishment for me, as I hated the taste, but my brother quite enjoyed it—he enjoyed eating crayons too, as I recall—and thought it much superior to a spanking; I remember how, when he was in trouble, he'd beg for the soap-in-the-mouth-treatment, which I could never understand. But I digress. Anyway, depending on the size of the lie, especially if it led to another and another, which is one of those things that lies tend to do, mouth-soaping could lead to other harsher punishments, so you'd think I would have caught on and swallowed any falsehoods before they could pop out....

The trouble was, telling a lie successfully (e.g. not getting caught) was such great for avoiding punishment for the many other misdeeds we committed, whether intentionally or unintentionally. And oh, my goodness, there were so many possible sins (rules and regulations) which could snare a little person who might not even realize they had done something wrong, or couldn't understand what was wrong with the behaviour or attitude in question. Even a "tone of voice" or a "sassy" phrasing of a statement could invoke judgment by those who loved me dearly and were terribly concerned for the state of my soul—or who simply decided I had crossed a line they'd drawn. Sometimes, of course, I was a line-crosser on purpose, but quite often I found the said line to be very puzzling indeed. 

Certainly, there were things I did that I knew and understood were unacceptable: clearly stated rules like the Ten Commandments which we memorized early on (at least superficially; I wasn't always clear about, for example, about how being angry at someone could be equated to killing, though we were often warned about slippery slopes; and I had no idea for quite some years about what adultery might be and how it related to me as a young child). Other rules ("Thou shalt sit quietly and not wiggle during long sermons in church" — my poor wiggly little brother got spanked quite often for breaking that one, and I once got spanked as well, since Mom felt it was a bit unfair for him to get more spankings and she told me it wouldn't hurt me to join in receiving the spanking so he wouldn't feel so picked upon. That's one of those occasions in my young childhood that inexplicably has stuck with me these 60ish years later!). I suspect Mom did not enjoy spanking us, but it was a well-accepted and even expected way to keep children on the straight-and-narrow, and perhaps she felt under pressure to do so in order to be a good parent. At any rate, she once told me, many years later, that she suspected I often got away with things I hid much better than my poor brother, who found it much more difficult to appear as angelic as I did. And, yes, that brings us back to telling lies.

So telling lies successfully was appealing, as it avoided punishment for other crimes committed. While I was generally a "goody-two-shoes" little gal, usually obedient and respectful, I was also in fear of breaking the many rules set before me by definitely caring parents, grandparents, church, elderly folks who felt a direct responsibility for my soul; school teachers and the dreaded principal; ministers and Sunday School teachers; moralistic stories in Sunday School papers and Christian children's books; sermons at church and Bible camps and church children's groups and evangelistic services and prayer meetings, and so on. Naturally, there was also the Bible, which I had been thoroughly schooled in from birth, and read through it completely myself for the first of many times at nine years of age; one of the things that puzzled me about that was that it did not include many of the rules and regulations I'd been taught so thoroughly. 

Therefore, the usefulness of "the lie." The thought of spankings at home terrified me, though they were few and not terribly painful; and I was also quite terrified of getting in trouble at school. Detentions were shameful, and while I mostly kept out of trouble (I remember once having to clean the entire classroom floor by crawling up and down the aisles pushing my ruler in front of me), I saw enough punishment of other students (being sent to the principal for "the strap" being most frightful, but also ear-pulling, knuckle whacks with a ruler, shoes and chalk brushes thrown at students, "writing lines" and so on—my, how things have changed since then...) to encourage me to avoid incurring the wrath of my teachers. 

It didn't take long to discover that there were various ways to lie that didn't require an outright, in-your-face lie (which I was never very good at; my guilty facial expression tended to give me away when I tried that; though oddly enough, as an adult, I was equally poor at "reading" the expression of my children's and student's faces... ). There were tactics like "mostly telling the truth" but conveniently leaving out a few minor, troublesome details; transferring the blame to someone else; looking very sad and pitiful; hiding out somewhere until the potential punisher was distracted or forgot; pleading that I didn't realize I had done something wrong; telling a long, convoluted story that would distract from the point of the actual offence; get busy doing something that would win the favour of the potential punisher; and so on. 

Eventually, I grew up and far fewer adults felt the need to be responsible for keeping me on the straight-and-narrow. But the "little white lie" habit had, unfortunately, been well engrained. Because not only did telling lies help to avoid punishment; it also turned out to be an excellent way to keep people approving of me. Being approved of was, of course, closely related to all those rules and regulations. This has been one of the greatest difficulties in my life: the desire to have others approve of and accept me. And telling "little white lies" works so well. Often, I don't even think them through; they just slip out and there they are. The older I get, the more I realize what I am doing, and while I really try to overcome this, it is very difficult. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever conquer it. I know, of course, that this is one of those things that "only the Spirit of the Lord can change in your heart as you give it over to Him" and that "you just have to love Him and want His approval more than the approval of people." All very well, but when His approval was so wrapped up in the approval of the significant adults in my life from the earliest age, giving up the approval of others is much easier said than done. Still, the fact that I've come to recognize this problem in my life and want to change it gives me some consolation that maybe I am discovering the real "straight and narrow way" rather than the "rules and regulations" way.

One more thing related to all this. As you might gather from my ramblings, I love to write—and to tell stories. Entertaining ones. Especially stories from my childhood (and adult life, too). A perceptive uncle told me that perhaps my stories are more "creative" than "memoir" — though he also added that this is a family trait. So I'm wondering if the "creative" aspects of my memories are also related to the whole "approval" thing? Embroidering past events to make them more entertaining--and thus more approved, as my audiences laugh heartily. But that's another post for another time.