Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-Six: Reflections on Pouring Your Heart Out for Forty-Six Days Straight

I made it. Forty-six days writing and posting reflections about my faith. Here are a few things I noticed.

Not every thought is worth posting. When I look back on the last 46 days, I know most of it would have never made it to the blog if it wasn’t for the promise of posting daily. This makes sense and is in line with what many other writers have said: You write every day so that a few of those days will be worth sharing.

Being vulnerable sucks. It did not feel good talking about my personal opinions so publicly every day. While my personal thoughts are present in everything I write, most of my Lenten posts were nothing BUT opinion, which means that I couldn’t help but take people’s reactions very personally. Speaking of…

Nobody reacted online. Normally I get a fair amount of likes and comments on Facebook when I put up a new blog post, and that didn’t happen as much with my Lent posts. There are a lot of possible explanations for this. One is that as previously mentioned, I wasn’t vetting for quality enough because of the time constraints. Another is that I got on the wrong side of the Facebook algorithms by posting daily from a third-party site. It could be a sampling bias, and I just perceive the response rates to be lower. Or it could be that my friends simply weren’t into the topics being posted, and didn’t feel the need to respond. As much as I tell myself the number of Likes I get on Facebook doesn’t determine my self-worth, it’s really difficult to say something publicly that you’ve previously kept private, and be met with crickets. On the other hand…

People brought it up a lot in person. With the exception of my posts on depression and Halloween costumes, I’ve never had so many people approach me in real life to talk about something I wrote online. Some people brought it up almost every time I saw them. Perhaps it’s worth noting that the people who talked about it in person were almost exclusively 45+ years old.

I would rather preach to the choir. I honestly don’t know how my friends took this experiment of mine, but knowing their existing feelings on religion made it very difficult to write at times. I don’t like talking religion to people who don’t want to hear it. I feel like I must be making things worse. It was easy to write a post when I thought of all my religious friends who might get the chance to read it. It was very difficult when I thought of my atheist friends that might be forced to see it on their newsfeed.

One could say that this was my best Lenten discipline, since it was difficult, effected my daily life, and forced me to think about my relationship with God a lot more. It was also my worst, in that it caused more negative emotions in me than any previous practice. However it’s clear to me that most of the negativity was wrapped up in how much I rely on others to justify my thoughts. My favorite post of the whole season was one I felt great writing and great publishing. But when it got almost no response online, I felt terrible. It’s a good reminder that we can only control what we put out into the world, not what happens once it’s out there.

With that, I leave you. Tomorrow is Easter, and I plan on taking a much-needed break from posting for a while. Thanks for taking this annoying, uncomfortable journey with me.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-Five: A Pretty Great Story

I told you a few days ago how I see the Divine and the universe as one. That explains why I’m a theist, but not why I’m a Christian. I also told you how I believe in the power of story. Well, I’m a Christian because of the story.

I really love the Jesus story. It is a story about incredible highs and terrible lows. It is about treachery and forgiveness. It is about the corruption of religious institutions and the sympathetic heart behind tyrannical governments. It is about good people doing bad and bad people doing good. And at the center there’s this mystifying protagonist. He knows everything that’s about to happen – or does he? He may very well be the Son of God, but he won’t admit it. He walks peacefully into his own death, but feels forsaken when death is near. Who is this guy? What does he even want? How can he die without telling us?

He did tell us. He told us in the story of his life. And every time I listen to the story, I get a bit more of the answer. I hear a good sermon and I get just a little more. I read a verse I swear I’ve never heard before and I get a little more. Thirty years of hearing the same damn story and it’s still new every time.

This is why I’ve never been overly concerned with the historicity of the Bible. Whether or not it happened in history is of little consequence to me, because it is happening right now in the telling of it. The story is always happening. When people say it’s too similar to a million other old myths, all that does is tell me that the story really is as powerful as I feel it to be. It’s so powerful, it can’t be contained by this one example, this one instance in the first century. It is in the ancient Greeks and the foundation of Buddhism. It has always been and will always be. It’s like the cosmos keeps trying to hit us over the head with it and we still don’t get it.

I’m trying to get it. I’ve been trying my whole life, and I’ll keep trying. Today is Good Friday, the day Jesus died. We call it good because as terrible as it was, the story doesn’t end on the cross. It ends three days later, when everything is different and a new story can begin.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-Four: The Misandry of the Christ

I’ve said before that I don’t think misogyny is inherent in Christianity, but that it is so common in humanity that it manages to infect nearly every religion. In relating stories set during heavily patriarchal times and places, the Bible seems to be endorsing the system. Sometimes this is as simple as letting the men have all the leading roles. However I’d like to pose an alternative reading of the Bible, and of the passion story specifically. It’s a reading in which men are front and center not as heroes, but as cautionary tales. Men are portrayed as terrible people, while women do everything right. So here is my case for misandry in the Bible.

For most of Jesus’s ministry, life is wonderful for the male disciples. They quit their jobs, they go to parties, they tell stories, they ask questions. They even get to see a couple miracles. The men who follow Jesus are great, provided everything is going well.

Judas is the first to fall, betraying Jesus to the priests. His motives aren’t always clear. Depending on the gospel it’s because he’s a thief, because he’s starting to disagree with Jesus, or simply because the devil has taken him over. Either way, he turns.

A Woman PleadsJesus knows this, and calls Judas out on it Thursday of Holy Week, the night of the Last Supper. He also predicts Peter won’t be strong enough when things start to get out of hand. After dinner, Jesus goes out to pray. Consider the character of Jesus in this moment: he’s going to die tomorrow and he knows it. Not only is he going to die, he’s going to die painfully and publicly to the happy cheers of the same people he wanted to teach. So he goes into the garden in great distress. He brings Peter, James, and John with him and asks them to stay with him, to pray with him, because he’s upset and needs their support.

Jesus walks a few feet away to pray, and the gospels explain what he says to God. It’s a strange moment, because in theory Jesus is alone and no one should have been able to recount what he said in prayer that night. Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane and its presence in the Bible is worth its own 20 minute sermon at least, but for the purpose of this post I’ll just say this: even Jesus falters. In that last hour before they come to take him away, Jesus turns to God in a final plea: “Don’t make me do this.” However he quickly recovers, admitting that if it is God’s will, it must be done.

For their part, the boys fall asleep. They couldn’t stay up and pray with their grieving teacher for even an hour. Judas and the guards come to get Jesus, and in a last-ditch attempt at doing something right, the disciples try to fight back. But Jesus says no – that’s not how this is going to go down. Once denied the option of violence, the men have no other ideas. According to the gospels, they “deserted him and fled.”

With Jesus in the hands of the police, it is no longer cool to be his friend. Peter is spotted by the locals, and identified as a friend of that man, that criminal they arrested. Peter denies the claim three times, saying he doesn’t know Jesus.

The soldiers and priests all treat Jesus terribly, while women in the crowd wail in grief. Herod gets mad when Jesus refuses to do a miracle party trick for him. Pontius Pilate roles over in the face of an angry mob, despite being the supposed ruler in town. Pilate’s wife even comes up to him and insists he let Jesus go, saying she’d had a dream about Jesus. The women are willing, but the men are weak.

In the whole story, there are very few male characters who appear admirable. In one account, one of the criminals killed next to Jesus seems like a good guy, but not in the other gospels. In the Gospel of John one male disciple is with the women at the cross. And then there’s Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, council member, and follower of Jesus who arranged for the burial of Jesus’s body (in John’s account Joseph is joined by Nicodemus). But every time we see a man doing right by Jesus, nearby there is a woman who has been there the whole time.

These were the women who followed him and provided for him. Not just Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, but “many other women” who had come to Jerusalem with Jesus. The references are small at times, almost thrown away by the men who wrote them down. But they are there, they are important to the story. Not only do the women cry for him at the crucifixion, they come back later to mourn and to anoint the body. In all four gospels, Mary Magdalene is first witness to the resurrection.

Mother WeepsAnd here is where we learn the truth of the story, or at least the truth as it pertains to our subject: that women will stand by you, weep with you, and mourn for you when you’re gone. But when the chips are down and all seems lost, men will betray you, deny you, and ultimately abandon you. This is the story of Good Friday and Holy Saturday: privilege comes with a price. When you have power (like you have as a man in a patriarchal society), you also have something to lose. And you will fight for that power even when it means going against your convictions.

But if you start with nothing, if you have nothing, if the world thinks nothing of you, then conviction is all you’ve got. The women around Jesus were alive with conviction, and they wore it that day to the cross. But the men knew there was a price for standing out and standing up for what they believed. They saw themselves dying on that cross, and they ran from it.

It’s too bad for them. It is the cross that leads us to where we need to be. It is that fear, that loss, that betrayal, that shows us who we truly are. For if you can’t die for the Divine, then perhaps you still don’t really believe. Perhaps you need something even more impressive to convince you, like a man rising from the grave. It was the resurrection that made men into apostles. But Mary called Jesus her Lord when she was still in mourning. To stay at the foot of the cross when the world is against you requires an absolute certainty that you have already found your God. If you have, there’s nothing in the world you need run from.

Case closed.

Do I think this is how we are supposed to read the passion story? Not exactly. I think it’s a reading we ought to keep in mind though, and an important one we often ignore. Instead we call Magdalene a whore, put Jesus’s mother on a pedestal, and toss aside Joanna, Salome, and at least three other women named Mary. Perhaps it’s easier to ignore them. Perhaps that’s because when we look at this story and start to examine the characters, we know exactly where we would have been: locked away at home, hiding from the crowds, and waiting for someone to magically appear and tell us it’s all going to be okay.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-Three: Hell and Heaven

I don’t believe in Hell. There is a fundamental flaw I see in the theology of hell, because Jesus is supposed to be the only way to eternal life. Though horrific, eternal damnation is still a form of eternal life. Beyond that, it seems terribly human and not at all Divine to think that life is a pass/fail test, and a few wrong turns during the 70 years you’re on Earth can sentence you forever. There’s no grace in that, and radically unjustified grace is the foundation of so much of what Jesus taught.

Last time the subject came up in Sunday school, the kids posed the same question everyone asks: “What if someone says they’re sorry at the last minute?” They followed it up with the even better question: “What if they wait a minute too long?” In response I asked, “Do you think anything can ever be too late for God?” They didn’t think so, and agreed that you probably still had a chance to repent even after death. In fact, they thought that chance might remain there forever.

The closest approximation I’ve ever read to how I view God’s relationship to the afterlife is The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. In it, hell is a lot like the real world, except there are infinite resources to build. So when you don’t like your neighbors, you just move farther and farther away from them. There’s a bus that comes by often, and you are always allowed to ride. It takes you to a sort of middle ground between heaven and hell where things are wonderful and strange and dangerous. From there you have the option to move up into heaven. No tests, no punishments, you can just go. The thing is you can’t take any baggage with you, and people like their baggage. Baggage is everything they held so tight to on Earth. So they get back on the bus and go home. But the option is always there. God’s timeline is not our timeline.

Eternity is a strange idea, and a very inhuman one. It’s part of why I don’t really believe in Heaven either, at least not as commonly depicted. If the Twilight Zone taught us anything, it’s that a world where everything goes right isn’t paradise at all. Therefore if there is an afterlife, it must bear no resemblance to the life we live here on Earth. This is where my love of science runs into my faith. I have this theory that consciousness is a real thing that exists in the universe, just like any other form of matter. And like matter, it can change its state. Right now my consciousness is in the human state. It can do things like control a body and learn from its surroundings and write very long blog posts. But before it was in my body, it was in another state. Perhaps it will return to that state once it leaves my body. Perhaps it will just go into another human, or another animal, or get squished down into a virus (or maybe it has to split up to be a virus, I can’t be sure since I haven’t done any controlled trials). However I think it’s just as likely that it will take on a whole new form. Maybe it takes the form of background radiation in the universe. Maybe pieces of consciousness obey gravity and they pull together when they are freed from the human state. Maybe if enough of them come together they can spark life in a new place far from here. Maybe that’s how we got here in the first place.

The idea that after you die your essence will become a new form – a form that doesn’t remember itself or anything it ever did, a form that may not even realize it exists at all – might be a bit unnerving. But I don’t look at it that way. To me it sounds like a great and grand adventure, possibly one I’ve been on many times before. And as always my God, the God that is the very universe itself, will be there with me.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-Two: The Surface of Last Scattering

I love science, and astronomy is my favorite of all. Astronomy is beautiful, captivating, awe-inspiring. I took an Astronomy class back in college, and I remember one day we were learning about the expanding universe and the history of the cosmos since the Big Bang. Everything in the universe is slowly moving away from everything else, like points drawn on the surface of an inflating balloon. When we look out into the distance, every single thing is running away. Astronomy is really the study of cosmic history. Because light is all we have to measure and light takes time to travel, everything we see has already happened. Even the sunshine on your face is a few minutes old.

Phases of the MoonWhen we look out into the past, we can only ever see as far as the time already elapsed. And when we look as far as we possibly can, we see this fuzzy wall from when photons were first combining into atoms. It’s as though there was a fog around us right after the Big Bang, and every day the universe inside the fog gets a little bigger. But the fog is always there, blocking our view. There is always that moment beyond that we can’t quite see. They call it the Surface of Last Scattering.

When I first learned about this, it sounded like a sermon. As humans we have this constant drive to think and grow, to always know more than we did before. There was a time when we couldn’t know anything more about space than the naked eye could teach us. We built telescopes and we could see more, but the atmosphere got in the way. So we went up into space and put telescopes on the other side. Now we can see so much more than we ever could, and there’s yet another wall we haven’t gotten over. There’s always something just out of reach.

For me, that is God.

That piece of knowledge you don’t have yet is God. That feeling that you know is right but can’t understand is God. If there is anything your human mind can’t understand, that thing is God. We say that ‘God is love’ and toss the thought aside like so many embroidered pillows. But consider for a moment that the feeling you can’t quite pin down, the one strong enough to push you to do something you never thought you would or could (for better and worse) – that’s God. God is the chemicals firing in your brain. God is the unified theory that reconciles General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics. It is everything that is currently beyond us, and it will be the next thing beyond us once these current mysteries are solved. God is the unknown. God is the mystery.

And for me, that’s something to believe in.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-One: The Book of One Man’s Revelation

I’m not really into the Book of Revelation, and I’m not alone. It was not accepted into the Armenian Church until 1200. It has never been recognized by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Martin Luther proposed removing it from the Bible (along with Jude, James, and Hebrews). These four books are still listed last in the German-Language Luther Bible.

The New Testament did not come to us fully-formed. There were a lot of councils and arguments and conventions that got us where we are today. For example, there are only four gospels in the Bible, but many more exist. Did we make the right choices when we decided what was and was not the Word of God? We can never know. At the Council of Constantinople in 629 the book of Revelation was approved by a single vote.

It just doesn’t fit.

Revelation is one long dream sequence. While it pulls on lots of Biblical ideas and imagery, it doesn’t quote the Hebrew scriptures directly very much (certainly not in the way the rest of the New Testament does). Its depiction of Jesus is very different than the earthly one we see in the gospels. And there’s a lot of evidence that it isn’t supposed to be about the end times at all, but rather a commentary on the government that was in power at the time it was written.

There’s a certain beauty to the book for sure, and if it really was political commentary it’s brilliant. If all it ever did was inspire Prince to write a super sweet song, that certainly makes it worthwhile as a piece of art. But as prophecy? I just don’t buy it.

In Sunday School I had the kids make their own Bible bookshelf out of construction paper, and it was color-coded by writing type (history, gospels, letters, etc). The Book of Revelation was the same color as Psalms and the Song of Solomon: Poetry.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty: How Bishops Are Made

Every diocese will be a bit different, but I’d like to give you a basic idea of the process used to get a bishop in the Episcopal Church (based on my memory of the last time we got a new one).

It starts with a Search Committee. This committee goes out and finds a number of good candidates. These candidates would be priests who have felt the call to the episcopate, and may have already stood for election in other dioceses. There are pretty clear pros and cons when looking at priests from both within the electing diocese and from other dioceses. A local priest would already be familiar with the region and its needs. A newcomer would bring a fresh perspective and wouldn’t be beholden to existing relationships. The committee would also be looking for a diversity of candidates, choosing people that represent more than one gender, race, etc.

The search process is often rather secretive, mostly to keep gossip in check and prevent people from getting their hopes up. Once the candidates are announced, the diocese may choose a number of ways to get the word out about the nominees. The last time we had an election, all the candidates went on a “walkabout” through the diocese. Several congregations hosted days where the nominees came, spoke, and answered questions from whoever showed up to ask them.

While bishops are elected officials, politicking is understandably frowned upon. It still happens of course (sometimes people do it on your behalf whether you want them to or not), but in general people in the church are supposed to “stand for election” rather than “run for office.” So walkabouts and the like are necessary if the people are to learn about the potential bishops.

Finally, a special convention is called to vote. The diocese already meets for convention once a year, and the lay representatives at conventions come from every congregation in the diocese. All active clergy attend as well. Depending on your diocese’s canons, you may have others brought in to represent special interest groups, such as a Youth Presence. I honestly don’t remember how I ended up with a vote at the special election, but I have to think it was as one of these special representatives.

Our election was at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, and included a good deal of prayer before the vote. Because there tend to be six or seven candidates, there is never a clear winner on the first ballot. However frontrunners will quickly emerge, and after the second or third ballot the candidates with the fewest votes voluntarily drop out of the race. Eventually the number of options is small enough that one person receives a majority.

In the church we say that people enter positions of power “God willing and the people consenting.” While the bishop is democratically elected in practice, in spirit they are made by God. It’s God that calls someone to be a bishop, God that brings them to the diocese where their skills are needed, and God that moves the voters to decide. When you are sitting in the cathedral with your ballot in hand, you have to let the Holy Spirit guide your thoughts. You have to let go of who you like and what you want, let go of your assumptions and prejudices, and let your heart lead you to the right name.

Does it always work that way? Of course not. People are petty and foolish and really great at ignoring the Holy Spirit. But we try. And hopefully enough of us are doing it to get the correct person in office. I can’t remember how many ballots we went through last time, but it was at least four. It was a hard day. A couple of the candidates were from our own diocese, and it was difficult to see them drop out of the race. But in the end we had our bishop, and it certainly seems like we made a good choice.

For the very interesting and way sillier rules about making a Presiding Bishop (the highest office in the Episcopal Church), I invite you to check out my post from last summer when I blogged the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Thirty-Nine: A Holy Week Primer

Sunday – Jesus and His Bros Steal a Horse

Jesus sends two disciples ahead of him into Jerusalem to grab a ride. He says that if anyone asks why they are stealing a colt, just say, “The Lord needs it.” It totally works and Jesus rides into town like the grandmaster of the parade, with people throwing down their coats in front of him and singing.

Sunday (afternoon) – Jesus Totally Trashes the Place

The people of the city had set up a marketplace within the temple that pissed Jesus off to no end. He flipped the tables over, dumped money on the floor, and started chasing the animals around like a madman. He told them the temple should be a house of prayer, but they’d made it a den of thieves. When I told this story to my Sunday school class last year one of the boys was shocked for a moment, because when I said “Jesus flipped over a table” he thought I meant Jesus did an actual backflip over a table. I told him there was no Biblical evidence to support the idea, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Monday – God Hates Figs

Jesus is hungry and sees a fig tree, but it’s not fig season so there is nothing but leaves on it. Jesus curses the tree and it dies instantly, marking the most petty use of divine powers since God destroyed Job’s life to win a bet.

Tuesday – Jesus Teaches

Jesus tells more parables and teachings, with a focus on end times, prophesy, and being prepared. The Pharisees make several attempts to trick Jesus into saying the wrong thing, but damned if he doesn’t have an answer for everything.

Wednesday – Anointing and Plotting

Jesus is anointed by the woman with the Alabaster jar. Meanwhile, the chief priests hatch a plot to arrest Jesus and get Judas in on it.

Thursday – Dinner with Me, Myself, and the Trinity

Jesus shares the Last Supper with his disciples, breaking the bread and passing the cup of wine. He’s making prophesies left and right, calling Judas out for his betrayal and telling Peter to stop being such a suck up because he’s totally going to chicken out when the going gets tough. Later, Jesus goes into the garden and prays, which is the weirdest thing for those of us who believe in the Holy Trinity because it’s basically a God arguing with itself. Also the disciples keeping guard fall asleep even though THEY ONLY HAD ONE JOB.

Friday (Early Morning) – I Told You So

Jesus is arrested and taken to the authorities. The male disciples start getting scared and hiding. People keep recognizing Peter and asking if he’s a friend of Jesus, and Peter’s all like, “Who me? Nah, you must be thinking of someone else” because it’s been nine whole hours since Jesus said this would happen and somehow Peter already forgot.

Friday (Day) – That Escalated Quickly

Jesus goes before a bunch of people for judgement – Pontius Pilate, King Herod (not the one from the nativity story, a different guy), and finally the crowd. It’s tricky because Jesus hasn’t exactly committed any crimes, and he must be guilty of something for the Romans to execute him. Eventually Pilate gives the crowd a choice: he’ll release Jesus or he’ll release a guy named Barabbas. The crowd chooses Barabbas, Jesus is crucified, and the female disciples weep at his feet.
Two things to keep in mind: Pilate’s wife straight up tells him not to kill Jesus because of a prophetic dream she’s had, but he seems to ignore this. Also, in Greek ‘bar’ means ‘son of’ and ‘abba’ means ‘father’, so the other guy’s name was literally “son of the father.” Interpret that as you will.

Saturday – Done Deal

The tomb is sealed and guards placed in front of it, out of fear that Jesus’s followers will come steal his body. But the followers are scared and in hiding, so no one’s going anywhere. If you really want to get a feel for the Holy Saturday vibe, I recommend listening to the entire Sigh No More album from Mumford & Sons. I do it every year.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Thirty-Seven: Religious Dress

I don’t belong to a denomination that engages in any kind of religious dress for lay people, and all our clerical and worship robes look the same regardless of gender. So on one level I’m not in a position to comment on religious dress at all. However when you are an openly religious person you are sometimes called upon to defend the actions of all religions. So perhaps this is one of those times.

The most common objection to religious dress is that it is oppressive to women, and in some cases this is true. As an outsider it seems to me that a full body covering (such as a niqab or burka) takes away a woman’s individuality and personhood, and makes it difficult for her to express herself in the public space. However the majority of muslim women do not wear full body coverings, and many don’t wear any kind of head covering at all. Burkas are a form of cultural oppression more than they are a religious one.

Additionally, we must remember that there are many forms of oppression. For example, a hijab doesn’t prevent a woman from doing daily activities or engaging with people in normal social settings. Christian women in the west don’t have to worry about wearing a hijab, but what do they have to do instead? They have to conform to societal expectations about women’s hair. Depending on your type of hair and the social circle you run in, a western female hairstyle can be considerably more restrictive, cumbersome, and expensive than a hijab. Therefore it is not that muslim women are especially oppressed by religious dress, it is simply that we have different ways of oppressing women in the west.

For me, the key question is: do both genders have equally restrictive rules? If you look at groups like Mennonites, the Amish, or Hasidic Jews you see strict codes for dress on both genders. Each has rules to follow. Each would stand out in a secular crowd. While the male and female clothing may be different, people rarely worry about the oppressive garments of Amish women.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 8.48.09 PMWhat is more concerning to me is what happens in some conservative Christian and muslim communities: a dress code that allows men to look relatively “normal” in public, but puts a religious brand on women. The men can follow secular expectations and blend in very easily, while the women must wear their faith on their sleeve, and accept whatever consequences come with that. To me, this is a sign that some religious dress is less about God and more about men. And when I say men I don’t mean people. I mean men.

I’ve only engaged in a religious dress code once in my life. It was when I visited the infamous Westboro Baptist Church for their Sunday service. The women of the church dress in typical western clothes during the week, but during worship they cover their heads in accordance with the church’s interpretation of scripture. I knew this was their practice and I brought a scarf in my purse. No one told me to wear it, I did so voluntarily. When the service was over and I spoke with the parishioners, no one commented on my observance. I suppose because sometimes the people most concerned about religious dress are the ones not wearing it.