If you had told me back in March that the pandemic would still be raging, with no end in sight, in mid-August, I think I would have had a nervous breakdown. And yet here we are, pressing on like everyone else. I am anxious about the fall and winter, but I have been learning that anxiety is fruitless. So I don’t read the news; I stay off social media; I allow Guion to share one headline with me per day. In this way, I at least maintain a semblance of calm.
. . .
I am currently reading and loving Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass. Many people have recommended it to me, and I am grateful that I finally made time for it: What a gem of a book! One quote to whet your appetite:
“Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
. . .
Moses is 15 months old and continues to be a busy little bee. He has a lot to say (although the vast majority of it isn’t English) and loves inspecting nature on our daily walks. Every parent says this, but it is so refreshing to be in the presence of a small child when outdoors. They are so rooted in wonder.
We are grateful for many things, and Moses is often chief among them. He makes these long days lighter.
. . .
Almighty God, whose Mary-like beauty compels our attention, give us hearts that jump within us with the good news of your salvation. We confess that amidst the tedium of the everyday our worship of you sometimes feels like a job—just “one more thing.” Thank you for the unsettling of our lives, wherein we discover the splendor of the kingdom made possible by your Son, Jesus Christ. We pray that you will ever be here, unsettling our attempts to domesticate the wildness of your Spirit. Amen.
In my youth, I read the Bible every day. I was particularly fanatical about it in my early teens, pushing myself deeper into study and memorization. I wanted to know more about the Bible than anyone else, as far as it was within my (overinflated sense of) power. I wrote about scripture every morning, memorized the book of Ephesians and much of 1 Corinthians 15, and ultimately had read through the whole Bible three times by the time I turned 18.
I mention this not to brag but to confess. This obsession with the Bible shape-shifted into a dark, unhealthy thing in my young life. My fanaticism broke something in me. The Book was the method through which, I believed, God would grant me favor and a better standing in the heavenly brackets. (Clearly, I was not absorbing some crucial elements of the good news from those books at the end, the ones with the red parts.) And yet this did not happen. All of this intense Bible reading did not improve my character. I was still as horrible as I’d always been, but now, I was self-righteous about it. Worn out from the posturing and performance, by the time I’d graduated college, I was ready to walk away from the faith of my youth for good.
As it happens, I didn’t walk away, which is another story entirely, but I did stop reading the Bible. My reconfiguration of faith made reading the Bible — an act that was once so vital, so critical to my daily functioning — difficult, even distasteful. For the past eight years, I haven’t been able to read the Bible on a regular basis, as much as I’ve tried. I bought new translations, handsomely bound pocket editions, concordances, gigantic ones with commentary. I told myself I’d start memorizing scripture again; I’d read through books during Lent; we’d study the Bible together before dinner. None of it appealed to me (and none of it worked or lasted). It’s not that I wasn’t reading; I was still reading 100 or more books a year. But none of them were the Bible.
I’m still unsure how to fully explain this lapse in Bible reading, but what I do know is that this eight-year break has been restorative. This is a weird thing to say, and my inner evangelical recoils with shame. (To admit such a thing — that not reading the Bible has seemed good for me — verges on serious blasphemy in the circles of my youth.) But it has been. I have been able to enjoy scripture with some distance from it, hearing it every Sunday at church, but I have not buried myself in it; I have not approximated that personal, daily closeness that I once had.
Still, these many years later, I have missed that fervent reader I once knew. Over the past year, I have felt I’m in a healthier, safer place (thanks to the grace of our church, chipping away at my grotesque heart for nearly a decade now), and I have wondered how I could start reading the Bible again. What would it take?
Having a baby, apparently, was what it took. For the past month, in the early hours of the morning, I have read the Bible while nursing Moses. I read it on my phone, needing a free hand to baby-wrangle, which is a new (and not entirely awesome) experience for me. (I’m using the ESV app, which is super-glitchy and full of glaring UX flaws, but it has one of the least gross text interfaces I found.) But it has been working. I have been, to my outrageous surprise, sticking with it.
Leading thoughts thus far? It’s good to be back. And it was right to be away.
I have realized that the Book is still so much with me (and always has been). Even though I clearly didn’t learn much and did not become a better person, all of those years spent reading the Bible shaped my brain and memory. I can still recall scripture easily and with joy. My purity of heart remains Level: Garbage Dump/100% Unrepentant Sinner, but I can remember a weird quantity of the early prophets and the Pauline epistles.
And yet there is still much that surprises me. This is the dual-sided nature of returning to the Bible: I remember so much, and I remember so little.
Specifically, while nursing Moses at 4 in the morning, I was floored by this exchange from Psalm 77, which struck me as just the thing.
I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
I’d forgotten about how delightful that experience is, when reading scripture, when you stumble on just the thing — the small word, the errant phrase that is precisely what you needed. This is the pleasure of such a vast, beautiful Book: It lives alongside you.
I read this and actually said aloud, astonished, “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” Moses paused and looked up at me and grinned.
In all of these long years away, I had forgotten many things. The remembering has brought a rush of pleasure and contemplation. Returning, now, has felt like the right thing, considering the days of old, the years long ago.
. . .
It’s super-lame when parents say, “This is such a fun age,” but good grief, this IS such a fun age! Moses is five months old now and narrowly holding onto his title as World’s Best Baby. (Woke up at 3:30 in the morning chirping like a pterodactyl, not sleepy at all! Sleep is silly!)
Life is short, and the days pass quickly, especially in winter, when we wake up and come home in darkness. My perennials have been stricken by the frost; they appear to have been caught totally off-guard, their leaves curling up with blackened edges. A carpet of red dogwood leaves fills up half of the front yard. I am loath to rake them.
A family of finches is trying to nest in our wall-mounted mailbox. I hear them landing on the metal lid in the morning and catch them poking their heads in the side. They’ve amassed a small collection of building supplies in the mailbox: tiny twigs, bits of green moss, skeins of grass. I’m curious to see how far they can get with this project, what with the daily disruptions from the mailman.
Regular fires in the living room, surrounded by our books and antsy German shepherds, keep the spirits bright. We are getting a new front door installed the week after Thanksgiving, and I remember it eagerly every morning as I curse the hated storm door. But we are lucky, to have warmth and share words with one another.
“My favorite part is connecting the ideas. The best connections are the ones that draw attention to their own frailty so that at first you think: what a poor lecture this is—the ideas go all over the place and then later you think: but still, what a terrifically perilous activity it is . . . How light, how loose, how unprepared and unpreparable is the web of connections between any thought and any thought.” — Anne Carson, “Uncle Falling,” Float
Thoughtful conversation does not happen easily. I admire and envy people who can speak fluidly, in full sentences with fleshed-out ideas. I speak haltingly. I hedge. I go back on what I previously established; I come out with an opinion too quickly. But this quote from Carson makes me feel a little better. If even Anne Carson feels that the web of connections between thoughts is unprepared and unpreparable, then maybe I’m not so alone.
Still, I’d like to be more intentional. I’d like to use better words.
I did not appreciate Sebald in Austerlitz, but I appreciate him now, greatly, in The Rings of Saturn. It is dreamy and rich and full of life.
Something I dislike: Going to a party in which the men only speak to the men and the women only speak to the women.
I’m going to hazard a generalization here, but this happens far more often when we’re in our Christian circles than when we’re not. Christians, even modern ones like us, still mistrust the sexes. There’s a lot of gender baggage there, skating under the surface.
Non-Christian men, in my experience, tend to talk to me as if I were an equal, as if I could generate a conversation that would interest them as much as a conversation with my husband. They ask me about what I’m reading or what I think about some recent event or to weigh in on a dog breed dispute. This is not so with most churchgoing menfolk or womenfolk. The women talk in a corner about womanly things (probably babies), and the men talk at the mantel about manly things (sports, news, culture). God-fearing men will speak to me kindly, but only as long as they have to.
At gatherings such as these, I am grateful for female company, because it is safe and comfortable, but I am often looking longingly at the closed circle of male conversation. I could do without the football analysis, but they are often talking about ideas. They’re debating some theological point or evaluating some political story. I want to talk about ideas! I don’t mind hearing about people’s children—I love my friends’ children—but I like a healthy mix of baby stories + everyday philosophy.
I have guesses as to why we women, especially in these circles, shy away from discussing ideas. It’s not that we don’t have any ideas, but again, it’s the experience of growing up in and living within a highly gendered culture. We’re wired to take care of things, whether it’s our houses or spouses, besties or babies. Caregiving, more often than not, leaves little room or energy for theory-making. And so we talk about the people or things we look after: our jobs, our kitchens, our children. We leave the debates to men, who have that kind of mental leisure.
I am perpetually frustrated by this division, but I accentuate it in my own way, too. I like talking about my charges with other women. I like taking care of my house and my incorrigible dogs. And I will always love—and preference—the company of women. But I also like talking to men. Like any restless animal, I want a diversity of conversation. I want to talk about diapers and cryptocurrencies. I want to discuss recipes for homemade cleaning products and half-baked defenses of predestination. I dislike feeling excluded or relegated to only one sphere.
And so I try to do my part, whenever I host dinner parties or gatherings, to mix company, to seat women next to and across from men, to create a space for conversation that can involve everyone at the table. We could learn a great deal from each other if we would take the time.
Americans never adopt fads lightly. When we take up a cause, we commit and we go to the extreme. Moderation is a virtue that we never seem to have much needed in the United States of America. Be it the size of our homes and cars, the depth and breadth of our reality TV, our fervent denial of climate change, or our mass accumulation of guns, we do nothing on a small scale. We take on nothing lightly. Nowhere does this tendency seem more clear to me than our current obsession with food.
We could talk about how enormously fat Americans are, which is true, but I am interested in the other side of the spectrum, where people are fixated on healthy food, where we consider ourselves holy because we have not (yet) slipped into obesity. It’s one pole or the other for me and my fellow patriots: Either we wantonly stuff ourselves full to bursting with tasty processed substances or we piously nibble on quinoa patties and congratulate ourselves on our freezer full of free-range, locally butchered delicacies.
Eating the right things has become a class-conscious mania that notably afflicts the middle- and upper-class, who can afford to eat well (which is in itself a terrible injustice). In lieu of humble-bragging about our legitimate virtues, we preen over our organic, local, free-range, grain-free choices at Whole Foods, and we impute it to ourselves as righteousness.* (*Side note: Concept lifted from this great/ruckus-raising sermon by Dave Zahl.)
I am as guilty of this natural-food worship as the next person. I too got fired up years ago when Food, Inc. came out. I too read all of Michael Pollan’s books and attended my farmers’ markets faithfully. I too became a vegetarian for a solid week after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I too believe that it is certainly better to support small-scale farming and to ingest organic food.
But for me, lately, the sheen of this fad has been dimming.
You can’t ask anyone over to dinner anymore without first inquiring about all of their dietary restrictions. Remembering your friends’ food aversions has become as culturally important as remembering their birthdays. Mothers self-flagellate if they don’t feed their children 100% organic, locally grown meals. Whole Foods denizens seem to have abandoned the joy of cooking and eating in exchange for the joy of self-congratulatory nutritional piety.
We eat not to enjoy food but to brag about its origin to our friends or anyone within earshot.
It’s getting out of hand.
I’ve been inspired to think about this loss of “real eating,” while reading the late, great Robert Farrar Capon’s delightfully bizarre book about food and faith, The Supper of the Lamb. As Capon says, considering a man who is obsessed by nutritional fads and rejecting food for the sake of his diet:
To begin with, real eating will restore his sense of the festivity of being. Food does not exist merely for the sake of its nutritional value. To see it so is only to knuckle under still further to the desubstantialization of man, to regard not what things are, but what they mean to us—to become, in short, solemn idolaters spiritualizing what should be loved as matter. A man’s daily meal ought to be an exultation over the smack of desirability which lies at the roots of creation. To break real bread is to break the loveless hold of hell upon the world, and, by just that much, to set the secular free.
—Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb
A touch dramatic, yes, but I take his point heartily.
(As an aside, I am looking forward to taking a page from the Europeans this summer, especially the French, who seem to have perfected the artful seesaw between moderation and indulgence in eating. Both seem to be necessary for a full, happy life.)
If I may bastardize the Gospel of Matthew:
And when you eat organic kale, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to eat organic kale standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you eat organic kale, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Eat real food and enjoy it. Divorce guilt from eating. Share food, not food judgments, with others, and be thankful.
In which Marilynne Robinson says everything I wanted to say in my previous post. This is long, but it’s great, and it gets at the heart of my intention. The entire essay (and this book) is luminous and wise, and I recommend it highly. Robinson is American Christianity’s greatest treasure. Without further ado:
There is an implied religious rationale or impetus and obligation behind very deplorable trends in contemporary society. The arming of the fearful and resentful and unstable with military weapons, supported by the constant reiteration of tales that make mortal enemies of their fellow citizens and elected government, is pursued with a special passion in regions that claim to be profoundly and uniquely Christian, and well mannered, to boot. Biblicist that I am, I watch constantly for any least fragment of a Gospel that could, however obliquely, however remotely, cast all this in any but a satanically negative light. I am moving, reluctantly, toward the conclusion that these Christians, if they read their Bibles, are not much impressed by what they find there.
In any case, how is it possible, given this economics of dark grievance that has so benefited arms manufacturers, cable celebrities, gold mongers, and manufacturers of postapocalyptic grocery items, that they can not only claim Christianity but can also substantially empty the word of other meanings and associations? I’m a Christian, insofar as I can be. As a matter of demographics, of heritage, of acculturation, of affinity, identification, loyalty. I aspire, with uneven results, to satisfying its moral and spiritual standards, as I understand them. I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example. To political democracy. These loyalties are either implied by my Christianity or are highly compatible with it. I am a Christian. There are any number of things a statement of this kind might mean and not mean, the tradition and its history being so complex. To my utter chagrin, at this moment in America it can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperiled by a sinister media cabal. It pains me to have to say in many settings that these are all things I object to strenuously on religious grounds, having read those Gospels. Persons of my ilk, the old mainline, typically do object just as strenuously, and on these same grounds. But they are unaccountably quiet about it. And here we have a great part of the reason that these gun-touting resenters of the poor and of the stranger can claim and occupy a major citadel of the culture almost unchallenged.
From “Memory,” in The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson.
I ask myself this question quite a bit. And I hear it from others.
Just last week, I met an acquaintance who said she was interested in coming to our church. She implied that she was surprised that I went to church, based on my Twitter feed (which is usually a motley assortment of left-wing propaganda, book reviews, and dog photos). “I follow you on Twitter,” she said, “and I’m…” I interrupted her and finished the statement: “… surprised that I’m so liberal?” She laughed and nodded.
So, how can I still be a Christian? In light of everything that we think we know about Christians today? Some thoughts.
1: The GOP does not own nor speak for Christianity, as much as they would like to think that they do. Republicans and the conservative right have co-opted Christianity for political purposes, and they have wielded it with frightening power since the rise of the Religious Right. This is what most Americans think about when we think about Christians today. An inbred church picketing military funerals and shouting about how much God hates you. Politicians who, in the purported name of Jesus, are proponents of preventing the poor from receiving “handouts,” keeping out refugees, teaching or even learning any science at all, giving everyone access to an assault rifle, and barring women from reproductive rights. This, I am happy to say, is not the universal church, even if the Religious Right may be its loudest and most powerful faction.
2: Christianity is not static, and it has progressed, in various denominations, beyond some of its judgmental, fearful peers. I, for one, am a proud Episcopalian, and I’d wager that I have more in common ideologically with a run-of-the-mill agnostic than your average Southern Baptist. We Episcopalians stand on the “liberal” side of various issues (such as ordaining women and gay people) and yet still believe in Jesus. Imagine that.
3: We are personally so grateful to be part of a church community that believes that we cannot save ourselves. We attend a church that preaches, day in and day out, that we have all fallen short of the glory of God and are all in need of forgiveness. Yes, even us so-called and self-identified Christian righteous. We are no better than anyone else, and judging others is a waste of your wild, only life (not to mention baldly hypocritical). More about how this church saved my faith in another post.
4: The person of Jesus is about grace and freedom, not law and judgment. Don’t believe any Christian or any church who tells you otherwise, because they clearly are not very familiar with the Gospel.
Yes, sometimes it feels like a theological high-wire act to maintain my personal faith amid the din of ignorant, hate-mongering politicians who claim to represent my religion. It is hard. Guion and I talk about this a lot. We sometimes feel very ideologically lonely.
But there it is. I still identify as a Christian, because I still identify with a Jesus who embodied freedom, grace, and no-strings-attached love. He has nothing to do with a close-minded, hate-filled, and judgmental religion. And so neither do I.
We went up in the mountains this weekend to celebrate non-brother-Sam’s birthday. A really lovely, much-needed time away with dear friends.
We also sit around and talk about Paris and Beirut and ISIS and the elections and fear and realize: We have no theoretical solutions. We are at a loss. (To solve the human condition?)
In light of this, Paul gave a helluva sermon yesterday, All Is Forgiven, which I recommend heartily. He speaks about the deeply, undeniably offensive nature of Christianity.
“Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.” — William F. Buckley
Pyrrha doesn’t care about any of this. She just wants to know who put her on a diet.
“Do you ever feel lonely in your particular brand of Christianity?” I asked Guion last night, as we ate dinner on the back deck. The evening was mild, with scant humidity. The mosquitoes were out but I daresay as a reduced horde. We took our time with our food. We had been talking about the meteoric (terrifying, seemingly unflappable) rise of Donald Trump and then we took a turn toward religion. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I sometimes feel like I have more in common intellectually with agnostics or atheists than with mainstream Christians,” I said, with a fretting tone. “And what worries me more is, What if the mainstream version of Christianity really is true Christianity and I’m just clinging to this specific, progressive, grace-filled Christianity that I—and our church and Mockingbird—believe in, which isn’t real Christianity at all? Is that a problem? Do you ever worry about that?” He paused, took a sip of (weird, juicy) red wine, and said, “No. I don’t worry about that.” And so maybe I shouldn’t either.
Semi-related humbling observation/note to self: Abby, when you are eager to write off an entire swath of people, based around some media-generated stereotypes or some fervent book you just read, go meet a person from this group. Learn his name. Ask her what led her to be a part of this group. Imagine her at home, alone, with her thoughts, or him interacting with his dog in a tender way, or taking care of his mother. And let go of the judgment.
I love inscrutable, lyrical blog titles, if you can’t tell. There is usually no rhyme or reason to them; most often, they are plucked at random from the brain, frequently related to some musical phrase I have been privately enjoying.
“All I really want to do with my life is sit on the couch and eat Sabor de Soledad,” Jonathan told me recently. That about sums it up for me too.
A quote, which I should have used as an epigram for this post:
My former bishop Allan Bjornberg once said that the greatest spiritual practice isn’t yoga or praying the hours or living in intentional poverty, although these are all beautiful in their own way. The greatest spiritual practice is just showing up. And Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of just showing up. Showing up, to me, means being present to what is real, what is actually happening. Mary Magdalene didn’t necessarily know what to say or what to do or even what to think when she encountered the risen Jesus. But none of that was nearly as important as the fact that she was present and attentive to him.