Loneliness and Faith

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I gave away almost all my books. I kept one box, and in that box was a copy of Brendan Myers’ Loneliness and Revelation. Brendan suggests that loneliness is an inherent fact of the human condition, and that perhaps the prescription for the revelation that we are not the only ones experiencing this is to share our humanity in palpable ways. Maybe I am misinterpreting him, but tonight as I flip through his words I am thinking about what it means to palpably share our humanity.

Indeed under some circumstances, a Revelation intended only for yourself can heighten your loneliness. – Brendan Myers

I have been keeping a lot of my feelings regarding faith under my hat, close to my chest, and briskly swept under the rug. In truth, I have done that all my life. Even in my verbosity at Patheos I barely scratched the surface. I wrote for others, and only rarely wrote something vulnerable and free. Too often I wrote in anger.

Lately as I have been struggling with this transition to Christianity I have found myself overwhelmed with the need to share, discuss, and explore with another human being, but I resist. Partly because my faith journey is a strange creature that most can’t relate to, and partly because I don’t trust people anymore.

Cynicism has taken the wheel here, and good faith is long gone. Which of course makes it difficult to follow the basic tenets Jesus laid out as essential:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40

Love and cynicism don’t mix very well. They tend to cancel each other out. It’s like mixing purple and orange paint and ending up with a rather nasty grey. Your life becomes a miserable funk and the only way out is trust and vulnerability and a willingness to risk pain.

This means trusting people and opening up to them. This means trusting yourself and your judgement. This even means trusting God, and opening to him. Sometimes it is scarier to let him in than letting in humans. After all, all of us have felt let down by the people we love at some point, and in the God we worship as well.

I pray we all learn to trust, to be open, and to risk pain, and that in response we are rewarded with love, respect, and safety.

Spiritual Consumerism: Why Using Religion Isn’t A Virtue

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This post has been living in my body for some time, gently trying to break free. I poke it back behind my liver, stuff it in my big toe, or grasp it within my elbow joint, but it keeps nesting in my heart and whispering in my ear. This isn’t something I want to write, partly because I feel I have preached myself hoarse on this subject, and because I feel this is a harsh, even if apt, way to express this. This is what my pastor calls a “hard word,” and it is heavy too, weighing down my heart.

Over the past few months I have noticed a trend in how people react to my attending a Christian church. They are entirely supportive until they realize I might be serious about embracing the Christian faith. Then their tone changes entirely. It’s not one person, or even two who have reacted this way. If I were to count them off I would run out of fingers and be forced to take off my shoes.

I have tried to be polite when people have this reaction, even when I feel betrayed by it. It’s not just one kind of person who has been supportive and then balked. I’ve gotten it from secular friends, from Wiccan friends, and even from hardcore polytheists.

No one has a problem with my using Christianity to get my spiritual needs met. No one has a problem with my putting up a Christmas tree or going to Easter dinners. No one has a problem with my singing hymns or listening to sermons. No one has a problem with my seeking out community in Christianity, and several have even admitted there is no option for community in much of Paganism and polytheism. No one has a problem with my reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison with a church full of Methodists as long as I don’t mean it.

Ironically participating in Christianity, being a hipster in the pews smirking inwardly, gets me praise. Being a sincere seeker gets me criticized or shunned.

If I were to use Santeria without believing in it just because it makes me feel better, I would have people waving virtual pitchforks at me. If I started using Native American spirituality without being invested in that faith, Pagans everywhere would be angry with me. If I started using the trappings of Judaism without being invested in that spiritual tradition, people might suggest I was racist.

So why is it Christianity gets a pass but no one would be ok with my simply using African Diaspora or Eastern European indigenous traditions? Because Christianity is part of the overculture? Because it is mainstream? Because it has a problematic past and present? Because it is so diametrically different from modern progressive spiritual inclinations? Does that really make it ok?

This attitude pisses me off in so many different ways, and is one of the big reasons I walked away from Paganism and polytheism.

If you make a virtue of using other faith traditions, then why build anything of your own? Why build your own temple when you can simply co-opt the local Unitarian-Universalist church? Why develop your own theology and cohesive tradition when you can throw some yoga on top of some kabbalah mixed in with some low-fat NeoPlatonism and a dash of European fairy tales?

Why on earth would you consider it better to use a faith tradition for your own selfish purposes rather than fully inhabiting it to give your life shape and meaning? Doesn’t this simply lead to your not valuing relationships, using both Gods and people as they are useful to you? Doesn’t this virtue of using affect the ability to build lasting community?

Why is being a user a virtue? Why is being serious about your faith a failing? I think back about all the times I have been preached to about the virtues of spiritual consumerism, about not taking shit so seriously, about just using the pretty comfortable parts of various faiths, and about how if I really just tried to do Paganism right I would learn to stop worrying and hug a tree. Beauty of nature, poetry, image, and doing whatever works to make me feel right is all I need. Pretty thoughts and sexy darkness and everything ephemeral.

Religion isn’t a tool to be picked up when convenient, to get me high in the moment and then be discarded until I need whatever spiritual jollies I currently desire. I feel like I have said this so many times my brain is ready to explode at the thought of articulating this again: religion isn’t a matter of style. Faith traditions aren’t tools. Plug ‘n’ play spirituality is both disrespectful and ultimately harmful. Spiritual but not religious ultimately means you are making a virtue out of using things and people for selfish reasons.

I’m not entirely sold on Christianity yet, certainly not on traditional theologies, but I am trying so hard to inhabit this tradition because it nurtures and disturbs me. I am engaging in this as thoughtfully and sincerely as I engaged in Paganism and polytheism for the past 15 years. Mostly I am learning to love people rather than use them, I am overcoming bad habits, and pushing past my comfort zones. I am struggling towards compassion, and every time someone thinks I am merely using Christianity to fill the gaps in a Paganism that takes pride in not being whole, it makes me angry. It makes me bitter towards Paganism.

This attitude is so prevalent that I could easily rattle off a list of prominent folks who promote it, who wrap themselves in a supercilious cloak of righteousness even as they hold all religious impulses and traditions in contempt. To paraphrase the lovely phrase from Practical Magic: you can’t practice religion while looking down your nose at it.

So be disillusioned: I am not some hipster smugly smirking in the pews as I get off on vibrant gospel music. I am struggling for my soul’s liberation in a community that has the capacity and compassion to support me in that struggle.

Though I am trying to embrace a more loving and compassionate attitude, I am still me. Assume I am using Christianity, smile approvingly at me while calling me a user, and I may throw some foul and salty language your way.  Forgive me, I am only human, and, as I keep being reminded, a fundamentalist to boot.

When God Is Absent, Where Does He Go?

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A friend of mine, Matthew, once asked me where the Gods go when they are not present with me. We were discussing polytheism at the time, and looking back on that late summer afternoon the question seems so specific to polytheism in the moment he asked me. But I am sitting here on a gorgeous fall evening, having waded deep into monotheistic waters over the past few months, and God feels entirely absent from me.

Where does he go?

Where does God go when he is not with me? When he drops my hand and leaves me alone and scared like a child lost in the mall?

Where does God go when I am lonely, feeling abandoned with no one to call?

Where does God go when I need him, when I just need to fall into his arms and cry and let it all go while he holds me up?

Where is God when I feel pointless, lost, and weak?

On the Twitter tag #faithinthefog someone very wisely pointed out the joy doesn’t always come in the morning. Sometimes we are dealing with capsizing despair. We have lost someone we love, perhaps forever. Maybe we are powering through all life has to throw at us until one day all the tiny stresses and disappointments overwhelm us and we fall apart.

Now maybe God isn’t absent, but we merely perceive him to be so. That does not diminish our experience, our distress and anguish. If anything, it makes our pain sharper. How helpless to know help is near but unable to grasp it, see it, or hear it!

My life is good. I am blessed in all things. I have no cause to complain. But I do have some personal struggles that are hidden from the view of most, and in dealing with them I often feel lonely and overwhelmed. Often God is a comfort when these struggles weigh on me, but when he seems to absent I can sometimes feel as if they are crushing me.

At times like this I don’t know where God goes, why my heart can’t perceive him, but I wish he wouldn’t wander off like that. Doesn’t he know sometimes he’s all I’ve got to hold onto?

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! – Mark 9:24

Home

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I just got back from visiting in Georgia. I knew it would be an emotional trip, but I didn’t realize how that would play out.

I sit here in Minneapolis and my heart is breaking from missing so many wonderful people back in Georgia, especially people from my old Wiccan church. I stayed with my friend Judy, who is one of the most marvelous people I have ever met. I caught up with folks I used to worship with, priestesses full of love and strength. They filled me in on all the good news from people we knew, and a little of the sad news. The church has changed since I left it, and I mourn how those changes impact people I love.

Having left Wicca, and having left Paganism, as well as being critical of the shortcomings of both movements, does not mean I am not full of happy memories and deep love for the time I invested in those movements and people. The upwelling of love during this trip as those memories were stirred was far beyond any expectation.

I feel as if my stores of love have been replenished to overflowing, and it makes me feel very grateful for the transformed concepts of home that have come from this trip.

My home is in Georgia.

My home is in Minneapolis.

My home is in church, both the Wiccan congregation I left and the Methodist congregation I am now active in.

My home is with the people I love and who love me back, wherever they may be.

This morning the minister preached a sermon that I perceived to be mending a fence that had gotten a bit roughed up in the past. It was a recognition of love in others and a call to be more loving. This was a message that crosses the lines that labels lay down. It made me grateful for my Christian community, my Pagan/Wiccan/polytheist community, and my secular community. There is love, and a need to be more loving, in each of these contexts, and a deep need to recognize and respect love as well.

I still believe in what I believe my friend Elizabeth Scalia calls “bright lines.” Those theological, ethical, moral, and traditional boundaries that help define and guide our lives. I am still a critic as much as I am a celebrator, an analyst as much as a poet, and I’m not going to insult you by saying all faiths are the same. But I do believe love is the same, I believe in love, and I think it is the most necessary thing any religious community can foster.

If Jesus wants us to love each other, then I have to tell you I know Wiccans who fulfill that commandment better than anyone else I know. Despite my religious convictions, I cannot tell you one faith is better than another. I just spent several days with a Witch who happens to be one of the finest people I know, and I just got home from a potluck hosted by a Methodist minister and his wife who are dedicated to teaching people to love each other.

I have no doubt that I will contrast and compare, criticize and analyze, all things religious, but this isn’t an US VS THEM thing for me. This is about community. My Wiccan community wasn’t able to meet my needs (and currently many of my Witch family are without a church home which grieves me) and the Methodist community does. Despite my religious nerdery, I have a need to be where I see love, inclusivity, and community in action.

Whatever your faith, if you aren’t providing people with a sense of home you are failing. If you aren’t giving people a loving, inclusive, and community-focused environment, then you are failing. If you are more attached to rules than compassion, to things than people, then you are failing. If you teach a cold theology and/or esotericism and do not encourage fellowship, understanding, and kindness, then you are failing.

Do you want to build a church, coven, grove, temple, circle?

Then begin by building a home and you can’t fail.

Home is where the heart is.

Teach your heart to love people.

Trite as it sounds, love is all you need.

I Had A Good Church Experience

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People are cruel. I know I can be cruel, and have been cruel on rare occasion, but lately it just seems like it has become a way of life for people.

I think too often we overestimate people, and presume they have some power or strength because they are articulate, challenging, or willing to be vulnerable in public. But often they are simply as lost and scared and striving as anyone else.

I read these stories of online harassment, particularly of smart, articulate women, and it just kills my spirit. The negativity I experience online simply drains me.

It is easy to say I should be stronger, but I’m not. When I left Christianity in ’99 I thought I gave up a lot, and I did. Returning to Christianity hasn’t regained me what I lost then, but has brought fresh loss into my life. This began before I formally converted and when I just stopped identifying with and pushing the Pagan orthodoxy. I’m not saying I’m being shunned, but a lot of people no longer have time for me who used to be close friends.

I look back over the past couple of years, even just the past week, and think of people who set themselves up as elders, teachers, and leaders in spiritual communities who have said some pretty nasty things about me. People who preach tolerance and compassion can’t seem to extend those virtues towards me. Aside from filthy, lazy, and the demonizing f-bomb, I have been told I am giving in to the religion of the oppressor, that I have Stockholm Syndrome, and that I am returning to an abusive, hateful God.

The only abuse and hate I am experiencing right now is coming from the Pagan community. It wasn’t a Christian who told me they wished I’d been aborted a few years ago, but a Wiccan. I never had a Christian call my writing “filth,” but a prominent, respected Pagan author certainly did. When I was floundering and writing openly about the pain and doubt I was suffering in my spiritual journey I received a lot of messages of unconditional support from Christians, and told by Pagans I was lazy, dishonest, wrong, unwelcome, and a fundamentalist for daring to ask and explore challenging questions. While a Christian wrote me encouraging notes about how my writing positively influenced his opinion of Paganism, it was a Pagan who made a podcast denigrating my genitalia and character.

I never came to Paganism because I had a bad church experience, but because the Christianity I grew up with was twisted dark and hateful. I associated Christianity with the abuse and utter hopeless despair of my youth. Paganism flung open the windows of my soul, but after 15 years of study, practice, service, and searching I never found a Paganism that I belonged in. That is almost half my life, a decade and a half. It’s not a phase or passing fancy. It is a significant investment of my very life. And all the things people told me they left Christianity over I saw everywhere in Paganism: hypocrisy, judgement, hate, inflexible theologies, and irrational superstition.

I loved Paganism with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and all my strength. But Paganism could not love a person like me. So I took all the tools and practices that Paganism gave me and found they enabled me to find a loving Christianity. A God that exists, lives, and cares for me.

I’m no martyr, and have no interest in being one. I am actually doing pretty good. I’m happy in my life. My stresses are because I have too many awesome things happening all at once. But I’m not some powerful person. I’m no longer an editor who can aid you in your writing career, boost the signal for your project, or even report your community news. I wield no influence. I am not a superhero and invulnerable.

What I am trying to say is: your words hurt me. Worse than that, your words hurt you. Just as I was repulsed by the hateful street preachers a week ago, other people are reading your words and are repulsed by you. When you start calling people names for exploring the realms of faith, you shame other people into silence. Calling me lazy may be intended to merely hurt me and make yourself seem like a perceptive pundit, but to anyone familiar with my faith journey you just painted yourself and your faith in an uncharitable light. Your lack of compassion towards me makes all Pagans seem unfeeling. Calling me a fundamentalist for attempting to dig deeper silences and discourages Pagans from asking questions.

I never had a bad church experience. Weird or boring but never bad or abusive or hateful. I have had bad coven experiences. I have had bad festival experiences. I came to Paganism looking for a more loving theology and community. I didn’t find one.

There are a lot of loving, bighearted, wonderful, generous, devout, wise, and delightful Pagans out there. I am privileged to have some of them among my friends. I’m not anti-Pagan, but I’m not going to withhold my views or criticism on any religious group. I was a Pagan for 15 years, and there is a lot of love and dedication that grace my memories of those years.

I sometimes feel I left Paganism under duress, driven out. Sometimes I feel I left Paganism because I came to realize that something that wasn’t working very well in 50 CE isn’t likely to work today. I think part of leaving was because after all the heartbreak in my friendships with media Pagans the Kenny Klein scandal was just the last straw, shattering what was left of my trust in community elders and dissolving any confidence I might have had in my own judgement of character.

I came back to Christianity not because I am returning to an abusive God, but because after all those years as a Pagan I was starving for some love, hope, and acceptance. And I found it.

You see, I had a good church experience, and it freed me.

Radical Forgiveness and Radical Tolerance

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I have written about radical tolerance before. The idea that tolerance means you are a person who allows other people to be themselves, even when you disagree with their choices or their circumstances make you uncomfortable. Most people think tolerance means everyone has to accept everything they do, but that is just narcissism.

I have been thinking about the connection that forgiveness has to tolerance. When someone is very different from you, or holds opinions you disagree with, there is an element of forgiveness that has to happen. You have to acknowledge the divide, acknowledge that it will never be crossed, acknowledge that the person is more than that which divides you, and acknowledge that there is more to lovingly share than there is to fight over.

Think of it as an offense, a debt, to your convictions, and instead of hounding the friend until they have made good the moral opinion you feel they owe you, you simply cancel the debt. It isn’t a patronizing thing. It isn’t glossing it over. It is sizing it up thoughtfully, and then setting it aside for bigger things.

I am very thankful to be surrounded by people very different from myself. I know wonderful, loving, delightful people who have a single opinion I find abhorrent. In younger days that one difference would be everything, but as I get older I find that I value people too much to toss them over for a single difference in convictions.

Today it is ever easier to write people off if they don’t fall in line with our version of “right thinking,” particularly online. It is harder to see past a single difference of opinion. But if we value being tolerant and/or forgiving we have to do just that. We can’t demonize people. We can’t other them. We have to make space for them, really listen to them, and learn to love them.

The God (or Gods) you worship absolutely sees things in you they disagree with, and they like you anyway. Isn’t that good to know?

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. – Matthew 6:14-15

Star Foster Is Back In The Garden

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One of my favorite hymns, since I was a child, is In The Garden. The very thought of a garden is comforting and relaxing, and has been since ancient times. The word paradise originally referred to a walled garden. After some thought, I decided to return my writing to this blog: In The Garden.

I left this blog for several reasons. I wanted my exploration of Christianity, my conversion process, to be closeted and safe. But that is not a comfortable place to live. I wanted to preserve friendships, but I quickly realized that if my friends dropped me for the current turn of my spiritual journey then perhaps those are not friendships meant to last.

I think mostly I had reached the point in my life where I can look back and see the watermarks of change staining my past, and I am slightly embarrassed by my current peregrinations because I feel based on past experiences that I have no guarantee this current spiritual home will last. I wanted to divorce my wanderings from my public persona, which in retrospect is a ridiculous notion. I am who I am. My journey is my journey, from beginning to end. Might as well own it all.

My conversion, or perhaps reversion, process began with a lot of anger and fear. Today I am in a more comfortable place. I am content with my spiritual life, even though I don’t have all the answers. I am resigned to the changes in my relationships, partly because some of those changes were necessary and circumstance solved what loyalty was reluctant to attend to. I am happier in my life, more comfortable with my doubt, and less worried in general.

In light of this, as much as I liked the old blog, I decided I wanted to come back to the garden. It feels good to be back.

I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride;
I have gathered my myrrh with my spice.
I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey;
I have drunk my wine and my milk.

– Song of Songs 5:1