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

THE HONEY OF LOVE & THE GALL OF HATE

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[Originally posted here.]

I am an urban dweller and I really love it. I love that I can walk a block or two and find myself surrounded by coffee shops, buses whizzing by, and people of every kind of background going about their day. I love that a bus can take me from my street to a quiet neighborhood to watch old movies or downtown to people watch and shop in the heart of the city.

Without a car insulating me from the world I see so much more of it. I see little moments between people. I have conversations with lovely strangers, I make friends, and I see so much of the city. Sometimes it means the city can get up close and personal in a really uncomfortable way.

Today there was a street preacher screaming at pedestrians, going on about how disgusting and filthy we were and how we were in need of repentance. Maybe he thought he was Hosea, but instead he sounded like he needed a rabies shot. On the other side of the street men were pushing tracts at people while telling them in a bitter, accusing manner that they were going to hell.

It made me physically sick, this unasked for abuse, this assault on the senses and the soul on a beautiful September day. I’ve never wanted to cross the street so urgently in my life with this hatefulness right at my back.

Here’s the thing that bothers me most though: they are actively turning people away from religion. I’m not saying that difficult and dark things should be glossed over, but if your faith is based on the concept of love or some good news then you should lead with that. Trust me, we all have some tough, terrible things to deal with in our lives, and having someone yell at us isn’t something we need.

If you have good news, then spread good news. That you gather more flies with honey than vinegar isn’t marketing, it is basic common sense. And if bitter gall is all you have to offer then you are likely turning away the very people who might need a faith community the most. If you are Christian, then you certainly aren’t spreading the gospel. Christianity can be summed up in two passages from scripture, and both are grounded in love:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this:‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” – Mark 12:29-31 (emphasis mine)

and

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16

Love. The good news is love. Not hate. Not minutia. Not details. Not reproach. Not gall. Not anger or shame or disappointment. Love.

A lot of people see Christians as that hateful guy on the street corner. I spent years seeing Christians as that hateful guy on the street corner. The image of him abusing passerby weighs heavier on the soul than all the good deeds you might see. All the love. All the charity. All the comfort, support, and joy. Someone makes a hateful comment about your gay friend and it is hard to see the love of God in that. Someone judges you for having a difficult past despite the strides you have made to fix your life, and it is hard to see the love of God in that.

I look at those two passages and I don’t see anything about judging people. About abusing them in the street. About being hateful to them. About valuing them based on the circumstances of their life rather than the content of their character or love in their heart. All I see there is love.

I think about all the awesome things in my neighborhood. I think about the guys who play jazz downtown. About the man who strolls through the Mall of America and the downtown skyways singing love songs. I think about the old guy who isn’t content to sit in his retirement home in Northeast and so he roams the city chatting up strangers every day. There is enough ugliness in the city. There is never enough love.

FEELING HELPLESS

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[Originally posted here.]

I’m sick. I’m stressed over personal and professional things. I am worried about spiritual matters. My body feels like crap and my heart and mind have no clarity, no solutions in sight. I feel weak and helpless.

Nights like this remind me of why I chose to return to Christianity. There is no strength inside me to turn to. There is no energy, from the earth or otherwise, for me to draw from. Right now I don’t have a human being I can turn to. It is comforting knowing there is a God who is interested, cares, and helps.

I can’t speak to the reality of this God, of the reality of his interest and care. I prayed for years to Gods who did seem real, but didn’t really seem to care. Maybe years of people insisting they didn’t care got under my skin. But there are precious few expressions of care in the literature and lore, and some of those aren’t classical but more modern interpretations and expressions.

The expressed interest and care in Christian scripture comforts me. Knowing the only place I have to lift my burdens tonight is up in prayer is a profound relief. Sure, tomorrow all my work will still be there, all the relationship issues, and all the dishes in the sink. But tonight I can rest and take comfort that there is a God who cares that I am worried about keeping up at work, that I am worried about losing friends or being in unhealthy relationships, and who cares that I have a sink full of dirty dishes.

It feels good to acknowledge that I currently feel helpless, that I need help, and that it is ok to experience that without needing to fix it.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.[a]
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.
If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
and you make the Most High your dwelling,
no harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
“Because he[b] loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”

— Psalm 91 NIV

ALL GOOD THINGS CHANGE

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[Originally posted here.]

I like stability, and I am not crazy about change. I want a life I can handle, that I can wrap my arms around, and that I can understand. Of course, that isn’t how life works. I have been praying a lot lately for the people I care about, both near and far. In particular I have been praying about a situation that touches the future of some really good people I know, and has an impact on me in a significant way.

I expected a pedestrian, prosaic answer to my prayer. I expected some extra elbow grease and a little good fortune would take care of the situation. Instead good fortune rained from the sky in a startling and unexpected manner. I got an answer too big to wrap my arms around, too big for me to tackle with elbow grease, and that will force me to step up in ways that will push me to excel and grow.

I should be excited about this, but I am nervous. So to help cope with unexpected change, even the good kind, I went to scripture and amidst verses about repentance or the steadfastness of God was this gem:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11

This comforts me. It helps me to let go of my worry. You see, I am worried that something good in my life is changing, and that it might change for the worse. Walking around downtown today I thought about the old sayingNothing good ever lasts, but there seemed to be a false note there. Good things last, but they don’t stay static. The truth is good things keep changing, and change is scary and uncertain. If something is good, then it is constantly evolving over time. We change, we grow, and we thrive.

Being a good person means you are constantly changing and adapting. You are aware of what is happening around you and responding to it. Empathy means you are vulnerable and being vulnerable means you are open to change. You are malleable, fluid, and ready to have sympathy and love for whoever the world throws your way. That is scary but powerful. It is good to be strong enough to bend, and it is good to be secure enough to grow, and good to be open enough to love.

Good things change, good people change, and the trick is to be faithful to that which is good as you change. Forms, labels, and processes may change, but your heart should be constant. A loving spirit should shine through whatever you do. And holding fast to that goodness, that true north, should see you through even the toughest changes. It helps to know other loving spirits are there to support you, and that there is a God who does love you and is looking out for you.

ANCHORED IN THE VEIL

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[Originally posted here.]

I believe in the sun
though it is late in rising.

I believe in love
though it is absent.

I believe in God
though He is silent.

Anonymous Holocaust survivor – Cologne, Germany

Tonight I am rewatching The Last Temptation of Christ. I haven’t seen this in over 15 years. As I watch it now I am struck by the concept of God in a human form, the omnipotent and omniscient frightened and alone. I wonder if this is why I came to love Hephaistos, as he is the Theoi who abandoned heaven for a human life.

It is strangely comforting to think of God isolated and alone. Of God daydreaming of a better life. Of God filled with doubt. Of God full of friendship and joy. Of God with a stubbed toe fighting back curses. Of God trying to maintain relationships in a shifting world. God as fully human for a time. God with empathy for our existence born out of experience. God who understands the despair born of his own silence.

I have never understood the controversy around The Last Temptation of Christ. It portrays a fully human Jesus struggling with a destiny he does not fully comprehend and finally accepting the totality of the sacrifice he is making. If Jesus is certain he will rise again, is it a sacrifice or merely a discomfort? I will run outside barefoot in the snow if I know I can come back in where I want. It is no miracle to endure hardship for a time. In Scorsese’s film Jesus lacks certainty, even when he speaks with authority and wisdom. Up to the end his heart is full of doubt, even when he makes the choice to die on the cross his delight seems to be in making the right choice and not in knowing he shall be resurrected. In modern terms, he let go and let God.

This theme of faith in doubt reminds me of a hymn that I hadn’t heard in years but has become something I’ve turned to often over the past month:

When darkness seems to hide His face,
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.

I think meditating on the humanity of Jesus is a good reminder that we aren’t the only ones who’ve had to anchor in the veil. Joy doesn’t always come in the morning (as the marvelous Twitter campaign #faithinthefogillustrated) but that does not necessarily mean you are rudderless in a storm.

Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice. – Psalms 55:17

I’M EMBARRASSED ABOUT BEING EMBARRASSED

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[Originally posted here.]

I don’t apologize for being me. I don’t apologize for my weight, my fashion sense, my politics, or my culinary tastes. And although I am not comfortable with a lot of my past, I don’t feel a need to apologize for most of the road that has led me where I am today. After all, most of it wasn’t my choice. But lately I find I am embarrassed by my spiritual past. And I am embarrassed about being embarrassed.

Maybe hindsight is 20/20 but I look back on some of my choices and they look really stupid now. Did I really think I would find spiritual fulfillment in witchcraft? As much as I find to admire in the Pagan movement, I am fundamentally at odds with most of that culture, practice, and theology. I beat my head against a wall for 15 years, and tried so hard to find a place I belonged in that set of communities that I left a palpable mark on them. The virtues I seek are not ones the Pagan community champions, and sometimes are entirely at odds with them.

I have been thinking a lot about forgiveness lately. I am not a very forgiving person. My past has left me a little bitter, and it is difficult to forgive the unrepentant. I read Scripture extolling the power of love and as much as I think I understand it, I am reminded that forgiveness is part of love. What shape should forgiveness take? Can you forgive someone but still exile them from your life? Can you forgive someone who behaves maliciously? Can you forgive others without also forgiving yourself?

I am embarrassed by my Pagan past, even though I understand it was full of as much love and joy and understanding as most things in life. I think maybe my embarrassment isn’t so much to do with those religions and the culture sprung up around them, but in my own flailing in incompatible waters for years.

I lost a lot when I converted to Paganism in 1999, and as I make way back to Christ I am once again aware of loss. Some things aren’t so bad. Losing festival or Pagan ritual is no hardship for me. I miss the people, but not that context of interaction. Yet, we do know people in particular contexts, and friendship doesn’t always survive outside the box you found it in. I am losing people. That hurts, and it is embarrassing. You don’t ask someone if they stopped calling, texting, or hanging out just because you started singing hymns on Sunday mornings. I like to think I am the same person I was before, and that others are somehow shallow for not seeing that. The truth is, I am the one who broke the social contract when I began the conversion process again.

Maybe part of the embarrassment comes from being unable to express the journey. I find it hard to write about, and worry about being unkind. I’m not anti-Pagan. I’m not anti-anyone, but I am making a judgement call in my own life. I am deciding one thing doesn’t have what I need. I am rejecting Paganism. That knowledge causes me pain, and I know it has to cause pain for my friends. Looking back, this has been a long time coming, and should have been no surprise to me or anyone else.

There is no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. My spiritual past cannot be changed or hidden. It is irreversibly public record, warts and all. It embarrasses me, and that embarrassment disturbs me. I want to claim all of my past and gather it into myself with compassion and forgiveness and acceptance. This is my life. But as much as I like to think that I am constant despite my faith, the truth is Christianity is changing me as surely as Paganism changed me. Moving from one to the other isn’t entirely comfortable. I look at my past and wince. I look at my future and worry. I want to change into someone more loving, more forgiving, and more vulnerable, but, as much as I am at peace in my current faith, I have no guarantee that I won’t be embarrassed again looking back on these months.

Maybe no all who wander are lost, but those who wander do often appear foolish in their aimless ramblings.

Here is the Scripture I have found comforting and challenging this week:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

 

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

 

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love – 1 Corinthians 13

THE FLUIDITY OF PRACTICE

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[Originally posted here.]

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. – Matthew 7:7-8

I love Deipnon and Noumenia, but I struggled with the theological foundation for them. Making an offering to Hekate to ask forgiveness for trespasses when the concept of sin and forgiveness is largely absent from religious discourse feels odd. The intimate relationship between Zeus and humankind is fuzzy, and yet he guards the PopTarts we hide in the back of our pantries.

I’ve been thinking a lot about practices and how they are not the same thing as religion. They aid us in our religious lives, but they aren’t a substitute for faith. They are vessels, vehicles, for the faith we dig into and cultivate in our souls. Meditation is a good example. On it’s own it isn’t a religious practice. Atheists can do it as easily as devout folk, and you can meditate on the grace of God or Ben & Jerry’s to get positive therapeutic effects.

I always thought of Noumenia as Sunday supper, so it has always translated easily for me across traditions. Deipnon is different. It means a lot to me as a personal practice but the religious element has always felt off. Then I thought about how my church offers communion once a month, and how the chance to confess, receive atonement, and begin again is very emblematic of the practice of Deipnon. Cleaning your house, tying up loose ends, and spending a night at home is a good way to symbolize the refreshed spirit, recommitting to faith before once again entering into communion with God. Resurrection and renewal, purification, re-commitment, atonement, and forgiveness all fit more readily into Christian theology, mostly because Christianity is more comfortable talking about these concepts.

In the same vein, some of the Christmas practices that made no sense to me in the context of Yule or Solstice are now firing my imagination. After years of shunning the holiday, I look forward to embracing Christmas again. The practices have more value when married to a meaning that impacts the purpose that gives vitality to your life. Context counts.

For years I have heard advocates of “whatever works” proselytize aggressively, and have on occasion flippantly suggested Judaism has worked like gangbusters for 5,000 years. In truth, what works best is a combination of practice and faith that complement each other. Each should take the other higher, deeper, farther. The threads of faith should run through your life, uniting all the bits and pieces into a jumbled but coherent whole. What you do is informed by what you believe, and what you do reinforces your faith. Flipping psychological triggers simply because you can, just because the spiritual technology works, is not enough. If it isn’t part of some larger plan it will just leave you empty and confused in the end. Anyone can have a spiritual experience, but faith makes that experience revelatory, relevant, and real.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. – Phillipians 4:8