Blessed are the Single

I spent much of yesterday afternoon feeling sorry for myself.  My stalwart band of single friends has been steadily shrinking since graduation, but recently people seem to be deserting in record numbers, leaving me (and a few others) to fend for ourselves on the battlefield of loneliness.  Okay, that metaphor was a little melodramatic.  But, really–it’s kind of depressing that my social life might now consist of merely tagging along as the third (or fifth, or seventh…) wheel on my friends’ dates.

So yesterday, as Danielle (one of those traitors) and I prepared for our 56 Club lesson series on the Beatitudes, I was kind of grumpy.  “We should include ‘blessed are the single’ some week,” I suggested, only half joking as I lay on the ground drinking my Blenders smoothie loudly and bitterly.  It’s not that I’m so desperate for a man; it’s that romantic relationships are necessarily exclusive, and the vast network of these relationships sometimes seems to leave little room for the unattached.  Sometimes (after a little too much wine and Sister Wives) I even find myself questioning the wisdom of monogamy: Christ redefines family relationships in terms of the Church–in which we’re all one, not just little pods of couples or nuclear families–right? 

But then the kids showed up, only five of them this week, and we all went out into the warm, early summer evening to play on the church’s fantastic new playground, and I climbed high up on the jungle gym and went down the slide backwards and joined the kids in laughing at Jason when he spun too fast on the merry-go-round and almost threw up.  I felt joy.  And I remembered how especially joyful these past two weeks have really been, even when (and often because) I’ve been surrounded by my twitterpated friends.

And I breathed a prayer of thanks I’ve been repeating lately: God, thank You that You honor singleness, that, truly, eschatologically, I am blessed.  Christianity declares that singleness is holy, that it’s not a sign of incompleteness, that, in fact, it’s a gift.  It doesn’t promise I won’t be lonely, it doesn’t mean I want to be single forever.  But, counter to the conventional wisdom of other traditions (sorry, Mormonism, I’m mainly thinking of you), it insists that there is nothing wrong with me because I’m single.  Loneliness is not the same as inadequacy.  I have an equal place in the economy of the Kingdom, in which curses turn into blessings and the meek can inherit the earth.  I am enough, and God is enough, even when singleness sucks.

(And yes, I believe God also blesses marriage, and I’m usually a fan of monogamy, too.)


Eschatology & Me

Confession: decades after the craze first started, fully aware of the problematic implications of its theology, I have starting reading Left Behind.  I figured it would be a good thing to do, considering its historic popularity, and also because much of my generation (myself included) has been scarred by rapture nightmares evoked by the series.  I’m about to finish the first book, and I just returned from picking up the second at my local library.  (I also checked out The Brothers Karamazov–I’ve been meaning to read it for a while, but I also needed it to cover up my more shameful selection on the walk back to work.)

It’s actually worse than I thought it would be.  Danielle had to endure constant interruptions from her own book while we ate dinner together last night.  “How can you think that verse refers to the anti-christ?!”  “Why are these conversion narratives so homogenous?!”  “Paul’s talking about the resurrection, not the rapture, you idiots!”  (After this interjection Danielle mentioned something about Christian love…)  I guess there are worse books out there right now (Twilight, anyone?), and I do consider Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins my brothers in Christ, but it’s hard for me to read Left Behind unemotionally, because (1) it’s hard for me to read any theological work unemotionally, and (2) they’re messing with my favorite branch of theology!

When I tell people about my interest in eschatology they usually assume I’m asking the same questions Left Behind purports to answer, just coming up with different answers.  “Oh, so are you post-trib?  Post-mil?  Preterist?  What’s your expected timeline of the last days?”  I suppose there’s some validity to hashing out possible answers to those questions – theology always has practical implications – but the reason I love eschatology isn’t because I think it’ll help me predict the future. 

I love eschatology because it helps us imagine (through a glass darkly) a redeemed world consumed with the presence of God.  It rejoices in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, and also in the anticipation of our own.  It gives us space to ponder, imperfectly, bigger questions.  Where are we going?  What does it mean that all of creation will be redeemed?  What role will memories and relationships have in the eschaton?  How do we live, now, in the tension of the already/not-yet Kingdom of God?

I don’t like Left Behind (so far) because the theological questions are so settled.  “Here, watch this video our pastor recorded before the rapture, pray for, like, five minutes, and then you’ll be saved.”  And the Christians all knew exactly what was coming before it happened – down to the last detail.  You’ll find that on said pastor’s tape.  Plus, the Bible has apparently become so perspicuous that, within a week, the new post-rapture Christians can figure out the whole shape of the last days.  But… really?  Did Israel know exactly what to expect the Messiah to be?  (Answer: no.)  And if a God-incarnate-baby came in place of a military hero, how can we think we know exactly how He’ll come again?

This Evangelical brand of theological simplicity, of almost arrogant knowing, seems to come from another eschatological mistake: we’ve misimagined our place in redemption history.  We think we know everything about God, so there’s no room to be ever-growing in both our answers and our questions.  But what if we don’t have everything about God figured out yet?  What if we don’t even have the Bible figured out yet?  What if our minds are still awaiting full redemption, too?  What if God’s story isn’t over yet?  What if it gets even better?  A true study of eschatology is a joyful act of faith that it will.

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I’m all about art as a way to do theology, so here’s an (incomplete) list of reading, viewing, and listening that has stretched my eschatological imagination beyond Left Behind.  I recommend it all!


Of Synagogue and Sacrament Meeting

Last Friday I tagged along with Julia and her boyfriend Jesse when they went to the Shabbat service at Congregation B’nai B’rith Santa Barbara.  I’d never been to a Jewish synagogue (and I couldn’t spend my Friday night watching TV like I usually do), so I jumped at the chance to expand my body of religious knowledge.  Jesse is Jewish, and Julia’s been attending Shabbat services with him for the past few months, so I felt comfortable going along as their guest.

Unfortunately we somehow missed the memo that the service started 45 minutes before we showed up, and Jesse gave me a hard time for forgetting to take off the cross necklace I wear habitually (he was joking… mostly), but for the most part I really enjoyed myself.  The prayers sung by the congregation were beautiful interpretations of Torah passages, and the sermon was delivered by a spunky young woman rabbi.  Plus, I enjoyed covertly trying to figure out if a certain women across the aisle from us was my 11th grade history teacher (she’s Jewish and I heard she moved to Santa Barbara… I’m pretty sure it was her!).  I’m planning on going back another Friday night.

But I’ve been wondering just how comfortable I should have been, how much I should have enjoyed myself, especially when I compare my synagogue experience to my interactions with Mormons.  At the LDS chapel I very intentionally chose not to partake of the “sacrament,” but at the synagogue I didn’t think twice about drinking the wine and eating the challah used in a communion-like ceremony after the service was over.  At Institute I’m extremely cautious about the hymns I choose to sing and the prayers I choose to join, but at the synagogue I participated in every (English) prayer I could.

See, one of my interfaith dialogue pet peeves is when Mormons assume that they believe everything I do with a few additions, that I’m “on the right track” on my “faith journey”… with the implication that I just haven’t arrived yet, that maybe one day I’ll be more completely evolved.  I believe in the authority of the Bible–which is great!–but it’s too bad I don’t have the more complete understand of this ambiguous book provided by modern-day revelation.

This kind of thinking is annoying, because: (1) it’s frustratingly condescending, (2) I think it misrepresents most Mormon teachings on mainline Christianity (we did add things like creeds that Mormonism teaches corrupted pure, New Testament Christianity), and (3) it reduces millenia of diverse Christian thought and practice to one neat package of doctrine that just serves as a precursor to the “Restoration.”  It tries to tell me what I and my community believe, and leaves no room for me to bring something new and challenging to the conversation.  This attitude is so prevalent at Institute that it’s refreshing when a teacher or student says something directly against Christianity.

So I want to avoid doing the same thing to my Jewish friends.  I think most Christians view Judaism the same way many Mormons view Christianity: as a quaint, less evolved version of “real” religion.  We host our own Passover sedars, read historical fiction about the Holocaust, and some dispensationalists even turn to Christian Zionism to protect the Jews… but only as a means to ushering in Christ’s return.  Is our popular fascination with Judaism, our willingness to sentimentalize Jews as more honorable people than, say, Muslims, condescending?  Do we assume we know everything there is to know about this ancient and complex religion just because we’ve read the Old Testament?  Are we silencing Jews by insisting on narrating their stories, neatly summarizing their theologies?

I’m quick to dismiss Mormon interpretations of the Bible that don’t align with the theological training I’ve received, but I’m sure most Jews would do the same with the way Christians apply messianic prophecies to Jesus (or disagree that certain prophetic writings are even messianic!).  My Christian understanding, of, say, the “other sheep” Jesus mentions in John means I don’t believe that the Book of Mormon’s stories about Jews in the Americas are true, but, positively, it could also teach my Mormon friends about my own views on what it means for gentiles to be included as part of the people of God.  Likewise, we Christians could learn from Jewish interpretations of books like Isaiah not just that Jews don’t believe Jesus is the messiah, but what past or future events they ascribe to those particular prophecies.

Again, I’m not a relativist.  I believe the Christian story best describes God and His interactions with humanity, and part of that story involves Christianity’s own theological understandings of the role of the Jewish nation.  We’ve somehow been grafted onto the olive tree that is Israel (not the modern nation-state), and that means we need to think and speak about that relationship.  But let’s also allow our Jewish friends to speak for themselves.  We don’t have to pretend to agree about everything pre-Jesus; respectful disagreement and mutual education is far more appropriate.  Maybe we need to consciously allow for some degree of tension when we enter into Jewish spaces like the synagogue I visited–not to create animosity between two religious groups, but to wrestle both individually and collectively through the implications of our respective beliefs and practices.

So the question I’m still asking is: to what degree should I participate in Shabbat services if I end up going back?


Lent: Staying Awake

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God.  The world is crowded with Him.  He walks everywhere incognito.  And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate.  The real labour is to remember, to attend.  In fact, to come awake.  Still more to remain awake.”  ~C.S. Lewis

That’s the quote my pastor selected as the “thought before worship” this Sunday, an interesting thought to consider on Transfiguration Sunday, when we remember the blatant revelation of Jesus as the Son of God to Peter, James, and John.  I never before noticed how stark the juxtaposition is between this Sunday and the following Wednesday: Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a season in which we practice solemnity and self-discipline, bearing in mind Christ’s own suffering.  It, of course, ends with the biggest celebration of the Christian year–Christ is risen!–but perhaps the glory of the Transfiguration is part of the Lenten story, too.  The Transfiguration is a brief burst of holiness, an event that leaves Jesus’ disciples speechless or babbling.  It reminds us that God walks among us, even when He walks incognito.  Like Christ’s painful walk to Calvary between Palm Sunday and Easter, like our own stumbling journeys between Eden and eschaton, our somber Lenten path is bracketed by unavoidable inbreaks of the presence of God–events that would startle even the soundest sleeper awake.  One day, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The challenge is to stay awake now, to remember Jesus transfigured even when He’s walking beside us, invisible.

I’ve identified two especially challenging barriers to my own everyday wakefulness, and this Lent I’m going to see what happens when I mindfully regulate them:

#1–The internet, specifically, T.V.
It’s far too easy (at least, for me) to hop on the computer and end up wasting hours browsing Facebook, StumbleUpon, etc, not to mention the amount of time I spend watching T.V. on Netflix or Hulu every night.  T.V. is my go-to activity when I’m tired and don’t want to think–I recently realized, to my chagrin, that I consistently follow nine shows, and that’s not even counting older seasons of other shows I watch when nothing new is on.  Goodbye for Lent, T.V. (except for when I’m watching socially–trust me, the vast majority of my T.V. time is solitary).  And I can’t really avoid the internet when I’m at work, but during Lent I’m going to stay offline when I’m at home.  What will I do with my hours of free time on weeknights now?  I have no clue, but I’m going to have to figure it out.  I’m hoping to develop more contemplative spiritual practices.

#2–Food
T.V. and food often go together.  I eat when I’m bored, or when my brain’s turned off (sound like prime T.V. watching time to you?).  Or I read while I eat my meals, totally oblivious to what I’m doing.  This means I often overeat, which is both unhealthy and wasteful.  So during Lent I’m getting rid of my food of choice–junk food (it’s much easier to binge on chocolate or potato chips than on veggies!).  I want to be more aware of what I’m doing when I eat, so I’m also going to try to pray before I eat anything, thanking God for His provision, for the next forty days.  We are ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but in a time and place of abundantly available food it’s easy to forget that we are fundamentally dependent on God to sustain us.

So those are my Lenten intentions.  May I emerge celebrating Easter more wakefully.

I’m currently…

    • reading T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday.
    • writing a piece explaining the seasons of the Church for one of my Institute teachers to use in her New Testament class.  She requested I do so after our long conversation about Lent and the Church calendar last night.
    • preparing to guide my 56 Club (fifth and sixth grade youth group at my church) kids through the church’s Ash Wednesday service tonight (and planning for a BBQ on Sunday!).

Prayer for a Strange Season

NOTE: I’ve been thinking about much more than just interfaith dialogue in this strange post-college season, so I’ve decided to expand the breadth of this blog.  I’ll write what I want, yo, because, well, no one reads this blog anyway, and writing is how I best process my thoughts and feelings.

I was introduced to the following prayer by my friend Jasmine at a recent meeting of our prayer home group, and I found it particularly apropos of this current stage of life:

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O Thou who art the Lord of the night as of the day and to whose will all the stars are obedient, in this hour of darkness I too would submit my will to Thine.

From the stirrings of self-will within my heart:
From cowardly avoidance of necessary duty:
From rebellious shrinking from necessary suffering:
From discontentment with my lot:
From jealousy of those whose lot is easier:
From thinking lightly of the one talent Thou hast give me, because Thou hast not given me five or ten:
From uncreaturely pride:
From undisciplined thought:
From unwillingness to learn and unreadiness to serve:

O God, set me free.

O God my Father, who art often closest to me when I am farthest from Thee and who art near at hand even when I feel that Thou hast forsaken me, mercifully grant that the defeat of my self-will may be the triumph in me of Thine eternal pupose.

May I grow more sure of Thy reality and power:
May I attain a clearer mind as to the meaning of my life on earth:
May I strengthen my hold upon life eternal:
May I look more and more to things unseen:
May my desires grow less unruly and my imaginations more pure:
May my love for my fellow men [and women] grow deeper and more tender, and may I be more willing to take their burdens upon myself.

To Thy care, O God, I commend my soul and the souls of all whom I love and who love me; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

A Diary of Private Prayer, by John Baillie


On Being Unpopular

I lived in South Africa for half of my junior high years, and while I was there I became quite the little patriot.  I missed my friends and didn’t know culture shock was normal, and I guess I just assumed that my problems stemmed from the fact that the U.S. was inherently superior to this uncomfortable country in which I found myself.  I didn’t exactly choose a great time to, say, start defending American foreign policy in my history classes (yes, this happened)–this was just months after 9/11, and the Bush administration was beginning to launch the war on Iraq.  Needless to say, America didn’t look too good overseas.  But America was home, which meant it looked great to me.  So I refused to use British spelling in school.  I stubbornly articulated the “R”s that so lazily tried to drop out at the end of my syllables, delighting the English teacher who always had me read the dialogue in To Kill a Mockingbird so it would sound more “authentic.”  I did everything I could to stay American, and to defend my country’s hallowed ground.
 
Now I cringe when I remember the extent of my nationalism during those years, but somehow my classmates didn’t find me overwhelmingly obnoxious.  I was pretty popular at school–if only because I was a novelty–and I built good friendships, some of which continue to this day.  On my last day of school before returning to “the States” almost everyone I knew presented me with a handmade card, South African souvenier, or lovingly crafted scrapbook.  I was touched.  But the most surprising parting gift came from a friend who had been one of the most outspoken critics of The Motherland.  As we were hugging goodbye she said to me, “Kat, you make Americans look good… and that’s saying something!”
 
That comment has stuck with me for almost ten years.  As I returned home to California I was inevitably disillusioned with America and Americans (who could have lived up to the idealized image I crafted in South Africa?), and, especially once I began my studies at Westmont, I began to question the place of nationalism in the Christian faith.  Let’s just say I’ve been known to start ranting about deism, syncretism, and idolatry while visiting Thomas Jefferson’s church in Williamsburg with my Fox-News-watching relatives (note: this is not the best way to preserve the peace at a family reunion).  And, still, my friend’s comment looms large in my memory, sometimes encouraging, sometimes convicting.  It’s great that I left that kind of impression with my South African friends, but shouldn’t I be primarily trying to make Christians look good, to make Christ look good?
 
So that’s what I set out hoping to accomplish at Institute.  I would waltz in, win everyone over with my charming personality and “exotic” beliefs, and do it all in the name of Jesus.  Easy enough, right?  But now, eight months after I first started attending, I’ve made a grand total of two friends, both of whom are now living in Utah.  
 
Most weeks after class I kind of awkwardly roam the “social hour,” maybe engaging in small talk with a few acquaitances, maybe hanging out with the teacher.  It’s pretty discouraging.  I don’t think the rest of the ward knows what to make of me–it’s clear that I have some kind of reputation, because every time I get introduced to some visiting member of the bishopric he seems to know who I am.  But I can’t figure out what that reputation is, except that I think a lot of my classmates are confused as to why I’m there.  I know what I’m doing is unusual: I have no interest in converting to Mormonism, but I’m taking their classes and hanging out at some of their events.  They don’t really know what to do with me, and I’m sure traditional Christians just aren’t as exciting to Mormons as Americans were to my South African friends (who would sometimes ask me to talk just so they could hear what a movie star sounds like in person).
 
I’m think I had some unrealistic expectations of what friendships at Institute would look like, and I’m also beginning to think it’s alright that I’m not universally beloved within the Santa Barbara LDS community.  I’m not talking about the idea that “Christians should never be popular!  Resist peer pressure!”–I simply haven’t earned the right to be an insider in the group.  I’m sure part of the reason it’s hard to make friends is that I’m entering–for only a few hours a week–a fairly insular community that seems to do everything together.  I don’t have the same context with these people that I had with my friends in South Africa.  I certainly don’t think I’ve earned the right to, say, challenge teachers in class about the heterodoxy of Mormon doctrine, something I might have been quick to do in those junior high days.  I tried that once at Institute–one week when we were learning about the early Church “apostasy” I raised my hand to set the record straight a little (no, early Christians didn’t worship saints, and, no, they weren’t gnostics–that was a condemned heresy!).  But I’ve wondered how helpful that was.
 
I don’t have the right to be at the center of attention.  It’s okay to listen more than I speak, to learn more than I teach.  That’s part of what’s interesting about being a student at Institute: to, in a strange way, submit myself to the authority of a teacher I believe is teaching wrongly.  And I’m not the same person I was in junior high (thank goodness!).  I have a more nuanced understanding of my identity and beliefs, and less of a propensity to be contrary for the sake of being contrarian.  I fully identify with the Church, yes, but I also know that our history hasn’t been spotless and I don’t pretend that it has been.  I don’t think it would be right to defend Christianity in the same way I once defended the U.S.: with a blind eye to its problems and the blanket assumption that Christians are just better people.
 
So how do I represent Christ and Christians well?  How do I give them a good name without shoving that name in everyone’s faces?  I’m still trying to figure that out.  But maybe that shouldn’t be my primary reason for going to Institute, at least in this season.  Or maybe Christ can be represented well even through relative anonymity, through someone who chooses the more humble position of a student, who accepts the limitations of being a religious minority within a group so accustomed to being minorities themselves.  Maybe now’s not a good time to stalwartly defend my own people–we Evangelicals have a reputation of religious aggression among Mormons.  Maybe now’s the time to learn more about my Mormon classmates and their faith–not just so I can better anticipate their arguments, but so that I can actually learn from and be challenged by their beliefs.  Good interfaith relations leave room for holy envy.
 
Tonight I will walk into class and awkwardly find a seat next to someone who will greet me with a forced smile and secretly wish they didn’t have to engage with the non-member.  And I’ll pray that God somehow allows this weirdo in the corner to be a good learner for His Kingdom.

Advent: Joy

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world.  Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
-from “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” by Wendell Berry