Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Lighter Side of Jesus

We all know that Facebook is a serious time-suck, right?  And sometimes I loathe the day that I first created an account.  But today I realized the reason that Facebook was invented:  so that I could reconnect with a high school friend on religious matters, share some fellowship, and share our faith journeys.  I haven't written as much as I would have liked to about God in this blog.  And today, catching up with my friend on items spiritual, I got to really think about what I believe, and why, and it was really soothing to my soul.

So Lynda and I were never close friends, but we did hang out from time to time.  I went to Bible Study with her once.  We got seriously lost on a trip to find a Goodwill in 11th grade, and wound up practically in Philadelphia. Good times.  I had always had this idea that she was conservative, as were the vast majority of the people I went to school with - at least those who fashioned themselves as Christians - and I never thought about it again until she started posting links to really awesome faith blogs lately - sites like Dirty Sexy Ministry.  Sex is not a word I associate with Ministry, though it might well be - some older translations of the Bible don't have Mary being a virgin, for example.  That was apparently added to square Jesus' birth with the Old Testament prophesies.  Or so some research has shown.

In the spirit of Easter, I want to share with you my own faith journey, as I did with Lynda today.  It's messy and sometimes incoherent, but I want to share it so that people who might have experienced similar histories with the Church can see other possibilities for worship, and having a relationship with Jesus, which is what it comes down to for me.

So I was raised in Lancaster County, which, seeing as it's Amish Country, is pretty conservative.  Any given Sunday saw people protesting along the main drag with Abortion Kills Children signs.  The general consensus among the liberal people regarding gay people was to "hate the sin, love the sinner."  Those were the liberals.  Most people thought it was inhumane.

But my home wasn't very religious.  My dad had Bertrand Russell books around, though I don't think he ever read them.  My mom grew up being forced to go to church, and, while she would put me in Vacation Bible School, she had no desire to traipse our family off to church every Sunday.

So when I went through my teenage rebellion I - wait for it - was baptised.  You know, with submersion and everything.  At once point I owned sixteen Bibles in various niche forms - the Student Bible, the Bible for Stressed Teens, the Your Parents Are Getting Divorced Bible.  The New Testament on Tape.  I was a Bible Hoarder.  I rocked out to Petra's This Means War.  I went to Bible Studies.  I went to Youth Group.  Along with Michael W Smith, I wondered why people wore their crosses of gold, and wanted to remind them what it stood for.

When my dad started dating my stepmom, I worried for his soul.  She didn't go to church, and I really didn't want the Devil working through her to lure him to an eternity of hellfire.

I was pretty annoying.

There was a lot of "can't" in this version of religion.  There were so many things that you couldn't do, or else you'd get thrown into the hellfire.  You couldn't have hormones.  You couldn't dance.  A lot of women couldn't wear trousers.  You couldn't watch Saturday Night Live.  You couldn't vote Democratic.  You could only be friends with gay people if you made it clear that you hated their sinful ways.  I tried very hard to mold myself into this person, thinking it was the only way to God (ever notice how so many sects think they're the only way to God?  Like God is small enough to be hijacked by one congregation, right?  And like human brains have the capacity to truly understand God in the first place, right?).  I had Bible-verse bumper stickers. I had one that said, "if God wanted us to be permissive, He would have given us the Ten Suggestions."  I had a Jesus-Fish.  Damn, I was putting on a good act.

But then I went to college, I learned about other Gospels that weren't included in the Bible, I learned about how humans chose which books went into the Bible, I learned about wrong translations...and those Bertrand Russell books got dusted off, and I became a strong un-Christian.  Also, I was living in sin with my boyfriend, so I figured that kind of put me out of the running for the whole getting-into-heaven thing.

When I moved to England, I spent a lot of time in churches.  That's where the Renaissance choral music is, with the acoustics that it was originally written for, and I worked near Westminster Abbey, so every afternoon saw me hoofing it past Whitehall to the Abbey, where I'd sit through Evensong service enraptured.  Sunday was Church Day, and saw me starting off at St. Paul's and working my way west.

My friends thought I was a huge Christian, and I would argue against them.  No, don't lump me in with those people.  I am NOT like that.  I am NOT judgmental.  I am NOT someone who thinks they have the monopoly on the Truth.  I am Not someone who believes in Truth-with-a-capital-T anyway.  No No No.

Finally, my Australian friend Paul turned me on to John Shelby Spong, who I have mentioned here before.  I bought Why Christianity Must Change Or Die and it blew. me. away.  Here was an ordained priest who had ordained women and gay people.  And gay women for that matter.  Here was a priest who openly questioned the literalness of the Bible.  Here was a priest who even had doubts about the Resurrection?  Holy Batman, maybe there WAS room in the tent for a questioner like me?

I did the Alpha Course, and realized that I had one big major hangup with Christianity.  Sin.  I don't believe in it.  Didn't then, don't now.

Now bear with me while I explain this.

When I tell many Christians that I don't believe in sin as we understand it, they think that I'm all in favor of murder and stealing and crazy adultery and free drugs and having us all live in one big hippie commune.  I'm not.  But I think you need to differentiate between something that is sinful, and something that just doesn't work for society.

To me, the Ten Commandments are evidence that a society was maturing and growing modern. Just about every mature faith and society has a version of the Ten Commandments.  Because you know what?  Society works when people don't go around killing each other, stealing each other's cows, and coveting each other's shit.  Societies where you can covet and steal and murder all willy-nilly don't work.  Breaking a Commandment isn't a sin.  It's just something that doesn't work within the boundaries and structure of our society, and so there need to be consequences for that.  Stop making it so much heavier than it is, please.  It's a code of ethics that helps a society grow and be more productive, and if you don't abide by it, you get taken out of society in one way or another.  It's really very simple.

In less obvious sins, like lying or adultery, I see it as a matter of keeping your word.  Shakespeare said, "To thine own self be true," and when you lie, or break your vow, you're simply not being true to yourself as your word.  And it just makes life hard.  Now you've got to keep your lies straight.  Who did you tell what lie to, and if they meet up with this person, is it going to come out?  It's hard!  Suddenly you're lying to your spouse and keeping secrets and worrying that your secrets will be exposed, and I would imagine that it's just messy.

I'm a big believer in keeping life simple.  Doing a lot of lying makes life complicated, and to me, it's the main reason for living an honest and transparent life.  Not because you're going to go to hell if you don't.

Finally, the idea of sin and evil, to me, is an easy out. You messed up? Well, the Devil was clearly working on you. Personal Responsibility be damned. You couldn't help it! You were tempted and gave in. You're human, born into sin. Of course you messed up and slept with your nanny/lied to your constituents/laundered money/etc. We all do it from time to time, right? And sin is sin, right?

I don't buy it. And you're not going to convince me otherwise. It's an excuse and it makes me cringe.

Now here's where it gets tricky for me.

If I don't believe in Sin (with a capital S, referring to the Sin that most conservative Christians are referring to), then it's hard for me to believe in a Savior to take that Sin from me through His sacrifice.

So while I've never had a problem believing in the miracles, the walking on water, the feeding all the people on, like, a saltine, the curing of the sick...I have a hard time accepting a personal Savior who is saving me from Sin I don't believe I have.

I shared this with our priest at church and she kind of looked at me like I was silly. I was avoiding having a relationship with Jesus because I wasn't sure that I believed in the kind of Sin that people say He died for? Well how stupid was that. Here's this awesome spirit who just wants to hang out with me and be friends, and I'm all, "no, because you've been corrupted into this thing that I can't buy into, so I'm not going to be friends." That's pretty ridiculous. It's not Jesus' fault that all his great preaching has been butchered and politicized over two thousand years.

Here's how I've finally squared it for myself:

I think of sin as anything that separates you from God. To me, God isn't a man sitting in the clouds. Yes, I know we were made in His image, but that verse has been used and abused over the years to justify the rape of our planet, and the abuse of animals and other wonderful creations of God, and I don't read it the same way. I think it's referring to our spirit. And don't go quoting stuff at me. I've already read it. Unless you're reading the original Hebrew, and you're a Hebrew scholar and you know exactly what the person who was writing it at the time they were writing it, you're not going to convince me. You know the game Whisper Down the Lane? That's what I think about my NIV translation. I like the King James version better, but even so, it's still a political hot mess (James I needed to solidify his reign with all the plots going on around him - ie the Gunpowder Plot, etc, and so there is a huge emphasis on the just power of rulers, the importance of rule in society, etc. See Christopher Hitchens' article in the recent Vanity Fair for more on this).

Ok, where was I? Oh, God, sin, right.

So the first thing is, I see God as this universal energy or chi that flows within all living things - me, my cats, the trees, etc - it connects us all to each other, to the world, to eternity, to all that ever was, and all that ever will be. It is universal unconditional love. When I sit on the bed cuddling my cats, I am literally communing with God, because I am appreciating Creation, Life, and Love.

Humans do things to separate themselves from God. We do big things like commit genocides. And we do little things, like litter and stomp all over Creation. We ignore the homeless people. We pretend bigotry doesn't matter. Then we justify our actions. We commit the ultimate affront to God by quoting words that were inspired by Him to say that it's ok. That we can destroy the earth because He gave it to us. That we can throw things at women walking into Planned Parenthood because they're sinners. And somehow, we know this. Somehow, all the knowledge in the vast universe has been giving to a chosen few, and those few vilify the "other" and claim to have the Truth.

All of this pulls us further away from God. Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to love your neighbor as yourself. When we commit these actions that pull us further away from each other, when we look out for our own selfish interests before those of the people down the street, when we destroy the gifts that we have been given...that pulls us away from God, away from each other, away from Life and Unconditional Love. We react to threats with war. We don't seek to understand the people - the other human creations of God - with whom we share the planet. We sit by and elect politicians who authorize bombings and destruction. We sit by and let it happen, and some of us justify it. And to me, that separation from others and from God...that's sin.

That's what Jesus was pointing out. He said that everyone - even tax collectors and prostitutes - can have a relationship directly with God, without needing to sacrifice a goat first, or do any of the things that the Old Testament said you needed to do. He was the ultimate threat to the Establishment. And He died for that. He died to show me the unconditional love that God has for us. He died to show me that every creature on earth is loved by God. He died to show me how to be close to God, how to have a relationship with God, how to be part of God. He died to show me just how far humans will go to separate themselves from the Divine.

Thus, He died for my sin.

Whether you believe in the Resurrection or not, whether you're a fan of Jesus or not, whether you're religious or not, in this season of rebirth and renewal, I urge you all to take a moment to get in touch with your own Divinity and to celebrate being part of creation today. Hug a cat. Hug a dog. Hug a tree. Hug yourself. Hug God, however you see him/her/it.

Happy Holy Week, everyone.

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