"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, July 28, 2017

O Ya - Ya of Little Faith


Good Lord didn't mean for us to hate ourself.
He made us to love ourself like He do, with wide open arms
.” (140)

Don't ever worry bout bein holy, babychild.
Just keep your eyes wide open except when you sleep.
Then let the Lord's mighty vision see you through the night
.” (144)

~ Little Altars Everywhere ~ Rebecca Wells ~
~ more on my book blog ~

"I have been missing the point. The point is not knowing
another person, or learning to love another person.
The point is simply this: how tender can we bear to be?
What good manners can we show as we welcome ourselves
and others into our hearts?
" (346)

~ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood ~ Rebecca Wells ~


It has been awhile since the "Ya - Ya Sisterhood" has come up in conversation, but it's been on my mind lately in connection with my recent thoughts on religious indoctrination. Even the titles -- Divine Secrets, Little Altars -- imply a spiritual inclination. I loved the vocabulary: ya-ya, ya-ya-no, gumbo ya-ya, tres ya-ya, petites ya-yas -- and my favorite angel-gals.

The plot, on the other hand, was rather far fetched for my taste. Could you really have the same four best friends for seventy years? Well maybe if your fathers were all incredibly rich and your husbands were all incredibly rich and you never had to move across the country or be even remotely concerned about making a living and could live an entire life devoted solely to personal relationships. I was straining to suspend my disbelief, but I guess that's why they call it fiction. Still I prefer for my fictional characters to be a bit more like moi, and I'm a Yankee girl raised in a humble home of modest means. So I had a few hurdles to cross and some eyes to roll before coming to a full appreciation of the divine secrets behind the antics.

For me, the most memorable line will always be when Sidda (age thirty - something) goes to visit her mother and "tried not to feel five years old. She tried to feel at least eleven" (336). Another shining moment -- as quoted above -- occurs when Sidda gives up the idea of ever really understanding her mother: "The point is not knowing another person, or learning to love another person. The point is simply this: how tender can we bear to be?"

In fact, early in the novel, Sidda's mother suggests the tenderness of etiquette, "Forget love. Try good manners” (25). This ya - ya advice is similar to Kurt Vonnegut's observation that what the world needs now is "A little less love please, and a little more common decency". Or Ralph Waldo Emerson's reminder to "treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are."

I like Emerson's "angels unawares" message here, but even more I like the face value of it, that being human is enough, being human is everything. If the sum of humanity is greater than the individuals, then maybe that sum is god. Instead of loving god (whatever that means) how about just being nice to other people. When it comes to faith, god, and religion, the quest to know (even as also we are known) can be good; but maybe a better goal is to be tender and mannerly.

In a memorable episode of Thirtysomething (can't remember which season), Elliot chastises his mother-in-law Eleanor for hurting his wife Ellen's feelings. Eleanor responds that she has asked god's forgiveness. But Elliot persists, "What about asking Ellen's forgiveness? She's the person you hurt." Why can't Eleanor be more tender? Why is she holding back?

Around the same time (1997) that I was watching Thirtysomething and reading Divine Secrets and Little Altars, a dear friend -- one of my angel - gals -- was reading The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie. She found it to be a very helpful way of looking at the heartache and frustration and occasional boredom of organized religion, and she wrote to explain some of Beattie's ideas:
She suggests acting "As If." Act as if you're happy and pretty soon you will be. Or act as if I have excellent self-esteem and pretty soon I will. That kind of thing. So if I act as if I believe in God, pretty soon I will? That could work! It's very important to me to start believing. I went to my counselor last night. Seems I have this core belief that "I am not enough." So I asked, "How do you get rid of those beliefs that you formed as a small child?" Of course, as adults, we can actively choose for tenderness as opposed to bitterness, but we can't always repair the damage done to us as children. I have a lot of work to do, and I really appreciate your thoughts and help on my issues.
In response, I shared with her the story of what had inspired me over the years and what had not. As a Nazarene kid (in the 1960s & 70s), I am definitely grateful for the singable hymns and the "fantastic grasp of scripture," which has served me well personally and professionally, as a teacher and writer. However, I never got the "strong sense of identity" or the "Nazzy street cred" that some adherents claim as their birthright (see, for example, Ryan Scott's blog post
"Nazarenes, Moralism, and _ru_p"). Instead, I felt constantly judged and criticized by my elders and my peers, perpetually weighed and found wanting. Always a goat, never a sheep.

As a child, my eyes were opened (and not in a good way) when I visited a Sunday school class for fourth grade girls. When one of the girls was excused for a few moments to run an errand, the teacher turned to the rest of us and said, "While she's out of the room, let's pray for her, because we know that she is not saved." What?! I hardly believed any of those cruel, heartless, irrational ideas from the time I was 8 or 9 years old. How do we know that she's not saved? My girlish heart was shocked then; and even now, half a century later, I remain highly suspicious of anyone who would pray for me behind my back. Don't do that!

I was exposed to numerous other severe dictates that totally backfired. Though I realized early on (by age 10) that it would never work for me, I stayed in the church, trying to remain in favor with my family, until age 26. With huge relief, I finally chose another path. I was committed to the insistence that religion has to make some kind of sense, and to finding a church where human intelligence is valued, rather than the hypocritical "please leave your brain at the door" attitude that I resented throughout my formative years. I knew that I would never want my children subjected to the criticism and judging and unnecessary shame of Protestant fundamentalism.

I also have to confess that I've never been much of prayer person, mostly because I don't know what that means. If I'm asking, who am I asking? If I'm praising, who am I praising? Yet I like doing things like reciting or singing or listening to certain prayers, poems, psalms, hymns because I like those words and I like the act of singing or choral reading or just hearing certain words or phrases. So it's not that if I act happy or uplifted I will become those things; it's just that for the duration (5 minutes) of hearing someone sing "Ave Maria" or for the duration (2 minutes) of reciting the Apostles' Creed, I feel convinced of meaning, grace, history, connection. I can easily believe that the world's most beautiful words, songs, and buildings have all been created to the "glory of God," even though I'm not entirely sure what that means. I'm not opposed to the idea that honoring god means honoring humanity, in manner of Rebecca Wells, Vonnegut, and Emerson.

My ya-ya sis replied:
I totally appreciate you sharing your thoughts on God. That really helped! What I understood you to be saying is that you have faith and you believe in God even though you're not what exactly God is or if God even exists? So it's kind of like a blind faith? And that if you pray to God that's your God? That just by doing the act (believing) it creates belief? Am I getting this? If I'm at all close, I think I know what you're saying, and I think that might work for me. I have trouble believing in anything supernatural (not concrete), but I guess if I just believe that something could exist, that is enough. Maybe?
One observation that I would add to our thoughts on God is that I'm not really trying to accomplish or grow into any kind of greater belief by the small ways in which I practice my "blind faith" (if that's the right term). It's not so much that "act creates belief" for me as it is that "act gives satisfaction" (however slight). So what I'm willing to do (and maybe this is my "faith") is go with that slight sense of satisfaction or fulfillment or participation as a worthwhile act in itself. For a specific example, let's say I take communion -- I have no belief in the body and blood and transubstantiation. In fact, I never even think about those things. But I do like participating in the ritual of having a tiny piece of bread and a tiny sip of wine with some other people that I know. I have no expectation that such an act will lead to or create any further belief; and as for the supernatural, I don't need body and blood; bread and wine is enough for me.

A little divinity, a lot of humanity. A little love, a lot of common decency. A little knowing, a lot of tenderness. A few divine secrets, a lot of little altars.

"Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?"
Matthew 8:26, KJV

Next Fortnightly Post
Monday, August 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Friday, July 14, 2017

Born Only Once

St. Andrew's Anglican Cathedral ~ Sydney, Australia

I have to completely agree with business writer Brett Nelson who wrote that the phrase "'Come To Jesus Moment' Is The Most Annoying Business Expression On Earth." I understand that the concept has some currency in the common parlance, with connotations of humor and threat; but if you were subjected to the real thing as a child and urged repeatedly to "come to Jesus," it is not even remotely funny, and the threatening aspect falls sickly flat.

American poet Langston Hughes -- also, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri (not far from where I grew up) -- explains it much better than I ever could. For anyone who was not brought up in an evangelical tradition, Hughes provides a glimpse of the impact that fundamentalism can have on the heart of an impressionable innocent child, black or white. His description certainly rings true to my experience. I did not come across this essay until I was an adult, but it made me feel less lonely and bizarre about my religious upbringing in the Church of the Nazarene -- such a strange way to be raised, such a harsh thing to do to a kid or to an adult:

"Salvation" by Langston Hughes
I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved. It happened like this. There was a big revival at my Auntie Reed's church. Every night for weeks there had been much preaching, singing, praying, and shouting, and some very hardened sinners had been brought to Christ, and the membership of the church had grown by leaps and bounds. Then just before the revival ended, they held a special meeting for children, "to bring the young lambs to the fold." My aunt spoke of it for days ahead. That night I was escorted to the front row and placed on the mourners' bench with all the other young sinners, who had not yet been brought to Jesus.

My aunt told me that when you were saved you saw a light, and something happened to you inside! And Jesus came into your life! And God was with you from then on! She said you could see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul. I believed her. I had heard a great many old people say the same thing and it seemed to me they ought to know. So I sat there calmly in the hot, crowded church, waiting for Jesus to come to me.

The preacher preached a wonderful rhythmical sermon, all moans and shouts and lonely cries and dire pictures of hell, and then he sang a song about the ninety and nine safe in the fold, but one little lamb was left out in the cold. Then he said: "Won't you come? Won't you come to Jesus? Young lambs, won't you come?" And he held out his arms to all us young sinners there on the mourners' bench. And the little girls cried. And some of them jumped up and went to Jesus right away. But most of us just sat there.

A great many old people came and knelt around us and prayed, old women with jet-black faces and braided hair, old men with work-gnarled hands. And the church sang a song about the lower lights are burning, some poor sinners to be saved. And the whole building rocked with prayer and song.

Still I kept waiting to see Jesus.

Finally all the young people had gone to the altar and were saved, but one boy and me. He was a rounder's son named Westley. Westley and I were surrounded by sisters and deacons praying. It was very hot in the church, and getting late now. Finally Westley said to me in a whisper: "God damn! I'm tired o' sitting here. Let's get up and be saved." So he got up and was saved.

Then I was left all alone on the mourners' bench. My aunt came and knelt at my knees and cried, while prayers and song swirled all around me in the little church. The whole congregation prayed for me alone, in a mighty wail of moans and voices. And I kept waiting serenely for Jesus, waiting, waiting - but he didn't come. I wanted to see him, but nothing happened to me. Nothing! I wanted something to happen to me, but nothing happened.

I heard the songs and the minister saying: "Why don't you come? My dear child, why don't you come to Jesus? Jesus is waiting for you. He wants you. Why don't you come? Sister Reed, what is this child's name?"

"Langston," my aunt sobbed.

"Langston, why don't you come? Why don't you come and be saved? Oh, Lamb of God! Why don't you come?"

Now it was really getting late. I began to be ashamed of myself, holding everything up so long. I began to wonder what God thought about Westley, who certainly hadn't seen Jesus either, but who was now sitting proudly on the platform, swinging his knickerbockered legs and grinning down at me, surrounded by deacons and old women on their knees praying. God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple. So I decided that maybe to save further trouble, I'd better lie, too, and say that Jesus had come, and get up and be saved.

So I got up.

Suddenly the whole room broke into a sea of shouting, as they saw me rise. Waves of rejoicing swept the place. Women leaped in the air. My aunt threw her arms around me. The minister took me by the hand and led me to the platform.

When things quieted down, in a hushed silence, punctuated by a few ecstatic "Amens," all the new young lambs were blessed in the name of God. Then joyous singing filled the room.

That night, for the first time in my life but one for I was a big boy twelve years old - I cried. I cried, in bed alone, and couldn't stop. I buried my head under the quilts, but my aunt heard me. She woke up and told my uncle I was crying because the Holy Ghost had come into my life, and because I had seen Jesus. But I was really crying because I couldn't bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn't seen Jesus, and that now I didn't believe there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn't come to help me.
"First Confession," by Irish author Frank O'Connor is more often / more popularly anthologized:
"But the worst of all was when she showed us how to examine our conscience. Did we take the name of the Lord, our God, in vain? Did we honour our father and our mother? (I asked her did this include grandmothers and she said it did.) Did we love our neighbours as ourselves? Did we covet our neighbour's goods? (I thought of the way I felt about the penny that Nora got every Friday.) I decided that, between one thing and another, I must have broken the whole ten commandments, all on account of that old woman, and so far as I could see, so long as she remained in the house, I had no hope of ever doing anything else.

I was scared to death of confession
I have always preferred the Langston Hughes (1902 - 1967) essay because it captures the existential angst through the eyes of a child. O'Connor (1903 – 1966) manages to be more light - hearted and find some humor in the situation, but his narrative speaks less to my experience. I find it an interesting twist that the Irish Catholic writer is the one to describe the "hellfire & damnation" method of scaring children into religion (or, should that be scaring religion into children) rather than the Southern American writer. They both make the point that trying to force kids into some kind of mystical religious experience might make them more cynical rather than increasing their faith.

Like young Langston, I decided long ago that if I kept waiting around for a conversion experience or a personal relationship with God, I'd end up waiting forever. Maybe it's a literary thing, but over the years, I have decided to cast my lot with ritual and liturgy over abstract faith. I've never been able to latch onto the idea of a personal god / goddess who cares for me individually. I don't understand what people are talking about when they say "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Perhaps it is a matter of personality or nature, i.e., maybe it's "just my nature" to doubt or be unmoved by emotional appeals to the supernatural, while other people have a deep response to those methods. In the Church of the Nazarene, experiencing these emotions was the central act of faith, so I always felt really excluded -- a goat, not a sheep -- because I never felt the hand of god move or heard Jesus speaking to my heart. Again, I ask, what on earth do those phrases mean? I, for one, could never figure out.

Every time I re-read "Salvation," I am reminded that Hughes also said:

"Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true

And in a related thought, Czeslaw Milosz writes,

"We are born on earth only once
and we indulge in much mimicking and posing,
dimly aware of the truth, but with pen in hand
it is difficult to escape that awareness:
then, at least, one wants to keep one's self-respect."

So in a bid for self - respect and truth, I thought I'd go out a limb here -- although I'm not a minister of the Gospel, nor do I play one on TV -- and compile a few posts about religious experience, especially since it has been in the news a lot lately, though, sadly, not in a good way. For example:

1. "Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors
ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord."

-Andy Crouch‬

2. Mike Pence: The servile schemer who would be president"
by Richard North Patterson
American fiction writer, attorney and political commentator

"Trump, not Jesus, became Pence’s personal savior: Cravenly, Pence proclaimed Trump a model paterfamilias and man of deep faith. To cognoscenti, the reflexive alacrity with which Pence swathed Trump in pieties confirmed a surreal obliviousness to his own moral smallness. Even so, he swiftly elevated serial hypocrisy to unforeseen heights."

3. "Mike Pence and the rise of mediocrity"
by Richard North Patterson

"The effect is that of an unctuous church elder selling pyramid schemes to credulous parishioners, never doubting he is doing God’s work. Every self-serving self-deception reveals the depths of his shallowness, the breadth of his hypocrisy. His salvation is not ours."

4. "Trump Can't Reverse the Decline of White Christian America"
by Robert P. Jones

"Two-thirds of those who voted for the president felt his election was the "last chance to stop America's decline." But his victory won't arrest the cultural and demographic trends they opposed."

So according to Michele Bachman, Trump is "somebody who will stand up for godly moral principles." Heaven Help Us!

Wow! Talk about a deeply held belief: "In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office." Hypocrisy takes the day.

"Like Esau, who exchanged his inheritance for a pot of stew, white evangelicals have traded their distinctive values for fleeting political power. Twenty years from now, there is little chance that 2016 will be celebrated as the revival of White Christian America, no matter how many Christian right leaders are installed in positions of power over the next four years. Rather, this election will mostly likely be remembered as the one in which white evangelicals traded away their integrity and influence in a gambit to resurrect their past."

My friend Olynn responds: "He instead actually hastens a decline that is now real - but wasn't before."

5. "Mike Pence’s New God"
by William Saletan

"The Christian conservative was supposed to bring morality to Trump’s campaign. Instead he caved to Trump."

"The idea that’s being projected for public consumption is that Pence’s values somehow rub off on Trump. But what’s actually happening is the reverse. Pence came into the Trump campaign with some firmly stated principles. In less than a week, to conform to his new boss, he has bent them."

"This scene, this genuflection of one man before another, is a warning. It’s what happens when you worship power. It’s what happens when you use religion to glorify a man rather than change him."

6. "Why people believe Trump's lies, fake news, and conspiracy theories"
by Linette Lopez

"Science writer and historian Michael Shermer believes that human beings are conditioned to believe, rather than disbelieve, things. . . . And so we believe. But more than that, in that belief we create patterns. That helps us structure our lives. It gives meaning to what could easily be random. It is from there that Shermer believes we develop things like superstition and conspiracy theories. They make sense of what is random."

7. Awaiting Someone Like Mike Pence as a Messiah
by Kieryn Darkwater
Interesting discussion regarding Christianity, culture wars, and home schooling.

A Different Kind of Salvation:
A Fairy Piper by Richard MacDonald
"Forever piping songs forever new . . ." ~ John Keats
from "Ode On A Grecian Urn"

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, July 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading