Tuesday, May 31, 2005

TRUE STORIES (iv, part two: how it happened)

When I was 17, I lost my faith. Here’s how it happened.

Sometime in the fall of my junior year of high school, I got ringworm. Ringworm is a small red rash that’ll usually go away within a week with the proper topical medication. It showed up on my neck, pretty visible to anyone who cared to see. After about two weeks, when it had been around for a while and was clear it wasn’t going anywhere soon, it started to bother me something fierce. I tried to treat it through Christian Science—-that is, by praying about it and trying to understand myself not as a mortal human person subject to physical illness, but as God’s child, created in God’s image, not subject to the vagaries of rashes or skin problems or whatever. It didn’t work, which made me scared, so I just prayed harder. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It was a shitty, shitty couple of months. I was striving to practice Christian Science by bringing my thoughts and emotions in line with the truth reflected by my faith, but it didn’t really work. No matter how much I told myself, “I am not Mortal Man, subject to illness and disease,” or “I am God’s child, created perfect,” the rash still obstinately remained on my neck. This intensified the way I tried to regulate my thoughts, which meant that I agonized over every thought and emotion. My integrity wound up working against me—-the more Christian Science failed to heal me, the harder I tried, and the harder I tried, the more frustrated, hurt, and ashamed I felt when there was no healing. I alternated between fits of idealistic fervor and despair. I tried to avoid looking in the mirror so I wouldn’t see what was happening on my neck.

Now, I should be clear here that in some ways I wasn't doing a very good job of practicing Christian Science. CS teachings are a lot more nuanced than 'think the right thoughts and you'll be healed physically.' But there is an element of that to it, and obviously I got pretty caught up in it, to the point where I was experiencing some real hurt over my inability to put my faith into practice.

Friends started asking me about my condition, forcing me to decide if I was just going to try to play it off (Oh, it’s nothing, just a rash…) or come clean about my religious convictions (well, it’s a rash, but I’m not going to a doctor about it, because, y’see…). I remember calling a Christian Science practitioner—-someone who is kind of a professional pray-er, who practices spiritual healing for a living--to ask for help. At 17, it was first call to a practitioner I’d made on my own, and I think in retrospect it was a pretty good sign of the depth of my own concern. I don’t remember much of what the practitioner said, except that he told me he’d pray for me, and to remember that God does not mark us in any way. I appreciated his words, but it was a losing cause by then. I’d had the stupid rash for too long, and I was too scared.

Recently, when I was talking with a friend of mine, I surprised myself. “There are two kinds of courage,” I said. “One kind is the kind of courage you need when you’re on a diving board, and you walk way out to the tip of the diving board, and you’re scared to jump off. And you know that you want to do it, but you’re scared. But the only thing you can do (unless you’re willing to turn around and climb back off, which you’re not) is jump off. Jumping off is the only way off the diving board; all you can do is just freakin’ do it.” At that point in my journey, I think I’d crawled pretty far out on the diving board; all that was left for me now was to jump off it.

I got the rash in October or November of my junior year of high school. Finally, sometime in February, I stopped asking God to heal the rash on my neck. I went to a doctor who, after he gave me a weird look and asked me why it had taken me four months to come in about the rash on my neck, gave me some topical medication. It went away within a week.

Some time after that, I stopped asking God to help me demonstrate the truth of Christian Science, and started asking God to help me decide if He wanted me to be a Christian Scientist or not. This was by far the most painful part of the whole ordeal. I didn’t want to do what I wanted to do, I wanted to do what God wanted me to do. But that was exactly what I couldn’t determine. God, what do you want me to do? I asked in prayer, over and over and over again. And the answer was always the same: my own thoughts and emotions, a small wind, and silence. That was really what wrecked me: figuring out what God’s will was just seemed impossible.

Around this time, I called a friend of mine in tears. Our conversation went like this:

Friend: Hey.
Me: Hi.
Friend: How are you?
Me (crying): Not so good.
Friend: Hmm. Is there anything I can do for you?
Me: Tell me something that will make me laugh.
Friend: OK. OK. I have a goat.
Me (confused): You do?
(pause)
Friend: No. I just told you that to make you laugh.

I still remember how I laughed when she said all that, how good it felt to just be silly and stupid and take a break, if only for a moment, from the unrelenting seriousness of my spiritual life. It was like a cold breeze, the kind that makes you sit up a bit on a hot day and say, yeah, well, I suppose I should mow the lawn/go pick up the kids/go balance the checkbook/stop sitting here on the porch doing nothing. I don’t remember much else my friend said; I think she told me that questioning one’s religious beliefs was an ordinary part of growing up, and that whatever I decided was a good person. It probably didn’t help much, but she’d already done her part by then. Humor and friendship: so simple, yet they have been my salvation more times than I can count.

Sometime after that, I stopped asking God whether he wanted me to be a Christian Scientist or a Christian, and started asking God if he was real or not. If God couldn’t be bothered to answer my prayers about whether or not I should be a Christian Scientist, was I sure that God existed at all? Was ‘God’ just some concept I’d made up on my own? Was it just the sum total of the voices of my parents and Sunday school teachers and friends? Was the dialogue I assumed rather a monologue? What the fuck was happening?

Asking these questions is terrifying at any age. To really ask these questions-—that is, to ask them in such a way that you are open to whatever the answer is—-is pretty high-risk because the answer obviously matters a great deal. In my own case, I had to open myself up to the possibility I’d been wrong about the faith that I built my life around. Had it been a benevolent misconception, some childish artifact, like Santa Claus, best set aside with the other relics of my youth? I had a friend suggest this to me in college: “Doesn’t everyone lose their faith at some point in their teens?” She was right, in a way, which didn’t stop me from being incensed with her for failing to really pay attention to the particulars of my own story. (I was (sinfully) gratified when she subsequently used her Ivy League degree—-this is true-—to dance, along with her twin sister (!), in an act in a strip club (!!).)

Or was my faith, more frighteningly, a malevolent lie, something that had been holding me back, blinding me, keeping me from seeing the way the world really worked?

It was a strange, strange couple of months. You wake up in the morning and pray, OK, God, if you’re real, I really, really, need you to tell me whether or not I should remain a Christian Scientist. Or if I should become a Christian like my dad. Or if I should become a secular humanist. Thank you. And then you’re off to school and you’re working on the school paper and getting your homework done and rehearsing for the play and whatnot. The prosaic details of life never stop, of course.

When I was talking with Becca, I said the first type of courage was the type of courage needed to jump off the diving board when you’ve walked way out on it. The second kind of courage, I continued, is the kind of courage you need when you’re confronted with two different options-—two doors, say-—and you need to try to figure out which door is the best door, which door is the right door to walk through. This second situation was the one I found myself in. I had jumped off the diving board of Christian Science; the new question was, what the hell am I going to believe now? “Regular” Christianity (which seemed decidedly new and unfamiliar to me then)? Did I even believe in God anymore? If not, what did I believe in? Nothing?

Interestingly, however, if you hesitate long enough in a ‘picking a door’-type situation, eventually it becomes a ‘jumping off the diving board’-type situation. That is, if you delay making a decision long enough because you really can’t tell which decision is the right one to make, eventually you find yourself in a place where you have to make some kind of decision because, hey, life has to go on. It’s a situation I’ve found myself in more than once, and it was certainly the situation at that moment in my life. I remember sitting on the big easy chair in my room at home, night after night, thinking about my situation, and desperately begging God to give me some kind of signal. Nothing came. And eventually, I thought to myself, well, I have to make some kind of decision, even if it’s just me making my best guess about what to do. And I held my breath and made one.

It’s easy to melodramaticize what I went through. (Er, assuming I haven’t done so already.) Thousands of religious teens and young people question and lose their faith every year (yes, my friend was right, although she was an Ivy League stripper, so whatever). I suppose it’s par for the course; one might even suggest that it’s hard to have a very mature religious faith if you haven’t questioned or examined it on some level. Furthermore, I suppose by the standards of any objective evaluation of reality my struggles were relatively small. I had friends in high school whose parents got divorced, who came out as gay, who were clinically depressed, who flirted with suicide, who had drug and alcohol problems, who suffered through (and triumphed over) sexual abuse. Losing your faith….eh. Not so huge on some levels. Perhaps I was a bit too willing to cue the sad violin music for myself. I dunno. Other Christian Scientists might have gone through my experience and just said, eh, you win some and you lose some. No big deal.

But for better or for worse, I could not. My experiences closed that door in my heart.

I told my family and friends I had stopped being a Christian Scientist. I stopped going to church for a while. I took a deep breath. I continued to flirt with atheism. I did the best I could.

TRUE STORIES (iv, part one: some 'splaining to do)

I grew up, along with my sister, as a Christian Scientist. Ours was a blended household of faith: my Mom, the Christian Scientist, and my Dad, the Presbyterian. (Actually, my dad would now describe himself as an ‘ecumenical orthodox Protestant,’ and currently worships at an American Baptist congregation, a complex description all too typical for my family, but I digress.) My parents did a good job of creating parental unity out of denominational diversity. They both agreed that going to church would be non-optional, but that they wouldn’t pressure either me or my sister to go to church with one parent or the other. It would be our choice. Both my sister and I wound up throwing our lot in with the Church of Christ, Scientist, largely out of laziness; as I recall, Sunday school at the CS church started an hour later than the Disciples of Christ church, which meant, hey, there we were.

I remember well my Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Moorhead. From the time I was in 7th grade on or so, I was the only student in her Sunday school class, and for an hour every week we’d meet and hash out the particulars of whatever it was we were going through. We worked through a big chunk of the Bible—we started with Genesis when I was in junior high, and worked through the entire Old Testament and had gotten well into the Gospels by the time I was driving. I think it was a huge gift to me—an opportunity to have a serious, consistent relationship with an older faith mentor. And it lasted forever!—a totally glacial kind of relationship, one that exerts its influence not only through intensity but through consistency over time. I still think about her—her intensity, the way she would push things, they way she always asked the hard questions. She had a big influence on me. By the time I was 17, I was a fairly devout Christian Scientist, a good kid: no drinking, no smoking, no sex, no drugs. The only thing that saved me from being a huge nerd was that I spent most of my early teens playing Dungeons and Dragons. (Oh, wait, no, that doesn’t prove my point at all. Um. Next paragraph.)

Christian Science is an unusual religion. Here’s how it breaks down as I see it today. (I should add the caveat that Christian Science, like any religion, is best studied at first on its own terms, and the best person to provide such an explanation is a practicing Christian Scientist. They have a wonderful website at spirituality.com, which I urge you to check out if you’re interested in what CSers say about their own faith. The always-delightful Wikipedia also has a helpful article on Christian Science. I should also add that since I haven’t been a practicing Christian Scientist in 8 years, my own memory on its precise teachings is a bit fuzzy and I’m happy to be corrected if I get things wrong.)

One of the central touchstones of my Sunday school education was from Genesis 1: "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good." Christian Science advocates a very straightforward version of creation: God is perfect, and God’s creations are perfect, therefore humanity is perfect. Traditional Christian conceptions of humanity as being fundamentally in bondage to sin get re-worked here. Humanity is seen as sinless, and sin, disease, and death are all seen ultimately as illusory—not really reflective of human identity.

Christian Science teaches that every person is the child of God, and that since God is perfect, every person, rightly understood in the light of Christian Science, is—in an oft-used phrase—“God’s perfect child.” Sin, sickness, imperfection—all are illusory distortions of the character of divinely-created humanity, which is without imperfection. Christian Science, beginning with its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, has insisted that if this knowledge is rightly clung to mentally and spiritually, it will effect healing—healing of sinful behaviors, problems, and even physical illness. This practice of healing is pretty central to Christian Science faith and practice—their Wednesday night church services, for example, always contain some time for testimonies of healing. (I should also add here that I am not by any means skeptical of the claims of many Christian Scientists that they have experienced physical healing through their faith. I know of many such dramatic examples, including some within my own family.) Christian Scientists who are attempting to practice spiritual healing of health problems in their own lives usually refrain from seeking medical treatment for them, since that seems to contradict CS' assertion that health problems are not just healable but actually illusory.

It's this last point--refraining from medical treatment--that's probably the part about Christian Science you’ve heard the most about, due mostly to some sad stories that have made the media. A couple of times over the past few decades, CS parents with a seriously ill child chose spiritual healing over medical treatment for their child, the treatment did not bear fruit, and the child died. In some cases this has resulted in lawsuits or criminal action against the parents for neglect. I’ve no doubt that this kind of treatment did go on (I pray it doesn’t go on anymore), but in my experience it’s a sad distortion of the way most Christian Scientists utilize spiritual healing. Most of the Christian Scientists I knew (and know) weren't scary anti-medicine fascists who would glare at you if you went to a doctor; they were just humble, kind people who really believed that God brought healing into your life if you practiced Christian Science. (Indeed, in some of her writings, Mary Baker Eddy specifically exhorts Christian Scientists to seek medical attention if their spiritual practice isn't working.) This was especially the case in my own family life, where the only pressure to 'not go to doctors' was the pressure I put on myself.

Which was kind of the problem. When you take the strong commitment of Christian Scientists to practicing spiritual healing, especially over against traditional medical care, and you add my deepening commitment to Christian Science, plus the extreme earnestness and intensity of a teenager, it’s a pretty heady mix. In my case it was kind of a preparation for spiritual crisis, which hit me something fierce in my teens.

AN OPEN LETTER TO STARBUCKS AND BORDERS

Hi, it’s me, Dave. I’m the guy who spends a ton of time in both of your fine establishments—drinking coffee, reading books, studying, doing whatever. I’m in your places all the time.

Here’s the deal: you have to stop playing the same music. It’s KILLING me. Maybe it’s fine for people who just occasionally go to Borders and/or Starbucks, y’know, once a week or twice a month. But not for me, OK? I go to your freaking establishments all the dang time. (Why? Because they’re not my house. Now be quiet.) Do you know how bothersome it is to be in Borders and hear Gillian Welch and then go to Starbucks the next day and hear the VERY SAME song? Do you know how annoying it is to be in Starbucks and hear that album of jazz ballads—you know, that one! With “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “Between the Bars” on it! You know the one!—that I heard two weeks before in Borders? In Jersey?

Please. Please. For the sake of us quasi-employed 20 and 30 somethings who spend all our ‘spare’ time in your fine establishments: diversify your music! Break out of your focus-groupified demographically rooted playlists of what will rock our worlds! Just please, for God’s sake, play something DIFFERENT!

Ah, man. I’ve heard this song before.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

LINKAGE

Three interesting articles I noticed from last week that I wanted to make sure to link to. Two are from the NY Times: first, a profile of Senator Rick Santorum. Seems like a reasonably fair-handed treatment of the guy, which is a feat since he's a controversial guy and very, very deeply detested in some quarters. I'll say this: if he does have the social conscience that this article portrays him as having, I might have to raise my respect-o-meter on him from "raving insane raving lunatic" to "bad." Second, an article on evangelical outreach programs at Brown University. And from the Washington Post, an article on Philip Johnson, a man at the lead of the intelligent design movement, which some Christians think is challenge to Darwinianism as it's traditionally understood that actually has decent scientific backing, and others think is just kooky creationism in scientific garb.

Read them all and reflect on blue-state America's gentle, fumbling efforts to understand the strange and varied beast called American Christianity.

BACK! FROM OUTER SPACE!

After a dizzying week of running around enjoying the company of friends, I've settled back in at my parents place again. Stay tuned for stories of my adventures with Gary, D. Roger Morehead (AKA "America's Young Theologian,") and the long-awaited next installment of True Stories. Also, I hate my life. Fortunate, my ass.

IMAGINARY EXAM QUESTION

"Friendship is a long, slow, painful process of giving up your own autonomy." Discuss with specific reference to friendship and the life of the church.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

IDYLLICA

I sit in my the back yard of my parents home, enjoying unexpectedly free Wi-Fi and the sound of the kids next door playing. It's a Mayish 70 degrees, and the fading sunlight is glinting off the green grass, green bushes, and green trees in an entirely delighting way. My evening schedule involves a rigorous round of doing nothing--perhaps some journalling, coffee-consuming, or song-writing--perhaps followed by a pro bono screening of the Empire Strikes Back. (Yes, I did see that other installment in the Star Wars series; no, I wasn't blown away by it, but I didn't want to kill Lucas afterward either, so we'll call it even.)

It feels so incredible to be able to sleep as much (or nearly as much) as I want to. I've slept between 9-10 hours each of the past 4 nights, and it's been awesome. (Sorry, Dean.) The super-sleeper abilities I developed at seminary--where my constant exhaustion led me to do amazing things like, say, fall asleep during a movie for the first time ever in my whole life--have promptly disappeared in the wake of some decent rest. My only question now is: am I going to top off on sleep at some point? Is the nozzle going to stop pumping on sleep once the dispenser hits, say, 12 hours? Or do I drive a sleep SUV, the kind that needs to be filled and filled and refilled constantly? (And where on earth did I get this gas/sleep metaphor from? Sheesh...)

House-sitting for my parents while they're on vacation. Both cool and a little strange. More than one friend has noted the absence of parents and my total control over the house and jokingly suggested that I have a kegger. I'm not going to do that--I wasn't a kegger kind of guy even when keggers were the thing--but I've half a mind to throw a dinner party or something just to bring some people into the house. Going from my life at seminary--where I can't eat dinner or take a pee without running into someone I know--to this, where, unless I call a friend or take a train into the city, I can see absolutely no one I know for several days on end is a bit strange.

And yet--I still treasure the solitude and free time. Reading, writing, journalling, praying--I'm still not the expert I should be at making my free time what it should be instead of just fooling around. But I'm working at it, and it feels good to try.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

CHICAGO

Back home in the city of big shoulders. Today's itinerary:

6.45 AM: Wake up.
7.15-8.45: Frantically pack.
8.45-9: Purchase coffee, bananas, carrots, yogurt, sausage biscuit. Consume.
9 AM: Enter car (with Becca) to drive to Chicago.
10.15 AM- 1.15 PM: Drive to Chicago. Consume two containers of dried mango.
1.16 - 10.25 PM: Finish all dried mango. Lose will to live.
10.30: See possible parking spot, almost get in accident while trying to get into it, get honked at by cop car, perform illegal three-point turn. Magically obtain better, legal parking place.
10.30-11.44: Glass of wine, sour jelly beans, small talk with Becca and new friend Katie.
11.45: Feel heart break. Cry out in despair.

Monday, May 02, 2005

AAAAALMOST THERE.....

Sorry yours truly has been flaky lately. It's finals: I don't shave, I rarely brush my teeth, and it's always a constant struggle to balance showering and sleep. (Yes, I am 25. It's a good thing to know my 'living life like a grownup' skills have developed since I was, y'know, 18.) Blogging occasionally gets short shrift as well.

Anyway: this Friday marks the end of finals. After the brutally thorough James Howell Moorhead ("long-distance" walks, Dr. Moorhead? Don't most people say "hikes"?) and Elsie Ann McKee have their way with me, I will collapse onto the ground and weep tears of joy. Whoops, no. I will go to the Princeton Battlefield state park with a bunch of buddies and max and relax all afternoon--after which I will begin blogging again, I promise. Look for more True Stories. In the meantime...well...almost there.