The Pendulum Swing

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“I think if that was me, I would’ve been gone the first time somebody hit me. Once would’ve been enough.”

“Yeah, well, we all think we’re a lot more of a badass than we actually are and when we suddenly find ourselves in a situation we don’t know how to handle, we find out pretty quick that we’re not as bad as we thought we were.”

It’s a conversation I am so very tired of having and yet it’s one that has to happen. And every time it happens, I wonder how many more times I will have to say it. More often than I want to admit, I wonder if I’m really just wasting my time. But this is my everyday life.

That conversation would become yet another facet to a revealing Week of Guided Prayer. The unique thing about the week is that it’s a stay-at-home retreat. It’s a chance to take a time out of everyday life to pray and reflect and work with a spiritual director and yet stay home in the midst of all the normal stuff of life. This is awesome when you can’t completely walk away from all of life’s responsibilities for a week. But the flipside is that everyday life has a way of encroaching on the retreat, like getting pulled into a conversation you’ve had a thousand times already and really don’t want to have again. Ironically though, that’s precisely why I love the week. The constant pendulum swing between the sublime and the ridiculous is simply the rhythm of life and if I can’t learn to find God in that swing, I am so royally screwed.

I went into the week with an important question to consider: the question of dating church. I was offered the opportunity to teach religious education at my Catholic parish. One of my bigger pet peeves with the Catholic Church is the anemic religious education programs at most parishes. We don’t teach the kids anything of real catechetical substance but then as they grow into adults we expect them to follow all the Church teachings and traditions. Not only is the expectation is unrealistic and unfair, but some of the best that the Church has to offer is often left neglected in the shadows, forgotten by all but the clergy and a select few self-proclaimed church nerds. So here I was being given an opportunity to be a part of the solution. Saying yes seemed to make so much sense. But…

Yeah, there’s always a ‘But’.  Their religious education program is at 9:15 on Sunday mornings. Care to guess when my ELCA church, and pretty much every other Protestant church within 20 miles, holds services?  Yup, sometime between 9 and 10 on Sunday mornings.  In order to teach, I would have to give up dating other churches. My new Catholic parish is very conservative and, as my readers know by now, I am, well… very NOT conservative. My friend Frank likes to refer to me as The Free Spirit. Maybe this parish needs a breath of fresh air and maybe I could be that. But can I be that if I close the window that’s been opened for me? By the end of the week, in spite of all the encroachments of everyday life, I knew for certain the answer was no. By Friday night, I knew for certain that God has put me on a path for reasons all His own and, while I don’t get it, I will go where He’s leading. Dating church is decidedly part of that path.

Sunday night, as if in confirmation, I had one of my vivid watcher dreams. Somehow, being beyond time, I walked down the same city block over and over and over. I watched as the block shifted from one time period to another to another, with centuries passing by as rapidly as my own footsteps. As we reached modern times, my guide, a wise woman slightly older than myself, said to me, “He will be there. In every generation, He comes. Whether as an inerrant preacher or as a mendicant child, He comes. Your job is to recognize Him.”

I can’t recognize Him if I’m not looking. So I’m paying attention. And somewhere, in between the swings of the pendulum, in the midst of both the sublime and the ridiculous, He’s there.

God of Partial Credit

Determine the validity of the argument. NO PARTIAL CREDIT

Determine the validity of the argument. NO PARTIAL CREDIT

I knew I was screwed the night my professor drew five symbols on the board and said, “Don’t worry. This is easy. It’s like algebra but with arguments instead of numbers. And we get rid of all those useless things like words.”

  1. I barely passed algebra.
  2. Words are the air I breathe.
  3. How in the hell do you determine the validity of arguments without the words?

I might not have been quite so freaked out if I only needed to pass this class. But passing isn’t good enough. I need to ace this class so that I can respectfully (translation: with gritted teeth) ask that my first semester grades from 1991 be waived so that I can be taken off academic probation now in 2015. Had I known that my dean’s list level performance last semester wasn’t going to be good enough, I never would have taken The Art of Thinking this semester. All I’d heard were horror stories about how difficult this class is, both from students and from my advisor.

My first two tests grades were decent but not stellar. I had one writing assignment which bolstered my grade but there is no wiggle room. So when the third test rolled around, I was more than a little anxious. I studied as best I could for a test that consisted of letters, squiggles, dots, sideways horseshoes, wedges, and horizontal lines laid out in braces, brackets, and parentheses and called an “argument”.  Honestly, I know what an argument looks like.  I have them all the time. Follow me on Twitter and you’ll see. None of them look like this!

I did the best I could. I was confident on some of the basics but towards the end of the test, my brain was fried. My professor had drilled into our heads that it only takes one error to render an entire truth table incorrect. The words NO PARTIAL CREDIT glared back at me from the page. I laid out the lines one by one, adding true or false under each letter in every possible combination and working through the symbols to determine what was true, what was false, and finally, whether the entire mess was valid or invalid. Then I handed it over and waited for three long weeks to find out how erroneous my tables would turn out to be.

Three weeks can be a really long time. I saw truth tables in my dreams. I woke up mumbling, “If this is true, then this is true and this is false, so this is true but this is false…NO PARTIAL CREDIT!”

Meanwhile, off campus, life went on. After Easter, my dating church adventures included scoping out a new Catholic parish. After thirty years in a parish that was about close to Protestant as one could get and still be Roman Catholic, I spent a few Sundays in a church that took me back to traditional Catholic practices from my childhood. There was something deeply nostalgic and comforting there. Nostalgia isn’t going to bring me back to the Catholic Church, but it might be enough to anchor one side of the bridge I find myself on. One of the hardest things of dating churches is not judging one against another. Each space I enter has something to teach me, and just maybe something for me to teach them. It would be so easy right now to give up dating churches and let myself completely relax into the Lutheran community I’ve found. But that would be like accepting a marriage proposal from someone I’ve known for only a few months. I remember all too well that I did that once and it didn’t turn out so well.

I’ve realized now more than ever that, when it comes to religion, for most of my life I’d accepted only a single line of what is actually an entire table of truth. I accepted that A was true and B was false without bothering to figure out what that meant for the unknowns of G and F.  Add to that, I’d gone through life with a God of NO PARTIAL CREDIT. Get one thing wrong and EVERYTHING YOU’VE DONE IS INVALID. That’s an awful way to go through life, especially when I know I’ve gotten more than one thing wrong along the way. The last couple of years have been a matter of figuring not only what is true and what is false but what is unknown and even unknowable, what is of God and what is of man. I reached a point where the single line I had based my faith on no longer served as a solid foundation. I need an entire truth table, letter for letter, symbol for symbol, with every combination of true and falsity. That simply is not possible. There are too many unknowns to ever have that level of certainty. All I can do is work with what I know is true and build from there. Two things I know for certain: God loves me. God is infinitely, mercifully patient with me. Which logically leads me to believe that God is indeed a God of Partial Credit.

After three long weeks, I finally got my test grade. I cringed as I unfolded it. My grade? 100. NO PARTIAL CREDIT. Fully earned, in spite of my doubts. When I shared my news on Facebook, my friend congratulated me and then told me, “Next time, don’t doubt yourself.”

Trust

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Yesterday, I had my day planned out. Spend some time at the beach, bake a batch of cookies while I worked on my homework, frame out a blog post, and cook a nice meatloaf dinner. Long about noon, I came home from the beach and took a quick scroll through Twitter. I retweeted a link by Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan calling for Pope Francis to recognize women’s ordination. Nothing new there for me. I openly support Catholic women who call for the ordination of women. Anybody who knows me knows that. Within a minute of tweeting that link, a Catholic priest pounced on me. That led to a debate. Five hours of debate in tweets of 140 characters or less. It was not the way I planned to spend my Saturday.

And yet, it was time incredibly well spent. I was told I am a heretic, selfish, stupidly misguided, emotional, full of rage and guilt, ignorant of scripture, lack doctrinal formation, lack objectivity, have an unformed conscience and am in desperate need of a stricter confessor. All of these failings have taken me out of the arms of the Catholic Church and out of the arms of Jesus. So my dear readers, read on at your own mortal peril.

I know my views on women’s ordination are considered heretical by the Catholic Church. I’ve wrestled with that view for years. I don’t take the church’s views lightly, nor do I suggest anyone else should. And ultimately, after study and prayer and discussion, I made the decision to follow my conscience and to trust in the truth of my experience of God’s love. The Catholic Church has always held the primacy of conscience and taught that individuals must follow their conscience even if they are wrong. (Vatican II, On Religious Liberty 1965)

So then who gets to decide what is truth? So who gets to decide what Jesus truly intended? This is why we need a church community: to challenge us and hold us accountable. It is why I have shied away from the spiritual-but-not-religious views that many people take up after becoming disillusioned with religion. Religious tradition serves a purpose and that is to lead us closer to God. My Catholic pastor has been known to say openly that if religious tradition is not leading you closer to God, it isn’t working for you. Find one that will. But don’t try to con God. Be honest with Him. It’s the only way the relationship can grow. I know many faithful Catholic women who have struggled with the church’s teaching on women’s ordination. Some find that they accept the doctrine as truth. Are they wrong?  No. They have followed their conscience, as must we all.

The Catholic Church brought me closer to God and there have been days when I wish it hadn’t. It would be easier to show up Sunday after Sunday, halfheartedly shuffle forward to receive Communion, mumble through an obligatory confession a few times a year and go back to my everyday life with God safely tucked away in the tabernacle where He can’t wreak havoc on my life. But it did bring me closer. I found love, compassion, forgiveness and was challenged to show others the same. Along the way, I found the landmines and roadblocks that keep people from coming back to the church. I found people who, like me, equated the Catholic Church with God. If the Catholic Church rejected them for whatever reason, then in their mind God had likewise rejected them. And that is a dangerous lie. Jesus came for the lost, the broken, the sinners, not just the elect few. No one who cried out to Him went unheard or unanswered.

Yesterday was one of those days when I wished I could keep silent and found that I could not. I had things to do! And yet, I could not let the Twitter tirade go unchallenged. I poured out my convictions 140 characters at a time. The church is greater than the Roman Catholic Church. It is the community of all believers and belongs to all those who seek Jesus with an honest heart. To deny women ordination is to deny that women are also made in the image of God and other denominations have accepted that truth. That my disobedience to Rome is not disobedience to God. That becoming Protestant was not slapping God in the face but running into His arms. If in the end, after having followed my conscience to a religious tradition which brings me closer to God, if then I am wrong, He will not slam a door in my face. He knows my heart, my wounds, my scars and my desires. And most importantly, nothing can ever take me out of His arms. I am His and I trust Him.

Yes, I said it. I trust Him. I trust Him above all else. Especially above the threats of judgment and hell and condemnation. I did not arrive at this place lightly or easily. But I am where I am and my Shepherd knows my path. At the end of a long, heated debate, Fr. Paul told me he wouldn’t want to be me on the Last Day. Because if he is wrong, no biggie. But I am wrong, yikes. But from the way I see it, if I am wrong, I trust in God’s love and His mercy. I make no claims to have the right answers. But if Fr. Paul is wrong, how many people will he have browbeat into staying in a dishonest relationship with their God, encouraging them to maintain a false fidelity to church over an honest struggle for truth out of fear of hellfire and damnation? And which then is the greater sin? I trust that in the all-encompassing light of God’s love, it will cease to matter.