Big Ideas

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When I was a kid, my father once told me that I was too damn smart for my own damn good. It wasn’t a bad thing or a good thing really, more of a general observation. It was an observation I didn’t fully understand until my younger son Eugene was about three and gave me a detailed explanation of why God must be blue. God is in heaven. Heaven is in the sky. The sky is blue. We can’t see God, so God must be the same color as the sky. Ergo, God is blue.

I lectured the same child for acting up during Easter Mass when he was five. As I buckled him into his car seat, I gave him the standard lecture about how he was going to sit in his seat and think about what he’d done. He said nothing the whole time I was buckling him in but after I climbed into the driver’s seat, this very self-assured little voice piped up, “You can’t control my mind. Only I control my mind. I can sit back here and think about anything I want.”

At seven, he left me talking to a friend after Mass while he cornered one of the priests to debate of the existence and potential whereabouts of the Holy Grail for the next thirty minutes, much to the delight of a circle of adults who had gathered around to listen. I’ll never forget the seriousness of his little face as he challenged a Jesuit to “Define mythological.”

Over the years Eugene has been insulted that Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter without asking him first. Maybe Simon was named after his grandfather and he really liked his name.  And then Eugene wanted to know what the apostles drank with dinner at the Last Supper because during Mass, the priest very clearly says “AFTER dinner he took the cup…” so what about during dinner? He insisted on having  “all of creation” on his First Communion stole because Noah’s ark was his favorite bible story. When I explained that a Jesus story would be more appropriate and that Jesus wasn’t on the ark, he stared me down and replied, “No, but God was and you can’t have one with the other two.” I gave up. I wasn’t debating Trinitarian doctrine with an eight year-old.

Too damn smart for your own damn good. Oh yeah, I get it now Dad. Boy, do I get it. I have no doubts that my father is on the other side watching this all unfold with a great deal of amusement.

Eugene is now fifteen and he’s as likely to challenge what I’m learning in my theology classes as my professors are. This past week, I was supposed to be reading parts of St. Augustine’s Confessions for homework. But at the same time, I was also reading Henri Nouwen’s Discernment just because it crossed my path and a page or two was enough to pull me in entirely.  Anyone who has ever been in my car can tell you getting into the passenger seat usually means waiting for me to move a notebook, a journal and a book or  maybe three. So my son wasn’t surprised to have to move Discernment out his way when we went out to run errands earlier this week, which resulted in the following conversation:

Eugene: It’s a God book isn’t it? No wait – don’t tell me – it’s a ‘find-yourself-but-in-a-spiritual-way” kind of book.

Me: Yeah kind of. Like who you are in relationship to God and understanding what God wants in your life.

Eugene: Soooo yeah it’s a ‘find-yourself-in-a-spiritual-way’ book. Why are all religion books like that?! I mean why can’t they just be – you know – straightforward. Like the Bible. That’s not a “find yourself” book. That’s more like a history book – but with … with… spice!

Me: Spice???

Eugene: He’s raising people from the dead! I’d call that some spice! And not that stupid Starbucks pumpkin spice stuff either.

This comes on the heels of a conversation earlier in the week on the Greek mythological themes in the new Wonder Woman movie. He told me he couldn’t understand the recent fascination with humans vs. gods movies when the humans always won. “Who wants to worship a god they can beat?”

Nouwen talks about hearing God in the people around us and cultivating spiritual friendships. I have been blessed all my life to have people around me who were comfortable with big questions about life, about truth, and about faith. Usually those people have been friends who are older and wiser than myself. But then, just to mess with me, God also dropped into my life this little bombshell of an old soul in a young body. Sometimes this kid, who is not so little anymore, with his big questions and his own very distinct ideas on God and the world, has more to teach me than anyone else. If nothing else, I have learned that there are times as a parent when my job is to simply shut up and let my son talk through his big ideas and questions and leave it to him and God to figure out the answers.

Atheists, Bourbon, Christianity, and Deadlines

Atheists, Bourbon, Christianity, and Deadlines

After a very crazy two weeks, I finally had a weekend that was relatively quiet.  Well quiet except for the two papers I had to write. One had to be an evaluation of a colloquium with Dr. Tina Beattie centered around the book Catholic Women Speak and the Synod on the Family being held in Rome and tying together the topic of the colloquium with the early civilization class I’m taking, which is a bit of stretch. The other is an exegesis on priestly garments in the book of Exodus. Both of these topics are precisely the kind of thing I love to sink my teeth into so I wasn’t too worried about getting them done.

bourbonDid I mention I had a quiet weekend coming up?  So of course that meant I had time to meet up with friends and have a bourbon Friday night. Of course, one bourbon turned into two. And of course, I decided to be a bit adventurous and instead of sticking with my usual neat bourbon, I had a delicious twist on an Old Fashioned that involved a fair amount of sugar. Come Saturday morning that made for a wicked hangover headache.  Okay. No big deal. Nothing a big breakfast and some time in the sunshine can’t fix. Except I made the mistake of going on Twitter. I retweeted a post from about faith and trust. Just an FYI, tweeting anything with #faith paints a laser target on your account for bored atheists. And as my longtime readers know, I never can just walk away from a good Twitter discussion.  Instead of nursing my hangover by closing my eyes and soaking up sunshine in my car at the beach, I was on Twitter defining faith.

Naturally by the time I got home on Saturday afternoon, it was nearly two o’clock and since I had two papers to write, I had stopped at the store to pick all the makings of a lasagna. Cooking and writing are inexplicably tied together in my brain. I worked out the outlines to the first paper in my head as I prepped and layered what turned out to be a fantastic lasagna. All the while I kept up with the discussion of truth, falsity, faith and judgments.

image1Why? Because I clearly need a life or a hobby or a Twitter intervention or perhaps all of the above. I also need a couple of Advil because I tend to bite my lip when I think and after a while it makes my jaw hurt which only added to my bourbon headache. But all that nonsense aside, I work stuff out as I write. Crazy as it sounds to get dragged into a discussion of faith with someone who doesn’t believe in God, knowing neither of us has any real hope of dissuading the other, it’s really not a complete waste of time. It is a lot more work to stop and consider how to answer that question in light of the questioner’s nonacceptance of religion as a whole.

It’s so easy to pretend that ours is the only belief in the world when we only spend time with people who think and believe the same things we do. We get lazy. So when someone throws down the question, “You say you don’t make a judgment of truth for other religions compared to yours. But certainly you had reasons not to choose. How did you decide the truthfulness of [other religions] was less than that of Christianity?” the easiest thing in the world would be to put the phone down and add some more cheese to the lasagna and forget to answer the question.

The time spent answering hard questions on why I believe what I do is always time well-spent. It may or may not make a difference to the one asking the questions, but it always expands my own understanding to formulate the answers.  What did I answer? To paraphrase: there is some piece of a greater truth to be found in every religion I have studied. Ultimate truth is beyond any human codification system. I found my truth in Christianity as it most closely matched my experiences of God.  And that is where it becomes faith rather than logic.

Meanwhile, I still have a headache and I still have two papers to write.

In Good Hands

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I’ve had years where Lent sort of builds and somewhere just before or even during Holy Week, something shifts. Some years its been quiet, like last year’s time spent in solitude on Cape Cod. Some years, it quite dramatic, like the Holy Thursday I ended up in an empty church late at night, sobbing on my knees before a statue of the condemned Christ as I realized that He had been with me through everything I had survived and He understood what no one else ever would. But this year, it seemed like Lent started a few days early. After sort feeling my way forward, I suddenly found myself faced point blank with the question: What did I really believe and how far would I go to stand by that belief? No sooner had I declared that above all I trust that nothing can take me out of God’s hands than the Gremlin tried it’s damnedest to do precisely that – in church no less – and in the one church I had always run to for safety. Because of that trust, love trumped fear. Part of me shattered that night but not in bad way. Some illusion that I’d held on to fell away. And the realization that home really wasn’t home anymore became clearer than ever.

It took a day or so to gather my wits about me and I so wanted to get to church that first Sunday of Lent but another Sunday snowstorm (a now weekly event here in New England) put the kibosh on that. An injured pastor coupled with a pipe break early in the week called yesterday’s services into question as well. Thankfully, by Sunday another pastor was able to fill in and while the hall and kitchen were a mess, the water damage had stopped at the very edge of the sanctuary. The weekly Sunday snowstorm kindly waited until mid-afternoon before dumping another six inches on us. I was so grateful to be home in this little Lutheran church, with it’s handful of what the pastor refers to as “Moonlighting Catholics”.  You can’t miss us, we have many little tells. We celebrated a baptism and thus that became the main focus of the service as we were reminded that in baptism we are claimed for Christ and nothing, absolutely nothing, can take us out of His hands. Each of us is called by name and we are His. The truth of that rang so clearly for me. Everything I had come to on my own ten days earlier echoed back to me. It’s a far cry from the days of the figuring that since I was in the world, I was somehow saved by accident or by default, by some sort of divine Salvation Cupcake rules that I wasn’t privy to understanding. That wrapped around me like a much needed hug.

Where does that leave me? I’m not quite sure. Some of the pieces of that shattered illusion have been rearranged into something else, by hands other than my own. That new image is still unclear to me. Patience – a virtue, but not one of mine – is what is being called for this time and for once, I won’t argue. The remaining pieces, I still have to pick through to understand what can stay and what must go. But despite the soul-rattling start to Lent, I am more certain than ever that I am in very good hands. I have been led to where I am right at this moment. I have finally stopped fighting the process. (Cue the collective gasp from my longtime readers – yes you actually read that right – and some of you can stop smirking right now.)