Terms and Conditions

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I’ve spent the last few weeks avoiding coming to terms with my trust issues. The simple exercise of writing a list of those I trust turned into ten days of me either avoiding my journal entirely or staring at a blank page and then walking away.

With the start of Lent, I have found myself thrown back into the same emotional grist mill where I spent all of Advent. I kind of expect the teary moments this time around and that’s okay. I can handle those. That sounds like such a simple thing. To be able to cry and be okay with the tears. But the reality is it has taken a long time for me to get to this point. To stop believing the lies that crying over things that hurt is a sign of instability or weakness.

What has been so much harder to come to terms with has been my anger. This time of year always sits like lead. The end of January to the end of March is always haunted by memories of my father’s last weeks. The one place, the church,  I often turned to for solace has become so tainted that it is no longer a sanctuary and the church I have moved to is still too unfamiliar to be completely comfortable. I’m angry that I have been driven out of my refuge. I deeply resent being betrayed and abandoned by people I trusted, most especially my pastor and confessor. Every time those tears come because I’m feeling adrift, the anger comes raging up behind the tears.

So here I am. Second Sunday of Lent. A blank page in my journal staring back at me. Trust. Who do I trust? There is a list. It has more people on it than it used to. But is a very gradational list. I trust only up to a point. And that point depends on the situation and the person and our relationship.

Am I on my own list? No. Or maybe a better answer would be: Not yet.

Is God on my list?  Cautiously, yes.

How is that God, who loves me unconditionally, is so hard for me to trust? Because too often what I’ve known as love has always been conditional.

Conditional love can be defined, broken down, and understood. Cause and effect. Action and reaction. Expectation and reality. That makes it strategic. That sets up the conditions that are the rules of the game. They’re a pattern, a puzzle to be figured out; terms to be agreed to. I can learn how to play that game. What risks to take. What strategy to use. And when the stakes are too high, to walk away.

Unconditional love is a total unknown. There is no game and therefore no strategy. There are no terms and conditions to agree to. Unconditional love just is. Which means there is no control. And that is terrifying. Things beyond my control have a nasty way of coming back to hurt me.

I know enough of God to know God doesn’t work like that. More than ever before, it seems like Lent for me means working through who God is not. The tears, the anger, the resentment, the betrayal and abandonment, the broken trust: none of those came from God. But if I can hand them over, God will take them.

If… for two little letters that’s a really big word.

 

 

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.”