Monday, April 07, 2008

God & Me, an update

Pastor preached from the beginning of the eighth chapter in the Book of Romans.

I’d gone to church alone for the first time in recent memory, dressing in a pretty skirt with a paisley pattern in blues and greens and browns and, after trying on several tops, deciding on the soft brown sweater with the pretty neckline I bought to go with the skirt. I picked a seat in an otherwise empty row, crossed my calves and tucked my feet, clad in brown flats with beribboned bows, under my chair.

I sighed heavily when YouthPastor took a cordless microphone and sat on the steps leading to the altar. He asked the children if their yards had dried out and there was a chorus of small voices as they spoke about the effects of the days of rain on their houses and yards.

“We have a drainage problem at our house,” YouthPastor noted with a shake of his head. “We need to talk to our neighbor and figure out why the water is pooling in our yards and decide how to fix it. But my daughters put on their rain boots and went out to play in the mess so I guess it’s not all bad.” Then he launched into some explanation of how great it was in the springtime.

“My wife and I were talking about the redbud tree in our front yard.” He told everyone. “It’s so pretty right now - has all those purple blossoms on it. And we both said we didn’t remember appreciating how pretty the redbuds were when we were growing up. And there are these pretty purple wildflowers in with the grass at the sides of the road. And we need to notice that and remember how great God’s gifts are for us! Because spring doesn’t last that long and soon it’ll be summer. Then everything will be green. And not that green isn’t good, but the colors of spring are a great gift. So this week you need to take extra time and make sure you appreciate the blossoms on the redbuds and the colors in the wildflowers. Be extra careful to do that.”

Now, I’ll be honest. I’ve heard pastors give some profound children’s messages over my years spent in church. Sometimes I get more out of those few moments than from the subsequent sermon. It’s such a good time to give the young people something to consider and they can ask questions or offer ideas in Sunday School or later at lunch. But YouthPastor usually leaves me feeling like I could pat him gently on the head and say, “Good try, little buddy. At least you tried.”

But he really blew it this time, I seethed. And he had all the elements of making a really good point and he just screwed it all up!

“You can’t force a meaningful appreciation of anything!” I told Friend while we were at the zoo. “Like, OK, I think those flowers down there are pretty. But those kids over there don’t have to! They can think about how cool the birds are or how awesome it is not to be cooped up inside or how they want to run faster than all their friends to get to the next bend in the path. They shouldn’t have to stand in their driveways and stare at a redbud tree! They should go play ball or twirl in circles or something else that children naturally enjoy more!

“We,” I continued, “like to look at the trees and flowers and weeds because we’re old. It’s all we have now as we wait for death.” She laughed as I’d meant for her to do and I smiled and continued. “The point should have been to embrace the gifts that you notice. There’s a time to get distracted on your commute by the glory of the flowering trees. And there’s a time to look at a flooded yard as this awesome playground. So when YouthPastor’s girls went out and stomped and splashed and got all muddy, their joy and appreciation isn’t any less than my own when I read a well-written sentence or preen over my mowed lawn or think that wildflower is, in fact, very lovely. The point should have been to notice beauty, remember God and appreciate His presence. Not ‘make sure you look at the trees.’ Jackass.”

My strong reaction is likely due to the fact that - despite considerable effort - I can’t force myself to connect with God lately. I don’t feel moved to pray very often or listen to my Praise playlist on the iPod. So I wasn’t very surprised that I sighed as Pastor read Paul. I kind of wanted to take a red pen to his work and write, “Rather redundant. Watch your word count!” Because - to me - Romans 8: 1-17 says that sin is bad, but living in the Spirit of Christ is good. Flesh is sin and sin is bad and bad is death, but the spirit in Christ is good and good is life. And he goes on about that for fourteen verses.

Pastor focused on verses 15-17, which say, “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” But by this time, I was kind of bored and responded to her prompting, “This is the Word of the Lord,” with an automatic, “Thanks be to God,” rather than replying out of any real gratitude.

Pastor talked for a bit and I decided it wasn’t a bad sermon. But she wasn’t moving me either. I didn’t feel that emotional response - there was no peace or enlightenment or relief that I could feel God scooting closer to me. I was just sitting there, feeling grateful I’d had breakfast and wasn’t distracted by hunger, but putting in time because I couldn’t force the connection I so miss.

“Most of you know that we adopted our daughter,” Pastor said. “And adoption isn’t something we find in the Old Testament - it came from Greek and Roman law and it was a powerful concept for Paul as he made sense of the God’s feelings toward man. After we adopted Sara, people sometimes came to us to say that we’d done such a wonderful thing. To provide a child with a family and home when she wasn’t born of us.

“But,” Pastor paused as she often does when she gets emotional and my feeble spirit paused to pay closer attention, “it wasn’t like that. We didn’t want a baby to be better people or prove our goodness. We wanted to be a family. We had this love to give and badly wanted a child to add to our lives. Sara enriched our every day and we were so happy once she arrived. There was all this joy and laughter and meaning for us because we’d wanted her so very much. And that’s how God feels about you,” she said. And I blinked back sudden tears. “He doesn’t need you to be part of his family - His adopted son or daughter - because He’s trying to prove his power or glory. He just has all this love that He’s saved specifically for you. He’s watched and waited and knows every inch of your soul and knows that His happiness would increase if He could love and comfort and care for you. Just as a parent does for a child.”

I looked down as she spoke of curling up on God’s lap or praying for advice or help. I was distracted by the family in front of me. There was a teenaged girl with carefully highlighted blonde hair who was rubbing her grandmother’s back. Her brother was seated on the other side of the elderly woman and he made a face at his sister before wrapping his arm around their grandma too. The woman glanced at her granddaughter and grinned widely, enjoying their affectionate attention and I swallowed hard around the lump in my throat.

I remember that, I thought. Having Grandma grin at me after Brother insisted we go see the movie about the ninja turtles. Seeing her walk into my bedroom and instead of telling me to turn down the music, she’d dance around until I giggled at her. I remember feeling fully loved with her, looking into eyes whose brown color I share and thinking there was nothing I could do that would keep her from smiling at me. From hugging me tightly and telling me she loved me. And I thought of Dad kneeling on the floor with Smallest One, talking and offering toys and watching her with adoration. I pictured my mom sitting in the rocking chair, Little One draped across her chest while she slept.

It’s like that with God, I thought, but more. And I was suddenly breathless with wonder and appreciation. And I was thrilled that the song before communion was in my vocal range so I could sing happily and loudly along. I smiled at the baby who watched with wide-eyed fascination was the water was poured from the pitcher into the wide dish that serves as our pool. We sang ‘See What Love,’ as the parents followed Pastor through the aisles so we could all look at the newly-baptized baby. And I felt warm and peaceful and lovely, emotional connection finally intact.

As I thought about it throughout the day, I realized Pastor had said the same sentence at least thrice. “We didn’t do it because we felt obligated to help Sara. We adopted her because we wanted her and loved her and treasured her presence in our lives.” I didn’t find it redundant at all, I realized. I knew she was awed and moved by the power in those words and she wanted to emphasize them so we could share her feelings of amazement. So perhaps I should cut Paul some slack. When he realized he was welcome in God's family and had access to all this love and grace, perhaps he was so moved that he felt the points bore repeating. Sins of the flesh lead to death, but focus on the spirit was the way to life eternal. Perhaps the power of those realizations and his calling to share those truths with others meant he got repetitive.

Kind of like when some people play Pictionary, I thought. Where you draw the perfect picture of a bicuspid or the Pacific Ocean and are waiting for someone to shout out the answer, but nothing happens. So you look around with confusion, because, well, come on! It’s so obvious because your picture is just that good. So you get irritated and make this exasperated face at the people on your team and you start tapping your pencil on the paper next to your cool drawing. And they look confused and are saying all the wrong words and you just keep tapping the pencil harder and harder against the paper because if they would just look at the freaking picture, it’s so obvious that it’s the Pacific Ocean or a damn bicuspid that only an idiot could miss it!

But I’m on the other side of the table while Paul’s drawing. And I get that he’s intense and a bit frustrated, but I just don’t understand. So the flesh is bad, but it doesn’t feel bad. I mean, I really liked the roasted red pepper and feta cheese dip that Friend and I had last night. And the bottle of Riesling was quite decent. I love the fluttery feelings when I’m attracted to a man, blushing when I think he might have noticed me too, and the giddy fascination as we start to figure each other out. There are moments in life when it feels necessary to swear out loud, or glare across a table or get a haircut that’s far too expensive. Then there’s sex and chocolate and all sorts of other things that could be savored slowly or pounced on greedily because it just feels good.

So I can’t quite reconcile all the thoughts (though I know this post has grown lengthy. If you’ve made it this far, God bless you for your patience and fortitude) of appreciating the beauty of the world around us, but not so much that you live in the flesh and neglect the Spirit and I just end up feeling all guilty and confused and distant from the spiritual facets of my being.

I do believe in God, the Father. I believe He loves and understands me and that when I ask and am open to his intervention, He guides me toward what is best. I believe in the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting, but I also duck my head shamefully when I indulge in behavior I know to be wrong. And I hope that there comes a time when I’m not so distant or confused. That the peace offered by faith doesn’t seem a little boring when compared to the pleasures of the flesh. And though I do feel badly that I can’t force myself to that point, I’ll pray for patience and wisdom and thoroughly enjoy that I did realize a couple things yesterday. I should enjoy where I am and embrace the happiness that arrives in those people and sights and sounds I notice and love. And to think of the intensity of the love that is available to me - ready and waiting and glowing with promise.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting - I'm rusty on my Christian theology, to be sure, but this is one of those areas that proved to me I couldn't jive with it. I cannot, absolutely, see "the flesh" of life as wrong. Maybe I'm a hedonist, but why would god give us such pleasurable things (most of which don't harm anyone, and are only pleasurable) if we are to try to ignore those in pursuit of something much harder to appreciate and understand? Not that humans should shun larger pursuits of the mind, that's part of what makes us human.

Of course, my own thoughts on god differ greatly from Christian philosophy so I'm sure this isn't helpful at all. Oh well - just adding some thoughts, I find these topics interesting.

- anna

KM said...

If I may...

Broadly: God is more patient with us than we think; we might be more patient with ourselves than we are. (I say this for myself as well as for you, sis.)

Specifically: Sometimes I think Paul had issues... but then I usually let him off the hook because nobody's perfect, and the metaphors that translate for you aren't necessarily going to translate for me. The stubborn dualism in his writing doesn't translate for me, not when God made man of earth (adamah) and spirit (ruach) and pronounced that living union "very good". I mean, it was the only thing all creation week long that he pronounced "very good." So I struggle with Western philosophy's propensity to dissociate what God unified way back in the misty beginning, and I find myself drawn to more holistic views of human being, purpose, challenges, and destiny... But that's my issue, sweetheart, not yours. :)

Back to post: I totally hear your frustration. I understand it. & I trust that the Spirit will bring you resolution. I don't believe He promised insta-restoration, though it woulda been nice if He had; I believe He offered us a process in which He works back into our clay the image of Himself He'd started off with but which has marred with time. But He's working (Jeremiah 18). As you say yourself: "patience."

Anonymous said...

i have been playing with the idea that pleasure will lead to god, or what he wants for me. it is a very different angle than the passage, but maybe not really. as i follow pleasure, i have been doing more good and less bad. things that hurt other people don't feel good. things that hurt me don't feel good. a friend recently suggested that god placed our desires in us. i guess it depends on how you look at it but so far it seems very right to me. i can enjoy the pleasure of things but not take them so far that they pass into painful/bad things. i can enjoy the pleasure of being attracted to someone other than my spouse (acknowledging the wonder and diversity of humans and how lovely we can be) but not act on it which would inevitably lead to pain for me and others. and in this way maybe it is being attracted but not quite coveting, which leads to all kinds of problems. maybe i am not being very clear. anyway, that is my new experiment, and i love a good experiment. :)

blackasknight said...

If I could just reach in through my monitor and hug you, I would.

(comments on the difference between a 'fleshly mind' and the flash itself are saved for another time)

The bean-mom said...


I don't share your faith, but my--this is one beautiful post.

An appreciation for the beauty of this world, and for the love of family and friends--that's something we can all take to heart, no matter what religious tradition we do or do not follow. Thank you for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

this is a great post, thank you for sharing. i hear you on the not being quite there with God right now, I feel similarly, and the analogy of sara that your pastor used really made sense to me, and i'm glad it touched you so. while i was away from home, i became much closer with Him, or at least started to bridge the gap that has formed, by forcing myself into the practice of a bit of reading and praying at the start of the day. and yah, at first there was no connection, but later there was. and your post has given me some motivation to start that back up again, since i totally didn't do that during conference week....

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