Friday, February 20, 2009

The Cost and Joy of Discipleship: This I Believe?

I'm loving the conversation about homemaking and housekeeping, and will come back to it shortly.

This is a new series on faith (I had a lot of time to write at my in-laws last weekend; I won't usually be so prolific), one I likewise hope to explore with all my friends.


Our daughter Trixie, who is almost twelve, is participating in our church’s faith exploration program for youth this year, at the end of which she will make a decision about whether she wants to be confirmed and join the church as a full member. (Trixie, who was dedicated but not baptized as an infant, will also, assuming she so decides, be getting dunked in Woody and Joey’s heated swimming pool by Julie’s father, a retired minister, a couple of weeks before being confirmed on Pentecost; this is my idea, because I find the paltry drops of water that are part of our church’s baptism sacrament so deeply unsatisfying, but I’m happy that so far, Trixie is totally on board). As part of her faith exploration process, in which she is guided by an adult mentor, Trixie will be writing her own personal Statement of Faith. (She has already decided that it will begin, “I believe humans descended from monkeys; I believe that human civilization first grew in ancient Sumaria….” I have assured her that this will make her Grandpa Jim very happy.) I have always loved this exercise, which Confirmands at Old First have been doing for years. Their Statements of Faith are always thoughtful, funny, challenging, and invariably make me cry.

But I love Statements of Faith in general. When I taught Sunday school, my class memorized the UCC Statement of Faith, and when those kids were confirmed, and stood before the congregation and recited it with us, I brimmed with pride … and, of course, I cried. I love the UCC Statement of Faith for lots of reasons: I love its poetry; I love that it is a corporate profession (“We believe” rather than “I believe”); I love it because it is the first Statement of Faith I ever learned (I’m an adult convert to Christianity, and Old First is the only church, and the UCC the only denomination, that I’ve ever belonged to), and because I say it with my church family most Sundays. It goes like this:

We believe in you O God, Eternal Spirit,
God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God,
and to your deeds we testify:

You call the worlds into being,
create persons in your own image,
and set before each one the ways of life and death.

You seek in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.

You judge people and nations through your righteous will, declared through prophets and apostles.

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior,
you have come to us
and shared our common lot,
conquering sin and death
and reconciling the world to yourself.

You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit,
creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ,
binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues and races.

You call us into your church
to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be your servants in the service of others,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world
and resist the powers of evil,
to share at Christ’s baptism and eat at his table,
to join him in his passion and victory.

You promise to all who trust you
forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,
courage in the struggle for justice and peace,
your presence in trial and rejoicing,
and eternal life in your realm which has no end.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto you.

I also love the Apostles’ Creed, which was the second creed I learned. I love the Apostles’ Creed for its rhythms and spare poetry, for how such a bare bones statement can sum up so much. I also love that the Apostles’ Creed is so ancient, and that I can say it with Christians across space and time, and that in saying it, I participate in the Body of Christ. Here is the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

I still don’t know the Nicene Creed by heart, and I’m always jealous of my Catholic friends when I go to Mass and it rolls off their tongues so effortlessly. This is the most ancient of Christian creeds, and it feels to me the most mysterious and elemental and sacred. I can just hear the passion of the folks who wrote it, like it mattered so much to them that we understand what they were trying to share with us. When I say this creed, I feel like I am in on a special secret that I still don’t completely understand. It’s like a love poem to the Christian faith. I love this creed a lot and regret we don’t say it more often:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of live,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son
he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

A lot of people I know have a hard time saying these ancient creeds – or even new ones, like the UCC Statement of Faith – because they feel they are telling a lie to say words they are not sure they believe. It seems to me that this is to miss the point of saying creeds. For me, to say these ancient words -- even the new-fangled versions -- is itself an act of faith, independent of what the words actually mean. Which is not to say that the meaning of the words is irrelevant. For me, wrestling with what these words mean – these and many other mysterious, scary, difficult, awesome words -- is important (and why I am a Christian, and not, say, a Unitarian). But wrestling with what they mean, and saying them as an act of faith, are two very different things for me; and when my wrestling stirs up doubt, which it most often does, the antidote is to say them more often, not less.

You see, I believe (and herein begins my own Statement of Faith), that Belief is not a very useful entry point to faith for me. I believe that whenever I start thinking too hard about what I believe, I end up feeling like a fraud, and wonder if I even have the right to call myself a Christian. I feel this especially around Christians who seem so clear about what they believe, for whom belief and experience seem to line up quite neatly.

On the other hand, I believe that practicing my faith – worshipping regularly, praying the Psalms, following the rhythms of the liturgical year, celebrating the festivals, singing the songs -- brings me into relationship with God, helps me experience God in my life … and that Belief has very little to do with it. I believe that if Belief matters, it will follow (I’m still waiting), and conversely, if it doesn’t follow, maybe it doesn’t matter all that much.

In the interests of full disclosure (and at the risk of truly exposing myself as a fraud) I should probably explain that I’m not talking here about arcane doctrines, like, say, transubstantiation (the Catholic doctrine that the elements of the Eucharist do not represent the body and blood of Christ, but actually become them). I spent hours and hours once researching transubstantiation, in the hopes that I could tell Father John at St. Vincent’s “Yes, I believe that,” when I went to talk to him about whether, as a Protestant, I could participate in the Eucharist at the daily 12:05 Mass I was yearning to attend. Bless his heart, he just waved his hand when I brought it up and said, “Who really understands transubstantiation? If you experience Christ in the Eucharist, that’s enough” – which was perfect, because I could wholeheartedly say “YES!” to that. (I still have NO IDEA what transubstantiation is all about.)

But when I say that Belief is not a useful entry point to faith for me, I’m not talking about whether or not I believe in transubstantiation. I’m talking about way more fundamental stuff. Like God. And the Incarnation. And Resurrection. And Salvation.

You see why I worry about being a fraud?

But let me explain. Say you are a “believing Christian” (a phrase a dear friend of mine has used in my presence, assuming, presumably, that such a phrase encompasses both of us, an assumption that causes me no small amount of anxiety … but I digress), and you ask me “Do you believe in God?” For most Christians, that is the most basic, fundamental and easily answered of questions. The answer is simply, “Yes, of course.” And depending on who you are, I might answer, just as simply, “Yes.” I wouldn’t be lying, exactly. But I’m not sure I would pass a lie detector test either, because if I say, simply, “Yes,” my blood pressure is probably rising a little, and my heart is probably beating a little faster, and inside my head a million thoughts are racing. If I have simply answered “Yes” to the question “Do you believe in God,” then I probably have not screwed up my courage to share all of those thoughts with you, but they are racing nonetheless, and if I were to screw up my courage and share them with you, they might go something like this:

“Yeeeessssss, I do believe in God … I guess … No! I mean, Yes! I do! Really, I do, but … but probably not in the way you do … I mean, I don’t really believe in, well, a sentient God, so much … an omniscient, anthropomorphic God, you know? Who acts outside of the laws of nature? And interferes in natural or human history in response to the acts and pleas of human beings? No, I guess I don’t believe so much in that kind of a God.” Here I might pause, and feel anxious, and wonder what you’re thinking. Then I might continue, throwing caution to the wind: “But you know what, I do believe in God, I just don’t believe that God is something human beings are even capable of understanding, really, and therefore it seems to me that every human expression of what or who God is must ultimately be laughably small and absurd.” There, I said it! “But I still think we humans have a fundamental need to try to capture and name what God is -- by which I do not mean the same thing as when patronizing atheists argue that humans (with the exception of a few enlightened atheists like themselves) have a fundamental need to create a God in our own image – that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that human beings seem to have a need to give name and form, out of our own limited vocabulary and experience, to the ineffable and unknowable. You know? And what we call God, and the stories we tell about God, are just our truest and best effort … but at the end of the day, we really have no idea what we’re talking about.” Here I might pause again, as my courage and my clarity fades. “But not really unknowable, you know … because isn’t it a paradox how … whatever it is we’re calling God … can be so intimately known and yet so unfathomably unknowable…?” And then I would probably fade off with a sort of anxious sigh and have trouble making eye contact with you.

(Which is all to say, I am now realizing, that Belief really is just the wrong word. Because it’s not so much that I don’t believe in that sort of God, as that I don’t experience God in that way. But I have no trouble believing that other people do experience God that way.)

But I do experience God, very much so. Indeed, if you had asked instead, “Do you experience God in your life?” my answer would be simple and straightforward and heartfelt: “Why yes, of course!” I might be brimming with stories to share about baking bread, or making beds and hanging laundry, or the satisfying, frustrating “quotidian mysteries”* of mothering and homemaking. I will definitely want to tell you all about the way the bread and the wine feel in my mouth at Mass at St. Vincent’s, and the way the sun glinted off the water during my last run by the river, and the way Julie’s descant floated above our heads during the hymn we sang at church last Sunday, and the color just under the skin of a peach when you’re canning, and the Psalm I’m praying these days, and what it means to begin letting go of being, quite literally, the center of my children’s universe. If I love and trust you, I might even tell you about how the awesome responsibility of mothering stretches me thin sometimes, and brings out my worst self; or about the shame I feel having just walked away from several communities I care so much about when poverty got too ugly and overwhelming; and about all the petty and jealous and snarky and bitter things that are inside me; and how impossible I would find it to just be me but for the grace of God’s love and forgiveness. But all of this will bring only a flush of pleasure – or at least relief -- to my cheeks, not the sort of anxious argument that a “Do you believe…” question raises.

Similarly, if you ask me whether I believe in the Resurrection, I will probably need to launch into a dissertation on what metaphor means to me (which is: everything; it is what makes us human; it does not merely explain our relationship with God, but IS the very substance of our relationship with God). I would further argue that if you have ever put the word “just” in front of the word “metaphor” in an effort to distinguish a metaphor from what is “real,” then you do not understand what I am talking about at all, and it will probably be unproductive for us to continue talking about whether I “believe” (“belief,” of course, being “just” a metaphor to me) in the Resurrection. But ask me whether I experience Resurrection, and again, the answer is simple: “Why yes, all the time, every new day. Let me tell you about some kids I knew once in a ghetto called Kensington. Oh! And Sr. Margaret McKenna and the recovery community of New Jerusalem. You can’t turn around without bumping into the resurrected Christ at New Jerusalem!”

Incarnation? Salvation? Lather, rinse, repeat. I can tell you story after story of my experience of all these things, but what do I believe? Really and truly believe?

I suppose there are a few things:

I believe that I am in need of love and forgiveness, that I am loved and forgiven by God, and that in God’s love and forgiveness there is salvation.

I believe that for me, God’s love, forgiveness and salvation flow through the historical figure of Jesus in a special and unique way. I believe that the story and Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most compelling way that I can connect my life to God. I believe there is no other figure, and no other story, that can help me so well to make meaning of the world and to live a good life in it. (I believe, if truth be told, that I’m a little bit of a Jesus freak. I’m really kind of crazy about Jesus.)

I believe there is a Spirit of some sort that I can’t name and don’t understand but that works in my life and connects me across time and space with other Christians as the Body of Christ, and with all other people of all other faiths, and of no faith at all, who strive to be part of and to share in the Goodness that is in the world.

Speaking of which, I believe in Goodness. I also believe in Evil, and Sin. I don’t believe that everything is relative (although I do believe that a lot of things are all sorts of shades of gray).

I believe that saying ancient words, telling ancient stories, participating in ancient rituals, and making a joyful sound (i.e. worship) are the fundamental ways that I encounter God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I believe that something awesome and mystical happens in the Eucharist, even if I don’t have the foggiest notion what transubstantiation is all about.

I believe that if God is love, then Resurrection is hope, the Incarnation is a great, big, wonderfully messy scandal, and Salvation is a sigh of relief, and the reason to keep loving and hoping against all the odds. I believe that being the Body of Christ (that is, a co-conspirator in the big messy scandal of the Incarnation) is all about hospitality, which is where the rubber really hits the road, isn’t it?

And thus ends the first installment of my second blog series, on faith, which I’m calling “The Cost and Joy of Discipleship.” (Julie wanted me to work in "Aimlessness and Sin," but I’m just not that clever.) I’d love for this to be a conversation, and if anyone out there (all five of you! hi friends!) would like to share about your own faith, I’d love to have you as guest blogger. Just email me at marta dot bloem dot rose at gmail dot com.

*Kathleen Norris's influence on me and my faith cannot be overstated. This is a reference to her monograph, Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work, which I love love love. Edited to add: Incarnation as scandal is also Norris's idea, not mine.


Eric said...

The power of Myth (not "myth") is a mysterious and beautiful thing, is it not?

One of my seminary profs once said, "We don't gather together around what we understand. We gather together around that which we don't and possibly can't understand".

Greg said...

Wow, what a thoughtful and entertaining exploration of faith. You had my rapt attention (and inspired laughter - transub-whatnow? This recovering Catholic isn't sure, either...)throughout and gave me much to think about.

Thanks. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

Patrick said...

Just lovely. Metaphor is everything to me as well, in much the same way. The vastness of divinity is something I grapple with quite a bit too, and I'm not sure I believe in a sentient god either, but gratitude is still central to my experience of the divine.
Damn, woman, you're making my brain explode AGAIN.
I wrote a much less nuanced exploration of some of these thoughts a couple of years ago.

Joanna said...

Okay, you're three for three in terms of taking the wind out of my sails!

I'm thinking on a lot of the same issues you discuss, in the frame of Judaism instead. It's funny how close we come to each other in our divergence.

Marta said...

Eric, can't wait to talk in person, soon!

Greg: Thanks so much for stopping by and for your kind words. I'm gearing up for gardening, and will definitely be reading your blog. Catholicism is a conundrum, isn't it??

Patrick:Thanks pal. I haven't had a chance to read your piece on faith, but I'm looking forward to it!

Jo: There's no taking the wind out of your sails, babe You know you are responsible for my entire bloggy existence, and I totally ride along in your wake!

I was thinking of you as I wrote this piece, actually, and would love to read your story. A friend and mentor -- a retired college prof who is a convert to Judaism -- recently told me that he's not so sure what he believes either, but he loves saying ancient words. Yup.

Anonymous said...

I'm so late responding to this, but I have already read it thrice :) I appreciate how much thought you put into things. It's so refreshing to see someone have a well-developed position on something that most people seem to just believe without question. Thank you for your fearlessness and honesty.

Jenine said...

I found this very provoking, in a good way. Thank you for describing how you feel energized by your faith and how you feel uncomfortable at certain boundaries. I came here by way of Jo's blog.

I feel compelled to tell a bit of my own experience. I am in the process of joining the Episcopalian Church and plan to be baptized in June. For many years I described myself as a heathen who missed choir. I had good experiences with a United Church as a teenager but ultimately decided that my rationalist reservations overcame my enjoyment of church. For a particular example, I didn't think I could say the Apostles' Creed and mean it.

I have come to believe that I am allowed to embrace my Christian cultural heritage whether I believe in the virgin birth or not. And I love the old words, the rhythm of the prayers. They are stories and spells and music. I feel that my faith encompasses that distance between literal interpretation and ritual.

I have also found that the Bible is very good for honing my feminism. I resist its relentless male centrism. And I think that’s valuable.

Marta said...

barelyknittogether: thanks so much! thinking about things a lot can sometimes be a detriment, lol, so i'm glad you finding all the stuff in my head interesting! this blog is really a lot about just getting it all out, so i can give my brain a rest. but i'm having fun!

jenine: yes, yes and yes! i'm so glad you've decided you can embrace your faith heritage -- it's all about story (not "just a story"), and if you find meaning in this story, that's a good thing, yes? yes! two authors who have been especially significant to me are kathleen norris and marcus borg. you might want to check them out.

Marta said...

Jeaux accidently put this comment under another post; I'm pretty technologically illiterate, so I have no idea how to move it:

Marta I can't begin to describe how moved I am by this post. I'm going to surround it with a little respectful silence for the time being, except to share a memory that it immediately evoked...

I attended an all-male late-night service at a church in New York at least three decades ago. It must have been Catholic or one of the other old sacramentally-based churches, Lutheran or Episcopal. The only thing I remember about it is reciting the Nicene creed by candlelight. That gorgeous affirmation of faith that was, absolutely, all about we, voices solemnly joined, timeless, somehow clandestine, apart, one of the holiest moments I've ever experienced.

Thank you for reminding me.

(word verification was 'ports')


Jeaux: I'm so glad my musings sparked such a lovely memory for you! I hope you'll keep coming back to be part of a conversation about faith here. Any friend of Patrick's is a friend of mine!

Melissa said...

I finally was able to sit down and read this beautiful post -- well done, Marta!

Your thoughts on saying the ancient creeds made me miss my old church so much. It is a traditional Episcopalian church where we'd say the same things and sing the same songs every week and I found it so very comforting.
The contemporary service we attend now has far fewer of these elements -- we do recite an Affirmation of Faith that is gender-neutral courtesy of the diocese (?) of New Zealand. I don't know. It's just not the same! But, for Lent I am mustering my strength to dive back into church and really be present, rather than putting all my effort into getting there (and there is a lot of effort to get us all out of the house by 8:30 Sunday morning) and then spacing out and/or feeling resentful while I'm actually at worship. Sounds pretty terrible, doesn't it?

pam said...

i read this to scott outside a few days ago. it's sooo important to me that he understand you. i don't need to understand you because i lurve you :) he agreed with so much of what i read. he's a metaphor FIEND. it drives me a wee bit crazy at times because my mind doesn't work like that. i just appreciatd your honesty and clarity of writing (if not belief) and your interesting take on faith before belief. cool!