We all have fears, anxieties, insecurities. Most of us are scared to death of being alone. We all get angry, or sad, or confused. Simply put, we're all human, and that shared experience is worth remembering at all times, because when we forget it, that's when we go wrong. That's when we miss each other, stop listening, and resort to hurting each other deeply, violently, or maliciously.
SOMETIMES I THINK IT IS MY MISSION TO BRING FAITH TO THE FAITHLESS, AND DOUBT TO THE FAITHFUL ― PAUL TILLICH
Rambling. I do it when I feel vulnerable. Doubt makes me feel vulnerable. I like people to think I have my shit together, that I know something about something. I like to feel competent and trustworthy. But in the world of chaplaincy, of caring for the spirit in the throes of crisis and loss, it would seem my doubt and disbelief are gifts. It isn't that I disbelieve in a *fill in the blank with a typical, evangelical Christian adjective* God. It's that I don't mind questions. I hate not knowing, but I don't mind the questions that come out of the not knowing.
when we rid ourselves of distractions and vices, when we remove the bandages that cover up our wounds, we have to face them. Smoking for me (and I might venture to say for many others) isn't really about smoking. Sure, I enjoyed the buzz of the nicotine, the ritual of that initial incineration. I loved the habit of slamming a pack against my palm, or finishing a drink at the bar a little more quickly so I could go out and light up with friendly strangers. But at home, in the privacy of my own sanctuary, the ritual of smoking was a distraction from actually encountering myself.
Talking with a friend (and professor) the other day about grief, I realized that part of my own unfinished grief has to do with the remaining desire to be straight. To fall in love with a woman. To not cringe (or feel nauseated) at the idea of being intimate with her. I wonder what it would have been like had things turned out differently, but some questions never get answers. Some fantasies never become reality. Some hopes never stand a chance.
Nothing can prepare you for the chill, the smell, the fluorescent lighting. There is no way to get yourself psyched up for stepping into a cooler that serves as a temporary stopping point for the recently deceased. Yet sometimes you have to open the door and step inside. You have to unzip the bag and stare into the abyss of mortality...
Did I just say that? Yes, yes I did.
I am what I have
I am what I do
I am what other people think about me
During various stages of life, I've bought into one or more of these lies. In fact, it's hard to recall a time where they all did not simultaneously play a part in my own sense of identity. At times my sense of self has been wrapped up in the books on my shelf, the clothes in my closet, the gadgets and toys I own. It's been impacted by the words I say and by my actions towards others. It's been affected deeply by how people react to my words, how they've spoken to and about me. Yet when I think about it more deeply, I realize that none of these things are me.
Since that deep place in you where your identity as a child of God is rooted has been unknown to you for a long time, those who were able to touch you there had a sudden and often overwhelming power over you. They became part of your identity. You could no longer live without them. But they could not fulfill that divine role, so they left you and you felt abandoned. But it is precisely that experience of abandonment that called you back to your true identity as a child of God.
I'm not sure if I'll ever really be able to let go of the pain I feel most days. Yes, I experience joy and happiness. Yes, these things bring me fulfillment. But depression, whether in label or in manifestations, truly does make me feel alive. It reminds me that I can't live on my own. I need God, my faith, my friends and family, and even the total stranger to live. My depression is a gateway to connection. I've tried hiding it, putting on the face, but doing so only leads to superficial relationships. When I'm honest, when I'm vulnerable and not simply transparent, then my connection to the world and to those around me is strengthened.
Having finished my last two papers of the semester, one on evangelism and one on theological anthropology, I'm about to embark on writing the longest paper I've ever written while in seminary. More than being the longest, it will be the most critical, in-depth analysis of a ministry event in my life. The topic: identity.
When I left my church and denomination two months ago, I did so with the full intent of taking a short break and then moving to another denomination for the purpose of ordination. Very quickly I realized that I'm not ready for such a drastic shift, not only because starting over is indescribably difficult for someone like me who is inherently a nester, but also because I don't really know if ordination of any kind is meant to be part of my journey. Put differently, at the present moment, I don't really know who I am.
Sure, I can name some of my character traits and flaws. Loving. Caring. Compassionate. Intelligent. Empathic. Giving. Selfish. Needy. Codependent. Manipulative. Passive-aggressive. Hostile. This is just a surface list. A better way of putting it might be to say, "I'm broken. I'm whole."
I've had a difficult time identifying myself as a Christian lately, not because I don't believe in Jesus, not because I disbelieve in the inspiration of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but because calling myself a Christian could possibly isolate me from other belief systems I feel might be able to positively influence my life. Jesus will always be important to me. I might even say the same about other authors and writers of the Judeo-Christian traditions. But I also believe that God, being as big as many of us profess God to be, is able and often does reveal Godself in many ways, shapes, texts, and forms. As a human, I am small, finite. I have a beginning and an end (at least as a human). God, the Divine, has neither.
So often I hear Christians talk about how their faith is incompatible with any other belief system. If one is true, then the other must be false. If one is right, then the other is wrong. This is modernist thinking at its best, and for most of my life, I believed it. However, as a friend pointed out, when we say that our God (Yahweh) is mightier, stronger, more powerful, or better than any other deity, we are actually acknowledging the presence and existence of those deities and the faith systems that represent them. According to Michael Coogan, when we look at the Ten Commandments (the decalogue), we read, "I am the Lord your God... you shall have no other gods before me" (Ex. 20:2-3, emphasis mine).
Yahweh does not tell the Hebrew people that he is the only God in existence. He simply tells them that he is to be their God. He's claiming them. They are a lost people with no home. They've suffered horrible injustice at the hands of the Egyptians. They're tired and broken, and Yahweh rescues them and more importantly, Yahweh claims them as his Beloved, his children, his people.
Yahweh doesn't say, "You shall have no other gods." The words "before me" are Yahweh's way of claiming primacy in the lives of the Hebrew people. He's not telling them that the deities of the Egyptians are fake or imagined. He's saying that they are not to be their primary object of worship or relationship.
In my own life, I've been thinking about the words, "before me." As a reminder, I'm a questioner. I'm a thinker. It's engrained in me. The question that has been coursing through my mind as of late is this: is it both possible and acceptable to create a holistic spirituality that believes in the existence and validity of many gods and derives inspiration from the multiple faith traditions that represent them?
Sounds like heresy, doesn't it?
But it's an honest question, and I know many who have asked before me. Many would say that Christianity and Buddhism are incompatible, mostly because the Christians have been led to believe that the Buddha is a god, an idol. I've been reading Heart of the Buddha's Teachings as of late and if there is one thing I've learned, the Buddha is not divine. He is enlightened. He is inspired. To put it in psychological terms, he is self-actualized. Buddhists don't have statues of the Buddha in their homes and spaces of worship because the Buddha is their deity. Those statues are there because he is their role model, someone to look up to, someone to go on the journey of life with.
I will probably going back to church sometime soon. I'm not sure when, and I'm not sure where. But I also know that I'm in the middle of something bigger than a faith crisis. I'm in the middle of an identity crisis. I'm growing and changing. I'm learning who I am, how I think, and what I believe. I'm asking questions, and I'm not always getting answers. In addition to going back to church, I will probably also walk across the alley, knock on the door of the house where some Buddhist monks live, and ask if I can speak with them. I'll probably stop by a mosque, a temple, or a synagogue and seek out conversations with imams, pandits, or rabbis. I have questions, and I'd rather have some company while I try to find the answers.
I'm weary right now, but I'm also hopeful. Hopeful that I will find myself, and hopeful that I will again find my faith.
Until then, I'm simply seeking...