I’ve got book club this afternoon…our selection for this month was “Until I Say Goodbye” by Susan Spencer-Wendel. It’s a memoir by a woman who was diagnosed at age 43 with ALS. A journalist, wife, and mom of 3 young children, she writes about her last year of relative good health following her diagnosis. The subtitle is “my year living with joy”, as she makes the most of the time she has left before the disease renders her incapable of doing…well, everything. She writes about the progression of the disease as it takes its toll on her body, and how, in spite of it all, she finds beauty and joy and laughter and things to be thankful for. By the time she wrote the book she essentially had control of one finger, and basically wrote the book on her iphone with that one finger.
I initially resisted reading the book after my friend Virginia suggested it. See, a lot of times I find life and its assorted dangers and pitfalls to be utterly terrifying. I stopped watching “The Today Show” several years ago because I couldn’t stand hearing about one more tragic story, giving me one more thing to worry about and obsess over in those dark hours when your brain travels to those scary places and you can’t reel it back in. The dad who lost his wife and kids to a drunk driver. The home invasion where everyone was brutally killed. The tragic accident that claimed a bride and her new husband. You don’t have to look too far to find stories like these. To keep myself from dwelling on them I just tried to avoid them. I couldn’t get rid of the fears I already had but I could sure try to prevent new ones.
See, its not the stories themselves even that got me so worked up. No…what really messes with my head is the idea that the survivors, those left behind, always talked about the things they learned the joy they found in spite of the sorrow the beauty that rose from the ashes. Even worse…as a person who (most of the time) professes faith in Christ, hearing other Christians tell their tragic stories…that “God taught me so much” and “changed me so much” and “used something terrible for his glory” is probably my biggest stumbling point with the Christian faith, with God himself. I was, am still, really, petrified at the thought that God will rip my family apart, destroy everything good in my life, ravage my heart or my health all in the name of teaching me some sort of lesson, of making me a better person…what the hell kind of God is that?? That God scares the crap out of me. No matter how many times the Bible says “do not fear!” and “there is no fear in love” I can not wrap my head around that God. I am terrified of that God. I don’t know who that God is, if I even want to, am even able to believe in him but I do out of fear that he will teach me some sort of lesson if I don’t. When I pray a lot of times my prayer is just a gasp of “God I don’t want that to be my story! Please don’t let that be my story!” I don’t want to learn that lesson. I don’t want to be that person on the Today show.
So I didn’t want to read this book. I didn’t want to have to worry about getting ALS right now at this stage in my life (although I already worry about any number of other diseases). I didn’t want to think about how getting ALS was so great in the long run because it taught her so many things and she was a better person for it. Up until last week I hadn’t even bothered to look up the book. I hung out with Virginia and Felicity (my other friend in book club) and they both said “No, really–its not sad! Trust us. Well, it’s sad but not how you think. Just read it.” And they didn’t even know about all my internal issues.
I picked up the book Thursday and had finished it by Friday night.
And they were right…the first chapter or so, as she started having health issues and struggled with finding a diagnosis, denying what she most feared was probably true, and then wrestling with the final diagnosis…yeah, that was sad. But the rest of the book was amazing. It was really inspiring, it was hopeful and funny and not tragic at all. Even though you know right this very moment she is in hospice and uses a special computer that she points her nose at to write and communicate with because every muscle in her body no longer works. Yes…there were “sad-ish” parts. But it wasn’t sad. She wasn’t sad. She was fiercely determined to not wallow in self pity, about what might have beens, about what she could no longer do, have, etc. She just lived in each moment, each day and fought to find joy in those things. By the end of the book I found myself feeling like I too, could get through just about anything.
So…why didn’t this story scare the heck out of me, like so many of those others do? I think because it didn’t come across as “God teaching me a lesson through ALS.” She claims a faith in God, a belief in heaven, a spirituality, yes. But nowhere does she claim that “God allowed me to go through this so I could be a better person.” She is NOT an evangelical by any stretch. Most American Christians would probably dismiss her story because of that (probably part of the reason I like it so much, ha!). I think though, it reinforced something I am beginning to believe is the way God works in the world. (Which I am PROBABLY WRONG ABOUT because anytime you think you’ve got God figured out you are more than likely TOTALLY OFF BASE. But I’m really comfortable being wrong so, what the heck.)
I’m not comfortable with the idea that God does or does not do something in a particular event. Like when we say “Oh, thank God I was home when our frozen pipe burst.” Like it’s some sort of miracle that God kept you from going out the door 5 minutes earlier. So…for the person who WASN’T home when their pipe burst…God wasn’t there? God just let them head to work so that when they got home there was tons of water damage from the burst pipe? People love to say that God allowed this or didn’t allow that to happen, and are thankful and “Oh God is so good!” But then when the opposite happens…the diagnosis is bad, the tumor keeps growing, the car crash isn’t avoided…where is God in that? He’s allowing that to happen? He allows things for some and not for others? That seems so arbitrary and well, cruel. I can’t wrap my head around that. It just doesn’t make sense to me. It brings up the age old question of “If God is so good why do bad things still happen??”
I’m more of the belief that God doesn’t intervene in events in the world. The world is fallen. The world is imperfect. We all have free will and things happen. Bad things happen. God didn’t cause that hurricane because he’s mad at someone. He didn’t stop you from crashing into that car because you pray a lot. Things just happen. Things are random. There really are coincidences.
But I still think God is in there. I think he is in the wreckage. Or in the excitement. Or the thankfulness. He is in our reactions to things. The way people step up and show love and support for one another. God didn’t cause AIDS but God is in the doctors working to find a cure, the people caring for sick AIDS babies, in people showing love to AIDS patients. God didn’t cause that pipe to burst in your house but he was there in the neighbor that let you use their shower. In the friend who brought you all dinner. In the plumber who came right over and fixed it. And in all of this, this is how I see God redeeming the world. Not by stopping events or by causing events…but by getting right in the middle of those events with us as we all muddle through the good and bad of our lives.
Ok. This is getting long, I need to quit rambling. Bottom line: I liked this book. It made me feel ok about life and all the possibilities, even the bad ones. That I don’t need to be scared of God doing something to me (or not) because it’s not God doing it…it’s just how life is. Good things. Bad things. Just life. But that God’s in the response. God’s in the reaction. Like I totally saw God in Susan Spencer-Wendel’s response to her ALS. God’s in the people who come in for the celebration or the rescue. Maybe that’s a cop out, maybe that’s just me making up something to make me feel better.
I’m ok with that. Maybe that’s what faith is in the first place. Something to make us feel better about the craziness that is life. I think God’s right there in that too. Our tiny, weak, pathetic attempts at faith.
*the opinions expressed in this blog are my own and only my own. I write this blog to hash things out. Not to espouse a certain mindset or belief system. if you agree, great. if you don’t, also great. i’m not interested in you bashing my beliefs and making me feel horrible, so just save that because i will not read nor approve your comments. Nor am I interested in your attempts to sway me in a different direction so again, save your breath. if you have a nice supportive thing to say great, go ahead. I’d love to hear that. Yes I am a wimp and yes I hate confrontation and argument and disagreement. So. That’s all. Just be nice. The end.
My post last week was kind of, I don’t know…not sad, exactly, but definitely notes of melancholy. I find myself full of questions most of the time, and a lot of times it feels like I’m the only one asking those questions. I know that’s not true, but there are definitely times when it feels like I have this view of the world, of God, whatever, that isn’t shared by many of the people in my life. After I wrote that post, I read another blog that was so full of positivity and life is great and God is great that I just wanted to crawl into a hole. What is wrong with me?? I thought. I felt alone and sad, and I even felt mad at those people for whom life is seemingly full of joy on a regular basis. Who seem to be able to easily ignore some of the things that for me are blaringly obvious. I get self-righteous about it, like I’m somehow a better person because I get all worked up about things like injustice and violence and cruelty in the world (because surely I’m never unjust or cruel myself, right???) and think “Well, insulating yourself from the bigger issues in the world doesn’t make them go away, it doesn’t solve anything!” As if my over-wraught musings do something to solve anything.
It got me thinking about personality types then, I remembered studying them in psychology way back when, and so I looked them up. I almost fell out of my chair when I read the Wikipedia definition of Melancholy Personality:
-…fundamentally introverted and thoughtful…overly pondering and considerate…preoccupied with the tragedy and cruelty in the world…often perfectionists…self-reliant and independent…so involved in what they are doing that they forget to think of others.
I mean, that describes me so well, its crazy. And it was such a relief you know, because it was like, oh that’s just me, that’s just how I was made. Of course, it doesn’t excuse poor behavior. I have definitely done things “wrong” in my relationships with others because of the way this brain of mine works. But it felt good to realize that some of how I am, some of the struggles I have are just part of the way I’m wired.
I realized too that, interestingly enough, I tend to surround myself with people who are kind of the opposite of me. I don’t know what that says about me, but in one way it’s good because it pulls my head out of my butt for a little bit, but it also makes me quite frustrated when I feel like no one understands me, no one gets where I’m coming from. It can feel pretty alone. And yet I can imagine if all my friends were melancholy like me we’d be a hot mess.
“If one is to deal with people on a large scale and say what one thinks, how can one avoid melancholy?…as the current answers don’t do, one has to grope for a new one, and the process of discarding the old, when one is by no means certain what to put in their place, is a sad one.” Virginia Woolf
I just pulled up this quote tonight while I was thinking about this. I think it says a lot, especially in my current state of spiritual struggle and questioning. The “current answers” in my life just aren’t cutting it, and that’s exactly what I’m doing, I’m discarding those old answers, those old beliefs, and I really have no idea what to put in their place. No. Idea. And it makes me sad.
And this makes me sad…I really enjoy reading Rachel Held Evans…I follow her blog and I read her book “Evolving in Monkey Town” and it resonated with me so much. So many of her questions are things that are roaming around my own head and heart. A lot of mainstream Christians (men in particular) have not so very nice things to say about her. Not nice at all. She has a new book coming out, and I saw this quote about it tonight, and it is negative and it made my heart sad, because it felt like an indictment of me and my own struggles. This is what it said:
“Rachel Held Evans: how to mock biblical principles with a smile. Godly women should be truly repulsed by her behavior and example.” – Dr. James White
Now, I have no idea who Dr. James White is. But I’d wager he hasn’t really read anything Rachel has written, really read it with an open heart. Anyone who reads her has to see that there is no mocking going on there, just an honest searching. And you know what? Dr. James White has no idea who I am. I think if he read my blog or read my mind he’d be repulsed, he’d think “Godly Women” (whatever the hell that is supposed to mean) should be repulsed by what goes around in there.
That thought didn’t make me mad (though they often do).
It made me sad.
Because in saying that he is saying, essentially, that God is repulsed. God is repulsed by questioning and searching. God is repulsed by not just accepting what religious institutions lay down as the law.
God is repulsed by me.
Now, there are certainly times when I believe that, when I fear that. But most of the time, I don’t think that…I think God understands the way my brain works (even if I don’t entirely) because it’s just the way he made it to be. Melancholy. Uncertain. Afraid. Terribly, terribly afraid.
I don’t want to be repulsive to God. Or to anyone else.
But I don’t know how, I don’t think I can, I don’t know that I’d even want to change the way I look at the world.
I want to be pissed off that my Cambodian goddaughter was sold into sex slavery.
I want to be outraged that there are people around the world who are tortured because they don’t follow the party line, don’t vote a certain way, are part of a certain tribe or clan or religion.
I want to feel angry that there are Christians, Jesus-following, Bible believing Christians want to label my questions and struggles, want to label Rachel Held Evans words and writings repulsive because they think they have everything all figured out.
I’m sad about it. I’m melancholy. It’s who I am. I hope you’re not repulsed.
I hope God is not repulsed. I really don’t think he is though.
“Can the pot say to the potter ‘You know nothing!”?
“But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who made it “Why did you make me like this”? Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special uses and some for common use?”
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a nice, inspiring post about seeing God in other people, specifically my cousin Sam. Well, this is not that post. Consider this the bipolar shift on my blog.
I’m feeling really angry today about some things. Angry at God. Questioning God. I feel like those 2 verses I posted above are just a couple of the verses Christians use to try and shut up people like me. Shut up the questions. Because these are some ugly questions I’m asking myself. Ugly things I see. Questions that are painful and uncomfortable. And I think a lot of Christians just want us to shut up and be a pot and be happy with our lot in life as a pot. Subject to the whims of the potter. Not complaining if we’re used to hold the finest wine or a pile of shit.
Problem is, I’m not a pot.
And I don’t think God made me to be a pot.
God made me with a brain. And eyes. And a heart. And those things see and hear and feel and look around at some of the things that happen in this world and I am very sorry but there are a lot of things that just don’t jive with this “Loving, all-powerful God” that we profess to believe in. You can sugar coat it with all the Christian platitudes you’d like, but at the end of the day I am still left with questions. BIG, horrible questions. And I know I’m not the only one. I’m not a pot. If God wanted me to be a pot he should’ve made me mute. I don’t think God wants us to be pots.
If you’ve been watching the news at all, there was a 10 year old little girl in Colorado who was kidnapped on her walk to school and then found brutally murdered. It’s all over the news here. Last night on the news they were covering her memorial service, and at one point they used a term like “wonderful” or something to describe the way the community has come together in the wake of this tragedy.
I’m sorry. There is nothing, NOTHING wonderful about this story. I don’t care how you spin it. I don’t care if her mother goes on to rescue millions of children in Jessica’s name. This is not wonderful. This is horrible. That girl lived the last hours of her life in fear and pain. No amount of good things can take that away, can make that better. No beautiful memorial service. no laws passed in her name. Not. Wonderful.
As a parent, especially of a 10 year old girl, hearing stories like this makes me sick because you transfer it to your own kid or a kid in your life. You can’t help it. And I know I’m supposed to say that God can redeem anything, that God can make beauty out of ashes, that “Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.” Well, it doesn’t get much uglier than the murder of a child, and I don’t think any amount of grace can make that beautiful.
And then this morning I found out that someone I know has had her cancer return. It totally took the wind out of me. She’s a wife and mom and through her job has impacted many, many people in an amazing way. I know she could have success with her treatment, but still. I feel like some Christians response to this would be that “they can’t wait to see how God works through this!!” That’s such crap to me. I don’t have to have had cancer to know that it has to be awful in every. single. way. Even if you get through it.
So what do we believe here? What do we believe in the face of these two stories, and the millions of others as horrible? What do we say about God? That he allows these tragedies to occur to use for his own purposes? What kind of evil, masochistic God is that? That his heart breaks when these awful things happen, but allows them to happen anyway? What kind of impotent, powerless God is that? What do we say about a world where innocent families are burned alive in their homes because they chose to vote against Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe? Or a world where my god-daughter in Cambodia was sold into sex slavery as a child? (One lovely “christian” woman told me in an online argument about abortion that “At least she is alive!” I swear to Jesus that if we’d been having that conversation in person I would’ve punched her goddamn lights out.) How can we possibly look at these things and NOT question the God who makes? allows? sits back and watches? these things happen??
The answers the church gives aren’t good enough. And the fact is that we don’t ask these questions. We avoid them. We say things like “It’s God’s will” or “They’re in a better place” or “God will bring you through it” because we’re scared shitless about these same types of tragedies happening to us. I know I am. But those things don’t give me answers. Or comfort. They don’t explain anything. We don’t want to ask these questions because they are uncomfortable and WE CAN’T ANSWER THEM.
We say things like “God won’t give you anything more than you can handle” which is utter bullshit. If that were true people wouldn’t commit suicide or become alcoholics and drug addicts and abusers themselves.
I can’t quit God. I can’t bring myself to be an atheist. But I sure as hell don’t get him sometimes. Some days I feel and see him clearly. But others, like today, my vision is clouded over by the reality of the harshness of life. Of the things we do to one another (and I don’t think I believe in an actual Satan so I’m not going to go blaming my confusion on him. I take responsibility for my own questions, blasphemous as they may be). Of the fact that it’s impossible to make sense out of tragedy. Maybe we will one day get all the answers in heaven but that tastes very bitter to us left here on earth.
Some people are great pots. They don’t ask a lot of questions. But not me. I don’t think I’m a pot. And if I am I sure am awful at it.