Thursday, June 23, 2011

Conversion Aversion

Let’s say there are two men: Alpha and Omega. I’ve been with Alpha for many years. Alpha was my first kiss. We made commitments to one another. I’m close with Alpha’s family. On top of that, Alpha and I have a good relationship; we don’t argue, we don’t abuse one another, we love each other.

But then there’s Omega. I met Omega by chance; I wasn’t looking for trouble. But now I have a crush on Omega. I think about what type of girlfriend I would be with him. I believe he likes me too, but I’m not willing to take the risk for fear of hurting Alpha. That’s not entirely true. While I do feel guilt about possibly hurting Alpha, I also won’t take the risk unless I’m completely sure things will work out with Omega because I’m prideful, and I don’t want to have to run back to Alpha and ask his forgiveness later.

Omega and I aren’t a perfect match. Even from the outside I can that. I question what type of father he’ll be to our children. I don’t know much about his family. I disagree with one or two of his beliefs. He has a past. But no relationship is perfect. If we are meant to be together, those sorts of things become less and less important. The question is how to tell we’re meant to be, or if this is some passing fancy and I should stick it out with Alpha.

I’m discontent with Alpha. While nothing is wrong, something is missing. I thought if I was involved enough with Alpha I could find fulfillment within that relationship, but I haven’t. I feel I’m outgrowing him. This could just be a seven (or 22) year itch, but I’m too inexperienced to know. I don't particularly want to have these feelings; I don't want to leave Alpha, but maybe I should. I can’t leave Alpha and just sleep around until I know what I want. I’m not like that; I need a relationship. And knowing both Alpha and Omega will accept my decision only further confuses me, because now the choice is solely mine. If I error, it is no one else’s fault. Alpha is not pushing me away. Omega isn’t trying to lure me. But I still feel guilty, like a cheater, for entertaining the idea of leaving.

For now, I admire Omega from afar, like a middle school crush where you’re too embarrassed to express how you feel. I still see Alpha regularly, and he doesn’t know that during our date, my mind wanders over to Omega’s place. My imagination has taken a bit of potential and turned it into a fantasy life.

I see crucifixes where crosses hang.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Every year I go to the beach with my family. We like going to more secluded beaches where we can relax without dozens of families packed on a thin strip of sand, loud music blasting from beachfront bars, and the smell of car exhaust overpowering the smell of sea salt. And every year, I pack a few notebooks and a pile of pencils, ready for the change of scenery to inspire me into writing something new. And every year, I get close to nothing written. I want to be inspired there. I want the vastness of the ocean to remind me of the vastness of God and make me feel insignificant. I want the grains of sand to make me think of time, eroding, or the little parts it takes to make a whole. I want the sea breeze to move me and the fresh air to revitalize me. But it just doesn’t happen. I can’t sit on the shore (or from my balcony) and write. There is a lot of writing potential at the beach, but it’s not my place of inspiration.

I figured that the reason might be that I’m a mountain girl. I never really considered myself that until I went to school and missed seeing the mountains every day. And when I was studying in England, I could look at the mountains and think how much they resembled home, but I had the emotion that “These aren’t my mountains.” So maybe the ocean doesn’t inspire me because I come from a long line of Appalachians. Therefore, I should find inspiration in the mountains, specifically, my mountains. But that hasn’t happened either. Granted, it’s much, much easier for me to write about the mountains because I’m fond of them, but I can’t go out hiking and compose on a mountain top any easier than I can at the shore. As someone who wants to write and who would love to write about the beauty of nature, it’s quite frustrating to see nature as beautiful but less than inspirational.

That’s when I started noticing where I do write. At church -- particularly during the choir singing and the offering because I do try to pay close attention to everything else in the service, but an occasional boring sermon provides additional writing time as well. Church activates something in me, where I scribble notes all over my bulletin and then spend Sunday afternoon sorting them out. In Haworth, I skipped walking the moors in favor of just sitting in the local church, and it proved to be the right choice for both personal insight and getting some writing done. While it still irks me that I find more comfort in a man-made building than nature, I have accepted it. The sacredness of the place affects me, especially if I think about all the people that have searched for and talked with God there. A church is like a three-dimensional love letter to God; while it is made for Him with love, it really says more about our feelings and interpretations of the relationship.

A Cymotrichous Holy Ghost

I can’t spell. I’m one of those people who appreciate the squiggly red line of a computer’s spellcheck correcting my papers and emails. But I love watching the National Spelling Bee every year (cymotrichous is this year’s winning word). It’s nice to see the nerdy middle school kids on ESPN, and even though I can’t spell, I have a fascination with words and their origins. One of the last classes I took in college was Linguistics. I loved learning how different languages are put together. And language controls our view of the world.

As someone who doesn’t pick up new languages that well, I know my view of the world is limited to the English vernacular. It’s not just my view of the world but my view of very existence. One of my favorite books is 1984. Despite the many times I’ve read it, I get a little paranoid each new time, positive Big Brother is changing all the archives and history isn’t what I thought it was the day before. But the scariest part of 1984 is by controlling language, the government controls people. How can the masses know they are slaves when there isn’t a word for oppression, or slavery, or freedom? Innately, they may feel some sort of injustice, but they cannot articulate it, cannot take action, and cannot visualize other possibilities.

Are there qualities of God that I’m missing out on because of a limited vocabulary? Is there something valuable that got lost in translation from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to Shakespearian English to now? The Catholic Church used to forbid vernacular translations. While many claim this was to keep the masses ignorant, keep in mind that the masses of the time couldn’t read the vernacular much more than they could read Latin. The Church was trying to avoid mis-translations and mis-interpretations that come from viewing the same text in different words. While I’m usually happy with my NKJV, I understand the effort of maintaining unity throughout the Church. For the same reason, some Protestants stick to the King James Version as if Jesus himself highlighted his words in red. With the plethora of Bible choices (just in English!), it is important to pick the right wording. I’m going to get a completely different understanding if I read the KJV compared to The Message. Multiply that by different languages, and it’s no wonder the universal Church is so fractured.

And it makes me wonder if any of us have an understanding close to the original. Can reading the Vulgate give a clearer understanding the early Church? Can reading Hebrew makes the psalms more poetic than I can imagine? Can I only truly understand Jesus’ parables if I know Aramaic? It makes me want to go into deep study, to learn as much of the cultures and languages as I can so I might have some revelation that can’t be explained in English. But as I said, I don’t pick up languages very well, so I’m stuck with English (which is a rich and complicated language I’m glad I don’t have to learn from the outside). So instead of worrying about what expressions or revelations I’m missing out on, I can look at the beauty of the language I do know and see how this unique lens lets me view God.

Let’s look at the Trinity: First, the name of God. It’s one syllable, strong consonants. It’s rather a harsh sound, one that lends itself to the understanding of a God of judgment and strength. But some adjectives help soften it, develop it. A loving God, a merciful God. Both still indicate power, but with a clause that in spite of such power, there is compassion. Something to fear and love simultaneously. In comparison, Yahweh. Two syllables, softer letters. To me, it sounds more encompassing; as if this word includes creation and personal relationship. To me, Yahweh sounds more likely to intervene in the middle of things, while God will arrive at the end to fix everything.

Second, Jesus Christ. Most English speakers don’t name their children Jesus, while it’s a common name to Spanish speakers. This is going to make a difference. To English ears, the name of Jesus is just a sacred as God; to Spanish, it’s a human name. Though I believe Jesus was both man and God, I think this distance or familiarity with his name impacts which part of Him is easiest to relate to. Also, I’ve always been fonder of referring to him as Christ. It sounds holier to me, perhaps because of all the religious words taken from it: Christian, Christianity, crismons, Christmas. Plus Jesus sounds so…vernacular. In Latin the J is pronounced like a Y; in Spanish it’s pronounced like an H. Christ feels more universal, aloof, which is good in some cases, while Jesus feels more human and personal, which is good in others.

Third, Holy Spirit. Or Holy Ghost, which doesn’t make much difference in Latin, but makes a lot of difference in English. Ghost implies the spirit of a departed. So the Holy Ghost is the remainder of Christ on earth? Or if it’s Spirit, it can exist on its own and instead of giving me the image of a transparent Jesus, gives me no image at all, just a force we feel and moves in, through, around us. For years, the Ghost thing had me thinking the Holy Ghost was just part of Jesus instead of its own, separate, equal part of the Trinity. So Holy Spirit is much better in my opinion. And Sactus Spiritus is even better. Why? First because it has that nice alliteration. And second, it’s Latin, but is easy to understand in English: sacred spirit. Doesn’t holy mean sacred? English has lots of words that mean close to the same thing. Like Christ though, Sacred has other words attached to it: sacrosanct, sanctuary, sacrament, Again, it’s just my preference to use the phrase that has more universal recognition.

Spinning off from holy/sacred, it’s part of the uniqueness of English that there are multiple words for sacred. When a language has more than one word meaning essentially the same thing, it’s a good guess that that meaning is important to the culture. Holy, sacred, hallowed, divine, reverend. English places emphasis on the fact that there is a category that exists beyond the everyday. It prompts belief in the supernatural or theism without actually promoting anything.

I’d love to compare notes with someone who is a non-native English speaker, to see what words and phrases have significant meaning in another language, and how they shape the speakers understanding of the world and God.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


I am in the process of beginning a new job, planning a trip around a friend's wedding and dealing with some personal adjustments. So the World Religion Tour is going to be delayed until July 8.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Happy Birthday, Church!

As you might be able to tell in recent posts, I don’t have a good grasp on Eastern faiths. I like learning about them and seeing the similarities and differences to my own, but I don’t feel any connection. The cultural context is too foreign to me. Religion is a big part of a culture, or vice versa. I’ve always had a strong interest in history and genealogy; though my family has been in North America for many generations, I still feel some sort of connection to my German, French Huguenot, and Anglo-Scotch-Irish roots. I think this has sometimes hampered my connection to the Bible. The Old Testament feels like someone else’s story. I’m just a Gentile who isn’t mentioned until Acts. Yet Christianity, a Euro-Gentile form of Christianity, is familiar to me; it’s part of my history, and it’s part of me now.

What if it wasn’t my history? Would I still feel so drawn to Christianity? For a long time, I had the inkling that if I had been born in an Arab country to a Muslim family, I would be a good, devout Muslim. (These days, I’m not so sure, though I still believe that it would be quite possible.) I am very much a product of my culture and my time. I imagine some people feel the opposite: out of place in the culture they were born into. Maybe they are the ones that make the best converts.

I have never understood how missionaries can successfully go into a foreign land and spread a religion. Or rather, I don’t understand how people can adopt a religion so foreign to their culture and upbringing. What assures them that this new information is the truth, not some scam? I’m a skeptic; if someone I didn’t know showed up and told me they had a book that offered the Truth, including some story about a man in a desert thousands of years ago, I wouldn’t be inclined to listen. And if this someone also offered much needed medical care and education, I would probably listen, but not really believe. I would feel threatened that my culture was being brushed aside.

But others have felt differently. Christianity has spread all over the world. While I’m glad for this, I can’t say that I understand it. Today is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. It commemorates the day when the Holy Spirit gave the apostles gifts of the spirit, including speaking in tongues, in order to convert the many visitors in Jerusalem. It marks the beginning of the new covenant. It’s foreign to me to understand mass, instantaneous conversions. My experience is that it is individual, gradual, and continuous. My only conclusion is that the Spirit works in different ways. To me, subtly. To others, flames and tongues. My point of view is limited. I don’t know if I can ever understand how the Spirit moves people to convert in spite of cultural differences. I know I’m glad that it happens, and I hope that even my in my limited understanding, I can be a vessel or an example.

Though it usually focuses on the tongues and the conversions, Pentecost is also about learning. What does it means to be a Christian now that Christ is physically not here? How do we make sense of it all? That’s what my writing is primarily trying to do: make sense of the wondrous, powerful existence of God that seems able to transcend our conditioning and histories and speak to us. He is both foreign and familiar.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Religion Friday: Shintoism

Shintoism is the native religion of Japan. It dates as far back as the culture. Central to Shinto beliefs are the kami, mystical forces that revel themselves in nature (mountains, trees, springs, etc). The kami can answer prayers and guide people in the right way to live. Unlike many other religions, Shinto has a positive view of human nature; the kami get along together and try to guide humans, who are not perfect but not sinful, more like children who just don’t know better.

Shino families keep an altar in the home for offerings and prayers. There is not a specific day of worship; many go to the temples once or twice a month plus special ceremonies. Followers wash themselves before entering a temple in a purification (harae) ritual. A baby is taken to the temple to be anointed and so the parents can pray for the baby’s health. Children visit shrines/temples at ages 3, 5, and 7 to pray for special protection.

A torii stands at the entrance of a temple as a gateway between the sacred space and the non-sacred. It is usually orange and sometimes includes a shimenawa. A shimenawa is a rope of twisted rice or wheat and paper lightning bolts. Shimenawa are believed to mark a sacred space and ward off evil spirits. While indigenous nature worship seems primitive, I can admire it. To see something sacred in so many parts of nature is something many of us have lost in our industrialized world. At the root of all religions, I think, is that we sense something sacred among and want to tap into it, and want to ask for guidance from a knowledge beyond our simple understanding.

There are up to four million followers of Shintoism, but not many Japanese practice it exclusively. Most now follow a combination of Buddhism and Shintoism. As one woman explained to me: “We are Shinto for happy occasions, Buddhist for sad.” A child’s birth or a wedding is often honored in the Shinto style, while funerals or personal difficulties are observed in Buddhist style. Even the torii that mark Shinto temples may have been imported with Buddhism. I found this combo-style religion interesting, as most people follow an all-or-nothing faith. But the Japanese seem to see no conflict using both al la carte.

[Picture is of torii with a shimenawa at the 5th station of Mt. Fuji, Japan taken in 2008. Mt. Fuji is considered sacred in Shinto beliefs.]

Next Friday: Norse religion

Friday, June 3, 2011

Religion Friday: Buddhism

Buddhism is the world’s fourth largest religion, practiced by approximately 370 million people. It splintered from Hinduism and focuses on the teachings of the “Buddha” or the Enlightened One. It was founded by an Indian prince named Siddhartha around 520 B.C. Siddhartha left his life of privilege to seek an end to the suffering in the world. He sat beneath a tree and vowed not to move until he reached enlightenment. After a few days, he arose enlightened (the Buddha).

Buddhists believe each individual must seek his/her own enlightenment. Enlightenment releases the person from the cycle of suffering and reincarnation (similar to Hinduism). Some people view Buddhism more as a philosophy than a religion because it does not focus on any particular deity. Rather, reflection and meditation are key to the Buddhist faith. Buddhists believe in the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path.

Four Noble Truths:
1. All of life is marked by suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by desire and attachment.
3. Suffering can be eliminated.
4. Suffering is eliminated by following the Eight-fold Path.

Noble Eight-fold Path:
1. Right beliefs
2. Right aspirations
3. Right speech
4. Right conduct
5. Right livelihood
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right meditational attainment

Meditation is a key ritual of Buddhism, as adherents work to eliminate desires. Buddhism (or parts of it) has gained many followers in the Western world. I think this is because of its belief that the individual creates his/her own enlightenment (instead of relying on a deity). To me, the self-help approach to religion doesn’t sit right—but I can see the attraction. People like the calm meditation and peaceful attitude toward nature and the body. Mindfulness and meditation is important to faiths across the board. But I think many people in the West that are attracted to this Eastern tradition just pick and choose the parts they like while avoiding the actual work Buddhism takes. There’s something “hip” about Buddhism in the West that makes enlightenment look like the plastic trophy at the end of a self-help seminar. Its coolness diminishes it in my eyes. This is nothing against sincere followers of the faith; I just think there are many that claim it because it sounds deep and cool to do so at the moment. The Eight-fold Path, if done correctly, is no easy feat. I don’t believe suffering can ever be eliminated, though the goal to try to eliminate it is noble enough.

I guess some people like the lack of structure that comes with Buddhism. It is a very individual faith as I understand it. I think any faith has a level of individualism of course. To be faithful is an individual choice. But a community of rituals and structure is important to me too. And the Noble Truths and meditation are very good for the here and now, but I also think of out there, before and after.

There is some hierarchy in the Buddhist faith. Its most famous leader is the Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan Gelug branch of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of a great teacher of enlightenment going as far back as the 15th century. The current Dalai Lama has been living in exile due to the tensions between Tibet and China.

[This prayer wheel is in a Tibet exhibit, part of a larger cultural exhibit I saw in Kunming, China in 2008. Prayer wheels are hollow metal cylinders with mantras or prayers written on them. It is believed that spinning the wheel is the same as verbally reciting the prayer.]

Next Friday: Shintoism