Rebuilding Forgotten Mountains

If there’s one passage of Scripture I could avoid for the rest of my life, it would probably be Matthew 5-7 – the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters were the shape of my early life, and my existence now very often includes undoing damage that was done in the name of “education” or “character” in those days. “And seeing the multitudes…” used to launch a rapid-pace recital of the Beatitudes and all that follows, complete with memory-aiding hand motions. I knew every word, because every word had been carefully dismantled for me, torn asunder from context, and presented as the answer to any problem I would ever encounter in life. Over a dozen years of hyper-in-depth study of one passage proved to be a sure-fire way to kill truth. Because I was taught the passage meant everything, it came to mean nothing.

So when my pastor announced last month that he was taking a hiatus from a multi-year exposition on the book of Isaiah for a “brief” series on the Sermon on the Mount, I was not enthused. Although I have put some distance between myself and the years of Scripture-by-rote, there are still a few nerves that are easily exposed – and Matthew 5-7 was one of those nerves. Spending ten weeks in my least-favorite passage of Scripture seemed like a perfect setup for yet another spiritual crash.

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While I knew in theory that my experience of the Sermon on the Mount was not mainstream, I still feared revisiting the passage that had formed the roots of my old life. I am not alone on this particular journey; the community of Recovering Grace has proven that to me. Yet even though I could give mental assent to the idea of “Post-It Notes on a Work of Art,” I did not think I was capable of finding healing in wounds that went so deep.

How easy it is to forget God’s grace.

From that first sermon six weeks ago, I have been captivated anew by truth – and how truth brings freedom. There are many things in my life that have met a dividing line at my church; I shouldn’t be surprised that the Sermon on the Mount is now on that list. Yet I am surprised, again and again and again, that things I took for granted – under which I groaned in anguish – these things were not truth! How amazing it is to me, week in and week out, that Christ does not bring drudgery nor despair, but rather joy and peace! The law that bound and gagged me had already been fulfilled!

It will take time – time and love and patience – to find the truth and let it settle in my life, ousting doubt and fear. But I am unspeakably grateful to be in a place where I am encouraged to seek answers outside the four walls of a particular building, outside the mental walls of a particular idea, even outside the bounds of specific teachers. I am encouraged to question, to read on my own, to discuss and form my own opinions of what is presented to me. I need not agree simply to keep the peace. There is truth to be had for the asking!

Thinking and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Learning to think was not a process that came naturally or quickly for me.  In fact, thinking for oneself was tacitly discouraged throughout my growing up – mostly because thinking would inevitably lead to disagreement, but also (and this was never said in so many words) because I was a girl.  Oddly enough, whenever I exhibited a tendency to reason logically, my dad would reprimand me and point out that “logic doesn’t work on people.”

So I spent the first 21 years of my life blindly trusting those “God put in authority” over me.  I trusted them to think for me, protect me, and direct my every decision.  Though my parents were passive about the authority they exerted over my life, I was determined to live by the rules – to earn God’s blessing, naturally – and thus wholeheartedly “gave up my right” to think for myself.  I was raised in a culture where this was the “godly” thing to do.

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I still remember the day when the first real fissure appeared in my mind.  It was, fittingly, a bright, hot summer day, and I was sitting in the membership class of the church my family had been attending for just a few short months.  I had my green membership notebook and my Bible open on my lap, and I remember soaking up the discussion of Reformed Theology as if I’d been handed the moon.  In an unconscious effort to protect us from overtaxing our minds, my parents never discussed theology, philosophy, literature, psychology, or major portions of world history, so I had never been exposed to the idea that theology is actually the study of God – and how belief in and about God affects everyday life.  It was the first time I had encountered theology outside of a male argument (I had overheard enough to know that theology was a reason to fight about God), and I was enthralled.  Theology was for me, too?  And it wasn’t about fighting?!

Oh, and my pastor said that grace was a free gift – unmerited favor, he called it.

I had never heard of such a thing.

Until that day, all my information and instruction about faith had come from essentially one source.  And I had believed all of it.  And – until that day – I had never questioned it.

One shaft of light, and suddenly my entire existence shifted.  Once darkness had been banished and sight had come, it was impossible for me to envision a world where one person had all the answers.  My beginning may have been slow and it may have been “late” by contemporary standards (I was 21 and had finished my junior year of college – and college, incidentally, had nothing to do with learning how to think, though both in and out of the classroom I encountered plenty of “new” ideas), but I took the concept of using my own brain quite seriously once I had begun.

“When you listen and read one thinker, you become a clone… two thinkers, you become confused… ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice… two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your voice.”   ~ Tim Keller

I’m developing my voice, and I do not intend to stop.

 

The Birth of Adventure

Over the past few years, I have explored many new worlds through fiction, poetry, and my own special brand of doubt.  My personal library has more than tripled in size, and I copy long, important passages from beloved books into my journals to capture the beauty of perfectly-turned phrases.  But I must place credit where credit is due: this personal revolution was launched by movies.

It was October 2011, and I was in Colorado with others who were, like me, planning to spend a significant amount of time overseas as missionaries.  My five weeks did not get off to a stellar start: my plane sat on the tarmac in my home city for over two hours before finally taxiing to the runway, and I subsequently missed my connecting flight AND all the introductions as the training got underway.  When I entered the classroom the next morning, everybody else already knew each other – and that only served to feed my already-heightened introvert sense of intimidation.  The first two weeks passed in a blur – mostly of watching my mouth in a mirror as I attempted to form sounds completely foreign to one born and raised with American English.  Not everyone who attended the first two weeks would be staying on for the last three, so after goodbyes, the 15 of us remaining found ourselves looking at each other with a whole weekend of uninterrupted “bonding” ahead of us.

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After lunch, a walk to the lake, and a trip to Walmart, we decided on a group activity: a movie marathon.  But not just any movie marathon.  We had three nights before the newbies arrived for the next phase of our training, so a series of three made sense.  And so it was that The Lord of the Rings entered my life.

I always remembered my dad saying he’d had nightmares after reading The Lord of the Rings, and that was all the explanation given for why J. R. R. Tolkien was not even permitted in the house.  Since the rest of my companions had already seen the movies – multiple times – they kindly agreed to tell me when it would be wise to cover my eyes.  Looking back, I see just how much love and grace went into that movie marathon.  I see how I must have looked to my friends: I was frightened of my own shadow, finding demons where none existed, and fearful that I might forfeit my soul to the occult by watching the wrong movie.

How little I knew of grace.

But in a show of amazing love, not only did we watch all three movies together, but my dear friends managed to watch without giving away what was going to happen!  They let me experience The Lord of the Rings with brand-new eyes.  They laughed with me, cried with me, and rejoiced with me as I experienced a true eucatastrophe.

I found hope.  I found grace.  I met the Real Jesus in The Lord of the Rings.

It would be another six months before I managed to read the complete Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but since then I have not stopped reading Tolkien’s work, each time finding anew the promises of life beyond hope, victory against all odds, and the joy of good triumphing over evil.  I became a fan overnight, and the deeper I delve into Middle-earth, the more Truth I find to sustain me through dark nights and grey days.  The power of story literally changed my life.

 

On Becoming a Rebel [I]

I have always loved to read.  My Mom taught me to read when I was five years old – by opening a large-print King James Bible to Matthew 5 and showing me how to add sounds together.  Something clicked, and I’ve been spinning words around ever since. As I’ve mentioned before, my reading choices were somewhat limited growing up.  My parents wanted to raise a “wholesome” family, and anything that could possibly undermine “wholesomeness” (for example, magic, romance, violence, Faërie, or anything that went against the Christian Tradition) was off-limits.  This is how I found the world outside.

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During my teen years I moved from surreptitiously borrowing church library books to reading real library books on the sly.  Since I started volunteering at our public library when I was 11, I had read all the “easy” non-fiction (juvenile and adult alike) that piqued my interest even the slightest by the time I was 16.  I think half of what I read in James Herriot’s books went straight over my head, but they were non-fiction stories from a rural English vet that were too medical for my Dad to screen and too thick for my Mom to screen.  And I loved them.

In eighth grade, I became something of a World War II nerd.  I ploughed through tomes by Stephen Ambrose and watched documentaries on the Pacific Theatre’s major battles with my Dad.  My specialty was the Allied Invasion of occupied Normandy, France, or, as it’s more commonly known, D-Day – June 6, 1944.  I could rattle off places and names and landing gear and divisions at the slightest provocation.  My Grandfather was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, and though he never talked about it, I learned as much as I could from his written reminisces on life.

Though I read constantly, I was always hungry for more story, more mystery, more possibilities, more deep beauty than what I found in the “reality” of non-fiction.

The fiction I found in the church library – Ben Hur, The Big Fisherman, The Robe, Christy – was a good start, but usually left me wanting more.  Jane Austen was predictable, though witty and clever.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was brilliantly frightening.  I had repeatedly read the five Chronicles of Narnia (out of seven) that were approved; C. S. Lewis’ non-fiction had not yet commanded my attention.  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was memorable, not least because when I finally closed the book and switched off my flashlight, the pre-dawn darkness revealed an April snowstorm outside my window.

Though fiction was generally restricted, my parents understood that a decent education involved reading some “classics” and so carefully steered me towards conservative, “safe” books.  But then one day I discovered the YA Fiction section in the library.  Before that day, I had not much thought about L. M. Montgomery’s work aside from the six Anne books I owned.  Before that day, every book I’d ever read had gone on my reading list as proof that education was indeed taking place.  My parents had approved – explicitly or implicitly – all my reading choices up to that point.

I did not intend to become a rebel that day.

[…to be continued…]

Living a Sonnet

I’ll never forget my first encounter with the sonnet.  While adequate, my schooling was not typical, and as I have settled into adulthood I have decided to fill in some of the blanks on my own.  Poetry as a whole was rather overlooked, unless one was reading the Psalms or Old Testament Prophets.  I didn’t know what a sonnet was until I was 28, and it took me another year to learn the distinction between English, Italian, and Spenserian sonnets.

That first glimpse of 14 lines of iambic pentameter was entirely by accident.

I was catching up in another arena of literature altogether: children’s fiction.  Throughout my childhood, reading fiction was discouraged.  Though I read Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, and Marguerite Henry by the time I was 10 without much fuss, beyond that my reading tastes were directed more towards the “reality” of history, biographies, and non-fiction.  Fortunately, the realization that I was in control of my own reading diet came when I was surrounded by serious bibliophile friends.  Their suggested reading lists in the form of off-hand recommendations and group excursions to used book stores have opened my eyes to delights heretofore unknown.

So it was that I found myself reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Newberry Award-Winning classic, “A Wrinkle in Time.”

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A single afternoon was all the time I needed to devour the grace I found in that book.  My journal entry from that day says “my eyes weren’t dry at all” as I drank deeply of the beauty I found.  Fear had kept me away from L’Engle for a long time, but as I read I encountered only grace and beauty.

“We want nothing from you that you do without grace, or that you do without understanding,” Mrs Whatsit says to Meg, the young heroine of this sci-fi/fantasy series for children.  It was theology and physics mixed up in a way that made sense to me, though I had never studied either.  And then a glimpse of something I could have never guessed: perfect freedom within strict form, free will within predestination, art illustrating life.  The Sonnet.  “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.  What you write is completely up to you,” Mrs Whatsit says.  She’s talking about living life well without knowing how things turn out.  Somehow, the words got through to my heart.

And so I began to live my sonnet.

I don’t know what it says yet.  I’m not even sure I know the theme.  But I am listening, and I am writing, and I am learning to rest and wait and pause until the right words come.

Renewal Prayer

My faith has been wobbly for more than a year now.  It is a strange, painful, gladsome realization when things once believed immovable become giant question marks instead.  At times it feels like the floor has opened up into a yawning abyss, and at times it seems the sky has been punctured, letting in a glimpse of a deeper reality beyond what is visible.

I was quiet at first about my own wobbliness.  I have continued attending church, continued experiencing the physical grace of Communion, continued sharing life with my brothers and sisters in Christ.  But I could not voice the doubts that alternately whispered and shouted in my day-to-day life.  I have listened to great thinkers, read great authors, and sat perplexed in the midst of prayers and sermons and Bible studies that no longer made sense to me.  What was the point?

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Scripture used to feed me.  Then I began to see how much it had been twisted to control me, and suddenly I couldn’t open my Bible without my heart racing and my hands shaking.  Now when I am alone, the most I can manage is a verse or two in Latin; I chose the Vulgate as an antidote to mis-comprehension in English.  I am grateful for a pastor who encourages doubts and questioning, because I now have space to meet the Real Jesus.  And what I found in the Real Jesus is grace, love, and mercy.

On Sunday mornings, I still find myself with hundreds of others, gathered in seeking, worshipping, learning, questioning, doubting, finding.  The pews are as familiar to me as the opening Doxology, and the lilting Scottish accent of my pastor is comforting whether or not I can digest what he says.  My heart usually settles into patient, uncertain hope by the time we recite the collect as a congregation.

O God our Father and King, forgive us for thinking less of you than we ought; for we think your truth too high, your will too hard, and your power too remote; but they are not!  We pray that you would resolve our confused minds with your Word, redirect our divided wills with your law, restore our troubled consciences with your forgiveness, and revive our anxious hearts with your presence, for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave Himself for us.  Amen.

And so, despite my wobbliness, I still hope.  Despite my doubt, I still believe.  Despite my questions, I rest in mystery.  What is that but grace?