Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

29 December 2009

'Twas four days after Christmas . . . .

. . . and I'm finally making my first Advent post.

I just haven't felt it, this year. Funny, because Advent has always been such a God-rich time of the year for me. But here it is, on the eve of the new year—the Christmas music and present buying and tree decorating and yearly six o'clock tumble of my almost grown girls into the parental bed on Christmas morning all behind me—and God has yet to arrive for me this holy season as a wet, slippery, screaming reality. I haven't felt Hope moving within me. Nor my usual yearnings or even the near despair I typically suffer in the days before Christmas. Just empty contentment.

Despite the unusual blessings this Christmas has brought with it:
  • no PTSD symptoms whatsoever and very little anxiety about buying presents, spending money, getting it all done.
  • getting to have Lulu home from her boarding school with not a bit of homework and all As after her first semester taking all difficult classes.
  • my girls' satisfaction with their gifts, each other, and the season in general.
  • getting to see my first pileated woodpecker. (If you’ve never seen one, you need to. He was amazing: gigantic, with a luminous red pointed head and white-and-black art deco looking body, just like Woody Woodpecker but more handsome. He flew incredibly fast and laughed loudly whenever he did. Such a cut up!)
  • super presents: a gorgeous, raggedy-looking scarf from Charlotte that makes me look like the beggar girl Anastasia in that old animated movie; three bird books from Lulu, one of which is a birding journal; silver earrings from Kris that look like a stellar body being orbited; and a whole slew of pricey youth elixirs from Mamaw.
  • the promise of a visit from beloved former students in a few days.
  • a gift from a hunter friend of four pheasants, which I will make into pheasant fricassee (I've posted the recipe) for the visiting students.
  • a successful running year of 21 miles per week, plus 14 banked miles, here at year's end.
  • my newest book—A Field Guide to God—all done, the publishing process trustworthily and congenially overseen by my new editor, who's a gem and who overnighted me a copy the second it came off the press, two days before Christmas.
  • two more books on the horizon. (My new publisher is going to bring out the book of Christmas essays that I took back from my previous publisher plus a book I recently started called, tentatively, Easy Burdens, about how God never intended the life of faith to be the burdensome task or unpleasant sacrifice many of us make it.)
  • getting to hear the chapter on home from The Wind in the Willows read aloud by Jennifer Mendenhall on NPR. (Here's the link to go to if you want to hear it, too. Be advised, it will make you moan-cry.)
  • SNOW! (On Christmas day, no less, which, according to Kris, is only the second time it's ever happened here in recorded history.)
Oh, there was much more, but I don't want to make those of you who received less unduly envious, so I'll stop listing.

Why, then, does God feel so, well, uninvolved in any of it? (Except for the woodpecker. I definitely sensed God's presence as I watched that bird clutch the tree and hammer away.)

I've been speculating that it's maybe because I've been out of tradition, in the months leading up to the Coming. One member of our small family is prematurely absent from home, and another has been crazily filling out college applications in preparation to leave, too. I haven't had my usual Advent angst, which I listed as a blessing—and it is one!—but which is also an important prayer (i.e., writing) catalyst. Also, because of Lulu's absence, we've spent a lot of weekends gone from home—especially Kris, who helps Lulu with her masses of math and science homework. Away from home means, for us, not attending church services, which, I'm discovering, play an crucial role in keeping me aware of God. (Who would have thought?!)

Whatever the reason (accidental quote, here, of Dr. Suess's summation of the Grinch's very similar sentiments), I just never felt Jesus' birth this year. Not the excitement. Not the pain. Not the realization that my lifetime of longing was answered.

There's still time, though. Because of a family tussle over what to eat on Christmas Eve this year—the traditional turkey, you see, also fell away, somehow—and our upcoming post-Christmas visit from old friends, we have decided to extend Christmas for the full 12 days of the traditonal Christmastide, ending on the eve of January 6th, the traditional Feast of the Epiphany.

That makes today, in Orthodox tradion, the Feast of those poor little boy-children Herod ordered killed to prevent there being any other King of the Jews than himself. Such a self-serving and absurd order—reminiscent, to me, of Mao's calamitous attempt during the Great Leap Forward to kill off all the sparrows in China to save the crops, which ended up backfiring, since there were no birds to eat the locusts that subsequently descended on the fields. Anyway, according to Matthew's account of the good news, Herod's order fulfilled Jeremiah's prophechy that “A voice was heard on high, weeping and much wailing, Rachel beweeping her sons, and she would not be comforted, for they be nought” (Matthew 2:18, quoting Jeremiah 31:15, in Wycliffe's translation)

I'll leave you with that sad thought. Babies killed in response to the coming of the God-baby.

And this little tribute to the brown winter sparrows that flock the feeding stations in my yard:
  • There are the White-Throated Sparrows (Zonorichia albicollis), which first got me interested in birds when they started singing their sweet but sad little song that mimicked the melody of the words "are coming" of Green Day's commemorative song "The Saints Are Coming," which was on the radio everywhere I went right after Hurricane Katrina. It was such a beautiful little bird song. I had to find the bird that sang it, but it took me a while. It's a shyish bird, with yellow spots behind its eyes and a white tuft under its chin.
  • Then there's the White-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), with its black-and-white striped cap. (The females' caps are tan and brick-red.)
  • We get the occasional House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), which is actually a European transplant, fifty pairs having been intentionally released in Central Park in 1859 for reasons I have not been able to discover. Evidently, bird releases were common in the 19th century. Passer domesticus (yes, its scientific name is exactly the same as its common name, which is so nice) has bright white cheeks, a ruddy cap and shoulders, and a black mask.
  • And then, there's my favorite, Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula), named after Edward Harris. Its scientific name describes the black on its face, which radiates like soot from around its pink bill into irregular speckles onto its white breast and tan head. It looks as though something blew up in its face, and it behaves that way, too. It runs shrieking at the other sparrows at the feeders and even at some bigger birds, like cardinals and jays. A funny little hysteric.

10 March 2009

Thoughts on the Current Lapsing Trend

There seems to be a sudden rash of interest in faith loss of late. Recently, I was invited to talk informally with students about doubt, and many more showed up than had been anticipated. Then I started getting emails from various people on the topic of doubt and faith loss, including a some marked with red "High Importance" exclamation points from a student writing a paper on the subject. And then, in scanning the news recently, I found that the same interest not just among the mostly ardent believers surrounding me but out there in the world. Here are a few headlines from yesterday: Americans Becoming Less Religious, Study Shows (LA Times). Most Religious Groups in USA Have Lost Ground (USA Today). Study: Fewer Catholics in New England (MSNBC).

Having just finished the manuscript of a book on faith loss and strategies for sensing God's invisible presence , I'm excited, of course. Maybe more people may buy my book! (A Field Guide to God, due out in early 2010.) [The book's subtitle—always a difficult part of the publishing process for me—is still under consideration, for which, pray that I'm not talked into anything dorky or cutsey or otherwise offensive or embarrassing. In fact, pray that they let me call the book just A Field Guide to God, which in my view is plenty pfiffy to sell it.]

But there's a deeper level on which the problem, if it can be called one, interests and excites me. All these people leaving the church are, after all, going somewhere else to look for God—potentially somewhere better, if church wasn't where the excitement of God's presence was for them. They're moving. Not just leaving, which sounds so much like an end, but going somewhere. I'm guessing they're not just going home to watch TV and eat potato chips and forget about God altogether. Historically, the death of religion always brings faith growth. This leaving or lapsing or loss is, has got to be, the opposite of complacency and stagnation—both of which worry me more than whether or not people are attending one or the other church.

Not that church is bad. Or necessarily a place where faith stagnates or becomes complacent. Often quite the opposite.

But the biggest danger to true believers, in my opinion, is not that their faith will disappear but that God will. In their perception, at least. They'll start taking God's presence—and all evidence of it in their experience, in nature, in their interaction with others, and in the miracles that fill our days—for granted. Or, as my students write in their papers, for granite. For an edifice, or a set of rock hard traditions, and stop caring much about the divine parent behind it all. Invisible and inaudible and intangible, but, as Paul reassures the Athenians in Acts, "not far from any one of us" (17:27 TNIV). As believers, we can have faith, but lose a sense of God's presence. And that, I think, is a worse place to be than simply questioning or rejecting the practices of this or that group of believers to which they had previously belonged.

I lost my faith entirely, as I saw it, for over a decade of my life, and that was a hard thing. But, as a result of that loss, I think, I later came to believe in a bigger and more relevant way. More questioning and doubt laden. Less accepting of pat answers. More appreciative of God's involvement in my life. More aware of the listener on the other end of my worries and longing, the invisible arm across my shoulder, the silent shuffle of another's feet as I walk in my garden.

Doubt, as I see it, is good, perhaps the best thing that can happen to a believer. If you doubt, you are searching, trying to find God. And God hovers nearby, having designed all of history, every boundary between us, every division, as a way of causing us to notice and come. Or so Paul sums up all of history for the people of Athens, whom he describes as "extremely religious. . . in every way." He told them that "From one ancestor" God "made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:26-27 NRSV).

So that we would search. And perhaps grope and find. I love this verse.

Grope. God wants us to grope, expects us to have to grope—and planned it that way, in fact.

Anyway, that's where I am with this business of doubt and lapsing, in case you want to know.

[There, now, I've spent the entire morning blogging after a year long hiatus while I worked on my book. For me, it's all but impossible to do both well. That's another problem with blogs—in addition to bloggers' tendency to misjudge tone and audience and end up sounding like asses—that I neglected mention in class when we were talking about blogging the other day: You either blog or you write.]