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Posts Tagged ‘Spirituality’

Sometime in mid-2012, I turned to Jesus.

There wasn’t a day when I had a big spiritual experience, or made a conscious decision. So maybe some people will say I’m not really converted or not really born again. Maybe they’re right; I get nervous about it sometimes. But I do know that on January 1 of 2012 I still identified as a pagan, but on December 31 of 2012, I was a committed little-o orthodox Christian.

I hadn’t been much of a pagan in awhile, to tell you the truth. I was not particularly pious by then. I had pretty much totally stopped making offerings or praying or singing hymns to the gods at all. My paganism had sputtered out into just thinking pagany thoughts every now and then and reading pagan blogs. I was more into the Civil War, Southern literature and country music than I was into the theoi. And I tried to hold it all together into some sort of broad paganism that could include all of that stuff, but it didn’t ever really seem to fit right (Stonewall Jackson was a Presbyterian who talked about Providence all the time, Flannery O’Connor was deeply Catholic and it intensely informed all of her work, and Jesus is all over country music), and it was increasingly evident that the paganism was slipping away.

I also started getting more interested in pagany things that leaned a bit back Christianward. Tarot. Arthurian stuff. In fact, that was one of the first tipping points, really. I read Keith Baines’s rendition of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in the spring of 2012, grail quest and all, and it moved things in my heart. I was back to thinking about Druidry and Vedanta a bit (again, trying to hold it all together). I read Gareth Knight and underlined all the references to Jesus and the Trinity (there are a lot). I started looking into the Gnostic gospels. I picked up some books about esoteric Christianity. And within a really short amount of time, I was earnestly reading the Gospel of John and then the rest of the actual Bible.

At the same time, my kids were getting older and getting literate. My oldest (then six) was starting to get interested in the Bible and Bible stories. We always had tried to be multireligious (my paganism, my beautiful and sexy wife’s Christianity), but it was plain that the kids liked Jesus best.

Flashing back for a minute–the day I knew I was going to marry Katyjane was the day I came back from Chattacon with my buddy James and we went straight to a Young Single Adult broadcast at church. I looked around for a place to sit, and I sat down by my friend Daniel. But then, a few rows up, I saw Katyjane, sitting by herself. So I hopped back up and went up to sit next to her. And when I sat down, it felt so insanely right. I was in trouble. I knew I wanted to sit next to her in church for the rest of my life.

So going to church with Katyjane, and now with my kids, was important to me. Even if I was a pagan. But we hadn’t been going to church regularly since we moved to Chicago, and I kind of wanted to start again. Especially since my kids were showing interest (and pWning me with the Bible, which is a story I’ll tell in another post). So my mind was inclined in that direction.

As I said above, I was also listening to a lot of country music (I still am), and that also meant basically relentless exposure to Jesus. I could not help but think about Jesus Christ because the music I listened to mentioned him over and over again and it moved me. It was troubling, uncomfortable, and kind of exciting.

But again, there was no moment of clarity. No road to Damascus (unless the whole year was my road to Damascus). I mentally made peace with some sort of Green, liberal, vaguely Hinduish pagany kind of Christianity, but that was clearly just a threshold to walk through, since I spent basically zero time grappling with that. Instead I was just on a straight trajectory to orthodoxy. I picked C.S. Lewis back up and read Miracles, and was blown away by how much I had just glossed over things like the Incarnation when I was first grappling with Christianity as a post-Mormon.

That’s important: I left Mormonism mostly because I had an increasing sense that Mormonism and Biblical Christianity were not the same thing. But I really struggled with Christianity in the years after that because my notion of what Christianity is was really limited to the teachings of Jesus and the Atonement. I think I had an acceptable handle on those, but I understood them in such a radically different context that I just could not make the direct transition, and I didn’t realize the pieces I was missing. even when I read about them I just kind of glossed over them as secondary. No wonder I struggled.

But this time, coming to Christianity with fresh eyes after a couple of years of pagan detoxification, it was all just totally new, and totally amazing. I just found myself hungering for the Bible and for Jesus and the more I consumed, the hungrier I got. I still feel that way. Reading the Bible just makes me want to read the Bible more.

So Jesus just sort of gradually sucked me in.

By the end of the year, we had moved to Baltimore (that was unrelated, but not irrelavent), I was reading the Bible and praying every day for the first time in years, I was devouring N.T. Wright’s New Testament for Everyone, and I believed in Jesus Christ, my prophet, priest and king and my only savior. And then I spent 2013 continuing to grow. We were baptized. We joined a church. I kept reading the Bible. I prayed more. I put my trust in Jesus. I even read Augustine!

I have to eat a lot of crow to write this, and of of the reasons I have held off on spelling it all out is fear of being called out for wishy-washiness. “Oh, Kullervo’s found a different religion again. Must be a day that ends in -y.” I don’t have an answer for that either, other than to swear that this time it’s different. But of course I can say that all day. I can say that through all my pagan years, I always had a sneaking suspicion that I would eventually come back to Christianity, that like C.S. Lewis I had to learn to be a good pagan before I could learn to be a Christian, but I realize that’s easy to say and hard to believe. Maybe it doesn’t matter because it’s ultimately between me and Jesus anyway.

But I wanted to finally write it all out, mostly so that I can refer back to it in some other posts I want to write and not have to give a lot of background every time.

So there you have it. There’s a lot of different ways to look at that I guess. Country music and the Bible turned me to Jesus. A good Christian woman turned my heart to God. The Holy Grail and the blood of the Lamb called me straight from heaven itself. I finally dropped the pretense of exploring spirituality unbounded and settled down like I was always going to do anyway. However you want to look at it, that’s how it happened.

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Hat tip to Gundek.

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Christians increasingly live on a spiritual island; new and rival ways of life surround it in all directions and their tides come further up the beach every time. None of these new ways is yet so filthy or cruel as some Semitic Paganism. But many of them ignore all individual rights and are already cruel enough. Some give morality a wholly new meaning which we cannot accept, some deny its possibility. Perhaps we shall all learn, sharply enough, to value the clean air and ‘sweet reasonableness’ of the Christian ethics which in a more Christian age we might have taken for granted.

C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

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An old favorite of mine. Be patient with it and it will reward you. Also, turn it up.

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And I said, “Is truth, therefore nothing, because it is not diffused through space–neither finite nor infinite?”

And you cried to me from afar, “I am that I am.”

-Augustine, Confessions 7.10.16

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“I’m sorry. But please-”

“Speak on, dear heart.”

“Shall I ever be able to read that story again; the one I couldn’t remember? Will you tell it to me, Aslan? Oh do,do,do.”

“Indeed, yes, I will tell it to you for years and years.”

-C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

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I go to Church to experience the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the eucharist.

For Mormons, the sacrament is a covenantal rite: you take the bread and water as symbols, in rememberance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and in order to renew your baptismal covenant. It’s a sacred ordinance, but it is purely symbolic. Plenty of Mormon literature discusses the Roman Catholic doctrine of transsubstantiation and why it is a false and apostate doctrine, but that’s it, really. As a result, for most of my life I didn’t have the slightest inkling that there was such a massive excluded middle between those two polar ends of the eucharistic doctrinal spectrum.

But now, years after leaving Mormonism, I have discovered the middle, and it is absolutely amazing. I don’t buy that the bread and wine literally transform in my stomach into Jesus’s flesh and blood. But when I take the eucharist, I know that God’s presence is literally there in a unique, incarnational and mysterious way. And it blows my mind and makes me actively and impatiently look forward to it all week. I hunger and thirst for it.

I’m no theologian, so I couldn’t tell you the ins and outs of the doctrine, but what I can tell you is that when I understood that God was literally and uniquely present in that bread and wine, all the awkward and troublesome pieces of Christianity fell together for me. I knew it was what I was missing.

Like most liturgical Christian churches, the service at the church we attend is completely centered on communion. The eucharist is the climax of the liturgy. Everything else points to it or builds up to it. If you, like me, have spent your life in a sermon-focused (or talk-focused, whatever) worship tradition, you have no idea what a eucharist-centered liturgy is like. The sermon is nice, but I don’t go to church to for the sermon. I go to church to take communion. If the sermon winds up being a flop, that’s sad, but it’s really not that big of a deal. The sermon is only a small part of the worship. The real message is the bread and wine, and the unique presence of God in it. When we eat it and drink it, we eat and drink grace itself. It is a physical, tangible thing, and it is completely and utterly infused with Spirit. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t bother.

The other day I was chatting with Katie L, and I told her that I felt so strongly about the doctrine of real presence that I didn’t think I would even be willing to take communion at a church that taught that it was only a symbol. I surprised myself not only by saying that, but by really meaning it. It was like revelation.

My last serious attempt at Christianity as a post-Mormon, in 2008, was a frustrating and sadly dissatisfying experience. To put it simply, I was in it for new life, for transformation, for the experience of God, and it kept not happening. I got a lot out of the theology and the worship service, but on a personal spiritual level, I was waiting for something like a click in my head, something to happen that made me feel changed. I was waiting for Grace to so something, something I could feel. I felt like I should know when I was forgiven or when I was accepted as Jesus Christ’s, like I should feel something that would mark the transition from the old life to the new life.

But it kept not happening, and I didn’t know what was wrong. I wanted to become a Christian, but I didn’t know what to do to become a Christian. Or how to know when I had become one.

I know that there are a lot of Christians out there, especially Evangelical Protestants, who would say that all I had to do to be a Christian was to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Well, I tried that, but it didn’t feel any different. I prayed sincerely and told Jesus that I accepted him, that I wanted to follow Him, that I was His, and it just didn’t click. Nothing happened. I didn’t feel any different after praying than I did before, and I didn’t understand why.

So eventually I just lost interest. The transformation I wanted to happen wasn’t happening. As appealing as I thought church and Christianity were, Led Zeppelin gave me a heavier buzz than Jesus christ ever did. So I drifted away from Christianity. Explored other options. Looked for spirituality in unconventional places.

Here’s the thing though: while I was going to Church, praying, and grappling with scripture and theology, what I was not doing was anything that was sacramental. I didn’t get baptized. I didn’t take communion. I was waiting for something inward to happen first.

In Mormonism, the religious tradition I was raised in, the conversion process is neatly prescribed: you read the Book of Mormon, you pray to ask God if it’s true, you feel a “burning in the bosom” that tells you it’s true, you become a member of the church by being baptized, you are confirmed a member and you are given the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, and then you take the sacrament (what they call communion) every week as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to renew your baptismal covenants.

The critical variable in the equation was that “burining in the bosom.” The expectation that you will be converted by a personal mystical experience–a click that makes you feel different–and then you respond to that mystical experience by ritually making and renewing covenants.

For better or worse, that is how I have approached religion ever since I left Mormonism, and that is how I approached Christianity in 2008: I read, I prayed, I worshipped, but nothing mystical ever happened. And I held back on making commitments or taking part in sacraments because I felt like that click should come first. That’s how I was raised: the click happens first, and you memorialize it with ritual second. The click is conversion. The click is how you know that things have changed, how you know you have been changed from a non-believer to a believer. And since the click never came, I I felt like it wasn’t taking. So I observed. I prayed along. I sang. I crossed my arms and let the priest bless me. But I never pursued baptism, and I never considered actually taking communion, because to me, sacraments were secondary. Sacraments were for people who already felt the click.

I was totally and completely wrong. The sacraments are the click. I was waiting for something to happen in a vague and inward way that was being offerent to me right up at the front of the church in a literal and physical way. I was praying for Jesus Christ’s presence to enter into me without realizing that Jesus Christ’s table was set liberally with his presence right before my eyes and I was invited to eat and drink my fill, but I kept saying no.

Jesus Christ, the bread and water of life, is offered to me every week, and I am welcome to it.

That’s why I go to church. Well, one of the reasons, I guess.

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I served a full-time, two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from 1998-2000. For two years, I spent every waking moment (when I wasn’t in the bathroom) with a missionary companion. I got up in the morning every day for personal and companion study. I spent all day proselytizing, with short breaks for meals. I didn’t watch TV. I didn’t use the internet. I was only supposed to read Church-approved books and publications. I talked to my family back home on the phone only on Christmas and Mother’s Day. I had (part of) one day a week off from study and proselytizing to spend cleaning my apartment, doing my laundry, going grocery shopping, writing letters to my friends and family, and then, if I had any time left over, for recreation or relaxation. I wore a suit and tie (or at least a shirt and tie) and a name-tag every day. For two years, I was not Kullervo; I was Elder Kullervo.

And even though I am no longer a Mormon, I don’t regret it at all.

I was reasonably faithful, I worked reasonably hard, and I did my best to follow the rules most of the time. I matured a lot, I learned a lot, I made a lot of great friends, I learned a foreign languauge, I had a lot of life-changing experiences, and I’m a better person for having gone.

There were a lot of downsides to it, of course–I struggled with feelings of depression and unworthiness the same as many (most? all?) missionaries, but it wasn’t like a constant, horrible black cloud. I manifested the first signs of some problematic anxiety issues that would plague me for years to come, but honestly they run in the family, and so I figure I was prone to them anyway. There were good days and bad days, same as any other time; maybe a little more intense on both sides of the spectrum but it’s an intense couple of years, so it’s sort of to be expected.

One of the reasons I don’t regret my mission (or anything else I did as a Mormon), is that now, in retrospect, I don’t question my motives for leaving the Church. I don’t second-guess myself and wonder if I “decided” the Church wasn’t true in order to give myself a break for being unfaithful. I did everything right. I wasn’t a superhuman (supermormon?) but I did all of the things a Mormon is supposed to do, up to and including an honorable mission and a temple marriage, with reasonable effort and a basically good attitude. So I am confident that I am not now making excuses to cover my guilt, and nobody can tell me that I am. I can look at myself in the mirror and say that I’m an ex-Mormon now because I don’t believe that the Church is true, and I don’t think it’s a good church if it isn’t true, not because I am too cowardly to live up to the expectations of Mormonism.

Are there other, better things I could have done with those two years? Other ways I could have spent my time? Sure. And maybe some of them would have been fantastic. And maybe I wouldn’t have had to make some of the sacrifices I did. But you know what? I was born into the Church. I was raised Mormon. I was always going to go on a mission and get married in the temple, and it’s pointless to imagine fantasy scenarios where I didn’t.

I did what I did because I thought it was the right thing to do, even though, in retrospect, I was wrong. I’ve grown and changed since then, but I am proud of myself for acting with integrity. I strongly suspect that we’ve all done a lot of things like that, both related and unrelated to religion. It’s part of growing up: you do the best you can with the tools you’ve got, and maybe with more experience or maturity you would have done something different but hey, you didn’t have more experience or maturity back then. So no sense regretting it now.

I regret the times in my life when I have acted out of selfishness or cowardice, not the times when I did what I believed in. When I served my mission, I was doing what I believed in, and so I have no regrets.

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So, at this point I am identifying as some kind of a quasi-transcendentalist vaguely-Hinduish esoterically-inclined green Christian. How I got there from paganism is not really the topic of this post, but I promise to post about it someday. Maybe.

The topic of this post if the trouble with finding a church home for my family, and the disappointment of modern liberal Mainline Christianity.

We have been going to a Presbyterian (PC(USA)) church for a couple of weeks, and I am increasingly feeling like it’s probably not going to work out. I haven’t passed a verdict yet, but so far I am seeing a lot of things that lead me to conclude that this church, like many other liberal Protestant churches, emphasizes social justice to the near-total exclusion of theology, personal righteousness, and spirituality.

And that is the heart of my conundrum. There simply appear to not be a lot of churches out there that are able to be theologically liberal without it reducing to merely politically liberal (and theologically nothing at all). I’m sure my more theologically conservative friends are going to insist that such a reduction is inevitable, that theological liberalism invariably leads to no theology at all. I dunno; they may be right, but I kind of think that’s a false dichotomy. I think that the reduction of theologically liberal churches to mere social justice clubs has a lot more to do with American culture wars and political polarization than it does about anything inherent about liberal theology. But either way, it’s immensely frustrating.

My notions of spirituality and theology may be offbeat, but they’re what I am focused on and interested in, not social justice. Make no mistake, I believe that Christianity can and should give rise to social gospel concerns and the desire to address the evils of our society. But if that’s all that’s going on at your church, I would suggest that you are putting the cart before the horse, and I suspect that if I look hard, I will see that your social gospel is motivated almost purely by political and cultural considerations, not by spiritual or theological ones. And thus I am not interested in going to your church at all, because it has nothing that interests me.

In many ways, I think I would be happier being a quiet heretic in an orthodox, theologically conservative church. Except that I don’t necessarily want my kids indoctrinated that way. And I’m not sure how well being a quiet heretic really works out in practice.

A related issue is the fact that right now we live in a large northern metropolitan area: most of my neighbors are Catholics, Jews, or nonreligious. There’s not the massive smorgasbord of Protestant churches to pick from that I grew up with in my Appalachian-upper-South hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. And while I would dearly love to move back to the South (sooner rather than later), this is where I am at the moment.

Going to church is important to me and to my family (for a lot of reasons–maybe a topic for another post that I can promise to write and then never deliver on?), so I’m not okay with just being religious-at-home. So that’s out, too.

One thing I am considering is whether I will find more satisfaction in a communion/eucharist-centered liturgical tradition. The homily may be about something ridiculously politically liberal, but the service is centered on the eucharist, the eucharist is the real message. Isn’t it? Or am I just cruising for more disappointment? Of course, this line of thinking points me once again in an Anglican direction, which is somewhat comforting. I wouldn’t mind finding a nice Episcopal parish to belong to.

On the other hand, I know that a thought-provoking sermon is essential for my beautiful and sexy wife–it’s basically what she wants to go to church for. And she’s not wild about lots of liturgy. so, Episcopalianism may not be the way to go after all. Where we would really like most to be is back at Cedar Ridge Community Church, but that’s a long drive for a Sunday morning. Cedar Ridge was far from my personally perfect, ideal church, but it was a pretty good place for us as a family. But that’s moot, because there doesn’t seem to be anything comparable around here. I’ve looked.

So there you go. I’m not really sure what to do. I feel like I and my family have pressing spiritual needs, but I am growing increasingly concerned that the right church for meeting those needs doesn’t exist anywhere nearby.

PS, here’s a good recent editorial about (sigh) the state of the Episcopal Church that addresses a lot of these issues.

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Paganism is about honoring the fundamental aspects of authentic human experience. It’s about looking at the parts of existence that are terrifying and overwhelming and trying to figure out what they mean: things like birth, death, sex, war, love, art, and even the powerful, capricious, and unpredictable forces of the natural world. The gods give rise to these essential facets of human experience (and/or are themselves born from them), and to deny one or more of the gods because there is no place in your life or your worldview or your schema for the things they represent is to deny a fundamental part of who you are.

War is a part of being human. It may be ugly, brutal, and horrifying, but it is omnipresent. To be truly human is to know war. To reject Ares because you reject war is to reject a part of what it means to be you. And to reject Ares because you reject war means also rejecting warlike aspects of many of the other gods as well: Athena, Aphrodite, Zeus, Dionyus just off the top of my head.

Who would Ares be without war? A god of mental conflict? A god of physical exertion? We already have those gods. Ares is a god of a lot of things, and there are a lot of lenses through which to view Ares, but he is primarily a god of war. Trying to edit the war out of Ares is like trying to edit the sex out of Aphrodite. I don’t know what you’re left with, but it isn’t the real deal. That kind of selective approach to the gods is apparently pretty popular among neopagans, but I honestly don’t think it’s a road that is going to take you anywhere worth being.

Think about it: the soldier knows both war and peace, but the pacifist tries to know only peace. The pacifist is rejecting an entire part of human existence because it does not suit him or her. Whether that’s a thing worth doing, or a thing we should be doing, is not actually the issue. But I would maintain that trying to edit human existence to remove the bits we don’t like is just not what any kind of real paganism is about. Christianity does that, with its vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Not paganism.

I also don’t think, with regards to Ares, that it’s a question of whether violence is necessary or justified, but merely whether it is an essential facet of human existence. Violence IS. War IS. We can play at quasi-Christianity if we want and imagine a utopia where violence no longer exists, but even in Christianity that requires massive divine intervention. The overwhelming, unanimous weight of human history tells us in no uncertain terms and with no exceptions that war and violence are fundamentally a part of the human condition.

Whether or not this reality is morally acceptable is a question that is, in my opinion, not even on paganism’s radar. Violence is a part of human reality, and paganism is about how we honor and respond to human reality. The ethics of paganism ask not whether a violent society is morally acceptable, but instead ask “given that violence and war exist as a part of the human condition, how do you respond virtuously?”

Look to the epics, the philosophers, and the myths. Look to the maxims. Tell me what the answer is. The world is violent–we honor that when we honor Ares. The question is how you respond with virtue when presented with that violence, whether you’re a kid in the hall at school getting beaten up by bullies, a young man who just got his draft notice, or a parent whose family is threatened.

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