An Agnostic Christmas December 26, 2011Posted by Matt in Christianity, Christmas.
Tags: Christianity, Christmas, church of christ, experience, hopeful agnostic, Jesus, The Episcopal Church
It’s no secret to those who know me or who read this blog that I’ve undergone a period of spiritual change over the past few years. This is most visible in our change in churches, from the Church of Christ to the Episcopal Church, but for me the transformation runs far deeper than the denomination with which we associate. It goes from the morality espoused to the attitudes expressed to the very theological foundations upon which everything is built.
As I’ve said in the past, I came to the realization a long time ago that my idea of God had evolved a great deal and that the classic theistic description was no longer tenable, that I could no longer say I believed in that idea of God. Please note that this doesn’t exclude God altogether, far be it from that, but it does mean that the commonly taught descriptors of God no longer worked, so I was forced to recalibrate, to rethink my personal theology, so earlier this year I decided that the best phrase to describe my current philosophical state was “hopeful agnosticism.” Though I’m pretty unclear and questioning on the theistic version of God, I do wholeheartedly believe in something bigger than myself, working through and embodied by people throughout history. It’s a force of love and compassion, of mercy and radical forgiveness, one that permeates the fabric of reality and dwells in all people and things.
The Christmastime idea of Incarnation bothered me for a while, especially when looking critically at the evidence and coming to the conclusion that it may well be a myth meant to later bolster the claims of Jesus’s followers, because I had trouble accepting it and, truth be told, I still don’t accept it as fact, but I recognize something there in the experience of Christmas, particularly as embodied in our services at St. Timothy’s. There is something quite beautiful about the story of Christmas and, whether it happened or not doesn’t really seem to matter. What matters is the effect the story has on you. I can tell you that sitting in a pew at our church during the Christmas Eve mass is one of the most wonderful and moving experiences I’ve had, and in the end, isn’t that what really matters? Once we get past the sniping at each other over the factual nature of the account, isn’t the real meaning found in the effect it has on you?
That’s what I think at least. You can keep your reams of studies attempting to prove the unprovable, to know the unknowable. I’ll rest on the experience, the mystical knowing beyond knowing.
Awake My Soul: My First Year as an Episcopalian, Part 5 November 17, 2011Posted by Matt in Awake My Soul.
Tags: church of christ, dictionary, Episcopal Church, unfamiliar language
One of the most immediate obstacles to overcome in our new church home didn’t involve theology or philosophy or any of the other fences built between churches and religions around the world. It was something that often left us confounded, with heads cocked and quizzical faces, wondering what planet we may have been transported to. This source of confusion was not theological or philosophical, aesthetic or epistemic, it was an issue far more urgent and unsettling.
Soon we were being inundated with foreign terms. Absolution and acolytes, albs and antiphons, catechisms and collects. What’s the difference between a litany and a homily? A nave and a narthex? Episcopal is an adjective, Episcopalian is a noun and never the twain shall meet. It was as though we had just disembarked a plane in some faraway land where nobody spoke our language.
Fortunately, our priest and fellow parishioners were patient with us, as the ignorant newcomers and over the past year we’ve gradually absorbed the unfamiliar words and ideas, though we still sometimes find ourselves inadvertently calling the nave, “the auditorium.”
Today I like the peculiar words used. They are just one part of our identity, something that sets us (and other similar churches) apart from denominations like the one in which we were raised, the Church of Christ.
But I still keep my iPhone’s dictionary app close at hand.
Awake My Soul: My First Year as an Episcopalian, Part 3 November 15, 2011Posted by Matt in Awake My Soul.
Tags: changing churches, church of christ, liberal theology, St. Timothy's Episcopal Church
I’m trying to keep focused as I drive down the road
On the ditches and the curves and the heavy load
Ain’t bitchin’ about things that ain’t in my grasp
Just trying to hold steady on the righteous path
(“The Righteous Path”, The Drive-By Truckers)
After leaving the CoC, we took a few Sundays to stay at home, clear our heads, and ponder on our spiritual future and whether or not it would involve a church. By this time, I was notably angry and frustrated, feeling as though I had been burned time and time again for not fitting the correct mold, and I would have been perfectly happy to spend my Sunday mornings sleeping in and leisurely reading the newspaper. (Later I came to realize that I was as much of the problem in those past churches as the small bands of people who made life miserable, but that’s another story for later.) But, having kids complicates things and Diana was not ready to throw in the proverbial towel, so I commenced to research different types of churches, hoping that maybe, just maybe, we might find something that would fit the ideals we held dear.
It soon became clear that when you hold a very progressive theology in the suburbs, your choices diminish a great deal, despite the fact that there is literally a church at every corner. I was interested in mainline denominations, mostly because I was so unfamiliar with them, so my study tended to that branch of the Christian tree. We pondered for some time on this, but soon the first stop became clear. I looked at the liberal theologians I enjoy: Marcus Borg, Bishop Spong, and others; and realized they were connected with one particular group: The Episcopal Church. My thought process when as follows: If they let THESE PEOPLE in, then they’ll have to be cool with me. So, I did a quick search through the Yellow Pages, found that there was one near our house, and made the suggestion to the family that it be the first stop in our search for a church home.
That Sunday we walked into St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church completely ignorant and unaware of what lay before us, with a sense of both excitement and trepidation, wondering what foreign activities the next few hours might hold. Upon our approach to the building, we first took note of the ornate artistic detail, from the stained glass to the pieces of art adorning the walls, to the candles and colors. It was almost overwhelming when compared to the purposefully drab worship spaces of our past. We found our way to the CAB (i.e. Family Life Center, i.e. Fellowship Hall) where we caught the end of the priest, Patrick, playing and singing a song on his guitar for a group of children. He was about our age and clad in his clerical clothing and collar atop his blue jeans and tennis shoes. I nodded my approval to Diana and she smiled apprehensively. He noticed us right away and gestured to us to “Hold on” before he even completed the song. As soon as it ended, he set his guitar down and made a beeline over to us, hand outstretched in greeting. We introduced ourselves and told him a quick history of ourselves and looked at us, eyes wide and mouth agape, “You came here?”
“Uh, yeah,” I slowly answered.
“Wow, man, that’s far out. Just remember, if you look up and you don’t know what the hell’s going on, don’t worry about it. Just ask somebody, they’re all cool.”
And just like that we fell in love with The Episcopal Church.
To be continued…
Awake My Soul: My First Year as an Episcopalian, Part 2 November 15, 2011Posted by Matt in Awake My Soul.
Tags: Bishop Spong, church of christ, god is dead, hopeful agnostic, Nontheism, panentheism, The Episcopal Church, uncertainty
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There was a dream and one day I could see it
Like a bird in a cage I broke in and demand that somebody free it.
And there was a kid with a head full of doubt
So I’ll scream til I die and the last of those bad thoughts are finally out
(Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise, The Avett Brothers)
My drift to the left started long ago, dating back to my time at the very conservative Harding University, (this has been documented extensively in my Losing My Religion series) but it was some time later before I took those first difficult step on, as the aforementioned Avett Brothers might say, that road full of promise. Many had wondered aloud to me in those few years before we finally stepped away from the Church of Christ, “Why do you stay?” and, truth be told, that’s a tough question to answer. Growing up in the CoC, it becomes a part of your identity, a notion of who you are as a person. It’s as much a part of you as the color of your eyes. Moving away from the faith of one’s youth is like cutting off an arm or leg, leaving behind a feeling of uncomfortable incompleteness and pain, regardless of the circumstances of the divorce.
But it was not just the church being pruned from my life like dead branches, this issue went far deeper and far beyond even that. By that time I had spent years in study, searching for truth in books of all types, in conversations with other questioning friends, and in deep self-reflection on my own personal experiences and what they meant for the entire structure of my belief system. The foundation was crumbling from beneath and bit by bit the building was falling apart, littering the ground with notions of past ideals once held dear. And as those once concrete precepts crumbled to dust and were blown away in the wind, something became terrifyingly clear.
God was dead.
But this is not just any god, it was the theistic notion of god beaten into my head all those long years, the fear-riddled ideas pounded into my skull with violent zeal by preachers and teachers and peers had dissipated into nothingness. Bishop John Shelby Spong, whose writings have proven to be one of many great influences on my thinking, describes the theistic god thusly: a being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will. I wrote a short series on Bishop Spong and nontheism about a year ago and though it was quite enlightening to me, the vehemently negative (and incredibly insulting) reaction from others proved to be the final nail in the coffin for any personal conception of the god of theism. The way back had been barred and there was no return.
Recently a good friend of mine, a free-thinking person with little use for churches or organized religion, asked me, “What do you think of God?”
I stopped for a minute to formulate an answer to this all-important question, futilely attempting to sift through mountains of reading and reflection with my addled brain. It’s not an easy question to answer and I feel little certainty about any conclusion to which I might arrive, and to that extent, I tend to think people who are certain are most likely wrong.
After a few moments, I answered using a phrase that I had heard or read somewhere in the past, “I think the best way I could describe myself is a ‘hopeful agnostic.’”
I think there is something out there bigger than me, some cosmic force connecting us to each other and to the world and the entire universe around us. I don’t understand it, I can’t describe it, but I think it’s there. It permeates the fabric of reality, it swirls around us unseen, it flows through each and every one of us like a great rushing river with an infinite number of tributaries. It is being. It is love. Its presence fills us all to one extent or another.
I concede that there is little concrete certainty to be found in my personal beliefs. I don’t hold to traditional concepts of an afterlife to be pined for or to a divine, vengeance-seeking, lightning bolt-throwing being on high. I like it that way. I find some comfort in mystery and unknowing and in just living.
So, one year ago we walked away from our Fundamentalist background in the Church of Christ looking for something more, something different, something more accepting, and we found it right away in The Episcopal Church.
To be continued…
Awake My Soul: My First Year as an Episcopalian November 14, 2011Posted by Matt in Awake My Soul.
Tags: church of christ, spiritual experience, The Episcopal Church
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If not for love I would be drowning
I’ve seen it work both ways, but I am up
Riding high amongst the waves
I can feel like I
Have a soul that has been saved
I can feel like I
Put away my early grave
Gotta say it now
Better loud than too late.
(“Amongst the Waves,” Pearl Jam)
The upcoming season of Advent is one of the holiest on the liturgical calendar, but for our family it has even more meaning than the commemoration of Jesus’s birth, it marks the beginning of our new life in the Episcopal Church.
The last few years have been interesting ones to say the least, both for my personal spirituality and for the future of our family. In 2009 I wrote quite extensively about my spiritual journey from the Fundamentalism of youth to our first steps away from the denomination in which we were raised, the Church of Christ. It was a deeply personal series and, along with the support garnered along the way, it helped us to begin the journey anew, to follow paths uncharted and perhaps find our way out of the wilderness.
The purpose of this series will be to tell our story from the past year, to look back and describe our feelings and experiences, to see where we (or at least I) are today on this lifelong spiritual quest, this search for truth and significance. I don’t purport to have any answers or to even ask the right questions, but this can at least give you a small glimpse into the gloriously messy state of affairs, our struggles and where we are today. I hope you will join me on the journey.
Reevaluating Inspiration September 26, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, church.
Tags: Biblical inspiration, church of christ, EFM, Episcopal Church, old testament, plenary inspiration
As I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve recently begun a program called EfM (Education for Ministry) through our church. It’s a four year commitment, based on seminary materials, that takes participants on a thought provoking trip through scriptures, tradition, and theology. I’m in year one, which is Old Testament, and our first week’s lesson mainly gave an overview of the Hebrew Bible and of the textual criticism dealing with it. Among these summaries was a short section on inspiration and the formation of the biblical canon that I found to be quite refreshing.
Having grown up in a more Fundamentalist sort of church, it was often assumed, either implicitly or explicitly, that biblical inspiration and, by extension, biblical inerrancy were a core belief. I heard that the Bible was, basically, written under the influence of verbal, plenary inspiration, that God told the writers what to write, word-for-word, and that every word came directly from that heavenly plane above. Please note that this idea, like most, is not universal in the Church of Christ, but that I remember hearing it talked of in this manner. For my own part, I started to have a problem with this doctrine years ago when I first really read my Bible from beginning to end and started to ask questions, most of which I brought about little but dismissive non-answers. I began to investigate further and soon found myself engrossed in the works of writers like Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, and others who helped me understand that the Fundamentalist view was untenable and that perhaps there was another, more logical, view.
I say this because there was a section in our EfM readings from last week regarding the inspiration of the Hebrew Bible that I found to be interesting:
What seems clear is that the original writers did not think they were writing “Holy Scripture.” The community of faith looked back and came to believe that the Spirit of God was uniquely present in these particular texts which we now term canonical.
I think I’m going to really like EfM.
Learning the Cross September 8, 2011Posted by Matt in church.
Tags: church of christ, Episcopal Church, Feast of the Cross, liturgy, sign of the cross
Coming from a more fundamentalist, Evangelical background in the Church of Christ, there have been a myriad of adjustments and learning experiences in our family as we have become further ingrained in the Episcopal Church. One of these religious aspects comes in the form of a liturgical calendar, an alien concept to those still toiling along in the Restoration movement, so it has been with a great deal of interest that I have read about the seasons and special days as they approach. Today my fellow Episcopalian and friend, Barbara, posted a link to an article regarding the Feast of The Cross, a day approaching in the next week.
I read the article and learned about how the origin of the day rests on the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335 during the reign of Constantine. The day itself is one on which the Cross is recognized, but done so in a more festive manner in which it is seen as a “symbol of triumph, as a sign of Christ’s victory over death and a reminder of His promise.”
That was intriguing, but one of the first pieces of our faith that crossed my mind was the action of crossing oneself. When we began attending at St. Tim’s last Fall, I do not believe I had ever seen anyone cross themselves outside of movies or television, and I’m sure that stared, open-mouthed like an idiot as I watched these people conduct themselves in an alien world. Over time, though, the idea began to grow on me and following our Lenten series on personal piety in the Church, it became an important part of my worship.
As Patrick, my priest and good friend, described it, the act of crossing oneself is a participatory show of reverence, one in which a person takes an active role in worship. The method of crossing oneself is as follows:
The thumb, index and middle fingers of the right hand are held together, symbolizing the Holy Trinity.
The remaining two fingers press against the palm, symbolizing the human and divine natures of Christ.
The person then touches their forehead, chest, right shoulder, and left shoulder.
To help us remember the order, Patrick encouraged us to think of it in this way: Lord I give you my mind (head), Lord I give you my heart (chest), thank you for our blessings (right shoulder), forgive us when we fall short (left shoulder).
It’s a matter of personal piety that can and is done at a variety of times during services, but the sign of the cross is usually done when blessings are pronounced. This generally happens at the opening and closing of services, as well as the Sanctus (blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord) which is sung or chanted during Holy Communion.
Though the concept was completely foreign to me just one year ago, it has become an integral part of worship, one that acts as a deep connection to the Divine.
The Next Step April 12, 2011Posted by Matt in The Church Search.
Tags: baptism, church of christ, conversion, Easter Sunday, Episcopal Church
It has been about 6 months since we left the denomination that Diana and I were both raised in, the Church of Christ, and struck out for different waters. It was not an easy decision, but both our changing convictions and some not-so-gentle nudging toward the door were enough to convince us that we needed to move on. With dejected spirits and a yearning for something meaningful and real, we blindly walked into the embrace of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. I’ve written many, many times over the past few months about how we quickly fell in love with the church and the people, and today that sincere feeling of belonging continues unabated.
With our conversion experience barreling full steam ahead, we have now come to a point where a decision should be made. Do we consider this the end of the road? Are we prepared to be Episcopalians for life? Are we ready to raise our children in the Episcopal Church?
As you might gather from my past writings on the subject matter, the answer is a resounding yes. We’ve been transformed, our spirits have been renewed and rejuvenated, and today I could not imagine finding another place that fits us so perfectly.
So, the next item on the agenda is one that would probably make old Alexander Campbell turn over in his grave. We’re ready to get the kids baptized, all of them, and solidify our entrance into the church. It’s not an easy decision, especially when one considers our background in the CoC, where believer’s baptism at an arbitrary age of accountability is held in such high regard that choosing a different path (particularly that of the infant baptism practiced by TEC) is tantamount to sacrificing babies to the troll god and will no doubt result in our entire happy family burning in the fires of hell for all eternity. I’m sure we’ll hear these things from others, particularly those who don’t know us that well and haven’t been around to see the positive transformation our conversion has had on our lives, and while that’s unfortunate, I’m confident enough in our decision that it doesn’t matter.
So, Sunday we spoke with our priest, Patrick, and his wife, Jennifer, about this and told them we were ready. Together we decided on Easter Sunday for the day of our rebirth, our resurrection, as it were, into a new life.
Preachin’ It March 22, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, church.
Tags: Bible, church of christ, Episcopal Church, preaching styles, topical lessons
I was reminded of something when I visited my parents’ church (the one I grew up in) over the weekend that I’ve noticed many times in years past when attending Evangelical congregations, but that I don’t believe I’ve ever written about before. It is something that bothers me to no end and that seems to be present across the various teaching aspects of a worship service – from Sunday school to the sermon.
So, what is this annoying aspect of attempted edification?
Well, it involves the use of the Bible in topical discussions or lectures/sermons in order to prove one’s point on the issue of the day. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with using the Bible as a reference point in these conversations, but it is the way that this is often conducted that particularly irks me. My observations over the years have been that a teacher/preacher/etc. will choose a topic and then pull singular verses, or sometimes even pieces of verses, from scripture in order to bolster the point they are attempting to make. Sometimes these may be lifted out of context and twisted and turned about until they little resemble their original meaning. I’m reminded of being a teenager and having a minister respond to my skeptical queries about water baptism being the only method of salvation with the first part of I Peter 3:21, “Baptism now saves you.” Of course, if you read farther you’ll find that this is not the point of the passage and that it actually says something almost completely the opposite of that assertion, but regardless, that was the defense thrust at me.
This no doubt originates from the beliefs that the Bible is inerrant (it’s not), perfectly unified across numerous authors and centuries (nope), and that one particular interpretation alone is correct (strike three). I’ve pondered this a great deal over the years as we hustle to flip from one verse in Galatians to another in Ezekiel and then to Leviticus, wondering what, if anything, they have to do with each other outside of the point trying to be made from the pulpit or in the classroom.
On the other hand, the faith community in which we now reside (St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church) takes a different approach. Each week there are a number of longer readings taken from the Lectionary on which to concentrate and generally both class and the sermon revolve around these. I particularly enjoy our priest’s style when it comes to preaching. He makes it more conversational and real, and rarely, if ever, cracks open a Bible. He has a real gift for storytelling and making it fit into the context of the week’s readings and in my view, this is much more effective and meaningful than a marathon page-turning session.
Bison in the Closet March 2, 2011Posted by Matt in church, education.
Tags: changing attitudes, church of christ, Conservative values, gay students, Harding University
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As most if not all of you know, I graduated from Harding University, a private, Church of Christ-affiliated school in Arkansas. It was there that I met my wife and that a few excellent professors (in the Bible Department, of all places) helped steer my philosophical/theological leanings for years to come.
Let me say that I have no desire to denigrate the university. In the past, I’ve poked fun at the school and its conservative values and I have no desire to retrace those steps. Today, though, something was brought to my attention regarding my alma mater that caught my attention and I wanted to share it with you. While the rules maintain a certain modicum of behavior at the school, they have also served to disenfranchise minority groups of students, including one that saw fit to publish their frustrations today in a new blog entitled huqueerpress.com.
It’s not easy to read through the frustrations of current and former students, particularly when they quote the material from one of their classes. You should check it out.
Though we left the Church of Christ some time ago and found a welcoming home elsewhere, it is heartening to see the waves of change finally rippling into the CoC. Between the aforementioned blog, HalftheChurch.com (about gender inclusiveness) and other avenues of expression, things are afoot in the church. It’s wonderful to see that there are people working for these much-needed changes and I hope you will offer them your support.