Religious Literacy

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Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero


Do You Belong?

Talking with a friend over the weekend, I found a few things suddenly come into focus. I love the way that works. I listen, I read, I think, and then while I’m saying something over lasagna, it all comes into focus on one point…like magic. My poor friend must have thought I was insane when I stopped in mid-sentence, “Shit! That’s it!”

Belonging to a community can be unhealthy. I know, you’re thinking…she’s lost her mind! We all need to belong to a community! Of course, we do…but, it can be unhealthy. You know that. You’ve probably been there. Belonging to a community is a relationship and some relationships can be unhealthy. When we come into relationships wounded and bleeding, the community probably won’t fix that, unless it’s a community of doctors.

In my life, I’ve always been hunting for a community to belong to. My family, my school, my work, my church, my homeschool groups, they all ended up in the same way. I walked in, I embraced it, I started to feel the ideas there resonate with me and then, at some point, I began to feel lonely. I started grasping at straws, maybe if I became more directly involved? What if I took the reigns here? What if I confided in another member how I was feeling? I became needy to those around me, or controlling, and then I felt neglected and misunderstood. And then I blamed them and left.

Am I alone in this? I doubt it. I’ve heard over and over again from several different ends of the earth, “I want to feel connected.” “I just want to feel like I belong.” “I need a community of like-minded people, but I just can’t find it.”

It made me think, do we all feel this way? Do most of us walk around thinking we’re alone in this world, that everyone else is part of a group, and we are the only one outside of the circle? Several times in my life, I’ve talked to friends from my past (thanks to social media connecting everyone) and found that when I believed I was hanging on to them and their close circle of friends, they believed the exact opposite. They thought that those were my friends they were tagging along with, my church they came to visit, my family they pretended to be a part of. It’s weird how different our perceptions can be of the same events.

So…what makes a community unhealthy? You. You make it that way. We need to start with ourselves, make ourselves healthy and ready for the give and take of a relationship. The relationship will not make you healthy and that’s just what community is, a relationship.

How does one start to make themselves healthy? Look inward, that’s a good place. For me, it was meditation that started me on the path to self-discovery. Ten minutes of meditation a day, helped me begin to take control of my own mind. One “7-day free trial” of an app, led to 21 days, a month, and then a year. That ten minutes, let to twenty, led to thirty, where I’ve happily been starting my day for several years. I never would have believed it would have the impact it has, but seeing is believing and here I am.

Journaling is the second thing. Whether you keep a notebook around to write in, an app to take notes in throughout the day, or sit at your computer tapping out words on a screen, writing can be very helpful to understanding yourself better, even if you never read those words again. There’s just something about writing out words that helps one to organize the thoughts, the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. You don’t need to even write whole sentences. You can draw pictures, make lists, or just scribble. Some of my journals have pages filled with hateful thoughts. It’s as if I wrote them down to let them go.

A long time ago, I was seeing a therapist and the one thing that actually did help to bring about big changes in my life was making note of my moods on a regular basis. She had me get out a notebook and just start making a happy face, a sad face, or an angry face at intervals throughout the day. Next to the face, I’d write a word or two about my activities at that moment. No judgement, no thinking, nothing, just make a note. Happy Face: reading, Sad Face: watching the kids, Angry Face: going to bed. At the end of the week I could flip through and see my mood changes. Was the week mostly happy? Mostly angry? Was I busy? Most of the time, I would feel like my bad mood had followed me all week long, but looking back at my notes, it just wasn’t so. The more I did it, the happier I found myself. Simple and effective. I loved it. Whenever I find myself stuck in a negative feedback loop, I go back to charting like that. And guess what? Wait for it…now there’s an app for it! The one I’ve been using lately is called Daylio. It’s free but if you pay $5, you can set as many reminders to “check in” throughout the day as you want. I like paying for apps like this. I feel like it encourages people to make them. Give it a try!

And finally, for me, there was spiritual guidance. That guidance did not come from a church when I started. Church is just another community, another relationship to navigate. My guidance came straight from God. I opened my bible and started reading, not to understand but just to listen. I started making notes in my bible, writing down questions, and spending time in prayer and meditation. And then I went to reading books about specific topics, bible studies, etc., all mostly Christian based. I’m not sure how these books came across my path. I usually found them through articles I was reading, discussions I had with friends, ads (yes, they come in handy from time to time), and searches for “best books on…”

Some of the books felt useless to me, some were handed to me with perfect timing. All I did was try to keep reading, writing, and praying. I tried to keep my mind and heart open. I still do and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. Finding Jesus saved my life. I feel like he was there all along, waiting for me to reach out for him, and when I did, I felt at rest, saved. I found myself there.

I’m not the perfect Christian. I don’t pretend to understand it all. I do try to listen, and I follow my heart. I apply what I’ve learned in other aspects of my life to my relationship with God. When I feel hungry, I find heathy ways to eat. Usually I eat something good for me. Sometimes I don’t. I do what feels good, what seems right at the time. I learn from my mistakes and I forgive myself when I screw up. I don’t adhere to the dogma of one human church or another. I love my neighbor as I would myself and I love God with all my heart.

Over the years I’ve continued to try to find a community to fit into, one I would really feel a part of. I’m still searching, but now that I’ve really started to know myself and accept myself (with all my strangeness, mistakes, and frailties) as I would any other friend, I know I’ll soon be able to contribute to a community instead of use it. And that means the right one will fall into my lap just as I need it.

Do you know your true self? Have you accepted that person as good? Do you love her/him?

Could I Be Losing My Mind?

I find the Christian image of God as a perfect father an intriguing idea, one I return to over and over again in my thoughts. I know some people get bent out of shape at the suggestion, but it comforts me. I think the ones that don’t like it are the ones that are looking at flawed human fathers and projecting that image onto God, instead of looking at the way the bible describes Him and trying to emulate that idea.

Ugg…I have an idea rolling around in my head while I do the dishes and I tell myself, “Self. You need to finish the dishes and then go spend some time writing that out. I bet it’s going to be fantastic.” I finish, sit down to write, tap out one paragraph and get lost. Nothing. Not a shred of inspiration. Is it gone or just incomplete?  If I sit here and keep typing, will it form up and become more solid?

It bugs me. I flip to Facebook and scroll for a few minutes desperately wanting to type “F…! I just can’t!” and then I can spend the rest of the afternoon coming back to see the influx of crazy comments I get. That sounds productive, right?

“Oh, don’t worry! Every day can’t be productive.” Yes, I realize that but I’m not productive on any day. I take that back. I’m productive at reading a book, watering the yard, cleaning the house, doing the laundry. I’m just not productive with anything I really want to do, like write a new post. I’m frustrated with myself.

Earlier this week I decided I’d spend thirty minutes a day working on my book and thirty minutes writing anything. So here I am trying to fill the thirty minutes I promised myself I would write for. It makes me crazy. What am I even here to write about? This blog seems random. There’s no unity to it other than pretty much a perfect reflection of my thinking without the curse words, like a squirrel brain on drugs. Maybe that’s the whole point? Maybe that’s exactly where I need to be right now, just floating? <bangs table in frustration>

So…God the Father. A perfect father doesn’t reject you when you aren’t what he wants you to be, if you make mistakes, or even willfully disobey. He may have a problem with you turning your back on a him and yelling “You’re not my Dad!” but when you change your heart and turn back, he’s still there. He may have a list of rules that he knows will make your life easier and more perfect, but he is well aware of your limitations.

Do I have scripture to back that up? No. That’s one of the things I’ve not mastered, remembering where I read something in the bible and quoting. It would probably help if I spent more time studying my bible but reading it every morning doesn’t really help me at all. It’s gone the minute I close the book. I do enjoy bible studies where I have to answer questions and write out my thoughts. Maybe I’ll find a new one of those. You know, because I don’t already have 800 things to do each day! Then again, priorities, right?

Journal Entry – June 17

This is the next chapter of my story. To read the previous chapter or to start at the beginning, click HERE.

June 17 – Thursday

Last month, I had put my name on the list of people willing to help with Vacation Bible School. Today a woman from church called and left a message about a meeting tonight at 7:30om and I really didn’t want to go after hearing what my friend told me. I just feel so abandoned. I thought about it all afternoon and decided that I should go. I said I would and backing out now would only make them think they are right in what they have decided not to do.

So, I went, and C came with me. We are going to have the 2 and 3-year-old group together. But I haven’t told you the best part! The deacon that the Pastor told me to talk to about my arrest was there. I have been trying to get in touch with him, but I haven’t had a chance to talk with him in person. Well, I knew it was him when I saw him, but I’m so shy. I couldn’t bring myself to walk up and introduce myself. I went and talked to the vacation bible school leader about what exactly I had to do with my group of kids and she told me that the person to talk to would be the deacon and his wife. I had another reason to walk up and talk to him! They started to lay out what we were going to do and when. And when they were done, I told him who I was and we talked about the case. I told him that I had already hired a lawyer and who he was. The deacon reassured me that I was doing what I was supposed to and how things were going to proceed. Wow! Talk about God intervening on my behalf. Talking with him, although he didn’t offer any help other than to confirm what I already knew, was really what I needed today. I feel so much better and I was feeling terribly anxious today. Five more days until I go to court.

June 18 – Friday

Mom and Grandpa took us to the Huck Finn Festival. They boys were so weird today! Every morning, they get up around 5am and I give them a cup of warm chocolate milk. Today, they got up and fell asleep again, sippy cups in hand. They woke up again at 8am when we had to get ready for Grandpa to pick us up. Once we got in the car, J fell asleep again and woke up an hour later when we got to the festival. They were whiney and timid all day. Everything scared them, and they wouldn’t eat anything. They just never fully woke up. I got them Civil War hats, but J would only wear it over his Indy Jones hat. We watched a little circus with two people in it. Tom really liked that. On the way home, they both fell asleep again. J started screaming and kicking in his sleep so bad and so long I had to get off the freeway and get him out of his seat to calm him down. Maybe they are coming down with a cold or something.

June 20 – Sunday Father’s Day

I stepped in to help run the sound at church today and I had lots of time to think.  What was I thinking about? I was wondering why I am spending almost my whole weekend here doing this. I’ll go back a bit. Yesterday, I left for church at 6:30pm and got home at 10:30pm. I was helping get the new sanctuary ready for Sunday service. They asked for my help because I have worked with sound systems before and thought I’d be of use. It didn’t take that long to do the work, but the church is nearly an hour from my house, so that adds a couple hours of driving to any work I do. And it was in the evening. I had to miss dinner and bedtime.

This morning I left at 7:30am and got back at 12:30pm. It’s Father’s Day and I have my family to attend to, so I got home, gathered the family, and headed to my Aunt’s house.

So, here I am wondering what to do. I love this church. It’s the first one I’ve ever gone to regularly. I feel like I found the Lord here. I was baptized here. The people are nice, and I used to feel closer to them before this arrest thing. I feel like I’m losing my church to this. I know God is everywhere and there are nice people in churches right close to my home. I should start going to one of those. But what if I don’t feel the same there? What if it’s different? I used to feel so safe at this church. Now I just feel that I have skills they need but they don’t really trust me. I’m so confused right now. It’s something I really need to keep praying about.

June 21 – Monday

Playgroup was busy today! We had five families at the house! Afterward, my friend took T to the park while J and I took a nap. Then my Mom came over and we went to the grocery store for enchilada supplies. We had a very full table for dinner tonight! We played in the front yard until the nightly fireworks (one of the perks of living so close to Disneyland) and then went straight to bed. Pretty much a perfect day!

I am feeling a lot of stress about tomorrow’s court appearance. I hope I can get some sleep. Lots of prayers.

June 22 – Tuesday

One month later and it’s finally court day! I’m so blessed to have D! He is such a great husband and father. He helped me so much this morning by finding out where we were supposed to be and when. I just followed him and worked on keeping my anxiety under control. I kept my focus on breathing calmly, praying for peace and that this would end soon.

My lawyer was amazing to watch. I have a whole new understanding of Jesus as our advocate in heaven after watching him. The courtroom is intimidating. It’s big and there are so many people standing around waiting. There are rules and protocols I don’t understand. Everyone is in a hurry and worried. The moment my lawyer showed up, he took charge of the situation. I could feel the tension lessen. He told us what to do, where to go, what was happening, and how to deal with it. We were safe and assured in his instructions and knew that he would intercede on our behalf in front of the judge. As the court opened, he interacted with the judge as he would an old friend. We just stood near him. A few words were exchanged. And we left the courtroom. I’m still scared of what might happen, but after this day, I’m thanking God for the enlightenment.

My lawyer was hoping they would realize they had the wrong person and drop the charges on their own, but it looks like that’s not happening. The arraignment has been postponed for further discovery. We have another court date in a month. We have work to do.

To alleviate the stress, we picked up the family and went to Lake Arrowhead! I haven’t been up there in years. The kids played on a huge inflatable slide. C and I shopped. I got a present for my mom. There weren’t many trees or nice places to camp because of the fires earlier in the year. It was kind of sad, but it’s still such a beautiful area.

Giving Without Expectation

There are times when I feel conflicted in my heart. One moment I am happy to give all can to help. The next, I’m angry because what I’ve given isn’t being used in the best way. I feel as though my time, money, and effort has been wasted, that it’s all a futile effort. What’s the point of giving when the gift is thrown away and trampled?

I’m glad God doesn’t feel that way and refuse to give anymore! I’m reminded of all that I have and how much of it was earned by my behavior or choices. I look back on my life and think, wow. How in the world did I get here? Purely by the grace of God!

Once again, a thought came to me while I did the dishes. “Keep trying. The balance is there.” The bible doesn’t say give to those who deserve it or will do well with it, it just says to give. It’s not my job to change their hearts or make them better people. It is my job to give what I can. God will do the rest.

My prayer today is for the strength and the clarity to keep doing the work He has given me and let Him do the work of saving people. He does a pretty good job of that and I usually make a mess of things.

Abstinence vs Safe Sex

I’ve been thinking a lot about what we tell girls at the pregnancy clinic when they come in for a pregnancy test. It’s something that weighs heavy on my mind.

I started volunteering there to help stop abortion. Killing people seems to be wrong in just about every religion. You can even argue that killing babies before they are born is wrong from a secular, humanist standpoint. I watch these women do their best every day to warn others about abortion and what it does to the baby they are carrying and themselves. It may seem like raising a child or having one and giving him or her to another family to raise is difficult, but it’s nothing compared to the emotional trauma you will go through if you decide to kill that child before it is born at any stage of development. We can justify it to the ends of the earth, dress it up in flowery and medical language, but our human minds know by instinct what we’ve done, and the dissonance runs through the rest of our lives whether we face it or not. What we do at the clinic is try to show women that they are capable of doing great things, so that aborting that child is the furthest thing from their mind not the first and easiest option to an unexpected pregnancy.

But that’s not what’s got me thinking this time. Recently, I’ve learned more and more about what we tell girls about sex and their bodies. We promote abstinence from sex before marriage as the one and only option, whether or not they are Christians. And we do it by attempting to scare them into abstinence by telling them they will get horrible incurable diseases that they will unknowingly spread to others and possibly die from. Not only do I believe this is not true, I just don’t think it is effective.

What would I do? What do I tell my son or daughter? I have told them that sex is a beautiful, awesome and, yes, a super fun thing to do. But like Peter Parker’s uncle said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” As Christians, we believe that sex between a husband and wife is the only place you can do it and be safe. If we stay faithful to our spouse and take the vows we made seriously, we satisfy that need to be physically close to another human while protecting that person from harm both physically and emotionally.

But what if you are not a Christian? What if you don’t have a religion at all? Does telling them that sex outside of marriage is forbidden by God effective? Does attempting to scare them into not having sex work for anyone? I don’t think so. But there does seem to be an alternative.

What if we used secular, humanistic methods instead when talking to people that aren’t of our own faith? What if we gave them the medical facts about sex instead? We could counsel them on monogamy, sex with one stable partner at a time. We could counsel them about how to avoid bringing a child into the world before they are ready to provide a stable two-parent home for them, other than killing it after it is conceived. We could counsel them on the importance of staying medically clean, that there are ways to protect themselves from disease and that they should be seeing a doctor often to be sure they are still clean and if they aren’t, to be treated before they spread that disease on to their next partner. Personally, I would have liked to hear more about other kinds of birth control when I was younger.

A doctor tends to be busy and one-sided. As volunteer counselors, we have the time and the sensitivity to help people explore what’s out there. We could be helping them to better understand their bodies, their needs, and pointing them to places to get more information. These things would be far more effective in preventing the spread of disease, future child abuse and neglect, and killing the unborn.

But as a Christian, shouldn’t I be promoting what God has commanded for us? Of course! But I say treat the symptoms first, so no worse harm is done, and then start looking at the cause. When we are sick, we take the medicine to bring down the fever before we find out what is causing it. We should be living happy, content, and fulfilling lives, so much so that when people see us they wonder what it is that gives us that peace. I’d rather start by telling a lost young person about the love I find in Jesus and how my relationship with the Father has given me a new sense of pride and responsibility in this world. When that young person begins to have that same relationship, they begin to feel the love that compels them to behave in different ways. That’s when we start to talk about what a real earthly relationship is supposed to be like. That’s when the drug use, the alcohol, and the promiscuous sex can stop. I want them to know God loves them even on drugs, even if they are angry, and even if they are prostituting themselves. Once we begin to really feel that love, we begin to love ourselves.

When we love ourselves, we act in better, more loving and responsible ways. Until these children hear and feel the love of God in their lives, can’t we try to mitigate the damage they can do to themselves and others?

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

“The Hero With A Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell was recommended several times in Tim Ferriss’ book, and since I love mythology, I had to read that next!

The thing I love most about mythology is how similar all the stories are. I was a little worried about reading this book at first because we Christians like to pretend that our faith has no mythology, that religion and mythology are completely separate. This book describes ancient mythology along with Judeo Christian and some Muslim mythology as well and shows the patterns we humans keep coming up with. It is not condescending, and I very much enjoyed it.

It’s amazing how similar our ancient stories are across the globe and throughout time. He shows how stories reflect the human condition, that we all search for meaning in the world, that we all interpret the divine through our own experiences. There was a lot of storytelling, which I love. It didn’t just mention that this culture had a story about a dog, it told the story. Some were so bizarre! I can’t help but think those ancients were pretty strange folk.

And the epilogue really made me think about the future. Where are we going? With all our new technology and scientific research, is the idea of a spiritual God dead? Can we “create” a new religion of science and state? Can we survive on the idea that man is just another animal on this planet? I just don’t think so.

The further we look into our world and the further we look out into the universe, the more infinite it becomes. I’ve always imagined God continuing to move farther and farther out, creating more and more for us to find because His creation keeps getting smarter. And like a Father watching his young son explore his toes, He beams with pride.

I was recently listening to a podcast about different dimensions and the existence of God. It reminded me of a Star Trek episode (what doesn’t, right?!). It was TNG, they were moving some field of two-dimensional beings that they could only experience from a certain angle, but the beings couldn’t fathom three dimensions at all. They could feel the effects of the third dimension, but not know what was happening for sure because they could not experience it. They probably made up complicated analogies about what they believed was happening that got closer and closer to the reality as they progressed their thinking. And there were probably naysayers there that insisted there were only two dimensions and that everything could be explained in two dimensions if they just looked hard enough.

And here we are, us third dimension folk, wondering if the forces we feel in our lives are beyond our dimension, from a world outside of our senses, one that IS time instead of moving through time like us. And the scientists grumble about us looking beyond the world we can see and touch.

Will we ever experience that reality? I believe so.