Critical thought down the rabbit hole: A need for intellectual faith

One thing that tests my faith more than anything else is when a sermon or argument feels like it has an intellectual hole. The other part that deters me is when faith pretends to be above politics, or divorced from it, when in practicality, the two have been dancing closely for millennia.

Today I listened to (mostly strong) sermon about how to keep money as a tool and not let it become your master. The pastor told the parable of Jesus and his disciples feeding 5,000 followers with only five loaves of bread and two fish. He tied this in with instruction to give our money first, before we save or spend it, because in doing so we will have enough to help others and ourselves.

He followed his sermon with a call to donate ten dollars on a particular day so that the church could take the money and give it all away to missions or organizations serving the community.

I really enjoyed the message that we should all grow rich from generosity first; through faith, we learn that we always have more than we think. We have plenty to give and we come back richly blessed. Money should not dictate how we live, but it should always be a tool for us to serve others.

So what then, tested my faith?

Devil’s in the details. First, this particular church prides itself on “not being into politics.” (I don’t feel like Jesus ever had such a luxury. Heck, the Jewish people were expecting a king who would be the next political savior and securer of their earthly territory and rights.) So I found it odd that the pastor asked the congregation, “Why is it so hard to give everything I have over to God?” He followed this by saying that he felt comfortable with his money in the hands of a tax advisor or his retirement planner. He even gave everything (information-wise) over to the government! When the IRS came calling, he dutifully delivered his tax paperwork to show them everything he had. Surely, he said, if he could trust the government with his money, he could trust God to do well with it all! He made a few more quick cracks about the government’s use of money before moving on.

I could make the argument that my pastor just really knows his audience. Most people in rural Georgia are not fans of big government, for whatever reason, although much of it stems from the idea that the government will never do as good a job with your money as you do. (Oh, and they’re corrupt hooligans, too.)

Never mind that 80% of the country is in debt and one-third of Americans have nothing saved for retirement (apart from Social Security). All I’m saying is, if the government sucks so hard at handling people’s money, the average citizen hasn’t proven to me that he or she could do any better. Most Americans aren’t in a position to turn down the Social Security program or Medicare or another large benefits program.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s just say the pastor really dislikes paying taxes, reason be darned. By making such a statement in a sermon, the sermon has just gone political. He just told your congregation that the U.S. government won’t do as good a job with your money as God will. That is probably true. What irks me about this, though, is that churches, by law in the USA, are tax-exempt organizations.

To me, this is really a case of biting the hand that feeds you. The government doesn’t have the right, nor should it, to tell you not to criticize it. While I support this freedom, I often wonder how many comments are made with lack of acknowledgement or gratitude – not only do we believe in religious liberty in this country, but we support it to such an extent that we give faith organizations special financial status.

From an intellectual argument, one could say that donations to the church are multiplied because of their tax-exempt status, which should encourage even more giving. God could be seen as using the U.S. government to do his work. Rarely does one hear this argument in church. But, if you’re not a political church, then leave the politics out of the sermon.

Better yet, acknowledge that politics and religion are closer than kissing cousins.

Churches argue for all kinds of things in the politics of our society. The most recent and divisive examples being gay marriage (usually against, but some progressive churches came out in favor) and abortion (usually against). Some people argue that churches should provide for the poor in society, which use to be the case before some of our national welfare programs came about.

I can live with knowing that churches have certain views, as long as they are transparent about them, but to say that a church is “not into politics” seems disingenuous, at best.

If a church really wanted to capture my attention intellectually, it would host political forums to have debates on specific issues from a Biblical perspective. Ideally, these discussions would respect differing viewpoints as a ground rule. But to take it a step further, I would hope they be moderated by theologians who have differing opinions. This could really encourage parishioners to think critically and for themselves on each issue, rather than saying, “I believe in God and family values,” when exiting the polling booth.

The other place the sermon let me down was encouraging the congregation to come together for a day-long fundraiser that would result in the church redistributing the funds to worthy organizations (rather than putting it toward its own operating costs). If the church wants donations to redistribute, it seems contradictory to complain about government operating from the same principle.

As a corollary question for analysis, if the church just a middle man, do people assume that the church is going to give to causes they agree with and support? If people think they can do more good with their money as individuals than by giving to the government collective, why would the same argument not hold true for giving to a church? To be sure, I’ve found just as much variability in ideas and values within churches that gives no guarantee of how funds would be used.

Worse, since the parable of loaves and fish saw Jesus asking the disciples to give the bread themselves, this can be seen as Jesus telling them they must have faith in him, but do the legwork of helping others themselves. It seems incorrect, then, to encourage your parishioners to give through the church as a lazy conduit rather than self-select their own organizations to support. Maybe the church is happy with lazy parishioners, especially if they have an agenda to push.

I crave discussions with people of faith who analyze and critique the messages they are given. When I find a church that doesn’t back away from intellectual, analytical arguments, especially as they dance with politics, my comfort with “just have faith” may stand a chance.





This Veteran’s Day, back up your words of thanks

This Veteran’s Day is the first since I met my husband that we will be together since we met. For this, I am infinitely grateful. He is a brave and selfless person, and I’m proud to be his wife and share my life with him.

Last year, I spent the day alone while he was overseas. The year before we still lived in separate cities. The year before that, he was locked away in training for his deployment. The year before that, we had just met and were dating long distance. It’s a hard day to spend apart, and in 2013, I made the mistake of going to work and acting like it was no big deal.

I ended up in tears before 9:30 am.

Despite being surrounded by coworkers, no one saw the stress that dating someone in the military put on me. He was prepping for Afghanistan, and I was freaked out that 1)something would happen to him and 2)if something happened, I would have no legal right to know. I didn’t want thanks (thanks for what – for not throwing a fit that the government sent him away?), but I did want someone to take me out for chamomile tea. I didn’t know how to ask for that.

Now, three years later, I have endured thanks upon thanks. “Endured” may sound off, but it makes more sense when people often trail off when they say, “Do thank your husband for his service, and of course, um, thanks to you for…your…*mumble mumble*…”

I usually say, “thank you for your support” now before the poor sap gets to the end. I alleviate them of the awkwardness of not knowing what to do or say. And I think people don’t know what to do or say because they honestly have no idea what life is like for me. So let me help you out. Please don’t thank me for my service or sacrifice. Thank my husband if you’d like, but realize he’s not particularly comfortable with public recognition or praise.

Perhaps people think we don’t get thanked very often. Trust me, we hear it a lot. I often wonder what motivates the thanks. From those who lived through Vietnam, I wonder if they’re trying to make up for the treatment of veterans in that era, and I understand the mental urge to distinguish one’s words from the attacks and spit of the 1970s. (From my perspective, the scales are more than tipped, but I’m also one who doesn’t believe that joining the military automatically makes one a hero.)

I’m sure others feel truly patriotic and grateful for our freedoms. That’s a comforting thought, but I believe that citizens fight for our freedoms just as much as our military, just in very different ways. Some of them literally put themselves in the line of fire. It’s not the organization that makes the hero, either.

Sometimes, on my skeptical days, I feel that words of thanks are simply a soundbite which absolves a person’s conscience of the responsibility of stepping up to help in any meaningful way.

It’s not that I think thanks are bad. But, just like dating, it’s not what someone says, it’s what they do. 

Allow me to illustrate how the last example goes down for me. On a recent trip to Kroger during the six-month period my husband was away this year, I ran into a woman I knew casually through church. Literally, our carts nearly collided around the pasta sauce and we found ourselves awkwardly apologizing to each other, slowly moving to recognition.

“I heard,” she said, “That your husband is away.”

“You heard correctly,” I said, smiling through somewhat gritted teeth.

“Well that must be so difficult, I just can’t imagine.”

To be fair, this exchange started off better than most. I almost mistook it for empathy at first, and relaxed.

“Please thank him for his service, and of course, you too, for your…sacrifice.”

The hairs on my neck stood on end immediately. I could feel my throat constrict. I wanted to scream, but settled for calling out her authenticity.

“Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you,” she said, starting to reengage her cart in an effort to move past me. The words cut deeply, because in the era of social media, not only did I not know the woman’s last name, number, Facebook account, Twitter handle, or schedule, I didn’t even know where she lived to accost her properly at her door for my future needs.

“As a matter of fact,” I chimed in, stepping to the side of my cart to block her cart from moving forward, “I’m so glad you offered – I really hate to cook and I haven’t been eating well. I’m buying these groceries, but could really use company to have a proper meal.”

This is true. My husband is the cook of our household and I don’t eat well when he’s gone. But to prove my point, her immediate reaction was disbelief, moving into a stammered balk.

“Oh – oh sure, I’d, um, be glad too.” She didn’t take her cell phone out of her purse, the sure sign that someone considers you calendar or contact-worthy. “This week is so crammed, with the kids’ Little League practices and PTA meeting. I also need to bake three dozen cupcakes for the Sunday School fundraiser.”

I pushed on, not because I enjoy being a jerk, but because I really am interested in understanding the weight of offers emanating from the verbal fetish of thanks for military service. Hell, even my pastor asked our congregation to remember military wives. He even said he would like to invite me to his house for dinner once, but promptly forget to schedule anything to back it up.

“Well, he is gone for four more months,” I said. “Would next week work for you?” I always like to give options to test commitment. She did not take out her cell phone.

“Oh, that could work,” she replied. “But my husband might be out of town for a few days.”

That stung. As if I, the woman to whom you just bestowed your false feelings of empathy and warmth for her sacrifice at having a spouse out of town for half the year should suddenly feel sorry for someone who can’t offer company because she’ll (probably falsely) *sigh, gasp, sigh* be left alone for three days. Shit, don’t let me cramp your style.

I let her off the hook. I had made my point. When I don’t spend time with people, it’s because I don’t want to. But I certainly haven’t offered to to help them in any way possible before deciding not to hang out. I don’t have a problem with people not preferring my company as a human. What I dislike is the hypocrisy of appearing concerned about my military situation without bothering to learn anything about it and secretly giving less than two hoots about the loneliness of my days. Apparently some people are too busy to stuff in an hour or two of empathy. It’s annoying, relieving others of the burden of their words which bit off more than they meant to chew.

“Oh, of course, I totally understand, life can be so busy,” I said.

Of course, I didn’t understand. I know that life can be busy, but I also know how hours can stretch into endless days and sleepless nights and countless moments of wondering when the cosmos will resume its normal pace. At that time, life did not feel so busy. Despite the activities that made it necessary to get out of bed and go through the day, life was not so busy. Life was painfully slow.

So what should she have said? My ideal interaction might look like this:

“Oh hello, how are you?”

“I’m doing okay, thank you.”

“Have a nice day!”

Say this if what you mean is that you don’t care any more than that. Otherwise, the fact that my husband is away is just gossip. Mention of his service is brought on by societal peer pressure. What else can you say if you do truly care?

“Hi. I heard your husband is away. How are you holding up?”

*Only say this if your heart is truly invested in listening or following up in some way.* This allows me to reveal what I will about my situation. At that point, if you care to get more involved, you can, and you’ll have a starting point to know what I’m struggling with.  Because by the time you say,

“What can I do?”

I’ll expect you to do it, just like any person would no matter what his or her situation. My military status shouldn’t change the size of your heart or generosity. My loneliness as a person dumped in a new town with few contacts could.

After several rounds of this with slightly different circumstances, it seems that many who thank me for my sacrifice are content for me to carry that burden. After all, why would they thank me if they didn’t want me to sacrifice my hours of happiness? If they wanted to step in and provide relief, they wouldn’t be thanking me for any sacrifice, they would be there. They would show up unannounced or ask me for my number to text me with a plan to have dinner, or see a movie, or attend an event that I just can’t drag myself to do alone. They wouldn’t expect me to organize my own social events, because even at my best times, that’s never been my strength. I know how to be alone and it seems that in being good at it, the thanks I receive for it has backed me into a hole.

While he was gone, I took time to travel various place to see my girlfriends or my family. This, without a doubt, was the best thing a military wife could do. It was the best way to forget myself and the tick tick tick of seconds. We went to Barre3 or to music events. They offered me wine and long talks on the porch to ponder the state of the universe. They allowed me to cry and vent that I have spent half of my marriage as a single woman, but we spent equal time covering their struggles and hopes as my heartache. That is as it should be. It is friendship and love, it is thanks and gratefulness for my company, defined. And that, more than anything, is what I need when my husband leaves. To know that I am not defined by him and his absence, but by my brain and capability for contributing to moments of joy on my own.

Months later, the woman from Kroger hasn’t reached out to me. I wonder if flippant words of thanks will ever be enough and I doubt it. I’ve never been good with sound bites or lack of action.

What’s the best way to thank my husband? You’d have to ask him, but I’m guessing he would appreciate people asking about the specifics of his deployment and listening to the true challenges of our national defense issues. He supports Wounded Warrior, Fisher House, and other programs to help veterans. Celebrate the spirit of hopefulness for future peace of Armistice Day, the original Veteran’s Day.

As for me, don’t thank me. Just get to know me as more than the military cover. I have dreams and hopes that you’ll be more than just words.

Why we should care about Merrick Garland

Don’t let the Supreme Court fall without a fight.

It is hard for me to put words to feelings in a haze of sleep deprivation today. Last night’s election taught me the power of “it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.” My guard is up, searching for clues about how strangers may treat women, people of color, people with disabilities, and religious minorities. I no longer trust my religious advisors or those who share communion with me. I am worried that the quiet – those who took to the ballot with views far different than what was alluded to in polls – will now become much louder and my voice will be silenced.

While some people would like to “just see everyone get along,” I’m not prepared to be so accommodating. To be sure, I am committed to not attacking others for their beliefs – that is a right we should all enjoy. But to settle in and watch how things go down as if I were enjoying a four-year Hollywood flick is also not an option.

Our big fight remaining – and it is a huge fight, but an important one to fight – is on the Supreme Court. To have a united White House and Congress is one thing, but a check can still exist in the system. We need to be as outraged about Mitch McConnell’s declaration to not act on any Obama nominee (a travesty the media and citizens let slip right on by) as those on the right were about feeling left out of the new economy (which isn’t bad, by the way, and I’ll go on record saying that a “shake up” will be more likely to devastate the very base that clamored for it, as well as, well, pretty much everyone else). We need to demand that the Senate do its job. When it doesn’t, we need to protest unreasonable nominees with the same vigor we give to the Superbowl or Brangelina’s Breakup, or any other number of superfluous deities that capture our attention.

What’s at stake? The right to have health coverage if you have a pre-existing condition, reproductive rights for women, gay rights, and so much more. Please read the article I pasted here, please care, and please, let this government know that while we are civil, we are not silent.