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.





A New Faith in Persistence

I’ve not been too sure about where to start the past few months.  It has been some serious “in-between” time for me.  I have detected nothing of import or interest materializing before me; my dreams seem to list on the edge of fantasy while I go through the motions of living in a place that doesn’t, superficially, hold too much of relevance.

I have plenty to talk about, for sure.  I’ve been angry at our health care system.  I worked for a month to get a special prescription for specific glucose test strips pre-approved so that my reading would radio transmit to my insulin pump to make data recording more seamless.  I got the strips – in a quantity that I will exhaust in 10 days and cost me double what I would have paid without insurance buying them from Amazon.  Seems the doctor didn’t communicate what a “90 day supply” meant.  Maybe I need to write a treatise on Type 1 Diabetes for health professionals.

I worked to get a second opinion for my medical condition, had my husband take a day off of work, etc., only to be told that my initial treatment is the best there is.  I’d like the women out there to think about this: if you are growing facial and stomach hair suddenly, and you want to get pregnant but can’t take the treatment while trying to get pregnant or while pregnant, is this the best that can be done?

I’m furious that our local rivers are so polluted I have to breathe through my sleeve while crossing a two-mile stretch of I-95, while the EPA makes no moves to enforce dumping restrictions or clean-up on the offending company producing the effluent.  I’m pissed that Trump talks about forcing the Mexican government to build a wall along our southern border and that European nations are turning their backs on refugees.  I’m pissed about the possibility that Trump could be our next president.  Every time someone gives me a reason it can’t happen (he’s only got 33%, not enough for a majority!), I feel my cringe face go into effect because they’re jinxing the outcome toward the reality mogul.

NOTE: I can’t complain about the basics.  On Maslow’s hierarchy, I’ve got most of the bottom covered.  I even work my way up to the second or third level of the pyramid on my good days.  This weekend I get to dance zouk ALL WEEKEND.  Bliss.

So why am I not making more progress – with words, with dance, with my health?  Life, it would seem, has given me plenty to say and do about plenty of things.  Yet my reactions are aimless anger and inaction.   And so I have been left wondering, what is wrong?  What holds me back?

In this quiet period in my head, I’ve taken a lot of time to try new things and read material I otherwise might skip.   Even more specifically, I joined a Bible study group (which I give mixed reviews), I’ve begun volunteering for a local organization serving the homeless, I’ve been studying up on how to approach the publishing industry, and I’ve started teaching a Spanish class for my church.  I found some new doctors, I started dancing West Coast Swing.  My husband and I even entered Financial Peace University, a course devoted to money management according to Christian principles.  Maybe you’ve heard of Dave Ramsey.  Maybe not.  It’s like being 16 all over again.

I think  I’m finding the answer, in the most unexpected of places for me, a spiritual agnostic of utmost vaguery.  Our pastor has been holding a sermon series about prayer the past month, which uncharacteristically engaged me in the act, for at least five minutes a day.  Then for Bible study, we are reading Adam Hamilton’s “The Call” about the life of Paul the apostle.  A year ago, and perhaps even six months ago, I’m not sure you could have interested me in the topic.  Study of the Bible was, in my opinion, a sure sign that you were headed toward close-mindedness, judginess, and conceit.

Strange indeed it is for me to now concede that through the lessons of prayer, of being called, of Christian money management, and of the apostle Paul, I believe that insofar as my problems can be attributed to me, they are caused by a crisis of faith.  Hear me out: my crisis of faith is no secret to my husband, who married me knowing well that I had no desire to be roped into the groupthink of Christianity or any other religion.  It is no secret to my closest friends who know that my agnosticism is convenient because it can’t collide with my political principles as I’ve set them up in my head.

But I am beginning to admit that I might have been wrong in rejecting God on a level beyond the Jung-ian, “a priori” soup of souls.  I am beginning to see that my crisis of faith is not so much about  exactly what I believe as it is about my lack of persistence in life.  This part is what would likely shock most people who know me well, even my mother.  Most people would describe me as hardworking, disciplined, diligent, reliable, if even a bit intransigent.  So where have I lacked persistence?

According to God as revealed to the Apostle Paul and just about everyone I’m studying in the Bible, from Abraham to Jesus, I’ve lacked this key quality in everything I’ve ever undertaken.  When I was young, I’d pray to God for him to take away my diabetes.  He didn’t.  Eventually, I gave up praying.  Surely, if He didn’t do it, it wasn’t that I was asking for the wrong thing, it’s that He was not terribly powerful.  When I was a pre-teen and teenager, I rode horses competitively, on a big circuit.  I did okay.  But then I had an argument with my coach, and I convinced myself that I wasn’t really in love with horses anyways.  And perhaps I wasn’t.  In short, at 16, I sold my horse and gave it up.  I wasn’t the top rider, and I sure didn’t want to work as hard as the top riders did or invest as much to become the top one.

In college, I auditioned for two a capella choral groups and was rejected from both.  Rather than try to start my own, or improve my singing, I found a different venue where I could sing in a less solo fashion.  I only got the gig after proving that I could blend my voice in with the group’s.  Some might say I didn’t give up here, that I simply found a way to continue singing in a place that was more suited to me.  But it didn’t feed my soul the way soloing would have, so if I’m honest, I gave up.  After college, I didn’t apply to UN internships or do anything that would have allowed me to get close to the stages where simultaneous language interpretation actually took place.  What a dream!  Instead, I taught high school, because I could get a job.  In my defense, a job with health coverage was pretty important, because I’m diabetic, but jeesh, I hate how that’s always my defense.

After college, I held three jobs at three places in four years.  There were always “good” reasons for the change.  However, it’s hard to become an expert at anything you only do for a year.  I took up ice skating for pleasure and found I was good at the basics.   I even became part of a synchronized skating team.  But it got tough around the the flip and the sit spin.  Rather than skate three times a week, I pulled back.  Then I went to grad school for public health, which made ice skating really tough to schedule, and I didn’t like my new ice coach anyway.  (Anyone seeing a pattern here yet?)

In case anyone is wondering, yes, I worked in public health for almost six years post-grad, but again, spread across three different companies.  I never got promoted.  Why did I leave?  I’m not right for corporate America.  That is most certainly true.  Why am I not working for a non-profit?  No good reason, other than I started to realize that working for working’s sake was just that, and my soul was empty.

Luckily, by this time, my husband was in the picture, and encouraged me to pursue writing.  I wrote creatively in high school and college, but I never would have thought of making a living at such a frivolous activity.  (Read Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” and you’ll understand that I was raised to believe such words, even though I am not much of a capitalist most days, and the only part of the protestant ethic that remains in me is “ethic.”  “Protestant” was dropped from my self-descriptions a long time ago.  Maybe I’ll have to reinstate it.)

So I wrote a book.  Literally.  I sat down last April 1st, and started my novel.  I’ve now completed it twice or thrice over.  I’m now learning that the art to writing a novel isn’t in the writing of it, it’s in the persistence of re-writing it ten times without desisting or fainting from your own boredom of trying to imagine the characters doing anything different or any thing differently.  In my writing life and in my honest prayer life, I’m learning that I give up as a default, instead of fighting for what I really want and believe in.

Perhaps the only exception to this rule is marriage.  I dated for fourteen years before I met my husband.  In all that time, I didn’t give up believing that the right person for me was out there, waiting to be discovered.  I may have stopped dating for months at a time, but I always returned to the arena, waiting to run from another lion.  In short, it paid off.  Once I found the best person for me, I took the “love is a decision” motto to heart, and I’m happy I decided to commit to it every day.

My husband has been the most positive and rewarding part of my life.  He has changed me.  I have allowed him to change me.  He’s brought in his faith, his patience, his doggedness, his steady hand, and with little more than his extraordinary example, he’s changed me.  He has never rubbed my past failures in my face, perhaps because he doesn’t think of them as failures, like I do.  He just moves forward.  It has been a good time to adopt his example.

I asked him last night if he thinks I’ve changed at all by opening up and going to church with him, taking the lessons to heart, and starting to pray on my own.  His answer?

“You’re more deliberate and thoughtful.”

These words that others have used to describe me all of my life but never rang true took on a new meaning.  If he’s right, they will lead to persistence.  And if all of the publishing agents are right; if the Apostle Paul is right; if God is right, persistence will change the world.