“I think I’d make a good parent because I’d be able to accept my child as she or he is.” I heard the words come from my young friend’s mouth, but I knew I’d said them or thought them about myself. Did she really know what she was saying? I always thought being accepting meant the big things – the ones movies are written about. I wouldn’t reject a child for being gay or transgender, for example. Or holding different religious beliefs. Isn’t that what acceptance of a child is about?
Except just this past weekend, I found myself decidedly not accepting my nephew as he was. It wasn’t the first time. At seven, he’s interested in Bey Blades, videogames, and wants to roughhouse, not hike in the woods or read. When learning to ride a bike is hard, he’d rather swing.
Not being so willing to give up on my dream of us hiking and biking together or him becoming an avid reader, I sometimes find myself pushing, cajoling, manipulating even. It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy those things in small doses. He will eventually learn to bike. The problem is that I want them to happen on my timeline and in the way I want. I want him to be as passionate about them as I am. But he’s not because he is himself, not me. I’ve realized that accepting him as he is, is far deeper and more difficult than just accepting the “big” things.
Of course, every time I start to see some lesson with my nephew, I suddenly spot it in my own life. How can I accept my nephew just as he is, allow him to discover and follow his passions, when I have trouble allowing myself to do the same?
A couple weekends ago, I attended a liturgy retreat at my church in which we explored the Eucharist. Over and over the word “mystery” popped up. I first recall hearing of the Trinity – God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit – spoken of as a mystery twenty years ago in Karen Armstrong’s book, History of God. She was referring to the theology of Eastern Orthodox churches.
I wanted to understand what it meant to think of the Trinity as a mystery rather than as some hard fact that I was supposed to profess belief in. I couldn’t appreciate the mystery though until I could eliminate many of the “supposed tos” and “shoulds” in my life. So, until recently, I had mostly left Christianity altogether because I can’t make myself believe something I don’t. As I slowly waded back in, however, and found non-judgmental people who didn’t tell me I had to believe a certain way, I started finding a faith I could believe in, but I’m still testing it out.
In break out groups, we discussed one of the stories of Jesus appearing to his followers after his death. I kept silent, scared to share my own thoughts and doubts for fear of being told I was wrong. Then, one member of my group pointed out the variation in the witness stories.
“Jesus appeared and his followers didn’t recognize him, when they did, he disappeared. He passed through walls. He let them touch the holes in his side, but told others not to cling to him. These are the stories of mystery, not of concrete fact.” I almost cried hearing his comment.
Then on Sunday, I had my third confirmation class, which focused on the Bible. Once again, I felt trepidation waiting for her to tell me that I had to understand the Bible as undisputed, divinely given fact. We started by reading and discussing how there are two different versions of the creation story. Rather than speak of the stories as fact, we talked about the poetry of the first version. She pointed out how the same story in the Bible can be told in multiple places in different ways because of the different intended audiences or the different messages meant to be conveyed. She talked about how she would look up different translations of verses to gain a greater understanding of them.
“It says here that the stars were provided to give us signs. That sounds like astrology.” I responded to her question of what jumped out at me. I had never noticed these words before. I’ve found what astrology can teach us interesting, but I’ve never made such a suggestion to a Christian person of authority. Reverberations of the voices of certain conservative adults of my youth saying that such practices were tools of the devil rang throughout my body. So I held my breath.
“Isn’t that cool?” She responded. I exhaled and felt a little hit of dopamine.
“What do you think of the gospel of St. Thomas?” I tentatively asked her after she mentioned the gnostic gospels. She brought them up in a discussion of how different groups have chosen different books to include in the Bible. She also mentioned the myriad ancient texts that are not included in the Episcopal bible, but she finds instructive.
“I love it. I also love the Koran and what it tells us of God, and especially all the additional stories it has of Mary.” I could go on and on about the ways this woman, a Priest, amazed me in her embrace of the mystery of the Bible and outside sources.
Throughout the weekend, I found myself regularly trembling almost to the point of crying in excitement of the exploration of this mystery. Of realizing that I could study and continually discover something new because there is no single “right” answer. In it, I felt all the possibility of being loved by and loving something greater than me. It hit me that my longtime fear of hell was really a fear of the loss of love. I was discovering a much more expansive view of love than what I had understood growing up.
I left the weekend feeling convinced that my path is to continue pursuing this passion for spiritual exploration and study. It didn’t take long for the old voices to move in, however. You’re just being selfish if you study theology. You may enjoy it and be passionate about it, but it’s not practical. It won’t help you change all the horrible crap happening in the world. I hear the phrase that seems to have become so popular, “if you’re not part of the resistance, you’re part of the problem.” Whether or not I really agree with it, I’m sucked into what it triggers in me. Spiritual work, to me, is not resistance, or at least not the kind of resistance I think these people are talking about.
I’ve been here before. In college, I took a history of religion in the United States class. For my final paper, I researched the African Methodist Episcopal church and attended some of their services. I loved that class, my research, and especially the AME services. While my staid Lutheran upbringing didn’t have me leaping out of my seat like many of the parishioners, their energy and experiencing how different people came to God was invigorating. I briefly thought about studying theology, but I wondered how I could possibly save the world by studying religion. I didn’t want to be a Priest or a college professor and I didn’t have any other ideas what one would do with such studies.
So I told myself I would study theology when I retired – it was just for fun. Instead, I studied politics. I don’t regret my decision because I’ve had a fascinating life. But the pull to fully embrace my love of spiritual study has come full circle.
This time, however, I’m finally, tentatively, allowing myself to reject those old voices. In embracing the mystery of the Trinity, I’m also starting to embrace the mystery of all of life. Other people’s truth is not necessarily my truth – of course it’s not, we’re all born with different personalities and have different life experiences. It is only when I am fully me and explore and exercise my passions that I can do whatever it is that I am meant to do with this life. Just as I want to allow my nephew to be himself and exercise his passions, not mine. Maybe it is selfish. If so, then only in being selfish can I really exercise my purpose.
Also published on Medium.