Monday, November 17, 2014

What I lost when I lost Christ

For many people, leaving the faith of their youth is a relatively simply transition away from a set of beliefs imposed by others that were never really internalized. For me, however, leaving the faith of my youth, Mormonism, was a deeply trying and emotionally and spiritually draining experience. I was, if I am to be honest, a true believer. I was thoughtful and questioning to an extent, but overriding all of that, I was obedient. I wasn't a perfect Mormon in terms of my behavior, but my belief in the truth of Mormonism was really firm and foundational for my life.
I think when one has left behind a set of beliefs that no longer are viewed as true, it is really easy to treat them as obviously false and of no worth. But if I look back honestly, the truths that Mormonism presented were of great worth to me, in the context which I used them. Of greatest worth, I believe, was my belief in Jesus Christ as God and Savior. I feel compelled to make an honest assessment of what I have lost as I have lost my faith in Christ. I don't intend to inspire pity, nor is this an attempt to reclaim lost faith. What I hope it is is an honest reconciling with what I have lost, so that I can more authentically appreciate what I have gained.
My Lost God
I have lost my God.
The most all encompassing aspect of loss that I experienced when I realized that I no longer believed in Christ's divinity was that the God that was the center of my worship was no longer there. While each member of the Godhead (Mormonism's go-to word for referring to the three separate members of the traditional trinity) was important to my faith, I, like most Mormons, would say that my belief in God centered around Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ created the world under Heavenly Father's command, He was sent to earth to die for us, he visited the Nephites as the central story of the Book of Mormon narrative and He awaits us in heaven to welcome us back to Heavenly Father's home.
Prayer has fallen away from me as a spiritual practice, as I no longer am sure who or what I am praying too. I miss prayer, and I especially miss revelation. The idea that a God might speak to me and guide me along a path towards truth and righteousness was deeply comforting. 
My belief and my spirituality no longer has a center outside of its originating center in my own mind and soul. There is some aspect of focusing on the human experience generally, how wondrous is it is that we are alive, we can recognize we are alive and we can talk about it together. However, there is also an aspect of my current spirituality that derives great benefit from attempting to place humanity in its universal context, as wondrous yet terribly finite, placed here on earth with only the most tenuous hold on the future, in part contingent on how we treat our earthly home, but in part on pure chance that no cosmic event wipes us out in an instant. This free-floating belief system, focused on nothing and everything at once is at times tense, but also at times wonderfully freeing and expansive.
My Lost Savior
Losing a divine view of Christ has meant that I have given up on the idea of divine salvation from my sins. Christ as divine is able to fully negate the effects of sin through His sacrifice on the cross. Christ as human is perhaps able to experience similar suffering as me, can serve as a model of sacrifice and brother- and sisterhood, but he cannot redeem me, whichever Atonement theory one might apply. My sins, my imperfections are ultimately my own and shared by no one else.
I no longer believe that I will one day be perfect. That is both a great sorrow and a great relief. If I will never reach perfection in the future, there is certainly no chance of achieving it now. Reconciling myself to that fact can be difficult, as I recognize my own potential for goodness and how often I am so far from achieving that. Loving myself and accepting myself as I am now is made that much more difficult when I no longer believe there is a Savior that has that love for me already in place, but it becomes no less necessary for my life and my progress therein.
At the same time that I have lost the idea of a Savior for my sins, I have not fully lost a sense of sin in my daily life. In my patriarchal blessing, which is a special blessing from a special ordained "patriarch" given to teenagers "when they feel ready," I was told that I would come to know that Satan was a very real individual who was determined to pull me from the path of truth. While I perhaps never had a firm confirmation of this, there was always a feeling that some power was pulling me away from truth and purity. Even as I now primarily assign those feelings to simple biological urges that have their history in evolution and past needs and desires expressing themselves in a different context, I still don't really like them at all.
It is a sad truth that my faith in God collapsed more completely than my faith in my own unworthiness. But I am satisfied that I am still the same person as I was with faith in God, with the same inherent worth and dignity, and still welcome gratefully the existence that I am moment by moment experiencing.
My lost explanation
Christ, for the majority of my life, has been the ultimate answer. Even though there was plenty about life and the universe that I did not understand, yet I had full confidence that Christ, under the direction of God the Father, was watching over everything. Whenever there was a question on a doctrine or practice of the church I could simply put it on a shelf, and know that no matter what, Christ would make it alright, that it was His job, as God, to make sure that all wrongs were righted and all paths eventually made smooth.
Christ also provided the firmest guide to how I should live a moral life. Christ, as a man presented in the bible still has much to offer in terms of example, but without the mantle of Divine Savior attached to the man, his actions and opinions become much more contextual and less relevant to modern applications. I still look to Christ as an example of communing with the poor, of questioning power structures and of a slow, contemplative life. But His demands for devotion to a hypothetical kingdom, His organizing of a chosen faith community and His apparent preference for male leadership of the community all have become much less relevant in my life.
The need to be constantly reformulating a moral system based on my own social and historical location and privilege, on my limited knowledge and perception of the world, and in a confused and turbulent modern moral landscape can be disorienting and disillusioning. However, the challenge presented by developing an individual moral system can also be invigorating and deeply instructive. I still believe in an absolute truth and something of an ultimate morality, but I simply believe that we, as limited beings, can only approach that truth through our own limited perspective, and that we not only have to seek out our truth, but also seek out a deeper understanding of our own perspective, abilities and limitations. I probably always believed this to some extent, even when steeped in Mormonism, but there is no doubt that it was much easier to do so when I believed that I had a divine source of revelation and truth against which to check my own assumptions and prejudice.
My Lost Community
Christ was not only at the center of my faith, but at the center of my community. Growing up in a town that was predominantly Mormon, Jesus might not have been a daily topic of conversation, but church was definitely at the social center of the community. And even though He got lost sometimes, Christ was still firmly at the center of the church experience. While the Mormon community is fairly homogeneous, there are still divides along many lines, especially stark at times around political or socio-economic lines, however, there could always be a coming together, in theory if nothing else, in our shared brother- and sisterhood in the body of Christ or the Kingdom of God.
My faith in other aspects of Church doctrine, such as the authority of institutional revelation, the divine nature of gender roles and the primacy of heterosexual relationships began deteriorating years before my faith in Christ as Savior also began to collapse. However, while I was able to feel good about attending church and participating in community when other aspects of my faith were in doubt, when I felt that I had lost my faith in Christ, I no longer felt authentic or honest in a Christ-centered worship community and my motivation for "making it work" in Mormonism also declined rapidly. I know that many liberal Mormons are clinging to their place in the Mormon church because they feel that it offers their best connection to the Christ that they love and trust, and I honor their struggle, but the dissonance that I experienced in a Mormon congregation was too strong to feel comfortable there once my connection to that core faith-centering doctrine faded.
I have found an alternative community, mainly centered around Unitarian-Universalism's expansive and encompassing view of religion, but also among liberal Christians and spiritually minded atheists and agnostics. However, this community does not hold as firm of a unifying principle as worship of Christ. Thus there is no immediate bond of shared belief between members of the community, besides perhaps some very general ideals of a liberal society. It is not as close of a community. In some ways, I appreciate that. There is little idea of "us vs. them" at least in terms of claims to "the truth." There is also a great fluidity granted when God is not requiring or rewarding attendance, but that participation should be inspired by how fulfilling and wholesome the experience of community is. But that fluidity results in decreased stability and solidarity among the congregation, thus requiring greater effort to feel firmly a part of a religious community. 
My lost friend
I have lost my best friend
With all of these other losses the most personal remains the most painful. I've lost a deity, I've lost a faith, but most of all, I've lost a friend. While Christ is perhaps not often seen by theologians or scripture as primarily a friend to the human race, that was certainly my experience. Some of my most dearly held religious or spiritual experiences have been when I felt Christ, as my friend, upholding me in moments of pain or sorrow, as only a friend who knew me intimately and personally could.
In the Mormon book of scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, Jesus after speaking to the church directly through Joseph Smith begins to repeatedly refer to Joseph and His fellow disciples as friends, as in Section 93 verse 45 when he says "I will call you friends, for you are my friends, and ye shall have an inheritance with me" right before rebuking Joseph for not keeping the commandments.
That relationship was very similar to what I felt my own relationship with Christ had become, especially during the last year of my Mormon mission and the faithful years that followed. Yes, Christ would rebuke me at times, for sloth or lust or any number of things, but He would always be there when I needed Him to be, always ready to be my friend. I have very distinct memories of memories of feeling that Christ was with me as I walked down the street with my head down or comforting me when I was deep in lamenting prayer for my own shortcomings or life situation. Now it is up to me to reach out to other fallible human friends and, in the end, to be my own best friend. But I have to admit that I am a poor substitute for what the friend I once had, imaginary or not.
In the end
As I wrote this, I was constantly tempted to stop and point out again and again what I felt like I've gained moving away from Christianity. And even though I did this in a few places, I think I achieved what I was setting out to do, make an honest accounting of what I've lost and left behind. I did not leave Christianity casually or hastily, it was an excruciating and overly-drawn-out split, even as it happened in a relatively short time span. Am I happier now? Probably. But separating my life situation and its impact on my happiness as opposed to the effect of my faith situation would be really difficult. In Madison, I wasn't so happy, but I also didn't have many friends and spent most of my day alone with toddlers. But I've also come to believe that happiness isn't necessarily the point. An authentic life has its own rewards, a questioned life has its own beauty. I'm not saying that you can't have an authentic or questioned life within Mormonism, of course you can, I'm just saying that even if I was somehow presented with the choice on whether to return to where I was before, comforted and comfortable, believing what I then believed, or stay where I am now, conflicted and wondrously confused, I, personally, would choose to stay here, embedded peacefully in the mystery.

This is mostly a first draft of a paper for seminary with some academic references removed, because nobody should have Calvin imposed upon them. But if you would like to read the full paper when I finish it in a few days, let me know.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Austin is winning, now

Here's another boring update on our Austin life: sunshine-y, warm, pleasant. All around. We are making lots of new friends, playing Dungeons and Dragons, attending an adult sex-ed class (awesome!) and hanging out at The Local bar with aforementioned new friends. We went camping a few weekends ago with the Live Oak UU congregation, not our congregation but one up north that has a lot of young families. It was a blast, though a little awkward as most of the people there were really good friends. I hope one day we are part of such a tight-knit church community.

Right before Atticus had a 30-minute meltdown after Tallulah stepped on a beetle he was holding.

Indra and her parents (Erin and Paul) go to FUUCA, and we ate dinner at their house the day we came home from camping. She's only a few weeks older than Atticus but acts about two years older. She's taller by a foot and reads very, very well. They also have chickens and an A-MAZING house.

My pottery teacher mailed me my creations from the summer.

Tim took the kids on a duck tour with his school while I was at work last week.

Will and Tasha were in Egypt/Jordan/Israel with us in 2009, when Tasha was pregnant with Locke. They moved to Austin for Will to go to school and had baby Anna (who is pretty adorable). Tallulah loves her and asks if we can have a "baby Anna" on a regular basis. We met up with them a few weeks ago to play at the free Austin Science and Nature Center.


His latest obsession is writing... all the time.

Atticus's writing -- "efterÄr" is the Danish word for autumn.
Last but certainly not least, we are loving FUUCA. It's not FUS, yet, but we are starting to make more friends and the kids love playing on the playground for a few hours after services end. Last week was women spirituality day service, and the women (or men, or whoever) were giving crowns to wear. Tallulah is my powerful little she-goddess daughter. I am crazy about her.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Keeping Austin beautiful

Life here has been hectic. I still don't feel settled and familiar with the city yet. With trying to get Atticus into school (and then wishing Atticus wasn't in school... but that's a whole different post), trying to find a job, and Tim's school schedule, we are being kept plenty busy but I'm also really bored and lonely. 

Last Monday, Atticus had to get three vaccines. He really only needed one (Hep B) to be in compliant but he had two he needed to get before kindergarten so they did them all at once. I asked them not to, but apparently when you go to a free vaccine clinic no one listens to you about your child's body. The clinic was held in a high school gym, and there were several kids before us. Since there was no curtain or anything, Atticus watched kid after kid sit down, briefly cry, and go about their business. He was all set to get shots when we arrived, but by his turn he was *freaking* out. It took three of us to hold him down, and since he moved when the nurse poked him he bled and bled. All over me and his shirt. The nurse was also freaking out a bit, and started just sticking band-aids on rather than applying pressure. Then I had to drag two screaming (Lu started screaming when she saw brother being held down) children back to the car which was around the entire building. I walked past a police officer carrying two kids under each arm and I'm surprised she didn't stop and question me.

Last week, we also discovered The Thinkery, or the Austin children's museum. It was huge and amazing, and we didn't even make it to the second floor!

Last Friday, Tim was one of the officiants at the Blessing of the Animals at the seminary. He looked ridiculous (but in a sexy kind of way...) in his alb.

Tallulah loved the animal part of the ceremony. And brought her cat on her dress.
 Last Saturday, we joined up with fellow seminarians for the Keep Austin Beautiful campaign to clean up the creek that runs between the housing and the school buildings. Tallulah made it all of three minutes before she fell in and needed to go home for a warm bath, but Atticus helped the entire time and even won the award for coolest thing found (an electric razor). He won a gift certificate to a local REI-type store and bought build-your-own robot magnets.

Since the weather on Saturday was glorious, we went for a hike too.

This is *supposed* to be a full creek.

In other news, I got a job! Tim got a job too, as the "Assistant to the Faculty" at the seminary which means he sits at a desk and does homework, and occasionally makes copies or scans book chapters. I got a position as "digital advocate" at the National Domestic Violence Hotline ( I'll be answering the incoming chats, counseling, providing referrals, etc. I'm excited to begin, though I have another week before we even start training, and then two weeks of training after that. I am going to be working evenings/nights so we won't have to pay for childcare which is great for now. We are still hoping Tallulah gets into the co-op preschool down the street but no luck yet. We've been going to a lot of unschoolers activities and have made some neat friends. Life is good.

Urban homesteading: Vermiculture

I have been obsessed with the notion of urban homesteading for awhile now. I love living around people, but I also love the idea of growing my own food, keeping chickens, having a few pet goats, bee-keeping, composting, etc. (want to learn more in a very readable, simple book? Check out Little House in the Suburbs). When I found out that the city of Austin offers a $75 rebate for the purchase of a home composter, how could I not?

After doing a little (ok, A LOT) of research, I found that keeping a large compost bin outside would be not plausible for us for a few reasons. Most compost bins need three parts browns (leaves, yard waste) to one part greens (food waste) and we have a lot more food waste and it would be hard for us to gather yard waste. The seminary is planning on doing composting at the main buildings, but they will be having it hauled away. I want to make my own for my future garden that is not yet in existence but will be in a few weeks (Texas! Year-round growing season!!) I realized that in a small space without our "own" yard I would need to do vermicomposting. If you don't want that means, it means: worms! Thousands of worms, living with us! Well, they were living with us inside for a while, until some roaches came, and now the bin has been relegated to a shady spot on our back "porch"... They can't be hotter than 80 degrees, so in the summer we'll bring them in and try to figure out how to keep the unpleasanter species out.

I love them. I never thought it was weird for people to love their red wriggler composting worms, but wasn't sure how I would love these worms. And let me tell you, I am in love with this whole vermiculture thing. They are so fun. The kids love having 1,000 (or maybe more now) worms hanging out on our back porch and ask every chance they get to "check on them." I love that I get to feed them my kitchen scraps (mostly veggie peels and carbs, no fats/onions/meat/citrus, I have learned). I have attempted on multiple occasions to compost (hauling our rotten food to the campus bins at UW, throwing them on the piles at the gardens, etc.) but all my efforts have been fairly unsustainable. Walking a mile with a bucket of food waste (or bringing it on the bus!) when it's 10 degrees outside makes throwing it the garbage seem a heck of a lot easier. And this is easy. All I have to do it chop up our banana peels, throw in the coffee groups, the egg shells, the carrot peels. I keep it in a bucket on the counter and then at the end of the day empty it into the worms' home. I was afraid we'd kill them, having no experience with worms but it seems almost fool-proof. The container came with supplies to make bedding, you throw it in, keep it wet and order some worms online. They arrive, you dump them in, pour some water, and start adding food. Easy enough for the kids to do. While we don't have any "results" yet -- it takes a few months for compost to mature, I have a feeling it will just get easier, and so far the worms appear to be thriving in their new home. I love that my kids are thriving learning about nature and natural processes and reducing their footprint by not throwing away perfectly good banana peels.

I am thrilled that I live in a progressive city that pays its residents to compost! You can also order a cheaper, super tiny trash can, which we have done but hasn't arrived yet. They also have a program to reimburse for rain barrels, my next endeavor.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Seminary so far

I've been a little hesitant to write about seminary, because, honestly it's been going so well and I felt bad, because I knew Cait was having a hard time. That's been one of the biggest challenges so far, for sure, Cait staying home full time for the first time. I was even hesitant about coming at all, because I didn't want it to seem, or be, that I gave Cait her little chance at school, and now it is time to get serious about my career. Hopefully, the reality is that we are simply continuing to share time at home and time away from home, shifting roles more or less smoothly as we look for good opportunities for our family. But now Cait is in a better place, she has a job, she's making friends, so I can now feel better about talking about seminary.

I am having a great time. Yes, I am sick of talking about the trinity. No, I'm not a huge fan of Calvin. But I am still having a great time. I am almost always excited to go to school, which was rarely true during my undergrad. I love the commute just walking across a bridge to get to school. I love the quality of the discussion in almost all my classes. I am finding some great activities and groups to be a part of here. And most of all, I've found some really great friends.

The biggest part of my choosing to go to seminary here in Austin over Starr King in Berkeley was how much cheaper it was going to be here. The second biggest part though, was the community that they seemed to have here. I saw part of it when I came out here for discovery weekend, both in the students that were in school and the people who were with me during the weekend. These are my kind of people. Some are very much like me in terms of personality, politics, sense of humor, and--dare I say it--religion. But others are not. What we all have in common, though, is that we are interested in getting at the big questions, and doing so in community.

Cait has asked me a few times why I am so happy here. It's been hard to pin down exactly, but I think I've got it: I feel authentic. I've had good friends before and a stimulating intellectual environment before. And I do spend a lot of my time on ideas that aren't really important or moving to me, like trinity or scriptural inerrancy. But amid all that, there is plenty of room to be myself, to have my voice heard, respected and even, at times, sought out. I was steeped in the bible and religion enough growing up to have something to say on most topics, and my faith journey has taken me on enough twists that I can sometimes have a meaningfully different opinion on some issues.

The balance has been tough though. I don't believe in God, but I believe that the concept of God is a very important placeholder for or conception of a lot of really important ideas of eternity, creation, sacredness, interrelation, etc. And I am certainly not out to take down anyone else's belief in God. So I have to be careful about being respectful of the common language that we are using to speak of things, and still being honest about what I believe. Mostly I do this by asking questions, not making statements, especially in class and saving my own statements of faith, or lack thereof, for safer or more open spaces.

Here at seminary, I don't have to be constantly justifying my fascination with religious topics to irreligious people or my lack of firm beliefs to firmly religious people. There's a definite recognition and respect for the religious journey of each person.

As far as the day to day goes, I now split my time between working as one of three assistants to the faculty, doing secretarial work (with a good amount of time left over for homework) and my four classes (Hebrew, Old Testament, Church History and Theology). To be honest, it doesn't feel all that different from BYU, when, with my Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic degree, my semesters were often full of classes of language and religion, whether on Islam or Mormon topics. They are easing us into the academic rigor of the program with shorter papers and traditional tests this first year. The papers will get longer and more frequent and the tests will disappear, as far as I understand it, in the next year. I am on a couple of committees, including the Library committee, the Corpus Christi eco-justice team, and a member of the Queer Alliance. Cait and I are also taking a sex ed class from one of our OWL-certified fellow seminarians, which has been great.The rest of my times is hanging out with the kids, doing the dishes and trying to convince my fellow seminarians to come over and watch netflix shows with us or going to one of the local hangouts with them after classes.

Helping lead the Blessing of the Animal Service with Corpus Christi
Right now we are on a week of fall break, which is awesome, after having finished most of our midterms, including a couple of papers. So I am resetting for the rest of the semester, trying to get ahead on some of the readings again and thinking about final papers. Classes here only run until the Monday after Thanksgiving, so the semester will be wrapping up before we know it.

Study desk with books

There's lots more I could say about seminary, obviously, and I probably will. But I wanted to get this first post out of the way, so that at least I've said something. Come down and visit, we've got an office/spare bedroom that is quite cozy. 

First day of school