Friday, November 27, 2015

The Lost Art of Conversation

One of the best compliments I ever got was from my friend Jason Harrold.  He said “You really know how to TALK to people.”  

I was surprised to hear that. I’ve always been pathologically shy and I consider myself to be the archbishop of social awkwardness, but after that, I started hearing the same compliment from other people in my life.  I certainly don’t think I’m an expert in the art of conversation but, just in case it might be helpful, I figured I’d share some of the things I do when I talk to people.  


One of the main things modern culture is sorely lacking is a feeling of connection between human beings.   I don’t think it’s because of computers and cell phones.  I think the reason we feel awkward or bored, and we then turn to computers and cell phones, is because we’ve forgotten how to talk to each other.  Everyone is too busy, or too distracted by their own problems, or too socially fearful, to connect. 

My goal when I speak to anyone, whether it’s a coworker or a stranger or a homeless person, is to find a way of connecting with that person.  I try to find something we have in common.  I ask them how they are doing or feeling.  I try to put myself in their shoes and empathize with any feelings they might express.  My profound, petrifying shyness used to prevent me from looking into people’s eyes but I found that when I really force myself to do it, a much stronger and more trusting connection occurs.  I also find that if I can make someone laugh, the connection grows stronger.


I used to think it was rude to ask people questions about themselves but my intense curiosity got the better of me and I started to ask “Where are you from?” “What do you do for a living?” and “Do you enjoy your job?”  Those three questions have been the gateway to some of the most fascinating exchanges I’ve ever had.  People love to talk about themselves, and in today’s society they are rarely given the chance.  How many people do you work with every day, that you have no idea where they were born?  How many people do you know, but you don’t know whether they’re married or single, whether their parents immigrated from another country, or whether they have children?  I am absolutely fascinated by people’s stories.  The success of the “Humans of New York” series on Facebook leads me to believe that most people are also fascinated by the stories behind the faces of people they see.  Why are we reluctant to ask people for their stories?  Our stories are one of the deepest ways in which we connect, because in our stories we see what is beyond the surface.   We also recognize parts of other people’s stories in our own lives, and that deepens our connection.


I try very, very hard to never interrupt anyone who is speaking to me.  Sometimes this means that I get an earful from an overzealous talkaholic, but most of the time it means that I am appreciated for being a good listener.   The majority of people I’ve spoken to in my life feel that nobody really listens to them.  They try to express themselves and tell their stories, and nobody cares.  No wonder everybody feels so lonely these days.  They have nobody to talk to.  People go to work and talk about superficial things in very short bursts.  Nobody wants to hear about their feelings or their struggles.  Nobody has time.  Luckily I’m curious.  I collect stories and I am fascinated by psychology and spirituality.  Everybody has an amazing story to tell.


I’m not an expert at this one.  Sometimes I find myself going over my 30-second limit when telling a story or expressing a point.  Sometimes I find myself countering an interesting fact that someone has told me by trying to top it or compare it with something I did, instead of asking the person to tell me more about their experience.  When I’m being aware, though, I put the focus on the person I’m talking to.  This is not a completely altruistic act.  It helps them feel good, yes, but it also takes the pressure off me to be entertaining and come up with something to say.  If someone asks me about myself I’ll gladly contribute, but my main focus is in learning about the person I’m speaking to.


When I was managing people in the business world I tried very hard to never just walk up to someone and say “I need you to do this, this and this NOW.” and then just walk away.  I always tried to structure the request by first asking “Do you have time to do this, this and this by this deadline?” and I always tried to empathize with them by saying something like “Yes, I know it’s insane, and I think the client is a total jerk, but we have to do it.  Is there anything I can do to help make this happen?”  or “If you can’t do it with the workload you have, I can get somebody else to do it.”  I always tried to imagine how I’d feel if I was really busy and somebody dumped this request on me.  Some people called me a wimp or overly codependent for phrasing requests this way, but at the end of the day I felt better about myself than I would have if I’d been more aggressive.  There have been times in my life when I was so stressed or annoyed that I just blurted things out and didn’t take someone’s feelings into account, and I always regretted it.  I try to treat people like human beings, and not like annoyances or servants.  

Here are some things I do NOT do when I talk to people:


There is a time and a place for scholarly debate, and an everyday conversation is not that time.  Nobody cares how cleverly I can argue a political or religious point.  Nobody wants me to teach them or convert them.  Arguing with people and trying to filibuster them into believing the same way I believe is a losing game.  Nobody is going to think I’m just soooooooo smart if I argue with them.  They’re going to think I’m a jerk.


Correction, like debating, assumes a level of familiarity that is usually not present.  I can correct or disagree with people I know very, very well and whom I trust.  Everybody else can yammer away with all kinds of inaccuracy and I will not correct them.  It’s not my job.  I can politely listen to someone who says “supposably” all day because I want to connect with that person and I can’t connect if I turn into a scolding, condescending jerk.


You know these people.  They’re the ones that if you say “Hey the sky is so blue today!” they’ll say “Well actually it’s not.  It’s got a little bit of gray in it so it’s not blue, it’s gray.”  Some people just love to flip every statement around so that they look like the truth-teller, the dispenser of the wisdom of the ages.  These people wonder why nobody ever wants to talk to them.  It’s because they are jerks.


In everyday conversations in which I’m trying to connect with people, I assume that they know nothing about me.  They might go off about how all southerners are redneck idiots because they don’t know I’m from the south.  I don’t get all puffed up and indignant and erupt with  “Well I take great offense at that!!! I am a SOUTHERNER!!!!”  I figure if I’m never going to see them again, nobody’s the wiser and if I am going to see them again, they’ll eventually find out I’m southern and they can be mortified in private. I do not wish to witness their mortification.  Life’s too short.  Nobody’s going to change their beliefs because of my offended outrage.  They’ll only think I’m a jerk.


Some people, when they are interrupted by some poor conversationalist who is trying meekly and desperately to get a word in edgewise, just get louder and LOUDer and LOUDER and talk right over that person.  I am not one of those people.  If I try to say something and you keep talking over me, I will shut up. You will be allowed to have a long, loud, uninterrupted soliloquy until you wear yourself out, and I will think YOU are a jerk.

So - those are the things I try to do/not do in order to make connections.  I’m not perfect at it, but unlike most modern humans I do not feel a lack of connection in my life.  I experience a lot of deep and meaningful connections with other people and these connections give me strength.  They remind me that we are all connected, and that our little tiny, everyday, seemingly fleeting conversations are the building blocks of our life together.

Friday, June 19, 2015

I have seen the Spectre; he has been here, too

After the massacre of nine innocent Christians in Charleston, humanity is again asking:
 “God, how can you allow such things to happen?” 

and God is asking once again, as he does over and over:
 “Humanity, how can YOU allow such things to happen?”

This morning after Mass, Sister Victoria said in anguish to me: “This happened back there, where I’m from.  That’s what makes it so bad.”  

Sister Victoria and I are both from Georgia.  When we were growing up we saw and heard things that reminded us that racism is still very much alive and that blacks can’t just “get over it” because “the Civil War happened 150 years ago.”  

After we left the south we realized that racism is also very much alive elsewhere, but we never forgot that it is particularly virulent in the south.  Racism, as we know, is not naturally occurring.  It is taught to children from birth by phrases that southern children know by heart far better than any BIble verses they learn in Sunday school.  Here are some of the phrases:

“Well of course there was a shooting down there.  It’s in n—— town.”

“I have some friends who are black, but they’re different.  They’re not like those n——-s.”

“He’s one of those educated, uppity n———s.”

“She’s a n—— lover.  She’s even got mulatto kids.”

“Up there at the government offices it’s nothing but lazy black women who don’t want to do any work, so they won’t help you.”

“Black men could get jobs.  They just don’t want to because they’re lazy.”

Just typing those phrases out makes me sick.  Even honoring them by putting them on this blog makes me sick, but everyone who grew up hearing these things is nodding right now in recognition.  Our education as fledgling racists was constant.  People we loved and respected would confuse us by being kind to blacks out in public, then spouting racist hatred at home behind closed doors.  

What made me and Sister Victoria different?  Why didn’t we become indoctrinated like so many had been before us?  I can only speak for myself, and the difference in my upbringing was that I had the distinct advantage of being extremely poor.  My family was always, as we used to say “five dollars away from being thrown out in the street.”  We were always moving because we couldn’t pay the rent.  Our phone was turned off all the time.  Our electricity was turned off all the time.  My father spent all his paycheck on drugs.  My mother couldn’t afford to buy any food for us so we ate at our Grandma’s house or at the houses of friends.  There was domestic violence and a lot of chaos in our home, and because of all this I couldn’t go to kindergarten.  Back in the early 70’s you had to pay for kindergarten and that was out of the question.  My mother is exceptionally intelligent and had taught me to read when I was three. She realized that her little daughters were bright and needed a good education, and so she enrolled us in a new program called Head Start.  You can read all about the Head Start program elsewhere, but in short, it was a school program for low-income children and it completely changed the course of my life.  

We had snacks at Head Start.  We learned by playing with puzzles and doing art.  We bonded with our fellow students and I made lots of friends.  As far as I can remember - I was the only white kid in my class.  My best friend was a very ladylike little black girl named Audrey and we greeted each other every morning with a kiss on the cheek.  

When I finally moved on to first grade, it was odd to be in a class where the white kids were the overwhelming majority.  I noticed that the races in this new elementary school did not mix.  The black kids sat together at lunch and the white kids sat together.  This would continue until I graduated from high school in 1984.  My senior yearbook, as had all yearbooks in the years since the schools were integrated in the 1960s, contained a page for “Best Looking WHITE couple” and “Best Looking BLACK couple.”

I heard tales from people who had grown up amidst the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and it occurred to me that no - the Civil War had not removed all the obstacles blacks faced so they could just “get over it.”  The problems still lived on.  It was very hard for a culture that had been enslaved, denied any chance at education and been confined to the lowest levels of poverty and deprivation to rise above its past.  It was made virtually impossible for blacks to “just move on” because of the attitudes of a culture that still saw them in many ways, in that awful, constant repeating of racist phrases, as sub-human.  

My friend Michael knew a woman who told a chilling tale.  She was a schoolchild in the 1960s and for several days the school bus in which she rode every morning passed under a bridge from which a black man was hanging by the neck, dead.  She asked why and she was told that this man’s dead body was there to “send a message.”

This happened within my lifetime.  Many murders and much violence against blacks has happened during my lifetime, and in my mind the Civil War is still happening.  Why didn’t I get the message of racism and hate?  I rejected the message because I was poor.  I knew black people personally.  I went to their homes and met their parents.  One of my dearest friends in the world, Warren, is half black, half Italian.  We met when we were twelve years old and we are still close to this day. When I was a teenager I spent more time at his house, listening to Donna Summer records, than I spent at my own home.  I loved his Grandma and his sister and they treated me like family.  

In spite of my connections with a few friends like Warren, I still feel tremendous guilt that I was too afraid to go sit with the black kids in the lunchroom in elementary school and high school - especially because we were all eating the same free breakfasts and lunches from the government.  I was afraid to reach out and make more black friends because I was afraid they would hate me for what white people had done to their culture.  I stayed timidly with the pack of white kids and  looked across the chasm at some girls who had been my dear friends in Head Start, whom I assumed would despise me now.

When I was a sophomore in high school we were so poor that in spite of my doing well at cheerleader tryouts, I was told I couldn’t be on the squad because my family couldn’t afford to pay for uniforms or camp.  I joined the color guard in the marching band, thinking it wouldn’t be too costly because the uniforms and equipment were hand-me-downs.  For one homecoming game my junior year, we were all told that we had to buy a large chrysanthemum with “WR” for West Rome High School spelled out with green pipe cleaners, attached to the flower.  I asked my Mom for the five dollars to buy my flower and she gave her usual response “Go look in my purse to see if I have any money.”  I looked in her wallet and of course, as usual, there was nothing.  Not even any change.  I went to school the next day and told the band director I wasn’t going to get a flower because I didn’t have the money and I figured oh well, that was that.  

The following weekend the band and various school groups had to march in a parade before the big game, and so the band and the color guard assembled in front of the town hall, getting ready to line up and march in the parade.  I kept my eyes to the ground, embarrassed that I was the only color guard member without a flower.  The color guard captain, a black girl, walked up to me in the crowd and said “Hey, all of us girls in the color guard chipped in and bought one for you.”  She handed me a chrysanthemum and to this day my eyes still well up with tears, thinking of that moment.  In spite of my fear of making black friends, my fear that they hated me, this black girl was handing me a gift out of the goodness of her heart.  

That was an act of true love, and will never forget it. 

God gave us free will.  We are not robots.  What choice was it of ours, in the long line of choices over millennia, that led to that young man killing those people?  Why can't humanity make the choice to stop sending out messages of racism to young, impressionable ears?  Evil doesn’t just reside in the hearts of people like Dylann Roof.  It resides in all of us when we repeat those phrases - that litany of hate - out into the world.  What particular phrase was it that Dylann Roof heard that finally made him decide to do these things?  We may never know, but he heard it from one of us.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Found Hearts

The main reason I entered the Religious life is so that I can hear God more clearly.  Throughout the Bible, God reminds us that we can all have happier, healthier and more meaningful lives if we just listen to him and follow his loving guidance.

That’s great if you can actually hear him, but I never could.  I was never Horton to God’s Who.  It was kind of embarrassing, actually.  Here I was going to church, reading the Bible and spouting off all kinds of wisdom from what I’d read but I never actually got anything from the horse’s mouth.

Like most people, I am exceedingly bad at making decisions.  I either collect facts and come up with 5,000 different scenarios and then I become paralyzed by fear, or I make a sudden decision that turns out to be an utter disaster.  My choices in my life have most certainly added up to something really great, but it certainly hasn’t been through my own efforts.  

I used to ask God for his guidance all the time: “C’mon, God - just let me know.  Should I leap forth from my pathological shyness and confess my feelings to this guy who seems to be thrown’ the vibes my way?  Should I?” and God would be silent.  I’d ask him over and over, every night.  I once did this for four years.  God didn’t say a word.   

Finally I made one of those extremely stupid, rash decisions and I blurted out my feelings for the four-year-crush guy because that always works when quirky gals do it in the movies (right, God?) Well unfortunately it didn’t work for me.  The guy said “Oh, well, um, wow.  I really, really don’t even remotely feel the same way, and I - I just feel incredibly awkward right now and I  - yeah, I gotta go…” 

…and he never spoke to me again, in spite of several pathetic emails and texts on my part.

Thanks a lot, God.

I once heard a preacher down south say that he had an elderly meemaw in his parish who was so in tune with God’s guidance that she once told him she had to go return a dress because she realized she’d forgotten to ask God whether she should buy it.  I always wished I could be like that.  What a great life I’d have, I thought, if only I could hear God.  Maybe he wasn’t being silent, I thought.  Maybe he was desperately trying to talk to me but that I just wasn’t on the right frequency.  

In 2001, I started going on retreats at St. Mary’s Retreat House in Santa Barbara twice a year in order to be silent and still, and listen to God.  Of course, being me, I couldn’t really be silent.  My thoughts were going a mile a minute and I jam-packed my brain by trying to read all the books in the library.  I power-walked all over Santa Barbara while yakking away at God in my head, and I took the tour of the Santa Barbara Mission over and over because I’m a nerd and I love history.

God finally broke through, though, during one of those crazy retreats in 2004.  I was sitting in the retreat house garden, reading a pithy 10-pound tome on the history of the Anglican church, and the sunlight was filtering through the canopy of a very tall eucalyptus tree above me, onto the page of my book.  I was bored to death with what I was reading but I was forcing myself to concentrate, even though I’d read the same paragraph several times without absorbing a single word.  Then - there it was - a heart.  It had smoothly formed itself right in the middle of the paragraph I was reading, from the sunlight through the tree leaves, in perfect symmetry.  There was no mistaking this heart made of sunshine. It wasn’t a blob that kind of looked like a heart.  It was as perfect as a cardboard valentine’s day heart. Even as the tree leaves shifted, the heart remained.  It wasn’t huge, either.  It was only about an inch high.  It stayed on the page for about five minutes, which is a long time.  Chills ran up my spine.  For the first time in my life, I heard God loudly and clearly.  He loved me.  

I was so moved by that little heart that I said “Ok, God.  That was so beautiful, you don’t ever have to say anything again. I know you love me, and that’s all I need to know.”  

God kept sending me hearts, though.  There’s a whole caught-moment photo trend of “found hearts” these days, pointing out to us all that there are hearts everywhere, but my little light-heart happened long before I knew about that trend.   I’d never noticed how many hearts there are in the world until after that heart appeared on my book.  They’d show up on sidewalks, in the pattern of wood or marble, and in leaves and flowers.  I continued to ask God for guidance on life’s big decisions, and I continued to be deaf to his advice, but he continued to tell me he loved me.  Even as I drove across the country with my friend Warren from LA to the east coast as I prepared in great fear to join the convent, I saw the hearts on the big signs of Love’s Travel Stops all along the highways and I knew God loved me.

In the silence and meditation of the Religious life, we learn tools to help us hear God or - in some cases - to feel God and recognize that it’s him.  I’ve been using these tools and I’ve come so far that I feel like a city-dweller who’s never been able to see the stars because of all the air pollution and light interference of the city, but who suddenly looks up and sees a sky full of stars in the clear air of the country.  

At first I kept hitting God with the big life-questions and I still couldn’t hear him.  Then one day God gave me something to ponder:  How could I ask God for help with the big things if I didn’t trust him with the small things?  I decided to try being like that devout southern meemaw with her dress. “Hey God,” I would ask him, “Should I get gas now or wait till after I go to Home Depot?”  “Should I run by Kings and get a coffee or will that be cutting it too close to get back in time for Vespers?”  Much to my shock, God gave me little nudges.  I kept asking him these itty bitty things, and it kept working out really well.

I know that pride often goeth before a fall, but I think I’m getting pretty good at this.  Today I was in retreat so my time was unstructured.  I decided to ask God “Where should I go for lunch?” and instead of mulling it over I said “Hey God - I’m not even going to be a part of this decision. I’m just going to get in the car and start driving, and you lead me where you want me to go to lunch.”  I got all confident and happy and then I froze in fear, keys in hand, by the front door.  “Wait a minute, God.  Is this crazy?  Am I being crazy?” No answer.  I decided to be crazy.

Without any aforethought, I ended up at the Chester Diner.  It’s an ok place but I’ve had some kind of “meh” experiences with their omelets so I still wasn’t quite sure if I was being crazy or if God really wanted me to go there.  Much to my surprise, I got a booth.  I never get a booth.  I’m a lone diner.  I love my own company and frequently go out to eat alone, but lone diners don’t get booths, and they especially don’t get booths on holiday weekends.  Thanks, God.  That one was pretty cool.

As I pored over the menu and calculated how much I could afford to order on what remained of my $50-a-month-allowance after I’d foolishly blown most of it on craft supplies and sugar-free Werther’s, I asked God what I should order.  “I want a hamburger.  That’s what I want.  No wait - God is that you telling me that, or is it Fat Sister Monica wanting to get fatter and pretending it’s you?  Should I order what Skinny Sister Monica would want and assume that’s what you want me to have?  Actually I think I want a cheeseburger because I think you’re telling me that you want me to be fat and happy.”

Then the waitress walked up and I said “I’ll have a Cobb salad with oil and vinegar, no cheese.”  I guess God didn’t want me to be fat and happy after all.  

I have to tell you, though, it was a really good Cobb salad.  Maybe this place was under new management.  I scarfed the whole thing and decided God wanted me to also have a cafe au lait in order to enjoy life while avoiding acid reflux.  The waitress came over to clear my plate and I said “Ok, I’ll get the check whenever you have a chance.” She just smiled and said “Actually somebody already paid your bill.  You don’t have to do anything.”

I was so touched I almost started crying right there.  I looked around the room to see who did it, but nobody caught my eye.  I stumbled through a thank you to the waitress, and then out to the car. “God, you’re soooooo smarrrrrt!!!”, I shouted inside my brain.  I was giddy.  I decided to keep this thing going.  “Ok, let’s just drive around, God.  I have no GPS and no smart phone, and these roads are all winding country roads and I get lost very easily and you know, Lord, that being lost is one of my pathological fears. Let’s do it.  I trust you. Tell me where to go.”

I turned down a country road, wound around and got lost on purpose.  I tried to remember the names of all the roads I took in case I had to reverse my trip but I lost track.  I drove and drove for about thirty minutes, up a mountain called - no lie - Mt. Olive - and I passed through one nondescript neighborhood after another with no sign of major roads or familiar landmarks.  I was so scared at one point I thought “Yep, God.  I’m crazy.  I’ve gotten myself lost with no bathroom in sight, and you know good and well I’m going to have to pee at some point because I drank that stupid Cafe au lait.”  I kept going, though because like the Jewish people schlepping around in the desert for 40 years - I had no choice.  I just tried to stay calm and listen to those little nudges in my soul saying “turn left here,” “keep to the right at this fork,” and just as I was starting to think “Hey, I haven’t had to pee yet…” - there it was - a heart.  

It wasn’t just a heart.  It was the giant heart that is part of the logo of Merry Heart nursing home, where I’ve taken communion to an elderly CSJB Associate more than once.  There was the heart, reminding me that God loves me, and after getting myself completely lost, I suddenly knew where I was.  I was on highway 10, and I found my way very easily back home.

I’m the worst at making choices, but God loves me and he keeps me on track.  He never lets me forget that.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Written June 11, 2013

I have been visiting Episcopal Convents on a regular basis for about 14 years, hoping to discern whether I was really being called to religious life or if it was just another one of my crazy countercultural ideas.  For many years I went twice a year to St. Mary's Retreat House, which sits right behind the Mission in Santa Barbara, to see the Sisters of the Holy Nativity.  I also visited the Community of the Transfiguration in Cincinnati and the Society of St. Margaret in Boston.  In the meantime I also met monks from the Order of the Holy Cross, Society of St. Francis and the Society of St. John the Evangelist in my various church activities and travels, and in every encounter with every Monk and Nun I asked the same question: "What is it like?" 

I'm a planner, a worrier (I always thought the Scandal song "Warrior" should be reworked for me as "I am - the Worrier.") and a pessimist.  Every choice in my life has been made with tremendous trepidation, and I felt like I just couldn't really make the leap into being a Nun until I got a concrete sense of what my life would really be like.  I'm a details person.  I needed to know what kind of mattress I would have, what I would wear, what kind of towels I would use and all the infinitesimal sensory details of everyday life.

Really all these details were just a substitute for the real fear of "Would I fail miserably?" but still I pressed on, asking and asking, and I never got an answer.  Monastics answer questions in a very general, philosophical way and of course that doesn't compute in a robotic, binary brain like mine.  "What is it like?" I would ask, over and over, and I would get answers like this:

"It's different in every community, and it's different for every person."

"No, I mean," I would ask "What is it REALLY like?"

They would then launch into a long philosophical answer that would make the Dalai Lama sound taciturn:  

"Well the Religious Life feels like whatever you want it to feel like.  It is your choice, and your own subjective view of what God wants you to feel.  There are lessons and hardships and uncertainty, and always you are growing closer to God.  If you are meant to be in the Community, God will show you…"

Yeah, ok that's all very valuable but none of it really ever answered my question.

Now that I am actually in the Religious Life and not observing it from the position of a visitor - an audience to the outward indications - I know now, fully, why I kept asking that same question. It's because Monasteries and Convents have always been shrouded in mystery and seen by the public through a tangle of misconceptions that come from hearsay, overly sentimental books and very cheesy movies.   

When I was in discernment, all I knew of my life to come was what I had learned from reading The Nun's Story over and over, and from reading books by non-Monks and Nuns about their own visits to Communities.  I had the same misconceptions that everybody has about a very cold, stark and harsh Medieval life.  Until I was received as a Postulant in October I really thought I might have to shave my head and be allowed to shower only once a week - just like the Sisters in the Nun's Story.  I thought I would spend most of my days scrubbing floors, on my knees, and cleaning toilets.  My Nun's cell, I imagined, would be a cold cement cubicle with a thin mattress, only a little cotton blanket for cover and only a tattered curtain to separate me from loudly snoring Sisters.  I figured there would be very little heat in the winter, and no air conditioning in the summer.  I suspected that I'd be ordered around like a child and told to flog myself with small whips as penance for my sins.  When I realized that everybody else probably has these same preconceived notions about the Religious Life, I finally understood why nobody in their right mind would want to become a Monk or a Nun these days.  

But - in spite of all my Medieval fears, I did it anyway -  only because I'd gotten to the point in my life where couldn't NOT do it.  I thought the Convent would be so awful, and I would end up with consumption or tuberculosis from the hardship of my life, but I decided it would be worth it.  I would suffer these adversities gladly because my beloved Savior suffered much worse for my sake.

Boy, was I wrong.  The books and movies about Religious Life are way, way, way off the mark.  

After the Second Vatican Council in the mid-sixties, the life of most Monks and Nuns changed forever.  It went from being Medieval to being humanistic.  The Anglican Church followed the lead of Roman Catholics in transitioning Monasteries and Convents from places of discipline and harshness and humiliation to being places where women and men of prayer could grow and flourish.  Now - nobody's perfect so it's taken many decades for the shift to really kick in.  Some Communities are still stuck in the Middle Ages and some are so modern and healthy that they resemble hippie communes but without the drugs and free love.  

I can't speak for every other Community, but I can speak for this one, and now I would like to answer my own question "What is it like?" from my own limited, subjective point of view in order to dispel some of the myths surrounding this life. 

First of all - very importantly - our Superiors are no longer called "Mother" and we are no longer expected to be blindly obedient children to them.  They are called "Sister Superior,"  they encourage and expect feedback, and they regularly ask each Sister how she's doing.  We don't observe the rules of Silence, or sit through six prayer services a day or eat fish on Fridays out of some meek, frightened obedience to our Superior but rather out of our mutual agreement that these things are extremely important to us.  We aren't reprimanded for our faults like toddlers, but more like employees at any modern company would be.  The basic structure of Community - at least in this Community - is much more similar to many companies where I've worked than it is to anything I've read in a book or seen in a movie.  

So what is the Religious Life like - to me, in my brief experience of it? It is surprisingly nice, cozy and secure. There is nothing about it that feels harsh and Medieval.  We live our lives with many ancient customs, but we don't live an ancient life.  I shower every day, just like I did in my secular life, and I did not have to cut off all my hair.  Each community has different rules about what the Sisters wear and look like, and in this particular one they don't really give a hoot what my hair looks like.  We all mutually agree that we don't want to be too concerned with outward appearances and vanity, so I can't dye my hair bright red or wear a face full of piercings, but that's fine with me.  Those rules make sense to me.  

I don't sleep in a concrete cubicle.  I have a very small, simple private room that is less spartan than it is Zen.  My twin bed is extremely comfortable, I can have as many blankets as I want, and I've never been freezing or swelteringly hot in the Convent.  There are five of us here on the third floor and we share two bathrooms, and everyone is very respectful and polite about the shower schedule so there are no conflicts there.  I also have a nice little office with a door (something I never had in my secular work life) and I have a computer, printer and unrestricted access that any responsible grownup would have to the web, email, Facebook, etc.  All of the Sisters have cell phones.  They're not iphones - just simple flip phones - and we're expected to be responsible about them, but we can use them as we see fit.

All my clothing, shoes and food are provided for me by the Community, and they are more than adequate.  The food here is so delicious and abundant that all of us Sisters are constantly fretting about our weight.  When I get into the shower there are three or four different, excellent brands of each soap, shampoo, etc. that the Sister in charge of that category has put there for all of us.  If I want a pair of shoes, or anything else, I'll ask the Superior if my particular choice is ok and works within the current budget, and she tells me yes or no.  Just like in a (healthy) marriage, we're expected to spend money prudently and wisely, always keeping the big picture in mind.  I get a small allowance every month, in cash, and I never spend it all because I can't think of very many things I need.  

I think many people feel called to religious life but they don't believe Convents and Monasteries have anything to offer modern men and woman.  After I entered I was pleasantly surprised to find that this life does offer quite a few things that I, and most modern human beings, do need on a very deep level.  I think in this busy, noisy insane world most of us crave peace and quiet.  Most of us, even non-spiritual types, also desperately need to feel that our life has meaning.  Life in a religious community offers both of those things in plenitude.  There are many frustrations and imperfections and challenges, but we have space around our heads to really focus and think, in the silence, and we have more strength to deal with the stresses of our life together because we feel like what we are doing is tremendously worthwhile.  I'm just as busy and sometimes overwhelmed as I ever was in my secular work life, but it doesn't feel the same.  I feel like everything I am doing, even the smallest of things, is helping to fight the good fight.

Modern people - especially single women - also need to feel like our future is secure.  No future is totally secure of course, but community life comes pretty close.  We Sisters have health insurance, homes, food and clothing until the day we die.  As long as our Community stays afloat, we are taken care of by it.  We are also a team, and we go through the tragedies and triumphs of life together - leaning on each other all the way.  Even if this Community went bankrupt and we lost everything, there are other Communities in the Episcopal Church that we could join.  Sisters take each other to doctor appointments, fuss over each other when we're sick, and even today at lunch one of my Sisters saw me looking pensive and pulled me aside afterwards to ask "Are you ok?"  We keep an eye on each other, and we genuinely care about each others' health and happiness.

Now, I also don't want to paint an inaccurate picture, also seen in movies and books, of saintly Sisters gliding down hallways and speaking to each other only in tones of sweetness and wisdom.  Out of all the awful things I expected, the only one that actually held true was that living with a bunch of women is not easy. The way Sisters relate to each other is less like the Sound of Music and more like a very old married couple in which each partner thinks the other one is totally nuts and that all their actions are insane and preposterous.  Sisters in community sometimes speak to each other in that annoyed short-hand style that old couples have, and oftentimes it's downright hilarious.  They scold each other and argue over crazy things that make no sense, and they go behind each other opening and closing windows, turning off lights and griping about each other just like old married people do.  Learning to live with all their idiosyncrasies, and hoping that they'll learn to live with mine, is certainly a challenge but it's something we really do work on every day.  We also acknowledge frequently that in spite of the fact that we drive each other crazy, we really love each other and any of us would gladly take a bullet for another.  I knew that living with people would be hard since I've always been a loner and loved living by myself, but I'm pleasantly surprised to find out that it's the ONLY part that is hard for me. This friction of living together is also one of the many reasons that we're all totally ok with the rules of Silence.  Silence in a community of women is a very, very good and necessary thing.  Any married man reading this is probably nodding his head vigorously about right now.

In the weeks leading up to my Novice Clothing I went from anxiety to sheer terror.  The night before the ceremony I had colder feet than any bride could ever imagine.  I thought the minute I was brought into the Community I'd be whisked off to a cement room to have my head shaved, and handed a  whip with which to flog myself every night for my sins.  The minute I was brought into the Chapel in my new Habit, though, I was flooded with a tremendous sense of peace and happiness.  I felt like the weight of the world - of fighting to survive as I hurtled toward a dark, uncertain, solitary future - was gone.  I knew that God would take care of me and in the words of Julian of Norwich ""…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."   I'm still very new, but this feeling still has not left me.  

Every day I'm still running into, and dispelling, another misconception about being a Nun.  I was talking to my Novice Director just a couple of weeks ago about rules concerning our appearance and I said "I need to know some more specifics.  I know some things - like I can't dye my hair or shave my legs…" and my Novice Director interrupted me and said "What do you mean?  I shave my legs all the time."  HAHA!  Who knew?  

So - what is it like?  It's not perfect, but it's wonderful.  If I had known how wonderful it is, and that the Episcopal Church had religious communities, I would have done it when I was 18.  The religious life has so much deep joy and stability and meaning that people really need, and I pray that more people will find us.

Because I don't want to Flunk Substitutional Atonement

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
  the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
--God - Hosea 6:6

“We’ll kill the fatted calf tonight, so stick around.”
--Elton John and Bernie Taupin - Bennie and the Jets

As Im heading into the mysterious depths of the end of Holy Week this year, Im trying to wrap my mind around the concept of Jesus dying for our sins.  
Its baffling to me.  Ever since the first time I ever heard a Baptist preacher proclaim it from a pulpit when I was a child, Ive periodically pondered it and then decided it was just over my head.  Ive skipped it in my spiritual development just like I skip math questions on I.Q. tests.  Its too complicated.  It bounces off my brain like a Nerf ball.  I dont know the ins and outs of this covenant that God made by sacrificing his only son, but I know its the truth just like I dont know how electricity works but I know it makes lightbulbs glow
This year, though, I am a nun.  Ive got to get some kind of grasp of this theological trigonometry question or Ill be struck dumb when some earnest spiritual seeker asks me about it in the future.  Ive never been to seminary, Im bored to tears by long intellectual diatribes on the subject and I dont have any real concept of the correct theology on it so Ive decided simply to figure out what I, personally, think the whole thing means. 

God sacrificed his son for us.  Ok, lets start there.  Sacrifice was something humans had been doing for tens and thousands of years before Abraham (or the succession of men represented by the symbolic allegorical character of Abraham, if thats your thing) left his home in Sumeria (from whence some believe he came) at the urging of God.  Sumerians sacrificed livestock and humans to appease their many gods, and so did just about every other group that had evolved to the point of trying to figure out how to influence nature, disease, pestilence and whatever else was plaguing them.  
Early man created gods and then decided that the way to keep the gods happy was to kill the firstborn and most valuable creature they owned, and then give it to the gods.  This seemed reasonable because everybody had to slaughter animals at home for food anyway, and if you slaughtered your best animal and cooked it for some powerful or scary guys who suddenly showed up at your house it made them happy, and it might have prevented them from killing you.  
The gods didnt swoop down and eat the sacrificed animals, so the sacrificial meat of animals was eaten by the guests at the worship.  
Somewhere in the Iron Age, Abraham heard God speaking to  him.  I believe God had spoken to many, many men before and they all went “Wait, did I hear something…?  Nahhhh.”
Abraham listened and God said “Ok, this isnt what its all about.  Go move out into the boondocks with your family and your herds Ill set you on the right path.”   
God then did something completely unexpected, which God often does he told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, for him.  This is horrific to modern minds but while it was difficult for Abraham to do, it wasnt exactly horrific to his ancient mind. He, and every other person who worshipped any kind of higher being, had never known anything else.  People killed animals and humans for gods.  That was the way the universe worked.  
Then God did something even more unexpected:  He stopped Abraham, told him he didnt really have to kill Isaac, and that he was only testing him to see if he really regarded this voice he heard as an actual god, and that he would offer not only a sacrifice, but the utmost sacrifice to this new God.  This is when the first Covenant was made with the first people whose understanding had evolved far enough to look not only at their outside world through their worship and sacrifice, but within themselves.  It was also the first time that God said You know all that sacrificing that you people are doing?  You dont have to do it.  Everything on earth is mine.  You dont have to cook my own stuff and give it to me because its mine already.  Got it?  Im not some little guy living in a volcano who has to be fed.  I dont get hungry.  Im God.  I’m bigger than that.  I gave you that livestock for you to feed your families.  Stop wasting it!!”

And of course, people didnt get it.  They couldnt.  They were not advanced enough to grasp the concept of sacrificing their spirits and their wills to God instead of their animals and their fellow humans.  Over and over in the Bible, God says Im not like all those false gods. Stop doing false god stuff.  I dont need sacrifices.   I dont need a temple.  Im not like those imaginary guys Zeus and Poseidon who need temples to live in, ok?  Im everywhere. I dont live in a little house. and people insisted on building a temple.  For hundreds of years, they worshipped this one true and living God, who was bigger than anything they could possibly imagine, in the way that they had worshipped all the false gods.   God tolerated it because he knew they were primitive, and he loved them enough to meet them where they were at that point in history.
In the 12th Century Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides writes:
"But the custom which was in those days general among men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up consisted in sacrificing animals... It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God...that God did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service. For to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present [the 12th Century] if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to God nor fast, nor seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action." 

God is currently tolerating our worship of him through candles, silky vestments and/or praise bands because he loves us and therefore he humors us.

The ancient Jews added a new reason for ritual sacrifice that was unheard of by pagans.   They offered up their finest, firstborn livestock as a payment for - sin.  Thomas Cahill points out in his book The Gifts of the Jews that ancient pagan religions didnt really have a concept of sin.  Their focus was completely outward.  They offered up their most valuable things to the gods to ward off things that might harm them from the outside.  Jews offered their sacrifices to repair negative things that had happened to their souls.  God said, over and over, You dont have to do that.  Just come to me with a contrite heart, ask for my forgiveness and then go and sincerely try to do better.

Did people listen?  Of course not.  God just slapped his forehead and said Oy vey!  More barbecued lamb.  How stupid can these people BE?”  He decided that since we weren’t getting it, he’d have to come down here himself.

Jesus Christ appeared on the scene in the midst of all this burnt offering stuff that God didnt want, at the Temple that God didnt want, and he kept saying things that people didnt understand.  He would bestow the deep wisdom of the whole of creation upon his Apostles and they would respond by asking exasperatingly stupid questions.  Still, even though humans werent quite ready to grasp the concept of a God who was beyond the reach of our tiny, primitive minds, Jesus did something that was far, far beyond anything anybody expected: He offered himself as a human sacrifice. 

Maybe this, God thought, will finally show them that all I really need is their love.  They keep giving me gifts.  I will give them a gift.  This is my only Son and Im sacrificing him for you.  Have your false gods ever given you anything?  I give you myself to be broken and to suffer and die just like these millions of living creatures have suffered and died, and just as many millions have died proclaiming my name.  Here is a gift for you because I love you so much.

A God who gives US a sacrifice?   This is still astonishing, all these centuries later.

God offered his only son to us as a gift.  The very least we can do is give him our love.  We can come to him and ask his forgiveness any time we dont love ourselves or others, and he will forgive us.  That’s what I personally think the New Covenant means.  We don’t have to do a whole barbecue.  God’s not one of those imaginary guys who needs barbecue.  He’s bigger than that.

It would be foolish to think that when Christ died on the cross, his followers immediately said “Ohhhh - that’s what God meant all those 900 times he said ‘Stop giving me sacrifices.  Just talk to me.”  Humans of all religions still kept doing it, but gradually most of them stopped and began focusing on a more personal conversation with God.   Some faiths still do ritual sacrifices, and God patiently puts up with it because he knows we’re a little slow.

Everything we have is a gift from God - our world, our selves, and God himself.  One of the gifts that God gives us is free will.  We can choose whether to love and follow him or not.  When we give this gift back to him and love him with our whole heart, we allow  him to guide us with his own will.  

How do we let him guide us?  We listen.  We can hear God very clearly in our gut instincts, in that “little voice in our head,” in the red flags that we often ignore.  We can hear him when we study the Bible and a phrase mystically jumps off the page and resonates deep within us.  We can hear him when we study prayer and work on deepening our relationship with him.  We can hear him when others say things to us that strike a chord in our souls.  We can hear him in art, music, church, therapy…anywhere we choose to listen and wait for his instructions.

We’re still doing a lot of stupid things in our clumsy attempts to worship a God that is beyond our comprehension, but God understands.  He knows we’re trying.

Jesus, Take the Wheel!!!

Jesus, Take the Wheel!!!

Man:  God, how long is a million years to you?

God:  Only a minute

Man:  How much money is a million dollars to you?

God:  Only a penny

Man:  Can I have a million dollars?

God:  Sure, wait a minute.

My mother, who was born at the Holy Name of Jesus Hospital in Gadsden, Alabama and who has a southern accent so thick and incomprehensible that even southerners can’t figure out what she’s saying, has a tendency to blurt out the phrase “LORRRRD HEPPP!” in moments of tremendous astonishment. My sisters and I think this is so hilarious that we often call her up with shocking information just to hear her say it.  I’ll eagerly ring her up  and say “Mom, my friend Stephanie is getting married on Saturday to a seven-foot tall transvestite named Amanda Hugandkiss and get this - Amanda is a minister at the Pentecostal church.” to which my mother will reply, at top volume, so you have to hold the phone a yard away from your ear to avoid being deafened:  “LORRRRRRD HEPPPPPP!!!!!”

I think it might mean “Lord, help me” - like maybe - this information is so profoundly weird that I simply cannot absorb it.  Help me, Lord, to take it in without fainting dead away.  Mom has said it all her life, and she looks at us like we’re nuts when we try to discern its meaning.  She just says “Well it means Lord hep.  What’s the problem?”

The strange thing about “Lord hep,” even though my mother totally plays it for laughs, is that in a roundabout way, it’s a prayer.  Yes, a prayer.  It’s an appeal to God for some kind of assistance, and I am 100% sure that God laughs his you-know-what off every time he hears her say it. How could he not? 

Ever since I was a little kid - even from age 4 or 5 - people have asked me to pray for them.  When I went to the Pleasant Valley South Baptist Church with my sainted grandmother Zelda, people gave me prayer requests.  “You have your Grandmother’s gift.” they would say, as they dug around in their purses or pockets for a stick of Juicy Fruit gum with which to bribe me for my prayers.  My Grandmother had a hotline to God, they said.  She went to church every five minutes, volunteered at the hospital and did nursing home visits out the wazoo.  She was the holiest of holy rollers and was widely regarded as the most immaculate, crystalline Southern Baptist lady anybody ever did see.  I, on the other hand, was not.  I was a sinner from day one.  I broke a boy’s nose on the bus to daycare because he was bothering me, and I punched a bully in the stomach on the playground because he had punched me in the stomach the day before.  I hid in the school bathroom from 10 to 11AM, for three weeks, to avoid going to math class because I hated math (I still do) and I told lies all the time.  I almost got suspended because I was flipping off the camera with BOTH HANDS in the marching band picture in the yearbook. In elementary school I was two grades ahead in all my classes (except math of course) and I was arrogant enough to often sit in class thinking “why are some people soooo stuuuuupid???”  Yes, Lord.  I admit it.  I had those evil thoughts.  

Still, people gave me prayer requests.  Even when I was a teenager and stopped going to church at age 17 because I was running with a rough crowd and sinning all over the place, the prayer requests never stopped, and I never stopped praying.  I prayed every day, many times a day, for my own needs and for other people, even when I was so sinful that I would say “Yes” whenever my sister Autumn offered to put the baldness and the fatness curses on all the boys who were mean to me.  (Side note:  Autumn’s curses seem to have worked very well.  God forgive me.)

I was in my mid-20’s when I realized why people asked me to pray for them.  It wasn’t because I had some special gift - it was simply because they did not know how to pray, or they felt that God didn’t want to hear their prayers.  I started telling them “You know, I will pray for you but I don’t have to.  You can also ask God for this.”  Most of them would say “Nah, God doesn’t like me.  He won’t help me.”  or the most popular of all non-religious excuses: “I’m too much of a sinner.  I’m going to hell, but at least my friends will all be there.”

Anybody can pray, really.   No matter how awful you might think you are, God still loves you and he wants to help you.  Do you really think that because you stole something or you are struggling with a drug problem, God won’t want to heal your mom’s cancer?  Come on.  God’s not a jerk. 

People also think that if they do tentatively ask God to help them, they’ll do it wrong and mess everything up.  They think “Well what if I pray for God to heal Mom’s cancer, and then I go out and get drunk that night and she dies?  Then her death will be my fault.”  It’s not that complicated.  God answers prayers, as it’s been said by theologians far and wide, in only three ways:  He answers yes, no, or “wait, I’ve got something better for you.”  When we pray for healing and someone dies, that is a yes.  He healed that person by releasing them from their pain and sickness, and he took them into heaven - the next phase of life.  If you pray for healing and someone dies, that prayer has been answered but not in the way that you expected.  

That’s the weird thing about God.  He exists in a realm where time, space, people, energy, matter, all that stuff is irrelevant.  The way we perceive our needs and the outcomes of situations in our lives is just a primitive, microscopic squeak in God’s ear.

But - He hears it.  I’ve also had people say to me “I have another prayer request, but I don’t even know if I should give it to you.  I feel like I’ve already bothered God too much.”  Again I ask you - what kind of a jerk do you think God is?  You could ask him 900 things a day and he’d handle all those requests. God’s love is infinite.  It’s not like a food-sampling stand at Costco.  You don’t have to be embarrassed about asking for as many samples as you want and you don’t have to worry about get barked at by some indignant woman in an apron and rubber gloves.

Pray away, people.  You don’t have to have any kind of special formula, either.  Everybody gets hung up on that.  It’s not like a genie from a bottle, or the forest imp from that fairy tale “The Ridiculous Wishes,” where you have to word the request just perfectly to avoid ending up with a sausage for a nose.  Just ask.  Ask simply, and keep asking.  Ask every day if you want, for as many days as you want.  As you’re asking, God will be patting you on the back and saying “Ok, don’t be shy.  Spit it out.”  

Some ethical types have asked me, wide-eyed, if their prayer is too selfish.  I think we all know exactly which prayers are obviously really selfish.  “Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz?” is a good example.  If you’re afraid a prayer is borderline selfish but you’re not entirely sure, go ahead and ask anyway and tell God that.  “Hey God, I know this might seem awful, but could you possibly give me a parking space close to the door at Shoprite?  If this is too selfish I understand, but I’m just thrown’ it out there.  I don’t want to schlep in the rain.”  Sometimes, too, God says no and later you thank him for it.  I’d like to trot out my favorite quote here for the umpteenth time, from Billy Graham’s wife Ruth: "I'm glad God doesn't answer ALL my prayers.  If He did, I would have married the wrong man - several times." 

And yes, you can talk to God in a messy, crazy, informal way.  He is God, so he understands.  You don’t need any kind of special formula or King James thee’s and thou’s and PhD language.  It’s good to start out thanking God for the nice things he’s done for you, then asking forgiveness for any bad things you’ve done, and then putting in your request, but you don’t have to.  Sometimes you can just blurt out “God, please let this piece-o-junk car start when I turn this key.” and lo and behold, the car will start.  I can vouch for this.  My car stalled in 114-degree heat, along with 20 or 30 other fellow travelers’ cars, when Warren Jones and I were driving across the desert outside Palm Springs on my way to join the Convent.  We looked at each other in complete despair and I closed my eyes and said silently to myself “God, I know I’m a sinner and a total idiot most of the time, but could you please let this car start?” and it did.  We drove past all those other stalled cars, from California to Florida, then I drove up to New Jersey, and that car has never stalled on me since.

You don’t ever have to achieve the lofty prayer techniques of contemplation and meditation that - if prayer were a video game - would be like, level 95 character prayer skills.  You don’t have to levitate and get pierced in the heart with a spiritual sword or flip through the frilly, pretty pre-fabricated prayers of the fancy Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  Just talk.  God listens.  

You’re not too sinful to pray, or even to go to church.  If churches didn’t accept sinners, nobody would be able to go to church.  We’re all sinners.  Sin, in my understanding, isn’t “anything that is SUPER fun!!!!!”  Sin is the tendency to do something that is psychologically unhealthy to you, or to others.  If you’re sinning, you’re doing something that harms you or somebody else, and since God loves us, he doesn’t want to see us get hurt.  I sin when I get overly anxious and worry myself into three weeks of acid reflux, or when I roll my eyes and say “Okay, I guess we’ll do it the STUPID WAY” when I’m forced to work in a group and I get out-voted, or when I put myself down.  When you’re lost in unhealthy behaviors and you’re worn out and sick of your situation, God is right there and he wants to help you.  He knows that when you ask for forgiveness for your sins - even if you are sincere and you want to change - there’s a big chance that you’ll go right back to doing that same thing and you’ll be asking his forgiveness again.  He doesn’t get disgusted and leave you in the gutter.  You can call him up.  He hasn’t blocked you on his iPhone or - horror of horrors - unfriended you.  

Everybody can keep sending me prayer requests.  I’m fine with that.  I love praying and I’m very grateful that it also happens to be my job.  Just put in your own prayers, too, along with mine.  When we pray for the same thing together, amazing things happen.  Our prayers put positive energy towards a situation, and God is that positive energy.  

In lesser moments of astonishment my mother utters, in a low and serious voice, “Thayyy lawwwwww.”  I think this means “The Lord” but I can’t be sure.  She doesn’t know either.  All she knows is that it is the only appropriate response when she’s confronted with semi-unbelievable but not Lord Hep-level information. God thinks that one is pretty funny, too.

Let's Go Thump Some Bibles Together!!!

Written August 2014

I’m always interested in the viewpoints of the people in my life whom I love and respect, but who have completely turned away from religion in all its forms.  I like to engage in discussions with them about why they reject faith and spirituality so harshly, and why they think Christianity in particular is harmful.  I am curious as to why people stop going to church, and why they raise their children to be on guard against being lured into any kind of belief beyond science and reason.

The more I talk with the non-believers in my life, the more I find myself agreeing with them.  My faith is deep, and I embrace Christianity with all my heart, but I have to say - I completely understand why any reasonable human being would look at religion and think that it does more harm than good.   From the moment the idea of religion was actualized in our ancestors’  tiny, primitive brains it has been used to justify wars, torture, murder and every atrocity we can possibly imagine.  Oh yes, my atheist friends, I most certainly agree with you on that one.

As a believer, though, I see it this way:  The Bible, the source of a great deal of all this religious trouble, has been a twenty-thousand year game of telephone.  God gave a very clear message to a small group of Iron Age people, and ever since that message was conveyed it has been twisted, garbled and manipulated by humans into something that causes God to constantly proclaim “HOW CAN THEY POSSIBLY BE SO STUPID!?!?!”

I really don’t blame God for smiting and vaporizing us occasionally.  If I were him, I’d do the same thing.  We are incredibly stupid.

To all the atheists and agnostics of the world, though, I would like to suggest just one little thing: Read the Bible and study it a little bit.  No, I’m not trying to recruit you.  I respect your beliefs.  I’m just saying - read the thing that is the center of much of the world’s controversy and that is the foundation of much of the world’s modern thought so that you can understand it from within.  

Before you read it, I’d like to issue this disclaimer:  The Bible was not written as a historically accurate document that was thoroughly fact-checked and deemed truthful by scholarly authorities.  It was written by hundreds of ancient people and cobbled together from oral tradition, from myth and legend and, in the case of the oldest stories - from other ancient religions that preceded monotheism.  It wasn’t written the way things are written today. Throughout the Old and New Testaments there are sometimes three or four different versions of the same story and since those different versions contain different details and timelines, the reader is left asking “which one of these is the REAL version?”  There are extremely confusing passages that were never meant to be taken literally (sorry, fundamentalists) but were instead meant to be allegorical, and there are sometimes truly weird things like this:

If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.” - Deuteronomy 25:11-12


Or what about this:

“When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water.” — John 21:7

Yo, Peter, why were you fishing naked?  What’s up with that?

And take a look at this verse, where everything seems normal until:

“At that, the Lord opened the donkey's mouth and it said to Balaam, "What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?"  Numbers 22:28

Seriously?  A talking donkey?  What was Balaam smoking?

And don’t even get me started on books like Daniel and Revelation.  Those books are chock full of some truly psychedelic weirdness.

The point I’m trying to make with all these weird Bible verses is - if you look at the Bible as the indisputable, literal word of God, then God comes off as a total nutcase.   If you’re trying to read the Bible and you come across something that seems odd, then try looking up a few different explanations of it and pick the one that feels right to you.  If you can’t find an explanation, then just dismiss it as having been lost in the course of too many different translations.    

There are some passages that can be understood through historical context, such as that cringe-worthy story about Lot’s daughters sleeping with him in order to have offspring and preserve their bloodline.  That one is seen by some scholars as an allegorical tale to explain how the tribes of the Moabites and the Ammonites came into being so that they could later brag that their bloodline was completely pure.  Other Biblical scholars say it can be seen as an example of a practice that was fairly common in ancient times.  I’m going to choose to go with the allegorical explanation.  That one feels less icky to me.

I spent many years trying to figure out why homosexuality seemed to be condemned by so many Bible verses, and then I came across an explanation that said the original word in all the anti-gay passages in the Bible was probably actually “pedophilia,” and later medieval translators switched it to “homosexuality” to coincide with the beliefs of the times.  I don’t know what the actual original word was.  I wasn’t there when God gave these ideas to the long-lost writers of the Bible, but that explanation feels extremely correct to me and so that’s what I choose to believe.

One ancient form of storytelling was to present several versions of a story with differing details so that the listener or reader could blend them together and form a conclusion.  Putting the stories in the Bible into context and then really considering which interpretation you feel right about is exactly what you’re supposed to do when you’re reading scripture.  It’s not a straightforward narrative or an airtight scholarly treatise, and that is the very thing that is so incredibly wonderful about it.  The Bible isn’t just a book. It’s bigger than that.  It is a messy, baffling, human-error-laden dodecahedron of a 5-dimensional puzzle and when you look past the details and the words and the lines, a message comes through.  If you read a story in the Bible and don’t get hung up on whether this REALLY happened or WHY somebody would do that, and you focus instead on the lesson it contains, then you’re doing it right.  Even non-believers can hear the message.  It is there between the cracks.  Why is it that we can completely suspend our disbelief to receive deep wisdom from Aesop’s Fables, but we can’t do that when reading the Bible?  It’s certainly not the same kind of document, but since some of it was written around the same era as Aesop’s Fables, we can safely assume that it attempts to deliver wisdom through the same off-kilter and sideways methods as Aesop’s Fables since these methods of storytelling were probably widely employed at that particular time.

There were thousands of other messy scrolls and oral traditions that could have been included in the official version of the Bible, but they weren’t.  The people who put together what we know as the Bible chose a particular collection of writings because overall, they felt that those writings best contained the message from God that put the whole saga into motion.

I’m not a theologian or a Biblical scholar but from my extremely uneducated point of view I can say that the message of God seems to be this: “Take care of yourselves, take care of your fellow humans, and take care of your earth, and here’s a Bible to show you how to do that - Oh, and please ignore all that stupid stuff that got lost in translation.”

My friends who do not believe in God are just as hungry as I am for wisdom.  We all want to know how to make our lives happier, healthier and more fulfilled.  Even if you just see the universe as positive energy versus negative energy, you always want to learn how to generate more positive energy.  Believe it or not, you can learn that from the Bible.  If you want to know where humans came from sociologically, and how we arrived at where we are today, you can learn that from the Bible.  You can find solid advice on how to avoid psychologically unhealthy situations (which in olden times were labeled SIN!!!) and how to simplify your existence to exist happily on a deeper, less superficial level.

You don’t have to get recruited and hold hands and sing Kumbayah with a bunch of Bible thumpers.  Just read it and see what you can get from it.  Take what you like and leave the rest.  There is something there for everyone.  I would suggest getting a modern English copy of the Bible like The Message so that you don’t get all tangled up in ye olde King James language, and that you Google anything that puzzles you.  Don’t read it from beginning to end.  I’d say start with Luke because it’s pretty straightforward, and then maybe read Isaiah because it’s quite beautiful.  Proverbs is a good one, too, and Job gives a theological explanation of why good things happen to bad people.  Leviticus and Deuteronomy are baffling enough to make even lifelong Bible-lovers like me run for the hills, so hold off on those until you’ve learned a little more about ancient cultures.  

Most humans know right from wrong.  When we read something, or hear something, our soul resonates on a certain frequency to tell us whether it coincides with what is written on our hearts.  If we can learn to feel that frequency - that “still, small voice” and act on it with integrity, no matter what the consequences, then we can discern the correct choices to make in our lives.  The Bible, with all its flaws, has somehow brought a message down to us through tens of thousands of years, and if we learn to drown out the noise and the distractions and really feel the message it can heal us, and we can heal the world.