500 Years of Reformation

It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther inspired the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg (you can read them online here). The world endured centuries of violence and persecution, but for the past several years it seems as though there have been more calls for unity and reconciliation. (My prediction: both of those are unlikely. Highly unlikely.)

I read about the reformation in grad school, and as someone who was raised in a mixed-religious household I was intensely aware of the ramifications of the theological split. Holidays are REALLY awkward when one parent is Protestant and the other is not (you kids wanna hear about the origins of the Coptic Church, aka the original and best church?). Most of us these days really can’t relate and it all sounds like so much squabbling over details that don’t matter as much as the core gospels. And in an era of Mega-churches and Feel-Good-Nondenominationalism, who even remembers why the churches were arguing anyway? For me, as a kid, it came down to churches that had snacks during the service, and churches that didn’t. As I got older, Luther’s arguments became more important to me on a personal level – why should I only pray to God for wealth? Why should I look for grace in the mundane world? Why should I put my faith in imperfect people who claim that they alone can grant me entrance to heaven?

But does this really mean anything for us now? WaPo has an intriguing article – more of a brief set of interviews, really – on the reformation and what it means for us today. Most of the responses have a similar undercurrent – return to a love of neighbor, to forgiveness, to opening up our hearts rather than closing off. The statement by Cardinal Blase Cupich seemed particularly salient: “Authentic Christianity never closes in on itself. It always leaves its comfort zone to listen to others, especially those shunted to the margins of society.” And yet all we have to do is look at the latest headlines (or Twitter, or the comment section of literally any news article on the internet) to see that people would rather burrow in to their comfort zones in a kind of self-marginalization and closing off from new and different ideas that would pose challenges to ingrained beliefs. People don’t want to be challenged – it’s natural to resist challenges to the status quo and to resist change, because what’s known is comfortable, reassuring, and consistent. But change is inevitable, with or without wholesale reformation.

500 years later, we haven’t come up with any sort of unity, the Catholic Church hasn’t fallen to give way to a glorious age of Protestant theology, the Orthodox Churches still haven’t united with the other Churches, and Christianity as a whole seems even more divided than ever. But we do still feel the very real impact of the Reformation in the form of having access to our own Bibles, taking charge of our own spirituality, and, for better or worse, being able to choose where and how we worship (even if we choose to worship in the same arena that used to host Iron Maiden and basketball games).

Luther’s arguments against the Medieval Catholic Church were probably (definitely) valid – buying your way into Heaven with papal favors defeats the purpose of having God send His Divine Son down from Heaven to act as a final sacrifice for our sins. Certainly murdering heretics wasn’t the ideal response from either camp, but religious sects are still murdering each other, and they will likely continue to do so for as long as religion continues to exist. Likewise, political sects argue about the same kind of trivial details, arguing which details matter more or less and whether one detail is significant or not, and who gets to be in or out of the sect based on their belief pattern. Political thought, then, seems more like religious thought when you look at it. Perhaps we should start demanding more by nailing political theses to the doors of Congress or the State Legislature. Seems like we could use some political reformation these days.

When your soul feels like a stranger

I’ve been struggling with spiritual issues and faith for as long as I can remember. I came from a mixed-denomination household–dad was Coptic Orthodox, mom was Southern Baptist–so developing a coherent theology was difficult. There were few Coptic churches around growing up, so I was distanced from the theology of the Coptic church, but I never felt connected to the Baptist church. It’s hard to feel connected to a church that tells you you’re a sinner and automatically have an extra hurdle because of the perception that your parents don’t believe in the same God. Worse, it’s hard to feel connected to God, Jesus, and Scripture. Growing up, it felt as though nothing I did mattered in a spiritual sense – I was a sinner, God didn’t love or notice me, and my prayers would go unnoticed, because I wasn’t ever going to be a “real” Christian.

We went to several different kinds of churches growing up – we went to special holiday services at the Coptic church in New Orleans and in Houston, but most of the weekly services were at a Baptist church until I was in Jr. High, then we went to a Quaker (or Friends) church for a while, we went to a Lutheran church once or twice, and for a while as an undergrad I went to an Episcopal church. When I got to grad school, I was attending University of St. Thomas here in Houston, so I started hanging out at the Chapel of St. Basil. I hung around Campus Ministry, and eventually one of the FSE sisters talked me into attending RCIA. It was life-changing for me – a church that encouraged and had a history of theological research? that encouraged asking questions? that didn’t tell you you were going to Hell because your parents weren’t from the same ethnic group? I was shocked. (Also, it was kind of awkward because it was also the church of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, a church that believes condoms and birth control is a sin, and for all the work Cool Pope has done to change the image of the church, it was also the church that appointed a former Hitler Youth as Pope. But I digress.)

So I’m a gung-ho Christian now, right? Church every Sunday, Bible study every day, can’t get enough of Jesus and the Rosary, right? Yeah. No. Not exactly. It’s not that easy to overcome 20+ years of predestination, believing that you’re a sinner in the hands of an angry God, and being a bright, intelligent woman in a community of people who believe that women in the workplace are what crashed the economy and ruined the American Dream for everyone. Hell, some of them even believed that allowing women to vote was what ruined the economy, and a smaller even older subset believed it was freeing the slaves and letting them work with the white folk that ruined America. (Yes, I grew up in the South. No, not everyone at church was like that, but y’all know if you grew up here you met people like that.) And then there was the feel-good non-denominationalists who believed that if you just smiled a lot and said Praise Jesus! often and put an Ichthus (not that they call it that – it’s the Jesus fish) on the back of your minivan that you’d get to heaven (see anything regarding Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church for evidence).

True Story – I had a Sunday School teacher for a 20-somethings class at a small Baptist church tell us that if you wronged someone and they wanted an apology, you should tell them that Jesus had already forgiven you and they should too. I asked for Biblical support and was labeled the class liberal and laughed at. True Believers don’t ask questions and don’t need facts or evidence – you know because you have faith. If you believe Jesus forgave you, then he did.

So I have a strained relationship with Christianity and religion. I’ve been living teetering on the edge of atheism and agnosticism most of my life, but with one foot still in the bucket of theological research and the occasional spark of faith (fun fact: Faith is my middle name). You know how sometimes you see a natural wonder so beautiful it blooms wonderment in you so powerful that it takes your breath away? That’s how I feel when I think about space, or when I look at photos of Old Faithful, or I hike up to a view at Elephant Rock State Park. The natural world is a huge source of spiritual wonderment and fulfillment for me, and I’m a natural skeptic, so yeah I’m naturally drawn to scientific thought. But there’s still that inclination of curiosity about What Comes Next, and that occasional fleeting spark of faith that keeps drawing me back to theological and theosophical questions. Marrying the skeptical, scientific part of my soul to the religious part of my soul has proven to be one of the most challenging parts of my life, and the result is that I often feel like a stranger to myself.

I don’t go to church, because I’m afraid of the rejection that happens, of the bias and questions people ask. I’m not a social person by nature, so I want to go in, get my fulfillment, and run before people can start crowding me with questions and introductions and Let’s Hang Out, or Do You Wanna Go To Bible Study, or Come To The Contemporary Service (No thanks. Contemporary services are for feel-good nondenominationalists who want God to fit into their pop culture box instead of trying to expand their brain to reach outside of their comfort zone). (Let’s not even talk about where I differ from most Christians on topics like gay marriage and other LGBTQ issues, birth control and abortion, and other hot-button topics.)

I want to believe. Mostly. But that feeling of being someone who would never be good enough for God so I should just stop trying is really hard to overcome. I’ve got shelves full of religious study books but you probably won’t see me in church, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Thanks and Giving

The Thanksgiving holiday was this past week, and for me it means multiple dinners with in-laws, my family, friends, and cooking. Lots and lots of cooking. This year, for health reasons, I had to experiment with vegan cooking. (Part of the joys of living with an auto-iummune disorder that affects your digestive system.) I still had a taste of the turkey (delicious, and a terrible idea), and even a tiny slice of cheesecake (tastiest bad idea ever), but I did manage to make some actual tasty vegan food. Most of it was cobbling together ingredients and substitutions based on recipes I’d already tried that were non-vegan. So I ended up with a tasty pumpkin pie (needs work to get it to solidify better), veggie stuffing, a vegan pot-pie (needs work so it won’t look like puke in a crust), vegan banana bread (A+ perfect would try again, even though I accidentally put too much baking soda in the mix), and a not-vegan cornbread casserole (too tired for egg replacer, so I just used egg). I also made my usual cranberry sauce, which is amazing. I mean, just look at all this delicious food!

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So let’s talk about Thanksgiving and what it means. I come from a mixed family – dad is from Egypt, mom is from Mississippi – and I have friends from all over the country and the world. To me, Thanksgiving wasn’t about celebrating the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and making nice with the Indians (apparently they taught the Indians how to be civilized humans or something? Oh wait….) or a Civil War-era plea for thankfulness. For me Thanksgiving was actually a holiday about being thankful for what you have and celebrating being together as a family. Also roast waterfowl (because dad always liked duck more than turkey).

The American myth about Thanksgiving is particularly ironic this year, given the spectacle of Indian Tribes protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline right now. American / Indian relationships in this country have historically been troubled at best, violent at worst. It’s easy to forget things like the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee as some remote event in history that doesn’t even matter anymore. I have my own personal connection to the legacy of Native American struggles – my great-grandmother was Cherokee, from the Shreveport, LA area, and the only things I remember about her were her long, dark, steel-grey hair that was always braided, and her mumblings from deep in her dementia, “I ain’t no Injun.” But I am also disconnected because I was raised in a household with a white mother and an Egyptian father, so my take on Thanksgiving is partly as that of a child of immigrants, and partly as a child of a Southern white family.

I had the privilege of approaching Thanksgiving detached from the legacy of Native America, even as I had my own direct connections to it. It makes for a more thoughtful time for me, as I consider my own place in this country. Even the “traditional” Thanksgiving meals we had at my house weren’t all that traditional – roast duck, Basmati rice cooked with the fried vermicelli, Moulokhya, pita or French bread, and salad. For my family, Thanksgiving was more like a fancy dinner, than a traditional turkey spread.  As an adult, the thankfulness of the holiday carries with it an undercurrent of pensiveness, and I wonder if I’m the only one who sees it this way.

I have friends who play along with the American mythic pageantry of Thanksgiving, and I have friends who reject is outright as “Take The Land Without Asking Day.” I’m probably somewhere in the middle – the holiday is a time for me to reflect on what I’m thankful for and how I can turn that into helping others, but also to reflect on what the history of the holiday means in the greater scheme of our American society. This year, I took that reflection a step further and donated to the Native American Rights Fund, and also to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, as part of my holiday donations.

I’m still conflicted about the DAPL – on the one hand, our pipeline infrastructure, much like the rest of our infrastructure, is badly in need of replacement and modernization. On the other hand, this situation looks like another instance of companies trying to bulldoze their way through the communities of people they don’t care about, who they see as being lesser than their corporate interests. I work as an O&G auditor for a living, so DAPL would benefit my industry as a whole, but the appearance of the situation is so bad that I just don’t see how I can support it as-is.

So there it is. During a season where most of my friends are still reeling from a depressing election result, I came up with more things to be depressed about. You’re welcome, everyone.