Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Easter Lies and Old Boyfriends

I told a lie on Easter, of all days. I might as well have poked the risen triumphant Jesus in the eye. I was in a foreign country for work. Friends living there invited me to go to church with them. I am a Christian and therefore of course I wanted to go. It is what Christians do on Easter Sunday: we go to church and we celebrate Jesus. I have been a Christian for almost thirty years. That is saying a lot because I am only 32.

The 100-minute Easter service featured a 30-minute CCM-inspired musical tribute to the passion of Christ, clips from the “Jesus Film” in which our Savior was, naturally, white (did I mention I was in east Asia at the time?), and a 20-minute altar call during which an unfortunately timed movement of my head made the pastor think I had just accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I hardly breathed for the rest of the altar call for fear that the pastor would invite me onstage to share my newfound joy in the Lord.

It was when my friend asked what I thought of the white-Jesus Easter service in Asia that the lie spilled across my lips: “I liked it,” I said brightly. “Just like at home.”

Obviously I hated it (and on reflection, she probably knew that). Every pore of my body was screaming to get out of that oversize auditorium with oversize banners and oversize preacher personalities making oversize statements about the boundless joy, everlasting hope, and unquenchable life that Jesus rising from the dead gives us.

It’s not just that this was a supremely cheesy Easter service (though it was). This is the deal: I don't have boundless joy or everlasting hope; I am tired and disappointed and unsure of who the Alpha and Omega is. For me this is a very unsettling thing to say because until about two years ago, I had problems, sure, but God himself was never really in question. And now he/she/it is. And we know God is really in question because I just now went back and added the “slash-she-slash-it” to the pronoun he in that last sentence and I used to be very traditional and comfortable just calling God “he”.

But you can’t really say any of this serious doubting stuff to people, or at least not the people in my church/faith/religion community. If you do, you immediately set off marathon prayer sessions, friends ask if they can lay hands on you, people suggest seeing a Christian counselor (God forbid you should go see a secular counselor) and above all, they gaze at you with concern in their eyes and wonder what you’ve done (read: sin) to create distance between yourself and God. I am reminded here of a joke that goes like this: an old married couple is driving down the road in an old truck with one of those bench seats that extends all the way across the cab. The wife looks at her husband and says: “Earl, how come we sit so far apart in the truck these days? We didn’t used to. We used to cuddle up!” Earl responds: “I don’t know, Edith…but I’m not the one who moved.” This is how most (conservative) Christians view other Christians who are having a hard time with God: it’s always the Christian’s fault because, as we all know, God doesn’t change.

In my younger, more zealous and certain Christian days I prayed fervently that I would never become what I think I am becoming: a doubting, unsure, frustrated, person who is disillusioned with what life handed her and is blaming God for it. Apparently I have changed.

I know I sound like a bad after-school special, or just very cliché. But I have been carrying around a load, a burden, about the size of a house on my back for some time now. I’d like to thank my ex-ex-heartbreaker-boyfriend (not the gay one – a later one) for helping me notice it. We dated for 7 months before he unexpectedly dumped me, and I have finally found the perfect way to describe our relationship: he was like Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. Willoughby courts Maryann like mad and it’s magical and happy and the chemistry is palpable and nobody sees it coming when Willoughby breaks things off. Maryann almost dies of heartache. In Jane Austin’s story it of course comes to light that Willoughby is a shallow bastard who knocked up some other girl and marries rich in order to pay child support. I am still waiting for confirmation that my ex-ex-boyfriend has done the same thing, but I draw a certain comfort from the otherwise strong parallel to my relationship.

Anyhoo: Heartbreaker helped me notice the house on my back because for a long time after we broke up I prayed that we would get back together. And I swear that God himself was telling me to pray for that, and he was sending all these weird signs to confirm that that’s what he wanted me to pray for. And, duh, we didn’t get back together. The guy never spoke to me again, in fact. So I got all disillusioned with my prayer life, and how I must have only imagined that God wanted me to pray all that stuff, but then I thought that that doesn’t make any sense because it felt exactly like other times when I’ve been convinced God wanted me to pray a certain way (and that the things came to pass afterward that I had prayed for) and so how could I retroactively say that God must not have been leading me in that way, and how could I tell the difference anyway, and what kind of God would be so cruel as to make one of his Children all hopeful and then crush the hope in a big fell swoop? And what’s with this God that had His Old Testament People smite all their enemies, killing women and children and basically committing genocide, when now good Christians say that’s wrong and terrible and we should stop Rwanda and Sudan? Who the crap is this God?

And this is the load I've been carrying around: I've been assuming that, by following the "rules" (oh, but we're not legalistic around here, are we?) and being an exceptional example of the (Accomplished) Good Girl, that God would do his part and give me what I want. Probably, this is very obviously not true to most readers, and it even sounds ridiculous when I say it because theologically of course it's not true, we're not promised anything like that in any version of Conservative Christianity except for the Prosperity Gospel people who have that whole "name it and claim it" idea, which almost everybody else within Conservative Christianity recognizes as a load of hooey.

But there you have it: that idea has been wired into my subconscious for many, many years, and only now am I pulling it out of its dark little place in my brain to turn it around, play with it, figure out how it got there, and decide what to do with it now.

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