When the Spirit Sez Go

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Y’all, I have been sitting on this blog post for weeks, WEEKS, trying to figure out how best to explain my choice? Decision? Calling? to move out of the city I call home and the life I’ve built to go BACK TO SCHOOL. It’s taken me a long time to talk about why I’m doing this, not because I was working hard on this, though I was, but because it’s one of few choices in my life that feels so certain and yet so… intangible. Ineffable. Non-verbal. There’s this story about how when a young man of God proposes to the woman he wants to be his helpmeet, he’ll say, “God has laid it on my heart that you and I should marry… God has stirred my spirit… I had a talk with God…” I used to roll my eyes at this kind of language, and I know men who talk like this (though fortunately for them, none of them ever proposed marriage to me). It seemed so condescending and belittling and deeply misogynistic, as if how a woman felt about a man was immaterial, because he had been in communication with The Almighty and they’d agreed marriage was best, so what she wants just didn’t matter. I though language describing an experience like this was bullshit.

But this process… it’s been so much about asking questions and then just listening. Being led. Trusting the echos of sounds and sensations in my chest, like my body were a tuning fork or a chasm, and the sounds of Mother Nature were ringing back to Her through me: This. Yep, this. Truly, not that other thing, this thing. Somewhere between a vibration and a magnet being pulled. I know this div school journey, this stepping deeper into a faith practice that I’d found so damaging and harmful, I just Know. It’s. Right.

So here’s the best I could do to explain How and Why. It’s not that great, and I’m not being all self-deprecating and weird: it’s not as clear as I want it to be, but it’s hard to be clear about this, at least right now. If you’re interested; if the idea that I want to get a master’s of Divinity, to deepen my capacity to minister and serve, to teach and learn, to feel, to hold space puzzles you; or if this makes perfect sense to you: you can read it. But if you ask me in the analog world, “Jess, why are you going to div school?”, and I wink and say, “Because God told me to,” maybe this will help you understand, and not roll your eyes at me.

The future is inevitable and precise, but may not occur. God lurks in the gaps.
— Jorge Luis Borges

I am twelve, in Wednesday night bible service, which is frankly just church in the middle of the week. The room is dark, but the dais is glowing, as if the carpet, the pulpit, the very air and light themselves were vibrating with the love of Christ. The associate pastor, Pastor Thompson, stands front and center. He’s over six foot with broad shoulders, a graying short afro, and a mustache in a gray suit and white shirt. His teenage son, Michael, is beside him. Michael has those eyeglasses that are wide and rectangular with the animal print stripe on top, and he wears blue jeans and a long sleeved polo shirt. Michael’s in high school. I mean, yeah, I’m only twelve, but I’ve started noticing boys, especially boys in high school. Tonight, beside his father, he’s trembling.

“Brothers and sisters,” Pastor Thompson begins, “God is good all the time. My son, you all know young Michael here, has something he wants to share with you.”

The small, mid-week congregation murmurs its affirmation: “Amen, yes, brother.” I roll my eyes. Another “Period of Discernment.” You couldn’t turn a full circle in a black church without hitting a young black man in a “period of discernment” that “God had called to preach.” It happened so often that it was tiresome.

But that’s not what he says. Instead, Michael bursts into sobs. I watch as he struggles to speak, confessing that he’s been sexually active, and gotten his girlfriend pregnant. He’s contorted with shame. Now, on its own, premarital sex and teen pregnancy, though perhaps a challenging life choice, is not a huge surprise; but this is a conservative black community in a very southern part of Ohio. On top of which, there are few things that church ladies love as much as juicy, humbling scandal. Around me I hear women kissing their teeth and gasping and exclaiming, “Lord have mercy.” Tears are streaming down Michael’s face and his shoulders are shaking.

Pastor Thompson put his arm around the boy, and started talking about confessing our sins and how God is able and just to forgive us, and blah blah blah. I wasn’t listening: I was stunned, not by the content of Michael’s revelation, but by why he was up here, sharing this with all of us. This showcase of Michael’s shame, this is what the adults wanted? This is what God wanted? He was humiliated. What was to be gained by making him disclose his sexual activity to the congregation? I felt stained, like we were bearing witness to something we had no business seeing, and I was alone in feeling that way; the adults were behaving like this is what it is to know and worship God. They were going to make him vomit up his horrible secret, and then muck about with him in it, in order to “free him from his sin.” There was no freedom here; there was only the bondage of another young person caught in the Puritanical net of socio-spiritual rule that did not answer for the connection between physical and spiritual desire. There was only the failure of abstinence as sexual education, and the fear of teen pregnancy that had not been enough to help two young people make a wise and safe decision, and the judgment heaped upon one of them out of that.

Of course Michael married this girl. Of course his father made him make an honest man of her, and truncated their lives so that there would be less talk, less shame. What else could he have done, in this circumscribed understanding of the world, and the laws of God?

*

I came home from college one spring break depressed. Severely depressed. Suicidal. A blanket shaped mound that bumped a slow, repeating circuit from the sofa to the bathroom to the refrigerator to the bed. I know why now: a few months back my parents had separated and then reconciled, and in the process had gutted my perception of what our family was, and refused to talk to me about it. It was like something awful had happened, like a hurricane had blown through our house and ripped up everything I knew to be true about my family, and they were pretending that nothing was wrong. That spring, continually shrinking my world view to fit theirs was literally making me crazy (ever seen Gaslight?). At the time, I didn’t know all this; at the time, all I knew was I wanted it all to end.

My mother stood in the doorway of my bedroom offering aid to me like putting prayers into the wind. I lay in bed, blanket over my head, trying to shut it all out. Pray, she said. You’ve got to pray this off of you, Jessica. If your faith in The Lord is strong enough, He’ll deliver you from this.

I turned my back to her and sighed, eyes filing with tears. It can’t be that simple, I thought to myself. If I just ask God for what I want and he gives it to me, and it makes me happy, that doesn’t make him God; it makes him Santa Claus.

*

“Women of God” had a very particular appearance and way in the tradition I was raised in. Women of God are inspiring and uncompromising; in someone else this would ring of entitlement and disdain, but they know that what they have and who they are has been Ordained By God, and so any attempt to criticize, even constructively, is just Satan. They have no time for Satan, nor the haters he sends at them. Women of God are coiffed and fragrant, in impeccable suits. No part of them betrays the process of these efforts, only the seamless and stunning product. Their ends are never split (though their hair is straight—there is No Room for the Natural on this journey) and their tips are never nicked. They have big, worn bibles they seem to have with them everywhere they go—church, meeting, gym, grocery store—their diaphanous, insect-wing thin pages dappled with color of innumerable time spent highlighting and underlining passages. They can quote Proverbs 31 to you, because they use it as words to live by.

Women of God say things like, Bless your heart, or Lord have mercy to disguise the sentiment of Shame on you. They say to you, I’ll pray for you, and they mean it as comfort, but they know it is laced around the edges with judgment.

Women of God don’t wear jeans with the crotch worn out. They don’t gamble, or shout. They don’t drink bourbon. They don’t say fuck. They don’t fuck. Their humanity is so dissolved into the magnificent perfection of the Lord that there is nothing struggling, or failing, or broken, or ordinary about them anywhere. And if there were, which there isn’t, they would fall on their knees in supplication, begging the Lord to do away with that sinful, disgusting, base part of them, and make them whole and white as snow.

White as snow being a metaphor of course—a lot of metaphors about God involve whiteness—and what these women really mean is that God would make them white as white Jesus. Because the Women of God I speak of are black Women of God. They are not markedly different than white Women of God, but the ways in which they are different are clear and meaningful.

Women of God sing hymns, they don’t chant. Their mantra is “Jesus loves you”, not anything in some foreign language. Their body, though a gift from God, is not a means to God; it is the lowest part of them that must be overcome in order to reach God. Their bodily desires, appetites, sensations are… inappropriate. Distasteful. Sinful.

*

I grew up listening to Focus on the Family. In Touch (which frankly, sounds a bit pervy out of context.) The Urban Alternative (wow, I still can’t believe that name). And occasionally, Unshackled: I remember it was recorded by the Pacific Garden Mission, and never, ever thought that I’d wind up living less than a mile from the mission (which has pretty awful reviews for treating folks badly, and exchanging proselytizing for shelter and food, I cannot imagine this is how Jesus would have wanted to be treated, or how he would have treated others), and would regularly run, walk, or drive past it. Jonie Eareckson Tada and Charles Stanley and Chuck Swindoll. Those of you familiar with Christian radio will recognize these names and programs as bastions of evangelical broadcasting from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and for those of you who don’t know, it was just a lot of conservative Christian radio. Why did I listen to all this? Not by choice: because the adult who was driving almost always had control over what was playing: the captain of the vehicle was also the DJ of the car tunes.

I look back on that time and think now that maybe my parents were unhappy a lot, unhappy about going to work about coming from work, just miserable, and were clinging to this radio—even with all of its conservatism and piety and seriousness—as a kind of bastion or talisman to steer them through the day. Even as much as I disliked that radio (can you imagine being a teenager, and wanting to listen to TLC and Aaliyah and Destiny’s Child, and what passed for hiphop on the radio in Southern Ohio and instead listening to preaching all the time? ohmigod, eye roll. as if), I can imagine that some of that programming must have held a similar space to podcasts or audio books, or even daily affirmations that some of us listen to now. The red/green/blue line commute is lousy, but it makes it easier to listen to Snap Judgment/2nd Story/This American Life/Radiolab/On Being/Fresh Air. So Adult me gets it.

Still. 15-year-old Jess is so mortified by all of that conservative programming (propaganda?…) and not just because it was misogynist and narrow-minded and exclusive and ultimately showed itself to be incredibly harmful to me and other people I love. But because it just felt so old. So stodgy. So out of touch.

My point is, I grew up surrounded by conservative Christianity: in the media I (reluctantly, snarkily) consumed, in the churches I attended, in the rules I obeyed in the house I was raised in. It was all around me.

Jesus never came for me. At least, the blue-eyed, white Jesus who spoke in dulcet tones and wore a halo with his shift, and allowed himself to be crucified as easily as letting the lady behind him at the deli counter order her half-pound of turkey first: that Jesus? I don’t know him: only son of a wrathful, vengeful, law-abiding, demanding, smiting, plague-inflicting deity called THE LORD. That’s the Jesus that was packaged and handed to me in school and in church and on the radio. He seemed so irrelevant, to the suffering I was experiencing in a small, Midwestern city full of small minds and racist tendencies, to the demand I was hearing from others that to love God was to behave Like This toward These People because They were Not Us. That Jesus was not interested in consensus or community or justice or even love; he was interested in control and separateness and judgment. Not. My Scene.

*

I don’t remember the precise moment that I was handed the concept Tantra as more than kinky, hippie sex or black magic from the far east. I don’t know which teacher it was, or whose class I was in, or what we were doing or had been doing. The fact that I can’t lay it at the feet of a particular human being reminds me that it wasn’t perhaps an idea located in, or extending out of, someone’s ego; perhaps it was the Divine clarifying itself to me, the same message being conveyed over and over through different voices; perhaps it was the Great Transcendent recognizing itself in my tiny spark of Great Immanent and moving closer to itself, a great union of Purusha and Prakriti. When I think of it now, I think of the frog in the slowly warming pot of water, who doesn’t feel that the standard temperature and pressure around it are changing. I remember realizing, and I continue to every day, that my manifest experience isn’t a hurdle to overcome so that I can “get to God”, and that the designated “impure” thoughts, actions, relationships, and behaviors don’t put me far from God. What I’d been taught, and believed, was that my body was a source of shame, sinfulness, and profanity.

This is not a story about how Tantric yoga saved my life, although it very well may have. I have banged my shins and run face-first into some of the failings of yoga, because, like so many systems in our world, it is made of people, and people fail. I have witnessed so many yogis who love the high that yoga gives them—part endorphins, part-spiritual materialism, part-exclusive community, and I’ve been that yogi many, many times—and who don’t consider at all that the practice might have ramifications outside their personal practice. Let me say this plainly: I am routinely disappointed by the volume of folks I meet who contend that their practice is vertical—between them and The Universe/The Divine/whatever non-threatening, vague language they use to describe what they’re doing—and not horizontal, that is not between them and The Divine they encounter in their partner, the person who slices their deli turkey or serves their pour-over or cuts their grass/paints their nails/crosses their border/is killed by someone “serving” and “protecting” their streets. So I’m not looking at Tantra as the savior of what I know are the failings of Christianity, as it’s manifesting today. And: I know that each practice has something to give, to learn from, the other, and that there’s a place where immanence and incarnation and connection and relationship live in both traditions. And that they can and should compliment each other.

What I’m learning is that shame and sin are ideas created to manipulate us into behaving differently, and profanity is the home of the Divine as much as the Sacred is. That continuum that pits Sacred and Profane at opposite ends is false.

*

It has taken so much time. So. Much. Time. for me to begin to figure out what it is to witness the parts of Christianity I was raised with as beautiful. I had to pull hard to strip away the rules, the fear, the difference between theology and social belief. Truth is, it’s still there: I feel like I’m looking at a great fabric, the fabric of what I know about existence and community and seizing a thread and saying, “this! This is right. This other color right here wrapped around it? This is junk. Pull that out and ditch it.” I am continuing to look critically at what I know (and discover) Christianity to be, and ask why it’s that way. I’m doing the same with yoga. My hope is to find the place where both of these life practices are worn together, and where their threads are moving int he same, complimentary direction: a direction that loves mercy, pursues justice, and abides in the wonder and delight of being diving beings in service of and to Divinity, which is to say in service of and to one another. I’m so excited.

I promise I’ll continue to say fuck, and to drink bourbon, and to chant, and sweat, and always look not quite put together. I promise not to judge you, or condescend to you. I promise to laugh with you, and weep with you, and suffer with you.

Let’s Divine together.