Every Easter morning I can remember, my father would be singing up from the grave He aroooooossssse! purposefully, mischeviously even, as he poured pancake batter over the griddle and we scrambled to get ready for church. It was a family joke of sorts, sung sometimes on other mornings, tying the resurrection to the daily difficulty of getting out of bed. But I knew he sang the words with a deep reverence too. I knew that being made new was central to his theology.
Easter is almost here again. The bulbs we planted last fall are shooting up out of the ground, the temperature outside is slowly creeping upward, and I’m optimistically packing away the heavier coats and scarves. There is warm rain falling outside, and it smells earthy when I step out of the front door. With these changes come a fresh energy, an ease of work. I’m cleaning, brightening, sorting. This is how things are supposed to be.
It’s been a year of quiet, of going inward, of letting go. The years that led up to this year were louder, angrier, heavier with emotion. But this year–from one Easter Sunday to another– has been mostly, mercifully, quiet. Perhaps, after all this anger and frustration (which is to say, anger) and impatience and sadness and whatever else it has been, comes a longing.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes this of belief and faith:
Religion, faith and belief are not the same thing, he [James Fowler] says, though often we speak of them as if they were. In the sixteenth century, “to believe” meant “to set the heart upon” or “to give the heart to” as in, “I believe in love.” But in the centuries following the Enlightenment, secular use of the words “belief’ and “believe” began to change until they said less about the disposition of one’s heart than the furniture in one’s mind. By the nineteenth century, when knowledge about almost anything consisted chiefly of empirical facts, belief became the opposite of knowledge. A person’s belief in God was reduced to his or her belief system–the unprovable statements of faith that person judged to be true. The great pity of this conflation, Fowler says, is that when faith is reduced to creeds and doctrines, plenty of thoughful people are going to decide they no longer have faith. They might hang on if they heard the word used to describe trust or loyalty in something beyond the self, but when they hear “faith” used to signify belief in a set formula of theological truths, the light in their eyes goes out. When I listen to college students talk about faith, beliefs are what interest them most: Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins? Do you believe that only Christians go to heaven? No one asks, “On what is your heart set?” No one asks, “What powers do you most rely on? What is the hope that gives meaning to your life?” Those are questions of faith, not belief. The answers to them are not written down in any book, and they have a way of shifting in the dark.
Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 143-144, emphasis mine
I knew as a child that my parents’ actions–my father’s prayers, my mother’s devotion to reading and reciting scripture, and their focus on passing these things down to us– stemmed from a faith that was larger than they could fully express, though they tried. It truly was something they had “set their hearts upon”. I want to honor their reverence, while making a more open space for my own.
Last Easter I sang Christ the Lord is Risen Today with so much gladness in my heart, after eating breakfast with a kind community of people and sharing in the fun of watching children hunt eggs in their pastel frocks and button ups. I had the glorious luxury of singing the words without dwelling on whether I believed them–I simply sang, loud and happy, because the song is beautiful and because it is familiar. I felt a loyalty to it. I still do. It’s of those homesickness things, Easter.
Right after that beautiful Sunday it all just fell apart. I let it. I didn’t return to any sort of church until late November, using Sunday mornings to try to heal myself instead. It wasn’t because of that welcoming and anciently forward-thinking congregation at all, and it wasn’t because of the genuine outpouring of faith my parents gifted me as a child, or the many beautiful people of faith I’ve known over the years. It was because of other elements of American Christianity I’d observed as I paid more attention–the anti-intellectual attitude, the refusal to see other points of view, the rigid insistence that one interpretation of Scripture is the only one possible, the demand to be served, to maintain rights and status and privilege–all behavior that makes no sense for people who claim to follow the ultimate servant. This was not something I wanted to align myself or my children with, and so I started picking it apart. I think I understand now why people can be so resistant to questioning–once you start it’s nearly impossible to stop.
My religion of birth, Christianity, was given to me as absolute truth. I do not see it this way. I see it as a useful and beautiful story, one of many that the people of this Earth have assembled over long periods of time. The question inevitably, eventually, must follow: if this is merely a story, useful and beautiful yes, but just a story, is it worthwhile? I say, and choose to believe, that any beautiful story is worthwhile. The beauty I find, in Christianity or elsewhere, informs my daily actions and in turn what my children will find important. This is the hope that gives meaning to my life. It is enough.
My parents, in their own way, taught me to pay attention, and that’s the same thing I am doing, just in my own way. I believe in ritual and beauty and metaphor. I am trying to be brave enough to let my children believe in some things in a literal sense so that later they can know it was a foundation for something else. I will always protect. I cannot control. They will draw their own conclusions, when they are ready.
Perhaps it is a gift that can’t quite be understood before its right time comes: to lose one thing in order to find another.