The woodland wildflowers are in bloom, and the forests are full of birdsong.
Today I discovered that our woodland wildflowers aren’t blooming yet, but I did see some spring bulbs in flower this morning. I was happy to see the delicate blue and white petals of Puschkinia, a flower which blooms so early in the season that I often miss it.
Winter has returned for a brief encore, offering me a bit more time to mull over what has been a huge change in my life: my return to church.
The first thing I’d like to mention is a matter that has distressed me several times since my return to church. I don’t like the “Christian right” stereotype which implies that Christians are Republicans by default. There is no political party that conforms to the gospel. Although I’ve renewed my faith lately, I have been a Christian since the 1970s, and I continue to be mystified at how Christians can be exposed to the same text (i.e. the Bible) and develop such different political values. I’ve noticed that the Bible mentions caring for the poor so often that I can’t in good conscience for a candidate that wants to cut programs for the needy. I also don’t buy the idea that helping the poor creates poverty.
Onto why I titled my post Jamais Vu . . . Now I am going to approach my faith from the opposite of the idea of being a Christian for decades. I encountered the concept of jamais vu in the writing of the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. Jamais vu is the opposite of déjà vu, and it is the experience of seeing something familiar as if you’ve never seen it before. Since I started reading the Bible again in December, I have approached the text with purposeful jamais vu: I am going to read this book as if everything is new to me. I’ve discovered that there is precious fruit of the Spirit to be gleaned from this approach. It reminds me of how Christ said in faith we must become like children (Matthew 18:33). The word of God never loses its freshness or vitality; only our ways of reading and hearing it can become stale.
As for the picture I’ve used for this post, it reminds me that it is much harder to suspend one’s familiarity with the physical world. No matter how hard I try, my mind can’t make the buildings in that picture look like something I haven’t seen before.
I feel a consolation beyond description in reading the Bible as if it is new to me, for it would be impossible for someone to read it enough to make it old news. As I read the words of the Bible, it is like the Holy Spirit fills me with the complete opposite of the pain and despair I’ve felt in the past.
My city closed part of a downtown street this week because a church is falling apart. Yesterday The Lima News ran a story summarizing the building’s history and its imminent demolition.
This morning my husband and I ventured downtown to take some pictures of the church before it, like so many other downtown buildings, disappears. There’s something about demolition that messes with my memory. Once a building is gone, I have a hard time remembering it, to the point where I might not remember what sort of building used to occupy a particular empty lot. Was it an apartment building, a defunct store, a school? Give me a few years and I won’t recall, unless I actually spent time inside of that structure while it still stood.
Before my husband and I finished taking pictures, a crew had already arrived to drop off equipment for the demolition that is slated to begin on March 19:
The workers seemed very familiar with this part of Lima, almost like the downtown had acquired that home-away-home feeling that seems to develop around a long-term workplace. So many buildings have been knocked down that demolition contractors and heavy equipment rental companies indeed know this area well.
As my husband and I walked around the block where the church is located, I noticed how empty the south half of downtown has become. While the abandonment and demolition of a church is sad on its own terms, the building has persisted longer than many other structures in the downtown. Here is the view from the church to Town Square, which sits two blocks away:
When I first moved to Lima in 1981, those fields were not empty. Grass grew only in the margins between the sidewalks and the street (if there was room for any grass at all). Now there are plans for an outdoor amphitheater to be built across the street from where the church is (of course the church won’t be there for much longer):
There are also plans for an expansion of Rhodes State College’s Division of Allied Health in the empty southeast corner of Town Square. Also, an aging bank building is near completion of its conversion to apartments. There are signs of growth in the downtown area, but this cityscape will cater to a demographic that is decidedly younger than that I’d notice downtown when I myself was young. Back in the 80s and early 90s, downtown Lima seemed full of people who looked old to me at that time: aging patrons of the Lima Symphony Orchestra and blue-haired women shoppers of the stores that survived the retail collapse of downtown.
There were also the crumbling half-old men who spent lots of time in bars where every drink could be the last, either due to climbing back on the wagon or getting shot outside the bar. My maternal grandpa was one of those men (I wrote about him my blog entry called “A Dutchman“). Every time another downtown landmark disappears, I feel like another piece of Grandpa Bob has been lost to time, the setting of scenes from his life we never witnessed and don’t know for sure whether our absence was a blessing or not. At least this time the landmark reminds me that one day we will be united, with all wounds healed.
I will close this post with more pictures of the church that will soon be gone. The first picture has an oddball outbuilding that looks like it could have hosted a security guard or an anchorite. The notion of a hermitage downtown may seem outlandish, but downtown Lima has certainly hosted enough of the holy and the mad . . .
Today is a vacation day for me because my daughter is taking the ACT. The test has become a Ohio graduation requirement for most high school students, so this is her chance to take it with a couple bonuses attached: no testing fee and a day excused from regular classes. She didn’t seem nervous at all about it, perhaps because this is actually her second time taking the test. I’m not sure which post-graduation goals she has in mind at this point (she will graduate next May). Her scores on standardized tests are consistently great, but her enthusiasm for school itself is lacking. She has mild autism and has had a few too many negative interludes with her classmates over the years, so at least there’s a rational reason why she doesn’t like traditional school much. She’s finishing school in an IT program at a local vocational high school, a setting which has been much more tolerable for her.
Her test left me free for the morning, so I took a walk around my neighborhood with camera in hand. There’s work crews on several blocks replacing gas lines, so I focused on some of the sights on the margin of our subdivision.
Everything was still frozen, but spring-worthy sunlight lit up the dormant plants nicely.
The photo above shows the evening sun cast on part of my front door. As spring approaches, I’m mesmerized by these moments when clear sunlight seems to break into the house. The light is so bright it can render a door into pure darkness by comparison, at least according to a camera.
I’ve been thinking about how I’ve becoming one of “those people” who want to talk about God all the time. What is happening is a variation on a story told so many times over the last couple thousand years: a tale of one who is born again. In America, being born again is very often wrapped in a temperance narrative, a story of conquering one’s demons in the form of drinking and the like (and, by the way, I think our culture is hooked on dieting because it too is a temperance story). In my case, there is no sudden change in behavior. Instead, there is an ongoing revolution within.
The notion that someone could be born again despite having never lost one’s core faith would puzzle me if it wasn’t happening to me. In my whole life I have not experienced a moment of true doubt in God. Growing up I knew an ex-nun who told me (long story short) that while faith may seem foolish at times, it is better to be a fool with faith than a fool without it. I took her words to heart and accepted God’s existence as a basic truth. No matter how I’ve struggled with depression and various other adversities of life, I have not doubted in the basic notion of the divine.
When my daughter started reading the Bible in earnest last fall, I wondered why it had not occurred to me to do so the same thing. I had eight years of parochial school religion classes and a few college religion/theology classes, yet I had read less than half of the Bible, and only what was prescribed in worship services or quoted in textbooks.
I still haven’t read as much of the Bible as my daughter has. I’m working my way through it slowly. I’ve found that I can’t just steamroll through it as one would plow through a work of classic literature for the first time. The sensation of reading the Bible on my own has been akin to the opening line of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
In the those moments it’s like pure light and joy floods out any pain and regret. Words can’t adequately portray this feeling. It’s not something I only feel when I read the Bible, but reading the Word definitely renews it. It’s a joy that nothing can dampen while it lasts. I’ll take the window dressing away and speak plainly of it: I believe that I am feeling the Holy Spirit.
Growing up, I’d hear stories of saints and other worthies and resign myself to never becoming good enough or brilliant enough to have such an experience of the Spirit. What I now feel in my heart of hearts has turned that sort of resignation inside out. I now understand that we cannot earn salvation or any sustenance at all from God based on our merit alone. God offers help in this life and salvation in the next based on faith alone. The notion that we can change our ways to curry favor with God simply doesn’t work. We can get better by deepening our faith through trust in God. Stated otherwise, we are justified through faith in God and sanctified through trust in God.
With the time change, my evening is evaporating more quickly than I’d like, but I will close with the following thought. In the past two years, I’ve been through a lot of physical pain, a chronic pain that flared so badly last year that I’d wondered if God had abandoned me. My daughter also had a mental health crisis during the same time my pain raged. It is possible that our struggles emptied us of any resistance to the divine. On the other side of this pain, I discovered that joy is possible no matter what happens in life. You don’t have to perfect yourself for God. He already knows all of your faults, and He waits patiently for you.