Jamais Vu

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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.

In the Beginning Was the Word . . .

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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.

Some thoughts on 1 Corinthians 3:18-19

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I’ve encountered another passage of Scripture that really resonates for me, 1 Corinthians 3:18-19 (quote from Good News Bible): “No one should fool himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise by this world’s standards, he should become a fool, in order to be really wise. For what this world considers to be wisdom is nonsense in God’s sight.”

There is so much to contemplate in this passage. For instance, am I drawn to these words in humility or because of those times in life when it seemed I was the lone (and sometimes silent) voice of reason? Lately I’ve become increasingly disillusioned by some of the comments I see on social media regarding local news stories. It seems like harsh judgment has become the reigning paradigm in such comments. If the authors of such comments could create a reality to their liking, we’d live in a world where children are never spared the rod unless they act like perfect servants, where all defendants, whose guilt is a foregone conclusion, should go straight from arrest to prison, where welfare no longer exists, and everything is seasoned with a heaping portion of capital punishment.

Then again, who am I to judge these people? I don’t bother to present an opposing viewpoint because I’ve seen dissenting opinions quashed several times over the years. It’s so hard for me to tell who is foolish in this situation: the harsh local pundits, people like me for letting them steamroll local forums unopposed, or the people who created essentially unmoderated forums?

The answer is likely to be something I can’t imagine, as least not yet.