May 5

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Both the crabapple and redbud trees are in bloom, but good light for capturing their beauty has been elusive. We had nearly six inches of rain in April, and May could prove to be just as soggy.

By the way, while I was away from this blog, we had a day-long flood in our neighborhood:

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That was the second time our street has been flooded in the past three years. When the waters rise, I am grateful that we have neither a basement nor a crawl space and that we live on top of a hill.

The renewal of my faith that began back in December continues to deepen. Looking back, I feel there was a long prelude to this personal “revival.” The more I learned to cope with chronic pain, the more I felt the urgency of trying to purge myself of ill-will, grudges and envy. I knew that my negative feelings increased my stress, poisoned my relationships and aggravated my pain.

I suppose I was unwittingly preparing for an event I didn’t see coming, or I was too busy worrying about the past, present and future simultaneously to notice that deep changes were afoot. I was no stranger to that ineffable feeling of the Holy Spirit making his presence known within me, but I did not know how to sustain that radical serenity. The first time it happened was about 25 years ago, at a time when I felt lost yet stuck in place, when I was a college dropout doing time in retail purgatory. I had a dream so filled with bliss that I cried upon awakening because the feeling ended when the dream stopped. In the intervening years, that deep peace would return for a few minutes at a time while I was awake, yet I still didn’t know how to call upon that feeling.

Back in December when I first went to the Methodist church down the street, I was overwhelmed with that abiding feeling of peace, bliss and serenity. As soon as I moved into this neighborhood five years ago, I knew I should visit that church. I put off doing so for a very long time, with mental questions/excuses like: Why would a lapsed Catholic join a Methodist church? Do they dress up in the sort of clothes I can’t stand wearing? Will I look like one of the great unwashed to them? Is this an enclave of Trumpists?

Now that I’ve joined that church, I know that the concerns that stalled my first visit to the church were unwarranted. I’ve yet to hear anyone talk about politics before or after Sunday service. The congregation is fairly small and the majority are elderly. Some are accustomed to dressing up for church, others dress for comfort.

I feel a strong presence of the Holy Spirit during Sunday worship service. The sermons are thought provoking and encourage study of Scripture. I so wish I had devoted time to independent study of the Bible before I reached the ripe age of 46, for I can feel the Spirit’s presence when I take time to read the Word, too. Instead of regret, I feel comfort in understanding that God knows each of us well enough to foresee the choices we will make, and he knew that my spiritual adolescence would last for decades.

I’m eager to dig into the Prophets more, though I will admit that some of their metaphors are hard to digest. Speaking of digestion, I like the references to how some of the prophets ate scrolls containing some of God’s revelations to them (e.g. Ezekiel 3:3 and Revelation 10:10). The imagery is so elemental it’s like something out of a vision that’s endured for as long as God has willed people to exist.

I so adore God’s words to Jeremiah when he worries that he won’t know what to say, “Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth.” (Jeremiah 1:9 KJV).

I pray that I will know what to say when I write or speak about my faith. May God touch my lips and give me the words.

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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.

He Is Risen

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Happy Easter!

All is quiet at the Cole house, aside from the rumble of my husband’s snoring in his recliner. He worked most of the night on a water line break, unwilling to resist a chance for overtime now that he’s emerged from his post-shoulder-surgery convalescence. My daughter slept through most of the morning. She had been up late into the night alternating between typing on her Chromebook and reading Ray Bradbury.

Today is a low-key day. We aren’t having a traditional holiday meal, aside from my small ambition to replicate my mom’s baked beans. We will consume “fun” food like hot dogs and chicken strips. I bought a hot dog toaster for the occasion. Have you ever tried this oddball small appliance? You can toast two hot dogs and buns at a time, and they turn out about as well as a freshly roll-cooked carnival hot dog.

Although I attended Catholic school for eight years of my youth due to my mom’s conversion to that faith halfway through my childhood, I seldom attend church. I pray every day and reflect on God, but I don’t feel like I belong when I walk into a church. I just can’t process the intersection between worship and social class. I don’t want to dress up for church (I rarely do so for any occasion). God has seen and loved me when I looked my worst, even when I weighed 260 pounds and grocery shopped in Stewie lounge pants. My faith is strong, but I haven’t encountered a congregation that feels like home.

On Easter, I reflect on God’s infinite mercy. There is no better proof of human imperfection than our failures of mercy. Think of the most odious person you’ve ever encountered in real life or through the media. Christ died for that person’s sins, too. He died for your chance at salvation and Nikolas Cruz’s as well. Forgiveness and redemption are available for everyone you love and anyone you may hate in the past, present, or future.

On Easter, I try to see people through God’s eyes, even though I, like all people, see through a glass darkly in this life.

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