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The Turtle #2

September 29, 2005

3 years ago this week my sister blogged about her journey with the turtle. I thought I would share it and follow up with turtle #3 which are some of my thoughts.

Sept. 2002

I don’t know why I continue to be surprised about sources of wisdom, about the ways God speaks to me from bushes just when I need it. I met this morning with one of my students, a first-semester sophomore, to talk about minor proposals and other mundane matters. But this young woman has awed me more than once, and she did it again today. She said things about writing that I usually hear only from those much older than she, and she said things about faith that took me right into the fire, where I needed to be.

She said her mother had always been her spiritual touchstone, the kind of mother who told her, even during her freshman struggles, to embrace her sorrow because it would do her good. Then she told me that she’d gone to her mother with her questions of doubt: the usual not-sure-about-this-Christianity-stuff that a mother might expect to hear at such a time. Her mother told her, as some would, that it was time to find her own faith. What she thought was faith in the past was merely a parroting of her mother’s, the way the young do with convictions about society and politics in areas in which they have no knowledge of their own. Normal enough so far. But here’s what followed. Her mother told her than when she found it, when she found real truth and faith of her own, it would not be what she wanted it to be. It would not be neat or certain or pretty; it would be more like a cloud with ragged edges, as ready to storm as not.

That wisdom–it has taken me so long to get there, and still I resist it. Even now, I try to run back to places where faith seems safe, where truth can be labeled. It’s likely the real reason I stayed away from St. A’s as long as I did. I played outdoors all the time when I was a child (forbidden to keep my nose in a book), but I never liked to get really dirty. Playing in the rain, okay. In the mud, a different story. I’m still that way. I know, to the depths of my soul, how muddy I have to get for my faith to be at all real. I know it won’t be comfortable, more like hopping on hot coals, some of the time but, thank God, nothing in the way of guilt and retribution that I was taught as a child..

This helps me to think about how my mother clings to her church, one I simply can’t abide any more. I laugh about the hate rags she leaves around on tables for us to read, especially one with the shouting title: “Hell is part of the good news too.” But, for her, it is. She wants a religion of law and certainty; black and white, in or out, sheep or goats. She wants to know she’s earned heaven because she hasn’t committed certain sins; she doesn’t need grace and has no time for weakness, tolerance, fogvieness. She especially has no use for the relative “liberalism” that her own church is moving toward, so she’s withdrawn from three churches to find one narrow enough, so that she can be reassured from the week’s services that she’s never done that so she’s all right and to gossip about people who have, who, justly, will not be all right.

You know, the Church of Christ reached the height of its membership in the 50’s, during a time that such “knowing where you are” must have been very attractive. But I think further back than that to the way my great-grandparents chose this faith, even to how it arose in the Kentucky backwoods of the 19th Century. It’s not just Scottish influence that has made it a “thou shalt not” sect that wants to separate itself completely from factosrs like emotion. It’s not just lack of education that causes its members, even to this day, to pray exactly the same memorized prayers, to answer questions in a Bible class in exactly the same way.

My great-grandparents lived on a Mississippii depression farm, and until my grandparents went to the city at age 50 and the whole family became wealthy, my mother’s family did too. She has told me they couldn’t afford to keep the eggs that their hens laid but had to trade them at the store. Couldn’t afford for her mother to stay home with small infants, so she breast-fed them when she came to the end of field rows. I wonder how they were able to afford the insulin to keep my uncle Dennis alive or to send my mother and her sister away to boarding school so that they could finish high school. Maybe, with a life like that, you’ll find certainty any way you can; maybe they felt they couldn’t afford a messy faith, one that left them in the shifting sands on Sunday as well as every other day of the week. Perhaps, somehow, my mother has never been able to afford it.

Thank God that I can afford to have an iota of courage, that Julie sang “Jesus is my man” and “James” at church yesterday, that a woman I don’t know sang, too, causing Julie to hold her head in her hands, that Becca preached a sermon about forgiveness that landed everyone there in the quicksand of struggle. So real, so hard, so right, so understanding, so forgiving, so acknowledging of how divided we are–but nothing at all like faith would be had I designed it. I don’t know when I came to understand that “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief’ is the truest statement of faith, but I know that, had I not, I would have given up on faiith as I came to honesty and self-knowledge. It cost me so much to leave behind the way I had been taught things were, the get off the path and into the briars. But, until I did, I had no idea, no more a clue than when I was five and thought religion was wearing a ruffly dress and trying to keep it spotless.

I pray for help to embrace the chaos.

“it is probably not correct to speak of the soul’s path. It is more a meandering and wandering. . . The soul becomes greater and deeper through the living out of the messes and the gaps. . . To the soul, this is the ‘negative way’ of the mystics, an opening into divinity only made possible by giving up the pursuit of perfection.” (Thomas Moore)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2005 3:42 pm

    Your sister put this all so well. It is amazing to see patterns and personalities that I am so familiar with present in the lives of others.

    Thank you for sharing.

    BTW- the cat’s out of the bag on my blog, couldn’t stand it anymore…

  2. September 30, 2005 2:51 pm

    Maybe the way we should look at the turtle is to see how he managed over time to outgrow the restraints and constraints to become a much larger “figure” than those things that tried to limit him. Just as hopefully each of us can do.

    At least, that was how I was thinking about it when I saw your first turtle picture and now, even more so, after reading your sister’s thoughts and the closing quote by Sir Thomas More (which I really like a lot).

    I say that because I think we ALL have things in our lives that are constraints of different kinds that we must face, deal with and learn to live with and/or to overcome as we grow and change (or don’t as the case may be). For some of us, the constraints are physical (illnesses, diseases, etc), for some they are emotional, for some mental and for some spiritual. Or maybe all of those things mixed together in different ways.

    A much sadder thing to see than the old turtle as he is would be to find that he had totally been boxed in in some way, stunting his growth all around forever. Just as some people don’t seem to be able to break out of and overcome the parameters of the small boxes they find themselves in.

    It is all very interesting to think about and presents some profound issues, I think. Thanks for sharing your sister’s thoughts and I look forward very much to hearing yours.

    By the way – I’m glad you got to talk with JD and spoke of him. I’ve thought about him so much because I know how very difficult it is here, still, for us and we (Tom & I) at least have our home. But all around us is chaos and trying to go anywhere or do anything around town is nearly impossible and takes hours and hours.

  3. September 30, 2005 4:36 pm

    your word picture may be much more appropriate than my turtle. But the turtle IS big and alive but seriously damaged and there is no way to fix him. That’s what I see in the photo.

  4. September 30, 2005 5:33 pm

    Tommy – Do you think that that applies to people, too? That some of us can be so damaged at some point in our lives (probably when we are very young, as was obviously the case with our poor friend the turtle) that we cannot recover? Or recover in any meaningful and/or healthy way?

    What are your thoughts on that? I’d really like to know.

  5. October 3, 2005 5:06 pm

    What a beautiful post. Really, really beautiful…


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