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jlhopgood - His Hand

“Excuse me,” the voice said from off to my side. “Can you help me?”

She was an old woman, perhaps in her 80’s. Her bones looked small and fragile. She wore a dirty coat. For some reason the coat really bothered me. This woman shouldn’t have been out there in the cold. She should have been in a home; in a warm, clean place. She should have been cared for. But instead she was on the sidewalk beneath the Sur la Table, calling me to her.

“Yes. How can I help you?”

Perhaps she wanted money. I would have given it to her, no questions asked.

“Could you help me stand up? I need to get turned around so that I can walk up to Whole Foods.”

She was sitting, hunched over the walker about half a block from the grocery store. I placed my hands under her shoulders as gently as I could and lifted her up. She moved as though my speed might break her, so I let her set the pace. Once she was standing and redirected she thanked me, and headed on her way. It was a simple goodbye. All she wanted was that small bit of help and nothing more.

I turned to see my husband with tears in his eyes. That’s his natural response to seeing people in pain, or dogs without homes, or whenever he thinks about kids so poor that they might not ever get a gift from their parents.

I pulled him close to me.

After a few minutes we made our way back toward our original destination, Powell’s Books. We were just a few feet into the store, climbing down the stairs towards the bookshelves when it happened. Into my head came the thought,

“I’m just going to go ahead and believe in God.”

My first response was to think,

“What? What does that even mean?”

The thought felt like it was mine but also not mine, as though there was something outside of me motivating it. It’s like the thought happened to me. It didn’t feel like some kind of clouds-parting conversion experience. It was just a calm, still voice making the declaration that I was going to believe in God.

In the Patheos article, What Is A Christian, Marcus Borg unpacks the etymology of “believe” in a way that sheds light on what this unexpected thought may mean in my life.

He writes:

… The language of “believing” has been part of Christianity from the first century onward. But it didn’t refer primarily to believing the right theological beliefs. It meant something like the English word “beloving.” To believe in God and Jesus was to belove God and Jesus. Namely, it meant to commit one’s self to a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness. Commitment and fidelity are the ancient meanings of faith and believing.

Even the two most frequently heard Christian creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, reflect this understanding. They both begin with the Latin word credo, most commonly translated into English as “I believe.” But the Latin roots of credo mean “I give my heart to.”

(emphasis mine)

Looking at it now I think that this is what happened in the moment those words came into my mind: I gave my heart to God. It was hardly an altar call experience. In fact, it didn’t feel like something I was making a choice about at all. It was just the natural response to this encounter on the street.

My heart has not been the same since that woman reached out to me. Something inside me feels differently, as though my capacity to feel was just increased exponentially. The thought of people in pain, people without food, people without the feeling of love in their lives — these things have been affecting me in a way that they never have before — even during my pre-Paganism Christianity.

God likely doesn’t need my help, but this woman did. And others like her do. The lesson I take from this experience (perhaps the first lesson of many) is that through serving others I experience the love of God. Through giving freely of myself I come to better understand Christ. When I serve, I experience the Divine within myself and in others.

This woman called me back to beloving God by allowing me to serve her. It’s a calling I cannot deny or easily dismiss.

 

Photo by Jlhopgood
Photo by Chris

Photo by Chris

I am not a Christian, but I have no problem with placing love at the center of my religious ideology.

(That I should feel the need to qualify the centrality of love with an “I am not” statement is notable.)

When I check in with my desire, my deepest yearning, I discover love. It’s there, simple and quiet; steady and ready to be known.

The word, as many wiser people than I have observed, is overused in the English language. When I say “love” you might think of love as romance, adoration, longing, friendship or lust.

Do you love your car? Do you love your husband? Do you love your new phone? Do you love the land? The Gods? Yourself?

In each of these cases, the word is used quite differently. Isn’t it?

Photo by Chris

Photo by Chris

So what does it mean that my deepest yearning, my True Desire, is love?

I don’t know how to answer that question.

While I’m perfectly comfortable with writing that “love is at the center of my religious ideology,” I don’t know exactly what that means.

I was raised a Christian. I’ve written about that in many places. I also came into my own as a young adult within a Christian community. One could easily ascertain that my emphasis on love is a holdover from my earlier tradition. The Christians planted the love seed, and the tree continues to grow — even if it is decorated with Pagan symbols now.

Perhaps that is true. For certain, it is reductive.

I don’t think that Christians have the patent on love. It wasn’t born two thousand years ago, and it isn’t contained exclusively in the pages of the Good Book. It is bigger than any one tradition.

Photo by Franny Lane

Photo by Franny Lane

But how do we talk about love in a Pagan context? Can we place it at the center of our religious ideologies — or our spiritual practices, if that feels more comfortable to you — while retaining a sense of identity in our tradition.

For that matter, is it reasonable to expect that we do such a thing?

I’ve met people who seem to care little about love in a broad or theological sense, but a lot about love for their tribe. The boundaries are clear to them. You have it for some, but you don’t necessarily have it for others. There is an inside (where love is given), and there is an outside (from which you protect yourself).

And it’s not just Pagans or polytheists who do this. There are Christians who think of love in this way. There are Muslims who think of love in this way. There are people in every religious tradition who think of love as something that is given to only a few select people.

Tribalism is tribalism, no matter how you dress it up.

So, again, what does it mean that love is at the center of my religious ideology?

I still don’t know.

There are a few things that I am clear about:

  • I care for people. I care about their well being. This care sometimes is experienced as love, and this love is given to people I know very well and people I don’t know well at all. I consider myself a servant of my community, and I have great love for those who I serve.
  • I am in love with my husband. Madly. Over the past several weeks a new fire has ignited between us. Seven years we have been together, and somehow — amazingly — we are discovering each other in completely new ways. In him, I know love.
  • I feel a profound sense of love when I do ritual. This love feels like it’s coming from something on the edges of myself, pouring inward. I felt this at the PantheaCon Morrígan ritual (which continues to work its way into my skin). I have felt it every time I performed a Solitary Druid Fellowship High Day ritual. Love — some primal, essential kind of love — is present with me in those moments.

So it’s interesting to me that I start off this post with a need to clarify how this centrality of love is not Christian. My disclaimer makes me aware that I haven’t had much cause (or opportunity) to talk much about love since I became a Pagan.

And why is that?

How is it that something that can be so intrinsic to me (and I presume to others) can be a subject that doesn’t come up much in my religious community? Is it that we don’t have a context for talking about love? Are we convinced that love wasn’t that important in the Old Ways, and — more importantly — are we satisfied with that conclusion?

Or, are we afraid that if we talk about love in connection with our religious lives that we might start sounding too Christian?

Where does love fit into Pagan and polytheist traditions?

In the midst of this Christian extravaganza, standing beneath the red and green blinking lights, and surrounded by the sound of Jesus followers singing hymns and secular Christmas classics, I’m rediscovering the act of forgiveness.

I didn’t expect forgiveness to be a theme of this brief caroling experience. I thought my time singing Christmas songs might offer me more chances to make theological comparisons; a kind of anthropological experiment, if you will.  I, the Pagan and Druid-in-training, would stand before the Christians and make a beautiful noise, using their myths and traditions as source material, and in doing so I might walk away with a keener understanding into how we are different.

Instead, I’m discovering that forgiveness, a word that many of us associate with the Christian doctrine of “the forgiveness of sin” (a concept most all of my readers reject), is being offered to me as an early Christmas gift.

Forgiveness, it turns out, is mine to experience because it is mine to offer to others.

See, I’m a person who gets burned rather easily. When someone hurts me, I retreat (sometimes geographically) and I rarely look back. When we’re done, we’re done. That’s been my approach to relationships for most of my adult life.

This has been true in personal and professional relationships, with family, and even with religion. I left the Church, and that was it. No more Jesus talk. No more redemption, salvation, forgiveness — any of that. I lumped all of those words and ideas into one big, Christian box and stored it away in the dusty-attic recesses of my mind. I had no intention of exploring how these themes were still present in my life. They were Christian, so I didn’t want to think about them.

We’ve touched on salvation as a concept that can exist outside of the Christian paradigm, and I believe there’s still more to be explored in that conversation. But for now, it appears that forgiveness is the theme of the moment. Set aside the belief that humanity must seek forgiveness from God, and there can still be a way for us to approach this utterly human, utterly necessary act.

We don’t forgive, or seek forgiveness because to not do so would result in our eternal damnation. Forgiveness isn’t a Divine mandate.

We seek to forgive others and be forgiven because it allows for us to continue to write the story of our life. Forgiveness restores a sense of continuity between the past and the present; a continuity which is broken by our own resentfulness and heartache.

Forgiveness belongs to all of us, and is not wrapped up in any one, religious tradition. The Christians talk a lot about forgiveness because it plays a large role in their understanding of Jesus, of God, and of their beliefs regarding humanity’s role in a “Divine plan.” I’m not taking issue with that here. There’s no need to. If a Christian processes forgiveness through that lens, it does me no direct harm. They’ll learn the lessons they need to learn.

But for me, I’m seeing forgiveness more like an essential component of our human life which transcends the myths we hold up as sacred, and even the identities we work so diligently to construct and defend.

By embracing Christmas as I described in my last post, I am discovering that I’ve become resentful and defensive about other people finding joy in the Christmas holiday. I’ve felt spurned by the sleigh bells, put off by the tinsel and the incessant jolliness. There was something false in it, I was certain. Christmas was, after all, just a Pagan holiday in disguise. How dare people enjoy something that wasn’t, in fact, what they were claiming it to be.

But what did I gain from that experience?

Not much, really. The feeling of being spurned, perhaps?

Fun.

I never passed the “true Christian” test that some Christians subject other Christians to, because I was never willing to accept wholeheartedly the belief that there was only one way to the Divine. Some might suggest that I don’t pass the “true Pagan” test because I still believe that Christianity, and the other monotheistic faiths, can be very effective at providing people with a rich spiritual life and deep connection to the Great Mystery.

Tests are silly. I didn’t care for them in grade school, and I still don’t know. You can test a kid from 7AM to 3PM every day of the week, and still not get a real sense of what she knows. Marking the right boxes is very different than having a deep knowledge of the world you live in.

I’m more of an in-the-world learner.

So, in the same way, I don’t need to pass anyone’s religious test to determine what I am. I am complicated, and textured. In my voice you’ll hear remnants of my old Christianity; out of practice, but not completely forgotten. You’ll also hear me rediscovering the enchanted world, which is a direct result of my opening up to Druidry, and to the Pagan community. It’s all here; all a part of the whole.

I embrace forgiveness and, in the process of doing so, calling back to myself each of my disparate parts, each of my forgotten persons. Those things which seemed disharmonious are each forgiven, each accepted as holy mixtures of the beautiful and the ugly.

I forgive both, and in the moment of my forgiveness I encounter the most unexpected sensation of love, and of being loved.