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Sunday night I poured myself a whiskey and sat down to write about God.  It’s a ritual many writers have undergone.  I looked over my notes from my very first Life 101 class at St. Bart’s:

“God is the ground of our being (?)”

“God suffers w/us (?)”

“Religion= ‘ligio,’ Greek for ligament, ‘to bind.’  Re+ligio= reconnect w/what made us.”

These notes made sense to me when I first wrote them, but at the end of the day I needed the whiskey to help me take it all in.  Simply put, Rev. Bill Tully’s class had blown my mind.

I absolutely love Tully’s sermons.  Week after week he reveals an amazing new way to think about Biblical texts.  “Oh, the sheep and the goats,” you may think when you see the program.  “What could he possibly have to say about that old chestnut?”  And yet by the end of the sermon he’s presented the old story in an entirely new light.  It’s inspiring, thought-provoking and frequently moving, and it keeps me coming back week after week.

Tully’s medicine works on non-believers as well.  My atheist friend Annie was here over Easter a few years ago and attended services with me.  (I may have lured her there under the premise of hearing St. Bart’s exceptional choir.)  Both of us were so moved by Rev. Tully’s sermon that we started to cry and had to borrow Wendy’s napkins from the woman beside us, who was out of Kleenex.  Annie, once home in Minnesota, briefly attended the Unitarian church, but  she fell out of practice after a while.  I don’t entirely blame her.  Religious experiences like that Sunday are few and far between.

So on Sunday listening to Bill Tully lecture on my first day of class (subject:  God), I felt like I was watching my favorite Broadway performer in cabaret.  This class is his chance to expound on themes he’d only touched upon in his sermons.   I was surrounded by fellow fans:  of Bill Tully, St. Bart’s and God.  (Note:  all of St. Bart’s sermons are free via podcast on Itunes.  The hour-long audio recording of the Life 101 class can be found here.)

The class began by re-examining our perception of God.  Tully set up two separate paradigms,  the “supernatural” God vs. the “panentheistic” God.

The supernatural God is the Father in the Sky model with the long white beard that most of us were raised on.  I don’t really associate God with this Neptune-like figure.  To me, God is far more encouraging, kind of like Mr. Rogers or somebody.  At any rate, this God exists somewhere above us and can intervene supernaturally to change the course of fate.  With our prayers, actions and commitment to worship, we can beseech this Being to intercede on our behalf.  “Dear Lord, please let this light change to green.”  That sort of thing.

The panentheistic God, on the other hand, exists everywhere.  The word ‘panentheistic’ is Greek, and it breaks down as pan=everything, en=in, and theos=God.  It is similar to but should not be confused with pantheism, which a belief that we are human manifestations of God and that He can be found everywhere, like in trees.  Panentheism recognizes the Otherness of God (does that make any sense?), but instead of being above everything, as in the supernatural concept, he is at the basis of everything.  According to this paradigm, it isn’t that God lets bad things happen, it’s that he shares our emotions and struggles as part of us.  (The subject of bad things happening to good people came up again and again, particularly with the crisis in Japan last week.)  So if we suffer, God suffers too.  It isn’t that he’s a supreme, authoritarian being, it’s that he is a life force.  Tully emphasized that we find evidence of a God who struggles alongside humanity like this in Psalms, and that Jesus was the human face of this concept.

If none of this makes sense, it’s because I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.  I am long accustomed to praying to a supernatural-type God.  So were others in the class.  The gay man behind me in a fabulous red bow tie got very specific when describing his version of God.  (“He sounds a lot like Cecil B. DeMille.”)  He also said that as a musician there had been times when he felt God’s presence in music with such certainty that when people say to him, “God thinks this about you,” he feels confident saying, “You don’t speak for God.”  So God is in music too?  I can get behind that.

As benevolent as  my Mr. Rogers God is, many of my prayers have gone unanswered.  I haven’t gotten a Broadway show, I have no money, my insurance runs out in a few weeks, the list goes on and on.  We all have wants and needs that have gone unfulfilled.   I have come to know that I am at my best when I am utilizing some creative force within myself to shape my life.  I think we all are.  Could that creative energy be God energy?  Because if it is, it’s a lot more reliable than Mr. Rogers.

But if that God force swirls around us, inspiring artists and propping up recovering alcoholics alike, who or what do we pray to?  At this point the conversation got even more interesting.

While Tully believes that it’s human nature to pray to God for intercession, the type of prayer he advocates doesn’t use any words.  (He also likes public prayer.  He thinks there’s something sacred about people coming together to pray.)  But he believes the most effective, honest prayer invites God to come to you by sitting in a spirit of meditation and total silence.  A mantra to achieve that might be “Thy will be done,” which is also one of the hardest precepts of Christianity, succumbing to God’s will.

This idea of silent prayer, while by no means new, reminded me of three things.  The first was that amazing scene in Anne of Green Gables when Marilla tries to get Anne to pray, and she tells her that if she were to pray, she would just walk into a field, close her eyes and feel prayer.  Of course Marilla is appalled, but I always thought Anne had something going there.

Second, I thought of the Quakers and their weekly meetings where they sit in total silence and ‘wait upon the Lord.”  From time to time somebody feels the urge to get up and speak ex tempore.  I went to a meeting or two in college until I decided I required just a little more ritual, but the meetings were gorgeous just the same.

Finally, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Judith Jamison, dancer and artistic director of Alvin Ailey.  I use the latter half of it as my own sort of mantra to get me through difficult auditions.  “Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart… there’s a light inside of you.”

I was sitting innocently in church on Sunday when the priest dropped this gentle reminder:

“…and four Ash Wednesday services are being held this week…”

Some unholy expressions popped into my head in spite of the setting.  Confession:  I hate Ash Wednesday.  While I acknowledge that we come from dust and to dust we must return, I have long resented wearing a smudge on my forehead all day long.   I feel guilty (of course) complaining about it.  I know one day with an ash-covered forehead is not as demanding as, say, shaving my head and wearing a wig for the rest of my life, but it’s humiliating just the same.  Which is part of the point.  It’s the one day a year when Catholics and Episcopals alike are supposed to be recognized by the mark on our foreheads.  We’re supposed to wear it, if not proudly, then bravely.  And when people suggest we wipe it off, as Cheryl, my fellow waitress did one year, we are supposed to explain the importance of the ash and pray for the soul of Cheryl and others.

Since that year at the restaurant, I have let the practice of getting ashes go by the wayside.  But I have also delved more fully into exploring my spiritual life.  I joined a church, I journal regularly, I practice yoga.   So on Sunday when the priest mentioned it, I revisited the question:  what does getting ashes mean to me?

I have no one to consult about this.  No one I know goes to church regularly.  When I tell people I do, I can see them making a mental note:  “She might be a Jesus freak.  Tread lightly.”  I don’t care.  Further exploration would reveal that I’m not, I just find encouragement and inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus.  I think the Bible is fascinating, and I love the service and the community at St. Bart’s, which has the largest float every year in the Gay and Lesbian Day parade.  But Christianity is not a subject that’s ever really explored among people my age.  In fact, it’s avoided more often than not.

Back to the issue of ashes.  I’m sure that many people who get ashes have vibrant spiritual lives, but it has always  seemed to me that people do it because they were raised Catholic or Episcopal and having a dirty forehead is a cross they must bear once a year.  These individuals may not go to church every Sunday, but regardless, this is what they must do.

To me, this is exactly the sort of empty ritualism that Jesus fought so hard against.  But if I do identify with a religious group, shouldn’t their traditions become my traditions?  “Hell, no,” I decided.  I’ve never been one to do something just because everyone is doing it.  And I don’t believe Christians need a smudge on their foreheads to identify themselves.  We should be known by the lives we lead, right?  (Which frequently we are– for the wrong reasons.)

But what about Lent?

I have even stronger feelings about Lent than I do about Ash Wednesday.  While I suspect that those wearing ashes don’t actively pursue religious growth, I know for a fact that Lenten sacrifice is frequently appropriated by non-religious people.  I have had numerous friends declare that they’ll hit the gym every day during Lent, that she’s giving up chocolate, that he’s giving up cigarettes.  Americans like to test their willpower under a defined set of circumstances.  That’s why New Year’s Resolutions, the master cleanse and National Novel-Writing Month exist in the cultural consciousness.  So as my thoughts wandered during the sermon, my first thought was to give up alcohol for Lent.  It’s my only vice, really.   I don’t smoke, I work out regularly, and thanks to Weight Watchers I rarely consume more than 1,500 calories a day.  So for a second I almost decided to give up the booze.  But then I remembered a few things.

First, St. Patrick’s day falls one week into Lent, and it just seems irreverent not to be drinking green beer at a bar somewhere.  (While I frequently forget about Ash Wednesday, St. Patrick’s Day never sneaks up on me.  I start planning for that weeks in advance.)  Plus, I had two book clubs to attend in March alone and I just couldn’t stand the thought of not being able to drink wine while talking about books.  It’s one of my favorite things in life, hands down.

So not only did I have standing appointments with the bottle, but I also had this idea that Lenten sacrifice should enrich my spiritual life, not curtail my social life.  Also, Lent doesn’t necessarily require sacrifice.  At St. Bernadette’s we were encouraged to develop a good habit, and for two months every year between the ages of 7 and 9 I  set the dinner table for my mother, which caused her (and Jesus, I imagined) no end of joy.  But as an adult I feel that Lent should be a time to acquire a spiritual habit that would allow me a deeper understanding of myself and God.

Fortunately, if that’s what I want, I am in the right place.  St. Bart’s offers a myriad of Lenten programs, and I’m 90% settled on Rev. Bill Tully’s Life 101 class, which meets Sundays after church.  This will require me to go to church every Sunday in Lent, which I don’t always do because of my scene study class, which meets Sundays, which I have never appreciated.  The class promises to be “a serious exploration of how we interpret the Bible, honestly look at Christian history, use human reason in our spiritual quests, and find depth through a living, sacramental practice of worship and service.”

I feel as adults we must continue to question the things we do and why we do them.  I want to use Lent to develop spiritual practices that work for me and enrich my life.  I think the pressures and demands of modern life, particularly a life in the arts, require the use all of our resources– spiritual, intellectual and artistic– to create a life that’s truly fulfilling.  Sometimes that means eschewing rituals such as Ash Wednesday, sometimes it means a renewed commitment to  church on Sunday.  (Sometimes it just means taking a trip to Target.)  But when the curtain goes down on me, I want to be able to say– or to croak out, rather– that I lived my life to the fullest.