Being Bilingual

I spent my teenage years in the southern tip of Texas, about a 30 minute drive to the border. Many of my classmates in Junior High and High School had either been born in Mexico, or had parents or grandparents who immigrated.

Being a friend of families who had immigrated was a singular experience that I would not trade for the world. The culture was similar in so many ways, but different in many others. It was not uncommon to find a house with grandparents, even great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – either living there or as very frequent guests. It’s hard to remember any time I went hungry at a friend’s house – fresh tortillas, tamales, or just good American pizza.

Most of my friends who came from immigrant families were fully “Americanized”, and lived their daily lives in the same way you’d expect from any family. All of them spoke English – either as their first language, or as a slightly broken, second language.

It’s that bilingualism that I’ve been thinking of a lot recently. For many of my friends who spoke English as their first language, Spanish was still spoken frequently in their home. And, I also had friends who spoke English at school, but whose family spoke nothing but Spanish at home.

Then, there were the friends whose English was halting, who struggled to find words at times. I am ashamed to admit that many of us laughed when they struggled (they laughed with us, but probably not because it was funny.) They spoke slowly when they spoke in English, with great deliberation and concentration.

But, when they spoke Spanish, they came alive. Suddenly, they were speaking fluently, excitedly, with inflections that I didn’t know they were capable of. I couldn’t understand a word that they were saying, but it was almost enough just to hear the way that they were saying the words.

Eventually, they would remember that I couldn’t understand, and they’d slip back into English. But, those few moments that they were speaking their native tongue, they were home.

Faith has a language all its own. We speak in Scripture verses, in the lyrics to hymns, in Common prayers. We learn creeds and call-and-response, and we respond to those liturgies and litanies automatically.

“The Lord be with you.” And also with you.

“The word of God for the people of God.” Thanks be to God.

Who among us can fail to be moved by the words of 1 Corinthians 13 when spoken at a wedding? Love is patient and kind. Love is not proud, it does not boast…. the greatest of these is love.

Who would object to the words of Psalm 23 being spoken over the grave of a loved one? The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want… yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

Or, when the song Amazing Grace is sung or played over the same grave? Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found – was blind, but now I see.

People of faith come alive when we hear our language being spoken. Not everyone we know can understand our first language, and we learn to slip back into the less familiar language of the world we live in now.

But, those cadences and inflections are forever echoing in our hearts.

I’ve thought of this many times before, and a dear family member reminded me of it a few weeks ago: no matter where I roam, no matter whether I am in the church or out, my primary language will always be the language of faith.

I will never hear the problems of a friend without an encouraging Scripture coming to mind.

I will never see a cross or a dove without hearing the words of familiar hymns and songs in my head.

I will never face a dangerous situation without whispering a few words of prayer under my breath – even if it’s just an exercise, a habit, a comforting ritual.

No one can take that language from me. I can be cast out, tried and convicted as a heretic, lose my church membership, be ostracized from the community of faith, but I will never unlearn this language.

So many of us spend most of our lives in communities of faith, and then later find that we have to go. No matter the reasons, we share the experience of losing our foundation, our family. Many of us return to the Church, if for no other reason than because we don’t know who we are without it. Many more stay away, and do everything that they can to scour the presence, language, even the memory of religion from their minds, their hearts, and their mouths.

But, there are some of us who choose to live as immigrants – strangers, foreigners, who love our new home as much as our old one.

We know that we’ll probably never go back to our old home, our old way of living. The reasons that we left will still be there, as are the reasons that we came to this strange land. We know that there are others like us, people who come from similar places, who speak in familiar tones, and we just can’t help to slip into our first language when we see them.

So, don’t be afraid to speak in comforting Scripture, or sing familiar songs. Don’t be worried that you still pray under your breath. You might do these things and not believe. You may do these things and be unsure if you believe or not. These rituals and words are sometimes only tangentially tied to beliefs. Sometimes, speaking familiar words is enough.

No matter where you are or what language that you’re speaking, know that there is a whole community of spiritual immigrants who understand what you’re saying, and we’re probably ready to speak back.

 

The Detox (Who Am I Without This?)

I am sitting in my home on a Sunday morning, and every fiber of my being tells me that I need to be in church.

It feels like I haven’t been to church in ages. It has only been two weeks.

As I took a shower this morning, I mulled over the central question of this post: “Who am I without this?” My next thought was, “I know what I am without this! I need to go to church!” I nearly stopped the shower then, got dressed, and drove down the street in time to greet folks before Sunday service.

It’s not a sin to enjoy going to church. For many people, the church is a place of comfort and healing, a place where they truly belong. Not going to church might make them feel sad or lonely, but it won’t cause them physical pain to be absent.

When I can think clearly about this, I realize what’s going on.

I’m detoxing from church.

Addiction runs pretty deep in my family, and I have a lot of secondhand experience with it. My only firsthand experience is with nicotine (which is a hell of a drug.)

I was smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day until about a year and a half ago. Over the years that I smoked, there were many attempts to quit. Every attempt ended in failure – even this last attempt is a very qualified success – but each attempt shared a few characteristics.

First, there was the elation. I’m finally quitting. I’m quitting for real this time. I’ve got this.

Then came the sullenness. This sucks. I don’t know if this is worth it. I feel like shit.

Next comes the anxiety. Oh my God, I’m never going to have another cigarette in my life. I’m going to die.

Who am I without this?

It might seem like a silly question to ask about nicotine or alcohol, but it’s a question that every addict asks themselves, in one form or another.

What am I without this? What am I going to do to fill this aching need? Who am I without a cigarette/drink in my hand?

When you give up an addiction, whether by colossal amount of will or with proper treatment – and the second option is much more viable – when you give it up, you do more than just leave the drug behind. You also leave behind an entire community of people.

For smokers, you leave behind all those folks that you used to light up with behind your workplace.

For alcoholics, you leave behind your favorite watering holes, and all the people who welcomed you in and helped you into an Uber when you were too shitfaced to drive.

You leave family behind. You leave community behind. You leave a thousand little rituals behind.

And, you know that you can never go back.

To go back means that you fall right back into those old habits and rituals, because you’re among the community. You belong there. This is who you are. Who are you without this?

There are many people at that old watering hole who can come in, have a few drinks, and then leave. They’ll never understand why you can’t walk into a bar without leaving in an Uber.

There are people out there who can smoke a cigarette or two at a party, and not even think about smoking for months. They’ll never understand why you can’t take even a drag without immediately needing a pack.

There are people at the church who can come to church and love every moment of it, but can also take a vacation without feeling the absolute, aching need to be in church. There are people who don’t feel like they have to apologize when they miss a Sunday or two. There are people who don’t come back after a short absence with the frenetic, manic energy of someone who is finally getting a fix after weeks without.

Those people – those wonderful, loving, amazing people – will never understand why you’re not happy. They’ll never understand why you cringe during the sermon, or during the song service, all the while saying, “Amen” and raising your hands and singing along.

Because, you don’t belong there. You don’t really want to be there. But, you don’t know who you are without these people. You don’t know who you are without these rituals, these songs, these sermons.

These aren’t good reasons to keep doing something. These aren’t the signs of a properly devout religious person.

These are the signs of an addict.

 

This journey isn’t done. I’ve tried to quit before. But, “cold turkey” is never a good technique. You, my dear readers, are my support group.

Some of you might not understand this. For you, church is something completely different than it is for me. If that’s you, please give me grace. If you can’t understand me, then at least continue to love me.

If you’re reading this and you attend my wonderful, loving church, please understand that there is nothing wrong with you or our church. The bar isn’t to blame for the alcoholism, nor are the patrons.

If you see me at church, most of you will hug me and say, “Welcome back.” Just like most of my old smoking buddies will offer me a cigarette when they smoke in front of me. Just like most of them would never judge me for bumming one.

But, I hope that at least one of you will be like that rare friend of an addict. After greeting me and hugging me, I hope that at least one of you will look me in the eyes and say, “What are you doing? I thought you quit.”

Because, I don’t know who I am without this. But, I need to find out.

A Journey Away

Friends, there has been a long silence on this blog, and I’d like to explain why.

I have always striven to make this blog as honest as possible: about mental health, about military service, about theologically difficult concepts. But, I don’t know that I’ve been as honest about what the Christian religion means to me – where I’ve been, where I am now, and where I see myself in the future.

My faith has meant many things to me at different times in my life. At times, it’s been a blessing and a strength. At other times, it’s been a great burden and a thing that injures. I have been faithful at times, and I have strayed at times. I have counted the cost of discipleship, and I do not shrink from the price.

Something different is happening inside me now. I no longer have the patience or the grace that I have struggled to maintain in the face of toxic theology and those who practice it. It no longer seems like something that I can fight, this battle for the soul of Christianity. I have tried to dedicate my life to following the Jesus that I see in the Gospels, but so many Christians seem to have found a completely different Jesus than the one that I see.

Perhaps they’re right, and I am in the wrong. Perhaps the God of the Universe is actually as petty, capricious, and vindictive as many Christians would make him out to be. Perhaps he is simply indifferent to our plight, seeing us as beneath his Divine Notice.

Perhaps he is not even there.

Or, there could be something entirely different going on. Perhaps, the God of the Universe is so vast, so all-encompassing, that it is impossible to know it. Perhaps God is Nameless, Faceless, forever a Stranger to those who would seek to define and worship it.

Where does this leave me, this constant exploration that always leads back to doubt? I’m not entirely sure, and I’m not sure that I will ever understand my own thoughts on the matter. But, I know that I am journeying away.

This is not a journey away from the one that I have set my feet to follow. If anything, I feel closer in discipleship than I ever have. Rather, this is a journey away from all the toxic ideas that have led to a faith in a God that you can only really worship with fear and self-loathing.

This is a journey away from the lines that are drawn around God, and the lines that are drawn in the midst of people – to keep some out and some in.

This is a journey away from the idea that we are all doomed from birth to lead lives of barely contained evil.

This is a journey away from the idea that action is somehow less important than an intangible faith, and that we must accompany the first with the second in order for it to have any value.

Mostly, this is a journey away from the lies that I have told myself for years, the molds that I have constantly tried to force myself into. This is a journey away from both passionate declarations of faith and renunciations of it. This is a journey away from the conservative fundamentalism that declares itself infallible, and the liberal fundamentalism that declares itself unassailable.

And, as hard as it is to admit, this is a journey away from the Church that has been my life vest and safety blanket for so much of my life. This is a journey away from the creeds that have defined me, the worship that has shaped me, and even – sadly, but almost inevitably – a journey away from friends and family that will see any such journey as a damnable heresy.

In the next few weeks, I hope to write about what this is a journey towards. Something is waiting down this road – perhaps something and Someone. As frightening as a journey can be, I need to see where it leads.

As Bilbo Baggins says, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

And, “not all those who wander are lost.”