Friday, April 12, 2013

The Jenga Tower of Faith

ladies gloves, Thomas Jefferson, black gloves
The true meaning of July 4th

by Amanda Taylor

Recently my world came crashing to a halt when I learned that the signing of the Declaration of Independence was actually carried out on July 2nd, and not on July 4th, the day in American society when we all lose our minds over the founding fathers and the beauty of this nation and fire in the sky and blueberry-strawberry sheet cake flags.

“…Nothing happened in Congress on July 4th, 1776. (John) Adams, who had responded with such depth of feeling to the events of July 2, recorded not a word of July 4. Of (Thomas) Jefferson’s day, it is known only that he took time off to shop for ladies’ gloves and a new thermometer.”

Oh really? I’ve spent all this time and energy and reflection every Fourth of July meditating on democracy and boldness in action and depth of commitment and principles and complexities of citizenship all while making an inspirational freedom cake to celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of ladies gloves?

Is that so?

I am incredulous. I am outraged. I am…already over it. The whole process of learning about this, then feeling some combination of betrayal, shock and confusion, before giving way to acceptance of this fascinating secret, seems to parallel the way I consume information about the Bible, as well as faith paradigms, their history, and countless other facts surrounding everything about religion.

I grew up learning about the rules of religion, facts associated with the Bible that all compounded to make a very genuine, very real story about the history and salvation of the world; various datum stacked one on top of the other to create a Jenga tower of truth. Over time it began to feel that if any one Jenga piece were pulled out and called into question, the whole tower might fall. Each fact needed to be true in its own right, layered among other truths that were dependent on one another to keep the entire story sound, intact, sturdy.

jenga, mid-fall, metaphor, faith, blocks
If you’ve ever played Jenga then you have an understanding of the immense laser-focus needed to handle each piece with the utmost care, steadying your breathing, your body’s stance, and your nerves to move one of those 54 blocks to the top of the tower. Each is the most important block in that moment, until the moment shifts, the players shift, and a new piece becomes the sole focus of the game.

I wonder how much of my life I’ve spent studying faith in this way. Any given fact, any given element that serves to build the tower, is fundamentally tied to the truth and stability of the whole. Was the earth built in 6 days? Did a donkey really talk to Balaam the diviner? Did Joshua stop the sun from shining? What does this tell us? There is incessantly a temptation and a need to believe the finite, external meanings of these words in order to fold ourselves into the boxed tower they create. Then we ask ourselves if we are right. Or not. Will it stand? Or fall? Are these the building blocks of faith?

In some ways I think they are, so I don’t discredit or devalue their existence. The problem with the Jenga illustration is that you build the tower first. You weave it together into a stable entity, and then pick it apart at your leisure and entertainment to see what happens. I don’t think we build faith this way. It is my understanding that instead we stumble into it graciously.

When push comes to shove we have to start talking about what we believe in, what we think is real, and why. I avoid these conversations in most settings because I’ve found the process of defining the various amorphous components of faith to be imperfect, and I don’t like being bound to this inevitable shortcoming. In describing my truths, you will instinctively begin comparing them to yours, which is good, but if we lose each other somewhere along the line you start to become the other, which is bad. These disparities of belief grow increasingly exclusive, and we clutch our facts tight against the chest and peer outward, with a careful, vigilant eye.

Yet time and again the facts are called into question, and it’s the larger story we’re left with. Is it still real when we can’t understand the particulars that have built it? The insular practice of maintaining correctness in all forms is not only exhausting, but a direct path to stagnation and defense. Yet the flip side of that coin is to believe in everything, to avoid “correctness” and to acknowledge all faith as good faith, as truth. This is troublesome, too easy, and lacks the difficult aspect of religious submission that requires us to actually commit.

flag cake, sheet cake, america cake, strawberry, whipped cream, blueberry, cake
Happy Socially Accepted Day of Celebration
I don’t mind in the end if the Declaration of Independence was signed on the 2nd or the 4th, or a month later (when the majority of delegates signed it). Maybe it was signed on the 4th after all, as Adams and Jefferson contended late in life, and history is confused. The document was signed. It is real, and it impacts my life and my country, and stands as a representation of fundamental principles of justice and humanity. These are the things I celebrate as I build my delicious flag cake. As a unified body, it helps us all to have a single day to stop and reflect, and the day that has been chosen is each Fourth of July. This, as a manifestation of recognition and indebtedness is good, and the celebration of the underlying truths is good, and lest we forget, our God more than anything, He is good.

Amanda works in “community development” and no, she doesn’t know what that means either. Forever the critic. And enthusiast. Never one for dichotomies. Follow her on Twitter @tayloram03 if you’re not into receiving tweets.

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