Wednesday, June 26, 2013

New Series: Into the Tidal Zone

Photo Credit: Morguefile  

What I call the tidal zone is the transforming edge of human experience, that place that is neither sea nor is it shore. It is a place apart from the ordinary concerns of daily life but close enough to them that are not fully lost to the ineffable greatness of the sea. In the tidal zone, sometimes things are clear and beautiful; sometimes they are murky and scary and dark. The world there teems with beauty and it all lives on the knife's edge between birth and death.

The tidal zone is the spiritual world: the world of longing, prayer and wonderment; the world of finding, grace, and bliss. 

It doesn't matter, really, if you think you are religious. Life will take you down to the shore. The questions and answers you find there will shape you and make you who you are. We all come out different from one another —some of us more different than we'd like.

I wrote a whole book about my life in the tidal zone. And I'd like to start exploring some of these ideas here. I want to start with a spiritual experience—mine or someone else's—and open up a conversation about it to see if we can find the common places and the places where we find different answers, take different paths from one another, and why.



It is Sunday and I am in a black church somewhere in my county because my daddy has been singing with his gospel choir. The pews are long and wooden and old, and I am shifting in them; feeling white and blonde and not Christian, feeling curious, feeling pale. I am small and I am an audience. I am a visitor. I am blue and cream and pale. All around me is coffee-colored skin and deep emotion and conviction: souls uplifted, assenting "Mmmmmm-hmmmmm. Yesssss." I am quiet. I know the words to the songs by heart and I know they are not real. Daddy sings "Just like Jeremiah..." I don't know who Jeremiah is, but I know how to sing. The Lighthouse Singers clap and stamp and move their feet; I want to get up and burst into thankful song with them. 

In a bit, there is more church service. This is quite unlike my church. In my church we stand and sing "We Are a Gentle, Angry People" and, afterwards,  there is a fish shredded into salad, at the buffet, and molded back again into the shape of a fish. It has olives for its eyes. Before the fish, before leaving, before Sunday school, we light a chalice and we quietly reflect. My feet have to be still. I have to think. I like my church. But the singing is better here.

Up in the front of the room is an old black woman with a trim church jacket: pink, and a hat on which perches a coiled fabric rose. Music swells and testimony rises to the low rafters and back down to where I sit. She is asking the congregation, "Will you look for Jesus?" People stand up and say loudly, surely, that they will. As a man stands up right near me, I feel whiter and stranger and less Christian than I ever have before. I feel hungry. And, as each person stands and says that they will accept Jesus, that they will listen for Jesus, will look for Jesus, I find that I am doing that, too. I am scanning the room right now for Jesus, hoping he will come in the side door. I am waiting for something blazing to happen, for some miracle to occur. I want Jesus to happen to me. I want to be invited and I want in. I want it to be real. The gospel song goes:

Jesus is real, I know the Lord is real to me. 
Jesus is real, I know the Lord is real to me. 
(Sometimes when I'm feeling low,) (no where to go,) 
(Jesus comes along) (and He makes me strong.) 

For I know, oh, Jesus is real.*

So I stand up. And this black woman is looking at me, this woman as smooth as dark molasses with a voice like the rumbling of a deep-bellied purr. She looks at me, with seriousness and affection, and she asks me,"Will you look for Jesus, child?" 

"I will," I tell her. And I sit back down, feeling so much better than I did before. 

Later, in the car, my dad, who is not Christian either but loves to sing, doesn't seem perturbed. His choir full of white people—Jewish, Buddhist, hippie, Christian, Nothing—sing gospel music. They sing about Jesus, who is real, and now—so do I.


Here's your question: What was a time when you can remember being exposed to the faith practices of other people in a way that actually got inside you, and in some way, and changed your feelings about life? 

What made this experience different from all the times you saw people believing differently and were not changed?

Are you still informed by this experience?

Your soundtrack: Jesus is Real by John P. Kee

Author's Notes: The memory I've included here is a bit of a collage of experiences I had. I found that I had a very clear memory of the woman speaking but not of her exact words or the circumstances of the day, so I filled in with what I could remember, in general, of sitting and watching gospel and how that felt to me.

If you want to read more about my experience of religion, or religious history read this.

*Song by John P. Kee.


  1. Oh my! this is going to take some assimilation. The Tidal Zone - I like it and I get it, even if I don't ascribe words like spiritual or prayer or grace to that place. I have always had a foot (or sometimes just a big toe or maybe sometimes up to my knee) in the tidal zone. I like it there, even if it can be scary and murky and cold. It can also be crystal clear and beautiful blue and I can feel connected to the both the ocean and the shore. Odd thing, that tidal zone.
    As for being exposed to the faith practices of other people in a way that changed my life - can't say it's happened. I was immersed completely in Catholicism for the first 18 years and I couldn't wait to escape that. And I stayed far away from faith practices - mostly still do. They confuse me and feel so foreign. Sometimes I chide myself for not being more open, perhaps more receptive, but that stuff creeps me out. Maybe if I recognize that it does creep me out, I can be more open? I look forward to reading other pieces to this series and other comments on the posts.

    1. I can understand your saying you don't ascribe those terms associated with religion to the tidal zone. I definitely haven't always. I find that I do now, but I don't have the baggage of having been raised in a religion that I later found the need to reject and that has left me with the luxury of feeling open to the poetry of words like "sacred," "God," "praise," and "faith" even though I use them differently from many people. I am never wholly satisfied with the humanistic substitutes that are offered me, so I gravitate to the religious choice of words. But I include all of it in there: not just the encounters with religion but the encounters with pain and loss and the encounters with transformation in many non-religious settings, which is mainly where I've found it.

      I think it can be scary and hard to pull close to the faith of other people. We feel so different from them. And it seems like one of us has got to be wrong. But, when I stick with it, I find that something is available there that transcends our very real differences and makes life available to me in a new way, a new language.

  2. I grew up Catholic, and even thought of becoming a nun when I was younger. When I was a teenager, a friend invited those of us in the choir to sing at a Christmas service to his Baptist church. I was challenged in my beliefs, so that my first year of college was to become a missionary. So, in every way, serving God has been one of my goals in life. Because of my son's autism, I've searched my faith as I became isolated. When my daughter said that she was gay (and now says she's bi), I've searched my beliefs as well. God tells us to love each other. No qualifications. He also says He loves us, no qualifications. For me, that means He loves all of my children equally, deeply. I don't know how else to describe my faith at this time, except that I have it.

    1. I find myself really curious about what you found, as a Catholic, in a Baptist church that felt challenging and life-altering. I have so little experience of either of those faiths. And I am always moved by the testimony of Christians who have come to the place you have with homosexuality. When you and others do that, and do it publicly, you make Christ available to more people who would seek him. I am not a Christian and I am not likely to become one because I am just unable to accept certain things on faith alone, but I have become very interested in the teachings of Christ reading blogs like Momastery and other Christians reminding us of Christ's words to love everyone. I think that kind of public acceptance and love is a ministry all its own.

  3. Well, I was brought up Catholic, although due to various circumstances I wasn't baptized until I was nine years old. I never had an emotionalized religious experience. In fact, I was brought up to reject emotionalism in religion. The tone of my experience has always been rational. Now I call myself a spiritual humanist because I don't reject the possibility of the existence of gods - I just reject absolute truths and I don't think human beings need to believe in gods to be good.

    1. I'm curious: When you were growing up as a Catholic, did you ever find yourself around others, even other Catholics, for whom the experience of religion was deeply emotional rather than intellectual?

      The contrast between the intellectual and emotive is always interesting to me. Our faith-lives are ultimately very private and yet periodically we encounter others living theirs. Mostly, we deal with these experiences intellectually (or at least I suspect we do) and they don't challenge us a great deal, but I think sometimes they can, when we have a more-than-just-intellectual experience of confronting the different way in which other people live. It isn't necessarily positive, as it was in my piece. Sometimes it's angering or deeply unsettling, like when you realize a friend believes you are going to Hell. But it's an encounter with the faith of another all the same, if that makes sense.

  4. I was raised in a home that was completely non religious. My parents had no interest in God or the community of believers, but when I expressed an interest they made arrangements for me to go to church with a neighbor. Mostly I wanted to go to escape chores and the like, as well as to be with my friends. Gradually though, God crept up on me. I was baptized into the Baptist church at 13. In my late teens and 20's I attended many different Christian based churches until I settled on a non-denominational church where I have stayed for the past 20+ years.
    My faith is simple, it isn't based on church doctrine. It is based on my relationship with my Creator. I suppose if I had to describe it, I would call it child-like. Of course, when I first came to my faith, it was full of "right" and "wrong" and black and white. Back then my faith was NOT simple and straight forward. It was narrow and confining and judgmental. In truth it wasn't mine, it was what I had been taught and what I had seen, not what I had experienced. Still, I don't regret it, we have to start somewhere, right? :)

    1. I'm curious: What was it initially about the idea of going to church that appealed to you, besides missing chores? And what was that experience like for someone with no religious background?

      I think that childlike faith is the essence of goodness and one of the things that I enjoy so much about you. Our reasoning only gets us so far. I think in the end, we develop a relationship with God/the Ineffable/The Universe in some way—even atheists do—that defines our forward path.

    2. Honestly, it was peer pressure. My hometown almost literally has a church on every street corner. And growing up in a dry county with no movie theater or other form of entertainment, church was a great social outlet. My best friend went to the Baptist church so that was where I wanted to go. My parents made it happen but I am sure they thought it was simply a phase. True and funny side note, in my late teens after I moved out on my own my parents would invite me over for dinner on Sunday evenings, during the church hour. I would always try to reschedule dinner and my mom finally got frustrated and said to me "You know, I didn't raise you to go to church every time the doors are open!". She just didn't see what I saw in it. :)

      As far as what the experience was like, I don't think I even realized how different my home life was compared to my friends whose parents were "Religious". My parents weren't actively against religion, just not interested. It just wasn't something we even talked about. The only time it was a real issue was when I made a profession of faith in response to an altar call at the end of a Sunday evening service. My stepdad hit the roof! He was so angry that I did this without discussing it with my parents first (which never occurred to me to do). He grounded me from church for 3 months and only allowed me to be baptized after speaking at length to the Pastor and a church elder. But once I was baptized he seemed to accept my faith without further conflict.

  5. I know this is way, way late, but I just wanted to thank you for sharing your personal experience in such a touching and vivid way. I have been exposed to other people's religious traidtions/services on very few occasions and, perhaps because of my own shortcomings, the memories I have of those experiences are primarily negative. On two different occasions at two different churches during my teen years, I happened to be present at sermons/services where the topic was woman's divinely ordained subservience to men. To say this did not sit well with me is a vast understatement.

    As an adult, I find faith-in-practice to be much more compelling than any organized religious or spiritual ritual. For example, I am always moved by people trying to emulate Christ (in love, kindness, charity) rather than those trying to impress some hovering, ghostly version of him.


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