Thursday, April 30, 2009

Question of the Day

Since there is a dearth of responses to my more prosaic pennings, I have decided to post a question of the day from my book of questions, in order to provoke ponderation:

"For an all-expense paid, one-week vacation anywhere in the world, would you be willing to kill a beautiful, rare butterfly by pulling off its wings? What about stepping on a cockroach?"

I asked this question of my first two classes today, and with only three exceptions, they said an enthusiastic "YES!" to the ripping of the butterfly. I was a little bit surprised (but not, sadly, much), so I gradually upped the ante from the butterfly to tearing the legs off a frog to popping the head off a canary to breaking the neck of a bunny rabbit to stomping on a kitten to gutting a puppy.

Believe it or not, a lot of kids would break the neck of a bunny rabbit, and a few would stomp a kitten, but not one would gut a puppy. Apparently, gutting a puppy is just too much for their violence-saturated little selves to take.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

a place you can call home

I live in an area so Bible Belted it's hard to throw a buckle and not hit a preacher. I'm in the boondoggles a bit, but there is still a church next door to my house, another a minute down the road, another two minutes after that, and so on. It is hard to drive ten minutes anywhere around here without passing five to ten churches. Everybody and their grandmother, it seems, goes to this or that church, so being a churchgoer and calling yourself a Christian is pretty much how you go about fitting into the culture. My brother-in-law owns a pressure-washing business, and he's had people refuse him access to their property until they knew which church he attends.

I suppose this is part of the normal way in which people objectify their world so they can live pleasant, secure little lives, without the inconvenience of faith. The result, though, is that the terms "Christianity" and "Church" mean pretty much jack-bo-diddly around here, and often the only thing interesting about all these churches is their signs.

Like this one pictured here.

May God have Mercy on us All!

It's tough passing signs like this to know whether to laugh, cry, vomit, or fly into a fit of sign-smashing rage. Not sure whether it's laziness, despair or apathy - but I have decided for the sake of my kwaan to hummm deeply and laugh. A fellow can't be depressed all the time.

Don't get me wrong. I dig Jesus like I dig a garden of rich, loamy topsoil. I stick my fingers right in there, moosh him up, and try to do the best to grow something beautiful in that delicious organic dirtiness. But to me, church signs like this one are an indiscriminate dose of napalm all over everything that is life-giving in Jesus. What's a body to do? These churches and their signs are so thick around here that to stay sane and keep my brain functioning, I've just got to do the best I can to put my blinders on and chuckle my way on by, or I'll be smacking my forehead all day on their brick-walled idiocy.

This is how I stay calm. I imagine some overly made-up little woman waddling out to the sign in her lime-green, flower print dress with a bucket of letters in one hand. Clutched in her other plump little palm is a booklet of these idiotic sayings published by some squint-eyed, heavy-jowled, bejeweled marmot hunkered down behind the cloistered walls of some Bob Jones bible "school" in Florida. This woman puts down the bucket and wipes her forehead with a large, lacy kerchief she's pulled from God-knows-where, and then begins to thumb through the book. "Lordy", she thinks, "it shore 'nuff is hotter'n a hoke today. Hot, hot, hot... lessee. Aha! 'Stop Drop Roll Won't Work in Hell' Yes, yes. That will do just Fine. Almost as good as that 'Hell has no fire escapes' we done putted up last summer. I reckon I even got some red letters for the 'hell' bit. That'll put the fear in 'em." She wipes her forehead again, pats her enormous, hairspray-encrusted bouffant, and sets to doing the good Lord's bidniss.

I laugh because it's true, and because if I don't laugh, there are just too many aspects of this that will make me cry. Like, for instance, the absolute vacuousness of person who would think that threatening people is an effective way to make them want to come hang out with you. Or that you are helping your arguments for a God of Love by making the first message they get from you be: "Come on in or you'll burn forever without relief."

Setting aside what I have come to believe is a dubious understanding of theology too derivative of the imaginations of too many fear-mongering Dante-apostles - who in their right mind would respond to something like this? The only people liable to get sucked in are those so neurotic and guilt-ridden and afraid that they're liable to come in on the chance you'll have some new meta-narrative they can use to justify the Fear to which they so desperately cling.

This sort of environment makes it really hard for a fella like me to find an uplifting community for his faith. I know a good many people who go to these sorts of churches, and a good many of them are salt-of-the-earth folk who just happen to have been deluded into believing a nasty pack of lies. I know everybody's got their fair share of foolishness stored up, but I just can't see myself going into a place where the foolishness has been institutionalized.

I guess this is why Jesus isn't a God of establishment. He's a God of outcasts, orphans, and marginalized poo-disturbers. I guess this is why I will always be passin' through, and why as long as I'm alive in these parts I'll never find a place I can call home.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Under a Delusion

Today's random quote of the day comes from Frederick Buechner's book, "Listening to Your Life". He says:

"If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully - the life you save may be your own - and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Grabbing the Coconuts

Several years back I wrote a query letter to Harper's Journal, one of the most prestigious literary journals in America. I wrote this query letter, asking if they'd be interested in publishing this or that thing I was seriously contemplating writing and get this, They Wrote Back! That's right, an editor at one of the most hoity-toity literary journals in the country (and possibly the world) wrote to tell me that I had balls (his word, not mine), that I was funny, and that even though they weren't necessarily interested in the particular piece I was proposing, I should keep trying as they could possibly be interested in something else.

That, however, is not the amazing part of this story. The amazing part is... drumroll please... I Never Wrote Back! I strutted the letter here and there, felt great for a week, and then proceeded to gradually forget it entirely until just a few weeks ago, when I was digging through old papers. Why would I do that!?!

Even as I write that story, I find my second brain saying, "yeah, but... you didn't really have anything worth saying and let's face it, you don't focus all that well and you're a little bit plink-plonk in the memory department and any of the writers who end up in Harper's could easily ninja-wordsmith you back into grade-school grammar class."

My second brain just starts going banshee to protect me from situations where I'll risk exposing a part of myself that is really gonna sting if it gets whacked.

My second brain says I don't write fiction so I don't matter, and my life is nothing that would interest anyone else - not like my sister who goes to Greece with chess-playing Princes and whose next job may involve learning to fly without wings in a super-secret facility in the UK (or something like that) - or even like that other friend of mine who works as a nanny to the children of the richest man in the world. That is glamor, my second brain says. That is worth reading about!

My second brain ignores that I slept one room over from the bazillionaire young heir who was dating Emmy Rossum of "Phantom of the Opera" fame whilst planting trees on his ridiculous rural New York summer estate, or that I myself bested Ann Hathaway in a vicious staring contest, or that I have swum at dusk in caiman-infested remote amazonian lagoons, or that I planted a hundred trees naked whilst snow fell in northern British Columbia, or even that just maybe I might have seen or heard something in my twenty-nine years that might be worth mentioning, and might make a real difference.

My second brain is a frickin' coward who makes excuses and avoids conflict and pretends that everyone else is just exactly the same so it's no big deal. It says that everybody's afraid of failure and does stupid things like remove a foot that has obviously made it into a very exclusive door.

However, a girl-friend of mine just told me I shouldn't put my issues onto other people, cause for example her mom thinks everybody else is a paranoid communist since she's a paranoid communist (or something like that) - and that, my friends, is horse scat.

It all starts to come together into one big pile of the stuff. See, that paranoid-communist-child girl-friend is someone I was madly infatuated with at college but I never told her. When this other demi-god man-friend of mine came along and said he liked her, I promptly assumed he was worthier than I and gave up without telling him of my interest. Furthermore, in high school I liked a girl so much I gave her a black eye playing roller hockey. Her dad threatened to beat me black and blue, which of course inspired her to flirt shamelessly with me to the point of playing footsies with me under the table at dinner; but despite all that I still didn't believe she even liked me "in that way" (as they say) until about four years later when she told me, point blank. So, we're talking a PATTERN here!

How did I get like this? Was it my alcoholic, passive-aggressive, emotionally distant step-father? I am pretty sure that guy never even existed. Was I abused in some deeply suppressed way by my kindergarten yoga and basket-weaving instructor? I am going to have to throw a serious doubt on that explanation as well. So what is it?

I am afraid I don't care. As that guy in "Muppets Take Manhattan" says, "peoples is peoples". Maybe not all of them are as bizarrely self-defeating as I am, but that doesn't mean I'm any more stupidumb than anyone else, or that I have to go on living life oblivious to the reality around me, recoiling in fear from any difficult challenge that could expose me as a screw-up. We're all screw-ups, and life doesn't happen in a closet, waiting for screw-upness to go away.

Life happens when we step out of the closet (no pun intended), take life by the coconuts, find what we love and what, I would say, we are made to do, and then do it, without reservation, until we are finally no longer able.

So this is what I am going to do, now, in the place where my past choices have led me. I am going to become disciplined with my one to two hours of disposable writing time each day and I am going to write. I'm going to write until the carpal tunnel gets me and when summer comes I'm going to take any extra time I can finagle and I am going to write some more. I'll write on this blog, but mostly I'll just write my book, wherever that takes me. I will send off my poems to publishers and I will finish illustrations to those other books and I will write, write, write until the last hours of the last days of the summer, at which point I will have a passable draft that I will find a publisher for if I have to spend my son's inheritance on stamps.

Unless, of course, I don't. Because I don't need a book to matter, I only need to love who I am made to be enough to be it, and other people enough to give them as much of myself as I am able. It's all about the love, folks (Walks off humming and skipping).

Monday, April 6, 2009

Gift-Wrapped Tapestries

I am reading a book that God gave me. I say that without irony or that particular pride of pretension that I am privy to. God actually gave me this book as a swell favor because God likes me and knows I both want and need a little help now and then. I just HATE it when other people say things like that, but there it is.

Let me explain the ways of God to man - or at least the causal path that brought me to where I feel I can make this pretentious assertion without my usual damning prideful presumption.

First, I was born.

Second, a lot of other stuff happened that matters just as much (or little) as anything else in this story, stuff that brought the person I had become to that place where I was when I was coasting along as a server at the Olive Garden, looking for Something Else.

Third, my mom's friend's son turned down a job offer as an art teacher, so I heard about it and got hired the day before school pre-meetings started at a high school that bizarrely happened to fit my need for Christian Orthodoxy AND open, curious exploration. Politically, the school is more hard-nosed fundamentalist than I’d ever want to think about being, but the individuals in it are generally humble and honest enough to encourage humility, honesty and out of the box thinking in others.

Fourth, the superintendent of the school forwarded me a TED Talks youtube video on how the entire education system is foisting useless information on kids and damaging them by under-emphasizing creativity and creative discipline, which are crucial in such a fast-changing reality.

Fifth, I started browsing other TED Talks on creativity to show my classes and found another I liked with the author Elizabeth Gilbert arguing that the “artist as genius” myth created by the Enlightenment crushes artists by giving them too much responsibility. She suggests that we return to the original Greek concept of “genius” as an external being or force that visits – freeing the artist from the linked traps of guilt and pride. The upshot of seeing this video is that it made me decide I wanted to read this woman’s latest book.

Sixth, a short while later I stop randomly at a tiny thrift shop – the sort that’s all volunteer, all cash – and there on their sparsely stocked bookshelf was Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Eat, Pray, Love”. For fifty cents! There is no way I’d pay the fifteen bucks this book costs new (I’m cheaper than a flock of parakeets flying over Kmart) and I’m really far too forgetful to do the library thing.

I do not tell you these things to prove to you that God did, indeed, give me this book. They hardly begin to explain my faith or my process, and they most definitely do not provide an ordered, rational argument for my proposition.

Neither is this book teaching me the meaning of everything or revealing my Life’s Calling or giving me my Passion and curing me of all my idiotic behaviors and attitudes. Nope, there are no flashes of light or thunderous voices. Rather, I look in retrospect at this series of events and see the invisible hand of an Interested, Invested God. I see that God plopping this book in my hands as a gift, a nudge, and a thought-provoking kick in the ego.

I don’t mind thunderous voices and flashes of light are cool, but I think I’m getting over my love of spectacle enough to where I am glad enough for the quiet hum of a master weaver playing by his own rules, engaging me where I am in the moments I need it. This weaver isn’t concerned with fixing me by force like a broken machine – he’s making me with love, one beautiful strand at a time. He is weaving me into a community/tapestry with all the other strands that together become beautiful. I will never, I think (hope), see the whole tapestry perfectly, but it comforts me to know that it’s there and that I am a part of it. And sometimes, just for a moment, I think I can see chunks of it reflected off of someone else’s honesty.

Gilbert starts “Eat, Pray, Love” with the words, “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth”, a quote from a friend who’d found her sobbing in a bathroom. I think she does that, someways, throughout this book. Even though she is not a Christian in the sense that maybe I think I am and even though her conclusions about the Universe are not always the same as mine, I still believe she is telling me some things I really need to hear.

This makes me just a scoach uncomfortable. Without a second’s thought I’ll let a person with a different worldview teach me how to bake a cake, identify a constellation or use acrylic paint with greater effectiveness – but as soon as such a person tries to show me something about their spiritual journey all manner of alarum bells ring out, clamoring in my ears the messages of years of unquestioned belief-system education: “Watch Out! She might INFECT you with her God-damned ideologies!”

Maybe.

But since I already decided to believe that God and not some Dantean Devil brought me this book, I choose to say instead, Maybe Not. I cannot say that God brought me this book that I might follow its ordinances to the letter, or that I might chase the author’s conclusions to Italy, India and Bali. I only say that God brought me this book and I guess if God loves me and wants the best for me then one way or another – by synthesis or antithesis – I’m liable to learn something.

I will, therefore, share with you some nuggets of this ridiculously popular international bestseller (six strikes against it right there) and allow you to guess along with me if I can ever learn anything about God or myself, ever, directly from someone who in many ways does not think exactly the way I do.

“There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history. ‘How much do you love me?’ And ‘Who’s in charge’”.

(pg. 157, quoting a woman nearly 100 years old)

“There’s a reason we refer to ‘leaps of faith’ – because the decision to consent to any notion of divinity is a mighty jump from the rational over to the unknowable, and I don’t care how diligently scholars of every religion will try to sit you down with their stacks of books and prove to you through scripture that their faith is indeed rational; it isn’t. If faith were rational, it wouldn’t be – by definition – faith. Faith is belief in what you cannot see or prove or touch. Faith is walking face-first and full speed into the dark. If we truly knew all the answers in advance as to the meaning of life and the nature of God and the destiny of our souls, our belief would not be a leap of faith and it would not be a courageous act of humanity; it would just be… a prudent insurance policy.

I’m not interested in the insurance industry. I’m tired of being a skeptic, I’m irritated by spiritual prudence and I feel bored and parched by empirical debate. I don’t want to hear it anymore. I couldn’t care less about evidence and proof and assurances. I just want God. I want God inside me. I want God to play in my bloodstream the way sunlight amuses itself on water.”

(pgs. 175-176)

“Prayer is a relationship; half the job is mine. If I want transformation, but can’t even be bothered to articulate what, exactly, I’m aiming for, how will it ever occur? Half the benefit of prayer is in the asking itself, in the offering of a clearly posed and well-considered intention. If you don’t have this, all your pleas and desires are boneless, floppy, inert; they swirl at your feet in a cold fog and never lift…

Destiny, I feel, is also a relationship – a play between divine grace and willful self-effort. Half of it you have no control over; half of it is absolutely in your hands, and your actions will show measurable consequence.”

(pg. 177)

“Guilt’s just your ego’s way of tricking you into thinking that you’re making moral progress. Don’t fall for it”.

(pg. 183, quoting a former Catholic nun she met at an ashram in India)

“As smoking is to the lungs, so is resentment to the soul; even one puff of it is bad for you. I mean, what kind of prayer is this to imbibe – ‘Give us this day our daily grudge’? You might just as well hang it up and kiss God good-bye if you really need to keep blaming someone else for your own life’s limitations.”

(pg. 186)

“We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down.”

(pg. 187)

“God dwells within you as yourself, exactly the way you are. God isn’t interested in watching you enact some performance of personality in order to comply with some crackpot notion you have about how a spiritual person looks or behaves.”

(pg. 192)

- - -

This woman came to all those conclusions while meditating and interacting with a spiritually-seeking community in India. If you’re like me, you are suspicious of the idea that people can come to God unmediated by earthly priests or religious structures. But maybe that’s what Jesus is all about. I’m not sure (thank God!), but I am fairly confident that I’m learning good things from Ms. Gilbert. And even though I think it’s a nonsensical thing to do, I’ll just motor on thanking God for what I think is a pretty awesome gift.

Why I Am Not Jumping Ship with the Emergents

OK, so in that previous post apparently I took too long to explain why Jesus had red hair and when I did get around to it, I did it so obliquely that it was easy to miss. My primo rule of writing is clarity. So here you go, only three sentences in: The reason I am not jumping ship is because I don’t believe the ship exists, and even if it did I’m not too sure I want to jump into a boiling sea of flailing humanity.

Oh yeah, right… clarity. What I mean to say is; I am really uncomfortable these days with such volatile nouns as “Christian”, especially when you tack amorphous adjectives like “Emergent” onto them and expect it to mean the same thing to everyone involved. Words are inert things, collections of letters that lie dead on a page or in the air until someone reads or hears them through the complex filtration system of their mind/heart/soul and makes of them something perhaps wildly different than intended by the person who first brandished them.

The ship doesn’t exist for me because I question if the ship the Emergent Christians are jumping off of really exists, or if it is rather a construction of their minds, a word or group of words (like “traditional North American Protestant Evangelicalism”) they’ve formulated in order to be able to do what everybody is trying to do everywhere – be different, and special, and important. When you start grouping large groups of incredibly complex people into the boxes of drastically simplified terms, you are essentially hating them.

I am, of course, being ridiculous. First, because I’m pretending that I am not the sort of person yearning to feel different and important. Second, because I’m pretending that these words of mine are the sort that are actually communicating something. And third, because I am expecting you to believe that when I put something in a box, it both belongs and stays there.

So let’s pretend.

Let’s pretend I can actually define something in a way that actually means something.

First, words themselves. In an equally true sense, words are NOT dead. Words are perhaps the most alive, organic things we have. They are vibrant and juicy and bloody. They change and grow and shrink and kill and create and are the very medium of our being as creatures, a mysterious gift of the divine, a window into each other’s souls. Words are a metaphor for God, or at least for how God interacts with people. They are a glorious paradox, a tool that can rend earth for planting or hearts for destruction. They allow us the ability to name and thereby emasculate the ugliness and fears and frailties we live with, while simultaneously enabling us to murder to dissect, diminishing and destroying in a never ending, ever rending effort to cram God and God incarnated into one little cage of a word – “God” – that we can hold safely in a tattered cardboard box.

Admitting all that, it is scary to try to define anything as broad and confusing as “Emergent Christianity” and whatever it is from which it is emerging. One of the reasons it’s so confusing is that it is still going on, and another is that it is an expression of postmodernity, which is the most scatterbrained theory you can imagine. Everybody talks about it, but no one is exactly sure what it is.

I guess it’s pretty obvious from my overall direction that I have been reading some emergent-type books, but I think you’d be surprised at what a small percentage they comprise of my total reading. The influence is broader than the input, I think, because emergent thought has had an extremely wide-reaching effect on North American Christian thinking – even among its detractors.

I liken it to the Reformation, which wasn’t intended to actually attack or break with the Catholic Church, but ended up both swinging wildly away into mad excesses AND serving as a sharpening tool for the Catholic Church. It forced it to realize both (somewhat) the errors of its ways and (perhaps more importantly) that if it didn’t change some things it was going to lose all that carefully accumulated power. In some ways it’s all a big, horrible, ruthless, funny game in which adult children play idea wars and use their amazing new ideas to gather power and justify treating everybody who disagrees with them like night dirt. This is funny, but only in the same disturbing sense that it’s funny to watch small children put on airs and act like little demi-gods.

It seems like we play this game over and over with different variations, pretending that we’re in charge, that we decide what is true, and that we can dictate the terms of our existence. Nonetheless, it is also true that the Catholic Church DID need a major kick or two in the pants, and that the Reformation DID redirect the church catholic (in the real sense of that term) back in a very loose sense to where it needed to go. Inquisitions are not very Jesusish. So what are the excesses in the North American Protestant Evangelical “Church” that the emergent movement is reacting wildly to?

That’s tough to say, due to the intrinsically fragmented nature of the postmodern discussion, but the best description I’ve read lately of the origins of the emergent movement comes from a Christianity Today article entitled “The Ironic Faith of Emergents”, written by a man named Scott McKnight – a man sympathetic to emergents but not fully convinced. In this article, McKnight explores how emergent Christians have arrived at a faith that he calls ironic, meaning that “they have deconstructed the very thing they were most committed to, and are left with what many call post-evangelicalism.”

I will shamelessly post a portion of it here without permission, making the excuse that my disregard of copyright laws is a direct result of my postmodern heritage and their fault anyway, for tempting me beyond my ability to resist by posting it on the interwebs.

Plus, I don’t know how to do those little blue-word link-thingies.

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“The origins of ironic faith among evangelicals can be found in at least eight catalysts. These catalysts move disaffected evangelicals from an ironic faith within evangelicalism to a fork in the road: Either abandon traditional evangelicalism for an emergent form of post-evangelical Christianity, or abandon Christianity altogether.

First, emergents believe the epistemic foundation of conservative evangelicalism, the doctrine of Scripture's inerrancy, does not sufficiently express the truth about the Bible. Inerrancy is for them the wrong word at the wrong time, though it may have been the right word for a previous generation.

Second, emergents believe that the gospel they heard as children or were exposed to as teenagers is a caricature of Paul's teaching—what McLaren sometimes calls "Paulianity." The discovery of Jesus, the Gospels, and his kingdom vision creates an irony: "If we are followers of Jesus, why don't we preach his message?" Emergents I know are sometimes wearied or put off by Paul, yet enthusiastic about Jesus and the Gospels. When McLaren describes the message of Jesus as a "secret message," he speaks of the emergent discovery of the radical kingdom vision as really new. The political vision and the global concerns of emergents flower from the discovery of Jesus.

Third, exposure to science in public education, universities, and personal study has led emergents to disown the traditional conclusion that when science and the Bible conflict, science must move aside. Although they refuse to give the Bible the trump card in this game, they remain committed to it, but now with a different view of what the Bible actually is. The Bible, so many emergents will openly admit, employs various literary genres and shows an ancient perception of how the cosmos works. So they are both left-wing and right-wing, committed to the Bible and open to new ideas.

Fourth, emergents were burned by the lack of integrity among popular evangelical media figures. They watched or heard the stories about Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart and the fall of leader after leader both national and local. Knowing what the Bible says and what leaders are (perhaps) doing behind closed doors creates irony, if not cynicism. For some, the lack of integrity among leaders casts doubt on the whole institution of the church. Emergents compare what Jesus had in mind and what Paul saw come to pass with what is going on, and decide to start all over again as if for the first time—this time with authenticity.

Fifth, public schools drilled the messages of multiculturalism and pluralism into emergents' heads and hearts, while their churches were teaching them that all those without explicit faith in Christ were doomed. Possessing both a faith that is particular and an intimate knowledge of religious pluralism produced a tension that was nearly intolerable. For many, it results in a commitment to Jesus Christ alongside a more pluralistic view of world religions, or a broadening of what it means to be a "Christian."

Sixth, emergents sometimes exercise a deconstructive critique of the Bible's view of God. Sometimes I hear it in ways that are no more interesting that Marcion's old (and heretical) critique of the violent God of the Old Testament. Yet upon close inspection, the rumblings are subtler and more sophisticated, and the struggle is palpable and genuine. For some emergents, the Bible includes portrayals of God that cannot be squared with their understanding of a God of love. For a group less concerned about traditional understandings of inerrancy, such portrayals are interpreted as the way ancients talked about God, with later biblical revelation seen as clearly presenting a God who is altogether gracious and loving.

Seventh, homosexuality. Emergents are not so much pro-gay or pro-lesbian as they are convinced that sexuality is more complex than many acknowledge. They are committed both to the Bible, which has strong denunciatory language for homosexual practices, and to live alongside gay and lesbian friends and family members.

Finally, ironic faith grows out of emergents' realization that language plays a large role in our faith and our claims to know the truth. Even a first-year college course in literature or criticism exposes students to philosophers Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, or Stanley Fish, and few students are left unchanged and unchallenged. Emergents reason that theology is language-bound; language has its limits; the Bible is in language; that means the Bible, too, has the limits of language. The Christian faith, many emergents conclude, is language-shaped and that means it is culturally shaped. Why does one language—either ancient Middle Eastern or modern Western—get to tell the whole story? Emergents by and large plead for a multilingual approach to theology, which can lead to an ironic relationship to the language of the Bible and Western theology.”

---

McKnight mentions eight different catalysts for the emergent approach, admitting that there could be many more. I really dig on what he’s said – it seems to identify some key points that have made it difficult for me to be comfortable in the sort of Church environment in which I was raised. I think the point could be made as well that it is his eighth catalyst that is the most telling, and that it is from this point that the other seven (and any number more that I could think of)… um… emerge.

So if I resonate with the emergent take on the world and feel so deeply uncomfortable in the church traditions of my forebears, then why do I not whole-heartedly jump ship? Am I a coward, too comfortable to take a risk? Maybe, but I think rather that it might have more to do with the fact that I don’t know if I was ever on that ship in the first place. I was raised in a more traditional Christian setting, but for the most part I went along with a lot of what I had been taught about things like, say, sexuality, not because I had deeply considered and studied on it and made it my own, but because that is what you do when you are young: you absorb.

My process of rejection of certain ideas has been a very important part of my process of becoming an adult – of taking honest stock of myself and the world and coming out from behind unconsidered barriers into a faith that is just that – faith. I have not abandoned the faith of my childhood as much as I have come into an actual, adult faith. When you are young, it is enough to trust the words of your parents and to live, unquestioning, within the context of the culture in which you have been placed. Coming of age (a rarer and more precious thing, I think, than we’d like to admit), is about owning up to what we do and don’t know and believe, and then making wise decisions about the directions in which we will then live. In so many ways I continue to believe certain things about which I have no reason to claim knowledge. Faith is not about knowing, though, as much as it is about not knowing and then going ahead and trusting anyways.

So now I feel like I haven’t jumped off something, but merely noticed for the first time that I’m adrift. I’m uncomfortable with where I started, but I also feel that many in the emergent movement are throwing babies out with bathwater, doing what many of the early protestant reformation did when they went all crazy iconoclastic nut-bar and destroyed beautiful works of art and over-absorbed the hyper-rationalism of their time, which was key in leading them to teach platonic dualism and the eternal damning torture of many unborn babies.

I have not abandoned all that I have been taught. I have not lost my faith. I have simply grown up, and all that I have done and thought and learned up to this point is still a part of who I now am. Do I think that the North American Protestant Evangelical Church has come, in many very significant ways, to resemble something more akin to an Evil League of Evil? Yes. Do I think that this opinion matters all that much? No.

For whatever reason (or unreason), I have faith that God is painting some beautiful, unending masterpiece. The word games we play are a part of that epic rainbow of colors, brushstrokes and lives, but they are not all of it. I, a blip of magenta under the nose of America, can no more see the whole picture than can the extravagant crimson bucket splash of the emergent church or the yellow ochre palette-knife swaths of the Eastern Orthodox or the long, undulating black line of the Dalai Lama. I believe in Jesus, but that does not change Jesus, nor make too much more difference than that the devils (whatever they are) believe in Jesus. What matters is how I enact that belief through love to the lonely, hurting world/community in which I, by the grace and good humor of God, have been born.

I’m still interested in playing the word games and figuring this stuff out – heck, I’m addicted to it – but my ability to think or my facility with words has very little to do with whether I am, in fact, living rightly.

I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but c’mon: let’s move beyond our boxing and naming of people and name that which needs naming more than anything else – the hurt of the world. Let’s get over ourselves. Let’s name it, claim it, and love on it. Let’s be Jesus, living and laughing and enjoying, telling stories and preaching grace and loving on people by meeting their needs and healing their pain.

What th...?

I have been thinking about hell lately, partly because of an essay I found online (and have posted below) written by a guy named Fred Clark.

If you’ve had the misfortune to fall prey to my Ranting on such things as salvation and damnation, you will know that I am largely of the opinion that they are mostly none of my (or anyone’s) business in anything other than a loose, theoretical sense. God did not make disciples of us so we could figure out how the Universe works and use that to go save people from damnation, he made us to love him and in that to love others wherever they need it most. We are to present the gospel in humility as best we understand it, but we are designed to be incapable of figuring out how it all really works. Anything else is pompous God-pretension.

Because of this viewpoint, I try to chuckle and shrug my shoulders a lot if I get sucked into a “theological debate”, and I get annoyed fairly easily when someone asks me to pigeonhole someone else as a Christian or a Pagan. What do I look like… God?!

Well, maybe a little, but not enough to have a say in who is or is not in the club. I amn’t blind, so I notice when someone says, “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” standing on the hood of their sixty thousand dollar Hummer, but I have never felt that my weak insights grant me the power to Judge what is really going on inside another human being. To a majority of the world’s population, I too am a wastrel living high off someone else’s hog, so I really have no platform to stand on other than Faith.

It’s the same with hell. I’ve absorbed quite a lot of hellology over the years, but from personal experience know absolutely nothing (never been there, not interested in going) and likewise have very little understanding from the Bible; which is where, theoretically, Christians get the Goods. A couple of years back I read an essay in the McLaren/Campolo book “Adventures in Missing the Point” which unpacked the Bible’s teaching on hell a bit and related the tidbit that a lot of the time when the Bible mentions hell, it actually refers to an actual garbage dump just outside Jerusalem where they burned a lot of garbage. Like, um, a metaphor.

These two obvious heretics were suggesting that maybe we don’t always understand metaphors the way they were intended and that maybe the hell the Bible talked about wasn’t the scare tactic that has been used in churches. I quickly slammed the book shut and tried not to think about it. I mean, this is an essential part of orthodox Christian thought, right? And we can’t re-think essential points of orthodox Christian faith without risking some almighty damnation ourselves. Which is why I still buy indulgences,l keep slaves and demand that my wife wear a hat in church.

Still, the thought was kicking around in my brain when I read the appended article, and it does resolve certain questions I raised in the essay “Going Granola” that I had posted on my blog/art website, barkingreed.com.

When I say it resolves them, however, know that I don’t mean it answers them in any pat way, or makes them easy. Any answer to the Big Questions of life that don’t acknowledge complexity or the questioner's inherent finiteness in the face of infinity are doomed. Still, it resolves them in the sense that it presents a coherent approach to the mystery. Being coherent does not mean it is right, just that it is internally consistent.

For example, the explanation sometimes expressed that God is absolutely able to do whatever God wants, and that what God wants is to pick and choose and pre-determine who will go to hell or Heaven and there is nothing you can do about it is very coherent and does a very thorough job of explaining things. I just happen to find it morally repugnant and to paint a picture of God that to me is, quite frankly, bum-ugly.

Nonetheless, I will let you read through Clark’s article and struggle to your own conclusions. I had originally intended to paste in Dr. Geisler’s article on Hell from “The Baker Handbook of Apologetics”, but I read through and a) decided I couldn’t be bothered to re-type the five pages that it was, and b) found too much of what he was saying to be smug, pretentious, and circular. I love so much that the guy says, but he got on my nerves with this one, so I’m going to have to rob him of his voice.

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Posted by Fred Clark on http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/ on March 2 & 5

H – E – double hockey sticks

If you're a regular listener to This American Life, then you already know this story. But if, like me, you have a huge backlog of TAL podcasts you've been meaning to get around to someday but haven't yet, then this story may be news to you too.

Here's TAL's intro to the story of the Rev. Carlton Pearson, which they have titled simply, "Heretics":

"Carlton Pearson's church, Higher Dimensions, was once one of the biggest in the city, drawing crowds of 5,000 people every Sunday. But several years ago, scandal engulfed the reverend. He didn't have an affair. He didn't embezzle lots of money. His sin was something that to a lot of people is far worse: He stopped believing in Hell."

That didn't go over too well in the Pentecostal/evangelical circles in which Pearson used to be a rock star. It got him officially branded as a heretic by a Pentecostal bishops group. His congregation dwindled to a fifth of its previous size and its makeup changed to include all sorts of dubious types, like Episcopalians, homosexuals and Unitarians.

... What I find most interesting in this whole saga is that Pearson was never condemned for his earlier heresies, which strike me as more extravagant. He began his ministry, after all, as a protégé of Oral Roberts and for years taught a variant of Roberts' "prosperity" doctrines. Going around and telling people that serving Mammon is the same as serving God apparently doesn't get you in hot water with the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops. Denying the existence of Hell does.

That's curious, since the Bible spends much, much, much more time on the dangers of chasing money than it ever does on the subject of eternal torment. The Bible's priorities, however, have been inverted by evangelicals, for whom Hell has become a central, essential doctrine.

I'm not sure how that happened. St. Paul had precisely nothing to say on the subject of Hell. He had a lot to say about death, resurrection and the kingdom, but not one word about Hell. The Nicene Creed, similarly, mentions heaven three times, but never mentions Hell at all. The Apostle's Creed mentions it. Once. It says Jesus went there. (Yes, that Jesus).

Yet ask any evangelical Christian about their faith and Hell is one of the first things they'll mention. And they know all about the subject. They can describe Hell, earnestly providing details from Dante or Fantasia while dimly believing these come from the Bible (you know, the Epistle to the Ghibelines or something).

So let's take a quick look at what the Bible actually does have to say on the subject of Hell. Specifically, let's look at three passages that Carlton Pearson has been condemned for not "interpreting literally."

1. Luke 16:19-31 describes a soul in agony in "Hades." He is described as being "in fire" and "in this place of torment."
2. Matthew 25:31-46 says that the unrighteous "will go away to eternal punishment" sent "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."
3. Revelation 20:11-15 describes the judgment of the living and the dead. "The lake of fire is the second death," it says. "If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."

That's three separate mentions of eternal, fiery torment. Sure sounds a lot like the Hell all those evangelical preachers love to talk about.

And yet this doesn't fully convey how deeply, deeply weird it is for such preachers to turn to these three passages and to come away from them with nothing other than a belief in hellfire and torment.

That's not what these stories are about. The preachers seemed to have latched on to the descriptions of hellfire and torment in these stories because those tangential details seemed less troublesome and dangerous than the central themes of the stories. Those central themes may be more threatening than anything Carlton Pearson has ever had to say.

So let's look at each of those passages again. This time, instead of looking exclusively at what they describe Hell as being like, we'll look at what or who they describe Hell as being for.

1. Luke 16:19-31
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, "Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire."

But Abraham replied, "Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony."

Evangelical preachers say a "literal interpretation" allows them to claim this story as a source for their doctrine of Hell. That gets tricky, because at the same time they want to insist that this story's description of heaven is not to be taken literally. And that this story's explanation for who goes where is just plain wrong.

Lazarus, we are told, was hungry and covered with sores. We are not told that he did good deeds, or that he had faith in God, or that he accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Lord and savior. We are simply told that his life was nasty, brutish and short, and that when it was over "the angels carried him to Abraham's side."

The rich man, we are told, dressed really nice and ate well. We are not told that he refused to accept Jesus Christ as his own personal Lord and savior. We are simply told that there was a beggar at his gate with whom he never seems to have shared his food. And that, the story says, is damnably wrong.

Which is the entire point of the story. It's not about who goes to heaven or who goes to Hell. And it's certainly not intended to provide cartographic detail about the afterlife. It's about ethics -- about the obligation we have to the beggars at our gates. Heaven and Hell appear in this story only to make this point more emphatic. To decide that its description of Hell must be taken "literally," while simultaneously ignoring the reason it mentions Hell at all, cannot be described as a "literal interpretation" of the story, only as an illiterate one.

2. Matthew 25:31-46
This is nearly the same story. This famous passage about the sheep and the goats is, again, primarily a story about ethics and the obligation to meet the needs of others.
Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."

They also will answer, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?"

He will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."

There's nothing subtle or ambiguous about that central theme here. Every detail in the story points to this same idea. The sitting on the throne with all the nations gathered is not the main point here. It is, again, an emphatic device to draw attention to the main point. So too are the cheers and jeers of eternal reward or punishment presented here. There's one and only one distinction that matters, Jesus is saying, how do you respond to the needs of the least of these?

To miss that, perceiving nothing from this story but an affirmation of one particular notion of Hell, seems perverse.

3. Revelation 20:11-15
This, too, is nearly the same story as that of the sheep and the goats. The context is different, though, coming at the end of John's eschatological, once-more-with-feeling retelling of the Exodus. Here God's people arrive at the Promised Land from which they can never be taken into exile. And Pharaoh and his soldiers? Once again the horse and rider are hurled into the sea. This time for good.

But it's not just the bad guys who get thrown into "the lake of fire" here. "Death and Hades" are cast in first. (Yes, the same "Hades" in which the rich man received his fiery torment in the first story.) So if you want to insist that this reference to a "lake of fire" must be interpreted "literally," then you're going to have to explain to me what it means for the abstract concepts of death and Hades to be literally thrown into it.

And if you're a Protestant, you're going to have to explain why "lake of fire" is literal, but "each person was judged according to what he had done" is not.

These three passages aren't the only basis for the belief in Hell as eternal fiery torment, but they provide the strongest evidence to support the idea. And as you can see, this evidence is not really that strong. These passages certainly don't provide any sort of basis for the idea that Hell ought to be a central or essential core belief that shapes our faith, or our concept of God, or our concept of one another or of the meaning of our lives. That's not what these stories are about.

That's not what our story is about.


Still In Hell

OK, then, what about Hitler?
That's usually one of the first questions asked when one expresses a disbelief in the notion of Hell as a literal place of eternal, fiery torment. ("Literal" here referring to a literal interpretation of Dante's Inferno and more than a century of Hollywood movies and tent-meeting sermons.) I've even been asked that question after quoting Julian of Norwich:
"All will be well and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well."

"Yeah, well what about Hitler?"

And it's actually a good question. There are plenty of unseemly or even reprehensible reasons why someone might choose to believe in an eternal Hell, and we needn't spend much time on those. But there are also some better, more reasonable and nobler reasons. Such as the Hitler question.
That question is a way of stumbling toward the matter of ultimate justice. Hell, or something like Hell, seems necessary in a sense to satisfy our need to believe in ultimate justice. This is an actual thing, a real, measurable phenomenon that exists. Not the reality of ultimate justice itself, of course -- that may be true but can't be measured or proved -- but the reality of our desire for it.

That desire is a strange thing. We humans -- many, maybe even most of us -- seem to share two conclusions about the world in which we live: 1) It's not fair; and 2) It ought to be fair. There's a universe of evidence for the first conclusion there, which only makes the second notion that much stranger.
The belief that what is is not the same as what ought to be is a curious thing. It's not as though we had some counter-example to our own existence with which to compare this reality, so we could say, "Look over there at that world, where life is fair. I prefer that to this." Yet somehow we seem to feel that this hypothetical reality of a just world is more valid, more real, than the actual reality of the actual world and its relentless stream of reminders that justice is exceptional, rare and contrary to what actually is.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis pounces on this odd notion. If life is unfair, he argues, then where on earth did we get the idea of the categories of fair and unfair? Nowhere on earth, it would seem. He works at this until he's convinced it's a kind of proof of something transcendent. I think that overstates the case. Lewis' argument doesn't offer proof, or even evidence, but it may provide a kind of ... inkling (sorry).

Lewis is right, though, that this idea of some kind of ultimate justice is the stuff of religion. All religion.*

Consider again that parable Jesus told about the beggar Lazarus and the callous rich man. That parable describes a common phenomenon, almost a microcosm of this unfair, unjust world. The actual, real world we live in is filled with precisely this sort of situation. Lazarus' life was an unending stream of misery -- cold, hunger, physical pain, neglect and loneliness. The self-centered rich man, on the other hand, had the best food, the best house, the finest clothes and all the friends money could buy. And he didn't give a rip about Lazarus.

That doesn't seem fair. It isn't fair. We want to see such unfairness corrected. The world seems wrong and we want to see it made or remade right.

Every religion worth anything addresses this dilemma in two ways. First by requiring that its adherents practice both charity and justice here in this life. And second by extending the hope that such unfairness will ultimately be rectified, if not in this world, then in the next.**

The main concern of this eschatological hope for ultimate justice tends to focus on Lazarus and the injustices suffered by those like him. We want to believe that there will be something better for them than the vicious, miserable, unbearable fate they have been dealt here on earth. But we also think of the injustice perpetrated by the rich man in the story. He got away with it in the short term, but ultimately we want to believe that he and people like him will have to account for their self-centered cruelty, otherwise it would seem that existence is ultimately unfair -- that it will never be as just as it ought to be. So we want to see ultimate justice for both Lazarus and the rich man.

But note that ultimate justice is not the same thing as perfect or absolute justice. Thoughts of absolute justice tend to lead to the realization that, uh-oh, I'm probably not Lazarus in that story. I'm probably, at least sometimes, the other guy.

"Life is never fair," Oscar Wilde noted in An Ideal Husband, "And perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not." That's an echo of an earlier playwright: "God's bodkin man, much better, use every man after his desert and who shall scape whipping?"

We hope for more justice than this world affords, but at the same time we hope for mercy to triumph over justice. Lazarus deserved better, but we don't necessarily want to "use every man after his desert."
So not perfect, absolute justice, then, but ultimate justice tempered by mercy.

Surely, though, there must be limits to this mercy. It's one thing for your or me or the rich man to be cut a bit of slack for our myopic self-absorption, but what about those driven by cruelty and evil to create Hell on earth? What about the mass-murderers and torturers, tyrants and oppressors?
Or, in other words, what about Hitler?

Whatever miserable end befalls a Hitler or an Amin or Stalin or Saddam Hussein in this world it still seems, somehow, inadequate. Those responsible for the suffering and death of millions can only suffer and die once themselves, and this seems disproportionate. It seems unfair. It is unfair.
For that unfairness, that injustice, to be addressed or redressed, it seems there needs to be some further accounting for such evils. Hell, or something like it, seems necessary then for the Hitlers of this world.

It's quite a leap, though -- and a baseless, insupportable one -- to jump from believing that ultimate justice requires some kind of accounting for evil to deciding that the precise form of that accounting must conform to the details of the fiery, eternal torment imagined by Dante and Hieronymus Bosch and Jack Chick and a thousand other (extracanonical) sources.

It's probably helpful, then, to distinguish two separate questions implicit in the cries of "What about Hitler?"

The first question is something like, "Do you believe that there will be some kind of ultimate accountability for evil?"

My answer to that question is yes. I believe there will be. I can't prove this, mind you, but I believe it. And this assertion -- that the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice -- can be defended and supported by that Bible we evangelical Christian types put so much emphasis on. The same defense and support cannot be found for the sordidly detailed idea of a sulfurous netherworld to which all non-RTCs will be consigned for eternity.***

The second question is trickier, something more like, "What, exactly, happens to someone like Hitler after he dies?"

That is, to borrow the president's rough paraphrase of the Book of Job, a question above my pay grade. To ask that question is to ask, in the words of the play cited above, about the "undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns." In other words, I don't know. And anybody who says he does know shouldn't be trusted.

In that same story about Lazarus and the rich man, Abraham appears to say that we don't need some traveller to return from that undiscovered country -- that Moses and the Prophets tell us all we need to know. Moses and the prophets have a great deal to say about justice -- both the best approximation of justice we can have in this world and of the promise of a greater, ultimate justice to come -- but if they had anything to say about Hell they kept it to themselves.

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* Although not exclusively of religion. When the late Carl Sagan helped to create the National Religious Partnership on the Environment, he said he wanted to work with religious groups because we were the "ought people," whereas he, as a scientist, wasn't concerned with ought, only with is. That struck me as intriguing, but Sagan's own actions belied the distinction. He wasn't enlisting the support of religious groups out of some arbitrary personal preference, but because he thought we humans ought to be taking better care of our environment than we were.

** When religion goes awry or becomes corrupt, it often results from or results in an emphasis on one of those two aspects to the neglect of the other. Corruption A: Emphasize the hope for eschatological justice to the neglect of justice in this world and you end up with the "pie in the sky when you die" opiate used to justify every oppressive caste system from Bombay to Alabama. Corruption B: Emphasize justice in this world to the neglect of the hope for eschatological justice and you begin thinking that you can impose perfect, infallible justice here in the temporal realm -- an idea that quickly gallops off into oppressive theocracy of one form or another.
Our history books and newspapers are so full of examples of both of those errors that it can be tempting to think that maybe religion itself is the problem. If we could just stamp out religion, we could end oppression and establish perfect justice. See again Corruption B above.

*** The eternal aspect of this idea of Hell is also troublesome. Part of the trouble here, as ever when we talk of "eternity," is that we tend to think of it in terms of "forever" or "a very long time" -- roughly the same mistake as thinking of "infinity" as meaning "a really big number." But it's also the case, as many have argued, that it seems unfair and unjust that temporal, finite wrongdoing would be consigned to an eternal, infinite punishment.
Then again, the idea of Heaven as eternal and infinite reward raises a similar question of proportionality, but you don't hear that raised as an objection. Stinginess offends justice; magnanimity does not. I wrote above that there must surely be some limits to mercy, but I'm not really sure that's true. If God is worthy of being called God, then God's mercy must be infinitely greater than my own.

Jesus is a Redhead

Today was dress-up day at the high school where I work, as is every Wednesday. Wednesdays are sacred and require ties and full dress shirts, because on Wednesdays we have chapel. This one, in particular, had my muscles liquefying and my glands on overtime because today I was the keynote speaker.

I got roped into this through the old bait-and-switch about a month ago. Dawn, the school counselor, was looking for a number of folks to share briefly something God has done to reveal Himself to them, and I agreed to be one of those people; partly because she asked me nicely and partly because I love telling other people what to do with their lives (it takes the focus off of my problems). I was all set to share this little tidbit when Canada descended upon us and they called school off.

I was off the hook… until yesterday, when Mr. Jameson, one of the Socials teachers at the school, came into my room and said Dawn had gone off for the week and left him in charge of chapel today and would I speak in chapel. I said yes, and he said “bythewayeverybodyelsebackedout, soyou’retheman” and rushed out before I could tackle him.

What could I do – I swallowed the bait and got ready. This morning right beforehand my knees were starting to knock and my palpitations were palpitating, so Mr. Jameson said I should talk as long as I wanted and he’d fill in the rest. I got up there and apparently I am not as afraid of public speaking as I had thought, because I pretty much talked the whole time. Apparently the Good Lord also looked with favor on me despite my arrogance and ego and chose to do me a good one, because those kids were riveted and afterwards one of them told me that I was unofficially voted the best chapel speaker of the year.

This undoubtedly says more about them needing to hear what I had to say than with how I said it, but since it seemed to resonate, I thought I’d go ahead and transcribe/paraphrase/expand/contract the gist of it for your general consumption. Here ‘tis.

- - -

Good morning. It’s really great to be able to be here to talk to all y’all all at one time. This is uncomfortable and awkward enough for me as it is, so I’m going to ask the back two rows to stand up and come down here to the front and fill in some of this empty space. That’s right, don’t be shy.

[they awkwardly rose and trudged forward]

Thanks.
I am going to take this opportunity I’ve got here this morning to talk to you about two things (that are really just one thing – but I’ll get to that). First, I am going to talk to you about the time I literally saw Jesus with my own two barenaked eyes.

[tee hee – I said barenaked]

And the second thing I’m going to talk about is sodomy.

[here the students and teachers awkwardly looked about]

In a lot of ways, I’m just like most of you guys. I, too, was born right around here, and just like you I look like I belong at this high school.

[fairly hearty laughter here, because although I am twenty-nine, I look like I’m around eighteen]

Unlike you, I was raised in a third world / developing nation. My parents were missionaries there, support workers helping to translate the Bible into indigenous languages. Peru is a rather poor country, but when I was first there in 1980 it was even worse, with corruption at all levels of government and widespread terrorism creating a whole lot of instability and inflation. By way of analogy, you could spend two bucks on a loaf of bread one day, and the next time you went in it would cost you twenty. Peru is a fair bit more developed today, but I think the average wage there is still somewhere around three dollars a day.

Just like you if you were to go on a mission trip, however, I was cocooned with money. I could see the poverty around me, but I couldn’t taste it. I couldn’t enter into it and really feel what it was like to be poor.

Let me tell you two little stories to illustrate this.

I remember we had a favorite restaurant we loved to go to, called Orlando’s. It was a barbeque place and the chicken was absolutely divine. Peruvians are amazing at that sort of thing, and we loved it (there’s a Peruvian Barbeque place just up the road called Genaro’s – check it out, it’s amazing!). It wasn’t a restaurant like you’re used to here, though. It was made of wood and had log-beams for ceiling joists and a thatched roof, and it was open all around the outside with screens. The windows were low to the ground, and I remember looking through those screens and seeing little kids my own age, maybe five to ten of them, lined up all along the windows.

Their arms were stick thin, some of them had distended bellies from worms, and some of them had reddish hair, because that’s what happens sometimes when you’re malnourished. They were hoping for the scraps from our table – even just the bones so they could take them home and boil them up and get some nutrition from the marrow. Kids just like me. Only different.

I remember also I had a dog, a little black cocker spaniel. Things were less regulated there – we didn’t have any leash laws, so Blackie would wander around the missionary center where I lived. He had a routine he followed, and one day I decided to see what it was. I followed Blackie as he followed our garbage truck, up the dirt road and out through the gates; out to where we dumped our garbage. When we got there I saw children, kids my own age, with hooked sticks they were using to poke through our garbage – through my garbage – looking for anything they could use, or sell… or even eat.
In Matthew 25, Jesus is separating the sheep from the goats – you all know the story, or have heard the Cake song “Sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell”. Anyway, he tells some people they’ve ignored him when he was hungry and thirsty and in prison and alone, and they’re like, “Whoa, wait a minute Jesus. We never did that!” and he says, “Whatever you didn’t do for the least of these, you didn’t do for me”.

Folks, when I was looking out through those screens at Orlando’s, I was looking at Jesus. When I watched those kids poke through my garbage, I was seeing Jesus. Jesus is hungry and thirsty and alone. Jesus is starving to death.

I firmly believe that when Jesus said “I will never leave you nor forsake you”, he wasn’t just saying this in a mystic spirit way, he was saying, “I am going to be here in the flesh, as a person, and whenever you find your faith is faltering and you doubt the whole shebang, just look for me and I’ll look back at you through the eyes of the poor and underprivileged.” Listen, guys, I’m just like you. It’s been a struggle for me to make sense of my faith, to reconcile what I believe with all the information and with how I think about the world, but what always makes sense to me and brings me back is this: that Jesus is here, in the flesh, ready to love me in person.

Jesus is here, folks, and Jesus is hungry. Jesus is thirsty. Jesus is starving to death while America spends 450 billion dollars a year on Christmas. Do you get the irony of that? Fifty million children die every year of malnutrition-related illnesses and we’re spending billions and billions on ourselves to “celebrate his birthday”!

That’s sick – and do you know what else is sick?

Imagine some girl sitting up on this stage behind me at a big banquet table heaped up with all sorts of food. Jesus is sitting on the floor next to her. His arms are like matchsticks, his hair is a chalky red, and maybe is nose is running because he’s crying so hard – because he’s hungry. This rich girl at the table, she’s ignoring him, though. She’s actually complaining because she hasn’t got the type of jam she prefers for her toast! Now, aren’t you going to look with disdain at that girl? Isn’t that sick?

Well, imagine Jesus is out in the foyer. The girl can see and hear him, but he’s quieter and she goes on eating and complaining. Don’t you have some contempt for this girl? For me, she isn’t just getting on my nerves at this point, she’s making me angry.

Now Jesus is back over at the high school building. He’s over in my room, in the art room, and he’s doing the same crying and everything, and every hour someone is calling over to her three hundred dollar iphone and saying, “Look, I’d love to feed this kid but there’s just no food over here. Isn’t there some way you could bring some food?” And this despicable girl just goes on stuffing her face. Folks, that despicable girl is us… which is a perfect transition to talk about sodomy.

You all know what I mean by sodomy. And you know about Sodom, how God destroyed Sodom for its wickedness – but does anybody know why God destroyed Sodom? Does anybody know why we call homosexuality “sodomy”?

[At this point, my newly developed Teacher Echolocation Power zoned in and located one of the basketball players who’d said, “it’s gross”. I pointed at him.]

You say because it’s gross?

[He raised his hand and nodded, owning it]

All right, well, let’s look at why the Bible says God destroyed Sodom. There are a few places, like when God is talking to Abraham, where God said that Sodom was super duper wicked, but there is only one place where he says specifically why he destroyed it.

Ezekial 16:49&50 says, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me.”
Let me read that again.

[and I did]

No mention of homosexuality there. So why do we call homosexuality “sodomy”? Well, I’ll tell you why. We focus on a sexual issue that most of us don’t deal with (ignoring our own, perfectly socially acceptable heterosexual screw-ups) so we can completely ignore the fact that the entire story is pointing right at US.

I was asked to come up here and share something God has done to reveal Himself to me – what has caused me to really know and want God, and I have to say that Jesus has revealed Himself to me most clearly in the faces of the suffering and it is that sort of God – the kind that promotes an upside-down kingdom that’s not after power and control but instead self-sacrifice and humility – it is that sort of God that I’ve fallen in love with and want to serve with the sacrifice of my own life.

So my challenge to you today is to stop paying lip service to Jesus, to stop pretending that because you say a few words or hang out with the right people or don’t do this or that that it means you are a follower of Christ. It is easier to stuff a camel through the eye of a needle than it is to get an upper-middle class person from south Charlotte into heaven! Is that hard? Yes! It’s impossible, really. Except, nothing is impossible for Jesus, if you’re willing to go seek Him out and love Him.

I could sit here all day and tell you what you need to do – to give your money here or there or do this or that – but my challenge to you is to use some of that abundant creativity I see in my classes and go out and look for Jesus. Love Jesus. And get ready for the abundant life for which you were made.

That’s about all I have to say. Any of the kids in my classes can tell you that I’m not really all that comfortable with public prayer. It’s not something I like doing and it’s something I’m still thinking through. Nonetheless, there are times when there is something I believe in so strongly that I just gotta pray it out. So God, inspire these kids to seek you out here in South Charlotte and around the world. Don’t let them be satisfied with pretending. Don’t let them let anyone look down on them because they are young, and don’t let them look down on themselves because they are young, but instead get them to just shake up their families, their town and their world by following the real you wherever you lead them. Amen.

- - -

That was it, give or take a few inside jokes and the sort of grammatical errors and mumblings that tend to happen whenever I talk instead of write. Mr. Jameson stood up and said, “I was going to tell you a story, but I don’t want you to leave here thinking about anything but what Mr. Barkey just said, so it looks like you’re going to get a little break before your next class.”
He prayed again (lots of praying goes on at my school), and that was it.

Why I think “Christian Missions” are a big Cow Stinky.

If you know me, you might find that title strange. Although I grew up as an alien in a foreign land, I’m not one of those who were scarred by absentee parents who barbarously ventured out into the world to preach the Gospel According to America, sacrificing their children’s development on the altar of good intentions. Mine was a fairly idyllic youth spent in a stable, loving community of people who were in Peru for a purpose the value of which I have never really questioned – the translation of the Bible into other languages. While the attitudes and methods of individuals in that community may have at times reflected the imperfection of their respective natures, I still feel that the principle is sound.

So why am I taking the time to write a note about how “Christian Missions” are a big Cow Stinky? Well, I’ve recently participated in what many have called a “Missions Trip” to Haiti – you can see some pictures of it in the appropriate album – and it has gotten me thinking about my growing discomfort with the idea of the thing as it has been and is being enacted by Protestant North America. As a result, I have come up with two basic issues.

The first is more of a semantic quibble. The term “Missions” was bugging me, so I did a little online etymology search and found that it does, indeed, have military connotations, having originated in 1598 with the Jesuits, who were a militaristic order. I’m not trying to hate on the military here. I do not believe in easy answers regarding the use of military force. There is always a difficult tension there – to explore it further, I suggest watching “The Mission” with Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro, a film that really gets into the blood and guts of the issue and will probably make you cry. Nonetheless, I consider myself to be a “qualified pacifist”, and do not like associating any work purporting to spread the word about the sweet-action awesomeness of Jesus with the use of violence. I think people in “Christian Missions” continue to use that terminology partly by default and partly because the American psyche has infected North American Evangelicoprotestantism with an aggressive, power-grubbing attitude that is antithetical to the words and works of Christ.

Like I said, that is more of a semantic quibble and far less nasty and systemic than my other issue, which fits neatly under my Hobby-Horse Rant Topic of the false sacred/secular dichotomizing that infuses the Western Church with stinkiness. I am not enough of a scholar to trace the origins of this nasty bit of incorrect thinking, but to paraphrase a whole lot of irate thought I’ve got on the issue I will say that I think that for a variety of reasons and in a (foolish, fated) attempt to control what the Truth is and how people experience it, the Western Church has absorbed and adopted the anti-Christian attitude that the world is divided into things spiritual/eternal/good and things bad/fleshly/secular.

They’ve taken the ball that Paul (who wrote a lot of the New Testament – primarily the problematic stuff) threw them when he used the Platonic language of the Greco-Roman culture in which and to which he was speaking and falsely transposed it into our post-“Enlightenment”, overly-rationalized mindset. It’s a doctrinal tragedy of unparalleled proportions, and to my mind has been a key factor in the way much of mainstream North American Evangelicoprotestantism has abandoned Orthodox Christian thought and accommodated their theology to their corrupt economic practices and purposes.

That’s a bit heady and obtuse and off-topic, though, so I’ll bring it back to everyday reality by saying that a real, human result is that we end up wandering around feeling guilty that we’re not doing enough of the “good, spiritual” stuff, or feeling smug because we have done some of that stuff, or even feeling OK about not doing that good stuff because other people are off doing it anyways, with or without our support. It’s the sort of thing that leads people to rob themselves of the abundant life God proposes to give them because to be consistent they’ve got to see things like Sleep and Good Food and Friendship and Solid Conversation and Romping Sex and a whole lot of other marvelous things as less good than Praying with Words in a Rational, Ordered Manner and Reading the Bible and Going to Church.

When it comes to “Missions Trips”, they pay lip service to the idea that all of life is a mission, but still separate (both implicitly and explicitly) stuff like going to Haiti and giving beanie babies to orphans from stuff like breaking bread with friends. This is devilry! And I mean that literally – I honestly believe there’s devilry afoot here. We should be looking at ALL our lives as sacred. That’s the point of Christ, isn’t it – that he redeemed the whole world from poopiness?!? All trips are “missions” trips, in the gentlest meaning of that term, as are all staycations and forays into the dreamworld and interhuman interactions.

Going to some other country is a trip like any other, on which I either do or don’t lay my pride and selfishness at the feet of the Truth in which I might or might not choose to live. Don’t get me wrong – I think doing good things for orphans is what it is all about. James 1:27 says that “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”. I think that if you want to follow the Truth you’ve got to love on orphans and widows and all the other people getting stepped on by the dung-soaked hobnailed boots of the world.

Whether or not spending the resources on a week-long trip for a bunch of wealthy American high schoolers (and their teachers) is the best way to go about that is a question that deserves another essay entirely, but my point here is that the criteria of submission to the Truth can and should be applied to any activity a person purporting to please the big J-Man might undertake. I am of the opinion that almost ANY activity could be redeemed into something more closely resembling the Awesomeness from which it has been tweaked by our general messed-upness, but if the activity is such that it is really difficult for us to undertake it in the right way, then that ought to be identified and we ought to change our hearts/minds and/or drop the activity immediately. If a cruise ship trip or a trip to Haiti or a trip to the Apple store is causing you to live in a lie – dump it!

Take every choice, every trip, every attitude captive. Think BIG thoughts. Do things that matter. Make EVERYTHING matter. Love ridiculously in whatever you do. Ponder your place in the world, and the responsibilities your wealth entails. Grow to a place where you spend your wealth, your time and yourself to advance the Upside-Down Kingdom. Keep loving yourself, but bring your love of others up so that it matches that love in intensity, and as much as you are able… LIVE that love!

Calling it a “Missions Trip” is a big Cow Stinky. It is a copout intended to get you off the hook from living the painful, self-sacrificing, gloriously fulfilling life for which you were made. Stop creating division by splitting your world between good and evil, and start Jesufizing EVERYTHING!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

alpha

The sun is not yet visible at 6:56 in the morning from where I sit in Waxhaw, North Carolina. The thing itself is invisible, and yet it is active nonetheless, beginning to infuse my entire world with its incalculable essence. Without it, there would be no light. Without light, there would be no words because there would be nothing to describe, no world to share.

This is the first post of a blog intended to explore the rising glow of an unseen sun, a light that gives words and illuminates being. This light wraps us all with glory, but introduces as well a sense of the Other and our attendant Isolation from it, our one-ness that exemplifies our split with infinity.

My writing, at its best, is an attempt to see the connections and increase the glow - not by enumerating the effects of the sun, but by enjoying them. With my words I try to revel in the goodness that I see; and to increase that goodness by pointing at both the necessity and superfluity of shadows. That makes little sense, I know, but these are the words of a poet, not a politician of theology.

I am not here to explain the ways of God to man, but rather to explore and enjoy them to myself, and to invite you to join me in the wandering, wondering experiment. Let there be light! And let us party in it with wild abandon.