Tuesday, December 29, 2009
It's enough to make a girl feel kind of insignificant. I mean, really... I'm one of almost 7 BILLION people, waking and sleeping, eating and breathing in my one fairly insignificant corner at a fairly insignificant time in thousands of years of human history. I haven't invented anything, really, and have contributed precious little to the improvement of humankind. Year after year, I work, I do my best not to be an a**hole to people around me, I pray and go to church and try to follow what I believe God wants me to do, I pay my bills. I'm kind of a little cog in the great big machine of the universe, doing my thing, not particularly important.
What, really, does it matter whether or not I make New Year's Resolutions?
It matters. It matters a LOT. It matters because I matter. It matters because you matter. I may be one of 7 billion people, but the choices I make every day touch the lives of the people around me, who in turn touch the people around them, who in turn... you get what I mean. If I don't take responsibility to honestly look at my life and consider what I have and haven't done and what I've done badly and whom I've hurt, neglected, or just been sort of limply apathetic toward... if I don't honestly and fairly look at my limited resources and figure out what I can and can't do in the new year, and make plans to distribute those resources among the various things that are necessary and important in my life...
...well then, I risk wasting it, this next year. I risk wasting the time I'm given. I risk wasting the life God gave me. I risk doing what I'm put here to do. I risk being a blob of a person, so convinced of my own insignificance that I miss out on taking action so that I *am* of significance, at least to the folks right around me who could use whatever I have to offer them.
I have no clue who reads my blog these days other than my Dad and a few friends and folks who go to my church. I know I've experienced some Blog Exhaustion the past few months, so if you're here, thanks. I appreciate you giving me your time... and even if it sounds cheesy, I really hope you don't underestimate your own importance, your own ability to change things right around you. It really doesn't matter if you can see how at the moment... it's more important that you push yourself towards believing it. Fame is a social construct and who is famous or not is really kind of arbitrary and a bit of a dull subject, really. So, err, you should really sort of forget that if you haven't already. No one is insignificant by definition, but you can act as though you are and become functionally insignificant as a result. Please don't do that with your life.
Err, and that's all for now. Hugs.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
(Before I proceed, let me say that this has been written about beautifully and with some sensitivity by Jonathan Brink here, Josh Hale here, and Katie Mulligan here. I used Walt Whitman's line as the title of this post because I feel like bashing things in, and you'll see that here. If you're not in the mood for that, then you'd probably better stop reading now.)
I don't want to add any hurt to any of those who are mourning this loss, but I keep stumbling across more and more examples of how this person was bringing seriously beautiful ideas, poetry, and friendship into the world, and I am really, really, really angry that he's gone.
It's not that I've never been there. I was suicidal throughout my teens and was literally at the point of going through with it twice during that time... but something always stopped me and I always assumed that something was God. I DO NOT UNDERSTAND why this same God who kept me in the world allowed this soul to take himself out. And I don't want to dance around that, folks, I want to stand right in the middle of that and scream at the top of my lungs.
It's NOT FAIR. How come I soldiered through and you didn't? How come you gave in? There were people who really liked you and who even may have loved you as time went on and they got to know you better, and there are people posting to your Facebook page who CLEARLY loved you and knew you in the flesh. WHY????? Did you try meds? Did you live with roommates? Did you have friends who were your suicide watch buddies and you could call if you were at that point?
Or did you do all of the above and just got sick of managing it? Because I did, in the end, get better. It's been a long time since I've been that low... and if it never really let up for you, Gideon, then I guess I understand. It is hard to stagger blindly through that darkness day after day after day. It is hard to continue to force yourself to believe that it will get better. If you truly lived with this every day, then I don't know if I would have made it to 30 if I were you.
I, we, have no choice but to forgive you, and to speak holy words about your death because all deaths mark the passage into the spiritual realm and into Mystery... even the ones that leave us outraged, helpless, pounding words into our keyboards as though this will bring you back because it's what brought you to us in the first place.
I just found this song via @hardlynormal, Mark Horvath of invisiblepeople.tv, who found it here courtesy of @MelissaRowley. It's a homeless guy named Mustard doing the best cover of Creep by Radiohead that I've ever heard. I dedicate this to Gideon, because this was one of my all-time favorite Songs to Be Depressed By back in the day.
Rest in peace, brother. I look forward to meeting you someday.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Gabriel is one very busy angel in Luke 1. Luke opens up his account of the life of Christ with two separate --and very different—annunciations. In the first, the Angel Gabriel greets Zechariah, a priest whom Luke says was “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly”. This, despite the fact that God had not blessed he and his wife with children even though he had prayed for this for many long years. In the second, the Angel Gabriel greets Mary, whom is introduced simply as a virgin whose father had arranged to marry her to a man named Joseph, himself a descendant of David.
Zechariah was performing temple service when Gabriel showed up to talk to him, and he was filled with sheer terror at the sight of the angel. Gabriel was tuned into this and told Zechariah not to be afraid, that he had good news for him and that his wife would give birth to a son who would be filled with “the spirit and power of Elijah”, the great prophet of the Jewish tradition. Zechariah, attempting to get a grip on the situation --and on himself-- blurts out “How can I be sure of this? I’m old and so is my wife.”
Me being me, I hear exasperation and sarcasm in Gabriel’s response: “(sigh) I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God?? and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now? You will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” Bam! And just like that, Zechariah --the upstanding priest of God-- is totally mute and reduced to using sign language to try to communicate to those standing outside the temple that something big has gone down.
The situation with Mary is totally different, though. This young woman --whom until this point Luke has described only in relation to the men whom were her caretakers-- is not described as being overcome by terror at the very presence of an angel, but as being “greatly troubled” by his greeting… not because there was an angel in her room, but because she didn’t understand what he meant when Gabriel said “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Like Zechariah, Mary greets the news of the angel that she will give birth to the eternal king of the house of Jacob with a question, but it’s not framed as an incredulous “how can I be sure of this?” but rather as curiosity over logistics: “How’s THAT gonna happen? I’m a virgin, after all.” So Gabriel responds to a straight question with a straight answer, explaining how it will happen, and mentioning that her cousin Elizabeth is also already preggers in quite similar miraculous circumstances: “For nothing is impossible with God.”
And then Mary says something fascinating, which has been the subject of much poetry, music and theological speculation: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Gabriel, satisfied with this response, returns to the presence of God.
When I was in the Catholic Church, a LOT was made of Mary’s answer to Gabriel. Look at Mary’s servant-like nature! Look at her willingness to be used for the LORD, no matter *what* it cost her personally! Look at this example of pure, unblemished womanhood, submitting fully to the LORD in complete, child-like faith! Hail, Virgin Mother of our LORD!!
But I’m more interested in the fact that she responded… as though she knew, in some way, that God required her assent in order for this to happen. And upon receiving her assent, Gabriel’s work there appears to have been finished, like that’s really what he was waiting on. I remember being in a conversation with some Catholics once who posited the possibility that Gabriel had actually gone to several women *prior* to Mary, but that she was the first one to accept his proposition with such calmness, and therefore to become the Mother of God.
Why? Why did it *matter* whether she said yes or no? After all, Gabriel evidently didn’t require Zechariah’s assent. He came to Zechariah solely to report what would occur, and promptly took away his power of speech upon meeting his incredulity. Of course, what he was describing to Zechariah wasn’t happening to Zechariah. He would be affected by it, but it was actually happening to Elizabeth. Gabriel’s later annunciation to Joseph also served the purpose primarily of informing, rather than asking for any sort of assent. We don’t have an account of Gabriel appearing to Elizabeth, of course, so we can’t verify a parallel, but still… it is strange, isn’t it?
I mean, think about it. I’m assuming we all know *how* babies are made, but we have so unbelievably little control over when and how, really. And --as we have heard in the testimonies of some of the mothers in our congregation-- the whole process of pregnancy is a series of uncontrollable events as a woman’s body is transformed into a baby incubator, her own lifeblood mined for nutrients for this growing body inside of HER body. Every woman experiences this process differently, and differently even with every child she has. She simply CANNOT predict with total accuracy what is going to happen to her. The process is miraculous and beautiful and all of that, but the more salient point is that it is deeply, deeply physical and deeply beyond our ability to really control. At best, we firefight once problems become apparent. And we pray a lot. But it’s not like God asks us, “hey, are you cool with this?” before the process gets started.
And it’s not like He asks us this with other things in life, either. I mean, we all, I’m sure, have wondered in passing if we could have had some notice before experiencing the big changes in our life, good and bad. Would it have hurt for God to give us a little heads up? Some sign? I find myself going back over the events preceding each huge, life-changing event in my life, mining for clues... a Colombo of faith, sniffing around for any evidence that God could have been telling me what was going down… and in many cases, that I could have prevented that thing from happening.
…which raises a very interesting and important question. In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, Lewis imagines purgatory as a city with a sprawling suburb in perpetual grey twilight, and the portal to heaven as a bus stop in the middle of the city that takes its passengers to a meadow with hills in the distance. The hills are heaven, but the passengers in the bus find that they are like paper-thin ghosts in this new land, that the grass hurts their feet and the sun hurts their eyes and they are afraid to go forward from the bus. Some choose to go back to purgatory. But even beyond that, there are those in the land of twilight who have moved far, far from the city center, who never go into town and don’t even know about the portal to heaven. It seems that, to Lewis, our every decision every day points us in a direction, either towards, or away from heaven. Toward the light, or towards the dusk that will someday deepen into a blacker night than we can possibly imagine.
So which is it? Does God have the control? Or do we? This is not a philosophical question. If you believe that our choices matter deeply, that God is in some way limited by our permission for Him to act in our lives, then our actions and decisions are directly linked to God’s ability to change the world for the better. If you believe that our choices are something of a side issue, or perhaps even irrelevant in the face of totally sovereign God, then you can find either rest or despair in the fact that your choices, while important insofar as you are obedient to God, do not have any real ultimate effect on your life, your salvation or the affairs of the world. Your perspective on this affects everything: how you make your decisions, what you think of prayer, how you enter into relationships with one another… everything. Really.
Even in Romans 8:28-30, part of the passage we read this morning, God is seen as predestining, controlling our futures. But then it says that all things work together for good to those who love Him, placing the agency back on us and our love for God. So which is it? What do you think? Is God totally in control? Or are we?
Saturday, December 5, 2009
So, we've entered the season of Advent, the time in the church calendar where we all think and talk about waiting and meditate on the value of it and the difficulty of it... and we tell the story of Mary and the Angel Gabriel coming to her and then her waiting for the birth of the Most Important Person In All of History, who, in a most unexpected turn of events, happened to be growing inside of her.
In the Northern Hemisphere, this is happening as the days are getting shorter and shorter, and it really works with the whole waiting theme. Darkness implies waiting for daylight. The creeping cold and naked tree branches imply a waiting for spring's warmth and light. You feel it in your bones. In Iceland, for example, they're down to about 5-6 hours of murky twilight at this point in the year. The effect on me physically when I visited there a year ago was pretty dramatic. I could NOT wake up in the mornings, and although I had a great time, my senses were sort of muzzled the whole time I was there, the grey and dark of the world muting every sense perception I had.
Winter is nature in the womb, waiting.
This year, my Advent has begun with a very odd (for me) period of waiting. For the past two weeks, I have literally not been allowed to work due to some government snafus with my security paperwork. The situation will be resolved, but we're waiting on people who have no motive to hurry, so this is dragging on a bit. Last week's wait was broken up by my ill-fated trip to Pittsburgh, but this week has been 100% me sitting at home. Waiting.
I don't do this well. I work. It's what I DO. I realized this week that --aside from the 3 weeks I took after graduating with my Masters degree in May-June 2007-- this is the longest break I have had from working since I entered the work force upon my return to the U.S. in 1999. For 10 YEARS, with that one exception, I have never taken more than a week of vacation at a time. Never. And even THEN during those times of vacation, I checked my work email at least once, sometimes more. And I've NEVER spent this much time in my apartment. Sitting. Waiting.
One very notable side effect of this waiting is that it's kind of like sitting in a mirrored room. I haven't been able to get away from myself. I mean, I've been doing volunteer work for Emergent Village and my church and what-not, but being by myself has forced me to listen to my thoughts in a way I haven't had to for a really long time. It hasn't been pleasant a lot of the time, but I've had to be very honest with myself about some things and my hope is that this bears a lot of fruit. We'll see.
Probably the most painful thing about waiting is what it does to your faith. Kierkegaard said that the only unforgiveable sin (the "sickness unto death") is despair, but waiting for an extended period of time can and does lead to disappointment and eventually to despair. Yes, you have to battle with these emotions, but they're a natural reaction. "How long must I wait for this situation to resolve itself?" "When will You give me what You've promised, LORD?" "Am I missing something? Am I doing something wrong?" Advent's waiting invites a question we, or at least I, rarely articulate: Jesus, where ARE You?? You said You'd come back, and we have 2000 years of theology grappling with the fact that You haven't, at least not in the way You said You would. How long must creation wait?? Are You really coming back???
My friend David Hottinger has an amazing, amazing blog about his work as a hospice chaplain. He just did a post containing a homily he delivered at the memorial service for a patient who unexpectedly committed suicide this past week. In it, he says
The heart of Jesus’ message is this: We are loved. In life and unto death and beyond death, we belong to God who made us, forgives us, and desires us to share in God’s light and joy forever.
And there is NOTHING in all of creation – death, disease, depression, despair, broken relationships, loneliness, – NOTHING – smashed dreams, unfulfilled expectations, regrets, rejection, shame, trauma – NOTHING – can separate us from the love made known through Jesus the Christ.
As our Lover, God takes our deepest woes, our most anguished cries, our most shameful failures and uses them to bring us into God’s heart, which is Love Itself.
It's hard to believe this when you're in the middle of it. Does God really reach out to me when I am doubting Him so fiercely? When I'm finding my faith stretched to the breaking point, not by tragedy, but by interminable waiting? Where in the mysterious dance between my free will and His omnipotence do I cross the line into preventing myself from receiving His love? How do I keep from getting to that point?
Waiting can be like having a single drop of water falling on the same spot on a rock every minute on the minute for years. The rock is worn away, slowly, almost imperceptibly. Our faith wanes and wanes until it's gone and we don't even know when it left.
As I've been in this mirrored space of waiting, I've been noting the effect that disappointment over waiting for years for certain things in my life has had on me... how it's sometimes made me cheerfully fatalistic, with a kind of "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" attitude. I joke about small tragedies and disappointments that eat away at my faith every day. I move within my life as though I will never see these promises and dreams realized, and as though that's ok.
So. This year, Advent is, for me, about meditating on what waiting does to a person... its effect on faith. Am I more patient as a result, or simply more resigned? Am I wiser now or simply more jaded? Where is the line between faith and fatalism, and if I have crossed it, how do I cross back?
LORD God, keep me honest.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
(which you can, of course, buy here and here.)
First off, the Didache is really worth a read on its own before you read anything I have to say about it. It's short, and you can read Tony's translation of it here (scroll down through the stuff about the blog tour and you'll see it). Try reading it slowly. It helps.
When I first read through the Didache, I was put off by it in much the same way as I've been put off by reading the Deutero-Canonical books (the Apocrypha to all you Protestants out there). It seemed like someone had taken a pair of scissors to the Gospel of Matthew and then re-pasted the interesting parts in an order that pleased them, chucking in some of their own deep thoughts on the same themes so it didn't read like straight up plagiarism. I'm aware that what we consider plagiarism wasn't an offense in the days of the early church and isn't an offense in many cultures now --instead being seen as a way of honoring the teachings of a respected elder-- but why should I want to read *this* when I have the Gospels?
But then I read it again. And again. And again and again and again. And I started to get it, and Chapter 3 of Tony's book helped me understand why.
Chapter 3 starts with a picture of the circumstances under which Christians, then a sect of Judaism, were operating in 70-110AD, the broad time span during which the Didache is thought to be written. Infighting between the Nazarenes (as the Jewish Christians were often called) and other Jewish sects had led to the expulsion of all Jews from Rome in AD 49. The Christians that remained in (or returned to) Rome in AD 64 were persecuted by Emperor Nero, blamed for a fire that had destroyed much of Rome. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman general Titus in AD 70, and around this time, Christians had been made exempt from taxes levied upon other Jews, which removed them from the protections offered to Jews in the Roman Empire. In other words, times were --and had been-- tough, and there was a lot of uncertainty around what it meant to be a Christian. One thing that was certain is that it still meant being a Jew, but what kind of Jew?
Sitting with this part of the chapter and thinking on how contested Christian identity was in the first centuries after Christ was actually very unsettling for me. I've studied early Christian history, and I know that things have changed a lot, but reading about the Christians who would have been familar with the Didache brings it home to me that their faith may well have been NOTHING like mine, not just in practice, but in substance as well. The truth is that while my reaction to the Didache is that it feels like a knock-off of the Gospels, it actually pre-dates the Bible I have. Tony points out that the authors of the Didache seem to have no knowledge of the letters and theology of the Apostle Paul, and that the text was written well before the Gospel of John. How much of my theology --that which I believe and that which I wrestle with and reject-- is formed by the Pauline letters and John's presentation of Christ? I'm well familiar with the fact that the Bible as I have it now is the product of a lot of political back-and-forth between powerful bishops a few hundred years after Christ, but that doesn't change how I feel about the Bible or about the beliefs I have held on to (and those I've rejected) that have been informed by that Bible.
Knowing that Christians were Christians before the New Testament as a fact and believing it are two different things. If I internalize the reality that the Christianity and the scriptures that I have are dramatically different than those of the early Christians, then I am put in a place of much deeper dependence on simple faith and God's guidance through the Holy Spirit. I could take refuge in an argument about God's sovereignty and how all of Christian history has been guided by His Will and we are exactly where He wants us to be --current scriptures and theological beliefs and all-- but I don't totally buy that. The intersection between God's omnipotence and man's free will is a fairly mysterious thing and I tend to think we've mucked things up rather a lot.
Which brings me to the second part of chapter 3, where Tony introduces us to the Cymbrogi (named after an ancient Celtic word meaning "Companions of the Heart"), a group of 10 or so folks in rural Missouri who have grown disenchanted with the institutional churches from which they've come. Not all of them have chosen to leave those churches, but they have chosen to meet and to attempt to practice a Christianity that more closely resembles that of the early church, before church hierarchy and the Bible as we know it. They decided some time ago to study the Didache and to try to put it into practice within their community, and have testified that it has changed their lives, making them more honest with one another, more connected. Tony talks about the reaction of Trucker John, a member of the Cymbrogi, to the Didache in this passage on pages 42-43:
As the church grew in the first centuries, the emphasis became more and more on what you believe, which creed you recite, which doctrine you believe. But the Didache, John says, preserves a Christianity that emphasizes how you live. According to Trucker John, this seems more in keeping with the teachings of Jesus than the later controversies over doctrine ever did.
After reading it through a few times, it was clear that this is the appeal of the Didache to me, too. Its teachings are very simple, yet deep, much like the Sermon on the Mount. Love God, really, with everything you have. Don't be selfish. Put others first. Always give when there's a need, and don't take when you have plenty. Don't engage in behaviors that will start you on a slippery slope to really destructive patterns. Don't do all of these things because God doesn't want you to, and God knows the correct way for you to live... because He's God and He loves you.
Reading the directives of the Didache, once I got over my initial criticisms, was soothing and comforting, like being a child receiving the instruction of a trusted parent. I found myself reading it and feeling like "oh, ok". I don't feel like that very often, and I can see how reading this in community and trying to live by it would simplify things a lot, and would bring a kind of peace and order. My usual alarm bells about legalism do go off when I contemplate a list of "to-dos" of the spiritual life, but that's not what the Didache is. I really do welcome the clarity and simplicity of the teachings (they clear my head, so to speak) and they are rooted in common-sense principles, not just a list of mindless actions that you have to perform in order to make God happy.
Trucker John, as it so happens, is the ex-brother-in-law of Trucker Frank, a theologian/trucker who reminds me quite a lot of my Dad (formerly Trucker Mike, now in seminary at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry). Tony has an ongoing conversation with Frank throughout this book, and each chapter ends with an observation from him. Chapter 3 ends with
"What we [the Cymbrogi] share is a deep, soulful commitment to each other and to a fellowship beyond the walls of institutional church structures,” Frank says. “We are sometimes viewed with suspicion by others because we refuse to stay within the boundaries of a particular church hierarchy. We are, in that sense, an organic structure somewhere between the local church and the Church Universal.”
As I've expressed on this blog before, I am indebted to institutional expressions of the Christian faith and I question folks who want to believe that the Church Universal just needs to shed those institutions in order to be in the Will of God. I really resonate with Trucker Frank's statement, though, and find that it is in this in-between space where I am most comfortable, as well. It's in the smaller faith community centered mostly around trying to have a common life centered in Christ where I find I'm able to breathe. Anywhere else I go I find that I'm tempted to care too much what others around me think, because I can pretty much lay money down on the fact that they will not like what, or how, I think (IF I ever tell them what I think, which I'm not likely to do). When I'm in a small community like Common Table that is not defined by denominational lines, I feel like I can bring what I have and folks will either accept or reject it without necessarily accepting or rejecting me.
As this post is only about Chapter 3, I won't go on to talk further about the book, but it is well-written, substantive without being too heady, and a STEAL on Amazon for only $10.11! Pick up a copy. It'll be worth it... and stay tuned to the blog tour... a complete list of bloggers can be found here.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
So my Thanksgiving holiday sucked, another Epic Fail for the whole Trusting People and Giving Them A Second Chance thing. A man who dropped me like a hot potato with almost no explanation back in June phoned me up and asked for another chance a few weeks ago. I went up to his city to visit him, and after two seemingly lovely days, he did it AGAIN, with no explanation at all except some lame made-up excuses, when I was completely dependent upon him for transportation. I will say this, though... Classy Cab of Pittsburgh really is as classy as the name says, and did a fantastic job of helping me out on short notice on a busy Friday night. I highly recommend them.
Next week I'll be participating in a blog book tour hosted by Paraclete Press. Here's what they have to say, and the schedule:
The Didache, an early handbook of an anonymous Christian community, "is the most important book you never read." It spells out a way of life for Jesus-followers, including how to show one another the love of God, how to practice the Eucharist, and how to take in wandering prophets.
Likely written before many of the New Testament books, this little-known text can enlighten the way that Christians are church today.
Tony Jones new book, The Teaching of the Twelve, unpacks this ancient document with insight and perspective, and traces the life of a small house church in Missouri that is trying to live according to its precepts.
Included in the book is a new, contemporary English translation of the Didache.
Join us on a blog tour of Tony Jones new book, The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community beginning the first Monday of Advent, November 30:
November 30: An introduction with Tony Jones
December 1: Chapter 1 - The Most Important Book You've Never Heard of - with Adam Walker Cleaveland at pomomusings and Thomas Turner at everydayliturgy
December 2: Chapter 3 - The Didache Community - Then and Now - with Ted Gossard at Jesus Community and Amy Moffitt at Without a Map
December 3: Chapter 4 - There Are Two Ways - with Tripp Fuller at homebrewedchristianity and with Holly Rankin-Zaher at happydaydeadfish
December 4: Chapter 5 - Sex, Money, and Other Means of Getting Along - with Chris Monroe at Paradoxology and Mike Todd at Waving or Drowning?
December 5: Chapter 6 - Living Together In Community - with Brother Maynard at Subversiveinfluence and Mike King
December 6: Chapter 7 - The End is Nigh - with Greg Arthur at Holinessreeducation.com and Mike Stavlund at Awakening
December 7: Epilogue - with Luke C. Miller and Carl McColman at The Website of Unknowing
December 8: Special Question - Is this text - The Didache - really so important? Why? Do we know that it was important to the earliest communities of Christians? with Jonathan Brink at Missio Dei
December 9: Special Question - Does the Didache teach or advise anything that substantively differs from what was decided at the earliest ecumenical church councils (such as Nicaea) with Dwight Friesen
December 10: Special Question - Why is the Didache relevant, in particular today? Is it more relevant today than it was, say 100 years ago? Why? with Bob Hyatt
Starting Dec. 1st purchase 3+ copies of this book at a 40% discount. This special offer ends on December 11th, with the close of the blog tour!
Friday, November 20, 2009
Some people are applauding this, but a lot of other people are decrying this as a tragedy as folks will not be benefitting from the content of the books and the site. They see the objections from those on the other side of the fence as much ado about nothing and a victory for political correctness.
And this is what I have to say to those people: You are racists.
And so am I.
And so is everybody.
Which excuses absolutely NONE of us from the responsibility to work against it and to repent when we see our racism hurting others.
I remember very well the feelings of rage I had when I entered a mostly African-American high school and realized that I was regularly being judged by the color of my skin. Why, I LOVED black people!! I cried tears of remorse and anger every time I heard stories of slavery, and I did love me some blues. More specifically, I didn't hold anger at any particular black person based on the color of their skin. Why would *anyone* have a problem with me??
Obviously, I didn't get it.
The truth is, I was blind. I'd been raised to lock my car door when I entered the predominately black sections of town. My shoulders clenched when I had to pass a black man on the sidewalk and I involuntarily held my purse closer to me. I stared openly when I saw someone who appeared Asian, since we just didn't have that many Asians in my city. I waited for them to say something in their funny language so I could remark at how *interesting* it was and giggle at the "unnatural" tonality of their voices. And Mexicans? I kept my distance. God only knows what they might do.
My white privilege blinded me to a racism that was in the very marrow of my bones and ran in my blood. It took being the minority, and being enraged that ANYONE could label me a racist when *clearly* I wasn't, to begin to recognize what was achingly obvious to anyone around me who didn't identify as white. It started me down what has become a long and sometimes extremely painful path of identifying my privilege and my assumptions, and how they killed possible beautiful relationships with folks around me... and I have a long, long way to go. I expect I'll be working through this for my entire life.
The rage that folks are feeling right now about Zondervan's decision to pull Deadly Viper is a GOOD THING. If people will get good and pissed and wrestle with what they're feeling and talk and think and process their attitudes towards the topic of race and towards those of other races, good things will result. If they do these in an attitude of prayer and a desire to really understand one another, EVEN BETTER. The Spirit will get right in the middle of that and life will come out of it.
The action Zondervan took is a VERY good thing. I don't know that they or the authors of Deadly Viper totally "get it" even now, but they repented of the wounds they caused or reopened through how their book and website were packaged, regardless of whether they totally got it or not. THAT, folks, is leadership... to repent when you've wronged someone and take action towards reconciliation, even if you still don't quite understand what you did... to say "my relationship with you is important enough to me that I will repent and work to repair it no matter what"? That takes serious courage and moral strength. THIS is leadership lived out, and it is a beautiful, difficult, complicated thing.
Your racism is *your* responsibility, as mine is *my* responsibility. If you're white, chances are you can choose to ignore the subject. Most other folks don't have that option. My challenge to all that are really pissed off about this is to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror and ask themselves how they'd feel if that face looking back at them had a different color, eyes of a different shape, hair a different color and texture. What would the world look like through those eyes? Then ask what you really, really, in your heart of hearts think of those of another race. and repent. because I promise you that we ALL need to repent for this on some level.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
That's not because I didn't like this book. On the contrary, I found it fascinating, stimulating, and as much fun as I've ever had reading such a scholarly book. Cox has that rare and beautiful gift of being both a master of his subject and a graceful and engaging writer. I even once intentionally rode my bus past the stop where I normally get off because I couldn't bear to put the book down. I pretty much never, ever do that for any book, and *definitely* not for a book on the history of the church.
It's also not because I disagree with his central arguments or have an issue with how he argued them. I don't. I'm not qualified to make statements on the scholarship that he refers to, but I do feel that he supports his propositions well without getting deeply bogged down in minutae. However, I wanted more citations, more support, because I was sometimes troubled by what he was proposing... but I did not disagree with him. I wrote "aaargh" in the margins of this book more than once, but not at outrage over a poorly constructed argument or an outrageous claim. It was because what he was saying and describing hurt... it cut close to home more than once.
Here's one of the money quotes from the beginning of the book:
"Now we stand on the threshold of a new chapter in the Christian story. Despite dire forecasts of its decline, Christianity is growing faster than it ever has before, but mainly outside the West and in movements that accent spiritual experience, discipleship, and hope; pay scant attention to creeds, and flourish without hierarchies. We are now witnessing the beginning of a 'post-Constaninian era.' Christians on five continents are shaking off the residues of [Christian history since Constantine], and negotiating a bumpy transition into a fresh era for which a name has not yet been coined. I would like to suggest we call it the 'Age of the Spirit.' "p. 8
This is more or less the book's thesis, and Cox spends the book arguing this point, picking up a lot of other related issues along the way. But he reframes the argument a couple of times, and this is where my heart gets broken. Two more money quotes and then I'll get on to my point:
"Recent discoveries about the first three centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus... help clarify how Christianity deteriorated from a movement generated by faith and hope into a religious empire demarcated by prescribed doctrines and ruled by a priestly elite. They trace how a loose network of local congregations, with varied forms of leadership, congealed into a rigid class structure with a privileged clerical caste at the top ruling over an increasingly disenfranchised laity on the bottom. They help explain why women, who played such a vital leadership role in the earliest days, were pushed to the underside and the edges. These discoveries sugggest that Christianity was not fated to develop as it did, that what happened was not simply a natural process like a tiny acorn growing into a mighty oak. A different historical trajectory was possible, and this has significant implications for the future. In short, Christianity now has a second chance." p. 55
"The parody of Christianity that took shape in the fourth century was not only a radical subversion of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, albeit carried out in their name. It also resulted in an equally radical subversion of the original meaning of the word 'faith.' Students of the history of language know that changing contexts alter the meaning of words, and this is what happened to the word 'faith'. Along with the 'imperialization' of the church and the glorification of the bishops, now 'faith' came to mean obeying the bishop and assenting to what he taught. Faith had been coarsened into belief, and this distortion has hobbled Christianity ever since." p. 98
So, here's what I have to say about that, and about this book in general.
I agree with Dr. Cox, and I have sought out churches and people who do not place their faith in the institutions of the church but in the living God and in Christ. I share the outrage at how the structures of the institutional church choked the life out of the faith in many ways (and still do), and particularly at how those structures subjugated women and minorities for centuries. I see how deadly some of these doctrines are, how little support they have from scripture, really. Speaking of scripture (Cox also addresses errors in how the scriptures are used by the church), I know first hand what it is to idolize the scriptures, to treat them as a sort of "paper pope", without wanting to know where they came from or what political machinations were involved in selecting what came to be considered canon and what was not. I still wrestle with this, even now.
But I am also an ex-Catholic, and I experienced such profound beauty while engaged in that expression of faith, the Spirit blooming brightly away from the power structures like a flower from a cracked sidewalk. The same is true of my practice of faith in childhood and adolescence, where the teachings of the Reformed tradition were something I both loved and hated, was blessed by and also resisted, for the overall betterment of my spiritual life as I was trained to critically think about scripture and to struggle with truth. I believe that for every congregation that seeks to bring the faith "forward", there are at least two others digging their heels in the ground and calling for a return to "tradition" (although they are generally being very selective about what they consider "tradition" and what they do not).
I am a proud member of the emergent church movement, and I love it dearly, but I see it as one movement among many... necessary to make sure that the Kingdom is brought into existence among the people involved with and touched by it and to bring attention to issues that other Christian denominations may choose to ignore... but not the answer to all of Christianity's woes. It is a basic feature of human social organization that we form ingroups and outgroups, that we exalt some and demonize others. I try to push against this in my own heart... it's a core belief of mine that to be a Christian is to try to pull it all together, to try to see everyone with as much compassion as you can muster while still defending the weak and helpless. But I don't expect that everyone will think the way I do. I know that for so very many people, their expression of Christianity is one side in a battle to the death. I don't agree with this or like it, but I don't expect it to change.
For someone who represents the way forward for the faith to say that the institutional church is a parody and a corruption of Christianity breaks my heart, because it draws that dividing line between "us" and "them" and has the effect of setting up a parallel set of rules and standards that a person must abide by in order to be respected as a person of faith. For many people, the insititutional church *is* their expression of faith. I want very much for them not to believe that, and I also fear that they do not truly have faith in or truly seek after God. But who am I to dismiss their striving? Who am I to say outright that their reliance on the structures of a vast institutional church or any of the rites and rituals they engage in are a parody of the faith Christ intended? Why can't I believe that there is a place for them, too, in the Kingdom of God, even if they will not extend me the same generosity?
I'm sure that Dr. Cox is committed to reconciliation and peacemaking... I think in some ways that he's indirectly advocating for practices of faith that have this at their center, and against those who do not. However, he does it in a way that would make reconciliation and peacemaking extremely difficult for many practioners of the Christian faith.
All of that being said, I would strongly urge you to read the book for yourself and have your own reaction. It may be that taking a side is what is required in order to move the Christian faith into God's intended future. I'm not really there yet. I still want us to find ways to connect among ourselves under our shared commitment to Christ.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
(tree image is from here)
I just finished my response piece for SPARK and thought I'd post it here as 1) my Dad has informed me that I am neglecting my blog and 2) it is a good piece for Halloween since it's about death and stuff. :^)
(a poem to the bathroom mirror)
How is it that you can hate with such passion
when somewhere the moon has risen tonight
over your burial place?
(I can hear the sound of your beloved weeping
carried over the cemetery wall
by the same breeze that cools the face of your enemy)
Don’t you know we’re all connected?
The roots of your hatred wind down deeper than you think,
like the roots in the cemetery,
down through the topsoil
winding around rocks, pieces of old metal, plastic, and bone.
Don’t you know that anger rots your bones
even as you live and breath?
There is a tree in the cemetery.
Two enemies were buried on either side.
Look how tall it’s grown,
heedless to the hatred that nourishes its roots.
(I am asking you, lady, to forgive.
I am asking you to remember how you have been forgiven.)
Here, here is an invitation
to toss away the label “enemy”,
to forget what has gone before
to move forward, free and light
as the leaves blown off the cemetery trees
floating free and spinning slowly
lightened of their clinging load.
You may not have another chance.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Philip's new book is Transforming Christian Theology for Church & Society and Harvey's is The Future of Faith. Both are worth checking out at one of the many tour stops. If you can't wait you can listen to them interview each other. Meanwhile, stay tuned to my blog and check out my fellow theobloggers below.
Joseph Weethee , Jonathan Bartlett, The Church Geek, Jacob’s Cafe, Reverend Mommy, Steve Knight, Todd Littleton, Christina Accornero, John David Ryan, LeAnn Gunter Johns, Chase Andre, Matt Moorman, Gideon Addington, Ryan Dueck, Rachel Marszalek, Amy Moffitt, Josh Wallace, Jonathan Dodson, Stephen Barkley, Monty Galloway, Colin McEnroe, Tad DeLay, David Mullens, Kimberly Roth, Tripp Hudgins, Tripp Fuller, Greg Horton, Andrew Tatum, Drew Tatusko, Sam Andress, Susan Barnes, Jared Enyart, Jake Bouma, Eliacin Rosario-Cruz, Blake Huggins, Lance Green, Scott Lenger, Dan Rose, Thomas Turner, Les Chatwin, Joseph Carson, Brian Brandsmeier, J. D. Allen, Greg Bolt, Tim Snyder, Matthew L. Kelley, Carl McLendon, Carter McNeese, David R. Gillespie, Arthur Stewart, Tim Thompson, Joe Bumbulis, Bob Cornwall
This Tour is Sponsored by Transforming Theology DOT org!
Sunday, October 18, 2009
This is called "Memorial Day"...
and this is called "Flow". If it doesn't sound much like po-tree to you, you're right. To be all technical and stuff, it's a piece of flash fiction, not a poem.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Pastor Rathbun's book is an addition to an ongoing conversation about how to engage the "new" generation of Christians/churchgoers/people of faith. Literature on the topic generally refers to two generations after the baby boomers: Generation X or the Busters (those born between 1961 and 1981, of which I am a part) and Generation Y or the Mosaics (those born after 1981). Rathbun refers to both of these groups broadly as "the postmoderns", and directs his attention towards both groups. He states up front that this book is written from his own, highly subjective experiences as a pastor to folks from these generations at House of Mercy in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and that his is only one voice in the larger conversation. I consider this declaration of subjectivity and uniqueness to be a fairly post-modern way to kick the book off :^), and it lends an air of authenticity right up front.
I read books with some vigor, and in the first two chapters, the margins of my copy of the book are filled with scribbles: "No!! Too simple!", "OVERSIMPLIFIED", and "What about the Catholics??" are some examples. I also found myself chafing against the broad brush definition of "postmoderns." WHO is he TALKING about?, I thought to myself. Is he REALLY trying to sum up TWO ENTIRE GENERATIONS in one big lump and talk about them as though they share the same characteristics?? Where are the Asians?? The African-Americans?? My mind went through all sorts of folks I know who don't fit the profile of the postmodern that he describes in the book, and I clicked my tongue inwardly at the overall lack of mention of Catholic and Orthodox churches.
And then I decided to stop being a jerk.
Truth be told, this is a neat little book that does exactly what it sets out to do: offers observations from one life as a way of stimulating conversation. If anyone misses the point that this book is meant to stimulate discussion, Rathbun sprinkles questions in a non-intrusively plain font at the tops and bottoms of a few select pages, but he definitely doesn't overdo it. Once I (mostly) stopped being a jerk, I found myself marking quite a few sections where I really resonated with statements he was making, and felt that he was doing a very accurate, thoughtful job of representing a certain section of folks born in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. He isn't claiming that this is a thorough sociological or socio-theological study, and the book shouldn't be read that way.
I really warmed up to him at the beginning of Chapter 3 when I recognized a reframing of one of my favorite rants on how the consumer culture has embittered me towards any church that appears to be attempting to package and sell the Gospel:
"New generations are actually very concerned with authenticity. They take for granted the omnipresence of marketing... In a culture where everything, even every individual [referencing social networking sites where people market themselves], is a product to be positioned or marketed, authenticity is rare and sought after." (p.25)
ABSOLUTELY. Think you have a new and innovative idea, Pastors? Spare us the innovation and just be yourself, whatever that is.
He goes on to talk at length about hypocrisy, using the example of the life of Peter and discussing at length what hypocrisy really is and isn't. He uses the specific example of how to ask a congregation to give money to the church, and how his own church struggled with whether, and how, to present this idea to "postmoderns," with their cynicism towards marketing. He resolves it this way:
"The truth is that a lot of what we do as a church and as individuals is motivated by an unresolved mixture of both self-interest and the desire to live out our faith. Does this make us hypocrites? The hypocrisy comes when we do not tell the truth about the tensions, to ourselves first and to others." (p. 35)
and again on page 36:
"Can we avoid being hypocrites?... If we preach the Good News of Jesus Christ-- the unconditional love and sacrifice of a Creator for his creation that leads to reconciliation for the world, and that God calls us to live out that unconditional love-- then it is impossible to practice what we preach. By no means should we preach something different; instead, we should understand perfection to be beyond us. Any success at loving God and neighbor only occurs when Christ is acting in us. Postmodern generations understand the inability to completely become the person one desires to be."
After that, he had me. These are things I've thought and talked about... things that made me feel I was at odds with how I'd been raised to look at my faith, and here they are on the page. Russell may not really be describing an entire generation, but he is describing me.
He goes on to chapters addressing attitudes towards evangelism, judgement of the sin of others, involvement with the larger American culture, and attitudes towards politics. In every one of those chapters, I have large sections of text underlined and starred, places where he absolutely nails my own attitudes towards these topics, attitudes that I have felt put something of a wall between myself and my parents, but also between myself and my younger, more conservative brother, not to mention many young, conservative evangelical or Roman Catholic friends (...in fact, there is more of a wall between myself and younger evangelicals and Catholics on these topics than between myself and my parents. At least they were part of the hippie generation and understand, even respect, a certain amount of rebellion.).
Rathbun's concluding chapter gives a transcript of a telephone conversation between himself and his Dad discussing the book. This is what really brought home to me the purpose and value of the book in its simple, anecdotal style. I easily read the book in under 3 hours, and it had the effect of getting my mind turning on the topics without getting bogged down into too much detail... in other words, it got me in the perfect place to start a conversation, and it appears to have done the same for his Dad, as well. In fact, the transcript reminds me quite a bit of conversations that I've had with my own Dad on the same topic, often after my Dad read a blog post that I'd written. Despite my general strong desire to be considered unique, it was really rather nice to think that I had this in common with the author... that this really was a generational dynamic, at least among middle-class white Protestants. :^)
I think the true value of this book is that it provides a quick and easy introduction to some basic theological differences between more "orthodox" theology and that held by many of my generation. It does so without criticizing any particular theological stance or breaking things down too greatly, but it does provide sufficient substance to provide a good foundation for further thought and conversation. I would enthusiastically recommend this to any pastor that is seeking to understand the "innovative" theology of younger folks that she/he ministers (or wishes to minister) to, and who doesn't already have a strong background in the topic.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
"And I say, 'Woe to me, for I have been silent, For a man -- unclean of lips am I, And in midst of a people unclean of lips I am dwelling, Because the King, Jehovah of Hosts, have my eyes seen.' " Isaiah 6:5 (Young's Literal Translation)
So, I have again broken Rule Number One of Blogging: Blog regularly or you'll lose your readers. Yes, kids, it's been about a month since I've written a post, which means I'm probably back down to a readership consisting of my Dad and... my Dad. Oh well, that's ok. I'm fortunate to have him as a faithful reader and I know it.
I haven't been writing, but I have been reading, and thinking, an awful lot. I've recently gone from taking the train everywhere to taking the bus everywhere, in large part because it's far easier to read on the bus than the train. Don't pat me on the back for being a scholar, though... I have a whole bunch of books --mostly popular works on neuroscience (mad props due to Oliver Sacks for the popularization of this genre)-- that were due back at the GMU library on Thursday and I'm kind of trying to race through those, so that's a large part of the motivation.
A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading Dead Aid and went to see Age of Stupid on the same day. I've also been reading Deep Economy by Bill McKibben... well actually I've been on the last chapter for a couple of months and I just can't bear to finish it because it's just been such an unbelievably fantastic read. So let's say I've been carrying Deep Economy around for the last couple of months and percolating on it. There's something happening in my mind around the intersection of these books and the movie that I'm going to try to explain here. And I'm going to fail, largely, but I can't keep stewing on this without taking a shot at writing about it.
As I mentioned a couple of posts back, Dambisa Moyo argues quite persuasively in Dead Aid that aid to sub-saharan Africa is actually preventing African nations from developing, and suggests that the best solution at this point is to notify African leaders that the aid is going to dry up in 5 years, and then to follow through with that. She does a good job of showing in the book how aid hasn't worked, but I was an easy sell on this point. It seems pretty obvious to me as someone who has grown up with images of starving African children and now in my 30s sees the same damn images despite the gazillions of dollars and countless hours of work on the part of development agencies and aid workers that have been poured into the African subcontinent.
However, she builds her argument for how African nations would subsequently thrive on some very questionable assumptions. I'm no economist, but using the example of Chinese investment into oil in Nigeria as an example of how to build an African nation strikes me as being willfully blind to anything but GDP. I found myself growing queasy as I read the last few chapters, and it wasn't just motion sickness from the stop-and-go of the Metrobus in DC traffic. It was that this seemed to be a purely academic exercise for Moyo. I mean, I know it's not, but her argument is based on the assumption that sub-saharan Africa can develop along the same lines as Western nations, using Ye Olde Standard Capitalist Model, and everything will be cool.
Which, frankly, is bullshit.
Age of Stupid refined my thinking on this a bit. The movie stars Pete Postlethwaite as one of the few humans alive in 2050 after the almost total destruction of the world by environmental collapse, looking back at footage from 2005-2008 (the movie uses actual news and documentary footage) to show how we could have prevented what was coming. Obviously, the movie is speculative... we don't know what the world will look like in 2050... but it bases its projections on current, widely accepted models of what will happen environmentally if there isn't a sharp change in how the U.S. and Europe gobble up energy and pollute like fiends. I know there are a lot of people who dispute the notion of global warming, but it really doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that we can't keep living like we're living. Oil is not a renewable resource and we are plowing through what is left at ever-increasing speeds. China and India have 2,478,040,448 people by July 2008 estimates... 37% of the global population of 6,706,993,152 if my math's correct... and they're doing everything they can to catch up with us, including consuming oil, which means plowing through the oil that remains at unimaginably exponential numbers.
So, yeah, it doesn't take a genius to see that our current energy "solution" ain't gonna work forever.
Suggesting that sub-saharan Africa simply hop on the bandwagon by pimping the oil that they have to other nations makes *no* sense to me. If it worked perfectly, it would be a short term solution at best, and Age of Stupid highlights what foreign "investment" in Nigerian oil looks like on the ground right now... impoverished locals who completely fail to benefit from the profits going to foreign companies and corrupt government officials; polluted air and water resulting in even more sickness; the government wiping out villages that protest drilling near their property. Basically, the same cycle as aid, except for the part about governments killing people in order to get free access to their land. Oh yeah, and the polluted water and air.
I'm processing all of this in the context of the challenges that Deep Economy has presented to me. Deep also assumes that capitalism --particularly the capitalism that bases production and shipment of goods on runaway consumption of non-renewable sources of energy-- can't go on as it has indefinitely, but its focus is on the U.S. and on the value of investing in your local community. Again, not a tough sell for me, but it's definitely pushed me to commit more firmly to what I already held as an ideal, to really be where I am. For me, this means I shop at the grocery store that I can walk to and buy my clothes and shoes mostly from a shop run by a woman who lives in the neighborhood, and buy my produce from the Farmer's Market near the metro whenever I can, and take the bus and train everywhere and stuff like that. But those are really kind of surface-y things and the book is pushing me to think deeper about other ways in which I live and relate to my community.
Which brings me to the verse from Isaiah at the top of this post. Everytime I think about how selfishly Americans are taught to use and throw away stuff without thinking about where it came from and where it's going and whether it's fair that the U.S. has 6% of the world population but 34% of the world's wealth, this verse comes to mind. Isaiah is identifying the sin of his people as being in some sense his own sin, and in that way, it made sense that this verse would come to mind... but the specific context of the verse is of Isaiah experiencing his own (and by extension, humanity's) deep impurity in the presence of the living God, not a reflection on how his people were sinning by using up too many of the world's resources or living unjustly. However, when I Googled the passage, I came upon the Young's Literal Translation (which I've set alongside the New American Standard translation I grew up reading), and something went *click*. Isaiah is not only repenting of his impurity, but of his silence.
He's repenting of his silence. In the presence of the Almighty God, Isaiah is moved to repentance not only for his impurity, but for his passivity. He has not done his part in proclaiming the truth revealed to him. As a prophet, he still has not prophesied enough. He has remained silent, when his whole life should have been one giant shout in praise of the Almighty.
I, too, am repenting of my silence... and I live among a silent people. A people who know that they are living in a situation of vast injustice, who know they are living like kings while much of the world lives as paupers, but who can't think of a way to fix it, so they say nothing. It's easy to say nothing when you're not the one suffering, and also when you fail to educate yourself on the consequences of your behavior, both now and in the future. In other words, it's easy to remain silent when you have stuffed your ears and blinded your eyes, because then you have nothing to say.
LORD, open our eyes, our ears, our mouths. Please show Your people how to live in a way that embodies Your justice, and care for the world that you entrusted to us as Your stewards.
And give me the courage to not be silent anymore.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Now presenting (drumroll) SPARK Round 5!!! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the talented and lovely Amy Souza has done it again, bringing together visual artists, writers, and now even MUSICIANS to collaborate and respond to one another's works of art. I had the privilege to collaborate with Jim Doran on this go-round, who wore his musician hat for this collaboration (he is also a visual artist.
Thanks to Amy once again for her hard, hard work on pulling this together. She does all of this by herself and she's not paid. There's a Paypal link on her site... I'm definitely going to drop her a few bucks, and please feel free to do so yourself if you're so inclined.
Monday, September 7, 2009
The train ride between Pittsburgh and DC is a pure delight to me. I’m a big fan of travel on Amtrak as it is, with its comfortable seating, loads of leg room, plenty of restrooms, power outlets by the seats, café car and a windowed observation deck where you can look out on the world (this blog post is not brought to you by Amtrak). This particular trip, however, winds beside a river for most of the trip, and for almost all of the trip, the track passes through forests full of deep green, full-leaved deciduous trees.
So many shades of green!! On a rainy September day like today, the green glows below the soft grey blanket of the sky, dripping rain, and here and there shot through with yellow, orange and red, early hints of the autumn just around the corner.
Between the tree trunks and by the riverside, I catch glimpses of a world tantalizingly untamed. This morning, I have seen 2 blue herons, a white heron, and a wild turkey. In the shadows of the trees, I’ve glimpsed makeshift campsites, pop-up trailers next to small wooden structures that appear both very old and as though they they’re not built to last. I see handpainted no-trespassing signs, the burnt-out remains of a campfire encircled by large rocks in a clearing by the river, and a tiny platform built high in a tree near the tracks, just big enough for the two rusting metal chairs that someone has left there.
What visible human activity I’ve seen this morning has been restricted to a couple of sets of fly fishermen, a man and a boy walking by the river in drab green jackets and flaming orange baseball caps, and a lone hunter scrambling up a steep bank and emerging onto a dirt road. Viewed from above, they look like toy soldiers, small enough to be discarded by a child, left in sandboxes, beside stick-forts built beneath trees, swept under couches, forgotten.
Signs of civilization consist mostly of small farms, tidily situated on cleared off hills or on flatlands in shallow valleys. Earlier, we passed a set of three windmills on a hilltop, like giant white three-armed extraterrestrials, turning slow and ghostly in the morning fog.
Inside the train car, most everyone is still asleep, and the car is silent with the exception of the rumbling of the train and the snoring of the passenger behind me. I sip a (surprisingly decent) cup of coffee from the café car, and blink hard, realizing how my eyes have been strained by trying to take in every detail of the stunning wild beauty of the world outside.
It has been a beautiful morning.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty;
Nor do I involve myself in great matters,
Or in things too difficult for me.
Surely I have composed and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child rests against his mother,
My soul is like a weaned child within me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time forth and forever.
I will say this for Idea Camp, it has definitely made me think… it’s almost been annoying, because I can’t stop wrestling with the elephant-sized questions it raised for me, and like most things I can't let go of, :^) this struggle is going up on the blog.
My hat is off to Charles Lee and his crew for bringing together such a wide assortment of representatives from a variety of different sectors of service. I’m really blown away by the fact that they were able to bring in so many influential people from all over and still hold the conference for free. I am particularly grateful for speakers like Leroy Barber, Mark Horvath, Jenny Hwang, Shannon Moriarty, and Greg Russinger who work very hard on domestic issues such as immigration, homelessness and poverty in the inner cities, and on merging the arts and activism. I really and truly learned from these guys, and I felt jostled –again—to take more seriously my role in my community, and to use the artistic gifts I have for the benefit of my community wherever I can see a role for that. I am, and will be in prayer about these things.
The thing needling at me, though, is the attention given to aid organizations that work overseas. This attention to the suffering of the poor in other countries is utterly familiar to anyone raised in the church, and it tends to be viewed with unquestioning admiration from those not engaged in such service. I would never ever EVER be arrogant enough to criticize the intentions, passion, creativity and dedication of the people devoted to this work. But I sincerely question its long-term effectiveness, and I question the effect that it has had on my generation.
I’ll address the second point first, and I’ll speak for myself here, even though I do know others who have had similar experiences. I had a fascination with the thought of working overseas, and I wanted to do that very badly in my late teens and early 20s. What could be a better way of distributing the privileges I’d been given as a white American than to go to a poor country and give my time towards helping them fix their problems? But also, what could better assuage my guilt and my feelings of helplessness towards the problems of race, class discrimination and poverty in my own country? What would be a more effective veil for the fact that I grew up without much money than to go to a country where they really had nothing?
Really, I had plenty of energy around wanting to help the poor... within the American concept of such things, I had grown up poor. The thought of helping to lift others out of a far bleaker poverty with my tiny pool of resources – the thought that I actually HAD privilege and with it some measure of power to assist someone else— was exhilarating. I could help someone!! I could really HELP someone!! And I could travel, too!! And, unlike the African-Americans I’d gone to high school with, these folks wouldn’t automatically put a mark in the negative column because I was white.
I was wrong about the last thing. Racial discrimination and white privilege are global, a nauseating legacy of colonial policies that privileged lighter-skinned members of the occupied nation. I was wrong about a lot, actually, but I didn’t get the opportunity at the time to find out how much more I was wrong about because circumstances kept me from going anywhere other than England, an experience that I loved, but which is absolutely unimpressive to mission-minded church folks.
I was bitter for a long time about this. I wanted a badge that said “I want to help the Third World, but I’m broke, too”. I wanted a chance to explain to people that my I also got tears in my eyes when I saw pictures and videos of emaciated folks with empty eyes. I felt deeply guilty over their situation. I felt it personally. I wanted to hug and cry with all of them. All of them. Really. I would have sold my possessions to pay off my debt and go help, but my possessions weren’t worth all that much. Supporting two Compassion kids kind of helped assuage my hunger to help (and it was like a physical hunger), but not really.
It’s a cruel dichotomy, really. My financial situation was mostly the result of bad luck and a lot of dumb but well meaning decisions, both mine and those of multiple family members for generations. I felt that the rich kids, who had always had everything anyway, also got to be the heroes. They also got to be honored and respected for their concern for the poor, for their “selfless” service in poor foreign countries. It was the weirdest dynamic that I lived in for the longest time, this blind, numbing jealousy of feeling that my economic status denied me even the privilege of selflessness, and that my race denied me the privilege of having visibly overcome the odds against me. I worked my ass off, and I struggled, and I really really wanted to make the world a better place, and nobody noticed. I’ve written about this before, but I really can’t stress how much this view of things had a hold of me.
Thankfully, I got a lucky break that changed everything. I got to teach English as a Second Language at Truro Church, and I got to put all that love and desire to help on to my students. That volunteer teaching helped me get a job as an admin assistant in the International Student Office at GMU, and I turned all that love and frustration and longing onto the students I helped. My position at GMU allowed me to get a Masters Degree for free, so I studied Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and turned all of that longing to be allowed to help the developing world into study of the conflicts that had shaped affairs in those countries.
And you know what I learned in that Masters Degree and in that 6 ½ years of service to students from all over the planet? I learned that people in the developing world are generally grateful for the money, but they want to solve their own problems. They have the intelligence and resourcefulness. For all of my longing to help, I can’t hold a candle to the ingenuity and problem-solving capacity of many of the students I met. Their personalities were forged in circumstances that required much more of them than mine required of me, and it shows.
More than that, though, they, and they alone, truly understand the dynamics of the cultural, economic, and political problems in their countries. Although they appreciate the desire of individual people to help, they cannot help but see the disproportionate use of American and European resources to fix their country’s problems as a desire for control of their country, and I honestly don’t blame them. To be fair, if I saw a regular flow of folks and money from South Asia coming to try to solve the problems of the inner-city DC, Chicago, or Atlanta, I would seriously question their motivation, too. How could they possibly understand what was going on? What, really, could they be after but a desire to influence the affairs of my country?
Which brings me to Dambisa Moyo, a woman who has written a powerful book, Dead Aid, that has probably pissed off a lot of people. I was 13th on the waiting list for this book at the Arlington Central Library, so suffice to say her ideas have gotten people's attention. I haven’t read the whole book, but the central argument is that western aid to sub-saharan Africa has had the opposite of the intended effect. Ms. Moyo doesn’t pull her punches. In the section “The foreign aid agenda of the 2000s: the rise of glamour aid,” she writes the following after mentioning the role of Bob Geldof and Bono in promoting the interests of the African poor to heads of state around the world:
“Scarcely does one see Africa’s (elected) officials or those African policymakers charged with the development portfolio offer an opinion on what should be done, or what might actually work to save the continent from its regression. This very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment and chagrin of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa. One disastrous consequence of this has been that honest, critical and serious dialogue and debate on the merits and demerits of aid have atrophied. As one critic of the aid model remarked, ‘my voice can’t compete with an electric guitar’.” p. 27
You can almost hear the slap across the faces of all the well-meaning Americans and Europeans who have tried to help. I’m sure there are well thought out counter-arguments against her (I found this as soon as I Googled her book), but right now I’m just sitting with her assertion. I’m thinking of what I’ve learned over the past 9 years since I’ve been in DC. I’m thinking of the guilt and frustration I put myself through over not being able to pursue my “dream”… and I’m thinking of how often I found myself squirming this weekend at Idea Camp, how often I wanted to stand up and say “hold ON a minute… how are you so sure this is what God wants from you??”
I’m not sure I’m right, either, but I think it’s high time for the church to question the wisdom of idolizing those who go overseas to “help”. Where are the voices of the African, Indian, Chinese, and South American Christians (and I am intentionally not adding a “-American” after those adjectives)? What do they really want from the American church? What do they really think of the money that goes into the charities sent to assist them? What do they think of the people who parachute into their societies for a couple of weeks or months to build a well or a house? I’m very supportive of the models used by, for example, the Mennonites, who do believe in sending people for years to become part of the community, and who do not proselytize, but I have to ask the question even of that model… what do the local folks think of them?
This is a long post, and I have no answers. Sorry if that’s frustrating, but thanks for reading this far if you have.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Still, it was $100 I didn't have, on the credit card I'd promised Patrick --my long-suffering friend and financial conscience/muse/confessor-- I wouldn't use anymore. Moreover, I'd promised myself to forget about the sale at Shoefly, and had duly taken my work laptop and Blue Boy, the sole piece of fiction I'd allowed myself in awhile, to Java Shack to spend the day reading and doing work. Trouble with that is Java Shack --a good local business that supports other good local businesses-- was covered with hot-pink flyers screaming about the sale. I told myself I wouldn't go. I spent 3 1/2 hours devouring the last 150 pages of Blue Boy, hoping this would make me forget. And at the end of that 3 1/2 hours, I sighed with contentment at the book's final, beautiful sentence, put my dirty glass in the bin beside the cash register, picked up my laptop case, and headed straight for Shoefly, almost knocking into people as I went.
So, standing outside of Shoefly with my laptop case, my beloved big, heavy orange shoulder bag, and a plastic bag bursting with $100 worth of shoes I couldn't really afford, Lonnie's suggestion that we spend the evening at the Potter's House at an open mic for recovering addicts and homeless folks felt kind of a like a knife in the gut. "Have you heard of Potter's House before?", he asked in his yoga-instructor-mellow voice. "Uh, yeah," I said, feeling a slow wave of rising resentment. Why was this coming now? Just moments ago I'd been animatedly chatting with the women in the shop about the shiny red shoes I'd just bought for a steal. Now I felt the full incongruity of that with the evening I was being offered. I told him I'd go home, figure out the bus schedule, and give him a call back.
Heading for the most direct way home, I was stopped by a police officer with a dog on a leash... "Go back, ma'am!! Go back!!" he yelled, gesturing wildly with his free arm. I scurried away with my huge bags, passing a family standing randomly in the middle of the street photographing a teenaged kid holding an electric guitar. A block away, I asked a female officer standing on the corner what was up. "We're looking for a black man with a mohawk," she said. It was official... I had dropped into an episode of Twin Peaks. I asked if the longer way I took home was ok, which she confirmed.
I trudged up to Highland Ave., the new shoes I'd stupidly put on before leaving the store digging into the backs of my feet. This was ok when taking the shorter way home, but the way I was taking was going to add another 10 minutes... quite long when wearing a brand new pair of shoes. By the time I got home, passing another cop car on what I assumed was the outer boundary of the Search For The Mohawked Black Man, I had bled all over the heel of one shoe. This seemed a fitting exclamation point to the mantra Lonnie's call had started in my head. "Your actions don't match your intentions, Moff. When are you going to learn?"
Flipping through my mail, I saw yet another letter from one of the two Compassion kids I sponsor. I don't open these anymore... they make me want to cry just looking at the outside of them. I never write these kids. One of them, a girl in Ethiopia, I've been sponsoring for 10 years. Why don't I write her? Because I feel pathetic doing so... what do I have to say to her? What in the world could she think of this person who maybe writes her once a year, always apologizing for not writing more? The pictures they send to me of her always look so sad, and I can feel the question behind her eyes: "Why are you bothering? Who ARE you? Why did God bless you with the money and not me?"
Tossing my mail on the table with a gesture of Bourgeois WASPy faux-existentialist Self-Loathing, the bag from Shoefly caught my eye, bathed in sunlight in the middle of the living room floor like some sort of modern art centerpiece. I eyed it with a mixture of longing and nausea.
Then I thought "I'm feeling longing and nausea while looking at a bag of shoes. Time for a nap."
So I laid down and pushed my face into the pillow, giving myself a little pep talk about going to the Potter's House. I would take the bus. I like the bus. It would be like a little trip into a cool DC neighborhood. I would read my book. It would be ok. People wouldn't automatically look at me, point, scream "Fake!", and beat me with copies of The Catholic Worker. It would be ok.
As it turns out, The Potters House is a really cool bookstore/coffee house with a very nice assortment of books for Guilty White Pomo-Christians such as myself. I bought a cup of chai tea (no milk) and a chocolate chip cookie, and settled into the corner to wait for Lonnie and to continue reading Sway, the book I'd started on the bus. And it was cool. No one appeared to have pegged me as A Fake. No one chucked any form of social justice media in my general direction. It was cool.
And it stayed that way. My time visiting with Lonnie was a challenge, but not because he made it that way for me. Not at all. He and I met at an emerging church conference in Albuquerque this past March that Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren set up as a way of getting Catholics and Emergent folks to talk. Lonnie is a community organizer, a passionate idealist, and a mystic who takes week-long hikes by himself in the backcountry of Yellowstone eating nothing but Power Bars, and who lived for a year in a Buddhist monastery in north India, teaching English to Buddhist nuns and learning more about how to pray. In other words, he's pretty freaking amazing. More than that, though, Lonnie is very present in the moment, but gently so. Being around him is a little bit like having someone stroke your hair. I calmed down a bit. I felt like things would be alright. His centeredness opened a bit of a door, an invitation for me to reflect more deeply than I normally allow (and he patiently put up with my immediate externalization of that all over him by asking him a jillion questions about life, the universe, and everything).
As the evening progressed and we chatted between musical acts and poets (who were all fantastic... this was one of the best open mics I've ever been to, made up almost entirely of former addicts, and almost all of them doing original material), I felt more and more like... this is going to sound weird... kind of like how I feel when I smell a mimosa tree in the summer. My Grandmother's house had a big mimosa tree out front, with its strange, sea-creature-esque pink blossoms with their fruity-sweet-tangy smell. There are few smells in nature that I love as much as the smell of a mimosa tree, and there are few smells that bring back such a strong sense of myself as a kid.
Talking to Lonnie was like smelling mimosa. I remember having spiritual practices, trying to meditate, spending long hours in isolation at Madonna House, trying to pray. I remember the longing I used to have for a just world, and how deeply I wanted to work for a development agency overseas to try and do something about the inequity of resources in the world. I remember never buying new clothes and the peace that came from knowing I wasn't wasting my money. I remember feeling like I was living the right way, so much so that I never, ever had to point it out to anyone else.
I also remember that it was never enough. Despite the times of peace, I always felt the razor's edge of how my consumption was still too much, and the sharp bitterness at the knowledge that my student debt enslaved me to have a "good" job, or at least something close to it. I remember the doubt mixed in with the peace, because my job wasn't that good, and there was always one more gigantic, unforseen expense --the car would break down, or the root of my freaking front tooth broke (I still don't know how), or I wanted to go on a trip to see a friend. Money, hundreds and thousands of dollars of it, evaporated. And my debt remained, going down in the tiniest of increments. It became necessary to have credit cards to cover the big debts, and those debts became bigger over time.
So last night was about remembering the sweetness of my idealism while in the presence of Lonnie, and in the presence of all of these gifted musicians and poets with their beautiful words and melodies and voices, with faces pocked and lined with the effects of their former lives. I saw myself with them, not an addict in the way they'd been, but as another person scrambling around in the forest and trying to find the path, another one who gets knocked off that path so easily sometimes, as often by my own force as I try to hurl myself down it as from any external source. In the presence of so many witnesses --the broken who were now redeemed (if still broken) and Lonnie, who has sacrificed a lot to live as he thinks right but who seems to have quite a lot of peace-- that seemed possible.
We all have to start somewhere.
We all need forgiving.