Friday, December 18, 2009

Truth Changes Everything

Part of the reason I started this blog and invited my friends to join me on this adventure is that whatever our differences our common bond is that we are seekers of truth. Interestingly enough what the older three among us have found on our journey thus far, and perhaps the younger one as well I just haven't talked to her about this so I'm hoping she'll comment, is that being a seeker of truth is not an easy task. The Bible says in John 8:32 that "You (we) shall know the truth and the truth will make you free." It has been my experience thus far though that before it makes you free, it will first make you thoroughly miserable.

I think this is why Jesus makes those strange statements about turning "a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law a man's enemies will be the members of his own household." That's in Matthew 10 by the way and also in Micah 7. Its not a curse. Its a statement of what happens when one member in a family starts to seek truth and finds that it doesn't match with the traditions in which one has been raised.

Truth changes everything.

Lets take the most immediate example. Christmas. I enjoy Christmas. I cherish our family's Christmas traditions. I grew up reading the first chapter of Luke on Christmas eve before bed and I incorporate much of what I grew up with in my traditions now.

Where I get tripped up and made miserable by the truth of Christmas is in knowing that it is highly unlikely that Jesus was born in the winter, and knowing that the date on which we observe Christmas is a pagan holiday co-opted by the Church. Knowing all this it frustrates me greatly to see people get all upset and start fighting over "keeping Christ in CHRISTmas" or over being told "Happy Holidays" as if Christianity is the only world religion that has a major holiday during this time of year. I hate to see emotional energy that would far better be invested in following Jesus example wasted on untruth. The truth is that Christmas isn't Jesus birthday and He is only the "reason for the season" in the same sense that He is the reason for every other day of the year(In him we live and move and have our being). The truth is that He cares more about how we care for the least among us all the time than about how much pomp and pageantry we can create to celebrate His "birthday" within the walls of our multi-million dollar stained-glass enclaves.

I am coming to the belief that Mega-Churches are a blight on the world. I don't say that to cast aspersion on those who found Jesus through the ministries of a Mega-Church or on those who worship at a Mega-Church. I live in that glass house still so I can't afford to throw stones. Its just that I don't think we were ever supposed to be so consumed with maintaining an array of programs and a physical plant that we no longer seem to care about what happens to the people that actually ARE the church.

I'm less a fan of CCM than I once was but there is a song by a group called Acapella Vocal Band (AVB) on their album "What's Your Tag Say?" that resonates with me more and more as I continue to seek out the truth of how this whole Christian Life thing was probably intended to be done. It was called "U can't Go 2 Church". The chorus makes the point:

You can't go to church as some people say
The common terminology we use everyday
You can go to a building, that is something you can do
But you can't go to church 'cause the church is you
'Cause the church is you

Our traditional understanding would have us believe that those of us who have opted out of going to a designated building are somehow "forsaking the church". The truth is that as long as we haven't stopped spending time with other believers and we haven't stopped working out our own salvation with fear and trembling (to paraphrase Paul) then we haven't forsaken the church. We ARE the church. These buildings and other trappings that we call the church came directly out of Roman paganism. That truth, while setting me free to explore other possibilities for ways and places to worship in spirit and in truth, offends the stuffing out of a lot of people.

The fact is that freedom scares people. Truth leads to freedom and that leads to resistance from people who are afraid to be free. Who prefer the safety of tradition to the risk of seeking truth. Truth changes everything.

So my friends, readers and co-authors, how has seeking truth "rocked your world" recently? Comments?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Proverbs 27:6 - Know who your friends are

Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful. - Proverbs 27:6 NKJV

In recovering from the abuse that I have experienced at the hands of people who were supposed to be not only my best friends but also my Christian brothers and sisters I have begun to evaluate the misunderstandings and twisting of certain scriptures that seem to allow and enable this kind of behavior to occur. The one that immediately comes to mind is Proverbs 27:6, referenced above. In my opinion the book of Proverbs is one of the most consistently misapplied portions of all scripture and much of what is extracted from it is abusive and hurtful and misses the point entirely. Such is the case of of Proverbs 27:6.

In my experience only the first half of this verse ever gets quoted. "Faithful are the wounds of a friend" and as far as it goes this is true. One of the gifts of friendship is the ability of those we trust as friends to speak truths into our lives that may at the time be painful to hear but that are necessary for our good. What happens though when we leave off the second half of this verse is that we get a skewed message. "The kisses of an enemy are deceitful" seems obvious enough but if you read the two together the picture that emerges to my eyes is one of needing to discern who are our friends and who are our enemies. Most of us aren't going to let known enemies kiss us but most of us WILL let "brothers and sisters in Christ" wound us because we somewhat automatically assume them to be our friends. It is this assumption that allows this verse to become a weapon in the hands of those in every church body who are wolves in sheep's clothing. I have to wonder if the second half of this verse wasn't intended as a prescriptive reminder to be aware that our enemies sometimes come to us with deceitful kisses pretending to be our friends. That all who claim to be our friends aren't worthy of that title and the trust that accompanies it.

That has been my experience in recent months. Finding that those I thought were my closest friends were not who they appeared to be. Learning that the kisses of an enemy are deceitful and realizing that sometimes the deceit is that the enemy is a friend. And yet too often we are taught a boundary-less Christianity that allows and enables this very thing. Misuse of verses such as this one are a part of that.

Much of this blog, sadly, has been about abuse the various authors have experienced at the hands of the church. It would be very easy to dismiss the whole thing as the ranting of people with issues. I challenge my readers, and my co-authors, not to do that. I believe we are the voice of the silent sufferers that are within every congregation too intimidated to speak of their experiences publicly. I believe this because I hear their stories told in whispers week in and week out. I believe it because I have experienced it first hand this year when my grief over what I was seeing happening at my own church was misinterpreted and twisted to be disrespect for the pastor and the fact that others also saw it as I did was twisted to be the result of my sowing discontent. I still shake my head in shocked horror at how that all transpired. I still wonder weekly why I stick it out and stay when I have other options that would be so much easier.

The long and short of it is that I love my church. I still have hope that it can be turned from the path it is on and I guess someone has to be that voice crying in the wilderness and apparently its my turn. I am wiser now though. I don't presume that everyone who I interact with there is my friend. I know who my friends are. They are the ones who have stood by me and held me up this year and for them I am grateful beyond measure. I think this is the challenge within Proverbs 27:6 not that we accept wounds from everyone who chooses to come against us but that we become wise enough to know who our friends are and to know when we are being deceived by the kisses of an enemy. The wounds of a friend ARE faithful. The kisses of an enemy ARE deceitful. Knowing which is which is wisdom.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Two Weeks Until Christmas Begins

I'm going to make a confession here. Christmas is NOT my favorite time of year. I suffer from seasonal depression and pretty much everything between Halloween and St. Patrick's Day takes effort for me to be fully present in much less enjoy. This used to bother me. Then I found out a few things about myself and about Christmas and now it doesn't bother me so much anymore.

Contrary to what the "christian world" seems to believe based on the way we carry on about people saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" December 25th is NOT Jesus' Birthday. We don't know precisely when Christ was born but most responsible scholarship agrees that it was not in the middle of December. December 25th is a pagan holiday co-opted by the Catholic Church hundreds of years ago. Which is not to say I think celebrating it is a bad thing. I am all for celebrating the coming of the light of the world, especially in the dark part of the year that makes me so irrationally sad. I simply refuse to get caught up in the guilt machine that has grown up around that celebration. Its just that this preparation time isn't exciting to me. But then again neither are the last few weeks of pregnancy. Perhaps that is the point of Advent. The waiting isn't supposed to be the main event. The waiting is just that. Waiting. Preparing. Nesting. Getting ready. And just as the last few weeks of my pregnancy made me tired and grumpy, well, so does this part of the Holiday season. And I am finally OK with that.

Last year was the first time I consciously slowed down enough to observe these things about myself. What I found was that for me the feelings that I hear others wax poetic about regarding the Christmas season don't seem to come before the day itself. There are exceptions. Hanukkah for one.

A few years ago we added a basic observance of Hanukkah to our holiday celebration. Hanukkah begins at sundown tonight. There is some scholarship that indicates that the Christ was conceived during Hanukkah, the light of the world entering the womb of the virgin during the festival of lights seems to me like the sort of poetic thing that God would do. Adding this observance has helped me a great deal. It brings focus that the light is coming again. The darkness will not last forever. Advent does this as well but sometimes that observance can become as much a burden as a blessing with all the alms calendars and church events that we seem determined to fill up the waiting with. Our Hanukkah observations are simple. We light the candles, we play dreidel, we eat chocolate. We read about the miracle of the lights. I have been criticized for this practice because we are not ethnically or religiously Jewish. I am not attempting to be. I am simply observing a festival that the Christ himself likely observed and allowing it to bring joy to a time that for me is not usually joyful.

Christmas itself is a time of certain obligations. They are family obligations and not burdensome but they are obligations still. We are expected to travel. We are expected to spend the entire day and evening primarily with the extended family. We are expected to exchange gifts. We are expected to juggle the schedules of over 2 dozen people so that no one gets slighted. Its a lot of work. Worth it? Yes of course but it is still work. This year, with finances tighter than they have ever been, it is hard to generate the enthusiasm of previous less lean years. It is two weeks until Christmas and not only is the tree not up but the embroidery machine is in the spot where it is supposed to go. And I have work to be done so moving the machine is not yet an option. There may not be a tree this year. If there is it may not go up until just before we leave for the holiday.

My husband and I commented often over the past decade when most of our Christmas vacations included a 3 day youth trip called "Breakthru" that it really didn't "feel like Christmas" until we arrived at Camp Summatanga. We noticed last year, when Breakthru was no longer on the schedule, that what finally "felt like Christmas" to us was the annual reunion of my classmates from High School that always happens within a day or two after the holiday itself. From that observation came an accidental celebration of the "12 Days of Christmas" that has become hugely meaningful to me and that is what I am truly looking forward to this year.

The 12 days of Christmas isn't just some strange song. Its a period of time in the church year between Christmas Day and Epiphany (January 6th) and it, not the days of Advent which were more for reflection and preparation, is when the holiday part of Christmas was observed. I'm still learning about the associated traditions but for us what it is becoming is the time that we get to celebrate the season free of anyone else's expectations of us. It also helps with the "post Christmas let down" that some of my more conventional friends seem to experience. My husband typically takes vacation for a couple of weeks right here at the end of the year. We have the luxury of time that we don't normally have in his workaday world. Our "bonus children" are usually home from school so it is an ideal time to spend celebrating with them. Most of the holiday stuff in Memphis stays up and open until New Years at least but the crowds are much smaller after the big day than they were before.

Its two weeks until Christmas. We're in the waiting. I don't like waiting. On December 25th the party really begins. On the first day of Christmas.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Days of Infamy

Today is "Pearl Harbor Day", the event in American history that generated the famous quote "a day which will live in infamy". I hope to take nothing from that greatest generation with my ponderings and contemplations today. You see I think there are and have been many days of infamy. I have a few in my own life, that for me personally are days of infamy. Everyone I know does. When we're trying to spiritualize them we call them "attacks from the enemy" or if we want to make ourselves overly responsible for them we can call them "flesh acts" as we did in one of my religion classes in graduate school. When we're trying to capitalize upon them and use them to motivate ourselves or others we call them "defining moments". Sometimes in our desire to "overcome" we do everything in our power to minimize and deny those days. We tell ourselves that we need to get over them and move on. We engage in all kinds of mental gymnastics to deal with these events but like similar events in the larger world ultimately they are the days that we can point to and say that event, that hurt, that betrayal, that pain...that changed everything.

I'd venture to say that each of my co-authors has their own collection of days of infamy, some of which lead are what us to our unconventional brand of Christianity in the first place. I wonder what would happen in our Churches if such days of infamy were not met with cliches and platitudes but rather with validation.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

World AIDS Day - The NAMES Ceremony

Today, December 1, 2009, is World AIDS Day. I was invited by my friend Skip, who I hope will soon be joining us as a contributor, to participate in a new event in conjunction with the Marker Project the first Shelby County World AIDS Day NAMES Ceremony. This was probably the single most powerful memorial for those lost to the battle against HIV/AIDS that I have ever seen.

Standing in the bitter cold with the AIDS markers ever in view, dozens and dozens of readers from every segment of our community, read aloud the first names of all 2,911 children, women and men that Shelby County has lost to AIDS since the epidemic began being tracked in 1983. The diversity of backgrounds, organizations and denominations represented gives me hope that we are finally turning the corner on the dark times when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was such that its victims were often forced into the margins of society and when the fear of it was so great that children could be born and die with it spending their entire brief lives never having known the comfort of being held and loved and touched. We simply didn't know any better in those dark early days.

I started out the day inflating balloons. Nearly 100 red balloons commemorating those who have been lost and a single white one, symbolizing hope. Jessica found herself on the stage, and anyone who knows her knows how far outside her comfort zone that placed her, handing those balloons to each reader as they finished speaking so that each one could be released into the Memphis sky. At some point late in the event Skip invited me to read. I don't know whose absence I filled but I am thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of this both behind the scenes and behind the podium.

When I took the podium I dedicated my portion of the reading to the memory of my four friends, Jeff, Charlie, Mike and Robert who though not from Shelby County also died of AIDS. As I read down the first page I was stunned nearly to tears to encounter each of those four names recorded there was well. When I was done I took the red balloon from Jessica and walked out into the lawn. As I released it I whispered softly, "I love you Jeff. I miss you." and I watched it make its way slowly skyward.

I can't even begin to explain how it feels to be among a congregation of people that understands and has compassion for those who are impacted by HIV/AIDS in this county, in this country. For the first time in nearly 15 years, since I lost Jeff, I didn't feel like I was grieving alone. The difference is astonishing.

We as a family will be continuing to visit First Baptist Memphis and exploring the possibility that God is moving us toward a change of churches. From what I have seen thus far of their spirit of acceptance to some of the most marginalized among us I am hopeful. We knew a year ago that this would be a season change, we are wondering now if this is the change we saw then. We'll keep you posted as we explore this path.