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Bridge to Nowhere

Last night, I was on Twitter discussing the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission Summit.  Unsurprisingly, there is still a lot of ignorance in the Southern Baptist Convention about LGBTQ people and issues.  I won’t waste time quoting the worst of it; you can easily search for it if you’re that curious.

What I found interesting was the ensuing discussion about building bridges.  Just the term building bridges is often so loaded that it can be hard to have a conversation about it.  It’s been used to mean everything from asking LGBTQ Christians to make the first move to progressive Christians who won’t take a firm stand but want dialogue to liberal Christian allies sharing the burden for reconciliation.  There’s disagreement on all sides about whether any or all of those things are good.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been much of a bridge-builder.  I’m pretty fierce when it comes to standing with those I love.  When I was new to blogging about these things, I was in a much darker place than I am now.  I was immersed in a church culture that seemed intentionally unloving towards LGBTQ people while putting on a good face.  There was nothing in me that wanted to bring people together—I wanted them to change their minds!

To an extent, I still feel that way.  But now, I also believe it’s my responsibility to use my perceived privilege to reach out to people who might not be sure how to take that next step.  I’m still not convinced that “I don’t care if you’re gay, but you shouldn’t be in a relationship” is terribly loving.  In fact, I’m sure it’s not.  On the other hand, I don’t need to be hostile about it, either.  That’s the point at which I will do more good affirming people’s humanity than arguing my point.

With all of that said, there are some people who will never be able to have rational conversations about any kind of sexuality.  Their condescension, moral superiority complexes, and outright hate prevent any kind of dialogue.  It is impossible to claim, “But I love gay people!” while looking down your nose disapprovingly.  The sorts of people who would compare being gay to rape or who would deliver entire sermons outlining the finer points of gay sex for the shock value or whose gag reflexes are tripped by gay people are not the sort whose table I want to sit at.

I’m not the only one.  I enjoyed tweeting with Rachel Held Evans and Ben Moberg (as always; they are good people), and we had this exchange (it’s hard to read, so the text appears below):

TweetRachel Held Evans: And yet, in spite of all the misinformation etc. I sense a desire for grace from #erlcsummit. How do we build bridges? I really don’t know.

Ben Moberg: @rachelheldevans I’m unsure if we want a bridge going there.

Me: @Runaway_Writes @rachelheldevans I really kind of don’t. This is one case where THEY need to be the bridge-builders.

I’m in favor of working things out.  I may not agree with some of my more conservative fellow Christians, but there can be thoughtful conversations.  These people, though?  They need to make the first move.  It can’t always be us, LGBTQ people and allies.  And it absolutely cannot, under any circumstances, be them reaching out their hands beckoning us to join them.  We’ve done that for far too long.  If they want peace and reconciliation, it’s going to be on our terms, on our side of the divide.  They need to ask for a seat at our table.

These men (let’s be honest; even the women who agree with them have very little authority here) have acknowledged that they’ve lost the culture war.  Now they’re going after other Christians who disagree with them, and most of us just aren’t buying it anymore.  Ultimately, unless they decide to take those steps, they are going to find themselves alone on their island of hate, shouting to no one.  It’s up to them to decide if that’s what they really want.  If it isn’t, the rest of us reasonable people will be over here living our lives, ready to welcome them home if they choose to cross the sea.

Flesh and Blood

The first time I remember hating my body, I was nine.

Oh, I don’t think I put it exactly in those terms.  It was more the certainty that I didn’t look like other girls.  I was short, for one thing, even at that age.  I was rounder, too, than my classmates.  I’ve seen pictures of myself in fourth grade, and I wasn’t even what adults would have semi-affectionately termed “chubby.”  But I wasn’t skinny, and for whatever reason, my peers latched onto that insecurity and spent the next several years calling me fat.  Taunting me about my hips and thighs.  Pinching me to show where I could “lose a few pounds.”

People say that girls today learn those lessons earlier than in previous generations.  No, they don’t.

When I reached high school and chose to reinvent myself through conservative evangelical religiosity, I thought I’d found a place where I wouldn’t be judged on my body.  How very wrong I was.

Instead of using beauty as the standard by which  I was judged, it became “godliness.”  I lost track of the number of times some well-meaning person asked me if I “really needed to eat that.”  It didn’t actually matter what I was eating; I could have eaten anything and I still would’ve been asked.  No one said it to my skinny friends under any circumstances.

As shaming as that was, that wasn’t the worst of it.  It was the way in which preaching spoke of “the flesh” as a dirty, evil thing that must be overcome.  I learned that my body was bad—not bad merely for being the wrong shape but bad because it wanted things.

In that graceless spiritual bubble, the mind, the body, and the spirit were disconnected.  The body had sinful desires to overcome.  The mind had sinful thoughts to overcome.  But the spirit was of God and trumped all of our sinful nature if we prayed and asked Jesus in to fix our broken humanity.

I’m sure some of my conservative evangelical peers must be saying, “It’s not like that!”  Perhaps it isn’t, for them.  Maybe they didn’t already go into faith believing they were broken simply by virtue of existence.  Or maybe they just can’t see it even though it’s right there in front of them.

It never occurred to me to medicate my shame.  Food, substance use, sex, even suicide—none of those were options because they were all “temptations” to be deal with through prayer and reading the Bible.  I didn’t touch drugs or alcohol or cigarettes because that would have been fleshly sin.  Eating the wrong things or in the wrong way was sin, too.  I stayed away from boys just in case my body betrayed my spirit and wanted more than hand-holding and innocent pecks on the cheek.

None of that stopped my body from wanting things, of course.  I used to hide my Easter chocolate in my room and make it last for six months by eating just a tiny bit at a time.  I would nibble, and then I would feel guilty—both for hiding and for eating.  Chocolate was sinful for bodies like mine.  I wasn’t disciplined enough.

I made sure I was covered, not out of modesty, but out of hiding.  It functioned both ways, though, and I was safe from the bodily sin of “causing my brother to stumble” in lust.  Not that I believed for even a moment that any boys were looking at me that way; I knew they all liked pretty girls with skinny waists and big boobs.  Privately, I could barely admit to myself that I wanted someone to look at me that way.

My language was clean, at least on the outside.  I pretended to be outraged once on a trip with some other Christian teens.  A boy from another city said “shit.”  I joined the others in telling him that wasn’t God’s best.  Secretly, it gave me a thrill to hear such a word on the lips of the faithful.  I wished I were that brave, but I felt ashamed for it.

I monitored my thoughts to make sure I wasn’t harboring resentment, anger, or lust.  There was a boy I liked.  I imagined what it would feel like to kiss him, maybe to have his hands on me.  But I remembered that I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about that.  I never asked him out because I was afraid both my body and my mind would betray me.

Alone at night, sometimes, I touched myself, all the time trying not to think about anything so I wouldn’t be guilty of lusting.  Except the very act of giving myself pleasure seemed to fall into that category—not to mention the impossibility of keeping my mind blank, separate from my body.  Orgasm and guilt became inextricably linked.

Everything was about overcoming the “desires of the flesh,” emptying myself of me so that I could be filled with the Holy Spirit.  The more Spirit-filled I was, the closer to God.  If I just let Jesus in far enough, he could make all the things my body—and my mind—wanted go away, replaced only by the desire to love and serve God in near-perfect holiness.

It didn’t work.

Instead, it left a gaping, dripping wound, a hole in the place where I should have been.  I tried harder and harder to not sin, convinced I was broken somehow for not having the faith in God to keep me from doing the things a Good Girl doesn’t do.  So I prayed harder, confessed more, and begged God to make me just not feel.

That did work.  In the wrong way.

A door closed, locked, bolted.  But instead of keeping my spirit safe from my own mind and body, it kept me from feeling much of anything for anyone else.  And it didn’t stop my body or my mind from their natural inclinations; it only served to prove they needed to be separated.

I want to open that door again, but I think I’m afraid that what I unleash will be very much like Elsa in Frozen, setting off an eternal winter.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.

Slowly, slowly, I’m unfastening the chains.  I let myself cry with someone from church who was feeling a deep, heavy hurt.  I asked after several friends coping with fresh grief.  It felt good to allow their pain in.

If only I could let mine out.

World Vision and Unmasking Priorities

So, this happened.  World Vision is now allowing married gay Christians (and unmarried gay Christians willing to agree to WV’s policy of abstinence until marriage) to serve in the organization.

As you can probably guess, I’m behind this as a step forward.  Is it perfect?  No.  I’m not a champion of abstinence until marriage (and really, are they so sure their employees are all waiting anyway?).  I also understand that this prevents couples in any state not recognizing legal same-sex marriages from employment, since that’s the specific parameter.  I understand the implications that WV appears to be endorsing a heteronormative view of relationships (that’s a whole other discussion).  But in the Christian world, this is huge.

Which, of course, means that the backlash has been huge.  And that’s what I was thinking about when I woke up this morning to see that my friends had linked to several articles, tweets, and blog posts in which WV has been accused of deception, “empowering the darkness,” embracing “the world” (Christianese for “stuff the church considers wrong in society”), presenting a false gospel, and more.  People have questioned whether they should withdraw support or discontinue sponsoring a child through WV.  Lots and lots of people have expressed being “sad” about WV’s change in policy.

To which I say: Wow, people have messed up priorities.

Nothing reveals the true values of people more than asking them how they feel about anything related to same-sex marriage.  Almost no one says, “I don’t really care; whatever.”  The vast majority of people have one view or the other–that it ought to be legal universally or it ought to be banned or called something else so as not to mess with the “official” definition of marriage.

It would be awfully nice if it were a non-issue, but it isn’t, certainly not when people are expressing horror and outrage at WV’s comparatively innocuous change in policy.  I mean, come on, people.  WV did not suddenly announce that they have adopted a policy of beating small children or setting forest fires or shooting sub-par employees or drowning puppies.  All they did was say they’re going to hire gay people.

How about we get back to protesting something that actually matters for a change?  Because honestly, the only reason it makes a difference whether WV hires gay people is if you think being gay and/or being in a same-sex marriage is worse than acts of harm and violence.  It only matters if you think same-sex relationships are more terrible social ills than poverty.

Yesterday, I posted a link on Facebook to a good review of the movie Frozen.  (I promise, this is related.)  A family member joked that I must not be worried that watching it will turn my kids gay.  I replied that I wasn’t, but even if it did, I didn’t care.  I suspect that’s the real fear—that gay missionaries are going to somehow turn the world gay.

I suppose my question, then, is this:  Who cares?  Which is more important—telling people about God’s love and providing people with food and clean water, or making sure no one is threatened by the presence of gay people?  I guess maybe my own priorities are messed up because I sure prefer the former.

And if my kids somehow turn gay* because they’ve been around gay people or watched “gay” (by that I mean “things people accuse of being gay”) movies, so what?  That just means both the church and the gay community get two more awesome members, ’cause everyone knows my kids are the best and anyone would be lucky to have ‘em.

Let go of the warped idea that a small subset of the population is looking to colonize the world and plant their rainbow flag in the dirt of impoverished villages everywhere.  Instead, let’s take seriously WV’s call to come together in Christian unity for the good of all.


*I truly do not believe it works that way; I’m just saying I wouldn’t care if it did.  For real, I could write a whole blog post on why we need to stop saying “But it’s not going to turn them gay!” as a defense regarding gender pigeon-holing.

Hello, my name is self-righteous

By Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States (Otter Lake, New York) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Warning: Long. Ranty. Contains mentions of abuse.

Over the weekend, I read Hello, My Name Is Church, a blog post helpfully shared with me by one of my Twitter friends.  It’s been ages since I almost injured myself from rolling my eyes so much, so I was grateful to be back in the game.  I won’t say this is the worst thing I’ve read so far this year (that prize now goes to another article on girls and modesty, which I may blog about later this week).  It is, however, the worst thing I read between New Year’s and Epiphany, so it’s still in contention for the Top Ten.  Hooray!

It’s hard to tell exactly what Unappreciated Pastor is going for here.  I can’t tell if he’s talking about people who walked away from Christian faith, from church attendance in general, or just from his specific congregation (wouldn’t be surprised, judging by the name he goes by).  It sounds like he’s conflating all of those things.  Let’s get to his “poem,” shall we?

He has some ideas about why people just avoid the whole scene:

Perhaps you have heard that I am…

Boring
Shallow
Cheap
A waste of time

You’ve heard that I am full of:

Hypocrites
Clowns
Greedy people
The self-righteous

So, these people have merely heard that those things are found in church.  Even in my days of poorly-orchestrated evangelism, I never once had anyone tell me they didn’t want to go to church because they’d caught rumors that it wasn’t all that great.  I think a lot of people don’t go because (gasp) they already have beliefs.  Shocking, I know.

Next, he has some words for people who showed up once and didn’t like it.

Maybe you have visited me before and discovered:

Horrible music
Passionless singing
Dry preaching
Rude congregants

Apparently those people were just attending the wrong church, because one visit and they never wanted to go back again owing to the off-key praise band or the pastor’s uninteresting sermon.  There are two wrong assumptions here.  First, how does Unappreciated Pastor know whether these people didn’t just find a church they liked better?  I mean, in my city, it’s not that hard.  We have several within five minutes of our house.  Second, he’s doing the same foolish thing entertainment-focused churches do in believing that superficial things are, in fact, what drive people away.  The only difference is that he makes it the fault of the visitor rather than the church.

Now we’re getting into the meat of the thing.  Here’s what he thinks of people who “needed” the church:

Maybe you needed me and I was:

Too busy
Too “righteous”
Too broke
Too blind

Yes.  Because no one should find it off-putting that we didn’t get help when we required it.  I think it’s a very strange thing indeed that conservatives often claim the local church should help “the poor” (or at least, the “deserving” poor) rather than the government stepping in.  Yet people should stick it out when they are in need, despite the fact that whatever church Unappreciated Pastor is referencing (hopefully not his own) isn’t coming through.  Also, what the hell does he mean by “too ‘righteous’” in this context?  Hm, maybe those two things are connected.

Up next, here’s what happens when you’re a disgruntled member:

Maybe you joined me and found I was:

Distant
Demanding
Dull
Preoccupied

Maybe you tried to serve in me but were caught off guard by:

Business meetings
Committees
Teams
Bureaucracy

We’re back on the dull thing again.  It’s obviously a great filter, since we’ve already weeded out the people who only heard that it’s boring and the ones who showed up once and fell asleep during the sermon.  I wonder if that would work to get jackasses out of the congregation–bore them away.  You’d have to let the rest of the congregation in on the secret first, though, or you’ll lose them too.  And God knows members don’t have any other reasons for leaving the church, of course.  It’s all about how church isn’t entertaining.  No one ever leaves because they simply don’t believe anymore or because they were sick of the constant shaming or because women are considered lesser beings or because the church is vile toward LGBT people or because a person in authority violated them.  Nope.

So, what happens if you try to leave?

Maybe you left and were surprised that nobody:

Called
Cared
Noticed
Invited you back

He’s not serious, right?  Leaving church can be a scary thing indeed.  It would be a blessing for many to go without being hounded.  Also, the way that’s framed makes it sound like people walk away in hopes that someone will give them reason to stay.

Perhaps your experience has driven you to:

Speak negatively of me
Swear to never come back to me
Proclaim that no one needs me
Believe you’re better off without me

I have serious doubts that Unappreciated Pastor has actually tried to find out the real reasons people leave church.  I would venture a guess that he’s never sat down and listened to story after story of people who have been hurt.  Maybe he doesn’t see the pain in the eyes of people who want so desperately to experience the kind of love than many churches promise but only deliver to those deemed worthy.  If he had, he might have to acknowledge that some people have good reason to speak negatively of their experiences or step away and never look back.

If this is true, I have something to say to you:

I’m sorry
I was wrong
I blew it
I made a huge mistake

This would be a great place to stop.  Well, it might also help to recognize that boredom and committees are not what’s driving people away from the church.  Still, it’s nice to have an apology.

But remember, I never said my name was:

Perfect
Flawless
Complete
Arrived

Or not.

We get it.  Churches aren’t perfect.  People aren’t perfect.  And really, if the simplistic view of what’s wrong with the church as outlined above were true, then I could absolutely buy it that we need to be okay with imperfection.  In light of what actually happens, though, I’m pretty uncomfortable with this.

My name is church. I welcome the:

Hypocrite
Dry
Self-righteous
Shallow

I welcome the

Sincere
Passionate
Forgiving
Selfless

And if this were the only thing we needed to be concerned about, I’d be cool with that definition of “flawed.”

I cannot shut my doors to the people who make you:

Angry
Uncomfortable
Impatient
Self-conscious

Oh, really?  Because  I see the church do this all the time.  The trouble is, they’re usually so busy shutting the doors on those who make people angry or uncomfortable because of who the church perceives them to be that the church fails to shut the doors on abusers.

But I would remind you that we couldn’t always worship in the same room. In the Old Testament there was a division between the:

Gentile
Jew
Man
Woman

Your point being?  I’m not sure what parallel he’s trying to draw.

In order for us to all worship in the same room Christ was:

Shamed
Beaten
Killed
Resurrected

Er…okay.  Though Jesus broke a lot of barriers when he was alive, too.  Also, Unappreciated Pastor has obviously not been to a modern-day synagogue.  It’s been maybe twenty years since I attended services, but last time I was there, women and men were sitting right next to each other.  Fancy that.

Which is far worse than being:

Bored
Uncomfortable
Embarrassed
Ignored

Oh!  I get it now.  Jesus died, so how dare you not like church services?  Because you could not possibly have anything in your church experience that is as terrible as being dead.  No one’s ever actually died because of something inflicted on them by the church, right?  Oh.  Wait.

So why not come back to church and let all of these messed up people:

Challenge you
Sharpen you
Strengthen you
Humble you

Why not come back to church and let all these messed up people continue to harm you in exactly the same way they were doing before you left?  Sounds like a date!

I can’t promise you that the people will be great. This is church. It’s not:

Heaven
Paradise
Beulah Land
The Celestial city

Translation: “I can’t promise to protect you, and I might even try to excuse some of the things that are happening to you because I think it’s your fault.”

Come back.

God wants you here.
The body needs you here.
The world needs your witness here.
You belong here.

Hello, my name is church.

I miss you.

I love you.

I’m sorry.

Can’t wait to see you.

“I’m sorry.  It’ll never happen again.  I need you.  I can’t live without you.”  Heck, why not throw in a “No one will ever love you the way I do” for good measure?

If you’ve left regular church attendance or church membership or the Church or Christianity as a whole, you have good reason.  I’m sorry if I’ve ever dismissed you.  I’m sorry that people like Unappreciated Pastor have written whole pseudo-poems discounting your reasons for leaving.  You know what?  I’m even sorry that people think it’s their job to discern what a “good” reason is.  Who cares if you left because you were bored or people acted like ass-hats?  I don’t want to spend social time with a bunch of jerks, either (boy, do I have thoughts on forced friendships).

Hey, Unappreciated Pastor?  I’m sorry that people are leaving your church and you feel down about it.  That actually must suck.  Being a pastor isn’t easy.  May I suggest, though, that instead of writing passive-aggressive and dismissive poetry, you check out my friend Naked Pastor?  He’s been through it too, and maybe his wisdom and humor will help you get by.  Or maybe you’re ready to leave the church yourself, and this is your plea for help.  I’ll light a hope candle for you.

When Church Leaders Plagiarize

By Mars Hill Church (Mark Driscoll) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (See what I did there, Pastor Mark? Proper citation, dude. Learn it.)

I had it all set to post something completely different today, but it will have to wait because darnit, someone is wrong on the Internet.  Okay, a lot of someones.

If anyone has been following church-related news, you may have heard about Mark Driscoll’s latest problem with plagiarism.  Of course, if you have little to no interest in fundamentalist church politics or the behavior of Pastor Mark, then you won’t have heard about it and probably don’t care.  I admit that I almost didn’t care; when isn’t Mark Driscoll doing or saying something at least minimally awful?

I started reading about Janet Mefferd’s accusations of plagiarism and the resultant fallout over at Jonathan Merritt’s site. (Go read through it for a good synopsis of the events and the timeline; also read this.)  In no way am I slamming Jonathan for writing about it.  I’m glad people are continuing to point out this man’s repeated offenses against the Church, the Christian faith, and humanity in general.  My problem is with all the people who are then sharing Jonathan’s posts (and other posts) as though Mark Driscoll being a Supreme Ass-hat is something New and Different.

I’m concerned that people are upset and crying out for justice about the wrong one of Pastor Mark’s transgressions.  Have we so quickly forgotten that this is the same man who thinks oral sex is a good evangelism tool?  He’s obsessed with male sexual pleasure, but in an incredibly misogynistic and homophobic way.   He’s also the guy who regularly shuns people who try to leave the electric fence of his “ministry”;  attempted to “reach out” to a section of Seattle known to have a large gay population under the pretense of AIDS ministry (dear God, I should not have to explain how bigoted that is); and tweeted about “effeminate anatomically male worship leaders.”  And those are just the tip of the iceberg–outlets such as Wartburg Watch, Stuff Christian Culture Likes, and Mars Hill Refuge have been pointing these things out for ages.

Every time I (or someone with more direct experience than I have) tries to talk about the damage being done, someone is quick to rush to his defense and explain how “some of what he says is beneficial!”  Whether or not that’s true is debatable, but at the very least, that’s a truly ridiculous statement.  Do you mean to tell me that there are no other people less brutish than Pastor Mark saying some of the same things only without the hateful overlay?  If that’s the case, I question your judgment.

I’m not much on name-calling because I don’t think it’s helpful most of the time.  But in this case, I’m gonna go ahead and do it (heck, even Jesus did it when the situation required it): Mark Driscoll is a complete douche.  He teaches and encourages the most vile things and seems to have not one iota of compassion for actual human beings.  All you people retweeting and sharing and forwarding the latest kerfuffle over his alleged plagiarism–where were you when real people told their stories of being harmed by Pastor Mark and his ministry?

Now that he’s been caught with his hand in the textual cookie jar, some of the same people eager to defend his ministry are suddenly rushing to judge him for violating the law of the land.  Others–who previously apparently didn’t give a damn one way or another–are repeating the story like it’s Church Scandal of the Year.  While you’re at it looking for some legal consequences, please take a few minutes to review the notes of the people who left his church.  Consider those who are still deep within his cult-like ministry, desperate to escape but unsure how to do it without facing his brand of church “discipline.”

I’m tired of the influence this man has on American Christianity.  It’s time we saw him for the bully he is and started looking to someone else for spiritual guidance.

Battle Hymn of the Church-public

By Micha L. Rieser (Own work by uploader (wreath and picture)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I waged an internal debate this morning: Do I post about Dave Ramsey or the War on Christmas?  Christmas won.  Other people have already addressed Dave Ramsey better than I could, and well, I’m in a holiday mood.

Oh, sorry.  I’m in a Christmas mood.  Because naturally, that’s the only holiday happening right now.  Wait.  It’s not even Christmas yet?  Well, shoot.  And here I was all ready to sing a few rounds of Silent Night.

I’m glad we have a few well-meaning folks to remind us that everyone should wish people Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays.  Unless, of course, you know for a fact that your friend celebrates something else.  Then you should probably (grudgingly) accept that fact and wish your greetings accordingly.

Never mind that the same people shedding tears over the loss of Merry Christmas are also probably watching Elf or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, both of which mention Christmas but with nary a word about Jesus (who just kinda happens to be the reason for Christmas, no?).  Of course, that hardly matters–why, Christmas is as American as baseball and apple pie!

Here’s the cold, hard truth: It isn’t really about Christmas or any other holiday celebrated at this time of year.  If it were, people would quietly honor their religious and/or family traditions on the actual day.  It wouldn’t matter one iota what people celebrated or didn’t celebrate, what greetings they used or didn’t use.  I guess it would be a lot more like Thanksgiving–you know, the day that falls between Get Lots of Candy Day and Buy Lots of Stuff Month.  Fairly unnoticed and not particularly commercial.

If it were really about the religious holiday, theoretically, we ought to find Christians being glad that their holiday greeting isn’t being taken in vain.  After all, isn’t one of the premises of evangelism that most people do not already know Jesus?  Why invoke the percent of people identifying as Christian now?  Sadly, this is actually about a small number of very vocal people looking for another way to play Persecuted Christian.

There are several other things to consider in talking about this supposed War on Christmas:

  1. I don’t care how you greet me.  Wishing me Happy Holidays is fine by me–it makes me feel warm and squishy inside.  We may be strangers, but it feels for just a moment like you actually do care whether I have a happy time.
  2. Only about half the people I know are Christians.  Sure, some of the people who aren’t also celebrate Christmas, but not all of them.  When I’m with people I know personally, I’m free to wish them whatever holiday greetings they prefer.  That’s not always the case.  Why should store employees need to ask personal, invasive questions about your religious affiliation when a simple, generic greeting will do?
  3. Have you all noticed the sheer volume of Christmas-themed stuff in the stores?  It’s truly staggering.  How about the television ads, social media promos, and mailers?  Where is this alleged War on Christmas?  They may be using the words “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings,” but the intent is certainly clear.
  4. Don’t any of you War on Christmas types ever celebrate the New Year?  That’s not an extension of Christmas; it’s a holiday of its own.  I’m just guessing here, but aren’t a lot of stores/people/places that use “Happy Holidays” probably including New Year’s in their generic greeting?
  5. As far as school is concerned, I’m happier not having my religion stepped on.  In exchange, I won’t step on anyone else’s.  I also prefer that school be a place of learning.  Do they really need to have a party with a lot of sticky candy canes?  If my kids want to celebrate Christmas, we have friends and a church for that.  School really isn’t the place.
  6. Have we forgotten that there are lots and lots of people who might prefer not to be greeted seasonally at all?  This is a pretty hard time for many people.  Fixating on the words used by store employees detracts from the love and care someone may need.  Don’t waste time and energy crying foul over Happy Holidays–do something to show love to someone instead.
  7. Finally, a big old what. the. hell.  Are you kidding me?  This is really an important issue?  So, rampant holiday consumerism is less significant a problem than the type of greeting the store employee offered you.  I see.  Well, good luck with that, then.  I hope you have a damn skippy “holiday” filled with luxuries I probably can’t afford.

I’ll admit, I love this season.  I like driving downtown at night and seeing the streets festooned with lights.  I enjoy putting up the tree and bringing out the special decorations.  I appreciate the neighbors’ outdoor displays (yes, even those giant inflatable snowmen).  The song “Silver Bells” sums it up pretty well for me.  Guess what, though?  None of that has anything to do with my religious beliefs.  It’s just a fun part of the transition from fall to winter.  Spiritually speaking, it’s the traditions of Advent that draw me back to the awe and wonder of my faith.  Perhaps the ability to separate the commercial from the sacred is why I don’t believe there is a War on Christmas at all.

This might be a shortcoming of conservative evangelical Christian culture–more often than not, the actual reason we get a whole month is lost on people who think High Church tradition is “irrelevant.”  Those churches that do not teach or understand the liturgical year have caused their own problem.  How many people in those churches know that we just celebrated the Christian New Year?  This is our season of hope and anticipation, yet it’s full of shopping sprees and fighting about Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas.

Here’s my charge to you: Go do some research.  Google is a wonderful thing.  Search for Advent, and read about the traditions.  Take a break from your usual daily devotional (if that’s your thing) and read the Advent Scriptures instead.  Create an Advent wreath with your family and light the candle each night, adding another every Sunday.  Read the prophets and the Magnificat.

And then do this:  Enjoy the hustle and bustle of the outside world.  Have fun shopping and wrapping and baking and partying.  Drink egg nog and mulled wine.  Sing “Jingle Bells” (and maybe ride a sleigh with actual jingle bells).  Watch Ernest Saves Christmas (you’ll thank me later).  There is nothing wrong with any of that.  Just do it knowing that really, cookies and egg nog and sleighs and Rudolph have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the miraculous event of God descending to us as a tiny babe.

Happy Holidays, all.

Burning

Today I’m linking up with my fellow bloggers in a synchroblog over at Addie Zierman’s site in honor of her book, When We Were on Fire, being released today.  I confess that I haven’t read anything of the book other than the parts available online, but I’m looking forward to having the chance to read the whole thing.  Be sure to check out the other posts linked on her site today, and keep checking back because more will be added through the week.

______________________________

I don’t remember the phrase “on fire” being used much in my teen years.  I didn’t grow up evangelical; I was a transplant from a Unitarian Universalist church.  I probably wouldn’t have ended up with the evangelical set if it hadn’t been for the fact that one Sunday in my UU teen class we were asked what other religions we’d been exposed to.  My dad is Jewish and I’d been to my friend’s Presbyterian youth group, so I said, “Judaism and Christianity.”  That was the wrong answer; I was immediately pressured to avoid “organized religion.”  Needless to say, my rebellious teenage self immediately concluded that the “persecution” I’d already heard about must be real and therefore returning to the Presbyterian church must be the right thing to do.  (Never mind that I could easily have decided to become Jewish, but I don’t think my dad’s family had the same sense that persecution = being more right than everyone else.)

There wasn’t much talk about being on fire, really.  There were rules–many of them, on every topic from clothes to books to music to sex.  It wasn’t about being passionate about our faith, it was about avoiding the appearance of evil and being “in the world but not of the world.”  We may not have used those exact words, “on fire,” even if we did sing Pass It On accompanied by our youth leaders on guitar.  But there were two things I knew I had to do: Reject my family and obey the Rules.  If I did that, it would be a sure sign that I was full-on for God.

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  (Luke 14:25-27)

oOo

We stood in the bathroom on the ground floor of the church, my three closest church friends and I.  We were just freshening up during hang-out time at youth group.  Before we left, I said, “Wait.  I have to tell you something.”  My heart was pounding.

They listened as I explained to them about my sister.  “She’s gay,” I said.  They didn’t seem to know how to respond to that.  Finally, one of them said it must be so hard for me.  She felt sorry for me.  She would pray for me.  My friends told me not to worry; if I prayed earnestly and kept working on her, she would become a Christian and reject the “gay lifestyle.”

I did that for a long time, until I finally gave up the pretense that there was any truth to it at all.

oOo

I was forbidden to tell my grandparents that I was a Christian.  It made me feel righteous, this secret, like I was being silenced.  Persecuted.  Just like they said I would be.  I didn’t mind the not telling.  But it did make me fear for their eternal souls.

When my grandfather died, I sobbed–not for missing him (I barely knew him) but because I’d never gotten to tell him about Jesus.

oOo

I never truly understood my mother and her journey of faith.  I wish I’d asked her.  I wish I’d known the right questions.  I know she grew up in a precursor to the “on fire” 80s and 90s.  I always believed that she must never have been a real, true Christian or she wouldn’t have left the faith.  Even years after she reconnected with her Christian roots, I wasn’t sure what she actually believed.  I was told I was the most spiritually mature person in my family of origin.  It fueled my distrust of them.

oOo

I gave up secular music (I didn’t burn my tapes) and Girl Scout meetings (I wish I’d stayed) and books that weren’t Christian (I read a lot of Frank Peretti).  I wrote in my journal that I was dirty whenever I thought about anything sexual or (God forbid) touched myself.  I rejected the boy who liked me just for me because I was terrified of liking him back and all the intense feelings that brought.  I made sure I stayed away from the wrong influences.  I went to a Christian college to be away from the worldly influences of my family and my high school peers.  I needed to be completely immersed in Godly culture.  I think some of my professors (and probably a few of my classmates) felt sorry for my narrow-mindedness.  I wish I’d been able to explain (to myself and to them) that it was only surface-deep.

oOo

Somewhere along the way, the flame of my self-righteousness burned out.  I’d never been any good at evangelism outside the church.  Oh, I could give a gospel message to a group of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds.  I could deliver a two-week lesson unit to a group of young campers.  I could give a public testimony in hopes that someone who didn’t know Jesus might be listening and choose to be born again.  But talking to friends and co-workers about God?  Nope.

I thought that meant I was broken.  I hadn’t been able to reach my own family, and I couldn’t talk about Jesus with my non-Christian acquaintances.  I wasn’t trying hard enough.  I wasn’t on fire enough.

And then I realized I’d never wanted that kind of fire anyway.

oOo

I nearly lost my faith entirely.  By the time I left evangelical culture (not evangelical Christianity, really), my heart was in shreds.  I wasn’t sure if I believed in God anymore, or if I ever even had.  I finally saw the damage being done in the name of Jesus.  I was sliced open, raw, bleeding.

Even so, there was something left in the wake of the fire.

oOo

I can’t be angry about my experiences without acknowledging the good that came from them.  I can reject the hate and the strange subculture and the list of rules.  I can reject the notion that it’s my responsibility to save the whole world.  But I won’t reject all of it, because then I would have to reject the people, too.  It would erase the youth leader who drove me home week after week and never pressured me about my faith; we just talked about life (and she was the only one–ever, in all those years–who never told me to reject my sister).  It would erase the youth leader who introduced me to great literature and never once told me to stop reading books by non-Christians.  It would erase the two pastors who held us in love when my mother died.  It would erase the young men and women who have tenderly cared for my children in church, at camp, and in our home.  It would erase my ties to my Christian college, including my orchestra and the conductor who gently offers prayer for us when tension fuels our mistakes.

It would erase my own marriage, a relationship which began when I was still at least on the fringes of being on fire.

oOo

The problem with fire is that it gives the appearance of being a living thing–it breathes, it grows.  But it isn’t alive, and ultimately, it consumes everything before it burns itself out.  That’s not the kind of faith I want, and it’s not the kind of faith I want my children to have.

Better is a seed.  There’s a reason Jesus doesn’t use fire as a metaphor for faith.  He uses seeds–more than once.  Instead of a pseudo-life, a seed is the infant of a living, growing thing.  Unlike fire, which requires nothing but consumables in order to burn, a seed needs to be nurtured.  Active, not passive.  Something we must do carefully and gently over time.  Not a mad rush to throw more on the fire to keep in burning but a long, slow process of food and water.

I’m still nurturing that seed.  I’m not even sure what kind of tree it is yet.  All I know is that it isn’t burning–it’s growing.

______________________________

If you want to add your story, click on the picture above and visit Addie Zierman’s site.  You can also read the first few chapters here or order the book here.

A little more on evangelism

Coppo di Marcovaldo [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I made a commitment to a friend that I would post a bit more on this subject just to clarify a few things.  My apologies to people who consider themselves evangelical who thought perhaps I was trashing the concept itself or all evangelical Christians.  Let me state this as unambiguously as possible: I do not hate evangelical Christians.  What I dislike is evangelical culture and many of the teachings that lead to what I call “friends with an agenda” and inauthentic relationships.

Not all people who consider themselves evangelical Christians do these things, of course.  That’s because a person is separate from an institution.  Not only that, there’s a big difference between “churches that evangelize” and “evangelical churches.”  The former applies to any church that encourages people to tell others about their faith in Jesus.  The latter refers to denominations that are built on the premise of evangelism.  So churches like mine (Lutheran) and mainline Protestant churches (Methodist, Presbyterian) are not considered “evangelical churches” despite the fact that they may do some evangelizing.  However, some churches that evangelize can and do encourage behaviors that are far closer to evangelical denominations and evangelical culture.

There are some specific aspects of evangelical culture that are more common in some churches than in others, and those are the things that concern me most.  For example, Calvinism and its offshoots always make me a little (or a lot) irritable.  Some specific things common to evangelical culture (which may or may not be true of a given church or individual):

  • Belief that people are either born bad or become tainted at some randomly appointed age (“age of accountability”)
  • Pressure to work Jesus into conversations with non-Christian friends, family, and co-workers
  • Belief that “salvation” means rescuing from eternal suffering after death
  • Encouragement to make friends with people for the express purpose of converting them
  • Hosting large-scale events to which people can invite others in order to either hear a salvation message or see the church in a positive light and return at a future time
  • Pressure to bring friends and family to church services
  • Door-to-door visits, mass mailings, newspaper ads, or in-church handouts used to bring people to church, frequently containing ambiguous, misleading, or provocative language in order to pique interest

None of that has anything to do with genuine relationships, no matter how hard a church tries to sell it as such.

When I was in college, I worked at a Christian camp.  One part of our work was to present the message of salvation to the kids under our care.  Now, let me just say, I love this camp.  My own kids now go there, and I have no complaints about what they’re being taught.  I am glad that they’re hearing about Jesus in a caring, fun atmosphere.  If I had a problem with evangelism in general, I would not send my kids to camp–end of story.  But as both a former employee and director, I am fully aware that the camp counselors often come from different backgrounds and may have learned things that are different from what our family and our church teach and believe.

This particular camp is a day camp, but there’s one overnight trip.  As part of that, the counselors deliver a gospel/salvation message.  One year, back when I was working, the other counselors decided to present the message in the form of a skit.  In this particular atrocious story, a group of girls is in a car wreck, and they all die.  One of them goes to heaven and the rest to hell.  The last part of the skit is the girls, being pulled down by Satan, shrieking at their friend, “Why didn’t you ever tell us?”

I could not make this shit up.

I wasn’t part of the skit.  My campers were all six and seven years old.  They were absolutely terrified.  One of the girls sat with me by the campfire afterward and sobbed, telling me she was scared that her parents were going to hell and that it was all her fault.  It took an hour to calm her down.  Needless to say, when I became camp director, I put a ban on that kind of skit.

Instead, they did the one about the teenage party girl who wants Jesus to leave her alone so she can get drunk and do some unspecified “bad” thing.*  But, you know, Jesus loves her anyway.

Which is the other part of this–telling people that they need God because on their own, they are worthless.  There’s a persistent, stubborn belief that Christians are good because we have the Holy Spirit and non-Christians are bad because they don’t.  If a Christian screws up, then it’s because “we’re all still sinners.”  If a non-Christian screws up, it’s because they didn’t have godly morality.  If a Christian does good things, it’s because of Jesus.  If a non-Christian does good things, it’s only out of selfishness or accident.  Being convinced of the “truth” of these things is the only way some churches can get people to share their faith.  It’s as though they’re saying our religion (yes, it is a religion) isn’t good enough on its own–we need to convince people of their need for it first, either by devaluing them or frightening them.

Which, when you think about it, is absolutely necessary if you believe that the fate of one’s soul rests on a specific set of beliefs.

Is it any wonder that my teenage self was terrified for the eternal souls of my family?  I was the lone Christian, both in my immediate and my extended family.  Skits–and teaching–like the one above are the reason I told family members that being gay was on par with being a rapist, in hopes that it would scare them into getting saved.

I was sixteen when my Jewish grandfather passed away.  The Sunday following his death, I sat through a salvation message in Sunday school, watching a video on the eternal fate of the unsaved.  By the end I was crying because of my failure to present the gospel to this man I barely knew and had been forbidden to tell I was a Christian.  One of the adults made some noncommittal noises about Jews being “God’s chosen people.”  It didn’t help.  What if one of my neither-Jewish-nor-Christian family members died without knowing Jesus?  Looking back, I truly think these people did not know what to say to me, because what I was going through was completely alien to them, far outside the reaches of their insight.

This is the screwed up kind of evangelism I’m talking about.  Not the average, share-your-faith-because-Jesus-rocks kind of evangelism.  I mean the sort that tells children they are “deeply broken” and frightens people into telling others about God.  The kind that genuinely believes more than two-thirds of the world’s population–billions of people–are destined to fry eternally for the crime of unbelief.

I can’t get behind that.  If that’s your bag, please find someone else’s eternal soul to fret over.  If my failure to pressure people into belief in Jesus results in their damnation, then I don’t think I want to spend forever with that kind of God anyway.

______________________________

*Probably sex, but these were little kids, after all.  We can scare ‘em about hell, but forget sex.

Why I don’t need a video to prove I’m not “like that”

At this point, I’m not sure who’s reading this and also has some knowledge of the NALT (“not all like that”) project.  I also don’t know who’s reading this and also might be either upset by or supportive of the project.  Either way, I want to explain why I’m okay with the project, but I won’t be making a video.

Some years ago, when I was first trying to figure out how to love and serve LGBTQ people, I could’ve used something like NALT.  I was in a situation in which I didn’t know any other Christians who believed same-sex relationships were not sinful (though I knew a few who thought the “condition” of being gay might be okay so long as one didn’t act on that).  I knew exactly two gay Christians.  And trans* people?  Hell, they didn’t even exist in that world.  Just to be clear, I wasn’t necessarily looking for other straight allies–just anyone who had a different view from the conservative one.  When I went seeking, all I found were organizations that wanted my money.  It took about two years of actively pursuing it to find others, and then it was only because I decided to open a Twitter account and follow people who looked like they might be progressive.  Believe me, I understand the desire to find like-minded people.

One of the reasons I kept up the effort is that I have a lot of LGBTQ friends, family, and acquaintances in my offline life, and I had done a lot of damage with my religious posturing.  I’m lucky some of these people decided they still like me.  I suppose I thought I needed to make things up to them somehow.  I had been so trained in “love the sinner, hate the sin” that I wasn’t sure anymore how to just love people.  Of course, I do know better these days, and I no longer need an outside source to tell me how to care for my friends.

I also have a lot of friends, family, and acquaintances who are not LGBTQ.  By now, the majority of those people should be aware of where I stand on things, whether it be in regard to Christianity and LGBTQ people or feminism or the doctrines of total depravity and hell.  I don’t feel the need to explain or defend myself.  The people close to me don’t need me to say anything else; they already know I’m “not all like that.”  In fact, some of them have used those exact words to describe me.  I had to laugh once when my cousin said she was telling a friend about my husband and me and she said we were Christians but whispered, “But they’re not like that“–and apparently, the other person knew exactly what she meant.

All of that is why I see no need to make a video to announce to the world that I’m “not like that.”

That’s why I’m choosing not to participate in the NALT project.  My offline loved ones don’t need it; I’m not a big enough online voice to be noticed by megachurch pastors; and it won’t do anything to help my online acquaintances.  On the other hand, I’m not going to write a blog post condemning the project.  I know far too many people who have found it to be meaningful and powerful.  I know straight allies who have found each other, I know LGBTQ Christians who have, some for the first time, heard the message that their spiritual and sexual identities are not mutually exclusive.  I know people–cis-het and otherwise–who want to use this as a way to stand up to bullying anti-gay pastors.  I can’t slam the project on the grounds that some people don’t care for the terms used or don’t see the project as helping them or their loved ones directly, even though I do understand where those feelings come from.

One of the criticisms I’ve heard about the project is that it’s taking some kind of “easy” way out of being a “real” ally (and yeah, that’s mostly something I’ve heard cis-straight people say).  I’ve seen online arguments about it and a good deal of the sort of rage usually reserved for Mark Driscoll or Hugo Schwyzer.  So tomorrow, I’m going to talk about being an ally, walking that fine line, and what it really means for something to be easy or hard in that context.

What are your thoughts on NALT?  Will you make (or have you already made) a video?  What might be some better alternatives for people who don’t want to make one?

No-vangelism 101

By Brian Sawyer from Westford, MA, USA (Wanted: Americans in Heaven) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not entirely sure what brought this to mind.  I do tend to have random progressions of thought, so that’s probably all it was.  I mean, I’m the person who can hear my husband say, “You look really sexy” and respond with, “That reminds me–I should put bagels on the shopping list.”  Only I know how those are related.  And no, I’m not telling you.  I guess this might be part of the process of reconstructing my faith after nearly losing it entirely.  Not that it would have been terrible if I’d decided I no longer believed, but that wasn’t the right thing for me.  I’m finally in a good place where I’m ready to begin rebuilding.

Anyway, I was thinking about evangelism.  We currently attend a Lutheran church–ELCA–, and, not having grown up Lutheran (or having any prior experience), I’ve been learning some very interesting things.  One of my discoveries is that “evangelism” means something really different to Lutherans than to people in denominations labeled “evangelical” (such as Baptists).  The separation on this point is as wide between Lutherans and Baptists as it is between Baptists and, say, Mormons.

The main difference is that there’s no pressure to “share my faith.”  That is, I’m not expected to go tell everyone how to be saved, nor am I pressured to constantly invite people to things so they can hear the message of salvation from someone else.  In fact, that doesn’t even exist, and Lutherans (at least, the ones at my church) kind of think it’s weird.  One woman shared with me that she attended an evangelical non-denominational church with a friend.  She said someone at the church approached her and said, “Have you found Jesus?”  The woman was momentarily thrown off, but she recovered and replied, “I don’t think I ever lost him.”

I have to admit, I like this approach.  I really don’t mind talking about Jesus, but I hate the sense that every single one of my interactions with my friends of other (or no) religions must have some kind of Formula for Sharing the Gospel.  Maybe it’s that whole random progression of thought thing, but it always just felt so forced, like I had to find some way to work God into the conversation even if we were just talking about spaghetti sauce recipes or breastfeeding or Doctor Who.  I was never good at steering conversations that way.

Plus, it just felt manipulative.  Those people who come door-to-door are so much more honest.  They’re not trying to be your friend, they’re trying to get you to listen to them talk about their religion.  You have the option to say no thank you because you’re not blindsided by it.  You also have the choice to engage and either listen or argue with them.  There’s no real manipulation there.  Sure, they may try to hook you by asking you questions designed to elicit certain responses.  But everyone knows that going in.

It’s not like that with the evangelical set.  I’m not lying when I tell you that they teach classes on this stuff.  You’re instructed to find ways to work it into your conversation, to “share your story,” and to find commonalities with your target.  Yes, I said target because that’s what it always felt like.  You’re supposed to consider who in your life “needs Jesus” and then try to “build relationship” with the express purpose of presenting the gospel message.

Of course, this all makes perfect sense if your belief going in is that anyone who hasn’t “found Jesus” is going to hell to suffer eternal conscious torment.  I mean, who wants their loved ones to end up that way?  Or their random acquaintances?  Even Mark Driscoll doesn’t deserve that kind of punishment.  Honestly, I think that must be a very scary way to live, constantly afraid that when they die the vast majority of humanity will be permanently separated from God and tortured.

Imagine my relief at not having to worry about that anymore.  This particular version of hell and the requirement to believe in order to be spared were one of the first things to go when I stepped away from that strain of Christianity.  I had never really looked at my friends and family as some kind of mission field anyway, but it was good to give myself permission not to feel guilty about that.

At this point, I don’t really have a clue exactly what happens after this life, and I don’t much care.  Being spared some awful fate isn’t the focus of either my church or my faith.  For now, it’s enough to concentrate on whether my beliefs are making me a better person.  Because if they’re not, then either there’s something wrong with those beliefs, or I’m doing something wrong.

If you’re in process of deconstructing, what are some of the beliefs you want to let go of?  What are some of the things that you hold on to?