Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A search for the true meaning of Christmas

It seems almost cliche now for somebody to discover the true meaning of Christmas. After all, we see George Bailey and Ebenezer Scrooge and even the Grinch all find the true meaning of Christmas every year on our televisions while we unwrap our toys and feast in excess.

Early in December I came to understand and accept that I am an atheist. I wondered how this Christmas be different – a Christmas without Jesus. I wanted to tell everybody how Jesus’ birth was just an amalgamation of various solar deities, many of whom predate the New Testament and share a birthday with Jesus. I wanted to tell everybody how Jesus is really just a Santa for adults; how wreaths, Yule logs, and even Christmas trees are from pagan traditions, and are actually condemned by the Bible. I wanted to send out “Axle tilt is the reason for the season” greeting cards. No matter how much I wanted Jesus, or Santa, to be real it would not change the reality that they are both just myths.

The “War on Christmas” flared up again this year, with TV commentators blasting those who want to place displays to other (or no) religions and holidays alongside Christian displays. Pastors railed against those who wish others “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” It all became rather silly as I found myself standing in a Bed, Bath, & Beyond, watching the shoppers endlessly circling the parking lot, rushing in and filling their carts with useless trinkets and devices. Many people would soon exchange gift cards to the same big box stores with each other. “Hmmm” I thought, glancing over at a display. “This lemon zester cost over three days wages in much of the world, and this onion slicer cost almost a month’s salary.” How did we get to this point from celebrating a birthday that was heralded as bringing “peace, goodwill to men” – a person whose life taught us to serve the poor and needy, and love the outcast and alien?

The more I thought about the holiday season, the more I thought about the people in my community. I found out about a local ministry, Clothe Charlotte, was undertaking an ambitious project – collect and distribute sets of winter hats, gloves, and coats for every homeless person in the city. Assisting the homeless and needy in my city is something important to me. I worked to promote Clothe Charlotte and participated in the collection, sorting, and distribution of sets of winter clothes for the homeless. Clothe Charlotte was sponsored by Kinetic Church. It was refreshing to see a church so dedicated to a service project – one that focuses on the “honey” of doing “unto the least of these” rather than focusing on the “vinegar” of handing out tracts and evangelizing, especially when the news features stories of churches kicking out homeless ministries because they didn’t pray and sit through a sermon before eating.

We sorted and packed sets of winter clothes at Freedom Park, and despite the light drizzle spirits were high. I delivered a car load of clothes to CUP Ministry – one of many shelters and ministries throughout the city to receive clothes. As car after car pulled in loaded with winter clothes, the minister clapped his hands loudly as his stood on the back porch of the house-turned-food pantry.

Helping Clothe Charlotte was one of my best holiday memories in years. The holiday season is all about light in the darkness, love in the cold, and taking time from our busy lives to do good in the world. Don’t allow the sectarian and political bickering take focus away from the universal ideals of peace, love, family, and community. Whether we’re Christian, Jewish, or atheist – whether we celebrate Christmas, Winter Solstice, or Festivus – we can all join in the goodwill spirit of season and join together in helping our neighbors.

An introduction to Clothe Charlotte:

Clothe Charlotte '08 from Kinetic Church on Vimeo.

My Flickr slideshow of Clothe Charlotte:

A video of Clothe Charlotte that features several of my photos:

ClotheCLT from ClotheCharlotte on Vimeo.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Small Towns Versus Big Cities - Searching for "Real America"

I sat on a chilly metal bench at the airport overlook – a small park next to Charlotte-Douglas International that offers a great view of one of the runways. In the distance stands the skyline with tiny little cranes moving back and forth over a new skyscraper going up. With head tilted to one side and arm outstretched, I see if it has yet grown larger than my thumb. As the planes come in, I stretch out my arm and try to pinch them between my index finger and thumb, increasing in size until they are too large to fit in my open palm. This one is the daily flight from Munich, Germany. I often come here to do my thinking. I’ve lived in the heart of the city for several years now, after spending almost my entire life in a rural town an hour or so away. It is just days before the election and the biggest thing on my mind is the rift between perceived “small town values” and “big city values.”

The Republican National Convention had speaker after speaker who espoused the greatness of small town values in "real America." The Daily Show had aired a segment asking “What are these small town values?” Now North Carolina had become the latest battle ground over what is “real America.” Sarah Palin, speaking at a rally outside Greensboro, North Carolina, said “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.” Palin nor McCain ever dared to set foot in Charlotte, instead holding a rally outside the city alone a rural stretch of Highway 49. It was here that, before McCain spoke, House Representative Robin Hayes said “Liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God,” a comment he denied making until an audio recording proved otherwise.

I thought back to the summer days of my youth. My father would lift me into the air with his large hands, worn and calloused from many years spent in the local steel mill. His right ring finger half as long as the others, a permanent reminder of his Marine Corp tours in Vietnam. We would spend many summer afternoons in our back yard K-mart kiddy pool. My father was transferred from the steel plant in his boyhood hometown in Alabama when I was still too young to remember. He worked hard to make an honest living for my mother, my sister, and me. My mother worked part time in the local school system driving a bus and serving in the cafeteria. They were always active in my school and church, coaching my T-ball team or leading the children’s ministry with puppets. These were what I leaned were small town values; hard work, honesty, honoring your family, love of God, and love of country.

It is very hard to spot – only after years away from small towns, and from the outside looking in, that I can see the cracks in the so-called “small town values.” There is a great deal of politeness on the surface in rural areas, but it is only skin deep. You're okay as long as you look like everyone else, they think you are a good Christian, and aren't gay or something. Once you get past superficial politeness you'll be shocked at the fear and hate boiling under the surface. Some of it erupted during the election with angry mobs of Republican supporters.

Fear is what drives life in small towns. Fear of change. Fear of a shifting power structure. Fear of something or somebody different. It stems from an “us versus them” mentality and an oversimplification of everything as being either “good” or “evil.” There is no room for gray. Christians, especially, are taught that the world is out to get them – to destroy their country, their community, and their values. Power hungry politicians and pastors (with an increasingly blurred like between the two) demonize those who are different as a method to keep their followers in check. “The gays want to destroy our families, the Mexicans are stealing our jobs, and the blacks steal all the welfare money.” There is no room at the table for opposing views or independent thought. In their minds, good Christian folk are being persecuted. Cable news commentators, and my former pastor, told me the 1950’s were the greatest time in our nation’s history. When I hear that today I’m shocked. After all, in the 1950’s segregation was in full force, Jim Crow laws were in effect, and the glass ceiling was as high and firm as ever.

Along with fear, stereotypes drive small town perceptions of “outsiders.” In small towns, residents tend to lump people into large groups. You have your whites and blacks, all Latinos are labeled as Mexicans, and Asians are Chinese, and then there are those of “terrorist descent.” When you don’t know somebody outside of stereotypes, it is nearly impossible to care about them, and very easy to become wary of them. The small town is the comfort zone for those who fear the poor or foreign. Shane Claiborne said in The Irresistible Revolution, “I asked participants who claimed to be "strong followers of Jesus" whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, I sneaked in another question, I asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time with the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did. I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”

Small town America is stubborn and slow to accept progress and grant equality and liberty to all. Living in mostly segregated, rural areas breeds bigotry, racism, xenophobia, a general disregard for the poor and needy, and disdain for people and beliefs other than your own. Small-town-mindedness encourages anti-intellectualism, jingoism, and blind devotion to religion and government (which have an increasingly blurred line between the two). In addition, small town bigotry shifts over time. While segregation was a sacred institution in rural towns for most of this country’s history, many rural residents now take pride in how they “aren’t racist” and even have a token black friend to prove it. In 1968 the battle cry was “Protect the sanctity of marriage; no interracial marriage.” In 2008 it had evolved into “Protect the sanctity of marriage; no gay marriage.” I often hear stories of people from small towns who leave for college. At first they have a prejudice against gays or Muslims or some other group. Maybe their pastor preached on the evils of homosexuality. They believe it, until they actually befriend a gay person. Then they learn to judge their new friend by their character, and not the stereotype hung around their neck by a small minded pastor.

I’ve come to love the city so much that I could never imagine going back to a rural town. There is a great community in the city, an exchange of ideas where everybody has a place at the table. I’ve learned that people that are different than me aren’t the enemy. We’re all different, and that’s what makes us great. Once you get to know people, the stereotypes learned in the small towns are washed away. Eventually, we can stop labeling people all together, and accept them as individuals. It took some time - several years - after initially moving into the city before I realized I had become a liberal. I had come to cherish several important big city values; tolerance, peace, equality, justice, and a desire to treat others as I would want to be treated. I didn’t care about gays until I made gay friends. I didn’t care about the poor until I knew them and, in a way, joined them.

The morning after the election I drove though the small town of my youth. I’d often seen a Confederate flag flying on a pole along the highway just outside of town, but that day it was lowered to half mast. I mentioned it to a friend in Raleigh. “The Confederate flags are flying at half mast in the South today, haha,” he later responded. “Thanks for that joke; I’ve been telling it all morning!” Except, it wasn’t a joke.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I'm Coming Out

I’m not sure which my parents would be more upset about – that I voted for Barack Obama or that I am now an atheist. The struggle to come to terms with my beliefs was a long, difficult process that took me through the depths of depression and back. I didn’t want to be an atheist. I wanted God to be real. I want church. I miss church. But I have to truthful to myself and to those around me. I can’t live a lie. I have come to terms, though critical thinking and intellectual honesty, what I know is true: There is no God.

Growing up, I was very active in a Southern Baptist church from grade school though college. I became well versed in Southern Baptist theology and served in music, Vacation Bible School, domestic and international mission trips, and youth leadership in my church. I truly believed in God with all my heart, with all my mind, and with all my soul.

I always thought that Christians became atheists because they were mad a God. Surely it is an act of rebellion against giving God total control of their life. The complete opposite happened to me.

I drifted away from the faith for several years, but then I discovered several progressive Christian writers such as Shane Claiborne and Donald Miller, and I felt a renewed zeal to study the Bible and pursue my personal relationship with God. It's funny that this pursuit of God led to my atheism.

Several years ago I traveled to Japan and China and visited Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and it occurred to me that these people that I was meeting and getting to know have morals and ethics often as great as or greater than most Christians I know. I read Confucius Lives Next Door by T.R. Reid and pondered how can so many Asians have such high moral standards, lower crime rates, stronger communities and families, all without Jesus? Around this same time, over the span of several years, I began to learn more about the world around me. When I was little, God was bigger than I could imagine and there was no truth, no morality outside God. One day I came across this thought exercise: “If God told you to kill someone, would you do it?” Of course the answer would be that God would never ask me to do that. “But if he did tell you, that it was for the greater good, part of his plan?” I would have to answer no. My morals would never allow me to take another life. I’m a firm believer in non-violence and pacifism. At this moment, I was almost shocked to realize what this means: my values go beyond God – go deeper than God. It is as if God got a little smaller, or the universe as I know it got a little larger.

As I studied the Bible more, the more issues with theology I discovered. Perhaps the greatest issue I had was with salvation, or simply “who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.” If salvation is though faith in Jesus alone, then it is unjust to condemn those who have never heard the Gospel, and equally unfair if these people get a “free pass” while those who, to varying degrees, have heard the Gospel are judged. The more and more I learned about the world, the more I disagreed with the exclusivity of faith in Christ. Somebody who earnestly says a prayer accepting Jesus, then goes about life as usual, is more deserving of heaven than a Buddhist monk who dedicates his entire life to feeding the poor and clothing the needy, and caring for the sick? After all, Matthew 25 pretty plainly states that those who do “unto the least of these” are rewarded with heaven and those who selfishly do not are condemned. How do you reconcile “faith alone” with this teaching? How does simply saying a prayer supersede this? Maybe just praying the “Sinner’s prayer” and repenting of sins is not enough.

Jesus teaches that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” America is the richest nation on earth, run by greed and a desire to horde wealth. The average American household makes over $50,000.00 a year while much of the world lives on two dollars a day. In fact, Americans spend more on trash bags in a year than most people in third world countries spend on all their purchases. Churches are no different, building hundred-thousand dollar basketball gyms and installing thirty-thousand dollar multi-media systems. A hundred and thirty five million people are expected to die by 2020 due to lack of clean drinking water. Basic sanitation could be provided for most of these people for around ten billion dollars. It sounds like a lot until you consider that Americans will spend nearly 450 billion on Christmas presents this year alone. If what Jesus said about the rich was true, then virtually no American, or even any church in America, deserves to enter the Kingdom of God. In a just world, America deserves to be punished.

I thought that perhaps I am a Universalist – that there are many paths in life and all people will be reconciled to God eventually. But if this is true, then why is there a need to believe in God anyway? What’s the difference, as long as I seek to live out the message of Matthew 25 and seek to “love my neighbor as myself?”

Still, I tried fervently to seek God in spite of growing doubts. I wanted to believe that he existed. I prayed that he would show me the way. I prayed until I cried, begging that he would restore my faith. I read more Christian books and studied the Bible. Eventually I accepted what my heart and mind was telling me – there is not God. It’s not that I didn’t believe in Jesus’ teaching, but that his divinity and the existence of a God seemed increasingly unlikely in light of what I was learning about the world around me. I never stopped believing in the Bible in the sense that it is the greatest source of moral truth in my life. Jesus’ teachings such as the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25 form the basis of my ethics. I will always follow my conscience and seek peace, justice, equality for all people through love.

I guess some Christians will say it is okay – people take many paths and all people will be reconciled to God eventually. Some will say that I’ll eventually “come back around.” Some will say that I was never a Christian to begin with. My faith was completely real to me. I was certain that God heard and answered my prayers. I felt his supernatural presence in still quiet moments of worship. But now I realize that it was just a creation of my own mind. I want to be honest with myself and use reason and logic, not blind faith, to explore the world. Life as a human being is very precious, and it is something to be cherished. I want to spend my life creating “heaven” on earth for the “least of these.” I hope Christians will truly follow the teachings of Jesus work with me to do just that.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Why Christians voted for a pro-choice President

Why did I vote for a pro-choice President?

First, I really focused on what Jesus taught. The Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 25. Do you know how many verses in the Bible directly address abortion? Zero. How many directly address poverty and oppression? Over 2,000. The scandal Poverty is a life issue that is very important to me.

Second, author Jim Wallis did a good job of explaining “pro-life” when he wrote,

“Choosing life” is a constant Biblical theme, so I will choose candidates who have the most consistent ethic of life, addressing all the threats to human life and dignity that we face — not just one. Thirty-thousand children dying globally each day of preventable hunger and disease is a life issue. The genocide in Darfur is a life issue. Health care is a life issue. War is a life issue. The death penalty is a life issue. And on abortion, I will choose candidates who have the best chance to pursue the practical and proven policies which could dramatically reduce the number of abortions in America and therefore save precious unborn lives, rather than those who simply repeat the polarized legal debates and “pro-choice” and “pro-life” mantras from either side.”

Third, the idea that simply overturning Roe v. Wade will end abortion is as outdated as it is uncaring. It is time to try a new approach; addressing the social and economic reasons behind why most women feel the need for an abortion, and doing it out of a feeling of love and genuine kindness towards the women forced to make such difficult decisions. The old way has failed, let’s be willing to open our hearts to a new way of addressing the issue. The website Pro-Life Pro-Obama has some good research on the issue from a Christian perspective.

We Christians need to take a step back for a moment and look at the big picture. We need more dialogue and less shouting from both sides. Consider this thought from Omar Al-Rikabi at God’s Politics:

“On one side, so-called “values voters” rally for the right to life of the baby. But they see my cousin’s death and the displacement of his family (in Iraq) as “collateral damage” in a war for freedom and their own security.

On the other side, so-called “change voters” protest a war that claims the life of innocents. But they see my unborn daughter’s life or death as a “freedom of choice.”

When I look at the reality of my family in light of a consistent ethic of life, all I hear from most politicians and preachers are inconsistencies. Both sides argue freedom for a way of life. But is any of this really about freedom, or just misplaced selfishness? Could it be as Bono once sang that, “what you thought was freedom was just greed.”

Monday, November 3, 2008

Jesus for President

The air is filled with smoke in the back room of the Philosopher's Stone Tavern Saturday night in downtown Charlotte. Three days from the 2008 Presidential Election and North Carolina has become a battle ground state with McCain and Obama in a statistical dead heat here. Yet as local hip-hop and rock group One Big Love perform, there were several mentions of candidates who will not be on the ballot November 4th, including an impromptu song about the election:

"I don't want to vote for McCain. I don't want to vote for Obama. I want to write in Jesus."

"We all grew up in the country," Josh says. Brothers Josh and Jason form the core of One Big Love, and aren't afraid to share their views on rap, politics, and growing up in rural North Carolina. "What we'd like to accomplish with out music is to get people to open up their mind. It's got to happen with a revolution of information," says Jason before the show. "Do you think all them rich folk out there care about what's going on here?" Throughout the show the guys express their doubts in the two-party system changing the status quo any time soon, summed up by the original artwork on their fliers, which features a donkey and elephant joined together and painted with an upside-down American flag.

Listening to their music you get a message different than most hip-hop on the radio today, more in the vein of Public Enemy's Fight the Power. Lyrically and occasionally musically the group is similar to Colorado intelli-rap group The Flobots, who speak of social justice with Christian overtimes. Josh says, "We're anti-bling, we don't rhyme about any of that. It's so country and so real. We don't say one thing about Cadillacs. We didn't grow up like that. And people out there rhyme about it that don't have that, like Jason says 'congratulations on being wack.'"

A around a year ago I initially started my spiritual journey to rediscover who Jesus really is, looking at the Bible and forgetting the religious dogma and political spin. I started thinking and having ideas, not knowing at the time that I wasn't alone with these thoughts, or that anybody else had come to any similar conclusions. The brothers haven't heard of Shane Claiborne' s book Jesus for President, but they see past what the religious and political parties are telling us to believe. "Write in Jesus!" They proclaimed again later, as Josh holds up one of the posters for the cheering crowd. It is a sort of epiphany where I think, "Maybe there really is a revolution going on here in Jesusland."

"I try to come from a Biblical standpoint, plain and simple, and that's what the world needs right now," Jason says. "This is Babylon, for real, there's so much confusion and I try to be a beacon for truth. Not everyone knows what's going on, and I'm not saying I do. I try to make people think outside what they hear on the radio or on CNN. It's really a positive movement going on."

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Good Spirit

I've been thinking a lot lately about "small town values." Various politicians in this election have espoused the virtue of "small town values" and how small towns are the "real America." I grew up in a very small town before I moved into the city, so I've seen both worlds, and this week I've been writing about my observations which I'll post soon. In the meantime, I wanted to share a blog posting that really touched my heart. This is the story of fellow blogger and Charlotte bicycle courier Bill and his encounter with The Good Spirit, "local Charlotte artist who had lived on the streets." This story speaks of our values here in the Queen City; of friendship, respect, and seeking justice.

This Sunday is the 2 year anniversary of the Death of my friend The Good Spirit, David Ray Chisholm. I realize that anniversary dates are sometimes over emphasized to the point of the understanding and true meaning being lost however in this case I can never unlearn the impact this man had on my life. All that took place by knowing Ray and being part of his untimely death has influenced my understanding of not only true justice but of our place in society and I cannot look away from the obvious. The Good Spirit gave me an education that could not be paid for and his life legacy has been part of my inspiration to make photographs, write and share with those who take a peek into the blogosphere. I ask that you take a minute and read my very first post in memory of David Ray Chisholm better known as The Good Spirit......

Monday, October 13, 2008

Entitled to Bitterness?

I was called out recently. I posted on an internet forum and referenced “right wing blowhards” in a confrontational rant about my beliefs about how Christians should act. A response I received was a bit of a wakeup call.

“Guys, please don’t call people names just because they disagree with your stance. There’s nothing Christian about calling conservatives ‘crazy’ or ‘blowhards’. Someone said that in their experience, leftists tend to be more mean-spirited than those on the right. An honest perusal of the posts so far bears this out.”

This got me started thinking about how I feel about the church and how I feel about religious leaders with viewpoints different than my own. I realized I was angry. I was angry and bitter. And worse, I felt entitled to my bitterness. After years of religious indoctrination and institutionalization, I felt deep betrayal and hurt after I finally broke away and formed my own ideas and beliefs about Jesus and His teaching. I was angry because I felt I was always attacked from every side. Not only am I attacked by the secular left for believing in God, but I am attacked by the religious right for dining with the enemy. I’m told no true Christian would vote for this person or hang out with that person or do any number of things on a never ending laundry list.

I’ve been reading several books on religion and Christianity as part of my quest to find my place in today’s church. One of the books is Chris Hedges’ collection of articles based on the Ten Commandments, entitled “Losing Moses on the Freeway.” In his section on the Sabbath, he begins with a story of his time spend in a boarding school, and speaks of tyrannical teachers and regimented life. He writes of the schools formal adherence to religious ritual and doctrine:

“Religion, like learning, was part of the effort to bend us into dutiful and compliant young men. It was meant to curb and thoughts of rebellion, of self expression, of liberation.”

While I had never attended a boarding school, having been at church at least three times a week for twenty-odd years, I understood the feeling of being institutionalized and controlled. While most of the time I didn’t detest it, church was never simply an option for me. While I lived under my father’s roof, I would obey his rules, or so he said.

Chris goes on to talk about one act of rebellion by the boys at the boarding school. The headmaster and teachers instructed all the boys to walk up a hill, collecting rocks so the mowers would not hit them. In a spontaneous act of defiance, the boys began throwing the rocks up at the hastily retreating teachers.

“The prophets spent their days raging against corruption and abuse of power by those in the royal palaces and courts, the mistreatment of the poor, of widows and orphans, in short the hard and difficult struggle of the oppressed to achieve freedom and dignity. They were angry, indignant over the minor infractions. The prophets, I understood years later, would have been standing on the bottom of the hill with us, not at the top with the school officials who ruled us. But the message of the prophets, like all messages passed on to us, was twisted to pressure us to conform.”

I, too, had been throwing rocks of my own, verbal rocks, at religious leaders. After all, am I not entitled to my bitterness? I was like a person in an abusive relationship; I knew it was hurting me but I kept going back. I was dependant on my church. I felt I needed approval from my church. But every time I went back I would hear something that conflicted with my beliefs, and again anger would swell up inside of me. After I severed all ties, I still longed for my old flame, and the approval that I lacked.

During this time I was also reading “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller. I was very moved by his path to Christian spirituality, how he found his place in the church, and I felt as though he was talking to me and understood my situation. I came to a chapter titled “Church. How I go without getting angry.” “Ooh, that is me.” I thought, as read the words with great interest. Don lays out several issues that he has with the church, and says:

“I told [the pastor] it was hard for me to go to church without getting angry, and I think he took that personally. I tried to explain how I felt, but I was speaking a different language. I felt stupid, too, like some bitter idiot all wet and wanting everybody to cater to me, to my ideas about who Jesus is and was and the way He wants us to live.”

Don talks about finding a church where he fits in, and goes on to talk about how he had to let go of any bad attitude.

“I had to tell my heart to love the people from the churches I used to go to, the people who were different than me. This was entirely freeing because when I told my heart to do this, my heart did it, and now I think very fondly of those wacko Republican fundamentalists, and I know that they love me, too, and I know that we will eat together, we will break bread together in heaven, and we will love each other so purely it will hurt because we are a family in Christ.

Don’t hold grudges against any other churches. God love those churches almost as much as He loves yours.”

As I read this, I finally understood how to relate to my former church. I knew my bitterness was only hurting me, hurting my relationship with God, and hurting any efforts to find common ground and understanding with those of different views. What I needed was to love my previous church, and the religious leaders I disagree with, because without love and forgiveness there is no way I could ever have civil discussion or interaction with them again. I prayed for God to take away my bitterness and anger, and now I feel a great deal more peace. Now I can face people of my past with love and understanding. In fact, over the next few weeks I plan on hanging out with several old friends and acquaintances of my former church and hope to have good conversation about faith and sense of place in the church. Bridges are not burnt and I pray they never will be.

On the internet forum, I wrote a reply showing respect for different views and laid out my thoughts in a non-confrontational way. This time I received a better reaction:

“I applaud your chosen way to present your points in the later posts. This is how Christians should discuss differences with one another. Thanks.”

An addendum: Looking back over some of my older posts, I almost don't agree with some of the ways I argued things. I don't want to delete them, though, but understand that this blog is a personal journey of spiritual growth. Views, emotions, and positions may not be permanent.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Can Christians be Pro-Life and Pro-Obama?

That is the question proposed by

The website was created by the Matthew25 Network, and I think it is important for any open-minded Christian to hear what they have to say. For years we’ve been bombarded by they Religious Right’s views on what it means to “pro-life,” so I think it is only right to also listen to what the Christian Left has to say. It can be dangerous when we think one political party or one denomination thinks it is entitled to be sole owner and arbiter of divine truth. I am thankful for, and encourage civil discourse on the issue.

A letter from Doug Kmiec:

We are all called to build a culture of life - but there's more to it than just hoping that the next Supreme Court justice somehow deals with Roe v. Wade. A bad economy is threatening to human life. Women facing the moral tragedy of abortion - are facing it, now, today - and they need a supportive community and tangible help, not condemnation.

As Ronald Reagan's legal counsel and as a dean and professor at Catholic University and Notre Dame, I have worked to put the law on the side of life where it belongs.

But after 35 years, a new approach is needed. Too many unborn lives are being lost as we wait for judges to get it right. Barack Obama's strengthening of support for prenatal care, health care, maternity leave, and adoption will make the difference. Studies confirm it.

Do you think overturning Roe v. Wade will end abortion in the United States? Consider this:

  • Overturning Roe Vs. Wade, a long time goal of the pro-life movement, would not end abortion in the United States, it would simply send the decision to the states.
  • If states with more than 45% "pro-life" sentiment chose to outlaw abortion, this would only impact 16 states accounting for 10% of abortions nationwide, or less than 100,000 abortions a year.
  • Women in these 16 states would still be able to travel to seek an abortion in another state, or seek an illegal abortion, making the impact likely less than a 10% reduction in abortions nation-wide.
  • States with the highest abortion rates in the country, like California and New York, would be unlikely to outlaw abortion in their states.
  • Nearly half of all abortions in the world are performed in countries that have made abortion illegal.
  • The lowest abortion rates in the world - less than 10 per 1,000 women of reproductive age - are in Europe, where abortion is legal and available.
  • By contrast, in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, where abortion law is most restrictive, the regional rates are 29 and 31 per 1,000 women, respectively.
  • These countries are also much poorer than the U.S. and provide fewer social services; and a larger proportion of their population lives in poverty.
  • In Western European countries, in contrast, where more social services are provided and fewer women live in poverty, the abortion rates are consistently the lowest rates in the world.

A Sermon Somewhere in the United States of Jesusland:

A sermon Sunday morning somewhere in the United States of Jesusland:

Dear Christians, know that when there are troubling times like these we can turn to the Bible. When our way of life feels threatened, the stories and parables can be very comforting.

For example, let us read about how the Israelites were enslaved in the land of Egypt. The Egyptian empire had amassed great wealth and power and had a huge military, but God heard the cries of the oppressed who longed for justice.

God crushed the Egyptian empire and freed the Israelites. Their founding fathers decided to create a Godly Nation, with liberty and justice for all. And God blessed Israel.

Flipping a few books ahead we see Solomon, King of Israel. Israel has been blessed by God and had amassed great wealth, and has built a great military to defend it. And it says that as Israel's wealth grew, they had to build more forts and build a bigger military, to protect their growing wealth, that had to be spent more and more on defense. Hmm, says he also bought and sold chariots. So he was an arms dealer. Oh, and here it talks about Solomon's hundreds of wives and concubines and... slaves. It says Israel had slaves, after they themselves were brought out of slavery. Hmm, and here it says that the prophets told the empire of Israel that God is not pleased with their praise and worship music, and that He hears the cries of the oppressed.

Well, lets just flip ahead in the story a little to where, let's see... oh, Israel is conquered by Babylon? The great city of Jerusalem burned, the temple looted. Those who were not killed are dragged off into... slavery?

Uh, well let's just be thankful that was in the past. And thank goodness history doesn't repeat itself. Congregation, let us pray: Supply-side Jesus, we ask that God Bless Pax Americana. Bless our empire's militaries and markets in which we trust. Thank you for our Godly, Christian government and candidates, and forgive those who oppose them. Grant us oil. And crush our enemies. Amen!

All right congregation, if anybody cares to join us, we will be enjoying lunch at the Steakhouse buffet! Oh, and if anybody needs another yellow ribbon magnet for their SUV, there are some extras at the front. Thank you.

*NOTE: The previous was a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real life sermons or pastors is coincidental. And saddening. May Jesus save the church and have mercy on our country. For more on these ideas, read Jesus Wants to Save Christians

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Buffet Lines, Mission Trips, and Baseball Stats

I am the worst sinner I know.

I find most of my sins are against Christians more than against God. What I mean is, our church had an unwritten but strict code of conduct. You have a beer? Mmm-hmm, you are going on the prayer sheet, but we might be nice and list it as an "unspoken request." It doesn’t matter if the alleged sin is really Biblical or not (that’s an upcoming blog). Listen to non-Christian music? “Garbage in, garbage out! Don’t fill yourself with garbage of the world!” (That’s another upcoming blog post.) I always believed something was wrong because somebody in the church said it was wrong, but can we not make these decisions for ourselves? Perhaps it is more about appearance. Could you imagine if somebody occasionally had a beer, smoked tobacco, and sometimes forgot to wear an American flag pin on their suit? “Sure signs they don’t have Jesus in their life!” my church would say. What if we strip away all these rules that the church has made for us and simply, genuinely strive to follow Christ? No, it definitely all about appearances.

At my old church, it was also all about the stats, as if Christianity were a baseball game. How many people did we dunk in the water this year? How many 5-year-olds “gave their lives to Christ” at Vacation Bible School? How many people came forward to join the church this month? That was always an interesting ritual. See, at the end of every sermon, we would have an alter call where anybody who needed to pray would go down front and do so while the congregation sang all two dozen verses of “Just as I Am.” Of course everybody was thinking “I wonder why so-and-so is down there praying? Maybe they had a beer this past week, or watched ‘Desperate Housewives’ or something pagan like that?” The people wanting to join the church were the worst. Often teary-eyed, they would quietly whisper with the pastor until the hymn ran out of verses. We would graciously resist the urge to hum the "Jeopardy" theme and start over from the beginning of the hymn until that pastor gave the “all clear” so he could then proudly introduce our new church family members. After several services in which we ran out of verses we started having a backup closing hymn, so when some poor sinner was taking too long to make peace with God, we’d slip right into the next song. When you start the second hymn, you start getting mad at whoever is down there weeping at the altar. “Don’t they know they are going to make us late to lunch? That buffet line at Ryan’s Steakhouse is going to be outrageous! The Methodists are going to beat us to lunch! If we go to a third hymn, maybe even the Pentecostals are going to beat us!”

What if I admitted sometimes I have doubt? Would you still want me to go on that mission trip? I remember always being told before going on a mission trip “A mission trip isn’t a time or place to get right with God.” But, I never felt that I was constantly “right with God.” I’m not a Christian that thinks once you have a conversion experience there are roses and sunshine and puppy dogs everywhere and the sky is just little more blue. I feel it has to be a journey. Growth is a process.

Time to check the stats again. How many people converted to Christianity at our street meetings during our mission trip? Only two? “Well, we at least did our job of planting seeds.” Lately I’ve questioned whether we went about the mission trips the right way. Basically, our mindset was “we can’t really do anything for them, except offer them something after they die.” I remember standing on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, a hot, muggy evening. I was a kid, really, young, dumb, and full of Jesus, ready to convert the masses. My white dress shirt and black tie covered in a mix of sweat and dust, I stood on a corner under dim streetlights and spoke into the worn and dented microphone. “Life! What is life?” I forcefully proposed, loud enough to draw a squeal of feedback from the aged speakers. I went on to deliver a passionate, moving three point sermon that would’ve made the divinity students back Gardner-Webb proud. I referenced Psalms and Ecclesiastes and gave a message on how life is only temporary, and heaven awaits those who confess Jesus. I look back now and wish I could go back and say something else. I’m not sure what, maybe something more genuine and from the heart. Over the 5 mission trips to Kingston that would follow, I fell in love with the people. I tried to learn everything I could about their city, they way of life, their hopes and fears, and tried to see life from their perspective. Now I feel disappointed; I feel like I worked so hard to bring them religion. I want to bring them love.

Looking back, I feel disappointed about most everything I’ve done through the church; the sermons, the mission trips, the praise bands, the music and drama. I feel like I did it all for religion and not for love; for Jesus. I want to tear it all down with a wrecking ball, because it wasn’t authentic. I found that I would do what the church wants over what is in my heart, because I’m afraid to share what is in my heart. As a musician, I felt like I mostly needed to play “praise & worship” music, because praise & worship music is safe. Church safe. Oh, how I wish I had known of the music of Derek Webb back then. I want to find a church that isn't judgmental, that understands that we (even us Christians) are imperfect human beings. At my old church, I had to lie and always say everything was going great in order to keep from becoming an outcast. Who would want me to play bass in their praise band if they knew of my struggles? What if I wasn't a perfect Christian? What if they knew I was on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication? Good Christians don't deal with depression and panic attacks, right? It must be some fault of mine; something that I’m doing that is keeping me from God’s love, right? Maybe we’ve fallen in love with church instead of God? Maybe we serve religion over Jesus? I want to find a church where I don't have to pretend to be a perfect being in order to serve. I want a church that is more than a country club; that gets out into the community and does "unto the least of these." I want Christians that I can share my fears and doubts with and know I'm not the only one who is not perfect.

I wanted to start a blog about my attempts to change the church; to bring about the next Great Awaking, the next Reformation. But maybe the reformation in happening to me, inside me. I wanted to bring change, but change is happening to me. I haven't posted in a while, but I'm going to start writing more frequently. I just read Donald Miller's "Blue Like Jazz" and a lot has changed. I'll do a review of it later. Now I'm reading his book "Searching for God Knows What" and next I'm going to read the new book by Rob Bell and Don Golden titled "Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile." Oh, and I'm going to a forum by Donald Miller at UNC Sunday afternoon!