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.