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!