Monday, September 19, 2016

Being a Human

The story has been bopping around out there, flitting near the surface of my consciousness.  It's the tale of this Brit who wanted to know...first hand and existentially...what it was like to be a badger.  What do badgers think?  How do they experience the world?

In order to accomplish this, he started spending his time snuffling along the ground like a badger.  He began to regularly eat what badgers eat, meaning he developed a sophisticated gourmand's grasp of the nuances of worm-meat.

The "eating worms" bit is a serious hook.

He also 'became' other creatures.  Stags.  Badgers.  Otters.  Swifts, too, apparently, although I'd love to know how he managed to fly well enough to catch gnats.

This, of course, makes a great pitch for a book.  Which, of course, was the whole idea.

It's fascinating.  Here, the effort to encounter reality from the perspective of an animal, something that's hard for we humans to get at, what with our big brains and our bipedal ambulation and our general disconnect from our own animal nature.

I was thinking about this the other day, because I was walking.

Or rather, I was walking again.  For years, I'd taken long walks as a part of my weekly routine.  When my younger son was in multi-hour rehearsals, I'd work for a bit in the library, then take hour-long rambles through neighborhoods.  It was time to observe, time to think.

When he stopped taking drums, I stopped walking as much.  The pattern was broken.  I spent more time driving.  More time on social media.  More time around the house.

And it made me...well...fidgety.  A little more anxious.  A little heavier.  A little less creative.

My soul felt it, that ineffable wholeness of self, meat and spirit woven up into the unique particularity of my person.  Not walking weighed on my soul.

I needed to walk.  So as I run errands, I walk.  They take longer, because I get out and use myself to get myself there.

And it struck me, as I walked, that the full engagement of my body was as strange to our peculiar mechanized way of life as being a badger or a stag or a fox.

As I walk, I am using my limbs as they were intended.  I am erect, my eyes and ears and nose alert to the world.  I am not encased in steel, the scents of tree and grass filtered away by climate control.  I am hearing the world for which I am so well evolved, the sound of wind, the hum of tire on the road.  I see light and detail, the crumbling granularity of American roads, the details of homes, the rustle of a deer in the underbrush.

When I choose to walk, I am not being maximally productive, not optimizing my time, not being efficient.

But I am being human.

It's a good thing, remembering what it is to be human.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

All Part of The Plan?

I listened as she spoke, and though my mind lit up with responses, I kept my mouth shut.

Sometimes it's important to do that.

I was sitting with other folks at my little church, as we together enjoyed a book presentation by my predecessor in ministry at my little church.

Well, "enjoyed" may be the wrong term.  Her presentation was engaging and often funny, and the book is well worth the read.  But the book is not an easy one. Her memoir has as its narrative fulcrum the telling of how she and her college housemates were systematically raped during a home invasion robbery.

What lit me up, among other things, were the particulars of the theological struggle she'd had as she'd processed her trauma.

As a person of faith, she offered up her wrestling with the challenge faith faces when it encounters horror.  Why, if God is a God of love, mercy, and justice, did that happen?

The first and easiest response is that it was all part of God's plan.  Somehow, that act of violence was necessary to accomplish some larger goal within the machinations of Divine Providence.  It all works together for the good, or so that line of thinking goes.

She'd stopped thinking that about her own trauma, and she'd stopped saying that to people who experienced major life trauma.

When God set the universe into motion 13.8 billion years ago, it was not part of the great cosmic Design of that she be raped.

I have to say that I agree.  That's not how God works.

Oh, terrible things can be turned to good ends.  There is no moment of being that cannot be shaped or turned away from darkness.  That is the essence of the redemptive message of Jesus.

But I do not ascribe the monstrous and the brutal to divine intent.  Those planes were not flown into the twin towers because God wanted it so.  God does not line you up to go into the camp showers.  God does not require that you betray a trust, or offer a cutting word.

That is our ill wrought choice, made because we know not what we do.  Our cycle of inflicting suffering upon one another is part of the self-annihilating character of sin.

Those actions are the result of our willingness to know evil, the bitter taste of the one dark fruit of Eden.  They need not be so, in the same way that the cycles of bitterness we inflict on ourselves in our own lives do not need to be so.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Closed Circle Christianity

I sat deep in my comfy chair, a book in hand, and looked across at my wife, hard at work on her laptop.

I had a question drumming about in my head, as I often do when she is hard at work on her laptop.   The question was this:  We Presbyterians are a literate bunch.  We're readers and writers and users of words.  Wordsmithing is our happy place.

But what Presbyterians are out there now who 1) write and are 2) known as writers outside of our denominational circle?

I know the answer to the first.  I know many writers, excellent ones, who produce lovely books and excellent thoughtful blogs.

But so much of their energy falls back into the denominational system, into our conversations about "being church."  Much of that is necessary, particularly in a retrenching system that's remaking itself.  But that has impacts. Creativity turns inward, in towards the life of the institution, an all consuming vortex of committee work.  Language itself becomes the particular language of the tribe, as I've discovered working with the editors of my upcoming novel.

"Did you mean to say 'living into'?" they ask.  Well, um, kind of.  "You know," I say back.  "Like living into hope?  The CAAAPT iiiivEs FREEE!  You know?  That hymn?"   Just justifiable blankness in response.  That's happened more than once, and I never even used the word "missional."

Creatives inside systems shape themselves to the social and structural expectations of those systems.  It's just how humans function, but it can become a challenge if the ultimate goal is to speak a deeper truth to the broader world.

So I ran a list of writerly folks I know who are part of the denomination by my literate Jewish wife.  Capable writers all.  Names within the Frozen Chosen Circle of Trust.  Not a one of them meant anything to her.  Wait, you've mentioned her name to me, she said.  Oh, yeah, I think I remember you talking about him, she said.

But the ideas, the words?  The awareness of that soul as a creator of content?  Not so much.

Then I dropped the name I was sure she'd know, the one Presbyterian who seems to have regular purchase as a writer of things both literary and spiritual.

Anne LaMott? I said.  "Oh yeah," she said.  I know her stuff, she said.

I've had that reaction before, as I've recommended spiritual books to folks who love to read.  Here, a writer who creates books about faith that connect with a broad audience.  Lamott is Presbyterian, in that she is an active member of a small Presbyterian church.  If their webpage is to be believed, she teaches confirmation class now and again.

What she is not is deeply connected to the mechanisms of our polity.  Denominational identity doesn't mean all that much to her.  Jesus does.  Church does.  But the particulars of our tradition aren't highly relevant.  From what I have heard and seen of her, I can't imagine Anne LaMott at General Assembly, on some committee somewhere futzing over an amendment to an amendment to the first reading of an overture.

Well, I can imagine it.  It'd be...interesting.

Her networks as a writer are primarily extrinsic to her identity as a Presbyterian, which is present...but loosely held.  That loose holding seems nontrivial.

Because the tendency of institutions and organizations to draw us inward is a dangerous one, if spreading the good news is our goal.  If no words of hope radiate outward from the event horizon of our institutional life, then we're hardly a light to the the world.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

In Defense of Niceness

One of the more consistent themes amongst my coreligionists is an inveighing against "niceness."

Nice people are smarmy, treacle-mired milquetoasts, who do not understand the importance of The Battle.  They are weak, dull, and enablers of everything that is wrong.

You don't want a "nice" church, or so I am lead to understand.  You want a church that zealously defends the Truth, rooting out the blighted falseness of heretical imperfection.  You don't want a "nice" church.  You want a church that demands absolute justice, carefully checking the souls of every person for signs of noncompliance.

Nice people are too comfortable.

So afflict the comfortable, rises the cry, although I'm not quite sure who those comfortable people are.  I've not met many people who are really and truly comfortable.  Oh, folks might *seem* to be.  But open up a soul even the tiniest little bit, and you find anxieties and loss and struggles to find meaning.

Jesus, my coreligionists will often say, was not "nice."  He said things in anger.  He challenged the Powers that Be.  He was willing to present The Hard Truth, no matter how much that hurt.  There's truth to that, to be sure.  I encounter that every time He challenges me.   But the desire to be edgy, to tear down?  Is that the truth of the path? We must speak the Truth in love, I am told.  Because boy, is the Jesus Truth angry, and boy, do we love to speak it.

This is a common refrain among those most eager to tell others their failings, most willing to berate and belittle and claim the mantle of Jesus as legitimizing their rage.  But rage?  Rage makes you weak.  Easily guided.  Easily duped.

It also blinds you to complexity, because anger just ain't down with subtlety.  Anger just likes to hit things.

So I will rise, now, in defense of niceness, because niceness has power.

Take, for instance, the civil rights movement.  On the one hand, you had demonstrators, sure.  They weren't passive.  Dr. King was not shy.  Those who followed his gracious lead did not submit to injustice.  They were not submissive. But they were nice.  They were well dressed, in a way that signified to power that they were good and nonthreatening people.  They were politely insistent.  When they came to the counter to nicely order their food, they were kind and respectful and patient.

Around them gathered people who were not nice.  They cursed and acted out and generally behaved in ways human beings recognize as cruel.  They were obviously bullies, picking on nice people.

They dumped food on them.  Cursed them.  Sicced their dogs on them.  Knocked them down with firehoses.  Put them in prison.

Killed them.  We all saw it, and it was a horror.  Why are they doing that to those nice people?

When you are unyielding in your kindness, when you refuse to back away from being decent, it's not simple.  Being nice isn't easy.  Just as showing compassion isn't easy.  And as easy as it is to see kindness as a form of weakness, I'm not sure it is.

It's one of the reasons, boring as it might seem in this ever louder and angrier world, that I think it's so important for a community to excel in kindness.  To be nice, God help us.

I tend to think, honestly, that there just has to be space out there in the ecology of congregations for communities that mostly try to be kind to one another and to all those they encounter.  Places where kindness and compassion are practiced as the primary thing you do, above and beyond doctrinal purity.

Because the world does not seem to lack for zealots.  There seem to be plenty of those.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Most Evil Woman Who Ever Lived

As the Catholic Church canonizes Agnes Bojaxhlu, I find myself encountering a peculiar thing from the more radically left-fringe of my internet awareness.

Article after internet article, attacking the woman most of us knew as Mother Teresa.  If those articles are to be believed, she was a monster, a glazed-eye fanatic who abused the oppressed and cozied up to dictators for her own psychotic self-aggrandizement.  That way of understanding her life was first and most aggressively pitched by the late and much lamented atheist provocateur Christopher Hitchens, who at least had the advantage of wit, a mastery of the language, and his own peculiar dissolute charm.

The latest wave of condemnation has none of his talent.

She is, by the standards of her accusers, a psychopath.  The most evil woman who ever lived.

The charges against her seem to fall into several different categories.

First, that she was anti-abortion and believed that divorce was problematic.  She also opposed contraception.  I personally don't share what was likely her perspective on some of these issues.  Why?

Because I'm not Catholic.  I mean, she was Catholic, after all.  Right?  And she's being made a saint in the Catholic church, right?  That a Catholic saint would hold orthodox Catholic positions seems rather a silly thing to get one's knickers in a twist about.  What matters to me...what matters to anyone grounded in what a person actually believes and how their belief impacts what they do.

That gets us to attack point number two.  She believed that there was an inherent nobility in poverty, and that enduring suffering has redemptive power.  This is also a Catholic position, pretty radically so.  It's also a pretty basically Christian position, one that I share.  She insisted on telling the poor that they were worthy, that their suffering wasn't in vain, and that they had value as human beings no matter what their condition.

Why is this wrong?  Well, because it must be wrong.  Spun the way her prosecutors are spinning it, her care for the poor was abuse because it celebrated suffering and did not challenge systemic injustice.  Saying that the endurance of suffering is noble becomes the foundation of the charge that she was a sadist.

Again, this seems absurd.  Faced with someone dying in squalor, you can either affirm their life or not.  You can frame their suffering as meaningless, as something inflicted on them by a power beyond their control.  "Your life up until this point, all the hurts and losses?  A waste of time.  Being poor sucks. Oh, you're dying?  Pity.  Hope oblivion works for you."

That's not to say I have a problem with being aware of systemic injustice, or of calling attention to it.

But more often than not in this #hashtag #activism era, focusing monomanaically on macro issues becomes a great way to do nothing.  Faced with a starving man, writing a tumblr post about food injustice and global imbalances of privilege and residual impacts of colonialism may not be wrong, but it is a hell of a lot less relevant to that actual human being than putting food in his belly.  Faced with an abandoned soul, you don't offer up a tweet about social isolation.  You take time for them and show them compassion.

It's the secular leftist equivalent of offering thoughts and prayers instead of real material care to another human being.  

Third, that in her actions she was an abuser of the poor.  Her clinics and hospices and orphanages did not meet acceptable levels of hospital hygiene, and often did not provide care that meets medical best practices.   Needles were boiled and reused rather than discarded.  Nuns who had not received nursing degrees tended to their charges.

So in the heart of desperate poverty, Western medical standards were not being met, and Mother Teresa is to blame for criminal malpractice.  

Again, this is more than slightly insane, unmoored from the reality of life in the global South.  In places of abject poverty, where resources are scarce, you have to make do.   If you're running a clinic in the South Sudan, it's not going to look like a clinic in a tony suburb of London.  Expecting it to do so and condemning it when it does not is fundamentally irrational.

Fourth, that she went to desperately poor countries that were run by the corrupt and by dictators, and she did not condemn those predators and dictators.  That, in fact, she may have been kind to them and said positive things as she and her order worked to build clinics and hospitals in places like Haiti.

From within the protective clamshell of laptop aggrievement, attacking her for this makes sense.  But if what matters to you is the alleviation of immediate human suffering, then maintaining a stance of absolute ideological purity doesn't get people fed and healed.  The starving and the sick and the orphan may not have the energy for revolution right now.

But still.  Do your justice work.  Fine.  Go team.  You work for that, while she makes sure the poor don't starve waiting for utopia to materialize.

What strikes me in this collection of absurdities, as it struck me when I read Hitchens' infinitely better written but equally preposterous character assassination pieces years ago, is how deeply the need to attack Mother Teresa rests in the mortal desire to avoid cognitive dissonance.

If faith is axiomatically monstrous, and you're just sick to [flipping] death of this [maternal copulation] nun being thrown back at you as evidence of the goodness of faith, then she must be destroyed.  Datapoints must be selected and assembled into a counterargument, one that allows one's understanding of existence to be unsullied by complexity.

And that's a problem.  It creates binary thinking, the dark and bitter absolutism that sours all of human life. 

Because reality is complex.  People who disagree with me on some pretty fundamental things also are capable of remarkable goodness.  I am not an atheist, but accept that atheists show compassion and grace.  I am not a Muslim, but can embrace the truth that Muslims feed the poor and welcome the stranger.  I can see the good in the stranger, and even in those who consider themselves my enemy.

Binary thinking does not permit that.

Mother Teresa was not perfect.  She felt that more than anyone, felt the dark nights of her soul, felt her own inadequacy, felt the emptiness of her own ego in the face of God's calling.

But that is how saints feel.  It is how they are.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Small Churches Got No Reason to Live

I love small churches.  I like the intimacy, the focus on what is essential in human relating.  I like the scale--small, humble, devoid of the big screen sturm-und-drang of the Jesus MegaCenter.  I like that there don't need to be standing committees, that the energy of the church is free to coalesce around whatever needs to get done.

Lord, do I like that.

But for denominational Christianity, tiny congregations have always been something of a fuddler.  They got tiny little feet and tiny little toes, and you got to pick 'em up just to say hello.

Institutional efficiencies mean nothing to communities that are primarily relational.  Procedures and protocols just aren't the way microcommunity gets things done.  New programs can't find purchase in communities where volunteer time is at a premium.  Wee kirks do things in idiosyncratic ways.  They couldn't care less about the latest new thing.

Small churches aren't particularly eager to do anything other than be themselves.

Still and all, it came as something of a surprise when my denomination stepped way back from supporting and encouraging small churches this last year.  A program that supported clergy committed to serving congregations with less than 100 members was eliminated.  The denominational office that served to network tribal-scale communities became the "Office of Church Growth and Transformation."

Small churches have been cut loose.  It'd be tempting to grumble and kvetch, because complaining comes easy to humans.  "What?" I could snipe.  "We're abandoning our support of fully half of our congregations?  Oh, the humanity!  Jesus weeps!  He weeps!"  Then I could say something snarky and smug, and feel good about myself and how much better I am than everyone else.

But I get it.  In a time when denominational Christianity is in radical decline, and my own corner of the Reformed tradition is crumpling in flamey flames like an ecclesiastical Hindenburg, you need to do some triage.  The resources just aren't there to do everything.  If you're oriented towards supporting and sustaining the infrastructure of communities, there's not much point in pouring your increasingly limited energy into the organic gatherings that neither have nor want infrastructure.

And as the Alban Institute's Loren Mead once put it, you couldn't kill most small churches with a stick.  They just keep on keepin' on.

So rather than grumble and deconstruct, better to be positive.  To build, rather than tear down.

The issue with most little churches, honestly, isn't that they're little.  It's that a culture that celebrates both growth and largeness tells them small and intimate is inherently bad.  You got no reason to live, the culture says, and the small church starts to believe it.  

Which is why over the last month I've worked to "bookify" my doctoral research into what makes small churches vibrant, slapping it into a form that is easily readable by lay folks, perfect for a book study or an adult ed class.  Or just a little light reading for those so inclined.

"The Strawberry Church," it's called, which by the standards of churchy books is pretty non-intimidating.  It explores what it means for a community to be small and fruitful and sweet.

You can buy it, if'd you like, out there on Amazon, for the lowest price they'd let me sell it for.  Or, if you'd like, I'll send you an electronic copy for free.  Because while healthy small churches may be made of love, they ain't made of money.

And that goes double for the pastors who serve 'em.  Lord, do I know that's true.

So just pitch me an email at belovedspear at gmail dot com, and it's yours with my blessings.

'Cause small churches got plenty of reasons to live.