Wednesday, July 2, 2014

perfection

The theological tradition in which I was brought up (at least when it was emphasized) had an emphasis on "perfection," in the sense of a divine work of grace that removes all desire to sin.

Well, sometimes. It would seem certain folk need several helpings throughout their journey. Others are just born with it.

God is a God of order, therefore our inner spiritual house must be and will be set to perfect order.

This ideal came from someone's personal notes over a century ago, loosely based on an established doctrine and a new movement formed around it. Some scholars went to lengths to prove it from Scripture, splitting hairs with Greek verb tenses to make it be truth.

At one point when talking to a pastor, feeling secure in my "work of grace", I actually uttered "it's lonely at the top." As I know my heart, this was not out of conceit, but out of an observation that I knew of few others exercising the same amount of vigilance. I was brought up to keep the bad stuff out, period. Most folks seem to struggle with that, for me it was binary. Do or not do. With most stuff it's that easy.

My perceived sins were at that time were measured against the de facto evangelical ethic. Upon further reflection, and not surprisingly, it's really more "sins of omission," missing opportunities to make the world better rather than rushing in and making it worse. And so, an aire of perfection.

In high school days, when I first started a serious relationship with a female, one of the great older dudes at church pulled me aside to relate a familiar story, about younger days alone with a girl and they almost crossed the line. He choked up and hugged me.

One of my favorite phrases from over the years: "all perception is projection."

Thing is, for some of us the life quest is not to have, but rather, to understand.

But when we filter all the bad stuff out, never watching R rated movies for fear of losing purity, we don't get to see the stuff that has something to tell us. Kinda hard to plant flowers without getting dirt on your hands.

And so curiosity is libido, knowledge is currency, wisdom is maturity, love is inspiration, ideas are everything.

It's true, those of us living in our heads demand a high degree of order. The girl I dated back when used to say my family was "perfect", we acted perfect, which contrasted her home life with a single mom and 8 kids (literally) that was anything but serene. Her mom was the same age as my siblings, so the generation gap came into play, my folks just didn't have much time for disorder, and that happened fit my temperament  just fine.

Not surprisingly the notion of "Christian Perfection" is not really being kept alive, to the church's credit things seem to be more people-focused (felt needs, etc) rather than slamming heads with a rigid doctrine. Besides, in today's society religion is now a choice rather than a mandate, so why would most folks tolerate that if they don't have to?

case study

In the mid 80s our church had been revitalized by a number of factors. First, we had a "turn around guy" for a pastor who had come in with fresh energy. Then there was an influx of refugees from a sister denomination a few blocks away resulting from a congregational split (never heard the details of the issue, don't care to, but someone said it was "pretty bad"). And then the economic upturn sure didn't hurt anything.  There were even expansion plans drawn up and hanging in the foyer in those days and all programs were growing.

See, our denomination was perpetually coming to turns with its past.

Years later at the School on the Hill I learned that a couple generations earlier the more fundamentalist-leaning ilk had pretty much insisted upon a distancing from any hint of charismatic expressions of worship, because, after all how can you prove which spirit from which they hail?

One day pastor reads a letter during AM service stating the position on tongues, or personal prayer languages.

Again, years later I learn that this "problem" surfaces every few years and so the letter goes out.

As fortune would have it, the mother of one of those new families, very active and engaged with us, had (at some point, perhaps recently) experienced a season of spiritual ecstasy during the midst of which she was consumed in a strange tongue, as I gathered, for a period of several days.

Later in the week we learned that pastor had been meeting with the lady and her family but to no avail, they immediately left he church.

Monday, June 23, 2014

stubbornness

I may have pointed out before how defensive we become when someone or something challenges our worldview. Doubt creeps in around the edges. Could I have been wrong all along?

It kinda started with the preteen anxiety, at the end of the elementary years when conversations become more sophisticated, nuanced, and those with natural social graces begin to stand out, leaving those without social graces to also stand...out. Some of us live in our heads, and the prevalent attitudes and insecurities don't respond well to ideas, inventions, theories. And with a bend toward frayed nerves in the cold months, it times it can lead to a crash, an implosion. Some of us can't express ourselves well, so we squeak out what we can.

Toward the end of fourth grade I accepted Christ and stayed away from secular music for a couple years. That's what it means to be "right."

Eventually I realized that secular music was a way to connect with others, the ones that mattered. But there were still limits, walls. During a big evangelism at the fairgrounds my peers found need to have a smoke fest, and I took the side against that and was shunned, setting up a long, pensive summer.

During early college years some of the girls I worked with were advised against me, I was too "religious." But what else is an idealist to do when the ideals are such and you don't have a lot of reason to challenge those?

Back then the big thing was music, heavy metal reflected the inner fury, the conflict, war with the world that doesn't get it. Church folk accepted rap but not metal. Now, to their credit, you had white middle class evangelicals accepting a predominantly urban black form of expression - that in itself is awesome. But even suggesting a youth group trip to a Christian metal concert a couple counties away, "I don't believe in that." Well, then I don't believe in you.

In my late 20s, a young lady told me I was "obedient," in  the context of a "spiritual walk." I have no idea to what she was comparing my life, and it doesn't matter. After a while one would hopefully notice a pattern. "Religious," at least in the common sense, doesn't hold out on a long-term girlfriend who wants to start planning a family and can't figure out why certain forms of intimacy are off limits. Offspring and the responsibility they bring are just not an option, so why risk it?

In my late 30s I finally took a drink, after researching and planning accordingly. One bottle of Guinness over 2-3 hours, and I lived to tell about it. I had grown up under the shadow of a little black book that says the Church does not permit alcohol consumption, then the School on the Hill pointed out how that verbiage came from some upper-Midwestern fundamentalists that essentially bargained that in for joining the denomination, teetotalers, nannying gone awry.

People, we really need to learn what's behind all the "becauses" and "spose to's" we've come to revere so much.

Many times it's right behind a green curtain - not the mysteries of life and being and faith, but for me, the nagging questions of why tradition and Scripture are oft at odds, when "the way it is" is not the answer.

Based on the  barrage of social media postings it's clear that a lot of folks don't truly worship God, but rather, their doctrine or ideology.

What's my motivation? Far as I can tell it's to create, to build, to explore and many times to question. If you get in my way I'll go around you, and if you stay in my way I'll go through you.

And I'm realizing, we're all like that to a point, just not always so intentional in the pursuit of truth.

The past few years have been challenging to watch my dad deteriorate into dementia. Aside from his strength of conscience waning, the hardest part was seeing him struggle with unresolved issues, such as his relationship with his mother. There's no way to cover it up now as the angry inner child comes tumbling out into the living room. Or banquet hall.

Deep down we're nobody's fool, like the phrase, action talks and bullshit walks, as a dog or young child can sense deception in someone, when we're off calibration deep down - things just aren't right and neither is the world around us.

So, what to do? We persevere, some to an early grave, needlessly, but others, hopefully many, to a grand adventure, upward and onward.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

case study

The church board had allowed a single mother and her two teenage daughters to live in the vacant parsonage, that was about to be placed on the market after the pastor's family had gotten their own place. They had been living out of their van but should be able to pay rent soon, one of the daughters works at McDonald's in a nearby town.

Naturally this was only meant to be temporary way to help someone out, but as the weeks dragged on there wasn't always clear communication between the mother and the church. And then, one weekend they wouldn't allow one of the men of the church to access the inside of the parsonage to do some needed work in preparation for listing, after which he promptly ended his association with the church.

At some point the mother came forward at an altar service and made her life right with the Lord, confessed some sins, etc. She was present at nearly every service and brought some jello fruit to a picnic. I didn't have any.

Still, her daughters were very distant when greeted and the mother did most of the talking. She sat next to me in one service but I pretended not to notice.

Gradually the women of the church had been expressing their initial reservations as well their take. Pastor's wife said get rid of the squatters. Men of the board said we had to be good Samaritans. 

Then one day the pastor informed me that to get a hold of him to use his wife's cell number, because they had switched. Evidently the mother had "developed a crush" on the pastor and his wife was putting a stop to her calling at all hours.

At this point all communication failed, and the board had to arrange for an eviction notice. On the morning the eviction went into effect they were nowhere to be seen, but trash and damage were everywhere. The congregation did a second work day to re-prepare the place for listing. Some nail polish would not come off of the counter top.

The last time they were seen was when the infamous van pulled up alongside the pastor's wife as she drove down a 4-lane road, flipping her off and yelling insults.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

culture war

To answer a fair question, recently, from a friend...

As for the "creationism vs. evolution" debate...well, first, it's not even a debate because those are not apples/apples, but really two sides of the same coin.

Remember, science is only a few hundred years old, and the Creation account comes from prehistoric tradition and eventually borrowed from Babylonian literature when the OT was being written by Hebrews in captivity (but shaped in a monotheistic vantage of course). Back then you had oral traditions to tell the kids where we came from, it was a simpler time, a beautiful thing really - welcome to the Eastern mindset. They didn't have science to start explaining things, they had stories, and that was good enough for millennia. But the western mind came along and took a more factual and technical approach, seeking knowledge, sometimes through empirical proof, eventually leading to science. One way to look at it, our society is mired in a conflict between these two pragmas, but why?

Biblical teaching promises us a number of spiritual gifts, among them knowledge (akin to wisdom, both part of revelation) and also faith. Simply put, knowledge is what we do know (or theorize) and faith deals with what we don't know. Every person on this earth is tasked with coming to terms with those, the known and the unknown, being certain about one and finding courage in the face of the other. Science can't tell us everything, and so there's faith. Faith can also help us evaluate and accept new information and form a meaningful viewpoint, one that’s well thought out and hopefully not just inherited or assumed from childhood (ahem).

So...what drives me up the wall is how the vast vocal majority of Evangelical culture in this country can't seem to rationally handle challenge to their worldview, or even just a different way of looking at things and work toward that balance. The norm is that you have to get outraged, shoot first ask questions later, always react, make noise - that's no way to live, it's just sad. Far too long the church as taught people "what" to think instead of "how" to think, and we're paying for that.

So, it's largely a spiritual maturity issue.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

sin and stupidity

Being a misfit is nothing new. A few years ago I would celebrate this fact with a fellow misfit, we had lengthy conversations about being misfits and it was a true bonding point. But it was right about then I was finding my true ideology as it took shape out of the mire, and in coming to terms with it, well...

Thinking is a dangerous thing. It sets us apart from most creatures on the planet, and even among our species the more you think, the more different you are. It's like being part of a church, finding fulfillment in various kinds of service, among those who also find such fulfillment - then finally realizing, hey, most of them, bless their hearts, are in it for the interaction itself.

What propels one to think? What's the reward? Lovers need someone to love, parents need children, a man hopping as he unlocks his front door probably needs to pee, and thinkers need to understand.
And so as the locks are unlocked one finds even more locks.

I started attending the School on the Hill with an evangelism emphasis. Evangelism, bringing the good news, in the original sense, but in my tradition, it's when a traveling preacher shows up to yell from the pulpit. It's when the altar calls were long and people got honest. As an outsider he or she could really lay it on, speak to universal problems without any personal insight, hence the spirit of revival.

For my part, during the days when I wanted an ever deeper "spiritual walk" I found the church often didn't measure up -

See...all discussions of hamartiology aide, the word "sin" has a way of meaning whatever offends the person saying "sin." By the time my youth group had gotten through high school we had a clear understanding of what the church leaders defined as "sin," which is anything you didn't feel like doing in Sunday School class.

Another facet of a misfit is having standards, those can really offend people, but hey, that's not my problem.

So, after a few years as a so-called adult intentionally trying to find existential meaning in church involvement, with it increasingly obvious that something is broken, the answer must be to get into the pulpit and yell at people myself.

Then a funny thing happened at the School. There's a wonderful feature of a seminary program called deconstruction, where a wrecking ball smacks into whatever understanding you built (or was built for you...) and, if you stick around, you start to reconstruct it. Thing is...heh...how to let an Organization that never earned my trust play a major role in said reconstruction?

Either you love the church, or you don't. 

My issue with the church, or humanity, or myself wasn't willful sin. It's unchecked stupidity. Some may equate that with "original" sin, but I can't.

It comes back to standards. When the Organization, which has it's roots in the theocratic establishment in 4th century Rome, after having been formed around a figure who in turn had met his fate at the hands of an earlier religious establishment - do things ever really change? Not only do we shoot our prophets but we can't see what we really are.

Back in youth group we had a married so-called adult male telling us not to fornicate when it's common knowledge that he was diddling someone else's wife and they were trying to make it a foursome. This fact causes me to short circuit.

I had to move 700 miles from where I grew up to start seeing things from the side, recognizing postmodernism for what it is, meeting folks on the political left with a beautiful, thriving faith, not afraid to champion social justice, and finding that many are realizing that doctrine works better as a conversation than a book, there's no clear answers, just learning to live with questions.

There was no longer a need to go yell at people.

There was also no longer a need to fit in.

Monday, June 9, 2014

wokay

Read something recently that really resonates, how a large part of the culture in this country (USA) is rejecting intellectualism. Having grown up in the white evangelical protestant world this should be no revelation. Woe to thee, stubborn and stiff-necked people, liking to have their ears tickled. It's not polite to talk about politics, but who gives a rip when the human condition is much more compelling...we, who shoot our prophets and tend to gather with those like ourselves. Growing, maturing, is hard work, and we often excuse each other from that way too easily. If there's a time for everything, as per Solomon's wisdom, then along with the nurturing and support where's the kinder, gentler foot in the ass when we need it?

To the idealist, few things are more important than ideas. To be raised in the church one will as such absorb the doctrines and the need to be "revernt" and well-intentioned folks projecting their perceived personal failures onto the young in their search for absolution, it goes on and on. But in the end, some things we must learn for ourselves.

At one point my cradle doctrine, in the holiness tradition, that one must be sanctified entirely by a work of grace, seemed to fit my circumstances. I told everyone who would listen, even those of the opposite sex who were there to meet guys, why weren't the ideas so important to them too? Some were hungry for truth, many blinded by what they thought they already knew, and I wanted more.

This quest took me to the School on the Hill, where they teach you to live and proclaim the doctrine, although, what I mainly find are folks interested in people, and that, it's not about the doctrine so much anymore. They are struggling over how the doctrine came about, and are getting back to Scripture - which is great, but what's a boy to do with his cargo of ideas?

But I digress. Organizations are made up of people, and are for people. There are a few that are into ideas as well, but they all seem to hail from Babel, all seeming to speak a different language I don't comprehend. As for the Organization itself, many, if not most of those people aren't really clear on why they are there.

Many folks earnestly love the community with all their heart, that's great. Knowing is not always the most important aspect.

But what if it is? And what if it's become clear that there's really no common ground, nothing by which to form a true bond, with an organization that never truly earned your respect?

So here we are, typing some more.