Friday, April 26, 2013

Christian Inc. Revisited

So, my church, the church I really like, is putting together a picture directory.  I totally support that, especially since I'm so bad at names but not faces.  I actually headed a movement to create a photo directory in my old church, until some ladies got mad because my photo made them look fat and old so I had to cancel my plans.

But I had this funny feeling that I would meet some type of conflict in the matter this week, and I did.

I think my uneasiness stems from a church in Minnesota where I was a deacon. We had a "Christian photography group" come in and say that they had a ministry of taking free photos of church members in order to create a church directory.  They wore their evangelicalism on their sleeves.  The deacon board was grateful for them coming and speaking to us and it seemed like a win-win situation. We would get a free directory out the kindness of their hearts and their call from God.  My cynical self knew better. 

Sure enough this "Christian ministry" came in with their cameras and beautiful back drops. They scheduled each family for about 45 minutes. It takes about 1 minute to take a photo.  But they took a series of photos over 6 minutes. They spent the other 39 minutes with extreme manipulation and coercion to get each member to buy $300 photo albums for their families. It pissed me off.

So, when I heard that we were being scheduled for photos, I just knew what to expect.  This time the group never pretended to be evangelicals . . . just a photo company doing a favor for a church.  My wife came with me. We sat for our photo for the directory. Then we were taken to table where the photography started his very emotional and manipulative sales pitch.  One thing that struck me odd was that he could digitally remove our wrinkles and fat (which reminded me of the trouble that I got into when I was trying to take unadulterated photos at my old evangelical church).  But the thing that really pissed me off is, as we were resisting his sales pitch, turned it into a spiritual issue.  He reasoned that if we didn't buy hundreds of dollars of his photos for ourselves  that we would be hurting the fine ministry of the church.

It takes me back to two other events.  One was when a Presbyterian pastor (PCA) friend of mine from college told his friends and church members that God wanted them to buy nutritional supplements from him and that the Bible calls (western medicine) witchcraft and it is from Satan.  I was really pissed because I, a practitioner of western medicine, am then a warlock.  I kept it to myself until he told a lady with breast cancer to stop her chemotherapy and start his crappy vitamins  which he sold thought a "Christian" MLM scheme. When I confronted him his come back was that he had just as much right to make a living selling his vitamins as I did in western medicine.  My point was that he was a liar, a cheat and he was doing it in the name of Jesus. I would never, ever tell someone that God wanted them to see me as their health care provider or that by not seeing me they were in sin.  This is crazy stuff.

I will not tell my last story because this is getting long and I have to go.

I will just conclude that I contemplated complaining to my church about this photographer.  But I've been through this before and I know how this will end. I will go in smelling like a rose (in my eyes) and come out smelling like horse shit.  No one else would see the problem. They would think I'm over reacting.  They would say, as this pastor friend said, that the photographer deserved selling some photos to support his family. That's not the point!  All professional photographer deserve to make a living just like me. But the problem is using spiritual manipulation to get money.  This is an abomination. But it was such part of the Church (big C) in the middle ages and the TV evangelists and the pastors . . . that it is so natural. But manipulation is always bad even it is raises money for a good cause.

I remember sitting through long brainwashing sessions with the Navigators when I was in college. It was incredible the pressure they put on you to give money to their staff and missionaries.  I once had money saved up to get new tires (as mine were as bald as bald could be) and the speaker made me feel like a satanic jerk. So I gave them the money. Then the speaker drives away in his brand new car.  Why didn't the same rules apply to him?

I digress. But I dream of honesty. Where you say, "Give to this missionary couple because they are in full time ministry and can't work at a job to earn a living. They would be very grateful for your help."  Instead of "God is looking for that one person who really loves Him enough to step out in faith to give that $800 you had saved for rent to Him, knowing that He will pay your rent for you. Who in this room really loves God?"

Or . . . "I can take a few wrinkle off your face, remove that spare tire, create that perfect smile on your face as a testimony of the Lord . . . and by buying these digitally remastered you . . . you show that you love God."  Does anyone else here see the absurdity here?

A Celestial Dis-satisfaction in a Satisfied Pretense . . . Where Mick meets Woody

So here’s the problem.  Everything is going great!  Life is swell! Honestly. I have all I need. My kids have turned out well. My mother is living longer than the average person. I live in the place I’ve always wanted to live in. My health, while not perfect, is pretty good.  I lack nothing.  So what am I bitching about?

I’ve tried and I’ve tried but I can’t get no satisfaction. But Woody said it best. He delivered the words that I could not find.  While I question his personal choices in life, I admire his candor.

In an interview with Woody Allen about two years ago he made an uncanny remark.  He said that his life had been perfect. He got do fulfill all his dreams.  Here he was a homely-looking, short man with all kinds of limitations but was blessed, often by being the right place at the right time, to make movies, to be a professional musician, to have more money than he can spend and to make love to all kinds of beautiful women . . . far beyond his physical class.  Yet . . . he felt this deep disappointment in life.  He added that he wasn’t mad at anybody nor did he feel any injustice . . . but just deeply dissatisfied.

I know what he means.  Now this is where I will give Woody some words.  Not that he could have conjugated better sentences than me but during that interview he expressed that he didn’t know why.  I think he does because he is quite a philosophical guy but just didn’t want to say it.

I’ve thought about this a lot.  No, I’m not depressed right now. I am disappointed.  I’m not disappointed at God or man (as far as I know). 

The thing that disappoints me is the loss that comes with life.  I’ve lost my dad.  I’m losing my mom, whose memory is fading right before my eyes.  I’ve lost my kids . . . to good things, like careers and distance.  I’ve lost my youth.  I’ve lost countless friends . . . most by moving, many by my leaving evangelism and a scant few by death.  Of course the great loss will be my own life, which is inevitable.

If I tried to even think these thoughts outside my own head in the middle of an evangelical Sunday school class, it would be immediately scolded.  Christians, after all, are to be satisfied.  Anything less means that they are not pleased with God . . . such thoughts deserves the fires of Hell . . . or do they?

But I know God differently now. This isn’t elementary school anymore of pretending on the playground.  There are big thoughts out there and God is the hyper-adult.  I think that the dis-satisfaction is intended.  The only thing that could possibly fix it lies within the great unknown on the other side of life. 

The fixing isn’t having more positive thoughts.  The fixing isn’t filling your cranial space with praises of God, like inflating a balloon inside a bottle, so that no negative thought would ever have the space to enter your mind.  I think that God wants it to go unfixed.  The dissatisfaction leaves this bad taste that is always in your mouth that nothing, including Evangelicalism’s positive thinking, can purge.  It makes me long for some type of remedy . . . something so amazing and satisfying that I can’t even imagine it. So we can still live happily (as happy as any human can be), I think, while embracing the celestial dissatisfaction. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Paradise (of the easy narrative) Lost

I'm going to struggle once again to find the words to express what I've been thinking this week.  Once again I have such time pressures that I don't even have time to think anymore. Not having time to think for anyone is a tragedy. Having the thoughts but not having the time to organize them into language feels criminal.

I know that I've talked about this subject from different angles or facets of perspective. It is the issue where, as you grow older, and if you live in reality, the simple narratives of life, drifts into the convoluted.

Yes, there are days that I envy knowing all the answers.  It is enticing. That is why many people choose to live in the masquerade of the intentional universe, where every thing makes sense and fits like a puzzle piece, conjugated with each part of the grand scheme.

My wife and I were playing this game today, as we have often played, of time machine.  So you pick a date in your life and go back. What would you have done differently?

Today, she picked age 18.  I know that she was thinking mostly of professional choices but my mind started to drift into the philosophical.  You see, it was age 18 when I entered the evangelical world.  I lived in the bullseye of evangelicalism for the subsequent fifteen years.  If I were to go back in a time machine, when the Nav guy asked me to move in with him, I think I would have said no.  I would have kept my distance.  But where would I have gone?  I'm not sure.

I think for one, I would have gone to LAbri in Switzerland. It was still in their glory days when Francis Schaeffer was at the helm. Of course they weren't perfect either . . . but at least they thought . . . or allowed thinking.  I wish I had not turned off my brain for 15 years and I think LAbri would have helped me there. But I will stop my daydreaming at this point.

Last week end I did some reading about Rick Warren loosing his son.  I know this sounds corny but in Star Wars, when the small planet was blown up by the Death Star, Obi-Wan Kenobi said that he felt a great disruption in the "force."  Of course his force was an impersonal pantheistic force.  But when I hear of tragedy like this, I feel it deeply. I lay awake in bed and think about the sadness of the loss . . . as a parent of sons. I grieve for the people dying in Syria.  I grieve for anyone I hear about facing their own nightmares.

As I read about the Warren situation, there was one article that was (rightly) condemning the negative comments being made about the Warrens from Christians.  As I read the comments my blood boiled. I sensed such a intensely narcissistic form of evangelicalism.  These post were saying  very cruel things like, "If Rick had spent time with his kids rather than writing books, his son would be alive today."  Or, "Apparently the Warrens know how to teach the truth but they didn't know how to follow it at home, because children raised on Jesus don't kill themselves."  It made me sick.  These idiots know nothing of mental illness.

But then, what made me sicker, was when I was in that world that I thought I had all the answers. I hope that we weren't that bad . . . but we may have been.  I remember hearing about Christians with depression and it did turn my stomach.  I was really, really messed up.

In those days we had all the answers.  All of life was tied up in a neat bow.  We were told if you just follow these few steps, then bad things would never happen to you because God would protect you.

But then comes along life.  Life is very, very unfair.  You can do everything right, perfectly right and all hell breaks loose in your personal places.  The puzzle pieces all seem to be from different puzzles.  Nothing fits together anymore.  Nothing makes sense anymore.

So, when you pass through the valley of indescribable torment, be it the loss of someone you love, a deep betrayal, a mighty injustice, physical pain or you name it, nothing can be the same.

I stand amazed at the people who lived in the neat world, when they face a horrible experience that they come out of it as if the puzzles pieces still fit. I honestly believe that no one can come through the world-class losses (death of a child, spouse leaving you, financial ruin and etc.) and return to the simple and tidy narrative again. They have a choice to either live the old shell of the fine life that is now hollow inside like a gourd. Or, like I have somehow come to do, live in this raw reality with the good, the bad and the broken pieces, choosing to feel the pain . . . or walk away completely into a haunting nihilism.  You can not go back to the innocence.

I think many evangelicals choose the first path because that is what society demands of them.  I've heard of rumors about me that after I went though bad experiences that I "turned away from the Lord."

I have to chuckle.  I don't think I've ever know God in more real terms than I do now. But I don't see Him as some type of fairy.  He doesn't have this narrative of simplicity with me following steps A, B and C and then we will all join hands and sing the happy worker song.

But I know God as a God of mystery where nothing comes easy.  Yes, I wish that we lived in a geocentric universe that was only 6,000 years old and the geological record screamed of this youth. Yes, I wish that bad things only happened to the nasty people and the righteous all lived to be 500 years old and felt like sixteen even then. That their kids all grew up to be saints (and doctors and lawyers) and none of them dabbled in drugs, were depressed, anxious or had sex outside of marriage.  In that world I would never wake up (as I do in this world) and feel depressed when I have not right to.

Many days I wished that there was no dark matter, no quantum mechanics and no expanding universe (not to mention a possibility of a multiverse model).  I wish everything was tied up in a neat bow and the pieces, the Biblical narrative, the astrophysics, the geological record the paleontology all sang in perfect harmony like a great boys band.

But that is not reality.  We fall down. The people we love desert us as they may walk away, or hang themselves . . . or be taken by drunk drivers. We are abused. We can't get our minds around the material universe.  Some days nothing makes sense, nothing at all.

But I would never embrace nihilism even in my most desperate moments. I really don't think I could ever choose a denial like the first group (the happy worker song group) either.  I take reality as it is (no I don't love the hard things at all). I must embrace it and believe that God is somehow there, he created us and he loves us without the puzzle pieces fitting anymore.

I may be a bit narcissistic myself, but I imagine that if there was a white throne judgement (and I'm not sure that is the way it will play out) that God will choose those of us who struggled, who doubted, who cried and gnashed their teeth (whatever the hell that means) against the pain, who thought and thought deeply, who honestly considered the options, but still believed in the end . . . putting us in the seat of honor.  Because when you take reality as it is, as nasty as it can be, and you still believe . . . that is real faith. When you live in Disney World then believing is like breathing . . . it takes no conscious effort. The puzzle pieces for them all fit and it is a no-brainer not to assume that all is well.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Some Nights . . . Korea . . . and Indy-Christian . . . and Sadness for the Warrens

I am usually late to the table when it comes to discovering great music.  About three weeks ago I was up late and caught Saturday Night Live. I saw this incredible performance by a band and I had no idea who it was.

Then about a week ago my ear caught that same song on a airline commercial. I did a search for the song and found out it was Some Nights and the band, Fun.  I, being this old "square" (even that word dates me) man had never heard of them. But I became obsessed with them for a few days. I found their SNL clip and watched it over and over. Then I found their official music video on Youtube and watched that over and over.  The vocals are tremendous, the emotion, the drumbeat  and the rhythm (like a Paul Simon's Graceland tract) that moves you most inward parts and then . . . of course . . . the lyrics.  I will connect you to the lyrics here so you read them for yourself.

After I read the lyrics and then watched the official music video once more I had this strong recollection of an old Don McLean song . . . The Grave.  Both are powerful in their capture of the insanity of fighting and dying.  Where in the midst of the hell you loose your convictions.  You loose them because they have been de-cloaked and you see the insanity in a raw way.

To recruit a country and a soldier to go to war, you have to create a grandiose narrative.  "You are going to fight to protect your babies from communism, Islam or some other evil empire."  The wise military (and I use wise in a pragmatic way here) now realizes that you can't make a soldier fight on these grand premises anymore.  I do think my dad fought to free Europe from the evil of the Nazis but even he went because he was drafted and fought to survive on Normandy. So the military has created the psychological bonding of the "Band of Brothers" where, when held down on a rocky outcropping in Afghanistan you fight to save your friends, your brothers and your hide. You don't fight to kill the evil Taliban who wants to steal your babies and make them Islamic martyrs.

But here is where I digress.  First of all I will say that war is the epitome of evil and sin in the world. When two countries go to war, Satan is laying on the floor belly laughing in an intense victory.  In war, all sides loose. But when we talk about these grandiose ideals, it appears that the Christian community buys them the most.  They honestly believe that we are in this great crusade to rid the world of evil through the nozzle of a gun or the laser of a smart bomb. But I've said before, you can never kill all the people that hate you.  The complexities of why countries go to war are complex. No, I don't believe we invaded Iraq to make the Bushs more money though Iraqi oil. That is the grand narrative on the other side. But I do think we did because of the narrative that we are on the great crusade to crush evil . . . but create it by doing so.

I don't want to go to far in this war thing but I will clarify that I'm not a total pacifist. I mean I would fight to save my family and there may be other inevitable situations.

Facebook for me has become the one place that I have my finger on the thinking of the Evangelicals.  The chatter is consistent.  They post pictures of disfigured American soldiers and have poems about their heroism.  I see a great tragedy.  Of course the Taliban have evil (and very dualistic) ideas and those ideas should be opposed and of course anyone who suffers like that is a hero.

So then comes Korea.  While I hear this chatter from the evangelicals about how N. Korea is a Satanic stronghold of atheism and that S. Korea is the most evangelical country in the world, therefore we should give our sons and daughters to go and fight and die for Jesus.  Are you freaken kidding me?  Here is an insecure leader who is trying to make himself look better (maybe he was weened too early) and there is no higher idealism involved here. This is not Lord of the Rings with a noble journey to rid the earth of evil. Then, on the American side, there are layers and layers of political complexities, people positioning themselves to run for president (a position they just have to have because they too were weened too young, or are too short or have a small penis).  I'm sorry but this is the psychology of why these horrible things happen.  Hitler was a sociopath.

But we have to be very, very careful here.  The consequences of war means the horrible deaths, burning to death, having your body members blown off and you bleed to death under the rubble of your home.  This would happen to tens of thousands of Korean men, women, children and babies.  Listen to the lyrics of The Grave and Some Nights.  This is insanity on march before the mad king.  What do we stand for? In the horrors of war no one knows anymore.

Okay, moving on.

Speaking of Fun (the band) they are listed as an "Indy band."  I have five children and three have been in and out of bands over the years.  One, Tyler, has taken this the most distance.

A few years ago I went to watch Tyler's band play and it was a "Indy Music Festival."  I got there and I was trying to pigeon-hole people.  I saw a Goth group getting out of their van. Then I saw punk people but they were walking with a guy in a business suit (think early Four Seasons, men in ties and coats).  Then I saw a cowboy and an old man like me wearing work clothes.

So, when this was over I asked my son to explain the genre.  Tyler started laughing, like he often does when he thinks I'm being stupid.  "There is no genre or style. That is what is meant by indy or independent.  They do not follow a style."

But of course there is no human way for someone not to follow a style. I'm sitting here in jeans because of Levi Strauss invented the pocket copper rivet that made them tough and James Dean looked handsome in jeans about 50 years ago.  So the Indy people strive very hard to do their own style or thing, but they work hard at not looking like a uniform subculture.  The music is the same. It could be a blend of hard rock + gospel + classical.  I can hear the old "Negro Gospel" in their vocals, the rock and etc.

But I was thinking, I would love to see a Indy Christianity.  I'm speaking of sub-culture. After all, the church was originally called the "called out" ones, because they came from all parts of the Roman world.  Slaves, rich, workers, soldiers, sailors, merchants and prostitutes.  Modern evangelicals are very monolithic.  I hear the same quotes from my evangelical friends in Ga or Michigan or CA or Washington state as if they are reading from a script.

I'm not speaking of relativity.  I do believe that doctrine is important and not all doctrine (even opposing doctrine) is equally true. But I also know in our fallen minds we can never achieve pure truth.

So for some of us, we can't fit into evangelicalism without being hated for non-conformity. Say for example my strong belief that war, all war, is insane. The evangelicals will label me as a liberal for that.  They drank the Cool Aid that our forefathers were all saints and that our country was a Christian country until the Democrats got into power.

Lastly, I heard the sad news this morning that Rick Warren's son committed suicide.  I can not get my head around the grief of the family. Years ago, when I was an evangelical, I would have been very critical of that. For me then, mental illness was not compatible with loving Jesus.  Then I personally walked through that horrible place, where I pondered for days if I should hang myself . . . or not.  It wasn't about loving Jesus or not loving Jesus. For me, it was about emotional exhausted and wanting some kind of respite.  I hope that society is kind to the Warrens.  I hope that mental illness is taken for what it is and not as some sign of moral failure or sin.

The closes I even came to killing myself was after I talked to a pastor of a mega church in Houghton, Michigan.  I was sitting in the vestibule. He was sitting beside me (prior to the service).  He asked me how I was doing (I didn't realize that for him it was superficial small talk). I told him I was struggling with depression. He didn't bat an eye. In 15 minutes he was standing in front of his church of 900 people. Almost the first thing out out of his mouth during his sermon was, "I'm sick and tired of Christians telling me that they are depressed. Do we serve a depressing God?"  The congregation shouted a definitive, "NO!"  I started to think were I could get some rope.

Sorry again about typos but I had to type fast without proofing. I will come back and fix it later if I get the chance.