Monday, October 20, 2008

Free Peanuts

Nancy and I have spent a lot of time on Southwest lately, commuting to and from our soon-to-be new home just outside of San Antonio. It’s fifty-five minutes down, fifty-five back. We’ve done it so many times now that very shortly I expect the flight attendants to call me by name.

Yesterday, I didn’t know the flight attendant but I knew the routine. The plane was packed and while we were waiting to “push back,” everyone was making their last cell phone call or digging out something to read for the flight. In short, everyone was pretty much consumed with their own stuff. All the while the attendant was regurgitating the security information, how to buckle a seat belt and even how to inflate the life vest in case of a water evacuation. I’ve always figured that if I needed to know how to inflate a life vest while flying from San Antonio to Dallas, I’d have greater problems than a life vest would remedy.

Anyway – the one thing that stood out during the security briefing was that no one was listening. I found the routine irritating myself. Aside from the fact that the intercom was cranked up to a decibel level that would compete with both 737 engines, the attendant was talking so fast that he sounded like a 45 rpm record ramped up to 78. If you don’t know what that means, you’re too young to appreciate why loud noises bother me more than they used to.

For another thing, it sounded like the attendant had licked the microphone while it was ice cold and his tongue stuck to it. Either that, or the mic had been surgically implanted inside one of his cheeks. His lingo was absolutely indistinguishable. All blubbed out from rote memory. Loud, way too fast and fuzzy. If he was saying anything important it was lost in translation. Even he seemed hopelessly disinterested in his own lecture. And, no one was listening.

I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s how my sermons must sound to some people. Loud, way too fast and fuzzy. Not that what is being said isn’t important, just that the competition for attention is too great, people tend to be self-absorbed and no sense of urgency is grabbing anyone’s heart beyond the need for something temporarily distracting from the boredom of routine. When I’m speaking I can’t help but wonder if anyone is hearing, much less listening.

I drove by a church the other day and the marquee read, “In Christ, we are high priests.” Aside from the fact I’m a Christian, I’m also seminary trained and yet that reading on the church marquee bored me stiff. If there was ever a greater waste of money in the kingdom of God than that spent on church marquees, I don’t know what it is. For the unchurched, church marquees like the one mentioned above must read like internal memos from a high-tech engineering company, the language foreign, the meaning mysteriously irrelevant, something like the noise that comes over an intercom just before someone passes out free peanuts.

I get in trouble with folks now and then because I don’t preach like a preacher. I rather enjoy just talking as though I’m one of the people, which I am. I don’t like preacher tones and preacher words. I just can’t imagine spending my life’s energy saying things that only sound like I’m regurgitating from rote internal memos that only a few understand. It’s truly frightening how many people go to church every Sunday and say “amen” to stuff they’ve heard all their lives, regurgitated unthinkingly by preachers who may be heard but not listened to. Yet, at the same time, those same people tend to regard as heresy anything said different than the last ten thousand lectures and, sometimes, even if it’s just said differently and even if it all ceased being relevant to them decades ago. Why is it that some church people need so badly to be reassured of truth even they no longer accept as meaningful and for which there is not one shred of evidence that their lives are transformed by hearing it?

I want what I say to make a difference. All the rest is just marquee gobbledy-gook. Don’t we all have better things to do than just gobble down free peanuts?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Rough Draft

It all started at the dinner table over a conversation about the potato fish. If you haven’t heard of the potato fish, not to worry. Apparently there is no such thing. I didn’t know that when I asked, “What’s a potato fish?” The question was natural enough. We’d just finished our Miso soup, Chinese honey shrimp and brown rice when the subject of Jake’s unfinished science project came up. Sterling had been helping him with it earlier and was now suggesting that, in order to create a fish that demonstrated all the evolutionary developments of the fish in an anatomically correct manner, a potato would make a good main frame.

“Evolution?” I asked. “Your school allows you to ponder that possibility?” I told him that I have friends whose children attend private Christian schools where evolution is downplayed, even mocked, as nothing more than heresy. To which Sterling replied, “In the debate over evolution vs. creationism, all I know is that God created all that is. It doesn’t matter to me how he did it.”

That opened the floodgate on all kinds of theological ponderings, with a seventh grader and senior leading the way, with their parents and Nancy and me watching from the galley more than anything. We talked about predestination and Calvinism, about Roger Williams and about the omniscience of God. Holding one end of an unwrapped straw to his left eye while pointing down its length to illustrate, Sterling speculated that, while we mortals see time as a linear continuum, God is not so limited. Seeing from outside our limited perspective, God has something more like a three dimensional view of all time, seeing every second that ever was and ever will be as though all time is happening right now.

By this time, I was looking for a way to excuse myself from the table before I embarrassed myself and asked another question like, “What’s a potato fish?” That’s when Jake, the seventh grader, broke in. I’d said something about God’s intention to redeem all of his creation when Jake suggested, “Maybe, to God, we are all like a rough draft, the piece of paper he never throws away.”

Nancy and I looked at each other, our jaws dropping in amazement. I sat there humbled in the presence of such profound insight and grace perspective, already bearing hopeful fruit in the tender hearts and minds of another generation.

Rough drafts? The piece of paper God never throws away. A work in progress, all of our lives. We’re the ones who define ourselves by where we are on a continuum, in infancy, youth, middle and old age. We’re the ones who too soon write ourselves and others off as being too young or too old to do this or that. If these two young men represent the generation that will take the torch of kingdom leadership we are passing to them, then we need to get busy passing it faster. There is great, wonderful hope for the future with minds and hearts like that sitting at the table of communion.

In the meantime, since these two young men will be listening to my sermons, I’ll be putting in more time on the rough drafts of what I say. I’ll also be celebrating, with Jake and Sterling, that we are all works in progress as well as the pieces of paper God never, ever will throw away. We’ll walk humbly together in the presence of the creating and redeeming God as we watch the impact of God’s grace evolve all around us and in us. I’m not a finished work, no matter how old I am, but, indeed, a rough draft, the piece of paper God never will throw away.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Substance of Softness

One terribly sad day in the mid-60’s, when I was about ten, in a family just one block over from ours, a man left his wife and three sons for another man. My parents had been close to this family so it was particularly devastating for them. Remember, this was the mid-‘60’s and it was small town West Texas. Divorce, for any reason, was a huge scandal. Back then, two people who were miserably married just tended to stick it out no matter who it destroyed for them to stay together hating each other. For a man to come out of the closet as gay and leave his wife was the unspeakable scandal and unpardonable sin all wrapped up as one.

I’ve tried the best I can to figure out why it was that, at such a tender age, I didn’t grow up hating gays because of that. Those three abandoned boys were some of my best friends. My parents and others tried to help soften the social blow for them by giving the family a place to land. Soon, though, because of the scandal and to make a living, their mom had to move what was left of the family out of town to a large city where she could start over. In all of that, though, I have no memory of my parents saying anything hateful or vengeful of that man. I knew they were heartbroken, but they didn’t use that as an excuse to belittle him in my eyes. If anything, I remember them being sad that a family they dearly loved had been irrevocably broken.

Some years later, one of my closest friends, the valedictorian of our senior class, confessed to me and another friend that he was gay. It was in the same small town, in 1972. I remember the night we sat in Karl’s Volkswagen van just outside my driveway and heard Jerry’s midnight confession. I didn’t understand homosexuality. I did know Jerry and his family like they were kin, which, because of church, they were. I had heard him pray and share Christ with other people. I was confused, for certain. But, I never remember thinking less of him because he was gay. The only solid example of how to respond to him was the one my parents had already given. Jerry has since devoted his life as a research physician to treating and finding a cure for AIDS. Only God knows which of us has done more good for humanity with the gifts we were given.

I’ve gotten in trouble with church people before not because, as their pastor, I failed to say more about our responsibility to orphans and widows, but because I refused to hammer gays about how they were going to hell for their sexual orientation. It has troubled me deeply that those, in the church, who oppose homosexuality tend to do so while quoting a very selected couple of scriptures and do so with a venomous anger, something like you’d see in a frightened wild animal trapped in a corner. Aside from the fact that there are far more orphans and widows than there are gays, there are three reasons why I just can’t slam that judicial hammer down on the pulpit.

My parents’ response to a hurting family was one reason. Long before I knew the theological meaning of grace, my parents modeled it for me, teaching me how to live it before I could define it. Both of my parents had been raised in one of the most conservative and racist regions of the world. Yet, something turned them toward grace instead of exclusivity. Whatever that was (like Jesus?) seems to have rubbed off on me. The older I get, the less I’m interested in excluding anyone from church or my life because they aren’t oriented to this world the same way I am. Frankly, my sense of orientation about lots of things in my own faith struggle gets so wobbly at times it scares the dark side of eternity out of me.

It’s always easier to judge homosexuality when it’s just an issue, like divorce or whatever. When “gay” is someone you know and love, a person with a name and eyes and a beating heart, it transforms “gay” from an issue into a human being, one for whom Christ also died. Some of my dearest friends are gay. Strange how the more friends of any kind you have the less possible it becomes to judge anyone for anything. Is judgmentalism a function of loneliness, something we can only do in isolation? Is community a cure for judgment?

For another thing, I don’t get to judge who goes to heaven. As someone recently said of another issue, whether Jews will go to heaven or hell, “I’m not the gatekeeper.” I only have the privilege of standing at heaven’s gate and inviting others to join me as I hope to enter myself, not judging how people got to that gate or who God allows to enter.

I got an email from a gay man this past week, a friend whose name and story I know well. He is hurting badly because of the way a church slammed the hammer down on him. I reassured him that people behave differently in groups, even at church, than they ever do as individuals. (See Scott Peck, “People of the Lie,” read the Bible or, attend church regularly). Sadly, I have no answers for his dilemma. I have no church where he lives to recommend to him as a place to worship, openly, as he is.

I share in his sufferings only because I, too, have felt the church’s judgment of what some call my “softness” toward sinners. Some of the meanest people in the world pretend to worship in pews on Sunday. For the most part, they’re only mean in packs, like wolves wearing their Sunday morning wool’s best.

One on one, by and large, mean church people have these things in common. They almost exclusively define sin as something outside of themselves, “issues” with which they’ve never personally struggled. With rarest exception, they are wimps; their knees get wobbly under the weight of trying to be mean face-to-face. Like the playground bully, they only act the way they do when they have an audience. In my dictionary, “mean” is defined as “yet unchanged by a personal encounter with grace in Christ.”

It is also true that the finest people I’ve ever known are people I met in church. It is one of the most mysterious paradoxes of my faith experience that those who are meanest sit right next to others in the church who have modeled grace beyond belief for me.

If I’m soft, so be it. The only people who have helped me find my way into and through the Kingdom of God are those who showed me mercy and grace, not judgment. Mercy and grace are much harsher taskmasters than judgment could ever hope to be. It’s much harder to live with forgiveness, both giving and receiving it, than to experience the sad relief that hammering or being hammered tends to offer. It seems to me that those for whom mercy and grace are exclusively defined as the substance of softness just haven’t yet personally experienced the high premium Mercy and Grace have paid in order for God to give us a hopeful place to land in our suffering instead of a place that would have destroyed us for sure.