Surrounded by Steadfast Love

Surround - All Eyes on Jesus

Surround – All Eyes on Jesus

On Saturday, March 16, Rethink Church’s suggested word for the Lenten “Photo of the Day” was surround. That evening, I saw my daughter setting up the nativity set that my Aunt Marie gave to me the Christmas before Hannah was born. The set she now thinks of as hers could not be more different from the set I played with as a child, an unpainted cast of dozens carved from olive wood in the West Bank circa 1970; but my six year old self had the same instincts as my daughter when it came to the arrangement – everyone crowding around the baby Jesus, surrounding him. After all, he is the main attraction! He is the one everyone is there to see.

SNAP! Once she saw I was taking photos, Hannah started arranging the characters differently, everyone facing out as if they were posing for a group portrait. But without reference to the camera, her gaze and the gaze of the figures were directed towards the baby Jesus.

You may or may not have known that I started off Lent with Rethink Church’s Lent Photo-A-Day challenge. And you may or may not have noticed that I fell off the wagon not quite two weeks into the project. Various life challenges intervened with my ability to stay on track with taking the assigned photo each day… but when I did have time, I didn’t know what to do – should I just take the photo for that day? Or didn’t I need to catch up? If there were gaps in my photo list, people would notice! They would know that I was not keeping Lent properly! That my one Lenten discipline was beyond my capabilities! I would be a public failure!!

[Note: the fear of being a public failure is not limited to my spiritual disciplines. It reaches into all parts of my life, including my wardrobe, as seen in my other post today, at St. Luke’s Episcopal, Durham. See also this parody of “Sweet Hour of Prayer” that I began writing when despairing over my clothes closet this past November.]

Without reference to my blog, my gaze was on Jesus. But once I started posting the photos here, a new layer was added – what had been an intimate time of prayer through creation became a group portrait. The pressure to produce an image turned a spiritual exercise into an occasion for anxiety.

I grew up United Methodist before we went all Revised Common Lectionary and started doing “high liturgical stuff” like paying attention to Lent. 😉 If anything, I was raised to look askance at Lenten disciplines: firstly, they were showing off (fast and pray in private, says the Bible), and secondly, they could lead to spiritual laziness (what? are you spiritually disciplined just a couple of months a year?) But during my time in seminary, I was converted to observing the Christian calendar as a discipline in the sense of revealing to me (and giving me language for) the seasonal nature of my relationship with God, as well as my place within the Christian community.

Now I am starting to find a place for the wisdom of my old Lent skepticism, however. I am asking myself two questions: Am I observing Lent for God, or for my public image within my community? And am I being unrealistic – is this Lent a time when I am somehow more able to take up this discipline than at any other time of the year?

Which has led me to a conclusion: I am going to keep taking and sharing my photos on past Lent. But not every day. Instead, I will post as I am able, and as it gives life to me and my community.

In the Rite of Infant Baptism found in the old Methodist hymnal – the rite I grew up with – the congregation makes this vow: “With God’s help we will so order our lives after the example of Christ, that this child, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.”

Just as the figures in my daughter’s nativity surround Jesus, I have a community of sisters and brothers whose gaze is fixed on Love Incarnate. I met some of them at seminary, others in high school or in college, or on Twitter or Facebook, or at church or through work or another friend, and countless other ways. As they order their lives after the teaching and example of Christ, I am confirmed and strengthened. I am surrounded by their steadfast love.

May the steadfast love of my sisters and brothers in Christ serve as my North Star – always recalling to me the way in which I am to go. Amen.

A vocabulary lesson

When my Mom was teaching school, she had a standard consequence for students who cussed: she would give them a list of more appropriate words they could have used, and have them copy the definitions from a dictionary. Cussing, she said, was the sign of an inadequate vocabulary.  Along those same lines, each time she heard me cuss she would say to me, “You have a better vocabulary than that – use it!”

Dr. Amy Laura Hall invited a number of women (including myself) to join in conversation about the word b**** – can it be reclaimed as a positive word by feminists, and if so, ought it to be?  You can find that conversation on her blog, Profligate Grace.

I enjoyed reading the various responses, finding the resonances and the variations in our feelings about the word.  I especially enjoyed Amanda Joan Mackay Smith’s discussion of “mudball words” – on the imprecision of words like b****.  In her case for rejecting the word on linguistic grounds, I finally understood what my Mom had been telling me years ago.  While it will take a great deal of effort to excise cussing from my speech altogether, I can begin with finding more helpful and precise words to replace the b-word in my vocabulary!

It is OK not to call yourself a Christian

A great deal of attention is being paid right now to Marcus Mumford, lead singer of the band Mumford & Sons, and I’m sure Rolling Stone couldn’t be happier: religious controversy sells magazines. When interviewer Brian Hiatt asks Mumford point blank if he is a Christian, Mumford gives a long, somewhat rambling response that includes the sentence, “So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian.” USA Today has picked up this ‘breaking story,’ and so has the Christian press. I imagine that Rolling Stone’s webserver is lit up with people clicking through to the teaser for this upcoming cover article.  Selfishly, I have been feeling relieved that my mid-20s self was not (and had no chance of being) famous.

I would be seen as at least odd and possibly dangerous if I wanted to know all about my doctor’s personal life: his religious beliefs, his parents, his wedding anniversary, whether he gets along with the people he works with, where his house is. I personally interact with my doctors, but the boundaries in such relationships are clear. In contrast, it is totally normal in our culture to be interested in, knowledgable about, or even obsessed with people we will never meet, so long as we have deemed them celebrities. If I show up outside of my doctor’s house, he would do well to get a restraining order. But hop in a bus-load full of people driving slowly past Jennifer Anniston’s house? Just another typical American vacation. I would only be crossing a line if I broke into her house or sent her threatening letters.

Seriously? Sometimes I wonder if the whole culture hasn’t crossed some kind of line – from voyeurism into sub-clinical erotomanic delusion: if we are not convinced that someone famous is in love with us, we at least imagine that they probably would fall in love with us (or at least want to be our friends!) if we ran into them at some imaginary party thrown by – who knows who? This scenario is going nowhere. It’s never going to happen.

So now Marcus Mumford, a person I have nearly no chance of ever meeting, has said that he wouldn’t call himself a Christian. Through luck and musical talent he has become recognizable to millions of people, and so now that gives Rolling Stone the right to ask about his religious beliefs, and me and the rest of the world the right to have an opinion about it? And what exactly would I be hoping to achieve? I suppose if enough of us wrote sufficiently indignant responses, we could turn him off to Christianity even more. That’s possible. I don’t know that his fans will turn from Christianity because of his words, or that me saying they shouldn’t would give them pause. So…?

I can hear my father’s voice in my head now, chiding, “Where’s your evangelistic zeal?” If I care about Jesus, if I care about people caring about Jesus, then I should care that Marcus Mumford, whose lyrics are full of Christian ideas and imagery, made sweeping disparaging remarks about Christianity, right? All this “baggage” we Christians carry? As if no other faith, no other group has “baggage?” So why am I stifling a yawn?

I guess because I know that he is not talking about me. His words say “the culture of Christianity,” but I hear, “The Christians he has met so far in his short life, the majority of those years spent in a specific milleu defined by his family of origin.” So yes, he is uninformed about the full spectrum of possibilities within Christianity. That’s not unusual for someone who hasn’t the inclination or the energy to explore all of those options – which is almost anyone whose religious upbringing makes them tired and just needing a break while they process all that stuff internally (or with hundreds of thousands of fans. Whatever.) Which may or may not be him – again I don’t know him. But he doesn’t know me either, so I’m not getting offended by it.

Lillian Daniel is right: baggage isn’t unique to Christianity – dealing with baggage is part of dealing with people. You need to be in your own little blanket cave to escape all historical baggage other than your own. But telling someone that and having them suddenly get it and change their mind and give church a shot after all is about as likely as a mom changing her teenaged daughter’s mind about fashion by saying, “You aren’t going out of the house dressed like that, are you?”

Or maybe I’m not all bent out of shape about it because the Mumford quote could almost word for word have come out of my own mouth when I was 26. Or 24. Or 22. Or 20. I went into seminary not sure I wanted to claim the name “Christian.” I had some pretty deep wounds that were not healing well given all of the probing they were receiving: “But there are good Christians!” and “That’s not fair!” and “You should really read [Augustine, Simone Weil, Aquinas, Teresa of Avila]” and “Have you really explored all of your church options? I’m [Presbyterian, UCC, Unitarian, Unity, Episcopal, UMC, Pentecostal]…”

It was a painful time, wandering and exploring. Finding out pagans have problems too, and Buddhists have problems too, and New Agey people are as intolerant as anyone else, and finally feeling like I had nowhere to go that I hadn’t been before. Yeah, group dynamics are difficult everywhere. And for myself, wanting to be loving and open and welcoming, having grown up with poor boundaries… let’s just say “where are you going to go? It’s this bad everywhere!” were not exactly the words that were going to make me come running back to mother church. I EXPECTED MORE from the church because church had taught me to expect more of myself – because I grew up believing that Jesus actually meant all that stuff that he said about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek and giving away your tunic. If I cast aspersions on the church, it wasn’t because I was more biased against Christians, but because I was more biased against everyone else. I didn’t want to know how people in general could be so petty and hurtful – well, ok, yes I did. But I was much more disturbed by pettiness and hurtfulness and selfishness in people who claimed to love Jesus.

Or, as I told my father later (when I was preparing to become a pastor), I have very evangelisitic reasons for saying and doing and believing the things I do: if the church doesn’t look any different than any other group of people, then we must forgive those who rightly reject a poor witness. I don’t know Mumford. Maybe he is a capricious ass. Or maybe he is just a guy who got hurt one (or six or twenty) too many times by people who claimed to be the chosen messengers of the God who is Love. I know that was my story.

Would I rather have such a popular singer/songwriter self-identify as a Christian?  Sure – it would be cool to not just have U2 holding the fort, as it were.  Would I rather not feel some trepidation every time I open my mouth to tell people that I am a Christian writer, that I attend church, that I have been a pastor? Would I rather that the whole “Christians are such hypocrites; [any other religion] is cool, though” narrative were not so compelling in our culture? Absolutely.  But countering that narrative is not Marcus Mumford’s job, because he is very much feeling that narrative right now.  Countering that narrative is the job of the Holy Spirit, a job that I (and every other self-identified Christian leader) have been invited to share.

I  can’t speak for Marcus Mumford, but our best hope for drawing people like my 20 year old self back into a supportive Christian community is to be that community – to keep listening, keep caring, keep insisting that none of us are perfect and that God loves each and every one of us better than any human every could. Our best hope is our love – not our indignation.