Fireworks

On Wednesday evening, Brian and I and a friend went to see the Minor League All Star game. It was a beautiful night for a game, and the International League won handily. I paid less attention to the game than usual, because I hadn’t seen my friend in awhile, and there was lots to catch up on.

But all conversation stopped when the fireworks began. None of us had realized that there would be fireworks after the game, but we all became excited when the post-game show was first announced, sometime around the 6th inning. Without much discussion, we all agreed we would stay. Why would anyone miss fireworks?

There are few things that delight me so much, that fill me with such joy, as fireworks exploding color in the night sky. The noise which scared me so much as a small child became part of the delight as I grew older. “Boom! Boom!” I feel the vibrations in my chest as the flower of color unfolds high above, hundreds of meters wide.

As my self-conscious brain came back online – as I shifted from watching fireworks to watching myself watch fireworks – I realized another time that I have been transported so far outside of myself: in worship. The connection became clear: why do we celebrate sports and national holidays with fireworks, but churches do not set off fireworks on high holy days?

Wouldn’t it be great if Christians held fireworks shows  on Easter, on Pentecost, on Christmas: “This is how excited we are! This is what a big deal this is for us! He is Risen – Boom! The Spirit has been poured out upon us – Boom! God is with us – Boom! Boom! Boom!”

Yeah, fireworks are expensive. Which means that one congregation wouldn’t get to take credit for it. We would have to work together, across congregations, even across denominations. For instance, figure $15,000 for a mid-sized show – that sounds like a lot, right? But in my town, Durham, NC, there are dozens of churches. Get 40 churches in on it, and the average contribution per church is now down to $375. Which is a great deal, and an opportunity for people from all over the community to get together and celebrate Jesus. And since your average fireworks show only lasts 15-20 minutes, we should probably throw in a hymn sing, or gospel music concert, or something like that. Christmas carols and fireworks! Sponsored by (list of 40 churches here.)

Sadly, churches seem to have confused evangelism with church growth. We are more concerned with reproducing ourselves (“does Main Street Methbyterian have a future?”) than we are with sharing Jesus. Maybe because we don’t have enough faith in Jesus, and we think that we are needing to redeem ourselves (our only shot at eternal life is a name in a stained glass window)… or maybe because we live immersed in a culture of fear-induced self-reproduction, and living in the world but not of it is so very very difficult. Whatever the reason, when we stop to consider it, being the lone stranger at a cookout on the church lawn is more akin to the terror of transferring mid-year to a new elementary school than it is to the joy of believing that God really did love the world enough to live among us in a particular body at a particular time in a particular community. It is hard to say what the Incarnation has to do with a cheap hot dog, and the barely concealed anxious hope that one day you too will join us, and grill cheap hot dogs for the few souls brave enough to endure the onslaught of interrogators that is the average local congregation.

Instead, the combined immensity and particularity of God’s love for us is surprising and painfully bright and loud and beautiful, and I can feel it in my chest and my throat, and I cannot keep myself from gasping outloud, “Oh!” and my smile is so big and unironic that I am a little afraid that someone will see me and realize that I am not cool enough to be above this spectacle, but then I realize that I don’t care, because I don’t want to be so cynical that I refuse to be moved by the truly moving. The love of Jesus swells and bursts me like a firework. Alleluia Alleluia! Boom Boom Boom!

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.

Do the Homeless know their ABCs?

Among other responses to my last blog post, Drive-by Charity, I received this comment from Matthew:

You seem to have had a lot of personal contact with those in need over the years. As such … you are probably in the best position to answer the following 2 questions:
1. When should one give and not give money?
2. Should one always attempt to share Jesus with someone they meet on the street who is in need?

Now, I am far from being in the best position to answer any questions, much less these questions. However, I may be the best positioned person Matthew has come across lately, so I am going to give these questions my best efforts – which includes consulting with friends who I feel have more experience with homelessness and poverty, as well as the sometimes related issues such as PTSD and addiction – and friends with whom I can search the scriptures, because for me that’s an important part of answering any question.

The first question appears to be the simplest, but I feel it is the more complicated, so I am going to begin answering that one in my next blog post, and continue blogging about it until I am compelled to move on to other issues. Today, I begin with Matthew’s second question: “Should one always attempt to share Jesus with someone they meet on the street who is in need?”

I appreciate that Matthew made a later clarification: “What I meant by ‘share Jesus’ is in the usual evangelical way … you know … the ABC´s (since by simply showing love to the person is also sharing Jesus of course).” Yes! When we extend ourselves in Christ-like love for another, we are sharing Jesus in an embodied way. In this way, we hope that all Christians are always sharing Jesus wherever we go, insofar as we are rooted in the God who is love – unconditional and never-ending love for all creation, including people.

The “ABC’s” for those not in the know are as follows:

  • Accept that you are a sinner;
  • Believe that Jesus died for your sins;
  • Confess Jesus as your Savior.

Christianity is, by nature, a religion that seeks to convert others to belief in the Good News. No matter what nation or denomination, we all adhere to what has been called “The Great Commision” – the instructions of the Risen Jesus recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, including these words:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

However, we do not all agree on exact methods. So for those who are interested in exploring the pros and cons of the ABC formulation, I recommend this article from The Evangelical Movement of Wales.

Having a more general readership, I am going to answer Matthew more generally: all Christians have some version of Jesus talk. When do we bring up Jesus in conversation with someone we are meeting for the first time? And how?

The first thing to remember is that people who are homeless are not different from any other person in essentials. Statistically, one might suppose that a homeless person we encounter in a public place (rather than in a shelter or in some other setting) is more likely to be intoxicated, or more likely to have been longer without a shower – although there are many many exceptions to this, and as Christians, we ought never treat any person like a statistic. The hairs on each of our heads are numbered – God sees each of us in our particularity, and so we ought to strive to see the people we encounter in their particularity, too.

Secondly, we begin with a belief that all people need Jesus. People who are homeless do not need Jesus more; people who think they already have Jesus do not need Jesus any less.

That said, there is a power differential between the person with a home, a shower, a bank account, and a car, and the person without any of those things. Which means that we need to be especially careful. It will be difficult not to be perceived as patronizing when we begin our conversation. It will be difficult not to BE partronizing, frankly.

So with all of this in mind, we listen first. We ask questions that elicit the story that the person we have encountered wants to tell. We listen and discover points of connection with ourselves and points of difference. And, because as Christians we have been formed in worship and scripture and social justice and song, at some point we will find ourselves saying naturally, “that is like what Jesus said about…” or “that reminds me of a hymn I sang as a child…” or “I wonder, if Jesus were here, if he would say…” Enough. In one or two sentences we have put out there: “I, who have been standing here listening to you for the past several minutes, I am a Jesus person in this particular way.”

What will this person we have just met say? What will be their response? Because there is almost always some response, and the response often is an opening up about their current religious views, or their religious history, or curiosity about our own ideas about religion.

After all of this, we are in a better position to discern whether this person already believes as we do (Perhaps for Matthew, for instance, have they already traversed the ABC?), or – if they do not share our faith, are they anywhere close to interested / ready to hear our Jesus pitch? If they seem downright hostile to Christianity, for instance, plowing forward stubbornly as if we have not noticed what they have been saying may just prove to that person what they have already believed – that Christians don’t actually care about people, and are a generally unfriendly and pushy sort. Instead, stick around and listen to their stories for awhile longer and leave them with some lingering doubts about their preconceived notions about Jesus people.

There will be rare and wonderful ocassions when we get to share in words the love of Jesus for someone who was not ready to believe it until just then (or who once believed it but has forgotten.) When that happens, we had better be prepared to pray with them on the sidewalk, even if that is the sort of thing that usually makes us uncomfortable. We had better be prepared to give them our favorite Bible – the one that we carry with us at all times, the one with highlighting and notes in the margins. We had better mean it when we say that we are going to pray for them when we get home.

In fact, we had better pray for them whether or not we said we would.  And to that end, we did remember to ask them what their name was, right?  And told them our own name?

When I met the man at the strip mall the other day, I had been in a hurry to complete several errands before making it home to meet my daughter at her bus stop. I had been intending to drive across town to a local shop that was having a shoe sale, because in spite of owning eight or so pairs of shoes (so many pairs I don’t know the exact number!), I had “nothing to wear” with navy blue. Instead of making it to the shoe store, I spent 45 minutes talking with a man who likely owns only one pair of shoes. As I drove directly home from the mall, I had the opportunity to pray for forgiveness for my inability to discern wants from needs – an inability that stems from no longer having not quite enough resources to meet my needs. I prayed for all people, that we might become better at sharing our resources with one another. And I prayed for the man that I had just met, that he might be safe that night, that he might not be overcome by the cold, that he would one day find a way to kick his addiction to alcohol without being killed by the withdrawal (which can happen all too easily), and that he would come to own that he was a beloved child of God – that he would cease to think of himself as someone who hadn’t “done anything too bad, I guess,” and instead begin to think of himself as someone in whom God delights.

Both of us were called to conversion by our encounter, and I continue to pray that both of us will heed that call.