Fireworks

On Wednesday evening, I went with friends 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 friends 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 dad changing his 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.

Torture

It has been nearly a decade since I read Bill Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist, but it is very much on my mind this morning. I am especially thinking about his words about how pain turns the mind inward, drawing one so into one’s own body as to make community with God or others seem unreal – a fading dream or terrible illusion. For those who are tortured, removed from anything to think about but their present, past, or anticipated pain, removed from any persons but those who would cause them pain, torture becomes an anti-Eucharist, a ritual of stripping an individual from communion with anyone. The suffering of the individual makes them more individual than ever before, and even when released, their isolation can be impenetrable.

Last week I broke my tail bone. It is the fourth time in ten months that I have been sufficiently injured to be confined to the sofa for the better part of the day. I am beginning to have my own scale for injuries – this one the least bad of the four because driving, while quite painful, is in fact possible. Once I get going on the subject of it, it can seem that there is nothing much going on in my life but my ailments. I am concerned lest I become a caricature of an invalid – driving away what community I have by an insistence on cataloging my woes, my inconveniences, my various doctor’s appointments, until a sympathetic noise made at a nonsensical point in the conversation betrays that my audience is in fact bored beyond endurance, and has long since stopped listening. Pain can be isolating in more than one way.

It is painful to sit up and write, painful to bend over to tidy up or load the bottom rack of the dishwasher. The most comfortable place for me is the sofa, on my side, with an ice pack wedged between my rear end and the sofa. Which is where I can be found in my alone time, mostly reading novels. Yesterday, I finished Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion. I am hoping to pick up Russell Banks’ Continental Drift again and finish that in the next day or two. And so, in addition to the assurance that my torment is localized, and will come gradually to an end, I have many opportunities for community: with authors and with their characters, with my family, with our neighbors and other friends. Through my memory, I have community with friends past and present, as my eyes light on books and other objects around the house that serve as reminders. And so it is that I have the assurance of God’s presence, too.

For Christians, Trinity means that Godself is communion, and Church means that God is made known to us through communion with one another. My pain does not make me wise or focus my mind. I am distracted and impatient and tired – and not able to think as clearly as I would like. But I am grateful that my pain is materially different from torture in almost every respect – and while not Eucharistic, is neither anti-Eucharistic.

Or better yet, I will endeavor that my pain might become Eucharistic, insofar as it might remind me to pray for those who have been intentionally separated from any but those who wish to increase their pain. Love is stronger than death, the scriptures tell us. For those who endure torture and who have lost all hope for release, may the subverting love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be for them stronger than their pain.
And may the Church find courage to embody this subversive love in defiance of those who would isolate any from that love which, in Christ’s own body (a body which was brought to death through torture,) was offered for them too. If we are to claim Christ as our Lord, then we may condone torture for none – for torture isolates the individual being tortured until the very notions of love and community seem impossible, in such a way as may never be undone. And that is the very opposite of making disciples of Jesus Christ.

This mandate – that we teach others of the love of God for them – for every one of them – if God is real, then there is no more expedient, no more practical work than reaching all with this news. But perhaps, for those who condone torture, Love is a weak thing, neither stronger than death, nor pain, nor fear. Perhaps for them, God is not love, and Christ did not die for all, and security means that we can keep ourselves safe through the biggest guns, the most money, the latest and best information – or, should “the worst” happen, with gas masks, off shore banking, and evacuation plans. Just admit it, please. So that it may be clear that you, my dear trembling sisters and brothers who place your trust in “enhanced interrogation techniques,” so that it might be clear that you, too, might rightfully be considered those who have still not truly heard the Good News:
“Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people…”