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.

What shall I wear?

This morning, trying to find something that was clean, weather appropriate, and still fit me, I was reminded of my Sunday morning struggles ever since taking leave from pastoring.  Ah, the good old days, when I could pick one of a handful of nearly identical clergy shirts out of the closet, attach a collar, and pull on any pants, as they would be hidden under my robe!

As I asked myself, “What shall I wear? What shall I wear?” I was reminded of the meter and scheme of William Walford’s “Sweet Hour of Prayer” (UMH 496), and I was off and writing.  (The song works best sung to the tune William Bradbury wrote for it, entitled “Sweet Hour,” but anything in Long Meter Double (LMD) will do.)

As with some sermons, this arose out of a need to address this issue / hear this message myself!  But perhaps you will find yourself humming it next Sunday morning, and it will lighten your mood a bit.  I hope so – because “No wardrobe malfunction can compare / to thy return, sweet hour of prayer!”

********

What shall I wear? What shall I wear?
Each Sunday morning a world of care!
My dresser drawers have let me down,
Since I have gained this fifteen pounds.
I know that Jesus died for me,
Nevertheless I stand, stymied,
Imagining the children’s stares:
How shall I cope? What shall I wear?

What shall I wear? What shall I wear?
Will this sweater my belly bare?
Church may not be a fashion show,
But all my blouses are stained, I know;
My tights are torn, my shoes are scuffed.
I must be brave, I must be tough,
Or I shall never have a prayer
Of answering, “What shall I wear?”

What shall I wear? What shall I wear?
Do other folks my sorrows share?
This cruelty to self, and shame –
We must find someone else to blame!
No, lift from the floor a pair of jeans,
Matched with whatever shirt’s most clean.
Don’t worry, wonder, or compare,
The lilies ne’er ask, “What shall I wear?”

Cooking for Friends

I love cooking for people! Last night, I made a big pot of chicken and rice soup – enough to feed both my family and one other, and still put some up in the freezer.  I had been meaning to make soup for weeks, but committing to this friend of my daughter’s and her family (They just had a baby! Mazel Tov, Sadie!  Mazel Tov, Rex and Cynthia!) gave me the extra push I needed to get to chopping and simmering and stirring.

There is something hypnotic about making soup.  It is slow work.  The ingredients have their order, the stirring has its rythmn, there is a slow bass beat of bubbles popping, together with the treble rattle of the pot lid.  And the smells… Spending time over my soup draws me back in time – and all too often my memory takes me places where I would just as soon not go.

A friend of mine, a pastor, recently posted on Facebook regarding funerals, and that took my mind back to my last visit with a parishioner who died about a year after I left the parish.  She had been fighting breast cancer for years, and that day – less than a week before the moving company came to whisk me off to North Carolina – that day was precious to both of us.  I believe that we both were fairly certain that we would not see one another again this side of the Second Coming.  And so I took the opportunity to tell her how much she meant to me:  what a tremendous witness her faith was to me, and what a beacon of love she was to others.  And she replied, “You really think so, Sarah?  I have always had my doubts about my witness, since I never cook for anyone.  [My mother-in-law] is always making casseroles for people who are sick, and [this friend] and [another friend], but I never do, and I just worry that I am not behaving like a Christian.”

This really struck a nerve with me.  I had not long before received an e-mail from someone who was angry at me, and who decided to illustrate how I “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk” with my failure to make a casserole for a family living 20 minutes away.  My first thought was to defensively point out that I was only a couple of days past having been on food assistance myself, having a 2 week old baby who screamed non-stop when not nursing something like 14 times a day, all the time preparing for my probationary elder’s interviews – a four hour ordeal that was immovably scheduled to take place when my daughter was less than a month old.  But an older and wiser pastor suggested that it was better for me not to respond.  As the pastor, it was not my job to make casseroles.  As the pastor on maternity leave, it was not my job to be available to the congregation for really anything.  Hence the word “leave.”  But it kept eating at me.  I called my Dad, and he said, “You have to let it go, Sweetie.”  But he couldn’t tell me how – he was an expert at having some parishioner or another angry at him, and inexpert at letting anything go.

And here was this dear woman, whose charitable heart knew no bounds, somehow receiving this same message that because she did not cook for others in need, she was not “walking the walk.”

I remember pulling out my Bible and reading about how we are all given different gifts.  “Can you imagine what would happen if every woman in this county showed up with a casserole when someone was in distress?  It would be more than the recipient could even freeze!  Why, we would just get sicker, trying to politely eat everything that was brought to us!”

“Maybe you’re right, Sarah,” she said with a laugh.  But she still sounded uncertain.  And maybe that is because I had yet to learn a better answer…

As I stirred the soup, I thought of what Rex had written in an e-mail in response to the hastily organized supper brigade: “I have to admit, I never experienced this kind of hospitality growing up and living in [urban center not in the South!]”

He didn’t say, “Wow, you guys are really good Christians!” – and rightly so – most of the other parents probably wouldn’t self identify as Christian.  Instead, he saw this response to their new baby as “Southern hospitality” – we were witnessing to our Southernness.

Here I am, for the second time in less than a month paraphrasing Matthew 5:43-48:

Do you cook food for your friends when they are sick or have a new baby or have a death in the family?  Every Southerner does that.  You are only proving that you are capable of conforming to cultural norms.  Do you wish to witness to your Christian faith?  Then consider:  how do you demonstrate your love for those who oppose you, who would seek to do you harm, who undermine cultural norms, or who have nothing in common with you?

And so I think that I am one step closer to learning how to “let it go,” as my father prayed that I might do.  I love cooking for my friends.  I do it because I like to do it – and because, when my daughter is out of the house or feeling cooperative, it is something that I now am able to do.  But I do not deceive myself that cooking for others is something that I do because I am a Christian – it is not something that is rooted in my life of prayer and worship, or in my study of the scriptures.  I am a Southern woman who likes cooking, and so I cook for my friends when they need someone to cook for them, and when I have the time and energy to do so.  When I am doing something because I am a Christian, it usually looks very different – often it looks weird and sometimes even dangerous – usually it involves transgressing cultural norms.  Not to knock cooking for our friends – it is very rewarding for everyone involved!  But doing it or not doing it doesn’t witness to much – except to whether we are living into the expectations encoded in the notion of Southern womanhood.