Friday, December 4, 2009

Do you matter?

It is a life and death question, in a way. Do you matter? 

No, I am not asking Hamlet’s question: To be, or not to be? Hamlet was suicidal. He was obsessed with death, not life. So far as I can tell, the question of personal significance was not on Hamlet’s radar. And most people I know are glad that the tortured, brooding, insufferably indecisive Hamlet is dead!

My question is not about why I do not just kill myself. My question is about life. It is a question for the living. It is for you who want to live, but who wonder whether your life really matters.

I know you probably do not want to go there. Who does? Like me, you have probably learned how to bypass the question. But it is there, nevertheless, this honest yet uncomfortable question. It belongs to all of us. Whether we like it or not, it is a vibration under our feet, it is a tremor under our shoes, it is a shaking of the foundations beneath our every step. We might as well face it: “mattering” is a fundamental human need.

Status tells you that of course you matter. You get a good job. Or you come into money. Or you get some degrees. Or you have some success. Or you make a home and start a family. These things make the claim that, indeed, you must matter. And there is nothing wrong with any of these things. For a time, maybe a long time, these things can ward off the question. These things steady the tremors. They distract. They stabilize. They promise. But if your heart is like mine, it still wonders: Why then, if these external things mean that I really matter, won’t the dreaded question go away?

What if we look at it from the other side? What if you had nothing? Picture yourself with no status. What if it was all gone, all the things that boost your ego, all the things that prop you up, all the things that tell you that you are worth something, everything that sustains your sense of pride and human dignity? Strip these things away and stand there in naked humiliation, if you can. Now ask yourself the question. Now maybe we are getting somewhere. Would you matter if, in utter failure and loss, with no net under your unraveling tightrope, you had nothing?

I realize no one wants to really end up in circumstances like that. Yet, how many millions of people are today in those exact circumstances? My last blog was about homelessness, and they first come to mind when I think of people managing the margins of insignificance.

Do you have a car? Then you are only one of seven people in one hundred who own a car—7%. Please do not feel guilty! I do not feel guilty for having a Jeep. I am just saying that 93% of the people on the planet get through the day somehow without a car. And I am just wondering what it would do to my ego if I did not have one.

Do you make more than $10 a day? Only one in five people on our planet does. 80% of earth’s population makes it somehow on less than ten bucks a day. Please do not feel guilty if you’re in the fortunate 20%, though. I do not mention this to shame myself or you. I am just saying, today there are a whole bunch of people living life, many of them finding significance, with less than $10 a day. Could I?

If my sense of self-worth were really dependent upon how much money I made or whether I owned a car, what does that say about me? Billions of people will go to sleep tonight without a car and a ten dollar bill. And I am so accustomed to having a car and a good salary that I actually wonder if life would be worth living without them, even though I know the huge majority of my brothers and sisters spinning with me through spacetime have neither, and they have neither every day, and they will likely have neither the day they die. 

So, here is the deal for me personally, and I do not mind admitting this: I am so sheltered and privileged that I find myself asking why all these people even wake up in the morning. I stupidly want to know how they could have any joy and feel any significance day in and day out without a car and ten bucks. How can the vast majority of earth’s populace feel that their lives matter, though they lack what I feel are essential to my own sense of self-value and spiritual wellbeing?

I think this is worth pondering. Think about your family and friends. What if everything went south for you, to the point that you can no longer face them for shame? Or what if some of your family and friends start to turn away from you because they do not want to face the question of significance themselves, and they do not appreciate your humiliation reminding them to ask it? Or what if some of them merely grow philosophical about you, your misfortune, your pain, and quietly close the book on you as they plan sunshiny Fourth of July cookouts to which you do not get invited?

Perhaps, however, despite what anyone thinks, including beloved family and friends, you might actually continue to matter to yourself, no matter what. But why? It cannot be self-respect when you have lost your self-respect. Self-preservation, perhaps, but why? Just to exist day-to-day? Why wake up, shuffle around, go to sleep, and then do it all over again? What would be the point?

Perhaps you would matter to God. But how can you matter to God when he allows you to be utterly humiliated? Does he want you to be humiliated? Is he punishing you? Is it some Job-like test of your faith? Does humiliation teach me something—anything—important, something spiritual, something divine, some great “secret of life” that I am supposed to figure out through suffering degradation?

Again, believe me, I am in NO way asking this question to guilt you or myself for not trying hard enough. Trying harder does not fix some things in life, and the search for significance is, it seems to me, one of those things. And accumulating more stuff certainly does not fix it. I am asking whether you matter in the face of losing everything in order to clear the clutter. Take everything off the table, and what is left?

I have an ability to draw. I only have one piece of art that I have kept over the years, a fairly large, golden-framed, charcoal rendering of Michelangelo’s statue of David (pictured), one of the most famous works of art ever. I did not store it with my stuff in a pod in LA on Monday. I packed it carefully in my Jeep and brought it with me. Why? Yes, it is rare, in that it is the only piece of my art that I own, and since I do not really like drawing all that much, I do not anticipate creating more pieces. So it is a special piece. But it is more than that. Yes, I am proud of it and I like it. But it is more than mere pride and aesthetics. I think I value it because of the message it sends to me, and perhaps others who see it. It says that Bert matters. It says God gave me a valuable, quantifiable gift. If it did not exist, how could I prove to others or to myself that I have a significant capacity, an admirable talent, that says to me and to whomever, that I count, and that I contributed something tangible and even beautiful during my short life? But that answer bothers me.

I once participated in a men’s event about personal significance. It was a religious program that focused on your death. I am not kidding! Apparently it is all about your epitaph. The macho speakers presented a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach to “men’s Christian spirituality,” one aimed at redoubling your effort to be “a good man,” so that your family, friends, church, and community will say good things about you at a ceremony while you lie dead in a casket. A well-meaning program perhaps, but also horribly misguided.

That is my problem with my drawing of David. Did I throw myself into that drawing—it took a month of daily, intense work—so that when I die people will say something nice about me? Was that really my motivation? Is that why I keep it and move it carefully across America? Is the value of my life to be measured by the future admiration of what I produced when I am dead and gone?

Listen. Why does what we do, whether it is art or work or giving or serving, have to have a selfish, eulogistic, ulterior motive? What does being a Christian—a term that means following Christ—have to do with doing stuff to boost my image in preparation for my funeral sermon? Can’t living for Jesus be its own good end? And isn’t it about life and living, not self-serving image-making focused on death and obituaries?

I do not think there is anything wrong with leaving a legacy, in and of itself. I particularly enjoy funerals that truly celebrate a person’s life in specific terms and stories. I hate going to those one-size-fits-all services where the person’s name is mentioned but little more about him. What a wasted opportunity to remember and grieve and celebrate and learn together! And, in my biased opinion, any eulogizer who does not take the time to sit down with grieving family and friends to ask questions, listen carefully, take good notes, and write a fitting remembrance to be delivered in the context of worship, is not worth his salt.

In the end, however, if Jesus is right, it is not about death. Death loses. In Jesus’ resurrection and in our promised resurrections, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Jesus came to give us life, here and now and forever. We pass from life to life. Death has no power. It has been swallowed by life.

2 Corinthians 5:4 For while we are still in this tent (this mortal body), we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

Moreover, the Jesus of Scripture is life. He is not just about life or the mere giver of life. He is true life itself in the here and now.

John 14:6 "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

I never read Jesus saying that real life is dependent upon external circumstances. These things together—what we eat, drink, and wear—are in his view a spiritually dangerous source of worry that steals life. Yes, we have to have them. But our incessant worry about them kills our trust in God’s providence. Jesus warns us about what “wealth” does to us. He was concerned about greed and an attitude of self-sufficiency. Unwarranted attachment to things is like barnacles on our souls. He warned us that having stuff can create arrogance and false superiority. “Having” can desensitize me to “have nots,” to the point that I can walk right past starving and sick Lazarus at my own gate and not even see him. I can be so busy building bigger barns for my bumper crop that I never consider sharing a single kernel with anyone else.

You know, the cross of Christ alone should teach us this. All that Jesus owned was stripped from his back and gambled over by Roman soldiers. He died naked with nothing. Most of the people who watched him die laughed and made sport of him. If the measure of his life’s worth was merely external circumstances, he and his life were worth nothing at all.

So was Jesus about legacy-making? Did he go around doing good so that people would say great things about him when he died? It that what really fueled his life and living?

This brings us to the key question concerning your life’s significance, as I see it, especially if you are a Christian: 

Why did Jesus’ own life matter to him?

It cannot have been popularity. He was quite popular, yes, by all biblical accounts, especially in the villages of Galilee. But the Scriptures go to great lengths to tell us that he did not trust the crowds, that he escaped them at times, and that he did not respond to flattery at all. Popularity is a fickle mistress. Where were the masses of adoring fans when he was executed?

It cannot have been success. While he learned a trade, he abandoned it. While his preaching and healing ministry could be described as successful, he had no income and he depended on a group of loyal, generous women for daily bread. He did not own a home, depending on friends in Capernaum and Bethany for lodging. He slept on the road, having “no place to lay his head.” He left behind, so far as we know, no properties, businesses, or inheritances of any kind. These things could not have been the source of his sense of self-worth. His last week involved being arrested, being incarcerated, being found guilty of sedition, and being executed for that crime—hardly a successful legacy by any earthly standard of success.

From what I can tell, Jesus’ sense that his own life mattered came from one thing: Doing the will of his heavenly Father. Nothing else seemed to matter to him. God is love, wrote John. And Jesus just loved. He loved and loved and loved, no matter what. And by love I do not mean a warm, fuzzy feeling. I mean a love that adored people while at the same time did not shrink from saying no to people, and even chastising them for their hypocrisy and heard-heartedness. He loved with a true and tough love that cuts through failure and rejection and humiliation and loss and even death. He was alive with God’s love, a love that serves and sacrifices and lays down its life for a friend.

Jesus loved large, and therefore he lived large. That was what mattered to him. And I think that is why his own life mattered to him. Love mattered so much to him that he even gave up his own life for the sake of it. Jesus lived and died for love.

Man, maybe he was on to something.

[I wrote this blog in California and posted it from Mississippi. I have a stupid cold that I got in snowy west Texas on Wednesday. Tonight’s Friday forecast here in Mississippi? Snow. Yes, seeing Mississippi friends yesterday and today has warmed me. But today, I am aware that “I left my heart” in sunny California because she made me think long and hard about life’s real significance. I didn’t find a job there, but I found something more important. I found new life and new friends. I dedicate this blog to the people on the west coast who loved me and prayed for me and helped me in innumerable ways. I pray that I contributed to your lives too. I love you, California. Stay in touch.]

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Homeless in Paradise

A surgically pampered, bleached-haired, sun-bronzed couple in their forties posed in beachwear, staring at my license plate: State of Mississippi, Jefferson Davis County. I said hi as I clicked to unlock the door.

My first job interview in the Golden State was this summer in Long Beach, and I was headed back down the Pacific Coast Highway to the couch of a friend in Oceanside. I stopped for gas in laid-back Laguna Beach, and went inside to grab a soda before going back to my Jeep.

“You’re a long way from home, man,” the dude observed.

“Yeah,” I said opening the door and leaning on it, “I moved out here in June looking for work. I’m just taking the scenic route back to Oceanside.”

“You don’t have a southern accent,” the chick complained.

“No, ma’am, not much of one. I’m originally from Atlanta. My dad was an English major. My grandmother taught English. Maybe that explains it.”

I waved and started to get in when the guy called out, “Hey, Dude!” And with arms outstretched and sporting a toothpasty grin, he said:

“Welcome to paradise!”

He had a point. Mild sunny temperatures almost all of the time. Beaches and beautiful people luxuriating in a lack of urgency. Palm trees and tropical drinks. Mountains, deserts, and marinas. Hikers, bikers, and bikinis. Sailors, skiers, and skaters. Maybe California was paradise. But for me, so far, it is paradise without a job and without a home.

Atlanta had plenty of homeless people in the mid 1980s when I last lived there, and, as I recall, churches as far away as Druid Hills began installing security systems because the homeless were moving east and found themselves wandering unaccompanied through church halls. My only contact with them was twice volunteering at a soup kitchen. There were disabled vets and single moms with kids. I did not enjoy the experience.

Homeless, transient, drifter, hobo, vagabond, vagrant, tramp. I do not know the proper words or their definitions. But as a pastor of small-town Mississippi churches near interstates, the “homeless” in my life were always passing through. Some were actually trying to get from here to there. But some were just homeless people who preferred moving to staying. Almost all of them asked for money when they called from the gas station or showed up at my door, but cash was against church policy. I bought them gas or groceries. On an inclement night, I got them a room.

When my own money ran out in Oceanside this summer, I walked up the beach two miles to the pier to worry and pray at sunset. I felt a panic I had never felt. Up on the pier, I leaned back on the railing and stared at two benches. I said to myself, Bert, you are one step away from sleeping right there, which probably was not reality, but the fear was.

At that moment, a man my age with a backpack staked out the bench on the right. He lay down for the night, putting his head on a pillow, and pulling a blanket to his chin. It took a moment to register that his face was sending me a message from God. On his face, a face the same age as mine, was infinitely more peace than on my own. I heard Jesus say to me, Son, I am taking care of that man. I love him. And I am taking care of you too.

After that I began seeing homeless people everywhere. And I gave them something every single time. The lady passing my sidewalk table at the coffee shop. The skinny guy on the bank steps. The old guy with a sign at the traffic light. The young woman with two daughters sitting on the curb at the gas station. The brash punk with the shakes at the marina. The drunk with one shoe who sleeps in a doorway. I gave because I had to. I absolutely had no choice. If I had not given, my heart would have gone cold and died. I had become somehow connected to the homeless in paradise.

I got a check for some writing I did for Plain Truth Ministries, and my folks sent a check, so I thanked my buddy in Oceanside for putting me up, and I got an efficiency in Arcadia. My daily walk on Oceanside beach turned into a daily jog in Arcadia County Park near the famous Santa Anita Racetrack at the foot of Mt. Wilson. The homeless there found me, but I did not see them at first.

I suspect he had been there all along, but the park is not tiny, over a mile around. I finally took note of a little white-bearded guy. He was sleeping during the day in a tiny army-green tent next to a cart covered with black plastic, all but invisible in the deep shade of a huge park tree. Then I began to see others. The scattering of people who lay in the grass? They were not sunbathers or picnickers or joggers cooling down. Homeless people slept there by day, and they slept alone. Arcadia County Park is a bedroom community.

At sunset, however, the sleepers awake and congregate. Lone dreamers by day, they gather by night at picnic tables, under pavilions, and on steps to brag, laugh, argue, drink, and smoke until the morning light separates them again.

I met a Chinese nurse in the park who told me that when the homeless end up in the emergency room, she is required to send them to a shelter, but they rarely go. The evening weather is too gentle and the midnight company too sweet to waste indoors.

I am a homeless guy, in a way. My dad was an itinerant Methodist preacher, so we moved from parsonage to parsonage. Union City, Atlanta, Oxford, Athens, Cartersville, Decatur, Oxford again, Decatur again, Oxford a third time, and back to Atlanta. Then I joined the ranks of wandering theologians in Mississippi. Newton, Maben, Magee, Jackson, Flora, Florence, and New Hebron. Then with the nest empty and a marriage over, I took my homeless heart to paradise to heal, and hopefully work and write. After four months, I still have no job, I only have a one-room apartment, but I am writing. And healing.

Moving makes you cry, does it not? You go through old photos. Packing and hauling boxes to the truck is bad for the back and the soul. Driving away is the worst. It is like turning your back on a friend. I read somewhere about top stressors: a move, unemployment, a divorce. I have them all at the same time in paradise.

When I find a job, I will get my own place, but whether it will be in California, I do not know. I am now finally OK with that. California or not, I have a dream of taking my furniture out of storage, moving it in and arranging it, and sitting in my own leather recliner. I dream of hanging some pictures. I want to shelve some books. I want a job of meaningful service. I want to be a good father, son, brother, and friend. I thirst for it. I yearn for home.

The Bible talks a lot about our abode being in God. It talks a lot about abiding in him. What this abode and abiding means, I think, is that our only real home is in him. And in the Scriptures, our abiding in him is fundamentally and finally rooted in the “incarnation” of God—God become one of us.

We did not make the move. He made the move. The incarnation means that God packed and moved. He made his home with us. So that we humans could forever be at home in God, God chose in Jesus Christ to be forever human.

God perfectly and humbly united with humanity in actual human flesh. Imagine! God packed up everything that God is and moved into our skin. The pre-existent, non-corporeal Word of God was pleased to dwell/abide with us bodily. God became an itinerant preacher with dusty sandals, a man with no place to lay his head. He laid aside equality with the Father and emptied himself taking the form of a human servant. Do you understand what that means?

It means that God was raised in a small, isolated, mountaintop village that, at around the age of thirty, he chose to leave. It means that when he returned there, they rejected him and some tried to stone him. It means that his mother and brothers were so concerned about his behavior in Capernaum that they traveled there to restrain him, fearing he had gone insane. It means God had to deal with homelessness too!

Jesus, however, spoke of a home that transcended geography. He spoke of a home in his Father and his Father’s will. And he said that we have a home in him and his Father too. “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asked. And he answered, “Those who do the will of my heavenly Father.” And what is his will? To love one another as he loves us.

We all yearn for home in a place that is larger than a brick and mortar house, and larger than a plot of land, and larger than any town, city, state, or country. Behind my yearning to be intimately beloved by someone, behind my yearning for abiding friendships, behind my yearning for meaningful work, behind my yearning for experience and adventure, behind my yearning for life full and rich and abundant, is my yearning for home in Jesus’ love. 

The intimacy of conversation with him and his healing touch deep within me is everything. No other person, place, or thing will do. If I have become certain of anything on my California journey, it is that intimate union with him drives all my other passions, while also keeping all my other passions in their proper perspective. All loves that I might put before love of him are the prison of idolatry and the fire of Gehenna. And to expect of someone else or something else or someplace else to provide what I can only get from him is to find disappointment and even damage. To be without him would be the worst homelessness of all.

Maybe that is why I have developed a heart for the homeless, especially here in paradise. It is because of the spiritual homelessness that I believe we all feel, if we are honest. My heart aches for those who, just down the street from me tonight, are guarding everything they own in a bag or buggie, and who are huddling for safety and companionship in the park in which I will have the luxury tomorrow to jog. Lord, bless them and keep them all tonight.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Are you laughing at me?

Winston Churchill, a personal hero of mine, said something to his officers that struck me as profound when I read it many years ago, though I don’t think I understood its important implication for me personally until today.

“Laugh a little and teach your men to laugh--get good humor under fire--war is a game that's played with a smile. If you can't smile, grin. If you can't grin, keep out of the way till you can.”

I’ve never been able to laugh at myself. “War” has always been serious business in my world, and this life has always been a battle to me, going back as far as I can remember.

Glen Moffett is my favorite cousin, against my better judgment. This guy can laugh, and he has always been able to make me (and everybody else) laugh, sometimes when I didn’t want to. He is actually closer to my dad’s age than to mine. Glen and my dad were like brothers growing up on Hollywood Road in Atlanta.

Glenn and his wife came over for dinner when I was about five or six, and when I finished my meal, I ducked under the table to pretend I was a lion to impress him. I growled and pawed at him. I must have been horribly distracting to the adult conversation going on above me. Though my parents were practiced at ignoring my obnoxiousness, my cousin Glen obviously wasn’t. He took his butter knife, scooped up a generous dab of soft butter, reached under the table, and smeared it on the nose of the king of the jungle. I came out from under the tablecloth defaced, mortified, crying huge tears at the cruelty and humiliation of it all. But I got no sympathy. My parents, Glen, and his beautiful wife, Linda, all burst into laughter. But not me. No, by God! I ran from the room, crawled into bed, and through unrelenting tears, planned my revenge.

The next time Glenn came, I hid behind the kitchen door with a stick of butter. My mom apprehended me before I could implement the plot. But I didn’t give up. I tried again and again. My life was, at least for a time, consumed with the seriousness of my favorite uncle’s malicious slight. I was driven by the humiliation of being laughed at. I was owned.

You can laugh now, if you want to. I’m laughing a little myself. But laughter for me, unlike tears, doesn’t come easy. I was born, apparently, with a sad little disease: The inability to laugh at myself. And now, at the age of fifty, I’m certain that I’ve robbed myself and those I love of so much joy. I really can’t even add up—and don’t want to—the pain in my relationships that could have been avoided if I’d had the capacity to take myself less seriously. My parents. My brothers and my sister. My dear friends. My children. The women that I’ve loved.

As I look back, when people have laughed at me, I’ve done one of two things. On some occasions I pretended to laugh along to keep from making a scene, but then disconnect from them emotionally. On most occasions, however, I made war. What I mean is that I employed my God-given intellect and eloquence to destroy the enemy, whoever it was. I made casualties, especially of those I loved. No one will laugh at me and live to tell it, I determined a long time ago. And it wasn’t Glen’s fault. It wasn’t anyone else’s fault. It was mine.

How did I suddenly learn this? What triggered this great insight today? Yes, I said today.

I’m in a mess right now, and, as usual, I take the messes I’m in very seriously. I feel as lost right now as I ever have, and I’ve been paddling like crazy to fix it. Exhausted, and unable to continue, more stripped of my dignity than I ever was standing there with butter on my nose, I lost heart. I collapsed, my dignity gone. I asked the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to forgive my interruption from whatever it was that they were busy with, and I bared my soul, poured out my guts, utterly naked before the universe without a claim, without a hope, and without a prayer. (I know it’s funny. You can laugh freely. I don’t have any butter handy at the moment.)

I told God and myself exactly where it hurt. In my belly. My solar plexus. My diaphragm. And I said, “I don’t care how much it hurts to let you see this. I don’t care how much it hurts to face whatever this is that’s killing me. Pour your light on this pain. Show me what it is, no matter what it is. Touch it. Heal it. I’m ready.” I braced myself. (Stop laughing at me!)

Then, thank God, I realized bracing myself was the wrong thing to do. So I let go. I let my belly have its way. I surrendered myself to whatever hidden pain and tears were to come out. Believe me, I expected a world of hurt! It’s OK, I kept saying to myself. I know pain. I’ve come to expect pain, I told myself. The pain that this is going to cause can’t be worse than what I’m already feeling. So bring it on!

I totally let go of my belly, leaving it exposed and unprotected. The muscles in that spot twitched in an unusual way that scared me. Then they spasmed in a way that made me want to sit up and clutch them to make it stop. But I resisted the urge. I had to trust what was happening. I breathed and let go again. Whatever was happening got more intense. I had no idea, of course, what was happening or what to expect, but I was completely convinced that, whatever was about to happen was going to hurt really bad.

Then it happened. My diaphragm exploded in the most bewildering way imaginable. I busted out laughing! I kid you not. If I’m lying, I’m dying.

For a long time, I lay there belly-laughing like a nutcase. I couldn’t stop laughing at myself—me, laughing at me, imagine!—and I didn’t want to stop. Deep, funny, healing, hopeful laughter came from nowhere, came from the center of who I am, came from heaven. I don’t know. “I’m so confused,” I said, which made me laugh harder. It was so hilariously confounding. What a stunning surprise! Laughter became an unexpected yet most welcome visitor in my sea of seriousness.

Another one of my heroes and teachers, Edwin Friedman, said once, “The only antidote to seriousness is humor.” I liked that quote enough to memorize it fifteen years ago. I knew at the time that it was true circumstantially. But I didn’t know how true it was for me personally until today.

Winston Churchill, too, was more right than I consciously knew when I first read his stirring encouragement to his men. It’s funny that it never occurred to me, in all my years of accumulated wisdom (ha!), that laughing could be so important—essential even, spiritual even— and that something so wonderful and beautiful can come from the sheer, grace-filled release of knowing that I really can laugh out loud and unashamed at my stupid self.

So what’s next? I think I’ll try this out in public.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pews Stink (a black and white satire)

Church pews had an innocent enough beginning in 1622, in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Mayflower companions built a small wooden sanctuary for the purpose of Sunday worship. But chairs were few in the Pilgrim outpost. Luxuries like chairs were too difficult and time-consuming to make, and there was an unforgiving ocean between them and the nearest furniture store.

The minutes from the November 21 church council meeting that year record a unanimous decision to commission the only Frenchman in the settlement, Pepé Le Pew (unmarried), to make benches for seating in the church. Tall, straight pine trees were felled, and rough planks were hewn. The crude pine picnic-style benches were placed in straight rows in the rustic sanctuary, and they were put to use for the first time on November 27, 1622.

No, the benches weren’t comfortable, but the discomfort only lasted an hour or so, and the stoic society considered this discomfort to be congruent with their rather austere theology. They felt it their duty, even in small things, to deny the flesh, to share in the suffering of Christ, and to live a lifestyle as plain and simple and straight as the pine planks themselves. Life in Plymouth was cold and hard, and so were the benches.

All furniture in this early Pilgrim sanctuary had liturgical names. The pulpit. The altar. The baptistery. Calling these crude seats “benches” seemed too secular to the Plymouth faithful, so it was decided at a church council meeting, November 28, to call the benches “pews,” after Pepé Le Pew, the unmarried Frenchman who fashioned them.

The only controversy surrounding the church pews is recorded some ten years later. The community had grown significantly due to continuing European immigration. An unmarried Frenchwoman named Penelope Félin had immigrated alone to Plymouth that year. She brought a formal complaint and a motion to the church council in 1632, as recorded in the minutes. She accused congregant Pepé Le Pew of unwanted advances, and she demanded that the church leadership address this outrage by removing Le Pew from the church.

When her motion failed, she made another. She noted that times had changed, and pointed out both the availability and affordability of chairs in America, and she moved that the church pews be replaced with more comfortable seating. The church council saw this as no more than sour grapes on the part of Penelope, for everyone knew that it was Le Pew who made the pews. This motion was also denied. The pews stayed. Penelope in haste packed and left Plymouth under cover of darkness. The next day, Le Pew declared his undying amour for Penelope, then packed and set out in pursuit of her.

In the years following, as more and more European Christians immigrated to America, nearby settlements built churches and made pews. They were blindly following the practice at Plymouth, ignoring the affordability and availability of chairs. In the late 17th century, every sanctuary in ..New England.. had Le Pew’s pews.

For one hundred years the pew remained in use and unchanged in America. And it is unknown when the first back rests were added to the pews for the comfort of the congregants. But it was a popular emendation, essentially turning a picnic table bench into a park bench.

Then during the 20th century, pews were accessorized. It started with the availability of hymnals. Stacking them at the end of the pews made it necessary to pass them down and pass them back. A spice rack maker in Boston attached his creations to the backs of his church’s pews and called them hymnal racks. He made a fortune. Slots for offering envelopes were added too. But a new invention, the pencil, was needed to fill out the envelopes, so new slots were designed with little wells in which to place the pencils. (The greatest accessory of all, the pew cushion, came later. Pews are pretty uncomfortable, with or without cushions. But cushions must have helped somewhat, because by 1980 most of the pews of America were cushionized.)

The wood from which the pews were fashioned was upscaled in most 20th century sanctuaries, too. Mahogany and maple were in use, making the pews both heavier and more expensive. While the cost of chairs had continued to drop, the cost of twenty-foot, quarter-ton, mahogany pews skyrocketed.

It is not clear why pews in America were, in the span of a mere decade, bolted to the floors of sanctuaries. Some reports say that fear of theft was the reason for anchoring the expensive pews. Some reports note that someone always had to straighten them after worship; people bumped and scooted them, and the pews had to be perpetually repositioned in equidistant, straight rows. One report, strangely enough, said that there was a concern that pews weren’t particularly stable when at full seating capacity, and that some legal types in a congregation in Washington D.C. were worried about law suits should one of those pews tip over backwards spilling the elderly ladies’ Sunday School class on the backs of their heads. Whatever the reason, America’s expensive, heavy, accessorized pews were screwed to the floors of nearly every church in America by 1950. The price of chairs, really comfortable ones, was at an all-time low.

Were there complaints about these fancy pew accessories in 1950? Yes. There are always those who resist change. Were there those in 1950 who, on the other hand, questioned the money spent on expensive, heavy, accessorized pews fastened to the floor, when chairs were cheaper and more comfortable, and chairs can be rearranged or removed so that the space can be employed for a wider variety of uses? Not many. For 350 years, pews had held worshipers in America. Pews had become the familiar though uncomfortable furniture of God. Prayers made from chairs? It seemed suspicious, almost unsightly.

Then a simple study was done by an obscure doctoral student in a Dallas seminary between 1999 and 2004. He tracked the population of nearly 300 churches in the Dallas metro area. Out of curiosity, he included in his data whether the worshiping communities used pews or chairs. The result was shocking. Churches with pews were losing members. Churches with chairs were growing. The statistics were dramatic. Pew churches had an 11% decrease in membership in only five years. Chair churches had an astonishing 54% increase in membership in only five years.

When the study was picked up by the Dallas media, Gallup took note. They designed a five-year study of 10,000 congregations nationwide. Among the data collected between 2004 and 2009, there was a question about seating: pews or chairs? Again the results were stunning. Pew churches nationwide declined in membership 24.5% while chair churches increased in membership by a staggering 177.5%.

Then came the now famous cover story in the nation’s largest selling Christian magazine. It explored Gallup’s findings on the pew versus the chair. As you might expect, the churches with chairs were predominantly newer congregations. The majority of them didn’t own buildings and had no need for a board of trustees. And their worship services were informal and contemporary. The averages ages? The average age of the pew churches was 65. The average age of the chair churches was 35.

Nothing in the article was so surprising, really. Church in America was changing fast. And, as the article said, there was no magic in using chairs. “Chairs don’t change churches. But it does appear that changing churches choose chairs.” No controversy or argument there. Statistics don’t lie.

The buzz wasn’t about the article, however. The buzz was about the cover photo. On the cover of the number one Christian magazine in the country was a family of three seated on the front pew of a stained-glass sanctuary. From left to right is a father, a son in his late teens, and a mother. The father, in his gray suit and black tie, is nodding off with his mouth open. The mother, in a gray dress and white pearls, is chewing on the inside of her lips, picking at her fingernails, and cutting her eyes at her son. Seated between them, the son is looking very 2009, with spiky hair and piercings and long baggy shorts. The expression on his face is a mix of frustration and yearning. But none of these things caused the buzz. The buzz was all about the teen’s T-shirt.

The son’s T-shirt is white. There is a cartoon character on the front, and beneath this cartoon character are two words. This cartoon character and those two words in bold black letters are considered by some to be the 21st century equivalent of the 95 theses said to have been nailed by Martin Luther to the door of the Wittenburg Chapel, October 31, 1517. The T-shirt may not have sparked a modern-day reformation, but it galvanized it.

Now that it’s the year 2059, the church looks back fifty years on that iconic magazine cover from 2009 as the beginning of the end of traditional Christian worship in America. Yes, traditional worship continues today, but the faithful in the pews are few, now only about 2% of Christian worshippers. You can add a back rest to a pew. You can accessorize a pew. You can cushion a pew. But the pew will always be the pew: a heavy, immovable, uncomfortable bench that would not go away even when better and cheaper seating was available.

The Plymouth church should have listened to Penelope Félin in 1632 when she made the motion at the church council meeting to replace the uncomfortable pews with chairs. Whatever happened to her? No one knows. And Pepé Le Pew, what of him? He also disappeared from history. Their names, however, resurfaced around 1950, at about the same time that pews were being bolted to church sanctuary floors. Two cartoon characters, a skunk named Pepé Le Pew and a cat named Penelope Pussycat (Félin in French), became favorites of children and adults.

I don’t need to tell you who the cartoon character was on the front of that teenage boy’s T-shirt. Everyone knows today. But for the sake of thoroughness and posterity, I record it here. Seated on a pew between a dozing father and a nervous mother, a frustrated and yearning teen wears a white T-shirt. On the front of the T-shirt is a cartoon skunk named Pepé Le Pew, and he is lounging atop two words that changed Christian worship for the better. And those two words were . . .

  To be sung to the tune of "Love Stinks" by the J. Geils Band

[Please visit Dumas Church Pews, makers of solid wood church furniture since 1928:]

You might consider this blog on pews a parable. Here are other analogies, some of which are parables: What Color Is a Green Apple?The Kingdom of Heaven is Like GravityA Guitar Hero Parable, and A Country Fried Parable.

For Jesus' parables see The Absurd Parable of the Unforgiving SlaveThe God Who GamblesParable of the Vine and BranchesThe Crooked ManagerThe Friend at MidnightHeaven Is Like a Crazy FarmerHe Speaks Of . . .Salted With FireTalking Sheep and GoatsIs Your Eye Evil?Two Prodigals and Their Strange FatherThe Lazarus Parable Is Not About the Afterlife,and Jesus Used Parables Like a Sieve.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Where is my grandmother (1908-2007)?

Photo of “Minkie,” late 1990s, with clockwise from left: me, bro Mike, sis Susan, bro Bill

I no longer have any living grandparents. Homer Gary died of pneumonia in 1936 so, sadly, I never knew him. Gussie Gary died at the age of 96 in 1992. Bob Segers died of a heart attack at the age of 82 in 1986. And Susan Segers died in her sleep shy of her 100th birthday on November 1, 2007.

As firstborn grandkids often do, I nicknamed my grandmother. I was a toddler. I’d been to the doctor, and he had a picture of Mickey Mouse on the exam room door. I got Mickey Mouse and Grandma mixed up in my little brain, and I called her Minkie Ma. The name Minkie stuck. (Or should I say Susan Segers got stuck with the name Minkie?)

Everyone reading this has likely lost a loved one. And we Christians have attended funerals where bold assertions are made about where our deceased loved ones are right now. That’s what I want to write about here. And I want to make it personal. I want to ask the question, Where is Minkie right now?

Because we’re all stuck here in the flow of time, there seems to be a time gap in our Christian belief in resurrection on the last day, doesn’t there? It is a gap between our deaths and our future resurrections. This time gap has bothered Christians for centuries, and many explanations have been invented to account for it.

Keeping it personal, Minkie passed away in 2007. Her resurrection will occur on the last day, according to Scripture. But what about the meantime? What about now? If my grandmother is dead and buried, where is she until* the resurrection of the dead on the last day promised by Jesus?

1. Is her soul dead, too, until* resurrection day?

2. Is her soul asleep until* resurrection day?

3. Did her soul leave her body and go to an “intermediate heaven" until* resurrection day? (see my other blogs: Paul didn’t go to heaven; The psychic medium of Endor was a fake; and The soul doesn’t leave the body at death)

4. Did her soul get an “intermediate body” (a loaner body?) to wear until* her buried body can be resurrected and her soul reunited with it? (The loaner body must be disposable.)

5. Did her soul go to Purgatory to wait and to be purified until* resurrection day?

6. Did her soul go to Limbo to remain a wanderer or be punished until* resurrection day?

*UNTIL - a temporal term you have to use if you think of time in Newtonian terms.

None of these six imaginative inventions are in Christian scripture. I want to take a fresh look at the question of where the dead are right now. I want to propose that we look at time differently—a way that makes none of these biblically foreign inventions (1-6 above) necessary. And, strangely enough, Albert Einstein helps us see a biblical answer to our question.

Is there a tiny span of time when it seems to me experientially that Minkie is in the ground and nowhere else until the resurrection day promised by the Bible? Yes. But the important word is "seems" from an eternal, biblical perspective and from Einstein’s perspective, which “coincidentally” agrees. 

I admit, here in the seeming flow of time, Minkie is seemingly no where else but in the ground, body and soul. That is, of course, not a very comforting prospect for me, as one who loved her. But I don’t believe that it’s true. Albert Einstein’s mind-blowing explanation of time, believe it or not, which most people have never heard or understood, illustrates a biblical view of time.

From Einstein’s paradoxical perspective, Minkie is a toddler learning to walk right now, she’s giving birth to my mother right now, she’s being nicknamed by me right now, she’s burying Papa right now, she’s dying in the nursing home right now, and she’s risen with the Lord at the future general resurrection promised by Scripture right now.

Each of these Minkies, every Minkie-moment, if you will, is literally in the spacetime loaf of our universe, all past moments, the present moment, and all future moments. All there. All happening. All real. In God’s universe, the one Einstein tried to explain to us Newtonian terrestrials, everything is happening.

Moses and Elijah, for example, visiting Jesus at the transfiguration are not ghosts, Scripture insists, but are men who are glorified. That means that they are resurrected human beings. But if the resurrection of the dead is a future event, how could Moses and Elijah already be raised? It’s because the resurrection slice is in the universe-loaf from the beginning. These glorified men not only visited from somewhere else. They visited from some-when else.

You can’t think chronologically to see this. You have to try to see the whole. Resurrection seemed like a "not yet" moment at the time to Peter, James, and John on that mountain with the glorified (resurrected) Moses and Elijah and Jesus standing before them. But the “not yet resurrection” revealed its truth to them by breaking into their present from the future.

Resurrection day seems like a “not yet” moment to us now too, an event disconnected from us in a distant, unknowable future. But from God’s universal eternity, and in Einstein’s universe that IS, a universe that IS happening, a universe that IS whole and complete, the future resurrection has happened, is happening, and will happen. It was and is and is to come, now and forever.

I’m going to give an analogy that helps me, but first, here is a key insight from what Einstein has taught us. Our universe does not just contain every where. It also contains every when, including (if you believe Scripture) the future resurrection day. Space (all wheres) and time (all whens) are inseparable. If all wheres exist, then all whens must exist, because space and time are one thing designated by one word: spacetime. Our universe is spacetime. Everywhere and everywhen compose our physical universe.

In spacetime, however, we creatures are only wired to experience one "now" at a time in the seeming flow of chronological time. But time doesn't really flow. Your past is really still here in our universe, not just a memory. Your future is here in our universe, though you haven't experienced it yet. Our universe includes all space and all time.

Here’s an illustration that helps me visualize this. Picture a movie theater strip on a platter (a horizontal reel—pictured), let’s say the movie Titanic. Here are Jack and Rose in a single frame from the movie.

We experience a movie one frame at a time as it passes in front of a projector lamp. But that doesn't mean that every frame we've already seen isn't still sitting up in the projection booth on a platter (pictured). Nor does it mean that every frame we're about to see isn't sitting up there in the projection booth on another platter. The movie, every frame, is whole and complete up there, but we can only experience it now-frame by now-frame. 

We experience time like this because of our human, creaturely, design limitations. But the risen Jesus has no such limitations in the Bible. Neither does anyone resurrected. As the Apostle Paul insists, we will be like him in resurrection, and the risen Jesus is not bound by space and time.

Do you see the problem? Just because we perceive the universe one “highlighted now” at a time, argue physicists, does not mean that the universe exists in this way.

It flies in the face of our experience, but the physical universe appears to be one big present mega-moment. What we call past, present, and future all resound equally together across the vastness of all space and time. The Loaf shows no partiality to any one moment. It is we who do that. All nows are equal in the eyes of the universe. It is not so for us. That seems to be because we are designed to experience one note at a time. With one note at a time, we can we hear the melody. Without it, all the notes blare at us in unison dissonance.
So the universe is complete. Everything is happening in here. We live in a vast “eternal now.” And there are many "you moments" in our universe, all of them you, and all of them real, from your birth to your death to your resurrection.

Have you ever wondered, How can the risen Lamb of God be slain from the foundation of the world if the crucifixion and resurrection didn't happen until around 30 AD? It sounds contradictory. This biblical claim flies in the face of a conventional view of chronological time.

If the universe contains every when, however, then what we believe is the key event in the history of the universe---the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus---is the key "now" among all nows that exist from eternity---from Alpha to Omega. A man born around 8 B.C. and executed around 30 A.D. is slain from the foundation of the world? Scripture says yes.

The reason that Jesus can be "slain from the foundation of the world" is because the whole of the universe (past, present, and future) came into existence whole. When the universe came into existence, it wasn’t just all wheres that came into existence. All whens came into existence too, including the crucifixion. The crucifixion of Jesus, the pivotal moment in our universe as we Christians see it, was and is and always will be present to the whole. It’s the linchpin moment in a forever-complete salvation-history.

From this perspective, the crucifixion-now can be seen as "simultaneous" with the creation-now and with the last-day-resurrection-now. They're all here together in the spacetime loaf, the complete physical universe, all whens from beginning to end are just here.

Consider this the key point: I see no problem with what Jesus means when he speaks from the cross, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise. ”Luke 23:43) The Lord is present to every day in the universe. They are all his simultaneous todays. And when we experience our death-nows as he did, we "skip" or "fast-forward" instantaneously to our joint resurrection-now with him. Therefore, the today of our deaths is literally the today of our resurrections. ( That's because from a heavenly perspective as well as an Einsteinian perspective, both days (like all days) are eternally simultaneous.

So when resurrection-Jesus popped in on the disciples behind locked doors, he wasn't just appearing from some-where else. He was also appearing from some-when else: the future resurrection of the dead. He transcended space and time to appear to his friends. He transcends spacetime still. He reigns over all spacetime in his kingdom of heaven. He is the resurrection. He is the Alpha (A) and the Omega (W....).

All this is to say that Minkie, the finest Scrabble player who ever lived, is both in the ground and alive forevermore at the future resurrection of the dead. She is dead yet alive. The kicker is, if the Bible and Einstein are correct about creation, then in our universe right now I am at the future resurrection of the dead with Minkie too, and so are you.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Only Functional Family

Admit it. You have to have it. You look for it everyday in the face of your spouse or in the face of a stranger. It’s something that’s nearly impossible to find, it’s something you cannot keep, and yet your radar is on high alert for it all day long.

You need relational union, and you’re lying to yourself if you think you don’t. Blissful, intimate union. It’s what you have to have.

But here’s the crazy part. I’m fifty years old, and I’ve rarely had it, yet I still look for it every day. No matter your age, you’ve rarely had it. Yet you’re craving it right now like it is right around the corner. You desperately need “this thing” that you’ve rarely experienced, if ever. And even if you’ve experienced it, you know that it doesn’t last. So here’s my simple question:

Why is it that you forever hunger for a relational union and bliss that you have rarely experienced and that never lasts?

There are biological, chemical, anthropological, sociological, and psychological answers to this question. Let me try a theological answer—by that I mean, an answer that begins with God, in whose image we are said to have been created. In the Bible, God is three persons in utter union. Maybe that’s not a coincidence.

If it is true that God is three in union, three persons yet one substance, then our being created in God's image has a profound implication for our question about relational union and why we need it.

If three-in-union is God's image, and if we are created in this image, then perhaps we are wired at the factory (as a friend of mine once put it) for union in relationship. Is this possible? If so, then it raises powerful questions.

Could that be why our broken relationships almost drive us to despair, because they violate the relational union in whose image we were created? Could that be why our relationships hurt us so badly, because we are wired for union, desire union, and seek union, all because we are created in the image of the Tri-union of the Tri-unity?

When it comes to my broken relationships (and human relationships are always broken), I get tantalizingly brief glimpses of the union that exists between Father, Son, and Spirit. "They" know they are distinct persons with no blurred lines and no unhealthy enmeshments—what some psychologists call codependences. But humans are prone to codependent, invasive, relational enmeshment, and that’s not healthy union.

It’s infuriating that I cannot catch and keep this experience of healthy union, no matter how much I desire it and no matter how hard I try to sustain it. It always slips through my fingers. I lose my healthy sense of self by letting myself be used or abused by others, including those who really love me. But, of course, I end up using and abusing them too, though I don’t want to. No matter how much I wish it to be otherwise, the healthy union that I MUST HAVE cannot be self-created or self-sustained. It is delusional for me to think otherwise.

The union we see in the Trinity, however, is both healthy and sustained. Throughout the NT Jesus is crystal clear who he is, a very strong sense of self, clear that he is not the Father or the Spirit, but also clear that the Three are One. The Three Musketeers is a “literary type” of this ideal tri-union. “All for one and one for all.” I might add, “All the time.”

I realize that the word Trinity is an oxymoron. It’s an utter contradiction, at least by human reckoning. Tri- means three and –nity (unity) means one. How can three be one? How can one equal three? This is the mystery of God’s very image in the Bible. God is the great Three who are One. Tri-unity. How can we even begin to make sense of this? Perhaps there is a way.

Marital intimacy is a reflection of the union in the Tri-unity, though we manage to screw it up, of course. It's a sin thing. It's our human dis-ease that we lose our sense of self, that we try to recover it in needy manipulation, and that we use one another for selfish purposes. Yet, every once in a blessed while, the union we are wired for is blissfully experienced and enjoyed. We get a glimpse now and again when “the two become one.” The perfect union that I (and undoubtedly you) yearn for cannot be sustained, however, even in the healthiest of marriages, as you are probably painfully aware.

How do I describe this perfect union? It fully protects and affirms my unique selfhood while connecting me with other selves in mutual joy, love, and respect that affirm their unique selfhoods. No blurred lines. Healthy boundaries. Embracing and being embraced without invasion. Loving others fully as much as you love yourself. Willing to lay your life down for a friend.

Have I been able to do this or experience this in my lifetime? Yes and no. I live in hope that I'm getting better at loving and respecting and serving others, and live in hope that the union that Jesus says is mine really is mine, even though I don't always feel it and I often mess it up. I choose to believe that my promised union with Christ on resurrection day will fulfill my lifelong yearning for union with him and with humanity, and that this same promise can help me grow in this love in the here and now.

Are all families dysfunctional? All but one, as I see it. The only functional "family" is the Father, Son, and Spirit, and this union is ours by the biblical new covenant promise. In Jesus' flesh we are adopted into this functional family. Faith is required, however, to trust that this union is yours when your wrecked relationships are telling you otherwise. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

The Bible, however, is not nearly as negative about flesh as is often portrayed. Is it weak and flawed? Yes. But all things were made in, by, for, and through Jesus, the incarnate Word of God. This means that Jesus created flesh, if you believe the Bible. And John's Gospel makes a point of saying that the one who created flesh became flesh.

The biblical Greek word is sarx. Flesh. God became sarx, flesh, like you and me, feeling everything we feel, experiencing fully the same weaknesses and temptations we feel. How could Jesus save all flesh (which he made) unless he became fully flesh? This was God's plan from the foundation of the world.

A husband and wife becoming "one flesh" is not a bad thing, is it? It's a union blessed by the Tri-union God. And Jesus came to save all flesh. And all flesh shall see it together. Jesus was born in the flesh, embracing our flesh, and taking all flesh to the right hand of his Father through his death, resurrection (of his flesh!), and ascension. If these biblical claims are true, then what is the result?

Jesus is forever human: Resurrected flesh and bones.

Luke 24:39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."

He said the bread that he gives to the world is his flesh. Is his flesh evil? No, it's a sacrament! It's sacred! In Romans 8 Paul wrote:

Romans 8:3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,

Jesus didn't condemn flesh. He became flesh to deal with sin and death in the flesh.

Hebrews 2:1-15; 17-18 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

What this means is that the God of the universe chose to unify us with him in the flesh. Rather than blending us together like a drop of water blends into the ocean, God chose a union in the flesh that defends unique, personal identity forever.

Is the image of God in which we are created a relational Tri-union of distinct persons? Is that why we're wired for relationship and yearn for union with someone, with something, with Father-Son-Spirit? Is God’s coming to us in human flesh our adoption into the only functional family? I have come to believe that the answer to each if these questions is yes.

If I am correct, then why do adherents of the world's monotheistic religions, including Christianity, prefer a solitary god, a monad, a remote singularity? And how can a deity who knows no relationships have made us, or even want to make us? For what purpose? How can a mono-god whose image is non-relational create humans wired for relationship? Why would a self-contained uni-god create relationships, much less desire union with lowly, needy creatures like us?

What if the answer to this mystery is that God passionately desires to enlarge his Triune Family by including us and by wiring us to yearn for that inclusion? What if now, in the flesh, we are included in The Only Functional Family, The Relationship behind all relationships, The Family in whose image we are made, and The Union---blissful and passionate---that we desperately desire in our heart of hearts?