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: http://www.dumaspews.com/html/about_us.html]

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.