Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Hazardous Faith: Exposed


Note: I’m sharing My Hazardous Faith Story as part of a synchroblog connected with the release of Ed Cyzewski and Derek Cooper’s new book Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus.




I suppose it's both the blessing and the curse of being born and raised in the buckle of the Bible belt: being a "Christian" and assuming everyone else around you is as well comes as naturally as knowing instinctively that the tea you order in the restaurant is going to be sweet. Feeling like your faith might put you in danger only comes in social circles (because you don't want to appear to be TOO Christian) or in comparative denomination one-upmanship. Faith isn't so much hazardous as it complacent. ...which, in its own way, is more dangerous than anything.

My faith journey didn't take a "hazardous" turn until Ashley and I moved out of the Southeast and down to Miami for a few years (2007-2010). Several aspects of moving so far away from our geographic regions of birth seemed hazardous (says the white guy from Mississippi who couldn't and still can't speak a word of Spanish) but what I believed? That wasn't high on the list of things I felt I should be concerned about in when living in South Florida. We were newlyweds, starting new careers at a new university.

Clearly, everything was going to be exactly as we had always known it.

It was around the second or third week in my new job, during one of the down times in the office, when while casually chatting with some of the students workers I made some off-handed remark about trying to find a new church. Hey, THEY were the ones who asked how we were settling into Miami. Part of me still thinks they just liked to hear my accent and welcomed any chance to hear me speak, but I digress. Anyway, the ambient noise in the room became noticeably less ambient, and one by one they all sort of said "Ohhhh," turned around in their chairs, and became engrossed in the work or FreeCell game they had been ignoring. I shrugged, turned around, and didn't really give it much thought.

About an hour later, one of these same student workers came up to my desk and sat down in the chair next to mine. She had this glint in her eyes that looked simultaneously desperate and excited. Conspiratorially, she leaned in and whispered "Are you...a...Christian?" with a look that almost made me think she was going to follow this question up with "And are you wearing a wire tap?" I raised an eyebrow and slowly said "Yes...", not sure if I was going to be hugged or tased after whatever answer I gave. But when I answered in the affirmative, her body language took on a decidedly different slant: her face and shoulders relaxed, and her breath - which I didn't know she had been holding - came out almost with a sigh of relief.

She then explained to me that apparently people who believed...anything...were scarce within the administration of this university. The comparatively few students who attended campus ministries, church services, or congregated together did so rarely. Not that this school had declared an open hunting season on people of faith; it was simply that "we" were so few and far between at this institution.

What made the next three years even more interesting was the fact that when I "came out" as a Christian to some of my students, they couldn't believe it:

"But...you don't act like or talk like any of the Christians I've ever known," they would say to me time and again.

"In what way am I different?"

"You...like...me. You respect me as a person. We've laughed together, worked together. You care about issues of social justice as passionately as I do. You're just...different."

I had apparently never once preached to them about the "dangers" and "wrongness" of their sexual orientation, their faith or lack thereof, or their choice of recreational activities. I had instead shown love. I had given a bit of sweat equity in activities.

I had hazardously been myself.

And in doing so, exposed the hazards others had tried to set up around these kids.

Like what you read here? No? Don't worry - check out the synchroblog landing page: http://wp.me/PewoB-SN to read how others have shared their own Hazardous Faith Stories

Monday, August 27, 2012

Disposable Outcome: The Theology of Pressboard

Having worked in education for so long, I have forgotten how normal people see calendars and seasons. To me, a calendar is not delineated by weeks or months but by meetings, appointments, and deadlines. "Seasons" correspond to athletic events and not by how the trees change color. However, there are always two holidays which stand as fixed points marking the beginning and end of the year, and are celebrated with great joy and anticipation in the hearts of all who work in higher education:

Move In Day and Move Out Day.

Recently, I could tell we were getting close to celebrating Move In Day and the start of the academic semester simply by the amount of trash sitting on the roadside. The neighborhood we live in is somewhat populated by undergrads who rent out houses during the year, and then hang on for dear life during the summer, hoping to squeeze out every ounce of free time they can muster before having to move on to either "the real world" (due to graduation) or back home to live with their families. As such, they wait until their lease is up to even consider packing, cleaning, or preparing to transition to whatever residence comes next. This means that one day the sidewalk and street are clean and free from obstructions, and the next morning, giant mounds of papers, cardboard and used furniture has sprouted up like giant mushroom trash piles.

As I was outside playing with my kid one morning, for some reason my eyes were drawn to the three large objects sitting outside a row of houses just up the street from us: an entertainment center, a computer desk, and what appeared to be a bookshelf. It was difficult to tell what each object had been in a former life of usefulness, because they had all been ripped apart, broken, and tossed piece by piece onto the street. This was not due to the former occupants of the houses engaging in some kind of battle with super villains and their residence getting trashed, nor was it - much - likely due to a wild party the night before.

Nope. All this furniture was pressboard, and therefore easy to break apart.

So of course, after seeing piles of discarded "furniture" sitting on the side of the road, my mind immediately began to reel with allegories, comparisons, and questions about the what and why of these mountains of inexpensive decorations, and how they correspond to me and my life:

...how at one time, I thought this stuff was fine to have in my room and later in my house. But as I began to put away childish things, and to have my tastes shift, I too just dumped what I once thought was of great value to me for something of a greater value and had greater potential for lasting longer.

...how it must appear to those who travel by my life or my house and see the piles of debris that I sometimes just leave out for someone else to clean up. Because, you know, we pay people to clear that mess away. I shouldn't be responsible for the safe disposal of a legitimate potential hazard.

...how sometimes these temporary, almost furniture-as-placeholder items, still retain some worth to them, but in our rush to discard them for something bigger! better! shinier! newer!, we tear apart and destroy something that someone else could use. Someone may legitimately have a need for something we see as unimportant now that we have the "2.0" upgrade item.

...how I have been the jerk in relationships - platonic and romantic - to use and dump, never thinking about what I am splintering, who might step on the pieces scattered about in collateral damage, or what I am doing to this item (or person) that someone might find beauty and treasure in.

...how my faith has gone from something mass-produced and cheaply constructed to something firmer, with a deeper foundation, with more durability. How it has gone from something made to be uniform, in style and in step with so many others, to something hand-carved and truly unique. How it broke because it could not put up with and bear under the weight of a life lived outside of the safety of a showroom. How I outgrew the need for parts of it despite how much the manufacturers kept assuring me there was a market for it (really, these days, who needs a TV or microwave cart?).

...how that it is my job to show those who may require literal or metaphorical pressboard as a first stage in their life that they can move beyond it and into something finer. Something stronger. Something that will last, that thieves will not steal and rust (or water damage) can not destroy.

For my fellow Higher Ed geeks, consider this "Chickering & Reissering" your furniture. And your life.

So my question to you is this: how is your furniture?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Viral Jesus

Ross Rohde's book Viral Jesus: Recovering the Contagious Power of the Gospel is a bit difficult to codify in terms of what exactly it is. It's not exactly a critique on modern church structure - although there is plenty of what can best be derived as "loving correction." It's not exactly a "how to" instructions book with five easy steps you can replicate in your own church - although he gives plenty of historical background and examples of how it has been done in the past. And it's not exactly a post-modern, emergent, traditional or blended theological treatise - although there are plenty of ideas which could easily be implemented in any of these kinds of churches.

Viral Jesus is a statement, a bold statement, on the organic nature of the church. Many traditionalists wince at the use of "organic" to describe how church should be (thinking it to be too soft and lacking in stricture), and many post-moderns embrace it and rally around it (often to the detriment of planning for the future, opting to just see "where the Spirit takes us"). By looking at and approaching the topic from a non-Western point of view, Rohde presents not so much an argument for but discussion areas on what and how early Christian discipleship looked like, felt like, how far the church has come from this notion.

As someone raised in Western Christianity, the book felt a tad offensive at times - and I'm glad that it did. It caused me to pause and think about how we (the church) look and act to the world at large, which nine times out of ten is represented by the person who walks by our doors but we would dare not to invite in. Traditional, structure-centered churches could learn a great deal from getting a little more organic - which translates to getting your hands dirty in the lives of the people around you. Post-modern churches could stand to spend a little more time honoring and studying the history of our faith, and not just adapting what other modern churches have done or simply doing what seems "cool" at the time.

Since the book IS written from a non-Western perspective, it may take several reads through to truly grasp the complexity of what Rhode is trying to convey. The ONLY staunch critique I had about the entirety of the manner in which he suggests we approach discipleship or the church is when he recommends to not spend as much time in preparation or study. Granted, the Western church has become in some ways hyper-pseudo-educational in its structure, and it sometimes gives weight to the degrees held by those in leadership than to their gifts or abilities. However, as someone who comes from a background in education - as well as someone who would probably stammer on with no direction when he speaks without taking all the time for preparation that I do - I see the importance and necessity of proper study. There's a balance between staying married to the script you write and being flexible to the urgings of the Spirit, and this balance can be found without sacrificing the other.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Everybody Poops


(WARNING: this post contains "adult" language. Because I did not wish to self-censor or white-wash what I said, I'm using the actual term(s) used instead of Disneyfying my language. Reader discretion is advised. If you are offended by my choice of words, consider if you should instead be more offended by my choice of attitude when saying them.)

Maggie, my 12 year old chow/shepherd mix, is a bit obstinate. Scratch that - she's more than a bit: she's set in her ways, a princess in her own mind, and if things don't go her way, she pouts.  Case in point: because Ashley never "yard trained" her to go to the bathroom (meaning you just open the door and she goes in the back yard to do her business) when she got her as a puppy, she must be walked when nature comes calling. Every time. It doesn't matter if it's 2:00 am, pouring down rain, and it's the 75th time you've taken her out because her tummy doesn't feel well. You just grab the leash and go. If you put her on the run we have tied to the back porch, she'll go and just sit in the grass, ears turned backwards, and stare at you with this pathetic "You know better than to try and pull this mess" look on her face.

Early one evening, after dealing with her soft yet omnipresent whine that signals her patience (such as it is) is at an end, I hooked her up to take her on Walk Pattern A. Yes. We have two distinct walk patterns we must adhere to in order to facilitate a movement on her part. Because I felt bad that she had been sequestered in the house all day due to thunderstorms, I decided to take her on Walk Pattern A - Long Version, which is her favorite; it gives her a greater variety of grass to sniff and choose what to pee on.

This time, however, her prima donna mentality went to eleven. Because the grass dared to be wet due to the thunderstorm, she refused to step on it. The sidewalk, while damp, was where she stayed. And sniffed. And peed. But you could tell by the way she was walking she needed to do...more. Yet because the grass was wet, she would not set one paw on it. And because we were walking in the muggy, post-rain heat of a South Carolina evening my patience was wearing thin. I was getting upset because I had chosen - as a favor to her - to take her on a longer walk than usual, and she wasn't owning up to her part of the bargain and taking care of business. Turning the corner to start the trek home, and knowing that we were going to run out of prime grassy areas where she could go, I felt my anger rise to an almost boiling point. After for the fourth time she had stopped, turned around in a circle, sniffed, and then walked away without doing anything, I locked the leash down and yelled out:

"For the love of God, will you JUST. GET. YOUR. SHIT. OUT? You will feel SO. MUCH BETTER."

And then I stopped. Not because the neighbors were staring at the crazed bald man yelling at his dog to poop, but because of what I had said. How I had said it. To whom I had said it.

And because no one, especially not someone who claims to love me, would ever yell at me like that.

The reality is, I'm more like Maggie than I care to admit. Not that I have to go take a crap outside, but I tend to hold my shit in more than I should. I voluntarily give myself emotional and spiritual constipation. Is it that I am afraid of the stink it might cause? Is it that I am embarrassed that when I do, I'll be laying out the worst of what is inside of me for others to see? I forget that not only does everyone poop, but when we do, it's the waste byproduct that is coming out, not what feeds and supports me. This stuff has to come out, otherwise it is a health hazard.

Spiritually speaking, what I'm not allowing to pass out of me is the filth, self-loathing, and darkness that I am holding on to which does not represent the forgiveness and purity that I receive through the cross. But because it is so dirty, and God knows we can't let anyone know we poop, I hold it in. Ashamed of it, because once I poop, people will know that, yes: I'm just like you. Not everything I do smells like roses. Like what I yelled at Maggie, I would feel SO. MUCH. BETTER. if I just would go ahead and poop out the crap I keep trying to hold in. Tell someone about the struggle I'm having. Tell someone about where I continually stumble and fall. Tell someone what I need help with.

In order to be fully cleansed, feel set free and lighter, I need to release my shit: emotionally, metaphorically, literally and spiritually. Every time Kai used the restroom when he was being potty training, we made a big deal out of clapping, celebrating, and telling him how proud we were that he pooped. That he let go of what was inside of him and hurting him. Now he just sees it as second nature: something comes in, something good is made of it, and something goes out. We don't call it stinky, we don't call it gross, we don't make a big deal out of the waste products his body expels.

He poops, and knows it is good for him.

Maggie (...eventually...) poops, and knows it is good for her.

I know what is good for me, but I keep trying to find grass to hide it in.

Everybody poops.

Let it go.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Blink

As the name of the blog suggests, I'm all about looking through the windshield. Eyes forward and all that. But in looking through, I sometimes forget to look into.

Case in point: the other day when I was getting ready to shave, the reflection greeting me in the mirror showed me something I had never noticed before; namely, the "peppering" of my facial hair. And I have to tell you, I was NOT prepared to see this. I think I actually just stared dumbfounded at the long, grey hairs prominently featured in my beard. Once I composed myself and choked back the shock, my first thought was "Seriously? SERIOUSLY?!? Come ON - this is totally not fair! What hair I have left should be granted the dignity to stay its natural color!"

And then I raised my gaze a couple of inches...WRINKLES?!? Okay, more like "laugh lines," but still... I'm only 41, for crying out loud. If the eyes are the window to the soul, mine clearly need some new sealant applied to them.

Now, I'm not so vain as to take drastic measure to try and stem the tide of time in terms of my physical appearance. I know - intellectually - that as I get older, my body is supposed to reflect these changes that naturally occur. And I also know that some of my sleeping and extended recreation choices have undoubtedly contributed to these cracks in my face and changing of the color guard in my follicles. And I know that the little firecracker I am I charge of has caused in some ways for my body to catch up to representing its biological age.

But really, what made me more concerned than anything else was that discovering these signs of the times made me wonder when the last time I actually LOOKED at myself in the mirror was.

Back when I was in high school and later in college, I cared more for my appearance. I mean, the product wasn't going to get into my hair all on its own. I needed to constantly check and re-check myself to make sure that I looked presentable to go out into society. After I graduated from college - minus the fashion sabbatical that was grad school - I always monitored my appearance: check the tie, check the shirt, smooth the wrinkles, etc. Professional appearance mattered. When I would go out socially, yeah, it was important to look good, but slightly less so than when I was "younger;" in my early and mid twenties, being comfortably casual was fine when meeting friends out.

Now? If I shave more than once a week, it's because I have to "look good" when meeting people - which also translates to "wear the cleanest pair of jeans." Part of my fashion apathy is honestly out of necessity; when wrangling a toddler and competing with my wife every morning for the one tiny bathroom we have, I yield to those whose lungs are louder and who need to go make money at work. And by the time I re-enter the work force and start to wear the legion of "dress clothes" hanging in my closet, I'm hoping that I can get away with claiming I'm trying to be retro. Cargo shorts are God's way of telling the stay-at-home dad that He loves him - and that he can carry a juice cup, snack, action figure or two, phone, wallet, keys, and transport random rocks and twigs discovered that are "so cool" and have to come home with us without looking like a pack animal.

My fellow stay at home parents will get this. We let this part of our identity slide, because it's easy to do so. I still care about looking good for Ashley, but it's care by rote. I can't tell the last time I actually stared in the mirror while brushing my teeth, because I always have my eyes cast towards the impending crash, cry, or catastrophe that might come from Kai's room. When I shave my head, trim my beard, wash my face (and now use moisturizer...crap...), I might be standing in front of a mirror, but I'm not watching myself. Because I've seen this face for the better part of four decades, I think I should know what it looks like and feels like.

Evidently, I don't.

So now I stop and think. I think about what people see when they look at me. I think about my ragamuffin appearance and what I reflect. Admittedly, as I sit and type this in a local coffee shop, I'm wearing frazzled cargo shorts and a Tshirt with bleach stains on it, so I'm not suddenly throwing myself on the mercies of "What Not To Wear" and transforming myself into a stay-at-home fashionista.

But more than anything, this wake-up reflection left me wondering: if in my mind, I still see myself as two decades younger than I am, and I think I still have that look about me, have I become equally comfortably numb in thinking how I reflect my beliefs? My faith? My actions and words? I see myself as a Christ follower, but what do I reflect?

What do other people see in me?

And what do I need to do to insure that a true reflection is shown and not some pale imitation?

Monday, August 06, 2012

I Feel a Need...A Need to Plead...

There's this pastor in Georgia that I know who sends out a weekly email, updating people about what's going on at his church, what the Sunday series is going to be about, and basically "hyping up" the services week after week in order to try and keep people interested and engaged. There is nothing specifically wrong with this; in fact, I applaud his use of email to convey a lot of the information from his church out to people in a timely and environmentally-friendly way. However, there is one word that he chooses to use...and over-use...time and again in his email messages that at first was a little unsettling to read, but has now become something of a theological sticky wicket for me every time I read his emails.

"Plead."

As in "PLEAD for GOD to SHOW UP MIGHTILY!!!!" "PLEAD for MEN to STAND UP AND BE MEN!!!!" "PLEAD for GOD to MOVE IN OUR CITY!!!!" "PLEAD TO GOD for THE TIME, TREASURE AND TALENTS TO BE SHARED!!!!!" Etcetera, etcetera, hyperbole ad nauseum.

Some might state this plea is perhaps coming from a sincere heart and someone who is passionate about their beliefs. Others might begin to hear the voice of a televangelist in their mind, e-NUN-cee-AYTING EV-uh-REE UH-th-ur SIL-la-BULL. CAN I GET an AMEN? Still some might simply ask what's the big deal about pleading?



What makes me uneasy is this: is it necessary to plead with God?

As the parent of a toddler, I have come to understand the nature of pleading a little bit better: it's to insure that we, as the one asking, think we are being heard. Nothing more, nothing less. When Kai asks for yet another toy while out shopping, I hear him. Loudly, at times. When I tell him no and then he somehow manages to even more emphatically ask all the while stretching the word "please" to incorporate 17 syllables, he must think I either didn't hear him, or that I didn't hear him clearly enough the first time. But the reality is that I'm not far from him. I hear him. There's no need for passionate theatrics. If I choose to act on what he's asking for, it's because that was my plan to do so.

The thief on the cross who was crucified next to Christ? He didn't plead with Jesus; he simply asked Him to remember him (Luke 23:42).

The widow from the parable in Luke 18:1-8 who persisted in her request for justice? She received it not from her pleas but due to her diligence.

The multitudes who came to Christ to seek healing? They asked - asked - the Son of David for mercy.

In fact, one of the only recorded times in the four gospel that there is an account someone pleaded with Jesus, it was to ask Him to leave (Mark 5:17), not to stay. When the Roman Centurion "entreats" Christ (Matthew 8:5), he did so out of respect, asking in faith for the healing of his servant. It was the position of Christ's authority the Centurion was honoring, not begging for attention.

We sometimes feel through the guilt and weight of our mistakes, our sins, that asking for forgiveness isn't enough. Part of this is human nature; we genuinely can't conceive of the redemptive beauty and grace offered to us. And part of this comes from the guilt, shame, and pain that we feel; we cry out because we are broken. The parable from Luke 18:9-14 where the Publican asks for mercy - in his own way and in his own words echoing what David wrote in Psalm 51:1-7 - hits us between the valves of our hearts because these words are expressing repentance with regret, asking for forgiveness and strength to not make the same mistake(s) again.

So I have to ask myself: why does this pastor feel the need to plead with God, thereby role-modeling to others that pleading is what is to be done? Yes, admittedly, at times I feel the desire to try and draw God's attention to my prayers through perhaps being a bit more...animated...than I should, but where does this stem from? If nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, why do we sometimes act like the centuries between creation and our time today has increased the distance between us? If we ask, believing in faith and in accordance with His will, God says it will be done (Matthew 21:22). If we seek God, He will be found (Acts 18:27).

Passionate theatrics, just like an inappropriate "Caps Lock" in an email, are not needed. God hears us. He is not distant, or out on vacation. 

Nor, thank you I Kings 18:27-28, is He sleeping or otherwise indisposed.