Wednesday, February 28, 2007

What I've Been Reading

This week, I've indulged in the remarkable luxury of dragging one of my dining room chairs out on the back porch and sitting in a little square of sunshine to read. My back porch is level with the tops of my trees: a redbud, a hickory and a chinaberry. The chinaberry is the largest and my favorite, even though it tried to crawl through the roof and had to have one of its limbs unceremoniously sawed off earlier this year. (I studied dendrology at Auburn when I was in the School of Forestry. I should have stayed there. Journalism is a stupid major. ) Of course, there aren't any leaves on my trees right now, so I can look out into the blue sky and see the top of the AT&T tower and the BellSouth building. I can almost make out the red sign atop the City Federal building. When I sit there, I feel suspended between the tomato and corn cob Birmingham I love and the whoosh and bang Birmingham of the future that we all fear is going to look a lot more like Atlanta then even Atlanta wants to look. (I hate Atlanta. If you were going to put deodorant on the United States, you'd roll it on right around the 285.) I'm Southern and I'm starting to accept what that means. I can't escape and I no longer want to try. I wrap my Birmingham, past and present, around me like a blanket and it protects me from the Voices in My Head with a strong and certain sense of place.

I've read two books this week. Both about religion. Both non-fiction. Both familiar. The first was Deborah Layton's account of her life at Jonestown, the cult-compound in Guyana where Jim Jones ordered 914 of his followers to commit suicide by drinking Flavor Aid laced with cyanide. I had to ask myself how a rational person could allow themselves to be beaten and raped by their pastor in California and reason that it was a good idea to travel with him to Guyana's remote equatorial rain forest and surrender your passport. It scared me to realize how easily I have allowed religion to turn me away from the knowledge of truth I already have in my heart. The old cliche is fitting here: There but for the Grace of God go I. My one sentence review? This book scared me and showed me what a fragile little mind I have.

The second book was Dennis Covington's most revered work, Salvation on Sand Mountain. I've just finished it and I cannot comment on it now other than to say if I ever see Dennis Covington again I will shake his hand and just say "Thank you. Thank you for that." He writes about religion, the Holy Spirit and women and he really gets all three. When we argue about women's roles in the church, he asserts, we're really arguing about the nature of God. He gave me the words to voice what I've been trying to all these years.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Tell Me the Truth

I've been listening to Michael Horton lead a discussion about the emergent church movement on a recent podcast of The White Horse Inn. I admit that it is over my head. Essentially, it's a group of intellectually sharp men volleying pithy truisms back and forth for a half-hour. It isn't that they are former seminarians. (Frankly, I think seminary degrees are most commonly used for pastors to cover their eyes when they don't want to see the truth about themselves or their churches. ) I think it's that they do what so many of us in this post-modern world won't: They wrestle with difficult ideas until they can understand them. We're too lazy for that most of the time. That's why Starbucks is popular. We like to get our coffee in a paper cup and run back to the car. We don't like to take the time to drink from a proper cup and engage each other in the kind of dialogue coffee shops used to exist to facilitate. (But that's a post for another day.)

What captures me most about this discussion is the idea embraced by the emerging church that we can speak truth to one another freely all the while avoiding it's pesky tendency to offend people. This, my brothers and sisters, is a lie. (In fact, I think it warrants a moniker most commonly identified with bovine excrement and useful for decrying the most asinine kind of un-truth.) The gospel by it's very nature is offensive because it tells us what we innately believe yet don't want to voice. Namely, that we're rotten to the core and unable to save ourselves from these rancid bodies of sin. If we're among the fortunate who can accept that truth about ourselves, chances are, we have a difficult time embracing the rest of the story: that we're infinitely precious to a holy God and can be cleansed from any trace of unrighteousness and made thoroughly, and through no work of our own, worthy of God's favor. (I admit, that's something I have a very hard time coming to terms with myself. Trying to wrap my brain around both of those truths at the same time makes me feel a little nauseated.) When the church attempts to tame the gospel and make it palatable to the masses, it is inevitably watered-down to the point of being false and the church takes on the attributes of a fallen culture. The whole truth is true. A benign version of the same story is a lie.

I want the truth. I want the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth. I don't want spared feelings. I don't want gentle answers at the expense of pith. I want the truth. I recently had a conversation with my family pastor after which I left his office more sincerely repentant for my sin than I have been since my conversion. I came home and lay face down on the floor. The only prayer I could utter was "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." And He did. I feel it. I feel wrapped in mercy from my head to my feet. I can't escape this ecstasy of God's mercy. I can't untangle myself from the bliss of forgiveness. I can't stop feeling repentant, but the more I repent, the more I am forgiven. The rapture of a soul forgiven is not matched by any of earth's paltry pleasures.

I have to stop and ask myself what would have happened if he had laughed, said something comforting and sent me on my way. He could have been some kind of Holy Santa Claus offering me spiritual ice cream when I was dehydrated to the point of collapse. But he didn't. And I think it might have been one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.

The lesson: speak the truth. Don't hedge. Don't waver. Don't be cowardly. We must speak the truth in love even when the love has to come second. In fact, that's an interesting point. We weren't, after all, commanded to speak the Love in Truth.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lookeee Maw, I done found anotherun in the trash can again!

More about this later. I just have to have one more cup of coffee and watch Lost from last night before I'm going to be able to think.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Litany of Faithfulness

We went back to the Big Church on Sunday. To be honest, I was beginning to wonder if we'd ever go back to church at all or if we would just join the faithful throwing the Frisbee at George Ward Park on Sunday mornings. I realized as we neared the church why we had waited a month to go. It was hard to go back. I suppose I've realized that it would be, I just didn't know what to expect from myself. By the time we had parked and walked inside, I was weeping. It isn't that I didn't want to be there, it's just that I realized what being there meant. For the second time in my life, I was back at the Big Church against my will--because our plan had unraveled--because we wanted to be near to Jesus and just didn't know what else to do. For some reason, the Big Church always wants me back. For the second time, I came emotionally disheveled. Heart sick and broken. I don't belong here, I thought. I don't belong here, yet I do.

Much later that night, I woke up in the darkness. I wished I had a rosary to work. I would rub my sorrow right into those beads. I would rub into them my grief, my heart sickness, my insignificance as I sent my prayers up to God. If I did pray the rosary, I think I would use those beads to count off God's faithfulness.

You were faithful...

When I was lost.

You were faithful...

When I was afraid.
You were faithful...

When I didn't know what to do.
You were faithful...

When I was not.

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, and save us from the fires of Hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy Mercy.

I think when I used up my three decades of beads, I would start on my father's. I would start on King David's. I would start on my sister's. I would start on my hopes of faithfulness to come, and I would rub and I would work those beads until they turned to dust in my hands. And then I would start praying that litany of faithfulness again on a string of beads that could surely travel the distance between my broken heart and God's.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Evangelicals on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Thank you Robert for this image.

The Christian Smith quote from my last entry was lifted from an article I read in Books and Culture. Today, I found the entire article online. Sweet. B&C is something I'm just discovering. I find it an odd hodgepodge of clear relevant thought and pompous drivel. (This review of Beaumarchais in Seville is an example of the drivel. I have to follow this lagomorph trajectory because the article simultaneously amused and horrified me. It is peppered with polysyllabic words that seem to have landed amid the sentences like aliens. I'd love to hear what you think.) Ok, back to writing like a person who says "rabbit trail" when that's what they mean. This must be the journalist in me.

Now, I'm somewhat distracted.


Moving on.

Smith's article is of the "clear and relevant" variety. He restates C.S. Lewis' assertion that a Christian writer should first be an excellent writer, expanding it to include statisticians. He doesn't even give partial credit for ignorance. And I'm glad he didn't. I couldn't agree more with many of his assertions, but what fascinated me was his conclusion that the Evangelical world thrives on fear. This has certainly been my experience, and I gather it has been Robert's as well based upon his comment on my last post.

When I was a small girl in a Christian School, I was bombarded with News of the World-style horror stories. Every Friday, my grade would gather together in one classroom to watch movies like The Hiding Place, John Hus--Martyr for God, and predecessors of the Left Behind movies. In the same way that my parents spent their childhood scanning the sky for nuclear missiles, I spent my childhood mentally preparing for the day I would be martyred. Or imprisoned. Or worse yet, Left Behind. I clearly remember the day when one of my teachers read this story aloud to the class. Talk about nightmares. Later, we were treated to a story about the night another teacher woke suffocating to find a yellow demon perched on his chest. I'm not going to say this didn't happen, but I will say that he probably shouldn't have told his class about it. (This particular teacher was passionate about his subject. He was an excellent teacher and I liked him. I wouldn't even all him crazy, but he did provide a credible camp-fire story for years to come.)

To be fair and honest, John Hus and Corrie Ten Boom are my personal heroes because of what Jesus empowered them to do.

I remember thinking that I could do something to improve the world around me and consequently, my fate, if I could just make it to the age of eighteen and remember to Vote Republican! (I have some admissions to make, here. First, I mean no disrespect to Corrie Ten Boom's book or John Hus' martyrdom. Both have been an inspiration to me. Second, I actually think that Barack Obama might be the antichrist. Time will tell, I suppose. Incidentally, my mother-in-law thinks he just might carry Alabama if he would change his name to Barack GoBama.)

Back to the topic at hand and to summarize, since I can't seem to dam my stream of consciousness this morning: Christian Smith said some interesting stuff. I hate pretentious writing, and my school contributed to my damage by scaring me on purpose when I was small.

The End.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The topic of my next post...should I ever get around to it

"...the deeper question is whether American evangelicals can live without the alarmism that is so comfortably familiar to them. Evangelicals, by my observation, thrive on fear of impending catastrophe, accelerating decay, apocalyptic curses that demand immediate action (and maybe money.)" Christian Smith

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Body Tired, Spirit Indefatigable

The Russ Hotel. One of the ladies on the balcony is David's Great, Great Auntie Hartwell. I wonder if she would be pleased to know how I cherish her monogrammed bed linens and silver forks. When it is cold at night, I sleep under the quilts that these three ladies made 100 years ago and it makes me feel like part of their family. I wonder how they would feel about that.

Yesterday was a bad day. I knew it was going to be when I noticed the fingers in my left hand were starting to numb. Soon, I was numb from the tip of my middle finger to my shoulder blade. From my shoulder blade through the back of my head shot a searing pain, almost like my head was about to detach from my body and soar through the sky like a refugee off to a safer place in a hot-air balloon. At some point during my breaking wild horses phase, I did some damage to my body. When I'm under stress, it reminds me what an inhospitable host for my soul it can be. (I remember how resilient I was at 15. My body hit the ground at 30 miles-an-hour three times a week only to rebound with amazing alacrity.) Later in the day, I heard one of the songs I used to play during my college radio show. The D.J. spoke about what this particular song means as a relic. Ouch. I felt old.

I hobbled into the supermarket and stood in line with my grilled cheese fixings and tomato soup. The man in front of me had a white layer cake that was frosted in coconut. I was waiting for my turn, when a voice from behind said That looks good enough to eat. I turned around and saw an old man with bright white hair and the eyes of a young man. Suddenly, I saw him as he must have been at 18. Probably off to fight. Smooth-faced, frightened, jovial still. He looked like a man who has cracked jokes all of his life. I imagined his first car, his first love, and I hoped there was a cheerful woman at home who still snapped her dishtowel at him as she ordered him out of her kitchen. But, he wondered aloud, how does it compare to a Snickers bar? I took the bait. "Well, does anything really compare to a Snickers bar?" I asked. No, he replied, Not really. I can only think of two things that are as good as a Snickers bar. "Well," I asked, "What are they?"
Madam, he said, I am a gentleman and I will not answer that question.

I hate our youth-obsessed culture. I hate how we fight to keep "fine lines and wrinkles" at bay. I want a clean face, but I'm not sure I want to prevent the formation of laugh lines, worry lines, baby lines, life lines. I think I'd like to keep some of them to remember my journey. I love to hear the stories accumulated over a long lifetime by the very old. When I first met her, David's grandmother told me stories about the hotel her family owned in Clifton, Tennessee beside the Tennessee River. I loved her stories. I miss her desperately. Once, she and I were talking and she mentioned how she thought David had become a "very odd individual." She said she didn't know what had happened to him. "Well," I asked, "Do you think he got weird once he met me?" She smiled and said "I don't know, but I do know that he wasn't weird before." I don't know if she was kidding or not, but it took a long time for me to stop laughing.

This old man trying to scare up a laugh in the supermarket made my day bearable. He made my heart feel young. Youth, be quiet. Beauty, be still. There is much to learn and too few years in which to learn it.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Shiny Rock, Subtle Freedom...Redux, Redux

"I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." Eric Liddle

When I was small, my father showed me how to find ordinary stones in the backyard and use a rock polishing machine to reveal their hidden beauty. Every night when he came home, I would literally fling myself down a flight of stairs into his arms and ask "Is today the day they're done?" It seemed to take forever, but it was always worth the wait to see how something so mundane was actually something so very rare in disguise. Sometimes, I think my brain is a rock polishing machine. I put in thoughts and after a few nights, they're ready to come out and gleam like the morning. (I do admit that my thoughts are often just rocks.) Eric Liddle felt God's pleasure when he ran; I feel God's pleasure when I think.

If you've read my blog over the past few weeks, it isn't a mystery what I've been thinking about. This is the wall off of which I bounce my ideas. For me to wonder in public this way is a lot like adding a new chemical to the rock polishing machine--it helps me see beneath the surface of things to the hidden truth below. Here's the issue about and around which I've been ruminating:

The question of the day (of the year?) for me sits tangentially to the tension we maintain between freedom and holiness, antinomianism and grace, question and faith, and to a lesser extent, redemption and damnation.

I've always believed that there is a tension between freedom and holiness. I imagine myself walking a wire suspended above Niagara Falls. On one side of the wire, is freedom. On the other, holiness. Go too far either way and you plunge to a certain death in the river below. We can be a little free and we can be a little holy. We should avoid either extreme least we be licentious or legalistic. Today, it appears my rocks are ready to come out of the rock polishing machine. Today, I see that there is no tension between freedom and holiness. Freedom is holiness. Holiness is freedom.

It was for freedom that Christ set us free. Freedom from the Law and freedom from sin. Both together. He didn't set us free from the Law and condemn us to the mud pits of our own sinfulness until he sees fit to come and reclaim us. He set us free from the Law and free from Sin so that we may struggle to subdue our flesh under the covering and with the strength of his amazing grace. Grace is the weapon with which we conquer sin. Grace doesn't make provision for the flesh. The Law shows us how far from the mark we are. Grace shows us to Jesus who is, in every way, the propitiation for our sinfulness. I imagine Christ undoing our sin like Gladys Aylward unwrapping the bound feet of hundreds of Chinese girls. I see him rubbing life back into our sin-sick souls and encouraging us to receive the truth that they will not grow in such affected imprisonment. He didn't die for us that we may remain in darkness, rather he came that we may see the light and share that light with others as we respond to it in deeper and more meaningful ways. I often feel myself longing for, and even submitting to, having my soul again bound by sin. It is during these times that the Holy Spirit woos me back toward freedom--toward holiness--toward Himself.