Genre note: this blog post is about suggestions and questions. It’s about thoughts clanging around that haven’t found a way to resolve in some sort of palatable harmony. Like real life, it’s a mess of happenings and thoughts and interpretations and rightness and wrongness.
Now that the caveat’s behind us…
I’ve been thinking about “us and them” a good bit this past week.
It started with a blog post: There Is No They. I was wrestling with my own tendency, more broadly observed in others as well, to distance myself from the folks to whom I’m joined.
No, there is no “they” that is the Evangelical church, for example, that’s doing it all wrong. It’s we. It’s I.
Sunday I gave a little talk on sexuality for a church group. Again, I found myself compelled to give a word of warning: despite our tendencies to adopt such a posture, there is no “they” who fail to live up to the gold standard in contrast to the “us” who attain to it.
When we gather to talk about sexual brokenness and sin, there is no “they” about whom we are speaking. We are all people whose lives are touched in every realm by some measure of brokenness and shame, failure and guilt. This includes our sexuality. And it includes even people who have only ever had sex with the one spouse to whom they’ve ever been married.
When we talk as Christians about homosexuality, there is no “they” about whom we are speaking. We are speaking about us, Christians, among whose number and in whose body are gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgendered sisters(-)and(-)brothers.
No, there is no “they” that are the sexual failures in contrast to the “we” who have our stuff all together.
Yesterday in the car a conversation with my seven-year-old went something like this:
“Who’s more important, Jesus or God?”
“Well, Jesus shows us how much God loves us. Like that Bible verse we sing about.”
[Insert the singing of John 3:16 here.]
“Did Oma believe in God?”
“Well, this is die in a different sense. John’s talking about life as knowing God forever.”
“So people who don’t believe won’t get to go to heaven and know God forever?”
What kind of “us” are we talking about, what kind of “them” do I want my 7-year-old to carry in mind?
I started thinking about how people act in the world–not just the love God part, but the love neighbor part. If only “they” lived down to the lists of vices that pepper the pages of the Bible, and if only “we” lived up to the lists of Spirit-empowered virtues.
In the middle of all this messifying of the world, I was driving home today and debriefing the Mountain Goats concert I missed by being in Cambridge at the end of June. John Darnielle sang 1 Samuel 15:23:
The song lyrics sit in tantalizing disjunction to 1 Samuel 15:23. A crystal healer who, as AKMA put it,
is not a maleficent enchanter dedicated to a degraded deity, nor a mere charlatan; he provides clothing and shelter for outcasts, and heals the sick. His account of himself sounds more like the description of the works of the Messiah in Matthew 11:1-6, on the basis of which one might (biblically) say regarding the healer, “Blessed is whoever takes no offence at him.”(“‘What These Cryptic Symbols Mean’”, BibInterp 19 (2011): 124
“They” are sometimes more “us” than we are–a surprise reflected in the scene of Matt 25 as much as anywhere. “Lord, lord, whenever did we?” “Lord, lord, whenever did we not?”
“Us and them” can be a dangerous and self-serving weapon. For the most part, even if not always, we might want to put it away before someone gets hurt.
There is a sex industry because people are willing to pay for it. There is a sex industry because men (mostly) want to have sex, yes, but also because we want to be aroused by it.
Last night I attended a screening of Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, a Christian documentary about the sex industry. It focuses on the lack of freedom that the women and children have who are servicing the “Johns.”
They are entrapped. They are enslaved. They are held there through physical and psychological coercion.
There were two bright spots in the film, one of them in the progress that Sweden is making in cutting down on its sex industry.
Sweden criminalizes the hiring of a prostitute at the level of what would be a felony in the U.S.
And the prostitutes? They are treated as people who need social services, counseling, protection, and rehabilitation in order to escape the industry, recover their dignity, and reenter society.
The chief enforcement officer of Sweden’s sex industry policies demonstrated what it takes to institute these kinds of laws. Here’s the mentality behind them:
Every act of prostitution is a degradation of a woman.
Every act of prostitution is an exploitation of a woman.
Prostitution is not sex, it is a man masturbating inside of a woman.
Sweden’s laws are undergirded by a cultural shift in understanding of how to think about sex for money.
In America, we are in no place to institute such laws because all of us, all day long, are paying for sex.
Every time we buy our clothes at Abercrombie and Fitch, we are paying for the sexual titillation they have offered us through their hyper sexualized ads.
As Julie Clawson was lamenting earlier this week, NBC won’t even try to sell us Olympic sports where women are large athletes or compete fully clothed or covered.
And we’re not even talking about the $13 billion dollar per year porn industry. (In the U.S., that is.)
There is a sex trade industry because there is a market for it, a market that does not contain solid borders from which those of us who have never paid a sex worker are hermetically sealed. It is a market whose black fades to grey in the everyday purchasing of sex that drives our marketing- and consumer-dollar economy.
Men want sex. A lot. And we pay for it in various ways, even when sexual intercourse is not the actual product we’re buying. (The year that I worked in a restaurant, women servers typically made more money than men; men typically were paying the bill.)
The point in this is that treating women as sex objects, and exploiting that deep seated tendency, is a deeply seated disposition in our hearts and in our culture.
Behind the terrible stories of girls being kidnapped, of mob bosses paying for safe border crossings, of terrified children huddled in out of the way apartments–behind all of this is a market. Men who want sex. Men who will pay for it. Men who are paying for it every day even when we’re not soliciting prostitutes.
As I reflect on my week–watching the Chick-fil-A dust-up, reading Julie’s article on the Olympics, watching a little Olympic coverage here and there, and now screening this film, I’m humbled by a couple of things.
First, most of us are complicit in the selling and buying of sex. And I might say that all of us men are so complicit.
But second, I’m struck afresh by the message that the Church has been sending in the latest wave of our culture wars. We are acting as though the most egregious thing a man can do sexually is to desire and have sex with another man.
While all the time there is this multi-billion dollar sex industry, representing one of the gravest human slavery industries in the modern world, being driven, mostly, by men’s insatiable desire for women.
If only we could redirect our righteous indignation here, against the objectification of women that runs right through the middle of not only the dark alleys but our own living rooms. If only we could agree that the selling of women for sex is degradation and exploitation–and see, also, how we’re all complicit.
There is no they, only us.
I got a reminder of this today, an uncomfortable reminder that I probably needed to hear.
There is no “they.”
This is what I told the guy at the hardware store. More specifically, I told him, “YOU ARE True Value.”
I bought a hose storage unit at my local hardware store about a month ago. It worked well, for about two weeks. Then it started leaking.
Today was the day. I walked the half block, defective implement in hand, to ask for an exchange.
One guy said no, not before we try to fix it. He tried. It’s in worse condition now.
The other guy told me to send it back to the company, that they would replace it. “But I bought it here. How about we exchange it, and you send it back?”
“True Value won’t do that.”
“You’re True Value.”
There is no mystical “them” who is responsible. When you have a True Value store, you are True Value.
When you are part of a church, especially in leadership (but not only then), there is no “they” who will or will not do something.
In those moments when what needs to be done butts up against the policy, or when what they’ve done embarrasses us, deferring to “them” is not going to convince the person in front of you that you are not part of that “them.” That person will only be convinced that you are different when you act, when you do what is right.
I regularly need reminding of this. There is no “them” who is the church, or my employer, or my family, someone else to blame in that organization I’m a part of when I’m as frustrated as the outsider.
But probably the place where I need the reminder most is in dealing with Christians en mass. There is no “they” who are doing those things that drive me bat-poop crazy, only an “us.”
I can’t control “us,” but I can own us. I can take responsibility for how we are engaging, offending, alienating the person in front of me. I can take responsibility for apologizing for our brokenness and striving to rectify messed up situations.
Badmouthing “them,” or blaming “them” rings hollow when we are they. The person standing in front of us, or reading our blog post or our article or our book or our Facebook status knows that we are they, even though we’d like to distance ourselves and conveniently forget.
I need to realize it, too.
I love magnolia trees.
I owe this to my North Carolina connections generally, but to my two years at Wake Forest in particular.
There’s nothing quite like a tree that soars 50 feet (or more) into the air, with the prefect branch system for climbing and making mischief.
So, of course, I plant them at every opportunity.
I planted two at the first house we owned, in Durham, NC. And I planted one out front there in San Francisco.
Now, San Francisco is its own animal. We live close to the ocean, a foggy part of town. San Francisco is also basically desert, getting just a smidgeon too much water each year to officially rate as desert (from what I hear: circa 24 inches per year compared to deserts which typically get less than 16).
Thus, one must choose one’s flora with care.
I asked diligently after the fate of a magnolia tree in the Sunset District. I was assured that it would do just fine.
And it has.
Just as long as by “fine” we mean that it hasn’t died, has thickened up in the trunk, and has stayed green.
But then there’s the other part. Those promising buds.
I can keep the tree well watered. I can give it all the nutrients available in the leftover grain husks et al from my beer brewing. (Read: It’s well fertilized.)
But the one thing I can’t do is give it more sunlight.
And so, those buds arrive, full of promise. And then, eventually, they turn brown and fall off, failing to fulfill their beautiful potential.
Being objectively awesome isn’t enough.
Being well tended isn’t enough.
A magnolia tree has to be in the right place or it simply will not bloom.
At the screening we were told that Red Dog is the all-time #3 selling DVD in Australia behind Avatar and Finding Nemo. (We also got to see the canine star’s screen test, which is hilarious.) The showing was followed by a conversation with lead actor Josh Lucas and writer Daniel Taplitz.
This was one of those stories that rolls around every now and then–a story that is as much about telling stories, and having a story, as it is about the overall plotline itself.
Red Dog is based on a true story of a dog who adopted a community in the desolate mining regions of Australia’s northwest. The dog then adopted one of the miners in particular. And when that miner died, the dog went a-wanderin’, only to return (months? years?) later.
In the film, and apparently in real life, the dog touches everyone. It brings the community of rugged miners together.
The line in the film that most struck me as the glue that held everything together was when one of the miners confessed mused on the reality entailed in coming out to a place like this to work: You dig long enough, and you discover that everyone has a story.
Everyone did have a story, and in the course of the movie a number of those stories unfold. This dog becomes the catalyst for setting many of those stories in new directions, a catalyst for new life.
The Q&A got rather bogged down (in my opinion) in the quest for cutesy stories about working with the dog Koko. Not a bad topic of conversation, but I thought the film served up a lot more compelling lines to pursue:
- What does it take to transform our stories?
- How do we as people find life in the middle of desolation
- Why is it that a dog (or sometimes a child) can enter into a setting and bring people together who had, until then, managed to create their own little worlds in the midst of each other?
The film is slated for an August theatrical release here in the U.S. It’s definitely worth catching then. But make sure you bring your tissues.
A story without the power to compel us against our will is a story not worth telling.
If the story of Jesus as God’s agent to rescue the world cannot compel us to think differently than we would on our own, to act differently than we would if left to our own devices, then it is not a story worth telling, much less claiming as our own.
This is a story that is not told to be claimed as our own so much as it is written to claim us as its own.
For all my concern that this story make sense in our context, for all my concern that we allow change over time, for all my concern that we allow the praxis of the church to develop in ways that are culturally sensitive, for all of these enculturating dynamics that I think are essential, if I do not find myself repeatedly confronted by a Jesus story that is still, at essence, profoundly Other, summoning me to a way of life that I would not have on my own, then I am not telling the Jesus story.
If I “like” everything in this story as I’m telling it, I’m not telling the Jesus story. I’m telling my story as though it were his.
In “Get Low,” the point is not the party. And the point is not the funeral. The point is the story. Not the story of the movie itself, but the story of the old man’s life. Well, the story of the old man’s past.
Robert Duvall plays Felix Bush, a hermit who has been holed up in his cabin in the woods for forty years.
When we first see him go to town, there’s an air of mystery about him–the hermit whom no one has seen, but whom everyone seems to know.
At first it seems that this is a point of umbrage for Bush, everyone thinking they know him. The people he meets allude to the “stories everyone’s heard,” and he keeps asking what stories those might be.
But as the film develops we realize that this is not a taunt, it’s his driving desire. He has a story, a dark and terrible story, that needs to be told. Funerals are places where stories of the dead are told. The funeral party is the invitation to come and tell–in hopes that someone else will reveal the truth.
Because Bush feels that he can’t do it himself. The pain is too much. The shame is too much. And he’s not all that sure that he could live with the forgiveness that might come if the truth were disclosed.
Recently I’ve been in several story-telling venues. In whatever context these occur, the telling of stories is powerful for both the speakers and the hearers. There is often a freedom that comes in the telling and in the hearing.
I wonder how much of a therapist’s, or a pastor’s, job might be framed as getting people to tell their stories and, perhaps, to reframe them in a way that enables them to continue participating in that narrative with a more healthful engagement?
Bush had to discover that no one else would tell his story for him. He needed to say to the others who were wounded on the terrible night in question what had really happened.
To his own surprise, it seems, he found peace.
While I would not say that “Get Low” itself does a great job with story-telling (I wasn’t happy with the characters, by and large), it does do a great job with telling us about stories. For that display, it’s worth the slot in your Netflix queue.
An Open Letter to Jason Stellman, whom I’ve never met. Jason posted his “adios, PCA” letter on his blog last week.
Welcome to the other side of your PCA sojourn.
The step of leaving a denomination, especially when your seminary training, pastoral preparation, and ordination have all taken place within the same orbit of friends, is tremendously difficult.
You will never have the same kind of community again.
You will have other communities, and perhaps some that are even as rich, but you have bonded with folks through some of the most formative times of your theological education and career, and you can’t replace that.
You probably are losing some friends right now. Take courage–you’ll get some of them back after the wounds heal. But know this, too–many are gone forever. Hold them with open hands. Let them go. You’ll make new ones.
Many of our denominations create quite a strong identity for themselves, and many of us were part of tight-knit sub-groups within such worlds as well. This makes leaving all the more difficult.
But you’ll learn a new narrative. As many good things as are going on in that world, there is plenty of spiritual vitality to be found beyond its pale. Take courage, you’ll find yourself nourished in your new communities. It may take time, but you will find like-minded people who will help you grow in your walk with Christ and be fellow contenders with you for the Kingdom.
You’re leaving the PCA, in part, because you are seeing that the NT won’t let us separate our faith from our action. I hope you’ll learn quickly that this also means that our standard of judging our communities has much more to do with embodying the cross of Christ than the many other markers that have become popular (especially in Protestantism).
Make sure to embody this way of the cross in your responses to your detractors. I know they are many, from your blog’s comments.
Finally, as you experience the wounds of those you thought were friends, you might realize that you were a wounder of those who are friends and brothers. I’d encourage you to take this time to think about folks whom you may have wounded in your Reformed zeal–I can think of at least one by name.
I pray that as you go from the PCA, you will go in peace, as a man of peace, and find those who will receive you with the same.
If we think we’re free to say no to God, should this influence how we navigate the choppy waters of engaging culturally and politically as Christians?
Most people I know think that we are free to say no to God. Was it C. S. Lewis who spoke of eternal perdition of God’s final, “Thy will be done” spoken to the creature?
Indeed, human freedom of the will (an idea that never gets any airtime in the entire Bible) is a much firmer part of most of my students’ theology than their tentative affirmations of “predestination” (which is affirmed in several places in scripture).
We experience ourselves as free, and that freedom is one that, in our experience, extends to our receptivity to the call of God. And gifted theologians do find helpful ways of marrying freedom and Providence.
While I was reading Barth last week, I was struck by something that, I confess, I cannot find at the moment! (So I may be making this up.)
Barth was talking about God being glorious in God’s freedom. The discussion of God’s glory in freedom shifted for a moment, to claim not only that God is glorious as God acts freely, but that God is glorious as God gives humanity the ability to act freely as well.
God is glorified in his willingness to allow the creature to say no to God.
It made me wonder if we truly believe in the freedom that we say we value so highly. If we believe that God does not want to force compliance or love (for then it would not be love!) then why do we so often see ourselves charged with enforcing compliance to the will, law, or theology of God as we understand it?
It struck me that a people who would not have ourselves compelled should not compel others, but should summon them with love.
All of us are willing to affirm the greatness of Jesus’ words of love:
Do unto others as you would have done unto you.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
But are we able to own up to what we would have done unto ourselves? Will we genuinely acknowledge our desires, our freedoms, our refusal to be compelled, when we are face-to-face with a neighbor who has different desires, yearns to exercise her freedom in a manner differently than we have exercised ours, resists the compulsions of the Jesus story we participate in?
If we insist on our right to say no (or to have said no) to our God, what might that mean for our neighbor who may want that right as well?