I’ve been involved in a renovation project over the past several months. Demolition stage was challenging and required some trust that the outcome would be worth the effort. Some of the demo was merely cosmetic. However, there were some loadbearing walls involved as well. These walls were substantial, and I’ve had some pushback from some who thought I went too far. But to this point of the project, I’ve not regretted any of those decisions. These were the changes that really opened up the space to be something I could never have imagined otherwise. Now that the demo stage is pretty much complete, and I’ve begun to add some framework to the foundations that were exposed. The intent is a very open space conducive to hospitality, conversation, and growing relationships. As the construction continues, I hope to be open to suggestions and input growing out of those conversations and relationships. I’m beginning to recognize that this project will be ongoing for the foreseeable future. I’m anticipating taking out and replacing some of the features added recently. Probably not rising to the level of a full demo, but being open to the likelihood of redecorating as the need arises. It’s very gratifying to know that the work that has been completed to this point has really produced the desired results! I’m loving this space! (Even as it’s still under construction and probably always will be.)
In her Acknowledgments at the end of Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler Bass says, “These pages are my long-considered answers to questions a book and a teacher raised during my senior year in college.” Christianity After Religion is one of those books that took me a long time to read. Not because it was difficult, but because it required me to look at questions that have lingered around my faith and life for years.
Raised in a very religious home, faith has always been an integral part of my everyday life. It was not merely a program to be consumed a couple times a week at our local church. It was giving thanks at every meal. It was hearing the Bible read each night as we gathered in my parents’ bedroom. Those readings closed with us all kneeling beside the bed and expressing prayers to God. The church of my youth taught me that when some tenet of that faith was challenged by culture or science or another doctrine, the first response was defensive because the challenge seemed to attack the very foundations of all the provided meaning and purpose for every aspect of my life. Religion had been framed as a no-holds-barred death-match…winner-take-all.
There was a point about 12 years into my vocational ministry that this framework made absolutely no sense to me. My denomination had been embroiled in religious/theological/cultural battles for 20 years and the lines that were drawn between the sides didn’t seem to be significant or substantial enough to justify the carnage being wrought between good and faithful people (Diana Butler Bass has a wonderfully succinct description of this battle on page 233). It was for damn sure draining my very soul. A journal entry I made during that time simply said, “God, if you’re there, cool. If you’re not, cool.” I had had enough.
During that time, my family was a part of a community of faith that seemed to be a refuge from the battles…a spiritual DMZ so to speak. No doubt, our congregation was labeled by those in the fight, but my pastor, Dr. Larry Taylor, and the good people of that community had remained true. There was something different for me about that place. These people were not sheltered by any means and if pressed for a position on the issues of the day, whether religious or political, you would get an impassioned and well reasoned opinion from anywhere on the continuum of possibilities. But, we were ultimately followers of Jesus in a place called Emmanuel Baptist Church and that community was more important and life giving than any one political/theological position.
When looking back, I recognized that I had experienced this same type of community in a couple of places before. In the Baptist Student Union at LSU led by Frank Horton, and in the college department of First Baptist Church, Baton Rouge, led by Anne and Jack Lord. Rather than soul-sucking battles for “truth”, I found life-giving and transformative spiritual community. It was in these communities of my college days that I felt a call to vocational ministry. And it was Emmanuel Baptist Church that helped salvage that call from the hubris of denominational leaders seeking to tear apart such communities in the name of their particular versions of truth.
By the time I reached Chapter 7 and read Diana Butler Bass’ description of The Great Reversal, I recognized she was describing those communities from my past. These were not utopian by any stretch. But when taken as a whole, my experiences in those places were lived examples of belonging, behaving, believing (in that order). Butler Bass’ connecting this vision of community with spiritual awakening was exactly the appropriate link to make and her practical actions of “prepare, practice, play & participate” placed the lofty aspirations of such an awakening on the solid ground of experience and tangible action.
Christianity After Religion has become a foundational book for me. I’ll read it again and, with difficulty, will attempt to find more space for notes and thoughts in it’s margins. I recommend it very highly. And I recommend you take your time. It’s not a “page-turner” and I mean that in the absolute best sense of that term.
The aggressive and dominative view of reality places, at the center, the individual with its bodily form, its feelings and emotions, its appetites and needs, its loves and hates, its actions and reactions. All these are seen as forming together a basic and indubitable reality to which everything else must be referred, so that all other things are also estimated in their individuality, their actions and reactions, and all the ways in which they impinge upon the interests of the individual self. The world is then seen as a multiplicity of conflicting and limited beings, all enclosed in the limits of their own individuality, all therefore complete in a permanent and vulnerable incompleteness, all seeking to find a certain completeness by asserting themselves at the expense of others, dominating and using others. The world becomes, then, an immense conflict in which the only peace is that which is accorded to the victory of the strong, and in order to taste the joy of this peace, the weak must submit to the strong and join them in their adventures so that they may share in their power.
— Thomas Merton, Choosing to Love the World
It was the title that caught my eye…”What do low-income communities need?” Intriguing. Definitive. Hopeful? Maybe…I clicked the link and read the article in hopes of finding the answer.
After reading it, I’m not sure I necessarily “liked” what I read. But, I still felt compelled to post the link on both Facebook and Twitter. Megan McArdle’s perspective was frankly pretty dark and cynical in some respects. As I read it I found myself torn. There are ideas here that rub my liberal sensibilities the wrong way and others initiate a loud AMEN from those same sensibilities. I also found my more conservative impulses reacting almost exactly opposite my liberal side in precisely those same places.
Ultimately, the writer didn’t answer the question posed in the title. And that was sort of a let down after all of the opposing visceral reactions I experienced while reading the piece. Don’t get me wrong. McArdle’s point is well taken, specifically as she stated it in her last paragraph:
“Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face–and it should do those things. But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers.”
And there’s the rub. Just like so many other things in our culture, we want to apply some kind of pharmaceutical remedy to all our problems and make them disappear. We don’t necessarily care how the drug works, just so it takes the pain away. It is in that spirit that we attempt to apply social policies to issues at the whims of elected officials whose main goal is not to solve the issue at hand but to be re-elected. Lets just say the “results” of these politically motivated prescriptions pretty much read like the foul side affects that are hurriedly read following the utopian myth offered by the drug ads we are constantly barraged with on TV (would anyone like to recall the first time you heard “please call your Doctor immediately if you experience an erection lasting for more than 4 hours” with your kids in the room? For a funny digression, check this out.) All of the efforts from “both sides of the aisle” to solve these problems seem to be more effective at inducing cynicism and resignation that any sort of hope for real solutions.
However the false promise of the article led me to another thought. I was reminded of a passage of scripture we read in our Corner Bible Study at King’s Cross Church a couple of Sundays ago:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
It was a prophetic word to a people who had lost everything: their homeland, their culture, their religion. They were returning from exile in a foreign land to rebuild their lives from the ruins of Babylonian conquest. And it was very good news.
I think we often forget that we (all of us) live in exile as well. As I listen to the noise of partisan politics and recognize it’s absolute inability to deliver the good news proclaimed by the ancient prophet, I begin to long for the realm promised by God. As I become inundated with the call to consumption and materialism to which this season has devolved and recognize the fleeting nature of the “highs” provided by the giving and receiving of stuff, I long for a voice calling out in this wilderness. (With all due respect to my friends who work for Nissan, this particular ad was the last straw for me. Seriously?…”most wonderful sale of the year“…seriously?)
This Advent season has been a reminder for me to rediscover the true source of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.
10And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for allthe people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. — Luke 2:10-11
This is what poor communities really need. Frankly, it’s what all of us need. Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love…generously applied in our day to day lives. Generously applied to the problems of our day. The empty words of politicians and the fleeting pleasure of the accumulation of stuff pale in comparison. It is my prayer for my family and for all of you this season that we all absolutely enjoy our Christmas celebration. All of it…the giving and receiving of gifts, time with family, the lights, the food, the TV shoes, even the shopping (but that was a bit hard to write). But I also pray that in all of this busyness and activity that you will “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Peace!
I wanted to go to Christianity 21 but decided to spend money to go to the Jurgen Moltmann Theological Conversation instead…and it was an awesome and formative experience for me (and also sent me scurrying off to buy/read some more Moltmann books).
However, the Christianity 21 thing has stuck with me…particularly after reading/watching some of the responses of folk who were able to attend. The thing that profoundly occurs to me in these responses is how much more is said about the space created by the event to “be” …be followers of Jesus…be in community…be who attendees were created to be. I was struck particularly by 3 comments in the video above:
- Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “…and then there are those evangelicals who have discovered the liturgy, which is…adorable”…One, Nadia is hilarious and profound (check out her book). Much of the energy I have felt in the various emergent type meetings I’ve been privileged to attend has centered around such rediscovery of my tradition and the traditions of others who are also attempting to follow God in the way of Jesus.
- “We are more often than not people of doubt, who have beliefs than people of faith, who have moments of doubts.” TOO TRUE!!! I believe our getting this bass ackwards in our church “communities” is probably the biggest barrier to authentic community we face.
- The elderly man toward the end of the video… “This weekend has been something my heart and soul has been waiting for for 38 years…I wanted to go to heaven when I was 75, my password on the computer is heaven75. I lived 4 more years, I now I know why!” Is that not an amazing statement? I’m immediately reminded of Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) who waited with great expectation for “the consolation of Israel”…and upon seeing the infant Jesus proclaimed,
“29“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss[a] your servant in peace.
30For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
I’m certain this cannot be written off cynically as just another over-hyped event. There is something going on here among us. I for one want to be a part of it. It has nothing to do with being hip and cool. It has everything to do with rediscovering the joy of my salvation.
My friend Mark posted this on a blog…This is so perfect!!!!! This is the evolution of consumer religion! Think about the possibilities! They can be franchised and placed at interstate exits! Near the eye doctor at WalMart! Kiosks at the mall! Endless possibilities!!!
Seriously, we can laugh at this but our consumer based religion is not very far removed from this strip. (If you like this cartoon, check out www.nakedpastor.com).
Indulge me for a moment. I’ve been thinking a lot about Frank Horton lately. Frank ministered to students on college campuses for 35 years…most of that time was spent as the director of the Baptist Student Union at LSU. It’s amazing how Facebook has facilitated a virtual LSU BSU reunion. At the center of all these memories is a wonderful and profoundly loving soul…Frank.
Conversations over the past couple of weeks have brought to mind two specific memories I have of Frank. One occurred in August of 1981…it was my first visit to the Baptist Student Union as a freshman at LSU. I had been in the BSU building before…my brother and his wife had been active in the BSU. Frank performed their wedding ceremony. However on this particular day, I walked across the big campus feeling as though it contained me and 30,000 people I didn’t know. It was a lonely walk. I entered the front doors and there was Frank standing near the fireplace. When he saw me, his face lit up with that big warm smile of his and he said, “Mike Young! I’ve been waiting for you to get here!” As fast as those words left his lips, the long lonely walk across campus was a memory and I was home. I never enter that building at the corner of Highland and Chimes without that memory coming to mind.
Another vivid memory is of an experience at Dry Creek Conference Center at Spring Assembly, 1984. The story requires a little context. By the end of my first semester at LSU I was on academic probation. I held on the following spring, but then came the fall of 1982…my grade report stated my GPA for the semester was 0.4 and included a letter from the University informing me I was not welcome that coming spring. I made that 0.4 the old fashioned way, “I earned it” as they say.
The BSU had been simply a place to meet people prior to the football games, watch TV, play ping-pong, skip class, etc. I didn’t participate in chapel or Bible studies or anything like that. It was merely a gathering point. I was a student without direction, hoping the party could continue without too many classes getting in the way. However, the potential loss of that place was devastating to contemplate…it motivated me to try again. I sat out the spring of 1983 and then entered summer school to begin my ascent out of academic probation.
So the following spring, a year removed from the disgrace of flunking out of school, I found myself sitting on the right side of The Tabernacle at Dry Creek Conference Center clinging to the back of one of the old pews resisting another guilt ridden invitation from some nameless Baptist preacher. All the BSU directors were lined up across the front of the room. I looked up and saw Frank and I went forward. I was greeted with the very same smile that welcomed me near the fireplace at the BSU two and a half years earlier. I don’t remember anything that I said to Frank. But I remember his words to me. “Mike, you’ve got so much to offer. I’m glad you’re back. I want you to run for a council position.” The council was the student leadership group of the Baptist Student Union. I really didn’t have the resume to justify such a statement. I had used the BSU, but had not served in it. I had been an extremely poor student. But there it was…
I give Frank credit for introducing grace into the harsh, black and white religious system of my youth. Everything about him seemed to exude grace and love. I am in vocational ministry today because of Frank. That often sounds more like an accusation than acknowledgment…Baptist vocational ministry can be that way. But there isn’t a week that goes by that Frank doesn’t cross my mind. And when he does cross my mind, I think how much better our world would be if the Church universal looked more like Frank’s BSU and less like a store-front for religious goods and services…if the church greeted “the other” at its doors with a warm smile and a sincere, “I’ve been waiting for you to get here!”