Monday, July 16, 2012

pondering wild goose: a storm, and justin lee rescues the gospel

I found Aaron and Sarah just as the wind was really picking up.  We made our way to the campsite and got dinner made before the rain rolled in.  Then we relaxed in the tent together, just listening to it fall ... I could have taken a seriously sweet nap, but the kids got bored.  Finally, I decided, "This is dumb - who cares if we get wet?"  So off we went - we found our friends wandering around in the rain, too, so we all enjoyed the relief from the heat. Justin Lee was set to speak at 8:00, and by then the storm had passed over, so I left the kids playing badminton and throwing frisbees as I made my way to his session.

I hadn't met Justin in person, but it felt like I'd known him for months.  It was over a year ago when I first came across his Gay Christian Network and ordered a copy of Through My Eyes (which I highly recommend - if you can't order one of your own, borrow mine!)  Justin and his ministry are right here in NC, so I'd hoped to meet him someday and was especially excited to see that I'd get the chance at Wild Goose.

I'd actually chatted with Justin earlier in the weekend, when I recognized him near the coffee barn.  He'd directed me to the Jericho Books table, where he said I could help myself to an advance copy of his new book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gay vs. Christian Debate.  I'd practically skipped over, excited to get my hands on what I was otherwise going to be waiting months for.  I knew from the tone of his blog that his book would be one I'd both learn from and enjoy, and hoped to share with others.  By the time his session began Friday night, I'd already started reading it. 

First though, my raw notes from that evening:
Barna group survey (Unchristian) #1 term to describe Christians is “anti-gay”
- 91% of unchurched, 80% of young Christians
young people leaving church in droves - don’t want to be known for that
Matthew23 (Jesus: woe to you)
educate yourself: know LGBT people, learn language, educate others
if we don’t talk about it we let people who are talking about it run the conversation
Tony Campolo - love the sinner, hate your own sin
**our stories are so much more powerful than our arguments**
(extended question/answer)

Justin spoke with the same tone he's known for in his writing (this particular blog post went viral during the NC Amendment One battle this past spring).  Not at all militant, but not apologetic either – a true peacemaker, which is a hard balance to strike.  Only a person who is both gay and a Christian could pull it off.  Not that he is pulling anything off - he's being who he is, exactly who he is.  In that way, he makes me think of Esther,"for such a time as this":  not a beauty queen (wink), but gifted, bright, articulate, likeable, Christian, brave, and (yes) gay.  It's no surprise to learn that this "calling" is often a burden, however.  In one of his more vulnerable posts, Justin wrote, "I hate being the 'gay Christian' guy. It’s exhausting."

I didn't leave Justin's session surprised - he was exactly what I'd expected, and that was a good thing.  I can say the exact same about his book (which I've finished, by the way). I do see it as a potential game-changer because it's both/and.  Yes, it's his story, and that in and of itself is powerful.  But, because Justin is who he is, Christian faith and the Bible are woven completely throughout that story.  He spends most of the book not convinced, himself, of how to reconcile his sexuality with scripture, so when he finally does gain clarity on that, his explanation doesn't feel as though he is trying to win you over to his interpretation. 

I don't want to spoil the book by sharing too much, but I will lift a few quotes to whet your appetites, here.

"We might just be raising the most anti-Christian generation America has ever seen, a generation that believes they have to choose between being loving and being Christian."

"What kind of ministry takes a person who thinks he has a wonderful relationship with his father and convinces him that he actually has a bad one? This was feeling less and less like the work of God to me....As it was, I was losing my faith.  Not in God, but in ex-gays."

"As the yeast of misinformation has spread throughout the church, it has turned the church not only into the perceived enemy of gays, but into its own worst enemy as well... Better education is the anecdote. One of the most powerful ways of educating people is by sharing our stories."

When people like Justin tell us their stories, they make us all better. 

 The question is,  
are we listening?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

pondering wild goose: interfaith relationships

*if you're following my Wild Goose series, as of this post I'm only to 4:00 Friday afternoon (the festival lasted till late Sunday night) and I have 27 pages of pencil-scribbled notes left.  
the point is, stay tuned - I'm nowhere near done. 

Tim Challies said, "He hates God. Period." Let Us Reason Ministires said, "He has no qualms about using fabrication, exaggeration, disinformation, misrepresentation, vilification, prevarication and even falsification to achieve a complete brainwash in his followers".  Way of Life Literature said, "A good test is to ask Christian leaders what they think of this man...if they refuse to come right out and mark him as a dangerous heretic, they are heretics themselves."  And Apprising Ministiries has a post on their site titled (literally): "BRIAN MCLAREN: SPEAKING FOR SATAN" (capitalization emphasis not mine).  

I don't remember when I first heard of Brian, or from whom.  But I do remember reading A New Kind of Christian covertly, tucked inside a Beth Moore book jacket, after tiring of others' "concern".  I liked that book very much, but I didn't become a 'Brian McLaren junky' by any stretch - the hype surrounding him (both positive and negative) turned me off.  I'm not a band-wagoner.  Now, though, at least in my "circles", the hype is fading - and so, suddenly I find him interesting again. Which obviously says a lot more about me than it does about him.   

 I've already shared about how much I enjoyed Brian leading us daily in morning prayer.  On Friday afternoon I made my way to the Exodus tent after enjoying Open Mic with the kids.  Not only was Brian set to lead a discussion on Interfaith Relationships that I very  much wanted to be a part of, but more importantly,  Steve Knight had arranged for us to publicly wish our friend Bill a happy birthday.  If you know Bill, you also know there was no better time or place to sing him "happy birthday" than under a tent at the Wild Goose Festival, just before a Brian McLaren talk. But I'll write more about Bill and my other dear, goose-y friends later.  For now, interfaith relationships.

Raw notes:
what keeps us apart isn't religious differences but similarities - all share a need for "other" to establish our identity

we do 2 things well: a strong religious identity that is hostile to others OR a weak religious identity that is tolerant of others (doesn't matter which identity)

check out book Who Speaks for Islam (what a billion muslims really think)author thanked him for courage to speak up for peace and for the flack he's taken as a result, said to him, "you are a true Christian"

our greatest enemy is not the other, its one of our own upset at us because we are not hostile enough

why millions migrate out of religion into "spirituality" because looking for group where don't have to hate anybody

third alternative - Christian identity both strong AND benevolent to the other

is that truly in sync or would it be a betrayal of our faith?

why hasn't this manifested?

1. historical challenge
reality: Jesus never killed anybody. said no when disciples wanted to, told them "you do not know what spirit you are of". Peter pulled out sword, Jesus said put it away. got in trouble for including "them". voice from heaven said "listen to HIM".
what happened? history hijacked.
conversion of Constantine - cross with spear in sky, "conquer"
Americas (north & south) - religious genocide
all Muslims and Jews and Native American peoples know our violent history, we need honest reflection

2. doctrinal challenge
we become polite and suppress our beliefs and end up saying nothing. only emphasize similarities. weak.  instead could we rediscover our doctrines in way that promotes benevolence? 

Diane Butler Bass - doctrine from same word as doctor, healing teacher

3. liturgical challenge
when we exclude others from the table (closed communion) it's us vs. them
hymns often use language of "foe"

4. missional challenge
facing problems no one else will face

I'll be honest - I got lax in my note taking once a storm rolled in, because I was worried about Aaron and Sarah.  At the first crack of thunder/bolt of lightening/gust of wind, my attention was diverted to wondering where exactly they were.  At the second, I excused myself in order to find out the answer to that question.  So I missed most of point 3 due to lack of attention, and point 4 to an early exit.

Still, I wanted to write about this issue of interfaith relationships; it's not only a central theme of the Wild Goose movement, it's also one I continue to be brought back to in my own life.  It's not an easy conversation to have, though.  Doctrinally, theologically - things get downright messy and uncomfortable.  Or maybe it just seems that way because we've been conditioned to expect things to be so damned neat and clean.  What if they just aren't, and were never meant to be?

I don't know. 

What I do know is that I will continue to ponder this.  I'll continue to explore books like Miroslav Volf's Allah: A Christian Response, and Richard Beck's The Authenticity of Faith (where he explores, among other things, the work of Ernst Becker who noted "...the great tragedy of human existence [is that the]...very things that give our lives meaning--our worldviews--are the very sources of human evil").  I'll read McLaren's Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World  when it comes out in September.   I'll continue to have conversations with my atheist friends and my new Buddhist friend and my "secular Jewish" friends and any others willing to engage.  I have much to learn from them, and who knows - maybe they have some things to learn from me, as well?

Most of all, I won't be scared off when critics critique and worriers forewarn.  I can't.  It's like my finger is on a thread they can't see. I have to find out where it leads. 

In closing, I'll share a comment I wrote late last night in response to this question from a self-identifying atheist I got to know when we stood as allies against Amendment One

"For my theist buddies out there:  Isn't your religion tied to your geological location/cultural influences? Each religion with their own God(s), each adamantly devout that what they believe is the one true religion of the world?"

A younger me would have had pat answers for this... and who knows what the older me will have to say about it.  But last night, in the moment, I said this:   

I read Ghandi's autobiography and closed it, then thought to myself, "Wow - this man was raised Hindu because of where he lived. If I'd lived when/where he did, I'm sure I'd have been a wonderful Hindu. And he remained a faithful Hindu, though he went beyond that ... he spoke of "God's grace", same language I use as a Christian. I'm convinced the same Spirit that leads me, led him - to a life of nonviolence, justice, love, patience, and all the beautiful things that I seek as well. And so I thought to myself, maybe this is what Mother Teresa meant when she said, "“We never try to convert those who receive [aid from Missionaries of Charity] to Christianity but in our work we bear witness to the love of God’s presence and if Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, or agnostics become for this better men — simply better — we will be satisfied." Of course she is criticized for making such a statement and I am criticized for quoting her on it, just as Ghandi was criticized ... and Jesus, for that matter ... all criticized by those easily threatened. I don't know all the theological ramifications of what I'm saying, I just know that I'm more convinced than ever of a simple truth: "God is Love".

I won't lie - it feels uncomfortable, leaving those words just hanging out there like that.  Incomplete, imperfect, open to a variety of interpretations and misinterpretations.  But I'll let them hang ...because, I'm thinking, that's what it means to really write.  

Finally, on a lighter note - and because some of you are dying to know - Brian does NOT have horns or a tail, and I never once saw him with a pitchfork, but we were on a farm so one never knows.  In all seriousness, I found him to be disarmingly unassuming, surprisingly musical, unsurprisingly smart, consistently considerate, handsome (I have a thing for bald guys with nice heads) and (sorry, Brian) not especially funny. I enjoyed him very much, and I look forward to sharing, later, what I learned from the time he spent with us in the youth tent Saturday afternoon.

*next up: a storm, and Justin Lee rescues the gospel :)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

pondering wild goslings: open mic at the youth tent

As Ian Cron was wrapping up his talk on Post-cynical Christianity, a volunteer took the mic to inform us that radar indicated a storm system was rolling in.  By this point it was nearly 100 degrees and miserably muggy, so the threat of rain was more than welcome.  But we'd left the rain fly off our tent for better circulation, so I ran off to take care of that while my friend Meredith made her way to the youth tent; our girls were participating in the Open Mic session, set to begin there any minute.  I got the fly on and secured our things as quickly I could, desperate not to miss their big debut.

Sarah as back-up dancer
I made it just in time!

I honestly can't even remember what they sang (I think it was Firework?) but I do remember how happy it made me, to see all the kids bravely taking the stage to share their passions/talents.  They were celebrating themselves and one another, and that made me smile.

We'd given up a lot this past year, in some ways, when we made the choice to move on from a church we'd enjoyed for almost a decade.  Opportunities like this were numerous there - and while they aren't the most important thing, they are something.  The church where we worship now is rich in many other ways, but there have been times when (whether it makes sense or not), I've felt sad.  So, seeing these kids cut loose and perform for one another in the youth tent was like a little gift wrapped in a bow.  If nothing else (and I do believe there will be "something else's") but, IF nothing else, once a year we will gather with other wild geese and goslings .... they will spend as much concentrated time with like-minded friends and mentors across the span of 4 days as many a Sunday-morning or Wednesday-night, combined... and it will mean something.  A great deal of somethings, I'd venture.

If you'd told me my son Aaron would also grace the Open Mic stage, I'd have responded with a chuckle and a "Yeah, right."  There was a time when he would ham it up with the best of them, but the past couple of years he's become a genuine "tween", cautiously navigating that thin line between childlike and mature, carefree and cool.  As much as I'd love for him to remain inhibition-free, I know this is a necessary process - one I'll be happy to see him reach the other side of.  So, when he told me he'd signed up for the next day's Open Mic I stifled my surprise and excitement (for his benefit). I simply smiled and asked, "Can I watch?"  He pursed his lips and nodded.

The sign up sheet read, "Aaron McConnell - Funny stories".  I'm not sure there is an anxiety to be compared with waiting for your almost-12-year-old son to try being funny in front of a bunch of kids who are older than he is.  I thought I might be sick (but it could have been the heat).  I smiled a confident smile as he situated himself on the stool, adjusted the mic, and began.  I held my breath ... told myself that these were good kids, no matter what it would be okay ... but he was a hit!  He picked stories he'd practiced on us before, that have gone over well (as any comedian-in-training knows, many don't!)  He got lots of smiles, a modest applause, and one of the older teenage girls asked him if he planned to go into stand-up.  He just smiled that crooked, shy smile that I find especially winsome.  And with that, my no-longer-a-gosling-not-quite-a-gander added a few credits to his confidence account.  

Later, I'll share about the time Brian McLaren spent talking with us in the youth tent.  I learned a lot.  Aaron fell asleep. :)

Monday, July 2, 2012

pondering wild goose: Ian Cron and post-cynical christianity

It couldn't have been a coincidence that "Wonder for Cynics" at 1:00 was immediately followed by "Post Cyncial Christianity" at 2:00.  I wonder how many of us walked straight from The Exodus tent to The Shadow tent Friday afternoon?

I can hear some of you who know me, wondering: "What's with all the focus on cynicism, Michelle? You don't come across that way. Is there something you're not telling us?"

Well... yeah, I guess so.  It turns out the natural tendency (temptation?) for someone who makes a major shift of any kind, spiritually  or politically (or any other "ly") is cynicism.  I have fought it both within (my own soul needs no help with this) and without (many speak as if it's their mother tongue).  I fight to maintain an attitude of hope, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to walk my own journey with inward peace ... but that fight has left me weary, at times.  And as everyone knows, temptations are far more tempting when we're tired.

So yes, I confess - I've been tired lately.  Which meant anytime I saw the word "cynic" on the schedule, I was there... because I knew I needed to be.  And I wasn't disappointed.

I had to run the kids to their tent, first, where I ran into my friend Meredith.  She agreed a talk with "post-cynical" in the title sounded like something she wanted to be a part of, too, so she came along.  But she knew something I didn't: the speaker, Ian Cron (whose name I didn't think I recognized) is an author.  She was describing his book, when I suddenly realized, "Wait - I read that book, too! I love that book! Oh!...."  ( wave of realization).  Jesus, My Father, The CIA and Me: A Memoir... of Sorts is a great read.  In fact, I remember reading it thinking, "I'd like to write a book like this one day" - smart, compelling, inspiring.  Check it out.

 Here are my raw notes from the talk.  You can actually listen to Ian recap his Wild Goose experience, and this topic, here (recommended!)

grief and rage following painful church experience (Episcopalian priest)

moved family to Nashville to reboot - thought would be safe - found it to be most religiously cynical place EVER "people are f*ing pissed in Nashville"

same old narrative: "church sucks, but we love Jesus" - cynicism contagious - running negative editorial in mind

it's in vogue to be self-loathing Christians situated on the fringe of established church

Andrew Byers quote "the edgy spirituality of the jaded"

the event that seeded our cynicism really hurt like hell - whether one event or 1,000 little robberies

"we" reject the fear based spirit of anti-intellectualism, "they" protect their certainty with rage & anger

on receiving end of that when perceived as a threat - it hurts!

there's nothing like religious wounding

realized some things about himself over time:
1. I wasn't enlightened, I'd just become a jerk.
2. Cynicism masks laziness. I didn't want to "be the change", I just wanted to bitch about it.
3. Cynicism is freaking delicious. 

decided he must CHANGE - couldn't stand himself anymore - wanted to live as a resurrection person

answer: realistic hopefulness

open-hearted vs a defended heart (pusila anime, "closed soul")

in curvitas se - turned in on oneself, ugly

to live with undefended heart is to live like Jesus, with potential for more joy AND more pain than ever known

Dan Allender: "You cannot hope if you cannot grieve" (work through grief)

you have more to offer the world than your smirk!

Brown quote: "owning our stories and loving ourselves in the process is the bravest thing we'll ever do"

read The Reluctant Saint (on Francis)

need compassionate clear-eyed open heartedness to prophetically critique the situation of the church

don't criticize, just do it better! (Francis of Assisi)

let my LIFE ... BE... a prophetic critique

I don't feel the need to elaborate much, here.  I am grateful Ian shared his story, and that he confessed to us as he did.  I've not experienced anything like the pain he experienced from "church" - if anything, I've been a "victim" of "1,000 little robberies" over the course of my life-of-faith.  But I have tasted the succulent sweetness of cynicism.  Ian reminded me (comparison mine) that it can be like Edmund's Turkish Delight - one bite and all you want is more (especially when it leaves you feeling smart and superior).  But it's ugly, and it makes me ugly.  It makes us ugly.  "Justified" or not, there's a better way.

We do have more to offer the world than our smirk. 
Ghandi was right, "Be the change!"  
Francis of Assisi was right, "Just do it better!"
And Ian is right, "Let my life... BE... a prophetic critique".


Sunday, July 1, 2012

pondering wild goose: frank schaeffer

Francis Schaeffer is a name I’m well familiar with - not only from my years growing up as a member of Thomas Road Baptist Church and a graduate of both Lynchburg (now Liberty) Christian Academy and Liberty University (Jerry Falwell's, for those that don't know).  His influence was even more prominent at the Calvinist, Reformed Baptist church my husband and I attended for several years as a young married couple.  Frank is his son, and he's become famous (or infamous) in his own right:  to conservatives, he's considered a traitor - to progressives, a bit of a hero.  But it turns out, he's just a man - a husband, father, and grandather who writes for the Huffington Post from time to time and has several books out (Patience with God was especially good).  He is one of many post-evangelical, post-religious-right, next-generation voices that I find (whether I agree with them or not) that I can relate to, given our shared background.  Jay Bakker is another.  Frank's tone hasn't always been what I’d call kind, but I must admit there's a certain appeal to someone who shoots straight and doesn't leave you wondering what he really thinks.

Frank Schaeffer, Wonder for Cynics
I’d only highlighted a few sessions in my copy of the Wild Goose schedule, ones I intended to make certain not to miss: Friday afternoon's "Wonder For Cynics with Frank Schaeffer" at 1:00 was one of them.  The kids and I shared lunch at the campsite, then hurried back to catch his talk. The youth/kids activities didn't pick up again until 2, so I tried to play it off positive: "You can rest in the shade with your hand-held fans while I listen".  They were less than enthused.  Still, Frank's dynamic style held their interest, and his occasional use of four-letter-words kept their ears perked.  He even made them laugh out loud a few times!

As we arrived , Frank was passionately recommending the movie Hellbound, which many had seen in a premiere screening the night before; unfortunately, I missed it (by the time it started at 11, we were sound asleep).  It comes out officially this fall, and Frank seems to think it will be a “game changer”. I’d like to hope it will help open honest conversation on the matter, but I admit I’m pretty jaded.  Love Wins by Rob Bell had great potential for opening up conversation, too.  That’s not exactly what happened, though - most folks responded by retreating further into their prospective corners.  Maybe he’s right, though ... maybe this time it will be different.

For those who watched that preview and are still willing to read further :) I’ll share the raw version of my notes from Frank’s talk before elaborating further.  He reviewed his background, then explained that he now worships at an Orthodox Church with his family, including grandaughter Lucy.  Much of his talk had to do with her - so much so that, after praising President Obama for a bit, he joked, "Now, you may ask, what - is he God? No, of course not! He's not even Lucy!"


exile, experience of leaving – get to other side – but what’s next?

what comes after cynicism?

true understanding of GRACE

talking to his granddaughter = talking to Jesus

“words that now have greatest spiritual impact on my life are words of love from family”

recalls weight of doubt - Christopher Hitchens asked, “But why aren’t you an atheist?”

book Patience with God

child looking on you with love is the face of God: sees you as you wish you were, doesn’t know your history (or care to know)

unconditional love

intersection between faith and doubt for burnt out cynics is LOVE

for him now, comfort doesn’t come from a book, comes from love every day right in front of me

seems oversimplified

what’s left? pass on compassion

granddaughter Lucy “Are you upset with me?” “No, there’s nothing I love more in the world than you”

kind word to stranger could literally save their life

science tells us energy came before matter – that energy is LOVE – that energy is GOD

Lucy healed him to where he’ll now give a clear cut answer after years of mistrust – she asked “who made the rock?” and without blinking he said “God did”

“someday I want her to come to a kind of faith like this" – "let’s fight for the witness of the gospel”

when in season of doubt, ideas will not save you, you’ll never figure it out – love someone unconditionally, let them love you unconditionally, show compassion for all, treat someone with decency and you will feel decent

As I copy the above words from pencil-scribble-in-a-notebook to official-looking-type, I feel a familiar sensation.  Anxiety whispers, “this is heresy”.  But here’s the thing about Frank – he’s not afraid of heresy anymore, he's too invested in what has real value.  He has nothing left to lose, and nothing more to prove - not to himself or anyone else.  He doesn’t feel the need to make the words sound “correct” or “safe”. 

Now, me - I could rewrite every phrase above in “Christianese”, then support each one with proof texts.  They’d say pretty much the same things, but sound more acceptable - less risky.  But I’m not going to do that, and I’m glad Frank doesn’t.  Because someone else refused to play that game.  He spoke so plainly, with words so true but so shockingly human that the religious leaders literally tore their clothes in response.  We don’t talk about faith that way anymore, most of us.

Is Frank Jesus?  Not hardly.  But I liked the earthiness with which he spoke.  Thirty years away from evangelicalism have clearly freed him from the need to filter every word phrase through a mental doctrine-detector before uttering them.  This realization, on my part, was probably the biggest take-away from his session:  I gained a fresh appreciation for courageous clarity, along with a determination to develop more of the same in my own words, whether spoken or captured in print.

Frank in the dunk tank
Frank also said that last year’s Wild Goose sent him home a kinder, gentler man.  This made me smile. I’d never met the young right wing evangelical poster-boy Frank, or the cynical reactionary Frank who came later.  But I have met the “kinder, gentler” Frank.  We walked together for a bit, sharing a private conversation which I enjoyed immensely.  Tiny things, from his concern that I not be run off the road by a passing golf cart, to his genuine interest in each of my children, to his intense attention for the details of my own story, impressed upon me the beauty of a life lived (as Richard Beck describes) ex curvitas se, outward toward others.  And that's sweet fruit, if you ask me.

I left touched by the (yes) miraculous, healing power of experiencing the gospel of grace - minus its false baggage – amongst a community of bravely honest people.  It's changing Frank.  It’s changing many of us Wild Geese.  And that is why we cannot shrink back when others warn “heresy!”  What's at stake is worth the risk. There exists a pearl of great price… a Kingdom not built with human hands, where Justice and Peace kiss and Love does indeed win.  We’ve caught a glimpse of it, and we’ll not be the same.

The Spirit of Wonder still woos the most jaded of cynics.