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Why The Hell Go To Church?

Last Sunday, rather than attend church, I opted to stay home, drink three cups of bold, Starbucks Verona coffee, and take a walk in spring-like sunshine with my wife.

My truancy was motivation for reflection and response to Joan Chittester’s question in her memoir Called To Question“Would Jesus stay in the church today? In any of them? And, if not, who would follow him out of it? Would I?,” as well as Steve McSwain’s Huffington Post thought piece, “Why Nobody Wants To Go To Church Anymore.”

If you missed it, one motivation for going to church (or any religious place of worship) is embedded in my title–as a means to avoiding hell (or damnation).

Although many still believe in a literal hell (a “furnace of fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth”) and profess to know “the way” to avoid going there, self-preoccupation arising from a foreboding perception of a capricious and punitive God is minimal today compared to times past.

For instance, nineteenth century North American worldview was largely influenced by the thought life of Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, and then his student Samuel Hopkins, of whom and among his writings was a 1793 piece entitled A Treatise On The Millennium (derived from a larger work, A System of Doctrines Contained in Divine Revelation, Explained and Defended).

It warned of an imminent End Time and reign of God, in which millions of sinners and saints would be judged, punished, and destroyed.

Like a thief in the night, God would “rise out of his place to do his work, his strange work, to punish the world for its wickedness, reduce and destroy mankind so that comparatively few will be left.”

This widespread and wholesale destruction of humanity would serve the purpose of an unforgettable object lesson for those “true believers” (elect) still remaining. It would demonstrate to them “the propensity of man to the greatest degree of wickedness, and of the great and desperate evil that is in the heart of man.”

The apostasy and destruction of so many, including those who professed or feigned Christianity, would serve as both reminder and motivator for the obedience and love of the remaining “true believers.” Ultimately reminding them of this one constant reality:

With God, there is an ever-present and unpredictable possibility of judgment and destruction, therefore, every person must live hyper self-consciously pure.

Sunday fidelity came to be viewed as an objective sign of authentic piety and true conversion.

Whereas conversion was thought to be arbitrary and prone to false verification, faithful sabbath observance was seen as an unambiguous and visible delineating marker between sinner and saint and between the sacred and the profane.

Accordingly, one of the first priorities of American missionaries abroad was to teach “heathens” the concept of time, especially the “sacred hours” of the Christian Sabbath. The instruction of time served two purposes: enabling the “heathen” to identify days of the week, yet also to impress upon their minds the brevity of life and the urgent need to repent.

As one missionary journaled a chance encounter with an elderly Zulu man, “Saw an old man of 90, I should judge, & told him of the fewness of his days, & his need of preparation for death.” Accordingly, flag staffs were a first priority construction on mission stations, so as to announce to the “heathen” the arrival of the Christian Sabbath.

Sunday, therefore, was more than a day of the week. It was the linchpin of an emerging North American (Christian) consciousness.

It’s little wonder that the Christian Sabbath became one of the first exports of the new Republic, and sadly, an identifying mark of “American Christianity” on people, who were so-called “Christianized” and “civilized.”

In southeast Africa, Sunday church observance became synonymous in African thought with the heart, soul and essence of Christianity (note the absence of Christian “essence” in speaking out against apartheid, much as it was absent in America for Native Americans) as stated by South African, Lawrence Zulu, “The Christianity that has come down to our own day seems to be too bound up with the Church Building and Sunday.”

Although today going to church (mosque, temple, etc) for the purpose of avoiding a one-way trip to eternal damnation/hell isn’t a compelling motivation for people like myself, there are several notable reasons why someone might choose to attend, including:

-Fellowship of friends

-Forum for candid, different-from-the-ordinary-perspective life discussions, and

-Fraternity of broken/wounded people, where life lessons learned in the thick and thin of living can be shared with one another, and where nurturing can be experienced.

Although these are more good than bad motivations, in my opinion they aren’t “good enough” to sustain my family’s loyalty, nor good enough to distinguish the church from “Sunday competitors.”

Why these “notable reasons” for attending church are simply “not good enough,” is that they all require little of the mostly socioeconomic privileged people (myself included), who make up weekly faith communities across the United States.

They require little in terms of:

-Lifestyle change

-Significant sacrifice or sharing of economic or skills assets

-Vulnerability–e.g., of belief

-Time, energy or reason for developing and nurturing relationships with atypical “others,” and

-Active participation in redressing entrenched social systemic indignities, inequalities and injustices.

I admit I struggle to comprehend early church and present day church incongruities. That is to say, what imaginative and creative energy present day professional clergy and elected lay leadership must expend to rationalize annual multi-multi-million dollar church property, buildings and operational budgets in order to read without blushing about the earliest and mostly powerless community of Jesus followers, “They were together, breaking bread (sharing meals), having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

As one who grew up Baptist, I agree with McSwain’s assessment that the church is dying, although and obviously, this is not to suggest churches will cease to exist.

Although McSwain doesn’t note how many new churches are begun each year (to counter those closing their doors for the last time), he does cite Hartford Institute of Religion Research indicating:

-Between 4,000 and 7,000 churches die annually–one person put the number as high as 8,000 to 10,000/year

-On any given Sunday less than 20-percent of Americans attend church

-Every day for the next sixteen years, 10,000 baby boomers will enter retirement, thereby exacerbating an already graying of the church, but also depleting it of its financial base, and

-Between 2010 and 2012 more than half of U.S. churches didn’t add a single new member.

McSwain lists seven trends affecting negative church attendance, including:

-Demographic changes/remapping

-Technology under utilization

-Leadership crisis

-Competition for people’s time and resources

-Religious pluralism

-“Contemporary” worship experience, and

-Phony, BS advertising by churches–professing “All People Welcome” when in actuality it’s not true.

most identify with McSwain’s initial statement, in which he informs readers that the title of his thought piece–Why Nobody Wants To Go To Church Anymore–is a question individuals who are leaving the church to join the ranks of the “religiously unaffiliated” are more than ready to respond to and answer, yet . . . . a question “few insiders are listening to.” 

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Breast-Feeding, Elephant Ears, and Basking Lizards | Meanderings of an American-African Mind

The mind is an amazing thing.

Do you know what I mean?

One minute you’re sitting alone or with others, thinking or discussing one thing or the other, and the next thing you know a random, sub-conscious word, thought or optical image diverts your thought processes to what appears on the surface to be an absurdly different topic altogether.

A case in point:

It’s a sunny yet relatively “cold” day today in Austin – high of 61F.  I’ve placed my seedling tray of tomato plants just behind our all-glass front door, so they will capture the light and warmth of the sun.  As I bent over to position them in full sunlight, I felt the morning sun’s warmth refracted through the door and on to my face, neck and arms.  The warmth and its soothing sensation, combined a moment later with the pleasured taste of a Starbuck’s Americano, drunk while sitting and looking out on an awakening neighborhood, somehow combined to trigger distant yet still close-at-hand memories.

I remember numerous happy childhood days at Kisumu’s Nyanza Club swimming pool, particularly, how good it felt (and feels) climbing out of cold water, then immediately lying face down on a sun-warmed border of the pool. 

From 3rd Wimpy Kid Movie

Diary of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Do you have similar recollections? Can you feel even as you read these words the sun warming your cold body, head to toes?  

This remembrance somehow linked to and triggered in my mind an idiomatic Venda expression for “I need to go to the toilet,” of which, the relevance to water and sun will soon be evident.

One day I asked my Venda tutor, “How do I tell someone, ‘Please excuse me, I need to go to the toilet?'” He thought a minute then replied, “In formal Venda you simply say, ‘Ndi khou toda u di thusa,’ which simply translates ‘I need to help myself.'”  But, he said, “If you want to speak ‘deep Venda’ then you can say, ‘Ndi khou toda u kumbedza tswina,’ which roughly translates ‘I need to blind a lizard.'”

lizard

As you likely are doing now, I chuckled, yet think about its contextual accuracy.  Most Venda people still rely on foot power and foot paths.  Distances are quite far, and if you’ve traveled abroad, you know that relieving oneself outdoors seldom conveys any similar degree of uncouthness as it does in the United States. Given Venda’s proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn, imagine that it’s a 39-degree Celsius day. You’re walking along a foot path when morning tea catches up with you.  You stop to relieve yourself in the shelter of a rocky and sparsely vegetated hill, and lying just before you is a basking lizard!

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Regrettably, all language lessons were not that painless.

The most embarrassingly painful Venda language learning remembrance for my wife and me was over the simplest and most frequently used daily expression – “hello.”

Our mistake?  Young when we arrived in South Africa, we asked an older – you would think more informed – white colleague how to greet, instead of asking someone from Venda.  As our colleague drove us to Venda from Johannesburg, a then six-hour drive, he told us, “Oh, it’s easy.  If it’s a man you say ‘Ndaa’ (masculine tone). If it’s a woman you say, ‘Aaah’ (feminine tone).”  So for the first few weeks, if not months, every man and every woman we greeted with either an “Ndaa” or “Aaah.”  Regrettably, what our colleague neglected to tell us is that only men greet with “Ndaa” and only women greet with “Aaah.”

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

We each received many strange and smiled looks when we greeted people.

My most painful related remembrance is of a woman I gave a lift to.  As she entered my bakkie (equivalent to a pick-up truck), I articulated in my most feminine tone and pitch, “Aaa!”  She must have been desperate for a ride, because rather than leaping out the window, she chose to remain with this seemingly crazed white taxi driver.

My wife’s faux pas was more painful, perhaps.  Soon after our arrival in Venda there was a peaceful coup, and our immediate neighbor in Block G, Thohoyandou (=head of the elephant), a general in Venda’s “air force,” Gabriel Ramushwana became president.  Rather then relocate from Block G to the substantial presidential compound situated mid-point between Thohoyandou and the white suburb of Sibasa on the hill, he chose to live with and among his people (there’s a lesson in there for all current and want-to-be politicians).

It wasn’t long, then, before the president’s yard was fitted with razor wire and a 24-hour military presence, much to our young son’s pleasure.  As President Ramushwana was exiting his premises one morning, and my wife was simultaneously closing our gate, she greeted him properly through his open car window.  It caused him to stop and respond kindly, “I see you’ve learned to greet properly in Venda!”

SA's 9 provinces & a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

South Africa’s nine provinces and a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

An important thing you should know about many, if not most of South Africa’s eleven official languages. They are tonal. Practically, this means one word can have multiple meanings depending upon tone and inflection. An example in Venda: “thoho” can communicate either “head” or “monkey.”

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey

A personal example of a language miscue related to tone and inflection: It was a hot summer day, and as I arrived at my meeting destination a group of Venda ladies were sitting under a large shade tree.  We exchanged greetings, after which one of the group said something incoherent to me.  I attempted to say, “I didn’t hear well or clearly.” They all immediately yet politely stifled laughter, which, of course, told me my language effort failed miserably.  One of the ladies rose to her feet, walked over to me, and politely told me, “You have just told us that you have big ears like an elephant!”

censoredbreastfeed

A more U.S./European view of breast-feeding – taboo

Speaking of women and language learning . . . my mind again, as if it operates independently from intentional thought, skipped to a different page of memories.  This time a page of memories related to two breast-feeding incidents. Breasts and breast-feeding are viewed in wholesome (pure) and healthy terms in Venda, as in most parts Africa.

African woman breast feeding

African woman breast-feeding

Our arrival in Block G, Thohoyandou, Venda in early November, 1989, caused quite a stir, I’m certain.  The reason being: South Africa, even its so-called “independent” black homelands, existed within a canopy of legislated segregation or apartheid. It was more scandalous than normal for races to mix.  Yet here we were a young, white couple setting up home in what was effectively a new “black housing development.”  Within days of arrival, welcoming guests arrived at our front gate, including two pastors of local churches and their wives – one of whom, had recently given birth.

My wife quickly learned the cultural role of providing “tea” and some form of “pudding” (sweet pastry).  Midway through their visit, the one pastor’s wife decided it was time to feed her newborn.  This was no big event, except for two complicating factors:  In likely her first-ever visit to a white person’s house she had worn her best dress, which was beautiful, yet impractical for nursing purposes, in that, the neck of the dress extended up near her clavicle, making “breast extraction” near impossible.  Secondly, she was a very buxom woman.  These factors did not deter her from trying, though – and repeatedly so!  Given that we all were sharing a small living room space, her efforts and failures became increasingly pronounced as time went on.  Much to all of our relief, I’m sure, the senior pastor finally voiced our discomfiture and what was evident to all of us – “Shame, she’s having trouble getting the pipe out.”

A final humorous story related to language and breast-feeding.  My wife grew up in the Dominican Republic, and is fluent in Spanish (and German).  Inspired by a college professor, she chose – actually, we chose – to raise all five of our children bilingual.  Upon arrival in Venda our eldest, a boy, was a year old.  After two years living in Venda and among the Venda people, he had learned a lot, but also “absorbed” a lot – specifically, the reality that many infants and small children received milk from their mothers’ breasts.

One evening we invited an elderly American couple over for dinner.  They were assisting in the management of a relief project at the time.  She, like the pastor’s wife, was quite a buxom woman, and sitting immediately to the right of my son at the dining table, he couldn’t help but notice.  Given the sights and cultural experiences he had absorbed to that point, he very innocently verbalized midway through dinner to my wife – fortunately in Spanish – “Does she have milk?”  It was obviously a moment of great discomfiture for my wife, but fortunately an anonymously embarrassing moment, which today we remember with great laughter.

Concluding thought: 

Meandering minds and their on-the-surface incoherent and dissonant linkages with past memories and associations frequently result in fond and kind remembrances of happier and simpler periods, events and relationships in life, which if we’ll allow them, just might warm up, encourage, what to that point in time or day we might tend to label as struggle, despondency, heartache or melancholy.

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On Being a Problem

I’m currently reading How Does It Feel To Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi.

Have you ever given thought to what daily life must be like for individual “problems” of society?  That is, have you ever personally, first-hand, or vicariously via imagination shared life with them for a day or more?

If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so.  But do so apart from a “group experience,” where vulnerability of shared experiences are diffused too broadly and minimal transformation occurs in your life.

It seems “problem people” in the USA could apply in varying measures to any or all of the following people:  Muslims, Arabs, the poor or anyone benefiting from a government subsidy, gay, illegal immigrants, the unemployed, someone with AIDS, single-headed households (especially women on welfare), anyone who doesn’t speak “American,” etc.   In the not-too-distant past, of course, “problem people” included Native Americans, Catholics, Irish, Japanese, etc.

During their colonizing administration of South Africa, British officials frequently referred to blacks by the phrase “the native problem” (I do not deny the existence of far more racially derogatory terms used as well).  Although more academic and finessed descriptions could be given as to what exactly was implied by “the native problem,” in effect, it boiled down to this:

There were too many of “them” – specifically, “uncivilized” and “un-Christianized” blacks living in near proximity to whites.  What to do about it since the advancement of civilization depended upon native labor, as well as upon making consumers of them?

Fear, then, became the persistent and pervasive “white burden.”  For example, in 1838 Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, white fear of imminent Zulu attack prompted the usual practice of firing a gun upon arrival of the mail to be discontinued, and in its place was substituted the ringing of a bell.

Explorer Richard Burton wrote in 1861, “I unhesitatingly assert—and all unprejudiced travelers will agree with me—that the world still wants the black hand.  Enormous tropical regions yet await the clearing and draining operations by the lower races, which will fit them to become the dwelling-places of civilized man.”  Scottish evangelist, Henry Drummond, expressed in Tropical Africa that the fertility of Central Africa was a liability for civilization’s advance, because in such a climate it was difficult “to create new wants” among Africans.

My life, personally, and that of my family have been exceedingly gifted, blessed, from knowing many “problem people” over the years.  Miriam is one such person.  Initially she was a South African “problem,” given that she was a refugee from a not-too-distant neighboring country.  Destitute and desperate, with small children of her own, she was given a lifeline through the kindness of a few Catholic sisters.  After regaining her footing, Miriam identified an unfortunate niche in South African society – destitute mothers, unable to adequately care for their small children for economic or health reasons, who do not want to give up their children for adoption or for a government mandated two-year foster care, but merely find a temporary and loving caretaker until which time they manage to reclaim life – and determined to make a difference in the lives of mothers and their children, despite her lack of resources.  This former “problem person” isn’t famous or successful by celebrity definition, yet for those of us who know her, she’s a Mother Teresa of South Africa. Thank you Miriam for mentoring me and my family on how best to be a “problem!”

KH

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