Tag Archives: Puritan

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.” 

Leave a comment

Filed under Diversity, Life, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith

Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation – Part 2

For those of you a-religious, or nominally so, this blog’s content might seem like a world “far, far away, in a distant galaxy.” If not relevant to you, it might at least be entertaining.

In “Part 1” I reminisced about my 5th grade small-time smoking, and of my dad’s respectful manner of handling my “experiments with tobacco.”

In Part-2 I reflect upon the religious culture that, despite my wish at times to extricate myself from, is part-and-parcel of my identity as U.S. citizen and Texas resident.

I note the culture’s entrenched belief in mankind’s sinful nature, an ever-present, yet at times subdued consciousness of an End Time (return of Christ and punishment of the wicked), and a corresponding need to enlist fear and fire as proselytizing motivation when “love” alone fails to change a “sinner’s” heart.

My early developmental years are a narrative of exposure to overt and subliminal Christian messages of “Jesus loves me and the little children of the world, this I know for the Bible tells me so,” and “Amazing grace, that saved a wretch like me, Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”

Love and Fear, then, were, and continue to be frequently juxtaposed themes. And in my experience, Fear (and Fire) has dominated North American evangelical consciousness, and regrettably has been one of our chief exports to the world.

Regrettable, that is, in terms of how fear and a perceived imminence of the End Time or Last Days has influenced our treatment of people and cultures different – i.e., as a means to an end.

Former Anglican bishop to southeast Africa, John Colenso, corroborated the presence of American religious fear mongers in his Ten Weeks in Natal journal –

“The profession of Christianity had been very much hindered by persons saying that the world will be burnt up—perhaps, very soon—and they will all be destroyed.  They [Zulus] are frightened, and would rather not hear about it, if that is the case.”

If you discount Colenso’s journal as a mere snapshot of 19th Century colonial and missionary history, then read When Time Shall Be No More, which details Americans’ obsessive preoccupation and speculation about prophecy and End Time.

boyer

So . . .

Many of us grew up, and continue to live in a social, political and religious culture that has been heavily influenced by a Puritan / Protestant-evangelical tradition.

quote

A culture still analogous in many ways to a much earlier time in history, depicted by a story of an American missionary, Mr. Kirby, to Native Americans –

“Some wicked traders heard the Christian Indians singing a hymn, and they said to them, ‘What do poor creatures like you know about Jesus Christ?’ One of the Indians took up a worm, made a circle of dry moss round it, and set fire to the moss. The worm soon tried to escape, but could not, then the Indian lifted it out to a place of safety, and turning to the gazing traders, said, ‘that is what Jesus has done for me.’”

The Southern United States, in particular, the so-called Bible Belt, still evidences this overt evangelical consciousness.

Visit select Starbucks, particularly in a town such as Waco, Texas, for example, and regularly see people individually reading or in groups discussing the Bible, praying, and as I did on one occasion, see a young child of maybe 10 to 12 years, standing in the order queue, soliciting a middle-age adult behind him with, “Mr, If you died today, do you know where you would go?”

If You Died Today

Generally speaking, this culture views human nature as first and foremost sinful, deprived, void of any individual good, alienated from God, and destined for eternal separation from God (hell) unless repentance and atonement is sought after and found. (*See documentaries Virgin Tales and Jesus Camp.)

It seems that humanity is so void of good inclination, so morally deprived, that inciting fear (and shaming) are the singularly effective provocateurs to soliciting confessions of remorse/guilt, thereby paving the way for divine forgiveness.

As a so-called “born again Christian,” myself, I don’t agree with this lopsided view of human nature, since the Bible, in my opinion, speaks equally if not more to humanity’s creation “in the image of God,” and therefore humanity’s immense created potential for good as evidenced in socially transforming, larger-than-life personages.

Yes, this includes Jesus, a carpenter’s son, but also Muhammad, a merchant and trader (we could list any number of religious founders, from Sikhism to Baha’i), Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi, lawyers, and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr or Desmond Tutu as clergymen, Rosa Parks, NAACP secretary, Mother Teresa (of course), Anne Frank, and scores of other notable women and men.

Such a negative assessment of human nature also doesn’t substantiate my personal life of faith, which experientially benefited from a decidedly more feminine and maternal metaphor of God (see my blog Two Words); one that depicts an Ultimate Reality’s patience, kind-heartedness, and all-encompassing love, rather than the millennial’s old patriarchal, judicial and capricious view of God

Despite my unwillingness to embrace, or at least, fixate on mankind’s sinful nature, I do understand the mindset and appeal of conservative/fundamentalist faith (Christianity shares similarities with Islam at this point), particularly given the everywhere evidence of “the evil that men do” against fellow humanity, and the desire for a sense of inner security that a belief in absolutes falsely promises.

What good news and hope there is in the gospel message, then, is often overshadowed and contingent upon whether you’re fearfully contrite enough to say “I’m a sinner,” or “my bad” as Adam Sandler humorously expressed his own missteps.

A new, “born-again” life is said to occur when you . . .

-Hear through some means (usually through preaching/proselytizing) the gospel message offering forgiveness and a new life . . .

-Feel enough remorse (guilt) about your sinful nature and sinful deeds . . .

-That you acknowledge and confess your wretchedness . . .

-Plus, have faith to believe that Jesus is God’s only Son, who died in order to ransom you from the clutches of the evil one, who, incidentally, is the prime instigator behind all your bad thoughts, actions, and life’s misfortunes . . .

-Because God’s redemption can only be experienced singularly in and through Jesus . . .

-After all, “narrow is the gate” into heaven.

-If heaven’s gate is enlarged to include any different-from-Christian people, say, mere “lovers and doers of truth and goodness” (*the many kinds of individuals Jesus, himself, and the Bible commend for their faith and righteousness), then how will Christians know for absolute certain that they, themselves, have met the conditions for heaven?

-Therefore, Christians need “different” faith and cultural antagonists to mirror what is allegedly “non-biblical” in order to assure them by negation that Christianity is the only and true way . . .

-Furthermore, by obeying and following so-called prescribed and biblically mandated “salvation steps”  . . .

-Then, and only then, will a person have assurance that God’s righteous anger has been mitigated, and that eternity is a certainty.

Any notion of “biblical truth” (a favorite phrase for absolute truth among Bible Belt Christians) incidentally, is a misnomer, because all truth is interpretive, reflecting more one’s social, economic, educational, political and life experience, than so-called objective/absolute truth.

Like the apostle Paul acknowledged, himself, there is truth that is provisional, personal, and truthful, as in seeing in a mirror dimly, but you cannot legitimately claim it as singularly absolute because you are not God, nor can you even make that claim for the Bible because then you would be guilty yourself of bibliolatry – the worship of the Bible. Truth must play out in the market place of life, where you’re free, even encouraged to advocate for your understanding of truth, demonstrate through your life and actions its authenticity, and make emotional appeal from your personal experience.

In Part-3 I’ll attempt explaining how my understanding of “salvation” has changed from my 3rd grade pie-in-the-sky understanding. My current spirituality and sense of being “saved” is indebted to the many valued perspectives and life experiences I’ve shared over the past 15 years with the religious and cultural “different Others.” I’m grateful to have been forced through graduate studies to journey beyond my single Baptist perspective and tradition (single color rug) to a symphony of different perspectives and testimonials, each one, yet collectively, trying to express in language and symbol the ultimate meaning we’ve discovered about the inexplicable realities and meanings of life (mosaic colored rug).

mosaic3

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture and Africa, Diversity, Family, Life, Memories, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith, Uncategorized

The Impotence of Contemporary Faith | Time to Bear Witness and Minimize Verbosity

*Note: Admittedly this is a long blog.  Despite this, please take the time to read and share it.

Historical reflection matters.  In fact, it is of critical importance in terms of peaceful relations and co-existence between culturally and religiously different people and nations.

Walter Houghton, former Wellesley College professor and author of Victorian England: Portrait of an Age wrote, “to peer through the darkness of a hundred years and turn even a flashlight on the landscape of 1850 is to see our own situation a little more clearly.”

Seldom do people, especially the religiously minded, pause and consider the fact that beliefs and ideas have an origin and a prior context of (primary) meaning, as well as a historical development.

A few examples from Christian scripture:

Among evangelicals, in particular, two Bible texts, which routinely are wrenched from their social and literary contexts and misused – both to justify exclusive claim to God and truth, and legitimate mission enterprises to the “heathen” or “unsaved” – include John 14:6, in which Jesus allegedly makes the exclusive claim that he alone is the singular and only way for a person to obtain eternal life, and the “Great Commission” text of Matthew 28:18-20.

one way

In my opinion, the manner in which Christians have, and continue to use John 14:6 as a proof-text to “prove” that their belief and their religion is the true one, expresses more an inner fear and insecurity, than what they think they are communicating – certainty of identity, faith and future.  (*For a few alternative views on this text, see the writings by former Emory professor, Thomas Thangaraj, and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary professor, W. Eugene March)

Let’s be honest.  In disconcerting times and eras, such as the present, who doesn’t and wouldn’t want “evidence” that “proves” one’s life is on the right and true track?

It’s a false comfort, but a comfort, nevertheless, to be able to say “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Every single day, each one of us use “the other” as “social mirrors,” as aids by which to navigate life and assess individual progress.

self_reflection

We look at others, and occasionally share affirmation, but most often we belittle and criticize, and in so doing it provides momentary, yet false assurance that our lives are somehow okay – especially in comparison to him, her, or them!

The utilization of another as an aide in self-criticism and self-evaluation is nothing new, and as such serves the purpose of a “control group” against which people assess their respective individual or collective progress or development.

Not so long ago, blacks and Indians were utilized by Europeans as “social mirrors” in order to discover attributes in savages which they found first but could not speak of in themselves.

As Andrew Sinclair noted in The Savage : A History of Misunderstanding, “The Puritan fought the Devil and the savage within himself, and he called the struggle conscience. . . . Often more terrible than the savage outside the stockade of the settlement was the savage within the ribcage of the Puritan, and his sternness toward all dissenters was frequently no more than fear of his own nature.”

Where has much of this troubling fear of the future come from?  

I find renowned historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, Carl Degler’s perspective compelling.

He wrote that prior to the 16th century, Martin Luther, and the Reformation, there existed a relatively predictable, ordered, and secure worldview and belief structure.  That is, a person’s sense of eternal security was guaranteed by the Catholic Church by means of a pronouncement and/or sacrament performed by a priest.

After the non-conformists effectively challenged institutional orthodoxy, coupled with the ensuing sectarian schisms that occurred among dissenters themselves, there emerged an unsettling new reality—the priesthood of every believer.

Every person, thereafter, was obligated to care for his or her own soul.  In effect, individual priesthood became every person’s “own terrifying responsibility.”

Verification of one’s eternal future or elected-ness, has over the centuries since, come to reside in an ambiguous and highly subjective “salvation template.”

It is a template that has unpredictably, yet routinely changed over time, according to Richard E. Wentz, former Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Arizona State University.

Attempts to secure signs or proof of salvation has changed over the years from a prescribed iconoclasm (destruction of images of worship), to stringent morality (puritanism), to a profession of faith, and finally to an individualizing of faith or to “saving steps” (Four Spiritual Laws).

4 steps

John 14:6, then, became a popular proof-text because it so comfortably accommodated and “proved” the popular four-step salvation template.

What is evident upon historical reflection of all “saving steps or stages,” however, is that in the post-16th century European world, life increasingly was lived as if “conducting an examination,” and Scripture read “as if peering in a mirror”—largely for the purpose of appeasing a troubled conscience and assuaging a loving, yet capricious God.

Illustrating a troubled conscience, are the words of Lucy Lindley’s biographer, wife of American Board 19-century missionary to South Africa, Daniel Lindley:

“Lucy was always in a state of anxiety about them [her children], their health and spiritual welfare.  Her introspection was painful in its intensity.  She was morbidly conscientious.  She who was so transparently good was always lamenting her sins.  The memory haunted her of the wide sleeves she wore when a girl, wasting stuff that might have been sold to feed the poor.  It troubled her for days when she found that a tradesman had given her ten cents too much change: ‘I must return it.  He must see that I am honest’. . . . When she saw Mary playing cards it threw her into a state of prostration that lasted for days.  That one of her boys should go to the theatre, that two of them should spend a rainy morning in the holidays at a billiard table, she took to be sure signs that they were on the road to perdition. Sincerely religious, always pouring out her heart in gratitude for blessings bestowed upon her, religion brought her little joy and serenity.  Not a happy woman; but noble in her high sense of duty and her unconquerable spirit.”

As for Matthew 28:18-20 . . . Given the complicity of imperialism/colonialism with civilizing the “heathen” by means of christianizing them, a legitimizing text was needed for this civilizing venture – i.e., just as U.S. slave owners and South African apartheid proponents co-opted Old Testament scripture as justification for their racist attitudes and actions.

What better, more suitable text for the sailing ships and their crew and passengers than Matthew’s – “Go and make disciples of all nations“?  It fit like a glove.

No one makes clearer this linkage of text with enterprise than Sri Lankan, R. S. Sugirtharajah, Professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at University of Birmingham, U.K, who I had the fortune to study under for one week in 2001.

Relying on Alan Kreider’s research, Sugirtharajah persuasively argues by quoting from primary texts that there was very little formal preaching or institutionalized mission during the growth of the pre-Christendom church, and even less admonition to evangelize.

How then did the Jesus movement grow in those early years?

It grew primarily through public demonstrations of faith or people bearing testimony to their experience of faith.  For example, faith was mediated by martyrdom.  Bystanders were astonished and in awe of those who willingly died for what they believed in.  Faith was also mediated by behavior and generous acts of charity.  The Jesus movement also grew, according to Kreider, because of the extraordinary character of worship, which prepared Christians to live exemplary, above-reproach lives in the world.

Concluding Thoughts:

I appeal to my own faith community of upbringing – evangelical, Protestant, Christian – that it’s time to:

Stop idolizing certainty, particularly the Bible and Jesus. 

Set aside your illusionary claim to “absolute” ownership (and interpretation) of truth.

When you are so controlling and insistent on your perspective, it really does not help you love others well. Ultimately it’s your attempt to control even God.

As a Lutheran pastor recently and rightly noted, we live in a time where the “public square” is the forum where people of all faiths and people who reject all faiths come together and bear testimony – not behind pulpits or in moral statements pronounced behind protective and insulated walls.

allaboutgod

Samir Selmanovic, a favorite alternative Christian voice of mine, makes the following remarks in It’s Really All About God:

“Is a God who favors anyone over anyone else worth worshiping?”

“We have saturated our religions with our own selves, and the most direct way to enter a new whirlwind of fresh and substantive religious experience is to seek and find the image of God in those who are not in our image.  It is really all about God, and God is really all about all of us.  Yet, we are afraid to be in the image of God.  And we are terrified of the prospect of finding the image of God in those who are not in our image.  This is not a call to one religion for all.  It is a call for every religion to find a way that is good for all people.”

“So much of who we all are depends on maintaining a polarized and conflicted world.  To challenge this state of affairs by finding God in the other not only disrupts our communal sense of identity but also alters our social and economic structures on every level, from our families to our nations.  In some twisted way, we have learned to benefit from the misery of the divided world we have created.  Now we have to unlearn what we think we know and then learn to embrace this newfound reality of our globally intertwined community.”

Stop thinking you, your church and Christianity as a whole will succeed together in saving the world (a popular 19th century motto was “evangelizing the world in this generation”).

Reality and history communicate the exact opposite – a persistent growth and renaissance of world faiths.

Yes, you can point to numerous examples of individuals whose lives were transformed through a conversion experience or to “church growth” or to “spiritual revivals,” yet these examples communicate a fraction of the truth.

For instance, the growth of the church and large-scale conversions in Africa and in many parts of Asia, are documented by the likes of University of Cape Town professor, David Chidester, as occurring only after their people experienced or were subjugated to the destruction or disintegration of independent economic, social and political life.

Corroborating this assertion is 19th-century American missionary Silas McKinney’s letter back to his missionary board, “They (Zulus) are in a transition state, breaking away from the Zulu nation, and dissolving into little bodies, and coming together again in news forms, and thus placing themselves in positions most happy for the successful introduction of the gospel.”  A colleague, Aldin Grout similarly wrote, “the Zulu nation as such is extinct.  This I have been looking for ever since I left the Zulu country.”

Sharing missionary, as well as mission trip stories of individuals, whose lives were changed when they “gave their hearts to Jesus” should not be minimized, yet neither should they effectively over-shadow or silence the many more stories of people, who likely were repelled and repulsed by both the message, method and motivation of Christians’ so-called “good news.”

Take Mahatma Gandhi, for instance.  In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, he wrote, “Christian missionaries used to stand in a corner near the high school and hold forth, pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods. I could not endure this.  I must have stood there to hear them once only, but that was enough to dissuade me from repeating the experiment.”

In Zimbabwe I once heard a missionary speak of “wind evangelism.”  Upon questioning, he said this was a method of evangelism, whereby when you’re traveling along the highway at 75 mph, you roll your window down and release gospel tracts. These, then, flutter to the feet of Zimbabweans, who are walking or riding a bicycle, and, of course, we are then to believe this method of saving some justifies the means.

A colleague of his shared frustration at the difficulty of obtaining accurate records of baptisms. He then hit on a “novel idea” of offering to pay $1 or $2 Zimbabwe dollars for every certificate that pastors turned in.  Wow – wouldn’t you know it!  Baptisms increased dramatically in the ensuing months!

That’s Americans in Africa, but here in the U.S. it’s little different.  Although popularity seems somewhat diminished of late, I still read of churches re-enacting the Columbine Massacre, replete with shotgun during Hell House at Halloween, or implementing a Top Ten Most Wanted list, whereby you list ten people in your life who “need Jesus” and who you “target” with the gospel.

Insteadstart demonstrating how Christianity (faith) is an appreciably meaningful and practical “way of life” in the present.

Try to stop speaking so many spiritual platitudes, which in effect serve to exonerate one from involvement in the messiness of people’s daily lives.  An example that occurred during a visit by a U.S. “Christian”-based NGO leader to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.  If a destitute family welcome you into their home at your request, and then in the course of conversation express a heartfelt need for tuition assistance or a pair of shoes, don’t glibly voice with your pleated Ralph Lauren khaki pants and your buffed, shiny brown Oxford shoes, “Let’s pray and I’m sure that God will provide for your needs.”  No, you are God in those moments and you need to do any and everything within your means to assist this family.

As Samir puts it, “People are not looking for someone to show them how to escape life; they are looking for practicing sojourners and communities to help them walk the landscape of life. There is something impotent about contemporary Christianity, and it has to do with its inability to re-imagine the answer to the question ‘What do I get for following Jesus?‘  For too many Christians the answer is (simply) ‘heaven.'”

Leave a comment

Filed under Life, Perspective, Religion and Faith

Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the “F-word”

In our era of high-tech gadgets and high rolling entertainment I’m struck by how prominently small, simple, and insignificant past events figure into consciousness and identity.  An example of mine are memories associated with checking the mail or post.  I’m not referring to the typical U.S. residence mailbox, situated right outside most front doors, but the mailbox you rent on a monthly or yearly basis at the post office.  I still remember distinctive experiences, sights, smells and sounds of many post offices in places I lived in Kenya and Tanzania as a child, and in South Africa as an adult.

For instance, when we lived in Thohoyandou (= “head of the elephant”), Venda, South Africa, our post box was a ten minute drive up the hill to a mostly white suburb called Sibasa.  The reason I reference “white suburb” is that my family’s experiences in Venda included both “apartheid South Africa,” as well as a free Nelson Mandela, yet pre-1994 constitutional democratic South Africa.  Thohoyandou was a mostly “black” town in Venda.

Neighboring Shangaan women sitting at a post office.

Immediately adjacent to the Sibasa post office was an OK Bazaar (grocer) and a PEP store (comparable to a Dollar Tree in the U.S.).  In deep, traditional Venda culture, when a young girl or a woman greets a man, especially an elderly man, she shows formal respect by at minimum kneeling on her knees, averting her eyes and head away from direct eye contact with the man, positioning both hands together and with them outstretched and curled upward “losha(ing)” (greeting) with the Venda feminine greeting “Aaah.”

A Venda woman's respectful posture of greeting.

A Venda woman’s respectful posture of greeting.

The man is expected to cup his hands together, perhaps, even, softly clap them repeatedly (if you’ve seen the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, the bumbling scientist, Marius Weyers demonstrates this when greeting the Bushman Xixo or his given name Nǃxau ǂToma), and with them on the outside of his right thigh, respond with “Ndaa.”

One day as I exited the Sibasa post office, a young girl in bright and beautiful Venda traditional dress and I encountered each other face-to-face on the sidewalk. Each time we tried to sidestep and get out-of-the-way of the other, we simply kept moving in the same direction and impeding each other’s forward momentum.  I won’t forget what occurred as we both simultaneously saw the humor in our respective and awkward positions.  I simply smiled and greeted her in Tshivenda. She, on the other hand, immediately prostrated herself full-length on the red clay-dirtied and people congested sidewalk, and extended to me the highest and most respectful of Venda greetings.

Venda hands in greeting.

Venda hands in greeting.

Yes, one could read into her “respectful display” a racialized political context, from which she merely acted out of abject fear of a white man.  On the other hand, I’ve chosen to remember it as a memory snapshot of how a young Venda girl chose to acknowledge and respect me, a stranger (the “wow effect”). I wish I could inform this young girl today, what an impression she made on this “mutshena” or “mukhuwa” (white or white person).

As a transition story from post office to coarse cultural language memory is a post office and coarse language memory I have from my childhood years in Kisumu, Kenya (the same place I reference in my blog “Fly fishing for sheep and slingshotting for ‘ndeges.'”

A daily family ritual, as it were, was to drive downtown to the post office and check the mail.  My favorite “check time” was evening after dinner – in the absence of TV, the drive to town served as a surrogate.  I recall how my five siblings and I competed for who got to check the mail, much as we also competed for who got to have their piece of pie in the pie pan, instead of a dessert plate, because then it meant you might have a few extra crushed graham cracker crumbs or sweet pie filling residue.

Lest you mock the importance we placed on the mail event, and its lasting place in my memory hard drive, is the fact that this occurred prior to the age of internet and email, and therefore mail was our primary means of news and “goodies.”  By goodies I mean American food care packages from family in Texas, or even a letter from my aunt, who used to send me envelopes stuffed with stamps for my stamp collection from places all over the world that she collected from work.  Or as I’m told by my parents, the first and only letter written by my dad’s dad, who worked for decades at an agriculture and feed store, and wrote to inform me – an aspiring fourth or fifth-grade millionaire chicken farmer (I sold my broiler chickens to my parents) – the prices of chicks, feed, and poultry supplies, from which I then devised my get-super rich-schemes.

On one particular night time mail run, I recall sitting in the front across from my dad, and as we neared and rounded one of Kisumu’s many traffic roundabouts, belting out for all the car’s occupants to hear Neil Diamond’s “High Rolling Man,” specifically the refrain “Hot damn, hot damn, hot damn, you know that he could.”

My parents, well, especially my mom, but on this occasion my dad, too, clear their throats when they’re undergoing and experiencing uncomfortable situations (an example of my mom’s quick onset of throat obstruction was at a viewing of the movie In Her Shoes, which my wife and I watched together with my parents at Bedfordview Mall, South Africa.  My mom’s throat clearing occurred during Cameron Diaz’s toilet stall sex scene). By the way, in case you’re wondering, yes, despite any ribbing of my parents I’m very grateful to them for the examples they were and continue to be.  They will celebrate sixty years of marriage in 2013.

A Kisumu roundabout.

A Kisumu roundabout.

When I started belting out loud the refrain to “High Rolling Man” my dad first cleared his throat, then proceeded with eyes averted straight ahead, to say something to the effect, “Uh, um, son, do you know what you’re singing?”  It says something as to the Puritan-like sensibilities I grew up with, as well as to the time period of my childhood, but I honestly was naive to the possible inappropriateness of the words I was singing.  I don’t remember us laughing about it then, nor was I punished, but it’s humorous to think back upon now.  Especially in light of the following two “swearing stories” that occurred in South Africa years later.

During postgraduate studies my mentor and primary instructor was a South African, but of Scandinavian descent. He could regale people with stories, both historical, as well as with a combination of “creative thought” and energy.  Of the latter, possibly, he frequently told students that the Zulus had to create words to fit mostly British sport and culture.  For instance, when soccer arrived on the scene, they simply called it “e-football,” and when cricket arrived, “e-cricket.”  Golf was a particular problem since few if any non-whites played the sport.  What the Zulus consistently heard white players saying during rounds of golf was “dammit.”  So, according to my professor, golf came to be referred to by Zulus by the “Zulu word” “e-dammit.”

When my family and I moved to Johannesburg in 2003 we, like the majority of South Africans, urban and rural, rich and even poor, employed a part-time outside yard worker. “Eddie” was from Tzaneen, a city in the north-eastern part of the country.  He spoke Pedi (northern Sotho) and little English.  I spoke mediocre Venda, but not Pedi.  Due to rampant crime, my wife insisted we get a few dogs.  We found a few “township dogs” (mixed breed) on the outskirts of Soshanguve township, situated 25 kms north of Pretoria.  Both dogs were less than one year old, and despite our efforts to prevent them, they chewed up everything, including a large dog bed made from sisal, which was advertised as “dog chew resistant”!  Hah, I have pictures to prove the fallacy of that marketing assertion.

One morning I went outside to water the flower bed and could not find the attachments for our water hose. Eventually I asked Eddie if he knew where they were.  His face told me “yes, ” but now the difficulty was telling me where or what happened to them.  I do not presume to know whether what I am about to tell you is a culturally and socially accepted expression among all South Africans or not, but I can tell you it is very common, nor is it looked aghast at, as it would be, and is, among conservative and “Christian” American.  Eddie spoke hesitantly and communicated this short and very clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

One of the culprits!

One of the culprits!

You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is “beyond repair.”  So Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed, were the culprits responsible for destroying my water hose attachments.

About a year later, I was advocating for a group of young women, who were part of a HIV/AIDS home-based caregiver support group, started by a retired Zulu school teacher, Thokozile, or simply “Thoko,” as a service to her community of Emdeni, Soweto.  These ladies were remarkable in their compassionate care and commitment to help people and families infected and affected by HIV/AIDS for little financial remuneration.  One day a year or so after working with them, I received a call from Thoko.  Her voice didn’t sound itself, but at the same time I was not immediately concerned or alarmed.  I answered the phone “Hello?”  She replied, “Scott?”  I said, “Thoko, is that you? How are you?”  She answered, “Oh, Scott, I’m f#@cked up.”  I had never heard that expression used by persons referring to themselves before, and so did not immediately clue in to its implied severity.  Sadly, Thoko passed away before that week ended. She was telling me, in effect, “Scott, I’m beyond repair. Goodbye.”

Thoko, fourth from right

Thoko, fourth from right

I end this blog with two thoughts. Why is it that many North Americans, in particular, especially many among my former community of meaning – “Christian America” – still chafe so painfully under the discomfort of swear words, when many to most of them frequently or regularly use slang or “Christian cursing” themselves (e.g., effin’, dang, frickin, darnit, gosh dangit, dadgummit, heck, shoot, shitzu, fudge, etc.)?  And, why do sensibilities about coarse language loom so disproportionately large compared to far more serious “real sensibility” issues like child and wife abuse, hunger and homelessness, child trafficking, racial bigotry, ad infinitum?


			

1 Comment

Filed under Culture and Africa, Life, Memories, Perspective

On Vulnerability and Disengagement

My impetus for blogging about vulnerability and disengagement came from reading Brene’ Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.  Brown, a Houston-based researcher, catapulted to public awareness as a TED speaker.  Daring Greatly advocates having the courage to live vulnerable lives.

I reflect briefly on two personal examples of vulnerability: Place and space vulnerability. Relational vulnerability.

First, a definition . . . Vulnerability is a state of being open, susceptible and exposed to pain or suffering.

eyevulnerable

Vulnerability is paradoxical, in that risking a state of being vulnerable is a prerequisite to growth and intimacy and even life, as for example chemistry, anatomy, physiology and microbiology are prerequisites for most medical science programs.

Vulnerability assumes many forms and degrees of severity, including these few minor ones of mine from this week: Buying Tampax Pearl “super” and “regular” at Costco for the women in my life.  Being shown three close-up photographs of a tuxedo cat’s obstructed anus by a AT&T repair technician after I innocently asked him during a home visit to repair our internet connection what kind of cat he had, and he felt obligated to “show-tell” me more than I cared to know!

risk&reward

Vulnerability occurs by at least one of three means: 1) a voluntary and intentional choice (e.g., me buying a typically feminine product), 2) an imposed duty  (e.g., a course requirement to do or visit something unfamiliar, like the Jain temple below), or 3) an unforeseen consequence of one’s words or actions (e.g., being shown the tuxedo cat photos).  Courage and risk are not only common to all three, but prerequisites to vulnerability’s rewards.

A light, comical example: At some point in my marriage I took a risk and chose to buy my wife an outfit of clothes.  It was a vulnerable, risky and spur of the moment act because it’s a typically feminine versus manly thing to do, plus, she might have taken exception to or misinterpreted my act and/or what I bought her.  Yet, having acted despite the risk, I was and continue to be rewarded by her: liking most everything I buy; I get all the compliments indirectly from her friends, plus, it’s fun to hear the standard I’ve now created for their husbands and boyfriends once they hear I bought all my wife’s outfits; and, finally, I get to “dress her hot.”  Hah!

My wife wearing & receiving "my clothing line."

My wife wearing & receiving “my clothing line.”

My first significant personal experience with vulnerability occurred during postgraduate studies in world religions.  I entered the program from a conservative upbringing, similar it seems to Charles Kimball, author of When Religion Becomes Evil, who described his early formative “context of meaning” as Southern Baptist, but who today – like me – has journeyed far from that without being merely reactionary.

My belief structure and self-identity leading up to graduate studies was evangelical, in so far as that communicates a consciousness and spirituality overly concerned with not only “how to get into,” but also “who’s in and who’s out” of heaven/eternity.  Ultimately, I believe, it’s a frail and insecure faith.  It’s a faith orientation rabbi David Hartman aptly observed about, “The longing to be eternally redeemed can become so profound that you doubt whether your way will take you there if you see another person enjoying his or her different way.”

It’s a faith still reflective of, if not mired in its Puritan roots, especially its perception of God:  loving, yes, but also capricious and punitive.  To illustrate using a common African image  – It views eternal security from the fearful perspective of an infant having of necessity to cling to its mother’s neck lest it fall off, rather than seeing the mother’s anxious love as all-embracing and anxious to ensure, herself, that her child doesn’t fall and injure itself.

My wife with our youngest.

My wife with our youngest.

My studies program required that I engage first-hand with cultural and religious difference.  So, for example, instead of learning about Jains from a disengaged and purely theoretical vantage point (books and lecture), I engaged in a year-long participation and engaged study of a Jain community in Richardson, Texas, with no conscious intention other than to experience and understand a people and faith different from my own.  Phenomenology is the term that describes this approach to study.  In the so-called Bible Belt of the southern United States, learning about the religious and cultural “different other” more often than not, it seems, focuses on identifying and emphasizing cultural and religious differences so as to more effectively proselytize.

Indiareligions

Recalling that first Sunday in 2000, twelve years later, stirs up vulnerable feelings of discomfiture. What would “their” place of worship look like?  Am I appropriately dressed?  Has everyone removed their shoes outside the front door, or only some people?  Should I?  Will my shoes be here when I leave?  What kind of reception awaits me as a guest, a white face among likely all brown?  How should I greet them?  Do I greet the men differently than the women? What will “their” order of worship be?  Will I be expected to participate in everything?  Would I even be allowed to?  Will someone be available to explain things?

Similar fears and imagined antagonisms occurred during my trans-Atlantic flight the following year to Geneva, Switzerland, and seminar attendance at the World Council of Churches’ Bossey Ecumenical Institute.  My wife and I laugh now, but as a grown man at 33 years of age, I admit I was emotionally distraught when I “called back home” after arrival and check-in at Bossey.  Everything was threatening, but especially the religious and cultural “different others,” including I came to find out, people who were either gays, themselves, or who had no theological or moral problem with gayness (understand this was my feeling then, not now).

Bossey Ecumenical Institute

Bossey Ecumenical Institute

Over the course of three weeks we participants from many parts of the globe and varying faith and no faith backgrounds engaged each other in sustained conversation and shared experiences.  We ate, laughed, traveled by bus, cried and shared stories.  I still remember the story one Sri Lankan participant shared during morning devotion.  He was attempting to illustrate what it was like to live as a person from a non-super power, colonized population, where local “history” is interpreted and communicated from the victor’s perspective.  In the story, a student asks his teacher, “Ma’am, if the lion is the king of the jungle, why is it that the hunter always wins?”  His wise teacher thought, then replied, “That’s only how it seems on the surface and for the moment, until which time as the lion has his opportunity to tell his side of the story.”

As a Norwegian seminar colleague shared with me as we sat with a glass of wine looking out over Lake Geneva – “Scott, I feel like we’ve done a lot of deconstruction (of our respective faith and cultural traditions, plus years of acquired book learning), yet very little reconstruction.”  I think that’s a lot of what a vibrant, maturing vulnerability entails.  It requires, as it were, unlearning or giving up for a time mono-cycling, so as to learn how to share in riding tandem.

Vulnerability isn’t only important for overcoming our rootedness to place and space (our proverbial “bubble”), but also in building and nurturing relationships.

The most vulnerable of all relationships

The most vulnerable of all relationships

Several months ago I responded to a Harvard Business Review article entitled “We Approach Diversity the Wrong Way” by Liz Ryan, in which she advocated for “MoCo” (more conversations – that is, more vulnerable and candid sharing with each other about stereotypical and prejudicial perceptions and attitudes acquired over the years toward each other; not less) in addressing problems related to diversity. I wrote:

“I appreciate this corrective perspective, especially helping people learn to talk about the ‘sticky human stuff’ by MoCo – more conversation. I recall a conversation a small group of us (whites) had with black colleagues in South Africa years ago – just barely, if yet democratic South Africa. We came together with our culturally acquired stereotypes to discuss a joint work project.  The lingering positive effect and lesson for me was the ‘real conversation’ that transacted, which affected positively on work and interpersonal relationships.  I recall a black colleague sharing, ‘When we see a white person approaching our house we immediately ask ourselves, ‘What is he coming here to ask us to do?’ This man’s comment immediately hit home to me for the truth it was.  I, in turn, candidly replied, When we see a black man coming to our homes, we tend to ask, ‘I wonder what he’s coming to ask for?’  This rare ‘MoCo moment’ was priceless and helped establish trust between people in a new post-racial society by partially clearing the underbrush.”

I resonate with Brown’s observation that while “betrayal” is most often associated with partner/spousal cheating, lying, breaking a confidence, and failure to defend a friend against false accusation, in actuality a more “insidious” and corrosive of trust betrayal is disengagement.

Disengaged?

Disengagement is when one or more parties in a relationship stop making effort and fighting for the relationship, stop paying attention, stop investing time, and stop caring.  Disengagement is the precursor, the underlying condition prior to cheating, lying, abandoning, et cetera.

Illustrative of disengagement is a funny and effective South African Tedelex advertisement.  A husband is slouching on a sofa watching Saturday sports on the “telly” (English for TV). The viewer is led to believe the husband’s crime is neglecting and disengaging completely from wife and marriage.  The wife does several walk-bys the TV trying to get his attention, before resorting to one final and desperate measure.  On the final walk-by she wears nothing but a bathrobe.  She stops mid-center of the TV, turns toward her husband, flashes open her robe, then closes the robe and walks away.  Only then does the husband take quick and eager cognizance of his wife and gets up from the sofa, conveying the message that only one thing possesses the potency to lure men away from their sports – sex.

Seldom, of course, is relational disengagement quite so humorous.  The neglected child, the struggling single parent, the unemployed, the poor, the immigrant, the soldier, the elderly – to name only a few – feel disengagement acutely. Disengagement from friends, church members, family, neighbors, former colleagues is exacerbated when combined with unwelcome, yet, inevitable attending self-shame: a sense of failure, inadequacy and not measuring up, not being good enough.  This is why Brown includes a section in Daring Greatly on “shame resilience.”

Thinking back on a few close friendships lost, as well as many marital separations of friends and family members, I wonder how many of those relationships might still be intact today if either one or both parties had, out of respect for the other and the relationship, resolutely refused to disengage time, attention, effort and caring?

In 2013 my wife and I will celebrate our 28th anniversary.  I credit her for demonstrating and teaching me the importance of engagement.  She (more than I can be credited with) did this through stubborn insistence that we talk through our “everythings” – and I do mean everything, including feelings and insecurities, and the secrets and insecurities of men and maleness, or women and femaleness. Difficult as it is on some days to see or acknowledge, our marriage and family is worth fighting for relative to “anything else out there on the market”.  Brene’ Brown’s importance was in reminding me of the dangers of disengagement and the imperative even for macho men to exercise courage in practicing vulnerability.

Leave a comment

Filed under Life, Relationships, Religion and Faith

A Masai Warrior, A Roasted Corncob, and a Life Lesson

For some unknown reason, as I sat to write this FIRST EVER personal blog, a flurry of thoughts and images confronted me, each vying for primacy of expression.  I chose an image from early childhood – that of a tall, slim Masai warrior, standing just on the edge of my family’s camp fire, leaning against his long, double-edged spear, the sharp point of which was anchored firmly in the ground beside him, and with evident boredom or fascination – I could not tell which, observing and listening to an incomprehensible white American family’s interactions and conversations (*Note: the individual in the photograph below is only representative of my memory).  During these once or twice-a-year safari outings, my family had become accustomed to these semi-nomadic, fireside gawkers, who arrived almost on cue each day accompanied by their herds of cattle, irritating-to-your-face-and-ears flies, plus insatiable curiosities – for many of them: admiring their faces for the first time and at great length in the side mirrors of the camp’s resident Land Rover Defender.

Masai Warrior  This image is seared in my consciousness, in part, because of what occurred between the warrior and myself – a small, insignificant incident, perhaps, yet full of meaning these many years later.  I must have been 8 or 9 years old at the time, 3rd or 4th grade.  I was eating a roasted ear of corn, while seated on a camp chair, within leg reach of the boundary-setting stones of our campfire. I had consumed at least half of the ear, if not two-thirds, when I become intensely conscious of the fact that we were eating, and this very visibly and culturally “different Other” persisted in standing, staring, and maybe, even, wanting some of what we were eating.  Painfully aware that my family and I were attempting to ignore him with the hope that he would grow bored and return to his cattle or family kraal or both, I eventually could not fight my discomfort any more, and got up from my chair, walked over and extended to the warrior my partially eaten ear of corn.

His response to my act of “generosity” unexpectedly and sharply drew deep embarrassment to my white face.  I don’t recall whether the warrior even took my gift, but for certain he did mutter something to himself in either Maa or Kiswahili, and then spat on the ground.  He was clearly offended and unhappy with his “gift.”  Surely he was upset by one or all of these reasons . . . I had already eaten the choicest kernels off the cob.  I offered him remnants of a measly corncob, when the rest of us were eating a meat, potatoes and all the trimmings kind of meal.  I didn’t invite him to sit in a chair around the fire with us.  And, I offered nothing to drink as an accompaniment.

What likely most offended this Masai warrior was not the pathetic “gift,” or the lack of invitation to join my family in our noontime meal, but rather my naively innocent yet demonstrated antagonistic attitude and perception toward difference.

This warrior was someone my culture had instilled in me was inferior, uneducated, “unsaved,” and primitive – all without ever having said as much in words (i.e., hegemony).  Winthrop Jordan, in White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812, noted that “difference” – and more importantly, perhaps – sustaining a sense of difference, is dependent upon isolation and/or segregation, whether sustained by voluntary or legislated means.  Or more blunt and to the point, as Andrew Sinclair noted in The Savage: A History of Misunderstanding, “The unknown is usually the enemy, while the misunderstood is always the savage.”

At that time I did not live isolated from “different others” because of a legislated segregated society like apartheid South Africa.  My individual isolation and that of my family’s was mostly voluntary, induced in part by education and economic privilege, plus post-colonial realities, but hardened by a rationality and practicality influenced in large measure by fear.  A fear of crime.  A fear of over-exposure to poverty and its effects upon the psyche of oneself or even one’s children. A constant unspoken fear and awareness, perhaps, that life is tenuous and unpredictable, and in the briefest moment of time good fortune and societal standing could be reversed.

So  . . . lesson learned and wisdom acquired from this life incident of more than 30 years ago?  A person doesn’t necessarily have to give up what one has inherited through privilege of birth, or acquired through individual hard work, or even to assume another person’s life and identity in order to experience empathy and thereby show relational kindness and respect for those different or less fortunate economically, than yourself.

BUT, I believe people – you, me, we – need to consciously and intentionally live measurably less isolated lives, and more relationally engaged on a day-to-day basis with our respective “different Others”, so that we can in varying measure, shape and form share collectively in life experiences.  This is not socialism, as many attempted to brand President Obama, but a healthy ism of societal relatedness.  And from shared life experiences and relational moments lie the seedbeds of new and transformative thoughts, relationships and paradigms, which can help mend our world’s many fissures.

My significant shared life experiences and relational moments with “different others” regrettably did not occur until postgraduate studies – much to my own self-impoverishment.  Up until my early to mid-30s I was quite confident that I was right and “the other” was wrong (especially the religious other).  It took a little dash of so-called “liberal education” and a big dash of a willingness to be vulnerable and risk my faith and traditional cultural/ideological thought in a much less homogenous and less power-presiding position, before I recognized and experienced first-hand just how small I had shaped God and the “Other,” and just how much I had projected “enemy” upon the “different Others” of the world.  What I’ve since discovered is that contrary to my Puritan-laden heritage, it is not sin that defines humanity, but rather a search for meaning amidst the inexplicable realities of life (miracle of birth, the problem of suffering and the enigma of death), hope and the aspirations for “becomingness.”  As my primary mentor used to tell each class of university students:  “You are not merely human beings.  You are human becomings!”  I wish I had been so wise that campfire day, so many years ago.  Maybe I would be emailing that Masai warrior as friend, requesting a proof read of this blog, and asking whether his recollection of that day and event is anything similar to my own.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized