Signs

I could feel a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see an older gentleman. He pulled out a pen and a notepad and wrote “Plain M&Ms?” I looked at the candy aisle and could see that the spot where they should be was vacant. The thing is, I wasn’t quite sure how to communicate that to him. I opted to write it down as well, “We’re out, sorry.” It seemed only fair. I think that’s when I decided to start learning American Sign Language. As it turns out, he wouldn’t be the only deaf customers to frequent the store. Now generally, the best time to learn a language is before you actually need to use it, so when you need it you already know it. But better late than never.

My fascination with ASL started with the clubs that my school offered, there was one called Sunsign Club – all the students did was learn and converse in ASL, which would have been great, but we can only be in one club at a time and I had a passion for Spanish (and I still do -hablo español muy bien!) Still, I had always wanted to learn it, it’s just that I didn’t have a framework or any idea where to start. Fortunately, the internet is a game changer and I found out that lifeprint.com offers free ASL lessons.

Learning to sign has begun to make me more aware of people, watching these lessons without audio has given me a glimpse into a world without hearing, and helped me to appreciate the simple joys of communication. Have you noticed how signers are so much more expressive? To convey how something makes them feel or describe how something is, they have to use facial expressions and exaggerated gestures. When we use words alone to describe something, it just feels a little lazy. “His house is big.” and “His house is huge.” Are just two statements with no real punch to them. I’m so used to hearing, listening for cues and definitions and explanations that it’s pretty easy to miss what’s going on and being said in the videos. Turns out, that’s what Daphne felt as she tried to keep up with the Kennishes on Switched at Birth when they first met. I know it’s a fictional t.v. show, but it’s the first one to feature the Deaf community for mainstream audiences to this degree. Sue Thomas F.B. Eye also gets an honorable mention for it’s use of ASL. It can only be a good thing – and I hope there’s more of it. Consider this, the only reason why so many of us know what “hasta la vista” is is because it’s from Terminator 2 and we got used to it. We picked up “mi casa, su casa” and “que sera sera” along the way. Once you get started learning a little bit, it gets easier to learn more. So, I hope, it will be with ASL, something we will see more and more of and maybe one day be bilingual in so that we can communicate with everyone. Communication is connection, it’s being understood and understanding others, it’s something so many of us take for granted until there’s a hic-cup and we suddenly don’t have it.

I think learning ASL has also helped me to see something I would have missed otherwise. I was watching the Pursuit of Happyness the other day. When I first saw the movie a few years ago, I didn’t notice that in the worship scene there was a man signing the lyrics of the song the choir was singing, I saw him this time. I thought back and no church I had ever attended had sign language interpreters. We also never had deaf people either. Most people, me included, don’t see needs until a need needs to be filled. We don’t see the need to learn ASL until we need to use it. But say a deaf man or woman walks into a church without interpreters – will they see the need to stay if nobody knows how to talk to them? Would you like to know how to strike up a conversation with them? One of my favorite stories is that of Martha’s Vineyard from a hundred or so years ago. Deafness was such a common occurence, that even hearing islanders would learn sign language. Men would sign to one another as they were working the fields, women would learn sign language to buy and sell things at shops, even children would use sign language at church to communicate, nobody was disadvantaged or excluded from having a normal life. I think we can learn from their example.

One other thing, ASL just isn’t limited to the states, it’s widely recognized among Deaf communities throughout Africa, Hong Kong, the Phillipines, Sinagpore – it’s considered a bridge language that helps bring people of different cultures together. I know it’s not easy to just learn a language, it takes time and practice – but if you do choose to learn it, at least you’ll know it for when (not if) you will need it.

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Stumbling Blocks at Church

Quitting the SBC wasn’t an all at once decision. It just sort of happened slowly over a long period of time. The last service we attended was the one where the worship leader, pastor and his family, as well as us had decided to move on. There were only two things we liked about that church – the pastor was a millennial who ground the scripture in it’s historical and cultural context; the bible study was reading the Bible verse-by-verse, chapter-by-chapter, debating it and discussing it and drawing out it’s wisdom even if it meant just managing to get through three verses in a half hour. Some of the things we didn’t like included it’s worship style – hymns, it’s theological stances on certain subjects, and it’s extremely small size.

Over the next few weeks – we just skipped church together, in the doldrums of not belonging and not being at church, we began to read up and figure out where it all started to go wrong. For me, one of the stumbling blocks was the emphasis on complementarianism and everything that went with it – gender roles, biblical manhood and womanhood, male headship and female submission, and so on. It spoke to the half of the world that was married as if they were all that mattered. The only messages given to single people were that we ought to pay attention to the marriage sermons because we would need to know it when we were married. There weren’t any sermons or teachings that focused on how single people could best serve God in their everyday lives as single believers. It’s not as if there weren’t any Bible verses on the subject, it’s just that the church usually chose to ignore the verses as they would go against the overall pro-marriage message. Single people need more than to be told to get married as soon as possible so that complementarianism will apply to them and teach them how to live their lives day and day out. Not only that, but complementarianism is too narrow for those who are married – it holds to a traditional understanding that depends upon both parties being healthy enough to fulfill their respective roles. It doesn’t always guide couples dealing with disease, injury, unemployment, etc. with the hurdles they face.

Another stumbling block has been the increasing influence of calvinism – particularly online, but also through seminaries, creating pastors who will teach the next generation the doctrines of grace even against the wishes of the church they pastor. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in exploring different interpretations as equally valid from different perspectives. There usually wasn’t much room or discussion – it was pretty much always: “What we are teaching true, anything we don’t teach is not true.” Part of it was the Baptist Faith and Message – I was just told to accept that’s what I have to believe – I was never told who wrote it, why each point was important, or permitted to point out alternative interpretations. I found that the lack of historical and cultural context also seemed to skew everything and cause misinterpretation to be common.

Sometimes it just seems that the church is so invested in being counter-cultural that it has given no thought regarding to the positive change in culture as something worth replicating in churches. In recent decades, the SBC’s connection to the politics of the Republican party hasn’t won it many of the younger generation. The politics of taking stances against anything and everything and boycotting everything else hasn’t won it a lot of trust either. It seems to be more about being against all the right things than being compassionate towards struggling individuals all the while paying lip-service to individuals as they’re steam-rolled by unkind, uncaring policies and stances. A church is supposed to be against oppression, but it’s not supposed to be oppressive. A church is supposed to be against injustice, but it’s not supposed to be unjust. A church is supposed to be against corruption, but it’s not supposed to be corrupt. I think it’s time to stop being known for what the church is against and long past time for the church to start to be for things because they’re for the people who believe in and represent those things.

It’s been about two years since I quit the SBC. I’ve been eavesdropping on the annual SBC conference and I’ve heard nothing that really shows me that they’ve changed. I’ve heard language that shows that they’re still against a lot of people, places, and things. They still view the human spectrum in traditional eyes and with an ancient understanding of roles. They still care about hierarchy and power and money and influence and they don’t want to let all of that go in order to follow Jesus on much of anything. I don’t think they get it how they’ve been partial to people who are like them and exclusive to anyone who doesn’t measure up. I don’t think they have a plan about how to encourage single men and women to make the most of each day as they’re still sending the message that marriage is a doctrinal essential. I don’t think they’re really interested in making the changes that are required in order to reach the next generation or the one after that or the one after that or even meeting them half-way because they’re so anchored into serving the previous generations. I’m still stumbling over these and other ‘blocks’ of the SBC church and that’s why I’m not coming back.

The Power of Words

Rhetoric is language designed to have a persuasive impact on it’s audience but is often regarded as being insincere and lacking in meaningful content. We hear it all the time – particularly during election seasons as politicians become desperate enough to say anything in order to get us to vote for them. Christians also have to be aware of their rhetoric as well, especially when it comes to Christians in positions of leadership.

In an episode of Deep Space Nine called “In the Hands of the Prophets”, a religious leader challenges a science teacher to either include her philosophy or just not teach on the origins of life. She speaks to her people, calling them action. The parents begin to withdraw their students from school. The workers fail to report to their posts the next day. Even shop-owners refuse to sell their goods to certain people. The tension boils as an explosion rocks the station and destroys the school. Fortunately no one was harmed.
Vedek Winn: The Prophets have been kind today.
Commander Sisko: The Prophets had nothing to do with what happened here today. This was the work of a disturbed and violent mind, who listened to your voice, not the Prophets’.
Vedek Winn: Is the Emissary holding *me* responsible for this act of terrorism?
Commander Sisko: The Commander of this station is.
Vedek Winn: May the Prophets forgive you for abandoning them.
Ultimately, a young woman tried to assassinate another religious figure who arrived in an attempt to broker a peace … she was caught, and she yelled as she was dragged to a cell: “The prophets spoke! I answered their call!”

Over the weekend, a pastor’s rhetoric got him some national attention. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last. It’s a free country and he has the right to say anything he wants. Should anyone listen to him as he speaks for God and acts upon his statements in a rather violent fashion, it’s the pastor who will get away with stirring up trouble so he can keep on doing it. Words really do have power. We can use our power to stir up anger and hatred or we can use our power to inspire love and compassion. There’s a point when an ill-chosen word or an emphasis on a certain thing is something somebody else will understand as a call to action.

I know a lot of Christians have this fierce desire to call sin ‘sin’ and to speak the truth in love – but all too often it turns into an excuse to fall back upon degrading, hateful language. When people hear that – they don’t always think: “Sign me up for that!” I know of no one whose testimony includes: “After watching Westboro picket the umpteenth funeral, holding up signs it really hit me that they were speaking on behalf of God and I cleaned up my act and got right with God.”

Jesus put it this way – the mouth speaks what the heart is full of; so if a Christian says more hateful things than loving things, he or she has lost their way. Another Star Trek episode, from Voyager, called Nemesis, features this line: “I wish it were as easy to stop hating as it was to start.” Christians have a history where hatred came easily, not as something that’s a primary part of our belief, but secondary. Christians used the bible explain why institutional racism was okay. Even today, the Bible has been used to clobber people who aren’t on the same page about morality. This kind of hatred comes as second nature – I know because I learned it early on. It might have been the rhetoric as Marriage Equality bills were being pushed through congress, or from various sermons about the correct biblical lifestyle – but I learned how to hate far easier than how to love. The crazy thing is – I thought I was being loving. I thought I was rebuking sin when I was being an offensive jerk. Some might say: “Good! That’s how you know you’re getting the message across.” To which I’d point out that Jesus never insulted the woman at the well, called out the woman caught in adultery, criticized Zaccheus or berated Mary Magdalene in the name of righteously calling sin ‘sin’. Such things he reserved for the religious leaders of his day. We have it backwards – usually saying “touch not the Lord’s anointed” for their failures and leaving the harshest words for the worst of sinners. That means that each of us as Christians are backwards, too – loving only those like us and hating those who are not like us. I can’t say I’ve completely defeated that hatred, but I refuse to feed it anything that gives it any more power. And that means recognizing that rhetoric does a lot more harm than good, stirs up a lot more hate than love, and it’s not something I want to latch onto or to subject myself to. Be it a politician who will say anything or a pastor whose zeal for righteousness cancels out any capability to be compassionate – I just don’t need their words having that power over me.

Why There’s No Room at God’s Table For You Or Me

If I had my way, there would always be an extra seat at the table, an extra setting, a space for one more person. Have you ever seen that episode of that t.v. show where the kid goes to sit at the popular table, only to be told that there’s no room or the last seat is being save for someone else? Or perhaps the times that a person is permitted to finally sit at the popular table, only to be made fun of so that they would run away, with tears streaming down their face? To be the person on the receiving end of that feels like being an outcast, a reject, a failure, a loner … take your pick. To be on the receiving end of that from Christianity is even worse because all churches represent God, and if a church is glad to see you go, then God must not be all that interested in loving you.

The Southern Baptist Church has been in a decline for the ninth straight year in a row. Not as many people are signing up for what they’re selling, fewer are being born into it, a great many are fleeing from it – hurt and wounded by what they’ve been through. I’ve mentioned before that one church leader celebrated that the false believers were being separated – like chaff from wheat, like dross being removed from silver. I and people like me represent a ‘lesser’ kind of believer, a ‘failure’ of true faith and brotherly love. The church is better off without the ‘dead-weight’ that we represent. When we leave the denomination, or the faith altogether, Christianity should be celebrating our absence as we are no loss at all – or so I’ve just been told.

We’re like the one sheep that Jesus let wander away and perish in the wilderness so that he could focus on teaching the ninety-nine faithful sheep who stayed by his side. Oh wait, Jesus wasn’t like that. But there was the anecdote of Jesus being a pruner, cutting off the dead branches so that the living ones could thrive. You’ll notice that no matter which metaphor is used, the ones who are struggling always come out as the ‘worse’ of the two. We’re the pottery designed to be destroyed (Romans 9), the seed thrown on the path (Matthew 13), the weeds sown in the good field of wheat (Matthew 13), the bad fish caught with the good (Matthew 13). We exist to be eaten, gathered and burned, thrown out, so that the good seed can thrive and bear fruit three times over, and the good fish and wheat can be gathered and kept safe.

There was this one guy, the leader of his country. He calculated: “If we were to add up all the landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements and rightists, their number would reach thirty million… Of our total population of six hundred million people, these thirty million are only one out of twenty. So what is there to be afraid of? … We have so many people. We can afford to lose a few. What difference does it make?” – Mao Zedong. His policies lead to the deaths of somewhere between 40-70 million of his own people.

Some Christians seem to share the same attitude – we have so many true believers, what does it matter if we lose a few people here and there? We have 99 committed followers, what difference does it make if we lose one out of a hundred? Jesus was the pruner, what does it it matter if he cuts off five here and ten there if it means strengthening ten there or twenty here? If it all comes down to a numbers game – let’s think it through.

If Jesus died to save the whole world, that includes the weeds, bad fish, and bad pennies. Jesus’ teaching was never for us to be the good wheat that segregates itself from the bad wheat, the good fish that separates itself from the bad fish, the good seed that stays away from the bad seed – that’s not our part of the parables. Jesus said that the farmer threw the seed everywhere – he didn’t put it were it was most likely to thrive only and ignore the places where it was least likely to thrive. Jesus said that the fisherman didn’t cast their nets only where the good fish were and avoided casting the nets on the wrong side of the boat where the bad fish were. It seems to me like Jesus is saying that God isn’t afraid to go to extremes, to be excessive in his efforts to reach people because there really is no way to know where you’ll find the good and where you’ll find the bad. That means that God gets it that he can’t afford to act as if it’s okay to lose even one because that one could very well be a good person. The Southern Baptists have lost hundreds of people every year in a row for nine years – is it possible that each and everyone of them are bad fish, bad seed, weeds – who are destined for destruction? That not even one of them is a good fish or a good seed or wheat? Now who’s playing God here – to be the judge of their hearts?

When the church acts like it’s better off without me, it’s as if my seat at the table doesn’t exist. I don’t belong with them and they don’t want me to be there. If I had my way, there would always be a seat open so I can invite someone to join in, there would always be room at God’s table for one more, to include anyone and everyone who comes to eat and drink.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare. – Isaiah 55:1-2

Missing Pieces

I have a confession to make. I’ve been skipping church for weeks now. I know … I’m a terrible Christian, an unbiblical Christian, a heretic of a Christian who just doesn’t take God at his word. I’ve heard it before. I read it over and over again online. Today I happened to notice that my customers at work all came in wearing unusually nice clothes. I thought, “Must be Sunday.”
I keep on thinking about the Worship Wars – the epic conflict between old and new, stoicism and emotion, tradition and contemporary, etc. The thing is – it just boils down to not belonging; as in, “if you’re not like us, you can go somewhere else.” A church community might as well be a school cafeteria or playground. You have your various groups of close-knit friends; the good old boys, the grandmothers that keep everything running, the mothers keeping their kids from chaos, the young couples, the college kids, the high school kids, the middle school kids, the elementary kids, and so on. The ones that always sit together, always talk together, always have some inside joke or a conversation that isn’t the sort you can just barge into. To become included, you have to be like them in a way that they’re comfortable with. In all of the churches I’ve attended, that’s always been really difficult. It’s like everyone else has these circles – complete with all the right people in the right places – and then you show up out of nowhere asking for a seat at the table. You’ve upset the perfect balance that was just fine before you came along by suggesting that you were missing all along and they just didn’t know it.

Take conversations about hymns, everybody seems to know one that was their parent’s favorite or was played at their grandparent’s funeral. Hymns just aren’t my cup of tea. I could rock a conversation about contemporary music … but most everyone out here doesn’t consider it worshipful music. Or maybe last week’s pot-luck will come up and we just have to take Paul’s word that Judy’s fried chicken was better than KFC or Sarah’s Pineapple Upside-Down Cake was the highlight of the desert menu as we weren’t there because we didn’t want people to fuss about food that was safe for all of us or spend half of the evening explaining why we can’t eat what.

Bible studies have become exercises in futility, particularly when the Bible isn’t what’s being studied … but some best-selling material from the latest authors from Lifeway. I’m tired of wading in the shallow end of the pink pool … I want to dive into the depths of the ocean and ponder the layers of the mystery that’s down there.

But it’s so hard to feel like I belong when I’m just different from what’s the normal around here. Dressing up isn’t all that fun. I don’t get hymns. I’m not really where everyone else is at / was at when they were my age – so there’s not a lot of commonality. It sucks even more when I know that we’ve got some serious skills and talents that are getting rusty because there’s no use for them. I’m so amazed when I hear this wonderful music … contemporary songs, from the resident musician and she misses out every Sunday on speaking to God through her music. On praising God in harmony, on the same page with our brothers and sisters in Christ because we’re just not into the same music and not interested in performing a special as if we were a spectacle on display.

In a Christianity full of insiders, I don’t know how to be anything other than an outsider. In a Christianity where everybody else just fits together, I don’t know where I belong. If we’re all pieces in a puzzle – then it feels like I’m a piece that should have been a part of another box but ended up in this one by mistake. I guess it sort of helps to know that somebody somewhere would be missing me … but these churches aren’t that church.

You ever read about these guys who are glad to see the churches being empty … the millennials and members of other generations not showing up? I saw one that said that “As dross is removed from silver, the church is being refined, made more pure.” I guess I’d be that dross … the impurity that ruined the perfection of the silver church. They say it’s the cultural Christians who are nominal Christians – not really true believers, who are leaving the churches in droves to find whatever floats their boat or tickles their ears. It’s the authentic, genuine Christians who remain in church no matter what. Without the riff-raff like me gumming up the works, they can finally focus on teaching the true believers the true faith that results in true salvation. So I guess I really don’t belong in church, to them, I belong anywhere but church.

I guess Christianity these days is a culture to itself, different from cultural Christianity, but one with it’s own language, music, and traditions that have no place for me. I don’t belong in the real, true church because it’s culture is foreign to me. Odd. It demands that I change, I assimilate into it’s collective. It has no interest in changing for my sake. I’d have to give up a lot of what makes me … well, me … so that I’d belong to it. It seems to me that it doesn’t really want me just as I am and that is why I don’t belong. I’d stop being me … I’d stop being the person who Jesus loved so much that he died to save.

On top of that, this extremely frustrating writer’s block (seriously – it’s been months!) and lack of source material just leaves everything up in the air for now – particularly where blogging is concerned. Today was a Sunday and not one person suggested I try out their church. Not one person told me what I missed out on. Not one person said that I was missed. Not one person asked what I missed about church. Typical Sunday.

listen