An Awkward Conversation

There’s a time and place to have the “Do you know Jesus?” conversation and during a shift at work is not one of them. He had been a repeat customer, this was his third visit. Ahead of him was woman – both were quite free discussing matters of faith. “Praise the Lord!” “I’ll be praying for her.” That sort of thing. That was fine with me, better that they speak with each other than me. Then my luck ran out as the woman left and it was his turn at the register. Turns out the man had just attended a revival meeting and had felt the Holy Spirit move him to speak. Still on that spiritual high, he opted to ask me the question, “do you know Jesus?”

“Yeah, sort of.” I said. Which was true. I know the Jesus that Christianity teaches – whether or not that’s a reasonable facsimile of the real thing is anyone’s guess. It’s not like Jesus and I can go to catch a movie together, stop by the store to pick up some groceries, and take a walk through the park discussing the finer points of theology. Jesus, to me, is an ideal (in the sense of a concept) of spiritual perfection. Perhaps that’s due to the WWJD? bracelet trend that was popular when I was a kid. The question: “What would Jesus do?” was meant to help us consider Jesus’ example as our guide. I also know Jesus’ story, born of the virgin Mary, adopted by Joseph, lived in Nazareth, Magi / wise men and shepherds were there to play their part; then his public ministry, his arrest, his trial, his death and Resurrection followed by his ascension . Could there have been a historical Jesus who really did exist? Sure, why not? Jesus is a variant of Joshua, which was an exceedingly popular name. I also know that my church wouldn’t have baptized me as a kid if my faith weren’t sincere – so I know Jesus as my savior also. But in many ways, I’m that kid anymore and I’ve grown up, changed, and become a whole other person.

“Sort of? Once you’ve been saved you’re always saved. Just like Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, ‘go and sin no more.'” He began.

Of all the Bible references to chose to bring up, why that one? I don’t think I look like an adulteress. Should I take it as a compliment? Though there is a footnote in most Bibles that the entire story was a late addition, few early manuscripts happen to include the tale. Make of that what you will.

“Do you go to church? You’re always welcome at mine.” He added.

“It isn’t Baptist is it?” I asked. Eighty percent of the churches in this county are Southern Baptist – which I’ve promised myself to avoid if it’s at all humanly possible. I don’t like Southern Baptist Churches because I used to attend them and I found them lacking. As far as guesses go, it’s usually correct.

“No, I attend a Pentecostal church way over in the city.” He answered.

That’s the other downside to this area, you have to drive to either of the local big cities to have any decent choices of churches – and that’s a forty-five minute drive in either direction. Been there, done that and I’m not about to start that commute all over again. Besides, I don’t know anything about Pentecostalism. The only thing I had heard about them was the time one of my friends had attended a service only to be branded a sinner when she couldn’t speak in tongues.

“I appreciate the offer, you’ve given me a lot to think over.” I said. I meant it, sort of. But mostly I just needed out of the ill-timed and awkwardly-placed conversation – after all, I was working and had a lot of my plate. I guess I had accepted my lot as a millennial to be on the outs with religion. After all the issues I’ve had with the Baptist brand of Evangelicalism, I’m not sure I’m ready to give the Pentecostal flavor of Evangelicalism a try. Odds are it won’t be the last conversation that goes like that – but it’s not in me to tell people what they want to hear. (Though it would be far easier if it were.)

Verbal Incision

I didn’t hear every word the older man said, just the last half of his tirade as it was exceedingly loud: ” … I can’t believe you’d say such a thing about him even if he is dead. You just don’t do that ever. I’m gonna go outside and tell your mom right now.”
The young woman was on the brink of tears – doing her best to hold them back. She looked miserable.
Considering the fourth of July almost here, I wish I would have said: “My great uncle fought and died for your right to say whatever you want. Don’t let some old guy use that freedom against you.” Or “You have a right to say what you feel about things and people, living or dead. Where would we be as a society if we couldn’t speak ill of Hitler and others like him?”
Perhaps the older man was a friend of the family who knew the dead man well and perhaps the young woman was aware of facts that the older man didn’t know – I wondered if there was some flaw in the dead man’s character that the older man just didn’t want to believe so he went off on the young woman. To him the dead man was a saint and the implication that he was a sinner just like everyone else was too much for him to take.
The man probably didn’t even know that his comments were verbally abusive to the young woman. He cared more for the dead man’s honor than the condition of the living young woman. He chose to defend the former by berating the latter. The thing is that dead men tell no tales. And that young woman might never again have the confidence to say what she feels. She’ll remember that time when that guy told her mom about what she said, when everybody got mad over it, and decide to just keep it in. She might never reach out for someone to talk to because the last time that happened it didn’t work out so well for her. If anyone needed to be defended, she did. If anyone needed consolation, she did. If anyone needed to know that someone had taken her side, she did.

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.

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.

A Matter of Faith: Father Knows Best

I watched “A Matter of Faith” the other day, that Christian movie that’s not the sequel of “God’s Not Dead” but is extremely similar to it. Much of the plot centered on the father’s struggle to protect his daughter’s faith by conquering her professor’s ideology and overcoming his influence on her. It’s almost as if she’s a rope and he’s tugging it to keep it on the Christian side of the line to prevent it from being pulled to the Not Christian side of the line. Instead of treating his daughter as a grown adult with whom he ought to have a conversation, he goes behind her back to have a conversation with his daughter’s professor to question what the professor is teaching her and ends up agreeing to a public debate. Much of the movie is basically this scene repeated in a few different variations: “Dad, I’m calling to tell you that you’re going to ruin me / embarrass me by debating my professor in front of the whole student population of my college.” “I’m sorry sweetie, but Creationism is a very important issue right now. The authority of the Bible, God’s very word is at stake. I can’t back out of this now. I’m doing this because I love you and I want to keep you from losing your faith.

The thing is, nobody can decide for somebody else what they will believe or how they carry out or act upon their beliefs. You can raise a child in isolation, keeping them from popular books and movies and music by carefully selecting what they read and see and hear. You can instill in them your most cherished beliefs. But that child will one day grow up and become a young adult. They will have to either accept everything they have come to believe, or come to personally own their faith by questioning it completely and deciding what rings truest to them. It’s probably the scariest thing a Christian parent can watch their children go through. Will their baby choose to continue walking the straight and narrow way to Heaven or will they take the exit to the wide and easy way to Hell? Ultimately, parents will have to have faith in their children that as young adults, they will remain true to their own convictions. For some, that looks like walking away from what their parents taught them. For some that looks like joining another religion. For some that looks like having no religion at all.

In this movie, the father never sees his daughter as an adult who should have the right to choose her own faith. It is his fatherly duty to save her from her professor’s non-Christian teachings and the influence they have on her mind. His righteous quest is fulfilled with aid from a young Christian man who points him in the direction of a Christian ex-professor who knows the subject inside and out and could probably help – if he was willing. The young man reminds the young woman that faith isn’t a matter of adding Jesus to your life, but of being properly submitted to him. Only when she becomes right with the Lord is she able to see that her father is doing the righteous thing of getting the word out for the Lord and striking a blow to the enemy’s plan to use colleges to brainwash the youth into doubting their faith by accepting secular teachings. After all, going to college, not reading her Bible, not finding a church – it’s apparently shown her that she’s selfish and it’s selfish to not want other people to hear about God.

It’s sad to see so many conversations about and around the young woman rather than with her about what she believes or thinks – there are more conversations between the young woman’s father and the pastor, or her father and the young Christian man, or her father and the ex-professor then there are with her about what she believes or why she believes it. The young woman over whom so much fuss is made only has the main plot-point of being a young woman whom a not-Christian is dating in an effort to try to get something from her rather than respecting her as a person. But the Christians don’t really respect her either. They talk about her, they talk around her, they talk to each other without consulting her, and the only conversations they have with her is just to point out that she’s wrong, that the debate must go on even if she’s against it, and that ultimately defending God’s word is more important than taking her seriously.

Is it open to debate?

I get something of my tendency to debate from my grandfather, name a time and place and I’m usually there arguing for one side or the other. We even had to make a rule to cut off all debates at ten, lest the debate went on well past midnight as it had on one occasion.

To a degree, debates are about winning the respect of others or at the very least, not losing any respect. It’s very much an honor/shame dynamic to it when you consider how it relates to examples from Scripture, including every interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were always trying to win debates against him.

But there’s something patently annoying about getting into Christian debates where somebody wanders into the discussion and shuts down the debate. They might even quote Titus 3:9, “but avoid foolish controversies and … arguments and quarrels … because these are unprofitable and useless” or Romans 14:1, “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.”

“Let’s agree to disagree and leave it at that.” Some might say.

I get it – there are theological positions that don’t ever get resolved. We can take sides and argue about them indefinitely. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t debate each other anyway. Take slavery, for example. Christianity could have ‘agreed to disagree’ – it could have let every denomination divide itself into for-slavery churches and against-slavery churches. Every time the topic came up in a conversation, somebody could quote from scripture – “we ought to avoid controversies, arguments, and quarrels” and then just go back to talking about God’s grace and mercy and justice and forgiveness – the sorts of things everyone can agree on. If we did that, we might still be a few decades behind the times.

The trick is to figure out which debates are debates worth debating. For me, the question is this: “Does this teaching have the potential to do harm?” I don’t believe that we should just “agree to disagree” when a teaching opens the door for people to act in ways that harm others and even themselves.

Sometimes it feels like this – after a hard day at work, I take a seat at my usual place at the bar. I pull out a twenty, expecting a couple of shots. “Just keep them coming.” I say. But the barkeep cuts me off – at one. So many comments I see are just like that: “Hi. Thanks for commenting. You’re wrong. Let’s agree to disagree. Bye.” Leaving another comment tends to get this response: “Um, hi. I’m pretty sure I made my position clear. Goodbye.” A third can provoke a frustrated reply like: “I don’t know why you’re still here. I don’t want to talk to you about this anymore. When I said ‘bye’ I meant it. Please stop speaking to me.”

Look – if you want to discuss the merits of your favorite kind of dessert being superior to all other forms of dessert, that’s fine – I’m not the sort to debate that (though you really should try gluten-free chocolate chip brownies if you haven’t yet as it’s unbeatable). But if you’re talking about a Christian teaching that harms my brothers and sisters so much so that they flee Christianity in droves then what you say needs to be debated particularly when your comments justify or are the very same attitudes that people are fleeing from when they are acted upon or carried out literally. If you’re going to talk about certain subjects, then you should expect to get caught up in a debate or two. You should have to defend your freedom to marginalize others in the name of your teaching. I guess it’s possible you might not know that your teaching does that – perhaps it’s something that’s exceedingly wonderful for you because it’s written to match who you are. Can you step outside of your own context for a moment and consider the implications of your teaching on people who aren’t just like you?

I don’t think I can ‘agree to disagree’ when this topic of conversation has so much on the line – the well-being of pretty much everyone. Christianity’s teachings are that powerful. Our collective effort can move mountains of toys at Christmas-time … it happens every year. But our collective effort can be twisted into and unrecognizable monster … it happened when Hitler tried to co-opt Christianity to further solidify his power. It happens whenever politics take root in Christian belief and divert it’s resources from the gospel mission to the candidate’s platform.

Bad teachings can have unexpected results when they are carried out to their logical conclusion. I’ve seen it happen to me – like the umpteen times I thought I had missed the Rapture when I was home alone or when I justify not helping people in need because that’s entitlement and it’ll just encourage them to keep on showing up for handouts.

Sometimes it’s an image thing. We don’t want to make Christianity look bad – as if we’re all at each others’ throats. The thing is – I’m pretty sure the whole world and the internet already knows that we can’t agree on anything, ever. From the very beginning we’ve been taking sides and debating what we believe. It would be more dishonest to try to hide the fact that arguing is our favorite past time. How odd it would be for a new believer to see our united front as long as it takes to get him or her to agree to baptism to drop the pretense at that moment – to demand that they choose sides here on out for everything.

These days, technology both helps us and hurts us in this way. It can be used to selectively control the conversation – who can comment and who cannot. Which comments are displayed and which ones won’t be. Which comments are unedited and which ones are altered. Sometimes this power is misused to keep the conversation from going out of control. Like the moderator of a debate – only far more selective and much less fair about what they do. The power to quell dissent can often be difficult to resist. Still, the more the younger generation exists online – the less they’ll be impressed by bloggers who automatically label people with different opinions as trolls and the more skeptical they will become of Christianity’s message if it’s so fragile it can’t take a few questions and won’t stand up to debate. If we refuse to take questions seriously, how can we claim to have all the answers?

Sight

We always see things from the same angle … It’s much less trouble that way. Besides, it makes more sense to grow down and not up.

Something that recently happened reminded me of one of my favorite books: The Phantom Tollbooth. Apparently it’s a great read for people who are having spiritual issues and need to develop a framework of re-thinking by challenging what they believe in a non-threatening way. Anyway, the character that I was reminded of was Alec Bings. You see, Alec was born in the air. His head is at his adult height. All his life he will grow down until he is capable of walking on the ground. Milo wasn’t so certain it was a good thing to always see things from the same angle. As he grows, the angle from which he sees things will change.

I remember this massive red slide in the park that I used to play in as a kid – it was the biggest slide I had seen anywhere. I used to climb up forever just to reach the top so that I could slide down – this slide was spiral shaped, so it sent me around, and around, and around. A few years later, we decided to see what the old park was like. Nothing had changed but the slide seemed smaller. It wasn’t so much of a climb and it didn’t seem to go around as much. It wasn’t as much fun as it used to be.

But of course, as we grow more than our height changes – our perspective alters with each and every experience that we have. We don’t see things the exact same way. Vegetables that we thought we hated turn out to be delicious. Songs we thought we liked turn out to be horrible. And yet, some things we love don’t change. But we do change.

Alec’s family had another quirk … Alec could see through things, but never what was directly ahead of him. Everyone else saw everything differently – one relative saw to things, another under things, and still another saw the other side of every question. All of them had a different point of view.

So I suppose you could say that I’m well versed in this idea that all of us have a different perspective when we try to answer the same question. I know that my background shapes and informs my understanding. For me, my thoughts are something like stars in the sky – they line up to form a constellation and it results in rather stellar post; at least, from my point of view. Someone who thinks more like branches on a tree might misunderstand me as I might misunderstand them. But all that matters is that we both learn something, right?

What scares me though is that the way that Christianity is taught, it can create a narrow understanding from which to draw one’s perspective. In theory, if you train ten people with the one right and true understanding of Scripture, then they’ll all see the same things in the same way and believe the same things, right?

But that’s not a picture that the Bible gives us. One metaphor that is heavily used is that of a human body. Different parts, different functions, different gifts – and yet united. By training people to be the exact same way, it doesn’t take into account how the Holy Spirit might move one to be a foot, another a hand, another a knee, another an elbow, and the rest to all be something different. Feet and hands and knees and elbows should not be identical or indistinguishable. They should all allow their own perspective to manifest so that they can provide the church with a more complete sense of vision.

It does not bode well for the body to war against itself, branding other parts to be heretics or demanding them to reform – to change to their point of view and forsake their own. No two people can see things the same way. I just wish that other people saw it that way.