Okay so this post won’t have much of anything to do with the sorts of themes I usually tackle on the blog. It won’t even have anything to do with Christianity, to be honest. It’s just something I’ve been mulling over in my mind for the last few days.
The other day, I read this post on a blog I follow regularly. The writer, Samantha, discusses a YouTube video that recently went viral in which a woman dressed in a fitted t-shirt and jeans walks around New York City with a very passive face, making it clear to passersby that she is not interested in interaction with others. Throughout the course of her experiment, which lasted several hours, she received catcalls, sexually suggestive comments, and was asked for her number multiple times.
Samantha called this street harassment, and she shared her own experiences going through the same sort of thing throughout her life. They are frightening, unnerving stories, and a part of me was quite resentful of reading them, because as I did I felt paranoia rising up inside me.
I have had quite different life experiences from Samantha and the girl in the video. I grew up in a small town, and street harassment was never something I experienced at all, either in high school or college.
Now, though, I work in Wheeling, WV, a town that isn’t exactly big, but it definitely has a bad reputation in the area for violence, drugs, and crime. And I work second shift, so I walk to my car every night around midnight to go home.
And I’ve been cat-called a couple times, and men have said “heeeeeeey, girl” to me in a suggestive manner, and once a man easily twice my age asked for my phone number.
So I have a little more experience with what Samantha is talking about, and I can sympathize with her for defending the girl in the video. A lot of the YouTube commenters were terribly harsh towards her and accused her of just seeking attention, and blowing the men’s greetings out of porportion. But Samantha calls out the ignorance of these commenters very poignantly:
“They don’t understand. They’re screaming about “how can just saying “hi” be harassment?! Feminists are just so stupid and sensitive,” and I want to scream because most of the street harassment I’ve ever experienced in my entire life starts with “hi”– and it never ends well. You say “hi” back and all of sudden you’ve given them permission to follow you. You flip them off, and they get pissed– really pissed. You ignore them and suddenly it’s all about how ugly you are and how they’d never f*** you anyway.”
As I thought about Samantha’s blog post, and the woman’s video, and my own comparatively harmless experiences, I have come to realize that I can’t be that person. I understand the importance of caution when you are cat-called on the street, because it can easily escalate into something dangerous.
Yet…not to sound narcissistic, but one of the qualities I hold most dear about myself is my tenacious insistence in believing the best about people. Sometimes it borders on naivety, and I am hurt when I realize just how flawed some people around me are. But in general, I don’t want to lose that. So when a man says “hello” to me on the street, I will always smile back and return the greeting, even if it makes me a little uncomfortable. I will always give the people around me the benefit of the doubt until something happens and I can’t reasonably do that.
And I understand that this mindset of mine probably exists because I’ve never been assaulted by a man, never been forced by a man, never experienced any sort of sexual harassment beyond the quite mild situations I described above. Because let’s face it, if the worst I can say about my experiences with strange men in public is that a man twice my age asked for my phone number, I think I’m pretty safe in saying I have room for faith in men that other women might not have.
So, I guess, all that is to say I understand the importance of taking to heart what Samantha has said, and I appreciate the importance of the video’s message. I know that ignoring the reality that street harassment can potentially escalate is a dangerous thing to do. And I know it is important not to downplay these situations, because to do so is to ignore the reality of stories like Samantha’s. I just think it is important to find a balance—a balance between being cautious without being paranoid, wise and yet gracious.
Because here is the truth. I am the kind of person who believes the best about people. And I hope I always will be.
I know I’ve been quiet on my blog a lot lately, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. After some contemplation, I think I realize that the angst and general confusion about what to believe that drove me to write a lot of these posts has mellowed out a lot over the last few months.
I think a whole lot of that has to do with Thoburn, the church I’ve been going to for about two months now, and the one I now consider my home church. Being with the people there gives me room to breathe, and I’ve understood for the first time that there are Christians out there who are not going to give me pat answers to impossible questions.
In my small groups at Thoburn, we’ve already had discussions about women in church leadership, interpretations of Genesis that aren’t literal, and the fact that the big bang might be a display of the glory of God and not a fact that disproves his existence. We’ve talked about contemporary news stories, and how to approach them as faithful Christians.
And the kicker—the discussion that really made me feel at home like nothing else—we talked about biblical interpretation, and how there is room for more than one way of viewing the scriptures. It’s been so wonderful, I feel as though no one in the group is trying to push their own beliefs as God’s universal and immutable truth. In our small group, we seem to recognize and embrace a diversity of belief, and not claim that you can only believe one thing about a particular passage and still be faithful to the scripture, and take it seriously.
For example, our group leader Adam, who is the associate pastor at Thoburn, made a passing reference to hell. Yet he followed it up by stating that though he believes in hell, it is simply that—his belief. And we are free to disagree. And that disagreement just may be valid.
There have been so many little things like that which have made me realize how desperately I needed a community like this. I am still warming up to everyone, still getting used to the idea of being part of a group that largely consists of middle-aged adults. Up to now, I’ve mostly been with groups of people my own age, and sometimes I feel unwise and like I don’t have a lot to offer the discussion. But I’m slowly learning to share and offer my input anyway.
And I’m also just enjoying listening, because the discussions are always so very welcoming.
And it is such a relief to know that it was largely my church environment that was fueling my anger and frustration and my contentious spirit. I won’t say those things are gone, because I think that tension will always be there as long as I am a part of the body of Christ and I am in community with people whose beliefs differ drastically from mine.
But my motivation is different now, I feel less persistent and more patient, less self-righteous, though no less earnest.
Hey. Perhaps that means my new church is doing what the Church is supposed to do—support me and challenge me and journey alongside me in my walk toward a more Christ-like way of living.
Saturday, October 11 was a pretty ordinary day for me. I taught swim lessons in the morning, then went for a long-overdue shopping trip for much of the afternoon. After I got home, I did some cleaning and otherwise spent the evening watching TV and relaxing. Pretty typical.
For a lot of people, though, Saturday, October 11 was a pretty special day, because it was National Coming Out Day. I saw a handful of Facebook statuses as I scrolled through my feed that day about guys and girls who were out and proud, etc. Some were more bold about it than others, and some were kinda funny and made me chuckle.
As I thought about these gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people who were announcing their pride in their sexuality to the social media world, I could help but think about how much I truly hope for the day when these kinds of statuses won’t be written anymore.
Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t for the reasons you think. It isn’t because gay pride offends me, or because I think people should keep a lid on it, or anything of the sort. Rather, it seems to me that this pride is expressed so loudly because it is a retaliation against those who wish to silence and shame them because of their sexuality.
It seems to me that, through no fault of their own, LGBT people have more to prove when it comes to being comfortable with their sexuality, because for so very long they couldn’t be without also being stigmatized and looked down on. And now that the tides are changing and same-sex relationships are becoming more widely accepted—though of course still not uncontested by a long shot—they are able to take pride in being out. And they should.
Yet, the optimist in me can’t help but think about a day when they won’t have to. I am hopeful for a time when it is so normal for a girl to confess feelings for another girl, for a guy to marry another guy, for a girl to admit she was born with the wrong gender, that we don’t bat an eye at it. That will be the time when there is true equality, when LGBT people are fully accepted in our culture as the beautiful people that they are.
I pray for that day. I really do.
So right now, yes. Be as bold and abrasive as you want to be on social media on National Coming Out Day. It is, after all, your day. Declare the truth about your sexuality from the rooftops. But also hope. Hope for a day when telling someone you’re gay is so ordinary, so mundane, that they respond with a shrug of their shoulder and a question about if you have a crush on someone. A day when, if they’re a good friend, they don’t have to feel sorrow for what you’ll go through as a result of being out. A day when revealing the gender you’re attracted to is no different from another part of who you are coming out of the woodwork as you develop into adulthood.
For that day will be so much better than this one.
“A truth’s initial commotion is directly proportional to how deeply the lie was believed. It wasn’t the world being round that agitated people, but that the world wasn’t flat. When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.” ~ Dresden James
Throughout the history of the Christian tradition, and even before it began with the life of Jesus, there have been pivotal moments of change when someone dared to question longstanding traditions and beliefs. Today we regard such people as Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas as forefathers of our faith, strong and brave heroes to whom we owe the beautiful, rich, diverse religious tradition we know today as Christianity.
Yet, in their days, these men were denounced as heretics and feared for the ways they were rattling the foundations of everything the religious majority of the day believed. They were feared and opposed by Christians who fought tooth and nail to maintain a tight grip on the beliefs and practices they had always embraced as the only plausible way of living out the Christian faith.
For example, a short excerpt from the same book I talked about in my last post (which I have now finished, and highly recommend!):
“Aquinas is called ‘Doctor of the Church’ today, but he was called many, many much worse things during his years of teaching at the University of Paris. He was labeled a heretic on several occasions, and as a man who was sullying the pure gospel with corrupt ideas. Aquinas’s ideas were hotly contested, and the real churchmen of his day thought the professor incendiary and dangerous to the minds of the youth.” (Inventing Hell, p. 155)
This zealous opposition to new ideas within the Christian faith is as old as the origination of the Christian religion itself. Even Jesus and his teachings about the Kingdom of God were staunchly resisted by the dominant religious leaders of Jerusalem. In Mark 3:6, Matthew 12:14, and John 10:45-57, we read about the pharisees plotting to kill Jesus because of his “heretical” teaching and because they were threatened by his popularity.
It seems to be quite a pattern throughout the history of the Christian religion that we have a terrible track record with accepting and integrating big theological shifts. Part of it is human nature, I think. Changing the broadly accepted pattern of how things are supposed to be is frightening to think about. We like our traditions to be familiar, well-worn by time, and when someone comes along and speaks out against the oppression and legalism and general ungodliness of our traditions, our visceral reaction is to denounce that person as a heretic.
Yet these “heretics” are now venerated as the founding fathers of our faith. And it begs the question: who are the pioneers of the Christian faith today, who will lead us into a new way of understanding the Christian religion? Who are the people today that the Christian majority—which, let’s face it, largely consists of conservative evangelicals—has cast out because their beliefs are dangerous? And perhaps a more important question: are we casting them out because we truly believe that what they teach is contrary to scripture? Or are we casting them out because we are afraid of what challenges the status quo, just as the Pharisees were in Jesus’ day?
All these questions are hard to answer, hard to even consider. But we must consider them because maybe, just maybe, God’s Kingdom is bigger than the four walls of conservative theology. Maybe God’s Kingdom is big enough to include truths that will once again reinvent our long-established religious tradition. Just as he did in the life of Jesus, in the life of Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas, maybe God is working today in ways we never imagined He would, and through people we would never expect.
So I’ve been writing a lot about books lately, because I’ve been picking up some fascinating ones. Right now I’m reading this book called Inventing Hell by Jon M. Sweeney, and it’s really, really freaking me out. It’s screwing with my head and everything I’ve always believed about the Bible, and I just don’t know what to do with this new information I’m soaking in.
Before I get into all that, let me briefly explain what the book is about. Basically, it analyzes how we as human beings have conceived of the afterlife throughout history—specifically, what we have believed about hell. Sweeney mostly tackles this from a Christian perspective, delving into every Old Testament reference to the afterlife and explaining what most people believed about it in those times.
The bulk of his book, however, is devoted to discussing Dante’s Inferno and the incredibly pervasive influence this great work has had on how we conceive of hell today. It’s been pretty mind-blowing to realize that so much of what we believe about the afterlife is extra-biblical, and how the scriptures are anything but uniform when it comes to the fate of perished sinners.
I picked it up because I wanted to become more informed on what the Bible really has to say about hell, and if belief in its literal existence is biblically sound, or if it is simply a man-made doctrine like so many orthodox doctrines seem to be (technically, I guess you could say all doctrines are man-made, but that’s a whole new can of worms). But oh my goodness, have I gotten more than I bargained for by reading this!
So, all of this brings me to why I’m freaking out. In the chapter I just finished, Sweeney talks about the transition when people first began exploring the belief in the immortal soul. Almost exclusively throughout the Old Testament, it was generally believed that every human who dies descends to Sheol, which is a huge spiritual graveyard—essentially a permanent resting place which is neither benevolent nor malevolent.
All that changed when Socrates and Plato came on the scene, roughly 400 years before the birth of Christ. They introduced the idea that the soul is immortal and lives on after one’s body has died. Sweeney then spends a large chunk of the chapter outlining very specific ways in which Paul was heavily influenced by Plato and Socrates’ ideas when he penned the letters that would later become part of the biblical cannon. For example, Sweeney writes:
“For centuries, Christian theologians pointed to Paul’s words in Romans 1:21, saying that he was talking about some of the Greek philosophers when he said, ‘For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God.’ And so-called pagan authors like Pythagoras, Plato, Cicero, Horace, and Virgil were quoted and paraphrased, their words seemingly baptized as holy whenever necessary.” (Inventing Hell, p. 83)
And another, more thorough excerpt, in case that one didn’t really hit home:
“If you are an orthodox Christian believer, you probably never knew just how Greek you were. Even Paul’s most famous one-liner, about welcoming the soul’s release from the body at the time of death, wasn’t an original. ‘I say that to die is gain,’ said Socrates in the Apologia, and then Paul: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Phil. 1:21)! The idea of an ideal city, introduced by Plato in The Republic, also seems to be addressed in similar terms by Paul in his lengthy letter to the Romans. Enough. The comparisons could go on forever. Simply put, Paul learned from Greek philosophy and made use of the immortality of the soul in the formation of Christian theology.” (Inventing Hell, p. 84)
Now this is my crisis. Over the last few years I’ve essentially been putting a lot of the Christian beliefs I’ve always held as inerrantly true on the chopping block. Some I have reconsidered, and some I haven’t. But one that I have held on to quite tenaciously is the belief that the biblical cannon was assembled under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and its content from Genesis to Revelation is divinely inspired by God.
I’ve always believed that, and I’ve never wavered, because how else am I to know what is Truth and what isn’t unless God has revealed it to us tangibly?
But now I am discovering that the theological foundation of the Christian faith, and in some cases the verbatim words themselves that Paul wrote and that most orthodox Christians consider to be God’s Holy Word, are based on the philosophical writings of two pagans! That is a really hard concept to grasph considering the high view of scripture I’ve always believed in.
Needless to say, all of this will take a long time to digest and process. I’m going to keep plugging along in Inventing Hell, because it really is a remarkable book and I’m learning all kinds of fascinating things. I just don’t know where I go from here, regarding what I believe about the divine inspiration of the Bible. I guess, essentially, I feel I have no rational choice but to add it to that growing list of beliefs that are going on that chopping block.
I’d really love your thoughts on this blog post. Reading Inventing Hell has given me so much to process, and doing so is always easier with the wise input of others. Specifically, I’d like to hear about how you believe Christians ought to reconcile the divine inspiration of scripture (if you believe in that, of course) with the fact that much of the New Testament is quite clearly based on pagan writings.
These past two Sundays, I’ve been going to Thoburn United Methodist church. It’s a reasonably large church, and the entire flavor of the church service is pretty different from what I am used to. They light candles before the service (which I was told represents the presence of the Holy Spirit), and sing hymns and use a choir, organ, and piano as accompaniment. The sermon both weeks was also quite short – just about twenty minutes or so.
The focus of the sermons were so different from what I’m used to as well. At my other church, there was a lot of time spent reading long stretches of scripture and talking about spiritual discipline and such like that. And while this was broadly addressed in the two sermons I listened to the past two weeks, I also got the impression that the pastors at Thoburn were very outwardly focused. What I mean by that is they talked a lot about scripture and what it can teach us about relating to others rather than focusing on individualized spiritual growth.
It was pretty refreshing. The first morning I attended, I was introduced to a group of women and one of them invited me to her small group meeting on Sunday evenings. Small groups are, I believe, critically important to the body of Christ. They are where we break through the superficial veneer we always put on display on Sunday mornings, and we have the opportunity to talk through matters of faith on a more vulnerable level. So I was pretty excited.
So I’ve also gone to the small group twice now, and both times I came away with somewhat mixed feelings. Most of the people in the group are married, so the discussions often revolved around parenting and raising their kids to love Jesus and such. These discussions are important, but they don’t really matter much to me as a single person. And what is more, I kind of miss meeting with people my age like I was able to do at my old church, because when I am with people in their late twenties and thirties, I feel much more intimidated and it is harder for me to speak up. So mostly I stayed very quiet and listened. I learned a lot, but found that participating was difficult for me.
The second Sunday I went back to Thoburn and I was pretty excited because they would be kicking off their Sunday school classes for the new school year. Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed. The last thing I want to do after sitting through a sermon is get together in a small group and…sit through another sermon. I think sermons have a place, and they can teach you, but when you’re in a small group you should be having a discussion, not sitting passively and listening all over again.
That’s what we did though. We listened for about 45 minutes to a Louis Giglio sermon about space and the universe and all these admittedly fantastical facts about how huge the universe is and how terribly tiny we are. And it was pretty cool, I guess, to put things in perspective like that.
But if I wanted to listen to a sermon about space and God’s hugeness, I’d curl up in my home with my laptop and pull up a Google search. That is not what church is for. Church is for collaboration, fellowship, and growing corporately into men and women of God.
The short discussion itself was rather troublesome to me as well. Before he started the video, the group leader talked about how Christians must get the basics of the faith down before moving on to more theologically murky waters. And what was the basic that we covered that day? The existence of God. Yup. The leader talked very carefully about how he thinks it’s an important part of Christianity to believe in God.
I saw no conviction there, no confidence. Instead, it was like the group was doing their best, in a room full of Christians, to speak with tolerance about belief systems other than Christianity. It was kind of unnerving, especially after coming from a church where the sovereignty and holiness of God was brought up on a constant basis.
That Sunday school class was like a wake-up call for me. I realized for the first time that I probably won’t ever find a church that has struck the right balance between celebrating God with confidence and creating room for different theologies and genuinely nurturing each other in our walk with God. Such a church would be perfect, and perfection has never really existed in this world.
So I’m not sure what’s in store for me next week. I think I might go back, and perhaps try a different Sunday school. I don’t know yet if Thoburn is the church for me, but I definitely want to keep going for now and see where things go.
Lately I’ve been reading a few books that have been turning a lot of customary Christian thought completely on its head. I must say, I am really enjoying breaking open the can of worms that is Christian tradition and digging into the ways in which so much of what we believe is human thought, and not necessarily rooted in scriptures.
One such book is Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. This book delves into all the basics of institutional Christianity. There is a chapter devoted to the church building, the liturgy, the sermon and pastor, tithing, the sacraments, Sunday School, and other practices that Christians generally take for granted as an unshakable part of Christian tradition.
The authors then trace each of these practices to their origins, and come to the mind-blowing conclusion over and over again that we do not derive the way we practice our faith from scripture at all. Rather, paganism had an incredibly pervasive influence on how Christianity developed in the centuries after Jesus’ death, when an organized religion began to emerge due primarily to the influence of Emperor Constantine.
The book was fascinating, and left me with a lot to question about how we “do church” today and what that means for my personal life and my continuing search for a community of believers with whom I can live out my faith in Jesus.
The second book I picked up, which I’m currently still reading, is Ed Cyzewski’s A Christian Survival Guide. Its tone is quite a bit different from Viola and Barna’s book, which is a little heavy academically and full of historical facts about the development of institutional Christianity.
Rather, Ed’s book is about a lot of the issues that Christians often find hard to reconcile with their own faith. He writes about prayer, and why it can be so discouraging because it often feels like God is silent in our prayers. He also writes about the problem of suffering, and doubt, and violence in the Bible, and questions about biblical inerrancy. I haven’t gotten to these chapters yet, but he also discusses Christian practices such as tithing, church-going, and evangelism.
What I am really appreciating about Ed’s book is that he writes with a gentle sort of conviction that has challenged me to think more deeply about what it means to be serious about my faith in a way that is not threatening. He doesn’t subscribe to a particular theological camp in his discussion of all the different issues he writes about, and he is careful to remind the reader that what he is offering are a few options in the quest to make sense of this world we live in, but that we are free to make up our own minds.
It’s a wonderful book, and I imagine took a lot of guts to publish it. Because the ideas Ed discusses don’t really fall squarely in either the conservative or progressive camps, but rather offer an alternative to the pitfalls of both, it can sometimes be an uncomfortable read no matter where you fall on the theological spectrum.
So basically, both books have been incredibly enlightening reads. I’m really glad that I read them back-to-back, because they balance each other out really well. Pagan Christianity pulls apart all the ways we have abandoned the practical, organic Christian community practiced by the early church in favor of rigid traditions heavily influenced by paganism. And A Christian Survival Guide provides useful, thoughtful tools for navigating problem areas in Christian theology and forging a new way that shifts beyond oversimplified, problematic doctrines and yet still remains molded to the fundamentals that the Christian faith holds dear.
This isn’t a normal blog post, but rather a response this article, which I saw shared on Facebook. The tone of what I wrote is a little bit different from a regular blog post because I originally started writing it as a comment on the Facebook link. But then it got longer and longer, and it also started to get fairly personal. So I thought it would be a better idea to share it on my blog.
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When I started reading this article I found it to be interesting and thought-provoking and I generally received it positively. I think that chastity is a good thing to pursue as an unmarried Christian, and I think it teaches you a lot about self control and to value sex as a physical expression of lifelong unity. The blogger, Dan Phillips, also had a good deal of positive things to say in his second point. It is very easy to succumb to the pressure to marry if it’s something your partner really wants. But if you’re not sure that you are ready to marry, you shouldn’t be getting married.
Then I got to Phillips’ third point, and it kinda crashed and burned from there.
Evangelicals have got to get over this notion that verses such as the ones he mentioned are universally prescriptive on marriage today. Paul’s letters were written in a time when misogyny and patriarchy reigned, and women were considered the “weaker partners” (1 Peter 3:7). They had precious few rights, and even Paul’s admonition to men to love and serve their wives was considered remarkably revolutionary for that day.
Phillips takes these cultural norms regarding women and applies the principle to a culture where the role and status of women is drastically different from Bible times. He writes about the ideal husband:
“You see, this man is going to be making the decisions for your family. If he’s wise and godly, you’ll get truckloads of input — but the final call will be his. You will need not only to accept his final decision, but to dive in and do your best to make it work.”
Let me state this once, for the record: I cannot, would not ever, be happy in a marriage like that. A marriage like that requires a compliant wife, and some women would thrive in that role. In fact my mother is one of those women. But I am not. I want to be able to work in sync with the man I am married to, and make decisions together without one of us having a trump card to hold over the other in cases of disagreement. And in some cases, where my talent and abilities exceed that of my husband’s, I want to know that he will trust me to take the lead.
We live in a different time today. I think it is a sign of the unfolding of God’s plan for the world that many Christians are beginning to realize that marriages based on mutuality – not patriarchy as this blogger advocates – are a truer reflection of a godly marriage.
Because let’s not kid ourselves. Any kind of marriage where the woman is obligated to submit to the man’s headship, where he makes all the major decisions and she is merely allowed input – even if it is “truckloads of input” – IS patriarchal.
I also found the second paragraph in his third point to be intensely patriarchal and oppressive of women. I cannot believe that God would mandate a woman to be subservient to a husband who turns out to be a “a fickle, surly, selfish, childish, uncaring, hypocritical jerk”. That is only one small step below believing that a woman is required to stay in an abusive marriage! Furthermore, I’m not sure I believe that God would bind me to a chronically destructive marriage, even if verbal or physical abuse were not a factor.
I know this was a really heavy-handed response to the article. And I understand that the blogger’s intentions are to convince single Christian women like me to raise our standards when choosing who to marry. But I believe the principles he discusses are destructive. If I were to marry a man like the one he describes: intent on assuming leadership of our marriage and family, extremely involved in his church, and committed to hyper-literal and universally prescriptive interpretations of the Bible passages on marriage, I would probably be miserable.
After criticizing patriarchal marriage for an entire blog post, I thought it might be helpful to share a lovely post written by Sarah Bessey, a blogger I follow occasionally whose gentle words are so often inspiring. She is married, and the way she describes marriage based on mutuality gives me so much hope that one day, when I have met a man who truly loves God, we can build a marriage together that is based on mutual respect, mutual sacrifice, mutual trust. No man leading the woman. No woman submitting to the man. But rather, both submitting to each other in a manner that glorifies God.
Today I attended a new church: Harbor of Hope. Not only had I never been to this church on a Sunday morning, it was also a totally unfamiliar denomination for me: Assemblies of God, which falls under the Pentecostal umbrella. The atmosphere was unlike any other church I’d been in; it was very casual, and there was this heightened sense of camaraderie that is usually much more mellowed out in church settings. I must have seen about two dozen hugs given, and during a prolonged period of time after the praise and worship was over, the pastor asked that anyone who needed “prayer for a HUGE miracle” to raise their hands, then asked that members of the congregation wind their way towards those with raised hands and pray for them. In some cases, these people kept right on praying and talking after the pastor formally concluded the “prayer time.”
The worship was pretty typical; lots of appeals to the joy of the Lord and happiness and God’s presence in this place, etc., etc. What was unique about it – to me at least – was that the sanctuary was nearly empty when worship began, and people trickled in throughout the worship time. About half the congregation stood in the front of the sanctuary, and a lot of people had their hands raised. Kids were fooling around and enjoying themselves over in one section, and on the stage a very little girl – maybe two years old – was sometimes wandering the stage and sometimes standing and sort of singing.
When I was fishing around online for what kind of church I wanted to go to this morning, I was originally quite hesitant to attend Harbor of Hope, because I had heard that they spoke in tongues there on a regular basis, which is something that makes me uncomfortable. But I thought I’d make a go of it anyway and see what happened. Sure enough, after the worship and prayer time were over, one woman spoke in tongues. It was a bizarre thing to listen to, to be sure, but not the extraordinary experience I’d imagined. Afterward another member of the congregation prayed scripture (adding in something about the imminent end of the ages, but that the church is strong, not weak), and then the floor was passed back to the pastor.
The sermon was also rather a different experience. There was a whole lot of banging the pulpit and loud and confident declarations that Jesus is Lord. A couple times the pastor boldly declared that he didn’t care about offending people or being politically incorrect; he would speak the truth. In large part, the sermon was about baptism because there were to be several baptisms after the service. He dropped a couple subtle references to the belief that baptism is essential to salvation, and talked through all the ways it is extremely important, both literally and symbolically. He also claimed that Jesus commanded it, and used the Great Commission at the end of Matthew as a proof text.
The pastor was loud, and bold, and frequently invoked audience participation in the form of clapping and amens and appeals for agreement. He waxed eloquent about how we must be firm and confident in the gifts God has promised us for a propserous life, we must walk in the truth that God has BIG BIG BIG plans for our lives. We must be constantly filled with the abundant joy that comes only from Jesus.
I’m not sure it was really my cup of tea. The reality is that I’ve never, ever been the kind of person who feels bold and confident and assured about all the things of God. I am more of a cautious person, a doubtful person, a person who prefers to ask a lot of questions rather than boldly shout from the rooftops.
At the end of the service, the pastor led everyone in the typical Sinner’s Prayer. But it had a twist, as if the pastor was unapologetic about who he had to “scope out” as those in need of salvation. He began with asking everyone this question (paraphrased by me since I don’t remember it perfectly): “Who among you, if you were to walk outside right now and be hit with a car, know with firm certainly, with all the assurance you can have, that you will be welcomed in to heaven after you die?”
Though we were instructed to keep our eyes closed and our heads bowed (which I found to be humorously ironic after all that talk about being bold about your faith), I can imagine that almost every hand in the room went up.
I’m not sure of the implications of this belief, but I don’t think it’s up to me to know what will happen in the afterlife—either to me or to anyone else. I think that is God’s choice, and I don’t want to be one to speak for God. Perhaps that doesn’t make me a very good Christian, or a very confident Christian, but at least I am honest, and I am submitting to God’s authority when it comes to salvation.
So anyway. That was my first experience in my search for a new church home. It was definitely different, and I learned a lot about how diverse church experiences can be. But I’m not really sure that church is for me, though I can see both strengths and faults in it. And I suppose I should be careful not to judge a church based on one Sunday morning service. I think, perhaps, in the future I’m going to continue to branch out, and attend churches that are very different from the little conservative one I grew up in. Maybe, sooner or later, I’ll find a community I can call home.
So, I follow a lot of blogs. More than a dozen. And a lot of the voices I read are beautiful, and I want them to be heard. So I also share a lot of blog links on Facebook. I am always careful to review these pieces, to look them over and confirm that they are words I’m sure I want to validate before I share them. Sometimes I share things knowing full well that they will be perceived negatively by most of my Facebook friends (such as this incredibly thought-provoking piece, which ignited a lively debate on my timeline).
Other times I recognize that a topic is heavy, and must be handled gently, so I do my best to share blog posts that are not controversial, blog posts that remind us all of something important.
This past weekend I finally had the opportunity to sit down with my laptop and a decent chunk of time and wind my way through all the news stories and blog posts about the tragedy that happened in Ferguson. And I was shocked and dismayed and alarmed at what I read and the venomous opinions being slung around.
And I was also shocked and dismayed and alarmed because so few of my Facebook friends shared anything remotely sympathetic toward the people of Ferguson, Michael Brown, or his family.
So I wanted to offer a voice; a voice that begged for empathy and to remember that what happened is a human issue first and foremost, before it is a race issue. I shared this voice on Facebook, because how could you possibly incite a storm of controversy with words like that?
Well, quite easily, it turns out.
I got a few negative comments – nothing horrible, but enough to leave me feeling disturbed and angry. We are Christians, aren’t we? Doesn’t that mean we react to Michael Brown’s death first and foremost with compassion for this young man’s family, and everyone else who has been so affected by this tragedy?
Doesn’t that mean we affirm their grief and anger? Are they not the oppressed in this situation? The ones whose voices are being met with military force and tear gas and rubber bullets?
There is something wrong with the world when I share a post reminding everyone that Michael Brown is someone’s beloved child, and that his death is a tragedy, and the first comment I receive after sharing that is a reminder that I don’t have all the facts, that Michael was tall, heavy, physically aggressive, and high on marijuana while the officer was just following protocol, was serving and protecting.
Yet the officer is not the one who died that day.
So part of me regretted sharing that post, even though I honestly thought it would be a gentle reminder to remember that this story is about a human being, and I didn’t imagine it would attract controversy. Perhaps, in that regard, I have too much faith in my Facebook friends. I don’t know.
But I won’t take it down, because sharing links like that on Facebook are one tiny way of standing in solidarity with those who are angry and grieving in Ferguson right now. It’s not enough; I know that. I know there is more that I and others can and should be doing to support the voices of those who are being drowned out. But it is something.
So let’s not turn a deaf ear to what is happening in Ferguson right now. And oh dear goodness, of the love of all that is good in this world, let us remember who the victims are.