Going North

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In the ninth episode of the third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Kimmy Goes to Church,” Kimmy had been burned by the new church she went to with Titus, and vented about the manipulation and control within religion. Kimmy had hoped for something different other than the religious abuse she endured from her days confined to a bunker. She decides to go to the church, and interrupts the service to call out the church for its hypocrisy. I have often dreamed of doing this at any church I’ve been to, but never had the reaction she received. The people took in her words and saw Kimmy as a prophet from the Old Testament calling for the repentance of God’s people. The congregation understood that moment as a time of confession. One man stood up and confessed he was cheating on his wife, the pastor says that from time to time she smoked “the devil’s weed,” and the person doing the scripture reading confessed she was a gossip and a scold but trying every day. The pastor concluded the thought that “when we know better we do better.” Kimmy gets it, and understands that religion had to do with realizing we are all flawed and we come together to learn from each other to become better. I nodded my head in agreement, but Ronnie vocalized what I thought, “Yeah, but that don’t happen in real life.” Wouldn’t it be great, though, if that were the case. My anger with the church doesn’t have to do with the character flaws of the individuals who meet under the stable, but the denial. Instead of taking responsibility for negative actions that harm people in the church or outside the church, the perpetrators claim righteousness because of grace. To make it worse, people in the community and the leadership reinforce that notion of grace and blame the victims. Yes, there is grace, and, according to what is written in the Old Testament by the author of Ezra, we are not punished as our sins deserve, but we do not escape the consequences of our choices. We all fuck up, but, before we know better to do better, we need to own what we do. I’m not angry with Christianity, but at the Christians who refuse to accept the responsibility of their faith or the responsibility of holding other Christians accountable as is set down St. Paul 1 Corinthians 5. I am angry at the injustice that could be so easily rectified.

I have had several conversations with Christians concerning  what I observed, and the response centered around no one being perfect as if I spent my adult life in a naive bubble. I grew up with the bible and the doctrines surrounding that book shoved down my throat to justify anything they did to me. These people, who were often leaders, cited the bible to justify what they said, and how they acted. There were verses I used to counter their justifications, and they responded with the back of their hand across my jaw. I think I can speak for others outside of myself who have been on the business end of Christian righteousness when I say we are tired of the excuses. I took the chance at a church in Romeoville, IL.

Ronnie and I drove from Lincoln, NE for her sister’s wedding. The wedding was being held at the church where Ronnie grew up, Bible Baptist Church in Romeoville, IL. Her parents still go there, and say it’s a good church, but Ronnie’s experience differs. For her, the people, including the pastor, are vile, manipulative, and judgmental. As we drove down there she told me not to let her opinions shape mine. I resolved not to, but I was having a hard enough time keeping my cynicism out of the way because of all the negative things I experienced in various churches. On top of that, we were going into an affluent church where the parking lot is full of the latest SUVs and white people. I walked into the school side of the church wearing my rope sandals, shirt, and chinos to deal with the heat. Ronnie’s sister and her mom were in the fellowship area. All I could see were white linoleum on the floors, white tables, white walls, and white ceiling. The space felt sterile, and the only nonwhite fixture of the room were the brown doors with long rectangular windows. As the people came in, they gave me sneers, but I wasn’t here for them. Ronnie’s mom wanted me to meet everyone, and started with the school’s principal. He looked me up and down while dismissing me until he found out I’m a writer with a B.A. in Literature and Religion. After that, he touched my shoulder laughing and talking to me like we were equals.

When I get annoyed, I slip into one of  my two accents: hood or Scottish Highlands, and the one I use determines my level annoyance. When I’m irate, my words rise up and down with the waves crashing against the boulders of the northwestern Scottish coast where my mom’s side of the family hails. I grew up hearing that while living with my great aunt who would break our ears with her anger. The hood accent, though, is something I picked up living on the Eastside, and comes out when I’m mildly annoyed. I found the principal annoying. I stopped him in mid-sentence, “You talkin’ like we equal. Nah, man, we ain’t equal.” I walked away to find some coffee, and sit with my mother in law and sister in law. I sat down and breathed out the painful conversation I just had, and went on about similar and worse experiences with church leaders. My mother in law and sister in law took turns saying that no one is perfect and I shouldn’t look to imperfect people. “Yeah, yeah. I know people aren’t perfect. I’ve been hearing that from every church I went to where I received the left hand of rejection. Your own bible tells you to hold your own fellow Christians accountable. What you’re telling me does not address the real problem that is in the church. When you, and others, tell me about grace and the imperfection of people, you make yourself culpable—you share in the responsibility.” Ronnie’s sister stopped with her mouth open. She did not expect such an encounter. This is what happens when a naïve Christian comes face to face with the hard truth of responsibility in their professed faith, and realized they live a professed blasphemy.

This is where the anger has to stop. This is where I take responsibility how I feel now, and how I want to feel in the future. I want a happy life. I want to heal, and walk into life with new eyes. What’s standing in my way isn’t the church, or the attitudes of several Christians, but me. I thought about this yesterday as I laid in bed. One of my favorite American writers from the 19th century, Frederick Douglas, who wrote about his life as a slave in his autobiography, captured they hypocrisy of the Christianity of his masters. I would not dare imply any connection with Frederick Douglas, but how he wrote about his masters is how I want to address my Christian experience. Douglas could have stopped his narrative and offered a thing or two about what it means to be a Christian, and explode into well deserved judgment upon his masters. But he didn’t. Douglas wrote his biography describing his life in great detail, and left it to the reader to make their own judgment. What I went through comes nowhere close to what Douglas went through, and he was able to move on into a life of service and love. That’s what I want. Douglas escaped his masters and escaped the South in to a new life as a writer and speaker for the Abolitionist movement. Douglas didn’t stay in hate, but channeled his energy into justice. I’ve no reason to stay in hate, and I’ve no reason to stay where I am. Constantly engaging Christianity keeps me stuck in this self-destructive cycle, and I constantly confront Christianity because, like Ahab, I need to kill that whale, and look how he ended. To save myself, I need to head north and leave that ship behind.

The Beat to Keep

I decided to take a different approach to my writing in this post. Normally when I write, I like to put on some Jazz from the 1940s and 1950s. Cats like, Parker, Monk, Davis, and Coltrane who tore apart this material realm because their bodies were cramped. They needed to breathe. Playing their music helps me to tap into their spirit so I can ride upon their coat tails into the heavenly realm. Like Jean Valjean who saw the abbess kneel at her window for her nightly prayers. He knelt too hoping God would hear him in her shadow. Today’s musical choice came from the Jazzual Suspects song. Some acid jazz with Kerouac doing his spoken word–his voice popping like Charlie bopped.

This is another one that Steve Allen and Jack Kerouac did. Allen played his jazz piano while Kerouac rapped.

Listen to these at your leisure. They’re worth the time spent, but the reason I posted these two links is to give you, the reader, a sense of rhythm to what I have written. It pops and bops with a form of blues and hip hop like the smoke of incense rising to the feet of God. I also applied Kerouac’s approach to writing: first thought best thought–but I did some editing. Enjoy.

 

The beat. The beat to keep. The beat upon my head. Angry blows syncopating an ancient family rhythm in Jesus’ name. Their symbol is the cross, and I carry their salvation in a defunct olfactory system and a bent ring finger. What do you do? What would you do? You’re thirteen. At home you are burned by your father’s PTSD. Sexual abuse and physical abuse he won’t mention for another twenty-three years. On his death bed. Making peace with everyone before he faces God. Next door. The other side of the double where your great grandmother and great aunt lives. Where they degrade your lack of masculinity. They tell you real men have beards. Real men drink their whisky straight. Real men only do single malt from the highlands. They don’t do that to your great uncles. They don’t do that to your brother. They do it to you because you’re a “little light in the loafers.” You’re a fairy. You’re a faggot. You’re a little girl who shamefully stole a penis, and degrading masculinity with your offensive feminine nature. You’re a boy. Act like it. You go to school, and hear all your male classmates talk about that weekend’s football game, basketball game, or baseball game depending on the time of year. You don’t care about sports, but you’re told only a real man likes sports. All you want to do is read your books, and write your poetry to The Clash or Run DMC. You’re 6”4, and your intellect and interests are an insult to the jocks who envy your size, but spit upon you wasting what you’re given. You were never asked for your body type. You don’t control the genetics you’re given, but you’re dismissed as another queer whose presence questions their manhood. Work is no different. You are put aside because you don’t connect. Some of the people look out for you, but you’re a burden. You’re a little girl, and you’re not allowed to mourn for your friend who committed suicide two days before. He hung himself with a friend’s scarf. We’re all stunned, but you can’t cry without being reminded how you’re  supposed to act. You overcompensate and try to flirt with girls to appear straight, but you’re more comfortable with your male friends. You have an ease of intimacy with them, but you don’t know why. Closeness is something that can’t be felt, and you don’t understand what these feelings are until you’re forty-two sitting on a bench with your wife people watching, and you notice a tall man, lean, trim. V-shape torso, clean shaven, and running. You get a tingle, and you risk telling her. She already knew. She’s always known. Yes, you’re bi, you’re in a relationship with a woman, but you’re attracted more to men. She helps and protects. She holds your hand in areas where white Christians believe it’s their duty to beat and kill those who deviate in Old Testament commands, though their faith is based on New Testament expositions. They think they offer a service to God every time they starve a poor person, kill a person of color, kill a Muslim, or kill a homosexual. Constant fear. Constant tension and crying out for Christ’s return. You may not be welcomed, but at least these assholes won’t be here.

The tension is only made worse when Christian leaders condone Christian violence. “It’s the slow work of God. It’s the grace of God. You had it coming. You frustrate him with your questions and lifestyle. You need to move on. You’re no longer welcomed at our church.” Then they lie to your friends and say you left of your own free will. Lies and dismissals are the norm. You know it because it’s not the first time this happened. Nor the second, the third, fourth, or fifth time. You lost track after all your fingers and toes. You remember another distinct time when you were thirteen. The youth leader at the church. She knew your father beat you. She knew the treatment you received from your great grandmother and great aunt. She knows you were a mistake, and that your mom blames you for trapping her in such a desolate life. You’ve had enough of her attitude towards you, and you tell her to get stuffed. In the dimly lit sanctuary, on top of the stage, the light glows around her, and the cross hovers over her, “With a mouth like that you deserve every bruise and broken bone your father gives you.” The cross is empty. There is no Jesus. There is no God. They won’t defend you, but they protect people like her. With their silence they have rejected you and take her side. You have no place of comfort. The lord is not your shepherd, “he” is their shepherd, and the sooner you disappear to another part of the world, or burn in hell, the sooner they can get back to their unquestioned lives where everything is nice, straight, and white. What of it? Who cares? If God hates you and prefers people like her, then so what? Move on. Enjoy your life. Love and kiss who you want. But you can’t. You’ve read the bible cover to cover how many times? You lost count after twenty, but you never forgot about Jesus. The Jesus you read about in the gospels sounds like a guy who would hang out with you. Give you a drink, give you a hug, and wants nothing in return. You understand, through scholarship, how people assumed he was God in the flesh. If that is so, then you have no problems believing this god would like you. He spent time drinking and eating with whores, hustlers, rough men, thieves, murderers, and skeptics. He chastised the religious elite who dismissed them because they spoke for God, but God gave them the finger, and they killed that God. That God came back three days still calling for the weary and disenfranchised whistling through the holes in his hands. It’s the trumpet sound. You have a place, and those people who beat you and your friends with the cross will have to answer for the blasphemy. After the exhale, the heart is shriveled, dried, and cracked, and you pray after Jesus is done chastising your abusers he has time to heal you. You want that rest and abundant life he promised, and hope you too can be included in the promise. You too can be saved. Maybe, but you wait nonetheless.

Sunday Story

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This past Sunday I attended Lynhurst Baptist Church on the near west side of Indianapolis. I go there off and on because a friend of mine is an associate pastor and a worship leader, but he is not the usual type of pastor I meet, nor is the head pastor—they like to get their hands dirty by being part of the neighborhood. The church’s location is a poor neighborhood, and like any poor neighborhood, families struggle with gangs, violence, alcoholism, drugs, single parent homes, and desperation. My friend and head pastor do not come in preaching the gospel of the affluent, middle class, white SUV Jesus who rewards new believers with six figure incomes and a nice house upon reciting a prayer of acceptance. There are plenty of churches who come from the suburbs and preach that Jesus downtown, and those are the churches who share in the responsibility for gentrification and displacement of the poor. The pastors of Lynhurst Baptist Church live in the neighborhood and face similar struggles as the residents, and have earned the right to speak into the life of their community. For my friend, he came up on the Indy’s east side like I have, and we grew up in similar neighborhoods as his church’s neighborhood. We are all too familiar with gang violence, violence in general, racism, but we never got caught up in that. The gospel my friend and pastor teach is a Jesus who is part of the family, lives next door, and wants to find people who have lost their way; and he does it without toeing the doctrinal line—Lynhurst Baptist Church is Baptist in name only.

The focus is on the stories of the individual people who walk in the door and their context in the ancient story of the cross. The mission of the church is not about conforming people into the image of a Bronze Age Hebrew or a second century Roman Christian, but in the image of a God who meets people at their level. Sure God worked a certain way with the people who contributed to the Bible, but many churches have made the mistake of presuming that is how God works. The same God who said, “Behold!  I am doing a new thing.” did not stop doing new things in people’s lives after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. This is what the pastor thinks, and has put aside his preaching on some Sundays so the people in the congregation can share their stories on what their lives were like before they came to Jesus, and what their life is like after choosing to follow Jesus. Because of the language, the content, and the lack of a “positive” spin, these would offend the masses of the hip, polished downtown churches as well as the WASP nests in the suburbs. I find this strangely odd because the people whom God called in the Old Testament as well as the people Jesus called to follow him were not the upper crust of society. Political and religious extremists, murderers, adulterers, brawlers, thieves, ill-tempered, and swore just a little too much for the comfort of religious people. Granted, these people did not remain as they were after God called them, but those are the people God wants. They know they are lost, but they have no clue how to find themselves again; and they know they need help.

I think churches, in general, have done a disservice to God by only catering to the privileged while ignoring and victimizing those whose lives have become a disaster through bad choices or circumstances out of their control.  Not until I talked with the head pastor after the Sunday Service did I understand the role of the church in the middle class. He and I discussed different books and authors and their impact on the culture. I brought up my disgust with books by the likes of Rob Bell and Brian McLaren because what they said resonated with me, and when I went to the churches influenced by these authors, I was still ostracized. I’m not a fan of Rob Bell’s books anyway because I’ve noticed a sort of theological plagiarism, but that is for another conversation. When I brought up my contentions with these particular churches, and the treatment I received, the pastor told me those books are written for the middle class because that’s where the money is. This Jesus belongs to them, but the people who would benefit from this Jesus—the ones who need him the most—do not have the money to purchase these books; and once again the poor are dismissed so nice, white people can bring a quasi-mysticism to lives dulled by complacency. From a business standpoint this what you do to make money off of fluffy, evangelical jargon that pushes against theological views taken for granted; but those outside the target demographic are dismissed. Giving space to those who would otherwise be forgotten, and permitting them to tell their stories allows for the change in the dynamic surrounding the gospel. The poor may not be academics or even have a high school diploma, but they know they were lost, who found them, and how their lives have changed.

Sunday’s service did not have the pastor preaching, instead one of the members had the opportunity to get behind the pulpit and tell his story. He grew up in Mars Hill, a poor, white ghetto on Indianapolis’ southwest side, and lived the life of a gangbanger just to survive. He drank, he did drugs, and he was also the muscle when someone owed money. He did not put a delicious spin to entice the congregation, but talked openly of how he hurt people, and how he hurt himself—all the while noting how God kept him from dying or making a deadly mistake. I resonated with the story because I had friends who lived a similar life, and some of them did not make it, but his story stood out to me nonetheless. He did not censor his language, but he did not go out of his way to swear incessantly. He used a couple “damns” and when talking about the time he first met his wife referred to her as “a piece of ass.” He said that only to communicate his mentality at the moment he first saw her. He was comfortable as he said these words, and when I looked around at the congregation, I did not see anyone wince.  The people in the church accepted this person, and, because of their acceptance, he felt comfortable to be authentic. If I could give a title to this sermon, and it was a sermon, I would say “Here’s How Jesus Saved Me.”

The most simple and soul opening stories I have heard have come out of a heart that has been broken by tragedy praying to a God whose existence is uncertain. Theology and apologetics dissipate with the opening: “Here’s how it happened to me”. It’s the story that draws our attention, and connects us with our hopes that our lives can also be found and redeemed. That’s the Bible: a book full of stories from people and how they experienced God in their lives, and how that God was expressed in that culture. That’s also the gospel. The four gospels were written thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ resurrection because his followers went out and preached Jesus’ message to whomever. After a few decades the followers of Jesus consisted of urban Jews and Greeks who could not relate to the rural imagery of Jesus’ parables so the authors took the message of Jesus and translated it into language of the growing church. The original message was never lost but evolved and adapted to the different people meeting Jesus for the first time. The gospel was never intended to be limited to a book in a specific time, but ever changing because God is always changing to meet people where they are. The gospels were never written on paper but on the heart of the speaker. The point of the church is to go out and tell people about Jesus and allow them to experience Jesus in their own way, and Lynhurst Baptist Church lives up to that point.