I’ve been trying to write a follow-up blog post about my trip to The Great Emergence event in Memphis since I returned to New York last week.  This should have been a no-brainer, really.  The event was well produced in a stunningly beautiful Episcopal cathedral.  Author and keynote speaker Phyllis Tickle delivered her thought-provoking thesis about the unfolding of a new Christian reformation with a perfect balance of humility, humor and passion.  The more than 300 attendees were engaged and friendly and I was able to connect with a handful of people with whom I look forward to keeping in touch. I even had the opportunity to sample some down-home Memphis cooking on Beale Street with some new friends.  All in all, this should be a simple and stellar review.

But…

This is the point at which each of my attempts to capture the event derailed.  In the midst of it all, there was—something—that gave me pause.  I’ve spent the past week trying to put my finger on it.  I even reached out to the organizers of the event to see if I could gain some clarity.   And yet, while they were responsive, I’m left with a mixed reaction that I am finding difficult to articulate.

When a couple of people who generously follow my blog asked when I might write a follow up, I told them the same thing.  This conversation is important, I said. It tends to create more debate than dialog outside of the folks that embrace and follow it.  I want to take care before I write to be sure that I am part of the dialog, not adding to the he-said-she-said noise and contributing to what appears to be a growing dis-unity between those who embrace a new vision for the church and those who view it as everything from irresponsible to heretical.”

So I decided not to force it. To wait and write nothing unless I felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to do so.

On Saturday morning, my intention to work on my manuscript for an hour or two before heading over to help set up the room for my son’s Christmas play was thwarted by a familiar compulsion. So I closed my computer and pulled out a small black leather Bible that I opened without intention to the first page of the book of Ecclesiastes. As I began to read, I knew there was something there for me.  Something relevant to my struggle to understand my place in this conversation and, ultimately, my place in this disparate Body of Christ. 

Then, as I read, it hit me.  This one-two punch that came in the form of a deeper understanding of meaninglessness and what the author of the book repeatedly calls “chasing the wind.” 

Phyllis Tickle may be right. We may be in the midst of a dramatic shift away from Sola Scriptura toward a more Christ or Spirit-centered expression of faith.  Then again, those that would call her a heretic or an apostate may be right.  Sola Scriptura may, indeed, be the way and this new movement may not be of God at all.  And, I suppose, it is quite possible that those who embrace the Catholic faith might say that both camps are wrong and have been for 500 years.

Which brings me back Ecclesiastes.

There is nothing new under the sun.  God is on His throne. We are broken people.  Some of us seek this God and attempt to do what we perceive to be pleasing to Him. Others like me don’t seek, but get found anyway.  Revolutions and reformations come and go. The sun rises and sets on Christians and non-Christians alike.  So we eat and drink and, if we are blessed, enjoy our families, our work and our lives. Wisdom is better than folly, but ultimately we (and our ideas, books, podcasts and blog posts) are miniscule when compared to Creator of all things. Big questions have big answers that we can wrestle with to our hearts content.  In fact, I believe that the pursuit of a deeper understanding is likely pleasing to God. But if we set out to know it all or have a hand in the big change that will finally get it all “right” we are, as the author of Ecclesiastes says, just chasing the wind.

So I choose to follow the author’s suggestion to fear God and follow His commandments.  Simple advice that I read as a call to love God with reverential awe and love God’s creation sacrificially. 

At least it’s a start.  

There is a trend among some Christians that I would like to bounce of you.  

Some churches, having heard and acknowledged that the capital-c Church has done many “unChristian” things over the centuries (and today), have taken to apologizing for current and past sins that have been committed in the name of Jesus. From hypocrisy to slavery to poor treatment of homosexuals to the Inquisition, supporters of this trend believe that it is important to take responsibility for these warts on the nose of their faith in hope that it will lead to healing and, potentially, reconciliation.

Others feel that apologizing is either not warranted (since they were not directly involved in these actions) or that, since direct amends cannot be made, the apologies could appear to be pandering rather than a genuine desire for reconciliation. 

I believe an argument could be made in either direction.  

That is why I thought I would take the question outside of Christian circles and ask the people who would would be receiving the apologies…people who feel like they have been hurt by Christianity or the church.

If that is you, I would love to hear from you. Specifically, I’d love to know:

  • What happened?
  • How did you respond?
  • How did the church/Christian in question respond?
  • How would you feel if you got an apology from the person/church that perpetrated the “wrong.”
  • How would you feel if a Christian who had nothing to do with it apologized to you?

Hope to hear from you.

Joan 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not giving up on the Church… 

Despite some unfortunate evidence to the contrary, I believe that the church can be a place where broken and hurting people of all stripes can go to find Jesus shared and reflected in the lives of leaders and members.  I believe that it can be a sanctuary where poor, struggling, addicted, mentally ill, self-harming, harsh and hard-to-love people can mingle with and be supported by people who are wealthy or stable or sober or emotionally healthy and peaceful without feeling judged or unwelcome. I believe that Christians of different ages and backgrounds and interests can worship together out of respect for one another and Christ’s call to unity, sustaining the whole by putting the needs of others ahead of personal comfort, preference or ambition. And I believe that the core teachings of the faith—even the controversial or hard-to-swallow ones–can touch people without being watered down or hidden from view when they are delivered with love and compassion.

Since becoming a Christian in 2003 I have sought to find this kind of Church.

In some ways I feel like Goldilocks of Christianity. There I was lost in the woods without knowing it and I come upon a lovely house. 

Sanctuary.  Safety.

I walk though the door naïve and hopeful, only to find dozens of diverging choices, approaches and versions of what it really means to be a Christian or how one is really supposed to follow Jesus.

So I try a one church… too hot.

And another…too cold.

Searching for, but not finding, the elusive just right…

I hoped to land in that one community of people with the right approach with whom I could settle-in and ignore (or criticize) the‘other ones’ who clearly have it wrong. Regrettably, this approach assumes that it is possible (or advisable) for me to become part of “a church” and divorce myself from “the church.” 

I wish I had simplistic “how-to” list to encapsulate how I turned it around, but this is not a challenge with a single pole solution.  And, if it were, it is pretty unlikely that the big answer would come from the pen of this New Age seeker, turned atheist, turned agnostic, turned Christian.  No, I am not suggesting that I have the solution. I’m just hoping that we can do our best to remember that the Church is a family, whether we like it or not.

 Because really…who wants to step out of the woods straight into a big dysfunctional family?

Both of my parents died six months ago. It was April.  My mom from cancer that she’d been battling for a couple of years. My father from a stroke that took him in 5 days.  He went first.  Twenty—or was is 22—days before his wife of 46 years.  They were young by today’s standards.  Sixty-five and Sixty-seven. 

I’ve cried a few times.  Quickly.  Quietly.  Willing but not quite able to muster the turning-the-corner-into-anger sort of tears that would signal my official descent into the widely accepted stages of grief. 

I’ve purposely not spent too much time reacquainting myself with the stages of grief.  Rather than stack the deck against myself by the power of suggestion, I figured I’d allow the emotions and memories to gather together like raindrops on windowpane, linking together slowly, one by one, until their combined weight was enough to draw them downward.

Then, earlier this week, I started to see my parents everywhere.  “Doesn’t Sarah Palin look a little bit like my mother when she was younger?” I asked my husband.  He did his best to mask the not-really tone in his voice “Well…maybe a little.”

Drip.

Walking down the street toward my favorite writing café, I saw a man in the distance that I could swear was my dad.  He wore a baseball cap over his blonde-gray hair and had his hands in the pockets of a Members Only-style baseball jacket.  There was something in his slightly curved posture and sporty white sneakers that brought him home for a moment. But only for a moment.

Drip.

When I found myself in a state of unsettled sensory-overload last night, I figured I was just tired.  I’ve been staying up too late and I teach early on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I figured I just needed a good night’s sleep.

Drip.

Then I started to snap at my husband and the drummer for our band because they were having trouble nailing a rhythm.

Drip.

And today I find myself wearing this kind of free-floating anger-at-everything-and-nothing-at-once like a heavy, scratchy and damp wool blanket.  I am not fighting it.  I am confident that this anger will weave its way toward acceptance in time.  All I can do is pray for strength and do my best to be loving toward the people while I make my way through what I know is a painful but healthy process of gathering them close so I can let them go.   

Whoosh…   

I find myself in the exciting, yet precarious position of having everything I ever wanted…except for money. I have a fantastic marriage to a talented artist and musician who is, hands down, my best friend.  I have three healthy and mostly happy children who, at ages 19, 18 and 10, are constantly growing and changing and becoming the people that they are meant to be.  I live in a 100 year-old home that is ripe with the kind of character that comes from slightly crooked ceilings, original moldings and recently repaired plaster walls. I am an adjunct professor at a welcoming University and a writer whose work is slowly but surely finding an audience.  I play the bass in my husband’s Spanish rock band and I have good friends who are interesting and creative.  

All in all, in the midst of historic economic uncertainty, I am living just the kind of relaxed, avant-garde lifestyle I’d aspired to when I was an idealistic kid.  Back before I abandoned these dreams to go out and make some money, 

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against money.  And, when I was a single mother with two kids, I needed money to pay the rent, put food on the table and build a life for my fractured little family.  

So I did. 

And, as one job led to another, I went from living paycheck-to-paycheck to actually having a little more than I needed to keep my head above water.  Things got even better when I met and married my husband Martin. A Uruguayan immigrant who’d shelved his own artistic aspirations in exchange for a body-crushing but lucrative job in the construction industry, he went from working full-time making $10 a day at age 15 to building a profitable small business.

As our careers took off and our coffers filled, our quest for the American Dream began to take shape.  Sure, we noticed that there was less and less time to do the things we loved, but we thought that was just the price of growing up and getting ahead. 

I can’t pinpoint the moment when we crossed the line from working-to-live to living-to-work—or when accumulating things took priority over having time to relax or create or spend unencumbered time with our kids.  But cross that line we did. 

The houses got bigger, the investments more substantial and our dreams of a simple, creative life became a distant memory. We worked all the time and were dead tired when we were off.  But somehow it seemed like working ourselves into the ground was a fair exchange for the security, prestige and stuff that came with having a healthy disposable income. 

The money that had once served our needs had somehow become our master. 

So, about five years ago, we made a change.  Stepping out in faith, we took some bold steps, left our careers and began to pursue our passions.  As a result, we have more time, more peace and a lot less money.  We haven’t taken a vow of poverty. We’re actually quite hopeful that our new endeavors will bear monetary fruit one of these days.  But if they do, I believe we’ll handle it far, far differently. 

I’m travelling from New York to Cambridge, MA (home of Harvard U) on Sunday evening to attend the Center City Summit: Where Faith and Secular Culture Meet. The event is billed as:

A first-of-its-kind event where you can connect with and be inspired by folks from all over the country who have a passion for robust faith, for secular culture, and for becoming influence leaders at the point where those two things meet.

I learned about the event from its organizer, Dave Schmelzer, who is a formerly atheistic pastor in Boston and the author of the recently released book Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist. He and I connected about two weeks ago when I sent him a cold e-mail asking if he might read my book proposal for a possible future endorsement (part of an ongoing quest suggested by an acquisitions editor that is considering my book for publication.)

Dave graciously agreed to read the proposal, introduced me to another author and pointed me in the direction of his blog where I read about the conference. Sensing that this might be a Holy Spirit coincidence (I tend to follow these into all kinds of interesting adventures), I spoke to Martin and reserved a room at a B&B in Cambridge.

Since then, I’ve kept up with Dave’s blog and read his book with interest. He shares stories of conversion (including his own) and modern miracles (more than I am used to) and discusses psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s four-stage theory of human spiritual and emotional development as it relates to the development and maintainance of faith (this was originally introduced in Peck’s book Further Down the Road Less Travelled.) I won’t go into the theory in depth here, but it creates an interesting space for the skeptical, deconverted and deconverting people I’ve been encountering in the past couple of weeks in a way that I would like to learn more about.

Headline speakers include:

Chris Lowney,

author of Heroic Leadership: Best Practices of a 450-year-old Company that Changed the World, a book about the Jesuits. Formerly a Jesuit himself, Chris was named managing director of J.P. Morgan & Co. holding senior positions in major international cities. He is currently president of the Catholic Medical Missions Board.

Carl Medearis,

advisor on Arab Affairs for members of the US Senate and House of Representatives who spent over 25 years in Lebanon, Iraq, England, and Saudi Arabia and “has found Muslim communities to be very open and interested to his perspective on faith and what Jesus has to offer.”

Charles Park, who

earned his PhD in economics at MIT. After striving to achieve the American Dream, he found getting tangled up with the story of God made life much more interesting and unpredictable. Now he lives right in the heart of Wall Street and is the leader of the innovative faith community, The River.

Dave Schmelzer, who

graduated from Stanford, went on to get his M.A. in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, and worked as a former playwright. Currently he is the leader of the two-site Vineyard Christian Fellowship Greater Boston and author of Not The Religious Type, Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist.

This is a very different cast of speakers than I have seen advertised for conferences in evangelical or emergent circles. It will be interesting to hear a whole new take on the ongoing question of where faith meets culture in 2008. Will be sure to follow up and share what I learn.

I’ve spent the past week or so knee-deep in a very interesting dialog about “deconversion” that was spurred when a posting on this blog titled “Atheism Sells” caught the attention of the folks at de-conversion.com. I’ve enjoyed learning a little more about this community of people and their journeys toward and away from God. It has also make me think a lot about my own conversion experience and what it would be like to lose my faith.

As I pondered this, I found myself in touch with author Dave Schmelzer on another matter. Dave, a self-descibed former-atheist, is now a pastor in Boston. He wrote a book called “Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist” and is hosting a conference in Boston in a couple of weeks that is intended to discuss the place where “faith and culture meet.” I sent him a note about this conversation and he promptly shared the information on his blog which has brought a number of new people into the conversation.

You just gotta love the Internet.

I know that notions of conversion and “de-conversion” (I’m still not sure whether or not that is a word) lead to deep theological questions that could spur a lively (and possibly contentious) debate about scripture and history. There is a place for that kind of wrestling in any spiritual journey and many outlets for that kind of conversation on other blogs and websites, but I would like to focus on a different aspect of the conversation here if anyone is game.

I have come to view my conversion from agnostisicm to Christianity (I believed in and prayed to a “power greater than myself”) as a change of heart rather than a shift in intellectual understanding. As a result of that change of heart, I have pursued and continue to pursue a deeper understanding of God (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) through scripture and the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, silence and, in many cases, sheer perseverance and endurance as my life has radically and rather counterculturally shifted from one orientation to another.

The Bible has much to say about the heart–guarding it, hardening it, softening it, etc. I am interested in learning about others’ experience of the heart as it relates to their coming to (and leaving) their faith. Hope to hear from you.