Tonight is Christmas Eve and I find myself facing the first Christmas in recent memory, maybe ever, that I wish was over before it began. I’m not bah humbug, nor am I falling apart sad. I am just not feeling it. Not interested. Indifferent.

Part of it has to do with the loss of both of my parents this year.  Those of you who read my piece on Stages of Grief know that they died at ages 67 and 65 within 20 days of one another in April.  He from a stroke and she from cancer.  Loss and Christmas can be difficult to reconcile.

Part of it has to do with watching one of my children struggle with the first sober Christmas and all that entails for the addict that is turning their life around. I remember that feeling from my first sober Christmas a number of years ago and I wish this child well.  Sobriety, depression and Christmas can be difficult to reconcile. 

Part of it has to do with having spent down the last of our savings and having had to borrow the money for our mortgage and Christmas presents this year while navigating the difficult bridge of having no predictable income or health insurance until January.  Financial uncertainty and Christmas can be difficult to reconcile.

And yet, in the midst of all of it, I have many things to be grateful for and there are millions of people on earth who have things far, far worse than we do. I am sitting in a warm home with a loving husband and three children who I love and who love me. I expect the first advance on my book to arrive in the mail any day now and I begin a new teaching job (with benefits) at the end of January, so there are good things on the horizon.  

Fortunately, hope and Christmas are not only easy to reconcile–they go hand in hand.

So, this is a shout out to all of the people for whom Christmas festivities are feeling like more of an assault than a gift. Those who are doing their best to go through the motions because of grief, or empty bank accounts or trying to stay away from a drink or a drug.  Let’s have a Merry Christmas anyway and pray for an even happier New Year.

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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 started to write a follow-up to the “Am I the ‘Not the Religious Type’ Type” post in an attempt to share, as promised, my experience at the first (first annual?) Center City Summit: Where Faith and Secular Culture Meet in Cambridge, MA. In high journalistic style, I sat at my laptop and laid out the details:

  • More than 150 people from more than a dozen states
  • Compelling speakers sharing a heart-felt desire to connect with and communicate with secular culture
  • Interesting uses of models and psychological theories to help understand the variety of ways people approach (and retreat from) God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit
  • Passionate times of prayer and conversation.

This observe-and-comment format is easy for me. I get to play the role of subject matter expert. “Here’s what I saw. This is what I liked. This is what I didn’t like. This is what they should keep doing. This is what they should do differently. This is why.”

And, there were a number of things I liked. I enjoyed learning more about Dave Schmelzer’s centered-set verses bounded-set model of faith, Carl Medearis’ stories about two-decades of communicating with Muslims in the Middle East, Charles Park‘s amazing story of making and losing $43 million and his wife Caroline’s loving attention to prayer and obedience.

There were also a couple of things that gave me pause. Like how easy it might be for people to misuse M. Scott Peck’s stage theory to perceive themselves as spiritually superior to people at ‘lower stages’ or what I perceive to be some potentially confusing uses of the word ‘mystic’. But, when push came to shove, it was clear to me that even if I reread the books and reviewed my notes, I was no subject matter expert. In fact, as I considered this post, I realized that I came away from the Center City Summit with more questions than I did answers.

And that’s a good thing.

This conference made me think. It made me wonder what questions my new, thoughtful friends at deconversion.com would have asked if they had been there. It made me wonder how other Christian “factions”, particularly those who are less familiar/comfortable with the notion of having a direct “experience” with the Holy Spirit would react. (This was my first time rolling with people who I would describe as mildly ‘charismatic’ or ‘pentecostal’.) It made me wonder about the notion of Christian “factions” in general, the wide variety of ways that people experience God and how that frequently leads to in-fighting among Christians and confusion for people who are on the outside looking in.

And that made me think about my friend.

This is a real friend not one of those metaphors. She has a name and a home and a family that is crumbling under the heavy weight of untreated addiction. She and I spoke by phone several times while I was away. She is hurting. She feels very alone. She says she has no hope. She tells me that she has always needed “a rock” upon which to anchor herself. She has relied on her parents, her husband, and–more recently–friendship. She says that friendship has been “a shining light” in her life, that it has provided the “strength, the truth and the love” that she has needed to see through deception and see her circumstances “as they really are.” Without that, she says, there is “only darkness.” This woman is one of those people out in “secular culture” that they were talking about in Cambridge. She grew up without God. She had many successes in her life without God. And now, in her darkest hour, she needs “something” that she describes by unknowingly and unintentionally speaking the language of faith–without God.

And that made me remember.

I recalled that God was working in my life long before I knew he was. Back in the early 1990s when I was the one whose family was falling apart. Back when I was the one who was hurting and alone and needed a shining light and an anchor. Back when I thought I had no hope. Back when I found hope in a recovery program through a relationship with a “power greater than myself” that turned out (after 7 years of Christ-bashing agnosticism) to be the same God (with the Son and the Spirit) I pray to now.

And, ultimately, it reconfirms my belief that God is real. That, while I believe that there is one way to the Father, there are millions upon millions of ways to the Son. Unorthodox ways. Irreverant ways. Unpredictable ways. Doubt-filled, messy, leave-it-to -the-last-breath ways that I don’t always understand or even agree with. Ways that don’t fit into 45-minute Sunday school sessions, line-by-line intellectual assessments of Bible passages or high-tech “culturally relevant” A/V productions. Ways that paradoxically challenge my notion of love and mercy in the face of discipline and hardship.

And so, despite the uncertainty, I choose to continue to pursue this God. This Jesus. This unexplainable Holy Spirit of God. I seek Him/It/Them in solitude and in the community that is created in church, online, and at wonderful conferences like the Center City Summit. I try to understand him in the face of my friend’s pain–and in the memory of my own.

Unbelievable.