The other day in class, someone made the following declaration: “That’s not theology. That’s meteorology!,” he said. I love it- hence the inspiration for a new series here at the intersection between life and God, titled “Christian Meteorology.” We’ll feature the many and various, often ridiculous ways that we Christians take it upon ourselves to interpret the weather…but I need your help. Any time you run across bizarre comments made in response to natural disasters in our world, will you please send them my way (firstname.lastname@example.org)? We’ll post them here, as a kind of “watchdog” clearing house of sorts.
Today’s feature are the latest remarks made by chaplain John McTernan, whose website, “Defend and Proclaim the Faith,” has been blaming Frankenstorm Sandy on gays, Obama and Romney. Here is a blurb taken from Andrew Sullivan’s post, Christianism Watch, if you can stomach it:
“Hurricane Sandy is hitting 21 years to the day of the Perfect Storm of October 20, 1991. I write about this in my book as America Has Done to Israel. This was the day that President George Bush Sr. initiated the Madrid Peace Process to divide the land of Israel, including Jerusalem. America has been under God’s judgment since this event. Both of these hurricanes were cause by freakish weather patterns that came together to create [sic]
Twenty-one years breaks down to 7 x 3, which is a significant number with God. Three is perfection as the Godhead is three in one while seven is perfection.
It appears that God gave America 21 years to repent of interfering with His prophetic plan for Israel; however, it has gotten worse under all the presidents and especially Obama. Obama is 100 percent behind the Muslim Brotherhood which has vowed to destroy Israel and take Jerusalem. Both candidates are pro-homosexual and are behind the homosexual agenda. America is under political judgment and the church does not know it!”
Sullivan notes the beautiful display of irony here- a “punchline” that McTernan himself seems oblivious to: “The storm is projected to come right over my house, so it might curtail the prayer meeting if the power is knocked out.”
As an aspiring author I’ve been getting better acquainted with my audience, and it’s an audience I find it easy to self-identify with (Christian ministerial credentials aside). A poll recently released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has been helpful.
People without a religious affiliation- the so-called “nones” who represent a large proportion of the “restless souls” I’m writing for in Grace Sticks– are on the rise, the poll finds. It also reveals some eye-opening things about the now one out of five Americans who say they are either “spiritual but not religious” or “neither spiritual nor religious”:
- 42% of the unaffiliated describe themselves as neither a religious nor a spiritual person, 18% say they are a religious person, and 37% say they are spiritual but not religious
- nearly half of the “spiritual but not religious” say they pray daily (as opposed to nearly three-quarters of those who are “religious”)
- more than 90 percent of the “spiritual but not religious” claim a belief in God, but are less sure about that belief than self-described “religious” people
- there are more women than men among the “nones”
- the “spiritual but not religious” tend to be older on average than those who describe themselves as neither “spiritual” nor “religious,” and they are more likely to be living with a partner and/or divorced, separated or widowed than those who are neither “spiritual” nor “religious”
- the unaffiliated when considered as a whole (both the “spiritual but not religious” and the “not religious or spiritual”) largely fall within the ages of 18-64
- “about three-in-ten of the unaffiliated describe their religion as either atheist (12%) or agnostic (17%), while about seven-in-ten describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular’ (71%).”
- the unaffiliated are more suspicious of organized religion, citing money and power, rules and politics as the basis for their suspicion; but they also express strong levels of conviction (only a bit weaker than those of religious people) that the church plays an important role in helping the poor and needy of society and building community; this said, they’re much less enthusiastic than the religiously affiliated to claim the church as a guardian of morality
My own sense, attested to by experience, is that you don’t have to be “religiously unaffiliated” to be a “restless soul.” The equation is not exclusively one-to-one. In fact I would venture to guess that there are many of us who, despite attending church worship services (if not regularly then at least occasionally) find ourselves on the margins of the church and/or reluctant to join the church for some of the same reasons that the religiously unaffiliated don’t ever attend (i.e., money and power, rules and politics).
We are restless souls because we seek the “More” that we have not found in our churches: more direction; more meaning and truth; and more real and abundant life. Grace Sticks, I hope, will point us in the direction of an answer to our pursuit- to the One who called Himself The Way, The Truth and The Life. If you’re a fellow restless soul, I hope you’ll consider coming along for the ride!
Thankfully, we don’t have much of a “town square” where I live in downtown Atlanta; and, besides, in the gritty, adjacent neighborhood of East Atlanta, where I do much of my writing hunkered over bottomless mugs of Joe’s coffee, running naked through the streets is probably not as unheard-of as it might be elsewhere. I’ve seen some pretty scantily clad individuals shuffle past the window on any given Saturday morning as I type away.
Still, the analogy resonates.
The more I behold the prospect of sharing my spiritual journey with the world, and doing so in print, the more vulnerable and self-conscious I feel. The more I feel inclined to look for fig leaves. Maybe you can relate. When we write, we leave ourselves open to being criticized for what we say and do not say. I’ve discovered this already at least to a degree when I meet you here at this intersection between life and God. (Take, for example, the article I wrote on Facebook’s “Disappearing Mothers.”)
Nowhere is this vulnerability more evident to me than in the act of reading and reviewing books. Just the other day I wrote a pretty critical review of Sandy Ralya’s recently released book, The Beautiful Wife. Before reading the book, I wanted to write a stellar review- precisely because as an aspiring writer I’m discovering how much love, sweat and tears (not to mention rough drafts) go into writing a book.
In the end, I wrote a review that unintentionally took a bit of a mean-spirited tone- and for this I apologize. Sometimes humor has its limits, and this was an example. I began my review with an analogy to preparing to fly through turbulence, and in hindsight, took the metaphor of needing a sick bag too far; in actuality, the “flight” Ralya directs is often interesting and enjoyable, even if it leaves me feeling very uneasy in places.
So much of the time, the how of a project is as important as its aim. In the interest of full disclosure, and having read Ralya’s book from cover to cover, I wanted my readers to know where I take issue with her approach. It is beautifully ironic (and beautifully humbling) that I learned something about the limits of my own approach in the process.
My own best learning these days, when it comes to giving and receiving constructive criticism, has come in the classroom. Listening to seminary students preach some of their very first sermons is a lesson in giving feedback that goes beyond the garden-variety exclamations that we preachers typically hear in the receiving line after Sunday morning worship.
“Thank you for your sermon.”
“You have a gift.”
These sorts of comments may build up our egos, but they’re not ultimately going to further our preaching.
In actuality, some of the best feedback I’ve heard is the kind that causes me to rethink my approach in such a way that I am better able to hit my mark. In the land of preaching, we call this mark our “focus and function.” What do we, hopefully inspired by the Word of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, aim to say, and what do we want our hearers to do as a result of our words? These are the questions I ask when I prayerfully approach the writing of a sermon.
Maybe the same could be asked not just in the world of preaching, but in writing, too- maybe it could be asked of life itself.
For Christians, broadly speaking, our focus and function point back to God’s initiating love for us. Our chief aim is to love God and love our neighbor. To the degree that my review of Ralya’s book may have fallen short of this mark, I am genuinely sorry. To the degree that it offered some helpful constructive criticism, I hope it can encourage Ralya in strengthening her approach to the worthy cause of repairing broken marriages.
On this note, I’m off to go bare my naked soul in the town square, in hopes that one day others will read and critique my finished product. Until we meet again, have a great weekend, all!
NPR’s Teri Gross recently interviewed the comedian, Chris Rock, on “Fresh Air.” A friend and fellow T.A. in Intro to Homiletics with Tom Long mentioned the exchange yesterday for its application to preaching (we preacher types are interested in these sorts of things): apparently Rock credits old-time preachers, from his grandfather to contemporaries Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, for influencing how he approaches stand-up comedy.
You can read the transcript of this portion of the interview here. I also stumbled upon some further, related reflections by American religion and culture scholar Dan Silliman, who teaches at the University of Heidelberg. (Silliman is currently finishing a dissertation on how secularity as a construct and condition is imagined and represented in evangelical fiction, and I’m intrigued!)
Rock seems simultaneously both to scorn and admire the act of preaching. (In this way, maybe he is like a lot of us.) He can tell, he says, when he sees a preacher has “lost” his audience and needs to pull a “trick” out of his bag for the sake of performance. Still, he credits his preacher grandfather and his grandfather’s bullet-point brainstorming in the car for how he, as a comedian, now approaches an act.
If you missed it, here was Chris Rock earlier this year on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” promoting Madagascar 3.
Reading the book, The Beautiful Wife, by author and speaker Sandy Ralya, whose agenda to save so-called “biblical marriage” seems a bit dubious from the start, feels like the times I’ve been asked to buckle up during a spate of turbulence on airplanes and find myself absent-mindedly checking for the barf bag in the seat in front of me (just in case I’ll need it). For a funny lampoon of “biblical marriage,” see the article I co-wrote with John Spalding here.) In some places, I find myself pleasantly surprised by the smoothness of the ride and even enjoying the views; at other junctures, my stomach turns a bit and I reach for the sick sack.
Ralya directs the marriage mentoring ministry, “Beautiful Womanhood,” which seeks in ten years’ time to halve the divorce rate in our churches. The goal is both commendable and ambitious- in places like the South, where I live, nearly one in two marriages fails (both in the church and out) with tragic ripple effects on the fabric of the society at large- and Ralya’s effort seems to be making an impact. Churches are responding. Marriages are healing.
Not surprisingly, in the same way that Ralya’s ministry focuses on women and what women can do to heal their marriages, Ralya’s book and its accompanying study guide and prayer journal are also geared for wives. The implication can in turn be that we women, as wives and mothers, bear much of the brunt for our own marital success (and, conversely, our marital failure). True to a degree, maybe, but also a bit of a canard.
Ralya at the outset rightfully acknowledges that there can be no one-size-fits-all recipe for marital satisfaction, even as she sets out her own loose rubric of sorts for how to inventory one’s marital health. Chapters organized around topics like sex, romance, self-care and, my favorite, the “professionalization” of the job of wife and mother, offer some helpful, new insights. They also survey some familiar terrain.
In certain places, Ralya’s coverage of well-glossed submission passages in Scripture leaves me pleasantly surprised. Paul’s admonition to women in his letter to Titus to “be submissive to their husbands” does not elicit an accompanying order by Ralya. Ralya takes Paul to mean here, among other things, that married women must “understand your role.” Ralya goes on to elucidate her belief in later pages that this role is a four-fold one, that of “equal partner, friend, helper and prayer warrior.”
In other places, only a little reading between the lines has me wondering if Ralya maybe secretly harbors nostalgia for the bygone era of the 1950’s, when June Cleaver of “Leave It To Beaver” encapsulated wifely perfection in her beautifully coiffed, unruffled domesticity. In a section on sex, for example, Ralya, in affirming six “God-designed” purposes (“creation of life, oneness, knowledge, pleasure, defense against temptation and comfort”), offers some indigestible views around the meaning of God’s call in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply.” She appeals both to our fears and to our evangelistic sympathies with the following statistic released by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life- that by 2030, the Muslim population will grow twice as fast as the non-Muslim population.
“These are staggering statistics!,” Ralya writes. Maybe we should take God’s command to be fruitful and increase in number more seriously.” Ralya goes on: “As a follower of Jesus Christ, I love Muslims and want them to come to a full knowledge of Him. But who will show them the way if the Christian population dwindles by comparison?”
In other words, a growing Muslim world in which women are largely oppressed and have no voice, precisely because their only role is one of bearing children and catering to men’s every whim, becomes the basis for a challenge to Christians to have more children! This kind of reasoning is backwards in more than one sense of the term. Here the turbulence becomes a bit unbearable, and I find myself grabbing the sick bag.
In short, Ralya’s crusade to save marriages is a noble one. I applaud it. I wonder, though, if the old saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is not at least a bit apropos here. As a mother to two children, and as a wife to a man with whom I am an equal partner, and as a woman in what is traditionally a man’s world (ordained ministry) I often find myself exclaiming at the messiness of our familial life these days; but I wouldn’t trade this in for six kids, a pristine house and a life confined to domesticity any day- even if it meant more “orderliness” and a world with more Christians than Muslims in it. Women should of course be free to make the latter decision, too, and be supported in their choice. But to prescribe this sort of thing, I fear, does the very thing that Ralya abjures- offer a recipe; and, it is a recipe that, if followed to the tee, will take us back to another age, one that I don’t want to live in.
“This nation is the hope of the earth,” Republican candidate Mitt Romney said in passionate closing remarks at last night’s third and final presidential debate.
The statement for a moment filled me with great pride, and maybe I’m not alone. I suspect most voters like to hear that the country they love really is the greatest on earth.
We Americans have much to be proud of when it comes to our achievements as a nation and the values and principles we strive to uphold. Regardless of who we vote for and regardless of our views, most of us can agree that we want the very best for our country and are genuinely grateful to be Americans. Most of us, I imagine, might even agree that there are a range of issues in this election pertaining to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” both here and around the world that, regardless of whether we vote Democrat or Republican, are important to us, not just as Americans but, more fundamentally, as people of faith.
But this morning, with Romney’s remark still trilling in my ears, I awoke maybe not so coincidentally to read from the Old Testament book of Lamentations (Lamentations 3:13-26) that God is my only real hope.
I suppose any time we begin to mistaken our own selves as the “hope of the earth,” be we Americans, or people of faith, or both, we are in danger of committing a dangerous form of idolatry.
This sort of “Manifest Destiny” understanding of ourselves as Americans runs deep in our blood- maybe almost as deep as original sin.
But this long-standing relationship with our own self-righteousness doesn’t make this sort of thing okay, or par for the course, or acceptable political sound byte material.
The other day at a friend’s birthday party, my son and I got to ride a mechanical bull. That bucking bronco was hard to ride and an act in humility- not to mention a discovery in hip ligaments I didn’t know were there. At the end of the fun, our hostess gave us one forewarning: “in a few minutes, we’re putting an end to the bull,” she called.
When politicians, regardless of their party, make insidious and even ugly appeals to our American savior complexes in the place of the one true God who can save us and our world, it seems to me that we, too, as Christians and people of faith, need to be calling for an end to the bull.
The little girl has her popsicle.
She won’t share.
Can’t I have a taste?, Mommy whines;
her wallet is now empty.
A young man is selling hot dogs.
They’ve never met, but he has noticed:
Hey, go and tell Brianna that this King of Pops is on me.
He puts out his hand.
My name is James.
She feels a bit surprised-
then undeserving and suspicious.
Is anything in this world ever free?
But a frozen piece of pumpkin pie has her name on it,
and now it’s for the taking.
She comes back to show him.
Thanks so much, James!,
is her exclamation of gratitude,
and next week she’ll be back.
She may even buy a hot dog.
Grace is irresistible like that.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way…but then again, nothing worth doing usually ever is. Today longtime Catholic nun Diane Dougherty is being ordained just miles from my home in Atlanta’s First Metropolitan Community Church. Doughterty’s ordination will not be recognized by the male authorities of the Roman Catholic Church, but for Doughterty, today’s commissioning for ministry is both a challenge to the existing hierarchy and a validation of her call to ministry as a shepherd of God’s people.
Once ordained, Dougherty will continue her service to First Metropolitan Community Church, as well as developing ecumenical “Intentional Faith Communities” (for both Catholics and non-Catholics) in Newnan and throughout the Atlanta area, empowering women to lead within the church and advocating for women’s ordination.
It’s about time.
All I can say, with great aplomb and admiration, is “You go, girl!,” and, “God speed.”
Yesterday Christians for Biblical Equality produced a list of various ways that churches can proactively address the problem of domestic violence both within congregations and the greater community.
Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt, who is rector of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Maryland, and in 2008 authored the book, Breaking the Silence: The Church Responds to Domestic Violence, a guide for clergy, congregations and church leaders, offered some helpful guidelines for making churches “Safe Houses.”
Weatherholt’s first line of instruction caught my eye: Always assume that there are persons in your church who have experienced or are experiencing abuse. Be aware of subtle messages in your church that promote the assumption that “everyone here is okay and every marriage and relationship is healthy.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as Cleo LaRue reminds me, in I Believe I’ll Testify, has said the same thing a bit more poetically: all houses wherein men have lived and died are haunted houses.
For those of us whose lives have been touched by various forms of abuse, whether physical, sexual, emotional, or, maybe even spiritual- and the statistics would suggest there are many of us- I can think of nothing more liberating than a space in which to tell the truth about ourselves, that we’re often not “okay” and our relationships bear the strain.
I venture to guess that all of us, regardless of whether or not our own story has been touched by abuse, need a “safe house” of sorts.
Most of us find our safe houses outside of church.
Maybe this is because many of us have been in churches that don’t tell the truth about themselves. They pretend that everything is hunky dory, or that only certain people with a particular set of characteristics, be they, for example, gay, mentally ill, or, in some cases, simply women called to ministry, are not “okay.”
This sort of thing is nothing more than false advertising, because we’re all screw-ups in some way or another.
These days my son, like the rest of his class of kindergartners, is learning that when he is hurt and becomes angry, he can go to his safe place.
Where do we go in our churches?