Friday, April 22, 2011

On Earth Day As It Is In Heaven...

'You are my friends if you do what I command. This is my command: Love each other.' – Jesus

I just left my daughter’s kindergarten classroom.  They had a Spring party today.  It was lovely, and the children had a wonderful time.  So did the parents. 

We live in a small, rural community that has one of the best elementary schools on the planet, public or private. 

With a shoestring budget, these dedicated teachers have created an environment of love and peace where every student, regardless of income or social status, has an opportunity to learn good things. 

Great things, even.

At this school, and with the help of the community, they have created an outdoor classroom designed to teach children about the wonders of our amazing planet.

I love that my children have the opportunity to learn about the world in a hands-on way from people who care about them.

This year, Good Friday and Earth Day happened to fall on the same day.  Which is today.

This morning, while reading my Twitter feed, I learned that a very outspoken right-wing demagogue had decided to burn styrofoam in honor of Earth Day.  He’s also allowing his car to idle and lighting his entire studio for no good reason.  In the past, he has chopped down trees to celebrate Earth Day.  He decries any sort of “public school indoctrination” of what he feels are bad environmentalist policies.

It’s also worthy to note that this man recently became a vegan for health reasons. 

But I digress.

Turns out he and a bunch of other folks are kind of upset about what they feel is Earth Day usurping Good Friday.  They think that it takes away from the significance of the crucifixion.  They think that it is indicative of a shift from America as a Christian nation to a nation that worships, well, trees.

It made me sad that people could make this kind of a leap.

So.  Public school with an emphasis on conservation, Good Friday, and political demagoguery all sort of swirled together for me this afternoon.

I pay attention when this kind of thing happens in my brain.  I get quiet and wait for what happens next.

The Easter season illustrates the power of resurrection, a power that I cannot deny in my own life.  It makes me think about times when I thought that all was indeed lost…only to be surprised by a still, small inaudible voice, light for the darkness, and ironed out circumstances.

If I blink or can’t be still, I miss these moments.

I have learned that there is nothing that can’t be fixed.  It may not look the same as it did before it became broken, but it can be fixed.  Sometimes for an even greater purpose.

After some reflection, I don’t think that Good Friday and Earth Day are incompatible.

Earth Day was created by environmentalists who wanted to see some redemption on this
planet.  I thought that Christians were all about redeeming that which was lost.  And wanting things to be on earth as they are in heaven.

There’s nothing in the Holy Writ that indicates that God’s notion of heaven involves burning plastics.

Can’t Earth Day be a holiday where Christians and humanists can find some common ground?  I mean, we’re all kind of unified in the fact that no one wants to die from chemical exposure.  We all want to drink clean water and breathe good air and eat food that isn’t sprayed with something we can’t pronounce.

Part of this means living with fewer resources and being content.  I’m working on this in my own life.  I struggle with churches that do not share this point of view with me, opting for giant buildings that require a great deal of fiscal resources while caring little about a carbon footprint.

Weren’t we to sell all that we possessed in order to better follow?  Wasn’t simplicity a part of the lifestyle of the Lord?

I love Jesus, but the fan club disappoints me a lot. 

So, mocking conservation?   Really?  Can we use our short time here on earth more wisely?
I self-identify as a follower of the teachings of Jesus.  I pretty much fail epically as a student every day.  I like stuff.  It sucks, but I really do like stuff.  Sometimes I like stuff more than people. 
Sometimes I just want to satisfy every whim that I have.

What kind of lifestyle does my desire for the lowest prices and the most toys create for those who aren’t as fortunate?  You know…like the people who make my coveted stuff for a dime an hour.  Those people that Jesus loves.

Which is why I look at this bloody cross with wonder and amazement. 

I fail.  I am dreadfully inconsistent.  Sometimes, I actively resist loving others so that I can be more comfortable and less involved.

And I am still and always loved by God.  Regardless of what I have done, what I am doing, and what I am about to do.  And regardless of whether those things are 'good' or 'bad'.

Because of this love, shame and guilt were taken care of on my behalf a long time ago.  Huge price paid. 

Having shame and guilt taken away leaves me with an enormous sense of gratitude.
It is out of that gratitude that freedom flows. 

I am now free to love with wild abandon and to care and to give and to champion and to embrace.  Without any reservation or guilt or belief that I am unworthy.

I want that kind of freedom for everyone.  Including those who wish to put God in a box, administering entrance exams and litmus tests before awarding the status of ‘believer’.  A status, by the way, that can be revoked at any time. 

I want these people to be free to stop judging.

Even that guy who gloats about his freedom to trash the earth on television.  I want freedom for that guy too. 

Because the reality is that he and I have a lot in common.  I can be just as terrible, given the right issue and the right circumstances.

It’s just not my responsibility to decide who is in and who is out.  Jesus himself said that he had sheep that his followers knew nothing about.  I take him seriously on this point and assume something that I learned long ago in kindergarten:  Andie needs to take care of Andie.

As a result, I am relieved of the responsibility of judgment and can now embrace those things which bring about redemption and resurrection for everyone.

I am an environmentalist.  I am passionate about Jesus.  I believe in the power of love.  I want to participate in community with others.

None of these statements are mutually exclusive.  Nor need they ever be.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Virtuous Women

Last Friday night, I was proud to be a woman.
On April 8, ABC aired a 20/20 Investigation by Elizabeth Vargas of a Christian denomination called the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists (IFB).  Not to be confused with American Baptists or even Southern Baptists, the IFB claims that they aren’t connected to one another, though all of their pastors train at the same colleges and universities here in America and are taught the same doctrines.
But that hardly matters.  What does matter is that there are women speaking out against physical and sexual abuse that they allege happened with the full knowledge of the IFB. 
It took one woman to start asking questions, and, because of her bravery, thousands of women and men are coming forward to tell their stories.  Abusers are being called to account, and this rigid denomination is on notice.
I love Jesus for a lot of reasons.  I love him mainly because he took down a religious establishment who claimed to have all of the answers.  The Pharisees taught that God is only pleased when you follow a series of rules.  And, as luck would have it, only this particular sect of Judaism knew exactly the right way to keep these rules. 
It was all pretty convenient for the Pharisees.  It kept money in the coffers, it kept the people in line, and it made the leaders feel, well, important.
It wasn’t very convenient for a woman who had been hemorrhaging for years. 
The rules stated that if you were on your period, you couldn’t have contact with the rest of the camp.  To be fair, Moses instituted this rule, I believe, to give women a break one a month so that they could rest.  Remember, this was an ancient culture where women had no rights at all, so it could be argued that Moses was a bit of a feminist.
But over time, the rule became a demand for holiness.  A ‘thou shalt stay away from people during your cycle’ or, well, God won’t forgive your sins and embrace you.
And if you bleed too much, well, your faith is called into question.  And as such, a woman who bled a lot wasn’t allowed into her faith community.  And since the Pharisees had a monopoly on how to follow God perfectly and correctly, she was barred from any kind of contact with God.

She was considered to be a sinner.
The woman I am referring to is recorded in the gospel according to St. Luke.  For me, it is the most powerful story in the entirety of the New Testament. 
This poor gal had consulted doctors for over twelve years and likely had tried every remedy offered.  I can imagine that in the ancient world, the remedies might have been worse than the bleeding.  Why?  Well, I am sure that she wanted to stop bleeding for better physical comfort, but I suspect that twelve years of being ostracized by those who claimed to know God had taken its toll as well.
So she hears of this Jesus character, and she has a dilemma.  She heard that he heals people, but she can’t touch him because that would make him unclean.  She doesn’t want to hurt him because she believes that the teaching of the Pharisees was accurate.
So she sneaks around, and one day she sees Jesus, surrounded by his usual crowds (they didn’t have television or the Internet).  He’s in a hurry.  He’s off to heal a very sick child.  His handlers are moving him through the crowd.
He has no time for her.
She decides to risk it.
She covers herself with a blanket so as not to touch the rest of the crowd, and she gets as close to him as she dares.  “If I can only touch his robe,” she says, “I just know I’ll be well.”
He walks past her, and she reaches out and touches his hem.  Sighing, she is thankful she wasn’t noticed.
But she was noticed.  He wheels around and asks, “Who touched me?”
The men around him are trying to hustle Jesus off to more important, pressing matters.  A little girl is about to die.  The crowd is impatient.  They want to see a miracle.

But Jesus waits for this quivering woman, shaking before the entire crowd, believing that she had done something horribly, horribly wrong.
I thought about this woman when I heard Tina Anderson tell her story on 20/20.  She had been raped as a teenager by a man in her church…twice.  The rape resulted in a pregnancy.  She told no one, until she was four months pregnant.
She was forced to stand in front of the entire congregation to confess her sin.  By her pastor. 
She isn’t the only woman to have stood in front of a congregation to confess a sin, real or imagined.   

The only thing here is that Tina never sinned.  But she was ostracized by her community of faith anyway.  They told her that as a fifteen year old, she could consent to sex.  They told her that she had seduced this rapist.  The pastor locked her in an apartment at his house and then moved her out of state.
There was never a prosecution of the rapist.  Just a casting of invisible stones at an innocent young girl who felt every strike.
No matter how a pastor or sect attempts to spin this story, what happened to Tina Anderson was wrong. She was forced to confess a sin that doesn't exist.  It was not loving.  It was not helpful.  It was not of Jesus. 
What did Jesus do?  
In Luke’s gospel, instead of shunning this suffering woman, he elevated her.  He called her ‘daughter.’  He made her family.  He told her that she was healed.  And he told her to go in peace. 
And by doing so, he told the entire community that was shunning her that they were wrong.
In writing the script for the film Paradise Recovered, I talked to over 100 women and men from eighteen different cult groups, and I read hundreds of online testimonials, books, and chat room posts, alleging abuse and cover up by those who label themselves as Christian.  What happened to them and what happened to Tina was anything but Christ-like.
In an update to the 20/20 Special, Elizabeth Vargas announced that Jocelyn Zichterman, one of the women who served as a whistleblower to a number of these scandals in the IFB, including her own, had received over 12,000 emails from people alleging stories similar to Tina’s.
Tina isn’t alone.  By coming forward, she has been crucified online by those more interested in protecting their denomination and doctrine than giving grace and comfort and seeking justice for the oppressed.
Tina and Jocelyn and the other women in the 20/20 piece are my personal heroes in the faith.  They have exemplified virtue and character by standing up alone to combat a system that is neither loving nor Christian.  They have created a community of people in need of healing and understanding, and I join them in their cause.
As to their decision to take down a faith community who claims to have all of the answers and be above the questions?  I know someone else who did the same thing, and it is my honor and privilege to call him Lord.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me A Match

About a year ago, one of my best girlfriends (we’ll call her Miranda) sent me some pictures of men that she had been matched with through an online dating service. 

I am generally not one to judge solely by appearance, but bless their hearts.  Most of them looked like they needed baths more than dates.    My favorite of the lot was bare-chested and beer-bellied with low-cut jeans, a trucker hat, a pronounced overbite and a giant largemouth bass.  He boasted that he still lived in his mother’s basement.

To her credit, she cancelled the online service with this flourish of a memorandum: 

“I am cancelling my subscription because the dating pool has started to resemble the arts and crafts room at a maximum security prison facility for violent offenders. I'm not saying that anyone has necessarily become violent and/or inappropriate with me. Sometimes, poor grammar and photos of wild game "trophies" can really speak volumes.  I'm just sayin’.”

Miranda is quite the comic.  She actually sent them this letter. 

I thought of Miranda this afternoon while I was dealing with my mismatched sock basket.  With six people in our household and visitors in and out, I have quite a collection of odd socks in a two bushel laundry basket. 

Some are distinguished looking dress socks, quite a few athletic socks, a few cheerleaders with pom poms, a few of our more spiritual stockings (they are hole-y – couldn’t resist, sorry), and an old tired stripey knee sock who has been there since 1998.

They’re all looking for a soulmate.  One without too many holes that isn’t too faded or stretched out.  Someone with a little life.  A little spunk.  A little decency and self-respect.

About once a month or so, I dig out the basket and try to find mates for lonely socks.  It’s a ritual that I take comfort in.  I put on some good music, pray a prayer to St. Jude (the saint of hopeless causes), and pull out Old Stripey as the Helen Thomas of this monthly hosiery conference.

“What are you doing?” my husband will inquire.

“Changing lives,” I respond.  “Just call me Yenta.”

I clearly need to get out more. 

But today, I folded socks, and I thought about Miranda and finding that perfect match.  The online service was, if you’ll forgive the analogy, a bit like my laundry basket.  Throwing all of the singletons into a pile and sorting through them to help them find one another. 

They make a lot of promises, these dating sites.  The commercials advertise falsely.  I should know.  I’ve seen the real pictures and not the airbrushed actors with perfect hair, cut abs, and come-hither gleam.
As I was pondering the problems of finding forever love in the modern world, I picked up what I thought was a match.  Both white, low-cut athletic socks.  I started to fold them together until I noticed that one had pink toe stitching while the other had gold.  No one would know but me.  But then, I would know.  Back to the basket.

Sighing, I thought again of Miranda, whose online hopes had been dashed time and time again by some man who seemed charming on the first date, but who generally had some sort of character flaw that became quite apparent as the weeks went by.  Okay, I am underestimating: alcoholic schizophrenic is not quite what you want to bring home to the folks.

And then I thought of my own dating life.  As you might guess, it was not only interesting but highly entertaining.  My general rule was that I’d go out with anybody once just out of sheer curiosity.  This proved to be a brilliant strategy for my career as a writer:  95% of these jokers provided excellent future material. 

Some men appeared to be a fit at first, and then I would see some gaping hole in the heel.  I tried the emotional equivalent of darning socks, which no one does anymore and for good reason.  Turns out that darning can make for some nasty blisters, and it isn’t worth the time or heartache. 

Old Stripey is a constant in my life, a confirmed Old Maid who used to attend raves and wild nights on the river in St. Louis in her youth.  I can’t part with her.  She’s a tough old broad who has been to the puppet show and seen the strings.  Old Stripey has seen many a sock come and go, get mated, leave the basket, only to end right back there a few years later.

I know that the analogy is breaking down.  Please cut me some slack.  I match socks as a hobby.  This alone could be grounds for psychiatric treatment. 

The good news for me is that Miranda is now a constant again after a bit of a hiatus after high school.  I hadn’t seen her in over a decade, but we found each other again through the miracle of Facebook a few years ago.  It was like I was stuck in a basket, and she was under a bed somewhere, lost to the known universe until someone decided to move the furniture. 

We picked up where we left off.

I’m thinking of making a lot of sock puppets this summer with some of these confirmed bachelors in my basket.  The baby socks.  The too small soccer socks.  The beige dress sock.  They have been just taking up space for way too long. 

Maybe with this new calling, they’ll find some new friends that don’t seem to mind holes, wear and tear, or differences in toe stitching.  A little makeover with some felt, yarn, and googly eyes.  They’ll laugh more, probably, and cry less.

Old Stripey is staying just as she is, if only to remind me at how hard this matchmaking thing is.  And how nice it was to find my forever fit – who believed that the dryer had long since eaten any possibilities for him. 

Turns out that my guy and I look nothing alike in terms of color, size, or utility.  The great American actor, comedian and genius Steven Wright once quipped that he matched socks by thickness.  That’s what I think I did in life.  I found my match by thickness.  We go together in our own way.  We will never be found swinging in a hammock in a commercial for dating ecstasy and eternal pleasure, but we’ll never need two separate bathtubs either.  So there’s that.

I’m happy to report that Miranda now has a sweetheart that we all really like.  In her words to the online dating service, “he did not appear to be a homicidal maniac, although he did point out that homicidal maniacs look just like you and me. He was kind to me and didn't try to get to second base, even though I did wear something kind of low cut. Not that I'm that kind of girl. I just like to keep my options open is all.”

Most importantly, she really likes him.  He gets her.  They play a lot.  She doesn’t even have to explain herself to him.  He just knows.  And she knows.  So they know together.

I like that in a pair.