Lessons in Mercy

About twelve years ago, I was leading worship on stage at church one Sunday morning, when I looked into the congregation to see a young girl, maybe 15 or 16, stealing money directly out of my purse. She was a teen who had come on the bus ministry from another city. She had been invited to sit near my family by my kind and welcoming mom. We were partway through the chorus of something like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” when I watched her sneakily flip open my wallet and slip out several small bills. My eyes widened as I helplessly watched it happen from up on the stage. I tried to keep my face from giving my panic away, and caught my mom’s eye, gesturing to the side of the platform. My mom, seeing the urgency on my face, discreetly came to the side, out of view, and in the low lights I crept over to quickly whisper to her what was going on.  She tiptoed back to the pew where the young girl sat, and sat down next to her, inching very close. I watched the girl’s face become strained and uncomfortable. My mom whispered something in her ear, and it was clear that she knew she had been found out.

After church, there was an awkward meeting. We all sat around a table outside; my mom, the thief, and me, and we told her about how stealing is wrong and that she needed to give the money back. She apologized, head hung low, with appropriate meekness, and I don’t recall what my mom or I said in return, but I feel like it was something along the lines of, “Let’s not do it again.”

In the musical Les Miserables, there is a scene in which Jean Valjean, paroled prisoner, is welcomed in from the cold by a kind bishop, and offered a place to stay for the night. Valjean gratefully accepts, but in spite of the charity offered him, he can’t resist the opportunity to make off with some of the church’s finery. Soon after, Valjean is caught in the town and dragged back to the church where he committed the theft, likely to face another sentence such as the one he just completed – 19 years of hard labor.  He is face to face with the bishop from whom he stole, and… well… read how it plays out.

~Constable~
Tell his reverence your story
Let us see if he’s impressed
You were lodging there last night
You were the honest Bishop’s guest.
And then, out of Christian goodness
When he learned about your plight
You maintain he made a present of this silver –

~Bishop~
That is right.
But my friend you left so early!
Surely something slipped your mind.

[The bishop gives Valjean two silver candlesticks.]

You forgot I gave these also!
Would you leave the best behind?
So Monsieurs you may release him,
For this man has spoken true.
I commend you for your duty,
May God’s blessing go with you.
But remember this, Valjean,
See in this some higher plan.
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God.

And there it is. Christ’s love in a few simple rhymes. So plain and so straight-forward, yet so difficult to carry out. Because when you’ve been wronged, anger and justice are the expected responses. No one will fault the person who demands a consequence for those who have done them wrong. No one bats an eye that the girl who had the audacity to steal directly from my wallet in the middle of a church service deserves a scolding and should indeed hang her head low.

In the musical, Jean Valjean, after being shown such mercy, goes on to become wealthy and successful and provides care for a destitute woman and her daughter, serving almost as an angel, lifting them up out of the direst of circumstances to a life of peace. I think what Jesus wants us to experience when he asks us to “turn the other cheek” is the surprising and incredible chain reactions that can arise from just one step of mercy in place of justice.

Every single time I listen to that scene from Les Miserables, I weep. I weep over the beauty, but also out of consternation that something so beautiful is so exceedingly difficult to achieve.  As I continue to smooth this thought over in the rock tumbler of my mind,  I’m beginning to learn that such a mindset can only be present in someone who has abandoned their attachment to their posessions and who, like Jesus, views the human soul as the ultimate treasure.

Oh, the dozens of times I’ve thought back about that girl. What was taking place in her life that caused her to feel the need to take a couple of five dollar bills from a teenager’s wallet while worship songs played on? It’s true that the Bible sitting in the pew holder inches from her that day says “Thou shalt not steal.” But it also says this: “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”  Luke 6:29-30.

If I could do it all again, I’d like to think I would call my mom to the side of the stage, tell her what was taking place, and ask her to take my entire wallet from my purse and place it in the girl’s own purse. Later, I would take her hand and ask what I could do to help her. Yet, even as I type these very words, when I imagine the same situation today, my gut reaction is the retention of my belongings, shame on whomever would dare try to take them, and  unmasking their dishonesty. Human nature runs so deep.

In a world where religion is being peddled like skincare products, and the world is slowly going deaf and blind to it all, audacious mercy is still here to act as ice water to the face of the bystander, instantly awakening those around, and forcing them to wonder what kind of crazy person chooses forgiveness when the obvious choice is justice. If Jesus was preposterous enough to extend mercy to all of mankind through his seemingly senseless death on a cross, it is my job to actively work day by day to show reckless, nonsensical mercy to those who wrong me. I can’t go back in time and show it to that girl who stole from me. All I can do now is let her serve as a catalyst – an ever-present challenge – that the next time this takes place, I might respond with more of that rare love Jesus so boldly proclaimed and lived out through his death on the cross. I start today.

Stories of mercy in action:

http://theforgivenessproject.com/stories/margaret-foxley-england-2/

http://www.mbird.com/2013/08/hector-black-forgives-the-man-who-murdered-his-daughter/

http://lancasterpa.com/amish/amish-forgiveness/

http://www.historymakers.info/inspirational-christians/jim-elliot.html

 

American Christianity: I Can’t “Unsee”

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Like a true child of the nineties, I went through a brief obsession with these optical illusion books called “Magic Eye”. You may remember them: On each page, there is an image that looks like a strange, colorful pattern, with no apparent focus or meaning. However, hidden in the details of the pattern is actually a 3D image which becomes visible when one stands back and widens his vision, almost to the point of a blank stare, until the shapes come into focus. Once you see it, the picture is not only right there in your face, it’s virtually impossible to “unsee”. The emergence of this new image changes the meaning of the picture completely.

For a hot second in the nineties, people liked them so much, they put them on the walls of their houses like works of art. As a nine year old lying on the floor of the La Habra library, staring into the deep abyss of “Magic Eye”, I certainly imagined my own home someday would be covered in them. Fortunately, a visit to my house reveals that I grew out of that stage, but these puzzles came rushing back into my memory recently, and for an unexpected reason: American Christianity.

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I recently began reading a book by Kevin Kruse called “One Nation Under God – How Corporate America Created Christian America”. I’ve read exactly one chapter, and my mind is already so brimming with thoughts that I need to start with a blog post even though I’m sure more revelations will come as I swim deeper into the turbulent waters of this book.

I feel a burden – a responsibility, almost – to share it with you, because I spent the first 25 years of my life without a shred of understanding from where American Christianity has come. Although, having spent my entire life in church, I did make plenty of observations. Here’s a little timeline that demonstrates the types of conclusions I reached about Christianity at milestone ages. These are within the Christian circle in general – not only from my own church, but from a variety of people from all over, including media and politics.

Age 4: Christians go to church. Then we go to Sizzler after church. We love Jesus.

Age 8: Christians pray a lot. We dress up for church. We are “pro-life”. We say “Merry Christmas”, not “Happy Holidays”.

Age 12: Christians love America. We love our freedom because our founding fathers were all Christians. We know America was formed because they couldn’t be Christians in England.

Age 16: Christians boycott stores when they hire homosexuals. We see America’s morals “going down the drain”. We pray that God will save our nation before it falls to ruin.

Age 20: Christians are republicans. We appreciate soldiers. We like safety and comfort and guns and fourth of July. We are capitalists, because “The American Dream” is God’s plan for us.

How did the groundbreaking story of a homeless, middle-eastern carpenter and vagabond whose audacious, revolutionary love for humanity ended in the ultimate sacrifice of His life, turn into something… else? How has such a huge percentage become a wealthy, Sunday-best wearing, gun-toting, potluck-loving, anti-welfare, American flag waving conglomerate of middle-class ultra-conservatives?

I’m going to attempt to squeeze 100 pages into a few paragraphs, so if you want the full details, you should read the book that’s spawned my writing. But here are the basics: The individualistic, capitalistic, patriotic, brand of Christianity present in most churches today is a carefully crafted product of the 1940s, created to combat a shift in American ideals as a result of the New Deal.

In 1934, as America fought to rise out of the depression, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) created an organization that would work to bring free enterprise back into the good graces of Americans. It was called The American Liberty League. It wished to “teach the necessity of respect for the rights of persons and property” and went directly against FDR’s call for such “egregious” social programs as social security and veteran’s benefits. Roosevelt had long taken jabs at the Liberty League. He was quoted saying, “It has been said that there are two great commandments – one is to love God, and the other to love your neighbor. The two particular tenets of this new organization say you shall love God and then forget your neighbor.” At that time, the league did a poor job of its originally intended purpose of revitalizing free enterprise with the public, because everyone could clearly see that the big wigs were behind it.

When FDR used scripture like those above in his public addresses (something he did constantly, to my surprise), and referenced that social programs and taking care of one’s brother were “the Christian thing to do”, the NAM and heads of corporations with the most to lose decided that two could play that game, and at the failing of the American Liberty League, they decided to launch their most aggressive campaign yet.

The book states: “In a forceful rejection of the Social Gospel, they (NAM) argued that the central tenet of Christianity remained the salvation of the individual. If any political and economic system fit with the religious teachings of Christ, it would have to be rooted in a similarly individualistic ethos. Nothing better exemplified this, they insisted, than the capitalist system of free enterprise.”

In 1940, the biggest names in industry (titans from General Motors, General Electric, Standard Oil, Sears & Roebuck) gathered at their annual convention at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to strategize. Enter Minister James W. Fifield Jr.: a charismatic, well-spoken, Jimmy Stewart lookalike, armed with a plan that would put the American public back on the side of capitalism. Fifield stood in front of these titans and delivered a “passionate defense of the American system of free enterprise and with erring assault on its perceived enemies in government.” In short, his plan was to hide the corporate motivation of the free enterprise movement where no one would suspect it: the church. Those gathered at the hotel that day were left enthralled, jumping to their feet in thunderous applause.

Fifield’s plan was set in motion immediately. The foot soldiers were to be America’s pastors, ministers and Rabbis, and they would deliver its message to the millions of Americans in their churches and synagogues – not because they were paid to do so, but because they were strategically wooed into the belief that capitalism and free enterprise were inseparable ideals and integral to God’s plan for America. Fifield and the other tycoons were so set on doing this, they created yet another organization, called Spiritual Mobilization. It was intended “to arouse the ministers of all denominations in America to check the trends toward pagan stateism which would destroy our basic freedom and spiritual ideals.” Fifield began taking his own politically charged sermons and distributing them via mail and newspaper to ministers all over the country.

Spiritual Mobilization quickly began to work. Ministers were taking hold of NAM’s ideals and were delivering them in the form of political sermons of their own. The focus was the individual and his freedoms, and took the emphasis off the dreaded social programs, and placed it back on personal property and personal freedoms, where they felt it belonged.

This mindset certainly fit perfectly with Fifield’s own life. An early version of Joel Osteen, he pastored First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, and although the church was deeply in debt when he took it over, he went on an immediate spending spree to advance its programs of bible school, paid choirs, orchestras and organists, and dozens of other programs and draws. Within a few years, the church had paid back all its incurred debt and was turning a profit. It had quickly become California’s first “mega church” and was home to celebrities, film-makers and industrial tycoons. Fifield was staunchly conservative politically, but surprisingly liberal theologically. He believed God’s blessings on him were meant to be enjoyed, and soon had purchased a mansion nestled in the hills, complete with wait staff, butler and chauffeur. And he was the motor driving the movement of America into what he felt was her capitalistic destiny.

That’s what I’ve read so far.

I already know that waiting for me is hundreds more pages of the Eisenhower administration and America’s obsession with Fourth of July and “freedom under God”. I know that I’ll learn that the phrases “One Nation Under God” were added to our currency and pledge in the 1950s as a further push to marry our government with our faith. I know that Reaganomics and the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell all lay ahead, but I’ve read enough to form some initial, and I would say, important conclusions:

  1. Christianity is not American.
  2. Christianity is not capitalistic.
  3. Nor is it necessarily socialistic.
  4. Nor does it subscribe to any particular set of political ideals.
  5. Contorting the gospel of Jesus to fit it into one’s political views, regardless of the “side”, is not just immoral, but also pointless. Spirituality could never be placed into as small a box as politics.
  6. Number 5 is not an excuse to ignore politics, hide away, put one’s head in the sand or stop voting.
  7. Number 6 is not an invitation to choose one party, accept its ideals and stay with it until you die.
  8. Our reasoning minds are a gift from God and they are intended to be used to discern, to measure against the character of God and His son Christ, and then act accordingly.

That last one really gets me thinking about Jesus. He’s this sneaky guy who finds a way to challenge every person, regardless of what “side” they’re on in a situation. His ministry is full of scenarios in which an obviously sinful person is caught in their sin and is given boundless grace instead of impending judgment. Then it switches up and a person who would have been regarded as holy or upstanding gets put in their place. Jesus leaves behind him a long trail of challenging the cultural norm.

So where does this leave us? Is the American dream of capitalism and wealth a farce? Is socialism the only way to help our brothers and sisters in the name of Christ? No, and no. I believe in man’s right to build for himself wealth, a name, and a legacy as so many have done in this great country. Just don’t call it Christianity. I also believe in helping those who need it through programs put in place to improve their status. Just don’t call it Christianity.

Although I know this chapter is just one gear of the massive, complicated machine that is the marriage of politics and religion in our country, I’m already angry. I’m angry that so many good people, with love in their hearts have been force-fed and then happily digested the message of MINE.“My salvation is MINE. My property is also MINE. You can’t take MY guns away. You can’t make MY country accept gays. You can’t use MY money for someone else’s survival. You can’t put refugees on MY home turf. If I am moved to help others,  I should be the one to choose when and how to do that, and no one should force ME to give of what I rightfully EARNED.” Does this sound familiar to you? We as the general public have gobbled up the comfort and ease of this message, because it plays into an ever-present part of our psyche that will never fully go away: greed and selfishness.

While I have no problem with someone taking on the “mine” viewpoint, I have a SERIOUS problem with them associating it in any way with what Jesus calls us to. Jesus does not call us to a God-scented version of the American Dream. For it is this push on individualism that paves the way for Christians to look at another’s problem and say, “That has nothing to do with me.” It gives an excuse to separate ourselves from the world, claim moral superiority, and seal off the doors of churches as we conduct our own special meetings in our own special clubs. It creates a place to say, “My safety, comfort and way of life are more important than love.”

But we can’t do better until we KNOW better. After all, for 80 years, we have been taught by very rich, very influential, intelligent, cunning, law-creating people: “OF COURSE God doesn’t mind if Christians are incredibly rich and keep nearly all that wealth for themselves and hoard their freedoms, property and land!” This is precisely why I write today. Because, as Brooke Fraser beautifully states in her song, Albertine, “Now that I have seen, I am responsible.”

“American Dream Christianity” is how many of us were brought up to believe, yet we claim to follow and attempt to emulate a man who said, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the heaven have nests, but the Son of Man does not have a place where He may lay His head”.

While we are busy trying to protect what we feel so strongly is rightfully OURS, Jesus’ voice calls out through the mayhem: “My child. I am yours.  I am all you need. Your wealth is found in ME. Your freedoms are found in ME. Your right is the kingdom of Heaven and I, in my deep love, have given it to YOU.” Jesus shows up in our lives in the form of the friendless, the weird, the ugly, the disenfranchised and the down and out. If it’s going to be about Him, it must in turn be about our fellow man.

Long ago, the black sand of individualism was poured into the white sand of Christ’s message. Today, it’s difficult to see anything but grey. Still, the toil of picking out the white, grain by tedious grain, is well worth it, for the end result will not be tarnished with the agenda of enterprising men, but the pure religion to which Christ calls us.

Try as I might to step back into the blissful ignorance of the fuzzy, meaningless pattern through which I’ve viewed my faith thus far, a 3D image has come into view. It is the image of a political movement which has taken up costly residence in the American church and in my own greedy heart. I can never “unsee”. The meaning of the entire picture has changed. Now that I have seen, I am responsible.

 

Leo DiCaprio vs. Alexander Hamilton

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I was 11 years old when the movie Titanic came rushing into everyone’s lives like the floodwaters that caused the ship’s demise. Televisions, radios, billboards and movie screens everywhere were inundated with James Cameron’s epic love story of a poor boy, a rich girl and a big ass ship. Meanwhile, around the same time, I was looking in the mirror and noticing the awkward girl staring back at me for the first time in my life. I’d smear Bonne Bell bubblegum gloss on my lips and become distracted during children’s church by the boys in my class. One Saturday evening, in between episodes of Seventh Heaven and Touched by an Angel, I saw a trailer for the movie that was on everyone’s lips, and was suddenly enraptured by a boy leaning over the railing of the ship, with a carefree smile on his perfect face and wind blowing through his wispy blond hair. That very instant, I developed a Titanic-sized celebrity crush on Leonardo DiCaprio.

Since there was no way my parents would let me put posters of him up on my wall, or display such inappropriate infatuation at such a young age, I mostly kept it to myself, using our family’s weekly trips to Borders bookstore as opportunities to rush over and read the fan-girl biography books put out specifically for the thousands of girls just like me who wanted to know everything he’d ever done. I quickly became acquainted with movies like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”, “Total Eclipse” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”. I’d never wanted to be Claire Dane or Kate Winslet so badly in my life. His perfect nineties hair and captivating smile turned into an absolute obsession. Ironically, I wasn’t even allowed to see Titanic when it came out, so I opted to lie on my bed, radio volume turned low, but the speaker pushed directly next to my ear, listening to Celine Dion sing “My Heart Will Go On” as I envisioned myself with Leo out on the bow of the ship, arms outstretched, just like the clip I’d seen in the trailer. Life was cruel and full of impossibilities.

Although I’ve never lost my admiration for Mr. DiCaprio as an actor and a generally great looking individual (not counting some 2012 People magazine dad-bod photos that really popped my bubble), like all childish crushes do, my obsession with Leo faded, and I carried on with teenage life with my brain mostly intact. I was never much for celebrity crushes after that point. I’d croon on about Josh Hartnett and Shane West when my friends did, but after Leo, I quickly learned that those types of obsessions just weren’t really my thing.

UNTIL NOW. Until the past two weeks, at which point I’ve re-emerged as an almost 20 years older version of my 11 year old captivated self, nonsensically engrossed in an entirely unattainable person. Why is he unattainable, you ask? Well, first of all, I’m married, so how dare you. Secondly, he is ALEXANDER HAMILTON, mysterious, driven and long-dead underdog founding father of our country.

Let’s take a quick inventory of what we’ve all grown up knowing about Mr. Hamilton.

  1. Involved in the founding of the United States.
  2. On the ten dollar bill.
  3. For bonus points: Shot dead in a duel by rival Aaron Burr.

Yeah, that’s all I knew, too. That is, until STUPID talented writer, musician and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, responsible for 2008’s brilliant and unprecedented In the Heights, spent the seven years following the release of his first musical writing Hamilton’s untold story through a series of 46 perfectly crafted hip-hop song creations.

You didn’t read wrong. This musical is presented mostly in rap. Also, the cast looks more like an episode of Roots than it does the birth of our nation. Miranda says “It’s the story of America THEN told by America NOW.” Most of the main characters are black or latino, and several of the revolutionaries are played by women. It’s a diverse and beautiful cast.

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Critics and celebrities seem to think so, too, because the musical opened on August 6th on Broadway to positively GLOWING reviews, the likes of which many writers wait their entire lives for and never find. You can’t get tickets. Like, you can’t get them. And most depressingly, I especially can’t get them, because I live on the other side of the country, and can’t even prostitute myself out or sell a kidney for tickets, because the continental United States separates me from the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where the musical is playing.

Nowadays, I find myself lying in bed, not listening to Celine Dion, but to the song “Wait For It” sung in the musical by Aaron Burr, and daydreaming about what a bi-coastal Broadway premiere would look like, and shaking my fist at the sky wondering why teleportation escapes my grasp.

Realistically, though, the first time I listened to Hamilton, I wasn’t sure if I was sold. Its genius was evident, and I could tell something special was being piped through my car’s speakers, but it was such a departure from the expected formula of a Broadway musical, I wasn’t entirely ready for it. No true comedic relief, no huge show-stopper before intermission, no belted, massive notes to end the show. It was nothing that I expected, and at first, that frustrated me.

But only for a short time. Because the story told in the two hours and 24 minutes of this musical is so masterfully done, it has left me with chills and tears each subsequent time I’ve listened. That’s about six more times in two weeks. I’ll save you the math and simply confess that it’s essentially all I’ve listened to and from work since the first day I heard it. I wake up singing the songs, I go to sleep singing the songs, and right now I sit beside my husband on the couch with baseball on in the background, fighting the urge to close myself up in our bedroom so I can listen to it while I write these very words. The desire to hear it never goes away.

There are a few reasons for this, I’ve decided.

  1. The melodies Miranda has written into this show are dangerously catchy. They sneak the heck up on you. Upon first listen, you may be like me and think, “these songs aren’t very memorable”. Until you wake up in the middle of the night to pee, and all that’s swirling through your mind is “I’m NOT throwin’ away my SHOT!” over and over and over again. But then, you realize they’re not repeating themselves in a “Nationwide is on your side” type of way, but in a warm, familiar, addictive sort of way. Like a potato chip. When the moment the salty flavor leaves your mouth you want to taste it again. Like CRACK. Or so I hear.
  2. There is a palpable inspiration in the story of Alexander Hamilton as told by Miranda. He doesn’t stop at untold details of a dead founding father (positively RIVETING as those details may be). It somehow becomes about YOU, the listener. You wonder as it all unfolds if someone will ever tell YOUR story. The entire message is 3D; bombarding you and infiltrating your most vulnerable thoughts. You can’t help but wonder what type of legacy you yourself may lead someday. This X factor element turns the show into a Tony Robbins seminar – pumping you up and making you believe life is significant and memorable with every listen.
  3. Miranda’s ability to take an 800-page novel (by Ron Chernow, the inspiration for the musical) and turn it into a fast-paced, perfectly rhymed, succinct and intelligent 46-song story is just the most outstanding and sexy thing I could possibly imagine. I don’t know what sorts of things do it for you, but this DOES IT FOR ME. Every time I listen, I notice new hidden meanings, and new profound messages within the lyrics. It is a piece with many layers, and they can’t all be experienced upon first listen. They must be peeled back one by one and dissected, before the next can be embarked upon.
  4. As an aspiring writer, the entire story and Miranda’s own career are just dripping with inspiration from every angle. First there are lyrics relating to Hamilton’s own writing abilities, such as “How do you write like you’re running out of time? Write day and night like you’re running out of time?” and then, Hamilton speaks himself as he describes what writing has done for him, “I wrote my way out of hell, I wrote my way to revolution, I was louder than the crack in the bell, I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell, I wrote about The Constitution and defended it well, And in the face of ignorance and resistance, I wrote financial systems into existence. And when my prayers to God were met with indifference, I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance.” Simultaneously, the inspiration that is Miranda’s own lyricism, combined with the subject matter that is Hamilton’s ability to write his entire legacy into existence – well, it makes a girl wanna sit down and just freakin’ WRITE SOMETHING. ANYTHING that someone will take a moment to read and be moved to action.

Today, the action I’m attempting to move you to is enriching your own life with this man and this musical, so that I will have even more giddy fans to squeal with. In all honesty, this very blog post took twice as long to complete as I anticipated it would, because I kept stopping to read another article about Lin-Manuel Miranda, or to follow the show’s actors on Instagram, or to reference Ron Chernow’s actual biography on Hamilton, the one that spawned the musical – that is now sitting on the table beside me.

If the 11 year old me had Spotify, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, she would have Googled her way even deeper in love with Leonardo. Instead, she had wallet-sized Teen Beat pictures ripped out of her friend’s copies, and “Miriam DiCaprio” written in script on college-ruled lined paper surrounded by hearts. Today, I happen to be completely satisfied with my current last name, but you’d better believe I use every possible multimedia platform to further indulge in my surprising un-founded obsession with the musical Hamilton.

There is no more to read. Now you must listen.

Jazz

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Jazz. A pure and unforeseen rendezvous between two disparate worlds. Improvised happenstance intertwined with uncompromised rigor, perfection and skill. One branch of meticulous exactitude, tenderly grafted with a branch of one’s very soul. An endlessly spiraling double helix of precision and passion. Calculated frenzy. Methodical ecstasy. Rigorous and scrupulous indignation.

Jazz makes me believe in God. That somehow within what first appears as chaos or discord, beneath the surface has meaning, purpose and is being mindfully orchestrated in great detail. To understand the beauty in the complexity, you need only to focus in, close your eyes, tap your toe and let it wash over you until the notes being transported from page to palpability become one with you. Jazz finds dissonance and creates harmony. God does the same.

I watched the movie Whiplash last night. If music has ever meant something to you, please go see it immediately. I spent the ten minutes following the movie with tears streaming down my face. In admitting this, I’m probably going to weird out most of my friends, especially those who have seen it, but I’m stating it anyway, because there are a select few who will completely understand, and it’s worth drawing nearer to those few. Strange, irrepressible weeping was all I could do the minute it ended. This was partially due to the movie having been incredibly well made, and perfectly captured every painstaking emotion of a well-told story, but it’s also because music has real, inexplicable power. It will enrich your own life to tap into that power in whatever way you are able.

I’m thankful to Whiplash for waking me out of my indie folk coma and inspiring me to dust off my Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Brubeck wafts from my speakers as I write these words. Friends, music is an astounding and life-giving force. Whether your balm be jazz, classical, pop, or polka matters not. Turn it up. Close your eyes, and, to quote the sage advice of Marc Broussard, “Let the music get down in your soul.”

Don Vito Corleone: The Devil Rat of Camden Parkside

Apartment living is not for the faint of heart. It requires acumen and gallantry. Sharing walls amongst other humans with whom you have not chosen to share walls is a humorous social experiment, and I’m unsure whether to call its inventor a genius or an unsound sociopath. It is space-saving, however, and fits many individuals compactly into a space in which otherwise only few humans would fit. In the name of economy, one could call it a chance for us to learn to get along and share; just like in preschool. Sharing is one of the cardinal rules of apartment living. You share a laundry room, a building, common walls, and sometimes even unexpected and unwelcome guests.

On the other side one such shared wall during Eric’s and my years of apartment living was a young couple who kept as pets several exotic birds. I don’t know for certain that they were exotic, actually, but I prefer to imagine they were, because that’s less creepy than a couple who keeps crows sparrows and pigeons in their home for entertainment. The trouble with birds, though, is that exotic or otherwise, they are dirty. And in the vein of sharing things, a lack of cleanliness in one apartment home means a lack of cleanliness in all adjoining apartment homes. Our tidy little unit, by proxy, was dirty. A dirty bird apartment.

When apartments grow unhygienic in this way, other creatures of the neighborhood immediately and mysteriously become aware, and want to join the slovenly celebration. How word travels so swiftly and so far, I do not know. I can only assume there is some sort of communication apparatus – a beastly morse code or group text or something. Animals are jealous individuals, and when they hear an abundance of fowl feces is nearby, they become bent out of shape when no one invites them in on the fun. So they invite themselves. This truth is accurate for the rat who moved into the walls between our and the dirty lovebirds’ humble abode.

Thus began a saga during our apartment years which I affectionately refer to as “The Reign of The Rat of Camden Parkside”. We began to experience the day and night scurrying about of a rat inside our very walls. Always on the move, this rat was; and he had many hobbies. I’m nearly certain he was erecting some sort of elaborate Rube Goldberg machine in there – scampering to and fro to ensure the marble entered the thimble at exactly the right instant, which would swing down initiate the fly swatter, which would knock over the dominoes, or some such nonsense.

Naturally, his most active times of day were when we were desperately trying to sleep. Saturday morning at 6am, for instance, was when he would complete entire Richard Simmons “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” aerobics routines. I envisioned him in there, sweat band atop his head, trying to reach his paws down to his scratchy, decrepit little toes, in an effort to work off all the cheesy morsels he’d stolen from beneath the stoves of the nearby kitchens of the neighborhood. Sunday nights at 11pm, as we were preparing for our work week, he would start back up on his favorite hobby: Project Shawshank – digging himself out of the apartment walls with a rudimentary rock hammer, behind a poster of some slim, bikini-clad Rata Hayworth. Constant, unceasing scratching became the soundtrack to our at-home lives, and we were less than thrilled about it.

You may be wondering how I could be so confident in calling this varmint a rat, when it could have easily been a mouse, an abnormally large cockroach or an unusually small ferret. Well, we determined this pertinent fact, because on certain mornings, when we would emerge yawning and sleepy-eyed from our master suite to fetch coffee in the kitchen, we rounded the corner to find that someone was awake before we were, and was romping about on the kitchen floor, snacking on crumbs and depositing from his person tiny black droppings like burnt grains of rice as gifts for us to find. Of course, as he saw that we were infringing upon his morning smorgasbord, he’d locate the hole on the side of one cupboard that led up into the wall and slink swiftly yet begrudgingly back inside. While doing so, he always kept one horrid, beady little eye locked on us, as if to warn, “I’ll be back the moment you’re gone, peasant.”

The remedy was simple. When you have a rat, you buy a trap. That day, we marched to Home Depot and selected the classic wood and wire contraption and made plans to set it that very night. In an effort to avoid the blatant Tom and Jerry cliché of a wedge of Swiss cheese atop the apparatus, we decided upon the Google-affirmed choice of peanut butter, and slathered an appetizing dollop on the trigger. We climbed into bed and drifted to sleep in anxious anticipation, as visions of dead rodents and silent, scratch-free evenings danced in our heads.

The next morning as our alarms sounded, we rolled over in bed sleepily, then locked eyes – thinking a single simultaneous thought which awakened us instantly – the trap! Bounding from the bed like children on Christmas morning eager to see what Santa brought, we tumbled over ourselves to the kitchen. We were greeted by a perfectly set trap, licked clean and EMPTY. The bastard! It seemed we were dealing with a professional. Rat: 1 Bernards: 0.

That night, we thoughtfully prepared the trap once again, but this time placed only the slightest wisp of peanut butter on the button. If he wanted the sweet release of peanutty goodness, it was going to be paired with the sweet release of death.

The next morning we walked more cautiously to the kitchen, afraid to be let down yet again, but AHA! There he was! A peaceful-looking rat, small in stature, was caught by the head in the trap. The reign was over! Tear down the statues; the people are free!

But the people were not, in fact, free. For the next day, more droppings were found strewn about in the kitchen. We were met with the dismaying news that this was not A rat. This was many rats. A family. A Brady Bunch. And who knew HOW many our walls contained!!! No wonder he seemed so very active in all his Rube Goldberg, Richard Simmons, Shawshank Redemption activities – they were all Sweatin’ to the Oldies together!

This is the point at which we probably should have contacted some sort of exterminator, but for whatever reason, the notion never dawned on us. We had lost too many hours of sleep. We had picked up one too many terds. We wanted them for ourselves. This. Was. War.

More traps. Bigger traps. More peanut butter. Bigger peanut butter. Copious amounts of traps and peanut butter. Over the next week of earnest trap setting, three more despicable beasts were caught and killed. The mommy, sister and brother, no doubt. To our dismay and fury, still the droppings and food nibbling continued! The hatred for these creatures grew from a bubbling simmer to a rolling boil, and there was an immediate, unspoken understanding between Eric and I that there were no lengths to which we would not go to demolish the entire dastardly population within our walls. If we had to burn down the apartment, they would suffer, and they would die.

During this time, as family members died off one by one, a myth began to stir about in our household. It was a rumor of The Godfather rat. The mythical and gargantuan patriarch of the family, he was the oldest, wisest and most cunning of them all, and we had reason to believe he was the lone survivor. A veritable Loch Ness monster, one couldn’t be sure he existed, but there were some reported sightings. These “sightings”, however, were never more than a fleeting glimpse – a jump-rope thick tail briefly visible as he slunk back into the wall through the crack in the cupboard, or extra large, bean-sized droppings left over near the refrigerator. He was the type of guy who’d take the gun AND the cannoli. A few times, we caught ourselves rubbing our eyes, wondering if he was only a figment of our imagination, but his late-night inner-wall activities confirmed his existence. He was keen at making himself a ghost, and was especially scarce now that we had killed off his whole family. He knew we were coming for him. I half expected to find a horse head in my bed.

The Godfather proved himself to be bolder and more menacing than all of his kin combined, and his audacious nature would cause him to take part in most egregious acts that only fueled our abhorrence toward him. Once, while sitting in our living room, we heard the dog lapping up her water in the kitchen, only to look down and see that the dog was sitting AT OUR FEET. Father Corleone was quenching his thirst and replenishing energy lost from digging through our walls, with our own water which we had unwittingly left right there next to his hole! When we barreled around the corner, ready to strangle him with our bare hands, all we could see was that rope of a tail disappearing into the crack near the cupboard. He had eluded us again. DAMN HIM!!! But he would not elude us forever. That day, we went and purchased our largest piece of ammunition yet – a trap built especially for The Godfather – a generous slab of wood with a torturous tangle of shining wire atop it. We smiled wickedly as we made preparations for his long-awaited demise.

There was an electricity in the air as we went about our Saturday evening, popping popcorn and watching a movie on the couch, for we knew that that night, while we slumbered, the reign of terror would cease. The movie was just getting good, when suddenly, we heard the familiar lapping of the dog’s water. Scanning the room, we once again found the dog in the room, near our feet. It was happening. The Godfather was rearing his ugly head and we could not wait a moment longer. We had planned to set the trap just before heading to bed that night, but if this rabble-rouser dared slink around our home while AS we sat in it trying to enjoy fine cinema and popcorn, he didn’t deserve to breathe another breath, and we would finish him post haste.

Eric primed the death machine with a driblet of peanut butter, strategically placed it just beside the water bowl, and we returned to our movie, jittery with a cocktail of anticipation and seething disdain.

Ten, then fifteen minutes of stillness passed, and we began to relax, sinking into the plot of Charlie Bartlett, the film we’d chosen for the evening. It really was a highly entertaining and hilarious movi…. SNAP!!!!!!! We lurched from the couch and stared at one another with wide eyes for an unknown number of seconds. The Godfather. HE WAS OURS!!! We leapt up gleefully to dispose of his wretched corpse.

We tiptoed around the bend to the kitchen and flicked on the light. The scene was gruesome, but like some sort of terrible accident, we couldn’t look away. The massive and hideous creature was caught in the trap by the tip of his repugnant snout, long chalky teeth exposed, blood smeared in his salt and pepper hair, and one wicked, blood-shot eye was vacantly fixated up at us. I took one step in his direction.

Never – not in one hundred years – could I have predicted the next moments of my life.

Father Corleone’s body contracted violently, and his whole self, trap et al seized riotously in the corner of our kitchen. He let out an alien wheeze slash squeal which sounded like an exorcism was taking place right below where we cooked our eggs every morning.

Legs gyrating behind our bodies like Wile E. Coyote, we bolted from the kitchen and rocketed face first into the couch, terror and shock enveloping us. The Godfather was NOT dead. He was very much still alive, and he was going to kill us. My heart thrummed like an outboard motor, and we clutched our knees and rocked back and forth on the couch as the freak show of witchcraft and demon expulsion carried on in our kitchen.

What to do, what to do, what to do?!?! Were his legs in tact enough for him to run around in our house, trap still attached to his face, like some sort of Walking Dead zombie devil rat?! Would he die within the hour? The night? Would he EVER DIE?! At a loss, we decided to bury our heads in the sand and turned on the movie again, at ear-splitting volumes, drowning out the breathy, laborious wheezing taking place on the other side of the wall. This worked about as well as turning on Mozart in an attempt to drown out a nuclear apocalypse.

Unable to listen to these songs of hell any longer, I had to look again. I had to check on him. From sheer, overwhelming curiosity, I had to be face to face with evil. Wincing with quivering hands covering my face, I timidly snuck to the wall and ever-so-slowly peeked beyond it. Oh, Lord Jesus save us. The ruthless Sicilian was writhing and defecating all over our kitchen. There were smears of blood and feces all over the floor, and on the WALL. Not inches, but FEET up the wall. The heights to which he had to fling his body to get blood that high up the wall solidified his status as the Devil himself. His black beady eye was working its way out of the socket, like a prairie dog popping out of its burrow, and it was looking RIGHT. AT. ME. If we were going to survive this night, something drastic needed to be done.

Eric and I sat in a nook of the house on the floor, eyes darting to and fro, drumming our fingers together recklessly, trying to ride the emotional roller coaster long enough to emerge with a plan. Our clothing was ripped and we had mixed some herbs to make a black powder paint that we smeared on our faces like savages. That is a lie of course, but it’s close to the mental capacities we were experiencing at the moment.

After a lengthy meeting, an elaborate plan materialized. The plan was: bonk him with a stick until he died. That is literally the best thing we could muster. Two competent college graduates with office jobs and our absolute top-notch idea was “bonk him”. We moved forward with the plan.

The first task was to find an appropriately sized stick. No twiggy branch from a tree would do. This needed to be something with skull-crushing power. Something thick enough that we wouldn’t have to beat our linoleum floors repeatedly. We needed our aim to be true. My eyes fell upon an enormous walking stick Eric had carved on a recent camping trip. It was baseball bat thick, but most importantly, long enough to do some damage-inducing clobbering without having to step in the newly-formed cesspool of blood, rat hair and excrement.

Next, we had to decide who would do the whacking. My obvious choice was Eric, seeing as he was the man of the house and protector of his princess and wife. Eric’s obvious choice, however, was me, seeing as I was the only person in the house who was not him. We then engaged a whirlwind of serious conversation which has since been erased from my memory due to my compromised emotional state, but when we surfaced, I was holding the stick. I know not how this happened, but I was holding it. I was the chosen murderer. I would fight bravely for my household, my family and my country.

As we approached the kitchen once more, I somehow knew, down to the marrow of my bones, that this would be our last encounter with this or any rat in this house. A calm indignation fueled my every step and I gripped the stick with white-knuckles and a palpable rage. If you had looked me in the eye at that exact second, you would have been met with mania. A derangement I haven’t felt before or since. It was time for Don Vito Corleone to die.

With one precise, delirious wallop, The Godfather wriggled like the tail of a rattlesnake, and then lay still.

Eric and I met each other’s gaze as relief and consummation fell across our faces. Time stood still as we gazed on, breathless, and honorable. We may have been physically standing beside our dining table in a one-bedroom apartment in Fullerton, but we were not there. We were in the corn fields of southern France on D-day, as a soft rain fell on our mud-smeared faces and we placed our weapons and helmets upon the ground. We had won. The war was over.

The disposal of Don Corleone’s body was ceremonial. We felt a responsibility to find an appropriate receptacle. It needed to be sturdy. No touching of his corpse would be tolerated. We settled on a steadfast and well-built gift bag from our wedding. It had decorations of a wedding cake and two rings on the side. I held the bag open as Eric gingerly placed the deceased inside. In its own morbid way, this was another wedding gift. It was the newfound knowledge that we could survive anything, and that we would fight side by side forever – be the enemy rats, zombies, or the Devil himself.

One gallon of bleach, one container of Bioshield enzymatic wash, and one small nuclear weapon later, the kitchen was back to its original state, and The Rats of Camden Parkside were only a gruesome and distant memory. Though, if you happen to visit 2634 Associated Rd., Apartment A107, it has been said that you may hear scratching in the walls; and if you do, it is probably the ghost of Father Don Vito Corleone, The Godfather Rat of Camden Parkside, doing Richard Simmons aerobics and building Rube Goldberg machines in the wall space next to the kitchen. If you happen to run into him, tell him Miriam Bernard says, “No hard feelings. You made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

 

Dear Mr. Franklin Graham, I’m Disappointed.

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Yeah, I’m “that girl”, who brings up the topic of Phil Robertson a month after everyone’s calmed down about it. This is a letter I wrote today to Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, in regards to an article he wrote about Phil Robertson. I’m not sure if he will respond, but I am glad I sent it nonetheless.

Dear Mr. Graham,

I recently read your article “Ducking the Issue” in regards to the comments about homosexuality stated by Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty in your organization’s monthly publication, “Decision”.

Before I explain my apprehensions with your article, I’d like to tell you that I appreciate the legacy your father has created and that you have carried on. Because of him, thousands of people internationally have been reached with the gospel. Also, your organization, Samaritan’s Purse, provides relief for crises abroad and I follow and support the good you and your team do every day across the world. Thank you for your contribution.

That being said, I have concerns to express regarding your articles in the February issue of Decision. Being the compassionate man I know you are through your work in Samaritan’s Purse, I would not have expected such a slanted and disproportionately unfair use of words to come from an article you authored. I recognize that you write for a magazine by Christians for Christians, and as an occasional writer, I keep my audience in mind as well. However, your audience, as well as those outside of it, deserves a straight-forward piece free of condemnation, which I do not believe you provided here.

In “Ducking the Issue”, within three pages of text, you described homosexuals and their supporters and sins as the following: “the intolerant gay community and its vast network of immoral, liberal allies”, then “those who walk in the darkness of sin and pride”, then “the rising tide of evil and iniquity that threatens to engulf our nation”, then “members who deliberately pursue a sinful lifestyle in an open and unrepentant manner”. My goal in this letter is simply to shine a light on your effectiveness here , and the practical outcome of the tactics you’ve utilized.

Well-meaning pro-life advocates have been known to call abortive mothers and/or doctors “baby-killers” and “murderers”. Could one argue that those names are technically accurate? Well, sure, I guess so. But are those monikers wise to use if one’s purpose is to persuade someone into a pro-life mindset? Any clear-headed person would recognize that is an unequivocal “no”. Why? Because those names are hurtful, and destructive and ineffective in one’s mission to change minds and hearts. They’re simply fighting words. People’s minds and hearts turn away from someone hurling insults at them. Likewise, your reference to the homosexual community and its supporters in the previously-mentioned ways is, at its core, a damaging and fruitless way to refer to a people-group. Simultaneously, it causes you to seem as if you are above such “depravity”, which I’m sure you did not intend to do.

Many reference the current “culture war” of Christians vs. Gays or Christians vs. the Immoral. You even alluded to it within your article, by referring to it as “a full-scale assault against Christianity and the followers of Christ”. The question that surfaces in my mind daily is this: How would God and His son Jesus have us wage this war? It’s a legitimate question. It is one that forces us to examine our goals within the “war”. Is the goal to warn against hell-fire and shout the truth? Or is it to draw people into the love of Christ in hopes they experience life more abundantly? If it is the latter, we must plainly and honestly examine our strategies to see if the desired effect is being achieved in the form of transformed hearts and souls.

I can honestly say I don’t have a perfect answer to present to you, Mr. Graham; and it’s not my purpose for this letter. I don’t know the exact way in which Christ would have us fight for His holy name. Indeed, thousands search every day for the “right” way to be a light to the world. But what I do know is that Jesus stated that all other laws can be summed up in the “big two”, which I’m sure you know well: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself”. This This brings to mind the following story:

A few years ago I spent time on the parade route at the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, where thousands of people of all kinds gather on the sidewalks to watch the parade. There was a church group there the night before the parade, out in the cold, passing out bags of popcorn, parade programs, and horseshoes stamped with John 3:16. As they handed each passerby a bag of popcorn and a program, they’d offer a cheery, “God bless you!” as people would enthusiastically say, “Thanks!” The next day, after the parade had finished, I noticed a group of people walking down the center of the parade route with signs that stated “Christ will return to judge.” And “After Death, The Judgment”. I observed carefully as some onlookers shouted at them and others looked confused or made obscene gestures.

Within that one day, I was presented with a dichotomy of evangelistic styles. It caused me to reflect on the question: which group was more successful in their goal of wooing people to Jesus? I would bet that the popcorn passing, horseshoe-stamping, “God bless you” uttering group planted 100% more seeds of God’s goodness that day than the silent-yet-yelling sign holders. The book “UnChristian”, chronicling a decade-long study done by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons of The Barna Group, unveils statistics that young people outside the church are NOT buying the overt evangelistic tactics put out by the church, and those statistics side with my estimation of the ineffectiveness of those sign-holders.

This example of service vs. sign-holders translates to other evangelical styles. Studies show that the majority of those outside the church view Christians as people bent on converting them at all costs, talking at them and delivering the gospel in a rapid-fire manner that does not suggest compassion or empathy. Do you know what causes people to sit up and pay attention? Listening. Asking them their stories. Hearing their hurts and hang-ups and offering them a tissue and a shoulder when they cry. When we can build THAT rapport with a person, that’s when the door has been cracked open to begin showering upon them the truths of God. That’s when one has an open heart and listening ears. But before that point, our attempts to yell truth amongst all the other noise of this culture will surely fall on deaf ears. We must lead with compassion and sincerity. We must lead with love.

This is why I felt compelled to write to you today. I implore you to take time considering the potency of your words and the effectiveness of your strategies in this real war against Satan that we are fighting. Do our tactics echo how Christ would have us respond? Or as a religion are we taking part in the adult equivalent of the childish view “He hit me so I hit him back”? Should we brandish our “weapons” in this war in the same manner as those outside the church? Or should we shock everyone with our refusal to hurl grenades back at them and only display compassion?

Overwhelmingly, in my experience, the gay community is not a militaristic, hateful, deliberately sinful crowd bent on destroying everything Christianity stands for, and they never have been. What I have found they ARE is a charismatic, vivacious, friendly and deeply HURT group of people, trying to find their way in a rapidly shifting culture. Their hearts are covered in wounds – from their own families, their friends, the church, from fear of what they are -wounds which Christ can be the balm for. But Christ can only be that balm when we, His people, offer it to them.

Personally speaking, I don’t want just to warn people of hell, I don’t want to point out their sins, I don’t even want them to simply be “saved”, thus adding another notch to my Christian belt. What I want, and what I truly feel Christ has called me to, is to nurture relationships in my life that draw people in to the transforming love of Jesus Christ, who gives meaning to this otherwise meaningless life. I trust that your goal is the same, and that is why I felt it worthwhile to send you this message.

Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. If you have other ideas to point out, I’d love to hear them and begin a conversation on this immensely important and relevant topic. Again, thank you for the compassion your organization shows daily to those across the world. It is inspiring. That is why I know it is possible for your organization to reach the hurting in our own country the same way you have internationally. I will be praying that you consider these words; comparing them to the truths you see in God’s word and how they measure up. I promise to continue doing the same.

In Christ,

Miriam Bernard

http://billygraham.org/decision-magazine/february-2014/ducking-the-issue/

Homeless

My chest is tight even as I plunk out letters on my keyboard. Tight from a fear welled up inside me that if I write these thoughts down, they are suddenly solidified – unable to be denied. However, you reach a point sometimes at which keeping something inside becomes more painful than just letting it all out. So today I’m letting it all out.

Eric and I have stopped going to church. Last year, we went to the holiday service at the church we called home, and found the service so entertainment-focused, so far from genuine and so far from the life-transforming story of Christmas, that tears streamed down my cheeks as I watched, knowing that I would never be back.

In the new year, we set out on the search for a new home; a new place where we could experience a genuine interaction with God and his people. We read about the church of the New Testament and how they gathered in homes over food and drink and discussed the ways of God and how to be a disciple of this man named Jesus. We set out with vigor to find what God’s word described. We began to enter the churches of Orange County as the mythical and oft-discussed “first time visitors”. What we found surprised us. The churches were all identical; and not in a change-making, life-coursing-through-them kind of way. They were carbon copies of each other that don’t remotely resemble the church Eric and I have gotten to know in God’s word. After a few months, we found ourselves inside a revolving door of “new building, same routine”.

Mildly happy looking people walking into a modern-yet-understated building. Cheerful “good morning” from a greeter. Get a bulletin with some sort of sunset and a cross on it. Lights low. Sit down. Worship starts. Fog machines and lights. Stand up. Energetic worship leader in plaid shirt and jeans. Female back up singer. Cool graphics on the projection screen. Two fast songs. Two slow songs. Prayer about desiring God. Pastor welcomes. Shake the hand of someone next to you. Insincere greetings with people whose names no one will remember in 30 seconds. Sit down. 20 minute sermon referencing simple scriptures with corny jokes intertwined, culminating in the idea that God loves us no matter what. Fervent prayer. Final song. Announcement about how the church is moving out of their current, perfectly acceptable building into a new, much cooler and bigger building that will fit four times the people. Offering collection. Have a great week.

Over. And over. And over.  Timed. Contrived. Lifeless.  

When I close my eyes and imagine Jesus with his disciples, or Paul inside a crowded house, I envision no worship leaders, no “Sunday best”, no pulpits, no DVD-based sermon series. I just imagine tight little groups of people breaking bread together and soaking in the wisdom of God passed down through His word. In fact, even though David was known to sing praises to God, the only places where the words “music” and “worship” even coincide in the Bible are in relation to idol worship of pagans. How I wish I could hop in a Delorean and sit in on a service in the early church, or a meeting with Christ and his disciples and copy down the way church is to be done. But as I looked around the buildings we found ourselves in, I tilted my head and wondered: this can’t be right, can it?

My heart hurts at the state of the church. It is a gathering of THOUSANDS of kind, loving people who want relationships with God, but are instead walking into a building every Sunday and going through motions of a routine that leaves them moderately in a good mood, but without a transforming power in their lives. So they return to work on Monday with no joy, no resolve to help others and we are all worse off than before – the Gospel has not been propelled.

So many of the church’s practices are hindering the momentum of God’s presence rather than helping it. I have watched young people in church be so emotionally affected by music and overly-fervent prayer and theatrics,  that they truly THOUGHT that’s what it was all about, only to leave the church months later at the first sign of difficulty, because no roots or practicality had been part of their faith. They were the seed that fell upon shallow soil and blew away in the storm. The “experience” that the church is often selling (surely, without the intention of doing so) is what people are buying into all across America, and the result?  Shallow congregations who view church as a feel-good social club or “the right thing to do” rather than an avenue to become world-changing disciples of Christ.

Many would say that the “small group” is acting as the modern New Testament format of the church, with the Sunday service simply a “Go Team, Go” gathering to send everyone back out to the week. I do recognize that many have had genuine, strong relationships which stem from small groups and that real God experiences are had there. My complaints, however, are two-fold: 1. Those attending Sunday church who are shy about joining a small group are being missed completely. 2. Small groups often don’t provide an open, question-welcoming, doubt-is-okay format. I’ve experienced some that seem just as closed-off as the whole-church setting.

The reason it has taken me nearly a year to post this stems from another one of the problems I feel the church has today. Judgment. I’ve been terrified that my doubt in the church and its current format would spawn judgment from the people I know – that they’ll think I’ve gone off the deep end, that I’m a back-slider, that I’m a “doubting Thomas”. It seems to me that anyone who turns toward some alternative that is not the acceptable formula of today’s church immediately falls under the scrutiny of everyone else who still feels comfortable with it. I strongly feel that there exists a fear among Christians to be honest and introspective regarding their doubts and their openness toward understanding God’s word. Honest conversations are not occurring. Blind following of the crowd is rampant, and what we’re left with is a church that accepts the mindset of the masses, instead of a generation of truth-seekers.

What has given me the courage to post this is the realization that I’m not alone. In fact, Eric and I are in VERY good company, as we’ve read about young people are leaving the church in hoards due to a contrived church experience that is not meaningful. Does this mean I no longer want a relationship with God? Not at all. In fact, my prayer life and reading of God’s word have been enriched more than I would have ever imagined during this time of absence from the church, due to my desire to know the right path for Eric and me, and God’s constant, unending grace for my errant heart. God is real and alive and I cling to His nearness daily. I will never denounce my God.

But I long for church. Real church. I could write an entire other blog chronicling the times this year that I’ve been “to church” and none of them involved walking through the doors of a lovely building.  One was a Sunday afternoon laying out with my sister. We were laughing, reading magazines and having beers, when suddenly, our conversation fell upon God and we prayed over each other as tears rolled. No songs. No sermon. No theatrics or skits. Just a genuine movement of God that left each of us closer to God and each other.

So, yes, I want church. But I don’t feel comfortable buying what the current American church is selling. An article that I read recently introduced a couple who left the church and chronicled what they did instead. I cried as I read about all the places they could go and instantly “belong” regardless of who they were – but that the church was never one of those places. What a tragedy. I’ve experienced some of the same. Many churches boast “A place for everyone to belong” or “All are welcome here!” but if you look around and see who is attending; the lack of diversity, the absence of the poor, homeless, disenfranchised,  or different you’ll see that the “welcome one and all” message is not getting through.

Earlier today my husband posted an article about some churches in Texas that are including craft beer as part of their service. Lutheran churches, no less. It’s not a “come and get free beer if you attend our church” idea. It’s stemming off the notion of something more; a “come as you are – even beer drinkers” philosophy. A “Cheers” kind of church, taking the familiarity of the idea of a bar, but adding in the absolutely transformative power of Christ and seeing where it goes. It’s different. It’s experimental. It excites me. It may even attract the leery who view the church as a legalistic house of “rules” that they could never be a part of. It says “You’re accepted here.” Also, I think this funny idea welcomes in a completely neglected species who are marginalized in most church services: MEN. Men who have avoided church so they don’t have to awkwardly sing “Jesus, you are my lover” week after week, who have to hold hands with strangers in prayer circles, who have to “share their feelings” and “talk it out”, who are being asked to be part of the emotion-ridden services that exist today. My husband longs for the “Sit around the campfire eating freshly caught fish” gospel the disciples experienced. Men need to be welcomed back. (Feel free to pick up “Why Men Hate Going to Church” by David Murrow for statistics on male vs. female church attendance and other startling information).

No, I’m not saying beer is inherently what the church today needs. I’m simply giving you an idea of the places my husband and I are looking to find a sampling of Christianity that looks more like the simplicity, honesty and openness we have always seen in the Bible, but not anywhere else. We know no church is perfect, and we’re not looking for perfection. But we’re not settling until God calls us to a place that undoubtedly represents truth according to His word, and is willing to go against the predictable and ineffective mold of the modern Christian church.

This is only one opinion. I know that some of what I’ve stated here could be wrong. I’m not claiming absolute truth. I’m only claiming absolute honesty. I welcome the judgment and the questions from anyone who wants to ask them, because remaining quiet and pretending gets us nowhere. I am a truth-seeker.

God’s people are meant to be in fellowship with each other, grow from each other and encourage one another in their faith. I know that out there somewhere, like me, someone is looking for a radical, make-atheists-do-a-double-take kind of change. I declare: we will not be homeless forever.

Please feel free to read the articles that prompted my writing today:

  1. https://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church
  2. http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/october/confessions-of-returned-millennial-christian.html?visit_source=facebook&start=1
  3. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/11/03/242301642/to-stave-off-decline-churches-attract-new-members-with-beer?utm_content=socialflow&utm_campaign=nprfacebook&utm_source=npr&utm_medium=facebook

 *If we are Facebook friends, please post any comments on my Facebook page. I don’t check blog comments as often. ❤

~ Miriam

This Year

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Nothing puts me in the mood to write like the start of a new school year does. There’s a freshness in the air. A new beginning. A chance to start over. It’s something about the blend of emotions – excitement, anxiety, and thoughts swirling around – that really push me to just get it all out onto a piece of paper.

I’m beyond grateful to have a job that I care so intensely about and that provides me with such a deep sense of satisfaction and meaning. I want more than anything to excel at it. I won’t stop UNTIL I excel at it. So this year, as I have for the two prior, I wrote a Mission Statement of sorts. A plan to be better. Something I can read aloud every morning and receive a new sense of determination to meet my goals.

Here is my mantra for the 2012-2013 school year:

I will set my expectations higher than ever before.

I will give compliments freely, but be sure that they are meaningful and specific.

I will ask “Why?” more often to foster critical thinking.

I will pray for my students by name often.

I will keep my eyes on the details.

I will correct lovingly – as often as it takes.

I will accept no less than each student’s best.

I will remember that what I do always speaks louder than what I say.

I will look my students in the eye, and REALLY listen.

I will remember that sometimes the love and attention I am offering a child could be the only affection he or she will receive that day.

I will use God’s Word to guide me when mediating student disagreements.

I will learn to respond, rather than react.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Colossians 3:23-24

Ciao!

~ Mir

God save Queen.

It all began innocently enough. I had spent an idyllic hour unwinding after work at the perfect teacher getaway – the Yorba Linda Public Library. I bask in the silence and the smell of old books. Plus, they have a great happy hour. You’re permitted to check out ten CDs at a time. TEN CDS! For free! (This happy hour special runs all day every day. Bonus.) And yes, even though you do have to rummage past every album Hanson ever recorded and more George Strait music than you’ve ever seen in your life, there are so many gems tucked into those special drawers of compact discs. It is a refuge of tranquility after a long day.

On this particular day, while browsing disc by disc through the Rock section, I unsuspectingly came upon Queen’s two-disc Greatest Hits album. Immediately, I imagined the fun of singing “Thunder bolts and lightning, very very frightening, me! Galileo! Galileo! Galileo Figaro!… Beezlebub has a devil put aside for me, for meeeee, for MEEEEEEEE….”  in my car while passersby stared in confusion. The vision was enough to make me drop it into my basket. After all, a little classic rock was needed to spice up the usual mix of mellow folk and singer-songwriter nap time tunes I usually check out. Little did I know this would be the start of a new musical era in my life.

A few days later, I found myself in terrible traffic leaving Pasadena, and decided to let my GPS lead me on a wild goose chase of all side-streets back home. Pasadena to Yorba Linda on side streets. It’s crazy long. Google it. I was feeling a sense of whimsy and adventure, so I decided this was the perfect time to pop in some Queen. After howling my way through Bohemian Rhapsody, I decided to just let it play. At that moment, I had no idea that  what awaited me was some of the most innovative, contagious, astoundingly entertaining music I have heard in a very long while. It made me smile. It made me sing out loud. It made me want to ride my bicycle. I was falling in love at first listen with this band called Queen.

This is the point where I will apologize to all my rock-loving music friends for my ignorance toward this group. Yes, I can now admit that up until that day, my knowledge of Queen did not extend past We Will Rock You and Another One Bites the Dust. NOW, however, I have thoroughly read their entire Wikipedia page, including discography (which means I’m basically an expert), and far more importantly, I took the great pleasure of watching their 1986 concert at Wembley Stadium. You know, THE QUEEN CONCERT. Of all time. From which this meme was born:

The concert needs a paragraph, nay, a book, all its own. The energy! The excitement! The electricity in the air!!! And holy mother of God, Freddie Mercury’s TEETH! I never knew. I never knew of the epic teeth. I laughed aloud for several minutes. But besides that, what made the show at Wembley so very special is that, by 1986 Queen had been together and generating top-shelf rock tunes for over 13 years. They had more than a few mega-hits up their sleeves, and in this show, they played them ALL. Freddie Mercury left his heart on the stage that day. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to go back to that blessed day of July 12th, 1986, exactly 14 days after I was born (GASP!) and watch that legendary music be made. If you have two hours to give in exchange for revolutionizing music as you know it, click here.

THE TEETH.

I fell further in love when I learned that Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara, spent much of his childhood in Bombay, India, playing the piano and idolizing Bollywood singers. Once again my life comes full circle when I find that one of my favorite genres of music – Indian/Bollywood – influenced a rock god in his younger years.

And yet, becoming such an adoring fan of Queen in the year 2012 is kind of like watching Titanic for the 50th time. You swoon when they kiss, and cheer when they decide to be together, but your heart aches all the while because you know how it ends. Such a sad and tragic end for such a flame of talent. (I’m referring to Mercury here, not Jack Dawson).

Nonetheless, they’re gaining new fans every day despite their demise in the 1990s. That’s because their music is freakin’ incredible and, I am truly convinced, will live on forever. I have spent most of 2012 driving to work listening to KUSC classical and the soothing voice of Dennis Bartel. However, for entire the month of May, I have put the song “Don’t Stop Me Now” on repeat and I sing it at the top of my lungs to get myself pumped up for the work day. It is probably a hilarious sight to behold from outside of my car, because I get very serious about the theatrics. I have been amazed at how energized and happy I arrive at work. Who needs caffeine?! Whoever wants to go out for karaoke, call me up. I’ve got my Queen repertoire locked and loaded!

When the inevitable day came that I realized my ten library CDs were several days overdue (so I’m a proud monetary supporter of the library system, so what?), I brought nine of them into the librarian. I just can’t bear to give back my Queen yet. Even today, it wasn’t until I had already passed the library that I remembered I was supposed to return it. I had been too busy singing, “She’s a killer queen, gunpowder, guillotine, dynamite with a laser beam! Guaranteed to blow your mind – Anytime, anytime, ANYTIME!!!”

What I love the most about this special group, is that it has wedged open the once-closed door of classic rock in my musical tastes. I had been so wrapped up in my Norah Jones, Karen Carpenter and John Mayer, that I never bothered with what I previously would have considered “noise”. I suppose I had the musical preferences of a crotchety old woman. Now, I spent the weekend listening to Aerosmith, the Eagles, Journey, Guns N Roses, and Kansas. It was all the songs I’ve heard a hundred times before, but simply never actually listened to. The musicality is fantastic. The creativity is raw and real. There is a reason so many people are enamored with the classic rock era. It is a genre centered around freedom and an exciting, albeit false, sense of immortality. So, who’s down for a road trip to Full Throttle Saloon? Tattoos, Harleys and Pabst Blue Ribbon obviously included.

I will never cease to be amazed at music’s ability to open dusty, neglected corners of my heart and awaken parts of my mind that I never knew existed. As in all things, music is another opportunity for us to stretch and challenge ourselves. Don’t allow yourself to settle into the same old rut, and bypass opportunities for new joys. God save Queen.

Ciao!

~ Mir

Child-like Faith

When I was a little girl, about the age of five, my mom entered me in a sweepstakes through K-CAL 9 for a family pack of tickets to Disney on Ice. I was very excited about the idea of going to see Mickey and Minnie gracefully skating across the rink. After my mom had sent in our entry, I would ask daily, “Mommy, when are my special tickets coming? My tickets to see Mickey on the ice? When are they coming?” Over and over, my mom tried to gently explain the concept of a “sweepstakes” and how my chances of winning were one in many many thousand. For some reason, I didn’t understand. I just kept asking. My excitement for my special tickets grew and grew, and all the while, my mom prepared for the day that the contest would end, and she would have to tell me once and for all, “The tickets will never come.”

One day, while looking through the mail, an envelope caught my mother’s eye. The return address read “K-CAL 9” and she curiously opened the envelope. Inside was a letter of congratulations and four tickets to Disney on Ice. I had won the sweepstakes. In disbelief, my mom came to tell me the exciting news: that my tickets had arrived. Our household was full of joy that afternoon. My parents rejoiced out of shock, and I excitedly held the tickets that had FINALLY arrived after my weeks of waiting!

You’ve got to love a story with a happy ending, right? My mind drifted back to this event this morning while sitting in the pew at my home church, Eastside Christian in Fullerton, CA. Our worship leader, Joel, read a passage from the little known book of Habakkuk. It states:

Habakkuk 3:17-19

Though the cherry trees don’t blossom
and the strawberries don’t ripen,
Though the apples are worm-eaten
and the wheat fields stunted,
Though the sheep pens are sheepless
and the cattle barns empty,
I’m singing joyful praise to God.
I’m turning cartwheels of joy to my Savior God.
Counting on God’s Rule to prevail,
I take heart and gain strength.
I run like a deer.
I feel like I’m king of the mountain!

What caught my ear in this passage is the phrase, “Counting on God’s Rule to prevail”. The person who wrote this passage, in the midst of a time of famine and misfortune, is turning cartwheels in joy, because he has something to count on: God’s Rule always prevails.

The average adult would say that my excitement to see Disney on Ice before I knew I had won the tickets was premature and uncalled for. I didn’t understand the concept of a sweepstakes; therefore I celebrated my win before the win had even actually occurred. From one perspective it sounds foolish, indeed. However, is this not the very definition of “child-like faith” God describes to us His Word? A child, having little understanding of the big picture, is able to have joy and count on the good that is arriving, and it is BECAUSE of that faith, that God’s Rule prevails.

It is my goal for my own life, and for the life of my friends, to look at difficult times as they come, and turn CARTWHEELS OF JOY, because they are rejoicing for the good things they know God is going to do in the future.

Today is a day to ignore the practical, the likely, and even the expected, and take on a child-like faith. Ask God, “When are my tickets coming?” CHOOSE to believe that someday you’re going to open the mail and see that envelope, and rejoice in honor of that day. For that is true child-like faith.

Written in honor of my dear friend, Theresa. I love you, friend!

Ciao!

~ Mir

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