Monday, December 19, 2005

Thoughts on mistaken identity

You know, although most of my posts so far in this blog have been pretty random, I usually have an idea as to what I'm trying to say, but today ought to be interesting, my thought for the day is pretty much a random ramble. Not that it matters as nobody seems to be reading this or giving feedback. Hmmm...

Anyway, I had an odd moment this morning. I have a co-worker that for quite some time I had thought was a lesbian. Then somebody told me that she was a Christian. Then I overheard her saying something that seemed to confirm that she was indeed a lesbian. Then I overheard her talking about church. Back and forth, back and forth... I was confused, and to this day, I still don't know for sure whether she is a Christian or a lesbian.

The thing is, well, that "back and forth" thing I said above. In my mind, while I was trying to sort out her personal life without being pushy and outright asking her for personal information that I don't need in order to do my job properly, it did feel like a "back and forth" thing. Surely she was either a lesbian or a Christian, right? But I realized in specific this morning something that I knew in general already. It may be possible that she is both! I mean, why not?

In particular, I had an online friend a couple years ago that I had known for some time, and this young woman was, as far as I knew, a very good, upstanding and moral person who had a solid grasp on Christian theology. She was intelligent, well-versed in the Bible, and devoted to serving God in her life. Then I found out that she was a lesbian, too. Because I knew her as well as I did, my impression of who she was as a person was not really altered much by this revelation. (Unfortunately, I found out about it roughly the same time her parents did, and her parents, whom you'd think would have an even better grasp on who she really was in her heart of hearts, had a much less favorable reaction to her coming out of the closet.) While I do tend to be of the understanding that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, it's not something I have a personal problem with, nor is it a sticking point in my personal grasp of Christian doctrine. I'm much more inclined to believe I'm mistaken about that point than about 90% of the rest of my doctrine.

My friend was a good person, and a good Christian, and even if same-sex sexual relations indeed are a sin, I did not, and still do not believe that her attraction to people of the same gender makes her any less so. Yet at the same time, because of my understanding of doctrine, it's hard for me to accept someone as being a Christian from the get-go if they have certain characteristics. Why is that?

I suppose it's a form of prejudice, even though in this case it stems from a doctrinal issue. There are probably a lot of things that are characteristic of myself that would make other Christians question the status of my salvation and/or devotion. I'm a registered Democrat, have long hair and tattoos, listen almost exclusively to secular music, and enjoy reading the Harry Potter books. Sheesh, I might as well be a Satan worshipper as well as some of that!

The Christian life is hard enough on its own that it doesn't need the complications of trying to do God's work of sorting out the saved and the unsaved. Trying to relate to other Christians can be a tricky thing. As much as there is a good amount of agreement over the main points of Christian doctrine among the majority of believers, sometimes there can be a bit of discomfort to be discussing some matter or another with a fellow Christian, and they happen to mention something concerning their personal beliefs that makes for an awkward moment. Maybe they stress the importance of being "born again" (a term only found once in the entire Bible, if I'm not mistaken) while you yourself don't commonly use the term. Maybe you find out that they are a member of a Christian denomination that you consider to be doctrinally questionable, or the reverse: they believe the denomination you belong to is questionable! Maybe they engage in behaviors you find morally questionable, or even outright wrong.

Of course, even non-Christians can probably go through this, as we all have expectations that the people around us are like us to some extent. But you find out that a close friend is a racist, or they have a drug habit, or there's some strange secret in their past, and it throws you for a loop. Perhaps Christians just expect more similarity within the family of God, but why should we? There's probably not much similarity within a regular sort of family. I remember a time when I was a kid and a bunch of my cousins were all bored, so we started sharing secrets about things we'd done that nobody knew about. It was shocking, no doubt about it, but sometimes the most shocking secrets are the ones that are hidden in plain sight. I have a cousin on my mother's side of the family who is also Jewish, and although I've known her all of my life, I didn't know she was Jewish until I was about twenty. She didn't hide her identity, but she also didn't talk about it enough that it was widely known. Finding out didn't change my estimation of her at all, but it threw me for a loop, because I felt that I should have known.

But is there any singular given "flag" that marks one as being Jewish? (I mean, not in the official sense that an Orthodox Rabbi would use, but in a more general cultural/genetic sense.) While there are certain characteristics that are associated with being Jewish, it is far from the truth that all Jews look the same, act the same, and believe the same things. How about being gay? As far as I have known, there is nothing at all that homosexuals have in common across the continuum, despite stereotypes one sees portrayed on "Will & Grace".

The truth is, we as human beings living in a society will categorize and stereotype people as a matter of course, because it makes life easier to get a handle on. While we know intellectually that every person in the world is an individual, our brains can't handle the concept of six billion individuals, so we make clumps of people and think consciously or subconsciously, "These people are all like this..." While it's not wrong per se, it can be jarring at times when we find our categories break down. No Christian could possibly vote Democrat. No member of my family could possibly be a drug addict. No lesbian could possibly be a regular churchgoer.

I don't know what my point in all of this is, nor quite what the theological significance might be, except for the obvious that it's best to keep an open mind, perhaps.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

'Tis the season to be complaining

It wasn't the subject of this weekend's sermon at church, but it was mentioned. What the heck is the deal with the fact that sales associates in stores will not wish you a "Merry Christmas", but insist on "Happy Holidays"? I've been hearing a lot about it this year in particular, and it does seem to be rampant this year for unknown reasons, although maybe it's just that my attention has been drawn to it.

Still, Saturday morning I was sitting with my kids watching "Blue's Clues", their favorite show (and really an excellent one), and it was a holiday episode. It was definitely not a Christmas episode, repeatedly Joe wished the viewers "Happy Holidays", they exchanged "Holiday presents" and in the mail, Joe got a "Holiday card". The card was also an oddity, in that it featured four kids (for those not familiar with this children's program, the "mail" is pretty much always a video segment) who were each celebrating the holidays in their own way. One was celebrating Chanukkah, one celebrating Kwanzaa, one celebrating Ramadan, and one actually celebrating Christmas. I like the idea of not only featuring all of these holidays but making it clear that they are not different versions of the same holiday. (I was always irked as a Jewish child when teachers in school would tell students that Chanukkah was the "Jewish Christmas", a ridiculous concept.) Oddly enough, though, each kid had their own segment of the video to explain their holiday and its meaning but the kid celebrating Christmas. Not even a "secular" Christmas explanation.

You know "secular" Christmas. It's what I always celebrated with my mother at her house as a child. My Jewish father didn't like the idea of his son celebrating Christmas, and while it's understandable, I had no idea that Christmas was supposed to have anything to do with Christ; I had no idea who Christ was, actually. Christmas for my family and for many others means a tree with little glass globes hanging on it, lots of candy, maybe a wreath on the door, and then on the actual day, we get lots of toys. What does any of that have to do with Christ?

As a Christian now, what I often hear around this time of year is that we've forgotten the "true meaning of Christmas". Those are meant to be ironic quotes, in case you couldn't tell. That phrase gets tossed around a lot, and there's no consensus on what the "true meaning" actually is. Watch five Christmas movies and see five different definitions of what it is:

  • Being with family
  • Helping the poor
  • Believing in Santa Claus
  • Giving, not receiving
  • Peace on Earth
Everyone seems so sure that their idea of what Christmas is about is the "true meaning", and a lot of Christians seem to grind their teeth and grumble, "Sheesh, I thought it was about Jesus..." The fact is, all of the above things are fine and dandy (even believing in Santa Claus, for various reasons), and there's little or no reason to complain about them per se. Still, I suppose as a Christian one might wish that Christ could get more attention, especially on the holiday that is named after Him and is designed to be the commemoration of His birth. but still, what's the point in complaining?

Aside from the fact that Jesus almost certainly wasn't born on December 25th (a fact that ought to come as a surprise to very few people) and so it's really an artificial holiday that the Catholic Church stole from the Pagans sometime in the 4th century more or less, there is a question that lingers in the back of my mind year after year and came to full surface this year. At the risk of piling another level of complaint on top of what's already there: what gives?

Maybe I'm missing something by being in a church short on liturgy, or maybe not, but even as a person who believes in the truth of the Bible and wishes to use the date of December 25th to commemorate the events of Luke chapter 2, what the heck is the "true meaning of Christmas"? Peek in the window of my house, and you'd see the tree with the lights and little glass balls, and stockings hung on the bookshelf (no fireplace available), and wrapped presents for the children. Frankly, it doesn't look much different from what most non-Christian houses are probably looking like.

I enjoy getting into the "spirit" of Christmas with my wife; shopping for the tree, putting up lights, making cookie treats and the like. But all the time I was going through that string of tree lights looking for the burned-out bulbs so that the tree could look picture-perfect, I was thinking, "I'm spending hours this month doing stuff of no clear significance, when I can barely seem to find time to sit quietly and read the Bible. Is this right?"

Maybe the "true meaning of Christmas" is not to be found in chapter two, but in chapter 10;

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Is honoring Christ all about busying yourself to make everything fancy and nice, or is it taking the time to sit at His feet, listening to what He has to say to you? Yeah, as so many people point out about the story above, somebody had to make the meal, right? Thank God for the Marthas out there who are always working to be gracious hostesses. But in the midst of all the craziness of shopping for presents and making holiday meals, I hope everyone will have a time to stop complaining about how they seem to be the only person around who cares about making Christmas what it should be, and takes time to just sit down, relax, and hear what God has to say.

And that goes for people of any religion. Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Imagine no John Lennon

As what seems to me to be an interesting bit of coincidence, I was thinking about the subject of John Lennon's death this morning, having no clue that today was the 25th anniversary of his murder. The song "Imagine" was stuck in my head, and I don't think I had heard it on the radio or anything, and it got me to thinking about that song that which I usually do. Namely, that John Lennon's funeral seems like just about the only funeral at which playing the song would be appropriate.

About 15 years ago, my family got together for a memorial service for my grandmother who had passed away about a month previously, and the first thing we did at the actual service was have my sister and cousin sing "Imagine". Even being a non-Christian at the time, I thought there was something vaguely tacky about it; after all, the opening line of the song is, "Imagine there's no heaven," which hardly seems like a sentiment one wants to imagine in the context of a beloved friend of family member passing from this life. Don't we really, at such times at least, want to imagine that there is a Heaven (assuming we don't already believe there to be one), and that our departed loved one is surely there at this moment, perhaps floating on a cloud playing a harp, lounging on soft cushions with their personal cadre of seventy houris, or perhaps looking down lovingly upon us, bathing us in the radiant warmth of their unleashed spirit?

Maybe Lennon's right though. After all, if we "imagine there's no heaven," then we can also imagine "no hell below us". Once we start coalescing on the idea of an afterlife, it's hard for many of us to imagine an eternal paradise without the flipside to that coin. Imagine that there's a Heaven after all; how can we know that my grandmother is there, or John Lennon?

Not that I have anything against John Lennon. First and foremost, he was a wonderful musician who had a profound effect on pop music ever since the Quarrymen changed their names to The Beatles. Also he was, as far as I know, a great humanitarian, activist for peace, and loving father. It's a mystery to me why any sane person would want to kill him, but apparently the person who did kill him wasn't. But does any of that matter in the final tally?

Lennon would also like people to imagine "no countries" and "no religion, too". It's funny, but I suspect many conservative Christians would tend to think of these ideas as subversive and anti-Christian, but it seems to me that this is the state of affairs described at the end of the Book of Revelation in the Bible, perhaps particularly chapter 21. Heaven passes away, there is an end to governments, and even an end to religion in the usual sense at least. Sure, the words of the song are a bit subversive, but in the end, aren't the words of our own scriptures? Still, I do have to say that it does seem unlikely that the message of John the Apostle was the same one as John the Beatle, although there are some parallels, no doubt. The book of 1John says, "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God," while Lennon put it simply, "All you need is love."

My grandmother was definitely a loving person, although I don't know of her writing anything profound on the subject. She was very passionate about political activism, the environment, and her family. One thing that I have no idea whether or not she had any passion for, and thus I would feel fairly safe to assume against, was religion and God.

The maternal side of my family are Unitarian universalists, and have been for generations. I have no way of knowing if anyone reading this knows anything about this sort-of-Christian sect, but they're largely known for believing in erasing the borders between belief systems. Want to be a Hindu, but also be a Unitarian? Why not? Don't believe in God, but still like to go to church? Sure, if it floats your boat... I don't know if they invented the concept that what you believe doesn't matter so long as you're sincere, but they went a long way towards perfecting it.

Still, at the memorial service, the song was sung, and while there may have been no intentional drive to choose a song with meaningful lyrics in a spiritual sense, it's that first line that sticks with me after all these years. I'm comforted by the thought of no countries; I've often said that maps are made up of two kinds of lines: connecting lines and dividing lines, and we need more of the former and less of the latter. I like the idea of no possessions; an idealized anarcho-communistic state in which all possessions were shared to the point where the concept of "possessions" ceased to have meaning sounds delicious. But no Heaven? Universalists believe everyone goes to Heaven, so why would we like to believe it's not there?

Maybe because despite the fact that so many of these ideals presented to us in Lennon's little lyrical daydream seem so nice, they simply aren't realistic. Nations will continue to exist, and so long as they do, men will continue to fight and even kill over who will control them, and the possessions found therein. Maybe because Heaven is one thing that we do have to imagine, since it's not here on earth with us, it's easier to imagine it gone, than to imagine it existing without its supposed polar opposite. If Heaven's there, there's probably a Hell, too. And if there's a Hell, it's probably got people in it. Maybe even John Lennon. Can we do something about it, or is it easier just to imagine it away?

Imagine there is a Heaven, and that the things we do on this earth can make a difference in making people a little closer to Heaven every day. Or better yet, believe in it, like I do.

I'm not the only one.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Membership hath its privileges

There's an interesting facet of Christianity that I find sometimes hard to swallow on an intellectual level, despite the fact that I take it on faith. People that are not Christians, mostly agnostics and atheists, complain that it's unfair for Christianity to make the claim that it has exclusive access to Truth-with-a-capital-T. If Jesus is going to say "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) then isn't he being rather intolerant? Well aside from the fact that I don't think that this technically fits the actual definition of intolerant, and that Jesus, being God, pretty much has the right to set the rules however He wants, the thing I think this objection misses very often is the fact that Christianity is not the only religion by far that makes claims of exclusivity. Lots and lots of religions claim to be the only "true" religion, and really, it's a whole topic in itself as to why I think that's not only acceptable, but desirable in a religious practice. But this topic of exclusivity is not the "facet" that I really wanted to talk about, although it's somewhat related, I suppose.

The thing about Christianity that I was pondering yesterday evening was part of the whole, "Don't say you'll believe it when you see it, but believe and then you'll see!" phenomenon. While I believe that there is a great deal of Christianity and its doctrines that can be intellectually understood without having to be a Christian, I think all (well, perhaps most) Christians realize that there is an element of faith that only true believers have a grasp on. We evangelicals have what we like to call "a personal relationship with God." What is that, exactly? I don't think I can describe it to someone who hasn't experienced it for themself, which is too bad, since it's what's really at the heart of Christianity when you strip everything else away.

Interestingly enough, and one of the reasons it's related to the topic in the first paragraph, I found myself pondering this in the midst of reading about Zen Buddhism. I realized that exclusivity is not the only thing by far about Christianity that's hard for an outsider to accept, yet is common to many religions. What is at the center of Zen Buddhism? The experience of zen. What is zen? Well, although philosophers of various religious beliefs can talk about it at length and discuss things about zen, zen itself is not something that can be put into words, even by those who have experienced it. In fact, the inability to describe zen is an inherent property of it, the word "zen" meaning essentially "wordlessness".

Such a concept is found in the Bible in a number of ways. Paul wrote about a vision in which "He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell." (2Cor. 12:4) But aside from that special incident, he writes more generally and practically that "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1Cor. 2:14) There is a concept in many religions that there is just a certain level of spiritual enlightenment that only the true believers will ever experience.

Interestingly enough, I'd say that it's a belief that even some atheists harbor in an odd way. I've been told by atheists that if only I would cease to believe in God for a moment, I'd see how ridiculous the Bible and Christianity as a whole are. Perhaps they're right, but if so, aren't they essentially suggesting that there is such a thing as special atheistic enlightenment that only true atheists can experience? What a concept! (It's hardly a common view among atheists in general, though. If atheists were a religious classification as Christianity is, there would probably be as many "sects" of atheism as there are atheists.)

I'm wondering if the only point of this blog is to toss out thoughts on unanswerable questions that I'm not really asking, nor looking for feedback on. I'm not sure what my point is here in general, and it sounds like yesterday's post, with a lot of "well maybe, or maybe not". Are these facets of Christianity logically unacceptable? Yet they're used by so many. I remember the irony of once having a discussion on the value of various "ex-gay" ministries. There was a lesbian who claimed that if any of these sorts of ministries ever had any successes, it wasn't that they were turning homosexuals into non-homosexuals, but that they were turning bisexuals into operative heterosexuals. How could she be so sure? Because if they were able to be attracted to women ever, then they were simply not homosexuals, nor had they ever been. I thought this was a very familiar concept, and realized it was from 1John 2:19: "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us." See, there's no such thing as an ex-Christian; if a person leaves Christianity, it means they were never really a part of it in the first place.

Christianity has its particulars that are strange and hard to understand, but they don't set it apart as particularly wrong so much as just one among many belief systems. Sure, Christianity is special, but not for any of the above reasons.