Mary Did You…Yeah, She Knew. Do You?

Christmas is often anticlimactic; it’s rarely as intense as the preparation. Even reading Luke 2 can be perfunctory and tedious, especially when there are gifts to be opened, fun to be had. 

I imagine Mary knew a bit about tedious, anticlimactic events. After an arduous journey to Bethlehem, she gives birth, perhaps in a stable because Joseph’s people apparently had no room for his (ahem) pregnant fiancé. That lonely, lowly delivery sits in stark contrast to the angel-from-God-highly-favored-overshadowed-by-the-Holy-Spirit message. Rather vulgar way to begin her tenure as mother to the King of Kings, don’t you think?  

Fortunately, things look up a bit with the star-and-shepherds scene a few verses later, followed by–much later than the children’s church skit allows–the super cool visit from the wise men, gifts in hand. Nice, expensive gifts. 

But barely is the wrapping paper off than the young family gets another angel message: Run. Now. Satan is playing Herod like a fiddle, determined to end the royal toddler’s life. They run. Jesus is spared. Others are not. The collateral damage is devastating: Mothers weeping for their children, refusing to be comforted. Surely, our Mary wept with them. And just as surely Simeon’s words began to take shape for her: “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

For many years, that sword hung on a thread above her head. We regard her as “highly-favored” and “blessed among women,” but Mary’s dread must have been building as her son–because that’s what he was to her, not yet her King or her savior, her son–began to attract crowds of followers and factions of haters. 

And then the day came when the sword dropped. That day, Mary was not visited by angels or comforted by titles or envied by her peers. That day, all the years of teaching, training, praying, and loving must have lost their luster. That was her child, innocent and good, being humiliated and tortured and mocked and murdered. This is favor? Her soul pierced?

This is favor. Our souls pierced. Our hearts revealed as hard and impatient.  Our celebrations exposed as shallow and self-serving. This Christmas, every Christmas, we must remind ourselves that it wasn’t a cradle that delivered us but a cross. 

I’ve heard it said that our Lord borrowed a womb and a tomb…and houses and mules and upper rooms. Nonsense. It’s his world. And he didn’t end up in a manger because the world refused him its best, but because its best was no better. Without his presence, nothing–palace or stable–is good. But glory, honor, and fullness of joy are in his presence. 

What beauty there is exists because he shows up–not in the glitter or in the gold, not in the feast or in the fire, not in the lights or in the laughter, but in the empty places, the dirty places, the dark and hungry and hurting places. He shows up in the loneliness and the lowliness and the longing, when the merry is over and all that’s left is the mess. 

When he shows up, invite him in. He is literally the life of the party. 

And he’s really, really good at cleaning house. 

That’s the word. I’m a witness. 
Merry Christmas.   

 

This is my Thanksgiving blog 

There are a few things I hate about cheesy holiday movies: They follow the same script, someone is always advising someone else that he/she deserves to be happy, and one of the sages on the stage is going to utter “follow your heart.”

[Insert screech-crash-dead silence here.]

Reality check number one: People don’t always follow the script. If you move stage right, make your sweetheart a sandwich, and compliment the way he holds the remote control, do not expect him to repay that gesture with an Alaskan cruise,* a new ring, or a channel turn to something you’d rather watch. (And for those of you who think I’m being sexist, just flip the script. She’s likely to tell you in no uncertain terms that it was a nice try but there’s another TV in the bedroom.) By the same token, if you act like a total butt, choose to see everything through a lens of self-pity, and basically flip the universe off every time you don’t get your way, there are still people on this messy little planet who will love you, forgive you, and wisely tell you the truth about yourself. (That is in The Script, by the way. But don’t expect everyone to have read that one, much less actually follow it.) 

Reality check number two: Happiness is not a little somethin’-somethin’ Santa or Cupid or Apple slips into your stocking because you’ve been good all year…or at least you haven’t been as bad as you could have been, as in you mostly dressed modestly, avoided the f-word**in public, and didn’t punch anybody in the face. Happiness isn’t something “deserved” by virtue of birth like,say,  justice. If it’s deserved, it’s a right; if it’s a right, it’s something that can be demanded. From whom? From people who don’t follow scripts? Good luck with that. 

No, happiness isn’t under the jurisdiction of a government, a people group, a social situation, or everyday circumstances. Happy people are everywhere, even in places we’d never think to look for them: hospitals, shelters, third world countries, even (gasp) Wall Street. And here’s what positive psychology has discovered happy people have in common: They are smarter, more successful, healthier, and better able to manage stress than chronically unhappy people. And those bonuses are the EFFECT of their happiness, not the cause. In other words, gratitude and optimism–the two main ingredients of happiness–have pretty sweet benefits. But if we wait for the benefits to create the happiness, we are doing the illogical, impossible equivalent of waiting for the muscle tone and weight loss to create the desire to start exercising and eating right. That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.*** Happy people follow the biblical precept of humility: They recognize they aren’t all that thus they have no expectation of special treatment, they attend to the needs of others before their own desires, and they are grateful for the smallest of gestures and the simplest of pleasures. (That’ll travel. And it has. Through time and space.) 

Reality check number three: Your “heart” is stupid sometimes. Do not, I repeat, do not follow it without checking with your head, your gut, and a long-range financial planner. (Sort of just kidding on that last part.) Here’s the thing: In real life–which is nothing like TV life, Hallmark–hearts are smart. [Pause while the unintentional rhyme is acknowledged.] Hearts are so smart that they are constantly sending complex messages to brains that keep bodies functioning efficiently. The heart is the body’s pace car; it’s the organ the other organs will die for. Seriously. So it’s no pink tissue paper decoration for your rib cage. But what Hallmark calls “the heart” is actually the emotions. And emotions, while valid measures of things like grief and excitement and desire to parachute out of a plane, can be messed with by lack of sleep, rubber snakes, and hormones. So emotions aren’t bad tour guides but they make pretty lousy team leaders. And they should never be your pace car. Wisdom should be the voice in your head when your emotions are screaming and rattling their crib…or their cage. Emotions may tell you everyone but you has it great and you just can’t get a break. Wisdom knows that’s absurd and if you’d stop whining and start making better choices, you’d be more likely to accomplish and/or attract the very thing you desire. Emotions may tell you that you’ve been through a lot and you deserve to feel miserable. Wisdom won’t even be listening to that mess because it’ll be too busy helping someone else out of his misery. Emotions may tell you that it’s too late, that there’s no hope for you. But wisdom will patiently, gently, tirelessly remind you that every breath represents the gift of hope and that it’s never too late as long as there’s still time on the clock. 

There’s still time on the clock, dear one. There’s still time on the clock, breath in your body, hope in your heart, and light in the window. Come home. 

Happy Thanksgiving. 

*I want an Alaskan cruise. 

**I more or less lifted these two lines from a blog a friend shared with me…but it sounds like something I would say…which is why she shared it with me…

***Right, Stacie? 

About Weapons: A Message for Christians

This blog entry is going to be brief. It’s also going to be unapologetically Christian the way porn is unapologetically pornagraphic and Criminal Minds is unapologetically disturbing and SpongeBob SquarePants is unapologetically weird and creepy.

Let me begin at the end: Using tragedy to prop up a social or political agenda is wrong.

When a mass shooting occurs, there may be arguments to be made about gun control or about the sanctity of the second amendment or about any number of peripheral issues, but NOT RIGHT THEN. Not by us.

Right then, we mourn with those who mourn.

Right then, we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and rulers of darkness and spiritual wickedness.

Right then, we who are armored and armed rely on weapons that are not carnal but that are mighty to the pulling down of strongholds.

Right then, we follow the heart of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords to those he called “the least of these” and do for them what we’d do for him…

And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe all we’ve done is make him the poster child for our favorite cause. Maybe we want to fly him alongside our flag and give him a brief nod in our pledge and display some of his most moving expressions on gilded plaques and hope he’s with our favorite team, but God help us (seriously, help us) if he shows up with a battle plan on a day we weren’t doing much beyond liking a few posts about how we could solve the latest crisis if everyone just thought like a Republican/Democrat/Libertarian/Socialist/whatever.

I don’t expect everyone, even many of my Christian friends to “get” this. It sounds like a lot of hooey, this spiritual battle stuff. But I believe in things I cannot see. The greatest enemy I ever stood against had no face I could read, no flesh I could tear. And a lot of people who have never heard the name of Christ as anything more than a curse word know exactly what I’m talking about.

So, warriors, let’s not be strong merely in our opinions, our moral outrage, our political preferences. Let’s do as we’ve been instructed: Let us be “strong in The Lord and in his mighty power.”

Oh, and forget about stocking up on shells. This is one gun fight you should bring a knife to. Or a Sword. Preferably one you’ve handled a bit lately.

That’s the Word, and I’m a witness.

Diapers and… stuff.

That’s my (youngest) girl…

fouradventure

Remember that one time we were going to write each other at least once a month… HA! Here we are over a year and a half from our last blog post. Well, today that all changes. Today, I feel like blogging. Maybe it is that my nails are longer than usual and for some reason typing feels more fun with long nails, maybe it is due to the fact that Areli-girl slept 8 hours the past two nights, maybe it is because I just watched Shia Labeouf telling me to make my dreams come true. Whatever the reason, here I am… and there you are… somewhere in cyber-space reading my virtual letter.

Currently, Seattle is playing frisbee with daddy and friends, Areli is taking her afternoon nap, and mommy is sitting indian-style on the couch surrounded by baby books and toys with an unused diaper cushioning my thigh. But let’s be real…

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What It Is, What It Was, What It Shall Be: The Legacy of E. N. Bell and the Call

ImageIn 1990, I began attending an Assembly of God church in my hometown. I had moved back to Malvern, Arkansas–a place I swore I’d never live again–after a short-lived, disastrous marriage. I had abandoned home, car, job. I had nothing…except three children under the age of three. While I was living temporarily in my parents’ home, an aunt invited me to revival services at Malvern First Assembly. I’ve been there ever since. That church accepted me. They nurtured and discipled me. They reflected Christ’s love to me. And they introduced me to the power that was available through the infilling of the Holy Spirit. My children–two world missionaries and a Marine who serves in the local church–are a product of the love and legacy of that fellowship. And for that I will be eternally grateful.

The love we received and continue to receive in that brick building on an awkward triangle of property on South Main in Malvern is noteworthy. But the legacy of that “small beginnings” assembly is what I’ll be dealing with today. It was in researching the history of Malvern First Assembly of God that I decided to begin this blog. Word and Witness was the title of the magazine a founding father of our fellowship, E. N. Bell, published in Malvern back in the early 1900s. It was in his December 20, 1913 publication that what we know as “the call” for a meeting of Pentecostals to convene in Hot Springs in April of 1914 was issued. That convention was where the Assemblies of God was born. (Eventually, his magazine was merged with another to become the fellowship’s weekly publication, The Pentecostal Evangel.)

We just passed the 100th anniversary of that call to convene, and it didn’t get much press, not even on this blog. Granted, I’m not much of a flag-waver, but I know some things are worth standing up and saluting on a regular basis. The anniversary of “the call” is one of those things. And we have biblical precedent for such memorials: wells dug, altars built, annual feasts celebrated.

Recall how the Jews reacted to Xerxes’ decree that they could stand their ground against the Persians? They partied. Before they’d even fought–much less won–the first battle. And Jewish people still celebrate that event with the Feast of Purim. So should we celebrate our game-changing moments, and the call to convene for the founding of this assembly was a game-changer in the world-wide ministry of the Church.

Thus I dedicate this blog to E.N. Bell and to “the call.”

Eudorus N. Bell and his twin brother were born in 1866 in Florida. When he was only two, his father died. From then on his already-poor family lived in destitution. At an early age, Bell recognized he was destined for ministry. He later enrolled in Stetson Academy in Florida, and the affliction of poverty continued to plague him during his tenure there. In fact, Bell sometimes had nothing more to eat than stale bread dipped in water. He was 30 when he graduated from the Academy and enrolled in Stetson University. There he earned a BA before continuing his education for two more years at Southern Baptist Seminary. Bell went on to receive a Masters in Divinity at the University of Chicago.

Here it is worth noting that many of us would not have tolerated such difficulties–or endured so long–to realize our mission. In this, Bell set an anti-ease/anti-entitlement example for those of us prone to prayers of petulance.

While pursuing his education, Bell pastored Baptist congregations in the South for nearly two decades. Then he heard of the “Pentecostal experience.” He eventually took a leave from his church in Fort Worth and traveled to Chicago to seek this experience. It would be 11 months–another example of his remarkable tenacity–before Bell had what he described as an electrifying encounter with the Holy Spirit. He returned to his Texas congregation and, under the circumstances, felt obliged to offer them his resignation. They declined to accept. A year passed before Bell resigned there and accepted a pastorate in Malvern, Arkansas.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Bell eventually issued “the call” in Word and Witness. Several months later, Pentecostals assembled in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to establish the tenets of the new fellowship. And that founding convention elected Bell to serve as the AG’s first chairman, a position now known as General Superintendent.

From its inception, the Assemblies of God has focused on fulfilling the Great Commission directives of evangelism and missions. And from those two goals it would seem we have not faltered. Most of those affiliated with the Assemblies of God live outside the United States. There are thousands of AG missionaries on the field. And every year we train and celebrate those who are sent into “Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts.” It’s impressive. But it isn’t enough.

It never has been. Here’s an excerpt of one of Bell’s exhortations to the Fellowship (The Pentecostal Evangel, November 27, 1920):

“….Brethren, no man can glorify God in this place while laboring in his own wisdom and his own strength. He must be swallowed up in God, lost in His will, and moved on by the anointing of the Holy Ghost….The field has never been more needy. The golden grain, all over this great land of ours and to the ends of the earth, is dead ripe for harvest, and no adequate forces in sight to reap it…. What are we going to do? Well, we are not going to spare ourselves….Let every pastor and evangelist be a man for God and do his best. Get one or two to help you and go in to plant the banner of our King high over every earthly banner…. God has brought you dear brethren to the Kingdom for just such a time as this….Lord, we are ashamed of ourselves. You have done so much for us, and we have done so little for Thee. How long have You been waiting on us, Lord, us men whom You baptized with the Holy Ghost?….”

How long have you been waiting on us, Lord?

I imagine somewhere there’s a stack of dusty crosses with our names on them. How long before we take them up?  It will be a travesty if what began as a call to action becomes a constitution to adopt, if what was founded as a fellowship morphs into a membership, if what started in “you shall receive power” ever settles into “you shall request privileges.”

I am no E.N. Bell, but I’d like to issue a call of my own here on the threshold of the 100th anniversary of our assembly. I’d like to call the betrothed to become the Bride. Leave off the gift registration, cancel the makeover, forget the decorations. Let him in and take the vow: for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.

Hear him: If I am lifted up, I will draw all men unto me. Not if I am discussed, debated, washed and wrapped neatly in a dark part of your private “faith.” Not if I’m gilded, stained, or painted on the foyer wall. If I be brutally born. If I be publicly sacrificed. If I wreck your religion and cross the line of your dogmatic decency and pompous propriety–then and only then will the world be drawn unto me.

That’s the Word,  and I’m a witness.

NOTE: If your church still provides copies of The Pentecostal Evangel, pick one up, read it, pass it along. These should NEVER be left in a foyer to be discarded. Unclaimed issues should be offered to local jails, shelters, hospitals. If your church doesn’t provide our publication, well, it should. Ask for it. Support it. Share it.

Sources:

Assemblies of God Enrichment Journal  enrichmentjournal.ag.org

Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center  ifphc.org

Boycott Black…THANKSGIVING?!

Many bloggers have already weighed in on this, so much so that my two cents worth may be mere ripples in a cheap mall fountain. In fact, when I got Matt Walsh’s blog in my inbox recently, I nearly aborted this post because he said a lot of what I wanted to say, what I’d already been ranting about, and said it better. Then I thought, nah, not everyone reads his blog* and I want my few and faithful readers to know what side I’m on and why.

Here’s what side I’m on: Shopping sales on sacred days is stupid. Thanksgiving may not qualify as a holy day, but thankfulness certainly ought to be sacred, as opposed to the cheap game we’ve turned it into by thanking God for parking spots, for discounts on the latest technology, for our favorite food. It’s disturbing that much of what people are showing gratitude for is based on some sliding scale of specialness: “I’m thankful for my home because many are homeless. I’m thankful for my well-stocked pantry because many are starving.” Yes, we ought to be genuinely thankful for our provisions but not because they compare favorably to the provisions of those who didn’t happen to win the born-privileged-in-a-first-world-country lottery. Comparative gratitude is just veiled bragging.

Sort of like this: I’m thankful that I ended up in a profession that allows me to have the week of Thanksgiving off. And while I don’t get paid for those days, I’m thankful that my contract is such that I can enjoy the break without fearing financial ruin. But I’m even more thankful for those who chose the medical and public safety professions. Emergencies don’t take holidays, so those folks can’t always celebrate with their families. I salute them. And gas station attendants. I’m thankful there are a few bright spots providing fuel and coffee to those who must be on the road to assist the rest of us.

But I am not in the least bit thankful that some retailers will be open on Thanksgiving day, and I don’t give a rip how deep the discounts will be.

Here’s why: We already suck** at family time, at setting aside even an hour to just sit and talk to one another without distractions. When I poll my high school students about how many have family meals sans technology, the response is depressing. Fewer than one-third of my bedroom-community, Bible-belt sophomores eat a TV/cell phone free meal with their families once a week. Thanksgiving is a family-oriented holiday. Shopping on Thanksgiving is no more a family activity than the Hunger Games is a harmless contest. Stay home and talk to your kids, parents, crazy aunts and uncles. Play a game. Take a walk. Try some face time that doesn’t require a smart phone.

Here’s another why: We already have enough stuff, hence our shallow list of things for which we are thankful. I’m not saying never make another purchase; I’m just pleading with you to not make it on Thanksgiving. It’ll keep. And it will likely still be on sale, especially if enough of us don’t show up on Thanksgiving. Basic economics, people…We drive the market. It’s time we took the back the controls.

And then there’s this: Because some knuckleheads think it’s a good idea to start Black Friday on Thanksgiving, the people who work for them will miss time with their families (and this it the part that ticked me off the most) to wait on people who have the luxury of having the day off with theirs. Granted, not all of the shoppers will be middle class professionals, but I bet someone could make a pretty distinct have/have not pie chart out of customer/employee stats.

I pointed that out to some acquaintances when the “Open Thanksgiving Day” announcements started hitting the newsfeed, and I was stunned at the responses: “So, they’ll probably get time and a half. I bet they could use the money” and “If they don’t like it, they can just quit, work somewhere else.” Um, no. I was a single mother for several years when my three children were young. I had not yet completed my degree, I was receiving no child support, my car was good for only short trips. My employment options were limited, so–because social services programs don’t pay for everything (or end poverty) and because I knew that I alone was responsible for my children and my choices–I took various low-paying jobs with few benefits to keep the electric bill paid and the kids in second-hand shoes. I could not have afforded to walk off those jobs: If I had been scheduled by my employer on a Thanksgiving, I’d have had to find a relative to keep my three small children so I could spend the “holiday” waiting on people who were getting discounts on things their children didn’t need at any price. I would not have been grateful for the time and a half. I would have been…sad.

I know exactly what it feels like to be treated like a scullery maid by someone who could not give a flip about my forlorn little family as long as she gets “an amazingly good deal, y’all!” and still has time to enjoy a latte and designer pie with her little darlings…or Folgers and leftovers…or whatever. And I know exactly what it feels like to have to work for whatever whenever so a corporation can provide bonuses to its already far-above-the-national-average executives who fly their families to resorts for the holidays.

I’m thankful I am not–and never will be–one of those jerks. I’m spending Thanksgiving with my friends and my family. I challenge you to do the same.

James 1: 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. 

_____________________________________________________________________________________

* For the record, almost everyone reads Matt Walsh’s blog. And if my audience starts reading it, I’ll have a lot less to write about.

**A lot of you recoil at this word because you associate it with a very narrow, very inappropriate connotation. But it existed long before that vulgar usage (if you don’t know what I’m referring to, don’t ask me to explain it) and has maintained several meanings during and since. Bottom line: It fits here.

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Bad Grandpa…Down, Boy!

Note: I know I promised to finish the tale continued in “An American in Babel” in my next blog, which would be this one, but I could not NOT write about this (yes, that makes sense; read it again), so I’m asking my two or three faithful readers to please forgive me for leaving you hanging once again. Part III of my journey is coming soon-ish.

I think I’ve mentioned this before: I teach high school English. When people ask me why I’m a teacher, I tell them it’s because I was born that way. I’m serious. When people ask me why high school, I tell them it’s because that’s the only age group I can tolerate being trapped with in a block building. So serious. Why English? Because I like it; at least I like the reading and writing and discussing of it. And that’s where things get really serious.

Imagine a crowded high school English class, the last block of the day. We are reading a dystopian novel because every teenager needs to understand the danger of “the man” and the oppressive nature of the unknown they…Yeah, not so much.

Ensuring a successful reading of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 with regular ed sophomores requires a good deal of pedagogical wisdom and even more dramatic pausing. I am determined that my students recognize not only the literary elements of what is read, but also their society and themselves, especially in the more culturally prophetic pieces.

So I can’t read Fahrenheit 451 without asking them about the Mildreds they know, without discussing caves and masks and mirrors, without commenting on our perpetual technological distractions and our mindless entertainment. And that’s where things picked up in my fourth block class the other day.

“Ms. VanMeter,” a student asked, “have you ever seen [insert title of random stupid movie made in the last ten years]?”

I get the question a lot. The kids are trying to kill time or sneak in something they’d rather talk about or, more often than not, set me up for a diatribe. They are amazed at the list of shows I’ve never seen, and I have a repertoire of blistering one-liners on their “entertainment” choices that they seem to enjoy. But we had a lot of ground to cover that day, so I wasn’t taking the bait.

Me [deadpan]: Have you met me?

Other students [voices overlapping]: Don’t be stupid…you know she hasn’t…why’d you ask her that?…

Student: Why not? 

Me: It’s junk. You know I don’t watch junk. 

Student: How do you know it’s junk if you don’t watch it?

I take the bait.

Me: Things, like people, usually let you know pretty quickly what they are.You just have to pay attention. We can start with the title. And the previews. (In my head I add “and the maturity level of the people who enjoy it,” but I know they’ll get a kick out of that, so I stop short of saying it. For now.)

Student: So are you gonna watch Bad Grandpa?

Me [nonplussed]: Of course not.

Student: But that movie’s hilarious! 

Other students chime in affirmatively, though most, like me, have only previews to go on. I turn the discussion to weightier matters, but it isn’t long before we are back to Bad Grandpa, thanks to a discussion of how men have been portrayed in the media in the last couple of decades–despicably. In everything from cartoons to comedies, men have been dumbed down and damned to the lowest common denominator of human decency. Thus, I said, my disgust with movies like Bad Grandpa. To take the patriarch of a family and reduce him to a juvenile expression of baseness and prurience, someone who tosses one dollar bills at a child dressed up and dancing like a stripper on a pole

Laughter. Lots of it.

Uh, oh. This was going to get ugly.

And so it did. My pointed lecturing gave way to fury. The next few lines were delivered with a pounding of both hand and tongue, so loud my words were heard by the teacher next door.

THAT’S NOT FUNNY! THAT IS NOT FUNNY! There is nothing funny about a child on a pole, about a man throwing ones at a child on a pole. Every day on this planet children are sold to satisfy the sexual desires of the depraved and anything that so much as implies that and makes light of it is foul and disgusting, and a society that finds that funny is hopelessly corrupt!

Now–do you want to ask me any more questions? 

They did not.

But I have a question: What the heck are these kids doing watching that garbage? Two questions: Who the heck is letting them? This is the 21st century. We should have “come a long way, baby” by now. I recently asked my class why they thought such films were even made, and I got this from a perceptive young woman who rarely volunteers her wry observations: “Because we set the bar so low for ourselves and the people who make those movies know it.”

And therein lies the problem. Just like that stupid old Virginia Slims ad, our “long way” has been down. Students who are positively aghast when I toss a Bible on the floor and step on it (yes, yes, of course I do; it’s the it’s-not-the-books-but-what’s-in-the-books-getting-into-you-that-matters routine) are watching movies that would make the Harlot of Babylon feel right at home. Rather than raising our standards, we’ve degraded ourselves. And our children.

All our claims of being a godly nation, all our insistence on what a civilized society should not tolerate, all our scrambling to protect our offspring from danger, and all the while our box offices and inboxes are full of things that only a dog would down. Or only a dog should down. We have blithely pulled the family up to a buffet of vomit and vulgarity and are shoveling it in one over-priced popcorn at a time. And you know what they say–you are what you eat.

So let’s chew on this instead: Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.  Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does. If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:21-27)

Seriously.

Image

That’s the Word, and I’m a witness.


An American in Babel

Turris Babel from Athanasius Kircher
Turris Babel from Athanasius Kircher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I pray my readers will indulge me tonight. Despite the many pressing issues I could blog about, I’m simply picking up where I left off in “Shephards, Shopping Carts, and Seat Assignments” and its Tower of Babel resolution. I’ve been interested in that ill-fated tower and what happened on the plain of Shinar for years. Words fascinate me. Languages fascinate me. The determination of a child to make sounds, the desperation of a person to be heard fascinates me. Communication with all its difficulties, all its despair, all its promise, and all its power is, well, fascinating.

Here’s my take on speech in a nutshell: All that exists begins to exist when we say so. Just as God “spoke” creation into being, so also does what we create begin its life with the spoken word. Moving rapidly from conceptualization to named conception, we humans incorporate our thoughts into things where they become a substantial part of our biology, our psychology, and our sociology. Don’t buy that? Ever heard someone talk himself into being sick? Ever read any “true stories” that no amount of snopes.com-ing or factcheck.org-ing will kill? Of course.

So communication rocks, but it’s complicated. Sometimes it’s really, really complicated, and we have to work really, really hard to make sense of a conversation. Sometimes that can be frustrating and fruitless. Sometimes that can be fabulous.

I left the plane in Newark, New Jersey, to continue my somber journey home only to be treated to one of the most ridiculous reentry procedures any airport has ever instituted. Those of us coming back to the USA through Newark were subjected to a convoluted screening that must certainly have been designed by someone more familiar with mouse traps and mazes than security and efficiency. It was illogical and infuriating. Waiting to reclaim and recheck my luggage, I was treated to the vulgarly-vocalized opinion of this airport’s procedures by another miffed traveler, a businesswoman who had been on my flight. At one point–perhaps finally noting that while I shared her frustration I wasn’t chiming in–she apologized for her choice of words, an apology I brushed off.  Babel’s mighty tower overshadowed baggage claim: Even without the obscenities, I’d have known she and I did not speak the same language.

It was an hour before I managed to jump through the rest of the hoops and locate my connecting flight. It was delayed. Then moved to a different gate. Then delayed again. And again. Once boarded, my seat upgrade (thank you, random Portuguese airport ticket agent) had me parked between two normal-looking people. Relief.

Then it happened. Normal-looking lady to my left leaned over: “Don’t get too comfortable. Apparently, they’ve double-booked some of the seats. There’s someone checking on mine now.” About that time, the someone approached us with a new voucher for my seat companion; this someone was to be my new seat mate. New lady to my left was now addressing me about a little girl–her daughter–seated behind me. The girl looked to be about five years old. Would I switch? Of course.

My new seat mates seemed normal enough. The young woman next to the window was college-aged; she nodded at my “hello” before turning back to the desolate view. The businessman on the aisle seemed to be accustomed to blocking out strangers on a plane. Maybe I’d have some silence on this flight. I had two hours of it. That’s how long we sat on the tarmac before the captain warned us we’d probably end up disembarking for the evening.The girl beside me began tentatively: “Excuse me,” wavering, heavily-accented, “what will happen now?” Of course.

Where are you from? Italy. Where are you going? Mexico. Ah. Well, I said, if we have to get off the plane, they will try to find us other flights, but maybe not for today. She asked about the money, would she need to buy another ticket. No, I reassured her even as I realized that her limited English–while much better than my limited Italian (ahem, ciao)–would not serve her well in this unfamiliar situation. So I told her not to worry, that whatever happened she was to stay with me. Just shy of three hours on the tarmac, we were cleared for takeoff. We would miss our connecting flights in Houston, but we wouldn’t have to spend the night in Newark.

The in-flight conversation with my Italian friend Erica was stilted. I was tired; she was stressed. Her English was textbook; my English was organic. We muddled through. As a teacher with over a decade working with mainstreamed ESL students, I knew enough to avoid idioms and to enunciate.  As a mom who understood traveling on a budget, I knew enough to share my stash of walnuts and almonds. Grateful for these tokens, she called me “gentle.” I laughed out loud. She looked confused. “Gentle not word?” It’s a word, I assured her, it just isn’t usually applied to me. She smiled with me. The shadow of Babel disappeared in the luminescence of that moment.

As we approached our gate in Houston, I reminded Erica to stay close. We jumped up from our seats, grabbed our carry-ons, and practically jogged through the terminal toward customer service. Fortunately, we got there ahead of most of the crowd, so we would wait in line just an hour instead of three or four. In the meantime, I tried to explain to Erica what would happen once she got up to the desk, but I couldn’t be sure that she understood me completely, and I was even less certain that she’d understand the Texan at the counter. “I’ll just go up there with you,” I offered. Then I asked, “Where are you going in Mexico?” Merida, she said. The older American man in line ahead of us volunteered that he was also going to Mexico, to Merida, in fact. “That’s great!” I was relieved for Erica–for both of us. “You guys should be on the same flight. Maybe you can help my friend here; she’s from Italy and her English is limited.”

The man turned to Erica and began to speak. I wish I could tell you what he said, but I can’t.

Because I don’t speak Italian.

Of course. Of course. Of course.

There’s more to this story–of course–so I’ll pick up here next time. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with these.

Proverbs: Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

2 Timothy: But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness.

Miley Cyrus, Joel Osteen, and Jesus

Disclaimer: I am not a fan of either Joel Osteen or Miley Cyrus. I just want you to know that up front. I also want you to know that this blog has taken me a lot longer to write than it probably needed to because I wanted to be careful about what I said and how I said it.

The news may be old, but the nonsense is ongoing.

Let’s start with the Miley Cyrus nonsense. I don’t watch award shows, so, of course, I did not watch the VMAs. I do know that MTV’s latest VMA aggravated some people. (I won’t say shocked; if you’re shocked by something on an MTV awards show, you’re new here–welcome to the planet.) I also know that there were groups like the Parents Television Council who took issue with MTV and Ms. Cyrus for a raunchy performance clearly not suitable for the young teens for whom the show was rated appropriate. I appreciate the PTC’s efforts in holding networks and their stars to agreed-upon rating standards. A good deal of what’s on television today isn’t suitable for a stray dog, much less a developing mind. Since my mind is still developing, I usually avoid anything reminiscent of a strip show.

Yeah, so my reluctant trek into the recent VMA fiasco began when I got wind via social media that there was something post-worthy happening on television. I teach high school English; this could come up in class. Grimly, dutifully, I read commentaries and watched clips. I was prepared for the discussion.

There was no discussion.

When I finally broke down and asked a group of sophomores what they thought about Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance, I discovered they thought very little about it. As in, it barely crossed their minds. Other than admitting amusement at some well-publicized audience responses, they were non-plussed by the act’s baseness. None of them claimed to enjoy the act, but none of them seemed horrified at it, either.

When pressed about their take on things, this was the sum of it: Her outfit was tacky. A giant finger? Gross! Those teddy bears were lame. I can’t believe I used to own a Hannah Montana t-shirt. She should stick to country music. She cannot dance.  And her hair…! Nobody mentioned Lady Gaga’s soft porn performance. (Anybody else think the terms soft and porn don’t really belong together?) Nobody mentioned Cyrus’s twerking companion. And where I had been embarrassed at the freakishly pornographic debacle, my students were responding to it like callused critics. Where I had been saddened at this young woman’s tragic metamorphosis from fresh-faced role model to vampy pop star, my Bible-belt-born-and-bred students were poking fun at her attempt to be sexy, not because it was the wrong thing to attempt but because it wasn’t well executed.

This wasn’t a ratings issue. This was a (hardened) heart issue. And from whom were these adolescents taking their cues? Not the media and not their peers, though they certainly contribute to the problem. No, research shows that children learn from and mimic the behavior of the very people they were intended to. Who is it that shapes a child’s character? To whose conversations are children most frequently exposed? From whom do children learn gaudiness, graciousness, humility, haughtiness? The adults in their lives: parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors…

Which brings me to the Joel Osteen nonsense.

I have a habit of listening to preaching as I get ready for work. On occasion, I’ve listened to Joel Osteen. I’ve never heard him raise his voice or sound combative or emphasize sin. Ever. And while his demeanor is a refreshing break from that of some televangelists, I’ll admit I have criticized his lack of boldness. His messages may not challenge me, but I happen to know his physician-turned-missionary brother’s mother-in-law (four degrees of separation?), so I know a bit about Pastor Osteen’s medical outreaches and applaud his commitment to “the least of these.” In short, while Joel Osteen may not be my cup of tea, I haven’t sighted him dancing around a campfire with the devil.

Apparently, I missed that video. But I heard about it when–yep, you guessed it–a link to an article startlingly titled “Joel Osteen Rebukes Apostles Paul, Peter and John” began popping up in social media. You gotta be kidding me.

I read the article. It was, in fact, a joke. Not a joke as in funny, ha-ha but joke as in poorly written and completely misleading. Here’s the first paragraph of the article as it appears in the original:

According to Joel Osteen – Pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston,Texas, these first century apostles are wrong and outdated and he has come out boldly to infer indirectly that Apostles Paul, Peter, and John whom wrote much of the New Testament were wrong and need to be corrected.

I didn’t need to read any further to know this was a waste of time. The minute I saw a dash paired with a comma to set off an appositive, boldly juxtaposed with infer indirectly (which is a contradiction, a redundancy, and a usage error), and all this followed by the use of whom in the subject position, among other grammatical and rhetorical atrocities, I was satisfied Osteen wasn’t an apostate. But I forged on for the sake of truth.

The thing only got worse, but I won’t belabor that. You can read the piece–no, I won’t be linking it–and draw your own conclusions. I will say that several paragraphs in was this admission: “While he [Osteen] did not come right out and say Apostle [sic] Paul, Peter, and John were wrong in so many words, his inference is clear to any who pay attention to what he’s saying.” Um, no, his inference is not clear. What is clear is the intentionally inflammatory implication made by a tacky title.

Still, I had to wonder what drove this guy’s vehement outcry against Osteen, so I kept digging (for “digging” read “Googling”). It turns out the badly-written blog was a response to an interview Osteen did with Larry King about seven or eight years ago, and the blogger was not Osteen’s only resulting critic. One well-known minister was so angered at how Osteen conducted that interview, he actually said he wished he could have “gone through that TV set and punched him out!” This rant, which was aired, went on for several painful minutes, often to the glee of the offended minister’s audience, er, congregation.

Wow. I needed to watch that Larry King interview. So I did. Then I watched it again. And again. And again. And all I could hear was Joel Osteen sounding a lot like Joel Osteen always sounds: some polite responding, some light gospel, some refusal to be drawn in. Nothing new and certainly nothing overtly heretical.

Maybe the smiling pastor didn’t handle King’s questions the way I, the angry ministers, or those sharing negative posts about him would. Maybe some of us would be firmer in our convictions, harder hitting when it came to sin and its eternal consequences. Or maybe we’d fall apart like a one-egg pudding. And maybe it doesn’t matter because we’re never going to be interviewed by Larry King anyway. One thing is certain, if I were important enough to sit in that hot seat, I’d make some people mad, I’d disappoint some people, I’d find my remarks twisted and spun.

Maybe I’d be treated to a blistering blog or an on-air diatribe. Maybe someone would want to punch me out, which is fine, I guess. I can take a hit; I’ve been punched before. As in, before I joined the Body of Christ. Not sure punching each other out is listed in the Great Commission, though. I’d better reread that.

You know, this Cyrus/Osteen/pick-apart/punch-out nonsense is starting to remind me of something.

I remember a story about another woman being thrown at the feet of the WWJD crowd. Her partner(s) in crime had been given a pass, also. But there was this man–this patient, humble man–who refused to take part in the trash talking or stone throwing. He just knelt there in the dust of her desperation and wrote a story about love conquering condemnation. It made an eternal difference to her.

And I remember one night that same man was tried by a court of his most contentious critics. He was hated for being way too nice to sinners (see above), for breaking some really dumb rules, and for ticking important religious people off.  Though found guilty, he remained innocent, he remained patient, he remained humble beneath the cross of his condemnation. Love won. It made an eternal difference to me.

This incredible man said some things I’ll never forget, things about eyeballs and specks and planks, things about being unified, and this thing:  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Yeah, so…

That’s the Word, and I’m a witness.