A Theologian’s Thoughts on the Public Hearing

These thoughts come from the strange brain of Matthew Gallion. They are not necessarily representative of the congregation or individual members of National Avenue Christian Church and do not represent anything more than the musings of one member of the congregation.

Last night, City Council held a public hearing in its ongoing debates about the recommendations made by the Mayor’s Council on Human Rights. Specifically, the issue on the table was whether or not the city should adopt a nondiscrimination policy that protects its citizens’ rights to employment, housing, and public accommodations with regards to sexual orientation and gender identity. A litany of speakers came forward, each offering their earnest thoughts on the matter. In the end, the speakers came from two camps: First, there were those in favor of the city’s proposed policy (though some resented the council’s addition of a religious exemption). Second, there were those who felt that it would lead to increased crime or—in one explicit case—direct punishment from on high.

Though I intentionally chose not to speak myself, I found the rhetoric of both sides ringing in my head throughout the night. When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t help but feel that the world felt the same tension I did, with a harvest moon lingering in the west and the rising sun splashing the east with a kaleidoscope of pinks and blues.

Last week, my good friend Phil Snider shared a joke posted on the Guardian’s website in 2005: 

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.

I said, “Don’t do it!”

He said, “Nobody loves me.”

I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, “A Christian.”

I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”

He said, “Protestant.”

I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”

He said, “Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

The fact of the matter is this: Faith is deeply personal. If we dug deep enough, we’d find some point of departure from just about everyone on something that we consider significant. Many last night seemed to insist that there is a strong dichotomy in the relationship between truth and sexuality. That one simply must choose sides. To my own great dismay, both sides suggested that their version of the truth was superior to the other and that their opponents misunderstood the ancient text, the Christian tradition, and so-called “basic morality.” But I’m not convinced that these kinds of answers are so easy to come by. Instead, I tend to think that the exploration itself is the part where life happens. It’s in the hammering out of our thoughts, our lives, and our philosophies that we are open to be interrupted by the lingering traces of inexpressible beauty—to be disrupted by Life itself. This process to me is deeply collaborative, and competitive claims towards the truth are just plain silly. It would be the equivalent of setting up camp right at the trailhead of a large and beautiful forest and considering yourself truly adventurous. But if we would only take the time to hike in a few miles, we might truly begin to experience the depths of life within the world and within ourselves on—or even off—the trail. I truly believe that our only obligation to one another is to journey together. For me and my community of faith, our commitment rests on the commandment of Christ to love one another. To celebrate one another. To walk with one another. This kind of life together means much more than any theology.

But it wasn’t only the theological underpinnings that left me so unsettled. The concerns that City Council is attempting to address with this policy are not doctrinal; they are civil. We live in a society that protects our religious freedoms by not allowing the government to dictate what citizens should believe or to enforce a morality based solely on the religious convictions of any one particular group. The rights to employment, to housing, and to public accommodation are fundamental rights protected by the Constitution for all citizens. So, regardless of one’s own position regarding Christian theology and biblical interpretation, the issue at hand is this: Is the city of Springfield going to allow any of its citizens to be discriminated against because of their identity? Will the city endorse the perpetual violation of its citizens’ rights when its primary purpose is to protect those rights? Matters of faith aside, the City Council must make its decision based on the laws of the land and not the nuances of faith. A deeply held Christian conviction, which has represented the majority a good number of times in American history, is not the only religious belief protected by the Constitution. Though it may seem like a violation of religious freedom to some, the truth is that passing this policy is the only means through which the city can protect religious freedom for the rest of us.

Conor Wadle on Hilapo Dos

National Avenue has attracted people for a lot of different reasons. We’re accepting of  all ideas, beliefs, and people. We continually have a close community, which is shown every Sunday during Passing of the Peace or in the Coffee time following services. And we continually work with a large multitude of charity organizations, making sure we not only talk about our beliefs, but act on them. All of these things put together make us a unique church by itself. But yet again, we break out of another mold through the work we have done in Hilapo Dos, Nicaragua. This time, breaking the mold of everything we have done in the past.

What we have done in Nicaragua was no small feat for us. We, as a church that has less membership compared to some, were able to raise over $100,000. And while that was a hard number to get to, we’ve changed the lives of so many people irrevocably. On my trip down to Hilapo Dos last fall, I fully understood one part of how amazing this is. Throughout the years we’ve partnered with Hilapo Dos, we’ve tried to make it clear that that’s what it is; a partnership. We understand that when we are sending money, or building houses for the people Hilapo Dos, we’re not just sending money, but we’re continuing a partnership, or in essence, a friendship. And once we understand that we’re helping people just like us, people who have just been born in a different part of the world, it opens up a new level of caring that many people, including anyone who has been down to Nicaragua understands.

For example, the fourth day of my trip to Nicaragua will always stand out to me. That afternoon we stayed in Hilapo Dos, wanting to spend some time with the people and the kids there. And with us, we brought some baseballs and kick balls. I had the time of my life playing kickball with those kids. Even though I’m terrible at kickball, and they surely enjoyed laughing at me, it was so much fun. To see them smile as they played, to hear them cheer when Neil would kick yet another home run, or to watch them all give high fives to each other and us. Later that same day, I was pushed into dancing in front of the village, with a girl around my age, Karen. And even though they enjoyed watching me struggle, it made me realize one important thing. We aren’t people that are better than them. Instead, it was our population at National Avenue helping our friends in Hilapo Dos, Nicaragua. Not because we feel like we have to, but instead because we understand that we should, and that we are simply helping human beings, who need it.

So as we look at this huge triumph our church has completed, building 25 homes for families who are used to mud floors and plastic roofs, we need to look towards the future just as much as we should celebrate. Because what we did in Nicaragua was groundbreaking and changed the lives of tons of people. But at the same time, this shows us what we’re capable of. As a congregation, as one working church body, we have the ability to instill change in the world. This amazing housing project has shown us that we have the ability to do amazing things in the world. So as we look forward, we must continue to be a church that breaks the mold, and continues to promote justice throughout the area, not because we feel like we must, but because we should.

Why I Don’t Do Lent by Louise Jackson

I never give up anything for Lent and I don’t do anything extra either. It isn’t that I’m not mindful of the liturgical emphasis and what it represents; I am. But I simply don’t get the idea that it’s good to give up something or start doing something for only forty days. Perhaps it’s partly my Southern Baptist background, one in which we jokingly said, “This year I’m giving up watermelon for Lent,” all the time knowing that, in the days before international importation of out-of-season fruit, watermelon wasn’t available anyway. Or, perhaps it’s my “Martha personality” that finds positive action to be better than self-denial and that now is better than later.

It has always seemed to me that if something is important enough to give up for a season, we probably ought not to be doing it in the first place. And if something is important enough to do for a season, we ought to be doing it all year long.

Even as I say this, I admit to having deep respect for those to whom denial is a means for spiritual growth. Good for you. Go right ahead. Just know that I won’t be there.

I simply don’t feel, personally, that even ritual self-flagellation has any particular value for my soul. Instead, it seems to me that one ought to examine one’s lifestyle on a continuous basis and not wait for a liturgical season to suddenly decide to “be better.” To the extent that I am able, I try to focus on what I ought to be and to do as a professing Christian every day, all year long. Why wait for Lent? If I need to give up something in my life, it’s up to me to get busy and learn to give it up. If I ought to be doing more as a Christian, I should begin to do it now. Otherwise, why bother, just because it’s a custom?

Thus, I will worship each Sunday with intent, bearing in mind the upcoming Passion of Jesus the Christ, but I will not consider the 40 days of Lent to be anything more than a reminder that living a Christian life is not always easy but is infinitely worth the daily effort, 365 days a year.

P.S. I expect, and even invite, rebuttals to this short essay. Please take the time to argue, agree or comment.

A More Meaningful Ritual by Steve Flower

Over the years, I have found myself getting annoyed whenever I have heard this question:

“So…. what are YOU giving up for Lent, Steve?….”

My reasons for annoyance have taken many forms over the years.

In my religious past, I have “given something up for Lent” for a lot of reasons. As a kid, I gave up candy for Lent, because it was expected. I was told “it’s just what we do,” which (even at eight years old) I thought was a stupid reason to do anything. (Then I gorged myself on malted-milk-ball eggs on Easter Sunday, effectively negating the sacrifice.)

Later, in my youth, I was told that “good people made sacrifices for Lent.” But I never felt good (or even less bad) as a result of giving something up. And, if I wasn’t 100% faithful to my pledge to give something up (which was most often the case), then I felt like a failure, feeling even worse about myself than before.

As I grew older, I perceived that a lot of people who “gave up coffee” or “gave up refined sugar” or “gave up TV” for Lent seemed to exude a sense of holier-than-thou and self-importance, which was a definite turn-off for ever giving up something for a season. I figured out that a publicly-announced short-term sacrifice – “No, I can’t go to Mudhouse with you – I’m giving up mocha-cinnamon muffins for Lent” – was a rather glaring form of works-righteousness. It became just one more pointless exercise in which I refused to participate.

Lately, thanks to Milton Brasher-Cunningham’s book “Keeping The Feast,” I learned the difference between a “habit” and a “ritual.” Habit, he writes, is repetition of a behavior that grows out of convenience, compliance, or “just because.” A ritual, on the other hand, is best described as “meaningful repetition” – repeating those things that remind me who I am and Whose I am. For years, I saw “giving up X for Lent” as habit, not meaningful action – and I still do.

So I don’t “give up things” for Lent. Haven’t for years.

Here’s what I do, instead.

First, I try to see Lent as a time of reflection, repentance, and renewal – not a time to exhibit some short-term sacrifice. I learned the difference between “rote behavior, because it’s expected” and “meaningful ritual that reminds me of lasting truth.” So in Lent, I don’t try to give up things – I try to change my behavior. Not because it’s some sort of self-conscious sacrifice – but because it’s a time to make positive changes that moves me closer to what I believe God expects of me.

One Lenten season, I made a commitment that every time I thought I need something from Amazon, I instead sent the money I planned to spend on the book or CD to a local charity. Or I’d match what I DID buy, dollar-for-dollar, with a donation to folks who needed it. If I couldn’t afford the donation, I couldn’t afford the purchase either. While I confess I don’t do it every time, I *do* make it most times. To me, that’s a worthwhile and meaningful practice.

(What would the world look like, I wonder, if everyone matched their Amazon purchases – let alone coffee-shop money – with contributions to the Rainbow Network, or Safe To Sleep?….)

This Lent, my goal is to take a walk in a cemetery, once a week. Not just to take a walk, but to remember that I am alive, *this* day – and also to remind myself that my current condition will not always last. And lastly, to remind myself of an old truth, shared by a friend: “If it doesn’t bleed, the heck with it.”

The other thing I try to do is ADD something, rather than “give up something.” Add something challenging to my devotional reading. Read a Psalm a day – even the ones that are annoying. Add a written gratitude list on Facebook every day. Call people who need a reminder that they matter. Publicly acknowledge the good that people do. Not because it makes me holy, or makes me look good, or because I think it looks good on my Heavenly scorecard – but because whatever action I take points my heart and mind toward God, and away from me. This is always a good thing for me because, sadly, I can still be my own favorite topic. (As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “I may not be much… but I’m all I ever think about…”)

This year, I am reading a book that I’ve intended to read for years – “The Sacrament of The Present Moment, by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. Not easy reading; not the “quick, fun read” to which I am accustomed. It’s yet another reminder to “be present in one’s own life,” and a reminder of the many miracles that occur in every day of my life.

Looking back over the years, the thing that has annoyed me most about this whole topic was the perceived focus on what *I* was doing, or what others were doing, rather than what God is doing in my life and the lives around me. If Lent is a time of reflection and preparation, then my prayer is that it focuses my thoughts and behaviors on God’s creation, and my part as co-creator (or destroyer) of that Creation.

I pray that what I do – or don’t do – is more of an arrow pointing to the Creator than a spotlight on me and my actions. And that should be true regardless whether it’s Lent or not.

Like Father, Like Son by Brad and Conor

Brad

Growing up in a Catholic household as I did, the Lenten season brings back a flood of memories.  I recall the curious looks from friends as I explained to them that I couldn’t eat meat on Fridays, but that somehow fish was OK.  I remember the smell of that fish cooking, as well as the blandness of a pan fried bread concoction called dummies (pronounced “doomies”)–which to this day I have never seen or heard of outside of my family.  And I will never forget the long torture of 40 days without ice cream or candy or whatever it was that I gave up for Lent that particular year.  Like with many other religious traditions, I never gave much thought to giving something up for Lent.  I vaguely understood that it was to be a sacrifice in imitation of Jesus’ forty days in the desert and that it was something of a penance to help get you ready for Easter.  As I got older–and less Catholic–I gave up the practice altogether.  It seemed to be a pointless sacrifice that wasn’t producing any results beyond inconveniencing me for 40 days.  What I have come to realize over the years is that like many other religious traditions, it is not the tradition that is lacking but my understanding of it.  How could I really expect to get something out of the process if I didn’t take the time to understand its meaning?  What is the purpose of Lent?  First and foremost, Lent is a time to prepare for or recall our Baptism.  It should be a time of repentance and reflection that brings substantial change in one’s spiritual life.  It should not be so much about the sacrifice of giving something up, but about the spiritual discipline that comes from the exercise.  We should redirect our focus onto what is truly important.  Looked at in this light, giving up a worldly luxury for 40 days makes sense.  It provides a daily reminder that growth requires sacrifice and intent.  I am still not convinced that it is necessary to give something up for Lent.  I think the same thing can be accomplished by doing something.  Perhaps it is spending time reading scriptures or doing devotions daily.  Perhaps it is volunteering to help at church or at another charity.  Perhaps it is as simple as being nice to your difficult coworker.  The important thing is the sacrifice and intent that produces spiritual growth.  If the Christmas season prepares us for the promises of Jesus’ birth, the Lenten season prepares us for the world changing reality of his life.  Whether we choose to give something up, or do something, Lent can be a time to bring some of that change to our lives.

 

Conor

Lent has always been an interesting time of year for me. To this day I’m not exactly sure what to think and do during the Lenten season. Traditionally Lent has always been a time to attempt to give something up for 40 days–until Easter. Like New Year’s Resolutions, most things I gave up on in the first few weeks. When I was about ten, the first time I attempted to give something up, I tried to give up video games for the forty days. I think I made it about 3 days, before caving in. Since then I’ve tried many different things. I tried giving up soda the next couple Lenten seasons, and actually succeeded in giving up ice cream one year. The laziest I ever got was a couple years ago, when I decided to give up fighting with my sister, something that I knew wasn’t going to complete.

It would end up that year after year I made goals of giving something up, and would generally fail, and didn’t understand the point of giving up something in the first place. It seemed like a pointless idea. It got to the point where last year, I didn’t give anything up. But then I listened and paid attention to what other people from school or church were giving up. People were giving up things like utensils. Honestly, that really changed my mind on things. I realized that the point of giving things up wasn’t just to be a struggle. Instead for me, it was to appreciate the things we have. Pay special attention to the things that we take for granted every day. Things like utensils would really help you realize how helpful they are. If it was possible, it seems that giving up a beautiful sunrise, or the beauty around us, or even the joys that our friends bring us for forty days would truly cause all of us to be thankful for what we have. This is why instead of giving something up, I’m going to try and think of one different thing for each of these forty days that I’m thankful for. I’m going to not do the same thing twice, and I’ll try to think of things that I wouldn’t usually think of being thankful for. Because to me, that’s what’s meaningful about giving something up, realizing how thankful we are for the things we have.

Lent-Fasting-Wilderness-Darkness-Penitence-Repentance-Denial- Withdrawal-Transformation-Discipline-Habits-Penance-Renewal by Jennifer Klein

Lent is a complicated topic for enlightened Christians such as ourselves. At National Avenue we are made up of a rich tapestry of traditions. The views on Lent, based on past traditions and experiences coupled with current thoughts, are as varied as thesalads at a CWF luncheon.

So the idea of giving something up for Lent, or changing a habit, or denying oneself of a luxury, invites a spectrum of reactions from our membership. In fact, I think the idea of “giving something up” currently is pretty low on the spectrum. We aren’t interested in rote and mechanical actions, feeling it adds nothing to our spiritual life.

This is a valid position, but one I want to push at for a moment. A healthy life is comprised of discipline. If we want to have a healthy body, it takes discipline to eat the way we are supposed to and exercise regularly. It doesn’t always have to be meaningful, but it has to happen or there will be no results. It is reasonable that a healthy spiritual life requires discipline as well, and I propose that there can be meaning in rote actions. It is possible that meaning can come from even seemingly empty practices like giving up chocolate for forty days.

Reviewing my life, casting through my habits (ruts) and hopes (wildest dreams) is painful but useful. I have a whole list of things I could choose from to change for Lent, all things I could benefit and learn from during the discipline required to give up or change that habit. This Ted Talk (short, I promise) outlines the usefulness of taking thirty days to change a habit. If you decide to subtract or add something to your life for Lent, you get a bonus ten days to make it stick.

The habit (addiction) I’ve decided to work on during Lent contains an ironic twist. I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook, and it sucks time from my work day like an F5 tornado. I could write a whole separate post (and maybe I will) about the issues I have with Facebook, as it goes beyond simply being a waste of my time and mental energy. But for now, suffice it to say I think my work life and creative energy would benefit from leaving Facebook off my screen for 40 days.

You’re waiting for the ironic twist, right? A couple of months ago, my friend Kate Murr posted a poem (as she often does) to Facebook. This poem resonated in my soul, and I resolved to read more poetry. So as I subtract Facebook, I will add in a poem a day. If I don’t have time to devote to a new poem, I will read the one that inspired this resolution: Celestial Music by Louise Gluck. Reading it every day for forty days would not harm a person at all. So yes, even though it was The Facebook that brought me this poem, I will bid it a fond adieu for Lent. I must. Believe me.