On a journey to find the silver linings

On a journey to find the silver linings

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why I Joined A Dead Religion

The man in the white dress was coming around, handing out gifts to the children on their knees. We mixed group of silver-haired saints, sticky faced toddlers, working class stiffs, and menopausal moms.
Some ancient tune being played in the background, the notes brought invisible peace that I didn't know I needed. 
He put the bread in my waiting hand, I took it and ate.
He gave me red wine, I took it and drank.

Nothing changed - but everything had.
So I got up, gave a slight bow, and as I walked away from the portal and back to my seat I said to myself, "THAT is why I joined a dead religion."

Dead. 
That's what I always thought. That's what I was always told.
Any stodgy church that doesn't have a rockin' band is dead. Any church that isn't growing is dead. Any church that limits the Holy Spirit is dead. Any church without a youth group is dead. Any church without a coffee shop is dead. Any church that's older than 50 years is dead. 
Why on earth would I ever want to be set foot in a rotting graveyard like that?

I'm into "deeds not creeds," ya know? Creeds are for zombies - the dumb moans of spiritless shells. 
Confessions are for the walking dead - lifeless words that can't cast heavenly spells. 
No, none of that ancient garbage is for the "true believer." The time for formulas has come & gone, and we've evolved. We're off the map and we're spirit filled. At least, everyone around me was... 

Don't you know? In a "spirit filled" church, pastors must wear skinny jeans - they all do, you see. They tell funny jokes, give relevant references to the upcoming Star Wars film and can life coach like nobody's business from the stage. Canned messages from sermons.com cast a vision from heaven and all the good little lemmings will jump off the cliff together. 

Hipster Pastor has the Words of Life but never uses them, doesn't even know what to do with them except throw out a nugget here or there, but mostly keeps them shut in that book of red letters. Then like the performer that he is, he skillfully turns the mirror on you and there you are; kind of happy about it because you love yourself most of all. Only it's not the squeaky clean image everyone around you sees; no, it's your blackened self, your zombie self. Then he throws a sprinkling of magic words about a Jewish guy and something about a cross and tells you how to repay that holy man for what He's done because you suck so bad and He deserves your best. He tells you to have fun with that and slips away as the words fall to the floor and Hipster Band takes over the room, the lights go down and the smoke machine winds up.

Worship repeats the word "I" a thousand times over so God knows we mean it, so we know how important we are, so we FEEL so we know. Tears must stream down cheeks and bodies must sway while hands touch the sky - it's a sure sign you're really in it. Maybe if you cry that Jewish man will know you're really scared and confused and don't know what the hell you're doing, and maybe THEN He'll hear your prayers and tip towards your tears. But no.

First the plates must be passed and records will be checked for faithfulness - so don't forget, your faith shows through painful giving. You can't cheat God and He's always watching. Fork it over and you'll be blessed. Then that Jewish man will come closer so you don't have to reach out over the edge where all the other lemmings just went.

Then speak languages only angels understand - you must if you are true; if you don't you are not one of us. Make it up, mumble something, anything, slippery words so they all think you can and don't notice when you can't. They'll keep coming back, keep pressing their otherworldly hands on your body to make you morph with them, make you talk like them, make you join their club. So just whisper your prayers; they'll see your mouth moving and it will make them happy, and they'll go away and leave you to tears you want no one to see. God gives it to them, but not to you. They speak His language, but you don't. The pain goes down to infinity and up to eternity. 

Next, give your time, your talents, your everything because Someone gave everything - that Jewish man who haunts you - it's the least you can do and it's not nearly enough. Give your attention, your heart, your soul, your gifts, all you are and more. Pray more, get on your knees, get in that prayer closet you heathen; there's still 23 hours in the day and you can't remember everything you forgot, be diligent and get it all out in fresh new words every time.  

Stuck in the Matrix. Stuck knowing there's two worlds and not knowing which one is real or which one you should be in. What are those red letters? How to even know what they mean? I know they must mean something. How to hear Him speak, see His face, feel Him near, know He loves, and even maybe forgiveness for the twisty monster in the mirror? Is He even real? Is any of this real? I don't hear the voices, speak the tongues, see the visions - maybe I'm not real... 

The smoke machines, the angels overhead and demons at your back, the weight is too heavy, skinny jeans & skits, money & music, slain in the Spirit, drunk in the Spirit, ecstasy all around & I can't fall down, swirling water a symbol of grace, a Saltine symbol of a Jew I once knew, grape juice symbol of blood once spilled. Spirits and saints, gold dust from heaven, purpose and destiny that I can't figure out. There's not enough tears, not enough reaching, not enough asking - it's always for someone else and just out of reach. I just want to give up and make the spinning stop. 

STOP.

I passed it by a hundred times, never paying any attention; a little building with stained glass windows and a sign about a potluck.
LC-MS. What is that anyway? Some kind of cult, probably. But I might look it up, can't hurt to try. 

A week later and we go in, sniff the air suspiciously. 
Little old ladies with polyester jackets, an off-key organ making me cringe, kids crying at inopportune times, burnt coffee, songs I don't know, stand up, sit down, I have no idea what's going on. This is not what I expected, and yet it is. 
And I love it. I LOVE IT.

I am told about that Jewish guy, and His name is Jesus. He is the Red Letters. He is the Word.
I am told who I am to Him, that yes I am a blackened sinner but He loves me anyway. He knew I was the walking dead heading towards the cliff, so He got on a cross to rescue me. He died, then He was gone. GONE. 
And He took my sins with Him when He went. 
Then He came back. And I am a saint - because He said I am, not because of what I do or say or think or feel. I'm a saint because He is who He said He is and He did what He said He'd do.

I hear the man in the white dress reading the red letters - all of them, all the time. He tells me what they mean; they are about Jesus - all of them. The Red Letters are the Words of Life and He is the Word. And He is in the words from the very beginning - ALL of the words are Red Letters and He is in them all because they are all about Him. All of them.

And so I take the bread and take the wine, and Jesus is there because He said He is. And I am forgiven and I am free because He said I am. 

I do not have to wonder, don't need to muster tears, fake whispers to angels or cast demons from the past, no praying out sins I can't even recall or giving till it hurts, or anything at all. 

So what do I have to do? Nothing - absolutely nothing. The Red Letters say it's HIS work that I believe in Him, so there's nothing left for me to do.
Nothing.  Because He knows I can't anyway.
HE saved me in my baptism, in water He washed away the death because He was there. The Red Letters told me.
And HE saves me in the bread and wine, and brings new life because He is there. The Red Letters told me.
And HE comes to me in that book, every black & scarlet word between the covers because He is there. The Red Letters told me.

The man in the white dress came around, handing out the gifts of God to the this child on her knees. I didn't have a vision, didn't speak a language of angels, didn't even think to ask. And yet there He was - right there, giving me everything because He loves.
He put the bread in my waiting hand; I took it and ate. Jesus is the Bread of Life.
He gave me red wine; I took it and drank. Jesus' blood shed for me.

Forgiven. 
Free. 
Real. 
The Red Letters told me.

Then I got up, gave a slight bow out of respect for the Holy of Holies, and as I walked back to my seat I said to myself, "THAT is why I joined a dead religion."


Friday, November 6, 2015

Black, White, and Red All Over

Racism isn't a real problem anymore, and people that think so are just overreacting or being dramatic.
That's what I used to think before moving to Missouri.

We arrived only two months after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, which, if you somehow don't know, is part of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area, just north of the city proper. It's 35 minutes from where we now live. But when we got here, I didn't know my head from my tail or which end was up; I was spinning from the move across country and the sudden death of my dad. To me, Ferguson was just down the street, and everything we were watching live on the news may as well have been in our backyard. Geographically, I just didn't know otherwise.

The rioting and protests and stories of discrimination were on the news every night. I couldn't comprehend why black men and women were protesting in the streets. I didn't know why everyone was so angry. And I certainly had no vocabulary to respond to the "us vs. them" conversations that were happening at backyard barbecues in my pristinely white neighborhood. Really, the whole thing caught me off guard.

I didn't think people really still said these kinds of things about their fellow human beings, even in a "joking" or "harmless" backhanded way, and I certainly didn't think true Racism - like, "Martin Luther King racism" was still a problem for Americans in our day and age.

See, the home I was raised in was special. My parents were truly accepting of everyone, and I mean everyone. My brother Kip is Sioux indian and was adopted as a newborn. He and I are only 8 months apart so he's been my brother since the day I was born - and believe me, we act like it; good, bad, and ugly. The only racism I experienced growing up were the occasional nasty comments from stupid white people making dumbass remarks about his "red" skin to the person they didn't know was his sister. Trust me, I felt no hesitation saying, "really? That 'prairie nigger' happens to be my brother." That was a surefire way to stop the conversation and shame the riffraff far enough away to leave us alone. And my best friend Winona was my constant companion for almost 10 years until I graduated and moved away. She too is Sioux indian, and I couldn't have cared less. All I saw was my sister - we were "blood brothers," having secretly cut our hands to swap and seal blood when we were 12. If anyone had dared made mention of her race, I'd not only have been confused, but that person would've ceased being a part of my life for good.

But that was back in the '70's and '80's. Times have changed since then - right? North Dakota doesn't have a "real" racism problem, Montana doesn't either - at least not in a sheltered white person's perspective. (Now keep in mind that's mostly because there are so few black people to be racist against). But now Native Americans, that's a different story; for some reason, we don't consider them when we talk about "racism." They're mostly not even considered at all, which is a whole different story in and of itself.

Coming to Missouri, coming here in the heat of the unrest in Ferguson, I found out in a damn hurry that my lily-white naive opinion about racism was just a fractured fairy tale. 


In so many ways, I found out. And now it's my responsibility to teach my kids. To be "Bob & Heidi" to the next generation of "Kip & Tanya's." I thought I've been a good parent, talking to my kids about being kind and loving to all people regardless of their skin color. And when "teachable moments" have come up over the years I think I've done a pretty decent job - decent enough for where we lived, anyway. But I look back now and realize I haven't done enough; not enough for this place. How could I? I didn't know enough myself.

And here we are, 35 minutes from Ferguson Missouri in 2015. "Black Lives Matter" is everywhere here, the morning news is just a recap of the shootings, robberies, and killings from the night before, and how do I explain all of this to my kids? Remember, the police reports in our town talked about cows on the loose and streakers at football games, and now they practice lockdowns, see their schoolmates segregate themselves by color in the lunch hall, and think that driving through North St. Louis means they'll get shot.

How do I teach my kids? Where do I start? Well, none of it makes sense without a little bit of history to give some context, so I started with cinema - that great captivator of imagination and magnifier of ideas. Sophie and I spent the afternoon watching "The Help," and it rocked her little world. She absolutely loved the story and was glued the entire time. I watched her be confused, angry, amused, and heartbroken. I needed to explain some scenes to her and make things that were over her head a bit easier to understand (like the shooting of Medgar Evers, the "shit pie" incident, and when Yule Mae was arrested and beaten for stealing a ring). 

Watching a movie on a Sunday afternoon won't change the world, but it's a start. It's planting seeds in her little mind, giving her a greater sense of the bigger picture, and putting some faces (even fictional ones) to injustice and change. I can keep taking my kids to pow-wows like we have in the past, like my parents did with me, I can get them involved in activities that have a greater mix of diversity, I can watch movies and tv shows that open their eyes. But really, the best thing I can do with and for my kids is to treat everyone with the same kindness & respect as the person before - with no exception of age, color, religion, gender, you name it. I plop myself down and chat with a black man at the hospital the same as I would anyone else. Don't step to the other side of the street, don't make distinctives based on skin color, don't avoid conversation or eye contact. For God's sake, we are all created equal - I finally see we don't really act that way, even when we politely say we do.

"The Help" might be over her head in a lot of ways - she may be too young for some of the themes. But in the world we live in now, in this place we call home that's regularly on the national news for social unrest and cultural violence, 10 years old seems old enough to understand that we're just people who are on this journey side by side; that we're all simply people who are black, white, and red all over.