The Fallacy of the Fog Machine Gospel

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I have been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I’m not sure I have ever needed a book more at the moment that it found me. It’s the story of a guilty, angry, oh-so-certain, baptist preacher who drags his wife and four daughters into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the 1960’s.

I carry it to Starbucks during my lunch breaks and allow it to swallow me, emerging 40 minutes later into a world that makes little sense.

It’s pulling, again, at the threads of wealth and poverty, war and power, the gospel of Jesus and the gospel of the Moral Majority.

———–

“Bingo Bango Bongo. That is the story of Congo they are telling now in America: a tale of cannibals. I know about this kind of story-the lonely look down upon the hungry; the hungry look down upon the starving. The guilty blame the damaged. Those of doubtful righteousness speak of cannibals, the unquestionably vile, the sinners and the damned.

It makes everyone feel so much better.”

———-

I close my book reluctantly. My hour is nearly up; the blinking clock and an office-full of expectation calls me back to work.

As I leave, I sip my coffee – or cinnamon, soy latte if we’re being honest – from a re-usable plastic cup, 10 cents off and BPA free. This, one of my little choices that is supposed to help save the world.

I wonder, again, about the men and women who have drug my coffee up from the earth; have sorted through the uncooperative berries to find those ripe for the picking; have shelled, roasted,  and packaged them. I wonder about the hours of human labor that I have bought with $4.29. I don’t know if I have supported workers in a country that desperately needs jobs, or offered another contribution to the gods of power and human enslavement.

I am complicit, an active player in the injustices of the world, and I don’t even know the breadth or depth of it.

———-

“Maybe I’ll never get over my grappling for balance, never stop believing life is going to be fair, the minute we can clear up all these mistakes of the temporarily misguided…Just when I start to feel jaded to life as it is, I’ll suddenly wake up in a fever, look out at the world, and gasp at how much has gone wrong that I need to fix.”

———-

HEB sells exactly one variety of fair trade chocolate chips. They are milk chocolate. So every time I decide to make cookies, I choose between buying fair trade and buying the dark chocolate that I prefer.

I buy the dark chocolate about half the time.

That choice is so utterly inadequate.

I feel swallowed by a problem that I can’t even comprehend.

Like my freshman year of college, when I tried to give up Nestle and Cocoa-Cola products after finding them both on a list of top human rights violators. After a couple months of trying to remember which energy drinks Cocoa-Cola owned and attempting to unwind the web of corporate entanglements, I gave up.

It didn’t seem possible to exonerate myself.

———-

“We have in this story the ignorant, but no real innocents.”

———-

Sometimes, I feel so tainted by my wealth and my citizenship, by the atrocities committed before I was born. I realize that those were not my decisions, that no one asked me, just as no one asked the children of the Congo.

Yet I have benefited from them, innumerable odds stacked in my favor before I ever learned to walk. And still today, I buy Oreos, knowing full well that I just paid for the children harvesting cocoa in the Ivory Coast.

I am not innocent.

The reality sneaks up on me again, and I don’t know what to do with it.

Because I have no honorable way to justify it.

———-

“Father, forgive me wherever you are, but this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I’ll not live to see the meek inherit anything.”

———-

Then, I read an article yesterday that claims young people are leaving the Churches of Christ because the churches aren’t experiential enough, because there aren’t enough videos or stadium seating.

As though all young people are so distracted by sparkling objects and fog machines that we are destined to follow the shiny veneer wherever it may go.

But in reality, I see a church that will get up in arms and coordinate support when Chick-Fil-A declares its support of “traditional marriage”, but couldn’t care less about that company’s contract with Cocoa-Cola* or the implications of that bed-fellow.

At least a quarter of the children in this city go hungry, and yesterday we received the third straight week of elder selection sermons, this one entitled: Men with Experience.

Young Americans are not leaving the church because you lack a “three projection screen set-up”. They are, in my experience, leaving because your gospel is hollow and self-serving.

———-

“It came as a strange letdown, to see how the game always went to those who knew the rules without understanding the lesson.”

———-

In the book, this preacher comes to Africa bound and determined to baptize every last child in the Kwali River, never mind that several children had been eaten by crocodiles in that river the year before.

He is determined to stand by his principles, to never give-in, to never-not for one moment-admit that he might be wrong.

In the end he baptizes not a single person. And in the process he loses every one of his children, who see only his arrogance and his portrayal of a distant, careless God.

———–

I love the bible. I really do, for all its mess. And in spite of her failures, I love the church. It was, and is, the church who taught me to care for the world.

But I wonder if the American Church isn’t portraying its own distant, careless God. Only this one isn’t screaming in the jungle; it’s singing “post-worship” music on a well-lit stage, broadcasting the same empty from message from every wall of the auditorium.

It’s so frustrating, that they would watch a mass exodus and think “I know what we need: more YouTube videos. That’s what young people care about, right?”

Because the gospel that my church taught (with just the one projector) allows me to hope that I might live in a world where everyone has enough to eat, on earth as it is in heaven. It gives me grace for all the ways I fail, and conviction to keep trying.

I hope that won’t be lost in the production. Because showmanship and crowds and experiences are not the gospel. They are a distraction. The gospel is better than that.

———–

“So what do you do now? You get to find your own way to dig out a heart and shake it off and hold it up to the light again….

I rock back and forth on my chair like a child, craving so many impossible things: justice, forgiveness, redemption. I crave to stop bearing all the wounds of this place on my own narrow body. But I also want to be a person who stays, who goes on feeling anguish where anguish is due. I want to belong somewhere, damnit.”

———-

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* I will not even pretend that I understand contracts between restaurants and beverage companies, nor do I necessarily understand the implications of those arrangements. I’m just saying that this company has purportedly done a lot of evil in the world, and no one seems to care.

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Part One: Why am I such an American?

At 5:00 last Friday, I pulled up outside David’s apartment and nearly ran up to the front door, leaving all my stuff in the car, itching to get going, get on the road. We’d be driving late into the night, just me and my favorite person.

I opened the door to find him asleep on the couch, “Rise and shine, babe. Time to get on the road.”

He opened he eye wearily and muttered, “How mad will you be if I can’t go?”

“Ha.ha. Very funny. Seriously, get up. You can sleep in the car. Where are your bags?”

At which point he was like, no really, I have [insert long list of actually very important PhD things that need to be done] and I can’t get that done if I go away for the weekend.

“You could do it in the car” (lie)

“You can always work on it tomorrow. There will be so much time” (bigger lie)

To say that I was disappointed would blow straight past understatement into big, fat I’m-sugar-coating-because-I-don’t-want-to-look-bad lie territory.

I literally couldn’t stop crying. I just sat on the floor in his room and ugly cried. It was a little bit missing him and a little bit exhaustion. But mostly I just kept thinking about 7 hours. in the car. alone. again.

And then I remembered those heart searing stories from Haiti, posted just a few hours earlier, and I felt like such a selfish American. I want so badly for the knowledge of their suffering  – of rape camps and of parents begging strangers to take their children – I want it to matter.

I want awareness to sing louder than the constant, clanging, cacophony of my expectations, to reach deep inside the tangled, mess of my desires and clear some space, leave an empty place on the floor where I might notice, might remember how blessed I am.

Because I realized I was crying over the fact that I had to get in my car and listen to music, to see people that I love who love me, so that I could receive gifts and food in celebration of the fact that I get to marry this really awesome person who is currently sitting beside me and rubbing my back and letting me cry about it.

And that realization just about undid me.

I finally stopped crying. And my parents met me in Dallas, so I wouldn’t have to drive the whole way by myself. And the whole weekend was lovely and fun and kind*. And I just couldn’t escape the knowledge of how beautifully blessed I am.

——

In the Old Testament, God makes three promises to Abraham, promises that echo through generations that follow: he promises descendants and he promises a home. And he promises that because of those blessings, all the nations of the world will be blessed in turn.

——-

Maybe that is the key: to have hands open, willing to receive, with humility and with thanks. To recognize, to remember all that you are given beyond what you deserve. And to have fists unclenched, generous, ready to surrender, to hand over your blessings so that they might bless exponentially.

If we can learn to do that here, everyday, maybe that generosity could reach even into the heart of suffering.

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Tomorrow there will be part 2 of my weekend: What I learned about Jesus at a wedding shower. And there will be pictures!

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*An aside: At dinner Saturday night, David’s dad made a joke exactly the way David would have, down to the facial expression. And I missed him in a laughing sad-happy sort of way.

What to do about homelessness, and other easy questions

So there’s this weird thing that goes along with being a doctor’s kid: people think I know medicine.

It happens to my mom, too. And my aunt. It’s always struck me as a funny assumption, as though 8+ years of education are transferred over the dinner table.

It probably also has something to do with the fact that I was pre-med for a while. Several years ago, I guy I had dated texted me out of the blue and said, “So this doctor thinks my finger might be broken. What do you think I should do about that?”

No joke. To which I of course said, “I’d go with the doctor on this one. The extent of my medical training is…none…But I can help you balance a redox reaction, if you want.”

But that isn’t entirely true. I do know what to do with a broken finger, provided that you don’t need stitches. And I have spent a lot of time around medicine. I can play doctor pretty well.

I can mimic the careful, distanced way that doctors touch their patients, the way they move body parts carefully, in degrees – does it hurt when I do this? How about this?

I know the questions to ask: when did the pain start? Is sharp or throbbing? Constant or intermittent? What about fever? Nausea? Swelling? Signs of infection?

Look, I even wore scrubs a couple of times. That makes me practically a licensed physician.

I know what the questions are supposed to sound like. The problem is that people answer my questions. And I’ve got nothing. I recognize that the information is useful, but I have no means of synthesizing it into a diagnosis, much less treatment.

It was the same feeling I had in Uruguay when we were sent off in cabs to find the Brazilian Consulate. Our instructors told the cab where to go and we rode along, got out where he stopped, and then stared up into an intersection that suddenly felt like Times Square with no idea where to go. I don’t know what I was expecting: a big neon sign that said Brazilian consulate probably.

So I went into the nearest store and asked in terrible passable Spanish: “Where is the Brazilian consulate?” And then I was forced to stare blankly at their hands, hoping the motions they made were meant to mimick the directions.

The ability to ask a question does not mean that you are bringing real understanding to real human problems.

Not to mislead, this is not the Brazilian consulate. I didn’t take a picture there because it looked exactly like an American passport office.

And I feel the same way in church sometimes. Like, I’ve spent my whole life around this, I know the right questions to ask, I know what it’s supposed to sound like.

I know that I’m supposed to welcome the marginalized, to align myself with the weak, to feed the poor. But usually when we talk about how we enact the beliefs we claim, it follows the same thinking we heard from our peers in middle school, “well I totally told that kid not cuss in front of me, and man, did that show him what a Christian I was.” As if that has anything to do with the hard stuff of living out a life of kindness and love and forgiveness.

Last Sunday, I pulled up to a stop light in Dallas to find a man, wearing shorts and a trench coat, walking bow-legged down the line of cars, cup and sign in hand.

And I don’t know what to doBecause I have a grand total of $2.63 in cash, and I don’t think that is going to do him one ounce of good. If I thought it would feed him, enable him to find a life that didn’t necessitate begging change out of a long line of shiny new BMW’s, I would give it to him.

But I don’t believe it will help. I believe it’s the grown-up equivalent of telling a classmate not to swear. It makes you feel better and does not one ounce of good for the other person. But what good is abstract thought when I’m staring at a real, physical man with real, physical needs?

Or not staring at him, actually. Because I want to smile at him, but I keep hearing that scripture voice in my head, “He who says to his neighbor, ‘Go, be well’ but does not give him food..is an abomination.” Or something. I’m a terrible Christian and I don’t know where to find the actual verse. But it’s in there, trust me.

*Side note: during my freshman year, my bible professors would constantly be like, “and then in 2nd Timothy 14:2, [probably definitely not] Paul said…” And I was like that’s so cool. I’m sure by the time I graduate I’ll know every verse in the bible, too. Didn’t happen.

I’m not even sure I should smile at the guy. I mean, what’s worse? Smiling and doing nothing? Or ignoring him? And what about all the rest of the world’s poor? Should I even own a car? Should I have a wedding? Is everything I’m doing with my money wrong?

And honestly, I’m mad at this guy. I’m mad that he’s forcing me into an existential crisis when all I want to do is get breakfast burritos with my mom.

And I’m mad at myself that I feel more frustration than empathy.

And I’m mad that I still don’t know what to do.

Today, all I have is a question. And I still don’t know how to answer it.