Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Thoughtful Enough to Know We are Not Thoughtful

On July 11, 2008, Peggy Noonan penned an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled "A Farewell to Harms" (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124716984620819351.html) and within it she proceeds to detail what she terms the "horrific" train wreck that has been Sarah Palin in the national spotlight. My thoughts are not about Gov. Palin or her political career, but rather Noonan's discourse on who Palin is how she has chosen to portray herself (not how she has been portrayed mind you, but how Palin has chosen to embrace as her character on the national stage).

I respect Noonan's point of view because she is not a hostile commentator. Noonan is most well known as the former speechwriter for the Great Communicator, President Ronald Reagan. She is a passionate Conservative and a keen political mind. This is not a member of the "liberal" media yet again taking pot shots at the soon to be former Governor or her approach to politics. This is a well-respected and revered member of Palin's own team.

My thoughts are also not about Palin's political career or her political beliefs. Rather, my thoughts are about another aspect of how Palin has framed herself as an Evangelical and the impact that Noonan's words (although not intended) on that role and how I view it.

Let me summarize Noonan's thoughts first. Noonan claims that Palin was limited in her ability to explain and defend her positions or in some cases even to know what her positions on some issues was or is. Noonan accuses Palin of using her lack of depth and knowledge as a badge of honor or what she calls, "Evidence of Authenticity." Governor Palin appears to be almost proud of what she lacks as though that aspect makes her more real.

Noonan's harshest and most sustained attacks are on the thoughtfulness of Palin and her approach to leadership and politics. Noonan charges that Palin was simply not thoughtful. She never learned how others think or why. This was not of interest to her in any capacity and in that lack of insight, she could be right without knowing why or how the other side was in turn wrong. Noonan goes so far as to state that Palin wasn't thoughtful enough to know she wasn't thoughtful enough.

A "ponder-free" zone is the charge from Peggy Noonan. And perhaps this lack of thoughtfulness and an unwillingness to dig deep and be both self-critical as well as a critical thinker about the greater issues is somehow a sign of her working class status and her being "just one of us." In addition to debunking the notion that Palin is or has ever been working class, Noonan decries that notion that the working class is who lacks these qualities.

While Noonan clearly is speaking to Palin's political and leadership qualities I was struck by something all together different although one might very well inform the other. As someone who studies the rhetoric of Evangelicals and someone who identifies herself as belonging to a community of believers who identify with the Evangelical community, I think Noonan hit the nail on the head of how too many Evangelicals approach our roles and ideals in the world.

As Evangelicals we have a strong history of anti-intellectualism and an unwillingness to thoughtfully engage in both self-criticism, but also an unwillingness to think critically about the things that we supposedly oppose. We are unwilling to learn why others believe as they do or do not or why people believe or do not at all. We have waged an "us versus them" campaign as a means of persuading people that ours is the side of right and anyone who disagrees is opposed to us. We have not been thoughtful enough to know we are not thoughtful enough.

We have attempted to be the "common man" religious group amongst a field of "elitist" mainline organizations that we perceive has lost spiritual power and so we are the answer to that dry and dull religion by being everything that mainline religion is not. We wear this as a banner of authenticity.

Yet, there is some truth to our heritage. The Pentecostal movement to which I belong as a fourth-generation member of the Assemblies of God had beginnings about as humble as that of Christ himself. Jesus was born in a stable (cave) and placed in a feed trough for animals. The Pentecostal movement was birthed in an abandoned livery stable with the son of slaves with little or no education as its leader. However, I would also argue that over time as the movement grew and developed it took on a more middle-class existence but remained more than willing to remain at a place where we lacked education or a willingness to engage in intellectual thought and contemplation in order that we might wear our lack of engagement as a badge of honor.

I find this a dangerous approach to our faith and our influence. We are living in a time when the up-coming generations of young people are greater questioners and are seeking more insight in to what we claim we believe and here is the big one...why. How do we arrive at our positions and why do we believe what we believe. We must be prepared to give them an answer. In order to engage them, we have to step out of a limited ability to explain and defend our positions and we must know our positions. We have to know how people outside of our community think and why in order that we might engage them appropriately and be able to discourse with them and in turn be persuasive in our engagement.

Thoughtfulness cannot only be about "winning" people over to our side. We must also engage thought and to abandon our "ponder-free" zones in order that we can critically analyze ourselves and our approach to our faith. We must be willing to acknowledge where we have erred and caused harm to the cause of Christ and then move forward to not engage in those errors again. To simply pretend the we have not failed or made a mockery of our Lord in our history through our human action is not only naive it is dangerous. The greatest danger in all of this is the very real possibility that we will repeat those errors either intentionally because we have not learned from them or unintentionally because we have not taken the time to give critical thought to them.

Sarah Palin represents what is the worst that I see not only in politics, but that which I see in another community she aligns herself with: the evangelical community. Her lack of thoughtfulness is not a Conservative political trope, but it is a hallmark of evangelicalism and that is more convicting to me than anything she might do or say politically. While we may have come from humble beginnings it is time to put away childish things and to more fully engage in thoughtful and sustained critique of ourselves, our faith, and our approach to religious engagement. While Peggy Noonan might call this a "time for Conservative leaders who know how to think" from a political and governance perspective, I believe this is a crucial time for believers and evangelical leaders who know how to think and are willing to step out from our anti-intellectual past and to become the thoughtful leaders of a future generation of Christ followers.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

What Price Freedom?

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have really been contemplating the concept of freedom. What does freedom really mean? What is freedom? It seems that today, the 4th of July, that there is no better day to take this internal debate and hash it out before the universe.

We hear a lot about freedom in our American culture. It usually follows a discussion about personal liberty and the rugged individualism that so permeates the American mystique. Is that really what the founding fathers had intended? Is that really what they were fighting for? Since leaving his beloved Virginia a couple of years ago, Kevin and I have become students of those fathers. We watch every history channel documentary, listen to historians analysis in books on cd/podcast, and talk for hours about the courage and conviction these men seemed to possess yet find a realism about them in their flaws. While "all men are created equal" was the words they would write, it was not a belief most of them held. When Abagail Adams implored her husband to "remember the Ladies" he scoffed at her ideas, yet she was his most trusted advisor and surely was both husband and wife while he was away contemplating what this new experiment would look like. Most could not reconcile the issue of the slave with their concepts of freedom and concocted convoluted notions of person hood to justify the evil they could not admit to themselves was present in their midst.

We have a mystique in America about the "rugged individualist" and we call this freedom. Yet, often what we lack is the need to have interdependence to serve right along side our Independence. Even the founders understood this. While they fought for liberty from tyranny, they could not go it alone. Had the colonies not come together, the outcome could have been very different. They had to work out their differences which often led to compromise in order to plot out what was to become the United States of America. United is a key word there. Individualism and unity strike me as being in contrast to one another. Yet, united is what we needed to become in order to accomplish our Independence. Ironic, isn't it?

It was the Union which Lincoln sought to preserve. While the sin of slavery was ripping the nation apart, in order to truly deal with it, the union was necessary. It was a messy, bloody and flawed process that we often still see scars of, but United we emerged as the house divided against itself could not stand.

As a Christian, I can only reconcile what freedom actually is by looking at the freedom I am given in Christ. Yet, does that freedom mean that I can now live my life as I choose? Am I free to be and do whatever my heart sees fit? Over and over, the answer to that is no. In order to live out my freedom I am accountable to both God and my fellow man. I will be judged on my actions and how I treat those God has brought into my life. I need a community in order to be challenged, corrected and to promote growth. I am free, yet I am not independent, but rather dependant.

It seems that to have freedom, we must not "go it alone," but we must see our need for one another. Isn't that what God decided from day one in the garden? Maybe he meant, it is not good for mankind to be an individual, but I will make another with which they can be interdependent so that real freedom can be found.

I saw this posted on a friends Facebook page this morning: "It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don't use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that's how freedom grows. For everything we know about God's Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That's an act of true freedom." Paul the Apostle.

To truly be free we must be willing to give up ourselves and to serve one another. To love others as ourselves which is a denying of self. Is this the freedom that the founders desired? While they may not have articulated it in the evangelical manner some would ascribe to them, I think it is a universal truth and transcends. We must care for one another, serve one another, put others before ourselves and give up our independence in order that we might truly be free.

As we embark upon our 234th year as citizens of the United States of America, I want to commit myself to serving more, loving more and giving up more of myself in order to see that the greatest experiment in history can live on, but live on in a new way where my focus is not so much on me and what is right and best for me, but what is right and best for those God has brought into my life and those I have yet to encounter. May we learn to be more interdependent and know that freedom comes at an enormous price, a personal price, but the God of the Universe stands before us already having paid the price so that we can be truly, honestly free.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Not All Soul Music Comes From the Church

I am supposed to be writing today, but there is a lot on my mind right now. Part of it is just the season...it is the end of the semester and I am still both a student and an educator. I am wrapping up the semester and I am finishing chapters for my dissertation. I am also not feeling well with an annual sinus infection that is overtaking my body and my mind. So why, do you ask, are you wasting your time at a blog that you cannot keep up with and in a format that so little people pay attention to?

A wise mentor once told me that you need to write something every day. I struggle a lot with that as I wonder why anyone would care what I had to say. Well, I have come to realize that this writing is for me and if someone else happens upon it and it speaks to them too...you get a double blessing. So I am writing if only to purge thoughts from my soul so I can then get to the writing that I have set aside for the day and then I can say I accomplished something.

In the same vein of self-disclosure and laying my predjudice on the table, I also have to admit that I continue on a path of spiritual discontentment and questioning. It is just the season I am in right now. I wish I could tell you that my faith is so strong and clear that when these moments come, that I am firm in my faith and I am not tossed by the wind. That, however, would be a bold and utter lie. I am naturally a questioner...ask my mother. "Why?" and "What's that?" have been the theme of my life. I suppose that is what drew me to academia and what keeps me here. There are just so many questions. I am convinced that God is not afraid of my questions nor is he bothered by them, because even in moments where I am lacking in faith, I can clearly testify that it is in those moments that I sense God is most near. So I will not call this is a season of spiritual dryness as I find God very present, but it is a season of questions and discontentment with the perceived answers. While I sense God is very close, it is not his voice I hear.

My sister-in-law is in a battle for her life. Makes all my challenges, questions and issues seem pretty small. I have a ton of knowledge and lots of education to back it up, but the question of cancer looms large in my mind. No academic degree can tell me why a person who lives in the light of grace and has the most intense faith and trust in the goodness of God is being tortured to death. I have a wonderful, Godly friend who asks me this often and I have pat answers about suffering that I give to her and they are all right and true, but even while I speak them to others I think...what a bunch of bull...and then I hear Karen speak and I am brought back again to the fact that this is not about cancer. This is about the goodness of God in the midst of the worst kind of human suffering.

It is my perogative that in these moments a person of faith turns their attention to their church and the community of worshippers that sustains them. It is here that much of my discontentment falls these days. Previous posts allude to this. I don't really "get" church right now. I will admit that we have struggled with even going to church as of late. We have had to contend deeply with the thought that we may have actually chosen the church we attend for the Pastor and now that he has been called elsewhere, we aren't so sure this is for us...yikes! Seriously? Have we become those people that were only attending a church for the PASTOR??? But it wasn't really the Pastor because as much as we love and respect this man...he couldn't get us to the pew every week. No, rather, I struggle more with the church universal than I do with one church in particular. And I do see myself as part of the problem.

We have not invested ourselves in our church. While we diligently pay our tithe and upon tax filing can say we actually gave upwards of an actual 10% this year, that is about all we put into it. Where your treasure is...there is your heart...10% is just about right. You only get out what you put in...why, why am I not putting more in?? Why am I not willing to make the investment?

The question is not where is God, but rather the question is where am I? I find more spiritual discernement in a NY Times Op-Ed piece by a rock star celebrity than I do anyplace else ( http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/19/opinion/19bono.html?_r=5) and yet I feel guilty that I found it there and not from "the church" like maybe I am looking in the wrong place. I agree that in times of struggle people often turn to the church for a place of comfort, but honestly, I don't think God is worried about the American economy...so teaching on financial security and not God security makes me crazy. When we turn to our church is to find something bigger and bolder and greater than ourselves. It is about stepping outside of what is happening in a fallen and evil world, not analyzing it from a Fox News perspective masked as a spiritual teaching.

So if we can get the same news from the church as we get from CNN, then why not just stay home and watch CNN? And whatever you do, do not turn on Christian Radio. You might be lucky to hear an occasional teaching if you can stomach the "Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise" programming that is sandwhiched between a vitamin infomerical and Christian legal programming. Really? There are people in this world who are dying and going to hell every day and our message is that if they had just used this herb combined with this financial plan and coupled with a donation to fight this legal battle, then God would save their souls. Really? If only I were rich and thin...sounds more like an article in Glamour magazine than Godly wisdom.

And yet, God's presence is strong. I sense him right here as I cry through these words. Despite my often lacking faith and my constant questions, the presence of God is so clear to me. Isn't that amazing? That is what seperates God from the church. No one even notices that we have been missing from church, but God not only sees and hears, but he comes to me before I can even get the question out and he lets me sit at his feet and soak in his presence and he stays right there until I am done with my questions. Sometimes he answers right away, but somedays, like today, he just sits silently and holds me tight because he knows even better than I do that is not the answer that I need, it is just him...he is afterall..the answer.