Congressional Shutdown: What to call it?

I’m a big believer in the power of words, so as the shutdown drags on ever longer and more and more people begin to talk about it, I find myself wondering what words to use to describe it.  People call the congress “childish”, or “terrorist”, or “stupid.”  I try on each of those words and try to figure out what words are really appropriate, what are silly rhetoric, and what words do more harm than good.  Let us deconstruct together.

First off, I don’t think that “childish” is a good word to use.  While much of the dialogue seems woefully immature, I still don’t believe it’s a good idea to insult children.  Most children are aware that their actions have consequences.  This becomes clear even at a very young age.  My two-year-old Monkeypants knows when she’s gone too far.  She knows when it’s time to accept the time out and the fact that the toys have gone into the “no-no box” on top of the fridge.  She will give me a hug and same “sorry Mimi” with those big, tearfully rueful eyes, and she will behave as if she is remorseful.  Congress does not show that level of self-awareness.  Instead, as the consequences become more dire and the public outcry and condemnation mounts, they yell even louder as if throwing a bigger tantrum is the real way to get what you want.  Sorry, Congress, but my two-year-old even knows that won’t work.  So what you are isn’t childish, that’s not it at all.

Another word used in lieu of “childish” is “criminal.”  For one, nothing that congress has done is illegal.  They have the shield of the law over them, even if it seems contrary to the conscience that such could be true.  An analogy has been made that their actions are similar to kidnapping the American public’s needs and holding them blackmail, much like drug cartels do with rich tourists.  And while on a basic level that comparison seems to hold water, I think it needs to be examined in more than a cursory way.  What exactly happened?  The extreme side of one party looked at the failed budget negotiations.  They claim that their conscience would not allow them to pass a budget that funded items they disagree with on a basic moral level.  Hm.  While that may smack of a certain amount of truth, almost all politicians do so to some extent or another.  They yammer about funding for more tanks, for example, or for wheat subsidies, or for scientific grants, or for funding failing schools.  They moan and complain, but ultimately pass the budget because they come to the very sane realization that the majority of Americans are asking them to do so, and they serve our interests, not their conscience.  In this instance, while 51% of the public say they are unhappy with the Affordable Care Act, 27% of that thin “majority” want it improved, and only 23% of them want it defunded.  So the numbers reflect that over 80% of Americans didn’t want Congress to fail to pass the budget over that issue.  In that case, it means that if the House was feeling pricked by anything, it probably wasn’t their conscience.  It was opportunism.  That makes the “holding us hostage” language feel a little more real.  They saw an opportunity to take a visible stand, but it wasn’t in the name of the majority of Americans.  That’s what they said, but clearly the numbers show that was dishonest at best but most likely a lie.  The stand was in the name of political posturing.  So this isn’t like a drug cartel taking a hostage so much as political activists taking prisoners.  Only what is held prisoner is pregnant women’s access to WIC, vacationers access to parks, military personnel’s access to civilian contractors, scientist’s access to grant money, and the list goes on and on.

I can see why some people would say, “they are like terrorists.”  But that language is unnecessarily inflammatory and most people on the other side of the argument wouldn’t stay around long enough to hear the explanation, and likely wouldn’t buy into it even if they did.  Is literally halting people’s lives worth what slim political gain the Republicans garner?  I doubt it, in the long run.  That’s why I finally found the word I think fits them the most:

Opportunistic bastards.  Yes, I know, it’s still inflammatory.  But, I can’t think of anything that fits that is not.  I’m thinking of that guy at the bar who won’t take no for an answer.  You tell him you’re not there to be picked up and he says, “you’re just saying that because you haven’t met me yet.” You tell him you are there with friends and aren’t interested in conversation.  He says, “sweetie you don’t have to play shy.”  Your friends come over to rescue you from your obvious discomfort and he tells them not to cock-block.  You laugh and say no really you aren’t interested in his cock and he says that’s because you haven’t seen it and asks for your cell phone number.  Hello, dude, no means no.  But he’s the kind of creep that will still try to walk you to your car.  The kind of creep that keeps sending you unwanted drinks.  The kind of creep that makes you feel like you need to ask the bouncer to walk you to your car.  The kind of creep who probably has roofies in his pocket and is just waiting for a congressional budget negotiation to totally screw you.  The kind of guy that gets more aggressive the more you say “no.”

A bastard, plain and simple.

Not a child, because children know that no means no.  Not a criminal, because the criminal justice system is full of people who pled guilty and accepted the consequences of their actions.  Not a terrorist, because terrorists show a callous disregard for the value of life.  And these guys, they never seem to cross that line.  No, they just terrify you because you wonder what will happen one day when the right opportunity strikes.  (Okay, maybe that sounds suspiciously like terrorism.)

They are just bastards, but unlike the bastards in the bar you can’t throw the drink they bought you at their crotch and just get up and leave and go somewhere else.

If only.

Go and sin no more

Once upon a time I wrote about how Jesus always accepted people where they were.  One faithful reader (correctly)  pointed out that Jesus was in the habit of commanding people to sin no more.  So there is a balance to be struck- a balance between meeting people where they are at and helping get them to where they need to be.  Take, for example, the man by the pool of Bethesda (John 5):  Jesus met him where he was and took pity on him.  When the man explained that he could never be healed by the pool’s water, Jesus simply told him to pick up his mat and leave.  Here is the interesting thing:  Jesus told the man to pick up his mat and walk away- this command was a command to technically sin by the law of the time.  It was a sabbath, and carrying one’s bedclothes from one place to another was sin.  But Jesus also told the man to stop sinning before something bad happened to him.  So…  How could the Son of Man tell someone to sin out of one side of his mouth and to stop sinning out of the other?  Or perhaps this story (like so many in the New Testament) is supposed to illustrate that God’s law is not man’s law- someone whom man may judge to be a sinner by their standard may be righteous in the eyes of He who is called I Am.

Another example of this would be the woman caught in adultery (John 8).  Someone caught in adultery was to be stoned- this was the law.  To fail to stone her would be to usurp the law.  Yet Jesus disobeyed the law’s command and spared her- but in the same breath, told her not to sin.  So what is the answer?  To obey the law, or disobey it?

In John 9, shortly after Jesus heals the man born blind, we see the Pharisees saying that Jesus’s miracles must be false because “he is a sinner.”

Jesus, the Son of God, the perfect Lamb, is judged by his contemporaries as being all full up of sin.  He desecrated the Sabbath, he flaunted his lawlessness, surely this man could not speak for God!

Pick up your mat, and stop sinning.  This would be, to someone of the time, the equivalent of ordering someone to stand perfectly still while jumping up and down.  Surely these two things could not be done simultaneously- not without a miracle.  But that is precisely what Jesus was, a miracle.  He delivered his people out from under the law while simultaneously teaching them the law.  The law, that is, that is fulfilled through loving the Lord thy God with all your heart, soul, and mind- and loving thy neighbor as thyself.

Try, for a minute, to imagine how revolutionary it must have seemed for the people of the time to hear the disciples teaching that Christ had freed us from under the law while at the same time telling them to remain pure.  Remain pure?  Without the law?  Be innocent as doves but be allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols?  How is that even supposed to work?

I think we’ve forgotten the magic of the gospel, the miracle of being not condemned.  We must have, because we still want to cling to legalism and systems as our salvation, we still want pat answers about who is and isn’t okay.  We’re still afraid to be seen in the company of tax collectors and whores.

Retreating back to legalism in the face of Jesus’s sacrifice, for me, would be an act of treason.

rabbit trail: born again

What does being born again really mean?

I found myself thinking about this last night as I lay in bed awake, unable to sleep again after my son had woken up with a messy diaper and needed to be cajoled back into his bed.  I don’t know why my mind went there, but I was thinking about a gruff southern preacher proclaiming loudly that gay men needed to be willing to be “born again” and leave the “lives of their past”.  And I thought, “when people say that, they really just mean that they need to be willing to not be gay anymore.”

After that thought, my mind just wouldn’t shut off.  It’s generally my habit, in those times, to pray quietly or to walk around the house a few times until my mind shuts back off.  But not last night.  No, instead it just kept beating itself up against something it couldn’t make sense of.  See, when I became a Christian and was “born again,” I didn’t become a new person over night.  I didn’t really change at all.  For years I was still suicidal, still self-destructive and self-loathing, and it was years and years of work and struggles and tears before I found myself coming out of my chrysalis and becoming something new.  I would have to say it’s just been the past seven years or so I’ve felt like I’m growing into my own, and only the past six months or so that the shape of who I’ll become has been any more clear.  And I may keep saying the same thing for the rest of my life- that I’m not done yet, that I’m only just beginning to make sense of things.  This whole “being born again” thing isn’t like emerging from the womb fully grown.  You go right back to being a baby and have to grow up all over again.

And even making sense of what I feel of that, what I feel about being born again, I still can’t make sense of what those words are generally intended to mean.

A church tells a gay man he needs to become a new creation.  They really mean he needs to stop being gay.  They say the same to a homeless man, but don’t they really want him to take a shower, get a job, become not a different spiritual man but also a different physical one?  And isn’t the same thing true of the blue haired tattooed beauty?  They want her to stop being herself, to be something other.

It’s as if they think that God got it wrong the first time around, he made us the wrong person, so he’s got to give it a second shot.

And I wonder, why do so many people get “born again” only to keep being exactly as they are?  The overworked father gets born again, so he starts going to church and gets preachier and uptight- but he still ignores his children, does paperwork during the family meal, belittles his wife and makes her feel lost and insufficient.  He’s got some new habits now, but he’s still the same essential guy.

So what is it?  Do we have to become someone else, or just…  I don’t know.

I think, like so many pet phrases, it means what people want it to mean.  The reality of fundamental truth has been brushed under the carpet of convenience.  Sometimes I feel that way about the entirety of my religion.

My faith I like.

My religion I tolerate.

Like the boy at the end of SLC Punk, I have discovered that it’s easier to dismantle the machine from the inside.

I love you. You’re going to BURN IN HELL.

“I’m telling you that you’re going to burn in hell because I care about you.”

“You feel conflicted because Satan is fighting for your mind.”
“You are depressed because you are living in sin and God is convicting you.”

Those are all lines that might be believable if uttered by a close and trusted friend.  But all too often I see language like that being hurled not by friends and close family, but by total strangers in blog comments.  I see people callously judging the choices of total strangers, saying that they do so not out of distaste or hatred but motivated by God and God’s love.

Perhaps on some level that is true.  But the picture it paints for the world is not one of a vibrant bride of Christ wooing the world, but of a hard-hearted people offering up cups full of bitter condemnation.  There is a very simple truth here:  You have to have people’s trust if you want them to believe you.  A horrible truth uttered by a stranger is immediately mistrusted.  You know in those movies, where the big muscled man tells the frail scared woman that she has to trust him?  You know how she always does?  That’s not reality.  People don’t trust strangers, no matter how frightened those people are and how right the stranger is.

People trust friends.

The backhand to that truth is that friends don’t tell friends they are going to burn in Hell.  You may tell a friend you are concerned for them, you may tell them you think they are making bad choices, you may tell them that you think they are hurting themselves…  But the callous language generally used by Christians with strangers is not the kind of language you use with people you care about.

Christians:  ask yourself this question-

When was the last time you heard someone in the Church tell someone else in the Church that Satan was messing with their head?  That they would burn in Hell?  That they were flouting God’s salvation?

You may have heard it, from time to time, especially in Bible Belt land…  But that isn’t the normative language because it is hurtful. That…  and if someone is in the church, we don’t use the “us and them” language.  Saying you are going to burn in hell, you need salvation, you are in a war for your soul implicitly implies that I am not, thus drawing a line between speaker and hearer.

That line, that thin black line, makes it almost impossible to truly win people over to love.  Why?  Because it destroys trust, it creates a deep division between hearts.  The true way to show people love is not by drawing lines but by crossing borders, sitting with them, listening to them, offering them the same trust that we hope they will offer us.

Someone has to trust first, love first, offer forgiveness first.  So often Christians seem to think that it’s the “unsaved masses” that need to do so.  Why?  There is no prerequisite to salvation.

Thoughts, additions, disagreement?  Log it in the comments, please.  😀

Curses and Foul Language

***disclaimer- I will use a lot of actual language in this post, not #$%^, as the nature of this post is to address language frankly

Here is something that every Christian tradition treats differently: foul language.  There are some traditions in which even mild language such as “heck” or “crap” gets a raised eyebrow.  Others in which one might get away with calling someone a bitch but not saying “Dear Lord!” as an expletive.  There are several reasons for this discrepancy.  The first is that language itself is fluid.  Words and their meanings and their acceptance in society changes over time.  Women may have fainted in the past should a man have told them to “go to Hell!” and these days that language is crabbily used on cashiers that give the wrong change, only sometimes to raised eyebrows.  Even words that were utterly taboo ten years ago are more or less commonplace now.  Women no longer even seem to blush at being referred to as a bitch.  In fact, some wear it on their shirts in rhinestone letters.

So where does Christianity go with this cultural phenomenon?  Language being fluid, the only real way to judge what is truly foul language is by the intent of the speaker and the interpretation of the hearer.  That is, it’s foul if you mean it to be foul or if the hearer feels it is.  The second of those two things is why I myself rarely curse- I wouldn’t want someone to misinterpret my words, and it’s easier to be clear when using language that everyone interprets the same.

But what does the Bible say?  That’s where it gets a little trickier.  Matthew 5:22 says (paraphrased) that anyone who calls his brother a fool is in danger of Hellfire.  I would say that calling your sister a bitch is worse than calling your brother a fool, so that does indeed seem to be a caution against harsh language of any kind, foul or acceptable.  The Bible does caution us against the kind of language we use, like in James 3 where the tongue is compared to a rudder of a ship- a small thing with great power.  And we’ve all heard this proverb, said by Jesus himself in Luke 6:  “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”  These cautions seem to be against our intent when speaking, not the actual words we say.

So my words, whenever I am asked about what the Bible says about foul language, is to say, “the Bible doesn’t say anything about specific words, because they didn’t use the same language as us.  But the Bible does say a lot about the kind of people we are and what our hearts lead us to say.”

The point really isn’t the words, the point is the heart.  I myself rarely curse because I don’t want to offend people in my hearing.  If I don’t know what a fellow Christian believes about cursing I don’t do it.  If I’m in the company of non-Christians, I’ll wait to test the waters and watch myself.  If I know the company I’m in and I know they won’t be offended, I speak as I wish.  But even then I rarely curse.  When I do it’s to get people’s attention or for dramatic affect.  There’s one time I remember clearly, where I was talking to a young man in a youth group I was co-pastoring at the time.  He kept talking about how stupid he was and how he couldn’t seem to get any self-control and he thought everyone hated him, and on, and on, and on, so he got drunk the other night and-

I said, “just stop that fucking shit.”

He stopped talking, and started listening.

Did I use foul language?  That depends.  The words I used may have been unsavory, but I wasn’t trying to offend him, I was trying to cut him off.  I was trying to get him to listen.  And the words that followed weren’t cruel, they were about the kind of man I knew he could be, about how God saw him as a son and wanted him to be loved and to accept that love.  So was I being foul?  I don’t really think so.

It’s about intent and perception.  After all:

Proverbs 27:14
If a man loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.

God told me to write this post.

“God told me to marry you,” a nervous teen told me, an equally nervous teen, at a convention.

“Really?” I replied, a little sarcastically. “Did he give you chocolates for me? I love chocolate.”

The boy looked a little embarrassed, “I’m not joking,” he said.

“I’m sorry. I just… I don’t know. Maybe if we’re friends for a while, but right now? No. Not interested.”

“Maybe everyone was right about you,” he replied.

I didn’t need to ask him what he meant. Kids are less than kind to each other, and I might as well have hung a sign around my neck saying;

Shush is a man eating bitch

Those who knew me well knew it was because I’d been sorely mistreated in the past. Everyone else assumed I was a lesbian.

That’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is those three little words that many Christians adore saying. No, not “I love you.” These ones pack a bigger punch. “God told me.”

God told me you need a pick me up, so I brought you a coffee. God told me you need to work on this, or that, or the other thing. I was praying about who to have on the prayer ministry, and God told me your name. I was thinking about who could volunteer for the nursery, and God told me to ask you. Or, God told me to date you. God told me to marry you.

It’s simply not fair. While in all of those situations God very well may have been telling someone something true, the phrasing makes it almost impossible to disagree. God told you that Sarah should be in the nursery? What is Sarah’s response? She has to either say yes or feel like a bad churchgoer. What if God told you to invite Bob on the prayer team, and Bob feels strongly that public prayer is prideful? How in the world should he reply? Even more manipulative is God picking out people’s future mates. I know one man who felt very, very strongly that God told him who he should marry. Several years and babies later, she still doesn’t know. He felt that by telling her he was manipulating her feelings. He wanted to go out, to win her heart, to treat her like a queen. He wanted to feel that she married him out of love, not out of obligation.

I feel as if we sometimes mistake our own intuition for the voice of God as well. You may simply have a sense that a friend is down and needs a phone call or a latte. It feels pretty good to say that God told you. In a way, it may be. It may be God-by-proxy. God’s gift of empathy and compassion may be motivating you. It may be that mysterious sixth sense that is so hard to place a finger on. The Holy Spirit might truly be involved. But is it really, truly honest to say those three little words? Is it really God telling you?

We cheapen God’s voice by making it sound commonplace. I’m not saying that God isn’t there, every second of the day. I’m not saying that the Spirit doesn’t move on you about the most banal and ridiculous things. God does truly care about our daily life, he cares about us needing an afternoon pick me up or affirming phone call. He moves through the ether, driving chance. He is there. He is acting. But is he speaking? God’s elusive voice is something we shouldn’t take for granted, and we shouldn’t treat it as casually as a “hello” or “how are you.” It’s not an introductory phrase for every sentence.

It is precious. It is sacred.

Treat it like it.

Speak Plainly.

As an exercise, for a few months my old youth group and I kept track of all of the buzzwords and “Christians Only” language we heard on Sunday mornings.  There was one girl who complained that not having grown up in the church, she didn’t even understand the sermons.  She would often pass me notes that would say things like, “what is he talking about?”  I would paraphrase the pastors words in plain English, and she would respond, “why doesn’t he just SAY that?”

I was never sure how to reply.  Why doesn’t the pastor speak plain English?  I don’t know.  Perhaps it’s because after doing the scholarly end of studying the Bible, he wants to use the words he’s paid so much to learn.  Perhaps it’s because the Church likes the country club feeling of the members being more at home than the guests, for whatever GOD-forsaken reason, and having language that only they know makes them feel powerful.  Perhaps it’s because we all buy in to the idea that words mean more if you have to work harder to understand them.  Perhaps it’s because as a former manager of a chain store, he was familiar with buzz and hype speak and was eager to use the Christian equivalent.   Whatever the reason, one thing he failed to understand was the distance and confusion he was creating.  It was all well and good for us who understood him, but for those who didn’t his language became yet another barrier between the seeker and belief and acceptance.

Language is about both meaning and the ability to convey meaning- if you’re using the word that is closest to the meaning you want to convey but farthest from the ability to convey the meaning, what you intend for the word to mean doesn’t matter.  To put things plainly: you need to use words that people understand.  I hate “Christian” speak because it is just another one of those things that makes those outside the fold feel like they will never belong within it.  With all of the talk of making “seeker friendly”Sunday mornings and making our sanctuaries welcoming to guests, with all of the money and effort thrown at figuring out the best way to welcome guests, the best materials available for guests, the best classes for new believers, the most active and exciting worship- one thing that seems to have been forgotten or never looked at is the words we use.  Christianity has it’s own language, it’s own meaning for common words, it’s own proprietary sentences and proverbs and jokes and everything else.  We use them second nature, not really ever considering if they mean anything when we leave our Christian bubbles.

Here’s a hint: they mean nothing to others.  They are incomprehensible and sometimes offensive.  They create confusion and distance.  They make people feel like we’re acting superior.  They make the rest of the world feel like the wait staff at a huge resort, interacting with the clientele but having to go back home in the evenings.

Christianity is not a country club.  While we may joke about “members only” and how we’re the ones with the inside line to God, that’s not the truth.  God is Love, and love is for everyone.  God is for everyone.  We, as the body of Christ, should be for everyone.  Our language should be, too.