Friday, May 26, 2017

Adventist Ghost Story

No, not a real ghost.  I don't believe in those.  Elder X was definitely gone before we ever got in the car that night. Yet his passing plunged us into one of the strangest, spookiest nights of my life.  I was going to save this story for Halloween, in fact, but I'm going to excuse my impatience and say that summer campfire-story season is good enough. Besides, I'd rather tell it on a bright sunny day.

It was a cloudy day in February, but strangely warm.  The layer of snow had melted away under a heavy wind. The long-dead autumn leaves got tossed around the road like scurrying brown spiders.  But it was Friday night, and I was finally, happily, in my pajamas and robe and ready to make a puzzle (yes, this was pre-children).  No good ever comes from having to change back out of one's pajamas in the night, I would like to say.

We got a phone call just about bedtime.  Elder X had died that afternoon.  We expected it--he had even said a few days before that he hoped it happened soon.  But it was a grim thing to change back into presentable clothes, which I did while Jim was still on the phone, and steel my heart to go visit the dead man's house.

It was good and dark by the time we set out. The warmth was gone, but the spectral wind was constant, blowing the crumpled leaves into our headlight beams, looking all the more like frightened, fleeing animals.  We had printed directions to the house--cell phones wouldn't have worked out in that wilderness, even if we'd had them.  I clenched the armrest, and for a few miles we were fine.

But this was the wilds of rural Pennsylvania.  The road you were looking for might, in fact, have a name, but that didn't mean the locals felt like sharing the information.  We pulled out the state atlas (we weren't fools enough to be out without one), but in the dark, long driveways and paved nothings look a lot like roads.  We were close, but it was impossible to know just where we were.

The first spooky place we hit was the school. We reached it at the point where the wrong road turned into a dead end.  It was brick and iron, and stately.  And crumbling--oil and industry were ghosts now in the region, and the population had receded like a river flood, leaving broken things in its wake. A tangle of chain-link fencing stood upright only at the remaining posts.  On that night, in that wind, it was ready to be the set of a horror movie, and even I--mostly ignorant of the genre--could have written the first half of the plot.

The next place we found was the cemetery--the very place Elder X said he wanted to be buried. The road hugged it around the corner at the top of a hill, all overgrown and interrupted with ancient trees.  We had no intention of stopping for directions here, but someone had stopped, apparently.  We slowed to look at the car, parked on the grass, spun back to face oncoming traffic.  The driver's door was open, bouncing slightly in the gusts, the dome light on, the vehicle empty. To this day I have no explanation.

Another turn, and we found an actual house.  The front door was open, inexplicably on a February night.  I climbed the brick steps to a narrow porch and rang the doorbell.  And waited.

Kreee. The sound was right beside me--I caught my breath and turned to look.  At a weather-vane--a black rooster, turning gracefully in the energetic wind.

Why is there a weather-vane on the ground? 

I was chilled, and spooked, and no one was coming to the door.  I wanted to give up, but there were no other houses with lights on, and if I didn't stay, we'd have to wander some more, and find who knew what else.  I rang the bell again.  And finally someone came to the door.  He was elderly, wearing only his underwear and a paunch, and he stared at me through the screen as if he couldn't see me.  I swallowed, and asked my question anyway.  And after two or three tries, he understood enough to tell me where the road was.

And all of this, of course, before we reached the dead man's house. But the dead man's house was the scariest place of all. Everything else was just odd sights on a windy night. But at the house, we met Elder X's family, his widow, and adult children.  Elder X had been failing, and in pain for a long time.  His family was as relieved as they were grieved, not surprisingly.  What was surprising was the almost predatory way they reacted to us.  

I had never met any of them in church.  The Elder had been too ill for many years, and none of the others came without him. But his years of service to that congregation, by tale, had been as stormy as that night.  His contribution had been a decades-long power struggle to control the church. The congregation, by the time we arrived, boasted no more than a dozen people on a Sabbath morning. And the family was just as ravaged by the culture of controversy.

I remember distinctly the way the elder son scooted his chair closer to mine, his wiry white beard twitching, to say, in a voice of scandal, "Did you know they changed the hymnal?"  I remember the widow's almost gleeful condescension when she saw Jim had set his Bible on the floor under his chair.  I stared at the orange shag carpet and felt the weight of pessimism in the house.  And I wondered, What would it feel like to live here?

Elder X's family had the comfort, that night, of the hope of a resurrection.  But they didn't have the comfort of a God of grace, because it hadn't been in his legacy to them.

I remember also the text Jim read that night, Revelation 14:13--Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.

It was a promise.  But as I remember that night, it feels like a warning, too. Elder X was at rest, but the fruit of his particular faith lived on.  It will follow him, in the hearts of his family.  What he lived, they will carry.

I want to pass that warning on to my church today, a church so twisted up in controversy that the issues are hardly the issue any more.  This same demanding attitude, this same lock-step legalism is being entertained in our organization. These works, too, will follow us as a church. 

What will our legacy be?  We may have the comfort of being right, but we need a God of grace more. We need to ask ourselves, not only "Am I right?" but "What does it feel like to live in this church?" Because if we do not live the love of God, the price will fall on those whom we leave, quite literally, in our wake.

This is my Adventist ghost story.  Because dead faith leaves a specter far more substantial than any silly fear of the departed. This is my camp-fire terror story.  I hope it scares you, too.

Friday, May 19, 2017

In Praise of Bad Words

I'm pretty squeamish about language.  So much so, that when the first child was ready for potty training, I had to train myself to say "poop" out loud.  I was raised by a mother who said things like "Like fun, you will!" and "He's out fruiting around." And before the birth of this oh-so-educational firstborn, Jim and I tried out "monkey" as a substitute for uncouth sayings ("That's just monkey." "What a load of monkey meat!")

 But in spite of all of this, there are moments in my life when I need something stronger. I need one of those words we don't let out in polite company, or possibly ever. There are situations where I can't help feeling that one of them would not just be most satisfying, it would be the most honest and appropriate thing to say.  And I'm guessing I'm not the only one.

When the moment happens--when the very surprising, or aggravating, or painful thing happens, or when I feel a deep need to say, "I really mean it," I consider my options.  And it's usually the audience, and not my inner moral compass, that decides it.  I'm pretty sure potty training itself changed me.  My vocabulary now includes a few terms more serious than "poop."

There are, of course, things I won't say.  There are two categories, actually. The first group is profanity--things I actually do say, but in happier contexts, words for God. The best I can reason, using the name of God in that way is a devolved form of oath-taking, where God is used as the "guarantee" to vouch for one's honesty. At best, this makes the name of God something frivolous or common (the essence of "profane" or as Exodus says, "vain").  At worst, it equates Him with something bad or unpleasant, which is against my religion.

The second category is words that refer to sex.  This, in a sense, is against my faith, too.  The same word should not mean "to have sex with" or "to harm." I don't use the "f" word, not because I think we shouldn't talk about sex, but because I think we shouldn't talk about it that way. The theology in which sex is a good metaphor for cheating, misleading, or hurting someone, is all kinds of messed up, and I won't support it..

So what's left?  Not a lot that would get bleeped out of broadcast TV. But still a few things I don't want my kids saying (at least, not yet),even if they are in the Bible.  How, then, do I justify it? If the words I choose might offend someone, shouldn't I just decide never to use them? Does any good ever come from strong language?


Beyond the fact that I actually feel better saying it out loud, and the excuse of the Apostle Paul's example, there is strange and unique form of honesty in bad language. In the right context, with the right audience, it can be bonding, even healing.

The other day, Jim got off the phone with a friend and said, "I'm glad X is comfortable enough to use bad words around me." X was carrying a lot of frustration--the words were a sign that he wasn't sugar-coating things.  Using them when talking to his pastor was a mark of his trust.

In lighter situations, a colorful word can be a signal, like a movie reference, or the number 42.  It's a way to say I'm being real,  I have often felt instantly safer around someone because of less-than-white-washed language.  And I have a few friends I take care to sometimes use a low-filter word or two around.  I am showing them that I'm not putting on a face for them.  They're talking to the real me.

In fact, when it's used right, strong language marks a kind of intimacy.  Just like any other kind of intimacy, I reserve it for certain people and certain times. But I need a space in my life where I can say it the way it feels.

 I'm glad I have that space, and I hope you do, too.  Because somewhere in the future there's a counter corner at elbow level, a lost car key, or a broken heart with your name on it.  Because there ought to be people in your life who want to hear it as bad as it feels.  Because sometimes you need the freedom to call crap by its right name.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Why You're Not a Cultural Adventist (or, "It Was Never About the Fri-Chick")

If you hang around churches long enough, you'll hear the term thrown around.  It shows up around Nominating Committee time: "Person X isn't interested in doing anything in church.  She's really just a cultural Adventist."  It happens more often when there's a controversy involved:  "Those people who want to ordain women/change the worship service/serve coffee in the lobby ought to just move on.  They're just cultural Adventists."  Maybe you've heard it. Maybe you've said it.  Maybe someone's said it about you.

The idea, the accusation, is that your faith isn't real, or it isn't important to you.  If you're a cultural Adventist, you're not here because you love God and the church, you're just in it for the Fri Chick.  You grew up in the church, and you come to see your friends and because it's comfortable and familiar here.  And it's kind of nuts, when you think about it.

It's nuts, because it's used invariably for someone who is progressive, liberal.  It is the traditional hashtag slapped on these "other" Adventist homes.  The irony, of course, is that these are the people who usually want to change something. They're the ones who don't fit in, the square pegs in the round holes of the church. If someone stays in church, even when it doesn't suit their personal tastes, how can one accuse them of being there for the culture?

Actually, I am tempted to say it goes the other way.  The people who find nothing to challenge or disturb them on Sabbath morning, the ones who speak the language and match the dress code--they are in the greater danger of staying for the culture.

I am tempted, but I have to do better than that. If I can't do any better than turn the finger to point the other way, I might as well turn in my tofu-and-cheese cookbook and go home.  Because the church isn't a bone for us to fight over.  It's a gift of God, and it belongs to him.

Perhaps it will help to start by admitting that Adventism is both a faith and a culture. We believe certain things in common (and sometimes we assume more things in common than that),and we're used to doing things certain ways. The doing might come from the believing, or it might be habit. Culture is okay, and so is changing it.

I want you to believe that last sentence is more profound that it appears, so I'll write it again.  Culture is okay, and so is changing it.* 

Habit is not evil, even when I find it annoying.  It's okay for my friend to have a hymnal velcro'd to their hip, and a red-book quote for every occasion.  As long as I also have the freedom to make a point without a quote to back me up.

Likewise, it's okay for me to put mustard and pepper on my vegeburger.  I don't have to resent the person in the potluck line beside me if they have to look away as I do.  And when I preach Sabbath morning, and an older saint shakes my hand, I won't take it personally when she thanks me for my "little talk." She has a paradigm, and she's trying to conform her experience to it.  She's doing it politely.  I am guessing she goes through similar reasoning to make allowances for me.

Of course I think I'm right, and she's wrong on this one.  I'm not saying all opinions are equal. The reason I'm a progressive is that I want to make progress.  I'm saying none of these things are grounds for us to question one another's faith, or exclude them from being Adventists.It's lazy and irresponsible to try to solve our problems by disowning the other side of the pew.

We are all believers.  Everyone's reason for showing up Sabbath morning is their own, and it's really not the point anyway.  The point is, we're all here. If we want to change the culture, we should skip the pointing fingers part, and talk to one another.

*Note my clever tact in not using the word Tradition--since that's a bad word in Adventist culture.

Friday, May 5, 2017

On Getting Old

I remember the first time I was told I was not a young adult.  We were in a group, talking about a new worship service which some actual young adults wanted to start. I was intrigued--what would it be like to do church differently, in a way that made sense to people like me? I was a little surprised when our friend pointed out we weren't in the target age group.  I was in my early(ish) thirties.  And since I was hanging out in churches, I had no reason before not to think of myself as young.

It is a hard process to evict "young" from my definition of myself.  It's been part of my identity for as long as I've had one.  It was part of what made my opinions matter, what made my contribution laudable. I am hoping, of course, that I'll get to the place where my age makes me admirable again--"How can she do all that at her age?"  At the least, I want to reach the point where I have an excuse for forgetting things, or can beg off the jobs I really don't want by insinuating vague health issues. (Yes, I know these goals are contradictory.)  But I'm not ready yet.

Aging is too big an idea to swallow all in one mouthful.  I'm 40 now.  A couple of years ago, being 40 was incomprehensible.  I realized (in a wash of terror one day) that it was getting close, and I spent the last couple of years acclimating to the idea, like a diver descending slowly into the depths.  At every age, I have to redefine what I think of as "old" and also what I think I am.

Life is a trip with no rest stops, no detours, no return access to the freeway eastbound.  I cannot find the place I want to be and stay there. I can't slow down.  I can only keep choosing the person I want to be, and keep becoming them.  Again, and again.

Today my wonderful husband Jim celebrates his 40th birthday. I'm grateful to him for catching up with me (especially since I mentally assigned him to the 40s as soon as I got there).  It's amazing how different the trip feels, when I'm not travelling alone. It's remarkable how much younger the number is when it applies to someone else, someone I've known since our teens.  He is not old to me, and I can't imagine when he might start to be.  He's just wiser, funnier, and stronger than when I met him.

And maybe that's the secret to aging.  Because I know, in my more lucid moments, that Jim sees me in the same way.  If I trust in his judgement, then the candles on my cake can't really hurt me. The secret to aging sanely might just be "Don't do it alone."  If you have a friend to go with you, you're going to be all right.  It's not just about not being lonely, it's perspective.  It's knowing you don't have to be a young adult to still be you.

The Bible has some nice things to say about aging.  I looked them up, though, and unfortunately, they are primarily about getting wisdom and honor with gray hair.  Since I'm trying to ignore the hair things, I decided to go somewhere else for this one:

"Two are better than one, because they have good return for their labor; If either of them falls down, one can help the other up . . . "
                                                                                                          Ecclesiastes 4:9, 10

(And when you really need to feel like a young adult again, you can always hang around at church.)

*Yes, I will generously share with him the wisdom I've gathered in these nearly 4 months of being 40 before him.