Ashes to Ashes

May 23, 2011

I’ve tried to keep up with my churches and bars while traveling but it’s been challenging to say the very least.

Yesterday, for example, I spent the time I allocated for God following news updates about the freaking volcanic ash threatening to derail my travel plans to Iceland. Since I’m hopefully headed into the beginning of the rapture, which was supposed to start Saturday, I may have to read the Book of Revelation in Iceland. We’ll see about that. I’m more excited about wearing a Keflavik International Airport issued mask and goggles than reading the end of the Good Book.

I recently spoke at TEDx Lansing. I spoke about the ThumpMe project, what I learned from the Bible (to have faith in myself), etc. To prepare, I read through all of my ThumpMe entries. It’s interesting to see how, even though only five months have passed since the last entry, my thoughts have changed. Evolution.

If you did not read the original ThumpMe entries – the ones following my reading and interpretation of the Bible – you might find these interesting.

If I get into Iceland and ash doesn’t ruin my cheap traveling Toshiba, I’ll have a dive bar post for you Wednesday. Enjoy!

WooHoo! Suck — Despair, Job and Me

I thought about Job all weekend. There is, I’ll admit, a bit of an attraction there. He’s sort of like the diseased, depressed, sackcloth wearing dead guy that got away.

Predictably, I’m drawn to his despair, a unifying isolator that can supersede centuries, nations and ideologies but not the individual. When desolation brings Job to his knees, he says:

“I have no strength left to save myself; there is nowhere I can turn for help.”

Had I been an oppressed B.C. concubine or prophet, Job could have turned to me. I carry other people’s burdens well and identify (monthly) with the absolute collapse of spirit. However, if I had been around would Job have asked me — his new girlfriend — for help? Probably not. His unwillingness to share his feelings may have ended our relationship, but raises a phenomenal question: Why the hell is it so difficult to ask for help?

Read the entire entry here.

Puff the Magic Prophet – Ezekiel Sucks the Cactus

Mescaline is: “An alkaloid drug, C11H17NO3, obtained from mescal buttons, which produces hallucinations. Also called peyote.” (Definition provided by Urban Dictionary contributor, Adict). (Gist of this is how does one become a prophet)

This hallucinogen is obtained from cacti and special beans. I don’t know if mescaline producing cacti grow in the Middle East, but I assure you beans belonging to the Fabacae family are a prevalent food source in Middle Eastern diets and, based on his extremely bizarre visions, I’m going to guess Prophet Ezekiel fancied this particular food group.

Ezekiel learns he’s a prophet after four creatures with human-ish forms appear before him. Each of these forms has four faces — a human face, lion face, bull face and eagle face — four wings, straight legs, hooves (like a bull) and four human hands under each wing. Wheels with eyes sit next to them and there’s additional detail about subsequent wheels and fire, but it’s too confusing for me to explain. Despite Ezekiel’s descriptive efforts, I cannot imagine how these things moved or what they looked like.

Read the entire entry here.

Fa La La La La, La La La La, Liquor ­­– Holiday with the Jews

Ah, holidays. What could be better?

Holidays were created to celebrate dysfunction. It’s OK. All families are dysfunctional even the “normal” ones — it’s called denial. Don’t stress out about, enjoy it. You’re in good company. Jesus’ family was screwy too.

In the New Testament, four men give a version of the gospel. You can glean anything you want from any of them. I think Matthew is dryMark is dark and Luke is wonderful. His writing is interesting and he details good old family pandemonium.

Read the entire entry here.

Found: An Un-Preachy Preacher – Meet Preacher Mike

To my knowledge, Preacher Mike is the first church authority — sorry Mike, couldn’t think of another descriptor — to pay attention to ThumpMe.

For political reasons, I pretend to read many blogs, but I actually read Preacher Mike’s because it’s interesting and un-preachy (new word).

Preacher Mike (Mike Cope) lives in Abilene, Texas and teaches at Abilene Christian University. He’s also the vice president of the non-profit educational organization Heartbeat. TheHeartbeat What Really Matters project facilitates discussion about the things that matter — friendship, decision-making, social injustice. Cope joined the project after his young daughter, Megan, died in 1994.

Read the entire entry here.

Revelation. – No Time for Endings

Six months ago I played a damaging, ingenious trick on myself. I decided to write fiction. No more articles. No more journalism. Fiction. But fiction isn’t a career. It’s a lifestyle with no immediate returns. It’s founded on failure and takes incredible dedication, which is precisely why my intestines immediately inverted, I stopped sleeping and my heart retreated.

When I started writing, really writing and stripped myself of measurable success, which is single-minded and safe, the identity I created for myself when I was a child — pushing to grow up, get to college, make money, excel at everything — treading a path I thought would lead me to life, but exhausted me into oblivion, I didn’t find anything. 29 and hollow.

I decided not to read Revelation because I no longer want to see what’s coming. I’ll catch it when it comes.

Read the entire entry here.

When kids stop believing the “you came from a stork” bit, parents are forced into the dreaded sex talk. I remember mine. It involved a picture book with a skinny male cartoon grinning on top of a lying on top of a fat female cartoon. I can’t remember if she was smiling. Both were naked. Traumatizing.

Dad was conspicuously absent for this conversation, but both of my parents discussed kids and religion, how they would handle it, etc. I knew dad attended Catholic school  — he has the scares to prove it — but before I started this project, I had no idea mom had faith in God. She doesn’t anymore.

To better understand my disconnect to religion, I interviewed both about their experiences with organized religion as well as their hands off approach to helping us find it.

Here’s what my mom had to say. (She said I misquoted her in a past blog. Bad journalist I suppose. We’ll see what she has to say about this one.)

Me: Did your parents raise you with religion?

Mom: For part of my life but it wasn’t the whole household. My mom was the one who started going to church when I was probably eight-to-10. I believe it was a Lutheran church. I kind of feel like this was an out-of-the-blue decision but I’m not sure. I went with her but I can’t remember if my siblings went.

My dad wasn’t ever interested in any religion. I feel like he was raised Italian Catholic and probably went to Catholic Church as a kid but I’m not for sure. I feel like he was neutral about church.

I don’t remember religion being a part of my life before that but I went to a Catholic Church with my aunt and uncle and I also went to Catechism class.

Q: You went to Bible camp with that Lutheran church and got saved. Can you talk about that?

A: I was saved at camp, which means you accept Jesus Christ. It was the most exhilarating emotional experience I’ve ever had in my life to this day.

The camp counselor, who was a teenage girl, asked me if I was ready to accept Jesus Christ as my savior. We were by ourselves and whatever words were said. I agreed to do it and it was like a rush of beauty that ran from my head to my toes.

I always had a very strong faith back from when I went to Catholic Church with my aunt and uncle and had a very strong belief in the whole Christian thing. I should have died then! I would have been guaranteed a place in heaven!

Q: What were your first thoughts of Jesus? Did you ever fear religion?

A: I don’t remember but I remember that at times I felt like I had a holy presence at the foot of my bed but they looked like the pictures that are on Catholic funeral cards (laughs) so I don’t know if it was spiritual or an overactive imagination.

I wasn’t fearful of Jesus, but I was fearful of going to hell.

After we stopped going to church, I held onto my beliefs. I said nightly prayers and for extra brownie points I would always pray to God to bless everyone I cared for and everyone in the world and I’d put myself last because I thought that was good manners.

Q: Did you feel faith had a positive impact on you?

A: Yes. I liked being a good girl and I’m sure it kept me out of trouble. One of my dad’s favorite expressions, as we all know, was Goddamn and I literally cringed whenever he took the Lord’s name in vain. All I know is that it (faith) personally made me feel good.

Q: What happened?

A: I had a strong belief until I went into high school and then our family started falling apart, started splitting, which in turn made other bad things happen in the family. It was dark and chaotic and I think I just quit saying my prayers and thought, what’s the point?

Q: So that’s it? No more religion?

A: I don’t know. I feel like I’m not an atheist or an agnostic. I’m a confusiest. I’m confused because I do believe it (faith) works for a lot of people and sometimes I do believe there’s got to be this greater something but there’s so many unanswered questions in the Bible that I just can’t really go by that.

Q: Did you and dad talk about religion before you had kids?

A: Yes. You know dad is a wounded former Catholic schoolboy so you know he had a pretty tainted view of religion but we both agreed that religion was a choice our kids should be able to make when they were mature enough to fully understand it.

I think when you start taking kids from birth and going to any kind of church, they’re just raised to believe something because their parents believe it. We wanted our kids to understand the different choices.

Q: I don’t remember you taking us to church so how did I have the opportunity to see the church side of things?

A: I think you were all asked at a certain age if you wanted to go. I think you and Taryn (sister) experienced some churchiness with friends.

I didn’t feel like going to church because I was unsure what my beliefs were and I thought, ‘How can I guide my children one way or the other?” I felt that would be extremely hypocritical on my part.

Q: What impact did this decision have on your kids/family?

A: I really feel horrible about the times I saw my kids have embarrassment over their lack of knowledge over really basic things like who is Jesus (laughs) and why do we celebrate Christmas.

Q: Are you serious or messing around?

A:  I’m serious. I do regret not exposing you guys to more but if I still had that opportunity now and was raising you kids, I still don’t know how I would do that. You don’t just dump your kids into church and say have fun. It would still be a slippery slope for me. I regret exposing you to more of it but I don’t know how I’d do that without believing myself. Besides, I always wanted a trio of heathens to join me.

Q: So how do you deal with things when life is challenging? Specifically as it relates to your kids?

A: Heavy drinking (laughs).

Q: What if one of us kids died tomorrow? What would happen to us?

A: Boy I really wrestle with this one. I want to believe there’s a forever after so we can all be there together someday. I just don’t know.

Q: What if I become a nun? Will you still love me?

A: That will never happen. They won’t have you.

Q: That never crossed your mind?

A: Yeah like it crossed my mind that I’d be an astronaut.

Found: An Un-Preachy Preacher

December 14, 2010

To my knowledge, Preacher Mike is the first church authority — sorry Mike, couldn’t think of another descriptor — to pay attention to ThumpMe.

For political reasons, I pretend to read many blogs, but I actually read Preacher Mike’s because it’s interesting and un-preachy (new word).

Preacher Mike (Mike Cope) lives in Abilene, Texas and teaches at Abilene Christian University. He’s also the vice president of the non-profit educational organization Heartbeat. The Heartbeat What Really Matters project facilitates discussion about the things that matter — friendship, decision-making, social injustice. Cope joined the project after his young daughter, Megan, died in 1994.

Though he doesn’t know it, Preacher Mike is the reason I finally sought an answer to one of life’s nagging questions: What the hell is the difference between a pastor and a preacher? I still don’t get it.

Thanks to Preacher Mike, I’m adding another person to my “Phenomenal People I Haven’t Met” list, which also includes J.P Donleavy, Diego Maradona, Ralph Steadman, Umberto Bossi, boringfileclerk (@boringfileclerk) and Jack Nicholson. It takes all kinds.

So Preacher Mike, let your hair down.

The Devil makes a cameo in the Old Testament. In the new, his name is thrown around a few times. Why don’t we hear more about the Devil?

Preacher Mike: A little Satan goes a long ways.

It’s in the gospels, of course, where we’re really introduced to the devil, “a quasi-personal ‘accuser’ which is doing its best to drag Jesus down into the trap” into which God’s people had already fallen (N. T. Wright).  But a foreboding sense of darkness and evil goes far beyond that in scripture.

Jesus or God says something about not needing a building to worship or celebrate so why do we have churches?

PM: Great question – especially since the early churches met in homes (for the most part).  As churches grew in number, they eventually got too big for homes.  So before long, there were church buildings.  (I can still hear in my mind the voices of Sunday school teachers urging that “the church is people not the building the people meet in.”)

God doesn’t need a building; however, churches need a place to gather.  Of course, you’re probably aware of a growing “organic church” movement – where people are saying “enough with spending gabillions of dollars on buildings [a sort of modern edifice complex] where people hardly know each other; let’s go back to meeting in our homes.”

Do you think Jesus is funny?

PM: I’m guessing he was quite a bit of fun to be around, yes.  Unfortunately, the written pages of the gospels aren’t very good at communicating smirks and winks.

An example of his humor (from Matthew 7): people who judge others are like those with planks coming out of their own eyes who are trying to delicately remove specks from the eyes of others.  As Larry the Cable Guy might say, “I don’t care who you are. That there’s funny.”

Will you be disappointed if your kids decide to religion when they’re older?

PM: I had a daughter, Megan, who died in 1994.  I’m within a couple weeks of finishing a book called Megan’s Secrets: What My Mentally Disabled Daughter Taught Me About Life.  She was (and I don’t say this in a maudlin way) my greatest teacher.

We still have two boys, ages 28 and 18.  And yes I’d be disappointed – but would still love them completely – if they decided not to follow Jesus.

However, there is a great deal of “canning religion” that needs to take place.  In some ways, I think it’s fair to say that people got mad at Jesus because he regularly took on religion.  The essence of a life of faith and the entanglements of religion can be two very different things.

OK. When something happens in your life and you send up a prayer and the outcome you hope for is realized, is it God or fate?

PM: I don’t know.  My track record isn’t good.  I begged God to heal my daughter and she died.  The best prayer I’ve found in scripture (other than the Lord’s Prayer) is this:

“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18).

What if the outcome is entirely different than the one you hoped for?

PM: Prayer is a mystery.  My prayer life is at its strongest when it is centered on the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms.  I don’t expect God to be a genii in the bottle who comes out and grants my wishes as I summon God through prayer.

In The Acts it’s suggested that if “we’re good” God/Jesus will forgive us. Then it says if we fear God we will be forgiven. That doesn’t make any sense.

PM: Ivy, you’re tossing me a big fat pitch here.  You’re begging me to witness to you, aren’t you?

Actually, you have a knack for getting down to the nitty gritty.  That’s why I’m a faithful reader of your blog.

On one hand, we Christ-followers know that salvation is by the faithfulness of Jesus not by our own efforts; yet on the other hand, we know that faith without works is dead. (You’ll be in the book of James soon).

The New Testament writers (including Luke) indicate that salvation is a gift of God.  It is an act of grace that is based on the faithful life of Jesus.  Yet that gift comes with a life-transforming mandate: to “walk worthy of our calling” or to be transformed into the kind of people Jesus calls us to be.

Being a person of forgiveness doesn’t earn you brownie points with God so that God is now in your debt; however, being “saved” by God does compel you to become a person who turns from bitterness to forgiveness.

So in the history of Christianity (and anecdotally all around), you can witness two problems.  When Christians forget that salvation is God’s gift, the burden of legalism is laid on people.  Say “hello” to guilt and spiraling depression, as well as to pride and judgmental spirits.  And when they claim to be saved but continue to be selfish, bitter, racist, materialistic, etc., this is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” (another tragedy).

The New Testament envisions communities of faith that are full of compassion and justice – not so they can be saved but because they have been saved. The transforming of their lives from hatred to love, from stinginess to generosity is itself part of the saving/delivering work of God.

What’s your favorite book? Why?

PM: If you mean ANY book, then I’d say “The Hobbit.” Part of that is nostalgia.  I loved reading it to my boys when they were young.  But another reason is that I can identify with Bilbo.  There is a Took part of me that wants to be a person of courage; yet there is a Baggins part of me that is always trying to hold me back and to be safe.

If you mean a book of the Bible, then it would come down to Psalms, Isaiah, Luke, Romans, or Hebrews.  (I’m guessing the last one isn’t on many lists.)  I’d give the nod to Luke.   However, without a doubt, my favorite section of any book is Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount.

Pastor Noah Filipiak is young, smart and far from a thumper. He’s using his church, Barefoot Christian Church, as a pulpit to build community and understanding in Lansing, Mich. His approach to religion could encourage a person like me to convert…if conversion were a possibility.

Filipiak, 27, started Barefoot Church, which is located in Downtown Lansing, in 2006 to build a community, not pack pews. Barefoot started as a series of in-home Bible study groups and eventually grew into a building.

A friend told me about Filipiak a few years ago and though we live in the same hood, I’ve never met him. However, he left two books in my mailbox — The Year of Living Biblically and The Blue Parakeet — books an uneducated, almost middle age person like myself will actually read. He knows how to connect with people, he isn’t pushy and he’s gracious.

He’s one of many people cracking my thumper stereotype. Here’s what he has to say about the church, movie theaters and God’s request that a prophet marry a prostitute.

Barefoot Church. Do you really check your shoes at the door?

Noah Filipiak: No. We came up with the name from Exodus where Moses takes off his sandals before God at the holy bush. When we started the church we didn’t want it to be a once a week ritual. As Christians we have God living inside of us so we should live out that faith all the time. Essentially, the way Moses was in front of God when he saw the burning bush is what it would look like if God were consciously with us.

It’s a good name to laugh at and it raises some good questions.

What do you think about all of these churches that are desperately trying to boost parishioner numbers?

NF: There’s a really delicate balance there. Do we want people in church? Absolutely because we want people knowing the love of Jesus but if the goal is just to have a big crowd and not be honoring God, that’s different. He was never about having a big crowd. He invested in 12 disciples, not the big show. We need to be careful about the motives there.

I’ve been to a big box church. I’ve also been to several prisons. I prefer the prisons. Thoughts?

NF: I think you’re talking about mega churches. I call that movie theater church and I think American church culture is turning more into movie theater churches. When I go to the movies, I walk in with a bunch of people I don’t know, we see a show together and when it’s all over, we leave and go back the next week to do it again.

What I say to my church is, next time you’re in a movie, turn to the person next to you in the theater and talk to them really seriously. Say hey, I want to let you know I have an addiction to porn that I can’t break and it’s wrecking my marriage and I was wondering if you you’ll be there for me. Can I call you when I’m struggling? See what the person says. Usually that person will sit in another chair and probably report you to an usher.

The story of how the church started includes a description of what went on — teaching, singing, prayer and fellowship with people. There you see a very different picture of church than what we do today. It’s challenging for me as a pastor. It’s like OK, we live in America, how do we kind of fight against our culture? We’re very individualistic in some ways but we’re consumers and those things blend into church and that’s why we need to emphasize home groups and community groups.

Church is more than just a big show.

You said I might like the Book of Hosea. I remember thinking he was a bit of a wimp. What did I miss?

NF: I thought you might find it funny that God asked him to marry a prostitute. I read that and I preach on it every once and while. I don’t think most Christians realize that even in the Bible, God asks his prophet to marry a prostitute. There are Christians that might say that’s false.

I think the metaphor is fairly powerful. It shows that God is a relational God and it shows what’s really happening with his people. It shows what they were doing to him (Hosea) and emotionally it really hurt the way it would if my spouse were cheating on me. It’s more a metaphor than Hosea himself.

Do you ever get sick of reading the Bible?

NF: Yeah. I grew up in the church and genuinely put my faith in Christ when I was like four years old. It sounds bizarre, but it truly wasn’t a manipulative thing. I first read through it when I was 15 and I’m 27. I remember the first reading and I thought some sections were really boring.

The Bible can lose its freshness but you have to keep it different. Right now I’m reading the Daily Bible. It takes the Bible and divides it chronologically and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last few months. That’s really freshened it up for me. The big thing is to see the Bible as a story, not a lot of different things just happening.

So you’ve read a bit of the blog. What am I missing?

NF: I think the biggest thing is that I would never have anyone pick up the Bible and read it cover-to-cover. Not to sound dramatic, but when people get to drive a car, they don’t give everyone a car and say have fun and good luck. We give driving lessons and there’s a test you have to pass. You have to know a bit about the car before you drive it.

I think the Bible is a dangerous book and it can be misused and misread. I think when it’s just picked up without some context to what it actually is, it can be difficult to glean the messages.

For example, when you read through the Old Testament there’s definitely stuff that’s just crazy. I believe the Bible is God’s word. The trick is the context. It’s not meant to be taken literally so that’s often why the Bible is so misunderstood. People read the context and say that would never apply today. Whether it’s not eating shellfish or not wearing certain fibers. Some of those obscure texts still have meaning for us so we have to realize the context we read it in today is different than when it was written.

I’m sure you all get sick of my voice so we’re incorporating some guest bloggers. We’re hoping for a few a month and we’re starting out with Laura Talley, creator of the blog Redheaded Skeptic. Laura started this blog after she ended her marriage to Baptist minister. Now she’s an Atheist. Her blog is fun and interesting and I would encourage you to check her out. Laura…

LT: Life is never a straight line. It seems we often go the hard way to get to our goals, if we ever make it there at all. Someone did the math on the Bible story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land. They wandered in the desert for 40 years on an eight-mile line from point A to point B. That’s how I feel at times.

Five years ago today, I was a conservative Baptist youth minister’s wife finishing up my psychology degree and preparing for motherhood and a life of serving at churches alongside my husband. Today I am married to another man, I have a 4-year-old daughter, I am working on pre-requisites for medical school and I am an atheist. You never know where life is going to take you. I am in the last place I ever thought I would be.

To explain how I got here is like explaining how the Israelites wandered in the desert for so long. Full of twists and turns, and not all of it seems to make a lot of sense.

I married my now ex-husband at the age of 20. While we worked at a Baptist church, we also attended school. Bob (a pseudonym) attended his theology classes and we discussed them when he arrived home. Learning about the different theological theories sparked my curiosity and I began doing my own research. I became more moderate in my theology over time, and from moderate to liberal. By 2007, it was quite clear that I no longer belonged in a Baptist church.

When we graduated, we moved to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere with our infant daughter. The isolation from family and friends while caring for a new baby in a miserable marriage in a church where I felt I could not express my opinions led to a severe depression, but no one saw me fall and no one really cared as long as I still attended church and put on a spiritual face. No one, that is, except a friend of mine from college who had moved into general region to attend law school about an hour away from where we lived. When my marriage finally ripped apart, I stayed with the friend while my fundamentalist family showed no support.

Away from the conservative strangle, I delighted in attending a Presbyterian (PCUSA), and later Episcopalian (liberal) church. But I found that the questions I had while a Christian didn’t go away just because I liberated myself from an oppressive situation. I kept exploring and found that I no longer believed any of it anymore. A year after I left my ex-husband, I left the church entirely.

Happily ever after doesn’t usually come all at once. For me anyways, it’s coming in pieces, often more slowly than I would like. In 2009, I married Steve, the friend I stayed with after leaving my ex, and the friend who has stayed with me despite the enormous amount of baggage I brought to the relationship. He saved my life. We have struggled through school together, and he finally graduated from law school last spring. We moved from Fayetteville, Arkansas to the Little Rock area, where I will hopefully begin classes for medical school next spring. It’s not perfect, and it never will be, but it is getting better. It may not come all at once, but for me, this is happily ever after. Or, to carry the Israelite theme all the way through, this is the Promised Land. Now I just have to build my house. . .

Preacher Mike was kind enough to interview me about ThumpMe. We talked about guacamole, Bible highlights, sections I could do without and, of course, Bible thumpers.

I have to say I’m kind of shocked by the response. Preacher Mike seems to have a pretty open-minded following, which goes to show that most of us operate in the middle, but are represented by the extremes.

If you’re interested in reading the interview, check it out here.

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