Keeping Christ in Christian
How I Lost All My Readers and Sabotaged My Career as a Columnist in Small Town USA
Last month I doled out some practical advice to help us all in navigating the holidays with those motley crews of misfits and miscreants we call our families. An important point I neglected to mention is that if while reading this depiction of various tribesmen and clanswomen and assorted waifs and urchins with whom we share common ancestors, you find yourself shaking your head in perplexity and thinking, But that doesn’t describe mine at all, there are no fruitcakes in MY fam! -then most likely you’re the weirdo in yours and you just haven’t realized it yet. When it does finally dawn on you, embrace it. I had a great-aunt named Lolita who was born just about exactly a hundred years ago now, who lived just the way she wanted to, whose free-wheeling behavior frequently sent the family matriarchs swooning to their smelling salts- and who cemented her place in Hagy legend one fine day when she leapt into the sidecar of a motorcycle belonging to her gentleman caller, and the two of them roared away down the staid and stately street where she lived. Such behavior wasn’t universally scandalous anymore in the 1930s when this episode occurred, but Lolita’s was a family of tightly corsetted ladies with lace hankies tucked into their décolletage, whispering gossip behind silk fans, of debutante balls and teas in the garden and silent patriarchs who peered askance through their mononcles at recalcitrant young daughters. And still, a young Lolita Hagy in a Greta Garbo slouch hat gave her frowning mother a peck on the powdered cheek as she rushed past her down the front steps, the diaphanous hem of her party dress swept up into one gloved hand as she vaulted over the closed door of the sidecar and into family history. You don’t wanna end up just some faded, forgotten footnote in the family Bible, do you? Be an Aunt Lolita.
Now, I DO have a few additional tips and ideas specifically tailored for the unique challenges of Christmas, like this fun game you can play with a cheapskate uncle who, in lieu of gifts, will hand out envelopes to the kiddies and then stand back and bask in the consciousness of his own philanthropy. Although these envelopes have only ever contained, and will never contain more than, a single dollar bill, quite a bit of merriment can be had when one prankster, upon unsealing his envelope and glimpsing the lonely simoleon within, gasps loudly and exclaims in the giddy tone of one who can’t believe his luck, Wow Uncle Hal, THANKS! A hundred dollar bill! Uncle Hal will instantly assume an ashy pallor with flecks of green, his mind flashing back to a fuzzy image of himself hunched over the kitchen table stuffing the envelopes earlier that very morning, and frantically trying to call to mind the fatal moment when he must’ve mistaken Ben Franklin for George Washington- as the rest of the gang laughs and laughs.
But that treasure trove of Christmas mirth will have to wait til next year, gentle reader. Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow, because we need to have a talk about other Christmas stuff right now.
Every year around the middle of November, certain events are invariably set into motion: people gripe that they start playing Christmas songs earlier and earlier every year and indeed, the first time you hear how all Mariah Carey wants for Christmas is some poor victim, you feel a deep soul bond with the Grinch and suddenly you totally GET him, now, after all these years.
The retailers will, of course, throw Thanksgiving right under the bus and so far from encouraging families to pause and reflect on all the good things in their lives, they commence frantically shrieking at you to get your ass out and buy more, all at ROCK BOTTOM LOW LOW LOW prices, available simply by joining an angry mob and flinging yourself wholeheartedly into a violent retail pillage that would make a crew of grog-fueled Vikings on shore leave shrink back in incredulous horror. This annual debacle that is our country’s national shame, a maniacal orgy of greed and utter loss of self-control, is of course Black Friday. One day Grams sits at the head of the bounteous feast, head bowed, her voice tremulous with love and gratitude as she breathes her prayer of thanks for the gift of everything she’ll ever need, and all she’s ever wanted, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, poured into her lap. Not twenty-four hours later- in fact, possibly later that same DAY, with so many stores shoving Black Friday all the back to Thanksgiving Thursday, ensuring that none of their poverty-wage slaves will even get a chance to grab a turkey sandwich from Subway by way of reflecting on all the blessings in their lives- that same sweet Grams who wept in humble gratitude for the God-given miracle of her life, will have gone viral by way of store video uploaded to youtube, which clearly shows her with one arm grimly clasping to her breast a toaster oven as if it’s the Ark of the Covenant while with the other she savagely rains down blows with the weaponized handle of a price-slashed Swiffer onto the cowering form of a hapless fellow shopper who’d unwittingly placed himself between Grams and the very last nubby vest left on a ravaged shelf, a sign reading ¡Fleece Navidad! fluttering in the breeze like the tattered remains of a battle flag.
Also a fixture of late November, the annual spate of seasonal movies hits the screens, featuring those delightful perennial themes, like talking pets and their precocious tweenage owners teaming up to save Christmas after Santa’s sleigh is broadsided by a cement truck on Rte 4 out past the county line. And there’s usually a new offering, too, from Kirk Cameron or someone very like him, a heartwarmingly vapid flick about the inevitable evil atheist college professor with a name like Dr Solomon Abramowitz- nothing subtle here- sneeringly challenging a fresh-faced Midwestern student to prove that God exists, while all the East Coast liberal elites in the lecture hall snicker slyly at her down-home naïveté.
Lately, too, when Yuletide rolls around each year, a handful of folks- prominent figures in Modern American Christianity, for instance, televangelists, politicians, political hangers-on from Alaska desperately trying to stay relevant- can be counted on to trot out the tired old narrative concerning the forces of Evil trying to stamp out Christianity by forcing believers to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas- just one of many weapons employed by the great army of godless liberals in their ongoing war on Christendom. ‘Don’t tell me I have to say Happy Holidays so nobody gets offended,” reads one social media post, clearly the work of a devout Christian engaged in God’s Work, “I will Merry Christmas the shit out of you!” In real life, of course, the phrase ‘happy holidays’ isn’t an anti-Christian dog whistle, nor is it intended as a replacement or diminishment of the traditional Christmas greeting at all- it’s merely an all-purpose salutation indicating recognition of and respect for the fact that there are a lot of holidays this time of year and you might not be aware which one your greetee celebrates, since it’s none of your business- there’s Thanksgiving and Christmas, yes, but also Hogmanay, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Las Posadas, Pancha Ganapati, Boxing Day, New Year, and Solstice- even Festivus, if that’s your bag. “Merry Christmas” is entirely appropriate when greeting the preacher of the Baptist church in the buffet line after Sunday service, but to Merry Christmas the shit out of a woman in a sari with a bindi dot on her forehead, or a guy wearing a black frock coat and yarmulke, with the beard of a Biblical patriarch and long, curly sidelocks- what on earth purpose does that serve in Jesus’ Great Commission to spread His message of love to all the people of the world?
And THAT, readers, is what I want to talk to you about right now.
We’re doing something wrong you guys, we’re getting way off the track and we MUST come back to where we belong. And by “we”, I’m talking about Christians, I’m talking about those of us who really strive to live like Jesus, to put his teachings and his message to work in our own lives.
Here’s this disclaimer, before we really get going: I do NOT want to wade into politics here, not at all, but it’s probably best to disclose my open secret to you readers so- my political affiliation might best be described as bleeding-heart, tree-hugging, hippie liberal. And a lotta people have this preconceived notion that liberals aren’t Christians, period, that the term ‘liberal Christian’ is a paradox. True story: Several years ago a friend posted to facebook a snapshot of a van with some kind of Democrat bumper sticker on it, and her caption at the top was something about how she’d gotten behind this van in the line leaving the parking lot of her mega-church after services, her tone rather indignant as she exclaimed what an oxymoron it was. Yup- THAT happened. And stuff like that happens all the time when you’re a Progressive Christian. I mean, have you ever heard the term ‘godless conservative’? Me either. There’s just this presumption that people like me don’t believe in God, are anti-religion, anti-faith, and just don’t get it. But that’s just not true- you’ve just met a left-wing Christian, and it is I. And furthermore, I go to a progressive church that’s just TEEMING with people like me and so I’m telling you once & for all, like the Whos Horton discovered living on the speck: We are HERE! We are HERE! We are HERE!
This whole thing needs to change, the way we let these things divide us, the way we’re Judgy Judgerton with each other, all of our this one’s not one of Us and that guy over there is clearly one of Them- YOU can’t worship with us and YOU don’t deserve the same rights as the rest of Us do, but listen to me, there IS no Us and Them. We need to forget all that stuff and really try to take to heart all the instructions and tips and advice and ‘hacks’ about how to live like Jesus- the same Bible we use to condemn our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and to condone taking children away from immigrant and refugee parents and incarcerating toddlers in prison camps, that same book has all this stuff to teach us about love and mercy, kindness and goodness. Look, here’s a thing Paul wrote about all this Us vs Them business: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Just hear with your heart and your mind, soak up the spirit of that line- it doesn’t sound at all like an exhortation to Merry Christmas the shit out of anybody. And angry, militant Merry Christmasing doesn’t strike me as a real effective way to share the love of Jesus with ANYbody, does it to you?
As for me, I went to church every Sunday of my life just about, I’m telling you, the Hagys were at church every time they opened the doors down there, but I didn’t have much personal interest in the proceedings. I mean you went, you recited the Lord’s Prayer, you sang the hymns when that was the next thing on the list, you popped up and sang the Doxology and the Gloria Patri like a Pavlovian response, you dozed through the sermon and then you went home. But when I was 19 years old, with a husband I hardly knew and my own tiny baby, I became friends with a lady I worked with, and there was this something different about her- you know how in cartoons (Charlie Brown comes to mind), how somebody walks around under their own personal raincloud wherever they go, well this friend, wherever she went, whatever she was facing, she always walked in her own personal sunshine, in her own little bubble of peace. There was a glow to her, a kind of serenity and calm, even when her circumstances were seriously messed up- and they were, in her life, when I knew her. She was loving and kind and positive, and in her presence I felt good too, and at peace. And I wanted some of that for myself. Turned out what she had was a relationship with the Living God- with Jesus. And that’s how it happened for me.
What attracts people to want to know Jesus are what they see in his representatives walking around down here. Beating someone over the head with Merry Christmas will not ever make anyone ponder in their souls, Hmm, this Jesus, who is He whose love creates in his people such a sense of anger and bigotry, of inflexibility and aggressive defensiveness?
You’re always hearing people declaring that “the US was founded according to Judeo-Christian principles,” but that’s not true. I’m a historian for Pete’s sake, and the fact is that those guys we call the Founding Fathers had seen enough of what a rigid adherence to a compulsory national religion could do, and has done, all throughout human history, and they wanted none of that in the nation they were birthing- their aim was a country in which every individual has the freedom to decide whom or how or where or even whether or not they worshipped. This is one of the most basic tenets of the foundation of this Great American Experiment- the founders were adamant about, as Thomas Jefferson coined it, a “wall of separation between church and state“, and it’s written right into the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from encouraging, promoting, or establishing religion in any way. They strongly believed that other people’s ideas about God were simply nobody else’s business. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god,” quoth Jefferson, “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” John Adams, the second President of the United States, put it more succinctly still: “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
But still, Christianity is the most practiced religion in the world today, representing one-third of the earth’s population. And in the US, that proportion is higher still, with around 68% of the population identifying as Christian. Yet the number of Christians in America has been declining every year for a while now- in just the five years from 83% of the US population in 2010 down to 70% by 2015. So what’s the problem? Is this the result of that fabled war on Christianity by liberal/Muslim/socialist forces with their relentless Happy Holidaying and their You can’t have that Ten Commandments thing on the courthouse square? Is it the much-bemoaned ‘political correctness’ that supposedly stamped out compulsory prayer in school, of Colin Kaepernick kneeling in silent protest of the disproportionate murder rate of people of color by the police? What’s going on here?
The truth is, we’re not being attacked by outside forces. Of course we’re not. We Christians have more perks than any other faith in the world- have you ever seen anybody fighting to keep the Islamic counterpart of the Christian manger scene smack in the middle of the public square? No? That’s because none of us could even imagine a Muslim vignette depicting a scene from the Quran erected anywhere in the USA. Have you ever answered a knock at your front door and found a Buddhist missionary standing on your mat asking if you have a few minutes to talk about Buddha? No, but I’ll bet some of you guys have donated money to Christian missionaries all over the world, maybe even been on a mission trip to save souls yourself. My point is, as Christians we have the freedom to gather together to worship and to praise our God wherever and whenever we want, to tell others about Jesus, to proclaim our faith to the rooftops, to Merry Christmas the shit out of whoever we like. What we cannot do is to enshrine our beliefs in law.
Because two and a half centuries ago, it happened by some alignment of the stars or by the will of God, that a group of men- mere human men, flawed and errant, yes, in conflict with each other and within themselves at times and wrestling with their own demons (a guy who owned two thousand human beings declared the self-evident truth that all men are created equal- how’s that for conflicted?)- came together at just the right moment in the world, and by some serendipitous alchemy they became something so much more than the sum of their parts. They established a nation under the authority of the Constitution, not the Bible, and they made sure to weave into the fabric of that nation the assurance that the government had no authority to encourage, promote, or establish religion in any way.
And I don’t believe that allowing schoolkids to choose whether they pray or not, or disallowing religious monuments on public property, or people extending good wishes for the holidays, that any of those things has EVER turned anyone away from experiencing the love of God.
No, the truth as I see it, is this- and yes, this is the part where I might lose you guys in droves, and be forced to fall back on facebook ranting for a living, but I still gotta speak it: The problem is us. The war on Christianity is being waged by those of us wearing the team jersey of Jesus Christ.
Way back in middle school, I remember once when word of some band kids misbehaving during our snack break during the 3rd quarter of a Boerne Pups game, got back to our bandleader, Mr Kunz, and I remember the subsequent bawling out we got the Monday morning. And one thing he said has stuck with me all these many years since then, probably something a lot of leaders and coaches tell their teams: When you’re in that uniform, the way you conduct yourself reflects more than just you. When you wear that uniform, you’re representing me, you’re representing all of us, you’re representing this school.
So are we doing, when we claim to be Christians. When we go to church, when we wear a cross around our necks and a WWJD bracelet and when we stick a Jesus fish on the back windshield of our car- when we post a Christian meme on our facebook page or beam out our thoughts and prayers after yet another slaughter- every time, we put on our Christian jersey, and we represent Jesus. Let your light shine before others, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven! You might be the only face of Jesus some people ever see. Check this out: On a Boerne social media group not too long ago, someone raised the topic of the homeless people who gather around the School Street/I10 area. A few folks defended the vagrants, but most people adding their two cents were just plain MAD. One fellow offered his own unique position, he said that if any of those people- if any of Them- came up to HIS car window to beg for money, They would soon discover that “This is a conservative Christian town”, and that “we all open carry”. WWJD? Probably not that.
Less than a mile south of the place the wayfarers congregate, in fact on the southwest corner of the same intersection where the homeless people gather on the northeast side, there stands Boerne’s own Starbucks. Ok- I know I’ve dragged social media into this about fifty times already, but it’s 2018 and that’s how it is. A frequent offering on facebook is a post about how somebody in the drive-thru line of their local Starbucks gets up to the window and discovers that the car ahead of them has paid for their order. This is kind of a thing people do out in the world, and we all smile when we read of it happening, we all ‘like’ the post, and we gush in the comment section about wonderful random acts of kindness, about paying it forward. Now consider this: If you’ve pulled into the drive-thru at Starbucks and made your order, you must be carrying enough dough to pay for your stuff. I know that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re rolling in dough or that it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, warm your heart that some stranger picked up your tab, but it does seem to indicate that you’re not all that worried about where you’re gonna sleep that night, or whether you’ll have anything to eat. In Boerne, at least, there’s a pretty good probability you’re doing all right. But somewhere during that quick drive across the Highway 46 bridge to the other side of the highway, all that paying it forward gets sucked out the car window like a bit of scrap paper. On this side of the interstate, the only random act likely to be committed is a gun shoved into the face of a human being trying to scrape together the price of a cup of coffee, and not even one from Starbucks. And just as someone might only ever see Christ in the good we do, that human being looking down the long barrel of a gun IS Jesus, who said that whatever we do for the least of his brothers and sisters, we do for him.
Pink Floyd: Us (us, us, us) and Them.
I used to be the kind of Christian who went to the kinds of Bible studies where you dissect passages in the Good Book, poring over the hidden meanings, poking between the lines, often tracing a word back to its Hebrew or Aramaic root. Then I stayed away from church for a long time, because as a liberal Democrat I was made to feel like I didn’t belong, as if, in order to be one of Them, I needed to tow the party line of a whole ‘nother party. And then I went into a coma, and woke up with a tracheostomy and a whole new way of seeing. All my life I’d had the same strong, black and white views, right and wrong, Us and Them- all along I thought I knew what it felt like to be Someone Else- how it was to be of African descent, to be Hispanic, to be gay- I prided myself on my discernment of their TRUE motives, and then I judged their actions and behavior according to what I firmly believed what I would do- “Well if he hadn’t resisted, they wouldn’t have shot him; Their moms are worried they’ll get shot every time they leave the house- HUH! Maybe if they’d teach them not to be criminals”- And so on- I had a mean, hard little spirit with very little compassion, I judged everything according to my own lights, without once looking at ANYTHING through the eyes of compassion, or love. And then I woke up from that coma, and something changed. Someone back in those days sat me down and talked to me like a Dutch uncle about how I was acting badly, angry and depressed and making such a big deal of having a trach, when I should be so grateful just to be alive- and I thought Yeah, but you don’t have a trach. How do you know how it feels to be me? How do you know how you would be in my place?
Aha. A light bulb didn’t light up over my head- instead fireworks shot out of my ears, sirens went off, the Northern lights erupted and a stadium light blazed into my face.
After that my whole ideology began to change, to become very, very simple. I still didn’t get a lot of things about God, like the Lot thing, how he was a good guy yet he offered to let the bad guys rape his daughters- yeah, and there’s a lotta stuff I can’t figure out, but the difference is, I don’t have to get it. This is what I hafta get, THIS is the one thing that’s crucial for me to know, if I know nothing else: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and most important commandment. And the second is like it. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Everything that is written in the Law and the Prophets is based on these two commandments.”
You know how many times Jesus talks about saying Happy Holidays? Do you know how many times he talks about gay people and how they shouldn’t be allowed the same rights as straight people? Wanna take a guess at how often he teaches that you can’t follow him if you believe in evolution? How many times he counsels us to openly carry a weapon in case someone asks you for spare change? Commands people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, tells poor folks it’s their own damn fault, get a job, other people shouldn’t hafta work so you can take your kid to the doctor, whaddya think I am, my brother’s keeper?
But do you know how many times He talks about love? Over and over and over and over again- it’s like he’s obsessed with love, almost as if God IS love, and whoever lives in love lives in God, and God lives in them too. And he puts a how-to manual where his mouth is, too. Jesus, do I even have to love my enemies? Yup. What about sinners, shouldn’t I call them out on the stuff they’re doing that I as a Christian don’t agree with Love the sinner and hate the sin? Nah, Jesus says- I’ll get that. I don’t need you picking sawdust out of people’s eyes for me, you just get that humongoid thing out of your own eye- eewww dude, what IS that?- then get back to just loving folks. Er, Jesus, love our neighbors? You mean the people in my neighborhood? People like me? People in my income bracket? People from my same country? Jesus: Listen to this story about a hated foreigner who found a guy, an enemy of his people, all beat up in a ditch and he saved the guy’s life. What do you think? Who’s your neighbor? But Jesus, dude, what about people who are breaking a law that says being a refugee makes them a criminal? What about foreigners we don’t even know, flooding into our country, what if they’re dangerous, what if they take our jobs? Jesus: Whenever you help any of those people, whenever you visit them in prison even, any one of my children, my brothers and sisters, no matter how poor, how sad, how sick or weak or helpless or lowly, that’s Me. No matter who they are, taking care of them is taking care of me, you’re doing it for me, for Jesus. And by the way, all these fears, oy! Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? Man! I TOLD you guys, if my dad cares so much even for little birds, how much do you suppose he loves YOU, don’t you think he’ll take care of you? You guys, Jesus says, I keep telling you to love one another, to love your neighbor, to love God with all your heart and soul and mind- and I’m telling you, perfect love casts out fear.
Nobody’s sabotaging us you guys. We’re doing it to ourselves. If those same people who are watching us now condoning all kinds of horrible things, hearing prominent Chrstians use the Bible to what’s happening to the little children and their poor, poor mothers, who’ve risked EVERYTHING they’ve ever had just to try to get their babies to safety, something every one of us would do- all those people who are watching us Christians as we support criminalizing thousands of people fleeing with their children from sure death and torture, fleeing with the clothes on their backs, walking barefoot across a continent looking for somewhere they can be safe, looking for some piece of land on the earth to which they can stick their feet, because gravity requires that they have to have SOMEWHERE to belong in the world. If people instead saw us doing what Jesus would do- if the world saw us putting the love Jesus taught us into action and- like the father of the prodigal son when he first glimpsed his boy way out on the road- going out to meet people where they are and giving them water and food and shelter and love and hope- if they saw all the people who wear the team uniform doing what He taught us to do over and over and over again- if they could all see Jesus in us, in our actions and in our words and in our faces and in our LOVE- then they might want some of what we have. Then they might want to know who this Jesus is too.
A guy named Kurt Kaiser died last week- he was the one who wrote a song we all sang at camp and in every youth choir at every “contemporary” service, and around every campfire in America in the 70s, and still I hadn’t thought of it for years until Mr Kaiser’s death.
It only takes a spark to get a fire going
And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing.
That’s how it is with God’s love
Once you’ve experienced it
You spread your love to everyone
You want to pass it on
This Christmas, try it. See what happens when you share God’s love with everyone.
Let’s go out and pass it on.
By the way, nothing I ever write necessarily reflects the views or opinions or ideologies of anybody else associated with The Explore: this is me- flawed, stumbling, non-theologically-educated Marj, trying but falling short all the time- still trying to figure it out- to put into practice in my own life the love that Jesus taught and lived, the love that He IS. This is just me, clumsily striving to live in the light. Peace to you all this season of love.