An Open Letter to the American Evangelical Church

Dear Evangelical Church,

It’s been three years since we stopped dating.  As you know, when we said our goodbyes, I had these hopes that we could still be friends.  I thought if we saw each other out and about it wouldn’t have to be that awkward.  Maybe we would exchange Christmas cards, or ‘like’ each other’s posts on social media.  I had this hope we could have mutual friends, after the break up, and they wouldn’t have to pick sides.  

Perhaps I am more disappointed than you to announce that this simply won’t work out after all.  I really wanted it to. It is out of a deep fondness for what we had, out of a deep respect for you, that I want to be upfront with you.

The problem is your hypocrisy.   

I don’t use that word lightly.  Nor do I mean it to suggest that this is just about us having our disagreements.  You know we never did see eye to eye, and that was ok. To be honest, I kind-of enjoyed being the token liberal in our little community.  Back when I fell in love with you, evangelical church, you actually made me feel like these differences didn’t matter! I hope you can pat yourself on the back a little bit, about that.  The whole “There is no jew or gentile” thing… You made it happen.

Back then,  when I watched you criticize Presidents Clinton and Obama, I was able to respect you.  I often thought you were wrong. But I could believe that you were coming from a place of good intentions.  When you made room in your congregations for people who were divorced, I knew you had to do some struggling with that.  After all, Jesus did have some tough words about divorce, and you always did your best to take his words seriously. I hope you won’t find it condescending if I tell you that I was proud how you looked at a wider context, you saw the big picture on this issue.

It was difficult to watch you fail to offer that kind of loving support to people who were gay, transgender, or queer.   And it became increasingly challenging to accept your views on things like heaven and hell because they were so incredibly selective on what parts of the bible they depended on.  I did love you once, though, and in the name of that love, I was able to put my discomfort away. For a while.

It became time for us to see other people.  But even as recently as the inauguration of Donald Trump I was still attempting to keep you in my life; a casual acquaintance who I had shared some good times with.  It didn’t bother me that you thought trickle down economics works. I could accept your idea America needed to be made great again. I tried to give you the benefit of the doubt on the militarism, and the flag waving.

It is when it came to his personal behavior that there was simply no way to write off your support as anything but knowingly, willfully hypocritical.   This man’s actions seem so much more egregious than Clintons. But suppose they aren’t. Suppose they are only half as immoral. I have not heard you once call out his behavior at all.  Activities which had been justification for removing his predecessor were suddenly not even worth talking about. Your sudden unwillingness to even consider personal morality relevant exposed the whole thing for a self-serving charade.  

This was the point I decided I did not want to be seen in public with you.  This was the time I began to think I would not be coming back to visit your highly polished, highly stylized, highly formulaic “worship experiences.”

For these last several months I had been quiet about this decision.  For a while, I did not even admit my feelings to myself.

When the #metoo movement began to gain momentum in the secular world, you, evangelical church were awfully quiet.  When your own idols began to fall, when your leader’s secrets were suddenlly, publicly disclosed, your layers of archaic rules, guidelines, and gender segregation looked awfully pointless.  

When the pastor I want to respect chimed in on facebook, defending the failures of the church…  this is the moment when I realized I could not sit by silently.

Because sitting by silently: that was exactly what the problem has been with the whole situation.

I believe that huge numbers of evangelicals do not support Trump.  They believe that morality matters. They worry about the widows, orphans, and foreigners who are among us.  They see sexual harassment and assault as the blights which they are.

But where are they?  So near as I can tell, the are like that pastor.  Too silent for to long. Neglecting the biblical tradition of the prophet, ignoring the idea that we ought to be looking within our communities and making sure they are rightous.  

The whole idea that we would call out someone for their sexual sin but not their greed is precisely the selective bible reading that is at the heart of this problem.

 

This is why I had to break up with you, evangelical church.  I am ashamed of what you have become. If you had stumbled into my life now, I don’t think I would even be attracted to you.  

I don’t get any joy out of telling you this.  Though I don’t think we will ever resume our old romantic relationship, I do know that there is some good in there.  Sometimes, though, it can be hard to see it.

Hoping that some day you can become what you once were,

Jeff

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Valley

I woke up this morning.

And after work, and hurt,

and trying, so hard.

 

I finally, when I am at best,

Have reached, barely…

This place.

 

I don’t want to call it a precipice.

It is so much more like a deep valley.

I can reach out

 

and touch both walls with my fingertips when I stretch.

Walls that are damp with rainwater and soft with moss.

The breeze motivates the ferns springing up by my feet to carress my calves.

 

Here I am at last,

Ready to say the things that I am just beginning

To know how to mean.

 

Those stupid birds have it all so wrong.

I don’t want you to leave this nest and soar.

I wish you a most gloriuous fall!

 

I spent so long wanting for you to never hurt.

But this life is a bit of a multiple choice test.

And escaping pain is not an option.

 

So instead, my wish is that your pain is a reliable guide.

When you spread your wings, and you leap,

When you are lying in the dirt and the hurt.

 

I hope that your lovliness,

All the best parts of you…

I hope that they speed your recovery.

 

All of your mediocrities,

All the ways you are competent enough.

All those aspects of you which are fair.

 

They will be taken by life, and sorted.

Some will emerge as greatnesses.

And others will be eroded by time and foolish decisions.

 

You will walk, sometimes, on those bird-feet not meant for walking far.

You will try and fly, and sometimes, those wings won’t work.

You will, I expect, end up here, with me.

 

In a valley,

There is fresh water here.

There is a breeze that will lift the sweat from your brow.

 

Some Thoughts From The Classroom

So, you want me to carry a gun to school.

That’s a pretty interesting possibility.   Before I share with you what I think of that idea, let me tell you a little bit about me.

I have given over nearly half of my life to teaching.  I am a Special Educator.  I have worked almost exclusively with kids that are deemed “emotionally disturbed.”  I have spent a few years in public schools.  I ran a class for “behaviorally disordered” kids.  My problem was not to get the kids off their cell phones merely so I could teach.  Mostly, I just wanted the kids to stop making drug deals so they could focus on English.

Most of my career has been spent teaching at residential facilities.    I have been spat on dozens of times.  I have been throat punched and nearly passed out.  I have sprained my back breaking up a fight and spent a month recuperating.  Furniture has been thrown at me.   I have been in riots, bomb threats, and of course, countless lock downs.

I have worked with kids who have been prostituted by their parents for drugs.  I have worked with kids that have done drive-by shootings.  I have worked with kids who bore the scars on their arms because the voices told them to light themselves on fire.

I have learned four different methods of physical management.    Restraining kids comes with the job.  I have used leather 12-point straps to secure them to beds.  I have broken up countless fights.

Many days I love my job.  Some days I hate it.  I wonder if I am doing the right thing, working in a job where I watch co-workers get seriously hurt, burn out, and wrung out.  I have feared for my safety, questioned my competence.

In many ways my calling in this field is what grew me into a man.  If most people don’t know the challenges of my job, they  don’t know the thrills of it either: reaching a kid who seemed unreachable, connecting with somebody who has been so broken, watching the light in their eyes turn on when it would have been so easy to just give up.

I am not looking for thank you’s or sympathy.  I chose my job.  You chose yours.  I am sure there are days you love and hate your job.

I give this long introduction to establish that all these discussions about mental health, teaching, and what it’s like when you work in a dangerous environment, they are some areas I know some things about.

Teaching is funny.   Most jobs people realize they could not do without training.  The number of people who have never set foot in a classroom and feel qualified to pronounce what the problem is with schools today quite frankly blows my mind.

There might be things I am wrong about.  There might be ideas that you have that would work.  But I have to tell you, the confidence that most people make these pronouncements in, it is difficult to stomach, sometimes.  Because when you tell me I should carry a gun to school, there are some things that I think I hear underneath your statements.

One of them is that if you were in my shoes, you would sacrifice yourself with out hesitation to save your students.   To this, I say: bullshit.

Some of you would.  Some of you wouldn’t.  Unless you have been in that situation you have utterly no way of knowing.  When I think about my own biological children and the obligations I have to them, I don’t even know if taking a bullet for my classroom students is the right thing to do!

Another thing I hear, underneath your suggestion that I carry a gun to school is that you would do this right.  Safely.  With appropriate training.  I hope you will forgive me if I have some skepticism about this.

One of the shell games that happens in education is promises get made that we will do things correctly, and changes get made that simply save governments and tax payers money.  Then the follow through never happens.  Initiatives are implemented in exactly the opposite manner than the research demonstrated these things needed to happen in.  Immersion for English Language Learners, Incluision for special needs students, and standardized testing are the merest tip of the ice berg here: over and over again, there are promises that we will implement plans with follow through and fidelity.  Over and over again, at every level, this follow through fails to happen.   If we can’t support a general educator with the training they need meet the needs of their wide ranging classes, how can we possibly think that we will safely and effectively train and support staff with fire arms in the class?

The most absurd implication in the suggestion that I carry a gun to school is that the people making firearms available are just trying to solve the problem.  From where I am sitting, you are the cause!  If I went into your workplace and doused it with kerosene, you would be annoyed if my solution was to offer you fireman training as a way to handle the increased risk you are now at.  It would be reasonable for you so suggest I not douse your work place in kerosene.  You might observe that it is rather condescending to a fire fighter to suggest that I could make you into one at the same time as expecting you to do your job.  And I hope that you are engaged in work that is so worthwhile that you would resist the suggestion that your job ought to be diluted when the whole problem was avoidable anyway.

Of course, it all hinges on that question: Was it avoidable?   If AR-15s were illegal, would all those people would have died?  We won’t ever know.  But giving me a gun is not the solution to the problem that your policies created.

Hating Our Bodies

On the surface, horror moves seem some so rebellious.

There is all the violence, rebelling against expectations that entertainment be docile and tame.  And the subject matter itself: explorations of evil, refusing to be swept under the rug.  And also lots of boring old people telling us not to watch.

I think I was almost disappointed when I first encountered critical looks at horror.  When I think about the slasher movies of my misspent youth, it is hard to deny the subtext of the formula: kids go away from the safe world of adults.  Some of them do drugs or have sex.  Inevitably, the young lady who does those things wanders off alone, and she is killed for her troubles.   Despite the gloss, it is the most boring kind of morality play.

As I watched the conclusion of last season’s Walking Dead, I came to a similiar conclusion about the zombie genre: despite all appearances, it is also a lot of old fashioned ethics masquerading as something counter-cultural.

More specifically, the whole idea of a zombie is nothing more than a potrayal of what we think of our flesh.  The antagonists of these films (and books and comics) are an object lesson in everything we fear about our bodies.  The monsters, by definition, have been stripped off mind and spirit and soul.  A body with out these things is nothing but appetite, a harbinger of doom.

There is a long history of villyfying the body.  It is easy to notice the pains we locate here.  It is understandable how we blame our physicality for our weakness.  But this is such a one-sided view.  Ectasy lives here in the body, too.  And so many of the negative things we project onto our bodies don’t belong here at all.

Where The Ocean Meets the Shore

What words, you ocean

Have these waves been speaking

To this shore?

 

And this wind…

Does it spring from the land?

Is it a reply to the sometimes gentle

And other times thunderous?

 

These are lovers,

This give-and-take.

The tide following the moon.

The land giving himself up in little pieces at a time.

 

After these thousands of thousands

Of moments, hours, months, centuries

What does your love look like today?

 

The same.  

A changing thing.

 

Last Words

Removed, as they were from the garden…

They thought the names arbitrary things.

He laughs at them

Gently.

He shakes a little,

In his body.

In his voice.

 

“Each new thing.”

He says it again.

“Each New Thing.

It reached… within.”

 

He sees in their eyes that they do not understand.  

He stirs the coals in the fire.

His thoughts are a little disobedient, now.  Sometimes.

He tries to line them up again.  

The others all watch respectfully.  Patiently.

He hates that.  A little bit.

 

“That great naming.

It was an act of listening.

It was an act of listening for a name

Which had already been said.

In the Time Before.”

 

Recognition in those beautiful brown eyes?  

Perhaps it was recognition.

Seth was always the sharpest among them.

 

“We have so many words now.

So many that you might lose one for a moment.

That feeling…  When you have lost a word.  

When you are so close that you can taste a word,

But still not find it’s sound…”

 

“That is what it was like.

To look upon The Creations.

And name them.”

 

It is not only Seth who nods now.

The old man knows what he knows.

He knows that this is not sympathy, here.  Now.

He is thankful for that.

 

It inspires him to continue.

He wishes them to know so much.

His time.  After so long.  Is running short now.

He continues.

 

“There was something within me.”

“A name that wished to burst forth from my lips.”

“I tried it on so many things, in my mind.

But it was never time.  Never time.

Never time to say it out loud.”

 

“And so other names erupted out and around it.

I held that name in my heart unsaid.

Until she came.  Your mother came.

But then came our dying time.  Our casting out.

After our time of mourning was through.

I remembered that name within me.

I said it out loud.

And it was her name.”

 

He is lost for a moment.

They are lost for a moment.

Looking in the flames.

Ignoring the smoke.

He does not care about the tear that slides down his dry cheek.

When did he stop caring about things such as this?

 

“It was good to name her Eve.

I would have thought that was the end.

But it was not.

That garden is gone, now.

That time is is gone, now.

It will never return.”

 

A spit-crackle.

They watch him so closely.

This is the thing he hasn’t wanted to tell them for so long.

He does not know what any of this means.

 

“There is still a name.

A single last name within me.

But the time of the naming is done.

Somewhere.

There is a something,

With out a name.  

And there is me.  

With one word extra.”

 

A time.  A timeless time.

Later.

He died in his sleep with a single last gasp.

 

A tender hand.

Reached within him,

Even as he returned to the dust.

It took that unspoken word out of him.

 

And a time.  A timeless time.

Later.

That word?

That word was made flesh.

Hoping To Hear From You…

I am interested in hearing about your tranistions into and out of faith communities. When did you know it was time to leave? How did you know it was time to leave? What are some things that surprised you? What are the positives or the negatives? I am going to try and assemble observations about these stories into an upcoming blog post. If you have pithy comments that you would care to share with others, post them in the comments below. If you would rather a level of anonymity, or would like to run longer, email me at thecontemplace@gmail.com