Wednesday, November 01, 2006


I love Christmas, I celebrate Easter and I honor Hanukkah, but Halloween is the only holiday that makes me mad.

It's not the jack-o'-lanterns that burn me up, nor trick-or-treating that ticks me off. Ghost stories don’t get my goat, and costumes suit me fine. After Christmas and birthdays, Halloween has to be the most child-friendly day on the calendar, and unlike a birthday, everyone's in on the game for Halloween. With that level of buildup and excitement, you'd be hard-pressed not to enjoy it.

But the church manages to annoy me every year.

For some reason — I've never entirely understood why — some Christians just can’t cope with Halloween. Something about the day terrifies them. Somehow, to the Legion of the Easily Offended, the thought of boys and girls carving goofy faces into pumpkins, bobbing for apples, and dressing up in costumes, conjures up a satanic effort to lead them into witchcraft and sorcery.

Reality check for those baptized in vinegar: If sugar overload and wearing a pointy hat is the most cunning plan the Devil can come up with to lead children astray, maybe it's time Old Scratch called it quits and retired to Cancun to watch the sunsets. He's clearly past his peak.

Not that the church is much better. Christian alternatives to Halloween include "harvest festivals," which are nothing but Halloween under a different moniker; and "Hell Nights," with a fixation on evil and gruesome eternal punishment that puts slasher films to shame. I'd suggest the church retire to Cancun as well, except that Satan is already going there, and such a combination would be worse for the place even than tourism.

The loudest criticism leveled against Halloween from Christian quarters is that the day outright glorifies witchcraft and Satan, because most Halloween customs have their roots in pagan practices that involved divination and animist beliefs.

There is some truth to that. The ancient Celts, whose harvest festival Samhain provided the template for modern Halloween, believed that spirits could cross into the natural world on this night. Livestock would be slaughtered to preserve meat for the coming winter, offerings of food would be left out for the spirits of the departed, and any number of rituals from bonfires to jack-o'-lanterns were put in place to ward off evil spirits.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether to reject traditions rooted in these ancient beliefs, or too see them as something that points to Christ. When we ask, we should remember that Jesus himself seized on the customs of his culture and reinterpreted them in light of his own claims about himself. During the seder meal, he linked the breaking of the matzoh and the wine of redemption to his impending death. In Jerusalem during Hanukkah, he proclaimed himself the shamash of the world, and connected his message with the renewal of the Temple.

We also should remember the example of Paul the Apostle. At Mars Hill in Athens, Paul saw the idolatry of the people as evidence of their great spirituality. He linked an obscure altar left over from a plague generations earlier to Christ, and gained an instant audience intent on his message.

So the question is, do we alienate ourselves from the culture at large by refusing to observe its holidays, or do we find a common ground that points everyone toward deeper truths?

For me, it's no contest. Halloween's pagan origins reveal a day that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ.

At its simplest, Samhain was a celebration of community, a celebration that included members of the community both living and dead. The dead were not feared, but revered; their lives and histories were celebrated in stories, and those still living could gain wisdom and insight by recalling the dead.

We could benefit from a similar attitude. In Christ, we have a communion not just with believers around the world today, but with the entire church triumphant, which spans not only space but time as well. If Christ is the Resurrection and the Life, our community includes those who have died over the two millennia since Christ, and many others who awaited his coming. Their lives and their stories contain wisdom and encouragement for us, and their example can inspire us to greater faithfulness.

Jack-o'-lanterns, originally carved in turnips or other similarly sized Old World vegetables, were meant as a ward against evil spirits. My children know that Christ has triumphed over evil, once and for all. So when we carve a jack-o'-lantern, whether it has a frightening face or a goofy expression, we do it as a statement of faith that Christ has defeated Satan, that Light has triumphed over Darkness, and even though autumn is the dying season, there is no need to fear.

Today it's a children's game to dress like Spider-man and Harry Potter as they go trick-or-treating; originally it was the druids who disguised themselves, to lead malicious spirits away from the village, to protect the people. Halloween costumes are a fun game of Let's Pretend, but here also we can see a deep truth: Putting on Christ's likeness, in faith, safeguards not only ourselves but those around us from spiritual harm; living a life of compassion brings great good to everyone.

Trick-or-treating itself has its roots in another Samhain practice, where families would leave offerings of food and drink out for the spirits of their departed loved ones, to make them feel welcome. Practically speaking, this ensured that the needier members of the community would have food and drink. I hope to perpetuate that attitude in later years by taking the girls to volunteer at the soup kitchen when Halloween isn't on a school night; in the meantime, I also remind that that the search for candy brings fleeting pleasure, but the search for Truth brings lasting joy.

Like any of our other holiday traditions, there is no meaning intrinsic in our Halloween customs beyond what we give them. I really don't understand why some Christians prefer to live in fear that having fun trick-or-treating or carving faces in a pumpkin is going to set their children on the road to perdition.

At their simplest and most basic, these are harmless and essentially fun distractions when the weather starts getting cold; but when we take the attitude of Christ toward our society, and work toward its redemption rather than absenting ourselves from things we don't like, we can find ourselves involved in the community instead of being deliberately isolated from it.

That act alone is enough to teach our children some valuable spiritual lessons, and it's more likely to keep them interested in Christ than a dozen "safe alternatives" ever will.
Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Jacob's Well

Following a link or two the other day, I discovered an article on Christian Century about an emerging church in Kansas City called Jacobs Well. It's worth reading.
The "emerging church" is a movement within Christianity that many are hailing as the Gen X version of the church, a postmodern, inclusive understanding of Christian spirituality that reconnects with the church's ancient roots, finding ways to be relevant in practical and meaningful ways, being welcoming to and inclusive of people who feel unwanted in traditional evangelical churches, and with a renewed appreciation for faith as an experience rather than a dogma.
Jacob's Well is about a thousand members strong, led by pastor Tim Keel, who generally is regarded as one of the leaders of the emerging movement. (Brian McLaren is the other; ironically, Dan Kimball, who first coined the phrase "emerging church," is not.)

The article describes the worship as participatory rather than passive, and "edgy, closer to grunge than to praise-chorus music" -- a pretty good sign, I think, though I'm not partial to grunge -- and talks about the church's efforts to embrace the arts, to the point that the sanctuary functions as a gallery, and Keel regularly incorporates the art into his sermons. And of course, the church has been hugely successful at drawing members from Gen X, who are generally down on organized religion in general, and evangelical Christianity specifically.
The article is good; it also touches on some of the suspicion that evangelical leaders have of the emerging church movement, which lacks evangelicals' preoccupation with "right" doctrine and dogma -- an Enlightenment approach that works in some cultures and generations, but not in others.
All told, it sounds like an interesting church, and it's a good article.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

the apolitical church

I have just read a fascinating and thought-provoking article from the New York Times about the Rev. Gregory Boyd and his decidedly apolitical approach to the gospel.
In an era when the gospel has been co-opted by political and social conservatives, where the word evangelical conjures no thoughts pertaining to evangelism and where Christianity is equated throughout the United States with the Religious Right and the the Republican Party, Boyd appears to be one of a minority of evangelical leaders actually to be letting some light into the smoke-filled back room.
What has Boyd done? Nothing too unreasonable, I suppose, when you consider the gospel. He's just pushed hard to keep Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., from getting entangled in any of the political discussions that increasingvly have mired down and distracted the American Church for the last twenty years.
Some of the stuff Boyd did is obvious, like refusing to introduce politicians from the pulpit, something one megachurch in New Jersey actually did last year during the gubernatorial primaries there. Other things only seem obvious once I've seen them in print, like telling pro-life groups that they may not put their literature in the church lobby. (Such displays have been a fixture at many evangelical churches ever since the Summer of Mercy in the late 1980s.)
The usual justification for the politicking is that Christians have a duty before God to be salt and light and spread Christ's influence in all areas and all spheres, including the political arena. Still, as Boyd points out and as I've said at times myself, it's not like there's anything essentially Christian about Christian involvement in politics. People of all faiths (and even of no faiths) desire justice and a better society; what advantage is there is tacking the Christian label onto a political effort or even a specific politician's platform? It identifies Christ with one platform with one party, and with one dogma, when he is someone who embraces everyone.
And that doesn't even touch on some of the more egregious infusions of nationalism into the religious world. I'm not just talking about American flags in the church sanctuary -- although, like the pro-life displays, that (wrongly) is another fixture at many U.S. churches -- but a tacit endorsement of the war in Iraq in some churches, including once cited in the story where the church showed a video that mixed images of the Cross with fighter jets. (News flash: "Onward, Christian Soldiers" is a hymn -- not a military strategy.)
So thumbs up to Boyd, and a big wet turkey to all those on the Right (and Left) who are pushing the lie that America is a Christian nation and arguing that everyone therefore has to listen to them. Boyd preached a six-week sermon series called "The Cross and the Sword" that drove away about twenty percent of his congregation, including a number of church leaders.
I wish more pastors shared not only his perspective, but his conviction and willingness to preach the gospel, and not side issues.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Old Stories through New Eyes

It always begins like this: The pastor is at the front of the church, casting the opening lines of his sermon out to the congregation. He baits us with some sort of joke or anecdote, and slowly he begins to reel it in. It's going great. We're all hooked on what he has to say.

And then it happens. He starts talking about Psalm 23 or the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and he's lost me. In no time at all, I've broken free and swum far away from lead-me-beside-still-waters. By sermon's end, I'm vaguely aware that there was a sermon on something from the Bible, but I've no idea what it was about.

It's like the clichĂ© says, familiarity breeds contempt, and some passages are so familiar that it's hard to imagine there's anything there that I haven't heard before. Think of the Good Samaritan, and if you’'re like me, it's hard to see any message but "Love your enemies."

The funny thing is, the Parable of the Good Samaritan has been familiar almost from the first time it was told. It didn't even originate with Jesus. It was so well known that his audience would have recognized it immediately.

I imagine Jesus standing in the Temple court as he is questioned by the expert of the law. The expert asks, "And who is my neighbor?" and the crowd, eager to witness the verbal sparring that has made Jesus so famous, pushes in close to hear his response.

"Ah," someone whispers in satisfaction once Jesus begins speaking. "The wounded man on the road to Jericho. That's a good answer." Heads around the Temple nod in approval, and soon everyone's eyes have glazed over. The story follows its familiar rhythm as the traveler is waylaid by bandits and left for dead.

Everyone knows the story. After the first couple of travelers ignore the wounded man, he'll be rescued by a model citizen, the sort of person they've been taught all their lives to admire, respect and emulate. The moral? Your neighbor is any countryman in need.

By the time the first person walks past the wounded man, some people already are thinking about the Passover celebration. At the edge of the crowd, someone starts haggling over the cost of apples, but no one really minds. Everyone knows that a heroic and virtuous Pharisee is about to come along and save the wounded man.

Imagine their surprise at what comes next. The Pharisee doesn't help. Instead, he minds his own business. He doesn't get involved. He plays it safe. Suddenly everyone is listening. They couldn't have heard that right.

Then Jesus delivers the final knockout punch, and shocked silence gives way to angry gasps and a few strangled cries of protest. The hero of the story isn't respectable. He's not even one of them at all. He's an outcast so low that decent people would throw stones at him if they met him in the street. And didn't this all start with as a question over what to do to get eternal life?

With stories like that, it's no wonder people wanted to kill Jesus.

Today of course, we do exactly what that ancient audience wanted to. We think that we're righteous because we understand brokenness like the tax collector did, and we're proud not to be self-righteous like the Pharisee. We see ourselves in the prodigal son who's come home, rather than as the son resentful over his younger brother's unearned favor.

And we identify with the kind and neighborly Samaritan, even though practically no one in Galilee or Judea would have thought of Samaritans as either kind or neighborly. The surprising twist on whom God considers righteous and who receives eternal life is completely lost on us.

If Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan today, I wonder if it would go something like this:

On one occasion, a Christian stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What does the Bible say?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind' and 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus said. "Do this, and you will live."

But the Christian wanted to show that he was justified before God, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said, "A man was driving through New Brunswick, when he fell into the hands of carjackers. They took his wallet, his cell phone and his laptop; shot him, and went away, leaving him for dead.

"A Republican happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed on the other side. So, too, a pastor, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

"But a Muslim, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He put the man in his car, getting blood all over the seats, and took him to the hospital. The next day he paid the hospital three thousand dollars. 'Look after him,' he said. 'And when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"

The Christian replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Slices of Grace

My daughter Ruth met two girls at the park today, named Destiny and Nicole. This is important, so that's why I'm writing it down.

It's important, because Destiny and Nicole weren't the children we had hoped to meet. We had a play date today with several friends of Ruth's from preschool, and none of them showed. Not one. Not her best friend, not the boy who always has to have his way, not the shy girl, and not even the boy whose mother was so excited about the idea that she practically cried.

For more than an hour Ruth and I ran around the playground by ourselves. I chased her from one playset to the next, and we laughed like monkeys as we ran. We flew down slides, swung across monkey bars, spun on the tire swing and sang as much Stephen Sondheim as we wanted. Still, her friends never came.

I'm sure their parents had good reasons for not coming, and although I was disappointed, my hopes were never set that high in the first place. Sometimes preschool classes are closely knit, and even the parents become friends. Sometimes the classes aren't so close, and you're lucky if you know the names of the other parents when school is over.

Ruth's class this year was decidedly of the second sort. Everyone liked the idea of having informal play dates at the park once school was out for the year, but great ideas rarely work out the way you want them to. That's just life.

We had been there about an hour when a little girl named Destiny showed up. Even though she was two years older than Ruth, and even though she had never seen Ruth before, they started playing together immediately. They barely had exchanged names before Ruth was chasing Destiny around the playground, up ladders and down slides, and Destiny was offering to let her ride her bike.

This had gone on for about ten minutes, and it even included a trip on the tire swing, when Nicole arrived. In no time she had joined the troupe and they found their rhythm. Up the ladder, across the platform, down the chute. Up again, down again they moved, one after the other in a steady blur of giggles and dresses.

The girls played, they had fun, and then it was time for Ruth to go. It wasn't until we were in the car and on our way that she realized her that no one from preschool had come. She was crushed, and she cried. For a 3-year-old like Ruth, this was like being stood up at the prom.

Still, this is just the warm-up act. As Ruth gets older, she's going to have her share of dashed expectations. Friends will break their promises, deals will fall apart, success will be elusive, and from time to time she'll see treasured dreams come crashing painfully down. Sometimes the grief will belong to her, and sometimes it will belong to others.

When life hands her a bitter pie to eat, it’ll be easy for Ruth to make grief and self-pity her only companions, and to miss entirely the sweet slices of grace that Christ slips in, unnoticed. Easier still to miss is the chance to carry that grace to someone else. These displays of grace come unexpected and unannounced in the most unlikely and unexpected places, and their presence can make all the difference.

Today that grace came on the shoulders of two girls, named Destiny and Nicole, and I say it's important that they be remembered.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Sounds of Silence

I think it was around six o'clock this morning that I started to wonder if I was cracking up.

That was around the time the phone in the bedroom rang, and I answered it. It was Sam, and he was calling to find out how I was doing. Pretty thoughtful guy, that Sam. I'm doing all right, I told him. Being alone isn't getting to me in the least. And that was when I realized that I was talking out loud to a person I didn't know, on a phone that doesn't exist, in a room all by myself.

Shit, I had some weird dreams last night. And now they're calling me up to see how I'm doing? I pulled the covers up and wondered if there was any point in trying to go back to sleep. Probably not. Aside from a trip to the bathroom five hours earlier, I'd been asleep since seven the evening before.

Aside from the call from Sam, I haven't spoken to anyone since my wife called to let me know that she and the girls had arrived at my brother's house safe and sound. Doctor's orders. I'm supposed to avoid physical contact with other people for forty-eight hours, following the radiation treatment I took yesterday to wipe out what's left of my thyroid cancer.

I have loads of people I could call, but I haven't bothered yet. I expect I will this evening, before Sam calls back to check on me again.

There are some kinds of silence I like. There's the expectant kind, like my daughter has just before she opens a birthday present; the pause-for-breath sort, like my wife had between contractions when our daughter was born; and there's the after-the-storm sort, when the sun comes out and you can listen to the birds start singing again, and watch the grass dry, one blade at a time.

Then there's this loud, oppressive sort. Sometimes it seems positively malicious, like there's a massive weight pressing down upon your chest, slowly forcing your soul from your very body so it can devour you. All you want to do is run and hide, behind the noise of an iPod or TV set, in mindless chatter with another human being.

The thing about this sort of silence, though, is that it's patient. It's been at this for years, and it knows that it can wait longer than you can. Sooner or later, the TV program will end, the iTunes will run out and the chatter will grow still. Even getting phone calls from Sam seems better than dealing with this sort of silence. It's a lonely sort of silence, and it's perfectly miserable.

You know how they say misery loves company? It's not true. Misery doesn't want company. What it wants is for you to be miserable too, so it does what it can to pull you down, into the silence, where it waits with that backward smile for the chance to lock you into your own private hell.

I remember the first time I got trapped in that silence, way back in college. It had me sick for over a week, and it wasn't until I reached out to a friend and asked her to pray for me that I got better. The last time I was trapped there, it was from the overwhelming grief of losing a child. I never would have survived, except for the love and support of friends who pulled me out, and who pulled my wife out, so we could pull each other out the rest of the way.

Today, I took my wife's keyboard downstairs, where I'm teaching myself to play the piano, and I practiced playing "Holy, Holy, Holy." It's a beautiful hymn, even when it's played badly, and hearing those familiar notes shakily accompanied by own voice was enough to remind me of a connection I have with someone far greater than myself, and with a silence filled with far more comfort and presence than the kind that lurks in waiting for us.

I used to think that the silence of God was a disappointing, or even frustrating thing. Often, I admit, I still do. I wish that just once when I pray, I could hear him respond clearly like he always seemed to do when people talked with him in the Bible. He comes across like a positive chatterbox with prophets like Isaiah, and even if Job heard God speak from a whirlwind, at least he got some beautiful poetry out of the deal. It seems like when I pray, all I get is the static at the end of one of God's LPs, where the needle just moves back and forth in its groove and waits for someone to put a new record on.

But a few months ago, it hit me that God isn't just silent; he's listening. He's listening with all his heart to what we have to say. He's not just hanging on our every word, he's listening beyond those words to the aches and griefs we feel but don't know how to share. He listens because he alone knows what it means to be shattered along the width and breadth of humanity. That's a deep, beautiful silence.

It's a silence I want to share. Today, at least, I want to listen back. I want him to tell me the burdens he carries that make him cry for grief, to tell me the things that make him laugh, and the delights he has that teach the stars to sing and dance for joy. I want him to share his heart with me and know that, for once, I'm actually going to listen, even though I don't have a chance of understanding all that he has to say.

I remember a scant four weeks ago, when we were hit with two feet of snow. School was canceled, the roads were closed, and for the first time in ages, I could stand outside and not hear car horns, squealing brakes or the other noise of a city. My daughter and I stood and listened from the sidewalk as the wind sighed and the snowflakes delicately crunched together.

"What is it?" she asked me. "I don't hear anything."

Exactly. Silence is a beautiful thing.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

In the Shadow of Death

I'm dying.

Melodramatic, but true. I've been slipping noticeably for the past week. I spend a longer stretch each day feeling as though I have just woken up, and even the simplest actions are accomplished through a fog of weariness. I drift through the day like a ship searching for port. The captain rouses from his slumber to cry "Weigh anchor!", but by the time the deck hands have laid sluggishly to their tasks, the ship has gone adrift again and no harbor has been secured.

Dying. It's not supposed to be like this. Death should come suddenly and without warning, like a gunshot from behind at the theater; in the heat of the moment, fighting for king and country; with meaning, in a bray of last words that comforts the grieving and makes sense of death's waste and brutality; or death should come shamefacedly, humbled by the grace and dignity of the one it unworthily claims.

Death should never come skulking, in the piece-by-piece manner of crows picking carrion apart on the highway. Not when you're still young and healthy.

Healthy is what I am -- young, healthy, and dying. I can feel it in the way my body is no longer able to warm itself. I can feel it in the way it is easier to fall asleep each night and harder to wake up each morning. I can feel it in the naps I need in the middle of the afternoon just to last until nighttime. Slowly and inexorably, my body is running down, and when the process has finished, I will go to sleep and I will die.

Close curtain, exit stage right. No applause please, there will be no encore tonight. The show has ended and the remainder of its run has been canceled.

Dying. My spirit scoffs and my mind dismisses it, but my body knows a different truth. I can feel in my very bones what is happening, feel the final corruption of my flesh slowly encroaching, hear the steady grind of my mortality growing ever louder. This is the fate that awaits us all.

This is my death, and I'm grateful for the sacred grace that lets me see it coming before its time. Five short days from now, a doctor will give me a pill. This pill will destroy the last of my cancer cells, and once they are gone, I'll be given a second chance. I'll be able to take my thyroid hormone pills again, and as a renewed vitality surges through my body, my life expectancy will swell from mere weeks into decades. In a matter of days, I'll be myself again.

But not, I hope, my old self. I hope instead that I'll be wiser. For the last two weeks, I've had the rare gift of sitting on an island, watching as its edges crumble ever-faster into the sea, and knowing that there is nothing to fear, because all soon will be as it was. How many others can say the same?

Life is a fragile thing, made of sheerest gossamer. All that it took to bring me to this point was the removal of my thyroid, an organ I never thought of before last October, the size and appearance of a used wad of tissue. Small wonder that the ancients imagined death as nothing more than an old woman cutting a skein of yarn.

I hear from time to time of others who were reminded of their own mortality, and learned to live more in the moment. They stop and smell the flowers, they watch more sunrises and they catch more sunsets.

That hasn't been my experience at all. Instead of being taken with the fertile wonders of God's creation, I have been ashamed of the barrenness of my life. I am shamed by the cemetery on my hard drive, by row after row of shallow graves filled with the tiny bodies of stories I miscarried because I have lacked the discipline to create as God intended I should.

The writer within me hears the hour of his own deadline approaching, and he cringes. The story is not ready. Give me an extension, he cries, and the writing will change to a nobler theme. The second deadline will not be squandered.

I have also been shamed by my failings as a father. I snap and growl at my daughter in frustration, and I teach her to love Dora the Explorer more than her own parents, but before she goes to bed, my daughter rushes in where I am writing to give me a kiss goodnight.

She never used to do that.

The father within me cries for mercy beneath the weight of his own Father's chastisement. Forgive me, he cries, and she will better know by my example the wonders of your love.

Most of all, I have failed as a follower of Christ. I have sworn time and again to live as he would, but each year finds me burdened with a bigger collection of movies I don't watch, more books I don't read, and more things I don't need. Each year finds me more changed by the world than the world has been changed by me.

Meanwhile friends of mine are hit by stray bullets from somebody else's culture war, the American church takes the side of the mighty, and all I do is to sit on the sidelines and say, "It isn't right," over and over again.

No one should live like that.

When I was a child, my life stretched before me, a vast shore as unending as the world, and as ripe with possibility. Now I am thirty-five, and if I am fortunate, more years remain ahead of me than lie behind me. Because of my brush with cancer, I am aware for the first time of how badly eroded that shore has become.

There are great things I have wanted for years to accomplish for God -- stories I have longed to tell; truths I have wanted to teach through my actions; and people I have yearned to touch so they might experience the awesome reconciliation that Christ brings between us and God, and between us and one another. Some tasks I have begun, but most are woefully incomplete.

Time will not wait for me to complete that work at my leisure. Beyond the crumbling desolation that for now only temporarily encroaches upon my sullied flesh, I perceive the deeper rumble of true mortality as it also draws near. When the ticks of that watch run down, there will be no second chances to finish what I was meant to do.

I am dying, and so are you. Make haste, and work while there is still light.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Truth in Advertising

Over at The High Calling is a brief essay about the self-promoting slogans churches and Christians often use to promote ourselves as spiritually mature, holy people.

Aside from the merely clever schlock like "CH--CH / What's missing? / U-R," there is some stuff that's either arrogant and presumptuous, or at least condescending. Like "Christians aren't perfect ... just forgiven." That particular nugget suggests that we believe most non-Christians have been trying to figure out what it is that's different about us, scratching their heads and thinking, "Well, gee, they sure seem perfect, but that can't be right. What is it?"

Can anyone think of other slogans seen on church signs, bumper stickers or T-shirts that just give the entirely wrong message? Send them to davidlearn-atsymbol-gmail-dot-com, and once I have enough, either from my own recollection or from submissions, I'll post something here.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Make Love, not Culture Wars

It's been a longstanding complaint of mine that many evangelicals in America often express little respect or tolerance for homosexuals in society at large.

I'm thinking specifically here of a friend who casually uses the word "abomination" when he's discussing homosexuality, without regard for the people he's talking about. I'm thinking specifically of the parents of another friend who nearly disowned her after they learned she was a lesbian. Her mother actually tried -- she was going to repossess my friend's car, cancel her credit cards, and cut off her financial support at the dawn of her third year in college, all in the name of "tough love." I'm thinking of others who, through no choice of their own, have been driven from their churches, their families and their communities, all because they're gay.

Lost somewhere amid the rhetoric of "hating the sin but loving the sinner" is the character of Christ, who extends friendship not only to gays and lesbians, but to abortionists, prostitutes, and even sinners like me. Too often the message the church sends to gays and lesbians is "Stop being gay, then we'll love you."

No one is going to hell because they're gay. People go to hell because of sin. If you think someone is going to hell because of something you consider a sin, you don't change their course by yelling at them, passing laws and getting judicial rulings that you intend to stop behavior you consider sinful. You do it by introducing people to Christ, and letting him change their hearts -- which he can do, even if the behavior is as odious as demonizing an entire group of people over their sexual orientation.

I see from an article in Christianity Today that this view is beginning to catch on. Thank God. I've had enough of culture wars and seeing innocent people get gunned down in the crossfire.

I've had the good fortune to worship alongside believers who are gay. My prayer is that I be made worthy to come to the Communion table with them, and that I not shame them with my company.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Then Came the Tears

The tears came yesterday.

Yesterday was his birthday, you see. Her brother's. The one she hasn't seen in close to three years, except for the pictures that hang on our walls and the memories she keeps in her heart. It was his birthday, and when she realized it, the grief that she has carried for three years rose to the surface, and the tears came.

I held her in my arms as the tears fell and she talked about how much she misses him. This little girl, who has filled me with endless joy and wonder, cried and said that she wishes she had his phone number or that he had hers so they could at least talk to one another. This little girl, whose smiles have brightened the worst days of my life, cried and said that she wants her brother to come home.

What can be said in the face of such grief when it comes from the heart of a child?

Should I tell her what she already knows, that her brother came to live with us only for a while, and then the state returned him to his birth parents, because that was always the goal? No, she already knows this, and mere recitation of facts does nothing to heal the wounded heart.

Should I tell her that God has a plan, and that the lonely ache she feels is for a high and holy purpose, if only she will have faith? No. She has had enough of despair, and it is too cruel to deny her the right to express her grief.

Should I tell her that I know how she feels, and say that I've ached for three years to hold her brother in my arms again and hear him call me daddy? No. As for the first, it is a lie -- what man can ever claim to know the razor's edge of his child's pain? -- and as to the second, it would force her to bear my grief when she has enough of her own.

Should I regale her with theology, assuring her that the Savior she believes in and loves with the fervor only a child can muster, has borne the greater portion of her pain, and that he saves every tear that she sheds? Do I tell her that in her broken heart, in her unselfish devotion to her brother, in the love she lavished upon him and still gives him, that she understands the heart of God more than I ever could?

There is nothing I can say. There is nothing that can make sense of the pain that one little girl feels on a night like this, when the cold and indifferent world has locked her outside, smeared her face with all the filth that it gives to anyone who dares to love another, and left her there to cry out to dear Jesus for relief.

There is nothing to do, except to hold her tightly, and let her feel the bond of love that joins us to one another. The brother she misses never knew love until he came into our home and she poured all that she had into him. A piece of him is buried deep inside her, and there can be no doubt that the reverse is also true.

The silver cord, once forged in the fires of love, can never be broken. In time, what has been stretched across the miles and the years will pull back until its two ends meet again.

And when they do, the tears will come again, but this time they will bring relief.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Victorious Faith

I heard the strangest thing Saturday afternoon. An acquaintance from my homeschooling days urged me to overcome my thyroid cancer in the power of Jesus Christ. I must have looked like I didn't hear her, because she repeated it.

"It's funny," I said, "but I was just thinking of all the Christians who have died from cancer, despite their belief in Christ's power."

"Overcome cancer in the power of Christ." Two days later, I still can't get it out of my mind. I turn it over and over, trying to grasp her meaning, looking for some way to make sense of it. Does she really believe that faith is some sort of magic talisman, and if I wave it fervently in front of a disease that it will turn tail and run like a dog afraid of its master's whip?

With one word of faith, does she expect that I can bring turncoat cells back in line, stymie their malignancy, and keep them from spreading further? Does she believe that raw faith can be distilled into so potent a concentration that it will eliminate the need for surgery, make iodine-based chemotherapy and radiation treatments unnecessary, and let me avoid a four-day isolation from my children?

Is faith a relationship with an unseen God, or is it an invisible fetish we use to keep illness from our homes? Does it teach dependence on Christ, or does it ward off misfortune, corporate downsizing, food poisoning and baldness instead?

What an amazing thing faith must be to this woman. With faith like hers, I'm sure I could get myself a mansion, a private jet, or even a set of fancy cars. And to think I never knew I had this power. All I have to do is believe, and God comes running.

What an appallingly seductive theology. I feel dirty just trying to understand it. It's horrible to see how easy it is to start thinking of God as your personal servant, who will omnipotently do your bidding as long as you cut him a big enough check from the faith account.

When the filth has filled my spirit and I can no longer stand the grime, I take a bath. I lower myself into the Scripture and start scrubbing. After a while I start to relax and feel the clean coming on.

Faith? I've got that. There are times I feel I should wear a T-shirt that says "World's Biggest Idiot" for believing in God at all, but my faith is real, and it's not going anywhere.

Faith gave me clarity when I discovered the impotence of my prepackaged evangelicalism in the face of real human need on the missions field. It gave me peace of mind when I became an unemployed father with a mortgage to pay. And when I lost my son, and it seemed as if all light and all hope were gone from the world, I didn't lose my faith. I clung to it, like a drowning man clutches a rope thrown from his ship. My faith is imperfect, but it's real. Getting cancer hasn't shaken it at all.

Forget the stories of people who have claimed victory over cancer, obesity, heart attacks and even baldness. Real faith isn't found in believing something in the face of common sense and all the evidence. Faith is found in people who wanted to do right by God, even if it got themselves killed. Men like Abel, who offered God a pure sacrifice and were beaten to death because of it; or men like Moses, who by faith gave up the wealth and comfort of Pharaoh's court and spent years in the desert.

Sometimes, like Daniel, the faithful are spared unhappy endings, but those are the exception and not the rule. The only promise Jesus makes for this life is that of a cross. "Follow me and die," he says. "There is no other way."

Here, then is how the faithful have triumphed by the power of Christ "They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them."(Hebrews 11:37-38).

Faith doesn't promise eternal health or endless happiness, but it does promise the uncounted reward of knowing Christ in all his suffering. When we find ourselves lost in the Long Dark Night of the Soul, we endure because it is Christ himself who makes us complete, Christ who bears our sorrow, and Christ who makes us beautiful at our ugliest.

I'll take that kind of faith any day.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, January 30, 2006

That Which Survives

There is a pain that words cannot express,
    a fear that cannot be stilled,
    a loneliness beyond feeling,
    a sorrow with no end.
There is a longing that cannot be filled,
There are tears that never run out.
There is a love that has borne them all,
And there is a hope that endures.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Muse

[A small café. There is a table center stage, with a small table cloth and a vase with a single flower in it. Lying flat on the table are a paint brush and pallet. As the lights come on, signaling the start of the drama, CALLIOPE and NEIL enter the stage together and sit. As he sits, Neil nonchalantly folds his hands together.]

Calliope: I'm so glad you could make it today. It seems like we don't get together much anymore.

Neil: Tell me about it. I keep meaning to see you, but it's like there's always something else popping up. They've got me working on this big project at the agency for the American Ketchup Association, where I'm supposed to come up with an image for the slogan "Nothing says love like a bottle of ketchup." Call me crazy, but I just don't know what management was thinking when they approved that slogan.

Calliope: Wow. That's bad. How are you tackling it?

Neil: (disgusted) Well, you really can't do much with a bottle of ketchup that screams romance, can you? It's not like people get engaged over hot dogs and french fries, or like you offer your girlfriend a bottle of Heinz 57 when you do want to propose. I suggested something that would suggest warmth and congeniality, like a family cookout, and I was told that would make people think of Pepsi commercials from the 1980s. (shakes head despondently) I don't know what I was thinking when I joined this place.

Calliope: (after a pause) You know, I'm going to take a wild guess here, and say that you're really not that wild about your job.

Neil: Oh, yeah, "Mr. Ketchup" is on top of the world. (pause) You know, when I started at the agency, I was doing a good job. You saw how driven I was back then. I was pouring myself into the job, working extra hours to make sure I gave the best art for our campaigns that I could.

Calliope: So what happened?

Neil: I don't know. I guess I just gave up when I realized all the agency cares about is that we get the job done, and not that we do a good job at it. There was one guy who nearly cost us a major contract —

Calliope: Even bigger than the American Ketchup Association?

Neil: (smirks) Slightly. He threw together a lousy proposal, got their corporate logo wrong, and left it riddled with errors. Three of us had to stay late the next four days fixing it up so we didn't lose the contract, and no one up top said boo about it. In fact, they let Theresa go three weeks later because she earned too much and it was cutting into their profit margin.

Calliope: Ouch.

Neil: I feel like most of what I do is crap, mass-produced crap like only Andy Warhol could do. I'm making enough to feed my family, but that's it. I've got wings, but I feel like I've forgotten to fly. I haven't been able to paint even here, in my art studio, for months. I just stare at the canvas like an idiot while the dust gathers on my model.

Calliope says nothing. She just listens intently. As Neil speaks this next part, he raises his hands together, still joined, to the front of his face. It is almost as though he is praying.

You have always been my muse. You're the most beautiful, most frightening and most wonderful person I have ever known. Every picture I have made has been by your inspiration.

Remember the Thanksgiving picture I made a few years ago? It had the well-to-do, well-fed family gathered around a table loaded with food, and every one of them except the little boy was oblivious to the starving people just beyond the light around the table. My wife said that one was almost as disturbing as the one of the Mexican woman begging with the lifeless child in her arms. Those weren't pleasant paintings, but I thought they were important because they captured the anguish of need and the brutality of human indifference. It was your compassion that inspired me, because I know how deeply you feel you feel their hunger and their pain.

Calliope: Thank you. I always liked those paintings myself.

Neil: Remember "Mad Kermit"?

Calliope: (laughs) How could I forget? That was so warped. A giant Kermit the Frog smashing through downtown Newark, knocking over buildings and catching planes with that giant tongue.

Neil: That was you too. (She laughs) No, I'm serious. There's this wild and reckless joy you have that delights in the most absurd things. It's like you just have all this laughter bottled up inside you, and sometimes it comes out in these absurd ways, like something out of "Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail."

It's not just laughter, though. It's something I can't understand. Even when life is so rough that I don't want to talk to you, I can't bear the thought of living without you. It's like, even though there are times that I don't believe you're real, I can't stop talking to you.

Calliope: That was the idea.

Neil: I know.

There is a long, long pause.

Calliope: So what do you want from me, Neil?

Neil: Well, I'd like to find a new job. (pause) But I want to paint again, Lord, the way I used to, instead of just staring at the canvas. Art was always how I worshiped you best, and can't do that any more. It's killing me inside. I feel like I've forgotten how to tune in to you and hold a conversation anymore.

Calliope: (she smiles ironically) You appear to be tuned in just fine right now.

As she hands him his brush from off the table, the lights fade out.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Rag Doll God

I learned something new about God this week. He has red hair, blue eyes, leather chaps and a bright red cowgirl hat that tilts back just so.

I never thought the Almighty would bear even a passing resemblance to Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl, but there was no mistaking him this afternoon when I took my younger daughter to preschool. He wasn't the graceful hippie I'm used to, or the old guy with the flowing white beard I recognize, but that's not surprising. He wasn't surrounded by stained glass from my parents' church when I connected with him 17 years ago, either.

God is very real to my daughter. She likes to have him close at hand when she goes to sleep, she takes him with her when we go to the supermarket or to pick up her older sister from school, and she likes to have him on hand when we eat. If God can't be on the table, then she at least wants him sitting on her chair, next to her. She can't get enough of him.

When she's lonely or bored, and her father is off doing important daddy things on the computer, my daughter starts playing with God. Before long they're having a great time together, and I can hear her laughing and singing from the other room.

And when she has a pain in her heart that she can't tell her parents about, I have no doubt whom she will tell.

I watch my daughter playing with God, sharing the secrets of her heart with him, and enjoying his presence so much that she can't bear to be parted from him, and I feel ashamed. All that I know about God pales in comparison to her understanding.

I would very much like to see God with my daughter's eyes.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Log in my Eye

Four days ago, Pat Robertson opened his mouth on national TV and something ridiculous came out.

Robertson has a history of saying ridiculous things, so I doubt it really surprised many people on Thursday when he declared that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's recent debilitating stroke was the righteous judgment of God. In an effort to make peace, Sharon gave Gaza to the Palestinians, you see. God, Robertson says, has judged Sharon for dividing the Promised Land and he has found him wanting.

There's so much wrong with a statement like that, I don't know where to begin.

Robertson's remarks prompted the usual litany of criticism from the usual people. The president of People for the American Way Foundation, Ralph G. Neas, declared himself speechless by Robertson's insensitivity. The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State reprimanded him for trying to score political points while Sharon was fighting for his life.

Robertson, everyone agrees, is a dork.

I like to think of Pat Robertson as the Uncle Buck of American Christianity. A lot of times, we wish he'd just go away and stop embarrassing us with this crap and let us pretend he isn't related to us. We'd all be happier without his moralizing, especially when it comes coupled to business deals with world-class thugs like Charles Taylor, the former dictator of Liberia who had ties to al Qaeda, or when Robertson defends things like China's one-child policy.

I'd like to forget that he told the people of Dover, Pa., that they were courting God's wrath by removing from office the school board members who approved teaching Intelligent Design in the district's high school biology classes.

I'd like to forget his fatwa against Venezuelan President Victor Chavez, and his subsequent attempts to claim he was misrepresented, that when he said we should assassinate Chavez, he really meant we should take him out to dinner at a nice sushi bar.

I'd like to forget that he suggested detonating a nuclear warhead at Foggy Bottom to destroy the U.S. State Department.

I'd like to forget that he and Jerry Falwell blamed 9-11 on abortionists, on feminists, on gays and lesbians, and on the American Civil Liberties Union.

I'd like to forget Robertson, but I'm afraid if I do, that I'll forget myself next. Every time Robertson says something embarrassing, he gives me a new burst of clarity. My sins are laid bare, and in that light I see how alike we are.

I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong. Don't say "You're not like him." That's one of the most dangerous things you can say. I have to remember that I'm just like Pat Robertson, or I'm lost.

It's not that I call for assassinating heads of state whose policies I don't like, nor even that I'm in the habit of claiming people's misfortunes are God way of chastising them for their faults.

The chief flaw that I share with Pat Robertson is that I forget my place so often. It's too easy for me to forget that I'm a flawed, sinful man hanging onto the Cross for the hope of salvation. It's too easy for me to start thinking that there's something special about me, that I "get it" more than other people do, and that my attitudes and priorities are the same as God's.

Once I get the idea that God agrees with everything I say, I become a spiritual menace to people around me. I fail to represent the God I serve, I set the wrong example for people who see me as a role model, and I sow division in the Kingdom of God. I've seen it happen.

I need Pat Robertson. Without the speck in his eye, I might never find the log in my own.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Holiness of Hanukkah

I have an odd sort of confession to make. I enjoyed Hanukkah this year much more than I did Christmas.

My family and I started celebrating Hanukkah in 2004, the same year we started sprucing up our Easter meal to include some of the rich symbolism found in the Passover seder. Both decisions are rooted in the same thinking. Family celebrations of the Christian holy days as we've inherited them lack any real religious significance, and while religious observances at church are nice, our children are more likely to adopt our religious beliefs if we teach them at home.

It's not that Christmas isn't a holy day in our tradition. It is, but it's a loud kind of holy day. The chief sacrament we observe seems to be enjoying time spent with family and sometimes with friends, but even that's kind of hard to do, with all the extra fun stuff that's been added to the day, like Santa Claus and Christmas trees, and loads and loads of presents.

With everything else going on that day, the birth of Christ seems virtually impossible to focus on. That remains true even when you keep Santa out of your celebration and sing a few hymns or play Christmas carols on the stereo. The day is just too focused on the gifts under the tree and the big meal.

Maybe because it's a holiday we've added to our religious tradition, Hanukkah this year had a quieter, deeper sort of holiness than our Christmas celebration did. For their part, the girls loved Hanukkah, and needed few reminders what the holiday was about. They loved eating dinner by the light of the menorah, watching as the candles slowly burned away to nothing. They didn't go much for the traditional latkes and doughnuts, but they loved the chocolate coins and they argued each night over who would get to hold the shamash and light the other candles.

The candles typically lasted more than an hour. Long after we had finished eating, we lingered at the table while the candles glowed and found it was time easily passed together. We sang songs together, told the story of Judah the Maccabee, prayed for peace, and spent time together as a family, in worship and quiet contemplation of God's faithfulness to his people.

Hanukkah, also called the Feast of Dedication, has its origins in the middle of the second century B.C. At the time, Judea was under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Syrian Greek who was determined to thoroughly Hellenize the Jews and eradicate their culture. In 167 B.C., Antiochus banned the Jewish religion and desecrated the Temple by running a herd of swine through the Holy of Holies.

While rabbis kept the religion alive through Torah lessons disguised as dreidel games, Judah the Maccabee led a revolt against Antiochus. At the end of a three-year war, in 164 B.C., the Maccabees succeeded at driving the Syrian Greeks away and established Judea's independence. A portion of the Babylonian Talmud, recorded some six hundred years later, relates the familiar story about the jar of oil that miraculously lasted eight days and allowed the Temple to be rededicated.

Although neither the Jewish nor Christian Scriptures say how to keep the holiday, the New Testament mentions that Jesus himself celebrated Hanukkah, in John 10:22.

The themes of Hanukkah -- such as religious freedom and expression, maintaining our spiritual identity, and the need to preserve these things in a world that often shares neither our values nor our beliefs -- are themes that resonate deeply within the gospel.

Additionally, as Christians, we believe that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, but even we are ever mindful that our sin has polluted that temple. The Feast of Dedication is a good time to recommit ourselves and ask God to miraculously make us clean once more.

I haven't given up hope yet on honoring the deeper meanings of Christmas in our family observances, but Hanukkah is going to remain a tradition in our family. It's too special and too holy a season to neglect.

Copyright © 2006 by David Learn. Used with permission.