On Quitting the Circus & Coming Home to the Jersey Shore @HuffingtonPost

A while back I was invited to blog for The Huffington Post Religion channel. I had a nice conversation with an editor who I’d met in 2008 at a professional event. I sent a couple emails in reply and heard nothing back. I submitted the post below last week and heard nothing back. I called and left a message for the PR guy who emailed me when the channel went live and heard nothing back. So I’m posting my introductory The Huffington Post post here. Perhaps someone at The Huffington Post will discover it and get in touch, either to tell me that they want it and/or me or that they don’t. Either way, this lighthearted, but very serious post reflects my current spiritual convictions and my current state of mind, which is contentedly and resolutely conflict averse. So,  if you’re reading, just pretend you are at the swarming open-source site being introduced to me for the very first time. Here’s what I’d have to say:

I was sitting on the front porch of the aluminum-sided duplex I rent from my mama and daddy, talking to my chickens and looking through the rusty old chain link fence, past a neighbor’s immovable pile of junk and the port-o-potty that’s taken root in the yard of a newly manufactured home like it’s a perverse old local pine, at a kid in a hunter green pick-up truck squealing out of the neighborhood and I thought to myself, “This is why people call this town Bricktucky.” It’s an insult that I’ve only recently been introduced to, though I’ve lived here at the Jersey Shore nearly all my life.

Never mind that it’s a short two mile jog from my neighborhood to some of the most expensive beach front real estate in New Jersey and nine miles southeast to the party town where American television is creating the same kind of distorted image of the Jersey Shore and Italian Americans that Neil Postman said it does of everything that matters. There’s a Moose Lodge between me and the summering glitterati and the most prominent Italian American influence that I observe here besides the dominant culinary one is the Roman Catholic Church.

It startled me, for example, after a six year sojourn in Orange County, California, to come home and find the local Gannett affiliate reporting on Ash Wednesday services as if they were a matter for serious consideration. In the land of the mega-church, the impartation of ashes was an opportunity to be identified with him who was despised and rejected, or at least with him who was a religious sideshow oddity.

Speaking of the circus, there is the carnival that is summer at the Jersey Shore and then there is a bucolic day-in, day-out life that nourishes those who live it. The same could be said of American Christianity. The abundant life resides in a parallel universe from the carnival performances of pseudo-celebrities and culture warriors left and right. Sometimes the universes intersect. Often they collide.

I didn’t always know this. I had my favorite Christian authors and radio preachers. I heard a particularly insightful one speak at a conference once. He was getting close to retirement and sprinkled his talk with appeals to buy his books so that he could enjoy his golden years. Another one, whose radio broadcasts nourished my budding faith in the early 1980s, was, twenty-five years later, the only mega-church pastor in an affiliation of them to publicly stand by my husband and me after we publicly confronted his spiritual mentor’s corruption.

You can be assured of one thing only when it comes to successful preachers and authors: they are compelling communicators. They’ve no doubt worked hard to get that book or sermon written while you’ve been lounging at the pool (or, in my case, the coop), but I’ve met and/or interviewed enough authors and speakers to assure you that prominence and godliness don’t go together like Guidos and Guidettes. Your grandma is more likely to be an accurate reflection of the risen Christ than anyone who’s sought and endured the limelight, including me.

You need to know this if you want to live the abundant life our savior promises rather than aspiring to the fun house mirror distortion. Becky Garrison gets this and writes about it in her new book, Jesus Died for This? A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ. Garrison is the daughter of an eccentric Episcopalian priest. Although her father preached civil rights in the south when that was a dangerous thing to do, he also reportedly dropped acid with Timothy Leary. She writes, “Dad overloaded his sermons with countercultural slogans that were full of tolerance but light on theology. Without the power of the risen Christ, Dad’s civil rights activism that drew him to the priesthood was reduced to Sesame Street sing-alongs.” About her progressive peers, she says, “When peaceful progressives downplay the life-transforming power of the resurrection, they reduce the words of ‘social justice’ Jesus to just another prophetic voice calling people to repent.” And about herself, she reflects, “I can very easily get caught up in critiquing emergent exercises, progressive power plays, and other ungodly games that I forget to follow the living Christ.”

Garrison’s hyperbolic take on American Christianity reminds me of John Hurwitz’s and Hayden Schlossberg’s take on South Jersey in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. You remember when the main characters get lost in the Pine Barrens and battle it out with deer and peculiar country bumpkins? When I wasn’t cringing at their crudity, I was laughing myself silly at the duo’s depiction of my sacred soil, because it was so obviously rooted in a wry love of home. (Hurwitz and Schlossberg are natives of semi-rural Randolph, New Jersey). Likewise, Garrison’s skewering of the religious carnival is rooted in her love for the real thing and the bitter experience of seeing the spotlight shine so brightly on the center ring.

So, just remember, next time you’re reading that new spiritual memoir (or any post of mine): if the message doesn’t turn you back to your own life and its local sources of nourishment, turn your back on it.

Now I gotta’ go pickle those beets I picked yesterday with my mama. She taught me most of what I know about loving God and living the Christian life. That’s why I quit the circus and came home to her.

Thanks for reading.

Update 8/19/2010: The Huffington Post published an earlier version of the post. Thanks HuffPo!

I’m a Child of Urban Ministry @UrbanFaith

I’m alive today because God used an urban ministry to bring my parents together, and to lead our family to a more dynamic faith.

My bio here at UrbanFaith says that I’m a product of urban ministry. Readers might imply from that statement that I came to faith in Christ through an urban outreach program, and if they did they’d be wrong. Although my earliest memories are urban ones, I grew up in a bucolic mile-square beach town that people visit to escape city life. What I mean is that I’m literally a product of urban ministry, and I owe its practitioners a great spiritual debt. …

Read the rest here.

The Laborers Wages Are Few @UrbanFaith

My second column is up at Urban Faith. It was inspired by a recent tour I took of the Village of Hope, a ministry of the Orange County Rescue Mission in Southern California. Here’s a clip from the middle that reflects the heart of the piece:

A problem that is not unique to OCRM is that workers are sometimes valued less by donors than the work they do. Although we enable the achievements benefactors want to support, we don’t always give back the ego gratification that some of them desire. So, when I recently toured the Village after not having been there for eighteen months or so, I was somewhat ambivalent about its increasingly impressive campus. …

Read it here.

Eating Problems for Breakfast: An Interview with Kay Cole James @TheHighCalling

Kay Cole James is an impressive woman who shared her considerable wisdom with me on behalf of The High Calling. She talked about what makes a good employee, how she gained the confidence to run the federal workforce, what she thinks of her successor, how she handles that damning Wikipedia article, and more.  Here’s the intro:

Kay Cole James was Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management when the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks occurred. In the wake of those attacks, she oversaw the reorganization of agencies and endured misplaced criticism for allegedly hiring alumni from Regent University, where she had been Dean. James is now culling from these and other personal and professional experiences to shape a new generation of leaders through her work at the nonprofit Gloucester Institute. James talked to TheHighCalling.org about what it takes to be a success, both at work and at home. …

Go here to read the interview. While you’re there, why not check out the other High Calling offerings? It’s a great site, and no one paid me to say that!

Art That Reveals Our Need for Grace @Her.meneutics

My latest post is up at the Christianity Today women’s blog, and it’s one I really love because the artists  it features are so inspiring (both the film makers and the photographers). I had the privilege of speaking to the artist who took the picture below and communicating by email with a couple others. What a pleasure! I hope this post makes you smile, and causes you to ponder your own limited vision. It begins like this:

After seeing an advertisement for the 8th Annual Garden State Film Festival on Twitter, I requested a press pass, thinking I might screen an inspiring film or two that I could recommend to Her.meneutics readers. The festival director suggested Newt Gingrich’s Rediscovering God in America, which I saw and appreciated, but not nearly as much as two other films. Both reminded me that seeing the world through another person’s eyes is often the route to both empathy and greater self-awareness.

Shooting Beauty introduces viewers to a community of people with cerebral palsy, first through the eyes of an aspiring fashion photographer whose career is diverted as she teaches them how to take pictures, and then through their own and each other’s eyes. The second, Dark Light: The Art of Blind Photographers, defies logic as it highlights the stunning art and unique vision of some of the world’s leading blind photographers. Yes, that’s right, blind photographers. And no, I didn’t believe it either until I saw their work and their processes for myself. Both films tell their stories without either pity or sanctimony. This is a significant accomplishment for filmmakers who don’t travel through life in the dark or by wheelchair.

Shooting Beauty opens with the first person story of Courtney Bent. She initially visits a cerebral palsy day program to photograph its severely disabled clients, but soon discovers that her own limited perspective distorts the images she creates. …

You can read the rest here, and join the conversation either at Her.meneutics or right here at Exploring Intersections.

[Cathedral photo ©Pete Eckert ; all rights reserved. Used with permission.]

A Steel Frame Holds

When my husband and I were dating, I was a 20-year-old single mother and I was determined to finish college because my unplanned pregnancy had forced an unwanted hiatus from school. When we were going through pre-marriage counseling with our pastor, I mentioned this in a session. The pastor said, “You have a baby to take care of,” even as he was encouraging Jeff to extend his 2 year Bible college goal to 4 years. One day, as Jeff and I stood outside the beat up construction trailer that would become our first home, I said, “I will finish college.” He bristled, not because he was unsupportive of my goals (he’s always been that), but because I was making a declaration rather than including him in a decision.

What was implicit rather than explicit in my declaration was a desire to escape a dubious 1970s past. And fear. When my father died of a myocardial infarction at 41 years old, my mother was left with two children to care for on her own. I was terrified of being unprepared for an unpredictable future.

I did finish college, with the help of my mother and my mother-in-law, both of whom babysat, and with the support of my husband, who worked countless hours earning a lucrative income (rather than a degree) so that we were able to pay for my education without incurring any new debt. I finished also because I decided that college would be my hobby. I didn’t go to the gym or the nail salon or on expensive trips. I went to school in my spare time for twelve years and graduated with honors. Only then did Jeff go back to school.

Fast forward a decade and some of my worst fears have come true. My baby is dead and my husband is involuntarily retired due to a physical disability. We’re in the midst of profound grief and profound role reversal. He stays home and I go to work. To make matters worse, my choice of a practical career coincided with historic technological shifts. Journalism is about as unstable and insecure as a career gets. I’ve had to be creative and flexible in order to minimally meet our financial needs. I’ve also had to grapple with that little devil reputation again, because there is a prejudice in our culture toward those, like my husband, who are unable to work. I wrestle with this prejudice myself. And then, there are the emotional challenges of role reversal. Ann Althouse writes this about it:

These deeply embedded sex roles… they don’t change so easily. Being large-minded and flexible and into change isn’t enough. It doesn’t get at the root of what you really feel, and you can’t just feel what you want to feel.

Jeff is one of the smartest, hardest working men I know. Still. He keeps his days full and his mind occupied. He contributes significantly to our family and our community. His strong work history and wise financial decisions have made our continued solvency possible. And yet, we both feel the strain. As much as I’ve always wanted a career, I haven’t wanted one like this. As much as he knows he must respect his limitations, he often ends up writhing in pain from overexertion.

Ann Althouse’s marriage didn’t survive role reversal. My marriage will survive, as it has through a host of other challenges, including the only one that has truly threatened to decimate it: our son’s suicide. We’ll thrive because we love each other and because we have a long history of working through our conflicts, but mostly because God is with us and in us prompting us always to love and forgive.

Planning for the uncertain future is good and wise. It creates a framework upon which to build when the walls of life are blown off. Without structure, chaos reigns. Without love, there’s no point in rebuilding.

Where Passion and Purpose Align: An Interview with Judge Hatchett @The High Calling

Talking with Judge Glenda Hatchett on behalf of TheHighCalling.org was one of my favorite professional experiences ever. It was not for nothing that she was nominated for an Emmy award this year. Here’s the intro to our interview:

Glenda Hatchett is best known as the Emmy nominated host of Judge Hatchett, a television court show that aired from 2000-2008 and was noted for its creative sentencing approach to justice. Hatchett developed her unique style as Presiding Judge of Georgia ’s Fulton County Juvenile Court, one of the nation’s largest juvenile courts. She surprised even herself when she left a lucrative career at Delta Air Lines to enter public service. Today Hatchett serves on the board of Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the Atlanta Falcons. She is also national spokesperson for the Court Appointed Special Advocates program and travels widely as a motivational speaker.

You can read it here.