December 2, 2012

Loving Kat, Changing Me

Posted in church, family, Kat, personal at 9:01 pm by jimazing

This is a story about my daughter Kat and just one area where she had a profound impact in my life. Actually although Kat is at the center of this story, the story is about me. Many who did not know Kat were made aware of her existence because of her tremendous fight with cancer. She was, of course, in my life long before she got sick with cancer. There will be more stories about Kat in the future, but likely none more pivotal for me than this one.

When I was a kid, I was a loner. I preferred spending time alone to playing group games. I have a vivid memory of playing alone during school recess with a magnifying glass. I don’t know if I did that often, but that one moment stands out clearly. Magnifying glasses are wonderful playthings. Everyone knows how it magnifies things. That is after all what they were made to do. When you examine a thing long enough, you find out a lot more than you imagined on the surface. I found that if I held the magnifying glass away from me, it turned the world upside down and best of all it can bend light to a sharp focus. That day on the playground, I was focusing sunlight to a tiny dot so bright I could hardly stand to look at it. Focusing that dot of sunlight on a leaf caused that tiny bit of the sun’s energy to be so intense that it burned the leaf, nothing huge, just enough to have some good fun.

Kat’s influence in my life was like that magnifying glass. Seeing the world through her eyes frequently turned my world upside down. It is easy to have a surface understanding of someone that makes them all good or all bad, but such an understanding is always surface; never deep and never fully true. Our house was normal and Kat and I had more than our share of difficulties. Through them, I learned how to be more patient and forgiving… the hard way. The last year and a half, Jeanie and I have devoted our lives to helping Kat fight for her life. Every facet of her impact in our lives is burned deeper than I ever imagined possible, as if the very struggle itself were a magnifying glass focusing her life on us. My hope is that Kat’s life energy will continue to influence others through her story.

To speak about her in past tense feels so awkward and unreal. It simply does not seem possible that she is gone.

Most of us do not discuss our sexuality in public and Kat’s sexuality would not be a relevant topic in most circumstances. But it is pivotal to this story; a story about one of the deepest, most profound influences Kat had in my life, a fundamentally life-changing journey that I might never have taken except for my love for her. Kat was a lesbian and she was not shy about saying so. As an evangelical Christian, this was a tough pill for me to swallow. Her sexuality shook me deeply and challenged my world view to the core. I am telling my story because my silence on the subject allows others to make assumptions and “speak for me”.

This story is about how I dealt with Kat’s sexuality and how it changed me. It is not an attempt to preach or to convince anyone of anything. While my story will undoubtedly affirm some people and irritate others, that is not the point. This is very simply a vulnerable, intimate part of my story and the story wants to be told.

Kat growing up
Katie was a happy little girl. She was mischievous and loved to have fun. From the start, she was more masculine than her sisters. It seemed as if she needed to make her own place in her world. Unlike her older sisters, she never ever played with dolls. She preferred toys like cars and tools. She loved to follow me around with her shovel and rake to help me in the yard and I loved having her along to “help”.

She was tough too. When she was about 4 years old, she fell and cut her cheek pretty badly. Jeanie and I took her to the our family doctor, Dr. Leventhal who decided he needed to stitch the wound. When they gave her the shot to numb the area, she did not cry. She did not even flinch! I can still remember that stoic set to her face that said, I can endure this pain. Dr. Leventhal said he had never witnessed such a thing from a child. He said he has adults that cry from that shot.

When Katie was around 10 – 12 years old, I had a business at home repairing musical instruments. She helped me in the shop by taking instruments apart for me. I would get her to look at them closely to diagnose the problem and tell me how she would fix it. She was very good at troubleshooting! She also loved working with the tubas. She took a lot of pride in wrangling those huge instruments, taking them apart and giving them a bath so I could fix them. It was good for her to do the work and very helpful for me to keep up with the never ending queue of broken horns.

The next period of her life was not so pleasant. When Kat hit her teen years, they hit back… hard! The middle school years were very difficult for her. It seemed like she was sucked into the depths of depression overnight. It was right in the middle of this turbulence that we moved from Charleston, SC to Charlotte, NC. Kat was agreeable to the move, but it put her in a totally new school system with all new friends. I won’t tell all of her embarrassing stories, but I will tell you this one…

Kat was a daredevil. Her boundaries were rarely what we would have chosen for her. During middle school, Kat had pretty long hair with bangs. One day when she came home from school, Jeanie was talking to her when she noticed a flash of reflected light from under her bangs. She asked what it was while she pulled her hair back. There, to her amazement was a safety pin attached to Kat’s head! Someone at lunch had asked her if she wanted to have her eyebrow pierced! Kat agreed and so this friend stuck a safety pin through her eyebrow. Jeanie was furious. She took Kat to our new family doctor. He took a look at it and laughed. He thought that was pretty funny and let Jeanie know she didn’t need to worry about it.

Kat’s escapades were many, like bungee jumping while on a trip with her friend, Karyn. And who could forget the night Erin and I picked her up at the police station at 2:00 AM, but since she cannot give me permission, I will not share them publicly. I firmly believe that if it had not been for the influence of her sister, Erin, she would have been sucked into a dark hole where we would never have been able to reach her.

Kat had never been much of a talker and was not likely to start opening up as a teenager. So knowing what was going on inside her was a virtual impossibility. It was a troubling time for Jeanie and me; not knowing what was going on with her nor how to help.

It was in the middle of this turbulent time that Kat came out to us as a lesbian. To properly tell this story requires a little backstory about me. Please bear with me…

Jim growing up

Church was a big part of my story, but church means many different things to people. When I talk about church, I am talking about a weekly event at a place with a steeple and a system of belief that is agreed to without question by its members. My experience with church was that it was a place where we had all the answers and were evangelical about bringing in others who were not already a part of our congregation. In retrospect, the focus was not so much on loving God and and loving people the way we love ourselves (as Jesus taught). In practice, loving God was about praying and reading our Bible daily and getting our act together, loving ourselves was about keeping up masks so no one would see our flaws, and loving others was about bringing them to church events with us. This description of church may sound critical. That is not my intention. My intention is to define an ambiguous word in order to be able to communicate my story. If we all read the word, “church” with our own understanding then my story becomes something very different. This description is merely my “grownup view” of the church that played a major formative role in my life.

When I was a young man, I was as evangelical (in your face) about my faith as an introverted person could be. Like everyone else on the planet, I was learning how to get by, learning how to find love and acceptance. Unlike everyone else, I came to the conclusion that if I could learn the rules and follow them, I would be set and have no problems. I was looking for black and white rules for life, and the church was glad to feed them to me. As an obedient disciple, I studied my bible and did my best to live by it. When I messed up, I covered up. I considered myself to be an ambassador of Christ; possibly the only representative that some people would ever see. This was a very important appointment. It was important to me that I did not let Jesus down. If I screwed up, it made God look bad. I was setting up my “game pieces” for a life of hiding my true thoughts and feelings… the unique things that only I can bring to this world. I know now that we are all different for a reason. At that time, I thought the point was to be the same.

If you knew me then, you would have thought I was unquestioning in my faith. But under the covers, I was full of questions and doubts. I was looking for security in my faith and since questions and doubts did not add to my feeling secure, I mostly kept them suppressed. The church reinforced my silence by letting me know that all the important questions had already been answered. Anytime I asked a question, I was given the “right answer”. The underlying message was, “Don’t worry about such things. We already figured this one out. This is what “we” believe. All you have to do is learn and obey.” Another factor in keeping me silent was that voicing questions would have made me into a trouble maker. At heart, I was a pleaser. The more I learned and fell in line, the more praise I got, which made me feel more secure… I still had questions but I continued to stuff them. These questions were buried so deep under the “unquestionable truths” that they hardly had a chance to surface.

I was compliant, but not the epitome of compliance. I could not ultimately suppress the questions burning inside me. Finding a balance between the safety of acceptance and honoring my own questions was difficult. I knew the boundaries of my denomination well and pushed right up to the edge without crossing the line. When I went to college, I met other faithful followers of Christ who were from other denominations. I made sure that none of my new friends were involved in any of the “cults” that we were taught to avoid. This list is the same one that was recently changed due to the presidential race (sigh). My friends and I became friends and formed a small and tight knit community of believers.

Befriending people who are different than we are is a recipe for changing our world view. These folks in my community had already earned my respect as brothers and sisters in the faith when I was shocked to learn that they openly practiced expressions of faith that were forbidden by the church I grew up in… behaviors that I was taught were “of the devil”. For the first time in my life, I found myself on the other side of “the line”, confronted with a challenge to the fundamental teachings I grew up with. These friends were clearly not “devil worshipers”. They seemed like honorable followers of Christ to me. What to do with this? Fundamentally, I believed that the Bible was true, so someone’s interpretation of it must be off. This began one of the first big times I found myself wrestling with conflicting “facts” in hopes of finding a clear explanation and the right answer.

I talked to people I trusted from both sides of the issue to learn the facts so that I could decide for myself which side had the truth. What I found out was that truth is not so easy to figure out. Well meaning, godly people disagree about important things. As fundamental as that statement sounds, it was news to me. In my isolated existence in my church, we all believed the same things. So I thought that was the truth.

At that time, I thought I needed something concrete that I could count on. What I learned instead was that I was receiving personal perspectives. I was looking for the ultimate authority to give me objective truth. What I got was views of people whom I trusted, but who disagreed. Each of us sees the world the way we do because of influences in our lives and because of who we are. More perspectives are important to know, but not to pick the “right answer”. The really important questions rarely have an easy answer. Rather, I learned quickly that I have to do my own wrestling and that it rarely ends with clear answers.

Coming out
I honestly don’t remember the conversation with Kat when she came out to us. Things were so upside down, it must have seemed like “just another issue” to deal with. We were already concerned about her on multiple levels. She was depressed and having such a hard time with life in general. She was basically and fundamentally unhappy. Added to this was the fact that she was abandoning the faith that we held so dearly. As if this were not enough, adding homosexuality to the mix was overwhelming for Jeanie and me.

At first, we felt an overwhelming sense that we were complete losers as Christian parents. Everyone else in our circle kept their families intact in the faith. What was wrong with us? How could we have messed up so horribly with Kat? Unspoken and unwritten community standards caused us to feel shame. We were sure we didn’t measure up so we went into hiding. We could not talk about what we were going through for fear of people wondering what was wrong with us. Hiding kept us in the dark about the truth that lots of parents have to face the fact that they have a child who is gay. The truth that “good Christian” parents are not immune. Our self imposed isolation added to the community perception that there is something wrong with parents who have gay children. This shameful silence of the community keeps others hiding in their own sense of unworthiness.

Our initial focus was on what we had done wrong and how we had failed Kat. Ironically the questions we were asking had very little to do with Kat. To be sure, she was the reason for the questions, but rather than focusing on what was best for her, we were focused on how to “fix” her so we could feel better about ourselves. We were so caught up in the shame of being horrible parents that we could not see or think straight. The largest part of our journey was to be the removal of the focus from ourselves and getting back to our fundamental love for our daughter.

Shortly after she came out, I got a communication from Focus on the Family that they were beginning a new ministry to help bring people out of homosexuality. They were bringing their “road show” to Charlotte, where we lived, for an abbreviated Saturday session. I immediately signed up for this event. I felt that the coincidence of her coming out with the timing of this event was an appointment from God Himself. At the event, I heard all about the conspiracy of the pro-gay faction to infiltrate our culture through media. This abomination was being shoved down the throats of good Christian people. I was told how we needed to be vigilant and ready to fight this horrible movement. I heard success stories of gays who had been healed to encourage us that our loved ones were not beyond saving. I left the conference, still shell shocked, but with notes and books I purchased in hand. I was now ready to begin reading, learning and wrestling in earnest (and in private).

I was ready to take on my share of the blame and all the rest too. What had I done wrong. How did I fail her? Kat had always been more masculine than her sisters. When she was a little girl, I frequently referred to her as “my boy”. (Side note: Unlike the stereotypical dad, I was not trying to have a boy. I was perfectly content having daughters. So to call Katie “my boy” carried no negative connotations or wishes whatsoever. It was simply an observation of who she was). I began to feel guilty for having referred to her that way and beating myself up for having encouraged her masculine behaviors. I blamed myself for unknowingly influencing her to choose to be gay.

A Space of Grace
Over time, I was able to let myself off the hook. I gradually came to a deeper understanding that Kat, like me, was a complex person. No one person could take full credit for her positive characteristics. Similarly no one could properly carry the blame for any of her negative characteristics. This understanding helped me give myself more grace. I did not hold all the cards with Kat and I was not to blame. By this point in my journey, I knew I was not responsible for Kat’s sexual preference. I still believed it was a poor choice she made, but it was no longer solely my fault.

Coming out of this self blame stage helped me to remember that this was not just some ‘issue” I was wrestling with. This was my daughter! My daughter who I loved completely. I understood that in the next phase of my wrestling, I needed to separate my love for Kat from any conclusions I might draw concerning homosexuality. The most important thing I wanted for Kat was for her to be healthy emotionally and physically. Selfishly, I wanted her to be a heterosexual Christian woman too, but even then I knew that was a desire I might have to give up. As much as I wanted her to be straight, I did not want my daughter to be a shell of a woman who pretended to be someone she was not, just so she could be accepted and make me look good.

I know that I am at my best in every way when I am in a safe place; a place where I can feel free to be myself. When I am accepted as a person just as I am, regardless of what craziness I might feel or believe, I can stop investing so much energy in managing the way others feel about me. In that space of grace, I have the freedom and the opportunity to wrestle with the questions burning inside. If this was true for me, it maked sense that it would be true for others too. I reasoned that if there were any chance for Kat, it would happen inside a cocoon of love and grace. As long as we were trying to change her, she would not have the freedom to be herself. Without that freedom, she could never get better. I was becoming resigned to the possibility that I might not win this war against her sexuality. But if Kat were to ever find her way out of her depression; if she were ever to embrace our faith again, if there was any chance that she would ever be straight again, it would happen most likely if she were loved and accepted for who she was.

This was a turning point for me. My purpose changed from trying to get her fixed, to loving her in spite of how I felt about her choices and her situation. I stopped saying things like, “She is struggling with homosexuality,” which wasn’t true. Kat was not struggling with homosexuality. She knew exactly who she was. She was struggling with feeling accepted for who she was.

I was struggling with her homosexuality.

Now that I had addressed my relationship with her, it was time to deal with the part that really was solely mine to deal with. Without regard to any personal relationships, what did I believe God has to say about homosexuality?

Ruminating and learning
Every one of us has to adjust in some way when our experience does not match our belief. Some things just will not be ignored. Will we hold onto our dogmatic beliefs without question, in spite of the fact that it does not match our own experience. Will we abandon our beliefs and simply following our senses and experience wherever it might lead. Will we explain away the discrepancies in an attempt to reconcile the two? Don’t we all do these behaviors? I know I do. Usually though, when real life does not line up with my beliefs, it will not easily let me go. I tend to start a sort of wrestling match in my mind. The internal wrestling match that was triggered by Kat’s sexuality took many years and much heartache. I did not know it at the start, but my world was beginning to get much larger and my life much richer.

The Bible was the place for me to begin. It is the foundation for the faith that I held dear. What I found there were two key pieces of information: 1. There are only a very few places in the Bible where it even mentions homosexuality and Jesus himself never even mentions it. This tells me that it was not a pivotal topic in the Bible, no matter what you believe it says. 2. The places where homosexuality is mentioned seem to be absolutely and unequivocally against it. This realization caused me to fear that I was going down a road that could only end in choice between accepting Kat’s homosexual lifestyle or the Bible. It felt like watching a fight to the death where I cared deeply about both the contestants. I avoided this topic as long as I could and I never talked about it.

The word, ruminating, comes from the way cows digest their food. They swallow it for a while then bring it back up to chew on it then swallow it again. Pretty disgusting, but it fits. I found myself ruminating on this frequently (and silently of course); reasoning and arguing for a time, then putting it on the back burner to let it simmer for a while. Just when I would forget about it, something would remind me, and I would pick it up where I left off. As much as I tried to avoid it, I could not let it go… or maybe it wouldn’t let me go. I loved my daughter unconditionally. Nothing could change that, but there was something in me that made me feel like this issue was bigger than my relationship with Kat. As much as I loved her, I was a committed follower of Christ and I was not going to walk away from that so easily. So I ruminated.

I began to trust my intuition that this attraction to other girls was not a choice Kat made, but was the way she was from the beginning. As I thought about the notion of choosing to be gay, I reasoned that if it were a choice, then any gay person could tell you when they made the choice to be gay. So if a homosexual chooses to be that way, then I reasoned a heterosexual must also choose to be straight or at least choose to not be gay. I knew that I never made such a choice and I have a hard time imagining that I somehow missed such a developmental milestone. As far back as I can remember, I was attracted to girls. It was the same for Kat. I now believe with every fiber of my being that she never chose to be a homosexual woman. It was simply one of her characteristics. To put it another way, she was born that way.

This assurity that Kat was ok bothered me. It felt too convenient. I was afraid that, because I wanted it so badly, I had convinced myself that she was ok. Was I succoming to confirmation bias? Was I naturally looking at things in a way that confirmed what I already believed? I was afraid of buying into a conclusion of convenience with no depth. I questioned that my desires for a clear answer to this problem were clouding my judgment. It had happened before. Ironically, the fear that my love for Kat was clouding my thinking was making it harder to accept the very conclusions that would eventually draw me even closer to my daughter.

Beliefs about Faith
Over my lifetime, I had my own set of preconceived notions about even the idea of faith. I expected my faith to be strong enough to see me through any situation. The Christian leaders I looked up to were firm and dogmatic in their beliefs and could quote chapter and verse why they believed what they believed and why they were right; right meaning correct and also on moral high ground. I admired that ability. In my eyes they seemed to have their acts together. I felt that the path to maturity in the faith went something like this… learn objective truth, practice it, add new truths, rinse and repeat. This process would build a structure of faith that would weather any of life’s storms. I reasoned that a mature faith should be strong enough to see me through any crisis or decision by simply applying what I know to be true.

However, this particular “storm” seemed to be too much for my faith. There were no easy outs that I could take with integrity. I wanted desperately for my desires for Kat to align with my childhood faith, but the pieces would not fit together neatly. The thought of changing what I believed in order to fit my own circumstances went against the very fiber of my being. But the very idea of abandoning my daughter whom I loved for a rigid stand against an idea was appalling. I was disappointed in my faith. I thought surely that it would see me through this.

There are many things about life that cannot be fully explained and comprehended. This mystery of life is fascinating to no end. There is so much to be learned. It would be nice to have easy answers to all the difficult questions, but not reasonable. I am a learner. As a learner, I naturally ask questions and question answers. Even though I do not always voice my questions, they are always there. There are too many things I don’t know and I am naturally curious. Trying to align belief and experience frequently causes me to get tied up in knots. It is just who I am.

Where’s the Humility?
Inevitably, those of us who accept the official answers without question end up looking for ways to defend these answers against the evidence of our experience. It is a humbling experience to find that what you have been taught has been scientifically proven incorrect. What do we do with that? To illustrate, one evening many years ago, I joined a church group on the beach with my telescope. I love showing interested people a view of the universe that most never get to see. Some of these folks that night believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Some of the objects they observed are hundreds of thousands of light years away… When I mentioned that the light we see when we look at them is hundreds of thousands of years old, one of the ladies without missing a beat marveled at how amazing it was that God could create the universe with everything already in motion giving the illusion that it is much older than it is. Really!?! This statement was made up in order to explain away the contradiction between the scientific facts with with what she already believed. That is dishonest and arrogant. What is so wrong with saying, “I could be wrong, but I believe…”?

These kinds of dishonest explanations caused me to begin questioning everything. Did anyone really have an objective interpretation of the Bible. Is that even possible? Back to the question of homosexuality, I knew that there were a lot of people who believed that they did not have to abandon their sexuality to follow Christ. As I read what they had to say, I found a few themes; the Bible is too antiquated to use as a guide, our interpretation of the Bible is wrong, or we are simply picking and choosing what we want to believe. There is plenty of information and misinformation out there to be read. It is not my intention to defend one side or the other here, but I will tell you where my own story landed on this question.

When Jesus was asked what was the most important command, he replied to “Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.” Most people don’t seem to know that they asked him a follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with one of his famous parables. We know it as the story of The Good Samaritan. To his audience, Samaritans were the worst of the worst. Jesus was saying our neighbor is the one who is hardest to love. My interpretation of this encounter is that the best way to love God is to intentionally love the people we find hardest to love. Nothing is more important than this. Love is becoming the plumb line against what everything else is measured for me. Where is the love in my action? Where is the love in my faith? Having the right answer is rarely about loving someone else.

One evening Kat and I were alone together and I told her that I was glad she was gay. I was not saying that I was just ok with it. I was actually glad about it. The reason, was that this was no longer just an “issue” for me. This was personal! I told her that I had searched for the right “Christian” answer to the question. I had not found one, but I knew without a doubt that I loved her just the way she was. I was not sure what she thought about what I had said because, true to her nature, she didn’t really visibly react.

It is a risky business to love others from the heart. Loving actions are not always received the way they were intended. Most of the time, like that night with Kat, we do not even know whether we succeeded in helping the other person feel loved. One evening, after Kat got sick with cancer, some good friends (a gay couple) brought dinner over for us. Kat was feeling well enough to join us and she engaged with us in conversation about many things. During the conversation, she related her experience of my telling her I was glad she was gay. She talked about how much that meant to her. What a gift for me! I was so glad to know that she felt loved by my statement.

I loved Kat from the moment I first laid eyes on her. I loved her when she was easy to love. I loved her when I was angry with her. I loved her when she hurt me, when she called me names, when she rejected everything I believed in. Ironically, even when I rejected Kat’s sexuality, even then my motivation was love. That love burned its way through layers of of self-protective lies and became a much purer love that was
on her, rather than my own righteousness. Kat had a rough journey through life. During much of that journey, she did not feel loveable nor did she feel loved. I know without any doubt that when she died, she felt loved; completely and unconditionally loved.

This journey began with a conundrum between my faith and the issue of homosexuality. It ended with a new love and appreciation for a group of people who see things differently than I do. I am a richer person for it. The journey continues…

September 15, 2010

The Truth About Islam

Posted in books, church, spirituality at 2:25 am by jimazing

The heightened interest in the “truth of Islam” should not be a surprise with anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by Islamic Fundamentalists, the threats of Qur’an burning and of course the ongoing battle about whether or not a Mosque should be allowed near the ground zero site.  That it is part of the conversation does not bother me.  What bothers me are the presentations created for the sole purpose of stirring people up; a common technique used to motivate groups of people to action by touching sensitive triggers… especially fearful ones.

coexistBetween Facebook and the inevitable email forwards, I notice a definite trend towards more presentations of the “truth” about Islam.  These presentations are full of facts and often well produced.  The slick way they present the information is a hook to the reader/watcher/listener.  The web presentation I saw last night really drew me in.  It was compelling because of the way it “painted” words on the screen as they were spoken.  Very nicely done… and the information seemed accurate.  I have not read the Qur’an, so I cannot actually speak to its accuracy, but I was pleased that they encouraged people to read it for themselves for confirmation.

What I have read is Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson, which I highly recommend.  Mortenson has humbly served the people of Afghanistan for many years now.  He builds schools for them so they can learn.  Why?  Because it turns out most of them are illiterate.  Illiterate people in a country that is overrun with fear and extremism. It turns out, these Islamic Fundamentalists who hate us so much do not hate us because of the Qur’an tells them to hate us, they hate us because they are taught to hate us by people who were taught to hate us by people who were taught to hate us by… They cannot read the Qur’an and neither can their radical Islamic “teachers”!  What the Qur’an literally says is irrelevant when the people we are discussing cannot read it.

Back to the web presentation… one of it’s main points was how radical Muslims are more aligned with the words of the Qur’an than moderate Islam.  As if we should discount the moderate voices and let the extremists be the true representatives. In most any religion, the radicals are the ones quoting chapter and verse to support their teachings?  Fundamentalist fringe groups are always so stuck on “being right” that they

  1. Lose sight of the big picture.
  2. Decide what is more important than anything else
  3. Take a stand on whatever that is
  4. Draw a line to determine who is in and who is out
  5. Turn against or wage war on everyone on the other side of that line

As a Christian, I personally do not want to be defined by any of the Christian fringe groups.  In fact, as a person, the only way I want to be defined is that I am myself.  If someone wants to know what I believe, they should ask me.  Don’t put me in a box with someone else that calls themself a Christian.  There are many “Christian boxes” and so far as I can tell, I don’t fit in any of them perfectly.  (Note to self… practice what you preach).

Let’s characterize the greater Islamic community, not by what their ancient writings say, but by the way they translate it into actions.  How do we do that?  Observe.  Ask.  Listen.  The vast majority of Muslims are peaceable people.  Most of them reject the violence of the radicals. To lump them all together with the radical factions is to invite them to lump people like me in with the likes of Fred Phelps (no link provided… look him up if you are interested).  It is not a fair representation. As Emerson might have said (or not) What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you your sacred text says.

Lastly, I abhor the use of fear as a motivator in any context.  I especially despise it with religion.  The present move to frighten people about Islam is gaining momentum and it will backfire.  Stirring up hatred is not a Christian concept. Did not Jesus say to “love your enemies”?  What would he do?

November 11, 2009


Posted in church, memories, movies, personal at 8:06 pm by jimazing

Jesus from GodspellPlease don’t tell my Sunday School teacher, but I watched Godspell, a musical from 1972 based on the life of Jesus from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  I was 14ish when it came out in movie form and being Southern Baptists, my peers and I were forbidden to see it.  I (being an obedient young fellow) didn’t see it.  By the time I was old enough to decide for myself, I had forgotten about it and it was not readily available (VCRs hadn’t even been invented yet).  I never saw it until tonight.

I can understand why they didn’t allow us to see it.  This modern, artful depiction of Jesus and his followers was way too “out there” for most of the folks in my parents’ generation.  In this musical, Jesus is a hippie and is dressed clownishly.  The whole “hippie” thing of free love and irresponsibility, chafed against their values  for hard work and conformity.  To make matters worse, his disciples are both black and white, male and female and the songs are rowdy rock and roll (for the time).

While I understand and even respect the stance of those church leaders (oddly, I don’t remember ever discussing this with my parents), I was not part of their generation and I feel like I missed something good.  The movie I watched tonight was quite dated.  The video quality and the style of music were typical of the 70’s… but there was something about it that moved me.  I think I would have been moved as a teenager too.  I saw a creative, artistic expression of the life of Jesus that I think would have inspired me.  Clearly, it was never intended to be taken as a literal interpretation of the Bible, but that fact was likely missed by the folks who ran things in my church.  Their position was that dancing, joking, references to drinking wine, etc were sacrilegious and disrespectful.  To them, acceptable depictions of Christian themes in art would be limited to “normal” church music and art.

I remember some of the songs from the musical like “Day by Day” that came into their own as pop tunes.   I could never understand what they found offensive (apart from the association with the musical itself).  According to the wisdom of Wikipedia, “Most of the score’s lyrics were from the Episcopal Hymnal, set to music by the cast members.”  I think it was a good desire to protect the young people from something, but in retrospect, their control kept me from an experience that would have been enriching to me.

Day by day
Day by day
Oh Dear Lord
Three things I pray
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly
Follow thee more nearly
Day by day

July 10, 2008

Frontline: Jesus in China

Posted in church, tv at 9:24 am by jimazing

chinese-church.jpgI just watched a Frontline video report called Jesus in China, which was about the state of the Christian church in China.  The report was about how the Chinese government relates to the modern Christian church in China.  They address how the government has created a state sanctioned church and how the government is persecuting underground “house churches” and arresting their pastors.  However, it was something else altogether that stirred me.  In fact the thing that bothered me was never mentioned in the program.  I was bothered by how western the Chinese church looked.  If you ignored the obvious language difference, the state sanctioned church might have been any large traditional protestant church in the US, and the underground churches all looked very much like any of a number of more charismatic churches that I have been a part of.

chinese-house-church.jpgI hesitate to write about this for fear that others will take this as a critisism of how a particular group of people “does church”, but that is truly not what’s on my mind.  This not really about how to “do church”.  I just expected the Chinese church to seem more… well… Chinese.  I was excited by the title to think that I would get to see how the message of Jesus is being lived out by people from a different culture than mine.  What I saw was my own culture being lived out in a different group.  From the architecture of the church building to the clothing, the state church looked just like First Baptist of Smalltown America.  From the the bouncy dancing while singing repititious choruses to the few young folks with microphones leading the singing in a line on the stage… it could have been any one of a thousand trendy new evangelical or charismatic churches.  I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with “doing church” like that, I just wonder why church gatherings are not more expressive of the people who are gathered.

God created us as individuals with many varied talents, interests and experience, and I believe that everything we touch and create as Christians should naturally be a unique expression of who we are.  “…Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms…” I Peter 4:10.  It seems to me that using “whatever gift” would look differently for every believer.  Individual church gatherings ought to look very different for people from very different cultures. For me, it just doesn’t add up.

Again, I feel compelled to go overboard in saying that this blog entry is not about the Chinese Church.  I think it is wonderful that people who have been oppressed by their government are experiencing a newfound (or newly fought for) freedom to worship God.  If anything, I want to see them free to worship God as Chinese, not as westerners.  God is God and western society is western society and they aren’t the same thing.

August 30, 2007

Red Pill? Blue Pill?

Posted in books, church, spirituality at 11:03 pm by jimazing

…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph 6:11)

The battle is real. The stakes are our lives and the lives of the ones we love. The good guys are not always the good guys and the bad guys are not always the bad guys. The tools we use to fight are not the ones we are used to… they are not the ones we have been given by the good guys either. It is time for us to wake up and see the reality that is around us.

red-pill-blue-pill.pngIn The Matrix, when Neo takes the red pill, it destroys the fantasy that he had been living all of his life. He finds out that the world is not at all what it appeared to be. All the pleasures that he had experienced were there simply to mollify him into complacency. The powers in control wanted him to be happy and not ask questions. All the while the “machine world” was literally sucking the life out of him. Here’s how I see it playing out in the present…

For some time, I have been going through a “crisis” in my faith. I have begun to question many of the beliefs that I always took for granted. I was raised in the church and the church was good for me. I have a foundation of understanding of the Bible that I could never have gotten if I had not found a relationship with God until I was an adult. There is something about the things we learn as children that make them stick. They become the foundation that our life is built on. That’s is not always a good thing, but I’m talking about good things. As an adult, I realize that the people who taught me those thing were flawed just like me. When I was a child, I thought the adults knew it all. I saw life in two stages, childhood and adulthood. Childhood is the learning stage where you are working your way into adulthood. Then it is over. As an adult, you have it all together. I was wrong! The ones who were adults when I was a child did not have all the answers. I thought they did, but now I know that they were full of questions and doubts just like me… Many of them, unlike me, didn’t ask the questions, or let their doubts see the light of day. Most of them, if offered, took the blue pill.

The Matrix

This story is about the Church. Just the word, “church” evokes emotion in me and probably anyone who knows the meaning of the word. When I hear the word, “church”, I think of buildings with steeples, store-front buildings, homes that people gather in, meetings on Sunday, meetings on Wednesday, meetings on Saturday night. I think of preachers giving messages, songs sung, acapella or with pianos, organs, drums, guitars, keyboards and let’s not forget the horns and violins. We talk about “going to church”, which (to people like me) means attending an event of some sort on Sunday morning. I have great memories of church and not so great memories of church. I cannot cover every thought I have about church, so what I want to focus on, in this blog entry is the Sunday morning event and how it is of such paramount importance. It was expected that “good christian people” go to church every Sunday. It was (and is) a duty that must be fulfilled.

The Red Pill

The struggles that I have been going through lately are very real and hard. I find that many of my friends from years past and present are going through similar struggles. Some of them have met me here on this blog in their comments. Others are blogging and sharing their struggles. Some have been at it for a while and others are only just beginning to allow themselves to ask the hard questions. While I want to encourage the examination of our hearts, I also want to add a word of caution. It may seem that those who constructed the churches are the enemy. They are not! They are us and we are them. More about that at the end…

The feelings we have are our own. Our feelings come from our values. When I find myself irritated “in church”, I ask myself why. Here’s what that conversation looks like… Not too long ago, I thought this was the most happening place around. What changed? It wasn’t them, it was me. So I ask myself why I am feeling irritated. If it is not about them, then what? What am I believing? What do I desire? Then ask myself if those beliefs are true and if the desires are good desires. I have learned that my irritation comes from a desire for the church to be about the people and not the event on Sunday morning. These are my feelings based on my beliefs and my desires. I own them.

The Church in the Bible is also known as the Body of Christ. It is the group of people who identify themselves with Christ. [Disclaimer: I am no expert in church history, I welcome corrections.] The early church in the book of Acts was a movement of people who were meeting together in their homes and having meals together. I get the feeling that they were friends. They lived in the same neighborhoods, their kids played ball together, they all shopped at the same Harris Teeter. I imagine their time together was talking about what they were experiencing in this new found faith as naturally as we talk about the latest movie with our friends. What I don’t see is an emphasis on meeting every Sunday morning to sing a few songs and listen to a preacher. I see an emphasis on the relationships between the people.

What I am not saying is that meeting for Church on Sunday morning is wrong. Please! Hear me. I am saying that meeting together in a building to worship together is frequently a good thing. Many people would say that the meeting itself is church. I disagree. The Church is not an event. I wish we had another name for the event. I think it would help separate the defensiveness that this topic frequently brings.

country-church.png In the book, The Present Future , by Reggie McNeal, the author tells of meeting with church leaders on Sunday morning at 11:00 in a restaurant. He asks them to look around at the people in the restaurant. While they are taking it all in, he asks, “Do these people look like they struggled with deciding to go to church this morning?” Of course they don’t. Most people today consider going to church to be an irrelevant waste of time. What reasons have we in the church given them to think otherwise?

The Blue Pill

We are missing the boat when we make Church all about a building and an event. I think of it as creating a box for us to fit in. The box is made up of our corporate beliefs and expectations of one another. When we are in the box, we feel safe because there are so many others just like us. Even worse we have also turned the Great Commission of Jesus to reach the world into “getting others into the box with us.” This irritates me because it seems to me to be so not what Jesus would do (read pharisaical). Who creates the box? Who maintains the box? We do, when we love the safety of our common belief systems more than we love God. That is hard, I know and it leads me to questions about myself that I am uncomfortable with. When do I create boxes? What boxes am I living inside today (very comfortably I might add)?

I belive that well meaning leaders throughout church history have created many boxes in order to give people a place of refuge, a sense of belonging and a common faith in God. These are noble motives and great, positive desires. Many if not most of the original leaders of these movements were sincere and hearing from God in their calling. But their followers over the next generations followed the leaders rather than the Lord. Over time, it became about defending their faith (the box) rather than seeking God.

There are many reasons for the boxes that we have created, but I want to stand up and shout. The boxes are not the point! Jesus said that the world would know us by our love for one another. To me that means breaking down the walls that divide us including denominational walls. Not that there are no differences, but because our love (Christ’s love) transends the differences. We love one another and honor our differences. What a concept!


In closing, I want to share some of my sincere concerns for myself and for my brothers and sisters who are seeking God and seeking to understand their hearts.

  • I want to avoid passing judgement on others who do not believe as I do, or deliberately using my “liberty” in such a way that it causes someone who is not ready to hear it to stumble.

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. (Romans 14:13)

  • Creating division as in “us and them”. My desire is for unity, but not at the cost of being the person God created me to be. If the cost of unity in the body is everyone-being-an-eye, then I am not interested. Like my buddy, Curt says, Christ is calling us to unity in our diversity. I won’t say what body part I am, but I will say that it is necessary.
  • Beliving in nothing. I am becoming more and more aware of how easy it is to criticize what exists. It is easy to tear down. It is much harder to build up. I find myself disenchanted with the church as it exists today in 21st century North America. However, I want to be about helping to define what it should be rather than pointing out what it shouldn’t be. I love Jesus, but I do not identify with much of what is done in the name of Jesus today. I want to be known as one who is helping to reshape the church and redefine what it means to be a Christ follower or a Christian today.

February 20, 2007

Can a Muslim become a Christian?

Posted in church, Current Events, spirituality at 1:50 pm by jimazing

I experienced a stark reminder yesterday that all Christ followers do not believe what I believe. I was connecting with someone who I met at church a couple of years ago, but I had not seen in a while. He and I chatted about church. He’s in the process of looking for another church to attend and my family has visited a couple of other churches too. I told him about one that we had enjoyed visiting. But when I mentioned that the pastor was a former Muslim, he said that there was no way he would ever go there. He couldn’t ever trust a Muslim.

I was flabbergasted! From the beginning of knowing about this church and its pastor, I thought it was very cool to be this close to a man who made such a radical life change (he left his family and his homeland) to follow Jesus. He can never go home again! Not knowing quite what to say to my friend, I asked him if he believed that God was unable to reach someone who is Muslim? He only said that he would never trust one of them. I asked him whether God could reach a Hindu, and he replied that he didn’t have any particular mindset about them… only the Muslims. He said he believes that they are the “root of all evil in this world.” I challenged him about that. He said, “I’m just being honest.”

I sincerely thanked him for being honest. I believe that honesty is the only beginning place from which we can find healing in Christ. If we are not honest about where we are, God cannot influence our lives. Jesus said that the truth would set us free. (Although I’m taking that quote out of context, I believe it is true). We cannot move forward if we are less than candid about our starting place. Having said that, personal honesty is still just a starting place. God loves us where we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there.

I challenged my brother to reconsider his (honest) position on the matter. If God cannot reach someone because they are Muslim, then none of us stand a chance. We are all on equal ground before him. None of us “deserve” his favor.

Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Colossians 3:11

I disagree with my brother’s position wholeheartedly. I believe that our only hope is in the sovereign, undeserved grace of God. I feel passionately about this. My passion is not against my brother. My passion is for my desire to see the healing peace of God in this world. My passion is for partnering with Jesus to bring a little bit of heaven into this hellish world that we live in.

whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward. And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. Mark 9:40-42

I remember a story about the ten Boom family in the Netherlands during WWII. There was a scene in The Hiding Place in which Corrie’s father, Willem, who was a Christian, sewed a star of David on his sleeve to confuse the Nazi oppressors. He said that if we all wear them, they won’t be able to tell who’s a Jew and who is not. I like that.

I don’t want to hide terrorists from justice. At the same time, I vehemently oppose generalizations that reduce the problem to “us and them”. I understand the basis of the mistrust. I understand that there is a people group who by and large hate Christians. I understand that they mean to harm us and will do so at any cost. I do not believe that all Muslims fit this mold. Call me a fool, but I believe that God can and wants to touch the hearts of Muslims and Christians.

I pray for the shalom of God in this world beginning with me.

February 13, 2007

The Secret

Posted in church, Current Events, movies, spirituality at 9:00 pm by jimazing

I was unfamiliar with The Secret until a friend asked about it tonight. I just did a quick search and my first inclination is to say “SCAM” Here’s what I read on Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

…As put forth in the film, the “Law of Attraction” principle posits that our feelings and thoughts affect real events in the world, from the workings of the entire cosmos to interactions among individuals in their physical, emotional, and professional affairs. The film also suggests that there has been a conspiracy to keep this central principle hidden from the public.

Read the rest of this entry »

April 23, 2006

The tract-rack

Posted in church, spirituality, stories at 7:31 pm by jimazing

I am a follower of Christ. I have been a follower for most of my life and serious about it. I detest hypocrisy… especially when I see it in myself. In my younger years I was in people’s face about following Christ. I was the bible thumper you wanted to avoid. How many people did I turn off completely? When I was growing up, I can remember getting to the point where I wanted to grow in my faith. Just doing the Sunday morning and Wednesday night thing wasn’t enough for me. I was serious about following God.

Tract RackHere's how I found my answer… The church I went to had a rack of tracts… a tract-rack, I guess. It had row after row of little compartments and they were filled with little spiritual tracts. Being as shy and reticent about asking questions as I was, I wanted to avoid drawing attention to myself, so I took my desire to the tract-rack. The tract-rack taught me that people who are serous about their faith know how to defend their faith against the Jehovah’s witnesses and the Mormons. They know the Four Spiritual Laws and why true baptism is by immersion. The tract-rack taught me that negros were the cursed sons of Ham in the Old Testament. I learned that Christians know that the Bible is God’s perfectly complete, holy and inerrant Word. The tract-rack taught me that speaking in tongues is of the devil and that when the Bible was completed, God stopped communicating in any other way. In other words, God shut up. Oh yeah and when Christians die, they can know they are going to heaven.

Tract RackThe tract-rack didn’t tell me Jack about how to develop a walk with Jesus. It didn’t teach me anything about the two greatest commandments; love God and love your neighbor. It told me that if I read my Bible and prayed every day, I would be doing all God requires. The tract-rack presented itself as complete and full of answers. What it gave me was not life, but death. It offered a life of following a set of rules and regulations that sucked the life out of me.

I am pretty sharp mentally and I have a fairly high emotional intelligence. I know how to get by and most people like me. That sounds arrogant and I don’t mean it to. (I invite my friends and family to challenge anything I write here that isn’t true). The reason I write those words is not to brag, but because my ability to rely on myself sometimes keeps me from the truth. The truth is, my value comes from God. It does not come from my abilities. Sometimes I think that would have been easier for me to learn if I had been a bit more obtuse about life.

I followed the rules and when I broke them, I hid it. I pretended that I had it all together. Again, the origins of that way of thinking goes way back to the tract-rack church I grew up in. In this church, I was taught that my good behavior was of paramount importance. I was the only Jesus many people would ever see. So, I needed to watch my behavior so I would not give Jesus a bad name. I took this message to heart. I pretended to have it all together and I defended the faith. The leaders of the church would have been proud. I was so spiritual. The people around me thought I was something else (they were right). The problem was I was living a lie. My intentions were good, but I was not the perfect person I pretended to be. In the absence of a guide to model how to truly follow God, I followed the tract-rack, and the tract-rack was a hard task master.

I learned that Good Christians were supposed to witness to people. In my mind, witnessing meant accosting people and saying in a real-fast-bible-thumping voice, “If you were to die tonight, do you know whether you would go to heaven? Unless you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, you will go to hell.” No way I could do that. I was way too shy. My way of meeting the qualifications without having to use my voice was to leave tracts. So I raided the tract-rack and left tracts wherever I went. Who knew how many people might be saved by reading one of the tracts I left in a restaurant or gas station. I thought of myself as the next Billy Graham leading hundreds and thousands of souls to Jesus through my tract ministry. Jimmy-tract-rack! Truly, I cannot limit God. He may well have used one that someone picked up at just the right time, but I don’t believe they are all that effective. In any case, you can search me right now… I don't have any tracts on me.

One time, my family was on vacation and we stopped for gas. I made a trip to the bathroom to take care of some business. While in there, I thought I’d leave a tract or two or three or ten. So when I was done with my business, I pulled out a few feet of toilet paper from the roll. I then carefully rolled it back up and stuffed tracts in the roll as I did. (I am laughing out loud as I remember this). I was proud of that little idea thinking, “Let’s see them ignore that!” I went back to the car and got settled in. A few minutes later, my dad came back to the car and let me know what he thought of my little stunt with the tracts. I honestly cannot remember what he said, but I don’t think I reached my target audience.

As I grew in my knowledge of the world and of God, my faith morphed from Jimmy-tract-rack to Jimmy-know-it-all. I had all the answers and was ready to give them to anyone who wanted to listen. I thought my job was to know God’s Word and to be able to answer all questions. I believed in the Bible and everything depended on my interpretation being the correct one. I must have been pretty obnoxious. I don’t think I would like Jimmy-know-it-all now.

So where am I today? My heart is still all about following God, but I realize that I cannot do it. I am going to mess up… but that is the point. If I could do it, I wouldn’t need God. I am learning that following God is not a solo act. I need mentors in my life and I need to be a mentor to others. The game is not learning all about God by sitting in a room reading the Bible. Reading the Bible and learning about the God we serve is important, but it isn’t everything. The part I missed was the “we”. I cannot do it alone. I need friends to help me. I need friends who can show me where I need to improve, friends to encourage me when I am down, friends to laugh with me, friends to put their arm around me and cry with me, friends who will be Jesus. And I need to be that sort of friend too.

Thanks be to God that He has led me out of the wilderness of the tract-rack and the know-it-all life. He has put friends in my life that help me see more of God and what it means to follow Him and serve Him.

April 11, 2006

God’s Gracious Gifts

Posted in church, I wonder at 7:23 pm by jimazing

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 4:8-11 (New International Version)

I keep coming back to the idea that the Church is not about an event on Sunday. It is about brothers and sisters coming together in love. It is about our using our gifts to serve one another as if we were the very body of Christ Himself. That's radical! Stop and re-read that passage again. Take your beliefs and put them on the shelf for a moment. Ignore your life experiences and read it for what it says. Forget about church being something-you-go-to. Some of you are thinking that you don' t have any gifts or talents. Just imagine the possibility that you are wrong and read it again. Did you get it? Read it again.

If you are a follower of Christ, you are a part of His Body. Just like my fingers are parts of my body. I have trained them to touch the keys on my computer keyboard so you can read these words. But the words come from my mind. My fingers could complain that they do not know how computers work and therefore, they have no talent. Only my mind knows about computers and blogs. But my mind needs my fingers to type it out, or it will never be published for you to read. The fingers do have talent. They will never find it by looking at what the mind does for direction though. They have to do finger stuff.

In this way, we brothers and sisters in Christ need all of us to be the body. None of us has what it takes. We cannot do it alone and that is by design. God doesn’t want us to be alone. We can appreciate and even admire the gifts, strengths and talents that God has put in others by observing them. But we cannot learn what our gifts, strengths and talents are by looking at others.

What will it look like when we figure it out? I don't know, but my belief is that the possibilities are boundless. As I re-read what I just wrote, I am frustrated. I have been thinking about this for weeks and months and it runs deep. I feel like this is just a stone skittering across the surface of the water. I hope to come back to it. But it is late and I need my rest.

Is it legal to pray in a blog? Would that be a prog (prayer+log)? I’ll risk it… Father, I ask you to bless those who read this blog. I ask you to speak to their hearts. You have given me some measure of talent for putting words together. You have given me enough talent to understand how to publish a blog. You have the ability to lead people to this blog and to even use me. On the one hand, I couldn’t ask for more than to be used by You. On the other hand, I am wasting my time if these are not Your words. I ask you to guide my thoughts and words and to speak through this blog.