Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Kickball and the Kingdom of Heaven

“Hey -- thanks for getting me home,” Dustin said as I walked back toward the group.
“Mm, yeah, you’re welcome,” I mumbled lamely, utterly confused. 
By the time I had reached the others, I realized that Dustin’s message was hardly as cryptic as it seemed.  After our church’s Palm Sunday worship service in a neighborhood park, our Sunday School class had accepted a kickball challenge from the youth group.  The air was warm but not oppressive, and our whole congregation was enjoying the fine April Sunday as much as any festival.  The game itself was a merry affair; the youth were full of vim and bravado, and we, being both moderate Baptists and twenty-somethings, had chosen the ironic team name, “No Mercy.”  There was lots of laughter and joking from all sides, and several spectators cheered for our respective teams.
I was trying very hard to have fun.  
This picture--a shot of me trying desperately
to catch a frisbee--should make it clear
why team sports aren't really my forte. 
Team activities have always made me nervous, either because I fear disappointing my teammates (if the activity is volleyball, for example), or because I am afraid my teammates will disappoint me (if the activity has anything to do with my GPA).  The root of the problem should be obvious: I have always seen these group activities in terms of myself, and whether I will appear excellent or foolish, talented or inept. 

As a teenager, therefore, I would have abstained from kickball altogether, keeping a dignified but lonely distance from the game.  For years, I have trained myself to participate in frightening things, and I have discovered (thanks be to God) that self-consciousness will wither if you don’t feed it with attention. Nevertheless, I still feel a kind of catch in my stomach when asked to play a game, whether kickball or Candyland.  I was proud of myself, therefore, for joining in on Sunday, and even more proud when I managed to kick the ball well enough to make it to first base.  When the next person from our team made a successful kick, I ran for second but was caught.   It was as I walked back from the field that Dustin passed me and thanked me for getting him home. I had been so preoccupied with my own bolt to first base that I had not realized Dustin had been waiting for a chance to run to home plate, and my kick had given him that chance.  
I started this blog because ideas about home troubled and teased me throughout college, and these ideas have only become more complex and promising in the last five years.  I wasn’t expecting to learn anything about home during a Sunday kickball match, but as “No Mercy” battled the Calvary Youth, I found myself in the midst of a little parable.  
I don’t mean to say that the Kingdom of Heaven is exactly like a game of kickball, but Sunday’s match reminded me how rarely we see the ways our actions affect others.  It is good to know that whether or not we feel ourselves to be at home, we might be helping others to a good place. It is good to know that even when we aren’t trying to be good or charitable or hospitable, God can use us in spite of ourselves. 

Can you think of a time when you learned that your actions had brought some good or benefit to others without you realizing it?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Homes & Honeysuckle

In Indiana, we could find it a block away from my childhood home, massed on the fence of a dilapidated and rather menacing house. Eruptions of loud music and acrid chemical odors were the only signs of life from this ramshackle, which we generally avoided on our evening walks. But there was always a night in early June when Mama or Daddy or I would step onto the front porch, inhale the evening air, and say, “Oh, I smell the honeysuckle.”  On those nights, we would venture near the fence, risking the wretched house for a deeper breath of that wild perfume. 

In Tennessee, it spangled the trees along the walking trail behind campus.  I would walk for hours, back and forth, back and forth, first through the winter, when the trees were bare, and into spring, when evening sun and young leaves made a tunnel of green.  A little girl who lived along the railroad tracks met me there one evening, just a week before I was to graduate and leave Tennessee. She was riding her bike, and stopped to ask me if I was a gypsy, and if I knew her teacher, and if I knew her mama, and if I knew where the trains went, and if knew how to suck the sweetness out of honeysuckle.  I didn’t, and she taught me.

In Texas, I first found it in the alleyways near my garage apartment. Tangled along back fences and dumpsters, its scent often startled me as I carried the trash to throw out, or walked my landlords’ dog in the evening. Here, in my second apartment, it overruns the riverside, and, mingling with the grape vines, covers my favorite shelter with a sweet canopy. 

I know it comes every spring. I know the places it loves to grow, and the kinds of breezes that carry its scent. But the scent of honeysuckle always surprises me, always catches me unaware as I try to rush through a late spring night, weary and worried with papers to write and grade. 
Startled, then stilled, by a sweetness I neither tended nor expected: this is one way I know I am home. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Submission to the Church?

“If you never get married, you don’t have to submit to anyone but God.”  
This was the surreptitious wisdom I received as a teenager growing up Southern Baptist. These words--whispered to me during a sermon on women submitting to their husbands--calmed my adolescent angst about the New Testament household codes, but left me with little sense of how “submission” is to be part of my Christian walk, whether single or married.  In much more than gender matters, “submission” is not a word many Baptists know how to use well.  My religious heritage is both a treasure and a warning: I come from a branch of Christianity that is both known for its dedication to religious liberty, and plagued by congregational splits and angry divisions.  
This month, however, I have been thinking about what “submission” means, particularly in the context of “the Church.” Since Advent, I have been using Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals to guide my morning prayers, and at the beginning of each month, the compilers include a short reflection on one of the twelve “marks of New Monasticism.”* In April’s reflection, the writers of Common Prayer called readers to remain in the church, submitting to Christ’s body by remaining among other Christians, even when the histories, priorities, and actions of Christian churches are a mess, or worse.  In other words, these writers claim that “submission to Christ’s Body, the Church,” is an essential part of the Christian life. Do you agree?
This question is more than intellectual.  Since college, I have been broken-hearted and baffled to see so many of my peers and my friends “shopping” for churches with the impatience of any American consumer, or drifting out of communal religious life entirely.  
But what does it mean to submit to the Church? How are we to find ourselves “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5. 20-21). Below is my very tentative list, drawn from observations, conversations, and hopes.
  • Remaining in a congregation you have committed to even when it fails to meet your needs, or the needs of your children
  • Serving in the church nursery 
  • Studying church history
  • Speaking against a sermon, purchase, or decision that compromises a congregation’s ability to bear witness to the gospel
  • Refusing to gossip
  • Resisting cynicism in all its clever forms
  • Honoring the authority of Christian traditions that come from times, places, and cultures different from your own

I’m not really happy with this list. It sounds very school-marmy.  Shouldn’t it sound joyful?  I’m sure that deep down in the core of this idea, there’s a lovely paradox waiting: exquisite liberty that can be experienced only through submission.  But I’m not to that core yet.  Help me.  

What are your reactions to the phrase “submission to the church”?  What does submission to the Church look like in action? How does your religion teach (or fail to teach) about this sort of submission?

 *New Monasticism is a movement that has intrigued me since college, and while I don’t know if I will ever live in a community such as The Simple Way, Rutba House, Koinonia Farm, or the Little Portion, I admire this movement’s attempt to counter the poverty of individualistic adulthood.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Life Undivided: A Place We Are Free

"I hope you're pleased with yourselves. We could all have been killed - or worse, expelled.”  (Hermione Granger, Harry Potter and the Sorcorer’s Stone) 
Like Hermione, I have always I have always been a rule-follower.  The impulse to push against the boundaries established by parents, teachers, or others never made much sense to me. As a shy child, happy to slip through a day without notice, I could never understand why so many of my peers seemed determined to make trouble for themselves and everyone around.  Even as an adult, I sometimes catch myself raising my hand when I want to speak among a  group of friends. No one who knows me will be much surprised at this pledge of my rule-following, but perhaps they should be.  Could we go back in time and ask a five, ten, or even fifteen-year-old Bethany, “What are the rules in your house?” that younger-me would have been baffled.   
For most of my childhood, I can only remember being given a few explicit rules.  On the first day of kindergarten, for example, my mother made it very clear that I was not to let anyone call me “Beth.”  Years later, when I was in high school, she delivered a rather vague prohibition against “weird” clothing at church, but only if I were singing in the choir, where a tie-dyed cape or black veil (yes, veil) might distract people in the congregation.  Aside from these rather particular mandates, my childhood and teen years were shaped by an extraordinary experience of freedom.  I can never remember being told to do my homework--indeed, I can never remember my parents asking much about my homework. As a teenager, I never had a curfew, and often stayed out until the wee hours of the morning, so long as I had told my parents beforehand when to expect me home.  My time was my own from a very early age, and when I would accompany my parents to the conferences and retreats they led, I would spend entire weekends roaming a campground or conference center while my parents and their students attended the official programs. My teachers treated me in much the same way, allowing me to direct much of my own studies even in elementary school. 
Of course, my parents could afford to have few rules because, for the most part, I did the things I was supposed to do.  If instead of rules I think about the habits and practices of my childhood home, I can make a long list: we prayed before meals; we did not work or shop on Sundays; we kept rooms clean and tidy; we did not watch rated-R movies; we avoided any waste of food, electricity, or water. While these practices might look like rules to outsiders, for me they seemed intuitive. They felt like freedom. 
When I grew old enough to realize that this absence of rules was unusual, at least among the households of my friends and relatives, I began to ask questions that have been haunting nearly every realm of my life and attention lately:
What does it mean to be free? How do people come to use their freedom well?
I am posing this question on my blog because I believe that home should be a place we are free.  I’m still pondering precisely what this means: perhaps that home is a place we do not need rules because we desire good things. Or a place where we are trusted, where we have authority because we work for the sustenance of the whole household. As I have studied history and literature, as I have learned to be a teacher, as I have watched my friends begin to parent children, as I have worshipped in a “free church” tradition, as I have watched this spring’s uprisings and revolutions  in the Arab world, the question of becoming free has felt increasingly urgent this year.  
From my own experience, I can see that I learned to be free by having freedom, and that from the examples of many wise adults and peers, I saw that love for God and others, not mere deference to authority, should be the force that governs my will and choices.  At the same time, there have been seasons as an adult when I felt my freedom to be an extraordinary burden, and I had to learn that living a life of freedom requires courage as well as love.  
However, as my friends constantly remind me, I am not normal, nor can I generalize answers to such important questions from my experience alone. I have encountered many ideas on this subject -- passages from Scripture, ideas from various philosophers, poets, and patriots, aphorisms and cliches -- but to synthesize all that would be a dissertation-length project, and I have one dissertation to write, already. Thus, I’m hoping you will offer some of your ideas and experiences on the subject of freedom. In future posts, I hope to return to this topic, perhaps dealing with some of the specific ways freedom is linked to vocation, life as single or married adults, and church, but for now I am risking some big questions: 
 What does it mean to be free? Are the ideas of “home” and “freedom” linked in your experience or philosophy? If you are a parent, how are you teaching your children to handle freedom? What are some ways in which freedom can be difficult?