A Difficult Goodbye

I am increasingly troubled by Americanized Christianity.

No doubt friends and family have discerned this undercurrent in my posts or interactions with me.  The subtext is also one of disillusionment, of doubt, and frustration with a church that often wraps the cross in an American flag and presents a bastardized gospel to protect corporate interests.  It’s a church that too often has allowed consumerism, military strength, and a quest for power to obscure the message of the gospels.

The disillusionment reaches even further however and touches a realm where heartfelt doubt is seen as antithetical to morality, and where unquestioning certainty is venerated, while the hard questions are quickly swept away — or replaced by platitudes and trite responses.  I’ve observed schisms between denominations and biblical interpretation differ almost as widely as the space between belief — and non-belief.   I’ve watched the quest for personal piety becomes its own end and its own form of self-centeredness.

I’ve watched an unnecessary divide grow between science and religion, where I was expected to deny the scientific method as a way to prove group loyalty with little regard for the truth.  I’ve watched the church respond to environmental concerns with glib platitudes while defending the destruction of our earth with pious indifference.  I’ve watched as thinly veiled xenophobia was defended and couched in spiritual terms that allowed bigotry to thrive.

It has left me saddened — even angry at times.

We’ve spent the last month searching for a church home in Oregon and I dreaded every Sunday morning.  The services left me empty and I could have gone the rest of my life, happy to never step foot in another church.

This changed last Sunday morning when we visited a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  For the first time in probably over a decade, I cried during a service.  I typically wouldn’t find emotion during church necessarily indicative of anything deeper.  This time it was.  We worshiped alongside Christians and atheists, Buddhists and wanderers.  Old Testament prophets were referenced along with passages from Frederick Douglass and MLK.   The choir sang John Lennon’s Imagine.   I listened to an appeal for a reinvigorated prophetic imagination with a desire for voices willing to challenge the status quo, to speak out against systems of power, and to radically address the causes of the disenfranchised.   I heard a message of love and justice — and of a personal ethic that extends beyond the confines of our home and church.  I listened to a heartfelt appeal for unity and peace — not a unity born out of naive hopefulness, but one born out of an unflappable belief that the seeds we plant today will someday bear fruit.

I spoke to the pastor after church as she briefly outlined her heart for racial reconciliation.

I could write the responses I will inevitably receive from what I’ve noted above — probably point by point.  There was a time in my life I would have responded in a similar fashion.  But please be clear.  This isn’t the result of liberal indoctrination or some devolution into moral relativism.   It was born out of a deep thirst for something deeper and more transformative — something that recognizes a personal gospel divorced from a social gospel — is little more than self-affirming delusion.  To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of every American church and there are people within evangelical circles that I have tremendous respect for and believe their hearts ache for many of the same reasons as mine.

But I must move on.

I will not stop questioning.

I will not stop wrestling.

I will not stop opposing the systems of power that further victimize the disenfranchised.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

What We Gained

“It’s gone.”

It was around 11:30 at night and I was on the phone with my wife Sarah who was in the hospital.  The day had started like any other, but I was now standing in what was once our living room, staring up at the night sky.

Just hours before that, we had prepared to make the drive to our local hospital — excited, because our first child was on his way.  As we left the house, we walked past the crib — ready for the pending arrival.  We looked around at the months of preparation, our faces beaming with expectant pride.

But now, through the darkness, I pointed a flashlight at the crib — filled with debris and rain soaked insulation.   The living room was unrecognizable; one wall of the house was leaning crookedly; the garage was gone.  Every step was precarious as I walked around, stepping over and through the memories of what had once been our home.

We had been in our hospital room for less than five minutes when informed there was a tornado warning and were moved to a safer area.   After our initial transition, we were moved again into a small supply room, cramped with other patients.   I still vividly remember a nurse kneeling on the floor, starting an IV for Sarah.  After the warning was lifted, we learned a tornado had touched down, but was unclear of where.

The following hours were spent trying to piece together random details — details from overheard phone calls — or snippets of conversations.  We learned it had hit near the car dealership across the street from our house — but a friend called and thought our house may still be standing.  We waited and hoped.  Sarah labored.

I went out around 11:00 that night to buy food and couldn’t withstand the temptation to drive as far down Highway 63 as possible.  The car dealership was in shambles — littered with broken glass and overturned cars.  I learned there had been a gas leak right after the tornado and there were emergency vehicles everywhere.  A police officer gave me permission to walk over to our house, and an employee of the power company loaned me a flashlight so I could navigate the blanket of darkness engulfing our yard across the street.

It’s been almost six years, but I still have difficulty processing what I saw, how it felt, and how devastating it was to call Sarah and tell her we no longer had a home.  I still get choked up talking about that night and the feeling days later when we drove by and encountered the pile of rubble the bulldozer left.  The following day was equally surreal when there was nothing left but an empty space — with scattered remnants of our material possessions defiantly reaching up through the dirt.

This isn’t a story however of what we lost, but of what we gained.  This isn’t a recounting of the coming months, filled with endless hours of tedious work, insurance forms, and taking our newborn son “home” to temporary housing in a local apartment complex.

This is a story about the power of community, and the endless ways people reached out and touched our lives with acts of love, support, and sacrifice.  This is the story of the friends who helped us that night and the large group from Sarah’s medical school that showed up the next day to help us dig through the devastation.  This is the story of endless, thoughtful acts — acts we’ll never forget:  the supportive hugs, the generous checks, the meals, the words of encouragement.

Most importantly, this is the story of a baby named Noah who was born two days later — and the ways these acts of selflessness still echo in his life.   When he was four, he picked cherry tomatoes from our garden and left them in our mailbox — in case the mailman didn’t have enough food at home.  When he goes to the doctor’s office, he frequently presents them a home made card with a couple of dollars of change taped inside — so they can buy themselves something special.   Just days ago, unprompted, he asked to give some of his birthday money to the “people in Nepal so they can have food and build new homes.”  It’s an amazing gift to watch the way that Noah lights up the world around him — yet we’re also aware it is a continued reflection of the loving community of friends and family who ushered in his arrival.

Six years ago, we learned what it felt like to be the dazed family being interviewed on the news, standing in front of what “once was”.  More importantly, we learned that home isn’t simply a physical structure — but can be the loving arms of a community that lock their arms together and encircle you with love and support.

We still nervously watch the weather a little closer during the spring months. Occasionally, I open a box or find a small piece of insulation from that night six years ago, and my palms get sweaty.  And no — we never, ever tell Noah his bedroom looks like a “tornado went through it.”
Tornado Blog Post

I’m Right. You’re Wrong.

As someone who spends a great deal of time trying to understand scientific disagreements, and to some extent political ones, I’ve contemplated a possible explanation — that people often care more about feeling right than being right.  No one falls conveniently on either end of the spectrum, and understanding this distinction doesn’t offer a  recipe for unanimity — there are still too many unexamined cognitive biases.  It does however provide a starting point to pursue — not iron clad, irrefutable answers — but what is likely true based on collective efforts toward understanding.

The threshold for feeling right is low.  An emotional appeal.  Cleverly worded invective aimed at your ideological enemies.  Feeling right demands little evidence and starts with a conclusion, while ignoring contradictions — selectively seeking validation and plausible sounding premises.   There is a reason for the popularity of bombastic voices that present cleverly packaged half-truths.

An impassioned focus on being right — and pursuing a shared framework that will lead to what is probabilistically true — is more demanding.  It requires context.  It requests a willingness to admit error and change directions.  It demands our assertions are presented in a way that falsification is possible.  If our views can’t be wrong — we are trapped in an ideological bubble, reluctant to step outside into a world of discomfort, but also an environment of progress.

Feeling right can happen within seconds.
Caring about being right demands something deeper and more time consuming.
Feeling right is as easy as painting with broad sweeping brush strokes.
Being right takes fine, meticulous brush strokes — and patience.

I have two young children growing up in a society where identity trumps truth and where manufactured indignation is presented as evidence — and it’s disheartening.  How do I teach them to think critically in a world where emotional resonance is frequently venerated over logic?   How do I counteract the onslaught of voices selling a brand of intellectual relativism — or the belief that my confusion is as valid as your clarity and that gut feelings trump expertise?  How do I recognize when I’m guilty of chasing the feeling of being right — or even of appearing right — rather then treading the uncomfortable path of following evidence wherever it leads?