I have this group of imaginary friends. They’re pretty amazing too. And I know a lot about them…I know their names, where they live, their families. There’s Jamie, and her husband The Beard and her uber-cool cat Knives. And Rachel and Dan and her escapades in Biblical Womanhood. Kristen and her stunning family, and gosh, she is SO smart. And Glennon, with Husband and Sister and her nutty, funny kids. There’s lots of others too…and they keep pointing me to other imaginary friends which is kind of cool of them, right? I could tell you lots about them, things they think and believe, even some things about their past and their fears and insecurities…which is pretty incredible for imaginary friends. For people I’ve never met. People I sometimes wonder if they’re really real because I read their words and I want so badly for them to be real, I want so badly for them to be sitting here in my living room, one of them…all of them, like those god-awful paintings of all the presidents hangin’ out shooting pool…just sitting here drinking wine, telling me yes, it’s fine, it’s ok, you’re ok, it’s all going to be ok the world is not ending.
Because I read their stories, their posts, and sometimes-ok, most times-it’s like reading something from my own thoughts. It makes me feel less crazy. It resonates with me on the deepest level. As I struggle with my faith, my world view, the church I have claimed as my own for the past 25 years, they have made me feel ok. They have made me feel like no, I’m not alone. Like there’s hope.
The People in my life, THE people, the real people, my people…the not imaginary people…they don’t really get it. They tell me to stop thinking so much, to stop worrying, stop questioning. To stop reading about things that make me upset. Because, you know, it’s just that easy. The Church-y people in my life are like “Just pray about it! Just read the Bible! It’s all right there in the Bible! The Bible just says everything you need to know and questions aren’t worth asking and besides it sounds like you’re coming to all the wrong conclusions.” And the Non-Church-y people in my life are like “Well, we’ve always thought the Church sucked anyway. What took you so long?” And somehow neither of those seems fully right or true in my gut but the only people that say things that do seem true seem like imaginary people because I have never actually seen them in person I’ve just read their words.
The past few days with this whole World Vision bullshit has got me feeling like the world is imploding around me. I just want to give up on Christianity. Toss my label, my allegiance. Not to God, not to Jesus, but to the Church. Can you believe in God and Jesus and refuse to call yourself a Christian? Then I read the words of oh, Jen Hatmaker, who sounds so wise and thoughtful, and I think, ok, if I can just get around some of these people then maybe I can still claim this faith. Maybe I can still hang here. And then I make the mistake of reading some of the comments which I should. not. do, and for every 10 positive, “Yes! This!” comments there are the nasty, the self-righteous, the snarly, biting, vicious, “You’re wrong and isn’t that sad for you because you’re not really listening to/following Jesus and he has no room for you, no grace for you” ragged teeth that just tear at the delicate line that had been anchoring me to what little faith I have left that Christianity is a faith worth following.
I feel like everything’s collapsing around me. But I keep reading. Because my imaginary friends are pretty amazing, and I’m pretty confident I’m not just making them up, and they keep writing things that give me hope, that make me want to be better, that speak to my heart, that tell me I’m not alone even though I feel. so. alone. And in spite of wanting to just say fuck it! I’m done! I think God just might be speaking to me through them. My imaginary friends. Maybe someday I’ll get to hug one of them or listen to one of them speak or something. That would be…well, that just might be heaven.
There’s been a lot of chatter on the web this week regarding the impending death of Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church. Lots of vitriol aimed at someone who perhaps deserves it, as well as a lot of talk of grace and forgiveness, particularly from the gay community. Additionally, upworthy.com posted this video, where some homophobic straight people were put in a small space with a gay person and asked to hug. (The staged, made for Hollywood gimmickyness of this I’m sure can be debated.) I’m sure it will spark a lot of conversations as well. (I saw it on George Takei’s FB page.)
A guy like Fred Phelps is easy to identify as a homophobe. I mean, “God Hates You!” is about as anti-person as you can get. Although Phelps and WBC didn’t limit their hatred to just gays, clearly gay people were at the top of their list of despised persons. Someone like Phelps is an easy guy to dismiss though, to write off as just another religious kook. The video really disturbed me though, for a couple of reasons. One, all of those people looked like regular Joes, like someone you’d meet walking down the street and maybe smile “Hello” to. They didn’t scream “I’m a straight homophobic person!!” at you just by their appearance. And yet their discomfort at being in close proximity to a gay person, at the possibility of having to touch the gay person was obvious. They initially acted like they were in a cage with a rabid animal. Something dirty. Someone diseased. Someone who could poison them with their nastiness. (Now of course in heartwarming fashion, by the end of the video their demeanors had changed to an extent. How permanent of a change that is, well, only they know.) It made me so uncomfortable.
I realized though, that that is what life must be like for a gay person on a daily basis. That nice guy at the counter at the store? That grandmotherly lady walking her dog? Your mom? Your brother? That kid in the locker next to you? If they find out you are gay, either accidentally or because you come out to them…will they act like that? Will they be grossed out by you? Treat you like a pariah? Hate you? Fear you? Every. Single. Day. Never knowing how the truth about who you are will change someone’s opinion of you, how they treat you.
Of course I knew this was true, I mean, I’m not ignorant of the reality of life as a gay person in America. Not every homophobe looks like Fred Phelps. They are disguised as people you know and love. People I know and love are like this. I’ve heard them make snide comments or disgusted noises at the tv. People I know and love who refuse to watch “Ellen”, as if watching a talk show is in some way supporting “the gay lifestyle” (whatever that means!). Or, by the same token people who claim “I don’t hate gay people! I watch “Ellen”!”
My aunt was gay. (I say was because she passed away a few years ago.) She lived with her partner for, well, all of my life anyway. I know she had been married before I was born, but as long as I remember she lived with Jaye. I was 21 before I figured out that she was gay…my mom and sister were like “DUH!” but it had never been talked about. I had always thought “Shoot, if I’m an adult and I don’t get married, well, I’d live with my best friend too!” And that’s how I saw it, growing up. They were best friends. There was nothing gross or creepy or weird. I wasn’t “turned gay” because I had a gay aunt. I didn’t even know she was “my gay aunt” until I was an adult. Now, this was mostly because back in the day (and even still some today) no one talked about that. It was kind of like some sort of secret. (although apparently everyone knew the secret but me! Ha!) But she wasn’t treated like some sort of monster (at least as far as I ever saw). I wish she were still alive today. I would love to know more about her, her life and experiences.
I don’t claim to have “figured out” gay people or that I somehow know what it must be like to be gay. I don’t. I am learning, every day, more about gay people from stories people are sharing online, from great blogs, from amazing books I have read.* I am changing my opinions, particularly about gay people of faith. I was never a Fred Phelps type, and I’d like to think I wouldn’t have been as visibly uncomfortable as the people in that video upon finding out someone was gay. But I know I have a long way to go in being someone who loves and supports gay people in my life in a real and meaningful way, not just some token, pat myself on the back, “oh look I have a gay friend!” kind of way. Watching this video made it clear to me that, even if we may disagree on some things, can’t we all just agree that people DESERVE to be treated with love, respect, and fairness NO MATTER WHAT??.
We have a long way to go and a lot to learn from one another. Everyone is just trying to get through life each and every day, the good and the bad that come along. We shouldn’t be looking at anyone with derision or hatred or disgust. We need to be human to one another. Particularly people we don’t know because we don’t know their stories.
*If you want a book recommendation, try “Does Jesus Really Love Me?” by Jeff Chu, “Torn” by Justin Lee (both regarding Christianity and homosexuality). Rachel Held Evans and Glennon Doyle Melton (Momastery) both have some great blog posts about homosexuality, and I also really like Registered Runaway, a blog by Benjamin Moberg. There are many, many more but these are just some that I particularly like.
This afternoon I read a great blog from Glennon Melton at Momastery about pointers for cheering on your kids at their sporting events. It was particularly timely because I had been extremely frustrated with myself the day before after watching my 7 year old son playing soccer. I was so aggravated with how competitive I was, as a parent on the sideline, watching these little kids playing soccer. I constantly try, at all my kids events, to keep my shouting of advice/instructions to a minimum or even non-existent but I have a terrible time biting my tongue and sometimes keep an annoying running commentary with whomever I happen to be sitting next to (that I know.) You can read the Momastery post here. A discussion on my over-developed competitive spirit is a topic for another post.
And yet…there was one thing about the blog that nagged at me, and continued to bother me for the rest of the day, and it’s something I’ve mused over before. Here’s a quote from her post:
“Let’s teach them that the victory is in SHOWING UP AND TAKING A RISK, not in the outcome.”
And while I certainly believe that to be true, especially when you’re talking kids 5, 6 years old and younger, I worry about the possible ramifications of taking the “If you had fun you won!” attitude to the extreme, the idea that you should get a gold star just for showing up, regardless of the outcome.
Now, Glennon is all about love. And it is beautiful, and I love her. I read her blog regularly and am so encouraged by her words. By her outlook on life, by her radical way of looking at the world. I often read stuff she writes to my kids in order to be yet another example to them of the kind of people I want them to grow up to be.
And then…there’s Amy Chua. The “Tiger Mom.” A kind of antithesis to Glennon’s love revolution. The one who admitted to giving her daughter a birthday card back that she had made her because she’d done a lousy job on it. It’s been a few years since her book came out, raising a real ruckus, but suffice it to say that the Melton and Chua households likely do not resemble one another in the slightest. (Beyond the obvious reasons of course.)
I read “Tiger Mom”. I actually liked it a lot. And while I thought some of her parenting strategies were over the top, as a whole I thought she made some excellent points. And I agreed with her that there is a culture in America where we are so worried about our kids’ self-esteem that we lavish them with praise for the smallest things, making that praise and any sort of hard work necessary to accomplish great things almost meaningless.
I taught in Baltimore City for 3 years. It was hard as hell. One of the hardest things I had to overcome was the mentality of some of my students that they deserved some sort of prize simply for showing up at school. Never mind actually doing any work or being respectful. When report cards came out and kids were unhappy with their grades the outcry was ridiculous. They could not see the correlation between the fact that they hadn’t done one damn iota of classwork or homework with the failing grade on their report cards. Or I’d assign a project, have a handful of kids complete it…the quality of the finished product may have varied, but you could tell that they’d at least made an effort, yet there was always one kid, who would scribble something on a piece of paper just before the bell rang, tear it out of their notebook and hand it to me and still expect a good grade for it simply because they had turned it in. When it came time for the state tests, we had to provide all kinds of incentives to simply get kids to show up to take the tests, because many saw testing time as a free vacation. We’d have pizza parties and the class with the highest attendance would get a dance party or you name it. Just to get the kids to come. to. school. Something they should’ve been doing anyway. Never mind actually trying hard or doing a good job on the test. Just show up and put your butt in the chair and get a prize! (And yet we were told “have high expectations of your students!” Can you say “mixed messages”???)
Earlier in this soccer season I was watching my son’s team get creamed like 15-1. They could not have cared less. They were laughing and skipping and having a right good time out there. Meanwhile, mom here was fuming. I got up and went and called my sister because it was so frustrating to watch for me. (No, I am not proud of my attitude. I’m just being honest here.) Afterward I was thinking out loud to my husband, wondering when kids start to care about losing (clearly its not the 4, 5, and 6 year old range!), when they actually notice the score and that they’re not doing so hot. I wondered why we say “You did a great job!” when they really did not do anything right at all. Are we lying to them? Trying to not be mean? Do we baby them too much? (Amy Chua would certainly say yes to that one, I believe.)
Because here’s the thing…I kind of want my kids to not like to lose. I want them to want to win. NOT at the expense of their wonderful little selves…I don’t want them thinking “We lost because I suck. I suck I suck I suck. I am worthless and I suck.” I don’t want them to desire success at the expense of others either. But I want them to think “Shoot. Losing sucks. What can I do better? HOW can I improve? How can WE work together better next time?” I feel the same way about grades. I want them to know that a D or F, or shoot, even a C, is NOT acceptable. (I realize, for some kids, their hardest work gets a C and that’s great for them but for my kids, that’s just not the case.) I want them to learn from their mistakes and do better the next time.
Because honestly…I don’t want my OB/GYN to have been passed along through school just because he showed up. I don’t want my kids’ teachers to have just gotten accolades and attaboys without the effort and excellent results it took along the way. I don’t want the accountant handling my money (ha, this is totally hypothetical!) to just feel so darn GOOD about himself but not be a professional, competent, hard-working person. I don’t want the guy in charge of the nukes to be someone who won just because he had fun. My kids (and myself, and I’d guess a lot of us) don’t naturally want to work hard. They want to take Easy Street. And if they’re getting all kinds of rewards for mediocrity or even total garbage, what is there to motivate them to do better??
So here’s my two cents and my conclusion: It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It doesn’t have to be a harsh “Tiger Mom”-ish push for excellence that (may) sucks all the joy out of something. It doesn’t have to be all rainbow stickers and happy faces and “everything is awesome!” either. I think we need (HELLO…like everything in life) a balance. A little Tiger and a little…um, what? Panda? Something cute and cuddly and lovey-dovey?? We need to push our kids to do their best, to strive for excellence (in ANYthing, not just sports or school. In their friendships, in their relationships, in how they treat others, in how they care for themselves and their bodies, to be the best people they can possibly be.
BUT…we also need them to have grace for when they (and others) screw it all up. To not let how they perform become their identity. To see the things they are good at and celebrate them but to also not get caught up in the things they are not good at and beat themselves up for those things.
To see opportunity for growth in failure. But maybe not a trophy.
Last Sunday, my husband and I went to see the musical “Rock of Ages.” It was a lot of fun, and afterward we both agreed that we should go to see more shows. We’ve definitely seen some musicals and plays in our time, but that kind of outing took a hiatus with 3 young kids. But now that they’re older (we should bring them with us now too) it’s easier to go do “grown up” activities, so we decided we definitely need to make that effort.
“The Book of Mormon” recently came through Baltimore, and I mentioned to Bill that I would like to see that one sometime. He said he wasn’t sure he’d be comfortable with something that was so clearly attacking/making fun of a particular religion. I’d read a review in the Baltimore Sun, and I countered that it seemed kind of like Saturday Night Live, in that they kind of poke fun at everything. And that at the heart of it was just an examination of what faith really is, and the questions that many of us naturally have about religion. That it was deeper than just an attack on one particular faith.
*A side note here: the last couple of years have found me in a place where I am questioning almost everything about my Christian faith. Much of what I believed 5, 10 years ago has gone by the wayside and I am in the process of trying to figure out just what I do believe. So a show about questioning your faith would be right up my alley. 20 years ago I would probably have been outraged at a show like this. I wrote a very naive, overly-righteous, black and white critique of “The Last Temptation of Christ” my senior year of high school. The best part was that I hadn’t even seen the movie–ah, the surety of youth. Now I would likely appreciate that very movie on a whole other level.
Anyway. So then I mentioned that something I found interesting about the show was that Mormons have not shown the outrage at this show that you might expect. In fact, they actually have put ads for their churches, to find out more about the LDS faith, in the Playbills.
I said to Bill that, from what little I know about the LDS this isn’t really surprising. We spent 7 years in Laramie, Wyoming, where I was surrounded by more Mormons than I’d ever encountered in my life. (For obvious, geographical reasons.) And, to a man (or woman), they were all some of the nicest, friendliest, happiest people I have ever met. The very first weekend we were there, with the moving truck in front of the house, 2 elders came by and asked if we wanted help moving in. I was totally taken aback. It got to the point where I’d meet someone, think what an incredibly nice person they were, then find out they were LDS and think “Oh right. Of course.”
*Another aside…I’m well aware that not all Mormons can possibly be nice, friendly and happy. I’m basing this observation solely on my own personal interactions. I’m also aware that Mormonism is a controversial faith. I have read Under The Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer and was quite disturbed by it, and not just the fundamentalist/polygamous factions. I realize people have a lot of issues with the Mormon faith that are likely justified. However, this blog is not meant to address/judge the Mormon faith in any way, other than as a comparison on this one area. I don’t know enough to be qualified to do that.
Bill’s next comment though, was what really sparked my thinking. He said “Well, that’s because Mormons are pretty secure in who they are.”
I thought, wow. That is so true. Then I thought about my own faith, Christianity. If there were a “Book of Mormon” type musical about Evangelical Christianity, can you imagine the outrage?? Shoot, Christians cry “persecution!” if they get wished ‘Happy Holidays” for crying out loud. And maybe that’s because we’re not secure in who we are. There are hundreds of denominations, none of which agree on a whole host of topics. Are Christians pro-life or pro-choice? Are we Democrat or Republican? Do we believe in evolution or solely in a young earth theory? Can gay people be Christians? Do we tithe? Practice Lent? Sprinkle or immerse for baptism? You could compose a very long list of the things that Christians disagree on, from the banal to the more serious, with people falling everywhere on the spectrum from ultra-conservative to super liberal with many in between. And we love to claim that “our” particular brand of Christianity is the “true faith” and that “those people” can’t possibly really be a Christian. Perhaps that lack of true identity is what makes us feel so insecure, what makes some Christians feel like they are under attack and have to fight imaginary persecution at every turn, because we don’t have any idea who we are and what it really means to be a Christian.
Which gives us shaky ground where the rest of the world is concerned. When you ask the average person “What is a Christian?” you will get a whole host of answers, and I’d be willing to bet that a lot of them would be negative.
The Bible tells us to find our identity in Christ. And Jesus, over all things big and small, emphasizes “love your neighbor as yourself”. Love God, love your neighbor. Love is what our identity should be rooted in, what our faith should be rooted in. Not rules. Not politics. Not judgment. Not one-upmanship. Love is the bottom line.
The old song goes “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” I don’t think that’s true at all.
I wonder if we can get that identity back.