Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mimi's House Is Gone

This week, I went to Covington. And Mimi's house is not there anymore.

Covington, Tennessee is my father's home town. It was also the home town of my grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents.

My grandparents were called "Mimi" and "Papa." For whatever reason, and meaning no disrespect to Papa at all, their home was always - to all of us grandchildren - simply known as "Mimi's house."

It was not a large house. I never knew it in its smallest stages, but I do remember when it had only one bathroom. It stood on Highway 51, on the western end of the farm, down a steep hill from the highway and behind the stately old tree. In the summertime, we would sit under that tree in folding chairs. At Christmas time, Papa would string the lights and put those tacky plastic three-foot-high candles on the front porch. We loved that.

Since Mimi was only 16 when my father was born (fourteen months after she was a blushing 15-year-old bride), she was a rather young grandmother. She lived well into my adulthood, dying just months before the birth of my first child in 1993. Papa died eleven months (to the day) later.

My father and his two brothers inherited the property. One of those brothers is gone now, but his children, along with Dad and Uncle Steve, sold some of the real estate - specifically the old house and land along the highway. I heard that the house was torn down, and I had never really wanted to see that. I didn't think I was ready.

Until now. I was in court in Jackson this week, and I flew home out of Memphis, and I had some time to kill in between, so I went to Covington. I went to the cemetery first, visiting the headstones of those great great grandparents and great grandparents and grandparents and uncle and other relatives. I laid flowers on Mimi's grave. I drove by their old church and the house where Gomma, my great grandmother, had lived. Then I headed south down Highway 51 to the intersection of Robbins Road, where the house had been.

I almost missed it. They have filled in the front yard with dirt to bring the land level with the highway. A Burger King stands where the driveway was. There is a Wal-Mart across the street. There are a couple of strip shopping centers - one has a liquor store and a tanning salon and a medical supply; the other has a Shoe Show and a Mexican restaurant. The grand old tree is gone. Were it not for the little road heading down to the (old now) telephone substation (the street sign saying "Robbins Road" is gone), I might not have recognized it at all.

I parked in the Burger King parking lot and walked through what used to be the front yard, trying to find where the front porch used to be. I tried different spots, trying to duplicate the view I remember from my childhood. I don't think I ever really found the exact spot. The only thing I got out of the walk for certain was muddy shoes.

Everything has changed.

And yet...

The memories are still crisp. I remember the smells of Mimi's cooking and the feel of the linoleum in the kitchen. I remember the frustration of trying to beat Papa at checkers (I was 0-for-life). I remember hearing my parents and Mimi and Papa playing pitch (that's a card game for you uninitiated) in the other room after I had been sent to bed on the fold-out couch. I remember how the living room looked. I remember the sounds of Mimi's Elvis records. I remember the closet where my cousin Crystal and I used to scare her little sister. I remember watching Papa and Dad and Uncle Jerry take turns adjusting the color on the big old TV during countless football games. I remember the Easter Egg hunts. I remember the "kids' table" at Thanksgiving. I remember how the phone sounded when it rang. I remember it all, with precision.

Mimi's house is gone, and it turns out that's ok. I don't pretend that it wasn't jarring - weird even - to see things so different. Jarring, but not sad. You see, Mimi and Papa are just where they need to be, and their memories are safe with me. Burger Kings spring up, and front yards turn into muddy fields waiting for something else to be built there. They call that progress. I don't know if it is progress or not, but I know that what that house held is just as real to me as is the Wal-Mart across the highway.

It should not have taken me so long to go back. I was reluctant for no good reason. Mimi's house will always be - as it has always been - a great gift of memory to me. Once I figured that out, I was OK. I went over to the Shoe Show and bought some new shoes, and I threw the muddy ones away.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Talking Publicly about Our Faith - What Christians Can Learn from the Reactions to Brit Hume

On a FoxNews panel on Sunday, Brit Hume said the following about Tiger Woods: "The extent to which he can recover, it seems to me, depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So, my message to Tiger would be, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'"

This is not something we hear often on a television news broadcast, even on Fox.

The reactions have been swift and severe. Jon Stewart was merciless on The Daily Show. In the Washington Post, Tom Shales wrote that Hume's statement "will probably rank ... as one of the most ridiculous of the year." John A. Farrell, one of the contributing editors of US News, writes that Hume's comment was "creepy ... what a stupid thing to think." The blogosphere is full of writers who used the occasion to write about the hypocrisy of Christians in particular and the uselessness of religion in general.

My purpose here is not to defend Hume or to attack his attackers. He is a big boy and can handle that for himself. This blog is also not the place to flyspeck his theology. Instead, I want to take a moment to analyze what this whole tempest-in-a-teapot can teach people like me, Christians who believe that our faith is to be shared and who care about rhetoric and how messages are received.

1. Many people are offended by comparison of religions. What seems to pass muster in society is sincerity, regardless of what is being sincerely felt. If Person A sincerely believes Religion X (or Concept X, or Feeling X), it is impolitic for Person B to suggest that Religion Y is better than Religion X. This may result from a genuine belief that "all ways lead to God" or alternatively from a genuine confusion about whether any religion is worthwhile. It often masquerades as "tolerance," but since the offended are not very "tolerant" of the vocal Christian, surely another explanation lurks beneath the surface.

In any event, those of us who articulate our specific faith need to understand that some of the battle we face is not from those who disbelieve our faith per se but rather from those who hold that we should not argue that we know something that is better than what they - or somebody else - believes.

2. "Proselytizing" has become a dirty word. The word means persuasion. Simply put, to proselytize is to make converts. It should not imply intolerance, meanness, underhanded dealings, or rudeness. It merely means attempting to change the mind of somebody else with regard to faith. Assuming it is done with respect and without forcing the listener to participate unwillingly in the conversation, why is that bad? Jon Stewart and others charge - or at least savagely hint - that proselytizing is something evil, as though it were akin to selling drugs to minors or being a sexual predator.

3. The many, many public failures of high profile Christians, hypocricies of self-proclaimed prophets, and well-known internal disputes within churches and denominations have given Christianity a terrible name and left so many with a bad taste that they think they want nothing to do with our faith.

None of these points is news, of course, but they have bubbled to the surface again this week. If you Google "Brit Hume Tiger Woods", you will see how Christianity is - in circles as diverse as and MSNBC, not to mention The Huffington Post - nothing more than a punch line.

Those of us who are evangelicals (in a New Testament sense, not in the political "religious right" sense) believe that we have something good that would be helpful to everyone. We know someone who offers - to anyone, regardless of what s/he has done - forgiveness, love, and literal salvation. We believe that we are commanded to "teach all nations" and "always to be ready with an answer." If our friends were in a burning house and we knew the way out, we would tell them; to us, this is the same thing.

Style is a concern, of course. Hitting people over the head, shoving a tract into their hand, shouting them down, playing on guilt (real or manufactured), or otherwise forcing our point of view on someone who does not want to hear it or is not ready for it seems fruitless and silly to me. In my own experience, I have found that sharing my beliefs with someone whom I have not first gotten to know pretty well falls flat.

Once again, I turn to my experiences as a debater and a jury lawyer to help. In both of those fora, I could not be successful without remembering the principle of audience adaptation. No matter how good the news we have to share is, if we don't package it appropriately and present it with respect and proper timing, we (and thus Christ) will not be well received. If we are most eloquent but do not act (both when we are sharing our beliefs and every other time) with love, then we are no more than (to quote Paul) resounding gongs and clanging cymbals. I have learned that lesson the hard way more than once - my poor presentations and/or unloving actions toward some have, I fear, made me ineffective in sharing anything about my faith with them. They don't want to hear it from me. I have to hope somebody else who has lived and loved better can talk to them.

"Packaging" and "presentation" as I use them in the preceding paragraph do not mean anything dishonest. They simply are explanations for how we go about sharing our faith. I believe the reason that "proselytizing" has gotten a bad name is related to how it has been done, not to its substance. Those who reject Christ on the merits - and the number who actually hear and consider our faith on the merits and still reject it is pretty low in comparison to those who reject our message out of hand without thoughtfully considering the substance - make their decision for a variety of reasons, but almost never is it because they think that our trying to persuade them with what we believe is an evil thing to do. The secret, then, is to get the conversation to the merits of our faith without offending.

I don't find what Brit Hume said to have been offensive. To state his honest belief that Tiger Woods would find in Christ forgiveness that Buddhism does not even offer is not rude or mean. But it is a stumbling block to many. The New Testament correctly predicts that. We have seen the effects of that stumbling block played out this week. Many in the world hate the name of Christ and any mention of Christ. The New Testament is right about that too.

Our response cannot be anger. It cannot be to give up. It has to be to recognize how our message is often initially received and to understand the prejudices that are in place. I believe we have to be honest in admitting that many of those stumbling blocks and prejudices are the fault of the church and of those who call themselves Christians - we have in many ways created a monster, and we must deal with that.

At the end of the day, though, if we agree with Brit Hume that those who "turn to Jesus Christ" can "make a total recovery," we have no alternative but to share what we know. We must, then, use some sense in how we do it, and we must always do so in love.