Saturday, January 30, 2010

One of my best memories

I am sitting here looking out the window towards Chilhowee Mountain. It is snowing. It is Saturday afternoon. And, I am remembering one of the best times I ever had in my life.

I was in high school at the time. I think I was a senior in high school. Mom and Dad and I were at “Pine Haven,” about 600 plus acres of land at the base and on up to the top of Chilhowee Mountain (a foothill of the Smoky Mountains). We had gone there that day to walk around in the woods and to climb and explore Chilhowee Mountain. And, we did.

It was a beautiful day. We just went where we decided to go – no set plans. And, we found one beautiful place after another. At one point, we just sort of stopped and settled into our own separate places. I climbed a tree and saw way out over to the Little Tennessee River; Dad was climbing up looking over the next ridge; Mom was sitting on the ground, and I could just hear her singing one of her favorite hymns.

I remember that day as if it was yesterday. We were in the presence of God, joyfully together in the presence of God. We, the three of us, slid down through the leaves, going pretty fast at times, down that mountain side. At one point, we slid right to the edge of a big drop-off. But, we were in the Spirit that day, and stopped just short of disaster. God's presence brings joy and freedom. I am grateful to have dwelled in that presence on that day.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Gangs, Fraternities, and the Stubborn Way of the Hillbilly

I have been thinking about how I was raised, and how I really approach situations in life. I am a Hillbilly, which means I am a child of the Appalachian Mountains, who is a stubborn individualist. Now, I was taught at times in school and certainly in seminary about how awful it is to be invidualistic, but I never really accepted that academic teaching. Sure, I understood that it was a real negative to be selfish and unable to identify with or care about those outside "the narrow confines of your day to day life," but I never really bought all the stuff about individuals being defined by a community. Sure, each of us is shaped deeply by our social environment, but there is something in the individual that the social environment can't determine. There is a central core in each person that reflects the mystery of God. So, I have always seen it from the other direction: a community is defined by its individuals and there is something irreducible and indestructible and well, indefinable about "the individual human being."

During college I came across writers like Kierkegaard and other existentialists who protested against all systems of thought which would ignore the category of the individual. And, then we have the Americans like Thoreau who experience the deep value of the individual. I was raised in the Appalachian/hillbilly tradition of thinking that "the herd" is usually always wrong, and if you go your own individual way you might be wrong, but you are more likely to be right than if you follow the crowd, and then at least you have a little dignity left if you don't allow others to determine who you are. As Bruce Cockburn sings: "Last time I heard, only God gets to say what has to be."

My Dad didn't teach me too many strict rules for living, but one thing he said over and over again was "if you have to be accepted by any group to feel like something, then you are in real trouble in life." Life just really wouldn't have been worth living for Dad if he had ever thought he had to wait around and look over his shoulder to see if somebody approved what he was doing. He would make his choices, live his life, try to help others in living, and that would be enough. In as sense that is the real goodness in the Appalachian way of life. YOU MAKE YOUR CHOICES, YOU LIVE YOUR LIFE, YOU TRY TO HELP OTHERS AS THEY LIVE THEIR LIVES, AND THAT IS ENOUGH. IF ANYONE ELSE HELPS YOU OUT, THAT IS A REAL GIFT, BUT NOT EXPECTED. AND, WHEN YOU REFLECT ON WHETHER YOU ARE LIVING YOUR LIFE THE RIGHT WAY OR NOT, YOU PULL AWAY FROM THE CROWD AND YOU COME BEFORE GOD THE BEST YOU CAN, AND YOU TRY TO LOOK AT YOUR LIFE HONESTLY. THERE MIGHT BE A TIME OR TWO IN LIFE WHEN YOU SHARE THIS REFLECTION WITH A TRUSTED FRIEND OR LOVED ONE, AND, WELL, THERE MIGHT NOT BE.

I guess when it comes down to it, I am a pretty trusting hillbilly, but I am still a hillbilly. My idea of a good place to live is a place where you can't see any other houses, streets, neighbors, or hear them.

Well, back to needing to be a part of a group to have a sense of identity.

I have never had respect for fraternities or gangs, or any group that purports to give someone an identity. There are times when religious groups, including churches, seem like fraternities to me. I know that people are out wandering around lost in this world just looking for someone to tell them who they are, just looking for some group to adopt them and tell them they are worth something. There is a real temptation in this world for the church to do this same thing. Individuals are needy in this great desire to feel like somebody. And, I think we in the church, including a preacher like me, are too quick to tell people who they are. I am too quick to say "you are a child of God" without also allowing a person to define who they are for me. Those words "you are a child of God" have little content, little meaning, unless they are spoken in a real conversation, a real relationship where that "child of God" is coming to express and understand his or her own self.

The only real community I have ever known anything about is a community that gives a lot of room for individual peculiarities, accepts a lot of nonsense from individuals, and somehow draws the best out of individuals which in turn allows for the best community possible. I guess you would call my view of community one that starts from the "grass roots," which is to say, starts from its individual pieces. It is significant that Paul's definition of the Christian community gave a lot of attention to individual differences and the importance of respecting those. You didn't have to conform to some preset role defined by the community, but the community had to figure out how to accomodate your God-given, perhaps even peculiar gifts and bear with your weaknesses as well, just as you were to do the same for others.

Our identity is from God, from our Creator. But, I'm not sure whether that can be said without telling real stories of human lives. I have been reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography, and it is so clear that though there were motivating forces for his identity as "an African" or his identity as "Xhosa," there was nothing so strong that saw him through as his identity as an individual human being who could not be defined ultimately either by tribe or color or even religious association. He refused to be bound by an arranged marriage. Though at first, he wanted to identify politically only with black Africans, he came to another view of that that suited both the needs of the day and his own desires as well. I'm still reading the book, but this is the way it seems to be going. There is something in that individual will of his that is simply "God-determined," or that is in direct communion with the Eternal.

To me, gangs and fraternities and so many group affiliations, if they are really taken to heart, are similar expressions at different levels of social need. To me they seem like a way to try and get an identity the false way, the way that takes no courage, no independence. And, this way of receiving an identity from a group is demeaning in the long run, and often even in the short run.

A young man or woman in a scary world needs to figure out how to be human without somebody giving him or her the answers already worked out. That's my problem with gangs and fraternities or sororities and even religious groups that over-define individuals. I'll leave the military out of this discussion. And, yes, I know the people who face the choice of joining gangs face choices much more critical and scary than I have faced. And, yes, I know that there are healtier and unhealthier levels of commitment to such groups, whether they be gangs or fraternities. But, still, a hillbilly would die in a gang - or die even a little in a fraternity for that matter. We can't have anybody but God telling us who we are, and all the little details of how we work that out, and so many of us hillbillies just can't hear that word without spending a lot of time alone in the mountains. If the word we hear alone is a little confused or twisted, at least we came by our confusion honestly and not by following the crowd. And, there is some dignity in that.

And, I'll close with some words of a song I remember from my high school days. This song by Charlie Daniels reminds me of that hillbilly spirit. I am not trying to Baptize this way of life as if it is always holy and good. It is not, but, then again, it can be too. When this stubborn Appalachian spirit is illuminated by God's Spirit, some wonderful things can happen. I've seen them in my life.

"Preacher man talkin on t.v., putting down the rock and roll. Wants me to send a donation, cause he's worried about my soul. He says 'Jesus walked on the water' - well, I know that is true, but sometimes I think that preacher man would like to do a little walkin too."

"I ain't asking nobody for nothing . . if I can't get it own my own. If you don't like the way I'm living, you just leave this long haired country boy alone."