The Black Eyed Peas and me

(Christian Courier column, Jan. 27th, 2014 issue)

I didn’t know the word, but I was raised on the Antithesis. “Come out from them and be separate” and “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness” categorized my world indelibly into good and bad. For me and a legion of other CRC kids in the 50s, good was going to church, bad was Sabbath bike-riding. Good was speaking politely to all adults, bad was swearing. Good was “us,” bad was “them.” A safe world, sparkling with clarity.

This is not a rant against my upbringing. Hardly. It was a happy, innocent childhood, cupped within a loving circle of family, church and Christian school. But it was a bitter coming-of-age to discover that so much of life is grey. Foggy. That, in fact, it is not always clear how a Christian ought to live in this age of decay (to borrow a phrase from my friend Paul VanderKlay), not always clear how to be “as wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”

I gradually became aware of cracks in my cozy snow globe with the “frozen chosen” . . . the estrangement triggered by divorce or teen pregnancy, the judgmental meridian between “twicers” and “oncers,” how my dad could be an elder in one congregation, but not in another because he belonged to a labour union. Once upon a time “stand up, stand up for Jesus” was clear-cut. Identify the bad, draw a line to keep it out, brandish your antithesis.

Imaginative faithSteph #3

My niece Stephanie was born singing. Dreaming starry-eyed of becoming a recording artist, she invested enormous time and energy into talent competitions, coffeehouse gigs, auditions, community theatre, and, eventually, a couple of bands. I tagged along, a supportive aunt. I didn’t always like the music, the suggestive lyrics, the narcissistic seduction of pop culture. But when her band won a coveted opportunity to open for the Black Eyed Peas at Bayfest, I was there. Crushed by a jovial mob reeking of alcohol and weed, I stood in a torrential downpour on a Sunday night, cheering her on. I’d been to church that morning.

So what kind of a “witness” was that? Well, not the defensive posture of my childhood. A different kind of witness – an imaginative faith in an enigmatic God whose patience and grace expand far beyond our simplistic polarizing. As Madeleine L’Engle once said, “You cannot cram the glory of God into something so thin as a fact.” A fact like the antithesis, perhaps, at least as it was interpreted in my youth.

Think of how God works in the Old Testament. He calls Abraham out of Ur to father a chosen people. He structures Israel’s entire cultural history, their restrictive legal code, their religious practices, including circumcision, to identify them as singularly his own. He establishes a covenant with them. And the whole point of this exclusivity? To cast his net wider. To fabricate within human history a concrete model for the nations and invite them to exactly the same status as Israel. Want to see the trailer? Check out Isaiah 60: Nations will come to your light. Herds of camel from Midian will come. Foreigners with gold and incense from Sheba will come. Kedar’s flocks will be accepted as offerings on God’s altar. It’s all so odd. So inverted. To choose a favourite nation to extend graciousness to other nations. To include the Gentiles after you’ve ordered your people to “come out from them and be separate.”

Conduits for grace

Cowper’s hymn nailed it. Our mercurial God moves in mysterious ways. He imports pagans like Rahab and Ruth. He loves Jacob the liar, David the adulterous murderer. And his incomprehensibility careens even more wildly in the New Testament. Stirring the heavens so Persian magicians will come and worship the Infant King. Dispatching angelic battalions to insignificant shepherds. Sending a baffled Peter to the centurion Cornelius. Scrapping circumcision!

I could go on. All this inconsistency, this flouting by God of his own divinely-instituted covenantal parameters, could seed some serious skepticism. But an imaginative faith reads in this unexpected slipperiness of “who’s in and who’s out” a joyous reminder to never doubt that God can work however he will, and when, and where. He is his own Interpreter.

So I won’t draw lines. With reckless abandon, because in the darkness I still walk in the light, I’ll keep on proffering loyalty and encouragement, even in hazy situations. I’ll keep on believing that even the most inconsequential acts are potential conduits for God’s arbitrary generosity. After Steph’s performance, by the way, I left the concert. I wasn’t interested in the Black Eyed Peas. I was only there to stand up for love.

Author Willa Cather said, “Where there is great love there are always miracles.” Recently Stephanie invited me to see her sing again. She was leading worship at South Tampa Fellowship. I couldn’t sing along. I was all choked up. Silly me, to be surprised at sudden tears.

(With thanks to Stephanie Malara for permission to write about her.)

Steph #2