Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Really – who needs church?

Why is it more meaningful to get to know people outside of a church building than inside one? We went to a Safari Supper this weekend, hosted by our church’s social committee. We had such a great time getting to know people who we have seen in church for the past ten months we have been attending. (And by the feasts we fed on, we know we have found a church with some great cooks!)

Outside of the church building, everyone seems more natural, genuine with each other. If we want to genuinely relate to one another, we do not have to wear a dog collar. We don’t have to posture in front of each other wearing cassocks, choir robes, surplices, stoles, or any other garments from a church kit. (This church kit also includes special frocks and trendy daywear for evangelicals who threw out dog collars with King Charles I.)

Today, when the vicars wear sandals and shorts underneath their cassock, what does that communicate to the rest of us? Are they trying to relate to us, or just flipping off the traditions?

Our buildings, facilities, clothing, music, worship props, bells and smells, theological vocabulary – and yes, even our liturgy – have become masks for us all to hide behind. We’ve got saying ‘the peace’ to each other down pat. That has become the extent of our outreach within our community of faith.

It is not easy being new to a church community, no matter where you are in your faith walk. In the short time my husband and I have been attending our church, we have been blessed to get to know a few in the group who are quite genuine, and do not seem to mind newcomers coming in and messing with their history. That does not make things less awkward on Sunday, though. Why does it have to seem like an eternity before you feel like you have cracked the code to people’s hearts and minds? My husband – new to the church going practice – has likened being part of a church community to that of belonging to the AmDram crowd. Except if one fails with the church folk, what, we become AmDamned?

There are some weeks when ya just don’t know how to pray or what to think. If the church folk don’t like how you rocked their pew, or have a ‘suggestion’ to make, they send you a spiteful E-mail or cryptic text message. The cowards don’t have the spirit to get to know you better by just picking up the phone and ringing you for a civil, Christian conversation. Honestly, they assume the worst in you before they even take the time to get to know you.

And if you are a newcomer to the church, whatever you do, don’t volunteer to be helpful! The talents Jesus speaks about? Those are just a part of the fairy tale. They don’t belong to real people. Just the people in the Parables. If real people try to genuinely share their talents and grow their spiritual gifts amongst those who own longer histories inside the church community than you do, watch out. There are bouquets of egos that will soon wilt, and loads of knickers will get wadded up and lobbed back at you. You will deny others their positions of power in their faux holy fiefdoms. More spiteful E-mails, more cryptic text messages.

Who needs prayer? As a caveat for belonging, you could ask for prayers by quietly having your name listed in the monthly prayer book that goes out to the entire parish. The emphasis is on quiet, because the only time you will hear others praying out loud for you is if they are authorised by the diocese. And don’t go asking anyone if they have any prayer needs. God might have authorised you to pray out loud, but keep that a secret. You don’t want to offend.

Who cares what the Bible says these days? The only time it should be read is within Sunday’s liturgical setting, when the Big Red Book travels up the aisle with fanfare to be ‘read to the people’. It might add a nice warm fuzzy of drama mysterium, but honestly, who needs to discuss the content of what was read during the other days of the week? If your friends are confused, curious, or get bored easily with profundity, let them read Dan Brown. If you even own a study Bible – you know, the kind with all the helpful academic commentary, topical concordance, historical timelines, and archaeological info – then by all means, hide it now! You are only allowed it if you are going into the ministry as a vocation. Why would you want to contaminate your church friends with a Bible study in your own home, for God’s sake?

So why would anybody want to go to church?

Come to think of it, the examples we have in the four gospels of Jesus relating to people – his friends, his family, people of political and religious influence, even total strangers – are rarely set inside the boundary walls of the Temple. As Jesus spent time with others, he met with them inside their homes, on country strolls, out boating, in the marketplace, at parties, when they were sick, smelly, and ugly, and while they were dying. Sure, he was a regular at Temple worship, but his attendance does not seem to define the essence of his relationships. As a woman, I take note that his theological discussions with women happened nowhere near the Temple. In fact, the few instances when his presence at the Temple is mentioned are usually in context with confrontation. People didn’t need E-mail or use text messages in those days. They just hurled trenchant queries or stones.

Perhaps going to church is not the most essential part of this present journey. I’m almost certain God has created a few different road maps. Do you think I could get one that’s colour-coded and more user friendly?

Just don’t send me a text message. Please.

Monday, 8 May 2006

What's the point in being legal?

As Americans, we have created, or hugely added to, this problem of ILLEGAL immigration in the USA because of our inconsistent behaviour as a society to deal with the problem head-on way before it ever burgeoned into the 11-mil millstone it has now become. Those of us who are Christ-followers can include ourselves for not taking some stands on the issue when we have had the chance.

Having lived and travelled in foreign countries myself, my family always paid our dues when it came to respecting the laws and ways of a country to which we were alien. We never would have presumed to be illegal, however. But we were Americans, and were not fleeing our homeland due to despot rulers, blight, famine, or other plague-like conditions. (Perhaps we left America to re-discover what our Christian values were really all about, but if we did God was several steps ahead of us on that journey before we realised it.)

As far as Mexico is concerned, I wish America had been more pro-active about its relations with the place since the 1800’s, and after the Alamo! But our isolationist views back then, while we were still establishing our American Way through war and Dominion Building across the Wild West prohibited us from becoming a humane border partner. So today we have a lot of historical baggage to bring to the table of commerce and compassion. Not to mention our penchant for using and abusing illegal substances. If we could get over those obstacles, then perhaps we could progress beyond the festering that has finally raised its ugly head.

In Texas, where I used to live, there were lots of nice, decent church-going people I knew who hired illegal aliens to tend their gardens, clean their houses, and play ‘nanny’ to their kids. The ones who hired the illegal Mexican nannies still have my head spinning. Some of these upwardly mobile wealthy Christian families in Highland Park and North Dallas had to have not one but two illegal Mexican nannies to keep up with the Joneses. To assuage their consciences – I’m sure being Christ-followers they had consciences, so maybe they were assuaging their guilt – they explained that having a nanny or two who spoke Spanish (but no English) to care for their little darlings would be a wonderful, two-fold contribution: their kids could learn Spanish in a ‘natural’ environment, and the nannies would be learning English in a safe home environment. If they had an illegal Mexican housemaid in addition to the nannies then all the Mexicans underneath their palatial roofs could bounce off each other in this language-learning environment. How cool is that? :) WOW!

Behind closed doors, though, not much learning of Spanish or literacy seemed to be taking place. You could tell, from attending one social event to another, that not much had been done to assimilate the illegal help into the family community. Neither the well-meaning parents who hired, nor their kids, could speak Spanish well after all that ‘immersion’. And when party guests came to dinner, the nannies and maids were held to a class system, and were not welcomed to integrate with the guests. Wasn’t there supposed to be a community of Christ-followers under this roof?

Invariably, when the INS came calling in one form or another, these impressive church families, and other American patriots, groused about the problems and pouted for weeks. Should they have to be the ones to pay to legally sponsor their nannies or housemaids? And what about when these people get sick? If one of the doctor friends from the country club isn’t available to help out then where to turn? And what to do about the IRS? Some nannies and maids were live-ins. Convenient, because that meant that the actual hard-earned wages for looking after the runny-nosed rich kiddies and teaching them how to speak Spanish could be barely subsistence level. Wealthy people sure love a bargain!

A bargain isn’t such a great deal if you have to pay to legally sponsor an alien from any country. A bargain isn’t such a great deal if that means you will have to ensure a good strong competitive wage. And a bargain really isn’t such a great deal if you have to pay health benefits to take care of the alien in your employ.

The only way to get an alien for a bargain is to make and keep them illegal.

Great concept, eh?

If Christ-followers are in the position to hire illegal aliens, then why can’t they blow the above concept out of the water and get together to:

  • Humanely find a collective way to financially sponsor the illegal alien -- their own or the ones(s) they share -- so that the alien becomes legal?
  • Resolve to pay the alien decent and liveable wages, while waiting for America’s bureaucracy to get its processing act in gear. Has John 3.16 been thrown away at Border Control?
  • Take financial and administrative responsibility for the health care and benefits of the alien?
  • Take a sincere and vested interest in the emotional well being of the alien, and his/her dependants?
  • Adopt an itinerant family – take responsibility for the usually illegal and illiterate family of a student who attends school with the church children. There are legal, Catch-22 problems for teachers to become so entrenched in the lives of these students. Some try, and risk their jobs and future employability. They sure could use some help!
  • Tenaciously and openly petition and campaign the Mexican and Central American governments to improve the economic and political landscape of their own countries?
  • Find friendlier ways to engage with the countries below the southern border of the United States?
  • Openly and actively petition and campaign the local governments to get busy and lead the way towards amicable and humane solutions to the problem their bureaucracy created, with American support. How many Americans have ever taken the time to acquire and read an application for immigration to begin with?

Why expend so much energy and time on angst and hand-wringing instead of just getting on with it and doing the right thing to take care of these people who come to cross our borders illegally (not just the border with Mexico), invited by decades of bureaucratic mismanagement and the socio-economic greed of ‘good-hearted’ Americans?

I am told, almost daily by virtue of my American accent, that I was born impatient because of where I come from. The illegal immigration problem in America took at least a couple of centuries to create. We impatient Americans must be resigned to the fact that if we do not take a more active and collective stance on this inhumane problem of our own making now, it could probably take another century or two to undo. Not acceptable!

So, what has my own contribution been?

Well, I married a foreigner. My husband can also make that same claim. And before anyone points fingers at me and says I made that choice – I would agree! – allow me to just say that after 47 years of remaining single, and listening every decade of my singleness to Apostle Paul and well-spoken Christian women and men who either counselled, sympathised, or commiserated with me, I obediently waited all those years for God to send me the right man. He just did not send me an American. My sweet husband also believes that. And the Book of Ruth has been a favourite of mine since primary school days!

By the time my family came out of shock and realised I was finally about to kiss Singlehood goodbye they couldn’t have cared if the one I married were from Mars or the Moon!

Seriously, though, none of us thought it would be much of a problem to get my husband a work permit, or green card. At the time of our marriage, his secondment to the Texas company he and other consultants from the UK worked for was being sponsored by that American corporation. He had to go home to the UK every three months to honour the legal commitment of keeping and renewing his visa. But we thought that, as he was now married to me, he could easily apply for immigration and acquire a green card – no problema!
[Side note here: For three years, he paid his taxes to the IRS, had a Social Security card, and even got a notice for jury duty. That one scared him ... he was worried he'd be hunted down by a sheriff with a gun if he didn't show up. I somehow convinced him he could get out of it, though. But the sheriff with a gun made him nervous -- cops in the UK aren't armed.]

We were, for all our world travel, embarrassingly wrong in our assumption. After September 11 and Enron, the American government and American companies were less welcoming to highly skilled foreign consultants. My husband’s three-year secondment was not renewed, and that meant that I as the American would need to sponsor him.

At the same time his secondment ended, I had surgery – two bone transplants – for the osteonecrosis in my knee, and so for two months was not allowed to stand, sit, or walk without assistance. We diligently filled out the six-page INS application for immigration. But much to our dismay, every page was about how I would be able to financially support my husband. I had retired from teaching a few years back. In fact, that event, with God’s guidance, led me to the moment where I met my husband! And the excruciating and debilitating pain of the osteonecrosis kept me from employment. Now, with the surgery, I wasn’t too sure about how to reinvent a new career.

My husband makes much more than I ever could as an educator. And yet, that does not seem to be enough to placate Uncle Sam. No one else in my family was in a position to sponsor my husband for immigration, only me. People at the church we were attending couldn't understand why we would want to leave America. But none of them stood up to the plate to offer any assistance. Not even one gesture in a congregation of 3,000. As we read through the six-page INS application form, we sadly realised that immigration was more about a human being’s commercial contribution to the American Way of life. The culture or character of a person is not the asset that Uncle Sam is looking for.

We met with an immigration attorney, and submitted our application for him to go over. I was feeling terribly inadequate, as my financial history and future would do absolutely nothing to enable us to stay in America. When we told my family this, they didn’t believe us. Anyway, after our attorney looked at our application, and once we had consulted with INS, we were told that it would be 2 to 3 years before our application would even be looked at for processing. The INS and the government system was so backed up and backlogged from trying to sift through all the illegal cases it had to contend with before a legal case could be given the time of day.
Totally dysfunctional!

So, my husband and I moved back to England. I applied for permanent residency in the UK. I submitted my passport to the authorities with my application and had not only my passport returned in good condition (not lost, as the INS is prone to do!), but was fully vetted within three months. The immigration application for the UK was only 2-pages in length, and I did not have to be a millionaire to become legally vetted.

I am still learning that no country -- no matter how Western its culture, or democratic its ideals -- is the perfect place to live. Ideals and morals become enmeshed and warped. For those who follow Christ, our allegiance to him can be practised in any country. The US is not alone in its dilemma with illegal immigration. The UK has its own intricate problems with illegal immigrants in a landmass so much smaller than America, and all borders surrounded by water. Now that the EU has expanded its borders, the problem of illegal immigration has the potential to explode here in the UK.

Many in the world think the US, who has just recently been introduced to terror within its own borders, has gone OTT in its airport security and consequent treatment of foreigners since September 11. The colour of one’s passport or skin is highly suspect. Americans keep forgetting that all the flights that performed in the event of September 11 were domestic flights within its own borders. That those who commandeered the flights, fates, and fears of many on that day were allowed to come into the US with open arms through an inept and dysfunctional system is hardly addressed.

So, until the American immigration system addresses its commitment to truly welcoming people into its borders legally, my husband will not be applying for immigration to America anytime soon. He's British, and a patient man.

It saddens me that my contribution seems so insignificantly small, if at all.

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