Thursday, July 28, 2011

Gratitude for Borders Books

I was sad to hear the announcement last week about the closing of all Borders Bookstores. I can’t say that in recent years I was a major supporter of Borders; like most Americans, I tend to get my books through the various outlets available online. Yet Borders will always hold a special place in my heart because at a critical period in my life the local Borders in Bryn Mawr (PA) was a place of refuge, refreshment, and transformation for me, and for that I will always be grateful.
In 1997 I left my 16 year career as a Baptist pastor. While the reasons are many and complex, one of the things that drove me out of the pastoral ministry was that in many ways being a pastor was killing my spirit. Many church-going folks believe that it’s easy for clergy to be Christians because in essence being a Christian is their job, and they think clergy don’t have to deal with the stresses, pressures, temptations and complexity of life in the “real world.” Many people perceive of clergy as living in some sort of bubble that somehow insulates them from the struggles other people endure.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of a bubble the clergy role had become for me a prison that was inhibiting my growth and development as a person. My congregations had certain expectations as to what I was to believe and how I was to carry on my life. While this is to be expected of any leader, increasingly I had begun to find myself asking theological, ethical and personal questions that did not fit the expectations people had of me. There were certain spiritual and social questions I was raising in the pulpit that caused people concern. In fact for me the faith became increasingly more about questions than answers or “truths,” and many people found this discomfiting. Since Baptist congregations elect their pastors, I increasingly knew that voicing the questions with which I was wrestling could result in vocational suicide.
So in 1997 I walked away from the pastorate without a plan and with nary a clue as to what was next. The week after I resigned, Cynthia and I took our family on a trip to Disneyworld we had planned months before. When we returned I set about the task of figuring out what to do with the next phase of my life. While I sent out resumes and networked, I also did a bunch of odd jobs and even did some supply preaching.
Eventually, I applied to the Bryn Mawr Borders Bookstore. The interview was interesting in that while the store manager did not doubt my qualifications, he openly questioned whether I would proselytize on the job and if I would be able to sell certain kinds of books.  I was able to assure him that I was not an undercover fundamentalist seeking to take over his store and got the job.
I have often told people that if I could have afforded to do so, I would have loved to have stayed working at Borders as a regular full-time job. The atmosphere was laid back and fun. We could wear shorts and t-shirts to work as long as they were clean (in contrast to our competitor Barnes and Noble that required employees to wear button down shirts and long pants). We got a $30 “book fund” each month with which we could buy anything in the store. My kids raided the CD s after my first month. At night when things would get a little slow, we employees would engage in fascinating conversations. Most of us were book lovers, and enjoyed exploring and exchanging a wide range of ideas and issues.
What I enjoyed most, however, were the people who came in the store. I was often in charge of the children’s and young adult section and so often kids would come with their summer reading lists, or parents would come looking for books to interest their children in reading. Folks planning a vacation would often go to the travel section, pull out all the guides on their chosen destination, take notes, and leave the books in stacks for us to re-shelve at the end of the day. One time a young woman came in looking for a book for her father who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. When we found her book for him, and asked “What about you?” For the next 20 minutes I listened to her share her own grief, and eventually was able to find a book for her as well. We even had an elderly gentleman who came into the store everyday with his cup of coffee, pulled the day’s newspaper off the shelf, and when he was done put it back on the shelf, never having purchased a thing. The Bryn Mawr store was more than a store for many people; it was a community and a welcoming space.
One of the benefits was also that when business was slow, you could pull a book off the shelf and read. One day I pulled Care of the Soul by Thomas More. That book helped me reframe my spiritual and personal struggles in a way that opened new horizons I hadn’t seen or considered before. I am still living into the vision that book gave me.
After about two months of work, I eventually was hired by Eastern University to work in the adult education program. I have continued to grow and develop since that time, but I seriously wonder if that could have happened as it did, were it not for that brief time I spend working at Borders. For years after that, I returned to the store, even though I seldom bought anything. I have watched it change, and the last time I was there a couple months ago I could see it was a mere shadow of the place I had worked at 14 years earlier. I was not surprised to hear of its bankruptcy and eventual closing. The book industry has gone thru a revolution and Borders did not change fast enough, and so goes the way of record players, dial telephones, eight-track cassettes, and VHS recorders. Borders had a good run, but its time ran out.
In the Bible one of the words for time is the Greek word Kairos. Kairos is a word that describes time not in terms of minutes, hours, days and months, but rather in terms a quality or essence. Kairos is that kind of time we talk about when we fall in love, when we have a once in a life time experience, or when we have an “aha” moment. Kairos is often those times in our lives that change us and set us off in a new direction. My two months working for Borders was that kind of Kairos time, and for that I will always be grateful.
Thank you Borders for what you did for me. I will miss you, and will always be grateful.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Christian Movement's Wrong Turn

In the year 312 C.E, the Christian movement made a wrong turn from which it has never recovered. In that year the Emperor Constantine was crossing the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River into Rome in a battle that would lead to his becoming the emperor of the Roman Empire. While on the bridge Constantine reported seeing a cross in the sky beneath the Latin words “In Hoc Signo Vinces” which meant “In this sign, conquer.” Constantine took this sign as a vision from God and ordered all his soldiers to put crosses on their shields, and they ended up decisively winning the battle. Until that time, the Christian movement had been a small struggling sect separate but related to Judaism and  held no prominent place in Roman society. However, after Constantine’s vision and conversion, Christianity became the religion of the empire, and this struggling sect inhabited and embraced the seat of power.

This story is poignantly recorded in James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. Part history, part autobiography, this book recounts how this shift in social position led to the Christian church’s degradation, persecution and oppression of the Jewish people for 1700 years culminating in the horror known as the Holocaust, Adolph Hitler’s “final solution” to eradicate the Jewish faith and Jewish people from the face of the earth. While Carroll does not contend that the Church caused the Holocaust, he makes a compelling case for showing how the Church, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, taught beliefs and values, and carried out actions over many centuries that set the stage for Hitler’s atrocity to occur. While Carroll focuses his attention primarily on the Catholic Church, many of the same accusations could be made of Protestants as well.
Not only did Constantine’s conversion lead to the persecution of the Jews, but that mindset of a triumphalist Christian mindset over the centuries has led to Crusades, inquisitions, wars, pogroms, genocide and a view of religion that is arrogant, controlling and divorced from the teachings of love, faith and justice it supposedly promotes. Most troubling for me is that fact that the cross, the symbol of ultimate self-sacrifice and love, has become for many non-Christian people, especially Jews and Moslems, a sign of violence, persecution and war.

Given that history, one wonders how any self-respecting person could choose to be a Christian. One understands why devout atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris call for the abolition of religion. As I read Carroll’s book, I wondered how he could still affirm his Roman Catholicism, even as he admitted that given what he now knows his Christian conscience “can never be a peace.”
While I am a product and indirect beneficiary of this history, like Carroll I find it sickening and repulsive. And like Carroll, I want to say that my faith in Christ stands against power as defined by politics, economics, and military might. My faith cannot affirm a church structure and polity built on hierarchy and a lack of respect for the dignity of people be they Jewish or African, a woman or a gay person. My view of faith cannot abide a triumphalist Christianity professed in hymns that have words like “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.”

The faith I profess, and the view of Jesus I see in the New Testament is of a man who grew up among an oppressed people and proclaimed a God who stood with those considered marginal, oppressed and less than human. The faith I profess lies in a God who calls his followers  to be those “who come not to be served, but to serve and give [one’s] life for many.” The faith I profess seeks justice for the oppressed, equity for the powerless, and dignity for all regardless of their race or creed.
I don’t know who or what Constantine heard or saw on the Milvian Bridge, but I do know that the wholesale acceptance of that “affirmation” of Christianity by the most powerful person in the world at the time led the Christian movement away from the core values and beliefs that had shaped the movement for the previous 300 years. Christian leaders at that time made a huge blunder thinking that the emperors blessing was somehow God’s will. We have been paying the price ever since.

This is not to say that nothing good has come out of the church since 312, but it is to say that in many ways we lost our compass as a people, that we sold our soul for worldly power, and that we have drifted from our core values ever since. This does also does not mean we avoid engaging the pressing issues of our day, but rather that we do so from a prophetic, critical stance, willing always to ask the hard and difficult questions, regardless of the cost. We don’t seek “failure” or martyrdom, but our calling is to frame issues from the perspective of the Reign of God, which in no way can be equated with reign of Constantine or the Tea Party or Obama or Wall Street or Microsoft.
In 312 we took a wrong turn, and we need to find our way back home.