Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite liturgical holidays. Maybe it's because the corporate world hasn't found a way to squeeze greeting cards, furniture sales, and faux controversy ("keep the Christ in Christmas") out of it. Or maybe it's for the same reason one of my seminary professors talked about existentialists loving Fall "because of all this beautiful death around us".

Actually, the reason I love Ash Wednesday is how its symbols remind us of the cyclical nature of the liturgical calendar, and more broadly, the impermanence of life. Each year, we save the palm fronds from Palm Sunday, let them dry for eleven months, and then burn them to make the ashes we use to mark the beginning of another Lent. As bright and colorful as those palm fronds were last year, and as great as the children's procession into the sanctuary with them was, they end up dry and brittle, and one small spark turns them into a thick, black, ashy dust.

"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return..."

Last year, Ash Wednesday took on a new significance for me because it was the first time I put ashes on my daughter's forehead. She was just a few weeks old at the time, and was asleep when I did it, but it was still very sobering to think that even Kate, that energetic little girl with her whole life ahead of her, is just as mortal as any of us.

That lesson was brought back to me again this year, because she's now so mobile and active like a big person, and she was awake and looking at me curiously, wondering why I was smearing something on her when that's usually her job, and I'm the one always cleaning her off! She, too, will one day shuffle off his moral coil, though I pray that it's long after Jessica and I are gone.

I think our congregation was also much more aware of the impermanence of life this year. Our beautiful, historic church building was reduced to ashes, to dust it returned. Before we cleaned up the site, I went and collected some of the ashes in a jar, and I mixed them with the palm fronds this year. It served as a reminder to all of us that despite all the time and energy we're putting into the new building, one day it, too, will return to dust, as will we all.

And the winner is...

The random person who spammed me in Mandarin with links to websites whose content will not be repeated on this blog!

Just kidding. Seriously, though, don't do that. Kids read this blog.

Bradley J. Smith of Pulaski, TN wins a free copy of Hear No Evil! Congratulations, Brad!

Thanks so much for all those who commented and retweeted. This was fun, and I'll do another giveaway some time soon. In the meantime, I hope you'll keep coming back to The Truth as Best I Know It and interact as much as you can.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review of Hear No Evil and Giveaway

Matthew Paul Turner's latest book, Hear No Evil: My Story of Innocence, Music, and the Holy Ghost is a very enjoyable followup to Churched, his previous memoir about growing up in and eventually out of fundamentalist Christianity.

This book surprised me a bit. I was expecting a standard memoir, where Turner tells the story of a certain portion of his life, covering all the major events in that period and more or less allowing the reader to take whatever themes from it they will. While Hear No Evil generally fits into this category- it begins when Turner is a teenager and ends in the present day- the narrative jumps around a bit. Conversations with friends pause to show flashbacks. Major events of Turner's life, such as meeting and marrying his wife, Jessica, the birth of his son, Elias Jude, and what are undoubtedly many interesting anecdotes about his time as a student at Belmont University, manager of a Christian coffee shop, and editor of CCM Magazine, are left out.

This may sound like criticism, but it's not. The fact that Hear No Evil doesn't follow the standard linear memoir format is what makes it stand out from the plethora of enjoyable memoirs by gifted storytellers out there. These episodes in Turner's life serve as vignettes to chart the emergence of Turner's understanding of the relationship between religious faith and popular culture, specifically "secular" music. Hear No Evil is a literary version of a concept album: someone who comes to it expecting the standard fare may not get it, but will probably find something to enjoy nonetheless.

Sidenote: if this is a concept album, what happens if I read it backwards while I'm watching the Wizard of Oz?

Regardless of what you're looking for, you're going to find something to like about Hear No Evil. Matthew Paul Turner is an excellent storyteller. His love and compassion for all the people he writes about is clearly evident, even when he's describing things that made him mad or frustrated him at the time.

Some highlight include: a group of Pentecostals loudly praying over him at a restaurant for deliverance from his acid-reflux disease, all the while trying to hold back a massive belch; buying and throwing away an Amy Grant album several times because of the guilt over its supposed "ungodliness"; and the heartbreaking story of his publisher at CCM rewriting an interview with Amy Grant to make her apologize for getting a divorce.

His somewhat sarcastic (some might use the word "snarky") sense of humor is only off-putting to those who take themselves way too seriously, and these are the folks who are in the greatest need of what Matthew Paul Turner has to offer. The kind of Christianity he describes is genuine, full of hope and free from fear and judgment. The church would be a much better place if more people understood Jesus the way Matthew Paul Turner does.

OK, now for the freebie! Want to win a free copy of Hear No Evil? Of course you do. Here are a couple ways to get one:

1. Leave a comment on this post.
2. Follow my blog by clicking the button on the right.
3. Follow me on Twitter:
4. Speaking of Twitter, retweet this:
RT @matthewlkelley: win a free copy of Hear No Evil:

Each of these actions will get you an entry, and I will randomly select a winner Wednesday morning.

Disclaimer: This book was provided for review by the WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group. The opinions expressed in this review, however, are my own.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

50th Anniversary of the Nashville Sit-Ins

Today marks a significant anniversary for the Nashville community. Fifty years ago today, the lunch counter sit-ins began, protesting legalized segregation in many places in Nashville, including lunch-counters, water fountains, bathrooms, etc.

I wasn't alive during this time, and I'm white, so it may sound strange to say that this is a very meaningful anniversary for me personally. But these sit-ins played a major role in my own faith development.

First, one of my teachers in high school was a student at Fisk University during this time and participated in the sit-ins. He would tell his story to students, sparing no detail about the verbal and physical abuse he suffered at the hands of white people who feared sitting next to him at a lunch counter. I had read about the Civil Rights movement in text books, but hearing someone who was there tell his story, and seeing the scars on his arms from being dragged off by police, made social injustice more real and less theoretical to me at an early age.

Also, my seminary, Vanderbilt Divinity School, played a central role in the Nashville sit-ins. James Lawson, a divinity student at the time, was the organizer of the sit-ins, and the controversy his involvement in civil rights and subsequent expulsion created nearly shut down not only the Divinity School, but the entire university. The events of these years were so significant that there is a whole chapter devoted to them in the official history of the Divinity School

There is also an amazing book about the sit-ins by the late David Halberstam, called The Children. James Lawson and many others are brilliantly profiled by Halberstam, who was a reporter for The Tennessean at the time.

So I wish all those who have fought for equality these last fifty years a happy anniversary. Thank you for  making this world a better place for me and my children to live in, and for inspiring us to do our part in the struggle for a nation where all are truly accepted and loved for who they are.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Witness to Love

This week, I was privileged to be part of a unique, grassroots event. On Wednesday night, Judy Shepard spoke at Austin Peay State University. Fred Phelps and his followers from Westboro Baptist Church were planning to be there spreading their hatred, so a group of students organized a counter protest, welcoming Judy Shepard to Clarksville and witnessing to the fact that not all followers of Jesus are have hatred and fear as their primary motivation. I went, wearing my clerical collar to represent all the loving, tolerant pastors who couldn't be present.

The crowd was fairly diverse, and since it included lots of college students, there were a number of creative and somewhat snarky signs. Here are few of my favorites:

This last photo is my favorite, because it shows a small portion of the crowd, but it gives a sense of just how many folks showed up. It was very peaceful, and organized entirely by the students. Those of us who were older and out of school were very impressed!

Even though they've been following Judy Shepard around the country, Fred Phelps and his followers didn't show up to protest. I was a little disappointed, because I wanted to see that circus in person, but I was overjoyed to see how the crowd stuck around for the purpose of affirming something and someone, and not just protesting against a particular group.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Witnessing to Love Tonight

Tonight (Wednesday, February 3), Judy Shepard will be speaking at Austin Peay at 7pm. Judy's son, Matthew, was murdered in 1998 by a gang of young men who hated him for one reason: he was gay. Recent legislation signed by President Obama extending hate crimes protection to cover sexual orientation bares Matthew Shepard's name, and his mother now speaks all over the country sharing Matthew's story spreading awareness of hate crimes.

Sadly, hate will be present on campus as she speaks. Fred Phelps and members of Westboro Baptist Church will be protesting on campus. My dear friend, Rev. Jodi McCullah, the director of the Wesley Foundation at Austin Peay, has informed me that numerous student groups, religious and secular, will be present as well to witness to the love of Jesus Christ against the hatred spread by Phelps and his followers.

I will be joining the APSU students in their witness, and I invite anyone else in the Clarksville area who wishes to do so to join us. If you choose to bring signs, please keep them respectful, affirming God's love and grace, and not attacking anybody else. Please also refrain from verbally engaging Phelps or his followers, as they have a history of being extremely aggressive and attempting to create physical conflict.

If you plan to join us, please email me or leave a comment on the blog so I know to look for you.

update- A friend of mine on Facebook made a great suggestion. For every minute that Phelps and his followers are out there protesting, I'm going to donate $1 to PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Tomorrow I'll post the total number of minutes for anyone else to wants to participate.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Superbowl Ads

Like many red-blooded American males, I like football. I like watching it, I like talking about it with other guys, and I even briefly tried to play it in middle school (let's not talk about how that one went). So even if my second favorite team, the Indianapolis Colts, wasn't in the game, I'd still be excited about this weekend's Superbowl.

One of the reasons I like the Superbowl is that it is the one football game a year that I can get my wife to watch with me. She doesn't care much about the game, despite my numerous, patient, and erudite attempts to explain it to her, but she does like the commercials. Large companies spend millions of dollars per second competing with each other to see who can put on the most lavish production, which may or may not have even the tiniest connection with the product they're selling. Kind of like the game itself, watching the Superbowl commercials is mindless fun, a great escape from the grind of everyday life.

That is, until this year. It turns out that Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, a devout and vocal (although not in an annoying way, thankfully) evangelical Christian, is appearing with his mother in a pro-life ad sponsored by Focus on the Family (one of the few remaining home-bases of the religious right). Predictably, there was vocal reaction from all sides, because few issues get people up in arms these days like abortion.

This development didn't bug me, personally. If Focus on the Family wants to spend the money to buy air-time during the Superbowl, it's their right to do so. They air beer commercials during the Superbowl, and not everyone approves of alcohol use. For that matter, they air soda ads, and some religious traditions forbid consumption of caffeine. The ability to purchase air-time is an exercise of the First Amendment.

What disturbs me is that CBS is now applying inconsistent standards in what ads they'll air during the Superbowl. A dating website that caters specifically to those with same-sex attraction attempted to buy air-time, and they were rejected, even though the only thing they showed was two guys holding hands. CBS claims the ad "is not within the Network's broadcast standards for Super Bowl Sunday." Scantily clad women selling beer and couples heading off for a one night stand selling condoms are OK, but not two guys holding hands? Really?

Ad to this the fact that CBS rejected an ad several years ago from that was critical of then-President Bush. They have also previously rejected ads from the United Church of Christ, a progressive Christian denomination. If everyone has the right to buy air-time if they can afford it, why is CBS discriminating?

Once again we see that conservative Christian groups have tremendous power in America because they are more than willing to unleash their wrath on people and groups they perceive to have offended them in the smallest way. I don't think CBS has a political agenda. CBS is a publicly traded corporation, and as such it is afraid of bad press and boycotts that would hurt their ratings, both of which the Christian-media-industrial-complex is happy to use as weapons.

It's really sad that the dominant voices in our society of those who allegedly represent Jesus Christ, a man who was killed for preaching love and grace against the fear-based, violently coercive systems of his day, use as their first option the tactics against which Jesus preached.

I'm going to enjoy the Superbowl this year, especially if the Colts win, but seeing certain ads included and excluded based almost solely on the fear of issue-groups will lessen my enjoyment.