A Post about Beer or A Fundamentalist Takes Up Drinking (briefly considered with more to follow)

I want to write a series of essays which begin with either the phrase “A Fundamentalist Reflects on…” or “Confessions of Fundamentalist…” Potential titles include:

Confessions of a Fundamentalist Librarian
Confessions of a Recovering Fundamentalist
A Fundamentalist Reflects on Prozac
(the pun here is entirely intended)

This piece, “A Fundamentalist Takes Up Drinking,” is not one of those essays, but you might consider it an abstract for one. A trailer, if you will.
Now, I do not wish to be intentionally insensitive here, as I know that many have strong moral convictions against Christians drinking alcohol and some who may or may not share those convictions may have a predeliction towards alcoholism. I am sensitive to each of these groups. Moreover, I respect people who choose not to drink, not because they think it is wrong, but because they work with populations for whom it is highly problematic. My brother in college ministry with InterVarsity for 12 years chose this route. My position has changed, though, and this is a mini chronicle.
While I never could believe theologically that drinking was morally wrong based on Scripture, I did think that it was tremendously unwise as it might lead to drunkness (Which reminds me of the joke about why Baptists are opposed to people having sex standing up…..Because it might lead to dancing.) And so, in a Pharisaical pattern that ruled many other parts of my life, I thought it best to avoid it all together. Nor, did I really like the taste of beer.
I began with the “chick drinks” (OK, there goes the sensitivity angle), because they were sweet. And, ooh I still like my margaritas and “alcopops” such as Hooch and Mikes Hard Lemonade (which I might add are a bit problematic as they are rather appealing to the wee ones). Next, I moved on to ciders, hard ciders, which if truth be told do initially taste kind of like “sucking on a rotting apple,” as my brother likes to say. But soon, I began to really like the differing flavors of different brands, and they are down right sweet compared to beer, for which I worked to acquire a taste.
Now some might legitimately ask, why would one work to acquire a taste for beer. Well, the most simple answer is that I like the asthetics of beer…much as I like the aesthetics of tea. I am not talking the “aesthetics” of keggers and loudness and lewdness and 2:00am vomit and fuzzy, achy next days. Those kind of “aesthetics” I am happy I was able to skip, thanks in part to my fundamentalistic bubble. No, I like the aesthetics of drinking together…at a party in ones home, on the porch with the boys (with perhaps a cigar to boot, like Gandalf and Frodo and Strider kicking it with the ale and smoke rings), and, yes, in a smoky pub with chips and vinegar and laughter…
OK, I need to go and cycle, so this will have to continue later. For now, here are some pics of a time of curry and drink and fellowship from this past Sunday….More later.

Chicken curry, chick pea curry, pakoras, pilau, and sundry salads.

Myself and the guest of honor.

A new favorite, Extra Special Bitter, with a fruity, toffee flavor, before…

…after Posted by Hello

Intros-Strings 2

Several times a semester a student will approach me and ask to interview me. Impressive? Well, not really. It simply means that the student is taking Non-Western music and they have not been able to find a nonwesterner to interview about their country’s music and culture. And so, either at the suggestion of their instructor or friend who was in the same predicament before, they will come knocking on my door, ready or not for an interview with a somewhat schizophrenic nonwesterner.
It is perhaps appropriate that I am bit like a remainder in the nonwestern pile. I do have some nonwestern cred. My father and half of my extended family are Pakistani. Moreover, I spent about 13 of the first 17 years of my life in Pakistan. I can speak both Urdu and Punjabi, though my tongue seems like a retired gymnast when I try them now, as it bends itself around half-forgotten syllables or tries to scrape out a gutteral “R.”
On the other hand, my mother, though she wondrously communicated with a gumbo of Urdu, English, and Punjabi with those she cared for as a nurse, was a straight-as-a-cornstalk midwesterner, as evidenced every time she got on the phone with my grandmother. And even while in Pakistan, what truly became my heart’s home was Murree Christian School, where students from America, Britain, Europe, Australia, and Pakistan all spoke with a pretty much American accent, with islands of British vocabulary.
And since coming to America in 1987, with every progressing year, I feel more a Midwesterner, slowly making the “non” of nonwestern less emphatic. Some of that progression has been a choice. I often remark to friends that I think that one does have to more or less choose between cultures, at least in as much as to make one primary. In my case, this has been both an organic and an intentional choice. There are times when I think that perhaps, I have copped out, that it is simply because I do not want to do the emotional work that I have made this choice. And I think there is truth to this, as I have confessed elswhere on this blog. And yet I also do feel pretty naturally American. I understand, but feel puzzled and a bit misunderstood when a friend, and sometimes a good friend even, introduces me to someone else as their Pakistani friend, Neil.
And so, my student interlocutors get a rather an odd interview when they come knocking. I answer all their biographical questions, plotting out the foundations of my personhood. Yes, I am a Christian even though Pakistan is 98% Muslims. No, I really didn’t listen to much Pakistani music per se. My earliest memory of pop music is listening to ABBA on a little mono tape recorder my father bought. The opening piano notes of “S.O.S” still evoke monsoon fog, dampness, hot tea, mother. Favorite Music? U2, Coldplay, Rich Mullins…. I do try my best to do right by them, though, describing how music is an important part of Pakistani culture, how it is used in weddings, movies, how there are classical genres and ones that blend Pakistani sounds with contemporary pop or dance music.
And so, at long last, we come to the object that this post intended to introduce. In 1992, the children of my cousin Ansel, introduced me to the band Strings and their album Strings 2. It in essence is an eighties album, and that is probably why I like it so much. There are drum machine and synthesizers, all layered in sweet pop, the lyrics doing little to add weight to the confection. I like this album for those reasons, and because I like its melodies. I am a sucker for when a singer progresses from mostly low notes to the high ones, almost requiring falsetto. I think it is the transition I like. I also like background vocals of either harmony or, better still, a sung echo. This album has each of these.
There are additional albums that can also be listened to and downloaded, in addition to videos, but this is the one that I like, probably also because it speaks to me of a specific time and place. Favorite tracks? “Sar Kiyae” with its wistful, aching melody. “Jab Bhi Kisi Mausum Mein,” which is a rap of sorts complete with a repetitive exclamation of “Oh, yeah!” It also has a totally Eastern touch, though, with an elongated “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” in the middle which is like a Muslim cleric at prayer or a Qawwali, which are songs of devotion to God. Another similar one, with a 80’s rap sound (one part of which sounds a little like mellow Linkin Park) is “Aaj Mein.” It is the mellow achingly, hauting ones that I really like, though.

If you have read this blog long, you will know that I often post material, specifically poems, that may go back many years, some almost all the way back to the time in high school when we “had to” write a sonnet, and I found I liked it.
Some of my older writings use words such as “ache,” “long,” “yearn.” They seem so poetically cheesy. And, indeed, there may well be a whiff of “le fromage” in my use of them. Yet, I think there is more than that. I think I use them appropriately, if rather too readily, to describe some of my memories. Today, going to my high school’s web site, I found this image.

The images on the right are brilliant, of course, and show the heavy snowfall amounts I would always wish for as we made our way back to school after a three month break in the winter. I would eagerly watch, bend after bend, as we ascended up the mountain ranges, looking for signs of snow on the hillside whizzing past our windows, on higher mountains across the valley, even on cars coming down the mountain.
If there were no promising signs further down, I had one dramatic bend remaining upon which I would pin my hopes. Going around it took one from the sunny side of a mountain to the shady side. Sometimes, dismally, there would be nothing even there, save the cold and dark of a winter night and slush and mud, adding weight to a heart already carrying the ache of missing parents.
But sometimes, it would be like going with Lucy through the wardrobe. Even the sound of the roaring bus engine seemed to be absorbed in the dark, stillness of the mountain. Heavy spackles of snow covered the gaps between stands of pine trees. Beneath the trees themselves, the snow was less deep. In especially dense groves, one might find the brownness of pine needles and dry earth.
And then, “Cold? What cold?” Of course it was there, and along with the dark would bide its time. There would be time to sadden hearts. But now, “Snow! There’s snow!” That was all that mattered.
No, what really excited me when I saw this montage was the picture on the left. This is the view the Jr. and Sr. High boys would look at every day when we walked the mile or so to and from school, when we had the good sense to look, that is. In my era, it was rare to see this much snow, but the tops of these mountains often had snow. Even snowless, though, they were lovely. And to the right of these mountains, across an even more breathtaking expanse of space, were the beginnings of the true Himalayas, which themselves were mere babies to the legends even further North.
It is these enormous gaps of space…pine needles…sticky sap…rich dark earth…snow…that shaped my sensibilities, my ideas of beauty. For many years, driving in flat Illinois, the occasional cloud formation that seemed, at first glance, to be a towering mountain, would quite literally make my heart skip. The mountains of Eastern Colorado provided a bit of a fix, but not the same expansive, gasping glory.
This is some of what I was getting at in the following lines from a poem I wrote for a poetry class about a return journey to Murree, which I hope to post after I have revised it.
these years
that have gathered thick like a winter’s snows
melt from me
these years
stream down and bless the hills
that gave me love of beauty
amidst whose vastness i first yearned
for unknown things
for windswept hills
and distant lonely valleys
More later….

Girl Meets God Girl Met

Well, not really, but the Lauren Winner, author of Girl Meets God, Mudhouse Sabbath, and Real Sex was at the Covenant Seminary campus last night giving a talk about chastity and premarital sex. I missed the first little bit, but from what I gathered and from an article in the Spring 2005 issue of Leadership, her three central points are that there are 3 lies the church believes about sex:
1) Premarital sex makes you feel lousy: “Insisting that premarital sex will make you feel bad missates the nature of sin. When we consider decption, or sloth, or gluttony, or any other sin, we know darn well that these don’t always makes us feel bad….This is the way sin works–it tells that something not good is very good indeed. Our feelings are not always reliable–before or after sinning. This is precisely why we need the witness of Scripture and the Church to help us know what to do.”
2)Women don’t really want to have sex: “Okay, I admit it: this is a fib that really ticks me off.” She said that this was not always the case historically, but that in earlier times it was women who were perceived to be temptresses luring men. She noted that in about 25% of marriages it is men who want more sex, in 25% women, and in the other 50% it is about even. Her central point, though, was that to believe and act on this assertion does nothing for women to prepare them for sexual desire and temptation if or when it does arrive.
3)Premarital sex leaves permanent scars: This perhaps was her most interesting point. She said that evangelical Christian literature centers on two metaphors regarding premarital sexual sin: ghost and scars i.e. the ghost of previous lovers will never leave ones mind and the scars of premarital sex will permanently affect a marriage. She was not diminishing the far reaching consequences of premarital sex (and she made clear that this encompasses not just the actual sex act but also activities that fall short of that but are equally intimate). In fact, she provided the helpful analogy of credit card debt (and another I don’t remember just now), in which it is true that towering credit card debt casts a long shadow, that it takes a long time to pay it off and to learn good spending habits, but she insisted that this can be done. She said it is the same with sexual sin. Moreover, she noted that to claim that sexual sin was in some way outside of the redeeming and healing power of the Gospel is also simply a gross falsehood.
Overall, her talk was very good and I am looking forward to reading her other books, perhaps most specifically Mudhouse Sabbath.
This morning Ms. Winner gave a seminar on spiritual writing which I attended. It was also very good, particularly her thoughts on the writing of memoirs and creative nonfiction. What follows is a writing exercise in which we were to write, in the space of about 15 minutes, a piece defining an abstract concept without using the word itself. Here, with only one word changed, is my piece on “xxxxxxx.” OK, I had told you the word, but I think I won’t, and hence I went back and x-ed it out. If you are inclined, guess it in a comment, and lets see if I did my job. Oh, and this was off the top of my head and from my impressions i.e. I did not really check out my assertions.
The Monty Python skits mock it because that’s never how it is. At least not how it is in my experience. There is never the clarity of the ray of light beaming down from above, with me gazing up, finally seeing it. The light that is, that old proverbial light. Nor is there a sound of angelic voices in growing crescendo as the light of comprehension reaches its almost orgasmic peak.
No, my reality is not like that. There are places, friends, music, words, desires, and pain. David, longing, “Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service, Scotland all ensconced in grey matter and synapses, the synapses themselves arranged, no one knows, how in amazing sequences.
No, what it is is when structure emerges from the chaos. Not the structure of everthing, of course. The Theory of Everything I have not nailed down. The string theorists can rest easy. No, but a piece at least becomes aligned, connected, and I can see the connection all the way up to God.
Perhaps that how it was then. The confusion of Kings with their entourage descending on a dusty Judean village. They, perhaps, puzzled themselves at their end point. The neighbors confused. There was no flock of angels as before, however many years before, just a young mother, a baby in peasant rags, kneeling, gifting, and a direct connection to God.

Blog Book Essay

This past winter writer and blogger extraordinaire, Jeremy Huggins, compiled a book of essays and some poetry concerning the Gospel. He invited fellow bloggers to contribute to this book, be they believers or atheists or somewhere in between. The simple instructions were to write a piece about something from the gospels. Fully twenty-six bloggers contributed with many others interested. Here is my piece from that now sold out book, which Jeremy published with a hand fashioned cover. Sometime in the future there may be a Blog Book II, so if you are interested in contributing, fire up a blog and keep your ears on (good buddy). OK, I have been watching too many reruns of the Dukes of Hazzard on CMT. And while we’re on that topic, Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke? Puh-lease! In fact, why must they reimagine and sully such high art at all? “Kee! Kee!”
Matthew 12:1-13

I love rules. They tell you how to behave. And, if you are unclear about exactly how a specific rule should be applied, well, with rules, “There’s always more where them came from.” And, if you really love rules you can make unlimited addenda to address any hypothetical breach. And this will invariably lead to principles that spring from the rule that, when applied consistently, will create a sort of warning track around the rule. If you are not in the know regarding baseball, the warning track is the several yards of gravel just before the outfield wall. The outfield wall is what truly “rules” which fly balls are home runs and which not. The warning track, though, lets a charging outfielder know that very soon he will be reaching a hard immovable object that is unforgiving.
The other side of the coin of being a rule lover is that I strongly dislike people who have no regard for rules, who live out their lives acting either as if there are no rules or, more maddeningly, as if, of course, the rules do not apply to them. I would have said I “hate” such people, but you see there is this rule that says we are to love one another and…. No, really I should say no more even than that I hate their behavior. More than that, and, well, I would be breaking the rule…which, actually, is not such a bad one to apply when angry unless you use it simply to stifle and repress valid feelings which need to be addressed.
Who are these people, though? Who are they to snub their noses at rules to which the rest of us submit? Of course, ironically often I am one of the very people I hate the most in this regard. At other times, though, I truly do not understand. A former girlfriend confessed to touching the corner of a famous painting in a museum in Europe. Why? Because she just wanted to touch it so badly to have a connection with it and the artist. Inwardly I burned, principally because she was simply a rule breaker, but also because, really, that rule is there for a pretty good reason. If everyone did the same, you would end up with a squidgy masterpiece.
More often than not, though, a rule that a person is “flagrantly” breaking (which my former girlfriend did constantly), is really one of my own construction. They are only crashing through one of the pretty little hedges that I have so painstakingly planted in my mind. And, boy, once it was like the gardens of Versailles in there. My girlfriend’s hedge crashing of the latter sort and my angry-hurt-obsessive-gardener-like-sulks-and-tirades (yes, it was a complex) helped a great deal in adding the adjective “former” to my appellation of her as “girlfriend.” And, that separation, of which I am only finally beginning to accept the Goodness, brought sorrowful regret and pain into my life of a depth I had not experienced before. It also, though, helped bring about the perspective I articulate in this piece. And, for that, I am eternally, and temporally, grateful.
In Matthew 12, when the Pharisees confront Jesus both about his disciples picking and eating grain on the Sabbath and then his healing of the man with a withered hand on the same holy day, we have something of Jesus addressing the “warning track” dynamic. The Pharisees were forever creating hedges around the law to ensure that people would not even come close to breaking it.
However, there is another dynamic in his interaction with the Pharisees that is more radical and explosive. Jesus, at first blush, seems to be one of my hated crowd who believe that the rules do not apply to them. He answers the Pharisees’ complaint about the grain picking by noting that David ate consecrated bread when starving and Hebrew priests, kind of like pastors today, of necessity work in the temple on the Sabbath. But then he says something that is truly mind blowing; that he is greater than the Sabbath. Unfortunately, I can imagine from my own experience just how the Pharisees must have felt. “Now who in the world….” Or, if they were blindingly mad at that point, “What the f….” Yes, the extremely fundamentalistic are very prone to abandon their niceties under duress.
In the passage, Jesus does two things: one conventional, the other radical, no ridiculous, if it were not true. First, for the conventional one, in true Rabbinic fashion, balancing principles and precedents, he makes the case that the need for acts of mercy to be done for distressed animals on the Sabbath provides a precedent for his healing on the Sabbath. While they might have disagreed with his conclusion, the Pharisees would have at least had a framework for such argumentation.
For the greater claim, though, which actually occurs first in the passage, they would have had no framework. He begins with the precedents of David needing to eat bread in an emergency and priests needing to work in the temple. But then Jesus claims to be greater than the temple in which both of these accepted precedents occurred, except in David’s case it would have been the tabernacle, I think. In so doing, Jesus elevates his disciples to the role of the great historical king’s companions and to that of priests. His elevation of himself, though, is truly astounding. He elevates himself as one greater than the temple, the One, indeed, who makes the temple itself holy. And there would have been no doubt in anyone’s mind who heard those words of the only person who can make that claim. And, how dare he?
How dare he, indeed? And, yet, I still do not thinking he is claiming the rules do not apply to him. If they are simply rules for human behavior, of course, they would not. However, if they are Rules with a capital “R,” or rather words that describe his character and nature, even he cannot (or perhaps it is better to say he will not) break them. No, what Jesus is doing here is claiming his position as both the provider of Sabbath Rest and the true recipient of Sabbath worship. He claims the position of Lord of the Sabbath. In that context, the disciples munching their grain in his presence are participating in a high, holy feast with their God. Rules are not so much suspended as they are superseded. They are being followed truly, organically, naturally, perfectly. And, oh, it took me so, so long to understand this wonderful truth of this passage.
The truth is, though, that I still tend to love rules. They are easy. I do, though, want to love them less, at least the variety which multiply like rabbits and rigidly proscribe behavior, which I especially use to judge others in my heart and sometimes still in my words. I do not want to need them. I want something more. I want the heart of rules. It is not the righteous who need rules but the wicked. The thought is not original with me, but it is actually where wickedness and lawlessness increase where more rules are needed. And, no example is more prescient than our own law-saturated, litigation-mad nation. No, what I really want, whether I always realize it or not, is the heart of God, and in that I will find freedom for myself and the peace not to take that freedom from others. The more I hang with Jesus and his followers, whether it is munching corn on the cob in a Sabbath potluck or carrying out the acts of mercy he wants me to, I think the better I will understand that.

It’s Possible I Attend the Greatest Church in the World

OK, not really…but it is pretty darn good. I just returned from a house church for the aforementioned GCITW in which our house church was joined by a French speaking house church with members primarilly from Congo but also Togo and Alabama (that’s like another country too right?) The gentleman from Alabama is actually our church’s very able French translator. My house church includes me (a Pakistani American), several Ethiopians, some Black Americans and a bunch of, as they refer to them from the pulpit, Anglos. Oh yeah, and our leader? Alabama also. No banjo on his knee, but he does completely fine by a guitar and belts out those African call and response songs with vigor and gusto, yeah and even some rhythm. The kids sit on the floor with assorted shakers or drumsticks and help out in that department.
Tonight is extraordinary because the songs in French and African languages, which we often sing on our own as a house church, tonight are ensouled by African voices, by the spirits of African brothers and sisters in Christ. Occassionally, a woman will let out a shrill cry, which sounds like a Native American war chant, which seems to be like a completely unmuted cry of joy and freedom, like a verbal dance. At one point during the evening, I notice at least three different rhythms of clapping in one song. I stick with the standard clap and pause and clap. Maybe one day I’ll try a more complex one.
As exciting as this all may seem, I am sure it is muted by African standards, by some African American standards, and by even plain vanilla American pentecostal/charismatic standards. We are a Presbyterian church, after all, and, all kidding aside, orderly worship is a good guiding value of our denomination (which still allows for a great deal of freedom). What is more impressive than the freedom (in which I want and need to participate more) is simply who is here and how we interact.
Our church is not perfect. There is inevitably a certain amount of clunkiness and stepping on feet when one attempts to live as one across cultures, any two cultures not to mention a plurality of them. It is inevitable when you have the decendants of colonists and those colonized that there will be work to do to. There will be unintended patronizing. There will be unwarranted prejudging in every direction. There will be an inclination to highlight the sinful proclivities of another culture, while making excuses for the sinful proclivities of one’s own.
I am a relative newbie at this church. I am learning about these issues as well as issues about poverty and wealth, social justice and evangelism. I, who sometimes describe myself as a bleeding heart conservative, need to learn how to give and serve properly in ways that build up others and not make them dependent, in ways that don’t merely serve my own need to be needed. And there are things which at times I miss at this church. I miss a liturgy, a formalized confession of sins. I miss some of the old tunes of hymns. That is not to say that these never occur in my current church, or at least some equivalent of them. When you strive toward working across cultures, though, there are compromises that have to be made. In a smorgasbord, in order to try everything, you can only take a little from each dish. And our church, still has a great deal of Western ones. We are like an Old Country Buffet with an ever growing exotic food section and a little bit of fusion cooking. OK, that analogy isn’t going anywhere useful.
Well, that is all for now. Perhaps more in a later posting… If you are curious the church’s web site is www.newcity.org.
In a side note, in this post I used “Black American” and “African American” interchangeably. That is not done out of ignorance. I am inclined to follow the lead of the linguist John McWhorter in his preference for “Black American,” but realize the word that I will use in any given context will likely be the one that I feel will be the most acceptable in a given situation. If you are interested in McWhorter’s article on this topic here is the link http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/_latimes-why_im_black.htm. Here is the link to other articles by him http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/mcwhorter.htm.