Friday, May 20, 2011

Big Tent. Big Kicks. Big Mess.

I live in a town where most people are plainly not interested in Jesus. There are many possible reasons for this disinterest but one in particular comes to mind today: Christians. My hunch – and ‘hunch’ is putting it mildly – my hunch is that people don’t bother with Christ because they are already bothered by Christians.

The immanent second coming of the ‘Jesus Christ is Lord Gospel Tent Rally’ is a case in point. If the nature of their last visit is any indication, the purpose of this event will be to ‘share’ Jesus by blaring religious clich├ęs at excruciating decibels from a pop-up tent on the lawn at the Community Centre.

A week ago signs appeared in Pemberton advertising something variously described as a “Tent Rally,” a “Revival,” a “Gospel Meeting,” or in one ominously vague, less-is-more case, simply as "Jesus." 

No-doubt in a calculated effort to be relevant within the current economic context, the signage imbibed a distinctly frugal tone. Clearly intended for re-use, the plastic-board signs all followed a simple pattern: Stenciled in large, bright letters across the top were the various titles about Jesus etc. while the bottom halves were reserved for pasted sheets of paper with event-specific details. Within a day or two the weather had wrinkled the paper and made the ink bleed, but a determined observer could still discern info about location, dates and times.

Within a week the signs had been significantly modified. It was curious at first. Had the organizers suddenly adjusted their plans? Was this some kind of newfangled marketing stunt? The careful but rushed style of the emendations matched the original design, but the content was considerably different, and strange.

Eventually we got it: This had been a rogue re-branding campaign and Chuck Norris was the aptly chosen figurehead. Well-played Pemberton. And leaving the original papers unedited was a nice touch too. The scene comes easily to mind: Swarms of aggression addicts amped for big kicks and fast punches arrive to a very different kind of show, filled instead with guilt trips and judgment jabs.

I have only one qualm with the signs, in either form. Slight variations aside, there is a consistent and conspicuous omission on every one. Standard event advertising includes basic contact information. But on these, there was none. No phone number, no website or email address, not even an organization name to Google.

Maybe they were in a hurry and this was just a clerical oversight.

Or maybe this was an unintentional way of providing one more very relevant piece of information: We will do the talking. You will do the listening.

But here’s the thing: Unilateral communication is kind of like a Chuck Norris punch in the face, its not really “co-mmunication,” it’s a contradiction in terms.

If I were a vegetarian [this is a hypothetical scenario for rhetorical purposes only] and you graciously wanted to ‘share’ your bacon-wrapped tenderloin with me, I would need an opportunity to explain my culinary convictions to you. But if as I opened my mouth to do so, you mistake my gaping jaws for an invitation to jam a juicy morsel down the hatch, we have a problem.

In Pemberton, we have this problem. Enter Chuck Norris.

When we presume someone wants what we are willing to give – even if we genuinely feel really, really generous about it – it’s not ‘sharing,’ it’s just presuming. And when presumption like that takes action, people get ticked-off, things get screwed-up and, as in this case, big nasty stereotypes rise again.

Maybe I’m overreacting here. So what if the last time this revival preacher arrived in Pemberton it marked the seventh all-time-history appearance of a three-piece suit in this town? Honest mistake. We all overdress from time to time. Some of us just happen to overdress especially flamboyantly, that’s all. And, let me assure you, it is far beneath me to judge a man by his clothes. Or by his gold jewelry. Or his Mercedes.

I might be able to appreciate that in some churches a preacher should appear, sound and behave in ways different than mine. I might be able to appreciate that.

Not sure.

What I am sure about is that most people in this town see the bling and hear the racket and immediately take several giant steps backward. The less inhibited and more jovial might pick up some paint and a Sharpie to conjure the help of a fast-fisted hero, but the majority will give the spectacle a passing glance then chalk it up as yet another entry on their own personal list of reasons for dismissing Christianity. And - this ought not need be said - when people dismiss Christianity, they usually dismiss Jesus right along with it.

The people of Pemberton are, presently or potentially, my friends. So if you come here and yell at them for a couple days, I am likely to get miffed. But if you come here and yell at them for a couple days in Jesus’ name, ‘miffed’ no longer captures it. 

Here’s a surprise: Even fully miffed, I’m no Chuck Norris. But let me put this in a way that doesn’t pull any punches: ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ – Amen! I believe it! And I also believe that a ‘Gospel Tent Rally’ of the sort we saw in Pemberton last Fall is just about the worst possible way to make that statement in this town.

To Whoever-You-Are: Would you please contact me to discuss your plans for Christian outreach in Pemberton?

Also: If you haven’t disposed of it yet, I’d sure like that one about the grilled cheese as a souvenir.

Paul Cumin

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Within one 24-hour stretch
last week, I sat in the dark
with a young man
who thought death looked pretty good,
and stood in the lights
of an Emergency Room
with a middle-aged one
who desperately wanted to live.

The day after, I had arrived
late into a large, carpeted church-room
stuffed with well-tucked presentation
and half-embraced deep thought.

Then yesterday, walking
with the big hand of my young son
happily inside mine,
I stepped past a polite homeless man.

At that moment driving by
another stranger,
Plain for those with eyes to see
that his metallic-beige SUV
was not financed
but paid in full,
It was perfectly temperate
yesterday, but his gold-tinted
windows tightly sealed,
And his clean, buttoned collar
reaching up his neck to match
the empty grip
on his face.

That moment passed,
But it has also not passed.

Nor have the others,
The dark, the lights, the room,
the hand and the strangers,
All of them linger heavy
and wait for reconciliation.

So am I, Waiting,
Expectant and leaning
forward with these
and other such thoughts
for longer than I care to recall.

Usually, I don’t
Care or recall
Usually I forget to anticipate,
stranded on the moment
beneath my feet.

Maybe forgetfulness is a mercy?
Otherwise life gets too full,
The bulk tumbles out into the darkness
or bleeds-out under the lights,
When the cup runneth over
it stains the carpet
and slips through the fingers.

Or maybe it should pile up
The cumbersome abundance
from time to time,
Lest all of life’s moments succumb
to the unconstrained present
without a stop
for the remembering that becomes anticipation.

Then, deadpan,
we glide right past it.