Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Day We Scattered Marne's Ashes

Marne was the kind of girl it was impossible not to fall in love with one way or another. Those who didn't want to date her still loved her like a sister. She was just that sort of person, gentle, soft-spoken and always kind. A pretty redhead from the Midwest who loved hiking and the outdoors, she exemplified the term "girl next door," the kind every decent man wants to marry and every parent wants to have for a daughter.

Marne had a secret, though. She suffered from a deeply buried mental disorder that grew more apparent during her college years. She barely succeeded in graduating, and then fell apart totally, wandering the country, losing touch with her family and friends for weeks at a time, and nearly starving herself to death because of her illusion that she was overweight.

Then her "visions" began. She thought that God told her to change her name to Mary because she had been appointed to be "the mother of mercy to all people." Marne was losing her mind.

Her new friends didn't see it that way, though. She found company with a group of ultra-Charismatics who told her the voices she heard were from God and she should obey them, even when they told her not to take her medications and to go on extended fasts that wrecked her health.

Her delusions got worse as her mind deteriorated. Once her family found her out in the yard in the middle of the night digging a hole in the ground. When they confronted her, she said that she was digging her way to the Holy Land where her husband and children were. Marne had gone insane.

She stuck with her new friends, however, who encouraged her to listen to the voices. Then one day she scrawled a note on a piece of paper saying she just wanted to be with her "beloved," doused herself with lamp oil, set herself on fire, and jumped out of a fifth floor window. She died on impact.

Her devastated parents brought her ashes back to Georgia, where she had gone to college. A group of her friends gathered on top of a mountain, where we held a memorial service for her. Then we each took a handful of her ashes and scattered them to the wind.

Marne didn't have to die. If she had received intervention in the form of group therapy, counseling, and medication she might be alive today. She perished from a fall, but the dying process began well before that, when fanatics encouraged her descent into madness in order to maintain their own delusional outlook on the world.

Did religion kill Marne? No. Her faith had sustained and guided her throughout the short years of her life. Fanaticism and ignorance parading behind a mask of spirituality destroyed her. To paraphrase Einstein: just as reason without faith is crippled, so faith without reason is blind.

The real travesty is that the blindness of Marne's killers was purely voluntary. They cling to their fairy tales because they don't have the courage to face the world as it is. They reject any call to critical thought or to appreciating science as an insight into the mind of God.

That's all well and good for them. But they didn't have to murder my friend.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Of Jesus, Fitness Clubs and Toccoa Falls College

I wasn't in love with Sharona, even though I'm attracted to plus sized women. I didn't even have a crush on her. She haunted none of my sexual fantasies, the kind so typical of a young man just turned twenty.

Nor did I dislike her. She had no habits that annoyed me, no smug look, no vacuous stare in her eyes. She didn't dispense syrupy sweet platitudes from a face painted in Cover Girl's finest foundation.

For me, she just was, and if one day she chose to pack her bags and join the Peace Corps, it would have caused no more reaction in me than the change in the wind's direction outside does to a gamer hunched over a PC engrossed in zombie hunting. Still, she remains in my mind these many years later, simply because she deserved better.

Sharona could sing. I don't mean the tinny sort of wailing that comes from the throat of every semi-talented teenager whose parents scraped up the money for a voice coach. I mean she could belt it out, clear, strong, and unforgettable, yet dainty enough to leave no confusion as to her gender.
What's more, she was passionate about her craft. To her it was a calling, a talent that defined her essential personhood and explained why she had been born.

Her ambition was to join one of the singing groups that toured churches friendly to the Christian college I attended. They were the congregations that supplied bright-eyed freshman students every autumn, as well as a few dollars whenever the president's department sent out the semi-annual "please help us train young people to do God's work" letter.

So far as gigs go, it wasn't quite as prestigious as being on the road with the Stones during their inevitable farewell tour. Sharona was clearly more gifted than the others who sought the job, so it should have been hers.

There was one problem, though. Sharona was chubby. That was a deal breaker in the eyes of the administration. Their fervor to recruit students was tempered by their concern about the image they were projecting to the world. They were willing to overlook snobbery, two-facedness, and petty vanity in their musical representatives, so long as they could fit into jeans with a 32 inch waist. But linger a microsecond too long at the dessert bar and they didn't care if you had a voice like Kathleen Battle and the spiritual character of Saint Francis of Assisi. You didn't have the face, or the figure, they wanted to present to the world.

Sharona took it hard, but she didn't give up. In a desperate bid to meet the superficial standards laid down by the good Christians in the college faculty she punished herself, doing aerobic exercises, walking endless laps around the campus periphery, and surviving on rice cakes and oxygen. But in the end she didn't make the cut. When the tour began, the singers who climbed on the bus were lesser people than her, both in talent and girth. Sharona was heartbroken.

I think about this sad little slice of human history sometimes, when I remember that Jesus was likely a typical semitic person of average looks and build, probably indistinguishable in a crowd of others who shared his ethnic heritage. But his character and his message were ineffably beautiful, and have given hope, meaning, and renewal to countless millions over the last two millennia. For him it was all about substance. He cared about things that matter, not conforming to whatever current measure of beauty is in favor in a particular culture.

Would the good Christians in the college administration let him go on their tour? Maybe. But he'd have to prove he could pass muster at the weigh-in. After all, he may look past external appearances, but his followers have different standards than him.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The True Cost of the New Steeple

I was at a Wednesday night church business meeting when the issue of the nursing home came up. For several months the church bus had been picking up several elderly women who lived at the local facility, so they could go to Sunday morning worship. It turned out that several members of the church felt this was a poor use of Jesus' money.

"Those women are so demented that they don't know what's going on anyway," said one deacon, who stood to address the congregation. "It's a burden on us, spending the gas money to pick them up. Besides, what if one of them got sick or had an accident while riding? We might get sued!"

With no more discussion a vote was called. The motion to abandon the ladies at the nursing home passed. There would be no more spiritual sustenance or fellowship for them, no chance to wear their nice dresses or sing hymns or hear words of comfort in their final years of life. They would no longer be able to escape that morbid, death-filled atmosphere for an hour a week. There was no money in the budget to cover the fifty cents in fuel it took to pick them up.

Then the next matter of business was brought up: the proposal to add a new steeple to the building. Estimated cost: $25,000.00. This motion passed as well.

If you're ever in northern GA and drive past a nice white church with a fine-looking steeple on top, think of the cost some people paid for it.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. - James 1:27. Apparently these good Christians forgot to read this verse in their Bibles.