Monthly Archives: September 2011

See You at the Pole

see-you-at-the-pole-christianese-redefined-series

See You at the Pole (SYATP for short) – A prayer gathering held annually on the fourth Wednesday of September before school. Students meet around their school flagpoles “to lift up their friends, families, teachers, school, and nation to God.”

It happened again this year, just this past Wednesday. See You at the Pole. It would not have even occurred to me to think of it but for the random Twitter post that I happened across. “Today is See You at the Pole! Are your kids going to be there?”

If it weren’t for my two babies, I may have gotten up and driven over to the local high school. I might have parked just within view of the flagpole so that I could sit on the hood of my car with a paper coffee cup and watch.

Did just a few students appear – nervous, shifty, committed? Or was it, as I remember, a circle widening slowly but absolutely, like water spilled on pavement?

It’s been a while since I’ve been connected to the evangelical youth culture. And I find myself wondering if this movement still has the momentum it did in 1997 when I went for the first time. When I folded up my See You at the Pole t-shirt on my dresser the night before and couldn’t sleep for the stress, the wonder, the excitement of it all.

Of course I went to pray. We all went, on some level, to pray.

But on another, deeper level, I went there to find my people.

It is lonely to be fourteen. It is especially lonely to be a fourteen-year-old evangelical girl. You are awkward in all the normal ways, but for you, there is more. You cannot say the words that other kids say, do the things other kids do. You can’t just hope for any boy to like you; you have to make sure he loves Jesus and will wait on the sex.

Imagine the way your heart fills with hope, with relief, when you see the students start showing up at 7am. They drop their backpack, grasp hands, bow their heads. The circle is broad, and you can’t hear the person praying anyway, so you count. You hit a hundred and catch your breath. Many of them are boys. Some of them are even cute.

You hold hands. You feel electric with the belonging.

But then the bell rings. The group disperses, blending back into the student body in the hallways. You think you recognize a face here or there, but you can’t be sure. The moment is over. They are gone.

Of course, this was not, is not, the point of the rally at all. The point was to “lift up” peers and teachers and friends before the Lord. As I recall, it was meant as a daring act, a way to show your school exactly where you stood, what you believed, who you were.

I am standing at the flagpole. I am a Christian.

I get a little weepy when I think about all of this, about this year’s crop of fourteen-year-olds at their flagpoles. I am stunned always by their bravery, but it’s that fleetingness that feels so inauthentic to me in retrospect. In this moment, on this one morning every year, we stand together.

But then…what then?

The bell rings. The group disappears. The prayers float up to heaven like so many balloons and disappear into the sky.

Evangelical

Evangelical - Christianese Redefined Series

Evangelical (n) A (singular) member of the Protestant Christian Movement, EvangelicalismEvangelical theology focuses on a conversion experience which leads to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a reverence for the Bible as the Word of God, and the spreading of the Gospel message both near and far.

When I was in junior high, I had a Trapper Keeper on which I painstakingly painted a Jesus fish. With puffy paint.

I wore a t-shirt regularly that said “Life’s Hard. Pray Harder.” It was one of half a dozen eternally relevant shirts that I had in my closet.

I also had one friend. Total. But let’s not get into that here.

I was an evangelical. What I understood about my faith then was that Jesus was the Ticket to Heaven and that my life’s main purpose was to pass him out to everyone I met.

And if I was too chicken to do this with words, the evangelicals had a solution for that. T-shirts and bracelets and Jesus fish jewelry. Witness-wear, we called it. Using these tools, I could deck myself out in my faith, wrap myself in it like layers against a cold world. I could make myself into a walking slogan, a walking target.

A point of clarification: this is not one of those angry blogs. It is easy to take cheap shots at evangelicals, at anyone really. I’m not really interested in that. What I am interested in is the word. Evangelical.

In its simplest form, it is meant to convey the theology of a particular group. It is a way of seeing the world and understanding the message of Jesus. There is more complexity than that, more history than that. But still, I imagine that the person who coined the term wanted people to hear it and think of Jesus. To think Good news. To think. Great joy. To think, With these people, I will be loved.

I imagine that most people don’t think this at all.

It is a word tangled up in politics, shadowy with connotations It’s loaded with names and faces. Presidents. Pastors. Scandals. Protests. It is the tract someone once jammed under your windshield wiper when you were at Cub Foods. It is a soup kitchen; it is a picket line. A WWJD bracelet. A radio station. A contradiction.

When I hear evangelical, I think of Sunday morning church and Wednesday night AWANA, and on the days in between, my Life Application Bible, with the inspirational stories in the left margins.

It is the warm feeling I get when I think of the youth group beach night. It is the cold feeling I get at the back of my neck when I know I should be telling someone about Jesus, about the Gospel, but I can’t muster the courage.

It is dark and light and it tastes like eight different kinds of casserole at the church potluck—too many different flavors and textures on your plate at once.

It is changing, morphing, becoming bigger, becoming smaller. There is a new generation of evangelicals now. The theology is the same; the implementation looks different. But still, I wonder if the word can ever come back from all this weight, all these connotations.

Evangelical. Will it ever communicate more than homophobic? Will it ever say more than George W. Bush?

Is there some depth of richness that can only be contained in this one word – evangelical –  or will another word eventually take its place? Does the word evangelize still mean what it once meant, or has it become mean something forceful, an uncaring intrusion?

For me, it is complex. It is what I love and what I hate. It is what I have always known.

The How to Talk Evangelical Project

How to Talk Evangelical Project (Addie Zierman)

We used to call it “Christianese.” We thought it was so clever to say it that way, like it was its own secret language – these words which seemed clear to us but mystified others. Salvation. Justification. Atonement.

We lounged on the old couches in the youth group room, penned our testimonies, mused about our calling, recounted a God thing that happened at school the other day in the face of some serious spiritual warfare. We were planting seeds, having our devos, getting into the Word.

If Christianese was a language, evangelical was our own special dialect. A cadence. A rhythm. A set of colloquialisms and catch phrases and clichés. I spent so much of my life conversing fluently in the evangelical language that when I met a “foreigner,” I struggled to find language.

I am a different person now than I was when I used to sign my letters “Your Sister in Christ.” I am little bit older, a little bit more cynical. I know the world to be much bigger than the pocket of evangelicalism in which I grew up. I have kids now. Wrinkles. A slew of religious baggage.

I still believe in the beautiful story of Jesus, but I am frustrated with the way we tell it. It is a story of a God who is Love and Life. Of heaven breaking into our darkness, cracking it wide open with light. It is a story that is too large for one language, let alone one small dialect – for that very specific evangelical flavor of Christianese.

In her book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris talks about the need to “rebuild” her religious vocabulary in order to reclaim her faith. She writes that while the dictionary definitions of religious words are useful, they “are far less important than the lived experience of [those words] within that tradition.”

So that’s what this blog is about.

It’s a kind of annotated glossary of the words that we use to speak about the Christian faith to each other and to ourselves. It will include not just the big ticket, theological words, but also the clichés that have become so automatic that we no longer remember what they mean. It will explore the terms, people, organizations, media and events that have framed the evangelical world and, therefore, a particular understanding of Jesus Christ.

My vision and hope for this blog is that it can be collaborative: a collection of stories, thoughts, insights, memories. So I invite you to respond with your own words to each term or phrase in the Comments section or to contribute an entry of your own.

The heart of it is this: I have spent my whole life learning how to talk evangelical. I want to spend the rest of it redefining these words. Turning them back into Life.

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