Sunday, April 08, 2007

No, I'm Not Little Mary Sunshine: But He's Alive

Anyone with an ounce of Southern blood in them will remember the TV Series, Designing Women. As you might imagine, my favorite character on the show was Julia Sugarbaker as played by Dixie Carter. My friends used to joke that I was Julia's bastard North Carolina step-sister. Julia had the God-given gift of verbal vivisection . . . the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a fashion that made them want exit quietly and take the trip. She could cut the steel magnolias with that tongue, and she did not suffer fools gladly. Julia did not suffer them at all.

She spat venom. But only at people who spat first.

I expect most people would not guess who my second favorite character was. This "classic line" from the series should give you a clue:

"I'm saying this is the South. And we're proud of our crazy people. We don't hide them up in the attic. We bring 'em right down to the living room and show 'em off. See, Phyllis, no one in the South ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they're on."

My affection for Bernice Clifton (as played by Alice Ghostley) began with a second season episode called "How Great Thou Art". The backdrop and core of the episode is the position of the Southern Baptist Convention (the nation's largest Protestant denomination with an estimated 16 million members and more than 40,000 churches) that women cannot/should not aspire to the ministry/leadership roles in the church. Now, it's 2007, and my own church, First Baptist in Asheboro has distanced itself from this notion (in fact, my Mother is a deaconess in the Church), and has only a loose association with the SBC. While individual members can still donate towards the work of the Southern Baptists, they can also let their money do the talking by specifying that donations and tithes do not go in that direction.

In the "HGTA" episode, Charlene's pastor, Reverend Nunn takes a strong affirmative stance on the SBC's position, and this alienates Charlene. Reverend Nunn is invited into the Sugarbaker laire to debate the issue with out heroines. Ironically, it is not Julia who rips his argument to shreds, but Bernice . . . the daughter of a preacher, who (despite her little "arterial flow to the head" problem) fires off verse after verse of scripture to counterpoint the Reverend's arguments.

Bernice, you see, may have been "crazy". But she wasn't stupid. And she believed.

I've watched or participated in debates like this in my own household (there are a few folks in my immediate and extended family who know and can quote the Bible backwards and forwards . . . I deeply admire anyone who can do it), and the scene was priceless.

I wish I could find a word-for-word account of the dialogue in that scene, but the piece-de-resistance of the exchange came from Bernice (and I paraphrase from memory): "When Christ was crucified and dead on the Cross . . . and all of His men had denied Him or gone home . . . it was women who stayed with Him until the bitter end . . . and it was to a woman that He first revealed the glorious good news of His Resurrection."

"Put that in your pulpit and smoke it."

Reverend Nunn did not budge, and eventually Charlene made the decision to leave her church.

I know how Charlene feels. It's not something upon which I like to dwell, but experiences at First Baptist as a child & adolescent very much negatively colored my view of the church (please note that it is not a problem that exists there now . . . the church now has an outstanding youth ministry). On the other hand, FBC is where I made the best friends of my life . . . my YaYas . . . and we bonded, in part, because of things we went through together. So I would have it no other way.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Like most people, in my young adulthood, I rebelled against what my parents taught me, and I started to look at other philosophies and religions during my college years. But nothing really could match the promise of a Living Savior. When I did not get into medical school on the first try, I went out to work in the real world. During that time, I tithed and went to church on a semi-regular basis . . . going through all of the motions of what I was supposed to do. But I was just going through the motions. My heart was not really in it. When I did finally get into Bowman Gray/NCBH (an institution much beholden to Baptists), I became what I like to call a "lapsed Baptist". I wasn't happy or fulfilled in an organized religious setting, but I could not completely cut that cord.

I suffered a crisis of the faith I had during my senior year of medical school when my cousin, Bill, died by his own hand. Trials by fire during medical school and residency (including a battle with an eating disorder and depression) fueled the internal wailing and gnashing of teeth. I eventually discovered a wonderful book called, "The Christian Agnostic" that helped tremendously in terms of getting me back into the fold of Christianity. And by the time I made it back home to Asheboro, I was spiritually back on more of an even keel.

A good part of the healing happened in New Orleans. But that is another story.

It was harder, as a professional woman - unmarried with no children, to "fit in" to a small town church . . . to fit in period. For instance, a lot of vicious gossip-mongers assumed (incorrectly) that I was gay. I was never driven by the "normal" compulsions to be a wife . . . or a Mother. After taking care of other women's children all day, I rather liked going home and putting my feet up (and letting my cats curl around them). Because Sunday was usually the only day I had to really "chill", I was not a regular church goer . . . nor did I resume tithing (my biggest regret, but my primary focus was on getting rid of those student loans). However, spiritually speaking, I was slowly and surely getting back to where I started.

When RMA fired me, that changed. The world I had worked so hard to build came crashing down around me in a matter of days . . . moreover it was not because I had done anything wrong . . . and it made no sense at all. Where was God in this equation?

The parents of the child whose life I saved attended FBC. They did what little they could to help me, but the sad truth was that they were just not important enough (to the mill-town powers-that-be) to have any pull . . . unless they sued the doctor & Randolph/Cone for malpractice . . . and there was no reason to do that . . . for their child survived her ordeal at Randolph without long-term sequelae.

But the thing that troubled me most . . . the deepest wound . . . had to do with fellow physicians who called themselves, "Christian". First Baptist Church boasted . . . still boasts . . . a number of physician members, who are also members of the Randolph Hospital medical staff. Incredibly to me, they all just stood back and watched the purely evil, vindictive nasty things Bob Morrison and Steve Eblin did . . . knowing that what was being done to me was very wrong . . . but doing nothing whatsoever to come to my aid.

Since discovering the perjury/contempt/fraud, I've written the entire medical staff and begged for assistance in holding Bob and Steve accountable, and bringing them to justice.

Nothing. I might as well have been a follower of Jesus in Imperial Rome. These Christians spouting small-town values do not care that one of their own was fed to the lions . . . as long as they can roll right along with their happy, unencumbered lives. Jesus did not have a lot of use for the money-changers in the Temple. I get that. I don't have a lot of use for the money-changers in my profession.

One notion I encountered, propagated by some self-righteous city fathers, was that Christians should not sue other Christians . I've countered the argument by saying that if Christians do not want to be sued, perhaps Christians should not treat other Christians badly or illegally. Or, even better, as it comes from the mouth of Christ (talking back to some Pharisees), "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Luke 20:25).

The Lord had a good answer for everything.

As the legal battles raged I felt abandoned by the church. Not God. But the church and its men. It is a feeling I have yet to shake or completely come to terms with.

Now, to his credit, the current Pastor of FBC, John Rogers, has labored mightily (and suffered strokes of my keyboard worthy of Julia Sugarbaker) in an admirable effort to help me come to terms with the hurts of my past . . . and bring me back into the fold. The Designing Women episode (and Charlene's decision) was a part of a conversation we had a few years back, when I asked to be taken off FBC's membership rolls:

There is an outstanding episode of "Designing Women" (that I think we have talked about before) in which Charlene confronts sexism in her home church - in the form of Southern Baptists refusing to ordain women as ministers/deacons. There are several great moments in that thirty minutes of episodic television - balm for the souls of women who have felt disenfranchised in their very own church homes. Indeed, the verse that I wrote on the floor of FBC found its seed in that remarkable TV show -and spoke to the fact that the promise of resurrection and eternal life was first revealed by our Risen Lord to a woman - a woman who has been dismissed by many through the centuries (apparently inaccurately) as a whore. At the very end of the episode, when Charlene has made her decision to leave the church where she grew up, the pastor tries to stop her - he entreats her not to loose her faith in God. She slowly turns to face him and responds, "I have NOT lost my faith in God. I've lost my faith in you." And she turns her back and walks out the door . . .out of the darkness of what was wrong and could not work anymore (or be rationalized away) and, as the song says, into the light of a clear blue morning. It was a brave and heartbreaking act . . . and a leap of faith.

I never lost my faith in God. But I did loose faith in His men. And several of His women.

I also healed a relationship with my earthly Father. The battle with Randolph Hospital's evil-doers brought us closer. Pops was my champion for a very long time. And as my champion, he was everything a Father should be. Ironically (or maybe not), it was my Father's death that got me to really thinking again about what I believe.

The Bible verse I referred to in the e-mail to Dr. Rogers, the one "on the floor of FBC", refers to John 20:16-18. A few years back, when FBC's sanctuary was renovated, someone had the charming idea for church members to come in . . . before the new carpet was laid . . . and write a favorite verse on the hardwood floors of the church. The verses were cataloged and later published for posterity's sake. My verses are written in red and black, right in front of the church altar.

The excerpt I chose is from the story of the Resurrection, the essence of the Easter Story, as told in John 20: 1-18, in which a woman (my favorite Mary in the Bible) became apostle to the apostles (this is from the New King James Version of "The Extreme Word" Bible):

Now the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."

Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb. So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that he must rise again from the dead. Then the disciples went away again, to their own homes.

But Mary stood outside by the tomb, weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. Then they said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?"

She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."

Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?"

She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, "Sir if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away."

Jesus said to her, "Mary!"

She turned and said to Him, "Rabboni!" (which is to say, Teacher).

Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My bretheren and say to them, 'I am ascending to My Father and your Father and to My God and your God".

Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her."

Friday night, I watched a fascinating documentary (I forget what channel) on Mary Magdalene . . . where historians discussed her role as a leader in the early Church. Ancient 'gnostic" gospels, recently discovered and translated, present a very different picture of the woman that for centuries, the Catholic Church denigrated and marginalized as a whack-job and a harlot. She apparently was a single woman of means and independence (probably a widow) . . . someone who could afford to house and feed a Troublesome Preacher and His scraggly band of followers . . . someone for whom Christ held special affection . . . someone Jesus apparently treated equally to His male followers.

I like that picture. It works for me. Someday it might just get me back on the membership rolls somewhere. In the meantime, I believe.

You see, it might be slightly heretical, but it would not bother me one bit if Jesus arose from the dead, hooked up with Mary Magdalene, had a daughter, moved to France, and lived a normal life. He certainly earned that bit of earthly bliss. But that's not what happened.

The point is, He arose. I believe that. Make fun of it, and I will go all Julia Sugarbaker on you. As my beloved Aunt (Mother of Bill) said just last week, "You don't mess with my faith and you don't mess with my Christ".

He's Alive.

Author's note: This post is dedicated to my Mother. Over the years, I have felt her prayers, and I know her poor knees are worn to the bone on my behalf.


MarshallE said...

You amaze me with your ability to make me cry and laugh in one post.

AMEN to an awesome GOD!!!

I pray that others find him.

btw...had a first cousin that did the shot to the head....hope he was Christian. God was saddened but his soul was safe..given he believed.

Happy Easter.

ps...only back for a few days...sigh...


Thank you. Happy Easter back.

One of the things that troubled me most about my cousin's death was the reaction of other Christians to it. But the God I believe in rescues every lost lamb . . . and every black sheep. I know my Bill is safe in the arms of God.

I tear up every time I hear Dolly sing that song. She can really punch it into the stratosphere.

alanocu said...

I have been trying to find Bernice's line from that designing women episode for 2 hours now! Thank you for publishing this!


I could not find the exact dialougue either (after looking forever). What I published is from memory.

But my memory is pretty good.

Thanks. You've made me smile.

danielle said...

"Just remember after Christ was crucified on the cross and all his men had gone home, it was women who stayed until the bitter end, and it was women who first heraled the news of His resurection, so just put that in your pulpit and smoke it."

I only know this for sure because I have this series on DVD and am watching this at this moment. You have written a great article/post and I have enjoyed it. Thank you and God Bless you!

Dr. Mary Johnson said...

Thank you. Another smile:)