Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Artists' Sermons Part II - Music


On my so-called “smart phone” (which often acts a little dumb by locking up) I have an eclectic collection of music. Across the spectrum I have things from a past generation, Roger Whittaker, Lenard Cohen, Bread to a little less dated works of Avril Lavigne, All American Rejects and John Mayer. I also have a collection of classical music, which I’ve hand selected as my favorites.

One of my all time beloved classical music pieces is Pachelbel’s Cannon in D. I’m a little disappointed that these days it has been relegated as simply wedding music that comes just before “Here Comes the Bride.” Every time I hear it played on TV or the movies it is in relationship to nuptials. I think I first fell in love with the cannon way back in the early 80s.

I had a six-foot-three, lanky, cowboy roommate at the time named Ray. He was from the Platt River area of Nebraska where he grew up on a ranch. He was the typical cowboy, wearing cowboy boots, and donning a big cowboy hat at times. He also loved his annual shipment of mountain oysters . . . which forced me to leave the house when he cooked them up for his personal feast.

But Ray had just come out of the service and had been stationed in Japan. While in Asia, he purchased a fine collection of high-end (at the time) stereo system pieces. He had huge speakers (that took up our entire dinning room). The system had a player system that included a reel to reel tape player, cassette player, and a turn table.I remember coming in the door from class one day and Ray was beaming with his characteristic Mick Jagger, larger-than-life, smile beneath his white cowboy hat, which was rolled up on the sides.

“Hey man, you got to listen to this!” He put this album on the turn table, turned down the lights with the rheostat and turned up the speakers with the dial. There was this rhythmic popping sound as the turn table’s needle bounce over dust and a scratch on the lead up to the music. Then subtly I began to hear, more like feel in my chest, this soft base string plucking. Before that point I was expecting some loud fiddle and a cowboy song about rounding up little doggies. But the pulse of the base strings were plucked one by one. Boom . . . boom . . . boom . . . boom . . . boom . . . boom . . . boom . . . boom, softly until the—still soft—shrill of the violins bust onto my eardrums.

I remembered that I let loose of my back pack and allowed it to slip onto the floor gently as the straps slid down my arm. I made a carful, slow motion, collapse onto the dumpster- salvaged sofa. I was instantly mesmerized. I closed my eyes so I could see the violinists, cellists and organist in my mind’s eye. I fell in love with that piece of music that day, in the same way a man can fall in love with a woman at first glance.

My times with the Cannon have been unforgettable. There was the time I was caught in a military coup in Pakistan and had spent several nervous days trying to get to the West. On a flight that I found from Karachi to Frankfort, once we were out of Pakistani air space, I felt a wave of peace methodically coming over me. I remember that we were somewhere over Turkey and I plugged in the double plastic-tubed ear phones in to the twin holes at the end of my arm rest of the old 747 and glazed out the window down at the Black Sea. The water was the last barrier that separated me from Europe, which felt like home.Before long, I heard that familiar sound on the Pakistani International Airlines sound track. boom . . . boom … boom. It was one of the greatest feelings of peace I’ve ever known. Just like the most simple food, sardines, taste delicious after going without food for a couple of days, at the end of a long stretch of stress, this moment of peace came with a special delight.

Another time was at the end of a prolonged stressful time in our lives. It is too complicated to explain here, but it was one of those very hard things in life, that can drag on for months, but then have an abrupt and final resolution. If only all stressful things could end so definitively. Soon after the resolution came (and we were camping in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the time) I laid down in a hammock stretched between to large fir trees and closed my eyes. I put my earphones in my ears and turned up my Walkman’s cassette of classical music and fast forwarded to Pachelbel. Once again, looking out over Lake Superior, I found myself floating on a sea of peace.When I listen to beautiful music I feel God’s present. I don’t mean that in a trifle way. It can be the masterfully woven classical work or the heart-felt cries of Avril, begging for someone to come find her, because she is lost. It can be a John Mayer waiting for the world to change because he doesn’t know what to do to change it or of finding out that there is no such thing as the real world. Or it can be a Roger Whittaker describing the beauty of a woman that rocks his inward world.

I think it was Pythagoras who first noticed something divine in the rhythms of the strings of music like the same order he had seen in mathematics. But it is overwhelming. It is like coming here to Starbucks and sitting at a table where someone has just left. You never saw them, but there are cookie crumbs on the table. The chair is pulled pit at an angle. There is a café au lait ring on the top . . . all telling me that someone real has just been here. Sometimes you can sit and feel the warmth in the otherwise cold chair.

It is that way with music. You sense that God is near but not right in front of you. You can feel His nearness, the moistness of his breath, the smell of His cologne, but not see Him face to face which you can only do in Christ. Music is the best apologetic to me . . . more so than a hundred books. When you hear the order of the notes, the beauty of the refrain, you know that He is indeed there and the knowing is real.

When you hear the sound of voices of another heart telling the story of love (romantic) or sorrow, heartbreak and loss . . . you know that you are real too. You know that you are not alone. You sense a community of hearts who have all loved, lost and wondered if there is a better way for the world to live. You know that you are human.
That is the sermon of music to me.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I Am A Grandfather . . . What More Can I Say?


It is two thirty in the morning my time and I don’t think I’ve seen any sleep yet. In a few hours it will be time to go off to a busy day at work.

I am a grandfather. It seems surreal. My grandson Oliver William Jones came into this world (with some hesitation I may add) about an hour and half ago. Even in the grainy phone camera, he looks beautiful.

There is such a flood of emotions at a time like this . . . it is so hard to put into words. As I alluded to, it does not seem real or even possible. The fact that my son Bryan, and his wife Renee, live so far away makes it especially difficult. We want to be there. We knew when they moved from here and we felt the acute pain of that move, that there would be a time when that pain would be added to when we had grand kids coming into this world and the distance would keep them from us.

I can’t imagine the glory that Bryan and Renee feel at this moment, along with the exhaustion. Actually I can imagine it. Because some 26 years ago, Denise were laying in St. Joes Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan relishing in that same glory as Bryan himself came into this world.

Much of me feels so happy. Of course there is nothing that makes a parent more happy than knowing that their son or daughter is feeling intense joy. I want to share with them in the overflow of that joy.

Part of me, in a selfish way, feels some sadness. It is such a profound reminder to me of that magnificent night that Denise and I shared a long time ago. While the memory is of course still there, but clouded by time (I can’t remember exactly what I was wearing or the exact words Denise or I said) but the experience itself has been taken from me by the passing of time. If I could push a magic button and go back to that night, I would in a second. In a self-centered way, I want to once again relish in that glory.

I know, the first words out of anyone’s mouth would be to take that desire and fill it up in Bryan and Renee’s moment. I can do that. I can cherish this time and I bet there will be a day when I will long to come back to this very night when I first became a grand father. But still, the soft ache in the corner is real and I can not pretend it is not there . . . to be 26 myself again and to hold my son in my arms once more . . . who is now . . . holding his own.

I have to stop typing because the tears, whether they are of joy or sadness, but probably both, are making it impossible to see the lap top screen.

I know that Denise would be very disappointed in me for writing anything "negative" on a night like tonight, but, I can't imagine her ever having a desire to read this blog in the first place.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Artists' Sermons



To most people this concept of being deprived of exposure to artistic works, and being middle aged, just doesn’t’ make sense. However, I was raised in the Bible belt where even the public schools had been greatly influenced by the notion that the fine arts have little value.

Then, about the time I was graduating, I became a firsthand fundamentalists. During my college and graduate school years, we were so Dualistic in our thinking that certainly fine art was so insignificant and unspiritual that it wasn’t even on our radar. If every art museum and library in the country burned to the ground we couldn’t have cared less. It would have been further proof that the second coming was at hand . . . something we all longed for.

To make a long story short, I never really started to include forms of fine art into my Christian world view until I “met” Francis Schaeffer (I use “met” in quotes because he had already died before I got involved with the group). Dr. Schaeffer was a lover of the fine arts, especially paintings. He taught me that no only can you be a good Christian and love the arts, but loving the arts was in some ways a prerequisite for being a good Christian.

Besides his emphasis on art in his books and films, during one of the very first LAbri meetings I attend in Rochester, Minnesota, we had a reading of the original Harry Potter book. At that same time, we were being told in our own church setting that Harry Potter was the next great attempt of Satan to steal the souls of our kids.

But since then, I’ve attended LAbri conferences on the visual, musical and literary arts. They taught me to love art for art’s sake. It doesn’t matter if the artist is a Christian or not, he or she still shares the same creator as we all do and that creator is just that . . . a creator.

I think I next started to appreciate the visual arts. My sister is an artist but I had taken her work seriously until then. Then I bought several coffee table picture books of art work. Now, whenever I visit a major city, rather than seeking out their sports stadiums, I seek out their fine art museums.

I’ve told this story before of how my kids introduced me to literary art just a year ago. I know it sounds crazy that I’ve lived so long, so deprived . . . but I fear that I’m not the only one.

Since my recent posting was about my personal feelings of sermon fatigure, I wanted to move on and talk about this other arena of sermons, out of the mouths, pens, and brushes of the artists.

Now, I’m not being totally humanistic here. I mean, just because it comes from the mind of the artist doesn’t mean that it is inherently good. Just like with the preacher from an Evangelical pulpit, you have to be discerning. There is music that uses hypnotic words telling you that you are ugly, worthless and should end your life. That can’t be healthy.

I remember Francis Schaeffer telling a story once about this very issue. I can’t remember if it was in one of his books, one of his films or one of the hundreds of lectures I’ve listened to. But in summary, he went to an art museum in Rotterdam, I think. It was either a museum devoted to modern abstract art or at least that was their major exhibition during his visit.

He made the comment, although there was not one written word in the museum—save the title of the works—and certainly no spoken words, by the time he was finished, there was a powerful message written on his soul. The message was simply, all is chaos. God is not there. Life has no meaning. As he exited the museum he commented that he personally felt far more vulnerable to sin than before he went in. He felt more open to lying, adultery or you name it.

So I am not attempting to glorify art for art’s glory. However, my dividing line between healthy art and unhealthy art is far more skewed in the direction of art verses what I experienced during my upbringing. Harry Potter was just the start. I love to wander the museums and stare at the creative beauty. The true abstract art has its own beauty as well. I might be hesitant though to surround myself with ONLY abstraction and art created in random chaos, such as Jason Pollock. Even Jason could not create totally random art for he, the thinking artist choose the colors and the "machines" for producing the art. And the influence of gravity has its own order.

So what are the sermons of the artists? As I’ve been reading great novels, I see the writers, at least, as field reporters sent to cover the human condition. The look, they observe and they have the talent to craft out words to save and share those observations. This is very important. This is why most of the Bible is made up of story telling and poetry. It has great value and it does not have to come from the hand of a Christian to have value. As I’ve said before, we were humans first . . . then Christians. But this human-ness is not a bad thing, on the other side of the Dualistic divide. But God, Himself created us woman and man. We are as we are reflection the true perfected creation (and thus reflecting the mind of God Himself) as well as the taint-ness of the Fall of Adam.

I hope to come back to this “discussion.”

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I have mentioned at least once before that I had recently read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I should have said that “I was almost finished reading it,” as I lacked about five pages to completion. Last night I finished it. The last page this time.

I find the book to be profound, especially in my great interest of the process of leaving the Church. I don’t say this regarding my own journey, but my frustration with the youth that flood out the back doors of the Church with the first chance that they get. I’ve quoted the odds elsewhere . . . I think it is well over 80% who leave.

My frustration is that I believe that we as Christians do our best, unintentionally, to drive them away.

This topic is close to my heart for several reasons. For one, I have two sons who are seriously considering (or consider themselves as having left) the Church (out of five children). One is sitting across the table here at Starbucks as I type this. I’m not worried as I still a Reformed thinker at heart and I trust that they will need to find God on their own terms. But they would be the first to say that there reason for leaving is the farce factors, which they were faced with in the various youth groups there were part of. I’m not saying that I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m sure I’ve failed as a father in many ways. One way was insisting that they attend these youth groups. I could add a lot of commentary at this juncture but that was not the point of this posting.

My point is the book. If I were a youth leader, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would be required reading. Now you know why I could never make it as a youth leader (although I’ve tried) because just about every church in the country would throw me out the door on my ears for reading such a book at church. Not only is it written by a heathen, James Joyce, but it has the devil’s words in it, like “damn,” “hell,” and “deflowering a virgin.”

But this book deals with the concept of leaving the Church in such a deep visceral sense, that it would be a masterful way of dealing with the issue within the framework of a youth group. Of course, the other obstacle is that we have dumbed down our youth to the extent that they could never read Joyce, not without some re-conditioning that would a kin what happened in the book To Sir with Love (by E. R. Braithwaite). The youth groups today could watch endless football games on the big screen or watch a movie like “Transformers” and analyze if it was good or bad based on if it used swear words.

But to think philosophically would require some real discipline. Tiptoeing around the edge of another tangent I will add that I had to step down from a large youth ministry just a few months ago (as a board member) because I was disillusioned for the same reason. The major focus of interest of the group, and group leader, was caged fighting. Should I say more? There was absolutely no intellectual depth nor did they desire any.

But as a review, the book is about the life of Stephen, who is Joyce’s own alter ego. Stephen was brought up as a strict Catholic in N. Ireland. His family was poor but devoted to the Pope. They sent him off to the best Catholic schools. While still a teenager, and the story is too long to tell here, he ends up “renting” the services of a whore in Dublin.

He had guilt to start with. Then he heard a priest back at school preach a fiery sermon about sin and the consequences of sin . . . the fires of hell.

Stephen starts down this road of penitence. He tries and tries to remove the horrible guilt that continues to haunt him . . . to no avail. His subsistence penitence is misinterpreted by the monks and priest as simple devotion to God. He is asked, as the most devoted student in his class, to make the oath of becoming a monk in the Jesuit order.

To make another long story short, this forces his hand. Does he spend the rest of his life in this same, self-imposed misery of trying to win back God’s pleasure, or does he follow the call of his creative heart? He knew that the only way he could express his creativity (as a writer and poet) was to be willing to venture outside the mores of the Church and his Irish culture.

His friend, Cranly, acts as his priest-type (the one whom Stephen confesses his sins to) and guide. Cranly tries to the best of his ability to persuade Stephen to stay with the Church. He too is an artist but his art is not serious enough to him to threaten his allegiance to the mores of the Church. At this point, you can almost see, word for word, the discussion that plays out in the minds of our present day youth even though this book was written in 1904.

Cranly gives the reason for Stephen staying in the Church as,

1) People in the Church are more happy,

2) Leaving the Church would hurt his dear mother,

3) If his problem is simply that he doesn’t believe anything in the Christian narrative, then that is no big deal. Most of the people in the Church don’t believe it but just go through the motions of believing it to keep their local culture (family, friends, local church) peaceful . . . not causing any trouble in other words.

This would be a fantastic discussion to have over several weeks with our youth. But I got replaced in our present church’s youth group for letting them watch an episode of “Lost.”

How deep of a topic could be opened if you asked the youth group, with great candor, would their parents prefer that they, A) remain very active in the church, singing in the choir, leading Sunday school for the kids, etc, but not believing a word of it or B) believing the Bible completely, but not being involved with any organized church? I honestly believe that many Evangelicals would prefer “A” as long as their sons or daughters would never, ever bring up the fact that they don’t really believe anymore.

What would I do? Oh, I would much prefer to have these deep, honest discussions . . . that can be very messy . . . about evil in the world, is homosexuality a sin and how can we know that God is really there and them never darken the door of a church, than have them attend faithfully but never talking about their doubts. But that’s just me.

I was but a flat stone to Joyce’s book . . . skipping across the surface with only a millimeter penetration. I have a hard time reading Joyce, maybe because I’m not so bright myself, just one evolutionary mutation above the caged fighting. But I did do much better with this novel than Ulysses. I predict though, for every time I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I would discover a deeper and more meaningful layer.

A couple of more points, neither which are related. One is that my daughter (20) and I climbed a small mountain yesterday. I’m very proud of her and how she thinks and takes on the world and her Christian faith. She was hurt as she spent time at one of her friends, evangelical, parents on Christmas Eve. The friend’s mom had noticed that Amy had a new ear piercing higher on her ear’s pinna. The lady told her how disappointed she was and how Amy may not be as good of a girl as she though. This is pure nuts. An alien from another planet would quickly realize how stupid we are to consider that a ear piercing in once place is good and three centimeters higher suggest that you have links with the Satanic world of influence.

My last footnote is that I got my second rejection letter from a literary agent regarding my manuscript, Butterflies in the Belfry, Serpents in the Cellar. If you have been there, you will know that it is difficult to know when to pull the plug on an effort and when to press on. I think this time around I will try at least ten agents before I give up. Most successful writers try at least than many.

The last footnote is that I just learned that I may be within an hour or two of being a grandfather . . .for the first time. Bryan’s wife, Renee just went into the hospital, a week and a half over due.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas . . . and Pray for Michael Spencer

Merry Christmas to all.

I have met many of you though Michael Spencer's longstanding blog page. As most have known, Michael has been ill for the last couple of weeks, but information was limited, as I assume that the family was totally distracted by the urgency of the situation. I think I irritated some people on his blog by me asking too many questions. Most of you probably know, even before me, that he is suffering from a brain tumor and had brain surgery to have it removed. The family has updated the information on his facebook page. On the last look, he is out of ICU and hopeful will be discharged soon. It may be a long time before we are able to see him blogging again. Keep him and his family in your prayers.

I hope that everyone is doing well. I know that this time of year can bring out the best and the worst (at least some sad things) in all of us.

Mike

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Sermon" Fatigue

Sermon Fatigue

This is one of those topics that I have thought about a lot, but yet without finding the proper words. I’m ready to try now.

What I actually mean here is “sermon” in the broadest sense. Not only the Sunday morning lecture by the pastor, but including all Christian settings where you sit and listen and someone lectures you about Christian things.

I figured, if you include all the morning sermons, Bible studies with a lecture format, Christian conferences and even Sunday schools that are delivered by lecture and Christian lectures on tape, which I’ve sat through, it would add up to between 5200 and 5400 hours. I would expect that this is typical for Evangelicals of my age. This doesn’t even take into count the as many hours I’ve spent reading Christian books. But is Christianity really that complicated? I seriously doubt if any of the first century Christians, save the top Church leaders, spent this much time in study and as a "knot on a log" listener.

What brought this to a head is the Bible study, which I instigated, this past summer. My goal was to just be a complainer at my church, but to do something about the problem, the lack of close community.

Maybe the mistake was building the group around a study of the book of Hebrews. However, if I had advertised it as simply a time of drinking coffee or beer and talking about what was going on in our lives . . . then no one would have come. Plus they would have considered this as further evidence that I’m a nut case. I really believe it is because of the Dualistic view of Evangelicals. In their view, if the meeting is not about the Bible, as they would think, then it has no value at all.

The worst example of this Dualistic thinking happened when I taught Sunday school in a large church in Stewartville, Minnesota. To help with this issue of community, I would begin my class with an informal ice breaker time. This was where I would have people break up into small groups of 5 or 6. I would have each person tell something about themselves, like where they where they were born, where they were married etc. The whole time would take 5 minutes and I thought it would help to create some connections between strangers who churched together. Then we would immediately dive into the Bible study.

One Sunday, a new member attended my class. When I had them break up into groups for this “getting-to-know-one-another” exercise he literally went nuts. He stood up, the veins stood out in the side of his neck and he stomped out of the room. My wife followed him into the hallway. There he let loose his rage saying that I had defiled the house of God with a humanistic behavior.

What happened with my present Bible study was another disappointment. I was to co-lead it. When I led it, I set aside about 1/3 of the time for sharing prayer requests. The act of “sharing prayer requests” is the fastest shortcut to intimate sharing within the church setting. Not that I don’t take prayer seriously. I do. But you can’t say, “Pray for my son . . . he’s in trouble with the law” without someone asking more about it. So it really is the best ice-breaker among evangelicals.

At our Bible study, after sharing these requests we studied Hebrews. But my co-leader preferred to do things the normal, traditional way, where you spend almost the entire time in the Bible study with virtually no time left at the end for talking about our lives. That was okay, as I still controlled have the meetings.

But then I was out of town. I had a trip to Philly and then Nepal. I missed several sessions of the Bible study and others took my place in leadership. They too followed the format of almost all Bible study and no personal talking. So the theme has become, like traditional church functions, a time devoted to stiff discussion of the Bible with no down-to-earth discussion of our lives. I know of private things in several of the peoples’ lives that are not going well and I just wish they didn’t have to suffer in silence. You hear rumors about these things, usually outside of the context of our church. So, I’m discouraged again.

The second factor has to do with Sunday mornings. I picked our present church six years ago because I thought (and still think) that our pastor is a good teacher. He is as good as any pastor I’ve ever heard. But he goes long—almost an hour talk almost each Sunday. Then, following the service, he does Sunday school, which is another lecture. It’s good . . . but that’s not the point.

The point is that I find myself loathing the option of staying for the second Sunday morning hour and even now loathing my own Bible study. Why? Because I find that we are all still isolated . . . sitting in lecture form . . . listening . . . sometimes talking . . . but never communicating. I do not want the Bible study to turn into therapy sessions. But I find it odd that if people get together and one of them has a son hook on drugs, one has kids who have left the church completely and it is breaking their hears, then the next pair or struggling with serious marital issues and so on, but no one dare mention any of these things. It is ironic that the title of our Hebrews study book is “Life Changer Series.”

The pastor made the comment about the Sunday school hour that he does not understand why more people don’t “support” this important church function. But this is where the circular reason starts to come in.

It works like this. With good intentions, the church decides that we need to do a better job at training our people. So we create a program, like Sunday school or Bible study. No one wants to come because it doesn’t meet any need that they have in their real, private lives (which I think is a deep desire for personal, healing, encouraging relationships). So, naturally they don’t want to come. So, to make them come, we use guilt manipulation. We suggest that the reason they don’t come is because they are “lazy” or that they don’t have “spiritual interests” or they have “worldly distractions.” So those who do come, do it out of penitence. God will love me more if I show up. My actions will be more “God pleasing.”

Finally church people become so programmed in this way of thinking that they can’t think in any other terms. Then you reach this point, as mentioned in the last posting, of where the church is no place to “air your dirty laundry.” But it becomes a place where community becomes suspended.

Before Christianity became a religion, I think that things could have been very different. The Church was not a program, a franchise or an enterprise, but a community of people. Their relationships were the glue that held the groups together. Now, the glue is made up of programs, obligations, denominational affiliation and guilt.

So where does Bible study come in? Don’t take me wrong. Knowing good theology and what the Bible does teach is very important. But my point is, not being arrogant, but if I have not learned it by now, I will never learn it by a thousand more sermons.

When I first became a Navigator years ago we were taught a magic formula . . . as if it came from Alice in Wonderland. The X number of hours that you spend in the Bible (reading, sermons, memorizing etc.) = how spiritual your are, thus the less you sinned, the more mature your were, which meant the more resistant you were to sin.

This formula fell apart when I started seeing spiritual giants caught in terrible sins, child porn, adultery, stealing etc. My own personal fall, if you haven’t read my story form a few months ago, happened when I realized that I hated my missionary boss. I even wanted him to die. I was confused because I had considered myself as having jumped through all the Bible study hoops for 15 years prior to that.

However, it is my prediction that if you had put those same people in groups where there was great candor, where people felt safe to talk about their personal struggles, then I bet the bad choices would have been far less.

In closing this post, I wanted to bring up one more facet to this struggle. The old Mike would be very worried about where I’m at now. While then I attended every Christian meeting and lecture that I could, they still bored me the death most of the time. But still I went. If I am now considering backing off of Christian lectures, the old Mike would be certain that I was heading for disaster. But is that what it means to have spiritual interest? I want to blog more about my thoughts of true spirituality soon. This posting is getting far too long.

But I’m starting to wonder if some of the old traditional churches may have had this part right. I’m speaking of the Lutherans, Catholics and Episcopalian. What I mean is that I think we would be better off if we had a way to come together for a short time, a ritual (such as a Mass or confession) where we are beat over the head, over and over that in Christ, we are completely clean. That’s the real message that we need to hear over and over. Then, add to that, a place where we could connect and related with full candor in an atmosphere of total safety. A place where we knew that we say could anything . . . absolutely anything . . . and know that we would be fully accepted and loved. A place were we could say “my husbands (a fellow church member) is abusing me,” or, “I don’t know if I’m a Christian anymore,” and rather creating the view that we are wackos or horrible people, that we, as a community, try to find healing and resolution of these problems. That is my dream.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tapestry

It’s not like there haven’t been thoughts swimming like minnows around in my head. There have been a lot of them . . . but there haven’t been the right words on which to affix them. It takes precise words to try and communicate to the outside world that which has already moved you. But it moves you like a beautiful melody without lyrics. You dance with the melody without knowing the answers or the meaning . . . at least sometimes. Tonight I hope to knit some of the lines together into meaningful thoughts.

I first heard of the concept of the tapestry metaphor from Edith Schaeffer (even before Carole King). I heard it directly from Edith while speaking with her at conferences and sitting in the LAbri home in Rochester. I’ve also read it in her books. But my use of it here will leave her original purpose almost from her starting point. She describes how life can look messy with cancer, pain and loneliness, just like the back side of a tapestry. While it is messy on that side, flip it over and you will see a beautiful work of art that God is slowly weaving in your life. This may all be true, but it is not the image I was looking for.

I see life as a metaphoric tapestry but I use the concept differently. Rather than the smooth organized side being what God has intended, in my illustration it is the surface of pretentiousness that I often speak about and loathe. So, on this synthetic surface, things look in order as they should be. But on the back side, tangles and strings dominate, hanging one way and another . . . making no sense at all.

In my world, I see this imperfection of chaos as the true reality of how the world actually is. Not how God intended it to be, but how it became nonetheless.

There is something about me, which I don’t understand, that has made me lean towards the entangled side for most of my life. It is how I am wired. For example, I often had social problems in elementary school . . . through high school . . . for saying things that were absolutely true—but not socially acceptable.

But after I fell away from Evangelicalism, I set my sites on trying to live on this rough side of the tapestry. While I do believe that all people have a tendency to live on the orderly side, Evangelicals seem most hell bent (pun intended) to do so.

So it is in this area I find myself in constant conflict. I know that at least part of this conflict is my perception or fear of rejection. But I know that sometimes the offense is real.

One easy example is where I posted about the ballet and making a statement that my mind was tempted to take an erotic bent. That offended someone. But I honestly believe (on the rough side of the tapestry) that if you put 100 heterosexual men on the front row of a ballet with beautiful young women dancing around in their panties (with a token dress) that everyone of them would have some erotic tendencies. If we are really honest, we would know that was the purpose of some of the dress and some of the moves. That doesn’t make us perverts. That doesn’t distract from the beauty of the dance (unless we allow it). But when I make such brutally honest statements, it offends people.

My motivation for living on the rough side (or near the basement in the previous metaphor I used) is not only how I am wired, but because if God is there, that is the God of the Bible, then He is the creator and the God of truth. So I know that you actually find God in those tangles . . . and likewise loose sight of Him on the cropped, orderly side.

Another reason that I believe in the rough side, is that I am personally convinced that most leave the Church do so because they are forced to live on the smooth side as kids . . . until they are old enough to discover that the rough side is real-reality. This relates to the previous statement about loosing sight of God on the smooth side.

I know that I’m being redundant. I seem to beat the same poor ole horse. But I want to build on this thought over the next few days, leading up to Christmas . . . that is if I can continue finding the right words.

My first thought along this line is about certainty of God. When I speak of God I am of course speaking of the God of the Bible, with Jesus being His intercessor with humans.

If you stand up in any typical Evangelical church and ask the question, “Are you absolutely certain, that is 100% sure, that the God of the Bible is really there?” I bet that 99% would raise their hands in the affirmative. If someone (like me) would fail to raise their hand, they would feel immediate guilt. Most likely they would have someone say something to them . . . like they will be praying for them. Some in the congregation . . . maybe all . . . would assume that you could not be a real Christian and not have 100% certainty. After all, isn’t that what an agonistic is? Someone who is not 100% (if they have been an athlete they would say 110%) sure, they can not be a Christian?

But at this juncture, it becomes obvious that they are living on the perfect side of the tapestry. Knowing what I know about human nature, psychologically, neurologically and theologically . . . humans can not obtain certainty about anything.

I know that I’m not the first to discuss this. Since the Greek philosophers this concept of knowing, or epistemology, has been debated. Theologians, good Christian theologians have debated this at least since the Scholastics. Simply we are fallen, we live in a fallen world therefore we can not know anything with certainty. Years ago, even to admit this would scare the hell out of me. We were taught that it was a Pandora’s Box. Once you open the lid to contemplate that you are not certain . . . your whole Christian world would collapse around you. My world collapsed me when I realized that my certainty, (and that of my Christian friends), were fake.

So what do we often do? We kept on pretending on the orderly side of the tapestry. But the lack of certainty is not the same as lack of belief or faith. It is not the sign of rebellion or sin.

Actually, if you have a 51% certainly that God of the Bible is there, then that is enough. Then you can build your life on the confidence that is the best possible answer. For the first time in my life I think I have peace with that.

My Christian friends would be appalled at this thought. They say they are certain because the Holy Spirit has made them certain. Really? I’ve had conversations with Taliban in NW Pakistan who are equally confident that God has spoken directly to their hearts that America is Satan and killing people is God’s will. I’m sure that they are countless of other people groups who have certainty about preposterous and hideous things.

I was a true agnostic at one time. That is where you feel that it is impossible to know with certainty, so, in despair, you believe nothing.

In conclusion, I think the first step in living with the peace of the rough side of the tapestry, is the acknowledging that lack of certainty. At that point, you come to grips with reality and without the (false) guilt of not always knowing.

I want to move on to my second thought, which is more practical, about sermon fatigue.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Where Do Christians Go During a Personal Crisis?

Building up to the last few scenes of the Great Gatsby, George Wilson is sitting in his old, run down gas station office in great anguish. That day he has learned that his wife, Myrtle had taken a lover. Then, in a desperate, but futile, move to save his love, he had locked her up in their upstairs apartment as he made preparation to move quickly west.

Myrtle had seen her lover, Tom, stopping by in Gatsby’s big yellow car to get gas on their way to NYC. When she saw the car coming back, this time driven by Tom’s wife Daisy, (but Myrtle assuming it was Tom), she broke out of the apartment and ran out to flag her lover down . . .only to be accidently struck down and killed.

Michaelis, a Greek friend of George, is talking to him . . . trying to bring him some comfort. “You must know a pastor we can call? Didn’t you ever go to church? Weren’t you baptized or married in a church? There must be a pastor there we can call. George you must know some pastor who can come or some church we can go to?”

Michaelis is thumbing, in desperation, through the phone book trying to find the name of a pastor whom he can call in this time of great crisis for George. In the meantime, George in his silence is slowly packing his gun into a paper bag. By sunrise he walks all the way to Long Island to take God’s revenge into his own hands . . . and does but against the wrong man.


There are those times when the same ideal comes at you from a variety of sources. I don’t think anything supernatural happened here like, “God is trying to tell you something” but just the timing. There have been many sources about this concept of Christians in crises . . . including our recent discussion here about newsletters.

My mind still carries the image of George Wilson in his time of catastrophe. I have both the image generated by my own imagination while I read the book and the one of the dirty, sweaty man in coveralls as portrayed in the movie. Even as one is superimposed over the other I still sense the great pain the man bore.

I’ve never experience an acute dismay as George. I mean I’ve never had the horrible experience of having a child killed suddenly in an accident or a wife walking out the door. I’ve heard from those, within our church, that when they have suffered such a calamity that our pastor does an excellent job. If I were George I would have called him.

But what about the more methodical, gradual drift into pain? Those are the difficult ones. Where first, your job is lost, then trouble in the marriage, then a new but not fatal illness . . . followed by doubt. Where do Christians go in this type of crisis? I think the answer is not easy.

But maybe Michaelis was spot on. We should be able to run to the church at those times . . . and be met by an unquestioning embrace. But does that happen?

I will first tell a true story when it did, then a one that reflects a far too common experience.

I read this story about ten years and it was true, but now I’ve forgotten the details. I will have to fictionalize it just to fill in the facts, which I’ve forgotten.

There was a large church in the NW, Portland I think, which had a great small group program. A married couple in one of the small groups (whom I will call Tom and Betty) were in their 50s. They had a daughter living with her husband and two children, I think in some place like Denver. The news broke one day on CNN that a man in Denver had walked into a post office (or some other building but I thought if I said “post office” I would have a good chance of being correct) and shot the place up, killing several people. It was on all the news stations. Then Tom and Betty got the horrible news that it was their own son in law (whom they had considered a good Christian man) who had done the killings, before turning the gun on himself. The news broke on the local Portland stations and soon the vans with the satellite dishes were circling their house.

Within an hour, the word got out through the church’s prayer chain. Men and women in Tom and Betty’s small group immediately sprung to life, walking away from their jobs, hopping in their cars and making their way to their house.

Some of the men barricaded the cul-de-sac, keeping all media away. Some of the couples were on the phone with the police in Denver taking care of all the business that they could. They were bringing food, sitting and crying with Tom and Betty, when needed. They were running urgent errands for them, washing their clothes (as this ordeal continued for several days). This crowd of “lovers” took care of their co-small group members like only someone with selfless love could.

But that example was still too much of the acute crises like George’s. The more common is what I’ve observed in my own life and in those of friends.

In this past year I’ve had two sets of friends at church go through a tough crisis. However, it was very, very difficult to find out about. It was usually the wife sharing with my wife after a long night around a campfire and a few glasses of wine. But it wasn’t simple things . . . but horrible things. Yet, they face they donned at church carried the same stoic smiles, and no one else had a clue what they were going through in their secret lives.

What the hell is wrong with us? How did we create a society where we have to enter the valley of darkness . . . alone? I’ve been there at least twice. Both times my Christian friends were the first to pull back. . . save one or two.

This post is getting long and I haven’t even start to try and understand why, let alone a solution. I do know of some people in these situations walk out the back door of the church forever.
I’ve tried to promote honestly, and openness within my present church as well as previous ones, but it is totally against the grain. When one of our central couples suddenly divorced a few years ago and one saw it coming, I made the comment that we have to create a safe place where we can talk about these things. A prominent leader, almost shouted out, “The church is no place to air your dirty laundry.” I was stunned.

Then I tried to lead a very open small group (wanting to create the same situation as in Portland). Then one night two husbands confronted me about, “Just digging up dirt.”

Both of those men have sense left our church. One, so I’ve heard, is drinking heavily, has been arrested for fighting with his son and other problems. Why can’t we talk opening about the undercurrents before they drag us under?

I think I really lack social skills for making these things happen. I feel like I am a foreigner. I’ve asked Denise what is wrong with me. She shrugs her shoulders and says, honestly, “Maybe you scare people off.”

“How” I ask.

“You get too personal. Men like to talk about sports and the weather. You can’t ask them how they feel about things.”

I guess she is right. But still there must be a way where we can talk and enjoy what I think is the essence of fellowship.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Last Word About Nepal

Okay . . . after this I will shut up about Nepal. But below is a slide show I put together for some other friends. I can't take credit for all the great photos because some of the best ones were taken by Dr. Rob. If you want to see it with captions that explain the photos, go this site:






Nepal Short Presentation

A Man of Fake . . . I Mean Faith . . . or Do I?

I was part of a friend’s Lutheran blog a few years ago. He had invited me to be part but I was a little naïve about it. I didn’t realize that it was an exclusive Lutheran group . . . who seemed to despise all others.

The last straw came around the time the previous pope, John Paul I believe, passed away. Before the man’s body had gotten cold, these Lutherans came on and started posting the cruelest remarks about the Pope and the Catholic Church and even celebrating the Pope’s death. So I left and never went back.

So I am hesitating as I write as I don’t want to do the same . . . a post-mortem character assassination. But I truly think that Oral Roberts was of a different mold and represents a much more relevant principle and a deeper evil.

If you spend any time around Evangelicals, as I have . . . and still do, you will know that they pride themselves in making no compromises. They don’t hire gays or even rent them rooms. They don’t vote for a candidate who is 99% great for the country . . . but has a liberal view of the sanctity of life. Yet, when it comes to TV evangelists, they compromise to the hilt. They put their heads up their butts and pretend that all is well.

I can not imagine an Evangelical pastor saying anything negative about Oral Roberts . . . or in that case Benny Hinn from the pulpit. Yet, in my opinion, this class of people are far worse than the “whores” or “gays” that the Church seems to abhor and rant and rave about.

Can I say something about Oral that should not be over-looked as the country attempts to pay the man some respect? He was a master manipulator who stole millions and millions of dollars from poor widows and others for his ego-centered empire. To tell people that God is going to kill you if they don’t give you the money that they were saving . . . to pay their heating bills . . is unconscionable.

I’ll be honest. If I were Donate I would put the TV Evangelists down on the last concentric circle, deep in the molten lava. I could imagine Donate describing the horrible scene is where the evangelists are starving to death. Now and then a butler comes out with a covered dish. They lift the cover exposing a roasted pig with a caramelized apple in its mouth. Then as the TV evangelists reach for it, WHAM! They are punched in the face with a barbed, iron glove. This happens about a thousand times a day.

This is what the evangelists have done. They promise healings for money. When you are suffering from cancer or arthritis and someone lifts the “cover of the plate” expose complete healing it is so cruel . . . when it is a lie. So the sufferer reaches for it and WHAM! To cover their asses the TV Evangelists then accuse them of lacking faith for not being healed while they fly off in their Lear jets to their vacation homes in Red Necks’ Rivera (Branson or Myrtle Beach).

In this area, I think most Evangelicals, including their pastors, have been cowards. I can remember when it was known that Jim Bakker was not only stealing and lying but also having sex with his subordinates . . . no pastor would confront him. They hide behind their smirks “Whom and I to judge?” Who are you to judge????? You judge people’s behavior for a living. Why do you stop at this point?

This is a serious issue because, like I’ve said, Evangelicals have lost the culture wars. The major reason they have lost is that people like Oral Roberts, Benny Hinn, Pat Robertson or what-his-face from Colorado Springs who was preaching against the gays on Sunday . . . boinking his male gigolo on Monday. The non-Christians simply gave up on the crap. This is serious business, if we have any desire to represent the living, loving . . . and extremely honest . . . God.

Roberts dualism was extreme. I can remember once I had a great personal friend when I lived for a year in Louisville, Kentucky. He was a psychiatrist. I met him through our church and his quasi-involvement with the Navigators. I will never forget the night that Dave called me and made an unexpected announcement. “Mike . . . God has called me to leave town this week. I’m quitting my practice (and his hundreds of patients who depended heavily on him) and I’m moving to Tulsa. I watched a program by Oral Roberts and he is opening a medical center that is going to practice medicine with God at the center. I’ve been wasting my life away from God working for a secular hospital. I think that God is only at Oral Roberts hospital.”

Presto Dave was gone to the miracle center in Tulsa with the giant praying hands in the front yard. Dave wasted a number of years, until I hear he came back to Kentucky disillusioned, not even considering himself a Christian anymore.

I will rest my case as I’ve said too much. But I just felt the emotions of it when I heard the news on the radio tonight, then a line of “Christian leaders” . . . .that’s evangelical leaders stepping up to the microphone to praise Oral as a great Christian innovator. Give me a break. These are the people that Jesus would throw out of the temple on their ears.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Brief Word About Ballet

I know that this might sound strange, but I am 54 years old and saw my first ballet Saturday night . . . and that's the first ever! Of course, it was the Nutcracker Ballet. It was incredible. The fact that we were on the second row from the stage of the huge auditorium added to the experience. You could almost smell the feet of the dancers . . .and certainly you could hear them panting beneath their frozen smiles after a rigorous movement.

I don't know why I've waited so long to experience ballet in person . . . I guess it wasn't even on my radar. None of our kids participated in any form of dance. Sometimes I'm tempted to blame it on my Evangelical background . . . but I'm not so sure that it is that simple.

I sometimes feel I'm entering my second adolescence. Just last year I discovered fiction literature for almost the first time and now ballet.

While I've learned to enjoy the visual arts, film, paintings and the art of music, I didn't realize how much art and beauty that could be carried in the fine movements of the human form.

Maybe the reason I had avoided ballet all those years was not just the "sissy" factor (real men don't eat quiche nor go to the ballet) but also fears about watching beautiful women prancing around with little clothes on. I have to admit, especially with seats so close to the stage, that there were moments that my mind wanted to take a more erotic path. But to avoid the cheapening of the dance, I learned, during the evening, to focus on the women's wrists (which had a beauty of flexion and extension that is beyond words) and their toe work. I was stunned by the amount of body memory that is involve in such a performance . . . in the same way I was stunned by the heavy loads that the short, Hobbit-like, Nepalese could carry a few weeks ago.

I only feel regret that I had never gone before . . .and can't wait until I have the opportunity again. In the dance . . . I sense God's soft touch or His warm breath blowing a snowflake across the sky. Maybe in the new earth and with our new bodies that we will all move from point A to point B via balletic moves.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tis The Season for the Family Newsletter

Denise has asked me a couple of times this week if I would write our family newsletter. It is that time of year . . . as our mail box has been full of them coming our way.

I approach this with strong mixed feelings for a couple of reasons. For one, while I love to write, I long to write honestly. Using my metaphor about a building where the basement is raw reality, most of us live at least on the third floor being insulated from the truth by a pretentious spirit. I think Evangelicals live on higher floors. But Denise wants me to write a “normal” letter. I know what she means, avoiding the honest truth but showing just the fluff that keeps of the mirage that we are the perfect family.

But she has a point. Because our culture, especially our Christian culture, expects us to lie to such a degree, when we are honest, they take it far too seriously. For example I can say Denise and I had a disagreement over an issue. The readers will believe that it is a subtle hint that we are having marital difficulties. The thinking goes; we would never let it be known that we weren’t perfect unless our marriage was on the brink. But I would mean it at an honest, face value . . . we had a simple disagreement.

The second reason that I have mixed feelings is because I usually get a note from someone that I should “let” Denise write the letter sometime. The term “let” or “not let” makes no sense in our marriage. I don’t tell Denise what she can or can’t do and the concept is as strange as a Martian bathing ritual. She hates to write newsletters so she chooses not to.

When the newsletters start coming in this time of year I fist greet them with great enthusiasm. I love tearing them open because I miss my old friends. However, I am quickly disappointed. Invariably, the newsletters are fluff . . . “My perfect kids doing perfect things, miracles happening every day . . . big smiles for everyone.” The worst ones are the sermons. I hate sermons. I’m sure that on my death bed I will look back in regret about all the hours I’ve spent listening to sermons and lectures which re-hash the same Christians truths over and over and over. So when an ole friend, whom I have a deep desire to hear from, sends me a generic sermon with only a brief hand-written note at the bottom, it is very disheartening.

I would love to get a letter from a friend telling me about their struggles with one of their kids, or how they feel too fat, or how much they enjoyed a concert . . . anything real. My favorite Christmas newsletter of all time was from a dear Christian brother, writing from Germany (where they went as “tent-making” missionaries) and very candidly informing everyone that he realizes he is an alcoholic. I had to get in touch with him right away to show him my support.

I know I’ve told these missionary newsletter stories before, but I will share a couple again.

Once I was corresponding with an old college friend as I was putting together a class reunion. She had been very involved with Campus Crusade and now her husband her lead several ministries. They have five kids like we do. As we were corresponding (and she was talking about all the wonderful things God was doing for them) suddenly, out of the blue, she sent me this letter of great distress. She described how she hated her husband, had thought about killing him, that they are always fighting about money and she felt trapped. She was trying to decide which would be better, leaving him or committing suicide.

I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I was very concerned about her. But, it is dangerous territory to become involved with the opposite sex and at their moment of distress. But because she said the word, “suicide” I didn’t just want to pretend that I never read her e-mail.

I started writing her back asking, “Are you okay? Are you getting help? Do have any friends to talk to?” I bet I sent her five or six e-mails . . . and she ignored them all. Then, it was Christmas, and we got their family/ministry newsletter. You would think that they were the happiest, most blessed . . . perfect family in the world. I thought maybe that I had the wrong e-mail address however she did eventually write me back to tell me that she would not be attended the reunion and she used the e-mail account that I had been responding to.

When I was a missionary, I knew of three different missionary men in trouble, one with TEAM in Paris, one in China and one in Egypt. They each had very similar stories. Each husband had to be admitted to a mental hospital in their perspective countries for severe depression and suicidal ideation. These men hated where they were living and what they were doing. To even consider leaving would be turning their backs on God.

In the midst of each of their great distress, they wrote these glowing missionary newsletters of how great their ministries were going, how much God was blessing them and how much joy in the Lord they were experiencing. They wrapped some sermon around their “news.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

An Old Diary

It is unusually cold here in the NW this week . . . which reminds me of my Minnesota days. Besides being cold, it is so dark too. I go to work in the dark and come home well after dark (especially if I go to the gym).

I felt a little bad the other night because I simply wasted a whole evening. I sat on the couch under a sleeping bag (did I mention our chalet has no central heat but a wood stove) and watched TV. I more like stared at it because there was nothing on that I wanted to watch. So I was hypnotized by a Hallmark Christmas movie (which Denise wanted to watch). I didn't feel like reading, writing or doing any work.

Last night I decided to generate more energy. I did go to the gym but then came home, showered and took on a project. My task last night was cleaning up our book situation. I've build several book cases but still we have too many books (they are stacked in every corner).

As I worked my way through our main bookcase, I tried to pick out useless texts that I could add to the wood stove to create a little more heat (burning books gives me the creeps but these are books that no one else would want).

One book, which I came across, was my old diary from my Navigator training days in Lexington, Kentucky. Each morning I would get up, have a quiet time, write some observations in the small three-ringed notebook and then a personal entry.

The pages were yellowed, the ink look flattened . . .like it had sat on the page for almost 30 years. But the words were sharp. I eventually just sat down on the floor and spent an hour reading through it from cover to cover.

My honest hope was that I would re-discover a good ole Mike, one who was an Evangelical at heart, and who knew all the answers about life. But instead, it was painful.

I would summarize that at least half of the personal entries spoke of about how I knew I had failed God that day. I had not shared the gospel. I had slept too late (which was often the source of my guilt), I had not run my 2 to 3 miles, or, too commonly, been caught up with some lustful act. I saw no happiness with the old spiritual giant Mike. He seemed sad and frustrated with his "flesh."

There are days that I think I would have been better off being the old Mike . . . hard church worker, looked up to, missionary etc. But, the grass is not always greener. That was not a happy time of my life, but a time when I never felt God's good pleasure. At least now, I sometimes do.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Word about Justice . . . and Half the Sky



Okay, I'm not a big Oprah fan . . . only because her show airs while I'm usually at work. However, I did catch an episode last week. It must have been the day after Thanksgiving because our office was closed.

Her main guest was Nicholas Krisof and his wife/co-author Sheryl WuDunn as they discussed their book Half the Sky. In summary, Nicholas, a columnist for the New York Times, has been on a personal crusade to fight injustice in the world, especially as it applies to women. He, and his wife, have tremendous courage to face, and interview, the monsters in Africa who use rape and murder as a political tool. He has also worked in Asia, such as Cambodia, trying to free young girls from the sex-trade-slavery cycle. This book, Half the Sky, examines this plight of women around the work . . . and gives Nicholas and Sheryl's hope for change.

As I listened to them, I felt in my heart that these people are doing God's work in the world . . . even though I have no ideal whether or not they are Christians.

One of my favorite verses is from Micah chapter six:

8 He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.


It reminds me of one of those times in my life, a long time ago, that I was an ass. It was just before I went to the Middle East as a missionary. I heard about an elderly Presbyterian missionary to Lebanon speaking at an old mainline church. I think he had worked there for 40 years. He shared stories about building hospitals, schools, helping the homeless, helping the victims of the terrible civil war that was going on at the time.

I sat with a friend and both of us were getting frustrated. I can't remember which of us said the following during the Q & A period, but I'm afraid it might have been me.

"I've sat here and listened to you talking about being a missionary for an hour and I didn't hear you say one word about the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

There were several in the room who shook their heads in agreement with me. The elderly gentleman smiled and tried to say, "Hmm . . . I thought I WAS talking about the gospel?"

We, as evangelicals, were taught to hate liberals . . . such as from the mainstream, old churches. You know . . . those who didn't see the world as black or white and Jesus as another product of Amway which needed to be pushed on everyone. If you weren't peddling Jesus (like you would a bottle of soap) then you weren't doing God's work. Who cares if people were suffering and dying or being raped . . . if they didn't hear the Four Spiritual Laws (or the Navigator Bridge) then God couldn't have cared less about them . . . or so we thought.

I was in town the other day and one of my pastor friends spoke to me. He is an Evangelical pastor. First I asked him how he was doing and he answered, in a strong voice and a big smile, "Just Amazing!" The sad thing, I'm sure he would have said the same thing even if he had just caught his wife in bed with his pool boy. But then he was talking about not seeing me around for a while. I mentioned that I was in Nepal for over three weeks.

The pastor asked the most peculiar question about my trip. "So who was the target that you interfaced with?"

What the hell does that mean? I know what he meant. He assumed that I went all the way to Nepal to give a cheapened gospel that you could find written in a tract. I didn't know how to answer him. I did say I was doing medical work . . . and his eyes fell downward as in disappointment.

But the gospel is bringing God's redemption to the world. That means redeeming all things. It is my opinion that a huge part of that redemption is bringing justice to a very unjust world. That is not a substitute for Jesus, but allowing Jesus to live through us.

If Nicholas is a Christian, or if a Christian behaved like him, then those he (or they) served who want to know Jesus. It is only natural.

If you were a woman whom husband and children had been hacked to death right before you, then 20 army men raped you one by one, then the whole village hates you because you are now unclean, and then you are starving to death because no one will give a piece of bread because you are unclean, then this stranger picks you up, puts you in the back of his car and drive you 100 miles through very dangerous roads controlled by rebels risking his own life, paying his own money because he thinks you have value in God's eyes . . . wouldn't you want to know that man's God?

I'm really looking forward to reading that book soon.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Where Are All the Christian Poets?



This is not just a rhetorical question because I wouldn’t be surprised if someone e-mails me to point to several great Christian poets. A good Christian poet would not be that easily recognized as such. The reason is, they would write as a Christian but from a human perspective . . . not writing “Christianly.” I’m sure you can find many “Christian” poems that smile and resolve.

I actually think that there would only be only subtle differences between the great writings of a Christian poet and those of a great non-Christian poet because both should write skillfully from their observations of the human condition. Maybe the Christian would give more hope, but it wouldn't be a cheap, plastic hope.

I’ve been seeking out great writers as I’ve mentioned before. I see this trend in the artists . . . even though they may start from a Christian perspective . . . there comes a time when they must choose between the “Christian” narrative and reality. Artists observe reality perspicaciously and feel the raw emotions of it deeply. When they see a contradiction between their preconceived Christian narrative and reality . . . they usually chose the latter. But we need those to continue in both their Christian beliefs and their astute observations of life . . . the way it really is.

I've followed the lives of many of those poets and the end seems to be familiar. They give up their hope when they give up their Christian narrative. They usually end up with serious depressions, alcoholism or suicide in their own, personal lives.

But there needs to be prose written that describe the pain that a young lover feels when the love of their lives . . . leaves them for another. Lines need to be written to explore that awful place that one lives in when their precious child slowly slips from their protective arms into that of a terminal disease. Someone with a true gift of words must write about the great joys that comes with the birth of a child, and the sadness that comes with the loss of an aged parent.

For a Christian to write humanly and to write well, they need to write about the glory of that sunset over the Olympics . . . without an artificial closure, where that sunset has some obscure special meaning from God to do such and such.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Christianity Works Best . . . When it is Lived Dishonestly





This title that was even difficult for me to type. It goes against the grain of all I’ve known or believed. But I must add a caveat. When I use the word “Christianity” I am not speaking of the simple way of life initiated by Christ but the huge cultural phenomena that evolved around it. Somewhat like a metropolis building up around a simple spring of water over the centuries. I do believe that Jesus Himself lived completely honestly.

When we go to our churches and pretend that we are better than we really are, or that our marriages are always swell . . . there is a type of harmony that exists. A type of peace comes in the pretending that our children are pure, smart, always faithful . . . and as Garrison Keillor says, “Above average.” This was the same type of “peace” that I believe Francis Schaeffer was referring to when he spoke of the Bourgeoisie (American middle class) of the 60s, who desired only affluence and personal peace (lack of conflict in other words).

There is a peculiar concord of spirits when we all agree that truth is black or white . . . and that we always choose white, that all problems of life can be solved by the 1-2-3 steps and lastly, that God always votes the Republican ticket.

It keeps the waters of Christian fellowship tranquil when we pretend that all our motives are 100% pure . . . and to even suggest otherwise would be an outrage.

We then create these dark areas of our lives, where we dare not venture. These are places that are only accessible by poignant questions . . . those that we are afraid to ask out loud. Such questions would be where you look into the eyes of your spouse with a greater sincerity than you have ever expressed before and ask, “Do you really, really love me? Are you still in love with me? If you had it to do over . . . am I still the one you would have chosen?” I think Denise and I have asked each other these questions a thousand times . . . which either reflects our honesty . . . or our insecurity.

There are questions that you don’t ask your kids because the possible answers could disrupt that Christian harmony. It is better to leave unknown and pretend than to know and loose that personal peace.

The Christian paradigm works best when we imagine that super-natural miracles are common . . . and God is doing mighty acts that defile nature even for my most trivial concerns and desires. That it was MY relative who was the lone survivor when the plane or ship went down.

This is why this Christian harmony is so alluring and why the questioning, that I often do, is so awkward.

I so often get in trouble when I attempt to live honestly. If I, even very gently, question the motives or sincerity of other Christians, I am perceived as playing the Christian put down game.

The Christian put down game is subtle. This is where we put down the behavior of other Christians in order to make us feel better about ourselves. In that situation you raise your eyebrows ask questions like, “Do you really allow alcohol in your house?’

But my questions are from the respective that I am confident that I am much worse of a person that you are and I am only trying to have an honest conversation without any judgment.

When that doesn’t work I attempt to only talk honestly about myself. That always gets me in trouble too. For example, regarding my recent trip to Nepal, I tell people, very honestly, that I did the trip mostly for myself. I went because I love adventure . . . yeah, that makes up at least 90% of the motives (speaking honestly). Then, the Christians perceive me as a jerk. It would be so easy to tweak the perspective and say, “I made this sacrifice, this difficult trip for the Lord’s work.” Suddenly you are a hero and invited to speak from the pulpit in every church in town.

But this brings me back to the artists. James Joyce’s book expresses the quagmire very well. He had this strong Catholic upbringing and a sincere desire to believe. But the part of him, the artist, who feels deeply and sees honestly could not live in peace with the pretend. When given the choice to become a monk or an artist . . . he chose the latter. The same happened with Vincent Van Gogh and countless of other artists.

But more often, I see the same happening with our kids.

So the status quo is so alluring. To live there we must create a Christian paradigm where the difficult questions are never asked. And if someone is brazen enough to ask one of those questions (such as why suffering has to happen) then we must get the programmed answer before their mouths are even done spitting out the question. Scripture somewhere (can’t remember the verse) says, “He who gives an answer before he hears (the question) is a fool.”

I watched the movie Jesus Camp last night with my son Quentin. He had checked it out of the Seattle library. Why he chose that movie is a question in itself. I had always intended to watch it. I thought the movie Saved was very provocative. But, I had put off watching Jesus Camp, because I knew it would be frustrating and sad. That it was. It was a primer in psychological manipulation of the very young. I have a strong feeling that if you follow those kids for their rest of their lives that 80% will eventually become bitterly opposed to Christianity. The few that remain will become non-thinking robots . . . pre-programmed robots. I was thankful that one character, a radio talking head (who said he was a Christian), was very outraged and said something to the “child evangelist” that I would have said. “God has a special place in hell for those who emotionally abuse children.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Tale of Two Books

Before my adventure in Asia, I choose two books to take with me. The first, which I started reading stateside, was Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the second, Leonard Cohen's The Favorite Game. I should finish both that this holiday week end.

In case you are new to this blog, I will say that I've been deprived of such literary excellence because I spent my formative years (plus a few decades) as an Evangelical, let me say a Dualistic Evangelical, who believed that if something wasn't written by a Christian, then is not worth reading . . . and possibly damaging. So, now I'm trying to make up for lost time.

My purpose for reading these two books is that I wanted to dive deeper into the hearts of the true word-smiths, the artists of syntax. These artists hold their palettes with a rainbow of words smeared out before them. They create this fantastic literary visions . . . their own interpretations of reality.

I recently had been introduced (via my children) to Cohen the singer and lyricist. I sensed a deeper meaning in his lines than one could gather at first glance and it enticed me to his novel.

I came across Joyce by somewhat of an accident. I started out (one year ago) to read the top 100 English novels, and his Ulysses was ranked number one. I struggled through Ulysses and made it 75% the way through until an untimely Northwest rainstorm rendered my three-inch thick paperback as unreadable. I may return to it. I think I struggled for several reasons. For one, I can only read in snippets . . . usually for 15 minutes at a time at the coffee shop on the way to work. The other reason is that I suffer from dyslexia which requires me to read sentences over, at least twice, before the jumbled words make any sense to me. Lastly was the excuse that I don't have good bookmarks. I use the wimpy papers that come around straws at Starbucks. Each time I would loose my place (when my book mark would blow away) I would waste days trying to find out where I was.

It is interesting to read these two books side by side. They, in many ways, are very similar. Both are poorly disguised autobiographies. Both deal with an issue that is dear to me, and that is the process of falling away from God (or at least religion in this case). I think that there are parallels that we can make regarding the 80% of youth who leave the American church . . . eventually.

The difference between the two men, Joyce and Cohen, may have to do with the respective times they appeared on history's stage and geographical location.

James wrote his Artist in 1914-15. This was when the west was just leaving Christianity. He also wrote (and the book took place) in Ireland . . . and inside a very Catholic fortress.

Cohen wrote from Greece in 1964, but his experiences, which borne the book, were formed within the crucible of Judaism in Montreal, and clearly in the post-modern philosophical age.

The similarities (besides their skills in the written word) seem to end after they were enticed away from their perspective religious upbringings via their sexual drives. The difference was that Joyce's character was first led astray by a prostitute but then put up a formidable fight . . . before giving in to the draw of creativity (pursuing art instead of the monastery). Cohen, on the other hand, never seemed to take religious belief seriously, although he would flirt with Christian, Jewish and Buddhistic symbols throughout his career. But his real, favorite game, appears (I've not finished the book yet) to be the very superficial sexual seduction of beautiful young women (but the avoidance of real communication at all cost).

I will be back to discuss more of what I've read and try to relate it to the situation within Evangelicalism . . . and the disenchantment that is so commonly encountered.

I will also be back to proof-read and correct my dyslexic wanderings.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

An Observation from a Social Experiment


Any time you bring a group of strangers together, from all walks of life, and force them to close quarters with constant interactions . . . it becomes a social experiment.

Think of Gilligan's Island, or the show Big Brother. This was what happened in Nepal. Ten of us medical providers from across the country came together. We met for the first time around an orientation dinner in Kathmandu. Then, the next day we did a tour together. After than, we lived and worked side by side for the following 16 days. We spent the days hiking up the steep mountains together, or working in the clinic. We ate every meal . . . including snacks . . . together. Even at night our individual pup tents had to be crammed side by side on the small terraces that clung precariously to the mountain side. You could hear your new found friends breath, snore, scratch and . . . unfortunately fart.

Each day you watched "alliances" form and fail. You watched romances bud . . . wavier . . . and bud again. It was interesting. One thing that I did observe (again), is how insecure we all are.

Sometimes I know that I am too critical of the farce-factor of Evangelicalism. However, those antagonistic to Christianity (as most of my American buddies in Nepal were, based on their comments) certainly don't have any less of a fraceness. It is amazing how insecure you can be . . . even after getting your PhD and MD from Harvard . . . that you have to constantly talk about (and embellish about ) your accomplishments.

So my lesson was this. When I get tired of the pretentiousness of Christians (including myself) and start to wonder, "Maybe truth is found elsewhere," I am once reminded that the honestly grass is not greener there. Like when Jesus asked Peter if he was going to leave him in John chapter 6:

66From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

67"You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve.

68Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."



I heard a Christian missionary to the Muslims once say, "When you feel tempted to become a Muslim yourself . . . then you really know Islam." I guess I really never got to know Islam then. The more I knew, and the more I hung out with Muslims in Egypt . . . the less desirous I found the religion. Talk about pretentiousness!

I've also spoken to ex-Evangelicals who have become new-agers, or actually converts to Hinduism or Buddhism. Several on our trek have new age leanings an of course we were working in a Hindu country. But again, I do not see these people living closer to honestly . . . but further from it. So, as much as Evangelical dishonesty bugs me . . . they certainly don't have a corner on the pretentiousness market

I've also had the opportunity to hang out with a lot of smart atheists. Same thing. They too tend to live dishonestly, especially when they try to put meaning into the meaningless (meaningless according to their paradigm).

So it was good living with people from the non-Christian perspective. I've always thought our youth would do better if we exposed them to all the world views from a young age . . . but let them really interact with these people. First, it would reduce the tendency for us to demonize the non-Christians. For example, I have some really nice gay friends and I'm glad they are my friends. They are wonderful people. Also it stops the pendulum from swinging to the other direction (from demonizing) thinking that the others have something better than us.

I closing an a segue to the next posting, the people that I find living most closely to the bottom floor of honestly are the word-smiths. Those who write lyrics, or prose or stories. However, in their great honesty, they often reach depressing conclusions (without the hope that is in Christ).

I've decided to surround myself with the best of the 20th century word-smiths so I'm continuing to read James Joyce and now Lenard Cohen. I want to reread Frost next.






Monday, November 16, 2009

God Loves the Slacker!

What a contrast! I went from one of the most physically active and productive times in my life (the trip to Nepal) to one of the most docile. At first it was the 14 ¾ hour time changed that drained the life out of me. Arriving home at 2 AM last Tuesday, then having to be at work later that morning to face a very busy schedule was tough. But then I noticed myself continuing to drag.

I had a cold for most of the time I was in Nepal, which was not unusual anytime you bring people together from the four corners of the world and live in close quarters. But by Wednesday, I noticed that my cold was worsening. As I was coming out of the fog of jet lag, I entered into this physical funk where it wore me out to walk out to the shed to get some kindling.

By Friday, with the fever, cough, body aches and sore throat I realized that I probably had H1N1. It is the worse flu I’ve had in a decade; however, it is a much milder form than most people have had. After all I’m in that good age group of the 50s where you have some natural immunity.

It is a bit frustrating to be flat on my back now that I’ve recovered from jet lag. I have a demanding schedule at work plus a lot of prep-for-winter chores that I had not finished before my departure for Nepal. But my ordeal is so trivial in the scope of life and world affairs. However, it does remind me of a far more serious story a woman once told me.

She had a very successful ministry for a number of years with a group that helped the homeless in a major metropolitan area. Even though she was young (30 maybe) and healthy, she caught a cold that evolved into something far worse. She developed pericarditis which put her in the intensive care at the local hospital. She made a very slow recovery, being discharged almost a month later and then spending the next nine months on her back in a hospital bed in her apartment.

She said that the time of recovery seemed like an eternity. Each day, she slept, ate, pooped (if she was lucky) and peed. She didn’t have the strength to read and certainly not to study anything. The TV was often on in the room but she couldn’t follow the programs.

It was during this time she entered her first depression. The haunting notion was, “How could God love me when I doing nothing for Him?” It took her weeks, if not months, to work through that lingering question. But she finally did resolve it.

I think it was when she thought of John 13: 5-9 she came to her senses.

After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?"

Jesus replied, "You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand."

"No," said Peter, "you shall never wash my feet."

Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me."

"Then, Lord," Simon Peter replied, "not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!"
She started to sense a truth along the following line of thinking, If you don’t sense God's love and acceptance when you do nothing . . . then you never can. She realized God’s Sabbath rest in Christ that it is Christ who does the work of righteousness. This concept changed her life from that point forward.

I know that when we left the mission field a long time ago, one of the hardest things for me to get a grip on was trying to get past imagining God’s constant disappointment in me. How could God love me when I wasn’t a missionary? My whole Christian paradigm before that had been based on me doing things to win God's good pleasure.

My little encounter with the flu will soon be over. Each day I feel 10% better than the day before. Hey, I’m sitting up writing on my blog tonight . . . on the couch under my sleeping bag. But if God can’t love us in the slacker places . . . then we never knew God’s love in the first place.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Nepal . . . at a Loss for Words


I remember sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon at sunset with a good friend. He was a poet . . . actually a song writer. The warm air blowing up over the edge gave us an emotional chill crawling up our spines as did the brilliant red hues of the sedimentary pillars. I was snapping photos left and right. Finally Ken said to me, "Why don't you just sit down and enjoy it for yourself. There is no way you can share this experience with someone who wasn't here . . . so why pretend you can."

I have to agree with him now. After having several phenomenal overseas experiences, like sitting around a campfire with a group of Bedouins eating a roasted goat and the boiled heart of a palm tree in the middle of the Sahara, it is useless trying to share that with someone who was not there. These experiences transcend words or even memories.

This trip to Nepal may have been the most phenomenal of my life. From the start, I didn't take a lot of photos. I bought virtually no souvenirs. I have a trunk of souvenirs in the basement from Oman, Egypt and Pakistan. Why buy something that would just add to the clutter?

Someone back home asked me if I was going to blog from Nepal. I knew that I could not describe the experience in real time because of the lack of technology. Even in Kathmandu you have intermittent access to the WWW. Where we were going was so remote that no only there was no Internet access, there was no electricity or telephones.

I am glad that I've been through this before so I will not meet the disappointment this time. I remember how I returned from my first trip overseas (back in 82) with a carousel of slides in my back pack hoping to convince someone to look at them . . . to no avail. I know better now. It is part of being human that you have these life-changing experiences, experiences that can only be savored alone. There is simply no metaphysical way to bring someone else into you universe. Maybe poets have an advantage in this task, but my poet friend Ken didn't even bother to try to put it in verse.

So I doubt if I will try. I will keep it to myself, only mentioning a few of the facts when asked.

I will talk briefly about my unrealized anxieties about this trip. In the weeks leading up to the trip, twice I awakened in the middle of the night with intense fears. I had fears about the heights, the swinging bridges and the Maoist rebels.

In retrospect, of course those fears were not realized. The trails were actually more precarious than my worst fears (see the photo above). We walked for miles on 16-inch-wide trails, which if stepped off, you would fall into the bottomless abyss. However, when I was hiking them, I had no fear. I felt safe on the solid 16 inches given me.

We crossed longer, higher and more swinging bridges than I had imagined. However, again my confidence did no wavier as I actually crossed them. While you could look through the metal planks to the crashing river hundreds of feet below, the cables were very strong and too gave a great feeling of confidence. However, I was with one physician climbing down a bluff and he fell off, fracturing a few ribs and having to air-lifted out of the remote location.

The Maoist did cause us some trouble. They had control of the main highway back to Kathmandu and called for a road block on the very day (a week ago yesterday) when we were making our way back to the city. However, they let us pass.


Maybe I will try to write more about Nepal . . . or maybe not. I feel too overwhelmed right now to even know where to start.