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.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

No Little People -The Caste and the Christian

A long time ago Francis Schaeffer wrote a book titled No Little People. I would like to go back and read it again as I continue to explore these thoughts of the little Vs big, as in importance. His book was a play on the cliche of the 60s or 70s "the little people," meaning of course the people who are not very important.

This is one of the issues that came to my mind almost daily in Nepal . . . the idea of there being some type of levels defining human worth.

Before departing, I read a couple of books about traveling in the country. A Lonely Planet book described in detail my personal ethical dilemma. The author said that many people, who go on treks in Nepal, feel guilty about having the lower caste porters waiting on them and carrying their packs. But--he adds--this is gainful employment for the porters . . . something which they want dearly so the terker is doing them a big favor by hiring them. The treks pay them about $4 a day, which is more than they can make doing anything else.

The Nepalese group, which I journeyed with, had expressed the same opinion. By allowing these little people (both in stature and position in society) to carry my things, I am doing a lot for them.

But, to use the term "caste" informally and loosely, I saw about 5 levels of caste-ness develop within our group. It went something like this; I) The Doctors, II) The PAs, III) The Nepalese health care workers, IV) cooks and lastly and far below the rest, V) the porters.

These porters are incredible. They are small, men coming in at about 5' 4" and the women 6 inches shorter. They carried loads (our stuff) that were heavier then their own body weight. They carried the loads in simple baskets with a rope or mesh across their foreheads. They carry these loads while walking barefoot (or maybe wearing cheap plastic sandals) down extremely steep mountain trails. They could keep a pace far faster than we could. We carried only light day packs with hiking essentials such as rain gear and water. (Below is yours truly attempting to carry a basket that is only 1/3 full.)

I signed on to this concept of being served when I agreed to go on this trip. However, watching this play out in real life made me very uncomfortable.

There were times when us western trekkers were sitting in our large dining tent (which the porters had carried over the mountains on their backs) eating a feast (which the porters had also carried) and drinking bottles of beer (which some porters somewhere had carried) and laughing, while looking through the thin gap in the tent flaps I could see the porters in the edges of the night. They were sitting crossed-legged in the dirt trying to keep warm around a makeshift camp fire. They were probably waiting on our left-overs for their dinner . . . or eating their own rice.

I don't know what made me most uncomfortable, watching the porters from my nice dinner table, or watching my fellow Americans feeling quite comfortable with this whole system. I could sense an attitude coming over us that was quite alluring. We started to feel like the imperialist British being served hand and foot by the conquered servants. I watched my fellow Americans telling me to throw my trash on the ground, and "don't worry about it . . . the porters will pick it up."

I don't know what the answer it. I mean, I do see the point that we gave these people the opportunity to work, for which they were very willing. But, I do believe that this type of situation some how gives us the license to feel entitled. It can be an opium for the ego. The concept of pushing others down, so we can get leverage to push ourselves up. We think, in the backs of our minds, "I'm an educated, rich American because . . . somehow . . . I deserve it!"

It is interesting that my wife attended a missionary meeting at our church while I was gone. The speaker, a missionary to Muslims, was pointing out that Muslims in Malaysia or Indonesia feel bitter because they earn a dollar a day making shoes for rich Americans. Then one of the church members said, "They shouldn't complain but be thankful to us . . . because without us buying their shoes, they wouldn't have jobs."

I hate the concept of WWJD (what would Jesus do) because of its yoke of legalism. However, I've wondered . . . how would Jesus react? I think we have to have a sense of grace, knowing that the only thing that separates us from the poorest of the poor are the circumstances of life, which are out of our control.

I tried to start hanging out with the porters and other Nepalese as much as I could . . . putting more and more distance between myself and my fellow Americans.

I think there must be a way where we can share our wealth by giving these people jobs, but at the same time acknowledging their great personal worth. Maybe, if I was leading the trek, I would pay them $6 a day and give them good shoes, good food and invite even the porters to eat at my table.

The Lonely Planet book's perspective seems a little too close to what I grew up hearing in the churches down south. When they talked about slavery the good church people would say things like, "Slavery is part of God's will for society to be productive" or "We did the Negros a favor by taking them out of that terrible jungle, giving them homes, food and jobs." There is something seriously wrong with that kind of thinking.

It reminds me of one other thing. Four years ago when I was in the Himalayans last (after the earthquake in Pakistan) I saw something amazing. We were told by the Pakistani government officials, and other NGOs, "Don't give any hand outs to these earthquake victims because it will teach them to be beggars."

Ahmed was a Pakistani medic working in NYC. He spoke the local language. His heart had been deeply moved and he had a plan. He walked up to the one of the terrible refugee camps and walked through in his "widow walk." He shouted, in Urdo, "All widows come forward!" Eventually about 25 ladies came out of their tents, whose husbands had been killed in the earthquake. He lined them up . . . then pulled out a roll of $100 (US dollar) bills. He took the rubber band off and handed each lady one. This was like a 3-4 month's salary in that part of the world. One by one these ladies started weeping and kissing his hand. It was deeply moving . . . and it violated every rule that has been made about helping the poor. However, in that circumstances, in the wake of that horrible earthquake . . . I think this Muslim man, Ahmed, did what Jesus would have done.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I'm Back!!!

I just got in from Nepal this moring and am already overwhelmed with work while I am fighting to stay awake. I will be back soon with some thoughts.

I would have to say, this was the most incredible journey of my life . . . at least they way I feel this morning.


Here's my first photo . . . me fooling around with my Nepalese friends: