Sunday, February 28, 2010

Earthquake and Connecting the Dots

With such a powerful earthquake (Chile) coming on the heels of such a devastating one (Haiti) and a powerful one but not so destructive one (Okinawa) I have the feeling that some TV evangelist will sooner or later start to connect the dots. I hope not. It is always a sad thing to see someone overlook the intense suffering of real people, in real places . . . people whom God loves, and only use them as pawns in propping up someone's eclectic eschatology. Pat??? Pat??? Hey, are you there?

The relief group I work with is on standby. I doubt if the call will come for Chile, but we will see.

On a different topic, I got a notification that one of my manuscripts (a novel) made it to a final round of a national writer's competition. The odds are still not in my favor. However, after 20 years of working on books, this will be the first time that I will have a manuscript read by a potential publisher. I've never gotten past a query letter before. I've entered contest for fiction before but I've never gotten past the first round (where they only read you description and not the actual manuscript). Like I've said before, I don't mind having someone read a manuscript and tell me it's crap . . . it is the inability to even get it read that can be frustrating (just ask any of the tens of thousand writer wannabes).

Saturday, February 27, 2010

K.D. Lang and Crying Over You

I was sitting in the coffee shop this morning, across the table from Ramsey. I was writing my previous posting and reading "As I Lay Dying" by Faulkner. We were sitting just beneath the Starbucks flat screen TV where their music skin is displayed.

I really wasn't paying a lot of attention to the music until I heard that familiar sound of Crying Over You. It didn't sound like Orbison. I stood up and looked . . . it was KD Lang.

Now, I'm ashamed to say, that I have not heard a lot of music from KD. The major reason (you might see this coming) is that she is not considered someone to be a fan of if you are an Evangelical. You can guess why, but, I'm certain it had something to do with her lesbian-feminists view point and gender blending.

But I sat there with my eyes closed and just listened to her wonderful voice.

It is hard to explain, but before now, I had never taken this song seriously. It was like a novelty song . . . a little over the top with emotion. The kind of song that you would sing in a whinny voice. But as I listened to KD, I felt the true emotion of loving and being hurt.

This too is part of the human condition. Has anyone gone through life without being hurt, romantically, at least once? I don't think so. I can't imagine those who are deeply in love, or even have been married for years . . . and the one they love . . . stops loving them. You can't measure that pain.

So, as I listened to KD, something struck me. I don't care about her "gender confusion," or sexual orientation . . . this woman sings with the passion that tells me that she knows what it is like to suffer a heartache. I think it was the same with Orbison (whom I think Bob Dylan said had the most beautiful voice the world has ever heard . . . or something like that).

So as I, as the liberated Evangelical, am eating up and enjoying the arts like I never have before, I can't express how much that song touched me. She sings of the human condition . . . something we all have tasted.

You can watch her here or just read the lyrics below:

I was all right for a while,
I could smile for a while
But I saw you last night,
you held my hand so tight
As you stopped to say "Hello"
Ah you wished me well, you couldn't tell

That I'd been crying over you,
crying over you
Then you said "so long"
left me standing all alone
Alone and crying, crying, crying, crying
It's hard to understand but the touch of your hand
Can start me crying

I thought that I was over you but it's true, oo so true
I love you even more than I did before
but darling what can I do
For you don't love me and I'll always be

Crying over you, crying over you
Yes, now you're gone and from this moment on
I'll be crying

I thought that I was over you but it's true, oo so true
I love you even more than I did before but darling what can I do
For you don't love me and I'll always be

Crying over you, crying over you
Yes, now you're gone and from this moment on
I'll be crying

crying, crying, crying
Yeah crying, crying, crying over you

Bible Study Break Through . . . Or Set Back?

Several months ago I initiated a small group Bible study at our church. Another guy and I co-lead it. My desire was to recreate the small group experiences that I've had a few times in my Christian life. Within these groups is where I think the true church is played out.

However, things didn't go as I had hoped. Speaking philosophically, it is part of this church's long standing culture not to speak of personal things in public. I think there are several reason for this, including the Dutch tradition of keeping a stoic face.

I had attempted to create space for personal sharing around the study of Hebrews. It was a log jam. Denise says it is simply because we (speaking of the whole group) don't have the depth of relationships to allow such sharing. But this is where I get confused. It is a catch 22. If you don't talk about your personal life, how do you create those relationships. Denise says it takes time. I've been involved with this church for 6 years now. Some of the people in the group have been around much longer. Isn't that long enough? I mean, I'm not going to live forever. I can't wait 10 years or more before I'm allowed to speak about real life.

My co-leader did not create space for sharing. I think the way he looks at Bible study (and the rest of the people probably do too) is that Bible study is for studying the Bible. If you are not talking about the Bible then it is a distraction at best.

This week it was my co-leader's turn to lead. We didn't have any sharing time but went straight to Bible study. We were studying Hebrews chapter 10. I didn't mean to cause a distraction. But when we got to the following passage:

22let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.23Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
I couldn't help myself. I raised up the questions of how do we spur one another on when we don't know one another or are allowed to talk about what is really happening in our personal lives (of the 5 couples who attend, I know that 3 or 4 are going through some serious, but private struggles right now. I only know about it because their non-Christian friends now of these struggles and they in turn have told me).

I don't think I'm having any major personal struggles right now, but I've had plenty in the past. So I brought up my past experiences of trying to fit into the church when I went through two bouts of serious depression. This opened the door and one couple started talking about their present struggles.

We talked "off topic" then for almost an hour. The Bible study is suppose to end at 8:30 but we went well beyond 9.

Now, I came out of there feeling that we had a major breakthrough. However, I've been disappointed before. I have the sense that my co-leader would see the last meeting as a total failure because we didn't stay on topic and we didn't finish the chapter. I think if our pastor had been there looking over our shoulders he would agree . . . it was NOT a good Bible study because people did too much talking.

So time will tell. It will either be a break through, or once again, I will be seen as the trouble maker and the unspiritual guy who got us "away from the Bible."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

One More Rant about Being a Phony - Peeling Back the Over-lays

When I speak of overlays, I can quickly come up with two examples. With each one, Holden would call the participants (including myself) phonies. Solomon would say that it is all smoke and mirrors and chasing after the wind.

I will use myself as the first example. I know that I already talked about this in a previous posting, but it was about my invitation to come to Haiti and help with earthquake relief. I work with a disaster relief organization and I got the call within hours of the quake. I eventually gave up my slot on the initial team to a friend, Eric, who had better skills (he has worked 20 years in trauma medicine and he had just been in Haiti a few months ago). I really thought he was a better team member than me. I had an invitation to join a second team, but I turned that one down too because it was the same week I was going to Minneapolis to see my new (and first) grandson for the very first time.

But, pulling away the over lays and speaking very candidly, it was very tempting to go on the first team. The old Evangelical Mike would have. He would have convinced himself that was what God wanted him to do. But, if I really care for the Haiti people, and only 12 people could be on the team, then Eric would be in a much better position to save a life than I would. If it had been an Arabic speaking country, then I would have gone due to my language and cultural knowledge.

But the reason that going to Haiti was so tempting, and the old Mike would have gone, is for the glory. Even in the very best of situations, being a missionary, or doing relief work is motivated in a large part by the glory. I’ve struggled with jealously too as Eric was interviewed on a national radio program and is a cover story on one of our national medical journals. I wanted to be that hero. I wanted the photos to be of me holding the sick baby.

The old Mike would have gone and then done a speaking tour of local churches. I would show my slides and talk of miracles. How God spared the life of one baby or one man (with a thin veil over the point that it was really me who had save that person). I would look over look the fact (if I really believed that God did this . . . which I don’t) that 250,000 men women and children died horrible deaths. If it came up, I would figure out somehow to blame the victims like Pat Robertson (to get God off the hook). Yeah. . . I know Holden, a pure phony.

Solomon would say that all great works of charity are chasing after the wind. That people do it for glory and when the bands stop playing, they are alone again with their miserable selves. Did you read Mother Teresa’s letters of doubt that were found after her death? Now I want to make it clear that the reason I didn’t go to Haiti wasn’t because I didn’t have the right motives. None of us have ever done a single out of pure motives. Maybe 10% is for altruistic reasons. But it doesn’t matter what the motives are . . . good can come out of bad.

Then, my next example is about church (with a small c). I recently heard two different pastors say that the solution to particular problems (one pastor was talking about the dysfunctional family and I think the other one was talking about being happy) was being very involved with a local church. But I want to remove the overlay of their motives. I’m not saying this as a cruel, cynical church hater. I've gone to church faithfully my entire life. I’m not speaking from the same mind set as Gene Edwards, whose books I used to read and sermons I use to listen to. He was a great house church proponent. I, in my searching, visited one of his house churches in Denver. He hated the organized church. But it didn’t take me long to realize that he was a self promoting, narcissistic man with his own agenda and his house churches were quickly becoming cults. But he said he would love to see every organized church in America burned to the ground. I’m not saying anything like that. All I am saying is that we are all phonies, because of the Fall. We all do things for impure motives. We don’t need to stop doing them. We can’t stop living (which I think is what Holden wanted to do . . . you know, “Throw my dead body in the river” thinking). No, I’m saying us keep going to church. Let’s keep doing humanitarian work but us do it honestly.

Back to the two pastors points about “getting involved in the church.” Maybe a little motive-deconstruction is due.

Denise accuses me of passing judgement on other peoples’s motives and that I should not do that because there is no way for me to know. I agree in part. Yet, I as a fellow-fallen-human, do have some credibility for passing judgement. The reason is that I think we are all made of the same stuff and I often am deconstructing my own motives.

So for the pastors who tell people that the answer to their problems is to be move involved in the local church is the same motive (in a large part) as the owner of a Walmart telling people in the community that the answer to their economic problems is to shop at Walmart, or the president of a particular University tells people that the answer to their life-goal, or education problems is to come to their college. The reason? If everyone left the local church, that pastor would no longer have a career or a reputation. A successful church also reflects very personally on the pastor’s own self-esteem. Now every single pastor wraps this call to come to church in obscure scriptures trying to turn it into a new command, “Thou shalt get in involved with the local church programs or God will be really disappointed in you.” I think they call that spiritual manipulation.

If you really boil it down, I think that the motive why most people go to church is for penitence. We go to; a.) please our co-church goers (making them think we are decent people), b.) to make ourselves think that we are more pleasing God. A secondary motive is to socialize with our friends and to be part of a social network in the same spirit as someone belonging to the Kiwanis or Rotary clubs. These are not evil motives. But they are honest motives. Wouldn’t it be great to go to church because the community there encourages us and we support each other there? I know that does happen, rarely, in some churches. It would be fine to go and to learn more about scripture, but not in the context of a “service” that suppose to please God as an act of penitence. And who came up with the idea that if you are not “learning” something new every Sunday that you are not in touch with God. When you first become a Christian, there is lots to learn. But when you’ve been a Christian for decades, I think it is crazy to expect to hear a lecture Sunday after Sunday and you suppose to take home something new each time.

I missed church completely last Sunday, which the once or twice I will do so this year. I had planned on going to the Presbyterian Church’s early service. However, Denise has a cold and coughed a good part of the night, keeping me awake. Then she got up at 6 AM to go to work. I finally fell asleep after she left for work and I did not wake up until 9:30 when Ramsey was yelling at me, “Aren’t you going to church?”

So I did the real Sabbath thing of resting. I sat in the hot tub and read. Then I went out for coffee. It was a wonderful restful day and far more Biblical than how I spend most Sundays. However, despite my deep views about church etc., I felt very guilty being home. “Going to church” has been embedded into my brain from my Bible-belt youth.

I know this is getting long but I have not posted in a while. There is one more example where I would like to peel back the overylays and deconstruct some motives when it comes to church.

When I was involved with the Navigators as an under graduate there was a gradual moving away from the local church (for a while). The reason was, we realized that we were doing a lot more learning and encouraging each other in our Navigator group than what was happening at the local church.

A few Navigator staff people in our area started to discourage people from getting involved with the local church because the local church seem to only be a distraction (asking people to give to pave the parking lot, come several nights a week to sing in the choir and etc.).

But then one day a team came out from Nav headquarters and met with the regional staff. The order from headquarters is for all staff to get very involved with the local church (becoming elders, deacons and etc.). I could share with you pages of spiritual “reasons” given by those staff. But (and I remember this conversation well) the true, honest reason whispered to me . . . it was money. The headquarters were fearful that if they alienated local churches (and there were some pastors writing negative things about the Navigators at the time because they were pulling back from the local church) that a lot, and hell of a lot, of money would dry up. The Navs figured that a huge proportion of their donor income came from churches (either directly or from members). The Navs then, in response, created a department just for connecting with the local church. They gave spiritual reasons for those connections “God has always worked through the local church and we want to be part of what God is doing.” But the real reason was $$$$$$.

If you don’t know me, you will think I’m being harsh at the Navigators. I am not . . . at least not selectively. I, like Holden or maybe Solomon, am saying that this type of fake motives is the norm for all of us and no Christian or Christian group is exempt. This is how we function in life, including our Christian endeavors. I’m not saying that those who have imperfect motives are the bad guys and I’m a good guy. Good heavens no! I’m saying we are all bad guys (due to the Fall) but we are all completely forgiven. I’m also not saying, like Holden, that it is all worthless and that everyone is a sonofabitch. No. I’m just saying that we should attempt to live more honestly. Let’s go to church Sunday morning but us be honest about why we are going. Let’s go to earthquake areas but don’t pretend that it is all spiritual.

I had a good friend who died last year. His son, who is about 19, has left the church. His mom said that her son said that he left the church because he just “wanted to know the truth and he was tired of being lied to.” She rolled her eyes when she told me. But I have deep respect for him. I know exactly what he is saying. He has seen beneath the overlays. He knows that much of what we do is pretend. The real God loves truth. That’s why I believe that we keep on pretending that people will continue leaving and getting hurt.

Friday, February 19, 2010

More Strange Words from Solomon

Ecclesiastes Chap1

18 Much learning earns you much trouble.
The more you know, the more you hurt.

(I understand completely what he means by that. I didn't at one time, but I sure do now.)

Ecclesiastes Chap 2

17 I hate life. As far as I can see, what happens on earth is a bad business. It's smoke—and spitting into the wind.

Ecclesiastes Chap 3

16-18 I took another good look at what's going on: The very place of judgment— corrupt! The place of righteousness—corrupt! I said to myself, "God will judge righteous and wicked." There's a right time for every thing, every deed—and there's no getting around it. I said to myself regarding the human race, "God's testing the lot of us, showing us up as nothing but animals."

19-22 Humans and animals come to the same end—humans die, animals die. We all breathe the same air. So there's really no advantage in being human. None. Everything's smoke. We all end up in the same place—we all came from dust, we all end up as dust. Nobody knows for sure that the human spirit rises to heaven or that the animal spirit sinks into the earth. So I made up my mind that there's nothing better for us men and women than to have a good time in whatever we do—that's our lot. Who knows if there's anything else to life?

(How do you explain this passage in a sermon?)

More on Solomon and Holden

I remember this old set of encyclopedias that we had when I was a kid. My favorite part were these two-page maps with clear plastic over-lays. On one over-lay would be the cities of that country in the1800s and the next over-lay would be fifty years later and etc.

I see that we do the same thing when we approach life. I believe that we have the raw motives of what we do, and those motives are not that attractive within the Christian ( or even secular) paradigm so we create these more glamorous over-lays narratives that pretend to give us a more noble purpose.

This is the way in which I see Holden and Solomon as being on the same page. They each peel back the over-lays and look at life in a raw light. The major difference, of course, is that Holden reaches a point of despair. He has no hope unless it is some mythical grasping of the golden ring or the catcher, whoever he may be, will grab him as he races through the rye field towards the edge of the cliff. Solomon on the other hand, sitting in the bar or coffee shop, would sake his head continuously with Holden in agreement. “You’re right Mr. Caulfied. Life sucks. It is all pretend. Bad things happen to good people and vice-versa. Fame, money, looks . . . everything is worthless. But Holden, the hope is, God is there and that does make a difference. How it makes a difference, even I’m not sure and I’m the smartest man who has ever lived . . . that’s why I have a Starbucks Gold Card.”

I have a friend, Dave, who is Jewish and in the publishing business (journals) in NYC. He always says to me (and we’ve worked together on several projects) that all human behavior can be boiled down to money.

I don’t fully agree with him. In my opinion, all human behavior can be boiled down to 1) biological desires and 2) psychological desires . . . the main psychological desire being to have personal value.

So, let’s take an oblivious example, Tiger Woods. The biological desire influencing the mistakes he made are clear. However, when you talk about sexual addition, it goes beyond biological desires into the desire to feel value.

BTW: I think Tiger did an excellent speech today. I have no idea if he is sincere but he said the exact things he should have. I would say that I have a much better feeling about his sincerity than that of Ted Haggard.

But before I leave this topic, and I know I’ve talked about this topic ad nauseam, but I want to take this further of how Holden and Solomon would look at our lives today.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Holden and Solomon Walk Into a Bar . . . er Coffee Shop

kay I guess I'm over my self-pity party. Sorry. but some days I (and most of us I believe) can get so discouraged.

When I first read a Catcher in the Rye a year ago, I heard echoes of King Solomon's voice in Ecclesiastes. It is funny but every time I heard a preacher preach from Ecclesiastes (or even reference it) they always presented it as the view of a unbeliever.

I just read it from cover to cover in the Message. I see many provocative statements by Solomon and I sense his honesty, and his wisdom.

While Holden looked at the world, de-constructed the social forms, as people being phonies, Solomon does a similar thing. All the efforts are chasing after the wind and have no lasting purpose.

I wanted to think about some of his (Solomon's) difficult statements that are totally inconsistent with how we (or at least I) were taught to look at Christian living.

Here is an interesting one:

7:1 Crying is better than laughing.
It blotches the face but it scours the heart.

Here's another one:

14 On a good day, enjoy yourself;
On a bad day, examine your conscience.
God arranges for both kinds of days
So that we won't take anything for granted.


8: 14 Here's something that happens all the time and makes no sense at all: Good people get what's coming to the wicked, and bad people get what's coming to the good. I tell you, this makes no sense. It's smoke (and mirrors).
15 So, I'm all for just going ahead and having a good time—the best possible. The only earthly good men and women can look forward to is to eat and drink well and have a good time—compensation for the struggle for survival these few years God gives us on earth.

From Chapter 9

7-10 Seize life! Eat bread with gusto,
Drink wine with a robust heart.
Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure!
Dress festively every morning.
Don't skimp on colors and scarves.
Relish life with the spouse you love
Each and every day of your precarious life.
Each day is God's gift. It's all you get in exchange
For the hard work of staying alive.
Make the most of each one!
Whatever turns up, grab it and do it. And heartily!
This is your last and only chance at it,
For there's neither work to do nor thoughts to think
In the company of the dead, where you're most certainly headed.

There's more that caught my attention and I'll be back.

20 There's not one totally good person on earth,
Not one who is truly pure and sinless.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Caulfield Christians - Maybe

This isn't the posting that I had intended. I climbed our mountain last night and went into the coffee shop to write. That's where I was hoping to construct something semi-intelligent to say.

But, I was so discouraged that I came close to pulling the plug on this whole blog project. Denise tells me to write it just for my self as a type of therapy. But, like Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes, I had this overwhelming feeling that all was in vain. I'm still not sure if I will come back or not.

What got me so discouraged? I think it simply boils down to going to church and making an attempt to get more involved again. It happens every time. I just don't fit in anymore. It is not as blatant as when I was told that I couldn't be a Christian if I didn't believe that the earth was only 6,000 years old.

No, it was just a few subtle comments here and there. I attended the main preaching, then Sunday school led by the pastor, then an evening meeting led by the pastor. It was the first time in a long time that I've attended three lectures by him in one day. The subtle comments weren't even all by him. I even think this discouragement started during our Bible study on Thursday.

If I can't communicate what is so discouraging, that isn't new. Denise has no clue and I've talked about it with her many times. She views the world very differently. To her it is all about relationships (which isn't a bad thing). So the pastor could say that Jesus himself was at his house that morning eating an egg Mcmuffin and it wouldn't bother her. She would say, "Maybe he was." I wish that I could be like that, but I can't.

I think it is the narrative that I must either accept (which I don't) or become a lonely outsider

1) The complete Rush Limbaugh view of all things political,

2) The reason that the Muslims don't like us is because we are so good and they are so evil,

3) This was a God fearing Christian country up until the Democrats got control a few years ago. Now the gays and lesbians have ruined everything. We need to fight to get it back,

4) God is constantly speaking very specifically to each one of us every day. Everything, that's absolutely everything, happens for a reason.

5) Global warming is a myth,

So, these things are not that important (things I think Jesus would roll his eyes at) but have been woven so deeply in the American Evangelical gospel, that to not agree alienates you. It is a shame. I couldn't care less what others believe. I just wish they would grant me the same grace.

I woke up at 4 this morning and grabbed my computer. I started to read about the mainline presbyterian church on the island . . . once more. Then I thought about the nightmare that it would create if I tried to switch churches. I honestly do like all the people at my present church, but to them, I will become the "man who turned his back on God" if I switch. Denise won't go with me, so she will be the "faithful one who stayed with the Lord."

5) Never say anything that is not 100% positive.

It reminds me when I had a retreat for a group of 8 men. We (yes including me) were all Rush ditto-heads, except for one. By the second day this guy, Rob, burst out in anger screaming at all of us. I couldn't figure out what made him so mad . . . except that he was a Democrat. Now I think I know how he felt.

It should be Jesus + NOTHING. Not Jesus + be a good Republican, or Jesus + Hate the Muslims, gays and those who swear or Jesus + be at all the church programs.

I'm just blabbing. But I can certainly feel the draw of why so many leave the church . . . never to come back again.

With those discouraging words I will add once more how I, as the literary virgin, am enjoying my venture into good reading. I've never been so in touch with the raw human condition as I have through the eyes of those authors.

Speaking of which, I've decided to make further attempts to find an agent for my manuscript. I think what motivated me was the fact that one of my best friends' friend, has a book in the top 5 on the New York Times best selling non-fiction list. It is her fist book. I don't know how she got it published.

It reminds me of the vanity factor (as in Solomon) again. I watched the biathlon on Sunday. I've spent many days at Whistler and the Olympics bring it all home again. But this American had spent the last 15 years training for that moment. Then, as it was his turn, it started snowing hard with wet snow. So, by chance, his dreams were crushed and all that hard work went down the tubes. The wet snow made the trail much, much slower. Those who went before the snow hit, had much faster times.

It is that way with writing. I wish the best writer would win. I could clearly be the looser in that case and it wouldn't bother me. However, the way it works, so much depends on luck. You can't get published without an agent. An agent accepts about 5% of submissions (or less, sometimes much less). They do not want to see your manuscript but to only read one paragraph about it. So your 20 years of hard work comes down to one paragraph.

To make things even more an issue of luck, is the fact that there is not set guidelines of what will get their attention (except for avoiding the typos which I'm sure I did not here). I've had two different agents tell me opposite things. "It's too much about yourself" or "You didn't say enough about yourself." It is a toss of the dice to get "heard." I wouldn't bother me at all if a publisher read one of my manuscripts completely and then tell me it is crap. But this game of spending years and yet to have one manuscript read . . . that can drive you nuts.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Books - And Caulfield Christians

I'm still working my way through the classics. I finished Lord of the Flies last week. It was one of the few classics I had read in high school I really enjoyed William Golding's style of description.

I'm presently reading Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. It is too early to be captured by the narrative.

I'm also listening to Jack Kerouac's On the Road.I started listening to it while hiking in Nepal but never finished it. I have to say, Jack Kerouac is an amazing story teller . . . about the best I've ever heard.

I'm also going to start a manuscript by HUG . . . again. I started it four months ago but lost it and now have found it again.

But, the thing that comes to mind to me again was the book that started this journey a little over a year ago . . . The Catcher in the Rye. As I started to talk about previously, with the death of JD Salinger, I heard about groups of Caulfield wannabes. As I listened to the story about these fans, the point made was how they identified with Caulfied (and thus Salinger, himself) because they were outsiders . . . rejecting the phony society.

Like I said before, I think that Salinger had some great observations . . . but wrong conclusions. But I wanted to think about how some of us are Caulfied Christians, looking in from the outside, not quite fitting in. I will come back to this thought tomorrow.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Denial of Self, The Last Thoughts

Self Denial – And the Christian Experience

I feel that I did not finish my thought on this topic before my computer died. It is so hard at times trying to express the deep, somewhat philosophical, question I raise here.

I’ve established previously that I think the place for self denial is when the urges of the self comes between us and obedience to obvious commands. But I really have the sense that Christianity, including Evangelical Christianity, has taken it far beyond that and has made self-denial part of the works mentality and reflecting the dualistic perspective that anything human (including all of our desires) is bad.

I was thinking of the concept of Lent. I know that it has a lot of history. But when I hear my catholic friends (okay, I am now including Catholics and not just Evangelicals) talking about what they are giving up for the Lord, they are giving up things that bring them pleasure . . . like chocolate. But what command does eating chocolate violate? None. So I wonder if the act of self-denial for self-denial’s sake is just another misunderstanding of God’s great gifts (for us to enjoy) and the wrongful concept that we can somehow do something to please God (apart from Christ)?

The Evangelicals march to the same drum at times, but maybe not celebrating Lent. I have to use extremes to illustrate my more subtle point.

How many pastors would drive a sports car, say a BMW convertible, even if it were a decade old and cost less than the Plymouth mini van that they might drive instead? I say very few. The reason (and the same reason I could never be a pastor) is that many people would question him. We Christians suppose to do things for a variety of motives, but never for the motive that we simply LIKE something. This includes BMWs and chocolate.

It reminds me when I first starting looking into going to the mission field. I loved rural, cold climates and mountains. However, every time I mentioned that those “likes” were the motivations that made me want to go to Iceland, or Nepal . . . my spiritual leaders would frown and tell me those were bad motives . . . “wanting something.” Instead, they told me, “You must do it because you are called and God does call people based on their desires.” So, oddly, I ended up in the center of a very hot and flat metropolis.

Another story of why I think that pleasure if frowned upon in Evangelical circles comes to mind.

Once I was a deacon in a large church in Minnesota. We were having our monthly deacon meeting one cool, autumn, Thursday night. Just before the meeting, I had run five miles . . . so I was a bit thirsty. I stopped by a 7-11 store and bought a 20 oz diet Mountain Dew. I rushed to the meeting in the pastor’s office, however when I got there I discovered that we were all waiting on the head deacon, who had been delayed.

As I sat sipping my Mountain Dew, the first person commented, “That’s a lot of sugar.” I rotated the label, “Its diet.” Then I took another drink.

The next person said, “I think there is about 20 times the caffeine in a Mountain Dew as in coffee (which he was holding in a Styrofoam cup his hand).

“No that’s not right. A Mountain Dew has about the same caffeine as one strong cup of brewed coffee.”

I took another sip and someone else spoke up, “I gave up pop because they are just too expensive. I just couldn’t justify spending that much money on myself.”

I didn’t say anything but took another drink. Finally the last straw was a woman who said, “That aspartame gives me a headache and they think it leads to bladder cancer.”

I just had to burst out laughing. I mean, I was just trying to enjoy a cold drink after a grueling run and none of the deacons would hear of it. They all at to frown at me for having the audacity to drink ( and enjoy may I add) a cold soda in church. I thought the next time I would bring a cold beer. But we all behave much more extremely within the walls of a church, especially during an official church meeting.

In summary, and I think there is much more that could be said, is that our personal desires area a good thing (unless they go against God’s law) because God created us and we ain’t crap. We don’t have to buy cars that are just practical. We don’t have to just buy second hand clothes or from Sam’s club. We don’t have to avoid sugar, chocolate, caffeine, good music, a good cigar (I don’t care for them but many people do), a great glass of wine or a sports car . . . thinking that if we desire it then it can’t be from God. This doesn’t start to address the financial aspects. I’m certainly not advocating spending money foolishly or going into debt. I am absolutely not talking about the prosperity gospel. I have a deep felt heart for the poor.

But like I alluded to earlier, you CAN usually talk positively about personal desires in the privacy of your home or at a restaurant with your Christian fiends, but within the walls of a church, if you do . . . you meet the evil eye. But, if we have a loving God who created us, then it makes him happy when we enjoy life here on this wonderful earth.

Enough said.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Present Past

The kind of shock that comes completely out of the blue can have the sharpest bite. It’s those things which were not even on the radar screen the second before can startle you the most.

Any time that I, as a man, use the analogy of a woman being raped, I know that I’m making a terrible mistake. But that’s what it was like. A woman who was raped more than twenty years ago, opening the paper and—without any warning or premonition—seeing that haunting face of her attacker, not in the police blotter section, but being celebrated as a hero. I don’t think that I am embellishing when I say that’s the way I was hit in the gut.

I was simply on my way to the bathroom in very unfamiliar place. I was in the basement of the stone cathedral-like church, where my son and his wife attends in Minneapolis. I was on my way back to meet them, wiping the excess water (from the hand washing) on my jeans when I glanced to my right. It was their large missionary poster board. There were only two supported missionary families exhibited on it (maybe they support more but they may rotate them). I looked at the first family trying to figure out, from their strange costumes, where they were serving. It looked like some fancy Slavic traditional dance outfit. Then I glanced to my left. It only took me a millisecond to recognize the face of the man. The china-blue eyes and the goatee, now snow white. The last time I gazed on that face was in Cyprus, 22 years ago. Our parting was the most difficult thing I had ever faced and it would change me forever.

Curt was our missionary boss. I can’t get into it here as it is a very long story. I did skim it in the manuscript, which I posted a couple of months ago. But my encounter left me devastated and my Christian life in ruins. I hated him at the time. I hated him for a few years and the hate mellowed to despisement (if such a word exist). But I bet in his secret place (just like I kept the hate in my secret place) that he hated me too. After all, my experience with him was not the main reason that he was fired by the missionary agency, but it did open an investigation that eventually led to his dismissal a couple of years later.

Even though he and I both were from the Southeast, ironically, the last time I tried to contact him, way back in 1989, he was visiting Minneapolis and I was then living in Duluth. I didn’t know why he was in Minneapolis (rather than being in his home in Syria) but he was. He refused to meet with me, on the surface at least, saying that he was too busy. But I suspect that it was the hate for me, which had already taken hold in his heart.

It all came rushing back this morning. There he was on the glossy with his wife, previously with coal-black hair, now gray, and his two daughters (who sat in my lap the last time I saw them) now grown women.

But departing from that bad analogy I made earlier, I can’t demonize him like I once did. I could even see him being my friend . . . once again. It is not as much as about forgiveness as it is about learning. I’ve learned so much about the situation, about God and myself since then that I know that I was at fault too.

I’m not talking about the misguided fault (drawing from that bad analogy one more time) of the rape victim saying, “It was my fault because I shouldn’t have been in a vulnerable situation.” No . . . I’m talking about true fault . . . not a dismissive fault. At least 50% of the missionary disaster that became of our lives was my fault. Again, it is too complicated to discuss here but it has to do with the emotional baggage that Curt and I each brought into the situation.

When you are the true victim, which I thought I was for the first few years, the emotion is anger. Simply, they did that to me and it is so unfair. But when you realize that you were part of the problem, the emotion is fear. You fear that you are not as good as you had believed. You fear that because you are not good, that you will not be loved and you fear that you will perpetrate the same bad outcome again. When someone else is 100% to blame, you can escape them and escape future harm. When you carry one of the perpetrators in your bosom, there is no escaping them.

Lastly, there is the guilt. Not the Ted Haggard guilt. Where you have done horrible things, lied about it in the most profound way and then, with a smirk, say, “Well . . . only Jesus is perfect.” No, I’m talking about real guilt. It is the war in your soul (and mind) where you try desperately to cover your own sin (or allow God to cover it) and faults with the blood of Christ, only to see them melting through in places again (not that the blood of Christ is not good enough but that psyches are fallen). Redemption is not one big victory, but a process.

Those who claim instantaneous victory are usually lying to themselves. People who claim to have forgiven and forgotten once and for all, aren’t being real. Those who claim that the moment that they become Christians that they never have a guilt feeling again are usually self-deceived . . . or they, like Ted, are too narcissistic to ever have known true guilt to start with.

I’m finishing up this post, now two days later. The sting and fear have subsided but it reminds me once again of the battle that we are in.

My first post with my new (old) computer. It is tiny with an 8 inch screen. Now I can blame my typos on my inability to see the screen.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Invention of Lying and the Art of Truth

The movie, The Invention of Lying, is not the kind of movie that I would spend ten bucks to go to a theater to see. I don’t know what genre to put it in that would classify it in such terms. I do like romantic comedies. I think it is the idea of a romantic comedy build around a brainless idea (I think of some of the Alan Sandler flicks.)

But I did have some interest in this movie . . . at least enough interest to watch as a rental . . . especially when someone else rents it and wants to see it.

The reason why I had some desire to see it was because of the deeper (probably more deeply than intended) issues raised and that of course is my pet peeve issue of living honestly.

Most people know the premise of the movie but I will quickly rehash in case you are not. It is the present world, but an altered world because the concept of lying has never, ever even been considered. The point is so extreme that even the concept of fiction is beyond comprehension. The main character works for a major movie production company, which makes historical documentaries. That is the only kind of movie possible because the truth must be told in every circumstance. I won’t mention too much more about the plot because that’s not my point.

I’ve talked a lot about (in previous posts) about the concept of trying to live down on the floor level, next to pure reality, rather than cushioned by layers (or floors) of self deception and the deception of others. So I was hoping that this movie would depict such a reality.

In some ways it does. People are very honest in conversations, but for the humor sake, people are very cruel. This is an important idea because in the conversations I’ve had with others this is almost always their point of why we should not live honestly, that is avoiding hurting others. The best example from the movie was people dating one another and saying things like, “This relationship can’t last because you are fat and I am beautiful and in a league above you.”

But honestly doesn’t have to be cruel. Sticking with the dating situation I will give another example. If someone really didn’t want to date someone, the normal way to do it is to say, “Oh, I can’t I have family coming into town this week and I need to be with them” (all lies). The cruel-honest way is to say no, because I think you are fat. But the non-cruel-honest way is simply to say “No thank you. I don’t want to go out” and leave it at that.

This topic of dating is trivial in the big scope of things but it fits with the movie. I imagine a world where we could all be honest with one another, about our motives and our actions. I think we would all be much more secure and deal with things in a much more healthy way. Another message of the movie (which was the purpose, besides humor, of the cruelty) is that life does not work well if we tell the truth.

But if God is there, and He is a God of truth (as scripture describes Him) then we must try and live honestly.

But this is where I think that many forms of Christianity have failed, including American Evangelicalism. In my opinion, we are very dishonest to ourselves and to one another and it is part of our Christian culture.

To bring this home, before I end this post, I will give a real example.

About four weeks ago Denise and I had one of our worst fights of the year . . . and it happened to be Bible study night. In summary, I got home from work and she was washing dishes. I asked how the day was going and she started venting to me about being tired of doing so many dishes. But in her frustration she vented toward me. This hit a raw nerve in me because I feel the same way. I work non stop (as does she) both professionally and when I get home. I too feel like I’m doing dishes every night, dishes that I had nothing to do with. In reality, it has a lot to do with two sons at home that dirty far more dishes than they wash.

But I became really angry at her and she at me. Unfortunately we didn’t even have time to fight it out as we had to race to Bible study. I was thinking that if we got there late, I would tell them that the reason we were late was that we were having a big fight. That’s the kind of honestly that I’m talking about. Denise felt relieved that we got there on time, or at least no later than anyone else, and it wasn’t an issue.

I think there are several advantages in living honestly like this. For one, others will see that you fight and then when they fight (as all couples do) they will not feel this inferiority complex but know that they are human. Also, if everyone at church fought out in the open, we as a body would be there to support them. I mean, I wish that Denise and I could have had our raw argument right there in front of everyone so that they could give us some objective direction.

The other advantage of “airing your dirty laundry” at church is that in the light the cockroaches can’t multiply. If we all go to church pretending that we perfect, then it creates more darkness in our personal lives where we can misbehave. “Misbehave” may be too polite of a word. I’m talking about “good” Christian men beating the crap (or more likely causing psychological injury) out of their wives.

I will rest my case. I will point out one more thing about the movie. They, to be cool in this post-Christian society, tried to portray that Christianity could only sprout up where lying was possible.

My excuse on the typos in this posting is that I am using a borrowed computer again and I must give it up, so I had to type fast without proof-reading.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Phonies and the Invention of Lying

My access to the Internet is still sparse. I'm in Minnesota visiting my new-born (and first) grandson, and of curse his parents. So there are a few laptops lying around that I can swindle now and then. My son Ramsey, back in Puget Sound, says my new (used) laptop has arrived and it is incredibly small. I've always like small laptops, but this one, according to him, may be over the edge. Anyway, my point being, it still could be a couple of weeks before I'm back on line with any regularity.

I've been thinking about many things in the past few weeks. As I mentioned in the last post, is the passing of JD Salinger. His only novel was Catcher in the Rye. He also seemed to live out his views as express through the Catcher's main character, Holden Caulfield. He did move to New England and, in many ways, withdrew from society.

I think as the story broke about his death, many facts about his life came to the surface. These facts were not hidden, but only known by those who really followed him.

One story was about the cult following of Salinger by those who related deeply to the Caulfield character. One such follower was an 18 year old college dropout who traveled to his home and eventually moved in with the 52 year old (at the time) Salinger. I don't know if they ever married but they did live together for years (how many, I forgot.)

But this started me wondering about what so many people saw in Caulfield that they would be attracted to him. After all, he seemed quite miserable.

I really think the draw is the same part of Caulfield that draws me as well. That is the distaste for the Phony in the world. He simply gave up playing the game. I feel his pain, especially when it comes to Christianity, but the non-Christian world is no less of a phony world.

But Salinger went too far in my opinion (as expressed in Caulfield’s life). What I mean by that is that both of them, JD and his alter-ego, succumbed to total cynicism. They lived without hope in mankind and certainly no hope in God the creator. They were left with only avoided the pretending . . . but they didn’t have any substitute waiting in the wings.

I’ve had many Christian friends accuse me of being a cynic. I know that I walk a very precarious line at times. I too want to avoid the phony, but live in the hope that God gives, living in honestly while being covered by the blood of Christ. Being able to see the ugly truth in my own life and in the life of others, but not allowing that to leave me without hope.

Woops. It is time to give up the laptop to its rightful owner. I want to come back and talk about the movie The Invention of Lying, which relates to this phony business.