Monday, May 31, 2010

The Flesh

I remember back when I was in graduate school and part of a Navigator training center that we would go through these quirky fads. One was our greeting. During a spring conference our most hard-core staff man (Rambo for Jesus-type), Nick, challenged us to hold each other accountable for our ministries.

So, for about a year or two, our greetings went like this, “Hey bro . . . where’s your ministry?” The answer would come back something like, “Freshmen guys in Hagan Residence Hall and God is really blessing it.” We could always brag as much as we wanted as long as we threw in “God is really blessing it.” Speaking of which, the way that we said goodbye was simply, “Blessing!” No one knew what the hell that meant but

it sounded cool . . . no . . . more like spiritual.

Anyway, I went to the coffee shop this morning and read about 6 chapters in my new book, The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. I had never heard of the book before Saturday morning when I went to the used book store and told the owner that I was working my way through the top 100 English novels. Fortunately she had the list on the wall.

I worked down the list. I was happy to see that I had finished about 20 so far (I know, a long ways to go). But of the ones that I had not read, she did not have most of them. Then I stumbled on # 12.

Fortunately my copy of the book has a long introduction, including a quick biography of the writer. It is interesting that he, like Joyce, Cohen and several others, started their lives in a strict religious family (all Christian but Cohen, who was Jewish), and then couldn’t

take it anymore. Then they let their creativity win out over their devotion to God. In other words, each had a serious disillusionment with organized religion (if not God Himself). Isn’t it a sad thing when you have to choose between creativity and your faith? It makes no sense as God was the prime creator who bestowed into all the natural act of creating. You can’t put a group of people anywhere without them immediately starting to create something. We are all creators, with a small c.

These days I don’t even pretend to “have a ministry” but if I did, it would be to the disillusioned. I say this for several reasons. My heart is with them to start with. I mean, I really feel grief over the 5 families and many other singles who slipped out the back door of our small church and vanished over the past few years.

I also feel a connection with the disillusioned. It is in the same way that a breast cancer survivor can instantly hit it off with other women who have experienced the same. I know their pain.

But my “ministry” is more like being a medical specialist of sexually transmitted diseases in a Victorian or Taliban village. My heart is for those whose fate is taboo . . . too taboo to speak of outside their own heads. They can’t talk about their doubts or their deep family troubles.

I know that I lack gifts in developing relationships, but I’ve tried many times to talk to people, whom I know are struggling in this way. But the unspoken mandate, at least in our part of the woods, is to hide it to the very end . . . then slip out the back door quietly. I’ve tried two approaches, 1) asking them personal questions and 2) sharing honestly and deeply about my own faults. Neither has worked except to give them the impression that I’m wacko and they must avoid me at every chance.

I know that I’m jumping around but these things are connected.

After a hike this afternoon, and thinking about these great artist feeling that they have to give up their creativity for their faith, I came home and pulled up HUG’s (aka Headless Unicorn Guy) story . . . Conversation with a Dying Unicorn. I read it months ago, before I read A Tale of Two Cities and before I obsessed with the French Revolution. I read it again and it made even more sense. Maybe HUG will post it so you can read it for your self. It is beautifully crafted. (sorry about the plagiarism with the photo).

Speaking of writing (and how HUG and I both try this trade, he better than I) I got a brief little e-mail this afternoon that an article, which I had written for an international medical journal, was accepted for publication. It wasn’t a research or academic type of article but a narrative.

So here is the great dichotomy. I have never, ever been able to persuade a publisher or agent even to look at my (book) writing, and I’ve been at this for 20 years. However, this will be the thirtieth (or more) articles I’ve had published in national journals. I’ve never had one rejected in their finality. For example, this article was rejected in its original form for political reasons (meaning that I had given too strong of opinion). So I simply cut out two sentences and mended the hole created in their absence and . . . presto it is accepted. It has always been so easy. I would continue to write articles but it pays about 65 cents per hour (when you include all the drafts and thought). Anyway, that is the great mystery. On one hand I feel like the singer on American Idol whom everyone, but himself, is laughing at . . . but then on the other hand, I fell this encouragement to keep trying when these articles are accepted without question.

I'm So Lucky

I think I felt a bit of inspiration after a glorious walk along our beach. Not ours personally but part of the beautiful state park that surrounds our place. Our beach is really a stretch of about two miles of high cliffs, micro-fjords and an occasional real beach of pebbles or sand laced above with huge old-growth trees and the remains of such vertical on the sand. Besides the mystic fog rolling in between bright beams of sunlight, I saw the migration of a herd of . . . tourists. They come from the big cities and the places far away. I knew they were here, not by the honking overhead or the snorting of their snouts but the huge road jam coming onto our island on Friday evening.

But as I hiked and I watched the strangers snapping photos left and right, smiling, wowing I felt good. I crossed a small meadow near where my trail starts up another forested cliff-edge only to see a flock of camera-laden people motion for me to stop. I was puzzled. Then I noticed that they were watching Jake, or Bud or Rick . . . one of the many bald eagles who live in the park and are always perched in that tree. To the out-of-towners it was a great novelty. They acted like the very spot should be cordoned-off or turned into a spontaneous protected aviary. “But those birds are always there,” I thought. If you couldn’t hike the trail beneath them where they are present, then they would have to close the trail forever. So I hiked on under the tree and their perch. The people signed like I was an anti-nature jerk. “But I live here!” I thought, almost with real words.

Toward the end of the first segment of my trail, after riding the steep walls above the sea like a Coney Island roller coaster I entered a campground. It was a sad scene—people packing the back of their cars with their stuff. I could see the sadness. The kids were walking down to the mystic beach for one more look. “I live here!” Came the thought again. I never have to pack up and go home for I am there. I can walk on this beach every morning, every night seven days a week if I want. I felt really lucky.

More in the Praise of Fiction

finished A Tale of Two Cities about three weeks ago and I just wanted to share some thoughts. I was just thinking that my discussion of these books are a little reminiscent of Julie Powell’s narcissistic (and seemingly—on the surface at least—meaningless) exercise of working her way through Julia Child’s 525 recipes in her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blogging about it. Except in my case, I’m working my way through the Modern Library’s 100 Best English Novels. Each book that I read has many, if not hundreds, of commentaries written about them. But my observations are personal to what I, Mike, took away. But it is a little melodramatic to make the comparison to Ms. Powell.

I remember being taught a long time ago that any time I studied the Bible or had a morning devotion that I needed to find something profound that would “radically change my life.” With this high standard of success applied to each quiet time, each day, you quickly finding yourself going in circles. Okay, maybe more like spirals. The only question was it an upper or downward spiral.

Sort of in that same spirit, but not so intense, I want to make one observation of how that book impressed me. This is a little different than my devotional exercise because I don’t read the books looking for that life-changing cornerstone, but I read the books for pure pleasure. Then, afterwards, I sit back and look at the natural aftermath of that experience.

Early on I made the observation of that Dickens was one of the most descriptive writers I’ve ever read. I was overwhelmed with awe in his ability to use words to draw me in, into a parallel universe. The plot of the story wasn’t that complicated. It was story about relationships, some on the surface, and some lurking down deep between the lines. Certainly there was a story climax of substitutionary atonement. But beyond those things, and looking at my personal life, there were many strong messages about human nature.

An important message that I took away was the myth of the utopian mirage. This of course was about the French Revolutionaries. They were hurt people. Like one of my favorite bumper stickers says, “Hurt People Hurt People.” I don’t they had much of a choice unless it was total hopelessness and despair. But they devolved this utopian hope of revolution that would bring reason and justice. Maybe Maximmlen Robespierre would visit Paris today he would smile and say, “Yes . . . it was well worth it.” But the brutality, which followed the revolt, was far worse than that from which they rebelled.

Without wasting too much more space on the book I will add my personal observation.

When we see a problem, any problem, we start to formulate solutions. Before long we get emotionally caught up in that illusion . . . thinking if only, if only. But, as they say, you must be careful what you wish for.

I think of church life, especially protestant church life. From the time of the reformation, the church has splintered, splintered and splintered again. As you know, some of that . . . actually most of it . . . did not come as a lovingly disagreement among brothers. The Thirty Years War and other such conflicts were in the same brutal leagues as the French Reign of Terror.

This of course has continued up until the present time and even within my own attitudes. Just this week, the motorcycle church, which meets in our church, had a major disagreement with their parent church and started a new denomination. Our pastor alluded that it was a rough transition. I wasn’t there but (but I have been in the past in other church splits) where each side sees themselves as being the ones on God’s side . . . while the real conflict is usually very personal and has to do with the self-esteem of those involved rather than some edict from God. It’s been the same story throughout history.

But I too am often enticed and seduced by this utopian dream. Once I was sure that I could create the ideal (if not perfect) church and I tried. I worked hard on it and it ended with no less of a disaster (spare the bloodshed) of the early days of the French Revolution. Even now, while I am discontent with the status quo, it can be tempting to think that I could do better myself.

I think it comes back to the fundamental truth expressed by the concept of the speck and log in the eye. Like the French Revolutionaries (maybe thanks to prerevolutionary thinkers/writers Baron de Lahontan and Jean-Jacques Rousseau) people can believe that we are morally better than those at fault. Then, when we are released to express our dreams, we believe that utopia will ensue.

So I have no illusions, most of the time, that I could do things better. My flaws would taint my noble plans.

My next book, which was the only one which I could find in the used book store, is The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler. I will save a few preliminary comments for next post.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Christians and Culture . . . Separate and . . . Unequal

Do you ever have this strange experience where you have moved on in your life over a way of thinking and you have this misconception that all of society has been on the same train as you? Then suddenly you realize that there are plenty of people still at the place you were a long time ago? I don’t mean this in any type of condescending way. Not like my friend Mike C., who was into "Messianic-Christianity" who kept telling me that when I mature to his point, I too will be practicing the Jewish laws. I never got to his point and now I don't see him since he ran off with a young co-worker and left his wife and daughter. But I mean that that I have moved on as a cultural fact.

Okay, I never wore a mullet . . . personally . . . but there was a time in my life when I was around a lot of people who did. As a matter of fact, I had plenty of kin-folks down south who did. But imagine that you assume that all of culture has moved beyond the mullet, then one day you meet someone with the same hair cut as you were use to back in the 80s.

I had another one of those encounters this week. I was up hiking in the N. Cascades and ran into an evangelical pastor, whom I’ve met before. We share some things in common in the fact that we each have sons who are trying to make it in the music industry.

We were discussing how hard it is to be “on the road” as a musician . . . and the temptations a young man can face. My son, Tyler is planning a west coast tour in the coming months and his son had done the same several times.

Then I brought up the movie Crazy Heart. This is not a movie I would have rented simply because I’m not a country music fan. However, a few weeks ago I was strapped to an airplane seat for 6 hours. I had exhausted all my books, videos and writing tasks. Crazy Heart was on the menu of my rented DVD player. I decided to watch it because it had won two Oscars. So I watched it. While I’m not a fan of that genre of music, I thought the acting was good and the scenario was realistic. So, it was worthwhile and has value to watch.

So to my pastor friend, Rob, I said, “I should have Tyler watch Crazy Heart to get a little less glamorous view of the down side of traveling and performing.”

Immediately I could see in Rob’s eyes that I had said something bad. It was the same look that he gave me the last time we talked several months ago (and I know forgot what my social blunder was then). He shook his head and said, “That isn’t the type of movie I would ever watch nor could I recommend to my son.”

So in a millisecond, my memory “DVD” file in my brain replayed the movie (or the 5% I could remember). I felt puzzled. There was no nudity that I can remember. I mean the allow it to be played on a plane. I’m sure there was profanity. Sure there was implied sex and obvious alcoholism. But, from my understanding, both play out in real life in these same situations. I mean, we may not want to acknowledge it but there is a lot of sex going on other there outside of marriage. There are also a heck (pun intended) of people using real "curse words" in their common talk. Also . . . believe it or not . . . a lot of people really do drink too much alcohol.

The look of horror on his face took me back to where I was in the 80s, or 90s. When I was with the Navigators, our area director didn’t believe that we should go to any movies nor watch any TV. We, trainees, did go to Disney movies (or other G rated movies) but our leader didn’t even do that. The reason? Well, according to him, if you paid money to see Thumper, some of that money when to the Disney studio, which then used that money to make movies where people cursed and had implied sex. And some of that money went to sponsor Gay and Lesbian Day, at Disney World. He thought that we should all strive for "moral purity" because the Bible says we should be "perfect as he is perfect." I know. Sad.

It was a huge breath of fresh air when I met the people at Ransom Fellowship (bookmarked at the right). Their ministry is helping Christians to relate to modern culture. I loved going up to the LAbri house in Rochester, MN and watching movies with the Ransom folks. The way they taught me to watch movies was to not be offended by a, so-called, curse word or a flash of a boob, but to see the artistry. I grew to appreciate the hard work and talent of the actors and directors. I also learned, in a much deeper way, to understand the message of the screenplay writers. These were not messages to incorporate into my own philosophy but to discern. I knew when the writers’ own pantheistic ideas were coming through and why. I learned better how to divide between that to be deeply enjoyed and that to not let influence my perspective. It was very liberating.

This brings me to my second experience this week that ties in to this. I read on CNN’s web page yesterday (and I will try to link it to the title of this posting if I can find it) about a special documentary to be aired today about Christians who have completely disengaged from modern culture. I don’t have CNN on my cable so I can’t watch it. But these Christians have chosen to separate themselves completely from their surrounding (and evil) culture. Hasn’t this been tried before, over and over and over . . .in history?

So, between my conversation with Rob and seeing this CNN piece, I am startled, once again, to realize that there are still many Christians who live where I was in the 80s and 90s. They see American culture as the evil empire. All creative products of that society are thrown into the garbage bin of “filft” in their eyes. In my opinion . . . it is a sad thing.

So, I came home and decided to 2-3 “movie nights” at my house this summer. My sons, (who have now moved out) created a decent movie theater in our basement. I want to invite all my Christian (and other) friends and show a very good, but realistic (rather than morally pure) movie and then discuss it. I will see how it goes. I expect that I will once again offend a lot of people and prove to them, as they had thought, that I am a flake.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

More on Certainty and a Faith that can Breathe

I have the habit of recycling old thoughts. However, I was thinking about this issue of certainty again the other day. It happened when I was watching a program titled How the Universe was Made on the Discovery channel.

But I noticed this, almost subliminal, change that came over me during the program. I thought it was intellectual, but really it was more emotional. It had to do with my assurance that God was there . . . or not. It wasn’t linear. I mean, it wasn’t like my faith was gradually shaken by the program with it being more unsecured by the end of the program than at the beginning. It was circular. Certain aspects raised doubts and others gave me great confirmation.

The parts that raised doubts, once analyzed, were not logical challenges with facts but more cultural. What I mean is, every time I sit in a room full of really smart people, and they all scoff at the idea of a God, I feel less secure in my faith. It is the same feeling you get when you go to a dinner party and once there, you realize that you are either over or under dressed (in my case it is always being under-dressed). It is mostly about social coercion.

So when I see these scientists, whom I respect and who seem like really nice people, roll their eyes up at the notion that God was behind all of this, I feel a bit less confident. It is subtle. I’m sure the subtleties though, can add up to a major change in someone’s position if they are not careful. For example, a young person going off to college where every professor and every friend hammers them about their silly belief in the God of Christianity . . . and before long, they simply don’t believe anymore.

But, like I said this is usually circular for me. In just a minute or two a concept will come up that gives me great confidence in God once more. In the case of the program, it was when they got back to the big bang and they tried to convince us that all that is, came spontaneously—from nothing. That can never make any sense. The other part that gives me a net sum increase in my confidence in God being there is the fact that the scientists can not live consistently, on a personal level, with what they are saying (when they say there is no God). But not all of them even accepted the notion of a closed—Godless—system. At least one scientist alluded to her belief in God being behind it all.

I heard Hugh Ross (Christian astrophysicists) say last fall that there are many Christian astrophysicists and more in that field than any other scientific discipline. I even have an in-law who is a pastor on Berkley’s campus and he has several astrophysicists in his congregation (they probably don’t show Ken Hamm videos there either).

But this brings me back to this idea of certainty, which is one of the lines in the sand between being an Evangelical and the rest of Christianity (the same that separates the Islamic fundamentalist from other Moslems). That is certainty in all things. Not just in the big things—God being there and Jesus being his son—but in the trivial idiosyncrasies of life. It is highly esteemed that you doubt nothing in that group.

The very first class I went through as a new Christian was what we call “Assurance of Salvation.” Not only was assurance that the Gospel worked for me, but that God was really there. I remember the guy that led me to the Lord said that doubt (about anything) was like breast milk . . . the very first thing you are weaned from as a new Christian. It was clear, Doubt = Sin.

But now I’ve learned to live with my lack of certainty and have found peace with it. But, like I posted a few weeks ago, I’m not an Olive, confused and twisted . . . going in one direction and then another. But once again it comes back to the issue of honesty about the doubt that I think all humans have . . . although it may be buried deeply in some people.

I remember once flying in a non-pressurized plane in Alaska. So we went from sea level to 15,000 feet fairly quickly. I had my luggage with me and the pilot warned my about keeping the caps loose on my water bottle or other containers because the drop in pressure could blow the tops off. He had seen cans of pop explode inside someone’s suitcase.

This started me thinking about healthy faith and how it needs to breathe. It is alive because it is attached to our emotions and our intellect, both which are alive and dynamic. But as an Evangelical I was taught the opposite. That it was very important that I knew the answer to every question, the exact interpretation of every Bible verse, and a fixed doctrinal architecture. Such assurance, conviction and certainty are the marks of a mature Christian . . . so I believed.

So, we teach or little evangelicalites in Awana and other program to memorize and never, ever doubt anything. Right now I’m visualizing the kid preacher in Jesus Camp. So the corner on absolute truth is held only by, not only Christianity, but it is furthered defined as Protestantism and further defined as Evangelicalism and then is further defined as my denomination and is even further defined by the particular views of my local church. Absolute truth is defined so precisely that we become more and more isolated from the rest of the world.

We were also taught to put our faith in this stone box of certainty and sealed. I know that I could never even entertain (except way down deep in most private place) that any of these “truths” not being so. That faith couldn’t breathe. It couldn’t consider other points of view . . . because to do so would be an abomination of the worst kind.

If you stood at the podium at our church or any Evangelical church and said, “I want to see a show of hands of those who still have doubts about God or our church doctrine?” I would be surprised if a single hand (but my own) would go up . . . especially if the speaker said it with great passion. Then the typical pastor would shout, “God said it, I believe it . . . and that settles it!” Does it really? Oh, I can think of a thousand unsettled questions. The first obvious one is “. . . hmm . . . and how do you know what God said?”

This question of knowing has not been limited to Evangelicals. I have a great respect for philosophers (as a genre of professions). However, often they behave like kindergarteners. Throughout history they practice the same cycle over and over. In the philosophers’ study of knowing and doubt (under the heading of epistemology) they have a bipolar swing. They observe one truth about reality. Then they ride that truth to absurdity . . . like a broken down horse racing east to its demise in the Sahara. Then they come back to the opposite view and ride it to its demise in the west.

There were the rationalists, who believed that reason alone could take you to absolute truth every time. Then the Empiricist took that further. They believed that if our senses couldn’t perceive it, then it wasn’t true. Even a kindergartener would know better.

Early childhood educators and psychologists have shown that babies do have an “out of sight, out of mind” view of the world in the beginning (a pure empiricist’s view). Put a shinny ball under a box and they don’t look for it. But, I think it is around age 12 to 16 months, they do start to look for it. So they know if it is not in their senses now, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If the tree falls in the forest it, indeed, makes a sound.

When the two above views came to an impasse they moved into the extreme other direction. Starting with the existentialist view of epistemology, that it takes more than senses to know truth, to the absurdity of the post-modern, where there becomes a total lost of hope for truth. The bipolar part is where they think, “well if I can’t reach 100% certainty 100% of the time using my reason alone, or my senses and reason then flush the whole concept of truth down the john.”

I digress again.

Coming back to the Evangelicals and the emphasis on certainty sealed in an airtight stone box. If it can’t breath, then (like what happened to me a long time ago) with it experiences a rapid decompression, the top is blown entirely off. How many post-Evangelical zombies are they out there . . . those who have lost all hope of knowing anything anymore? I often wonder what happened to the kid preacher from Jesus Camp after his hero, Ted Haggard was caught? That must have caused a rapid decompression of his young world.

How many zombies still stand in the church, not allowing themselves to even consider another point of view? That’s why it is so hard for me to talk to them. I feel that my faith now breathes (I got to this point the hard way). If someone tells me that a homosexual can be a good Christian, I don’t have a gut reaction based on a hard core certainty . . . but I feel open to discuss it and to hear other perspectives. In my previous world this type of openness was always considered a serious fault.

So I end this mental wondering with a praise of doubt . . . good, healthy doubt.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Facebook, Twitter and the Meaning of Life

I was pondering why I was feeling discouraged about my relationship with Evangelicalism . . . once again. I think it was multifactorial, however, one key one was my latest rejection by a literally agent for my manuscript Butterflies in the Belfry, Serpents in the Cellar. This will be sixth rejection and was probably my last try. I think the book has come to its demise.

The first five agents appeared secular in their orientation. I had carefully screened them as appearing to be interested in my type of work . . . but apparently they were not.

If you don’t know how this works (and I think most here do) you really can’t get a book published these days unless you have an agent. To get an agent, you have to win them over with a two-paragraph pitch. So, years of hard work and thought come down to about six to eight carefully worded sentences.

The previous rejections came quickly (within a week) and were obviously “form” e-mails . . . but polite. “Thank you so much for considering our agency. We are sorry but we are not accepting manuscripts of your type right now.”

Then I decided to try a self-proclaimed Christian agent. But he wasn’t over the top with a fundamentalist view of the universe. He had actually represented some controversial topics and had been a writer at Christianity Today. But his rejection came late (after a month) and with a twist of cruelty I had not seen before. “There is no way I would want to represent you.” So what the hell does that mean? It really leaves you wondering.

I’ve said before, and I think most writers (dare I call myself one) and artists in general would much rather have someone look carefully at their work and give strong, specific criticism than to have someone scowl and run away by the very mention of it. It leaves us confused and dangling.

Okay, putting that aside, I was thinking about a much broader topic . . . very broad . . . and that is the proverbial meaning to life.

I’ve said before that I think you can boil down all human behavior to two general areas. First of course are biological needs. Those are clear but can be complicated. I say complicated because in history I’m sure wars have started over simple biological needs . . . often a King in one country wanting to have sex with someone . . . whom he can only win via war. But of course food (or lack of) can drive a nation to war or even water. That was just one small part of the French Revolution (which I’ve been thinking about recently).

But the other major player is simply our deep desire to have value. That is the prime mover in virtually all that we do. This is why there are city block after city block of lines of people waiting in queue for one chance in a million (literally) of being America’s Idol. Getting on TV is sufficient for some, even if it makes them look like a fool. But this is why we have Facebook and Twitter too. Facebook has been in the news of late (including the cover of the last Time magazine) because of privacy issues so I was thinking about it more than usual.

I was not familiar with Facebook until December 09, when I joined to see photos of my first grand child, Oliver. But immediately I had all these friends tying into my network of people. I hardly go to Facebook except—still—to see photos of my grand son. But I was surprised how so many people are posting, almost on the hour. “I ate a PB and J sandwich and it was so good.”

Now, before I say too much, I will be the first to admit that this very blog is not more than a mouse’s eyebrow removed from that same narcissistic exercise. So, like always, I include myself in my commentary. But I’m still not saying this is a bad thing. While most of what we do is based on that primal desire to have value, this does not mean we should stop doing it. However, we should know why we do these things and we should know that they never accomplish their purpose . . . making us feel of significance.

I’ve mentioned before that more than 90% of the motivation of doing humanitarian work comes from this same place. I’ve been there several times. I’ve seen American doctors being very rude to the nationals that they have come to help and they would put a patient in jeopardy in order to get a better photo for their humanitarian trophies. I have my photographic trophies on my office wall as well. I don’t think I would put a patient in jeopardy to get a good shot . . . at least I hope not. And I was just using that as an example of the extreme to make a point. But with all that said, we still SHOULD do humanitarian work. We still should go to Facebook and Twitter as well if we want . . . or blog.

Besides knowing why we do what we do (and getting away from the Christian concept of “I am doing this out of pure motives”), we should also strive to know that we have tremendous value (that is intrinsic value) because God made us. The Gospel is all about value being added by an act of grace. So we don’t have to be America’s idol, a great humanitarian, great mother, great father or great writer to have value.

But I use the word “strive” because I fail at this all the time. I think us who have the anxiety tendency tend to fail at this the most . . . but I’m not sure.

But posting on Facebook is part of this endless march to find meaning and significance. Someone cares if I ate a PB and J. Someone cares if I have a thought on Christian Monist Vs Dualism. It’s all the same.

I know that I am off on a convoluted path but there is a point. I find myself in a funk, as I talked about yesterday, seemingly distant from the church (small “c”) and I even entertain, at times, of going back in—full throttle—and faking it like everyone else does. It is because I desire this significance and I have a (wrong) feeling that I could get it there.

I think that it was three years ago when I started putting my thoughts down in the Butterflies manuscript. I poured my heart into it for well over a year. It was a labor of love. I had those thoughts inside my head, like a steamship slowly coming into vision out of the midst of a dense fog. As I wrote the words down, the fog seemed to lift.

My wife Denise tells me that I should only write for myself. I think that is why she doesn’t like me writing this blog where I hang my dirty laundry out for the world to see and she doesn’t come here. I think that she may be right. Maybe, if there was a purpose in my writing it is for my own benefit.

But in the same way I thought I would go to the mission field an be this great missionary guy that someone would write books about some day (like Hudson Taylor), I may have had a grandiose idea that I could make an impact somewhere by my writing. And by having such an impact, I would be a bit more valuable.

This is where I cross paths once more with the brilliance of Solomon. When I read his writings—Ecclesiastes being my favorite—I feel that I truly am sitting at the feet of an intellectual giant. He is also a genius who I think is very misunderstood because his writings make us uncomfortable.

“All is vanity, a chasing after the wind. So what is left but to eat, drink and be merry.” How many times have I heard preachers tell us that those words came from an unrepentant Solomon? They will add that later he “shaped-up” met the Lord for real, and then realized that eating, drinking and being merry were wrong and that having a great ministry is of great worth. Not!

I think if Solomon was here he would say, “I tried out for American Idol . . . and I won. I got a platinum record . . . but still I felt of no more value. Then I devoted my life to Christ, became a missionary in China, built a chain of Christian schools across Asia, wrote three hundred best-selling books . . . yet, for nothing. I went to church every morning for fifty years, never missing a day, yet all vain . . . chasing after the wind. I started the largest ministry in the US and was the pride of James Dobson . . . yet it was all worthless. Then, I realized that I was fully valuable in God’s eyes already and these other things didn’t matter. Then I knew that sitting in Starbucks with my son, eating a cinnamon roll, drinking a mocha and being merry of heart in the bright sun . . . is as good as it gets. Know if I could only believe that once and for all.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Wilderness Deeper In

I remember clearly the day I “met” Michael Spencer. It must have been at least four years ago. I was messing around with my own attempts at blogging. I had tried to create an anonymous post-evangelical place where people (including myself) could discuss thing down on the ground floor . . . with complete candor. I was new at this and my first mistake was not setting my privacy correctly. So I made several heart wrenching confessions. Then one day I was horrified when I did a Google search of my name and the content of my blog was the first thing that came up. (I think the reason I was Goggling my name was to see if any was still reading a book I had written 10 years ago).

Anyway, I took that blog down. But the name of if was something along the lines of Alone in the Evangelical Wilderness. So it didn’t take long before I accidently stumbled upon Mike’s blog with a very similar name. At the time I didn’t realize that he had quite a following and he was more major league than my humble attempts. But he was kind enough to privately correspond with me for a while.

The first thing I said to Mike was how he and I seemed to be on the same page, and that page is this overwhelming feeling of being in a wilderness.

For reasons that aren’t clear, that wilderness has never seemed as dark and daunting as it has of late and I’m speaking just of my personal perspective. You know how it is sometimes. You get in a funk and you don’t know why. In my Nav days I’m confident that my old friend Gary would tell me that the funk was demonic oppression.

I have simpler explanations. Sometimes it can be biochemical, you know things like seasonal affective disorder or (mostly for women) hormonal shifts. But most likely, in my case at least, it is subtle life events, sometimes on a subconscious level.

I’ll get back to that but first I want explain this wilderness.

I had spent 35 years deeply involved in Evangelicalism. I became a Christian through a Navigator ministry when I was just 17 and immediately got involved with them. I became a lay-youth pastor when I was 18. I was involved with the Navs all the way through college and then I went to a Navigator staff training center for another 5 years. Then I moved to Michigan, got married and started a Navigator ministry for four years before becoming a Navigator missionary in the Arab-Moslem world for another 3 years.

During that whole time I was also very involved with the local churches I attended. I was a Sunday school teacher many times, Sunday school director, small groups director, missions director, etc. etc. etc.

Although I suffered a severe disillusionment on the mission field and returned home a competently broken (and abandoned by my old Christian colleagues) man. But I was still very involved with the Evangelical church for the subsequent 15 year.

But gradually, and mostly over the past 10 years, I found my self in the middle of a masquerade ball, brightly lighten with scores of people in their gowns and masks swirling and dancing to the soft Baroque (but godly) music being played on a harpsichord. I knew all the moves, the flat steps and the toe steps, the spins and the bows.

But it was like far back in the darken corner of the ballroom was a door, an alluring door. Then once I looked up and the door briefly opened and closed. I get a glimpse of another world . . . green . . . and with trees. I keep thinking about that door as I dance in my bright, white suit and holding my mask firm to my face.

Then someone leaves the door open and my eyes become fixed on it. The wilderness draws me like it did to three kids with wanderlust and a backless wardrobe.

So eventually I start stepping out the door . . . each visit becoming longer and longer. It is much warmer inside, but something about the fresh air that makes up for the chill. I notice the weight of the gown and the mask that has such tiny eye holes that you can’t see much of the world.

Eventually I find myself completely outside looking back in . . . to the smiling (via the fixed, china faces) and dancing and bright lights.

It was about three years ago when I stepped down from being a church elder. It was a year ago when I stopped going to Sunday school.

But now I feel completely lost between the trees. I can still see the brightly lit doorway and the figures. I can still hear the laughter and the mechanical plucking of the stings.

I’ve tried to step back into that ball room, while keeping one foot outside and holding my mask loosely.

I signed up to be on the board of an Evangelical youth organization three years ago. But that was difficult. I found myself isolated between loose talk of common miracles. “God sent a bright sun beam and it touched the kid on the foot right as I was talking to him. I told Him that was God making the point that He is real and wants Him. The boy started crying and said he wanted to know God.”

The whole board (including my dear wife—who loves these stories) was mesmerized, donning big glowing smiles. Then old negative Mike, with a little fake smile, says, “But if the kid bases his belief in God on a sunbeam . . . what’s going to happen later on when his dad gets cancer? Will his faith crumble?”

Was it Frank Sinatra who said, “Then you have to go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like . . . I love you?”

So I step back out into the wilderness to get a breath of fresh air and go back in and try again.

Next something really squirrely happens in the youth organization . . . almost criminal and it was done by someone on the board. I wasn’t sure who did it. It gave the organization a real black eye. There was a real effort to put it under the carpet and pretend that it never happened, that we are all saints and none of us did mischief, but this big mess was either be God doing something or the devil. I kept saying that we can’t let this go without figuring out who did this.

I had to go back outside. I could tell I wasn’t liked. I not only didn’t see God working (in a very personal way) in rainbows but I was trying to imply that we, godly board members, were not pure to the core. Hmmm. I was speaking from personal experience. I know I am capable of anything and scripture seems to support that. I believe that we are all deeply, morally, psychologically fallen (or flawed) and we do do bad things still.

So I go back outside and walk among the trees. This time I venture even further from that glowing doorway.

I had a span in my life (back in college) of about two years when I did solo backpacking. It was mostly out of convenience as I had no backpacking friends at the time. It was interesting at first. But then it got old. I remember waking up on top of Roan Mountain, in North Carolina, and seeing the most surreal sunrise. I was actually above the low clouds and the sun rays were coming up in laser beam red streaks. But I was watching it alone and, as incredible it was, I knew that I could never explain it to anyone (even here) so the experience alone was deeply diminished. I got tired of being in the wilderness alone.

This wilderness is very lonely and that’s what I grabbed on to Michael Spencer when I first found him. By that time, I could hardly see the church . . . woops . . . I mean the ballroom door anymore.

Down south, deep in the Bible belt where I am from, we were mostly emotional ignorant by choice. We had no clue why or how we felt about anything and we never tried to put feelings into words. But this cycling in and out that back door of the church was a common practice. But, due to the lack of insight, it was believed that God was in the ballroom and if you didn’t dance like a mad fool, you didn’t love Him.

So people often get fed up with the dance go out the door. But then they are overwhelmed by guilt. The guilt gets then one way or the other. Ether they say, “Yeah, I am a back-sliding heathen, and give up all pretence of being a Christian and start making meth, or they come back to church and throw themselves face down in front of the alter and bawl like a baby. While they are crying the church, woops, I mean ballroom people start to re-dress then in their costumes. There is nothing in between.

Dateline mystery last had a great commentary on this culture. Featured were two deeply committed Baptist lay-ministers and their families who, beneath the surface were having affairs and one murdered the other. But on the surface, and the videos they showed, them preaching in church, had no signs of the deep trouble beneath the masks.

There are days when I look at that door way (by the way, I do go to the general church service each Sunday, but not involved with anything else) and I am seriously tempted to go back through, to cast myself down and bawl. I want to say, “Forgive me for I have been in deep sin. I’ve been negative. I’ve stopped smiling all the time and I know that was wrong. Forgive me and I want to come back. I want to pretend that we are all saints that none of us have alternative motives for the things we manipulate each other into doing. That person A is not flirting with person B or to not notice that program C, D and E is about someone’s ego and has nothing to do with “Jesus” as advertised. I’m sorry that I believed the scientist with their silly little PhDs and they has mistaken a pig for Lucy and Mount Saint Helens proved the earth is only 6,000 years old. I confess I’ve been a fool and have been brainwashed by the humanist, liberal intellectuals. I confess that I don’t believe that God is constantly working outside the laws of physics just for me and that devils are constantly trying to frustrate me with flat tires and bad colds. Please take me back in. I will never go against the herd again . . . never. I will re-join the Republican party (or the Tea Party). I just need the warmth and the lights."

I will digress more tomorrow. I must go do chores.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Now The Praise of Folly

I debated within myself if I even wanted to bring this issue up, but I decided to but not for the obvious reasons.

As most people know, Christian congressman Mark Souder made a teary announcement yesterday that he had been having an affair with one of his staffers. There was a lot of hay made about this because he and that very same staffer had made a video promoting sexual abstinence. He had also been in favor of promoting the teaching of Intelligent Design in the schools, having strong boarders (keeping those nasty aliens out . . . not my words) and other Evangelical causes. His major constituents were the “pro-family” and evangelical voters.

Did I mention that video was such a big hit yesterday on Youtube that it had to be taken down?

So Mark is just one more in a long list of Christian favorite sons and daughters, congressmen (and rarely women) caught in adultery or some other major-league sin.

Now I am not naive about this. I know that the people with an axe to grind with Evangelicals love these stories and put them in the lime light when they happen. I also know that the Christians in high places who behave badly like this—or at least are caught behaving badly—are just a small percentage and there are many more who have never strayed like this . . . or are not caught.

I also am not coming from this from the angle that I’m any better than these folks. I actually have more compassion on them than you could imagine. But there is still a lesson here and something disturbing.

Somehow, and I can’t put it into words just yet, this is indicative of the whole dis-connection between the Evangelical world . . . and reality. There is still this myth that we hold up that we are the good guys and the non-Christians are the bad guys. If you ever want to see an Evangelical’s temper soar (beneath the radar though) is to bring up one of these celebrity Evangelical’s failure at church. They want to quickly sweep these stories under the carpet to keep up the illusion.

I’ve always thought that the Wittenburg Door folks (book marked over at the side of this blog) are the only Christians who’ve had the courage to make fun of ourselves. They poke fun at the stupid looking and acting TV Evangelist with the big hair and big lies, they poke fun at the “Christian Politicians” who are in bed with the moral majority (and its descendents, red state or tea party Evangelicals) and in bed, literally, with their pretty staff (or sometimes hookers).

It reminds me of the same spirit of Desiderius Erasmus’ “In Praise of Folly” of 1512. At that time the Church was behaving so stupidly, that Erasmus couldn’t deal with it in any other way . . . but with humor.

I’m not saying that these things are funny. They are indeed tragic. Mark’s wife and family are suffering horribly. The Church suffers. The Evangelical haters are having a field day with this and previous escapades. A few more youth, raised in the Church, will walk away shaking their heads and believing the whole thing is a farce after this.

So, the real problem isn’t that a man sinned, but that we actually believed that they could rise above that.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Tale of Two Cities, and the Praise of Fiction

As I finished Dickens great tale, I reflected on how much I enjoyed it. It is sad to state that prior to January 1st 2009, I had not read a fiction work since I was forced to in as a freshman in college English Lit. (and that was a long, long time ago).

As I thought about the joy my adventures in fiction have brought me, I was wondering why such a short time ago I couldn’t stand them.

I really think that the reason that I devoured books on theology, philosophy, science . . . anything but fiction, was a warped sense of time-management and my old Evangelical eschatology. The bad thinking went like this. Novels were produced for entertainment purposes. How could I justify spending hours entertaining myself when the whole world was going to hell? I know, sad.

But after finishing Dicken’s magical work and reflecting on my friends over the past year, you know, guys like Joyce, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Vonnegut and Hemmingway, I felt that my prior thirty years had been the dark ages of my soul.

I still do love reality very much. But I don’t see novels as just entertainment anymore. I see them as secret windows into a deeper part of reality, that part which can not be captured in a photo, a movie or a diary.

When I look at the tapestry which Dickens wove with his words, I am stunned. It is the same way I’ve stood in the Louvre and am mesmerized over a Dutch realist. I must whisper outside my own head, “How do they do that?”

The words on the page were first inside the head of Dickens in the most intimate way, over a hundred and fifty years ago. He had to think them first. He had to observe them in the world around him even before that. He was able to craft the emotions the personal conflicts that no photo, movie or diary could ever capture.

Because of the works of these masters, I know men and women and the reality of them, much better. I also know myself much better.

Any time I see the beauty of human creation, art, dance, music, or writing, I know with more assurance that the Grand Creator is really there.

Church and Accountability Part II

So my pastor and I are in great agreement that the essence of Church (or he would mean “church,” for local church) involvement is accountability. But, the elusive accountability that I’m looking for is quite different from the one described in the last post.

My longing is for a place where I am encouraged to be more real rather than less so. Where I can speak honestly about myself and what I see in others, without a look of horror on anyone’s face.

I remember a long time ago when I first started to come out of the Evangelical closet (okay, this is figuratively here as I’m talking about the “I’m not godly” closet not the gay one), that a ministry boss wrote me this poignant letter. “Mike, you need to watch what you say. You’re coming across as being an immature Christian. Donors will not want to give to someone if they aren’t godly.”

That’s what I’m talking about.

Accountability is a church that is very, very safe. Where we can be vulnerable, knowing that no one is going to exploit that vulnerability to pump their own spiritual ego up saying to you (in response to something you say very honestly), “You’re messed up dude. You need to come to X, Y, or Z, program, like I do so you will shape up and be more like me.” This doesn’t have to take place in the middle of the sanctuary, but somewhere.

The second line of Biblical accountability is the shepherding the flock. I raised sheep once. My role was to make sure they were fed, watered and out of danger. I also took care of any illness they had. Okay, occasionally I would get mad at them for climbing our fence and eating my wife’s flowers and I would smack them on the top of their heads. But I wasn’t constantly watching them to make sure they thought acted just like me.

So this kind of shepherding reminds me of the old parish priest . . . you know the good ones. I’m sure that the vast majority of parish priests throughout history were wonderful. They knew everything that was going on within their parish. If someone was sick, they would be the first ones there. If some one was drunk or the victim of some family member’s drunkenness, they were there. They were there in times of loss and in times of great triumphs.

I’ve heard that our pastor does a wonderful within this context, or at least within the context of a severe loss like a death in the family.

I wish we all (not just pastors) could shepherd one another through even the less difficult things. For example a teenager loosing his girlfriend through a tough break up or someone having struggles with their job or with their depression.

This is my pipe-dream of accountability. I’ve seen a few glimpses of it and it was glorious . . . but just a few glimpses. If the church was like this, rather than the youth leaving in droves . . . they would have to take a number to be the next one allowed in . . . like some famous, over-crowed NYC night club.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Accountability and Church

I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this topic. I had one of those yucky feelings as I’m about to embark on another—seemingly negative—comments. It is always hard, at least for me, to know if it just some of over-active self conscientiousness or true guilt. Anyway I will continue but I will try to paint the picture in the most positive terms I can.

I’ve said it before, but my basic view of the Church (big C intended), is that about 10% of what we see is mandated by scripture . . . the other 90% a product of human culture. There is nothing wrong with culture. Culture is the natural byproduct of creative humans living together over a long period of time. Culture can be beautiful or can be used to manipulate one another. The medieval Church was a prime example of this manipulation on a mega scale . . . while it happens on a small scale now every Sunday. The problem that I see when it comes to church is when extra-Biblical culture is wrapped in Jesus and thus becomes dogma. Then culture can get in the way.

The most blatant example of this Jesus wrapping is the TV evangelist saying, “God-da said to me, ‘Bob, I want you to raise a million dollars for me and build yourself a new studio so that you can reach the whole world for Jezzzzzus!’ So don’t turn your back on the Lourd just when he needs you most. He will bless you if you give until it hurts. You can never out-give God-da!”

Okay, you can throw up now.

But in a much more subtle way, we evangelicals do the same all the time. Actually we all humans do these kinds of linguistic tricks and this is where linguistic deconstruction can have a healthy role.

So, in summary, when I heard again the message that we all should be heavily involved with the local church for accountability’s sake, it didn’t sit right . . . meaning that it didn’t ring true to life. The main reason it didn’t sound right is that this is one of my biggest frustrations with church life, that there is no real accountability within its doors. No one there knows what’s going on in my private life and when I attempt to tell them they get offended. I would love for them to confide in me about their personal lives but when I inquire, they also seem offended. This is where I started to think about things a lot.

The way we use “accountability” in the context that our and many pastors do is more about control and social coercion to support the local Christian culture than about our spiritual well being. That is why I’ve seen very involved people suddenly disappear, with no warning, and then hear through the non-church grapevine (but a reliable source) that they are in the midst of all kinds of trouble. Where was the accountability? They felt that they couldn’t talk about their problems while they held key rolls in the church.

I’ve only seen one act of accountability since I’ve been at my present church and I can remember one more from an old church in Marquette, Michigan. I may have told these stories before. Both of these acts of accountability left a very bad taste in my mouth because, in my opinion, it had almost nothing to do with the 10% Biblical mandate to “encourage one another towards love and good deeds” but everything to do with the self-centered Christian culture.

Both cases occurred when I was a church elder. In the Michigan church, a mother came to the elders and said that the 14 year old son of a new church member had molested her 6 year old daughter. What a horrible crime . . . if it really happened. How did she know it happened? The mom came around the corner and saw the boy and her daughter standing in the coat closet (which was huge and open to the main hall) and the little girl was tucking her shit tail in. When her mother asked her what she was doing she said the boy had “made my shirt come out.” That is the only thing the girl ever volunteered.

I personally spoke to the boy and his mother. The boy told me that he was playing with her and showed her a trick which he had done on his litter brother many times (and honestly I’ve done the same with my own kids). He had her stand facing away from him, bend over and reach back and put her hands between her legs. He would reach down grab her hands and yank up on them hard and it would cause her to do a backwards summersault . . . landing on her feet. Right after they did it, her mother came around the corner.

Now I can’t say what the truth was because I wasn’t there. I do know that the boy gave a reasonable explanation, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t lying.

But the mother of the little girl was an upper-middle class mom, very out-spoken and had been involved with many church programs. The family of the 14 year old were lower class and new to the church with few friends. I was alarmed at the sudden pronouncement of guilt on the boy by the elders with so little evidence. The little girl never said that he had molested her. As I sat around the kangaroo court—I mean elders board—I saw this emotional frenzy start to take hold. They even reported it to the cops but the cops quickly saw that there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue the case. One of the elders had a “demonic feeling” when he first met the boy and his single mom. I protested the haste to judgment but was quickly out-voted.

The elders admitted that there is no way for them to know the entire truth, but for the “sake of the church” (meaning their local culture club), it would be best if the elder board “disciplined the family” by removing their new membership and asking them to go to another church. I thought it was a horrible decision.

I met with the boy and his mom and apologized. In the back of my mind, I was thinking, what if the boy was telling the complete truth? How would he see Christianity from this time forth? Of course child molestation has to be taken seriously. If he was lying, sending him to another church would not have been the answer either. But this, the elders said, was “Biblical accountability and church discipline.”

The most recent account of this type of church discipline or accountability was when I was an elder at this church some years ago. We divided up church members for visitation. I was paired with a wonderful senior man and head elder (and I really mean wonderful as I have the greatest respect for the man). He is our most conservative church member and is the pastor’s right hand man and is the one who suggested that I couldn’t be a real Christian if I didn’t believe the earth was only 6,000 years old.

We were assigned to go to a young couple’s house that had not been in church for several weeks. I was assigned to pray and the senior elder to do all the talking. It seems like I’ve shared this story before. Anyway, I sat and cringed while this senior elder lectured the couple from scripture (sort of) about the requirement for them to be in church each Sunday (I know, you have to really, really twist scripture to arrive at this). I was hearing from the couple some things that wanted me so much to find out how THEY WERE DOING. He had lost his job. The wife was working two jobs including week ends at a pizza place to pay the rent. He had to watch their baby Sunday morning. I wanted to scream! I wanted to let them know that we didn’t come to lecture them about attending church. I couldn’t have cared less about their church attendance, but I cared a great deal about them. This was used as an example of “accountability.”

So most of the time so-called accountability doesn’t ever happen. I know that some churches are very different. But the accountability that is implied would play out more like an “intervention.” That is where some man in the church is abusive to his wife, or some women is having an affair or someone is drinking excessively and the board of elders meets with them and lovingly confronts them and helps them to deal with it in a positive way. Maybe this does happen in a lot of churches, but I’ve never seen it happen. I also have seen true accountability (the kind I’m talking about and will describe in my next posting) happen. It happened when I was in a Nav group in college and grad school (one of the good things about the group) and it happened when I led a small group Bible study in Michigan.

But when “accountability” does happen, it is often about social coercion or conformity to the human culture that has risen up around the simple, Biblical, church. This accountability comes in the form of, “Why aren’t you involved with programs X, Y or Z? You know, God wants you to be involved with His programs. God likes a good church worker.”

This is where I will skirt a little on linguistic deconstruction (I lost some sleep last night when I was going to do the entire post about this but it sounded so cruel). When we protect our “church programs” so much, we are really protecting our own enterprises in which our egos become so entangled. I’ve been there. I’m not above this. I’ve been in church leadership roles where I really feel threatened when people don’t participate in the programs, which I started, for my spiritual ego. I was a master manipulator . . . wrapping Jesus around every thing I did. To reject my ego boasting program was, well, to reject Jesus . . . so I claimed. We are all human and are subject to such debauchery. But to suggest what I just said to most pastors or elders, would make them mad as hell in the quiet places of their hearts . . . but
“spiritually concerned” on the surface.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Christian Accountability or Control and a Guy Named Rousseau?

Pictured of course is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher from Geneva who lived from 1712 up until 1778. I was thinking about him of late because, as I’ve mentioned ad nauseam, that I’ve been reading A Tale of Two Cities. Actually I’m proud to say that I finished it last night. I hope to post on it as well as on my whole, and new, appreciation for fiction.

But back to what I was saying about Rousseau. While I was reading the Tale, and seeing the working out of the French Revolution, I kept seeing the finger prints of Rousseau all over the place. I couldn’t remember (at least on a consciences level) if Rousseau actually had an influence on the revolution or not. But, after words I did check my intuition and it is widely believed that he did.

In gross summary (an in my very simplistic terms) Rousseau believed that humans were born good and become evil or corrupt under the influence of authority . . . such as religion. He believed in the concept of the “noble savage.” Continuing, he believed that in our raw form, if left alone, we would be good.

Well the French Revolution was a horrible experiment that showed the emptiness of those presuppositions. Certainly, in the “worst of times” that led up to the Revolution, you could sensibly argue in favor of Rousseau. The authority of the government, in cahoots (pardon my French) with the high society (Aristocrats) and the Church certainly did lead to all kinds of evil. But the so-called noble savage, when released from those terrible, overbearing, restraints became just savages. The French, “Reign of Terror,” made the Taliban look like Boy Scouts or even Brownies.

I will get back to church and accountability . . . eventually.

But, in my humble opinion, every philosophical concept imagined by man (or woman) starts with an observation about reality . . . a true observation. However, almost inevitable, that philosophical thinking eventually becomes absurd . . . as did Rousseau’s.

The same is true with Linguistic Deconstruction, promoted by another Jacques (I think), that is Jacques Derrida. I draw upon Deconstruction, especially the linguistic form, a lot while I realized that it quickly became completely absurd in its extreme forms.

This is what brings me back to my questioning about the word “accountability” as used by my pastor, versus my own connotation.

But, in my mental frame of perpetual paranoia, I will again add this caveat. I am often accused of being, “negative,” “bitter” or “critical.” My wife is my most regular accuser in this regard. But I really don’t think that I am. Yeah, I get frustrated with things. But my criticisms (which once again I’m about to launch upon) does not come from a sour place in my bosom. It comes from my insatiable desire for truth.

I was recently in Universal Studies in Orlando so that image is fresh on my mind. I feel that my life is lived on a movie set (okay think of the Truman Show here). I’m not the star however, but just one of the pawns. When I see the glimpse of truth through the cracks in the fiberglass “stone buildings” I long for what could be on the other side. That is my criticism. I’m not looking down my nose as I use to as an Evangelical when I thought I was one of the few with the absolute truth in all areas of life. I just have a natural desire for real-reality. It would be much, much easier to pretend in the fiberglass world. People would like me much better. I would fit in much better. But I would always be haunted by the real-reality which I would be ignoring.

So, now I’ve wasted a good-long session at Starbucks and it is time for me to go and I’ve never even touched on this topic of accountability. I will add just the introduction, as why I was even thinking about this, but not fully discuss it until next time.

I mentioned in my last post that I had missed five consecutive weeks at my church. I felt self-consciences when I came back (as some rumors were flying that I was church hunting). But I am happy to say that my old church friends were quite friendly. The pastor did once again mention how important that the church is (speaking of the local-church) and why God wanted all of us involved with the local church. Again the word “accountability” was used. Now, for a fleeting second, I felt he was talking directly to me. I doubt if he was.

But I left church last Sunday thinking about this. Here is my pastor saying that I (or people like me) should be MORE involved with the local church for our sake, because of accountability. At the same time, I’ve reached a place of disillusionment because I have a deep hunger for “accountability” and I’ve tried my best to get it at this church (and other churches) and it as been as evasive as the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Then, through a little linguistic deconstruction I started thinking about the word “accountability” as used by most pastors as being something very different from what I seek.

More later.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Parallel Universes

I know that I haven’t given this blog much attention as of late. I think it comes from a state of mental exhaustion and distraction . . . which is now lifting. Work is easing off a bit. Always when I’m gone for even a week, I will have “hell to pay” for the subsequent two or three weeks. That era of penitence is now about over.

But on a more positive side, I’ve also been distracted by two “universes” which seemed to intersect in a few spots.

Both of them are the fruits of my recent family reunion in Florida. The first one was being caught away from home without any reading material. Then, not implying any divine intervention, I watched a long program on the history channel about the French Revolution, which prompted me later that morning, to buy a copy of the original, unabridged version of A Tale of Two Cities.

I know most people would have this read by now (two weeks later) but having to work in a chapter a day between work and my endless exercise (so it seems) program I’m still not finished but I’m within 10 pages of the end.

But the other thing, which I think I’ve already mentioned, was seeing my sister’s attempts to find out about our family tree. Our family, starting with my own grandfather, had been somewhat of a mystery.

So I joined My first few days were frustrated by the same road blocks which my sister had found with her brick and mortar searching. Then I had a couple of breakthroughs. The grandfather (which we heard was an Apache Indian) . . . well, was not. The other grandfather (which we heard was a travelling gypsy from somewhere like Persia) wasn’t either. The former was from 50 miles away (small town in Virginia) and the latter from North Carolina.

That is a story in itself, how when I found the truth, may have quenched the bigger than life mythology and such quenching didn’t sit well with all family members.

But once I was on the trail, I became consumed. I can exhibit a little OCD at times. I read documents printed in the 1920s, then the 1880s, then the 1820s and the 1700s and ship passenger list from the 1600s. To make a long story short, I was quickly in Wales at the time of Dickens (who was in London). My great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather died in the tower of London about that time. I have no clue as to why . . . but it was interesting.

Then, a few more generations back, I had a relative who was killed in the taking of Jerusalem during one of the crusades.

Then the family leaps across the channel and were in France for the previous thousand years. Yes, I said “thousand.” You see (which I’m sure is true for about everyone) I found a royal line. Once in royalty, the documentations are abundant. I traced my father’s mother’s line to Charlemagne, the great king of the Franks and the Holy Roman Empire. But I’ve been swept away to see my own family’s line woven like one tiny thread of silver in a totally red quilt.

So it has been a great joy to read in intensive emotional depth a snap shot (say 30 years) of history . . . the time of the two cites, and at the same time take a surface run across fifteen hundred years of western history . . . but from a personal connection.

When I read of this knight fighting in Palestine, I am amazed to think that my DNA is connected to his. We each have the same maternal, mitochondrial DNA. I’m not saying this in a proud kind of way. Certainly the crusades were an enterprise in stupidity and vanity, but I am still amazed by this personal history in the same way that I feel something deep when I hold a dinosaur bone in my hand, or when I sat, drinking a Pepsi, on the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

When History Becomes Personal

I became a “buff” of history about 15 years ago when I did a long and personal study of western civ. I know this was covered in high school and college . . . but I think I slept though that because I was too dumb to know how important it was.

Don’t take me wrong. I’m not any kind of expert now on any part of history, but I’m the guy sitting at the expert’s feet soaking it all in.

But it is my view that history, even events decades ago or centuries ago, can have a profound effect on how we think and live. One obvious example, in my personal life, is that Adolph Hitler had a profound influence on me. I was born long after WWII was over. However, one facet of had that influence came about, was through my dad. He went to Normandy because of Hitler. He came back as a shell of a man that he once was (per the people who knew him before and after). My dad of course had a major impact on my early life. But that example is blatant.

I've quoted before the late Francis Schaeffer who use to say in his lectures, "History isn't junk. It is going some place. Cause does have an effect."

I do believe that it is the dualistic way of thinking within Evangelicalism (if it is not spiritual, then it is not important), which drives us to ignore history for most part. But of course historical ignorance is not just an ailment of Christians. I think there is this psychological phenomenon where we think our generation and our culture is at the center of the universe and none other matters. I'm sure there is a better term but I call it "gener-centricism." I know that I've talked to my sons, those in their 20s, and they are confident that they have all the answers.

Part of my interest in history recently became personal. Unlike my wife’s family, who has photos of generations going back to the first immigrants on their wall sitting on horses and buggies, my family’s history has been far more obscure. The reasons are the hard times which my own parents had to endure. Both grew up in the “Grapes of Wrath” type of experience of the depression (but they never moved west to pick crops). Also my dad lost almost his entire family due to TB when he was but a kid. So there wasn’t a lot of resources to us use to track family history. My mom grew up in an abusive, poor, Bible-bet Baptist family. I don’t think she had a lot of motivation to keep track of all her cruel relatives either.

But recently I was staying with my sister in Florida and she showed me a box of family history stuff, bits and pieces that she had accumulated over the years. It was scant, especially on my dad’s side. We had a couple of names, but beyond that, it was a mystery.

I had the feeling that with today’s Internet connections things could be different. I became obsessed over the last two weeks. So far I’ve track my mother’s relatives as far back as the fifteenth century. After looking over old census sheets and courthouse documents on line, I’ve finally found my great grand father. But I have also tracked down my great, great grand father and my great, great, great grand father, which takes me back to rural North Carolina when it was still a colony.

But woven into those names and dates have been many stories and I only wish I knew them better. Some of those stories seemed to have a dark-side, if not bizarre.

I’ve heard many Evangelicals claim that we are living in the last days because the western world had always been this Christian utopia, and now, since the Beatles and the 60s, has collapsed into the pre- apocalyptic scenario that we are in now. I have a different view. I think the world is getter better. Now it is really hard to do the total injustice anywhere, without everyone knowing about it. The stories of history are full of terrible brutality (btw I’m almost finished with The Tale of Two Cities and am intimate with the guillotine, “the national razor of France” as of late).

So, within the secret pockets and curled seams of my family (like anyone’s family) lie some interesting things. For one, my youngest uncle, ten years younger that the next oldest of 6 siblings, was really my aunt's baby. He was born when she was about 14 or 15 (out of "wed-lock" of course) and her mother, my grand mother, quickly claimed the baby as her own.

Then there was my great aunt. She never married until she was 54. She married a 16 year old BOY. My aunt, who is still living remembers the story well, tells me that this lady drove the boy mad . . . until he killed himself in a car. An we thought Mary Kay Letourneau invented such things.

There are many more stories probably even more interesting that I will never know. Like the quote I shared from Dickens a few weeks ago, we are each a book and the book is loaded with this giant spring that slams it shut after a brief peak. But I think the books are easier to open in this generation than those in the past . . . and that gives me hope.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Precious . . . I Had to Say Something

I know I may be one of the last people to see Precious, but we just watched it on Friday night.

I had many thoughts

First, I understand my mother better. She grew up very much like Precious, except for the sexual abuse (as far as I know). But she was beaten and constantly was told that she was garbage and pig crap. She is 89 years old right now and still finds it difficult finding herself to be precious to anyone, no matter how many times we tell her that she is. I think this is why she likes Joel Osteem so much, and why I don't dare stand in her way of liking him. He could never say enough positive things to fill that void in her, but he is welcome to try.

Secondly, Precious was and IS a true story. As I sit here typing this type of injustice is going on all over America and around the world.

Thirdly, Monique did an incredible job acting. She played a very convincing mom from hell.

I think the Christian doctrine of Hell is one of its most unpopular. I've heard many times, "Do you really believe in a literal Hell?" At times, Hell doesn't seem like it could come from the God that I know. But then I see people (or the portrayal of them) that are like Precious' mom and I know who Hell was created for. Along with many of the Benny Henn-types.

Lastly, it is one of those movies that many Evangelicals would oppose . . . because of the "F word." However, it is a movie that it is "Christian" because it is a window into the great injustice of the real, fallen world, which we have been called to part in redeeming. The "F word" is part of that reality. Monique played it exactly like it would happen.

The Bread of Life

I decided that it would be a good idea to accompany my son Ramsey (18) to his first out of town music gig. He was performing in a coffee shop in Port Townsend. I probably wouldn’t have gone (don’t want to be the hovering father) but he had to take the ferry to get there, then the last ferry back would have already left well before his performance was done. In other words he would be forced to spend the night on the other side of the sound. Knowing him, he would probably have slept in the car on the street. So I thought I would go for not only moral support but to him . . . I guess I mean us . . . find a place to sleep.

We decided to camp. I used to like camping a lot. I was about to say that I haven’t camped in a long time, but I guess backpacking through the Himalayas for almost three weeks this past November counts.

We found the state park and set up our “tents” before the concert. I put the word tents in quotes because, while I let Ramsey use my good mountaineering tent, I decided to sleep outside in my bivac bag. I did so to give Ramsey more room but also I wanted to try the bag out in cold, wet weather. I had slept in it twice before but never in the rain. Not only was it cold last night (with temps into the upper 30s) but they were predicting rain.

We left the coffee shop about 10:30 PM and made our way back to the state park in the dark. Ramsey retired to his tent and I to my bag.

If you are not familiar with a bivac bag, it is simply that, a bag. But it is water proof, and to avoid condensation on the inside, it is made of Gore-Tex.

I started the night out fine. It is rather nice sleeping outside, but inside a mummy sleeping bag inside a water-proof outer bag because you can lie on your pillow and look at the stars (while your head is exposed) up between the massive, old-growth cedars. It was about 3 A.M. that I was first awakened. It wasn’t the rain, yet, but the constant sound in the deep dark woods of . . . what sounded like a heard of . . . hot air balloons with their burners firing up and turning off. One came in that direction, then one in the other. Each burn lasted about 3 minutes. I was confused at first. Then I realized that it was coming from these huge RVs parked throughout the woods and apparently their propane furnaces kicking in with the cold coming in off the sea. How annoying. But, with my tendency for insomnia, I laid awake for a while.

Next came the opportunity for my great experiment . . . it started to drizzle. I felt a tiny, cold drop on my nose . . . then one on my chin. I waited. Then spat, spat, spat . . . I heard it coming through the woods like a covey of Mexican jumping beans.

I zipped up my bivac bag over my head. There I was fully inside. If you wonder what that is like, simply get a Glad leaf and lawn plastic bag, get inside, and have someone tie up the end with a wire twist. As I breathed inside the bag, the humidity built and staled with time. But, I thought, that it must be the way to sleep because that’s how the bag is designed . . . with a zipper across the entire top.

None the less when the big rains, fresh off the cold Pacific, came in, it sounded like I was inside a snare drum and someone was dropping marbles . . . from about 50 feet next to my ears. So in short (between the near suffocating feeling and the rattle of the rain) I continued lying awake for the next couple of hours.

In boredom, I reached for my so-called “smart” phone, which I had tossed inside the bag just before I got in. I fiddled around in the pitch dark of the bag’s interior and I bumped it and it lit up in that green glow like E.T.’s finger. I dialed up my music section and put my ear phones in. It reminded me of the nights in Asia when I was still suffering from jet lag and I would lie in my tent listening to music in the middle of the Nepalese night.

I selected a few songs, hoping I would be asleep before the playlist had expired. However, my “smart phone” (and this is why I use quotes here) instead of playing the song “If” by Bread, played the entire Best of Bread album.

It is a known fact that the sense of olfactory (smell) is the one most closely tied into the temporal areas of the brain where memories are processed. But I have a hunch that second on that list would be music. How many times I’ve listened to a song and immediate had a déjà vu feeling, or more like a flash back.

As I’ve alluded to before, in the middle of the night I think that we are in our most raw forms. Many of my best and worse ideas have come in the middle of the night. I think it is because the part of the brain responsible for dysinhibition (or what Freud would call the Super-ego) is still sleeping.

So, as I laid awake, trying to not suffocate, listening to the entire album of Bread, I was taken back in almost a virtual reality of my past. It was when I was a senior in high school and I had just bought my 8-track, The Best of Bread. I drove a red Plymouth Duster with my 8 track beneath my seat, where I could switch tapes while driving. These were, in many ways, my “wonder years.” I had nostalgia for that eternal hope that I carried then, but a hope that I can never go back to.

I had just become a Christian the previous year. I was on book six of a twelve book Navigator discipleship program. I was seeing myself change and was looking forward to being godly, when I would be a really nice guy and my problems would go away. I had this deep sense of security because I had found this new utopian sub-culture where we all loved each other, only looked out for the best interest of each other. It seemed light-years away from the cruel halls of high school that I had known.

I also had this great security in my future. I had been taught that if you prayed and believed, only good would come. That neither I nor anyone I loved would get sick or suffer accidents. We would all live happily until Jesus came back, and His ETA was about four years away.

I was seeing myself changing and I knew that God, who had always hated me before like He did all bad people, was starting to like me more . . . but not completely. I had given up girls for Him. He liked that. I was working on giving up the Devil’s music for Him . . . that would be any music with non-Christian references in the lyrics, swearing, music with a beat (which Bill Gothard had told was all sexual), or electric guitars. Bread was my one last holdout.

I had discovered Larry Norman, who had Christian lyrics although he was known to have a beat and strum an electric guitar. I was trying to switch over from Bread to a new-Bread-sounding Christian group, Love Song. They only spoke of happy, godly things, not worldly things like romantic love.

I think this wonderful feeling was built on a foundation of sand, but it was good while it lasted. By the late 80s the disillusionment had drowned out all of that original hope just like the heavy Pacific rain drowning out the propane furnaces in the darks woods or how the music of Bread drowned out both.

When I was a senior in high school, the two people I admired most (sounds like the lyrics of a Don Mclean song) were Tom and Don. Tom had led me to the Lord and away from girls. Don had led me away from the Devil's music to good Christian music. The were the most godly guys I had ever known and I wanted to emulate them.

As an example of this dis-enchantment (over the issue of becoming godly), Tom's wife left him about 7 years ago, and I have a feeling that she had a reason. Don was arrested about 5 years ago on child porn charges. I don't share this in a spirit of being judgmental (although I do have an especially hard time with someone hurting a child) but as a commentary on this whole paradigm of being good and godliness.

I did fall back to sleep after the album was over. In the daylight of this morning, and I unzipped my bag and stuck my head out for a deep breath of fresh sea air, I noticed a label on the inside of my bivac with red writing, “Never zip up the bag entirely as it could cause suffocation.” My first thought was, “Why in the hell do they make a zipper that closes completely if it could kill you using it?