Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Leftovers . . . Finding Meaning in the Contingent

I was listening to NRP (where else?) last week and Fresh Air had an interview with Tom Perrotta, the author of a new book, The Leftovers.  Apparently Tom had written a previous book, The Abstinence Teacher, and he had to do some research into American Evangelicalism. In that later book, he dealt with the culture wars over sex education and abortion.

While doing his research, he stumbled onto the most popular Christian books (at the time) the Left Behind series.  This stuck in the back of his mind and he couldn't shake it.  I can't remember what his personal philosophical orientation is based on. I think he called himself an atheist in the interview. He did make it clear that he was not a Christian.

The concept of the rapture was not new to him, but he had never realized how central it was to evangelicalism until he read the one Left Behind book. But he started to imagine, what if you put a twist on it?

His twist, as expressed in The Leftovers, is that one day suddenly about 20% of the population disappears.  I think right out of their clothes, or at least their shoes as the cover depicts. However, and that is a big HOWEVER, there is no rhyme or reason to who was taken and who was left. Okay, some evangelicals were taken, but many more left behind. But along with the evangelicals, some Catholics disappeared.  Okay, you (if you were an evangelical speaking) might think, so some Catholics were real Christians after all! But the absurdity doesn't stop there. Some Hindus and Muslims were also taken.  Hmmmm, you think. So God judges you by your heart and your good deeds. But wait a minute, some atheists were taken . . . and some left. But also some harden criminals vanished and some really good people were left.

This is the point of the story. It takes place in one small town and it looks how people take a totally random act (even be it of God . . . or aliens . . . or a freak of quantum physics) and try to sew a meaningful narrative on its backside. But, and the author is the only one laughing at this point, there is no meaning!

In this small town, several cults spring up in the rapture's aftermath.  Some of them Evangelical sects, some off the wall heretical cults and some more nihilist than any religious persuasion.

This reminds me of dogma. We humans are desperate to resolve everything. We can't live with loose ends, be it in methods for living, the purpose of our lives, or our doctrines and personal philosophies. Not only does every t have to be crossed and i dotted but we must find the exact connection between the i and t to spell "it."

The best example I can think of is the book of Revelations. What a bizarre book. Yet, during my younger Christian years, it was the most important book of the Bible. But everyone had to figure out exactly what the purpose of it was and the secret message it was telling us . . . about the future.

I think it would be funny if when we got to meet God face to face that he laughs and says "That crazy John, he had Alzheimer's dementia with psychosis and you guys just had to create a religion around it."  Okay, I'm not saying that the Bible isn't trustworthy but that I bet we will realize some day that we didn't have this life figured out at all like we though we did.

I use to have the corny bumper sticker on my Jeep that said, "Jesus is the Answer."  On my back window I had another one that read something about in case of rapture the car would be unnamed.  I felt very proud about my bumper stickers. It gave me value in the eyes of my fellow believers (what a zeal for God, they thought) and I thought God loved me more because of them.

But now I feel that to say that "Jesus is the Answer" is an insult to Him. He is so much more!  Okay, if you create a very small compartment where we are struggling to feel God's pleasure . . . then you could say that Jesus is the resolution and answer. But I don't believe that the Bible has the answer for all problems nor is Jesus the answer for all problems. It isn't that He is impotent to be so, but that God has no desire to sew up all of life into resolved pieces. Life is an adventure. I am curious that maybe if there had never been a fall, that life would still be convoluted and fragmented as part of God's plan . . . He is a complex God.

I will close with one more part to this. My daughter graduated from Pacific Lutheran University on Sunday. Over the week end, through several receptions, I got to meet and to know (on a superficial level) the president of the university. On Sunday he gave the commencement address.  He is a sharp guy. Now I'm the first to realize that although it is a "Christian" university that it wears that title loosely. A son of Evangelical friends attended there . . . briefly. He quit during his first quarter because of the "godlessness of the campus" where gay rights were openly promoted and endorsed. But that's another story.  The point I'm trying to make is that the president told the graduating class,  "Don't live by another person's dogma."

I use to be attracted to dogma like a moth to a porch light, but under the guise of "being Biblical." But there is something refreshing about not knowing or resolving.  It reminds me of a book from a decade ago, Blue Like Jazz.  Donald Miller said he picked that title because Jazz is a type of music that doesn't resolve everything.  I'm not sure that makes any more sense than Oliver Barrett IV (from Love Story) saying that "Love is never having to say you are sorry." But there is something sweet about a Christianity that doesn't try to meddle in and fix everything but lets us live the life of adventure and skinned knees.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

On Stage Without a Script - Summay

I think I will put this thought to rest.  The point I was trying to make was to communicate this sense of alienation that I feel within Christian societies. But it does happen in my secular world too. Where people will say one thing but when you believe them and try to live consistently with what they are saying you find that you are a square peg in a round hole, as they never meant what they said.

I'm not saying poor me, look how the world is mistreating me, yada, yada, yada.  I'm honestly saying I don't understand.  The stories I told were fiction but very close to real, life experiences. The last story with the zealous missionary was about 90% true. I just changed the nationalities (it was China rather than Yemen) and a few of the trivial details.

I'm also not saying that I'm above implementing this type of disappointment onto others. I have someone right now accusing me and my office manager of ignoring her e-mails. Neither of us recall ever hearing from her.  We've searched our inboxes back for months and can't find her e-mails. So, technical glitches do happen.  I'm sure that I've disappointed people in many other ways as well.

But maybe it is the part of me that craves honesty that I could not imagine speaking in large groups how great my passion is for X, Y or Z, but then when someone approaches me on a private level about it . . . I show no interest whatsoever. I just couldn't live with myself.

But the bigger point, which I was trying to make, is that no one and I mean NO ONE, sees it like I do.  They see no problem with the inconsistencies between the public face and the private face. This is where I feel totally out of connection with fellow human beings. I honestly don't know the script and I am a fish out of water.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

On Stage Without a Script - Act VI

I decided to take a season of just keeping my head low in church. I would try to raise any question but, as Susan suggested, “go with the flow.”  I wanted to devote myself to working at church, behind the scenes and out of the limelight.

It caught my attention one day that our annual mission’s conference was fast approaching. Our church supported five families and a couple of single missionaries, including a Campus Crusade campus ministry couple.

 This year, one of the two featured families was Dave and Betty Johansson.  They were a missionary couple living in Sana, Yemen and been working there for ten years. They run a computer school as a means to live there as visas aren’t given for missionaries. 

I was excited to see them. For one, it had been over five years since they were on furlough and stopped by our church. Secondly, I had befriended a Yemenis man. He was doing an internship at our company after finishing a college degree in international business. His dream was to start a company in the US and eventually bring his family over. However, unfortunately for him, the State Department had drastically reduced their allotment of visas for Yemenis because concerns after 9-11.

The events of that terrible day had a profound impact on Aakif.  Even as an undergraduate in Sana, he seriously doubted his Islamic faith.  He was certainly a more secular Yemenis.  However, after 9-11, he actually began to loathe Islam.  Many in the Islamic world reacted very differently to those events, becoming more devout, but he took the path that many Christian Americans had wished that all Muslims would take, a disgust of violence in the name of Islam.

Getting to know Aakif was a fun process as I was his mentor at work. I think in the beginning the only thing he despised more than Islam was Christianity.  While I grew to love him as a man and not a ministry project, I was very honest with him, assuring him that many of the ugly cultural things about Christianity weren't necessarily part of real Christianity.

To my surprise, Aakif confined in me one day that he was seriously considering becoming a Christian. I felt speechless. I wasn’t jumping for joy, but I wanted to make sure he was sincere and that he knew what he was getting into (huge ramifications back home).  But he, and he was a deep thinking man, assured me he was.

About this time, soon after his sincere desire to become a Christian was expressed, he got a notice that his visa renewal had been denied. He had ninety days to return to Yemen.  He hired a lawyer but there were no loop holes he could fit through.

Aakif had been on my mind a lot. When I saw the Johanssons on the program I was excited to make connections for Aakif. After all, Sana can’t be that big of a city.

The night of Dave’s talk, was the highlight of the mission’s conference. He was an excellent speaker, with the sweet tone of a Joel Osteen, but with a bit more theological and intellectual prowessness.  He told dramatic story after dramatic story of living in a Muslin land and being sustained by supernatural acts of God . . . one after another.  

In one story, he described how he had heard of a young girl in a remote mountain village, whom had converted to Christianity and going to be stoned.  Out of passion, he donned poor-villager clothes and an old motor bike. He navigated the dusty, al Qaeda –infested, roads all the way to her village. Once there, in the midst of great danger, he tried to find her. But it appeared that the story was just a myth.  He described how several of the terrorist-types had wanted to find and kill him, but God had made him invisible, literally, to them.

He also made it clear that he had come to Yemen to spend his entire life, even wanting to be buried there after he dies, with the hopes that his life of toil could lead to one convert to Christianity.  He read the passage about the lost sheep and how he is willing to live or die for that one lost sheep. Dave had just written a book about his adventures of living in Yemen and it was going to be at the back table.

I was excited. Here would be the perfect contact for my dear friend Aakif.  I had asked the Yemenis man to join me to listen to Dave and to meet him, but going to a church service was too much for him, too much at that stage of his transition.  However he was excited about the resource and potential contact back in Yemen.  I assured him that Dave was a great man and would help him a lot.

I couldn’t wait to meet Dave (although I had met him before at a previous conference) and to tell him about Aakif.  I stood in line at the table as people were signing up for Dave and Betty’s newsletter, filling out donor pledges and buying his books. 

When it was my turn, I introduced myself to Dave and I, with excitement in my voice, told him about Aakif.  I actually thought that Dave might be jumping up and down . . . but in contrast, he seemed subdued with the news.  He looked at me with a frown, “You have to be cautious in these situations.” Then he said the strangest thing, “Do you have any training in Muslim ministry?” 

“Uh . . . no,” I responded.

“I would suggest you back off,” said Dave.

“Back off? Back off from what?” I asked with confusion.  Had he been listening to my story? “Don’t you understand, I have to ‘back off’ because Aakif is being forced to move back to Sana in a few weeks?  I need someone like you to help him there on the ground.  He is going to be all alone and in a dangerous situation.”

Dave smiled, “Yeah, those situations are dangerous. We live in danger every day . . . but God sustains us in miraculous ways.”

But this wasn’t about him (I was thinking) this is about Aakif.  “So, can you help?”

Dave smiled and started talking to the person behind me as if our conversation was coming to an end.  He looked back at me, “We have to be in St. Louis by tomorrow night, I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m talking about helping our friend Aakif back in Sana in a few weeks. Can you help him?”

Dave answered while he was simultaneously autographing a book for someone  "I’m not sure. We have to be very careful about who we talk to. Maybe talk to me later.”

I asked for his e-mail address and asked,  “Will you be checking this while you’re on the road?”

Dave answered, “Checking what?”

I answered, “Your e-mail address . . . will you be checking it?”

“When we can.”  Then Dave immediately started taking to Mrs. Taylor behind me. “Oh I just loved your stories,” she said with a bright smile. “I would love to buy your book and could you sign it?” Dave broke out in laughter. “Sure thing.”

Before the week was up I e-mailed Dave. There was no answer. I e-mailed him again.  No answer.  Aakif was becoming more nervous as the time was approaching.  I thought maybe I had the wrong e-mail address down, but I double checked the one at church and it matched.  Then, suddenly I started getting the Johansson’s newsletter. I hadn’t signed up for it but it was sent to me via e-mail attachment, using the return address of my office e-mail, which I had used to contact them about Aakif which proved that my e-mails were going through.  So I emailed them again.

I’m starting to become confused at this point.  Aakif was becoming more and nervous. He had purchased his ticket to Sana. He hadn’t dared told his family about his interest in Christianity. He did have a devout Muslim uncle, who would probably have him disowned by the family . . . if not killed.  He didn’t know of a single Christian back in Sana.

In my desperation I became more aggressive.  I asked the pastor for their phone number.  He was very hesitant, “You know these people are in a sensitive ministry and they don’t publish their number or give it away to just anybody.”  I tried to tell the pastor how important this was and gave a synopsis of my experience with Aakif.  The pastor oddly said, “I think you should probably keep out of their business.”

“Whose business?!” I asked.

“The Johanssons are very busy right now. They are traveling from church to church raising their support and maybe they don’t have time for these questions.”

“What questions?  I’m not trying to reach them just to ask questions.  I told you how important this is for my friend.”

“The Johanssons don’t owe you any favors either. They are very busy people.”

I was starting to get angry.  “Pastor, I’m just confused.  They spoke about how important it is to reach one single Muslim and here I have a man that WANTS to be reached, and they don’t seemed to be interested.  I’m just confused.”

The pastor replied, “I went the Bible school with Dave and Betty. They are amazing people. They know a lot about ministry to the Muslim world. They are under a huge demand. They just can’t take the time to correspond with every person they meet on the road.  You haven’t been trained in Muslim ministry and maybe you should be careful.”

I answered, “Pastor, I know what it is like to be busy. I’m working on a project right now and I’m working seventy hours per week. I can guarantee you that I’m working more hours than the Johanssons, but I am deeply concerned about my friend Aakif and he is about all I think about.”

The Johanssons never, ever responded to me. I left voice mail after voice mail on their cell phone,  I did remain on their newsletter, not by choice, and I had several letters written to me asking me to become a monthly donor. Aakif moved back to Sana, in his heart wanting to be a Christian. We corresponded for a while then he seemed to disappear into the adobe and stone maze of Sana and her highlands.

But I was confused. Here was a missionary who claimed to be consumed about winning the one soul from Islam. Here I was giving him that soul on a silver platter . . . I didn’t want any credit for Aakif’s conversation.  But the reason that I feel that I have not read the script is that the pastor, my wife, the Johanssons and whomever I talked to, didn’t see the point.  I saw, a great paradox that I just couldn’t get my head around.  I frankly don’t understand life . . . especially life within the church.

I had indeed discussed it with Susan and she was on the same page as the pastor, repeating, 1) The Johanssons are busy people, 2) I'm not trained in Muslim ministry, 3) The Johanssons don't owe me any favors and 4) The Johanssons are wonderful people.

But I continue my search for meaning. I don't understand human behavior. I'm in a play where I not only don't know the script, but I don't even know where the narrative is going.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On Stage Without a Script - Act V

We were in bed, Susan reading her book and me, just laying with my hands behind my head and looking up at the ceiling.  I wanted to talk . . . to somebody. Susan had a “do not disturb” written all over her face.  I waited patiently.  With the click of her lamp I immediately seized the opportunity, rolling over and facing the back of her head.

ME: “Susan.  Can we talk for a minute?”

SUSAN: (in a moaning tone of voice) “I guess so but I was about to fall asleep.”

ME: “I feel totally confused. Tonight at the meeting, it was quite painful when Bill said, ‘Why don’t you move to France?’”

SUSAN: (with a brief chuckle) “Well, it was funny. Don’t take it personal.”

ME: “Everyone wants to be liked. I think I feel more that way than most. Yet, I think I’m one of the most un-liked people, especially at church, and I don’t know why.  Seriously, that was very painful for me, especially when everyone was laughing. I felt totally alienated.  But more than that, I feel confused.  What did I say to make me such a lightning bolt for such hostility?”

SUSAN: “I think you take things too seriously.”

ME: “But really, think about it. Do you, in your heart of hearts, believe that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were Christian wars? Do you really think that it is the church’s business to be involved with those wars?”

SUSAN: “I haven’t thought about it.”

ME: “That’s all I was trying to say. There are plenty of people for the wars, thinking they were a good thing, and quite a few opposed to them. But it shouldn’t be a Christian thing.  Do you really believe that 9 11 was caused because Muslims were trying to force us to become Muslims?”

SUSAN: “No.”

ME: “So when John said that was the reason for 9 11, everyone seemed to agree with him.  No one stood up for me. I noticed you pulling away and you laughed the hardest when Bill said I should move to France.”

SUSAN: “Oh please. Just go to sleep. I don’t know and I don’t care who started the war and for what reason.”  Then she sat up in the bed and looked at me, “I do know that Ted had a nephew killed in Iraq so I’m sure that much of his motivation comes from that tragic event.”

ME: “But Susan, I can understand his pain and the church should be there to share that pain.  The only thing I don’t understand is why the church is getting involved in a political situation and why absolutely no one questions it but me?  Why did people respond angrily at me as well?”

SUSAN: (now with her eyes closed and laying back on her pillow) “I don’t know.”

ME: (now I’m sitting up in bed) “I feel so confused as I look back over these last three weeks. I still have no idea why the pastor was avoiding me. All I wanted to do was to help with Sunday school. He is often preaching about people not stepping up to the plate to help. That’s all I wanted to do. So I’m confused. Did he not like the topic I chose?  Did he not like me leading it?  I’m just confused.”

SUSAN: “Give the man a break. Maybe he just forgot to meet with you. Don’t you ever forget appointments?”

ME: “Sure I do.  But the way it happened confuses me. Why did he hide in his garage when I drove by?  Why did he ignore three voice mails I left him?  That’s the part that confuses me and I don’t know how to interpret it. What does it mean?”

SUSAN: “I don’t know. Just let it go. You have to learn to forgive.”

ME: “I don’t think what troubles me is the problem with forgiving. I mean, if he said he was sorry I wouldn’t hesitate to forgive. But my issue is confusion.  I don’t know what I did wrong to make him mad and make him want to avoid me.  Help me to understand how people think.”

SUSAN: “You have to stop being so judgmental. Pastor John is a good man. I respect him a lot. You have to stop being so critical.”

ME: “Is that my problem?  Maybe it is. But to me it feels like confusion. I mean, pastor John is always preaching about faithfulness in the little things. But if he is literally hiding in his garage to avoid me . . . it seems so inconsistent. I’m not being judgmental . . . or at least I don’t think so. I’m just confused . . . damned confused. I couldn't imagine hiding in my garage, like a five year old, to avoid speaking to someone. And John often speaks about accountability.”  There was a moment of silence as I thought over the situation.  “Which brings me to the last issue.  When I said what I said to Ralph, I had no clue that I would create a scandal. I was just curious and you might say, practicing this notion of holding my brother accountable.”

SUSAN: (sitting up in bed again) “But don’t you see, you can’t just walk up to a man and accuse him of being unfaithful to his wife!  Of course you created a scandal and I, frankly, was very embarrassed about it.”

ME: (rubbing my face in exhaustion born of chronic puzzlement ) “ I didn’t accuse him of anything. I was thinking of myself and how I would have mixed motives, picking the prettiest woman in our church to co-lead a Sunday school class. Maybe I’m just perverted . . . but I have the hunch that I’m just more honest.”

SUSAN: “Don’t flatter yourself.  You seem anything but humble. You seem arrogant and judgmental.”

ME: “But that’s not how I meant it.  I mean, I look up to Ralph . . . or least I did. I’m sure overall he is a much better man than me.  But think about it. In our church there have been about four divorces in the last two years and I know of three that probably had affairs going on. I know that this is never spoken of. But I think I live in reality and it isn't absurd or judgmental to raise the question with  Ralph.”

SUSAN: “But it certainly looks like you were doing it in revenge for him getting the Sunday school class.”

ME: “If it was, it was on a deep subconscious level, because that thought was not on my radar when I brought it up.”

SUSAN: “Okay, I’ve got to get to work early so let’s go to sleep.”

ME: “Fine. If I can sleep.”

SUSAN: “You need to go with the flow and stop letting these things bother you.”

ME: “But I’m just confused. I can’t get my head around things, how people think and why I’m despised. What did I do wrong.”

SUSAN: “I agree, you’re not the most popular man at our church. You need to work on that. Figure out how to behave what you can say . . . and what you must never say. Now good night.” 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Imonk and Homosexuality

The gang at Imonk (mostly Chaplain Mike) has had the courage to take on the topic of the "What the Bible Says About Homosexuality."  I've only had the chance to read the main articles and a few of the over 200 responses. I hope to read more. But I thought it is worth passing on. I would say that virtually every possible Christian angle should be represented by the res-ponders. It should be an interesting conversation.

On Stage Without a Script - Act IV

At Church on Sunday I felt I had a mission to mend fences.  I watched for the opportunity to either catch Ralph or the pastor. I quickly learned from Kathryn that Ralph was out of town at a convention. I did spot the pastor as he was leaving the vestibule, heading to his office.

ME: "Hey pastor . . . you got a sec?"

PASTOR: "Hmm . . . I've got to get my sermon notes" (he said without making eye contact).

ME: "Oh . . . I just wanted to tell you that I would be happy to be fill in for the adult Sunday school class."

PASTOR: He looked at me with a frown. "Oh that won't be necessary. We have fill ins all worked out now." Then he darted into his office, letting the door close behind him.

I was left with this strange feeling that something still wasn't right. I followed him. As the door opened he seemed irritated that I had come in.

PASTOR: "Yes? Something else?"

ME: "Are you mad at me?"

PASTOR: "Of course I'm not mad at you. I'm a little disappointed. I had a chat with Ralph on Friday and he told me of his odd encounter with you. I just think you are jealous that we picked him to lead the youth instead of you."

ME: "Oh no. My talking to Ralph had nothing to do with that. I just happened to run into him. Really, I'm happy that he and Linda are doing it. I think they will do a swell job. I think I stuck my foot in my mouth by what I said. But sometimes I am curious that's all. I didn't mean any harm."

PASTOR: "Well, I think you owe Ralph and Linda both an apology."

The week seemed to go smooth I didn't see Ralph again until the next Sunday and I did apologize . . . yet in the back of my mind, I knew that I was apologizing so that people would like me again, not because I honestly felt like I had done anything wrong.

The following week we had our semi-annual congregational meeting. It went well. I kept my mouth shut for most of the night, not knowing if I would say the wrong thing. But then at the end of the night, as we were talking over the budget, Ted, one of the senior elders and local football coach had a presentation.

He got up and used a power point to show a potential billboard that he wanted our church to co-sponsor with the Church of God. The billboard was to be placed on the airport road facing the traffic coming from the airport. On the billboard was an American flag in one corner, the face of an eagle in the other corner and in the middle a glowing cross. Across the top it simply said, "God Bless our Veterans." Beneath that it read "Thank You!"

Ted had patriotic music playing as he spoke. The group of the two hundred members seemed deeply moved. I on the other hand felt an intense unease. I saw the billboard from the eyes of a Pakistani immigrant. So when Ted asked if there were any questions, my mouth began to speak before my warning light went off, trying to keep me out of trouble.

ME: "Do we really want to be mixing Christianity with American patriotism?"

Like a fire alarm was going off the entire congregation immediately turned and looked at me. It was a sea of frowns and some heads shaking.  Susan started putting distance between the two of us. I knew I was in trouble once again. I wanted to try and explain myself.

ME: "I mean, my father was a veteran of the World War II and I am deeply grateful to him for his sacrifice. I'm a veteran of the first Gulf War. I know how hard it is for our military . . . but I'm afraid the billboard might send the wrong message."

TED: (Seeming perplexed) "What is the wrong message?  That we love our country and our men and women who fight for us to keep us free?  I'm not sure I see your point."

I knew I was the only dissenting voice at that point. If I had known I would have been alone I would probably have kept quiet because I hate being . . . well, hated.

ME: "My point is that we should keep our political views, our patriotic beliefs in a different place than our Christianity. I mean, I'm sure there are Christians who don't agree with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

JOHN (another member): "Dan, we aren't at war as a country, we are at war with the Devil. Those Muslims want to force all of us to become Muslims. This IS a Christian war. You are either for us are against us . . . as Jesus Himself said. We didn't start this war. They did on 9-11."  It seemed like everyone in the place was shaking their heads in agreement . . . including Susan.

I was just thinking how badly I wanted this conversation to end and I didn't know how to end it. I especially wanted out because I just came out of one big controversy and now I'm in the middle, alone, of another.  Once again my social cue radar didn't pick up how this was going to turn out. As I searched for words one of our senior members shouted out, "Why don't you move to France," after which there was a roar of laughter.

ME: "Well, 9-11 was a great evil, but it wasn't simply Muslims wanting us to become Muslims. It was far more complicated than that."

I looked around and I thought I saw a smile on Ralph's face . . . but I couldn't be sure. So I just said, "I'm done. I've had my say."

The church voted and I was the only vote against the billboard.

In bed that night Susan asked me, "So, you want to make trouble once again? I guess I just don't know where your heart is anymore."

I laid awake for the entire night. I just couldn't get my head around it. I had no clue that my words would have been received with such hostility. Never would I have guessed that I would have been alone in my views. Once again, I totally misread the cues.

Monday, May 21, 2012

On Stage Without a Script - Act III

I'm pulling an Imonk, more than one posting in a day:>)

I felt a little sick for the rest of the day . . . knowing that I had put my foot in my mouth. When I was in bed that night watching the news and Susan reading her romance novel I spoke to her.

ME: “I think I made Ralph mad today.”

SUSAN: “Ralph? Where did you see him?”

ME: “At the coffee shop.  I saw him and Linda Cooper sitting at a table.”

SUSAN: “Aren’t they co-teaching the youth class?”

ME: “Yeah. That’s what they were doing, preparing for it.”

SUSAN: “So . . . what did you do to make him mad.”

ME: “Well, I was just curious if he felt comfortable, or more than that, if Kathryn felt comfortable with him working with such an attractive woman. I know that it would seem strange for me and maybe for you.”

SUSAN: “You said that right in front of both of them?”

ME: “No! Linda had left. But I was just curious. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

SUSAN: “Dan! Of course he’s mad at you. Why would you do such a thing of accusing him of having alterative motives? What’s wrong with you!?”

ME: “I wasn’t accusing him of anything. I, like a scientist, was just curious. I didn’t mean any harm by it. It is just a thought that crossed my mind when I saw the two sitting there, laughing with their heads together.”

SUSAN: “This is bad!  I think you owe him an apology.  Ralph is a godly man for whom I have a deep respect. I’m sure his motives are pure. And Linda . . . I’ve never met a sweeter lady.”

ME: “But just imagine that I was spending a lot of time with Linda and we were laughing with our heads together . . . would you not be a little jealous?”

SUSAN: “I’ve always trusted you but maybe I shouldn’t. Do you think Linda is pretty?”

ME: I thought long and hard before I answered. “Of course she is pretty. That’s a no-brainer. Ninety nine out of a hundred men would think so.”

SUSAN: “Do you think she is prettier than me?”

ME: My feelings have gone from bad to terrible and I feel cornered.  I have a deep desire to speak truth yet I don’t want to hurt anyone. “Susan. I love you, I’m attracted to you, I’m devoted to you that’s what counts . . . isn’t it?”

SUSAN: She seems to be angry. “You are stonewalling aren’t you?”

ME: “Okay, let’s be objective. Is Linda more attractive than you?  Well, first of all, she is what . . . fifteen years younger than you. So that is not fair to compare the two of you. She was a model wasn’t she? So society must agree that she is attractive.  So, in objective terms . . . yes she is probably more attractive, in general, than you. But please understand that It is you I love and am devoted to. I find you very attractive.”

Susan sits in silence and goes back to reading her book. You can tell she is angry.

ME: “Okay, don’t be upset about this. Of course Ralph is far more attractive in general than I am. That’s a given fact. I would say many men are more handsome that me. That is just a fact. I’m sure you find them more attractive than me and it doesn’t matter as long as you love me . . . right?”

SUSAN: “I’ve never noticed if Ralph is handsome or not. Looks don’t matter to me the way they do you. I just know that I love you and the thought of being attracted to another man has never crossed my mind since we said our vows twenty five years ago.”

I went back to watching TV wishing that I could do this entire day over. I have both feet in my mouth now.  I got up to turn off the TV and Susan was still reading with her bedside lamp on.  I closed my eyes and said “good night.”

SUSAN: “I’m feeling upset Dan.  I honestly think you are the one who is attracted to Linda and I would have never guessed it. I think I need to keep my eye on you.”

ME: “Of course you need to keep an eye on me. I should keep an eye on you too.”

SUSAN: “You can if you want . . . but you are wasting your time. I took our vows seriously.”

I lay in bed feeling so confused. The previous two weeks have been a mess. I sense the anger of the pastor towards me, then Ralph and now my wife. I don't know what I did wrong. I don't understand the script. I didn't mean anything that I appear to mean to them. I don't understand social cues about what to say and what not to say. I'm a freakin mess!

On Stage Without a Script; Act II

The next week, ironically, I sent into the coffee shop, the same one as where I was suppose to have met the pastor.  As I walked past the tables to get in line at the counter, I looked to my left and there sat no other than Ralph and Linda. I raised my chin in a gesture of a wave. Ralph smiled back. Linda's was packing up her things like she was leaving.

Ralph was in his mid forties, a chiropractor. He was a good looking man, athletic build, graying in the temples.  Linda was actually, one of the most beautiful women I had ever known. She was tall, brunette with cobalt blue eyes. She was naturally thin and you could tell she didn't even have to work at it. Rumor had it that she was a professional model prior to getting her job with the district school office.

I got my espresso and join Ralph.

ME: "Good morning. What brings you out so bright and early."

RALPH: "Linda and I are co-leading the youth Sunday school class this year."

ME: "So, I've heard."

RALPH: "Well, Linda works at the school and has to be there at 7 and this is about the only time we could meet."

I sipped my coffee.

ME: "So . . . what's the subject matter?"

RALPH: "We have a great series put out by the denomination simply titled "The essentials."  It goes through the ten essential beliefs of being a Christian and of our denomination. It examines the truth behind each one, possible counterfeits that the kids will face, and how to keep a solid foundation of these ten beliefs for the rest of their lives."

I pick up one of the books and flip through it as I sip my coffee.

ME: "Ralph, I have an honest question for you."

RALPH: "Sure" he said with a look of surprise on his face.  He sips the remaining part of his coffee.

ME: (rubbing my face as I searched for words), "Does it bother Kathryn (his wife) at all that you are working with Linda?"

RALPH: (Looking very confused now) "Bother her how?" He stared at me waiting for an answer . . . but before I could give one, he answered it himself, "Katheryn thinks the world of Linda. She's delighted that I chose her to help me." Ralph was looking a little angry at this point.

ME: "What I'm trying to say is, I know it would be hard for Susan (my wife in this story) if I was spending a lot of time with Linda . . . I think. Well, I know it would hard for me if Susan was working and spending a lot of time with a really good looking man."

RALPH: (Leaning back in his chair and seeming even more irritated), "I have no idea what you are talking about. Linda is a wonderful and sweet God-fearing woman.  I love Kathryn with all my heart. I just don't know what you are implying . . . and personally I find it a bit offensive."

ME: "Come-on Ralph. You and I both know that Linda is gorgeous. I'm just saying that it would be natural for a man to feel attracted to her."  We both sipped our coffee and Ralph started to gather his things. I added, "Why did you choose her to co-lead with you anyway?  Why not Kathryn or some other woman, or man in the church."

RALPH: "I prayed for direction. I knew I needed help. God led me to Linda. She has a daughter of her own. She is a very talented woman, and seemed to be the ideal candidate."  He put the rest of his things in his brief case and stood up. "Dan, I don't know what your problem is. You just don't seem to get it. Outward looks doesn't matter to people when they have the Lord at the center of their lives.  I think you need to get your head screwed on right."

Ralph got up and walked across the floor, putting away his coffee cup in the dirty dish box. I noticed for the first time that his coal-black hair was really gray all over and he must dye it leaving the temples with a touch a gray. I faintly could see his gray roots. Then he walked past me in his Kevin Klein suit and stylish glasses and out the door to his BMW convertible.

I felt confused. I never intended to make Ralph mad. I was just curious. I didn't mean to be accusatory in my tone.  I was even open to the ideal that maybe I'm the only man alive that finds other women attractive at times and would feel vulnerable in Ralph' situation. But it was my curiosity that was my driving force.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

On Stage . . . Without a Script: Act I

I've heard it from others . . . and I mean besides Shakespeare . . . that life is like a movie or play (stage) and that we are all actors within.  For  me personally, I feel at times, that I am on a movie set, everyone knows their roles, the personas they play and of course the script, but I'm walking around the stage like a lost boy who has never read his lines and is confused by the story. I get lost in the confluent flow of the world around leaving me only trying to react to it. I've had many reoccurring dreams where I'm on stage of a major production and I haven't a clue what is going on (plus I'm in my underwear).

I've heard others describe this type of alienation as well. I'm not sure what it means. But if I lost you, I wanted to illustrate with a story, a fictional story, but based on many personal experiences. I will see how this works out and if it doesn't go very far I will abort. Remember this is fiction and I'm not talking about any recent event but a collage of prior ones. This will be a series of posts. If it starts to look too much like the one I did about the subtle art of spiritual abuse then I will know I've gotten off target.

In the vestibule on a Sunday morning I approach the pastor, whom I will call "John."

ME: "Hey, I've been thinking about doing a course with the youth about critical thinking and the role that philosophical belief can have in pop culture. Then how to sort out particular philosophical beliefs from basic and essential Christian concepts."

JOHN: Sipping from a Styrofoam cup, "That sounds really interesting.  Why don't we discuss it at the coffee shop this week."

ME: "Sure. When?"

JOHN: "What about next Saturday morning?"

ME: "Great, what time?"

JOHN: "I get up early, what about six thirty AM?"

ME: "That's a bit early for me on a Saturday, what about seven thirty?"

JOHN: "Fine, I'll see you at seven thirty at the coffee shop."  Then he immediately leaves to join another conversation.

Saturday morning comes.  I have my materials in my backpack and take off the the coffee shop. I get there at 7:00 AM, get my coffee and take a seat. I wait . . . and wait . . . and wait.  At 8:30 AM I realize the pastor isn't coming. I tried calling him twice. He doesn't answer. He does have caller ID on his phone as he always answers with my first name such as, "Hello Dan."

I jump in my car and drive up towards the pastor's house. As I approach, I see John out beside his house in his house coat, like he just got up. He was putting water in the humming bird feeder.  It is clear that as soon as he gets a glimpse of my bright yellow (unmistakable) Jeep, he quickly darts into the garage and stands in the dark, just out of sight as I drive by.  I felt really awkward . . . I should have stopped and confronted him, hiding in the garage . . . but at the moment I was so confused I kept driving.

For the remainder of the day I felt confused. What did that mean? Where my eyes tricking me? I don't think they were . . . so why was he avoiding me?

The next day at church, it was just like nothing had happened. The pastor even preached on "Faithfulness in the little things."  I tried to catch him in the vestibule and he was busy . . . always on the other side of the room

I called him and left several messages . . . he never called back.  I would have let it go, but the I had a chance encounter at a football game.  We went up the bleachers and I sat down beside him.

"Hi pastor."

"Good to see you."

I sat in silence, making the moment as awkward as I could.  Finally he spoke, "Uh . . . well, have you had anymore thoughts about helping us with Sunday school?  I think we could use a fill in for the adult group when Ted is away."

I felt very puzzled. "Hmm . . . I never considered the adult class. What were your thoughts about my ideas with the youth?"

JOHN: "Oh, you were talking about trying to teach them philosophy . . . right?"

ME: "No not really, just about discernment and more how to think, how to think as a Christian . . . actually as a person."

JOHN: "I just asked Ralph and Linda yesterday to co teach the youth. (Linda was a 34 year old single mom of a 12 year old and Ralph, a personal friend and father of three teenagers).

I watched the game for a while but I had a million thoughts going through my head. Finally I brought it up again, "Didn't you want me to teach the class?  I mean, you didn't show up for our meeting at the coffee shop. Where you trying to avoid me?"

JOHN: (laughing) "Avoiding you? No of course not. I was waiting to hear back from you. You said you wanted to get together and then you said you would call with the times but you never did."

ME: "John, you set up a specific time, which was 7:30, and then you didn't come. I drove by your house and I saw you hiding in your garage.  I'm just confused."

My wife Cindy is pinching my arm and I look at her and she is frowning at me. John, in the mean time is looking very confused.

JOHN: "I have no clue what you are talking about. I was out of the house before 6 as I was doing chaplain call up at the hospital."

I replay in my mind what I had seen . . . or thought I had seen the previous Saturday. But I was confident about it. I saw him dart into the garage as plain as day.  I didn't bring it up again at the ballgame. On the way home Cindy spoke up, "What's wrong with you?  You heard the pastor, he wasn't even home on Saturday. Why are you accusing him of avoiding you. You know he said he has already assigned the youth Sunday school class to Ralph and Linda. Just fill in for the adults like he offered."

ME: "Cindy, I don't mean to make a big deal about this. Teaching the youth was just an idea. But more than that, I'm confused why the pastor was avoiding me and now is lying about it?"

CINDY: "Avoiding you?  I think you are becoming paranoid. Just drop it!  You made John very uncomfortable tonight.  Why do you always stir up trouble?"

ME: "I don't want to stir up trouble but I just don't understand. I don't know what his behavior means?"

CINDY: "Drop it!  You heard John, he wasn't even home. You were mistaken. Let it go, Dan! Let it go."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Curse of Normalcy

I stopped by Imonk the other day and the discussion was on the merits or dismerits of a normal life, or day.  This got me thinking a lot.  Now I don't know what the problem with Imonk these days and I honestly suspect that the problem lies within me, but I just can't keep up. Maybe I think too slow. I visit, a provocative subject is raised. I read the posts. It is hours or days before I have the chance to revisit and presto, there has been four more posts and topics while MY mind is still on the original. Maybe if I had an hour each morning and another one in the afternoon, I could keep up.

But that's exactly what happened in this case. My mind has been going over and over this notion of normalcy for the last two days while Imonk is moved into several more venues.

First of all I know that the old evangelical Mike would say that all Christians are called to the "extra-ordinary life."  I remember arguing with my parents when I first became a Christian at age 18 about this. I was telling them that there is no way I was going to end up like them (I know a bit arrogant and snobbish), going to work at 8 AM, coming home, eating dinner, watching TV and going to bed.  "God wanted us to live lives of victory and spiritual success!" I shouted (please pass the puke bucket and may my dear father, in his grave, forgive me for not respecting what he had done for me by going to work every morning . . .  not to mention going to war).

The more I thought about it this week, the more serious the issue seems to be. I think it is fundamental.

For the first decade after leaving the heart of evangelicalism, I lived in guilt. But that wasn't new because I had lived in guilt as an evangelical so there was no sum loss. But the new guilt was different. For the previous ten years I had been either planning on being a missionary, preparing to be a missionary, raising support as a missionary or . . . actually being a missionary.  Leaving that (especially the romantic life of living in exotic places abroad) and returning to an American 8-5, raising kids, fixing broken down old houses, fixing broken down old cars . . .  I felt like one of the Kardashian girls getting a job at Wendys. I wasn't only guilt-ridden but quite depressed.

What made it even harder was that my best friends from college were all off into "extra-normal lives," as missionaries, Nav staff or getting graduate degrees in theology.

But looking back, the magic life doesn't work, at least not that well. Two of my friends who went on Nav staff went into tailspins in their lives as did two of them who became missionaries.  Those latter two have never adapted to the normal life and have become quite dysfunctional since leaving the mission field. It is sad, just like a football star that gets injured and moves to the stands . . . or the couch for the games. I had a brother-in-law who went from the NFL to the couch very quickly . . . and he has been a lost soul ever since. My evangelical, ex-missionary friends, are living in normalcy while they deeply believe that normalcy is not only inferior . . . but evil.  That creates an intense emotional tension, the same I went through.  The only difference is that I got through mine (no thanks to my own self will, but due to time) while they remain in the dysfunctional wake and I'm doubtful they will ever recover.

But to my point. As they say, "to a hammer, everything looks like a nail." While I admit that potential weakness in myself, I will add that I actually do think much of what ails evangelicalism is philosophical dualism and that is why I created this blog to counter such notions.

So the problem for the evangelical dualist is that they see a sharp division between that which is spiritual and that which is "worldly." Satan reigns in the worldly while God and His angels reign in the high places. In that mindset, the ordinary life clearly falls within the domain of the worldly, thus it can have no value (at least) and it could be pure evil (at worse).

As a Navigator trainee, we were taught that the "ordinary life" was for those who are following the devil and have no purpose . . . and the little church people who didn't love God nearly as much as we did. So, we were to get the little church people with their little, ordinary lives, going to work 8 to 5 in their little ordinary jobs . . . to give us money so we could live these extraordinary lives.

But, I see the universe as the UNI (one) Diversity of everything. Created by God with all its beauty and glory. Yes, it is tainted and broken. Yes, 8-5 jobs are part of the curse of the fall, but the ordinary life is what we are really called to. The getting up at 6, eating cereal, watching the news, pooping, taking a shower, putting on our little ordinary shirts and pants. Driving our ordinary cars to our little ordinary jobs. Coming home, eating dinner. Working on the house or the yard, watching a little TV and going to bed. In my view . . . this is all God's stuff. This is the glorious life and it doesn't have to be "blessed" with pixie dust to have meaning.

In other words, God is in the cornflakes, He's in the sitcom, He's in the songs of the bands . . . or the birds, the smells of the market, the laughter of a friend's voice, the bitterness of the coffee bean, the enchantment of the novelist, the pit of depression in my gut when I reflect on personal losses. No, I'm not a pantheist. These things are not God or a part of God, as His substance. But they are the spin-offs of His creative force. And, they are not dirty or inferior.  The extra-ordinary is a mirage. The seekers there of are taken to disenchantment or delusional thinking, or alienation from reality.

Praise God for normalcy . . . and the ordinary.