What Am I Giving Up for Lent? Lent.
April 13, 2011

I love the idea of intentionally depriving one’s self of something. It can work wonders for gaining perspective on a variety of matters, spiritual and otherwise.

It has been interesting to hear what people are fasting for Lent this year. Many are depriving themselves of certain foods, or all foods. Some are trying to give up drinking. My favorite so far is this guy who is ingesting nothing but beer and water for the 40 days of the Lenten season. Others are refraining from Facebook. Perhaps some are using Lent as an excuse to give up work. And for those who haven’t already bailed, now we’re in the home-stretch of Lent, the last several days that are the ultimate test of self-discipline.

So what have I, an agnostic pentecostal, given up for Lent? Well, Lent itself. And perhaps the oddest part of it is that I haven’t really noticed missing Lent. Not one bit. I’ve read blogs and other notes of people describing their fasting experiences. How some are dying for a drink or a smoke or a huge bite of bloody meat. But I’m not craving Lent.

I know, maybe I’m weird or something. Maybe others have a lot of trouble giving up Lent. I hear it’s especially difficult for Catholics. Maybe some people get the existential shakes when they go even one day without Lent, or any church-related experience for that matter. Not me.

I used to be like that. But maybe I’ve developed some sort of tolerance to a lack of religion and all its associated “seasons” and events and duties and remembrances. I really thought I would at least start getting headaches or something. But to be honest, I’ve started to not have headaches anymore. In fact, after having given it up for some time, it doesn’t really appeal to me at all. Actually, it’s all starting to look like bullshit. …I know, weird, right?

But maybe this is God’s plan for what I would get out of this Lenten season: The realization that I don’t need a Lenten season to become painfully aware of how my human impulses often control me, instead of the other way around. Or that I don’t need a church calendar to remind me that all time is sacred. Or that I don’t need church services to stay connected to a community of friends, as long as we are real friends. Or best yet, maybe God is trying to tell me that I don’t even need a religious belief in “God” to experience God deeply. Praise God for that! ;p

Do You Know Your Enemy?
June 30, 2010

Do not be too quick to assume your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels that you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you were capable of loving him he would no longer be your enemy.

Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weaknesses of men.

Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God, for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice, your mediocrity and materialism, your sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.

–T. Merton

***

When I first read those lines a year or two ago, I had other people in mind. I envisioned myself saying those words to them, calling out the error of their ways. It’s easy to do that, especially when I’ve been on a journey away from the established traditions that raised me. It’s easy to take every opportunity to snap at those who I may see as hypocrites in religion or those that I feel may be holding us back from “progress.”

Now I’m trying to envision someone saying those things to me. Yes, I’ve had many call out the error of my ways. It’s sort of been a theme of my life for some time now. But this is different. It doesn’t deal with belief or doctrine. It deals with behavior. It deals with the ways I choose to  see the world and others around me.

So instead of “convicting” others of such things as “coldness and avarice…mediocrity and materialism…sensuality and selfishness,” I’m trying to recognize where those elements might have a home in me. Instead of assuming people see me or my views as the enemy (although that may be the case), I’m trying to recognize when I see “them” as my enemy. How do I speak of them when they’re not around? How do I speak to them when they are around?

There’s a balancing point somewhere in all this. What’s the  optimum tension between staying quiet with a humble, open mind, and not hiding my own truths? (To be sure, there’s a difference between “not hiding” and “asserting.”) And to be honest, I’m tired of trying to find the wrong in others, and looking for holes in arguments. It just takes too much energy.

And in that sense, my enemy is often myself, sapping my energy for the sake of an endless war.

So maybe I can try not “knowing” the weaknesses of my enemy, and instead try to know them as individuals. Which just happens to be what I expect of them.

My spiritual exercise for now is to just go with the flow, staying content in my own truths, assuming no ill of anyone else, and remaining responsible for my own words and actions.

But that’s hard.

Are We Lost?
June 25, 2010

In many religions there’s a fundamental assumption that settling down in certainty of faith is a sign of maturity. At least I’ve found this to be true in my Evangelical Christian heritage. Many who are established in churches imply, to those who are not, that one must precisely know what they believe and why they believe it, and if that’s not the case there is something spiritually wrong. In short, if one does not have their faith tied down to an anchor of certainty, they are lost. They then become a target of prayer, evangelism, and definitely a target of gossip.

Anyway, the thinking used to be that when youth left home, they might also leave the church temporarily. They might wander around a bit and experiment, but when they got a little older, when they got married, perhaps, they would return. Or when they had kids, for sure, because everyone knows you have to have your faith statements together when you have kids. And in the past, yes, they would usually come back. But that no longer seems to be the case. Many are not going back. Maybe I should say we are not going back. So where are we going instead? What has happened? Have we lost our way?

***

I spent a few years researching apologetics, the practice of defending your faith. There were times when, as a young short-term missionary/evangelist, even while confidently sharing the Gospel with “the lost” and artfully weaving arguments to win them over, I had my own questions in mind. Of course, I never paid them much attention, because that would have been opening the door to deception, according to our teaching. Well, it’s not that I never expressed my concerns. I certainly drove my family, friends, and professors nuts at times with my unending questions. But my questions were always tethered to a confidence in the fundamentals of my faith. That is, of course, until I started questioning the fundamentals.

That’s when the anchor line broke and my ship set out to sea. To describe the process would take too much space here, so I’ll just say that it was in fact, a process. A gradual stretching that at some point caused my chain of certainty to lose a link, and then another, and another, and so on.

The funny thing is that there are two ways to look at this un-tethering. When someone’s faith-chain snaps, does it represent an aimless drifting that will eventually result in (spiritual) starvation and death? Or is it freedom? Those two ways of seeing it are both represented well on bumper stickers. One says, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” While the other says, in the words of Tolkein, “…Not all those who wander are lost.”

For me, it’s been intentional. And for me, it is freedom. But, as another bumper sticker says, “Freedom isn’t free.” With freedom, when you have no visible boundaries, it’s hard to tell which direction you should go. You have to look hard for reference points. And you have to search for food and shelter. And, what can be the most difficult, it can get very, very lonely. You also may occasionally reach a port, where you assume you’re safe, where you might meet some like you. Some ports turn out to be wonderful places of nurturing and security, and others are downright dangerous.

Those who intentionally choose to cut their chains become exiles. Voluntary exiles. Some call us wanderers. But I think some are just innately born to explore, including areas of faith. So some call themselves explorers. Journeyers. And some are refugees, fleeing hurt and seeking hope. I call myself a pilgrim. (That’s why I’ve inked myself with the Latin label “Peregrinus.”)

There are many valid points and counter points to consider with this. For me, some quotes give me comfort in my perspective:

There are only too many men and women who think that, if they have scrupulously repeated the prescribed phrases, made the proper gestures and observed the traditional tabus, they are excused from bothering about anything else. For these people, the performance of traditional custom has become a substitute for moral effort and intelligence.” — Aldous Huxley, End and Means

In challenge to the idea that if people would only involve themselves in a solid Christian church and firm up their faith, their existential issues would resolve, Leslie Weatherhead writes:

Far more people are in distress of mind and body because they are starved of love than because their religious beliefs are in a muddle…. …Men have not found in [churches] an answer to their questions, the satisfaction of their need of fellowship, or adequate scope for their service to others. All this and much, much more they should have found in the churches, and the need for many [non-profit service] organizations would not have arisen if the churches had cared more for men and less for creed and ceremony.”

…And so, I suggest, that is why they set out as voluntary exiles in search of something more.

Perhaps the most apt one-liners come from a 19th/20th-century French writer, Andre Gide, who devoted himself to intellectual honesty. My friend Spritzophrenia brought up this brilliant Gide quote:

Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”

But here’s my favorite:

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

Missing Church
May 23, 2010

I sometimes realize the little things I ignore. Recent Sundays have reminded me of one of those little things: How I feel and what I think when I skip church. Growing up, I usually hated going to church. Come to think of it, for most of my life I usually hated going to church. I hated waking up early on a weekend. I hated dressing up. I hated being around people who I thought were fake. Sometimes even when I helped lead services, I hated having to show up and put on my smiley face, sing like God was the only thing in my life, and encourage thousands of people to worship God with all their hearts (which, I must admit, sometimes actually helps… “Fake it ’til you make it,” I used to say)… Anyway, until the last few years, if I intentionally skipped church at least the first half of that Sunday would be clouded with guilt.

Like many Christians (or Jews or Muslims too, I presume), I was taught (by implication at least) that church was essentially equivalent with God. “Church is the house of God,” we were told. And with that thinking came all sorts of ideas that were impressed on us: You wouldn’t miss an appointment with God, would you? Or, for the youth: You wouldn’t skip out on a date would you? Why skip your date with God? Well into our adult life, we were taught things like the importance of dressing up when going to church. God is the King and you’re going into his throne-room when you’re going to church, so you’d better treat God with respect and look your best….You wouldn’t wear shorts to a meeting with the President or a king would you? And the thinking was extended to nearly everything associated with church: You would never be late to a date with God would you? You would never slouch in your chair if you were in front of God would you? Or, my favorite, You wouldn’t skip on tipping your waiter in a restaurant…so why would you skip on your gift of money to God? And that, my friends, is how motivation by guilt works. If you associate anything with “God,” you can at least keep the kids in line…for a couple hours anyway.

And so today when I stayed home, I noticed that those feelings of guilt were still hardwired in my mind. I’m part of a church that I actually love attending because it is understood well in our faith community that the “church” is not a building or a service…the Church is all of us and within all of us, and if you miss the gathering, well, it must have been the best thing for you to do at the time.

But even with this, the guilt thinking seeped in, so I felt a need to justify my absence: I was at the church building yesterday for a meeting for my Haiti trip. Plus, I’ll be there this afternoon to paint banners for our participation in the gay pride parade. And my wife is sick and I need to stay home with her. And we’ll be going to our small group meeting on Tuesday night. And besides, I’m tired and just need a rest.

In my past, most of these things would be met with thoughts like, “Well, sometimes if you want to be close to God it takes dedication and hard work…and if the President told you he needed something done, would you just slack off or would you do like the Bible says, ‘Whatever you do, work at it will all your strength as if you’re working for God and not for men.'” …And so the cycle of guilt-thinking goes, supported by scripture and everything.

It’s nice, though, that I have people in my life that remind me that I really don’t have to do anything. And God won’t punish me for it. But sometimes it’s still hard for me. My thoughts get conflicted now because I do like showing up and being with friends that are honest, and getting either encouraged or empathized with or called bullshit on. But I also really love staying home on a Sunday, something I rarely got to do for most of my life…even in college we were required to go to church and we would essentially get grounded if the R.A. caught us in our dorm rooms on Sunday mornings.

But I’m learning that, like one of my favorite Office Space lines, if someone were to say something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been missing church lately, Dave…” I can at least reply without fear of hellfire, “Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it, Bob.”

Redefining Lukewarm
March 25, 2010

I’ve been trying to make shorter, more ADD-friendly posts, especially since this particular layout makes paragraphs look longer than they actually are. But I just couldn’t trim this one that much. So I hope you’ll read this short story regardless…

I’m about 95% recovered from a nasty bout with a lung infection. I’m already somewhat OCD when it comes to ailments (of any kind) and I sometimes trend towards hypochondria. If I’ve got a headache I’ll think it indicates a brain tumor. Or if fluorescent lighting emphasizes a bluish hue in my finger tips, I’ll think I’m suffering a systemic blood clot that may result in an aneurysm. So for the past three weeks I’ve perceived myself more as a helpless, pale recipient of The Plague than a normally healthy 30-something.

But this bout did in fact involve several episodes of high fever, terribly painful, persistent coughing, and I ended up losing about 10 pounds over 10 days. And you must understand that I’m not used to fever. One day, for example, I gave a presentation at work, then almost immediately afterward I started feeling awfully cold, almost shivering. I was achy and feverish feeling, so I went home. I in fact had an elevated temperature.

People told me that I should focus on nourishment. Drink plenty of water of course, but feed yourself healthy things. Oh, that was wonderful…because I had absolutely no appetite. The thought of eating was repulsive. And some people say that you should take a hot bath and bundle up. Others say you should go naked.

I took a hot bath and bundled up. That felt right. I donned a long-sleeve shirt and a thick jacket, thick sweat pants, thick socks, wool-lined house shoes…and yes, gloves…In my 75-degree house. But then I got hot as hell. So I started removing clothes. But if I removed too much clothing, I would start feeling chilled. Perfect. I removed the gloves, that was okay, although I distinctly felt the cooler air settle on my hands, I could handle it. I removed my down ski jacket. That felt okay. Rolled up my sleeves. Shit, that’s too cold. Got goose bumps. Pushed the sleeves back down. Ahhh, better. Removed something else. Oops. Too much. Okay, better now. Oh wait, too cold. And on and on the process went, very gradually, until I ended up naked on the bed with the fan on. I fell comfortably asleep and woke up feeling much better (for that day).

But I had to go gradually. I had to pay attention to my body and go at its pace. I couldn’t just apply one rule altogether. I couldn’t just go from bundled to naked or vice-versa in one move. I had to blend practices. And by no means could I freaking “nourish” myself. Water, sure. Fruit? Fuck off. I just could not force feed myself.

During this process a mental light flicked on. I was checking my email while shivering and it hit me. I started crying. Maybe the fever was seeping into my brain and was about to cause an aneurysm and thus the sensitive emotions, but the moment was special nonetheless:

Most of my life I was taught that, spiritually speaking, you absolutely must be on one side or the other. You must be on fire, hot for God, or cold as the devil’s heart, devoted to Satan himself. You cannot be a fence-straddler. You are either fully with God or against him. You are either with the church or with the world. You are either a God-fearing conservative Republican or you’re a left-wing communist dictator lover. You must either go to Sunday school and youth group every Sunday and Wednesday and never ever hang out with those kids who smoke, or you might as well be a devil-worshiper. There is no in-between. Otherwise, according to Revelations 3:16, you are lukewarm and God will spit you out of his mouth like the snot you are.

Now, if you start getting confused by hanging out with those kids who smoke or the left-wingers, the demons are starting to get to you (and that’s probably why you’re sick) and they’ll try to pull you over to their side. And since you can’t be in-between, you had better start getting back into the Word of God and nourish your spirit and rebuke that spirit of confusion. You’ve opened the door to demons, so you’ve GOT to take the medicine of the Word. You have to meditate on scripture day and night. Fill your mind with God’s Word so there’s no room for the enemy. You have to get yourself red hot, on fire for God, to burn away the sin in your life.

Those were the instructions. Force feed yourself Scripture. Either spend all your spare time at church or you might as well be getting drunk and fornicating. Admittedly, I may be exaggerating the instructions a bit, but the essence remains.

But I think what I learned from my recent experiences with managing high fever can apply to a spiritual journey as well. I learned that you cannot force feed yourself something you really don’t want. Otherwise you’re just adding another layer of stress to your healing process. I learned that maybe you can’t always apply either the make-yourself-hot OR the make-yourself-cold approach. Sometimes, to remain healthy, you have to alternate between the two. You need a little heat and a little cold. And you need to do it at a pace that feels right, that assists with the natural, intuitive processes.

So maybe instead of stressing about being either-or and condemning ourselves and others for not choosing sides, we can choose to see “lukewarm” as a good thing. It’s about balance, not compromise. And I don’t necessarily mean a balance between “good” and “evil,” but rather a balance in our perception in what really is good and what is evil. And it’s about taking things at a natural pace. Receiving input and giving output as we feel compelled, not as we try to compel ourselves or others.

Maybe I can learn something in conversations with “the other.” Maybe there’s a reason I prefer to hang out with atheists than Christians. Maybe there’s a reason that I am intuitively drawn to rejects more than winners. And maybe, instead of stressing about not memorizing enough Bible verses – or not reading the Bible at all – I can pick up a holy book only if and when I feel compelled to. Maybe then I would actually get something more out of it than the pride of being able to say I spent four hours reading it.

Because, whatever God’s attributes may or may not be, I believe that an almighty designer of the universe might suggest a more holistic approach to spirituality and life in general. By holistic I mean balanced, unforced, intuitive. But perhaps a certain first-century prophet once said it best:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28)

Peace to you.