Sleepless Night
December 22, 2010

My dog Oscar ate a box of chocolates yesterday. Wouldn’t be so bad if he was a 100-pound Lab and it was a little sampler of truffles. But he’s a 10-pound miniature Dachshund…

…and it was this entire box of more than 50 treats…

If you don’t already know, chocolate is toxic to dogs if they eat enough of it. It takes a lot to really harm a dog, but this was a lot. He had snagged the box sometime after I left for work in the morning, and when I returned home in the evening, his tummy was bloated like an allergic puffer fish. Although that was not unusual: after all, he is in fact a wiener dog, and they’re notorious for getting into things they’re not supposed to and stuffing themselves with wild abandon, which he’s done on numerous occasions. But his breathing pace and heart beat were also double what they normally are, and he was perpetually thirsty, all of which are signs of theobromine poisoning. Then he threw up what he had turned into a bunch of chocolate syrup. Not good.

Of course, the first thing I usually do in any health-related situation within our family is consult the almighty Internet. And that’s almost always a mistake, at least in the sense that there’s inevitably a “This Means Certain Death!” post on some forum. Now add that to the fact that I have a tendency to be mildly hypochondric. If I’ve stubbed my toe, I’ll consult the Web to make sure I don’t have a compound fracture. If I’ve got gas, I’ll pay a visit to a medical-emergency BB to make sure I’m not in labor, checking for any sign that my water has broken.

And then there’s the Web search for home remedies to dire situations. Those are always helpful: “The doctor said I had a stroke because my entire left side was paralyzed, but I wasn’t about to pay that big-city snob to lay me up, so I just drank 3 gallons of prune juice every day, soaked in Epsom salt for 72 hours, and stuck a green hackberry twig up my rectum until it turned black. Within a week… Good as new!”

I don’t know why I’m writing all this. I guess it’s just that I didn’t get much sleep last night because I really was scared that Oscar could die. So I was constantly counting down the hours of what I had read to be the half-life of theobromine, and constantly checking his breathing patterns, making sure he wasn’t having muscle spasms or a seizure, following him outside every couple hours to see if he was puking, or to check the contents of his shit.

And all of this turned out to be a waste of time. When I followed him out the last time, at around 4am, I realized that he had probably gone out to pee, but he got distracted with digging in the dirt to eat cat scat. So there I was stressing to make sure he wasn’t bleeding internally or something, and there he was just looking for more to eat. Son of a bitch. He was fine. A little wired maybe, and clingy, always wanting somebody to rub his belly, and not 100 percent himself…but fine. He woke me up (after just a nap) begging me for breakfast, promptly gobbled it all up like normal, ran around, and went to his usual work of barking at the trash truck.

If there’s any point here, it’s that many people see me as a really laid-back guy, but I really do get easily stressed, and I don’t easily let it go. I just don’t show it because I internalize it. I internalize my emotions like nobody’s business. I hold in my anger, for instance, and it ends up souring inside me, turning into depression or anxiety. I somehow got a message wired into me that anger is bad, or that emotional pain is not to be expressed because men have to suck it up. And I’m learning that holding such things in often produces more stress than the emotion and its cause combined.

Maybe, like Forest Gump’s momma always said, life really is like a box of chocolates…and we’re dogs. What I like about chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is that it’s simultaneously sweet and bitter. It reminds me that it’s good to take in the sweetness of life, but it’s also good to acknowledge the bitterness and appreciate it for what it can teach me.

It’s just that I have a tendency to tackle the entire box at once, trying to solve everything in one take. Maybe because I’m impatient and feel a need to prove to others that I’ve got it all together, and maybe for other reasons too. Regardless, I’m learning to digest things a little at a time and not let everything pile up inside me. Because that’s when I get sick. I get wired and restless and clingy. I start wanting everybody to rub the belly of my ego to reassure me that I’m valuable. And that’s not healthy.

So I’m learning to take my time to wrestle with my issues of faith, doubt, and significance, and trying not to find some quick remedy for my symptoms of confusion or fear or anger or whatever. And in the meantime, I’m just going to sit on the couch and enjoy life with my wife, my dogs, and even the occasional sleepless night, one tasty moment at a time.

Happy Holidays, or whatever you want to call it. Just be sure to keep that chocolate out of your dog’s reach.

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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.”

A Bad Christian’s Creed
June 14, 2010

[I have a difficult time with creeds, so I created my own. I’ve posted it here before, but just felt like re-posting because I read this in church today and it was wonderful to be able to publicly, verbally voice my stance on faith. I wrote this following a suggestion of my late friend David Gentiles.]

I am a terrible Christian. Because if being a good Christian means serving a God that needs me to defend him, primarily on Election Day by voting down liberals, I’d rather be a heathen. Secondly, if being passionate about Christian social justice requires a presupposition that conservatives are narrow-minded bigots, I will be apathetic. And if being a model Christian equates merely to climbing a social ladder within the gilded sphere of those who are anointed, appointed, and correct, I choose to be anathema. Furthermore, if being “a new kind of Christian” only means keeping up with the latest trends, practicing slam poetry, and endlessly debating soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology, well, I’m just going to barf.

I choose to skip out on all those classes. I need to get off campus and into the wild. I want to roam a weedy trail in the backwaters of spiritual civilization. I want to stay in the woods after dark. I want to climb a tree in the middle of a storm and feel how God’s wind bends even the strongest, most firmly rooted trunks of religion. I want to skinny-dip in a stream to feel the Current swirl around my limbs and joints, pulling away the religious soil I’ve accumulated. I want to stand clean and naked in a meadow, raise my arms and yell in primal joy, in thanks for beauty, peace, and acceptance that doesn’t make sense.

I choose to live my spiritual life off the grid, beyond the tired matrix. I will exercise a love that devours sacred cows to make room for sacred possibilities.

And if that’s heresy, so be it. But I am not alone.