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.

Faith: Before and After
July 19, 2010

I gave a talk at my faith community today, summarizing how my faith has changed. Here’s a summary of that summary. Hopefully you’ll get the picture.

It starts with the simple message I gave people when evangelizing: “It’s so simple. All you need is Jesus. Just choose to follow Jesus.” And when we would get them interested in the simplicity of the message, we’d then say…well, all it takes to start following Jesus is to accept him as your personal Lord and Savior. And to do that you need to say a prayer, and so on.

So someone would say the prayer, become a Christian, and get involved in a church, because every Christian has to go to church…Oh yeah, that’s another guideline we forgot to mention before you said the prayer. And then with the attendance of church comes certain stipulations, and with those stipulations come others, and so on, until we end up with something like this:

My Faith Before

“What should my life be about?”
(abbreviated version)

1. Choose to follow Jesus
2. Choose to accept Jesus as Personal Lord and Savior
3. Sinner’s Prayer
4. Baptism
5. Confession of sins
6. Public Confession of belief, which includes (but not necessarily limited to) the following…
7. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
8. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
9. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
10. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
11. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
12. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
13. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
14. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
15. the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,
16. the forgiveness of sins,
17. the resurrection of the body,
18. and life everlasting.
19. Read your Bible
20. Pray a lot
21. Go to church (the right one)
22. Evangelize
23. Put a Jesus fish on your car.
24. Don’t Smoke
25. Don’t Drink
26. Don’t Chew
27. Don’t go with boys or girls that do
28. Don’t cuss
29. Don’t be Democrat (abortion, communism, anti-God)
30. Don’t be Republican (don’t care for the poor, arrogant, narrow-minded)
31. Don’t be Gay
32. Don’t be friends with gays (encouraging sin)
33. No secular music
34. No materialism (unless it’s organic, fair-trade, or makes Christians look cool)
35. No tattoos (unless they make Christians look cool, which promotes the gospel)
36. No questioning the anointed, appointed leaders
37. No questioning the wisdom of saints of old
38. No questioning this list, which may grow or change with or without notice…
39. Etc…

I tried to adhere to this list since the times I grew up evangelizing others.

And here’s the thing. I would have said that “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship.” And that my Christianity is not a dull religion that’s nothing more than rules and rituals. Because we knew that that was an opposition people had to becoming Christian. But the fact is that, even though the general idea revolved around a “relationship with Jesus,” we had plenty of rules, some unspoken and some very outspoken, for describing what that relationship should be like.

So at some point–maybe it was more of a process than a “point”–I threw away the list. All of it.

“Yeah, but you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” some might say. Well, yes. I had to. Because the baby was dead. We had drowned it. It was no longer recognizable. I had to start with a new baby, a tub, new water, a new house, everything. A blank canvas.

A blank canvas is like an ocean. Wide and deep and full of freedom and possibility. But it can also be very lonely, isolated, and empty feeling. So I was tempted to make my own list again. I needed to establish boundaries to tell me where to go and where not to go. It started to say things like, “Those people should do this…or should not do this.” And I realized that my list was no better than the old one.

And eventually I realized that my faith was too precious and personal and ever-evolving to boil down to any list to assert on myself or others. It was more like a work of art (with no guarantees of quality, by the way). And this is what I came up with the other night:

My Faith After (for Now)

My Faith Now*

I won’t explain. It is what it is. I am also trying to appreciate the fact that others’ faith is like this too. Each of us have our own expression of life, and it will help us all if we try to value each others’ individuality of faith.

But anyway, my wife just wrote something on her blog, GirlReupholstered, that so clearly and concisely gets at the heart of it:

I have seen a lot of people try to be what others think they should be or what is the most acceptable.  It’s easier to be what someone else wants you to be b/c you know, more than likely, you will be accepted. Also, it’s easier to be told who to be instead of searching yourself to find out who you truly are.

Maybe this has been a struggle for me b/c I was brought up in Christian culture where there are very distinct ideas on how you were created or how you should live. It has always been a very suffocating experience for me which caused a lot of anger, frustration and depression. It’s been since I have left the traditional institution of Christianity have I been able to truly experience freedom to be who I believe God has created me to be. Which is sorta ironic, don’t you think?

[ *Note: The artwork I used here is an image of a beautiful painting by Ren Crawford, found here. I just slapped words on top of it. Ren, your art touched me deeply. Please don’t sue me. 🙂 ]

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.”

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.