It Gets Better. With You.
October 14, 2010

Whether you’re gay, straight, Christian, agnostic, atheist, confused, struggling, conservative, liberal, or whatever else, chances are that you at least sometimes feel left out. Or pushed out. Like you just don’t fit. Or like something’s wrong with you. Like you must be crazy or you’re going crazy or you will go crazy, if your head doesn’t explode first from all the voices jammed inside it — or implode from all the voices competing for it from the outside.

Like you just want peace and love but can’t feel anything but confusion, anxiety, hopelessness, and frustration inside you and around you. And even if you felt close enough to tell them, you don’t get any comfort or encouragement from loved ones. Or you get outright rejection.

I have been there. Many if not most of us have either been there, are there, or go there quite often. So you are not alone.  And it gets better. Just ask this guy…

As we recently celebrated Coming Out Day, and although the day has drawn attention to LGBTQ people being bullied, I encourage you to consider that it’s also bigger than that. At risk of diluting the significance of Coming Out Day for all my LGBTQ friends, which I have no intention of doing, I want to take the opportunity to draw attention to all of us who are afraid to ‘come out’ and feel bullied when it comes to religion.

There are many metaphorical directions I could go with this. From drawing parallels between bullies with big trucks and small penises and connecting that with televangelists with big ministries; or poking fun at the religious establishment in general and making assertions of why “they” feel like they must defend “their” way because of their own insecurities. But I don’t want to digress with such generalizations.

Because we all feel left out or pushed out, and some far more than others to be sure — I was a late-bloomer, wasn’t a jock, identified better with girls than guys, and walked around singing Amy Grant or Erasure when everyone else was into Guns N’ Roses and Ratt. And with religion, although I’ve sometimes sat at the cool table, I’ve almost always felt very different, like I couldn’t relate because of my questions and doubts. And now it’s just more obvious with this blog and all. But it’s always been like that for me.

The fact is that the world of religion is no more mature than junior high. There’s an in-crowd as well as a back-corner table for weirdo rejects and ugly people. We say we welcome everyone, but we don’t. And that goes equally for conservatives and liberals. We say we love and just want to help, but as we bless with one hand, we twist arms with the other. We close one eye in prayer as the other glances up and down in pious judgment. We smile with one lip and gossip with the other. We turn our faces and chests toward Heaven in praise while turning our backs on “the other.”

And I propose that we do this because we all feel insecure and blind. I just wish we could all admit it to each other, and maybe then we can really be there for each other, present, sincere, open.

Until then, for those of us who are just struggling to keep up with the storm of competition that is humanity, and that is religion…for those who feel overwhelmed by thoughts of insignificance, overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, and especially for those who feel like you’re all alone with no one to talk to, no one to trust… that is a lie.

You are not alone. So come join us: The Black Sheep. The sacred band of holy weirdos. We can make it better. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Unite.

*****

One more thing…

I know this is dating me, but I had mentioned how I loved listening to and singing Erasure songs. I want to share the lyrics of one song (among many from Erasure) that has especially comforted me in times when I feel like I have to hide my true self. It’s obviously about the coming-out experience of a young man, but I’ve always felt it deeply, not with regards to my sexuality, but with the many secretly held doubts and questions about faith, as well as other things that some internal or external messages said that I should hide because they might expose me as “different,” which might (and sometimes did) lead to rejection. I’ve been very glad for (most of) the times that I ignored those messages.

 

Hideaway

One day the boy decided to let them know the way he felt inside
He could not stand to hide it, his mother she broke down and cried

Oh my father, Why don’t you talk to me now?
Oh my mother, Do you still cry yourself to sleep?
Are you still proud of your little boy?

Don’t be afraid, You don’t have to hide away

The boy, he was rejected by the people that he cared for
It’s not what they expected but he could not keep it secret anymore

Far from home now, Waiting by the telephone
There’s a new world, You can’t make it on your own

Don’t be afraid, You don’t have to hide away

Don’t be afraid (Love will mend your broken wings)
Time will slip away (Learn to be brave)

Don’t be afraid, You don’t have to hide away.

— by Vince Clark and Andrew Bell, Erasure

[song link here]

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Haiti: Perspective
September 7, 2010

I’ve gotten a little emotional distance from Haiti since I last wrote. It’s taken a bit to more fully re-enter American society. (And the insanity of football-season commercialism is still especially hard to swallow.) I’m struggling to resume what had become my normal life while also bearing in mind the struggles of those without. My life is here, not there. And yet when you see the things I saw, you can’t just walk away and do nothing, or not try to adjust anything at all. Still, guilt does no good, whether I hang it over my own head or try to push it on others. Making accusations of American selfishness also does no good. And the old “there are starving kids in Africa (or Haiti) so you’d better be thankful and clean your plate” just doesn’t cut it.

But I’ve sort of been Davey Downer for the past couple weeks, much to my wife’s chagrin especially. Because I’ve had a heavy heart in trying to figure out how I should now live, with the knowledge that I do have some small responsibility for helping, now that I’ve seen. But I can’t just drop my life like I may have been able to do when I was younger and single. That would be as irresponsible as doing nothing.

It’s with that tension in mind that I still want to recount for you one moment (among many) from my last full day in Haiti, and my first moments back in America.

On Sunday in Marfranc village, we attended the church we had been helping to paint their school. And that’s when I heard about Mishlove (sp?).

Mishlove is a baby girl I heard our hostess Joline talking about shortly after the church service ended. She was telling how she had found this baby with her family. How she had picked her up, and how the baby couldn’t yet stand on her own, and she would just immediately plop back down and couldn’t lock her knees. And how she seemed weak and a frail for a baby who appeared to be at least 5 or 6 months old. So Joline asked her family how old Mishlove was. It turns out that Mishlove is over a year old. About 14 months.

Now I wouldn’t consider myself one who gets all goo-goo about babies. And since I haven’t yet had one myself, I really haven’t known much about baby development. So, not knowing what was normal, I had to ask, “So when do babies typically start walking?” “About a year,” came the reply. And this baby can’t even hold herself up, much less stand? I had to know why. “Malnutrition,” was the one-word explanation. Her mother’s milk dried up because her mother was malnourished, and now this baby doesn’t have enough food. This lack of basic nutrition shocked me, even though I wasn’t surprised after seeing all I had that week. So I had to see this child.

And then I held her. To actually hold a little malnourished child is a profound experience. Nothing like lazing on the couch yawning at a weepy infomercial about Africa. To actually feel the lightness of her little frail body. To hold her to my chest, look down and notice her head tilting back and forth for lack of her neck muscle’s ability to hold it firmly in place.

And then she laid her head on my shoulder, not because of her affection for me or because I made her feel safe. But because she just seemed too weak to hold her head up. And this little girl is over a year old. She should be traipsing around, or at least pulling herself up and meddling in everything. But she can’t because she’s malnourished.

And that’s what malnourishment looks and feels like. To not just hear about it or watch Sanjay Gupta talk about it on TV, but to actually feel it in your arms, laying its head on your shoulder. To feel its dependency. To realize that a precious little human, by the mere fact of where she happened to have been born, through no choice of her own, through no consequence of her mistakes or even the mistakes of her parents, is helpless. Unless someone does something to help her, she will die. Literally. Die. Just because she doesn’t have enough food. And it’s entirely, easily preventable.

It does something to you. You just cannot look at the world as usual. And to think that just an hour and a half away is the world’s richest nation, with relatively unlimited resources, and we complain when we have to pay a little more for taxes and health insurance. You realize that something in this world is broken.

So the next day we flew home. And when we landed, as we taxied toward our gate, I looked out the plane’s window and noticed a seemingly endless row of shiny cars parked just beyond the fence surrounding the runway area. The airport workers’ cars. And beyond that cars packed in the main parking lots. And beyond that, cars jammed on the roads. And I wondered how much food could be bought for the price of even one of the cheapest cars. Or how many Haitian children’s school tuition could be paid. Or how many people could have shoes on their feet.

And then we entered the airport and I nearly cried when I saw the magazine stands. Row upon row of glossy magazines with headlines like, “Retire Rich!” and “You can get more money!” And there were others that punched me in the gut: “Yachts of the rich and famous” and “Must-have fashions for fall!” “Designer shoes to splurge on” and “Home theater makeovers” and “Luxury iPad cases that cost more than the iPad.”And on and on, and the buzz of all the billboards and magazines perpetuating rampant, uncontrolled materialism began to spin around me, a wailing storm of confusion.

So I spent $8 on a little cup of beer. And tried to catch my breath. All I could think of was how completely. Fucked. Up. We are. When we think we just don’t have enough and how we “need” more and more and more or else we won’t be truly happy. Or how we think that because we were so disenfranchised by the system or by our parents or by our lack of toys when we were children (or adults) that we haven’t been able to live the exact life that we want to and we can’t afford to live our dreams.

And how Mishlove and millions of other malnourished children like her are just a short flight away. How half of our world’s population lives below the poverty level, on less than $2 a day. How Haitian parents can’t properly feed themselves much less their children on that. And at the same time we have an obesity epidemic in America. We have diabetes because we eat too much sugar in our oversized diets. Rural Haitians have diabetes because sugar cane is about all they have to eat.

So something is definitely broken. And I cannot fix it. But I can help Mishlove. At the very least, I can support my friend Joline who lives there and who is making sure Mishlove gets the food she needs. I can pay for one of Mishlove’s older sisters or brothers to go to school so they can at least have an improved chance of learning, growing up, getting a job that pays decently, and being able to later support others in their home village. So while I’m not Bono or Bill Gates and I can’t change the very complicated root causes of poverty, I can positively adjust the life situation of at least one person in one place.

So I’m trying to figure out the best way to do that. In the meantime, I may make mistakes and I may be irresponsible and I may waste and I may be greedy. But I will try to be better, and wiser, and more responsible and more intentional and more content with what I have. And that’s all I know for now. I’ll let you know when I get all figured out. 😉

But the really beautiful thing is, all the while, even in the midst of poverty, malnutrition, and general suffering, the Haitians have hope. They are strong. And they just keep singing and laughing and living. Doing whatever it takes. Somehow making it work. And that gives me some perspective.

What is Jesus?
July 30, 2010



Forgive me while I flesh out my thoughts here:

When someone says “Turn to Jesus,” what do they really mean? Or, “All you need is Jesus.” Or even, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus.”

Responding with a blank look of incredulity, some Christians might say, “C’mon. You know what we mean by that.” Because such sayings are so ingrained in the collective Christian psyche that it’s assumed that everyone, including the rest of the world outside of Christendom, knows exactly what is meant by…well, Jesus.

The fact is, I’m not sure that people, including Christians and non-, know what Jesus really is. Sure, we know who he was, but what is he, in the present tense?

(By the way, when searching for a “Jesus” image for this post, there were nearly 32 million image results… Which one is right? I think I picked the right one. 😉

Of course, theologically speaking, this is answered with explanations of his divinity and such, and even treatises on his resurrection. And the question of the nature of Jesus, in relation to God, has left theologians bantering for millennia. But those are just theological statements. What I want to know is what exactly does one think of, or what ideas or images are conjured up, when someone is referencing “Jesus” in a way that attempts to relate to everyday life. What, for example, does Carrie Underwood really mean by the word “Jesus” when she says, “Jesus take the wheel…”?

My hunch is that for many (not all) Christians, “Jesus” is a concept, an idea, like God. Even for those who adamantly assert and believe that Jesus is a real, live person who interacts with humanity today, he is a concept. Now, before we get all huffy, let me explain:

People use the name “Jesus” usually when things are beyond them. Just like when non-Christians speak of “God,” perhaps when the bills aren’t getting paid or when grandma dies. But for me, in this sense, “God” is easy to imagine as a placeholder for my longings. When I think of “God,” that word/name serves as a bucket for all things beyond me. Because I do feel that I have some sort of connection with a higher being, “God” is that bucket into which I toss all my hopes, dreams, desires, etc. (some call those things “prayers.”)  But if I were to say, “All you need is a relationship with Jesus,” my mind gets a bit muddled with conflicting ideas:

Yes, my teaching tells me that Jesus is God, so I can just substitute all my thoughts about God with the word Jesus. Synonymous, right? But then I was also taught that Jesus was—or is—a real human. Of course, history teaches us, including sources outside the Bible, that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, live person who lived and died in the first century CE. So it’s easy for me to imagine with the name Jesus, a man, a rabbi, a prophet, even some mysterious, hard-to-explain person who had an uncommon link with the divine. But he was a person. Then he died.

If someone says they have a “personal relationship” with Jesus, what does that mean, and what does that relationship look like? It’s a relationship with someone who died 2,000 years ago. Many Christians would say, “Well, I talk to him and he talks to me.” How? “Well, I pray. And he speaks to me  through the Bible, and he speaks to my heart.” Okay…so you pray and read the Bible and listen to your heart. So in essence you are doing what you have been told being a Christian is…it’s the Christian way of life. Is that really what you mean when you say, “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship?” But how is that a personal relationship? “But Jesus is alive.”

Then come all the theories associated with whatever happened after his death. So millions of people believe that Jesus is alive today. And for many he really is “on this earth, now” alive and is acting in the world. But there is absolutely no evidence that this first-century person called Jesus of Nazareth is in fact alive, now, in flesh and blood, on this earth, anywhere. So what do Christians really mean when singing, “Alive, alive, Jesus is alive!” Is it just habitual re-chanting of an assertion of resurrection? Or a claim of something else?

So we must be brutally honest with ourselves when we say “Jesus is alive.” We must admit that Christians use the term “alive” very, very loosely. Symbolically. And it confuses things. And in that way it just makes Christians look stupid. So next time you try to convert an atheist with the argument that “Jesus is the only prophet who is not dead,” check yourself.

And in the same way that Christians use the term “alive” loosely when speaking of Jesus, Christians also use the specific name “Jesus” just as loosely. And I think that when those of us with a Christian mindset say “Jesus” we really mean “our conception of God.” Jesus is that bucket into which we cast all our hopes, dream, desires, prayers, etc. But let’s get it clear that Jesus is not literally a real, living human. …At least that’s the way I figure it. (Sorry.)

So I contend that when we say, “Turn to Jesus,” we really mean, “Convert to my particular conception of God.” And it’s in that sense that Jesus is a what, not a who.

By stripping the historical reality of the person of Jesus of Nazareth and replacing him with an imperialized concept of God, we really have stripped the message of Jesus of its real relevance. We have replaced the literal meaning of “Love your enemies” with the Pauline concept of “Love is deserved based on how someone treats my ideas of God, and when I say ‘God is Love’ what I really mean is that God, in his justice with respect to Hebraic covenant laws,  is tough love for those who don’t worship my God.” We have replaced the literal meaning of “Turn the other cheek” with a Constantinian-American concept of “We must not let non-Christians have more power than we have.” We have replaced the literal meaning of “If someone asks you for your shirt, also give him your coat,” with the truly American concept of “I might need this coat for the Christmas party at church, but you can have my spare granola bar, because you can’t spend that on alcohol.”

By replacing the historical words of the historical person of Jesus–the who–with our own handed-down concepts of the nature of God and the Trinity and such, we have made Jesus into a what that we really don’t know anything about other than that it somehow represents our notions of God, or the bucket of our longings–our “faith.” And so Jesus really represents our longings. For many, many people, Jesus is simply an abstract reflection of our hopes. And that reflection has taken the form of Hebrew and Greek words from middle-eastern scrolls, and from patriarchal, imperial texts, and from sermons, and from rants, and from political platforms.

For some, however, they themselves try to embody Jesus. For them, while they may see Jesus as a historical person, they believe that his teachings live through them. Some of these people are Christians and some are not. And regardless of what they believe about doctrines associated with Jesus, they try to live out what they understand as the literal meaning of his words. They take care of the “widows and orphans” among them. They “seek justice and walk humbly.”

Some visualize “Jesus” as everyone around them. He is the crack whore. He is the business man. The suicidal teen. The President, Obama and Bush. The unemployed mechanic and the unemployed graphic designer. The pedophile priest and the abused altar boy. He is Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins. Bill O-Reilly and Stephen Colbert. Marilyn Manson and DC Talk. Perez Hilton and Ted Haggard.  He is the starving Haitian child and the little blond darling in the Baby Bjorn. He is ‘The Situation’ and Mother Teresa. The illegal alien and the Arizona lawmakers. He’s the person behind the ‘Jesus’ Twitter handle. He is you and me.

For those, he is a person, and yes, maybe he is a set of teachings too, but teachings that have become more than a concept because they are lived out, made alive in those who see everyone around them as the one who said, “When you did it to them, you did it to me.”

It’s a concept embodied rather than imposed.  And so “Jesus” becomes synonymous not with a “longing” but with everyday living, when we live intentionally, regardless of what we believe.

I’m trying to rediscover, and stutteringly live out, the teachings of that person in spite of the concept, in spite of the beliefs swirling around him. And to see that person in everyone around me. And in that sense one can’t “Turn to Jesus,” because if we really believed his teachings, they are “Jesus.” Not his concept, but maybe his spirit or something, just as we all are part of each other. At least we share the same elements, if nothing else. We are all star dust. And so was/is Jesus.

But maybe that is in itself nothing more than an idealistic concept.  And so maybe this is all one big logical fallacy, a bunch of bullshit not worth writing about.

***

I know this was a long one, and even with all these words I still don’t think I’ve expressed exactly what I’m trying to get at. I ended up preaching more than posing the right questions. So it’s a source of frustration. But if nothing else, perhaps this will at least stir up others’ thoughts to help me. You got anything?

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.

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.