Church: You Make it Impossible to Love You

The film 28 Days begins as uncomfortably as any film could. Sandra Bullock plays Gwen Cummings who after a night of drinking and sex arrives drunk and late to her sister Lily’s wedding. She proceeds to make a complete fool out of herself and destroys anyone’s chance at having a good day.

The line that always gets me is uttered early on by Lily. She looks Gwen in the eyes and says, “Gwen, you make it impossible to love you.”

It is impossible to love an addict. Addicts are the most selfish people on the face of the earth. Addicts have a special brand of narcissism that is deadly and out of control. It is so out of control that the addict is often the last to realize he or she has a problem and in many cases will refuse to acknowledge a problem all the way to the death-bed. I have known people who literally drank themselves to death still convinced that they did not have a problem. As the Big Book of AA says alcohol is “Cunning, baffling, powerful.”

Unfortunately addiction and all of its vicious symptoms of self-centeredness and blatant self-destructive behaviors are not limited to the addict alone. These are behaviors that all of humanity engages in to some degree. The Buddha was aware of this problem. In his teaching everything is suffering and everything is suffering because we can’t let go of anything even if every power of reason tells us that holding on will hurt us and others in the process. If our beliefs about God are challenged, if our property is in danger of getting wiped out or stolen, if we might lose a friend or look bad in front of someone else, or if we get caught with our hand in the cookie jar, our first reaction is to tighten our grip. The threat of losing something is far more powerful than the lure of getting it.

The Christian saints and mystics are very intimate with their discussion of the passions and how our desires latch us on to everything that is not God. It is this addictive behavior that only fuels our ignorance to the good things of the world. Following our passions not only pulls us from God, but pulls us from the people were are supposed to be. The more we refuse to let go of what makes us feel safe and what makes our identity feel solid the more we hurt ourselves and others. The one source of identity that we are to seek is the mystical union with God as God is, not as we insist God to be.

Detaching from the world as we understand it and checking ourselves against the often brutal fact that we are not the center of anyone’s universe undercuts everything we grow up believing about self-esteem and the rewards of the endless popularity contests of a sick Western society. The religious ascetics, mystics, and monks dumped all of this by traveling to caves and deserts to find God and liberation. Their discovery is that God is inside of us. The problem is that the noise and psychological pollution of the world are so strong we are clueless to that simple fact.

Not all of us will go to caves and deserts. So what do we need to do?

The foundation for our spiritual malady is repentance. Repentance comes with honesty. Honesty to any addict can come only when others hold a mirror up to us and tell us more about the truth of who we are. Those who tell us only what we want to hear are called enablers. Those who tell us what we need to hear in order to recover from our world sickness are friends. But if the truth doesn’t sting a little, it’s probably not true.

The church today is loaded with enablers. It is loaded with people so blinded in their own biases and opinions both of their selves and others, that admitting personal responsibility for wrong doing is nearly impossible. From all of the crap surrounding both Tony Jones and Mark Driscoll to all of their apologists; to the crazed behaviors of Bob Jones’ casual way of dismissing its own history of mishandling sexual abuse; or the untold millions of dollars pilfered off the desperate, sick, lonely, and elderly by the likes of Benny Hinn and Robert Tilton; to the bizarre meanderings of Pat Robertson or the sickening cover-ups of Catholic bishops to avoid condemnation for complicity in sexual abuse; the only apology we hear is the kind that is a self-defense rather than a contrite begging of forgiveness.

Worse, even when it seems like an act of forgiveness, it is turned with an amendment of self-defense. Such a dodge nullifies any attempt at repentance. Anything after “but” is indeed bullshit.

Admitting when we are wrong is healthy but somehow we too often have the false idea in our heads that it makes us weak and weakness is a bad thing. The truth is that the admission of wrongdoing and the act of repentance is an act of admitting we are already weak. Humans are fragile creatures. The lie is the persistent bull-headed belief that we must be strong individuals in the face of everything that comes against us. That’s exactly what hurts us.

Even this can go too far into the territory of self-pity. This is also horribly exhausting. This is where we are so caught up in feeling lousy about ourselves that we still refuse to do anything to change. We beg people to look at how pathetic we are rather than doing something different to be less pathetic. This is no longer repentance, it is despondence. Progressives get this way because the expectation of moral purity might be too high. I am not talking about purity, I am talking about honesty.

When a group of people vacillate between bull-headed denial and self-defense on the one hand, and despondence and self-pity on the other, I don’t know about you, but I am done with that group. The only reason I have spent time as a religious person and with religious people in the past is because there is a nourishment that take place where somehow I feel that everything will be ok even when the evidence is to the contrary. Faith and hope merge in a beautiful dance. That’s when religion is at its best.

But the church is not at it’s best.

It’s hard to fill a bucket if people are pricking holes in it. The church is emptying out faster than anyone can fill it and right now it is becoming more and more impossible to love. It is a zero-sum arena of people fighting for self-interest and in that environment, it is not sustainable.

Do your part. Repent of something. Make amends with someone you have wronged and expect nothing in return. Lord knows we have enough people out there who simply refuse to do so.

Advertisements

Lent Isn’t Depressing, Anymore

As one who has life-long issues with depression I resonate with the sentiment that Lent can be a time to feel even worse. As a Catholic and then a Presbyterian, Lent was a time to feel guilty. Guilty for consuming too much, loving too little, giving not enough, and reinforcing the idea that I am a bad person by some mysterious genetic seed given to me by God through the curse of Adam. It’s enough to drive the clinically depressed to madness – or defiant agnosticism. The latter was exactly what happened.

The reward was a ceremony to remember that God is angry with me for sins I have no real say in eradicating. Nothing I do is actually all that pleasing to God because none of it meets up to His standards. In fact, God can’t even look on me without some disdain for abusing the body and mind that are supposed to be in His image, but are so broken that it’s impossible to reflect it. The Good News is that Jesus stands in the way so that God can’t see me at all. Jesus is my protector from the Bully.

Now whether this is good theology or bad, it was what was the logical place that made sense with what I heard in the teaching I had been given. Jesus substituted his life and received the punishment I deserved for my sinful nature. It’s only because he rose from the dead that God is able to love me at all. Lent was about dwelling in that space of guilt that I cannot do anything to relieve since it is only my faith that Jesus is standing there between me and God that gives me hope I can get to heaven. So I prayed and crossed my fingers.

I entered the communion of the Eastern church a couple of years ago. For the first Lent in which I participated there, I learned that this was not a season to feel guilty, but a season to heal. It is true that I am broken. I have depression, I have been a hopeless drunk, I have a fantastic list of sins that could rival Martin Luther’s. I am imperfect and often feel an unbridgeable gap between my sometimes sordid state of mind and the source of my being in God.

Lent is now about accepting that I have these issues, but these issues are not me. Lent is about focus. It is about honesty and confession. It is about making my life transparent before God and practicing love, justice, and mercy in the world. It is a time to focus on being compassionate and patient towards even those I resent. In fact, it is a time to heal those resentments and apologize to those I may have harmed in the past year. All of these actions are actions of healing myself, my relationships with others, and my relationship with God. My work means something now. I participate in my salvation, rather than close my eyes and cross my fingers that I am not one of those predestined to hell.

The point is that I have a choice to squeeze through the briar patches of life to meet a God who continuously walks through them to meet me in the middle where there is a garden of life.

Lent is about life, not death.

As Monica Coleman writes in her reflection that inspired this post:

Lent gives me the chance to look for those opportunities.  It gives me a season – every year – to turn over rocks, crouch down and look under the bed, sweep together the remnants of my last year, of my life, of the current day in search of whatever beauty may be there.  It’s my chance to look for the life that can be found in the midst, or something after, death.

Being a Person, Having a Voice

Personhood is social, or it is nothing: “To be myself, I need you.” – Kallistos Ware of Diokleia

James Loder was my adviser and mentor at Princeton Seminary. His life’s work was to imagine how the Spirit of God grounded and transformed the human person – the human spirit. His radical vision was that the Spirit of God and the human spirit worked in a mysterious loop. It is in the intersection of the two spirits that human creativity is present and blossoms.

To be human is to be in a relationship. It is to have a face and to look upon others not with covetousness, jealousy, envy, pride and the like – but with charity and love. As we love others, we become more human. This is a theological lens for the experience of having that voice to speak the truth to others.

So we have here a boy with a learning disability. He is a person, but has no voice. But when the creative and self-transcendent truth of who he is in community with others blossoms, the blessings on those who gaze back at him are profound.

Each of us has a spirit. Each of us has a creative self always aching to be born new every day. When we experience our selves in the midst of others, we experience the truth of who we really are.

3 Things I Said I Would Do, But Haven’t

Age of Ultron and Trillium

How I Started Reading Again

The term “bucket list” has become popular. These are things we want to do before we die. Sometimes these are really challenging ideas like base-jumping or climbing Mt. Everest. Others might simpler like following the Grateful Dead on a tour (too late for that) or reading all of the works of Dostoevsky.

We all have different dreams and thresholds for what we are willing to do. If you have a fear of heights, try zip-lining. I did. I am still a little nervous up high, but much less so.

My 3 Things are more what I have started, but never finished.

Maybe it is a lack of confidence or even sheer laziness that prevents me from just doing these things. Time isn’t an issue. If I want to do these things I merely have to sacrifice some time and dedicate myself to meeting the goal.

I have fallen into a vicious little cycle. Lack of confidence leads to laziness, which leads to more lack of confidence, which leads to eventual rationalization that doing such and such is a “waste of time and energy” anyway. Then I feel guilty or bummed out about it. Then I start up something completely different to feel better thus starting the cycle over.

So here they are. I thought I could do them this year, but I have not even scratched the surface.

Read 25 Books in a Year

Many people will read 50-100 in a year and might not understand why this is such a hard goal to achieve. I can’t remember if I have ever read this many books in a year! Part of that is because I have never kept count. I had to have at least in school.

If I can point to a reason it is burnout. I think I did not let myself recover from the stress of finishing a dissertation and defense in 4 months time. I simply could not bear to pick up another book. I had all the intentions of reading something I really wanted to read but could not, but each was a 50 pound weight my fingers could not handle.

I have started up my reading habit once more. You know what got me back into it? Comic books. I found my inner geek once again and started reading comics. It is the perfect medium of text and images which helped wean me off of movies. Netflix and Redbox have been getting business from me this year. Time to hit that unread library which is…extensive.

Write a Book

If I can’t get myself to read, how can I get myself to write? The issue is confidence. When I think I have a good idea, somehow my mind goes into panic mode and recoils. The negative self-talk starts into a crescendo, “You are not interesting enough,” “Who would care about what you have to say,” “You don’t have any good ideas anyway.” The voices go on and on.

This blog may be my comic book for writing. If I get some feedback and start a conversation, maybe there is an idea that will work.

My goal with writing anything is to find something helpful to someone else. I also over-think. I don’t want to impose what I think is helpful on others. What if I am writing for a selfish purpose? Is this all about me? Is that ok if it is?

See what I mean? Over-thinking. Paralysis by analysis. I can rationalize myself into thinking a bear trap is fluffy and soft.

I have about 6 starts to different ideas, but I just don’t think any of them are good. That, my friends, is called a writer’s block!

Help a Struggling Student Achieve

School was rough for me for at least grade K – 7. My family situation was less than ideal, and I had what I call emotional constipation. With trauma packed into my brain, there was no room for anything else. Social skills never came easy. Meeting new people was, and still is, not a natural skill of mine. I had the potential, but it was all so difficult.

I eventually got help and made it. In fact, I more than made it. I was on the honor roll for 4 grading periods my junior year of high school, graduated with a 3.0 from undergrad, a 3.5 from my M.Div, a 3.7 from my Th.M. where I won a fellowship and a scholarship, and a 4.0 from my Ph.D. I went from special ed student to doctorate. Pretty solid.

But I needed help to get all the way there. Family stepped in big time. That is where I am fortunate. I have a very supportive and loving family. There are kids who are out there, alone, and with no presence to protect them. I know what that feels like. Most just need one champion. I know I could be a champion for some kid who has no hope today. My kids will have me and their mom who will be there to push, hold accountable, and love them. Some minds with a ton of potential just don’t have that support.

I started the Big Brother’s and Sister’s program this year. I did not have enough time or energy for it. Maybe some other time.

So I start and then stop projects I really enjoy. I have a tendency to sabotage myself that way.

This blog, taking up cycling, and reading comic books have been my baby steps.

What are your near-accomplishments that you might be struggling to complete?

Music and the Harmony of Living

Music, to me, has a certain harmonic tuning with the universe.

Each moment in life is like tugging on some string in the fabric of reality. Sometimes we pluck the right string and experience harmony. At other times we sense awful discord that is more like a bad case of tinnitus than improvisation.

Each of us is drawn to certain sounds that ground us or steal us away to a far off place of comfort and serenity. Other sounds match desires for company over a dinner, pushing our mental and physical limits, or gathering for a party. Each of our experiences sends vibrations and signals that cue others to engage the tuning of life itself. If we are lucky we find someone who harmonizes with us in the most consistent ways. Even in moments of dissonance there is an engaging beauty.

Music is a symbol of my current place in life. When I am affected by a sound it tells me about my inner self. In High Fidelity John Cusack’s character Rob Gordon organizes his music not chronologically or alphabetically, but autobiographically.

All three of us writers, we all experience music autobiographically.
I think a lot of people do.
So I’ll have certain songs that mark certain times in our life and I think we’re not rare that way.
Like I’ll use music as fuel, you know?
Not like as inspiration but as fuel like if I need to get into a certain mindset I know there’s certain songs that I can turn on that’ll just… that’s the gas and that’ll get me right where I need to go.
Or if I need to get out of a certain state put on this song or that song and it just propels you.

Exactly.

I can like dissonance in the right setting. That tension is a kind of fuel to change my thinking or to wallow in it. Most of the time, I resonate with minor keys and often find it boring when a song resolves. Life does not work that way in my mind and experience, and neither does it work in the music I listen to.

I have a running soundtrack. Artists give me that soundtrack and don’t know it. Art gives me the visuals and sounds I cannot create by myself, or even at all. The sound of wind, cicadas, cars, a distant party, a dog panting, kids laughing – all of these mesh in and out of the harmony I feel. It is tangible. Sound embodies my soul. Somehow I feel incarnated and more real.

I play but one string in the orchestra of life moving in a slow vibration that is beauty itself.

I Don’t Know God

Let us accept that we do not know the whole mystery of God and we do not know about His infinite love. – Bishop Anastasios of Albania

I know plenty about theology. I spent many years learning about and teaching religion. But I am no theologian.

The early church recognizes theologians not merely head knowledge, but by heart knowledge. When they use the term intellect they are not referring to an abstract academic exercise. The intellect is that part of a person encompassing the heart, the mind, and the soul. It is the part of us that yearns to be in communion with God. It is this that God calls to be a part of Himself.

Developing the intellect takes time and strenuous effort. It takes a disavowal of how the world is. Faith in the effort to practice love, compassion, and striving for virtue is not in vain. All of these serve the goal of experiencing the world as it should be – united to and in full communion with God. This union is the true knowledge of God.

Theologians are who they are because they have come closer to this knowledge than the great majority of the human race. They are saints that we may follow their examples lest we latch on to the hottest academic trends.

I now accept that I am a profound distance from these saints which is only dwarfed by my distance to God.

I am not a theologian. But with help and effort I have a good chance to be close to one in this life.

We are all given this chance by the very nature we share in whose Image we were born.