Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Big Squeeze (part 1)

The following is not just a random memory of mine. Ok, it is. But I wrote it down (at work, where else) for a reason, and I promise I will get to that reason in a soon-to-come post. But I thought I'd go ahead and share the story now 'cause it makes me laugh, and you might too.

I was thirteen years old when I first became aware of how important my testicles are. My mother, the French teacher, had taken several of her students to Grenoble for the summer, and as a result, my sister, brother, and I were on our own holiday at my uncle’s farm in Minnesota. He and my aunt had six children, and Aaron, who was the oldest, was closest to my age, so we were naturally partners in crime for the summer. We shared a bunk bed in his room upstairs.

One night after my aunt had sent us to bed and turned out the light, we began talking about things that mattered to us. Being adolescent boys, the conversation turned inevitably to the concerns of puberty; namely, the size of our packages. I confessed that though my body had begun to manifest its awkward transition into manhood in other ways, the highly-anticipated growth of my member was still forthcoming. As soon as I said this, Aaron’s tone became grave and cautionary.

“Have you had a check-up lately?” he asked. I hadn’t.

“Do you know what they do to you if you haven’t started growing by now?” His Midwestern accent was masked by the ominous whisper in which he was now speaking.

“When the doctor sees that you’re not growing, he makes you lie down on the bench. Then he ties your hands and your feet down so you can’t move, the same way they tie down the women when they’re having babies. Then he takes your balls, one in each hand. He puts them between his thumb and forefinger and starts to squeeze. He starts gently, so you can’t really tell, but soon he starts to use more pressure. He squeezes harder and harder and until he’s squeezed out all of stuff in there that’s supposed to make it bigger, and all that’s left are two flat, empty sacks. It’s the worst pain you can imagine.”

My cousin had never given me reason to distrust him, and so it was with a paralyzing sense of dread that I clasped both hands onto my groin, and kept them there for the rest of the night.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Where are we going?

From my day @ the lake - a much needed respite.
 Posted by Picasa

"Alright" - new song lyrics

She said, "It's strange and yet it's common sense
There's no telling what it really meant
Often it's the mystery that shows us who we are
Even more than comprehension can

Things will always break, but listen:
It's not your burden to rush in and fix 'em"
I said, "You know it's not my style to let the story just unfold"
She said, "You don't know what you're missing"

Where you're from is very far
But it's not lost, it's where you are

Alright, alright
There's a little bit of magic in the air tonight
Alright, alright

She said, "I know that it's nothing small -
You went and made it on your own resolve
But I want you to know it's who you are that makes me proud
And nothing that you've done at all

I know there's no stopping you
If you're sure it's what you want to do"
I said, "8 out of 10 never find what they're looking for"
She said, "Baby, we must be the other 2"

Let's walk in stride, let's take our time
I believe we will be...

Alright, alright
There's a little bit of magic in the air tonight
Alright, alright
Alright, alright
I won't be afraid if you're by my side
Alright, that's alright

Monday, December 05, 2005

Something to believe in

This was a full, but relaxing, weekend. It was a vacation of sorts, a chance to get out of my typical setting and into a hot tub up on the mountain, watch lots of movies, and read a little.

One of the most poignant moments for me came while watching sci-fi, of all things. I’m a somewhat rabid alien takeover & government conspiracy fan, and so when a friend found out I had not yet seen Spielberg’s Taken, she all but insisted that I watch the series. So I found it at Blockbuster and she was right – it’s a fantastic story with tons of engaging characters; though what really drew me in was the insightful narration written for Dakoda Fanning.

At the end of the second episode, she says:

People will believe what they want to believe. They find meaning where they can, and they cling to it. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what’s a trick and what’s true. What matters is that people believe.

This idea is so important to me right now. My whole life, I’ve been submerged in an environment where discerning between tricks and truth is of ultimate consequence. People I know say belief by itself is nothing (Even the demons believe in God); it is not useful, it has no significance, and it is deceptive. Believing in truth is what matters, and there is only one truth, one way, and if you don’t find it, God help you.

But isn’t it true that we all strive for meaning? What makes one person’s search more successful than another’s? How does one guy find the way when his friend, with a longing as intense and a goal as noble, misses the mark? What of the countless people who have never heard the name ‘Jesus,’ and never will? Are they faulted for not knowing “the way” when God has provided them with no signs or direction?

Maybe the jewel doesn’t lie in a creed or a code. I know hosts of Christians who stake their lives (both physical & eternal) on their acknowledgement of a transcendent set of rules or a written statement of what they believe. The problems I encounter are the irreconcilable disparities between who God is supposed to be (according to his own claims) and the state of things in his universe.
So do you throw out the whole notion of God? Is the only option disbelief?

What if God isn’t necessarily the point? I cringe even asking the question, because I know the horrified look my grandfather would have on his face if he heard it, but it’s worth asking. What if belief is not so much a means, but more of an end itself? When it comes down to it, there will always be an unanswerable question, a doubt, a conflicting creed; nothing is solid, nothing is certain. There always has to be faith to fill in the holes, and what if that faith itself if the thing that gives meaning to life and allows for peace in chaos?

Faith is what we use to explain things, but when we sit down and try to explain faith, we end up with all of the conflict that makes it so hard to believe the things we’re trying to explain in the first place. There has to be something in this world that is mysterious, something unknown. Some things can’t be captured with reason or science or a creed. Whether it’s God or karma or reincarnation or extraterrestrials, or perhaps simply the act of believing, you have to ultimately put stock in something you can’t adequately vindicate.

I’ve always believed it was God, and that has left me lost because who really knows what God is like?

I’ve always believed it was God, yet never been able to reconcile my circumstances and struggles to his promises.

I’ve always believed it was God.

More importantly, I’ve always believed.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Last night I blew off the gym (since the holidays are a great time to do that) and went to the movies. I saw Jarhead, pretty much the most depressing film I’ve seen since The Perfect Storm. If you haven’t seen it and want to, you might skip this blog, as there are potential spoilers ahead.

The story is about a group of guys overloaded with potential who enlist in the Marines just before Operation Desert Shield/Storm. You watch them in all their best and worst moments and see the inevitable, devastating effects of their interminable wait in the desert. They are slowly sucked down a vortex of unfulfilled hopes & dreams – lost girlfriends, missed opportunities, forfeited careers. When their moment of glory comes, they are denied even the chance to excel in the war they’re fighting – they’ve become outdated, unnecessary.

After it was over, I was left with such a sense of futility, an insurmountable malaise. I’m pretty sure the intent was to make us feel the futility and waste of war, but for me it became commentary on the whole of life.

I walked out of the theatre, where it had begun to rain, and shuffled my way toward the river. An enormous Christmas tree had been erected, accessorized with the hues of hundreds of lights. I kept walking.

Behind an Italian restaurant, there were three homeless folks, two men and a woman, taking shelter beneath the awning. They were loudly discussing the troubles plaguing our city, and the woman wished me a happy evening. I waved and kept walking.

I crossed the bridged and stared at the swelling rapids beneath me, carrying water from one of the purest lakes in the world through the dirty city channels, an endless procession of tumbles and torrents, moving on because it had to go where gravity & earth dictated. I pulled on my hood and kept walking.

After crossing through a park closed for the winter, I ended up at a beautiful Methodist church, among the oldest in our city. It’s a small stone building with a courtyard in the middle. At the threshold was a sign declaring a downtown-centered ministry that reaches the whole world. There were vines climbing its rough walls, and stairs leading into dark corridors, littered with trash.

I’m sure hundreds of stories have been told in that church. Weddings and funerals, potlucks, communions, parents pulling unruly children out of the service – everything you’d expect and probably much you wouldn’t. Stories have been written at the Christmas tree, too, and under the awning by the river, and in the park across the bridge.

The thing is, I really believe in stories. I mean that they affect me deeply. When I watch Tom Hanks talking to Wilson the volleyball, hear Paul Simon sing about the boxer who cries, “I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains,” or read Francis Marion Tarwater’s fiery revelation in the fields of the south, I connect with those people. I feel like a friend on the barstool next to them, a member of their fellowship, a long-lost sibling reunited with his brother. I feel like their story matters, and somehow that makes my search, my journey worthwhile.

The question has been posed so many times: why do we yearn for more if there’s nothing to be found? One of my favorite songwriters, Carolyn Arends, wrote:

At times it seems a tragic fate
Living with this quiet ache
The constant strain for what remains
Just out of reach

Why did the “jarheads” end up hollow people haunted by visions from their past? When everything was taken from them – dignity, true companionship, dreams – they got to the center of things, they stared into the abyss, so to speak, and saw the bottom. To me, that prospect is far more terrifying than staring into a pit that never seems to end. When you see the bottom, you know there is nothing more, and all of the mystery of life, the search, the yearning, and the journey – it’s all futile.

Standing in the courtyard of that church last night, I was gripped by that fear. What if those ancient stones, the stained glass, the bell in the tower, what if they are just part of a shell, just a thin cover over a very shallow pit? And what if the stories told there are no more than fleeting, vain attempts by humans reaching hard for something to validate our existence? What if nothing lies behind the veil?

It’s ironic that only 8 months ago I walked those same streets in a completely different mode. I was with 3 friends, and we were praying out loud as we moved, and everything was beautiful. The world was full of potential, God was writing a story for us, calling us to be builders in his kingdom, there was adventure and mystery and a hope that seemed unshakeable.

So much has changed since that night.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Ironic moment of the day...

As I was writing the previous entry, a co-worker came up and asked us at the front desk, “How’s everyone doing today? Happy? Healthy? Spiritually satisfied?”

If God does exist, at least he has a sense of humor.

The moon is evil

How do you undo 23 years of thinking? How do you crawl out from underneath that thumb?

I’m sitting here at work and people are discussing the new Chronicles of Narnia film that’s coming out next month. They’re throwing around all sorts of erroneous information about Lewis & Tolkien – “Apparently, it’s a series. There’s like 3 or 4 books.” – and my instinctual, jump-the-gun reaction is to correct them with my extensive* knowledge of the subject. (*extensive = I’m a Christian, so naturally I know more about Lewis than you do.)

Do you see how pervasive this mindset can be? How easily I have been deceived into thinking there was no need for second guessing?

This morning as I drove toward the freeway, I caught an awesome glimpse of the moon. Just an orange sliver, hanging timorously above black silhouettes of faceless mountains. It was strikingly reminiscent of an incident from nearly two years ago, on the other side of town. I had just moved to the area and had hooked up with a guys’ group that discussed faith and the Bible and how to best hide sinful erections. After leaving the discussion, I was elated because I felt like this would become my core group of friends, something I had a great shortage of at the time. I was listening to worship music and driving down a sharp hill in the rain, singing along of course, when I looked to my left and saw an oversized, bright yellow full moon. It was beautiful, and I began to pray and thank God for such an awesome symbol of his love.

When I looked back onto the road, I had a bit of a start. I was about to veer off the road entirely, so, naturally, I freaked out and overcompensated by swerving hard to the left. The effect in the rain was not so good. I ended up doing a 180 at about 55 mph and backing into a sandy hill, only meters away from a guard rail and steep drop off into a canyon. There wasn’t too much damage – a few scratches and a blown tire – but someone did see the accident and called 911. Get this: after explaining to the officer that I had only glanced away for mere seconds to view the moon and lost control of my car, he issued me a ticket for failure to maintain a lane. Is that even a legitimate traffic violation? I mean it’s not like I damaged anything except for my car and my ego!

Anyway, at the time I remember being both bitter that my non-accident ended up costing me several hundred dollars (it didn’t help that I later forgot about the ticket and missed my court date), and also relieved that things didn’t turn out much worse, which they certainly could have. I attributed the accident to demonic forces – yes, I was that kind of Christian – and thanked God for sparing me.

It’s a perfect example of how a worldview so heavily influences one’s response to circumstances. Put twenty different people in that same situation, and I’m sure you’d have 20 different interpretations on why it happened, or whether it even matters that there be a reason for it.

This is strange territory I’m entering. For some time now, I haven’t felt right praying, because I no longer feel confident in who I’m praying to, or that he (or she, it) even hears or answers prayer. But I still find myself whispering thoughts into the air as though words exist in a separate dimension where they have the power to influence my present reality.

There is a certain safety in playing the game of Christianity – the security of always having a reason, an answer, a God to boss around with prayers. But the answers are still vapid, the satisfaction empty. Somehow, I have to press on, thinking outside of the parameters of modern Christian faith.

Ultimately, the whole car accident was just a headache-inducing fiasco. I’m still not sure what to make of it… though at least one good thing came of it. I no longer steal prolonged glimpses at the moon when the result might be my death. Or a damn ticket.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Question the sky Posted by Picasa

The Second Guess

For 23 years I’ve lived under one significant assumption. It has been the benchmark of my experience as a human being; it has colored every aspect of my existence. Nothing, no piece of information, no circumstance, no setting, passes through my lens without being scrutinized by the eye of faith – a very specific faith, one that holds true and literal all stories and teachings in the Bible, one that relies on a creator in three persons but who is one being, one that supposedly “rests” on promises made by a man, Jesus, and his followers two millennia ago.

This belief is so all-encompassing that it delineates who I am in reference to the rest of the people around me; in fact, the rest of the world. Essentially, I’m “in” – eternally secure, saved, sanctified, bought with the blood. Anyone who does not believe as I do is not “in.” This is how I was brought up to view the world. Two sides, two warring parties, one victor and one defeated rebel – and I am nestled happily with the flock inside the narrow gate.

Who would even begin to question this philosophy if it’s what you’ve known since you were able to register memory? As a member of the Christian faith, everything is for you, God himself cares for you and knows you personally, mysterious cosmic forces are orchestrating a beautiful destiny for you specifically. This faith has an answer for everything, from rainbows to rock strata to why snakes have no legs. Even seemingly inexplicable realities such as pain, devastation, and suffering are easily thwarted as pastors and preachers construe meaning for every heartache from principles taught in Scripture.

When you’re a Christian, it’s so easy to be right, and the best part is: you never have to second guess.

I’m so fed up with easy answers. Throughout the course of my short life, I continually find myself at breaking points where I realize how my narrow, insular worldview has made me numb and indifferent to the reality of what’s going on around me. Time after time I find myself broken and having to acknowledge my prejudices and vices, harmful attitudes and presuppositions that are the source of that dividing wall of hostility between me and those who don’t adopt my beliefs. And with every moment of epiphany I become further frustrated with the so-called “easy answers,” mainly because I find that they in no way live up to their namesake.

There is no easy answer. Every presupposition from my youth has been a very poor disguise to make palatable the bitterness that pervades my chaotic existence. Not having to question my basis for belief led me to dark, dark places and has ultimately left me dissatisfied and angry with, and mostly hurt by, a God who, if he exists, cannot possibly be what I’ve assumed him to be.

For some time now I’ve felt lost – sometimes drifting, sometimes vehemently opposed to everything I’ve built my life around, sometimes desperately in need of grace (from God or man, I don’t know which), and sometimes clinging with every last hope within me to the fragments of faith that remain. Why I’m here, why I am writing this, is because I have to uncover the missing pieces; I have to go behind the veil that obscures the meaning in this world. Life is not random or coincidental – I am sure of this. Too much evidence says otherwise. As long as I can reason, emote, and feel, I have to pursue meaning. The choices I make depend profoundly on what I believe about why I am here. I don’t know where I’m going on this journey, but here I am losing the presupposition and bias that has so colored my worldview. Faith is what is it is – a perspective-shaping belief that one cannot prove – but the kind of faith I’ve known up to this point is simply insufficient. It does not answer the questions I need answered.

This is my second guess at what life is all about.