Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Love That Will Not Let Me Go

I'm sure nobody's noticed, but I gave up arguing with people on the internet for Lent. I didn't do it so much for the season itself (which has nevertheless brought forth its own lessons) but because I didn't like what I was becoming: angry, bitter, cynical. I once heard Brian McLaren suggest that the burning question is no longer "If you die tonight, do you know where you'll spend eternity?" so much as "If you live another 30 years, what kind of person will you be?" I sometimes joke that I want to be a curmudgeon when I grow up, and while there really is part of me that looks forward to reaching an age where I can turn down my filter settings and get away with it, there's also a part of me that would like to be known and remembered in my later years for, well, wisdom. Depth of character. Integrity.

This is difficult at least in part because I'm so fickle. I waffle. I've gone back and forth on so many things that to take a stand in any direction can be dismissed as me crying "wolf." I'm either refreshingly transparent or I've shot all my credibility to hell. You pick. If I've come to know a certain freedom by no longer trying to be a particular kind of religious person, it's becoming clear that fashioning myself into a particular kind of skeptic isn't doing the trick either.

It's probably obvious to everyone but me that I am probably never going to escape evangelicalism, and I'm certainly never going to escape Christianity. I used to joke that I was a Christian because God won't let me be a Buddhist. These days I'm likely to to joke that I'm a Christian because God won't let me be an atheist. God's not going to let me be Episcopalian, either, and it might be worth keeping God around just so I can be pissed about that.

Really, though, I need resources to help me get over myself. I need a way to bridge or contexualize or make sense of the tension between my interior life, which is deeply skeptical and characterized by seeking to stare unflinchingly into the Abyss, and my outer life, which bears the indelible marks of being forged in Christian community. It would seem that I have the mind of an atheist but the heart of an evangelical. Would this make more sense -- at least to me, if not to others -- if I admitted that I also have the soul of a mystic?

In some ways this is where my troubles started. Not quite twenty years ago, bored with what I knew as faith, I stumbled across Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline. It served as the shot in the arm I was looking for, in spite of the fact that I was probably getting into for a lot of the wrong reasons. I wanted to be righteous. I wanted to be right. I wanted some way of feeling "in the know." The spiritual disciplines were my little gnostic secret. But I was also motivated out of an earnest searching. I felt like I was missing something, and Foster's famous tome spoke to that something.

From there I discovered Thomas Merton, and someone who noticed my interest in monasticism turned me on to Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk. This may have been the beginning of the end. It began a long-standing fascination with monks (which I still have), but it also inspired a prayerful longing: I wanted a faith more like Norris's, a faith that seemed so much larger than mine at the time. I wanted the depth of Merton. I wanted to write like both of them combined. I loved the first-person perspectives on a dark and murky faith, framed by the rhythms of liturgy and populated with saints.

I started dabbling in centering prayer, in lectio divina. I listened to Cynthia Bourgeault teaching about chanting the Psalms. I read monastic literature and every kind of spiritual memoir I could get my hands on. I cultivated silence and solitude. I was probably an unbearable asshole about it, but we're all works in progress, right? My point, I think, is that we're always a kind of mixed bag of earnestness and self-aggrandizement. The line between the things we legitimately do to be better people and those we do simply in order to convince ourselves -- or others -- that we are those better people is hopelessly fuzzy, and sometimes doesn't exist at all.

Regardless, however, the practices we cultivate us and the habits we form have an effect on us, whether this happens out of the right kind of intentionality or any intentionality at all. These things had an effect on me, partially (I like to think) in developing greater patience and a sensitivity to spiritual rhythms, but they also plunged me headlong into my own existential doubts. They pointed to a deep undercurrent that helped to clear away some of the bric-a-brac and deconstruct some of the binaries on which my thinking was based. And this was helpful, until this undercurrent folded back on itself and left me suspended over the Void. I don't know how else to explain that.

I didn't handle that well. I haven't handled it well. Probably I'm not handling it well. Mostly I just set up camp in the Abyss, so I can bitch about how lonely it is. I've tried, a couple of times, to out myself as an atheist, but it's never really taken, at partially because my life keeps taking me places where that doesn't play. A real, honest-to-God atheist (sorry) doesn't have the option to say they feel called to anything, let alone playing music in church. That just doesn't work. It comes down to me not wanting to identify as an atheist because I'm such an embarrassment to atheists. It's that inner/outer thing; I can reach a place of unbelief in my head but the rest of my life, having not gotten the memo, trundles along in the habits of faith.

I also stepped away from the contemplative life, because while I'm into things like silence and liturgical rhythms and surrendering to life's lessons (which often means submitting to others) and so forth, I completely suck at the core practices like meditation and prayer.

Completely. Suck.

I'm awful. The concept of spiritual practice can be legitimately expanded to cover things like writing and music, but still, there's the suckage. I got tired of trying to pray more, and tired of feeling guilty for failing at it, and tired of trying to be something that did not, and does not, feel right. I'm not a meditator. I might be meditative from time to time, but anyone can tell you that's not the same. It's like the difference between being a sprinter and occasionally seeing the need to run fast.

At the same time, I am forced to recognize a great cloud of witnesses, from within the Christian tradition and outside of it, who have stared into the Abyss and come through the experience without going mad (Nietzsche seems to have not handled it well, if you get my drift). Even Mother Theresa confessed deep, lingering doubts and a profound sense of God's absence and yet continued her work. For me, it's like I've made this deal with God where I don't actually have to believe in God as long as I keep doing the work God has for me to do. That may not make sense to you, but I'll bet a buck-fifty I'm not the only one.

So -- yeah. I'm not sure where that leaves me. I'm not really a mystic, and I have no intention of being one. I'm not seeking enlightenment or union with the Godhead or the beatific vision. And yet if I invoke Fowler's stages of faith, or Spiral Dynamics (based on the work of Clare Graves and later appropriated by Ken Wilber) I can locate myself somewhere farther along the continuum and yet called to remain with my evangelical brothers and sisters to help them along their paths.

This sounds haughty, perhaps -- arrogant and self-congratulatory -- and I have consistently rejected such a narration for exactly that reason, but it's also deeply humbling inasmuch as I don't get to say what anyone else's path actually is. It means listening, and being accountable to others. It means mutual submission. It means surrendering to a process that I don't fully understand. It means cultivating a kind of trust that necessitates self-emptying.

It means a constellation of things, and if you look just right, maybe squint a little bit, you can make out a shape in that constellation: faith.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Break Thou the Bread of Life

I forgot the post-it note with the lot number on it. 145, I thought, but I wasn't seeing any lot 145. What I saw was almost another world, a different universe tucked away off the side street I took to get here. The trailers were in various states of disrepair. So were the cars. So were the people, to be perfectly honest. Before anyone goes on a long diatribe about stereotyping: yes, there are some nice trailer parks. This wasn't one of them.

Earlier in the week my wife had been to a tense meeting of our homeschool group. This was a regular business meeting, but on the docket was a discussion of the group's Statement of Faith. The Statement is pretty standard fare -- an explicit declaration of Trinitarian theology, penal substitutionary atonement, and an immanent, literal return of Christ. I forget if it also explicitly mentions scriptural inerrancy, but it might. Over the past couple of years one of the board members has been faced with people who either wanted to join the group but couldn't sign the statement of faith, or who (like my wife) signed the statement but had reservations about its theology, and/or whose husbands (like me) wouldn't sign it at all. Some were wondering if it could be made more inclusive, more ecumenical.

One of the families we've met through the homeschool group is that of a local Free Methodist minister. He's an interesting guy. He's a little younger than I am, with a fondness for tractors and the Cappadocian Fathers. He's bright, but he's at that level of bright where he doesn't always know what it is that his brightness is latching onto. It's like he sees certain threads but there's a layer that's unavailable to him that might freak him out if he saw it for what it is. Maybe he will someday, maybe he won't. I don't know.

He's been getting some flak from an element in his church concerned that he's going "Emergent." He's not, particularly -- he's more paleo-orthodox than anything -- but he's young and bright and has a goatee and wants to draw from a deeper well than the 19th-century evangelicalism that frames his tradition, and this is enough to engender suspicion among a group of people who have been reading too much John MacArthur.

He had his own tense meeting earlier in the week in which some of these issues were aired. I don't know exactly how his meeting went, but my wife told me about the homeschool meeting: several of the homeschool moms on the preserve-the-Statement side of the fence brought their husbands -- or their husbands insisted on coming along -- and the men came out swinging. If you don't like the group's Statement of Faith, they said, get your own group. They managed to connect their particular take on the Christian faith (as exemplified by the Statement) with everything from the Bible itself (natch) to Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

Everyone else, by contrast, was made to feel like second-class citizens of God's Kingdom, and while the defenders of orthodoxy would almost certainly say that's not what they meant, a number of people -- including several with no particular qualms about the statement itself -- left the meeting feeling brutally judged, even ostracized. "Narrow is the way and few are those who find it" was a frequent refrain, as if Jesus had in mind an intellectual commitment to 19th-century revivalist evangelicalism when he said that. But they got their way; the vote that night confirmed the Statement of Faith as written.

I still wasn't seeing 145 so I called for directions. As it turns out, I had both misremembered the lot number (it was really 135) and gone in the wrong entrance to the park. A few turns brought me around to the right place and I found the trailer, a nondescript brown one about halfway down the street. I felt out of place. And by "out of place" I don't mean snobbery but a variant of guilt. My car, a cheap import, was nevertheless nicer than anything around it. I felt certain that my clothes marked me as just another white liberal.

Probably I was overthinking things. I do that. Our church has a bit of history with this trailer park, or at least we're cultivating it. We run the largest mobile food pantry in the state, and someone noticed that a lot of the families that come to the food pantry had addresses in this particular trailer park, so they checked it out and saw that the people there needed a lot of help. They couldn't afford basic repairs and upkeep on the homes, and it showed. We began scheduling workdays to assess homes and effect repairs. We dealt patiently with some of our volunteers and some general naysayers who wondered why we were bothering to help people who probably (in the mind of the naysayers) wouldn't appreciate it. We pitched the need to put some money and sweat equity where our social-justice-leaning mouths were.

On one hand, this seems paternalistic, a bunch of middle-class white people salving their consciences and assuaging their latent guilt over the inequities of capitalist society. On the other hand, people who really need food get real food. A family that really needed new steps for their trailer really got them. Dozens of trailers that really needed to be winterized got real plastic on their windows to keep out the real cold. Another family basically got a new bathroom, down to the floorboards (which were rotting). All of this is done without expectation. We don't do it so they feel obligated to listen to us talk about Jesus. We don't do it so they'll come to church. We do it because it's there to be done, and I can get behind that.

I wasn't there to work, however. I was there to buy tamales. One of the park residents is a Mexican woman who supports her family by selling tamales. I'm no tamale connoisseur, but these are fantastic. She includes a homemade salsa verde that will melt your face off. It's wonderful. I knock and she comes to the door, tamales in hand. I fumble for my money. I had picked up some cash to give our daughter for a weekend youth trip and some cash to pay for tamales and put the cash in different pockets. Then I promptly forgot which was which and ended up fishing through my pockets and awkwardly flashing cash in front of woman a selling tamales to scrape by. For some reason I'm very self-conscious about this.

I get home with the tamales along with some taco fixings and a six-pack of Corona (Thom Stark makes fun of me for drinking Corona, but it's what I like). My wife asks me about the beer: "You bought beer? Don't you have any?"

"No," I say confessionally, "I drank it." (It wasn't Corona anyway.) "I need Corona to wash down the tamales -- and I'm contributing to the delinquency of a pastor." My pastor friend and his family were coming over for dinner and I usually try to get him to drink a beer. I don't imagine he gets offered beers on most of his pastoral calls.

This night, I didn't even ask him. I just popped the tops on a couple of cold ones and squeezed a couple of lime slices. He was hooked. Ditto the tamales, which were a big hit. We got the kids going on their tacos and sat and talked, quenching the intoxicating heat of the salsa verde with the intoxicating coolness of the beer, sharing our reactions to the week's meetings and the trials and tribulations of ministry life. As we talked, the troubles of the week washed away, and our emptiness was filled, at least for the moment. We cracked jokes and I got to hear my pastor friend call John MacArthur a dumbass. We got to be heard around the table, and were allowed to feel like we were understood as well.

Our church serves communion once a month, and I don't usually take it, not because I think myself unworthy but because I'm usually playing the piano. It's what I do. I don't really feel left out -- evangelical communion exists in a kind of mushy middle between a robust sacramental theology in which you might get to really eat Jesus and the table fellowship out of which the tradition sprang in which you might get to really eat food.

That night, though, the Host came wrapped in a corn husk and the Blood of Christ had a little bit of lime in it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Logical Song

This Sunday is the installation service for our new senior pastor. He was our associate pastor when the last pastor left, and as the story goes, he was not on anyone's radar -- including (or especially) his own -- when it came to hiring a new one. Over the course of the search process, however, he became our best candidate. The story might be spin, but it's believable knowing the folks involved, and I feel good about the outcome. The pastor and I are never going to be close, but we work well together and I like him. He's good at what he does, and possesses an admirable, even enviable character that will serve him well.

The installation service is kind of a big deal. Lots of ceremony, after a fashion, though we get to infuse it with our own sense of style. Our denomination is evangelical with Presbyterian liturgical roots, and while our particular church is kind of the 4077th of the denomination, there is still a sense of decorum invoked. The installation service is the last step in a series of criteria that either had to be met or appealed in order to make the deal final. I don't know what John Knox was like, but it's important to remember that Calvin was a French lawyer.

The service itself seems like a cross between an ordination and a wedding. This man is accepting a particular call and making a commitment to a particular congregation. One of the most moving things I think I've ever seen happened while I was on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Thomas Merton's old stomping ground. I was there with a bunch of other evangelicals and we had the opportunity to see one of the brothers take his solemn vows, the ones that would bind him to the order and to that monastery for life.

The service was gorgeous, a full Mass with all the bells and whistles and everyone in a fancy robe. I think the abbot wore a funny hat. There were readings and liturgical responses and a homily. The novice -- that's what they're called -- was asked a series of questions. It was formality, of course, since the novitiate (which usually lasts 3 years) was designed to test his readiness for the monastic life. If he'd gotten this far, everyone already knew his answer to the questions. And then, at the end, he was officially welcomed into the community. At this, he rushed (actually it looked like he leaped) into the abbot's arms and was embraced warmly. I don't know about everyone else in the room, but a rowful of Protestants sat blubbering at the beauty of it all. It was as though he'd waited for this his whole life, and maybe he had. I've seen couples saying "I do" that didn't look that happy.

Among the Benedictine vows is that of stabilitas, or stability, which means that a monk is committed to a particular community for life. Dispensations are possible, but rare. A monk might be set on assignment or be part of an offshoot monastery. He might be released from his vow to pursue a different vocation or join a different order, or of course he might just walk away from his vow and monastic life in general. But the ideal is to stay in one place, to pray and work, to cultivate, whether in the monastery garden or the hard stony ground of the heart, a sense of deep connection.

In many liturgical traditions there are baptismal vows of some kind or another. While many of evangelicals eschew such things (especially the hypericonoclastic Church of Christ I hale from), it's a long-attested practice and I think there's some merit to it. Evangelicals, for the most part, seem more interested in securing intellectual assent to theological propositions -- we'll say we believe it with our whole heart but we almost always mean our head -- but the baptismal vows speak to something that I think goes beyond the vagaries of what I happen to be thinking at the moment or the metaphysical commitments I'm willing to sign off on.

The closest I actually come to such a vow is a pact with a friend that neither of us can leave the faith (in the final, for-real sense) without first hashing it out together over a 12-pack. And the person leaving has to buy. I seem to have lost contact with this person, however, which might put a damper on the effectiveness of our pact.

I once tried to embrace a variant of the vow of stabilitas, not by taking an actual vow, but in making an internal commitment to a particular congregation. Our church at the time was really struggling, and there were all manner of tempting reasons to get the hell out of Dodge, but I could also look back on my life and see a history of leaving. "All I know to do," sings Indigo Girls' Emily Saliers, "is go." And I thought maybe it was time to suck it up and stick things out. Right about that time, of course, elements of the universe aligned to deliver us to the church we're at now. There may not be a God, but somebody sure likes to fuck with me.

So much for stabilitas. I also have other ways of lashing myself to the mast, though predictably I have trouble with which mast. I like to hang myself on the horns of false dilemmas, to try to seek clarity by invoking questionable dichotomies. There's the tug of war between my writer self and my musician self. I'm not really a musician, I muse, hoping that this realization will bring clarity to my path, but the evidence betrays me: I can't go five minutes without tapping out some polyrhythm on the nearest flat surface. I can tell you the chord progression of the song playing in the background at Starbucks. I have guitar picks in my wallet. Three nights this week are devoted to rehearsals, not to mention Sunday morning or the installation service, and just last night I sat in with an a cappella group that happened to be short a tenor.

So I'm a musician. Then I'm not really a writer. I'm not published, for instance, and I'm not making any money writing. But I teach writing -- and I'm not getting up at 4 in the morning to play the guitar, now, am I? People send me their work to edit and wordsmith. I'm constantly evaluating the things that happen to me and the stuff that I read to see if it is fodder for a blog post or my dissertation. I chose my advisor on the basis of what I thought he could do for my writing.

Can you see, though, how choosing one or the other would lend a kind of clarity to the process of identity construction? It works in other areas, too. Maybe I'm not really an academic. I'm not sure I'm interested in tenure track. I don't really want to write for scholarly journals so much as I want to write creative non-fiction. I'm bored silly by departmental politics (who isn't?). But I've been known to have conversations with my profs that lose everyone else in the room. In fact, I once lost the prof -- my religious studies teacher said "I see your lips moving, but all I hear is 'blah blah blah'" (I was trying to use Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem as a metaphor for epistemological vulnerability). I am at home in the classroom, and if I'm also more insecure about being a teacher than some of the other hats I wear, that's probably par for the course.

Or I'm not really a worship leader. Here I can muster some evidence, but we'll get to the actual religious stuff later. As much as I resent being a Chris Tomlin cover band, as much as there are days -- including Sundays -- where I'd rather eat shards of glass than hear, let alone play, another evangelical worship song, it's in my blood. The harmonies and arrangements come to me instinctively, almost in my sleep. There's no way to say this without sounding hopelessly self-aggrandizing but there's a kind of magic that happens when I'm involved with the music. I know how to hold things together. I know how to pour myself out as an offering and move a congregation. I know how to get musicians and singers to bring something out of themselves they didn't know was there. It's almost something that happens to me rather than something that I'm doing consciously. There's a reason that I've been asked to lead worship for the installation service, and I'm honored and humbled by that.

This goes for the big-ticket items as well. Maybe I'm not a Christian, but that doesn't explain my tendency to think in Biblical metaphors or the reality that if I'm a musician, I'm undeniably a church musician. I've tried walking away but it never takes. I end up like Jonah, getting swallowed by some great fish or another. It gets old. I need Jesus just as much as anyone esle. On the other hand, I can't deny being a skeptic, either. This, too, is in my blood. I'm not surrendering my critical faculties for the sake of a cheap sense of peace. I'm not giving up my hermeneutic of suspicion to anyone, including Jesus -- and if he can't take it, what good is he?

It's dangerous to be premature about such things but I think I'm at a place in my journey where the task is no longer one of discovery so much as choice when it comes to identity. I am all of those things, and I either have to choose among them or choose not to. It's the classic existentialist good news/bad news: you get to choose who you are, but you have to choose. Right now I get to be all those things, and while there may come a time that's no longer the case, at the moment there aren't any external factors dictating such a choice or demanding one to be made. Which is why I keep trying to make them up. And why they're false.

Maybe I need this kind of diversity, on all those levels. Maybe I'd chafe at being pegged to one thing. Maybe I'm a tent-dweller, waiting for the pillar of fire to move. Maybe being lashed to the mast is itself the problem. Maybe this is part of that thin line between being me and being batshit crazy. I'm willing to go with that.

Besides, I don't have the money for a 12-pack.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Open My Lips

I wrote this prayer for our run-through this morning:

God, who called Israel out of Egypt and who called Christ out of the grave and who calls us to a life of service:

Take our weary bones and put flesh on them, that we might embrace the weak.

Take our weary souls and breath life into them, that we might preach the good news to the poor.

Take our weary hearts and pour grace into them, that we might love sinners.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Grace Greater Than Our Sin

"How did you get through college?" the student asks me, and I chuckle. He looks a bit puzzled. "Why do all my professors laugh when I ask them that?"

"We laugh because we've been there," I say, but it's clear in that moment that he is deadly, earnestly serious. Behind in all his classes, he had made an appointment with me to see what he could do in my class to get caught up.

"I actually went to a counselor," he tells me. "Aren't they supposed to listen? This one let me get out about two sentences out before he just talked the rest of the time. It wasn't very helpful. So I've just been asking my professors how they got through college." He's a fifth-year senior, and I think he's probably weary of being in school and fighting himself for the wherewithal to just finish. I've definitely been there.

In fact, his question is timely inasmuch as I'm worried about how I'm going to finish a dissertation while teaching a 4/4 load and doing adjunct work as well as being on staff at a church. I love teaching. I love working. I have a hard time turning down gigs in an economy where at least 1 person in 10 doesn't have a job. Anyway.

"I got through college by mapping out my assignments," I tell him. "I went through all the syllabi and listed the assignments in order, and then just hammered away at them. By finals week I had all my assignments done. I was bored, of course, because everyone else was scrambling and didn't have time to hang out, but I got it all done."

The truth is I only did this full-bore for one semester, and I once flunked a poetry class because I didn't complete all the assignments. But he doesn't need to know any of that. He needs hope. He needs to know, like Jim Carrey's character in Dumb and Dumber, that there's a chance. The plan worked for me, and I still use a modified version of that plan to this day: I tackle things in the order that they're due, because otherwise I'll just do whatever seems interesting at the time. Like write a blog post.

"Even now," I continue, "I set up external rewards. Like if I get these seven papers reviewed, I can play some Mario Kart with my boys." He smiled at this. "If I get my quota done for the day, then I can crack open a beer or do some pleasure reading." He's over 21; I'm not going to shatter any illusions for him by admitting that his writing prof rewards himself with video games and a cold one. "It's basically a kind of auto-manipulation," I admit. "You trick yourself into being productive." This seems to connect with him. "I'm going to guess you're fighting yourself to get through this last semester" -- he nods knowingly -- "so fight dirty."

Maybe it sounds corny but I believe this is holy work. There is something sacred here, a channel of grace in the student-teacher relationship. I like teaching writing because I know they need the help and most of them know it, too. I like those moments when I can show a human face to the students, when I can be a person and treat them as persons. The university system (like many aspects of Western culture) has ecclesiastical roots, and there's a priestly element to being a prof. I dispense grace, after a fashion, and in this moment my office has become a confessional, my student a penitent sinner. It's my job to figure out the combination of Hail Marys, Our Fathers, and holy water that will bring absolution.

"Now," I continue. "You're telling me you have assignment 1 finished but you keep forgetting to email it?" He nods sheepishly. He's a little embarrassed by that, but I've been there, too. "Okay, so you're going to email that tonight." He writes this down. This gives me hope for him. "How long will it take you to write assignment 2?" About two hours, he tells me. That's about right. "When will you have a two-hour block of time to write it?" He tells me he has Friday open. "Okay, so Friday night you're going to turn that in. Assignment 3 builds on assignment 2. Are you going anywhere over break?" He's not. "Perfect. Then by Tuesday of break you'll turn in assignment 3 and be caught up in this class. I don't know what you're working out in your other classes, but that will take care of this one. Do we have a deal?" He agrees to this and we shake on it.

"One more thing," I say. "Don't tell anyone, but I secretly believe that being behind is its own punishment. If you can get this done and get caught up by Tuesday, I'll waive the late penalties -- but you have to get it done."

This, I can see by the way his face changes, is Good News.