Articles of Faith

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We are our own prisoners. We defeat ourselves, believing in defeatism, which is itself our own creation.

– D.T. Suzuki

Just because the vision blurs, this does not mean the eyes cannot see.

If you read my previous post, you know that I consider myself (to an extent) an atheist. Which creates certain difficulties when it comes to the idea of “faith.” There is a widely-held misconception that a turn to atheism is a turn away from “beliefs” in general; in fact, some atheist writers themselves insist that this must be the case, especially in terms of having faith, which to these thinkers denotes an acceptance of something intangible, something that cannot be seen.

Fair enough. But wrong.

I’ve always been a humanist, even in my most committed Christian moments (although it’s not really something you’re allowed to talk about as a Christian, since it is assumed that humans stand no chance on their own, without divine assistance). Having set aside the Christian identity, I’m free to embrace the humanist in me openly, without qualifiers. The moment that did it for me came at a roadside rest stop in West Texas, reading Malcolm Murray’s definition of atheism: the rejection of supernatural (metaphysical) agency. I’ve always waffled on the atheism concept because I refuse to reject the idea of the human spirit, which I believe firmly is very real. But I also believe that it comes from us, and not the other way around. We can call it “God” if we want, and it may be metaphysical (in the sense that it’s not “physical”), but it is most definitely not supernatural, and it definitely has no agency independent of the humanity from which it springs.

That in which I have “faith” is people, you and me, and particularly Us, and the things we could do if we could find a way to set aside all the details that separate us and really take up the humanity that brings us together. I have faith in human potential; I have faith that, somehow, somewhen, we will rise above and show the universe what we, as a species, can do.

Some might say that faith in the human spirit is as insubstantial as faith in an Absolute Being. I will admit that at times it feels as if this is truly the case. We often struggle to see the underlying goodness in people, hidden as it is beneath the layers and layers of distraction and deception time has piled on top of us. This is where Zen offers the most beautiful of insights: our nature, the Buddha-nature, simply is–beyond the categories of good or evil, above human constructions of beauty and ugliness. It IS. But as it is, it has become lost in the accretions of a species trapped in history and tethered to philosophy and intellect, driven by a need to analyze and categorize. It is our quest for understanding, expressed in the only way we know how, that has brought us to a place of self-dejection, self-repudiation. We live; we die; the cycle goes on over and around us, in spite of us, and the only way as semi-finite creatures to conceive of ourselves is to freeze ourselves in place, and confuse a mere snapshot for the whole of reality.

We see ourselves in our failures, and assume that failure is who we are. We see our hands about evil deeds, and assume they can perform nothing else. We stare into the darkness and decide there is no light.

In the end, as D.T. Suzuki wrote, we are the victims of our own creation: having convinced ourselves we cannot win, we set out to codify our perpetual defeat. We devise philosophical and religious systems to explain why we must decline, and those systems in turn become the boulder chasing us down the slope. Zen calls our attention to the homemade chains we wear, reminds us whose handiwork they really are, and that if we wish we may choose to cast them aside. Not that it is easy: seeing into the nature we’ve forgotten demands patience and determination, persistence in the face of a seemingly hopeless task, and the willingness to see past momentary failure to the everpresent promise of subsequent success.

The potential of human goodness lies in the recognition of human Being. If we are twisted, it is because we have so long insisted that it must be so. If our logic is flawed, it is because we believe it can be otherwise. If our system is broken, it is because we believe it must be fixed. To recognize the truth is to build upon it; to create that which is good is to embrace our nature as it is, to fill it with emptiness and watch it overflow.

In the words of John Daishin Buksbazen, “Remember who you are, and keep on going.”

With or Without You

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

– Emily Dickinson

They always told me: If you have faith “the size of a mustard seed,” you can move mountains. Problem is, mountains don’t move. And when you’re told that they can, and you aren’t able to do it…well, then, what does that say about your faith?

It’s not you, God; it’s me.

It’s July, 2011. I’m standing alone on a trail off of Cataloochee in the Great Smoky Mountains. It is quiet, and I am in turmoil. I’m still clinging to the tatters of my Christian identity, to what little is left of whatever divine dependency I might once have had. I speak into the stillness: “If you’re there, give me a sign.”

This scene has played out in my heart and in my mind a multitude of times over the previous two years, I the honest supplicant, God the (supposedly) loving auditor. Words run amok in my mind: “Whatever ye ask of me believing, ye shall receive.” And I believed, desperately. I had faith, if only the size of a mustard seed. I had doubts, but up until that day I also had faith. And there I was again, on my inner knees, begging for just one tiny proof of life.

Nothing. Silence. Complete and utter silence. Except for a rustling in the trees off to my left–a fisherman who, I realize, must have heard what I just said and is now convinced I’m insane.

But God? Zilch.

In that moment, a moment of absolute despair, the straw fell, the back broke, and I was done. The God who made a donkey speak couldn’t be bothered to speak to me. I had given up a whole life for him to climb into a pulpit and talk him up on a weekly basis, and when I needed him, he was not there. He was nowhere to be found.

As I stumbled back down the trail, fighting the tears and resisting the urge to scream profanities at the sky, I knew. I just knew. I’ve been called a doubter recently, with the best of intentions, but that’s really not an accurate description of my stance. In that moment, I didn’t doubt. I knew, in the pit of my stomach. I was alone.

At first, and for a long time, I was angry. That has faded, for the most part. In its place, there is now determination. I will not be a pawn in anyone’s game, no matter how monumental their cosmic powers.

Since that moment, my true moment of deconversion (to use the popular term), I’ve had my share of life’s well-timed insults. But I had my share of those before that moment, as well. Things have gone wrong; things have gone well. I have been sick; I’ve gotten better. Income has dropped; income has gone back up. I’ve had good days as well as bad. There is virtually no difference between my day to day existence now and my day to day existence before, except that now I sleep later on Sundays.

You might respond with the old story (and an old, old, old story it is): it’s not about this life; it’s about the next. Okay. Prove it. Prove to me that I ought to live this life in fear of what might happen after it ends. And then think about this: there’s a name for this sort of thing. When someone powerful tells someone less so that if he obeys, he’ll have a home and be taken care of, and if he doesn’t, he’ll suffer and die–we call that slavery. Read a history book. We call it slavery…unless we’re talking about God, in which case we call it love.

I. Will. Not. Be. Owned.

Don’t test the Lord, you say. Fine. As soon as it stops being okay for him to allow people to go through hell in this life just so they can sit it out in the next, and call it A Test. Then we can talk.

It’s not the desperate anecdotal efforts to prove that God works miracles that bother me. It’s that these anecdotal efforts serve only to underline the extent to which he does not. No self-respecting zoologist would accept the absence of the unicorn for proof of its existence, but millions of Christians throughout the ages have been taught to accept a chronic lack of action as proof of power (or at least not a denial of it). Like he didn’t act that day in the national park, or on any of the days prior to it, as I, the guy he knit together in my mother’s womb, slowly came apart at the seams.

I’ve somewhat accepted the “atheist” label now, for convenience’s sake, but again, not a strictly accurate description of my position. It isn’t that I believe there is no God. It’s that, even if there is, I have no faith in him. I have no use for him. Because, if he exists, he has not been faithful to me. He hasn’t been faithful to a lot of people. And a God who doesn’t act might as well not exist.

If my wife tells me she loves me every day, if she sacrifices for me, bends over backwards to show me how special I am to her, and in return I toss her in a puddle of crap and leave her there to drown; what’s more, if I tell her it’s her own fault she’s in the puddle, and unless she pulls herself out of it by way of proving her love, I’ll leave her there for good; and if I tell her no matter how much she tries to live up to my love, it’ll never be good enough for me; that she needs me in order to have value, and without me she’s nothing; that the only thing she can do is beg me for acceptance every day of her life and hope that I’m telling the truth, that in the end, I’ll make up for the abuse by giving her a great big hug and “wiping the tears from her eyes”; not only would that be an abusive relationship, but it would be fairly clear that she isn’t the problem.

So, God, if you’re listening: I was wrong. It’s not me; it’s you.

Two (or More) To Tango – Revised Ed.

Agnolo_degli_Erri_,_Dominicain_prêchant

I thought I heard the captain’s voice
It’s hard to listen while you preach
Like every broken wave on the shore
This is as far as I could reach

– U2

Listening is the hardest thing we will never learn to do.

Why? Because we take ourselves far too seriously. We give too much weight to the things we have to say. We assume our contributions to be greater than they really are.

Take this very blog, for instance: I would like to think that, from time to time, I say something someone might find encouraging or useful. But in and of itself, my little corner of the blogosphere really isn’t that important. To me, the Toad’s adventures may be truly great, but to others–to quote Randy Jackson–they may be “just alright.” Especially if I ignore everybody else’s.

Blogs are an excellent example of the fact that we’re far more willing to be heard than we ever are to listen. Case in point: Do we “follow” others because we really want to know what they have to say, or are we merely fishing for followers of our own? Mea culpa. If I’m honest, I’d have to say that even fifty-fifty is an estimate hopelessly lacking in self-awareness. I find myself “following” a couple hundred people, and paying attention to maybe a third of them. So I “purge the list” and heave a sigh of relief, only to find myself three months later back in the same over-crowded boat.

What I’m saying is this: I have 950 followers. To think that means I have 950 readers is just absurd. How do I know this? Because truth be told, I ignore most of the people I supposedly “follow.” There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Each of my however many followers each follow however many people, and will have just as hard a time keeping up with me as I with them. Bilbo Baggins said it best: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” And for this I sincerely apologize.

The truth is, I would rather have a small group of dedicated readers, of whom I could be a dedicated follower and with whom I could have a meaningful conversation, than a neverending list of faceless, unidentified “followers” and “follow-ees” with whom I never ever interact. This is do-able. There are enough hours in the day for that, easily. As long as I remember why I ought to be here.

At the end of the day, though, I find I don’t always want a conversation. I often just want to hear myself talk. And then I wonder why no one’s responding to questions I’ve never bothered to ask. Even now, see? Here I am, preaching again. No matter how hard I try, the sermon must go on.

Here’s the problem: by definition, we are pushers of what we believe in, simply because we believe in it. There is nothing wrong with that, and there’s really no way around it. But there is a very fine line between arguing that what we believe is right, and arguing that unless our interlocutors accept the rightness of what we believe, they are wrong. Once we cross that line, dialogue is dead. We’ve decided we know, which is a dangerous decision to make. More importantly, we’ve decided we cannot know more, which means we’ve decided there’s nothing more we can be taught.

If that day comes, we might as well pack it in and head for home. If, as the soldiers of GI Joe used to say, knowing is half the battle, then learning is the other. If I refuse to do that, then I’m fighting with one hand tied perpetually behind my back. And I can’t learn unless I listen.

And sometimes it seems I’ll never learn.

(Be)Li(e)ving Together

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There are many people who in the name of faith or love persecute countless people around them. If I believe that my notion about God, about happiness, about nirvana is perfect, I want very much to impose that notion on you. I will say that if you don’t believe as I do, you will not be happy. I will do everything I can to impose my notions on you, and therefore I will destroy you. I will make you unhappy for the whole of your life. We will destroy each other in the name of faith, in the name of love, just because of the fact that the objects of our faith and of our love are not true insight, are not direct experience of suffering and of happiness; they are just notions and ideas.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Let’s talk experience:

1) On Christmas morning of 2012, I found myself standing in a gas station in Bernalillo, New Mexico. The attendant, a Muslim man, reached across the counter to take my money and, smiling broadly, exclaimed “Merry Christmas to you!”

2) April 2003, Jackson Square, New Orleans: The Final Four is in full swing, and I am wandering through the French Quarter with an armload of little New Testaments and not the foggiest clue what I’m doing (that last part being completely in retrospect; at the time, of course, I thought I knew exactly what I was on about). As I walked through the park, I was hailed by a gaggle of transients deep in discussion, a comparison and contrast between the Bhagavad Gita and the Memoirs of Kurt Cobain. Why did they call me over? They saw my point of view in the bundle under my arm, and wanted to add my voice to the chorus. They weren’t afraid of the authoritarianism of the Bible; they just wanted to play with it a bit, and see how it might inform their way of seeing and interpreting the world.

3) May 2013 (roughly): I meet the Muggle. Up to this point, while I had encountered a number of atheists of the straw man variety, I had never interacted (at least not seriously) with one made of flesh and blood. And brains, it turns out. I was raised to fear these people: if God was the glue holding the world together, atheism was the turpentine dissolving his adhesive. In the Muggle I discovered, to my surprise, an extremely open individual willing not only to put up with respectful and well-considered disagreement, but even to entertain the potential validity of opinions other than her own. Color me surprised (and somewhat sheepish)…

None of this jives with the lines I was fed during the first several decades of my life. Everyone knows Christians and Muslims can’t mix, especially post-9/11, and in any case, one faith tradition cannot encourage another without descending precipitately into relativism and doubt. I thought about telling the guy he wasn’t supposed to do things like that, that as a Muslim he was supposed to hate Christians and everything they stand for, including and especially one of their chief holidays. (One wonders if anyone has ever bothered to ask him how Ramadan is going.) I thought about reminding him that, as a soldier in the ongoing culture wars, he ought to be burning manger scenes right and left, and doing all he could to take the “Christ” out of Christmas. But I just didn’t have the heart…

As for my gypsy friends in the Big Easy, I’d always been led to believe that non-Christians can have one of two reactions to the Bible: conversion or cardiac arrest. Furthermore, anyone who even considers the truths of any extra-biblical scriptures must be a non-Christian, an assumption which itself reveals the mental space I was in at the time. I have since had the great pleasure of meeting many Christians who are far more open than that in their approach to Truth, but it is a fact that many, many more refuse to look outside their own tradition for wisdom based simply on the fact that it comes from outside their tradition. I consider that one encounter to be a pivotal moment in my personal journey: there is always another perspective to be added to our understanding of the Absolute.

Finally, the atheists among me: simply put, atheists hate not only God, but anyone who believes in God as well. Or so I’d been led to believe. Then I met Madalyn (that’s street speak for the Muggle), and I realized how easily we allow preconceptions to cloud our ability to relate to people who don’t fall exactly in line with our own view of the world. I have learned a great deal from my Muggle friend, and I don’t mean just facts (although that, too). I have learned to be a better listener; I have grown in my courage to say the things I need to say, and not just the things others will like to hear. Most importantly, my faith in the possibility of civil, productive, respectful conversation and debate has been given a shot in the metaphorical arm. I am astounded once again at the fact that so many Christians, the “God’s love” folks, are less inclined to act in a loving manner than the evil, EVIL atheists I was taught to fear, who supposedly peddle only in a particularly nasty brand of nihilistic hatred.

Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted above, taught that the sound of a bell is equally clear whether it comes from Buddhist temple, Catholic cathedral, or Protestant church. In other words, we know the Truth when we hear it, and if we truly know how to listen, we will hear it (or at least the bits and pieces of it we’re capable of understanding in our finite, human Being) everywhere and in everything.

This life, as I see it, boils down to an ongoing search for meaning, and at the end of the day, everything means something. And no one can see everything. Which means we need each other’s eyes, each other’s perspectives. We need the seed of wisdom we each cultivate on our individual paths in order to glimpse the Garden in which we grow.

We need each other, not to become like each other, but because in our difference we complete each other.

What matters is not whether you agree with my religious views, or I with yours. What matters is what we each make of our views…and what they make of us.

Where the Walkabout Ends

**Last night, I participated in a gathering in which the subject of human mortality was raised. In response, I’m re-posting something I wrote for another of my blogs in May of 2014. If, as was ventured last night, our thoughts on death illustrate our attitude toward living, then here you have both, as I see them…

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

– Shel Silverstein

We’re all winding down the clock, working our way into Thomas’ “good night,” whether or not we rage in the process. And when the time comes that my plug needs pulling, I feel I should have the right to decide when and how it’s pulled.

This is a tough subject, a very loaded topic on which people tend to cultivate strong (and often stubborn) opinions, so I’ll try and tread carefully. It is also an issue which may fit awkwardly for some into the walkabout mentality, in which every day is an adventure, and every experience a treasure. So allow me to explain.

For me, the walkabout is about knowing my self, who I am both in the absence and the presence of others. It is about continual becoming. It is about, simply, being Me.

Every adventure along the way points toward one goal: the evolution of identity. As long as I am able to self-identify, that evolution goes on: each new day in the walkabout unveils a new piece, a new aspect, of who I am, who I can be. But there may come a time when all that is gone; sooner or later, the Vance-ness will begin to slip, I will begin to forget, either through age or infirmity, or both. The prospect of losing myself, of un-becoming, terrifies me–I cannot lie–unlike anything else. It is the ultimate threat, and it hangs over us all, sword to our Damocles.

The early Zen masters were renowned for their willingness to accede to the exigencies of mortality. Countless hagiographies end with the master “deciding to die,” meditating one last time, and then just going. This theme is meant to convey the true nature of Self-hood; as Seung Sahn taught, the original face has no life and no death, and the Dharma body does not disappear with the disappearance of the physical body. The Zen masters understood that their final breath was not the final movement in their symphony.

Interestingly, this is a key tenet, in one form or another, of most world religions: death is not the end. And yet…we fight, so hard. We confuse persistence with existence and the heartbeat with the mind (and the soul). My heart is not Me; remove it, hook it up to a battery, run a current through it, and it’ll go right on pumping. Put it in someone else, and it will serve them just as well. I am more than that, more than a machine with interchangeable parts. I am Mind; I am soul (whatever that construct may represent). I am my relationships, my emotions, my thoughts, my actions. I am my memories. Take those things away, and I am not me. Not anymore.

I have watched one grandmother descend into extreme senescence, another into perceived obsolescence, and my paternal grandfather into such a desperate state of cancer-related physical degradation as to be almost unrecognizable. From my very core, my being screamed out at the injustice of it, and at the notion of one day being myself in their shoes. No one should have to suffer the half-life of outliving himself.

One day, I will reach the pavement’s end. One day, my walkabout will be all walked out, and it will be time to face the weeds beyond. I do not fear that day, because in my Mind I know that meaning and mortality are not as inextricably intertwined as we sometimes assume them to be. Whether we believe in heaven, reincarnation, or none of the above, our essence resides as much in others as it does in ourselves, and we will go on in their hearts, minds, and memories. Like the argon in the breath of Alexander the Great, lodged still in unsuspecting lungs around the globe, I will linger. No, I do not fear death.

What I fear is the misapprehension of life, the desperate confusion of husk with heart. I fear no longer being myself. I fear the day the walkabout ends, and I (or others) insist that it has not. I fear the prospect of clinging to something that no longer exists: my Self. For Vance is more than a pulse; more than artificially pumped oxygen. Vance is me, and when he goes, so do I.

To those I leave behind on that day, whoever they may be, I say:

Look into my eyes, and see what you can see.
See if it’s really me
in there. And if it’s not,
hard as it may be, say goodbye,
heave a sigh, have your cry,
then let me fly, for I am
Free.

A New Day

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that to-morrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

– Lucy Maud Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables

Do what you love.

That’s what everyone says, anyway. Do what you love. Which leads me to ask:

What do I love?

If you’ve read my last few posts, you may have noticed a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain level of uncertainty, or ennui, or angst, or whatever the YA crowd’s reading about these days. A lot of that, I think, stems from the fact that I don’t really know what I love anymore. I’ve gotten so caught up in the daily grind that I haven’t really put much thought into it lately.

And I should. So here goes:

I love writing. That’s a gimme. More specifically, I love words. I love the power contained in such tiny vessels: one syllable can change the world, one letter can spark off unending controversy. You say homoousios, I say homoiousios. (What’s life without the occasional obscure church history joke?)

I love to travel. Balls to the wall. No preplanned tours for me. I want to mark out the beaten path, and then avoid it at all costs. I want the old diner by the side of a wooded, two-lane highway, where no stranger has gone before, and from which no one departs a stranger. I crave hairpin curves, iron lattice-work bridging, and populations under one thousand. That’s where the stories are. And I covet them.

I love food, but I’m not a foodie. I’m an anti-foodie. Someone once asked me whether I preferred quantity or quality. My reply? Why not both? I want a recipe as old as the woman preparing it, and her mother, and her mother’s mother. I want six-person capacity, classic fare: keep your truffles; I’ll take a slab of good, honest bacon any day of the year. And I want to eat that bacon elbow-to-elbow with Farmer Bob, while his John Deere waits patiently outside.

I love conversation. Which is why I prefer Farmer Bob to the faceless masses in overpass fast food wastelands. I love to talk, and I love to listen. I want to know what makes you tick; I want to know what you love. I want to share, and to be shared with. I love conversation because I love history, and I believe the history that matters is all the stuff of life unfolding around us all the time, each moment of every day. And I believe the only way we can save history from itself is by learning from each other, together.

Words. Travel. Food. Conversation. Put them all together, and what do you get?

Well…Me. The Toad. The longer I’m deprived of any of these things, the less myself I am. I am the words I write. I am the back roads I travel. I am the greasy bacon burgers I eat (which can’t be healthy, right?). And I am the dialogue I inhabit. My loves make me who I am.

So here I am. Being the Toad. Having great adventures, remembering who I am, and seeking out amazing people with whom to share it all.

And that’s you.

And thanks to you, the Toad goes ever, ever on…

Cabbages. And Kings. And Stuff.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

– Lewis Carroll

Allow me to introduce you to the Big Three.

The Big Three are the three moments, crystallized in my memory, that define my life as a minister. They are not good moments; they are not happy memories. They are a reproach, constant and unflagging, a chip I cannot dislodge from my shoulder, however hard I try. In many ways, they have brought me to this place, made me who I am today–a better man, I hope–but whatever good they have produced, I wear them, my albatross, with shame and regret.

I share them with you, and in sharing them, I share myself. They are my monsters, this is my closet. My cabbages, my kings.

1) Christmas, 2002 — Halfway through rehearsals for our annual “cantata,” we received news that the Methodist minister’s daughter had come out as a lesbian. And all hell broke loose. (Keep in mind that this wasn’t even our church.) We hatched a plan: what a perfect opportunity to share that Good News! By the next weekend, we had taken it upon ourselves to blanket the three surrounding counties–two in Missouri and one in Kansas–with a completely unsolicited mass mailing detailing the evils of homosexuality. We redefined “going on the offensive.” Now, I was just a lowly part-time youth and music minister at the time; I didn’t have a whole lot of say. Which works out well, because I didn’t say it. I didn’t say anything. And what’s worse–I wrote part of the horrible thing. Only the love part, mind you, only the plan of salvation. Only the part that explains how the only hope for all the evil gays and lesbians out there is to reject themselves as people and put on my name tag of choice. No harm, no foul, right? Come to Jesus, who loves you for who you are. But be sure to bathe first…

2) Winter, 2004 — I am now a full-fledged pastor in Robinson, Texas. I have been on the job for a total of four months. And I’m faced with a “fractious member.” I would like to tell you that I reached out to this person, helped him through a hard time, opened up a dialogue between him and the church at large. You know, all the stuff I go on about now. I would love to tell you that, but I can’t, because I didn’t. Instead, I dragged him out to the woodshed and “churched” him. Why? Because he believed a Christian could lose his or her salvation. And that’s not what I wanted my church to believe. For this piddly, sad little reason, I cast him into the proverbial outer darkness. A man who had emotional (and possibly mental) problems, a man who needed help. I had to protect my flock. From nothing at all. So I refused to protect him. From anything. And the cherry on top? When informed of what I had done, a local associational missionary summed up my actions in these words: “What a brave thing for a minister to do. That boy’s going places.”

3) Fall, 2006 — I’ve just performed my first funeral. A member of my congregation, not too much older than myself, had lost his wife to cancer. It was, as it always is, a traumatic experience for all involved. I thought of the man as a friend; we often talked, had heart to heart conversations; I felt that, of all the people in the church, he understood me best. When I, the poor part-timer, had a need, he stood up and filled it–a replacement for a busted thermostat in our rental house, a new laptop, whatever. He was a friend, a brother. And then…three months after his wife died, he came to me and told me he had met someone new, and asked me to marry them. Now, I had reservations about the timing–there were teenage daughters involved, the wound was still fresh, etc. But my real reservation was nothing so reasonable. This woman was a Mormon, see. And that, as I was taught, was a deal breaker. It was a clear-cut case of “unequal yoking.” So I said no. After everything he had done for me, I said no. But wait–that’s not all. Naturally, his whole family promptly left the church, leaving me to lick my principled wounds and spout pompous. I recently, in cleaning out my e-mail folders, came across a message I wrote to them, and the measure of my arrogance is hard to express. I was a giant prick. They were hurting the church; they turned their backs on me. I played the role of sacrificial lamb to the cotton-picking hilt. Oh my children–why hast thou forsaken me? Without batting an eyelid.

These memories are all bloody bullet holes in my heart, and they’ve never quite healed over. I am hopeful that at some point during my ministry “career” I did something good, but in the crunch of it all I folded like a cheap suit. And here’s the damnedest thing of all: as the minister’s handbook has it, I wasn’t folding at all. I was Taking A Stand. I was a flippin’ hero of the faith.

If I had to put into a nutshell the reason I left the church behind, well, there you have it. I hurt people; I turned them away from the one place supposedly defined by unconditional love; and in doing so, I Stood for What I Believed. The Lord is my shepherd. Now get the hell out!

It took me years to figure this out, but now I know. I see myself for who I was and what I was doing. I had this “treasure,” see, in a jar of clay. And it was nothing but cabbage. In the words of “Hawkeye” Pierce, “Don’t you understand, man? You’ve struck coleslaw!”

And no matter what I do, I can’t seem to get the taste out of my mouth…

 

 

The Internet Stranger

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut this is a song
for strangers in a car…
Baby, maybe that’s all
we really are.

– Marc Cohn

We don’t meet strangers. We make them.

I recently met some folks, previously known to me only via the Blogs, for the first time, and like an Austen character, I was announced upon entry as “The Internet Stranger.” (I am the Scarlet Pimpernel!!) I felt, on the instant, as if I should be caped and hooded, I should be Batman. Or at least the slightest bit mysterious. Stalking imperiously around the house, channeling Christopher Lee, laughing like the Count from Sesame Street, with constantly cocked eyebrow and penetrating stare.

But that would have been weird…

…And I digress. On reflection (which at the very least means I’m not a vampire), I ask myself: what is a stranger?

Are all the people we’ve never met “strangers”? Conversely, are all the people we already have, not? What makes someone a stranger to me? When we were children, it was simple: a stranger was some guy with a van, or anyone who offered us candy on the street. But as adults, the term is hardly so clear-cut.

Just yesterday, a fellow blogger noted that one of my older posts seemed like a letter I had written to her well before I even  knew who she was. That got me to thinking again. What if it was? Not to her, specifically, but to all the “Internet strangers” out there, written in the hopes that some of them might not be so strange after all.

This same blogger, in a recent post, asked an interesting question: faced with the ominous silence that often accompanies a blog post, why do we blog instead of just writing in a journal? Why do we keep putting it all out there, even when no one seems to be listening? Maybe this is the secret: diaries are great if you’re Anne Frank or Jan Brady, but at the end of the day, they are simply mute. You can pour your heart into them, but they will never offer anything in return. With blogging, there is hope. Hope that one day, you may get a “Polo!” in response to your “Marco!”

In blogging, we embrace an idea: the idea that strangers are only friends we haven’t met yet. Anne Shirley said it best: “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

Some people–family, so-called friends, co-workers–have known me for years, and don’t know me from Adam. Then there are others, whom I’ve never met, who’ve known me since the day I was born, and I them. We just don’t know it yet.

So, the next time that metaphorical car pulls up alongside, the door swings open, and a “stranger” beckons from inside, in the words of Marc Cohn, “are you gonna get in, or are you gonna stay out?”

Because that stranger may turn out to be a life-long friend you never knew you had.

The You-Turn

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…But is it in your conscience that you’re after
another glimpse of the madman across the water?

– Elton John

The way I see it, we have two choices in life:

1) We keep ourselves under wraps, we counterfeit (to borrow a term from a fellow blogger) our feelings, we censor our identities. And we live a half-life at best.

–or–

2) We come out of the shadows and we takes our lumps. And we set ourselves free to be who we are. We live authentically.

But disaster looms. Coming out of the closet–any closet–promises to reach into one’s life and unravel it, thread by delicate thread. It is bridge burning taken to new levels, and it is arson by one’s own hand. We wonder if the precarious structure we call identity will be able to withstand the ensuant tremors as we begin to plumb the fault lines of our existence. And we hesitate, one foot off the precipice, one foot on, hugging the edge for all we’re worth.

These are the moments in which purpose is forged. Not in any teleological sense: no one can see into infinity. Farragut had no assurances of victory when he uttered his famous words at Mobile Bay. But he knew he would accomplish nothing by simply remaining where he was, and he knew better than to think he could go back and maintain any shred of self-respect. So he damned the torpedoes–as we all must do at some point–and leapt into the fray.

Purpose is simply this: movement. Movement that reflects who you are. Movement that honors who you want to be. We cannot know what is out there, but we can set out to meet it. On our own terms. In our own way.

But movement is, by definition, away from something, and toward something else. It implies leaving things behind: the static things, the things we can’t carry. In some cases, the people or the places. The safe. The certain. The comfortable.

It may mean cutting ties. There are relationships in this world that lift you up, and relationships that hold you back. You will know them by their deeds. The ones that lift you up also let you go, give you your head. Reluctantly, possibly, at first, but faithfully throughout. They let you explore, become, grow. They let you Be.

The ones that hold you back will strangle the life out of you, if you let them. On a deeper level, they are not real relationships in the first place, because you are not really part of them. Not really. Only the part the other allows you to reveal, just a shadow, an outline. Hollow; shallow; false.

But they feel real. And it hurts when they fall away. Which is why it is so hard to leave them behind. They are the training wheels to our bicycles, the nets to our tightropes. But these things only blight our vision. Their sole purpose is to obviate our need for wings. They anchor us to the ground; they mock our dreams of flight. They whisper to us, cajole us–this is as far as you can go, so stay. Here in the darkness, where it is safe.

Which will it be: the shadow, or the light?

 

Pet Projects and Points of View

DSC_0712Those who live in the forest only ever see the trees.

– Me

I often speak metaphorically, and my metaphors aren’t always what you would call…well…clear. More often, people miss the metaphor altogether and take me far more literally than is ever warranted. Yesterday, I posted a thought that was either not nearly as deep as I thought (quite possible) or just misunderstood (still going with “not that deep”). So, I offer this by way of explanation:

We’re all familiar, I hope, with the old adage “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Meaning, of course, that when we allow ourselves to get too close to any given situation, it becomes almost impossible for us to see the big picture.

To this sage observation, I add the following caveat: Sometimes we insist on spending so much time on our forest that we forget that ours is not the only one, that our trees our not the only trees. In other words, we get so lost in whichever big picture we’ve chosen to inhabit, and so caught up in the minutiae of framing it, that we fail to see or appreciate the multitude of often beautiful pictures that fall outside our frames.

In short, we become tree-blind. Like its medical counterpart, snow-blindness, it is an ailment that may only make itself evident hours after the crucial moment, and long after we’re able to do anything to check its advance. We often miss our moment, not because of the “narrow-mindedness” of others, but because of our own tunnel-vision, our own dedication, to the point of myopia, to our one beloved cause. Whatever that may be. We’re so convinced we’re on the right track that the need for adjustment is unthinkable, unacceptable, ultimately impossible. In the words of U2, we’re “too right to be wrong.” We are, in other words, all the things we condemn in others, viewed in the mirror.

We live in the so-called “postmodern era,” an age of human intellectual development (defined, like all of them, ex post facto, and by humans) which supposedly eschews the meta-narrative–the overarching legitimating storyline–in favor of the individual stories of which any given human age is made up. This is fantastic, insofar as it encourages greater recognition of the many ingredients that make up the human soup in which we stew. Instead of using the building to legitimize the bricks, it uses the bricks to achieve a fuller understanding of the building they’ve been brought together to assemble.

However, there is a downside to this bias. We can become so caught up in the importance of the individual story that we forget there is still a larger narrative in which we all share. Postmodernism’s contribution to all this lies in teaching us not to be quite so confident in the nature of that greater narrative. Properly understood, it is an issue of composition: there is no predetermined story unfolding around us, willy-nilly; the story is not written until we write it; it is what we make of it. Unlike your standard literary endeavor, we are not written as characters fully-formed; we as characters are writers, forming steadily as we go.

And this brings us to dialectics, which is a conversation for another day. Suffice it to say that all advancement springs from conflict between opposites, and is to be found in the mean between the extremes. This is what dialogue is: the weighing of extremes in the interests of locating the mean. And as in mathematics, in order to determine that mean, we need all the values, from both ends of the spectrum. Otherwise, the solution will never read true.

My friend Madalyn said something, in response to yesterday’s post, that I find quite apropos: We need travelers. Not in the physical sense. Intellectually. We need people whose purpose in life is to step outside their ways of seeing, to map out the confines of their respective epistemologies and intentionally transgress those boundaries. People who truly seek to see through the eyes of others.

This is the only way to be the authors of the story we’re writing. We must write it together, and we must accept the editorial privileges of our fellow writers. Because the narrative is not mine, or yours, or theirs, or his. It is Ours.

We all have our pet projects and our particular points of view. But, if we’re not careful, a pet may turn on us, and it doesn’t take much for a point of view to become a blind alley.