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I’m one of those people that go through episodes of the Christmas funk each year. Aspects of the season piss me off and, yeah, just downright depress me: commercialism, the so-called “war on Christmas,” the pressure, the rush, the crowds, the bad music, the trite and obvious sentimentality and mindless traditionalism, etc. etc. blah blah barf.
Maybe more than anything it comes down to expectations and ideals that translate to mostly unmitigated crap in the real world. And let me be clear: the high lords of low culture, corporations, churches, the media–they’re all responsible for the shitty translation, but so are you, my friend, and so am I.
But there’s always something about the season that pulls me back, brings me joy and makes me feel good about not only the holidays, but about life, my life, us, all of us, the world.
So it was that the other day as I ventured into Silence and re-centering that I realized what it is that I so love and so hate about Christmas: it’s the humanity.
Of course for Jesus folk, that Christmas is human is eminently and immanently true. Christmas is when we choose to celebrate the singular miracle of Incarnation.
Atheist, pagans, etc., hang on, it’s yours too–I like to think there’s something here for all of us, whatever we do or don’t believe. As many of you smart asses are fond of pointing out, there are myths of incarnation in most every religion. That’s awesome; there you go. And obviously if you’re a godless humanist (sincerely, no derogation intended), the very need for incarnation is an absurd superfluity; so then why not take this opportunity to rejoice in the fact that for at least one moment–albeit each in his own goofy way–the rest of us are on board.
By my reckoning, at Christmas–if we do it right–we’re all Humanists.
And, now, forgive me, I’m going to indulge the peculiarities of the myth I believe. Please feel free to insert the greatness of your choice (“Greatness” itself, if you wish) where I’ve got Jesus below. That seems right to me.
Jesus was born.
Theists, soak in that for several minutes. If that’s not a disruptive thought, you’re not really thinking it.
Jesus came to the world an adorable–fragile, helpless, occasionally annoying–infant. He had to have his diapers changed. He cried and needed comfort. Let’s face it, unless you’re one of those people who just gets off on the whole baby thing (and, bless your hearts, there’s something wrong with you folks), for practical purposes, Jesus was worthless.
But there is something inexplicably and inexpressibly beautiful about a baby, isn’t there (damnit)–even in all of its worthlessness?
And there is value in loving what can’t really do much in return (not crying–the cessation of an activity it might not have started in the first place–or those sweet little smiles and giggles and snuggles, well, rationally speaking, those hardly count). And of course there’s all of that as yet unrealized potential–greatness we somehow innately perceive, despite the scarcity (or outright absence) of evidence.
As we age, most of us get gradually less cute, perhaps until that day we begin the regression into old age. We nevertheless continue to be human, to some degree at least.
I guess what I’m saying is that in some sick way, all of the politics, contention, cloying nostalgia, mediocrity–yes, even the awful music, disgusting commercialism and desperate, doomed attempts at things lovely and/or sacred–all of that failure and inadequacy and general brokenness and mess is inextricably human. Not to mention–but not merely–those times when by some act of Grace we actually get it right, when the song doesn’t suck, the food doesn’t make you sick, the gift isn’t a disappointment, the experience is ecstatic, the soul transcends nonsense to arrive at the sublime.
So as you’re putting up with people’s shit, imagine that you’re changing Jesus’ diaper. As you comfort that person whose problems and pain seem either trivial (at least exaggerated) or incomprehensible or, let’s face it, just their own damn fault, consider that you are in a sense (that I consider very real) holding a crying baby Jesus. How cool is that?
Those of you who are parents should especially understand this. My child was born on this very day, with Christmas looming. And I have never ceased to be startled and to wonder at how miraculous she is, even when I was changing those diapers, and even when I was never quite sure what the heck she was or was doing. She has always been beautiful and glorious, never stopped changing the world for the better. She started with her mother’s life and mine–even when her existence was little more than abstraction, then a protruding belly, then a bloody, gooey mess, through colic and on to many more obviously marvelous things.
She moves the world now, not merely with her kindness and wit, but in secret ways that most of you probably wouldn’t begin to understand and in ways that maybe only a father can see.
If you love anyone, are glad for or hope in anyone–even yourself, but especially some other–Christmas is for you.
Merry Christmas. Or, for Christ’s sake (for your own sake, really), find something and someone to celebrate, find some way that makes sense to you to make the days holy. Happy Humanity.
I have a lot to say about Blue Like Jazz, the movie, which opened today. But it’s proving to be too much for me to condense and a tad confrontational. I think I need more quiet time to process, and maybe get my attitude in check. That probably won’t help, except that I might piss off some of you later rather than sooner.
Even though I haven’t figured out how to tactfully say everything I want to say, I can say a few things for sure:
1. This is not a typical “Christian film.” Those who made it don’t even want to classify it that way. Given the quality and tone of most Christian films, I don’t blame them. But I think it would be disingenuous to deny that it comes from a Jesus-oriented sensibility (and, for the record, I don’t think they do deny that).
2. It’s surprisingly authentic and open. Clearly for some folks it’s a little too authentic. But, call me crazy, I kinda think films about faith and spirituality should be authentic.
3. If you’re not a Christian, this is one film about faith that might not make you hurl. And if only for the last scene, I beg you to see it. Please. If you’re totally disappointed you’re welcome to rail at me later. For those of you have been damaged, please be assured, there’s not an altar call or a salvation prayer or an Amway commitment or an RNC platform statement at the end.
4. If you are a Christian, you especially need to see it. I feel pretty good about not telling you (aside from what I’ve already suggested) the many reasons why.
5. If you read the book, I’m guessing you’re interested in seeing it already. It’s different from the book and in some good ways. They created more of a narrative but they managed to capture the spirit of the book and many of its most powerful moments.
6. You should see it with someone you love and/or disagree with and talk (or argue or make obscene gestures) about it afterward. For believers that someone could be God. For many of you that someone can be the other, unnamed (or, hell, named) voices in your head. But a flesh-and-blood someone that you can (but probably shouldn’t) punch (I’m not sure why I chose that image to convey tangibility, but I’m sticking with it) would be awesome.
In addition to seeing an advance screening of the film, I recently re-read the book.
It’s been eye-opening, perhaps more than anything for how I’ve changed since I first read it. I probably disagree with more of it now than I did then, but I still think it’s a great book and I still recommend it (I’m happy to say that a friend at work recently read it on my recommendation; yay for people who read . . . and who take suggestions; by the way, she liked it, or at least she said she did).
IMO, the book and the film address many of the things about faith that church folks are often unwilling to talk about. And it doesn’t reduce them to narrow and formulaic answers. As much as anything it asks questions. I think asking questions is a good thing.
So is looking for the answers; maybe this is just me, but I think looking the answers is a helluva lot better than having them shoved down your throat.
Please see the film this weekend. It’s excellent. It’s unusual. It’s liable to not be in theaters too long precisely because of those two characteristics.
Christians piss me off.
God bless ’em, they’re family and I love ’em but most days too many of ’em make me mad as hell. And that means something. ‘Cause I believe in Hell (though, just to provoke my Christian friends, I have to point out that I’m not sure if it’s a “place” or more of a spiritual construct, and I have all sorts of issues with eternal damnation; but let’s ignore that for now).
I’d like to introduce you to a couple of Christians who don’t piss me off. Their names are Jen and Jeremy Price.
Jeremy is a frighteningly earnest, athletic young man with–based on my interactions with him–zero capacity for bullshit. He’s also a musician with a singular and compelling voice.
Jen is quiet and smart. She was her high school’s valedictorian, but chose training in the ministry over a plethora of post-secondary options that would surely have been more lucrative.
Part of why I remember Jen’s situation is that my daughter, Christine, was a salutatorian contemplating a similar move. Jen was kind enough to chat with her about it and careful not to push her one way or the other. As it turns out, Christine concluded it was best for her to get her degree, which she did (in Math). Christine is now on staff at the House of Prayer in KCMO, for any of you who don’t know.
Jeremy and Jen are young, energetic, intelligent, creative. They have beautiful kids and seem like loving parents. They’re the kind of couple contemporary churches would love to advertise on their billboards. Honestly, I’d like them even if they didn’t do what they do.
But here’s what they do:
Jeremy and Jen started (note: they didn’t “join” or even “encourage someone else to start”; they realized no one else was doing what needed to be done so they naively stepped out to do it themselves) a program building homes for and ministering to AIDS orphans in Africa.
You might know that the AIDS epidemic is ravaging the African continent. But if you’re like most folks, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences for the children of Africa–children whose parents are dead or dying, whose extended families are absent or abusive; children who, at 14 or 10 or 3 years of age, have been raped and exploited; children who have been utterly abandoned and who themselves might be afflicted with AIDS or other debilitating illnesses.
Jen and Jeremy visited Africa; they saw the devastation; it broke their hearts and they were ruined for anything else.
Jen and Jeremy started an organization called Ten Thousand Homes to build those homes and save those kids. It’s hard work. Messy work. I’ve heard stories from folks who have worked with them about shacks where the stench of disease and human decay was enough to make even those with a strong constitution literally bend over as if they’d been punched in the gut. I’ve seen hardened men broken and in tears over the suffering they’d witnessed.
Jeremy and Jen and their teams walk into those homes and they tend to their inhabitants, touching festering wounds that, I’ll be honest, I don’t even want to think about.
Jeremy and Jen and their teams bring those kids out; they build them decent, clean, durable homes. They care for them (and not just for the kids but for adults as well). They love them–tangibly and wholeheartedly. And they bring hope.
When I listen to Jen and Jeremy talk about their work, they seem entirely unimpressed with themselves. They just know something needs to be done and they seem sincerely grateful that they’re the ones who get to do it.
When I listen to them and look in their eyes, I don’t get the impression that they’re doing what they do because “Jesus told them to.” Don’t get me wrong, they love Jesus and would do whatever He asked. But I get the feeling that they volunteered and, if we can turn this around a bit, they love Jesus even more because they continue to discover that He cares about these kids as much as they do.
I dare you to be cynical about the Prices and their work. I dare you to tell me that it doesn’t matter. I dare you to pretend that it’s not exactly what Jesus would do, what He repeatedly told us to do, what the Prophets, in the name of Yahweh, consistently cajoled us to do. You can do all of that, of course, but you’d be a liar and the worst kind of coward.
My friend Brett (Brett is also an incredible guy, by the way, a bright, articulate and compassionate young man who writes one of my favorite blogs, which you can find at bretttilford.com) and his brother Josh (Josh seems a lot like his brother; I just don’t know him as well) are hosting an event for Jen and Jeremy August 4 at a hip cafe in Deep Ellum. There will be music and art and a bunch of great people just hanging out and celebrating Ten Thousand Homes. You can find details at One House One Night.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that most of you have nothing more important to do that night. If you stay home and watch TV, I will be personally disappointed. Chrissy and I will be there, but, rest assured, if I’m being too loud or obnoxious, you’re entitled to walk up and tell me to STFU; it’s my gift to you in exchange for your joining us that evening.
If you claim to love Jesus, you need to come learn more about this amazing group of people and what they’re doing and, let’s be honest, you probably need to get up off your ass and do something yourself. If you don’t call yourself a Christian, I encourage you to show up and I challenge you to walk away thinking that Christians are all self-absorbed and shallow and that their faith counts for nothing.
Or, like I said, you can stay home and be a cynical coward.
Don’t dawdle checking out the site, One House One Night; they’d like your RSVP by July 21. We need to fill that place. I will personally track you down and whisper obscenities in your ear (no, not the sexy kind, unless I decide that would make you more uncomfortable) if you wimp out on us.
I’ve been blessed with a beautiful wife (two, actually), an amazing daughter, a family that loves me, some great friends. I’ve lived a good life, got a college degree and had a reasonably meaningful and enjoyable career. And I’m pretty sure that Jesus loves me.
Yaknow, when I write that down, it sounds like a note of passing. It isn’t–at least it isn’t meant to be.
My fear is that it might be.
That fear isn’t based on health concerns or the lack of opportunity or even the lack of resources. Sure I wish I had the health and physical stamina of my 18-year-old self; I wish I was independently wealthy and knew all of the right people and all of the right tricks, had all of the right points of access and knew all of the best shortcuts to turn my dreams into reality. But a lack of resources (physiological, fiscal or otherwise) isn’t what’s kept me from realizing my dreams.
For the most part, when I imagine the gossamer-titanium membrane that separates imagination from actuality, a helluva lot of it comes down to, well, fear.
A few fears that come quickly to mind:
1. Disappointing and alienating the people who have proven themselves more than willing to forgive, accept and persist in their irrational love for me, whatever idiotic thing I do or, on the other hand, whatever simple act of decency I fail to do.
2. Offending religious and/or social conservatives with my foul, fucking language.
3. Showing myself to be not merely liberal but an off-the-reservation, anti-establishment, commie, universalist blasphemer against every sacred tradition or cherished family/American/Christian value.
4. Showing myself to be not merely conservative but an intractable, sycophantic, nostalgic reactionary, cleaving like a scared, hungry baby at the mother’s tit of the most illogical, regressive, outmoded beliefs.
5. Being arrogant.
6. Being stupid.
7. Showing myself over- or under-educated.
8. Failing to sufficiently reference my thoughts to the history of thought.
9. Bogging myself down by being pointlessly referential and allusive.
10. Saying the obvious.
11. Saying what everyone else is already saying or has already said.
12. An inability to translate my weird ass thoughts into words that not only make sense to another human being but successfully communicate what it is I actually mean.
13. A maddening desire to fully qualify and contextualize every statement.
14. A bad habit of saying things that are easily taken out of context and inevitably piss people off.
15. Being wrong.
16. Being right.
17. Being too early, too late, right on time.
18. Being irrelevant.
19. Appeasing the masses; being a populist demagogue.
20. Appeasing any of a number of self-appointed, self-righteous oligarchies of elites (whom you can always identify as such by their impassioned accusations against and vilifications of the other oligarchies).
21. Being too enamored of my own thoughts and/or the sound of my own voice.
22. Saying what I have to say in a way that is uninteresting, inelegant, ugly.
23. Being just a “thinker” or “word guy.”
24. Not being any good at even that.
25. An obsession to be comprehensive.
26. Being longwinded, verbose, redundant.
27. Incomplete lists.
So here we go. Let’s just face into some of these fears with a few guarantees:
1. I will continue to wrestle with my demons and will likely be held back to some degree by my fears. I don’t resign myself to bondage, but at this point in my life I no longer believe that regurgitating positive incantations and forcing my mind through tritely optimistic formulae will banish negativity, satan, poverty, halitosis, illogic, rationality or what-the-hell-ever-else is blocking me or chafing my short hairs.
2. I will disappoint you. I’m just gonna have to trust that the people who love me will continue to do so and that my being who I am won’t make them ill or prematurely gray or pathologically disillusioned. Or maybe they won’t love me. Or maybe they will love me and all of those curses will fall on them. I love them but they have to live their own lives, just as I have to live mine.
3. Sometimes I will say things that make no sense.
4. Sometimes I will say things that don’t need to be said.
5. I will sometimes trip (or run headlong) into vulgarity and blasphemy.
6. I will continue to resort to bullsh** neo-victorian euphemism and typological trickery to satisfy my own need to not feel like I am that much of a potty mouth or unsophisticate.
7. I will occasionally (or frequently) rant, whine and pontificate.
8. I will repeat myself.
9. Some of my ideas will be ill-conceived.
10. Others will be poorly expressed.
11. I will probably plagiarize (though, I hope, unintentionally).
12. Most of my conservative friends think I’m liberal. Fuck it; I’ll wear that label if it makes them happy.
13. Some of my liberal friends wonder why I cling to the backward vestiges of sectarianism and superstition. Fuck it. I love Jesus. I believe in fairy tales. I pray to an invisible God who committed genocide and sanctioned incest. Sue me.
14. I will hate every label and system and structure you try to fit me in.
15. I will continue to strive to define myself (or hear for myself from the heart of God who I am). I will probably take your definitions too seriously, but in most cases I will ultimately dismiss them.
16. I like words–pretty, ugly, arcane and obtuse, monosyllabic and simple, pious, profane, frustratingly vague, painfully precise, etc. There are enough of you bastards that obviously don’t; I’m pretty sure it’s okay that a few of us do.
17. I like to think. Not that I’m opposed to doing. I do some things. But I’m no longer content to restrain my thoughts because I don’t have a three-point action plan to accomplish them.
This is who I am and who I’m deciding to be. You might not like it. Feel free to express your disagreement. Feel free to join the billions who don’t read what I have to say.
Or feel free to join me. I mean this to be fun. I mean it to be meaningful. I mean to actually follow through this time; I like to believe that I’ve finally found a way to pretend that I don’t give a damn what any of you think (it’s a lie; I do–at least sort of) and can in fact say what’s on my mind, instead of always settling for an unreasonable facsimile thereof (that might be a lie too: I’m not sure we ever get the “real” thing; but I’m willing to risk getting closer than I usually dare).
I had a thought this morning about prayer. It’s not really a new thought (I’ve had it and heard it before in a variety of forms), but it struck me with vitality. And I’ve been meaning to blog. Lucky you.
Most of what we do in the name of prayer (and, by extension, most of what we do in the name of worship and religion–or for all of
you us pretentious bastards, “spirituality” or “relationship [with God]”) is just noise–a straining of our voices and a flailing of our arms; incessant, senseless striving. If we’re lucky, despite all of that nonsense, we stumble upon a moment in which we hear the voice of God. I’m pretty sure that that fleeting moment is the only thing that can rightly be called “prayer.” The rest is waste.
I’m not at all convinced that there’s any causal relationship between the noise and the moment. If there is I suspect it mostly amounts to this: we reach a point of exhaustion in which, by God’s grace, we find ourselves, one way or another, unable to speak or act or even will ourselves Godward. Somehow I think it still matters that we at least have an intent in our heart in Her direction but that thought may merely reflect my lack of enlightenment. And, yes, I reckon “intent” as qualitatively different from “will.”
Okay, there’s that and the fact that all of our meaningless “spiritual” noise temporarily displaces
all of our other distractions. But that displacement is at best a nearly-incidental medial point and should not be (though it usually is) mistaken for the moment or its cause.
In the months during which I finally lost hope in philosophy, ironically, I read some of the best philosophy I had ever read. One of my favorite encounters during this period, a guy named Marcel, said something about our inability to apprehend Truth except “out of the corner of the eye.” Maybe that’s true because even our eyes are frenetically, spastically overactive. Maybe this excess of overactivity (yes, that’s a redundant superlative; deal with it) is closer to what the writers of Scripture mean by “lust.”
Whoever you are and whatever you think you know, the title of this post is my advice to you, to us. Of course the very nature of the advice provokes our minds to war against its intent.
Nothing cute. Not even an attempt at clever. Here goes.
So today I’m hangin’ with a bunch of good Christian folks, listening to a Baptist preacher talk about forgiveness. He had many good things to say. I’d venture that we could all stand to hear more about forgiveness and I admit to being much edified by his exhortations.
But, you know me (those of you who know me–and I’m pretty sure you’re most of who reads this blog), I’ve got to pick my nits. Three big ones:
1) In the midst of saying that forgiveness isn’t a one-time event, that we have to continue to forgive the same offense and that we shouldn’t be surprised or discouraged by this fact, he had to go and say that salvation is the one thing that’s once and done. And he even used the language of trusting Jesus: as in, trust Jesus that one time and you’re good. It’s just way too ironic, if you ask me; and if you don’t see the irony, I doubt it’ll do much good for me to try to point it out. I may or may not agree with the doctrine (and, really, my argument with traditional soteriologies goes way deeper than the fluff of eternal security). Here’s the core problem: our distorted preoccupation with it is clearly counter-productive. Born-agains (and I’ll just go ahead and count myself among you) blab all of the time about relationship, but most of our theology belies it. I ask you this: what kind of marriage ends with “I do”? And is this whole God thing just a ruse? Are we mostly intending to use the Almighty as an access ramp (a ballsy maneuver, I must say) to “eternal bliss” (whatever the hell that means), or are we really interested in One Thing? Decide for yourself. I’m interested in God, in relationship, in genuine intimacy. And I’m uninterested in contorting the reality of that relationship to make my systematic theology more comfortable. Completely. Uninterested.
2) I think we spend way too much time talking about the fact that we all deserve death. Maybe that makes me a bad Christian. Probably. Okay, label me. I don’t feel any different.
3) He made some great points about actually reckoning the wrong that’s been done against us. Denial isn’t forgiveness. Here’s my problem, though. It gets back to item #2. People, it seems to me, are relatively easy to forgive. They are weak, ignorant, damaged. They are, in other words, too much like me. If I can’t forgive y’all, well how in heck can I expect to forgive–and be forgiven–myself? Jesus was right (damned irritating habit He has): “they know not what they do.” We act upon our hurt and insecurity, and, God bless us, we’re mostly friggin’ clueless. And it seems to me that too much of our practical theology focuses on holding the clueless accountable. There, I said it. Again, maybe it makes me a bad Christian to feel that way. So be it.
And here’s how all of this fits together, here’s the rub. By my estimation, we spend far too much of our time, as Milton so nobly and foolishly set out (and in the process, joined cause with Job’s “friends,” and brought great, undeserved praise to the accuser) attempting “to justify the ways of God to men.” It’s come up far too often in my spiritual journey for me to feasibly deny: the one I have a hard time forgiving is God. If anyone is accountable, it’s Him. If anyone has what to answer for (and wherewithal to do it, I might add), well, He’s the one. And I’m not righteous like Job, but I presume to ask that God answer for Himself. I’ve not been much impressed by what most humans have to say on His behalf.
And, if I may, I’d like to piss off the rest of you by saying that I don’t want any of your weakass sh*t about God not existing. Yes, it’s probably the case that I’m no longer capable of comprehending such a possibility and maybe that’s one of my weaknesses. And I hasten to add that I have great respect for some atheists. Here’s my problem with the default to disbelief: more often than not, it’s a cop out. More often than not, it’s simply a matter of our not being able to fit God in our heads or make sense of what He does. Let me say it as clearly as possible: that God is nonsensical to me doesn’t mean She doesn’t exist; that I can’t render Her as a wholly palatable idea (and here’s the critical error, I think: we’re committed to God more as an idea than a person) that fits in my puny heart doesn’t mean I should give up on Her. I don’t know about the rest of you, but that just makes the pursuit more exciting.
I close with this. I love God. In my own weak way, I love Him, Her, Hirm. What’s more, I like Hirm a lot. And we have our sweet moments. I consider this journey one toward a truer reconciliation. I don’t expect it to be painless. And I’m not looking for a divorce. But I’m sick of platitudes and easy outs. If we’re going to do this, let do it for reals. I mean to be naked before God. (S)He sees my nakedness anyway, doesn’t S(H)e? I’ve spent too much of my life lying in the name of and for the sake of religion.
So I present for your consideration (of course, as with every topic I introduce, I’ll attack it intermittently; but this, I think, is at the core of all of my considerations of faith and doubt so maybe it’s subtext to all of the other nonsense): the impossibility, the necessity, the quest of forgiving God.
You start a conversation; you can’t even finish it.
You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything.
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?
Talking Heads: “Pscho Killer”
No, I’m not quite sure why I’m leading with that quote. But I felt that I had to. The potentially sad thing is that I love this song and I will reflect upon it again. But there are far worse things than your being overexposed to the frenetic, syncopated wisdom of the Heads.
I live on the Writer’s Block. That could mean something delightful. I mean the less hopeful thing.
I have so much to say–or at least so much that I think I should say (yes, I acknowledge that I might be wrong). That is the irony of this blog where I never write.
It’s just that the things that are important never seem quite ready. So I sit and wait or even strive for something that is ready but still meaningful–meaningful enough. Or I forcefully roll around the important stuff again, hoping to stumble across the turn of phrase or structure that might finally work.
It is sad, and I might shouldn’t (Lord, I don’t know why that construction so amuses me) admit this, but: I probably spend more time thinking about writing, thinking about words to throw out at an unsuspecting world, than I do most anything else. Sometimes I even practice my conversations with God. That’s probably not uncommon, but it is wonderfully ironic. We laugh about it together, God and I; of course, He’s laughing before I’ve settled upon how I want to say it to Him.
What’s sad isn’t so much that I rehearse my words (at least I don’t think it’s sad; I don’t think that any more at least). What’s sad is that I have so little to show for it. My words are not brilliant, honed by practice. I am not stunningly prolific, the fruitful volume a product of my obsession. I’m just another mediocre wannabe (please, let me at least bask in that). Who doesn’t write. Or who writes but hasn’t yet found a way to shake the foundations of the earth.
What’s funny is that the words I rehearse are rarely those that make it to the page. I’m pretty sure that, whatever joy they bring me in the moment of their conception, they are only a warm-up, or maybe the calisthenics whose application isn’t obvious until the time of crisis. “Wax on. Wax off.” Actually, that’s kinda hopeful.
Maybe I’m pushing it too hard. I’m a firm believer in the process of fermentation and in the truth beheld out of the corner of the eye. Maybe I should stop stirring it so much and just let it sit. I do need to find some quiet, empty spaces. Maybe I shouldn’t stare so long at what I hope to see.
At the same time, I know that I do lack discipline, focus and genuine commitment. It doesn’t seem that one would have all of these problems at once–that one could be both undisciplined and obsessive–but I’m pretty sure I am. And it does make sense. It makes too much sense.
But this isn’t meant to be an exploration of my problems writing, or, um, not writing. Ha. That’s too important. That post isn’t ready.
Oddly enough, what I mean to say is this: I’m not quitting. I think my meaningless words do matter. I think there is hope in my hopeless rambling. I will make noise. However inconsistent I am still committed and I am at least hanging on. I am a writer, goddamnit, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. And there are moments when I don’t even care whether I am a good writer; likewise, there are moments when I do care. No, I’m not sure which is more important.
Horton, can you hear me? Can they hear me?
I have some saddish stuff to say–not necessarily immediately, but eventually, and not continually, but at least occasionally.
And you will perhaps feel the urge to, in those timeless words of Mr. T., “pity da fool.”
Please don’t. Or please, at least, don’t feel any obligation to do so.
I’ve come up with literally (the literal “literally”, not the figurative “literally”) dozens of arguments against your pity (and may share some later), but for now I’m going to share just a few and, I hope, concisely.
It’s not that I’m opposed to pity per se. Pity, in its purest form is truly divine. Indeed–and especially within the last 18 months–I’ve gladly given and received it, a lot. And to those who have been the source of what I’ve received: thank you, deeply and sincerely.
And maybe that’s part of my aversion. I’ve received so much and I’m not sure I’m worthy of any more–certainly not any more than anyone else. Yeah, just the thought of it makes me feel guilty.
Pity can also be a bit oppressive. In some sense it implies a response of further sadness. It can be a sick cycle, really. You pity, the one pitied is further immersed in sadness, provoking more pity and so on; and if we’re not careful, we all end up depressed and suicidal. Well, okay, it’s maybe not so bad; it can be, but, thankfully, someone usually eventually gets the point and jumps the loop (which, unfortunately, still sounds like a euphemism for offing oneself). And I do hasten to clarify that the proper response isn’t to carefully tiptoe around the sadness. The pitied know they are sad and your careful avoidance only accentuates what a mess they’re in. As best you can–for what it’s worth, IMO, take it or leave it, et al.–don’t shower the pitiable with obligatory pity but don’t pretend there’s nothing wrong or that it can’t be talked about; just be and be honest. I know that’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
Yaknow, come to think of it, that’s my main point. I want to probe this stuff, walk through it, unpack it. I want to dig into it like it’s a clearance rack of genuinely underpriced, actually valuable stuff (we all have stuff that matters to us; pick yours–it need not be material stuff–and the metaphor will work). Not the crap that’s usually–brightly and hopefully, in large, friendly uppercase letters on a field of obnoxious orange–emblazened with that invitation. There’s something good amidst the crap, buried perhaps, but still present.
It’s not so much a clearance sale, but more like an unwanted shopping spree. You didn’t buy it–at least you didn’t mean to. But they took your money–took more than your money, took most of what mattered or made any sense or had any value, at least most everything that you could hold and call, however imprecisely, your own. However unwillingly, you’ve paid the price. And, now goddamnit, you’re going to get something out of the exchange (though even calling it an “exchange” is the kind of affront that makes you want to throw up and punch somebody simultaneously–which would be a neat trick and, I imagine, potentially both satisfying and uniquely effective).
So now the price has been paid and all that’s left is to pick through the cheap baubles and find something worth salvaging. And what I’d really like, if you don’t mind my asking, is someone at my elbow to say, “Yes, Joel, that’s a keeper” or “Please, no. You don’t want that worthless sh**; just let it go.” This is a blog. Blogging is about open expression and dialog. Let’s dialog.
And here’s the other thing. I’m sometimes sad, but I’ve no interest in being morose and I will in one moment weep but even in the apparently same instant laugh–perhaps, you might think, inappropriately. I want to have fun and be amused and, frankly, whether you like it or not, I’m going to. I also want to be ruthless with the truth, want to beat it to a bloody pulp if I have to, and if either of us is tentative or inhibited, that kinda gets in the way. My point: if you want to laugh, please do; if you want to confront my intellectual dishonesty or sloppiness, please do. Don’t worry that the protocol of pity forbids it.
Well, that’s probably plenty of mixed metaphors for now (I have more and will pull them out later, lest you feel it is not).
I’m asking you not to pity or at least not to excessively express pity. More precisely what I’m asking is that you feel no need to pity. It is a favor; I don’t deny it. And you may deem me unworthy of such a favor and presumptuous to request it. But, there, I asked.
More transparently, I confess to you that this whole business of pity and obligations and expectations ends up functioning as Resistance. I will say more of Resistance but for now know that it is essentially this: not writing. Which brings us back to the beginning: I have some things to say–some things I feel I should and must say. Perhaps my request will deflect a few distractions. If nothing else, this public declaration is cathartic and helps me step around them. Come up they will, but I said I didn’t want them, so, no offense, I’m stepping past them. In truth, I’m still quite open to pity; I’d just rather not be bogged down by it here (ha: blogged down), if that makes any sense . . . and even if it doesn’t.
In homage to his T-ness, with an obtuse allusion to Adobe, I’m considering marking the most ostensibly pitiable posts with the category “PDF,” yaknow, so you’ll be warned. And I admit, I think it mildly clever. Very mildly. Almost unnoticeably. Don’t pity that I’m cleverness challenged; that’ll really piss me off.
I’m going to try to do more linking to other people’s blogs instead of jamming them with my comments. It seems better in lots of ways. So here I go.
A conversation I had yesterday and two blogs I’m reading have today reminded me of a couple of core convictions. By the way, these blogs are excellent, so I encourage you to explore beyond the posts I cite.
Brett talks, in the cited post, about Truth, and June about Grammar, but my takeaway from both is that the world is a beautiful place and we’re never quite capable of capturing either its beauty or its horror strictly with rules and formulae and such–which is not to say that we shouldn’t still try.
A commenter on June’s blog, a teacher, points out the paradox of grammar: that one first learns its rules, then how to bend them. I’ve decided, after several (not an enormous number, but more than a few) years on the planet that that’s one of life’s most important themes. I can think of no field in which it does not apply. At every point of revelation, some “truth” we’d been taught to get to that point is exploded by another or simply dissolves in its own insubstantiality.
That doesn’t mean it all dissolves, that there’s nothing substantial or absolute, but mostly perhaps that our plight is one of perpetual misunderstanding, of partial glimpses, of hints and guesses and approximations. And, really, that stuff itself (both our own concoctions and the world and order that exist to varying degrees independent of us–material and otherwise) is more or less, if not flimsy, at least shifting. Moreover, in a way that perhaps transcends or precedes (experientially) the universe’s shiftiness, there is perhaps a necessity that we learn lies or half truths on the way to understanding.
I do believe in absolutes, in Truth. I’ve experienced a bit of it. But it doesn’t come in a pill or a package. Of course, even that’s a lie. Truth is quite capable of sneaking up in a capsule or neatly wrapped container–but eventually, it’s gonna bust out. We learn lies on the way to truth because so much of learning is the acquisition of definitions, definitions are boxes, and gloriously, thankfully, Reality won’t fit in any box, no matter how elaborate and vast we might make it.
God, the world and we ourselves are fundamentally fraught with Mystery–Hallelujah!
Yes, that’s frustrating. Yes, I am continually aggravated by certain things I never quite comprehend but still somehow feel that I must. But there is greatness in surprise and hope and beauty that doesn’t sit nicely in my head or my heart but is always ever tugging at the seams.
I keep meaning to talk about this but then don’t because I think that I should say something profound or clever or whatever. A common theme.
Maybe a profounder or cleverer me will come back later and do better. Until then, here’s simple me in a hurry.
The picture that’s currently my banner is important. I awoke one morning asking God the usual questions. The answer I got is Joshua: “. . . walk . . . be bold and courageous” yadda yadda (not to be confused, well, maybe to be confused but only later, with “yada’ yada'”). Almost immediately, the image enters my head of Peter stepping out of the boat. Yep, walking.
I’m twisted enough to believe that this is God’s idea of a joke–a joke, which is not to say that He’s not also quite serious. Walk, never mind that you’re walking on water. And one might argue that it’s a loose interpretation of the verb “walk” (hence, the “or not”). There’s no guarantee you won’t fall precipitously, or that, in the falling, you won’t inhale lungs full of water. My mind goes a million places–joyous, scary and wonderful. Maybe more scary than joyous or wonderful; consider it an optimist’s sandwich.
I’m twisted enough that I laugh. The truth is, it makes more sense than most things. It makes sense, in fact, of all of the things that don’t make sense. It makes even more sense now than it did then. That’s the beautiful, sucky thing about this kind of revelation.
I believe that this is life. It is, if nothing else, the life of faith. It may sometimes seem cruel, when the water gives way, as water is wont, beneath one’s feet. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe, in the final analysis, that it is cruel but it is certainly a compellingly realistic and frightening facsimile of cruelty. Despite my supposedly knowing better, it usually convinces me.
Part of me believes that an über me (the me God meant when He dreamt me) will one day glide effortlessly across the surface of the broiling sea or even, if über me so chooses–rather, if God says (because, the key thing about über me is that he hears the voice of God with perfect clarity and, hearing, responds without hesitation)–dive deep beneath the surface, because, you see, über me not only walks (actual walking not just “walking”) on water but breathes water as if it were air.
As this thought germinates and its roots take hold of my heart and my head, I begin to see a motif in Scripture that had erstwhile eluded me. It is this: that often, as we face this difficult–often watery–path, God seems absent or asleep. Indeed, in one account of the disciples tossed on the sea, Jesus is or appears to be, at first, not there. When He does show up, they think Him an unfriendly ghost. Then come Peter’s baby steps. In another episode on the stormy sea, Jesus is, quite literally, asleep. Asleep in the bottom of the boat. Nice one, Lord.
If you doubt the legitimacy of the motif, consider what Jesus quoted on the cross. And don’t even start with the “that’s not exactly what He meant” or whatever other dishonest bastardization you’ve conceived or borrowed to make His outburst palatable and theologically correct.
Jesus experienced the absence of the Father so that we wouldn’t have to. What else is there from which we more urgently need saving? And still we are, or seem to be, not fully saved. Who doesn’t wonder? Who doesn’t doubt? Who doesn’t feel, at times, somehow all alone or, seeing the foggy or distant apparition, more frightened than comforted by the presence of the Lord? Whoever you are, I’m not sure that I want to know you.
In November, 2006, Deb and I visited Christine in KC and, at our daughter’s behest (I say this to give her credit because it was a great idea for which I am grateful), we visited the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Some museums (such as the Dallas Museum of Art) get all uptight about people taking pictures–pbbbbt on them for that, btw–but Nelson Atkins did not, so I took several. This is a clip from a painting of Jesus asleep on the boat. He’s the serene one on the left, sleeping while everyone else panics. The painting really spoke to me. What it said is more than I can contain here. In any case, it seemed the hand of Providence, so I made it my banner.
So, anyway, there you have it. No great claim to faith or power. As I say, “walking” on (or under) water isn’t exactly a choice, except inasmuch as I see Jesus there, He calls and I answer (or something like that). It’s the theme. I’ll say more.