Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Stuff I Learned On Summer Vacation

Summer's coming to a close, and so is my summer blog sabbatical.  At least that's what I'm calling it. It sounds better than admitting that this was just a case of unplanned laziness and neglect, wondering if blogging is just going to be one of those things I do with passion for a few weeks, then out of a sense of misplaced obligation for a couple months, and then finally give up for a couple years until the mood strikes again.  That's been the pattern, anyway.  Especially when it becomes clear that a major publisher still hasn't taken notice and offered me a book deal (I know, right?).  Whatever.  So what if it doesn't get read?  As C.S. Lewis once wrote in a letter, "Cheer up, whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is a great cure of all human ills."  I'd like to think there's some truth to that.  Though I do hope that ink is not the literal requirement, as I am reduced to pixels on a flat-screen monitor.

Anyway, I start this with no particular aim or direction, and I don't know if it will amount to anything.  But for what it's worth, here are some of the random, seemingly unrelated things I learned on my Summer Vacation, in no particular order.

1.  Adults don't get summer vacation.  I sort of miss that unbridled excitement I felt as a kid on the last day of school, facing a long summer filled with possibilities.  Somewhere along the line, however, summer just became those months when the power bill goes up mysteriously.  While summer vacation is kind of a thing of the past, there is, very occasionally, a vacation in summer.  I did take one of those.  I spent a week with my parents and some family friends in San Diego in June, and realized why there are 16 bazillion people living in San Diego.  The weather is perfect.  I don't mean nice, I mean perfect.  While we were there, they had these heat wave weather maps on the news, in which the entirety of North America was engulfed in shades of fire-engine apocalyptic red.  San Diego, on the other hand, was an almost supernaturally-protected tiny little oasis of greenish-yellow low-70s.  True, if you go a little inland, it does warm up a bit, but you discover the Southern California that you'd always assumed was mythological--rolling hills of vineyards and groves of citrus and avocado, dotted with pleasant little farming communities with fruit stands and upscale restaurants.  I lived a while in Southern California, and somehow I had missed that part of it.  We went wine tasting in the Temecula area one day, and was struck by the beauty of the region--it rivaled not just Tuscany, but those romantic notions of it you see in those dreamy Renaissance paintings.  But of course the downside to doing that is that it cost me a week or two of moping about, lamenting the fact that I don't get to spend my late afternoons strolling through my formal garden lined with Italian cypress and olive trees, gazing blissfully down upon the vineyard rising up to meet my feet, while holding a couple ounces of of inky petit verdot and swirling it about in some oversized stemware, while the staff prepare the baked brie, salame al tartufo piemonte, and dried fruit appetizers for a sunset soiree with friends.  Sometimes life just plain sucks.

2. Ten years is a heck of a long time.  In July I celebrated my tenth anniversary of having arrived on the turbulent shores of Utah.  Ten years.  3652 days since that moment I first set foot in Utah one stormy afternoon. My first footfall in Utah (at least as an incoming resident) was at the Four Corners monument.  I'd always wanted to visit Four Corners, and it was on the way (I was driving across the country from Miami, Florida), so I decided to check it out. I had imagined beforehand it would be some sort of meaningful, almost ceremonial event--that moment of placing my foot into what was to be my new home state.  I arrived at the monument, parked, got out of the car, went over and took pictures of the monument, which is basically a small concrete plaza with the state lines etched in, converging on a small survey marker.  I snapped a few pictures of the marker where the four states converged, and as I walked through Arizona and New Mexico to go back to my car (which was parked somewhere in Colorado), I realized I hadn't actually done what I came to do--set foot in Utah properly.  So I turned around, walked back to the plaza a little sheepishly, and ceremoniously stomped on the survey marker like I was squashing a bug. A few onlookers laughed at my little antic, and I was suddenly embarrassed.  But no matter.  I was in Utah.  (And Colorado.  And New Mexico.  And Arizona.)  Anyway, it's been an eventful ten years, an adventure with its fair share of rocky roads and strange detours, but it's apparently my life right now.

3.  A Saturday with little to do and 54 episodes of Breaking Bad available on Netflix Streaming is a very, very dangerous combination.  If you've not seen Breaking Bad, it's a gripping TV series about a brilliant but unassuming chemistry teacher who decides to start making methamphetamine, ostensibly to make sure his family is provided for in the wake of a terminal cancer diagnosis.  Tightly written, fast-paced, well-acted, and as addictive as the crystal meth that he cooks.  It's been hailed as one of the best TV dramas out there, and I can't argue with that.  But I've never been so anxious for a great TV series to end already.  It's got its gruesome moments, but the real horror is watching the downward spiral of a guy who starts off basically as a decent fellow with good intentions, and winds up a ruthless, soulless monster.  A protagonist that so completely morphs into the antagonist.  The show hijacked my evenings and weekends.  It invaded my dreams.  It even shaped my prayers ("Thank you, God, that I don't have to cook meth, launder money, or work for Gustavo Fring.")  Do I recommend it?  Eh....that's a complicated question. It is a fascinating and remarkably well-done drama, but all the kitten videos on YouTube can't undo it.  Not even this one:

I suspect once the final episode of Breaking Bad airs later this month, I will need to spend a few days in seculsion, sucking my thumb and watching reruns of America's Funniest Home Videos and Gilligan's Island.

4.  Peaches are awesome.  I know of no other food that causes me to reflexively close my eyes when I eat it.  Utah, for all of the grief I give it, does one thing quite well: Prunus persica.  Main Street Church has for many years owned a few acres of hillside property which at one time was a thriving apricot and peach orchard.  The property has been on the market for a while, but nearly every week this summer, I open up the century-old canal irrigation system to give life to the few straggling trees that remain, providing us with some outstanding organic apricots in July, and a handful of these precious, fuzzy gems in September.  There is no sensation quite like gently tugging at a peach off the tree, having it fall into your hand, then yield its supple, juicy flesh to your lips.  It immediately rewards all five senses.  It is celebrated each year in song and dance and wild raucous revelry (as much as can happen in Brigham City) during "Peach Days" which is Brigham City's annual end-of-summer festival which draws approximately 70,000 visitors to our town of 17,000 people.  I think this year was the 104th annual Peach Days.  Main Street Church is fortuitously situated right in the middle of all the downtown pedestrian activity, so we open our doors, allow people to come in, use restrooms, sit and rest, get free popcorn and cold water, and we even do fun things like raffle off fresh peach cobblers as door prizes every hour on the hour.  And scattered among the thousands of people that come through our doors, there are always a good handful of really meaningful conversations about Important Things that take place.  But we have greatly enjoyed serving our community in this fashion.

5.  God's Word can raise the dead.  Most of us who are Christians are somewhat aware of the ongoing quest for the discipline of personal Bible study--reading, personal worship and prayer.  Some days it comes more easily and naturally than others.  We develop routines to help us along the way.  I usually have my morning Bible reading time downstairs, at the kitchen table.  The table is cluttered with stuff.  Untended mail, garlic from a friend's garden, an unused sprout-growing container, a red-white-and-blue tinsel thingy that was a prize at the Fourth of July bingo game in the park a couple months ago that I haven't figured out what to do with.  And a clay flowerpot with shamrocks--actual, live, three-leafed shamrocks, given to me, I think, on some birthday past (my birthday is on St. Patrick's day, so by law my birthday celebration has to include shamrocks, green, leprechauns, and Guinness Stout.)  Anyway, the potted plant is probably seven or eight years old.  And for most of those seven or eight years, the poor thing struggled to cling on to life, like most plants that dare enter my domain.  I don't exactly have what you would call a "green thumb."  For the past few years, the shamrock plant was in especially bad shape.  A little dry brown nubbin with five or six anemic-looking shamrock stalks sticking up, their triple-leaves weakly splayed out, seeking sunshine and love, and finding precious little of either.  I came close to throwing it out several times, but some combination of pity, pride, and guilt just wouldn't let me do it.  I'd renew my commitment to, you know, water it, and it would occasionally show greater and lesser signs of life.  But it was never a particularly pretty plant.  It was kind of depressing to look at, really.  So when I'd read my Bible in the morning, and glance up at this struggling little plant, there were days when I could relate to it.  But something unusual started to happen a few weeks ago.  For some reason, this plant began to burst into abundant green and prolific life.  For the first time since it crossed my threshold, it's a beautiful plant.  In just a few weeks it went from nearly lifeless to an explosion of Irishy joy.  There are hundreds of healthy, green shamrock stalks and little white flowers, spilling over, barely contained by the stoneware pot.  I was musing about it a few days ago, trying to rack my brains to remember if I'd done anything new to it that would have this result, and nothing came to mind.

Oh, well.  I shrugged, and began my morning Bible-reading ritual, which, for the past few weeks, has included something new for me.  I begin my time by reading--aloud--a Psalm.  I'm working my way through the book of Psalms, one at a time.  I don't recall exactly what prompted me to try to make this a habit, and at first I felt a little strange, reading aloud when I was all alone.  But it's become fairly routine now.  And then it hit me.  This odd surge in my houseplant's health and my reading aloud of the Psalms...was that a coincidence?  My scientific training tells me that correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation.  But still...folk wisdom does suggest that plants like it when you talk to them.  Maybe they do even better when you read the Bible to them...?  I don't know.  I honestly have no idea whether there's a connection or not.  If you've got a struggling houseplant, I'm not suggesting you go read the Bible to it.  But then again...why not?  You'll do yourself no harm in trying.  The worst that could happen is that you read the Bible.  And the Bible has been known to revive lots of dead things. So why not a pathetic little shamrock plant?  Even as I type these words, I'm reminded of the abundance of plant imagery in the Psalms--right from Psalm 1 as a matter of fact.  So who knows?  Maybe there's something to it.

Anyway, that's enough for now.  I make no promises that I'm back in the blogging saddle again.  Not that I operate under the delusion that this will be viewed by more than a dozen people (half of whom are Belarusian blog-spammers...yeah, you know who you are.)

But even so--cheers!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

My Own Private Perestroika

But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord
I say, "You are my God."
My times are in Your hand;
Deliver me from the hand of my enemies and from those who persecute me.
Make Your face to shine upon Your servant;
Save me in Your lovingkindness.
     Psalm 31:14-16

On long road trips, I like to listen to audio books.  On a recent road trip, I listened to a book called God's Smuggler, by "Brother" Andrew van der Bijl, a Dutch man who, by his own reckoning, was an ordinary man, "the son of a village blacksmith" and yet led an extraordinary life which included many adventures bringing Bibles and Christian encouragement to believers behind the "Iron Curtain," back in the days of the Cold War.

His stories are a steady stream of impossible situations, imminent dangers, and tense encounters.  Yet he proceeded boldly, trusting God for everything. But as I listened to the story, it occurred to me that maybe boldness wasn't the right term.  Perhaps confidence is a better word.  Boldness is a quality of our personality, and not all of us possess it in great quantities. Confidence, on the other hand, is something that comes about through experience and understanding. We don't trust something or someone unless we think we have reason to trust.  So trust, or lack of it, is not a function of courage or cowardice. It is built upon promises delivered.  Likewise, trust is destroyed by deception and betrayal.  In Brother Andrew's case, he definitely had a streak of bravado in his character that I can't relate to very well; but the "boldness" that enabled him to face remarkable challenges, I think, was really confidence...born and grown in his experience with God who consistently "delivers the goods."

As I listened to the story, I began to realize that Brother Andrew was piecing together the facts that God was trustworthy.  And armed with that understanding, he could march in anywhere.  It didn't mean he was immune to suffering or anxiety.  It meant he had something greater.  You don't come by that sort of trust without without testing the water.

His story also had a very personal connection for me, although I didn't realize it until about halfway through the book.  At one point, he described an experience in which he took his smuggled Bibles into a particular church in Moscow, Russia.  As he described the building, I realized that I had been there before.  And not only that, I was there principally to divest myself of a solitary Bible that I had smuggled into Russia that morning.

I could not lay claim to any of the courage, cunning, or bravado that marked Brother Andrew's adventures.  It had actually been a rough day for me, and not exactly one I would have labeled "victorious."  But still...there was this one Sunday evening in July, 1987, when I stood on the balcony of that old church near the Moskva river.  It was packed with worshipers.  The grand old building had seen better days but still retained a certain warmth and elegance.  A middle-aged man came up to me and asked in broken English, "You have Bible, yes?"  I had no idea how he would have known I did.  I hesitated.  Was it safe to admit it now?  Was this a trick?  I'd been in the Soviet Union all of maybe eight hours, and had mastered the art of paranoia quickly.  But I reached into my camera bag and pulled out the blue plastic pouch that contained my light windbreaker, which was wrapped carefully around the thin paperback Russian New Testament that had been in my possession all day long.  I extracted the little volume and handed it to the man who asked for it, and he in turn handed it to an elderly gentleman who had suddenly appeared behind him.  The older man was dressed in his shabby Sunday best, and sported a few day's growth of white whiskers on his face.  His eyes grew wide as he looked at the thin brown volume.  With an expression of pure child-like wonder, he gently, lovingly took it in his hands, and then closed his eyes, squeezing out tears, kissed the book, clutched it to his chest, kissed the book again, and I suddenly found myself in the firm embrace of this dear man.  He didn't speak, but graced me with the traditional two-cheek Russian kiss. And then he disappeared into the crowd.

And I just stood there, tears running down my own cheeks.  I sensed that God had given me a remarkable privilege that I absolutely did not deserve.  I was standing in an exceedingly rare golden moment, and I knew it.

But there was also shame behind my tears.  I was overcome by this man's yearning for God's Word.  How many Bibles did I own?  And how much use did they get?  And perhaps worst of all, I was deeply ashamed at the way I had viewed that that little brown book as merely the thing that had been making my life a living hell all day...instead of the precious and priceless Word of God, the bread of life for one starving man.

A little background.  I was in Russia, traveling with about forty American young adults. It was one of a dozen or so countries we were to visit on a six-week trek around the globe in the summer of 1987, the purpose of which was to experience a taste of what God was doing throughout the world, by visiting with Christian missionaries, and in some cases, participating in service projects with them.  We'd been sleeping on church basement floors and youth hostels throughout Asia and Europe, including a few places in Eastern Europe.  And this actually wasn't our first experience with smuggling Bibles.  A few weeks prior, we had done something similar on a day trip into China from our temporary home base in Hong Kong.  That experience had turned out badly for many of us.  We were caught, our material confiscated, and at least in my case, it was mainly because I was a little too careless, and didn't take the task seriously enough.  I had been reveling in the intrigue and thinking about what a great story this would make back home--we heroes of the faith, laughing in the face of the forces of tyranny and oppression.  But those forces had the last laugh.  And the shame of knowing that it was my stupidity and short-sightedness that had deprived someone of a chance to read God's Word was very sobering.

So when the opportunity came to do the same thing again on our three-day trip to the Soviet Union, it was a chance to redeem myself.  There was no bravado this time--it was shame that prompted me to grab a Bible from the short stack in one of the rooms of the Vienna hotel we were staying in.  We had been told that if anyone wanted to take a Bible into Russia, that we should quietly and anonymously take one or two from the room where they were being kept.  In that way, we could honestly deny knowledge of what any of our traveling companions were carrying.  So I took mine, and carefully wrapped a t-shirt around it, and tucking it into a windbreaker, and stuck the windbreaker into a small, blue plastic pouch.  It was the best I could do.

As we began boarding the plane for the two or three-hour flight to Moscow, it dawned on me that this was real.  The first twinges of anxiety grew into a rising panic as we jetted toward Russia.  I'd heard stories about what happened to people caught with contraband Bibles.  Should I dispose of it?  It wasn't too late.  No one had to know. We took them anonymously, I could dispose of it anonymously.  Stick it in the seat pocket in front of me along with the airsick bag.  After all, this was different than China. We would be hundreds of miles inside the Soviet Union when the plane landed.  For someone who had grown up during the Cold War, this was flying straight into the heart of darkness, the belly of the Red Beast.  What would they do if they found my Bible?  Would I be arrested?  Deported?  Hauled away to some boxcar and shipped off to the gulags? 

Do you trust me?

It was one of the few times in my life I've had that almost-audible but otherwise undeniable intrusion by God's voice.  I paused and took a breath.  There was no mistaking the voice.  But even so, I replied with protests.  "God, this is the Soviet Union!" and proceeded to tell Him--the One who had spoken the Universe into existence--exactly why this was impossible.

A second time, the Voice interrupted my string of protests.  "Do you trust me?"  It was not an accusing voice; it was gentle but firm.  There was no point in arguing.  God was just not going to listen to reason.  The Russian Bible remained in my bag.  My fear, however, did not abate.  The plane landed in Moscow, and in a surreal haze of smoldering panic, I followed the herd through the various stages of passport and visa control.  When it was my turn, I handed the guy my passport, and was motioned to step back a few feet.  With jerky head movements, the officer looked up at me, then down at my passport, then back up at me, and back down at my passport.  This went on for ages, or so it seemed.  I could feel sweat running down the small of my back.  It was so unnerving that I struggled--unsuccessfully--to stifle a maniacal giggle.  There was nothing funny about it.  Shut up, you moron, pull yourself together.  Much to my surprise, he finally stamped my passport, and with a quizzical look, waved me on.

Having cleared passport control, the next hurdle--the important one--was baggage inspection.  We moved as one large herd, the forty of us, sporting our identical navy blue backpacks, past the metal tables where inspectors were going through bags; we were being waved past without inspection.  I was elated, and relief broke over me like cool water.  Thank you, God! 

Then, just mere yards from taking that first breath of sweet (relative) freedom, one of the officers standing at the metal tables held out his arm and signaled me to the metal inspection table.  Icy panic surged through my veins.  I was at the tail end; everyone else was already out of the airport.  As far as I knew, I was the only one who had been singled out for inspection.  I wondered darkly what Siberia was like this time of year. 

With fatalistic resignation, I dropped my blue backpack on the metal table and braced myself for the inevitable. The officer proceeded to pull everything out...shirts, socks, underwear...the little blue pouch holding my windbreaker and the Russian Bible.  He poked and prodded and squeezed it, and I was sure that he would find my contraband.  But to my surprise, he set it aside.  I tried to conceal my relief.  Then he reached in and found my mini English Bible, my personal one that I hadn't bothered hiding.  (We had been told that one personal Bible wouldn't be a problem.)  But his eyes grew wide, and he barked something to his colleagues who rushed to his side and peered over his shoulder as he flipped through my little Bible, all of them speaking at once. 

Finally, the original inspection officer looked me straight in the eye, grasped the Bible firmly by its edge and wagged it accusingly in front of my face and said, in harshly accented, but unmistakable English: "Do you trust in God?"

I stood there dumbly, trying to process what I was hearing.  "Uh...yeah...?" I squeaked timidly from my bone-dry throat.  Not exactly the confident, courageous proclamation of faith, but there you have it.  So with a shrug, he simply set the Bible down on all the other stuff, and pushed it all aside, and motioned for me to  be on my way.

It wasn't until later that day that the full meaning of the encounter sunk in.  It occurred to me that it would have been perfectly natural for him to ask me, upon finding my Bible, if I was a Christian, or if I believed in God.  But he didn't ask me either of those questions.  He asked me if I trusted in God--a rather peculiar question, now that I thought about it.  But with surgical precision, this Soviet official had zeroed into the very heart of my struggle.  I don't think that God's question to me back on the airplane was intended to be rhetorical.  And I hadn't actually given Him an answer.  And He was not going to let it go until I had.  And for the first time in my life, but hardly the last time, I stood in awe and admiration of God's impeccable sense of humor.

I've heard that Voice ask the same question on numerous occasions since.  When I'm bumped way out of my comfort zone.  When I'm faced with a task that seems ridiculously impossible.  When I'm waiting for the results of that blood test.  When the phone rings at two in the morning.  I'd like to say that hearing the voice immediately alleviates all anxiety.  It doesn't.  Maybe it should.  I'm sure it would if I really did understand in full just how trustworthy the Voice was.  But even so, each time I offer a timid "yes" to the command to trust, He provides me with one more data point of confidence as the One who has my times in His hands.  An incremental notch that gives me yet another reason for the hope I have (1 Peter 3:15).

He doesn't fall asleep at the wheel.  He sees the other side of the wave, what's coming around the bend.  Nothing is hidden.  Nothing is a surprise.  Someday, I'll really, truly, get it; and perhaps then, my trust will not mingle with fear any more.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

In The Ward, But Not Of It

O me! for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would,
Till the High God behold it from beyond,
And enter it, and make it beautiful?
                        -- Tennyson, Idylls of the King, Ch. XII

A friend of mine was recently regaling me with starry-eyed tales about a recent visit to the mystical fairyland called South Carolina.  I've never been there.  In fact, I kind of doubt it really exists.  Or if it does, it's probably only accessible through a magic wardrobe.  Or maybe a spaceship.  But according to the story books, it's a wondrous paradise of evangelical Christianity.  A gentle, pleasant landscape of green hills dotted with tidy, white steeples attached to beautiful churches full of warm, friendly people...keepers of wholesome, biblical values and just desperate to envelop you into the sweet embrace of genteel southern hospitality, dripping like honey from golden biscuits.

And bacon.  Lots and lots of bacon.

I think it was my Utah-native friend's first experience in what we would call a Christian culture.  Where people take it for granted that you identify with a Christian church...or at least where Christian values are no stranger to the day-to-day workings of life.  The peaceful hegemony of spiritual homogeneity.  (Hey. I worked a long time on that alliteration.  And I didn't use a thesaurus.)

I'm not quite sure which impresses me more about these fanciful tales of South Carolina...the contrast with Utah...or the similarity.

The contrast part is easy to see, if you spend much time here.  Utah's population of traditional Christians--both in numbers and percentages--is less than that of many nations designated as "unreached" by missiologists.  There are dozens of cities in this state with no Christian church or significant Christian influence.  Despite the rhetoric of tolerance and ecumenism emanating from the Mormon public relations machine, the day-to-day reality that many Christians experience here in Utah is a peculiar sort of passive aggression (and occasional overt hostility) from their Latter-day Saint neighbors.  No, not from all of them.  But from enough to remind us on a pretty consistent basis that we don't "belong" here.  That we are "in the ward, but not of it."  (A ward, by the way, refers not only to a Mormon church building or congregation, but to the area of a town--delineated with geopolitical precision--where its members must come from.)

Time out.  Okay, I realize that I am making an unqualified distinction between "Mormons" and "Christians."  I'm not going to belabor the question of whether Mormonism, as a religious system, is even a little bit Christian.  It isn't.  It just isn't.  And I've got reasons to be confident in that statement which I'm not going to go into here.   And please understand, I'm not making a value judgment or even stating an opinion.  This is simple taxonomy.  Words mean things.  An apple is not even a little bit an orange.  And to make that statement is not to cast dispersion on apples or oranges.  (The difference is, there's no well-organized and moderately successful multimillion-dollar public relations campaign designed to convince the world that apples are oranges, too.)

Anyway, so what are we to do in the face of the relentless current of the Mormon culture?  The Christian response in Utah generally falls into two categories.  The first response, and by far the most common one, is to keep your head down, don't rock the boat, stay cloistered in your little Christian social group, and do everything in your power not to engage with the prevalent culture on anything more than a superficial level.

The second response is the exact opposite.  It takes a more belligerent stance.  It defies the culture, ridicules it, rattles the sabers, and answers aggression with aggression, anger with anger, and hostility with hostility.  Us and them.  We and they.

The church and ministry I've been a part of for going on ten years now has been accused of taking the latter approach.  I do beg to differ, however.  Yes, we've been known, from time to time, to rock the boat, take a bolder approach with matters of truth, and draw some angry responses.  But I submit that this is the result of following a third option...a narrower, windier, and more misunderstood pathway.   It's a pathway of authentic--but often misinterpreted--love.  A path that strives for gentleness and kindness, but cannot shirk from truth.   (And speaking truth, even kindly, can still land you in hot water.)  It is characterized by a love that demands that we risk losing a friend today in the hope of gaining a brother tomorrow.

Now...I'll confess that as much as I believe in and cherish this path, I've hardly walked it perfectly.  I've fallen off both on the left and right.  I've kept silent for the sake of "peace" and have sacrificed truth on the altar of politeness.  I have also let frustration get the better of me at times.  I've sometimes let self-righteous indignation, instead of compassion, rule my behavior and season my words.

I'm not proud of those failures.  That is not who I want to be.

Which leads me to the flip-side of this cultural epiphany--the similarity with Utah.  Utah's spiritual homogeneity provides a kind of Novocaine effect on the population here.  It's generally assumed that we shall all follow the Prophet and that we must all obey the brethren in all things.  And so that has the unintended effect of leaving us few straggling "outsiders" way outside the loop, feeling unwelcome, unrepresented, and shaking our heads at the profoundly myopic mindset.  Concepts like "separation of church and state" are meaningless here.

And I gotta wonder...is the cultural blindness really any different in the Christian realm?  After all, I've talked with Mormons who used to live in the Bible Belt, and their experiences echo mine.  They feel like outsiders, eyed with suspicion.  Polite smiles to their faces, and cutting words when their backs are turned.  Mormon kids in Alabama and Georgia are lonely because Christian parents are afraid to let their kids play with them, for fear they'll "get converted."  You are not one of us.  It's almost a mirror image of what happens to us here in Utah.

In the course of my work, I've often had conversations with Christians who live in a very homogenous Christian environment, and I've had to adjust my vocabulary somewhat so that I can be understood.  I remember one exchange I had with a guy who was complaining because our church website didn't show all of our programs.  What do you mean?  He rattled off a list of foreign-sounding terms.  Look, I said, we are a small congregation of maybe 50 or 60 people.  That makes us, easily, the largest Christian congregation in a town that is about 95% Mormon.  We don't have a bus to pick up the senior citizens.  Community dinners?  We have a sink, a microwave, and an Amana Range older than I am, with only half the elements working.  I'm glad you can take your 95 high schoolers to Burkina Faso on a mission trip, but our youth group consists of a handful of children under eight.  We have no gym to open to the community youth.

It was like trying to explain what it was like to live in a mud hut with no electricity or running water.

Here, the Mormon Church has those great programs.  They are extremely well-organized.  They have the vans for the senior citizens and the gyms for the youth.  They come equipped with commercial kitchens.  And let's not even talk about sending their youth around the world on mission trips.  They got us beat there, too.  And yet it is so, so empty of Jesus.  But likewise, I couldn't pick up on Jesus in this exchange with this fellow who was a staff member at a mid-sized church in east Texas.  For him, the church was programs.  Church is what we do.  Church is the center of our lives.  It's our security blanket, our social network, what we give to, what we take from.  It's not so much where we worship...it becomes what we worship.

Hold on, now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not anti-church!  I'm not anti-programs, anti-community-dinner, anti-gyms, anti-mission trips, or anti-church van.  (We actually have one of those now.  Long story.)  And I'm not suggesting for a moment that east Texas is filled with soulless churches.  But I am anti-anything that gets in the way of a life-giving connection with Jesus...I'm against anything that steals His thunder or tries to usurp our enthusiasm for Him.

The realization I came to is that the toxicity of religious culture does not necessarily spring from bad doctrine.  While I will continue to affirm that Mormonism's doctrines are completely antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ and detrimental to one's spiritual health, it is ill-advised to point an accusing finger at the Mormon culture without striving to remove our own cultural blinders.  After all, what good is Truth if I don't really ingest it?  What does it accomplish if I acknowledge it with my lips but it doesn't engage in a vigorous wrestle with my wayward heart and wandering mind?

Much is made, both in Mormon circles and conservative Christian circles, about not getting contaminated by "the world."  That's certainly biblical, so I can't argue with that.  But...the world doesn't always look like the glitz of the Vegas strip or the brothels and opium dens of Amsterdam.  Sometimes it looks like tidy, tree-lined streets with cheerful cafes and white picket fences and well-kept lawns.  The "world" is, after all, anything that isn't God.

We are undeniably in the world, but God forbid we be of it.  To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, we are too often like the child playing in dirt of the slums because we can't imagine what it means to be offered a holiday at the sea.  Why would we be content with making mud pies if we could catch a glimpse of the gourmet feast prepared for us?  We seem hell-bent on becoming children of a lesser god.  We are, as Lewis says, far too easily pleased.

One of the ongoing frustrations for me is the difficulty in relating to Mormons on that level.  The hunger and thirst for something more, for something greater...it just doesn't seem to be a part of their thinking.  For so many of them, their number one goal is to live a good life, pursue some variation of the American Dream, chase after happiness where they can find it, and expect that the life to come will be an amplified and tidier version of what we experience today, but not really much different in substance.

I keep wanting to appeal to them, put down your mud pies, and come feast at this table.  Let's come away from the slums and go play by the ocean!  But there's no avoiding my hypocrisy.  I've got my own puddles that I'm far too fond of.  And off in the distance, I can hear Jesus calling out the same thing to me.

God, oh, God, let that appeal ring so loudly in my ears that I have no choice but to follow it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Art of Singleness 2: Made for Another World

If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world."  (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.)

I didn't really intend for this to be a two-parter.  But the reason I'm writing a "sequel" is that a question has come up that has been a burr under my saddle: Okay, you whiner, so you're single; you say you're basically at peace with it...but is that the same thing as being satisfied?  Well, I'm not sure I have a tidy answer, but I'll try and discuss this a little more, for what it's worth, in my current context.

In my last post, I shared some struggles of middle-aged singlehood...like dealing with a sense of failure to live up to the sociological and biological prime directive of humanity to pair up and procreate.  Seriously, how negligent of me.  I have done nothing to contribute my genetic diversity or perpetuate the family name.  But truth be told, my species will probably do just fine without my spawn.  And one look at the phone book will assure you that the Johnson family name will probably survive well enough after I'm gone.

Society as a whole views singleness as a deficiency, a half-lifestyle, a problem to be solved.  Then again, society is asking for a sharp smack upside the head.  It's rubbish of course, but try tuning out that station when the society you live in is Utah.  For us singles-without-prospects, Utah makes the sulfurous, smoldering wastelands of Mordor look like Mayberry in springtime.

Allow me for a moment to pick on Utah's predominant cultural influence.  In Mormonism, marriage is not just a desirable social convention, it is the key to obtaining the highest kingdom in the afterlife. Make no mistake--you are a second-class citizen if you are unmarried--not just here, but in eternity.  And they're unapologetic about it; it has all the subtlety of a runaway truck on fire smashing into in a fireworks factory.  Single Mormon adults in Utah usually attend what's known as a singles' ward, a congregation comprised entirely of singles, mostly looking for a cure for their disease.  (And once you hit 30, they segregate you in the hopelessly singles' ward).

So they congregate with all the other lepers, in hopes that at least some of this wretched blight might somehow be eradicated, one temple marriage at a time.  And heaven help the recently-returned missionary; he shows up on the scene with a conservative haircut and a brand-new set of keys to the Celestial Kingdom, and the young women shamble toward him like zombies catching the scent of fresh viscera.  They know full well that those who are not married in the afterlife will be the servants of those who are.  I'm not making this up.  So talk about pressure.

When you meet people for the first time, the first ice-breaker question that comes up is usually, "So, how many kids do you have?"  (They presume I'm married, or at least I have been, because I'm showing my face in public.  They don't ask if I have any kids, because, well, I'm past 40, so I should be whipping out my phone and showing photos of my grandkids.)  The pause that follows when I say I have no wife or kids is just long enough for me to come up a number of acerbic comments that I usually swallow.  They sometimes awkwardly mumble something about freedom, but by the look on their face, you know they're mentally slapping the "loser" label on me.  An unmarried, childless middle-aged person in Utah is an object of pity and even suspicion--at best.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I'm not exaggerating.

But I digress.  To go back to the original question about satisfaction, I'll put it bluntly: there is really no natural source of satisfaction for me here.  So what am I supposed to do?  In my last posting, I appealed to a biblical principle.  After all, isn't that what we as Christians are supposed to do?  Find some pithy way of spiritualizing the minutiae of our human drama?  Well, perhaps there were some who might think it a bit trite.  And truth be told, there was a time when I would have read my last post and accused that simpering author of failing to "keep it real."  Dude, you're just hiding behind the Bible to make yourself feel better.

Nowadays, I say, yup, and I will run and hide there every time.  The Bible's either relevant to my human drama, or it's not. It's either a collection of fairy tales and warm thoughts to take the chill off our discomfort...or it's the living, breathing Word of God, with a strong arm and sharp teeth, that in the same moment can overpower you with joy, and tear you to shreds.

I think there's a lot of stuff in the Bible we Christians basically believe is true, but we have yet to really test it.  Stuff that's more decorative than practical.  It's a life preserver gathering dust on a nautical-themed wall in a seafood chain restaurant.  Then one day we find ourselves careening toward a major shipwreck.  And we finally have to grab hold of the life preserver and use it for what it was actually intended for.

A few years ago, as I was staring into the gaping maw of my 40th birthday, I had basically resigned myself, with more than a hint of resentment, to the fact that if marriage hadn't happened by now, it just wasn't going to happen.  I mean, I could count on one hand--with four fingers cut off--the number of people I knew who'd married for the first time and started a family after 40 (and barely at that).  By now, I'd observed enough to lose most of my unrealistic expectations of marriage and family, but that did nothing to quell the longing for it.  Apparently God didn't consider me fit for that particular blessing.  Those youthful insecurities that I'd thought I had put to rest, began to surface, but this time with a dose of jaded, old-man cantankerousness thrown in.  That ship had sailed, and that was that.  So I might as well get used to the idea that I'll be spending the last half of my life single and alone.  Hunker down, suck it up, and the faster I can thrust a dagger into that dream and put it out of its misery, the better.

Then not long after my 40th birthday, all hell broke loose in life, work, and ministry.  My lack of marital status suddenly dropped to the bottom of the list of concerns.  You don't have the luxury of worrying about such things when you're taking on water and drowning.  The Shipwreck, as we survivors refer to it now when looking back, produced an astonishing amount of collateral damage.  Things I had always believed were solid, evaporated before my eyes.  Harbors I had always presumed would be safe and welcoming turned out to be full of sharp, hull-ripping rocks just below the surface.  I went through one of the hardest years I've yet to experience.  It shook to the foundation my ability to trust anything or anyone.

Yet, in the aftermath of the Shipwreck, I gained a little wisdom and maturity (not to mention some gray hair).  I found some amazing things, sifting through the flotsam and jetsam.  There was gold that came out of that crucible.  Through some mysterious, counter-intuitive process that still puzzles me, my trust in God grew.  In the midst of that hardship--hardship that God could have spared me, but didn't.  How does that happen? An awareness of His love and nearness increased.  His faithfulness went from the theoretical to the practical.  The decorative life preserver came down off the ship's railing, where it had been little more than a comforting reminder--and suddenly my arms were through it, and it became the thing that kept my nose above water.  His provision and sustaining power became tangible, undeniable.  I would never choose to go through that ever again, not in a million years.  But I wouldn't trade what has come out of it. 

Okay, so why this little detour?  Because the Shipwreck also had the effect of indirectly, but fundamentally changing my perspective concerning marriage and family.  It gave me some perspective.  I found that it didn't matter nearly as much.  My well-being didn't depend upon it.  Throwing myself into the care of Jesus was really, truly, enough--I mean, not just theoretically enough (because after all, isn't that what we're supposed to say?), but genuinely, practically enough.  That His grace was still sufficient, no matter what.  And even the word sufficient sounds kind of anemic.

So, am I satisfied? 

The answer is absolutely yes.  And absolutely no.  Jesus Christ is an anchor tried and true, and is the very author of my satisfaction.  Of that there is no question.  However, I'm increasingly dissatisfied with my life--at least, the me part of my life. The stuff I do in order to try to satisfy my needs and wants.  And it is a true, ongoing, acute dissatisfaction, make no mistake.  And it inevitably comes up short. I have, literally, no where else to go.

So if the 7th chapter of 1st Corinthians makes you squirm a little, to me it's fresh air.  Singleness...not only acceptable, but even preferred.  Paul seems to suggest that if you're a wimp who can't handle the rigors of the single life, sure, go ahead and cave in to marriage, you libidinous weakling; but otherwise, you should take the higher road and stay single.  So maybe it is a lifestyle I'm specifically called to...not one that I merely languish in because of bad luck, bad timing, or the fact that I'm basically an unappealing prospect.

Suppose by some unlikely fluke I wind up married some day.  Even if I had a family life so idyllic that I could annoy everybody on Facebook with how wonderful life is...it still will never come close to filling the real yearning.  And the more I embrace that knowledge, the more freedom it brings.

There's a particular spot on Crab Avenue where I have often stood.  A curve on a bluff overlooking an ocean bay.  I'll slowly trace the miles of lonely beach that stretch out beneath my feet and disappear in the mists of Cape Lookout.  A transcendentally beautiful scene if ever there was one.

And something would always disturb me after a few minutes of beach-gazing.  Even as a child, just learning to appreciate natural beauty, I was conscious of a poignant yearning, akin, almost, to sadness, every time I would look on this scene.

And I remember once specifically--I was probably a teen-ager by then--standing there and asking myself, what is it that I am longing for?  I started going through a checklist.  Was it just that I was sad about having to leave?  Well, that wasn't quite it.  Okay, well, what if I could build a house, right here, and live the rest of my life with that view!  Would that do it for me?  Well, sure, I'd love to do that, but still...even that thought didn't really satisfy.  So what was it?  Did I want to possess this view?  To own this landscape?  Even as the thought entered my mind, it was repulsive to me, sacrilegious even.  I finally decided that the closest thing I could come up with to describe the yearning was that I wanted to be possessed by it.  I wanted it to own me.  Ridiculous as it sounded.

It took me a few years more to realize that while I was gazing longingly at the creation, what I was really doing was yearning for its Creator.

I've since grown convinced that every desire, every craving, hunger or thirst, every passion, every longing ache we feel in this life--whether it be a base appetite or transcendent yearning....it is fundamentally God-instilled, and can really only be God-filled.  Pascal said that there's a God-shaped vacuum inside each of us.  I believe that's true, but I think he was understating things.  We are the vacuum.  We are the things that are naught.  The valley of dry bones, waiting for life to be spoken.

How it happens...I don't know.  I'm tempted to say it's the tiniest act our will that God then engages, but honestly, that gives us entirely too much credit.  Dry bones have remarkably little say in the matter of whether they live or not.

I think it happens as God, by his irresistible and unfathomable grace, pries one sticky, reluctant finger at a time off of the stuff of this world...even the good and noble things that bring tears to the eyes and about which beautiful songs are written...and places our hands upon something of infinitely greater value--Himself.

And if that doesn't satisfy, then nothing will.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Art of Singleness at a Certain Age

Okay, here's what's next on my list of stuff I really don't want to write about.

A few weeks ago, one of the local churches in town hosted a weekend event called The Art of Marriage.  It is by all accounts an excellent series on developing a godly marriage in the midst of real life.  I've heard nothing but glowing reports about it.  And I'm genuinely glad for it.  When it was announced in church, they made it clear that it was open to anyone--seasoned marriage veterans, newlyweds, engaged couples, or...(with a sideways glance over at me)...anyone who thinks they might ever be married.

The inclusiveness of the invitation was kind and heartfelt; nevertheless, I found myself otherwise occupied that weekend.

I'm gonna warn you up front.  At some point you're probably going to think that this is just descending into a self-indulgent pity party, but please withhold your judgment and bear with me; I really am aiming at something redemptive.  And yes, I know that there are worse things than being alone.  This is not about whipping out our list of life grievances and comparing lengths.  But this is my story, my struggles, my points of vulnerability.

You may have heard of the term "WASP"--an affectionately disparaging acronym for White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  I'm going to introduce you to a new one--a "MASP"--Middle-Aged Single Person.  And you qualify as a MASP if you're over 35, have never been married, have no kids, and the likelihood of either of those things ever happening is discouragingly remote.  That's a MASP.

The older I get, the more bizarre and awkward it is to be single.  It's a completely different experience from being single in my 20s or even my 30s.  It's not that I spend my days languishing in self-pity.  But even against the backdrop of the Apostle Paul's beloved Sonnet to the Singles, First Corinthians Seven, there are some really tough days.  Paul admonishes us that singlehood is not only an acceptable lifestyle, but can actually be a preferable one; but there are still times when being alone is deeply troubling.  When you feel completely out of step--not just with society, but even with your faith community, and those closest to you.  When it seems like your singleness is the modern equivalent of leprosy.  (Hey, here's an idea...let's gather them all together and isolate them into colonies!  Problem solved!)

You probably think I'm overstating things, or that I need to stop looking at the world through MASP-colored lenses.  I realize that it's a tendency for those who fall into a minority demographic (whatever that may be) to see all of society in terms of discrimination, persecution, and bigotry.  But it's equally true that when we're in the majority demographic, it's easy to be blind to the struggles of our minority counterparts.

I am very grateful for the grace-filled "non-MASP" people in my life who don't treat my singlehood as a disease, a problem to be solved, a cause for pity or suspicion, a sign of weakness or selfishness, a symptom of some deep-seated psychological problem, or a mark of second-class citizenship.  Indeed, I'm very grateful for these people, because they are a rarity.

But then there is everyone else...you know, those who open the newspaper and read "unmarried man in his mid-40s" and expect, somewhere in the same article, to also read the phrase, "bodies of prostitutes buried in the crawlspace."

Someone I know--and mind you, this is someone who cares about me--recently said to me, "I just cannot for the life of me understand why you're not married."  To quote Miracle Max, "Why don't you just give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice in it?"  The irony is, it was both the sting of my own acute sense of marital deficiency...and the indignation that people presume my singleness is a deficiency in the first place.

Twenty years ago, the thought of being in my 40s and unmarried was unthinkable.  Even so, it was a still a complicated matter even back then.  I was living abroad, and having to navigate some treacherous cultural waters.  I had my heart broken, sort of--not so much by rejection, but by something far worse--the hollow embrace of false affection.  Not to put too fine a point on it...but the pretty young women who paid attention to me didn't see stars when they looked at me.  They did, however, see the stars that adorned the seal on my U.S. passport.

In retrospect, this may be an overly-simplistic and even unfair categorization of some of the girls that batted their eyelashes in my direction during those years.  But at that time, this sham just reinforced my old, deep-seated insecurities, which had convinced me that no woman of substance could ever truly fall for the likes of me.  Such a blessing wasn't in the cards for me; I didn't deserve it.  And any woman who would fall for me, well, she must either be desperate, have abysmal standards, or be gravely mistaken about what I had to offer.  I once read a quote by Abraham Lincoln that struck me between the eyes.  He had written, "I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying, and for this reason--I can never be satisfied with anyone who would be blockhead enough to have me."

Fast-forward a number of years. Life and growth, hard knocks, and above all, the grace of God, have done some of its seasoning work in my life.  A lot of my youthful insecurities have been tempered--maybe not eliminated entirely, but they don't plague me like they once did.  And I've learned vicariously that romantic notions of love and passion are fleeting and overrated.  Nevertheless, the unfulfilled longing for the simple intimacy of steady companionship can be deeply haunting--especially when hope has been deferred so long that it simply crumbles.

Being alone has its challenges when you're able-bodied and (humanly speaking) self-reliant.  But sometimes in darker moments, my mind foolishly wanders over to what it will be like when I'm infirm, weak, unable to care for myself.  While my married peers watch their children grow, hopefully into responsible and caring adults who will one day hold their frail hands, I imagine approaching my dimming days alone, and dying unnoticed.  It's a dark place to go.  I don't recommend it.

One careless thing I have heard, too many times to count, is "You never really understand God's love until you marry or become a parent."  Be warned now: I will high-five your face if I ever hear you say it.

I'm not kidding.  I will make you cry.

Aside from it being self-righteous claptrap, it's also a lie from the pit of hell that dogged me for many years.  I struggled with this notion that I was not only missing out on the temporal benefits of marriage and family, but also that my relationship with God was second-rate as a result of it.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm NOT for a moment suggesting that God's love has not deeply and profoundly revealed itself to you through the trials and joys of your marriage or your experience with parenthood.  And in ways that I will likely never comprehend.

But if you subscribe to the myth that the deepest understanding of God's love is reserved exclusively for those who have experienced marriage or parenthood, I'd urge you to reconsider.  (In previous edits of this post, those last five words were actually three words, and were a little bit sharper.)  All that to say, the path God has placed me on is definitely a road less traveled, but it is my path, and God is still my God.  And who's to say that such a path can't have profound and meaningful lessons of its own?

When I cast my eyes down a road that looks pretty lonely, I have learned to slip my hand into the hand of a God whose care for and promises to the alien, the orphan, and the outcast, point to the utter magnificence of His character and glory of His love.  It sometimes overwhelms me.  I have no where else to turn.  I have no where else I want to turn.  I have nothing else in life in which to place my hope.  I have no choice but to cling ferociously to the One who clings ferociously to me.  And I wonder just how well I would have learned those things, if my life's path had taken me the route of a satisfying, married-with-kids kind of life, where my temptation would be to derive that sense of immediate security from my temporal family instead of from my eternal Creator.

But because God is my hope and my refuge, my shield and my portion, I have no reason to be pitied or ashamed, and I am not deficient in my singleness.  I have all that I need, and infinitely more.  Not just for the next life, but for this one.  I don't doubt that there are some hard days ahead, where the loneliness will be even more excruciating than I have yet to experience.  But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.  (2 Timothy 1:12)  And if, in some way, the path that God has placed me on does something to declare His works and proclaim His glory, then I'll walk it willingly, trusting in His grace, both when the road rises up to meet my feet...and when the road rises up meet my face.  

So here's an idea I'd like to pitch.  A weekend event called The Art of Singleness.  It would NOT be all about solving the "problem" of singleness, or presenting life skills for coping with it as if it were a chronic disease; and it certainly wouldn't be a thinly-veiled, last-resort meat market for desperate Christian singles.  But instead it would celebrate the fact that God's promises, love, and faithfulness hold just as true to those of us called to a different type of journey.
"Those who were not my people
I will call 'my people,'
and her who was not beloved
I will call 'my beloved.'
And in the very place where it was said to them,
'You are not my people,'
they will be called 'sons of the living God.'" 
     --Romans 9:25-26 (Quoting Hosea 2:23 & 1:10)

A Post Script to readers in the former Soviet Republics, who, judging from my page-view statistics, make up the majority of my readers lately...this is NOT an invitation to send offers for mail-order brides.  Thank you.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Stuff I'm afraid to write about

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”  (Matthew 23:27)

In my efforts to try to get back in the blogging habit again, I'd been looking over the 20+ postings that I had lovingly deposited at the feet of the Internet over the past few years, and thought, wow, good on you, mate; you've really made the Internet a much richer place, haven't you?  (My inner voice is sometimes sarcastic, often with a fake Glaswegian accent.)  I had recently challenged myself to consider what I'd be afraid to write about, and then, well, grow a spine and write about it.

Yeah...that hasn't happened yet.

But words are fun, and the opportunity to play with them like Legos (which I also still like to do) is appealing.  Now, I don't need a blog to do that, but a blog would allow me to fish for affirmation and experience the inevitable sting of disappointment when it's not forthcoming.  And after all, that's what a blog is all about.  So thanks for reading this, you tiny handful of friends, and maybe that one stranger who landed here accidentally after a Google search involving the words "foie gras" and "despair".

Anyway.  As I was going over the stuff I'd written in this blog, I realize that it's all pretty safe.  I don't mean that it's all marshmallows and butterflies, but still, I haven't written anything all that dangerous.  And by "dangerous" I mean stuff that would make me feel threatened or vulnerable knowing that it could actually be viewed by anyone.  (It probably wouldn't be...but it could be.)

That's the weird thing about hanging out your life to dry on the laundry line of the Internet. With the advent of the social network phenomenon, we have obtained unprecedented control--or at least the illusion of control--over the persona that we construct for the world to see.  And let's face it, a skillfully-constructed persona is much more about what we leave out than what we put in.  Case in point: just as I typed that last sentence, I spilled half a mouthful of coffee on my shirt.  Now, if you were sitting here with me, you'd be laughing, and there'd be no hiding the stain on my shirt.  But my online persona is impeccably dressed, and quite capable of drinking liquids from a big boy cup.  Unless I choose to reveal my clumsy little mishap, in which case I did so to deliberately make a point.  (And maybe to paint my constructed persona as quirky and random and a little self-deprecating.)

My point is, while we might strive to keep our protective masks in place in our "off-line", face-to-face interactions, it usually involves a lot of effort, and not much success.  But when we're online, we can metaphorically (and sometimes literally) photoshop our lives to approximate the image we want to project (or that we wish were the reality).  And we can do it with dangerous ease.  Don't think that my Facebook profile photo hasn't been tampered with.  If the beautiful people in magazines can get photoshopped, why should you expect anything different from unattractive, overweight, middle-aged folks?  Vanity is an equal-opportunity sin.

When I'm "off-line" having a real conversation using actual vocalizations and real eye contact, I tend to blurt out whatever pops into my head, I leave thoughts unfinished, and I sometimes am unable to string two coherent sentences together.  But when I'm online, my comments are deliberate, I can try to measure the tone and intended effect, and once I've edited it, I am usually coherent enough. (I've been known to agonize over--as if I were composing a presidential inauguration speech--a five-word comment on someone's Facebook photo of their kid wearing a bucket for a hat.)

Is it pithy enough?  Will it make the reader say, wow, what a clever guy he is, please tell me he has a blog?  Is it too snarky?  Not snarky enough?  Is there enough plausible deniability if someone chooses to take offense?  Is it too ambiguous?  Not ambiguous enough?  Is my grammar impeccable?  Should I capitalize "photoshop" when it's used as a verb?  Or a metaphor?  Will people catch the irony when I deliberately misuse those apostrophe's?

Did I spell foie gras correctly?  (Yes.)

So basically, my online life is a ruse. In my attempts at projecting a certain persona, I'm coming under the conviction that I invest too much in keeping up appearances (both online and off-line), and too little in seeking and developing true character in real life.

The clincher is that I live in a culture that is pathologically addicted to appearance at the expense of substance.  I realize it affects all broken humanity to some degree, but honestly, never have I encountered it to the ruthless, grace-less, soul-suffocating depths as here in religious Utah.  The terror of "being discovered" hangs in the air like the sulfurous odor of a pulp mill.  Window blinds are almost always drawn.  People look with envy at the white-washed tombs of their neighbors and feel shame.  They have it all together, why can't I?  And so then expend their lives relentlessly struggling to make sure their tombs are just as white...and preferably whiter.  If you can't be perfect, then look perfect.  If your tomb is white enough, no one will notice the decay within, and you might even manage to fool yourself for a while.

So I shake my head and tsk-tsk at all the shallow, white-washed graves that surround me...and then something happens and I catch a glimpse of the paint-encrusted brush in my own hand.  (That's the thing about self-righteousness.  It's kind of like "The Game."  The moment we recognize it in others, we become guilty of it ourselves.)

The irony is, we paint and paint and paint with the whitest of paint, and maybe we succeed--temporarily--in hiding our own rotting bones.  But when we get smeared and stained with the dark, red, sticky blood of Another, only then can we truly be clean...?

It's often been said that if a church could be filled with people who were truly and completely transparent in all our brokenness, where pretense and flaw-hiding were impossible, where all our stinky skeletons were dumped out on those pot-luck folding tables...what an incredibly, miraculously transformative place that would be.  The problem is, who would really dare to set foot in such a church?  Would you?  Would I?

And that is just some of the stuff I'm afraid to write about.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Read this. Or don't. I don't care. No, wait...

It's time to start blogging again.  Or at least, that's what I told myself when I got up yesterday.  A two-year hiatus from this blog is long enough, and by golly, there just aren't enough blogs in the world.  And besides, it's a good excuse to put off going to Ikea for those cheap, umlaut-infested wooden shelving units I need for the pantry.

In preparation for my re-entry into the blogosphere, I looked back on my very first blog entry, which I posted about four years ago.  It begins with the same self-deprecating statement that all new bloggers are required to say:  "I'm writing this blog simply for the sake of writing.  I don't really care if it's any good or whether anyone ever reads it."

Of course it was a lie.  I bloody well did care if anyone read it.  If I just wanted to store unread documents online, there's Google Drive for that.  So over the next couple years I posted a couple dozen entries.  And none of them...not a single one of them even got a nomination for a Pulitzer.  No book deals.  Not so much as an invitation from a major magazine to become a regular contributor.

The bulk of my day-to-day work has me dabbling in a lot of different communication arenas, everything from film editing to TV production to web and graphic design.  But writing is what I love most, and what I do least.  So why does it seem so hard to maintain any sort of consistency in blogging?  Yes, it could be argued that life gets in the way, days get busy.  But somehow I always seem to have time to watch Survivor and Walking Dead and Downton Abbey.  And let's not forget Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.  Nothing like Triple-D to make my own kitchen look pretty dismal.

For the longest time I feared that I had nothing of any real value to say, and so merely the act of starting a blog was, at best, presumptuous.  And yeah, I know what they say about this mass infestation of personal blogs being symptomatic of our society's increasing bent toward narcissism.

But as I ponder it more, I think the real thing holding me back is not so much a fear that I don't have anything to say, or a fear of giving into narcissism, but rather, the fear of actually writing down those things that I think are worth writing down.

When I started this blog, I had all sorts of expectations about writing my observations and experiences of being an evangelical Christian in a Mormon-dominated culture.  Hence the title of my blog, "Among the Saints."  But that hasn't really materialized to any significant degree, at least not to date.  It's not that I'm afraid of that subject matter.  After all, the topic of Mormonism vis a vis Christianity features pretty heavily in my vocational work.

But the question I'm mulling over is, what is really worth writing about?  I suspect that the only thing that has a chance of un-sticking the rusty wheels of this abandoned blog is a willingness to write about what I'm afraid to write about.  And there are plenty of things on that list.

So...am I going to rise to the challenge in the days and weeks ahead, or will my next entry be some sheepish posting two years from now?