Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Returning Home

Recently I reconnected with two old high school friends online. I hadn't seen either one in two decades, so I was a little apprehensive at first about meeting them again after all that time. I didn't have many close friends in high school, and even though I knew both of these guys from numerous classes and school activities going all the way back to junior high and considered them friends, I didn't really know them all that well.

So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that I am remembered in a generally positive light, at least by a few people. Last weekend we caught up over drinks, talking about former classmates and how each of us has spent the last 20 years of our lives. It was also fun to see how much was still familiar, despite all of the changes that inevitably take place over that much time.

When I graduated from high school I lost no time getting away from home; I enrolled in a college a thousand miles away and never looked back. Aside from flying back home for Christmas every year, I only kept in touch with one old friend; it would be 14 years before I finally moved back to my home state. High school wasn't a completely bad time for me - our school had strong academics and a vibrant music program - but it was nonetheless a largely unhappy period of my life, and high school as an institution stood out in my mind as a symbol of that unhappiness.

Getting away from all of that was the goal I spent my last two years of high school working toward, as I literally counted the days until I could leave for college. College was my big opportunity to get on with my life, to establish my own identity, to get away from a home where I was anything but happy.

In retrospect I was also running away, hoping that all of my problems would stay behind. I wanted to magically cease to be that socially inept, painfully insecure kid with way too much deeply-buried anger, whose desperate attempts to be a good Christian by trying to apply all of those "biblical" formulas that sounded so simple on Sunday morning seldom accomplished anything beyond feeding a growing well of self-hatred.

And college was a great time for me, even if the theology I was taught there was only incrementally less dogmatic than what I had grown up with. I learned a lot (both in and out of the classroom), built some great friendships and did a lot of growing in those four years - but I still had to deal with all of the issues I'd hoped to leave dead and buried with my high school years. Overcoming them has taken a lifetime of work, and I can't say I'm finished yet.

Had information about my high school reunions reached me, I probably wouldn't have gone. I definitely would have avoided my ten-year reunion because I wasn't ready to unpack all of those memories, and may well have stayed home from my 20-year reunion out of apprehension for how people remembered me.

It came as a moment of grace, then, to be reassured that at least a few of the people who knew me back then remember me in a positive light. Perhaps it shouldn't have been any great revelation that my classmates were too busy getting through their own days and dealing with the challenges of adolescence to be zeroed in on my problems and shortcomings. Yet I still found myself in need of a little external validation to show me that it's safe now to revisit that period in my life, and that I can spend at least as much time remembering the positive as I do the negative.

Not that there's enough money in the world to talk me into going back in time to relive those years, mind you. But I'll hang onto the memories, the good as well as the bad.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Life Soundtrack 5

"Our Mystery" by Bebo Norman, probably my all-time favorite love song (give or take the video). On the off chance that I ever get married (or the equivalent), this is the song I'd want for our first dance.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Glorious Disarray

I face my demons, wrestling these angels to the ground
And all that I could find was a thin line between all the saints
And villains - it was crossed
In my own mind

Some day I'm gonna find it, wish I knew what I was looking for
Inside the disarray
I woke up this morning, don't know where I'm going
But it's alright
I wouldn't have it any other way

-Lifehouse, Disarray

Making a statement like the above is a risky thing to do in some Christian circles. Jesus is the Answer, after all, so once you've found him you should have it all figured out. Sooner or later we have to adapt to the fact that, however valuable a companion Jesus may be on our life journey, "finding" him doesn't give us the answers to all of life's questions or wipe away all (or even most) of our issues.

In some churches that means pasting on a happy smile and pretending that everything is hunky dory while the pastor gives yet another "evangelistic" sermon about how perfect the Christian life is. In others it might mean paying lip service to life's challenges while treating the Bible as an "answer book" with surefire step-by-step formulas for whatever ails you.

Even in many churches that rise above such thinking, the focus remains on the end of the journey. We get so caught up in anticipation of heaven (and/or Jesus' imminent return) that we fail to see this life as much more than a speed bump along our way there. The beauty that exists all around us gets scant notice, since it's just part of a fallen world that God's going to wad up and throw away any day now.

This life may be far from perfect - and even downright miserable at times - but there are wonders to be discovered, sometimes in the most unexpected places. There is joy to be found in the midst of uncertainty, but it's easy to miss if we become too focused on "arriving."

Chaos is woven into the very fabric of the universe we inhabit. We're quick to label chaos as "evil," yet scientists are continually discovering how much the order we value is dependent on the existence of chaos. Perhaps chaos, as we define it, is merely a level of order beyond what we currently comprehend. In any case such knowledge, once taken to heart, can only serve to humble us.

Once humbled, we are released from the burden of having to know all the answers. We are free to experience the joy of discovery as our journey continues to unfold. To borrow a line from a popular sitcom, "Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You're going to love it."

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Recently I've been reading The Subversion of Christianity, by Jacques Ellul. It's a challenging book, both because Ellul leaves the reader with so much to process and unpack, and because he turns our traditional understanding of what Christianity is upside down.

We intuitively understand that the nature of our relationship with God sets Christianity apart from other faiths. We have a direct line of connection to the Creator of the universe, whose Spirit guides us in all things. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work in theory; in practice Christianity has overwhelmingly been a religion that differs from other religions only in its details.

The law is routinely laid down for us by our spiritual leaders, who emphasize doctrines and codes of conduct over getting to know the God who wants to connect with us directly. There are rituals to observe (even in non-liturgical churches), things to be held sacred at all costs, and a particular language to be employed.

But is that what Christianity is supposed to be? Ellul argues otherwise. Over the course of his book he examines a multitude of trends that have steered the church away from biblical Christianity - everything from Greek philosophy and Roman (and barbarian) paganism to the inevitable dilemma created by the influx of large numbers of converts into a community distinguished by its intimacy.

Ellul provides more material for discussion than I'm likely to ever get around to addressing (I have at least a few posts in mind already, and I'm only halfway through the book). By way of introduction, here are a few of Ellul's thoughts about the church's tendency toward looking like whatever culture it finds itself in.

But what has been the result? A Christianity that is itself a religion. The best, it might be said, the peak of religious history. (The bothersome thing is that Islam comes after it!) A religion classed as monotheistic. A religion marked by all the traits of religion: myths, legends, rites, holy things, beliefs, clergy, etc.

A Christianity that has fashioned a morality - and what a morality! - the most strict, the most moralistic, the most debilitating, the one that most reduces adherents to infants and renders them irresponsible, or, if I were to be malicious, I should say the one that makes of them happy imbeciles, who are sure of their salvation if they obey this morality, a morality that consists of chastity, absolute obedience (which in unheard-of fashion ends up as the supreme value in Christianity), sacrifice, etc.

A Christianity that has become totally conservative in every domain - political, economic, social, etc. - which nothing can budge or change. Political power, that is good. Whatever challenges or criticizes it, that is evil.

... Christianity has become a constant force of antisubversion. It has been put in the service of the state, for example, by Louis XIV or Napoleon. It has been put in the service of capitalism by the nineteenth-century middle class. It champions the moral order.

We find exactly the same inversion in the cultural sphere. Christianity imbibes cultures like a sponge. Dominated by Greco-Roman culture, it became territorial and feudal (benefices) in the feudal world with all the beliefs... that back it. It then became bourgeois, urban, and argentiferous with the capitalist system. It is now becoming socialist with the diffusion of socialism. It helped to spread Western culture throughout the world when the West was conquering and subjugating the world. Today it is letting itself be permeated by the values of African, Oriental, and American Indian cultures.

Always quick to justify itself, it claims to be on the side of the weak. Tomorrow we might have adjustment to Islam as today we have adjustment to Marxism. We now have a rationalist or liberal Christianity as we used to have an Aristotelian or Platonic Christianity in a mockery of being "all things to all men." (pages 17-18)

Many Christian thinkers have expounded on what they see as threats to the faith. Where Ellul differs from the rest is that he does not do so in moralistic terms. Where others might rail against perceived heresy or warn of impending doom in the light of society's moral decline, Ellul merely points out where the church has departed from the direction set by the biblical authors. Where others have been quick to expose and declare war on those they see as enemies of the faith, Ellul sympathetically seeks to understand how and why events unfolded in the manner that they did.

I'm not far enough along in the book to be able to say what (if any) solutions Ellul offers for the church. In any case, I am enjoying reading the thoughts of somebody who came to many of the same conclusions I have via a different path.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Life Soundtrack 4

First Time by Lifehouse, another of my favorite groups. This song would make a good sequel to my recent reflections on intimacy:

We're both looking for something we've been afraid to find
It's easier to be broken, it's easier to hide

Looking at you, holding my breath
For once in my life, I'm scared to death
I'm taking a chance letting you inside

Feeling alive all over again
As deep as the sky under my skin
Like being in love, she says for the first time

Maybe I'm wrong, I'm feeling right
Where I belong with you tonight
Like being in love, to feel for the first time

...or so I imagine.