Tuesday, July 13, 2010

why I am (still) a (fairly confused) follower of Jesus

There are a lot of stupid reasons to keep a blog – vanity, exhibitionism, insecurity, etc. – and at one time or another I have been guilty of them all. Fortunately, the truth does not necessarily require saints to be its vehicles – chumps with chips on their shoulders will do just fine, so long as they are willing to try to tell the truth… and I am nothing if not trying.


As a result, over the past six years I have had the privilege of hearing from a variety of very lovely people of all shapes and sizes; friends and strangers alike that my writing has in some way impacted. An eight-year-old girl responded to a blog I wrote about the dark history behind my antipathy towards mathematics to say that she, too, hated math. An elderly man who had just seen his daughter off to the Burning Man festival wrote to identify with the struggles and passions of my youth and to thank me for allowing him to live vicariously through them.

On and on the list goes… I have heard from college students, college professors and college dropouts; atheists, neo-pagans, agnostics, and even a few Christians. Gay, straight, or crooked, I have felt the weight and joy of the privilege of writing into so many different types of human hearts. As a result, I have tried to write with what humility and honesty I can muster, doing my best to avoid ever presenting myself as chief-potentate-and-owner of the sort of knowledge that is entirely the province of what I believe to be an inestimable God.

There have been times, however, that I have wondered if in my desire to avoid insulting others with arrogance I have perhaps erred too far in the other direction and have lied by omission – failing to admit clearly enough that, yes, despite all the stupidities I like to make fun of in the Christian Church, I am still attempting to live my life as a follower and student of Jesus who, let’s face it, kicks the llama’s patoot.

This Sunday I was at my church, which most people in mainstream Christendom would say is “just a small group.” Our leader had decided that we would spend the evening relating stories about times God had clearly communicated to us. I was trying hard to keep my mouth shut, because these days I tend to find the whole idea that I could have absolute certainty about God’s business to be ludicrous, if not reprehensible. But keeping my mouth shut during serious discussions is not one of my strengths, so I raised my hand and spewed out a bunch of words that ended up with me crying a little and everyone else getting pretty much dead silent.

As I rode home afterwards, swerving my motorcycle all over the road to avoid running over the endlessly re-populating road-frogs, I thought about this blog and all the good people who have expressed “concern” for me over the years – one of whom even wrote a letter implying that I “needed Jesus in my heart” and promising to pray for me. I thought about the many people who don’t agree with me about Jesus, but still have the decency to listen to my opinions without making assumptions about my eventual damnation, and I thought… I owe it to friends on all sides of the theological spectrum to try to tell the truth about why I am (still) a (fairly confused) follower of Jesus Christ.

The problem is, I doubt that I really can. It’s a faith position, see, and words seem inadequate – a little too inextricably linked to reason to properly explore something as mysterious as faith, which I believe includes and transcends reason. Words mislead and rabbit-trail, ending up violating and desecrating the very beautiful thing that faith is… a thing worth fighting to preserve.

I don’t want to do that, so I think the best way to approach the question is indirectly. Instead of telling you why I try to follow Christ, I will tell you what I told my “just-a-small-group” Sunday night about how I have heard God speak. Maybe as I do, you’ll get a sense of where I am coming from.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll edit out the tears and stuttering and make myself sound like I had actually planned what I was going to say.

- - -

We’re telling stories about how God has spoken to us, right? Well, I’m not all that comfortable being that clear about something I see as this insanely ginormous mystery. God speaking? Hmmm.

I guess the only times I feel absolutely justified in saying unequivocally that “God spoke to me” is when I have heard God's voice in this amazing natural world all around me. I spent ten summers doing forestry work in British Columbia and Alberta, some of what I think has got to be the most beautiful terrain on the planet. Out in those wilds I saw things that make all my descriptions fall apart – things so wonderful I don’t even want to try to describe them. And growing in the Amazon rainforest, I witnessed a whole lot of indescribable moments as well. One night I sat with my friend Ben and watched as two pillars of clouds built up high into the sky and began to light up inside with flashes of lightning. Then, as we watched, lightning bolts began to arc back and forth between those clouds and for some reason the whole thing lit up in an unrepeatable, multi-colored fireworks display that went on for an hour and a half. It is in those sorts of moments that I guess I would say that God is talking to me.

For everything else – all the little things that happen in my life… well, I just don’t know. I used to want to know, to fit everything into a neat little box so that if anything new that I could not understand happened I wouldn’t have to be scared. I could just reach into my pocket and pull out my little boxed God and say, “Look! See what I got here? That’s right… it’s GOD, baby, so back off!”

The fear kept coming, though, and I kept having to try to box more of life… which kept making and finding cracks to leak out of. It was a lot of work, being in charge of the universe, so usually I would just take the path of least resistance and then say, “Yep, lookee see… God made this happen.”

After I left Peru I went to the same college my brother was attending – where my cousins had gone in the town my parents were moving to, and I said, “Yep, God told me to go here.” I was an artistically gifted young man, but afraid of the big, bad world and afraid that I was not creative enough to make it – so I went the easy route to the easy school, where an Art major was not even an option.

After I got out of college and ended up here in North Carolina with a big, gaping hole in my life plans, I met the woman who was to be my wife and did the same thing all over again. I was young, confused, scared and getting more involved than I wanted to, faster than I had planned. So what did I do? I convinced myself that God had ordained it and had told me that we were meant to be together… heck, I even gave a little speech to that effect at our wedding.

I hear people all the time talking about how God spoke to them in this or that way and that God did this or that thing for them, and its always something positive: God fixed their car or found their wallet or healed a relationship. So what am I supposed to do with my relationship? What am I supposed to think about how sure I was, back then, that God was directing my path? Was I delusional, or just a little mistaken? I mean… the marriage broke. She left me. How could that be God?

Last summer I went to visit a friend in Kentucky and I ended up going with him to his AA meetings. I walked in and was like, “Dang… I’m in church: maybe the first real church I have ever been in.” The people were all just so broken and real, and it was great. My friend told me that a lot of the alcoholics who’d been coming to that meeting for a long time were actually grateful for their disease of alcoholism, because it was this that put them at dis-ease with their life and showed them how spiritually bankrupt they were – how bound up by fear and unable to love. If not for the alcohol, they reasoned, they would have lived out the rest of their lives enslaved by fear.

So this past week as I have been thinking about ways God has spoken to me, I have found myself thinking back to what I was like before I met my wife. I do not like what I see back there in my past. It makes me sad. As I reflect on that, I start to wonder if maybe God was telling me to get with her. This past year of my life has been the worst of times, but also the absolute best of times. I have been forced to face things about myself that without this personal cataclysm would most likely have remained hidden forever. I have been forced to acknowledge all the ways in which fear and guilt have driven me to do the things I have done: everything from the big life decisions down to the way I have gone about making art.

I swear… I only ever painted because it was something I was good at and because when I did it, people told me I was special. There was a little joy there, yes, but buried so deep under fear of failure that it barely ever saw the light. But now, as I live through the death of my marriage, my art has begun to come alive for me. I am enjoying it more than ever, and spending more time than ever on it.

Oh, and because my school offered no Art major, I ended up getting a Bachelor’s degree in English which, given the fact that I am mostly expressing myself creatively through writing these days, seems to have been the best choice. So I guess you could say I’ve come full circle. I now think that maybe God was guiding me to that school and into this marriage. Sure, it wasn’t ideal and I did it for broken reasons, but this is a broken world.

I have come to think that maybe I am always just taking things and breaking them over and over, and maybe God is forever picking up the pieces and placing them into an ever-increasingly complex mosaic that gets more and more beautiful all the time. I do not understand the logic behind this masterwork, but I do love it.

There is a verse in the Bible that says something like, “consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you endure trials of many kinds,” and I used to think that meant that you should be glad because God was going to use those struggles to give you all sorts of goodies – either now or in some pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die-by-and-bye afterlife. And there may or may not be some truth to that, but I am starting to think that it is an un-helpful perspective. I am starting to think that sometimes the goodies are in the trials (cosmic piñata, anyone?) and that God is this master artisan speaking all the time, in all ways, to all people. I am starting to think that maybe God is always talking to me, and I just have not really learned how to shut up and listen.

So I am thinking that maybe I am glad I met my wife. Because of it, I have some great memories and a beautiful son [commence tear-duct malfunction]. Because of it, I have begun to leave my fear and love people in a way that I think would otherwise not have happened. For the first time in my life, I am starting to actually really love being alive – to find the joy in that and in making my own little bits of art.

I am grateful, then, that I met her. I am grateful for all the things we’ve shared these past eight years – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I am grateful, even, that she left me… because as much as I hate it and as painful as it has been, I don’t know what worse things might have happened if she had stayed, or what wonderful things might happen now that she is gone. Before she left, she got in a wreck with our son in the car, for example, and told me that it would not have happened if she had not been so torn up about our relationship.

I like to think that I know what is best in our situation… but who am I to say? I think, but do not know, so I am glad that God has spoken and continues to speak and move through it all.

I am trying not to say anymore what, exactly, God is saying. I feel like I can see that something wonderful is happening, but I do not really know what. I am learning, I think, to be where I am and just enjoy the journey. It is good to be alive – to live, and love, and listen and maybe even hear, just a tiny bit, the voice of God.

- - -

That, generally speaking, is what I said. It doesn’t really answer the question, though, does it? Instead of explaining why, specifically, I follow Jesus, I have taken that question and added a few more. I am okay with that, though, because that is what faith is. As Anne Lamott says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”

Do I try to follow Jesus just because my parents and grandparents and great-great-great grandparents were Christian and I was raised in a missionary community where pretty much every single adult I ever knew claimed to be following Christ? Maybe. Or maybe it was a combination of that, and logic. Perhaps I carefully examined every argument for and against and decided in the end that Jesus Christ best fit the evidence. Maybe I had some overwhelming personal experience that overrode any objection—perhaps Jesus cured me of my cocaine addiction and healed my crippled foot.

You know what? It’s impossible to say. I have never tried cocaine and have always had a fairly sound body, but other than that, it’s all fair game. I live within my own context, and it is impossible to know what I would be like if I had been raised somewhere else – like, say, sub-Saharan Africa – and had not had the exposure to Christ or the theological and philosophical education to which I have been privy. I have probably read and studied hundreds of books on the topic. I have argued about it, wrestled over it, contemplated and meditated on it, but I still don’t really know.

I am happy with that. I won’t fight you over it, but I will try to love you through it, because I have found that where Jesus is, there is love – amazing, upside-down, inexplicable love. While a lot of people try to hijack the power of that and use the name for their own nefarious purposes, Jesus is always in the love.

Follow the love. 

4 comments:

  1. Good writing and says some of the same things that I have felt after my husb and i split up. Hmmm

    ReplyDelete
  2. A conversation with the Creator (aka C):

    ME: [angry] "What a lousy pony. This looks nothing like a pony."
    C: "..."
    ME: [angrier] "It doesn't even look like anything at all..."
    C: "..."
    ME: [storming out of the room] "%$#%@# lousy ^%#%#$ pony painter.."

    [sometime later...]

    ME: [cautious] "Ok... so... What is it?"
    C: "It's beautiful."
    ME: "...right... But what IS it?"
    C: "Beautiful."
    ME: "But what is it for?"
    C: "For you."
    ME: "...?"

    [sometime later...]

    ME: "You know, I've been looking at your painting..."
    C: "And?"
    ME: "I SEE it now! I GET it! IT'S AWESOME!" When I turn my head like this and squint my left eye, there's a pony RIGHT THERE!"
    C: [facepalm. wanders off muttering to himself.]
    ME: "Hey everybody! Check this out! I figured out how to see the pony! Just turn..." [et cetera]

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks, Thisbrit. And Swiftshanks... Best. Comment. Ever. Thanks. That was perfect.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yup, I think Swiftshank pretty much wrapped that up.

    ReplyDelete