Monday, June 30, 2008

Monday

Hear, oh Northern Virginia, the words of the prophet on the 8:42am Gold 1 CUE Bus from Vienna Metro Station:

ahahaha

Evil elusiveness

I don't feel pain, take your pain

Ah the Americans

They want me to be in pain

But I will not be in pain

They want me not to exist but

I will keep on existing

The evil Americans of all ethnic groups

They want to keep me down

But I'm not staying down

You want to keep me down

but I'm not staying down

but I'm not staying down

but I'm not staying down

but I'm not staying down

A devil running down with an evil attitude

Born out of false pride

White man is a curse to himself

Vietnam was a senseless and a coward war

Vietnam was a senseless and a coward war

The greatest war was against the slave masters

ahahahahhahaha

No stress for me, that's for them

I don't pay no bills, what am I stressed about?

Nothin'.

Let them pay the bills.

I sleep in the woods in my sleepin' bag

Let them pay the bills

Let them pay the price.

White man is evil

and the many ethnic groups with them.

He was in a wheelchair, and the (white) bus driver had carefully strapped him in so that the chair didn't roll around the front of the bus. He started speaking as soon as a South Asian guy came and sat in the seat in front of him and continued almost non-stop until he got off the bus about 10 minutes later, occasionally breaking into a sort of reggae chant about freedom. He would also stop from time to time to remark upon the beauty of certain other black people on the bus, and frequently punctuated his musings with

AHAhahahahahahHAahahaha

If he wasn't so damn poetic he would have been frightening.

He had dreads, and his clothes and bag were clean. He had piercing black eyes, black eyes that sparkle like a child's but have hard creases at the edges, like he's trying to discern the secrets of the universe. One of my exes --Ram-- had eyes like that, that glitter like dark jewels at the bottom of a well. They cut through a person while drawing them in, beautiful and unnerving all at the same time.

In the back of the bus, the Older Smoking Guy was telling all kinds of dark stories to the husband of the Fine Upstanding Filipino Couple who go to Mass every morning at St. Leo the Great. Well, he was telling them into the side of Mr. Filipino's head, anyway. Mr. Filipino was trying to be kind but the guy was freaking him out with stories of prison and Vietnam and various paranoid wanderings about this, that and the other. I don't know what got into the Older Smoking Guy. He normally just sits, quiet and leathery faced, with his red-veined bright blue eyes staring out of his head like he's just seen a ghost. Maybe the Dreded Prophet had inspired him to trot out his own poetic visions, which were more like a Stephen King novel than Dreds' lyrical racist rant.

The 8:42 Gold 1 has a standard cast of characters, and these include folks headed to the Lamb Center, the homeless day shelter in the center of Fairfax. It's kind of wild that these folks hang around for years, always taking the same bus to the same place... the Lamb Center folks and others, like the Filipino couple, and I guess me, too. I saw the guy the homeless folks call Elvis standing at the Metro today, as I've seen him a few times recently, just standing, waiting. He really does look kind of like Elvis. I thought that before I heard one of the Lamb Center folks call him that a couple of years ago. I haven't seen Elvis on the 8:42 in a really long time, but he's still hanging around Fairfax, doing whatever it is he does. The Older Smoker is more recent, as is his occasional sidekick, the Younger Smoker, who has his own stories of being shot and what-not, but is much less believable than the Older.

But the Dreded Prophet was new. He started singing really loudly as he rolled onto the platform and was lowered off the bus. On his way out he gave me a look out of the corner of his eye like he thought I might bite him. He greeted the black kid next to me, who had begun convulsively laughing when Dred had started his last chorus, with conspicuous warmth: "Hey, how u doin, brotha?" I said to the kid, "I hope you feel honored" and he laughed even harder. He said he rides the Metro bus from Centreville and there are always characters on that bus, too, and we chatted briefly about how much of humanity you see when you're bussin' it.

I walked around saying silently to myself "White man is EVIL" for the next 45 minutes. I told the students working at the front desk of my office --one Saudi, one Indian-- the story and they busted out laughing, breaking the dry quiet of the Monday morning office.

He may think I'm evil, but Dred made my morning.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Redeemed in the retelling

I've been participating in a six week memoir-writing workshop at Convergence led by Nina Sichel. Well, "memoir writing" sounds affected. It's basically using leading questions to tell stories about different phases of our life. I did a one afternoon workshop with her a few weeks back, also about digging into memory for stories, and I was hooked. I think the questions she asks are fantastic, but it also has to do with being ready for it... ready for the retelling of certain things.

Today was a Day of Intense Conversations. I had lunch with Kara, whom I could probably write several blog entries about but won't right now. Kara did some career coaching for me last year (she is a certified career coach) that really turned into life coaching/therapy/friendship. She's only a few years older than me, but she is an authentic "old soul" and I never leave a conversation with her without having my mental doors blown off by at least one thing she said. I tend to think of her as having a prophetic/wisdom role in my life.

Today she told me a story about a walk in the woods she took recently. She had been intending to try to do a "Spirit Walk"... to go walking in nature and to try to really invite God into the walk with her, to try to re-connect since she's felt disconnected from him for a while. She had imagined this perfect walk, all alone without the baby or the dogs, by the beach, with several hours in front of her. So of course weeks went by and she didn't do her Spirit Walk... there was no time for this. So one day, with her baby in his stroller, her dogs on their leashes, just outside her door, she told God she wanted Him to walk with her and suddenly felt Him present right beside her. She was amazed by how close she felt Him after not praying for so long, and how it was like He was just waiting for her to acknowledge that He was there.

She described one part of the walk where she routinely left the beauty of the woods, went out into a neighboring subdivision, up to the sidewalk, and then back to the woods... like she had to touch base and then head back, like she was playing cricket or something. She had actually fought with her partner over this insistence on leaving the quiet leafy beauty of the woods every single time they walked there for this seemingly pointless detour over a bridge and into a neighborhood. This time, on this walk with God beside her, she felt freed of the need to do that, turned around on the bridge to the neighborhood and headed back into the woods.

Ok, super-profound right? Chick decides NOT to cross a bridge when walking her dogs. oh and God went on the walk with her. Whoopee, Moff. But for real, it hit me, the power of our... of MY... habitual, routinized, thoughtless reactions. Of how we deprive ourselves of pleasure, of rest, of refreshment and reward, by insisting on doing the same damn thing every single day despite how tedious we find it. I'm talking about small things and big things. Why turn on a lamp every night whose light you find slightly annoying? Why head straight for the refrigerator/TV/computer/couch... whatever it is that we do EVERY SINGLE NIGHT? Why not choose what to do while we have the ability to do so? We haven't always had the power to choose, and someday we again won't.

After lunch, I had a conversation with the guy who works for me where he talked about how he'd never blogged despite wanting to because he wanted to be at a point in his life where he pretty much had the answers and felt he had something worth sharing... which means he would never, ever do it. He had made up rules for himself that were absolutely unnecessary, and he was willing to admit that.

The first week I was in Nina's writing workshop, I wrote stories about my past in the way I'd always recalled hearing them told, and the way I had told them to myself. The emphasis was on the bad things, a long string of tragedies and hardships in my parents' lives and in their parents' lives before them. My family sounded like something off of Jerry Springer, and the looks of shock and pity on the faces of the other participants were really noticeable. Listening to the other participants, I was struck by how two of them in particular had had childhoods that had similar dynamics and even some worse events, but they didn't sound like the Life of Britney Spears. I asked aloud why this was... a question for myself asked in front of the group. Nina made an observation that our families tell us the stories of our childhoods in a certain way for certain reasons. I don't know if I can point to exactly who made my childhood sound like a Greek Tragedy, but it was certainly my interior narrative.

So I decided to retell it. Not to make anything up or gloss over the pain, the confusion and isolation I often felt. I was a lonely, intense kid and a depressed teenager... but I didn't live in a constant, unmitigated state of despair. In making a concerted effort to recall cool things about my past, I have been delighted to dust off old, whiskery memories that I hadn't thought about in years, to paint friends and family in bright colors --the heroic and beautiful ways I once saw them-- not with the layers of dull gray disappointment (with myself and them) and loss with which I had covered them in the intervening years.

My point in blogging about this is that I realized quite quickly how pervasive my sense of shame was. Shame about my past... pretty much all of it. Shame about my present, how boring my life is in comparison with other lives. and pessimism about my future. Shame leapt off the page at me --to use a threadbare metaphor. Shame at how I had failed my own expectations. Shame at how I had let fear make so many of my decisions for me. Shame at people I'd failed by not even really trying to love them. and I wondered how many other people in my life struggle with this, too... how many of us continue to coat our memories of the past with layer after layer of sticky, dull grey shame, willfully choosing to carry our sins and not to be redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. Not allowing God to show us all the flowers blooming in the cracks in the dull, grey sidewalk. Choosing not to see how this or that decision led us to greater wisdom, to more depth, more empathy... to making better decisions today.

I told Kara that it was like God was beside her on that walk saying WHY are you choosing the dull route out of the forest every single time? and showing her a list of the 10 or so other choices she could make that would be so much more enjoyable and interesting... and that this was a metaphor for me... that if I lived like God was right beside me all of the time, I would be more aware of the huge number of really great possible choices I could make, in my habits of thought and my interactions with others, as well as in my daily routine.

In my retelling of my own history, I am choosing to see the Creator's Hand in my life, and I am seeing myself redeemed in areas I didn't realize I considered lost... finding myself again like Dorothy emerging from her gray house into Oz, my life suddenly bursting into color all around me. Keep me awake to this, Jesus.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Since feeling is first...

I've just finished reading Feel by Matthew Elliott, the second of 4 books I'm reviewing for Jan Edmiston's friend, and I'm happy to say that for what it's worth I thoroughly, happily, and enthusiastically endorse this book.

The basic gist of the book is the following: Western Christians have been taught, in line with some of the basic assumptions of Western philosophy and science, that reason and the emotions are two separate things, in faith as well as in the rest of life... maybe particularly in faith. However, this is not supported by the way the Bible teaches or talks about emotion, and it is a point of view that is being eroded by brain research, psychology and sociological studies that show how emotions are crucial in how we make decisions and in our ability to function socially.

Matthew Elliott did his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from the University of Aberdeen on the topic of the role of emotion in religion, so homeboy knows what he's talking about. He demonstrates in the book a grasp not only of scripture, but of a wide variety of literature on emotions from sociology, literature and cognitive psychology, to name a few areas. He manages to do this without turning the book into a textbook, and he includes quotes at the end from folks who have responded on the blog for the book, which makes reading the book feel more like a discussion group. I think the quotes are a little distracting, but they also make you feel more comfortable with your own reactions, since there are a variety of perspectives represented.

I should probably say that once I realized what the book was about, I decided a) I would like it and b) I probably didn't have much to learn from it, since I've known for a very long time that I was in the Pro-Emotion camp. I was right about a) (although I was a little surprised by how dry the writing style was at times... this adds credence to Matthew Elliott's assertion that he is still very much learning about expressing his emotions), but I think I was wrong about b). In particular, I think I've forgotten how much of my anger and isolation from the church is about exactly this.

Elliott begins with a chapter where he quotes some of the more famous Western philosophers who taught a clear divide between emotions and reason, and assigned the former a subordinate role. He starts with Plato and moves quickly through Descartes, Hume, Darwin, William James and Freud, all of whom believed the emotions were more or less the product of physical states and should be dealt with accordingly. He points out that the beliefs of these philosophers are very much in line with what he has been taught --as a child AND an adult-- by pastors and religious authorities, despite the fact that most of the philosophers that espoused this point of view also treated religion as a product of baser, less evolved instincts.

I remember being struck by this same point when reading A Question of God by Armand Nicholi, the Princeton (I think) philosophy professor who compared the ideas of Sigmund Freud with those of C.S. Lewis. I was shocked by how thoroughly integrated Freud's ideas were into my own view of the world and my faith, despite the fact that his ideas came from a totally godless worldview, and reflected the humanism/materialism of that perspective.

Matthew Elliott goes on to cite some of the countless numbers of Biblical texts he found that speak favorably of emotion and link it directly with the experience of faith. He then lists the philosophers and theologians who taught that emotions were good, God-given, and essential for the Christian life --Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Aquinas, even Calvin and Augustine. In reading through scriptures, he is struck repeatedly by how often the experience of faith is stated as a verb, and how it is so often equated with emotions:

"It occurred to me that our spirituality is all about how we are feeling-- whether we are feeling life or are numb to it. If we are not feeling as we should, something is really wrong with our relationship with God."

He goes on to demonstrate throughout the book how central emotions are to the experience of faith, and how shutting down or shutting off the emotions affects people cognitively, socially, developmentally, as well as effectively killing their faith. It also destroys the ability of Christians to live as Christ did, exhibiting a faith that is compassionate, passionate, joyful, alive. During a chapter on the power that God gives us through our emotions, he says that people who are on the outside of a rational Christianity look at it and

"see is a life that is all mental, all rational --simply a set of beliefs that, like an array of plates spinning atop poles, are constantly, manually refreshed, spun, and kept going. So our lives are not really about feeling joy, but about keeping the idea of joy afloat in our minds. So we do not allow ourselves to really feel hope, but we constantly spin the hope concept in our heads to keep it going. And we don't really open ourselves to genuine, passionate love, but we do "love-like" deeds and other to-dos in daily life, which keeps the idea of love spinning...
after we've lived that way for years, what do other people see in us? Do they feel our love during a difficult hardship; do they see real joy? Or do they develop a sense that we're "just doing the right thing," that they're on our mental checklists, that we're tired and weary and don't feel much of anything?
Here's what others see: the futility of a bunch of spinning plates."

When I read this I got a chill. I made a side comment several posts back about the song "Like Spinning Plates" by Radiohead. Here's the version I've listened to a zillion times... it's from a brilliant 2002 bootleg of Thom Yorke playing solo. I have no clue if Matthew Elliott is a fan of this song. I've been teaching it to myself on the piano, and the words of the song have become this illustration to me of the effect of an emotionless, condescending Christianity on a recipient who is longing for something deeper, better, more representative of their authentic experience of the confusion, longing, passion and struggle in following Christ on this side of the veil. I have literally come to picture a buttoned-down pastor and a beaten-down believer:

While you make pretty speeches
I'm being cut to shreds
You feed me to the lions
A delicate balance
and this just feels like spinning plates
I'm living in Cloud Cuckoo Land*
and this just feels like spinning plates
my body's floating down the muddy river
(*The online resource I got the lyrics from says that Cloud Cuckoo Land is a reference to Aristophanes "The Birds". Cloud Cuckoo Land is a mythical place where the birds go to get away from the violent, fragmented world of humans.)

Of course, he's not recommending that we all go around in a constant froth of passionate emotion (although I think that'd be rather interesting). He describes the unmediated display of emotion as another product of unhealthy repression and neglect of the emotions. He also describes emotion and reason as two riders on a tandem bike... you can't give yourself over entirely to either. Emotion as a God-given gift is meant to be tended to and grown, not entirely neglected and not allowed to run entirely wild.

He spends the latter part of the book dividing emotions into the categories --those we should grow, those we should keep, and those we should be done with-- and devotes a whole chapter to each type, using the metaphor of a garden that should neither be controlled to the point of being unnaturally well tended, nor overrun by weeds. In the chapter on emotions we should be done with, he says

"...remember, emotions always have an object. Sometimes the object of an emotion is a good and proper thing; sometimes it's a bad thing. Anger can be justified when we are angry at something evil, but it's wrong when our anger destroys someone or kills a relationship."

It's a simple, perhaps obvious, statement but it's a solid one and worth remembering.

I remember a well-meaning PCA friend who said to me in a moment of frustration, shaking her head sadly "you're intelligent, but your heart and your head are just so connected". That friend is now a fairly unhappy missionary who sends letters to just a few of her trusted supporters (emotional me among them) asking for prayer about panic attacks, broken relationships, the dryness of her faith. If she were the only one to shake her head at me in my faith journey, maybe I wouldn't feel that this book is so important. It's written for her and the others along the way who have made me and others like me feel that we are immature Christians at best and non-Christian at worst for the way we experience the world and our faith.

(FYI: The title of this post is a reference to the only poem I've ever memorized, by ee cummings, from the collection Is 5. It's about emotion and romance and I remember feeling guilty about memorizing it in high school because it certainly wasn't Christian... but I did it anyway).

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day

I just got off the phone with my Dad (pictured at left) and thought I should give a little shout out to all the Dads out there by saying a couple of words about mine. My Dad's faith is at the center of who he is. He's frequently said throughout his life that Christ is his only passion, and he really does mean that. Although there have been times in my life where I've wished he'd been passionate about a few other things, I can say that he raised me to have a thoroughgoing appreciation for the true nature of the Christian Life.

There was one point in the conversation today that reminded me of the gift he's given me in his total openness about his faith. He was talking about how so many people he meets in his work as a pastor want to have "the mountain top experience" in their faith. In other words, they want an adrenaline rush from their religion, because that would make it more real for them. That phrase brought back to mind a darkish point in my own life. I had gone to a Christian college that I hated... my spirit rebelled at the form of Christianity that was taught there and how intolerant the campus culture was to "errors of theology." I felt that not only was I a social outcast (which I had a fair amount of experience with and could tolerate) but that I was a spiritual outcast, too. That I was not a "Christian", not by the college's standards, anyway.

I was in my junior year and at a real low point. I had moved off campus and had started dating the cook at the little Italian restaurant where I was waitressing (most of the guys at the Christian college wouldn't even TALK to me, far less ask me out, so I figured I'd better take what was offered). The cook was an ex punk-rocker with the longest list of self-destructive behaviors I'd witnessed in a person up until that point, including drugs and alcohol. The relationship was an expression of my feelings of being "not Christian" because I could not bring myself to espouse the narrow view of Christianity that was being taught all around me. It wasn't the first time in my life that I'd felt rejected by Christian culture... in fact it had happened many different times previously in many different scenarios. I prayed about it a lot and wrote moody teenage poetry about it, but the relationship with this guy took things to a new level of despair.

Afraid of my own poor decision making, I drove 6 hours home to get some space and clear my head. I drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, looking for a trail I hadn't taken before to get to a mountain top, ANY mountain top, where I could see a clear view and be alone in God's presence and just get clean and right again. In truth, I knew I didn't have the will to get out of the relationship with this guy, and my theology was weak enough at that point to believe God might leave me forever if I didn't.

So, found a trail, and slogged a long hour and a half to the top, feeling numb and very depressed and without any inspiration or any particular sense of hope. I was doing the mental version of holding my breath, picturing myself at the mountain top, looking down onto God's creation, breathing clean cool air and finally engaging in unobstructed communion with God.

I got to what seemed to be the top, but didn't see any clearing where I could look down. I wandered around for a few minutes until I realized it: there wasn't any view. I had picked perhaps the only mountain top for miles around that did not have an area cleared away for tourists to gaze down and feel Awed by the Miracle of Creation. Every conceivable Sittin' Rock was completely blocked by brushy low trees and bushes. I finally found a place where I could scramble up and peer through the tops of bushes, getting a sort of view of some of the sky and a little bit of valley, and I fought back tears of disappointment.

Which is when it hit me: This is it. This is MY particular Mountain Top Experience. This is my life. I couldn't expect God to reach down to me a la Michaelangelo and hit me with a bolt of revelation because I knew darn well He didn't work that way, and I didn't need Him to. In fact, I wouldn't WANT Him to. How crap would my daily life be if I only heard from God occasionally, and only in a bolt of lightning or crash of thunder? How useless would my day to day activities seem if my spiritual senses were not attuned to perceive the small, tiny workings of God's love and generosity in the precious gifts of the everyday? Whose Christianity was I trying to imitate, anyway? I don't need a sweeping view of the valley when I can see Him in every leaf and every flower and at work and school and everywhere else.

I started to laugh and felt a rush of comfort come through me. and then I started to sing, and I sang all the way down the mountain... big, loud, exuberant songs of praise, songs about God's gloriousness and beauty and generosity... creating my own dramatic landscape.

My Dad has struggled his whole life with wanting God to be closer, closer, to reveal His power more, more, and has learned that this is not how God works 99% of the time. His openness with that struggle taught me that God is not Cecil B. De Mille. Sure, He does dramatic, miraculous things sometimes, but far more often He whispers and nudges and sings to us throughout the day in a thousand different ways, a Lover in constant attendance, closer than our breath, and not likely to cheapen His Love by constant displays of extravagance. My God is the God of obscured views, who directs us away from the theater of our own imaginings to the reality of His Amazing Grace, which is far more grand than any mountain top we could ever imagine.

Thank you, Dad, for the gift of faith. and thank You, Heavenly Father, for ministering to us all in the everyday.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

You put your left foot in...

This is the first of four book reviews that I am doing for the lovely Jan Edmiston... well, for her friend, actually, whose loveliness I cannot vouch for since I've never met him. The best I can figure, all these four books have in common is that they're Christian books published by Christian publishers targeted at addressing contemporary Christian folk. So. Let's get on with it, shall we?

(I just googled Hokey Pokey by Matthew Paul Turner and found a whole bunch of other blogs on it... I guess this is a gimmick to prompt viral, virtual, free advertising for the book. Ick.)

Ok, so I just finished Hokey Pokey by Matthew Paul Turner (maybe if I write it a bunch of times I'll turn up FIRST on the Google search mwahahahahaha), and I barely know how to write about it. The basic idea of the book is that it's about "calling". There are nine chapters, all of which view the topic of "calling" from a slightly different angle. Matthew Paul Turner (look at ME, Google!) structures the chapters around a whole passel o' interviews/conversations that he did/had with various people he's met that were either specifically about calling or touched on the topic. He closes out the various sections of the chapter with questions for the reader that invite further thought on the topic. The chapters cover topics such as being free in God (free enough to hear His call, more or less), the search for a "sign" from God, the need for mentors, waiting on God, change and its various discontents, and facing the truth about ourselves.

The Hokey Pokey title is a reference to the children's song, which I learned at the skating rink when I was 8 or 9. For those who may not have grown up in the U.S. or otherwise are not familiar with the song, it goes sumpin' like this:

You put your left foot in
You put your left foot out
You put your left foot in and you shake it all about
You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around
And that's what it's all about.

Doing this while on roller skates is difficult for the less coordinated children (i.e. Yours Truly) and so involves some hilarity when they fall on their butts in the process... but this is obviously not what he is referencing. Matthew Paul Turner uses the Hokey Pokey as a metaphor for being willing to get one's hands dirty in the search for God's purpose in our lives. "You put your left foot in" with all you've got and you figure out what it's all about. Or putting your left foot in is really what it's all about.

Ok. So, let me start by saying that the book definitely has its funny bits, or rather, that Matthew Paul Turner has a quirky, enjoyable sense of humor, and scoots in a lot of little funny bits here and there as he explains or gives his reaction to something (I actually put little smiley faces in some of the margins, for what that's worth). I think I would enjoy hearing him read the book because I think most of the humor would be even funnier if I heard it in the context of a public address of some sort. I also think he'd be a really interesting, quirky guy to know. There are some complex, unusual people that he interviewed that say interesting, profound things about life. I dog-eared pages where I thought there was a bit of something worth noting, and I may well have dog-eared over a third of the book.

That being said, the book reads like an ok blog (and his blog is actually fun to read, refreshing, etc.), and the overall effect is like Christian mental cotton candy. I forgot pretty much every chapter I read as soon as I finished it, and nearly threw the thing out the bus window when he made back to back references to conversations with Amy Grant and Kirk Cameron. I understand that this book was probably meant to be written for the ultra-contemporary reader and therefore MPT was under the gun to be not only spiritually profound but Christian-culture-savvy, peppering his text with up-to-the-millisecond cultural references (he references Facebook, Avril Lavigne, Grey's Anatomy... unfortunately he mentions poking and throwing sheep on Facebook, which is SO a year ago), but mixing those with twenty-five year old cultural references was just too much for me. Admittedly, I get most of his cultural references (except some of the TV ones because I don't watch TV) because he is just a couple of years older than me... but this doesn't make me want to listen to him. It makes me want to throw the book out the bus window.

Honestly, I spent most of the book underlining profound bits and wincing painfully when I felt condescended to by the completely unnecessary and irritating pop-culture references. I'm guessing an editor made him do that, and that editor should be spanked. That technique jacks up the book. It's also written in a choppy style that I believe is probably meant to cater to the "contemporary reader" with the attention span of a mentally impaired goldfish. Again, from my perspective this seriously undermines the effectiveness of the book and condescends to the reader. He begins to develop a point and then spins off into an interview, then follows that with questions. I think this is why I can barely remember any of it... nothing had a chance to really percolate.

Interestingly, he references something related in his chapter on change. He's talking about Generation X, and specifically a quote from Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (which was one of the culture references I didn't get), and he says

"...every generation has its issues, but mine seems to suffer from an incessant need to be cool and relevant, which to me seems like little more than a resistance toward growing up."

Preach it, brother. and while you're at it, smack the editor who told you that you needed to make your book more "cool" and "relevant".

So bitter vitriol aside (few things rouse my ire as much as an idea that could have been good being thwarted by clever marketing techniques), there are a few things about this book that did resonate with me, and one was the chapter titled "waiting on God is a contact sport". That chapter --which is about patience and how difficult and counter-cultural it is to simply wait on God's direction-- spoke to my experience in my language (most of the time), and may be worth a read on its own when I am tempted to forget about the universality and timelessness of this process of waiting on the LORD. There are also some really compelling stories among the interviews in the book, like Devon's in the chapter "God paints (and we are his art)", or John the Homeless in the chapter "everybody needs a Yoda". The range of people that Matthew Paul Turner was able to talk to in his book bears witness (some Christianese for ya'll right there) to his ability to connect with people and to hear their stories. The questions he asks at the ends of sections are meant to probe into the experience of the reader, and some seem to delve into fairly deep spiritual territory and are worth further consideration just on their own.

So the bottom line is: know what you're getting into before you read this book. There are neat bits and there are observations that may well stimulate thought, but you have to navigate through a lot of nasty little techniques designed to make the "average" contemporary Christian reader find the book interesting. I'd love to see what the book would be like WITHOUT all of that stuff in there.

And for Google: Matthew Paul Turner Hokey Pokey Matthew Paul Turner Hokey Pokey Matthew Paul Turner Hokey Pokey Matthew Paul Turner Hokey Pokey Matthew Paul Turner Hokey Pokey Matthew Paul Turner Hokey Pokey Matthew Paul Turner Hokey Pokey Matthew Paul Turner Hokey Pokey Matthew Paul Turner Hokey Pokey Matthew Paul Turner Hokey Pokey

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Scene from a train

It's 7:30 or so and I've taken my usual position at the back of the first train car at Vienna metro. I stayed at work til shortly before 7pm because of downed power lines between East Falls Church and West Falls Church metro station that had folks waiting for about an hour for trains at stations out on that end of the Orange Line... also because I and my co-workers had spent a half hour hanging out by the brick wall in the basement of our building due to dire warnings by National Weather Service that tornadoes were almost certain to sweep through our general area. One whole wall of my office is a window overlooking beautiful trees (which is 75% of why I haven't seriously considered quitting... I have worked in a coffin-sized, fluorescent lighted cubicle and I know how blessed I am right now), so I gladly skittered downstairs to wait out the Impending Doom. Later, I read on washingtonpost.com that a lady in Fairfax County died when a tree fell on her car, so I ain't messin around. I wait until Metro posts to their website that all is cool between the Falls Church stations and it isn't raining out, and then I jet.

k so I'm sitting here and this kid pokes his head in and asks the lady sitting catty-corner to me if this train is going into DC. This always confuses me when folks ask this. It's the flipping END OF THE LINE in VIRGINIA, son. Where the hell you THINK it's going... Charleston? But she politely answers yes and he gets on, choosing the seat directly across from me. I go back to my book, thinking mostly of the guy a few seats up facing me who was on the shuttle from GMU and both chatted with me on the shuttle briefly and definitely checked me out once we got on the Metro and ISN'T wearing a wedding ring. Hmmm.

Then I hear the kid talking. At first I just write it off as him being one of those kids who sings out loud when he's listening to his Ipod. This happens a lot on the bus, less frequently on Metro, but it still happens. The kid's always black, and sometimes what he's singing isn't very nice because it's rap and rap isn't nice. But I don't mind it. I have my usual I-was-raised-in-freaked-out-suburbia initial jolt but then I just listen to see if I like what he's singing/chanting/whatever.

This time, it's the book of Ecclesiastes. It only takes me a minute to realize this, which I'm impressed by because I honestly can't remember the last time I read the Bible when I wasn't in church. At first I'm like oh it's one of the Gloomy Books... is it Ecclesiastes or Lamentations, but then I realize it's Solomon talking about all the stuff he's experienced in life and how it really hasn't amounted to much and basically everything is pointless. I feel tension. Is the kid crazy? Is this Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction quoting desparing para-scripture before he shoots somebody? Why the heck is the kid reading Ecclesiastes? Out LOUD? But after a while I shut my book and just listen to him. and then I close my eyes and listen to him.

In truth, it's only snatches of him that I can hear... the train is so very loud, and there's always folks on there having their own little conversations and the train operator making his obligatory and occasionally theatrically rendered (i LOVE those) announcements. It's mesmerizing, this occasional Scripture punctuating those familiar noises that I'm so used to blocking out. I'm hearing these little phrases and words from Ecclesiastes buried beneath mechanical noise, the wind rushing past the train, the canned recorded voice that tells everybody to get out of the way before the door closes on their slow ass, etc. It's like my life... little snatches of Grace poking out every once in a while from the numb chaotic sometimes-mildly-surreal ritual of my days.

Then he gets to the "there is a time" section... I hear "A time for being born and a time for dying" very clearly, then it starts to get buried again... only the refrain "A time for... A time for... A time for" is clear and strong above all the other noise. I am wishing more and more that I had something with me to record the kid. I look up at him and study him, unnoticed because he's so into what he's reading. He is a clean cut kid, wearing very nice basketball shoes, big baggy jeans that look expensive, a massive MLK Jr. t-shirt. He has dreds but he's only had them a few months and they are extremely well-tended. He's maybe 17 at the oldest, with a face that's not exactly attractive but not ugly. He's a normal middle class kid, except for the fact that he's reading Ecclesiastes out loud on the metro.

He reaches a stopping point, considering what he's just read, and I lean over and ask "Why Ecclesiastes?" I've been dying to ask him this ever since I realized what it was. Why this? If he's some kind of evangelist, why Ecclesiastes? If he's a charismatic who's just nuts about reading scripture out loud, WHY Ecclesiastes? He looks up at me, surprised, eager, and I'm a little shocked by the intensity, clarity and intelligence in his eyes. Maybe he's older than I thought. He says "Yeah, it's Ecclesiastes" and smiles at me. I say "Yeah, but why?" He says "I don't know. I just felt like that's what I was supposed to read", and smiles again. "You like Ecclesiastes?"

The woman in front of him is also African-American. I haven't been able to read her body language over the last 10 minutes as he's steadily read out loud right behind her. At first she leaned forward very far and studied the Metro map in her hands and I thought he was making her nervous, but then she leaned back and just listened, with her brow furrowed. I thought, he's bothering her in a way, but she's listening. Maybe she's thinking this is one of those racial moments... and it's true that all the white folks on the Metro are looking nervously at him. She jumped when I said something to him, and smiled at me, like I was talking to her, too.

I explain that I like Ecclesiastes --it's philosophical, real, it makes sense-- but if I'm going to read the Bible I'm going to go to the Psalms, the Gospels, to Proverbs because I really need Proverbs. He says again that he just opens the Bible sometimes and reads wherever it goes, and that he always tries to read Scripture out loud, so he can hear it. The woman nods and says something like "Faith comes from hearing" and he responds "and hearing from the Word of God". I don't know if I got that quote 100% right, but I know a) it's scripture and b) they just spoke in African-American cultural code and I'm on the outside and oh how I always want to be on the inside when that happens.

We talk a little more... I tell him about wanting to record him, and we all laugh. and I say I'm sorry for interrupting him but I had to know why he was reading THAT, and he reiterates that it was just what he was led to do and then I'm like cool well I'll let you get back to it, and he does. and I close my eyes and he gets to the part where it says "Two are better than one"... and he reads it twice... that two are better than one because when one falls the other can pick them up. and I am hearing it and thinking that I don't know if God told him to read that particular passage out loud, but that I'm BLESSED by it anyway... that he's reminding me of the passion for scripture that I once had, the way I felt God was speaking to me through it... the way it would sometimes be the highlight of my day even when I was a teenager and most of the time really just wanted to have a more exciting life and a lot of sex. and didn't have either.

Listening to him, I had a sudden urge that I should get off a stop earlier than I was intending. Ok, I thought... he blessed me with his impulsive following of what he perceives as the will of God. I'll answer in kind. I get off, and tell him to take care. He and the woman look up and smile as though I'd addressed them both. I walk out, full of thoughts, trying to interpret what just happened. Halfway home, a few rain drops start to fall and I put up my umbrella. Two blocks later, it's raining in earnest, and by the time I get to my street, I'm running, my dress soaked, and lightning and thunder are starting. It rains like this for the next hour, pouring down with considerable lightning and thunder. If I'd gone to the next stop and gone to CVS like I was intending, I would have been either stuck in CVS for a long time or done my whole walk in the pouring rain with lightning coming down.

So, did God "tell" the kid to read Ecclesiastes? Did he "tell" me to get off a stop early so I wouldn't get struck by lightning? I don't know... but I know that I was changed, however imperceptibly, by that guy obeying what he perceives to be God's Will or the Spirit's prompting and reading the Word out loud on the train, surrounded by stressed out Washingtonians. Thank you, whoever you are, for obeying the urging of God. I think maybe I want to be more like you.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Room with a view

I'm settling in to the new place... it's been 2 weeks now and there's still a lot of boxes around, but slowly I'm getting things unpacked, put up, organized. I walked in tonight and thought ahhhh, MY house, and felt a really genuine sense of happiness that I was here. I've started referring to this as my Sanctuary... a place to sort things out, to create, to deconstruct and reconstruct my somewhat busted-up identity. A half hour after getting home, I took the picture above from my living room window. Nice, eh?

A lot has happened lately... most of it not blog-worthy. My former roommate is now back in her home country of Iceland, which greeted her warmly with a 6.4 earthquake within a half hour of her landing in Reykjavik. Blessedly, no one died, but the town at the epicenter is pretty much destroyed. Hell of a way to start after 9 years away from her homeland.

Cindi and I did our first open mics together a couple of weeks ago. Well, SHE did the open mics and let me sing with her, including one of the songs she helped me write. She was fantastic, just like always, and I got a decent reception. People can be so unbelievably wonderful sometimes... so encouraging and complimentary. Cary, the organizer of the SAW open mic, asked me to wrap up that open mic with "Amazing Grace" acappella (he'd heard me do it at the State of Convergence thingamabobby) and I was struck by the amazing grace of these folks sitting around, politely listening to the fruit of one another's efforts, dreams, hopes... I was pretty much struck by the same thing at Bangkok Blues (the not-so-great pic of Cindi and I above is from BB). There's this lovely community of musicians in this area who are really just kind to one another. I don't know if any of these folks will become more than locally known, but that's kinda the point... the community. Playing with friends and enjoying that experience without a lot of the extraneous expectations that make you crazy with what-ifs and the sense of inadequacy.

Of course, I have a day job, and this is all really new to me... so I'm not trying to condescend to folks who are working hard to pursue their art full-time and make it pay the bills. It's just that the feeling of community at these open mics is really nice... and as usual, that's what I'm really looking for... and you know since art is really just another language (right?), another way of communicating, it's nice to be able to see and know the people I'm talking to. I'm on this massive Radiohead kick right now (my internal 14 year old boy bubbling to the surface) and I just keep thinking how cynical would it make you to sing these incredibly intense, emotional songs to thousands upon thousands of people who all feel like they KNOW you? Gives me a little chill.

Kinda like the conversation I had the other night with an Indian guy who grew up all over the world, speaks multiple languages, etc. I was talking to him about my preoccupation with home and with a sense of place and identity, yadda yadda. and he said "Don't you think the concept of "home" is becoming outdated?" My skin crawled. How could someone possibly say that, how could they MEAN that? Later on, he and I were talking in Spanish about this other guy at the table whom I thought was... err... attractive... and this Indian guy was passionately trying to convince me that I should let the other guy know that and see where it took me (despite the other guy having a girlfriend)... because NOW was what was important... felicidad, happiness, was the only important thing. I struggled with my limited Spanish to try to communicate that this isn't felicidad for me. I finally came up with "Paz en mi alma es felicidad para mi, muchacho" ... Peace in my soul is happiness for me, boy. He got it then... got that he and I were different. and man, HOW different.

I can't help but tie this strange romantic ideal of homelessness, wandering, with a lack of values, of centeredness. I know they don't necessarily go together, but I think that's what I'm meaning by home. I'm meaning a reference point, a point where I can feel comfortable in my own skin, not having to explain myself at every turn. But not only that... also a place where I can turn when I've lost my way. I suppose, in addition to the longing for a specific geographic point outside the nearsighted frantic busyness of DC, I'm looking for an internal reference point, a place of ontological belonging, where my soul can dwell in safety and turn for comfort and a sense of wholeness.

and you know, I find that space from time to time. I find it with Cindi. I find it with certain people at my churches. I find it when I'm singing something I really feel in my soul reflects me and how I view things. I feel it here, feeling mildly gooey in the summer evening heat, with my cat draped over my lap, listening to k.d. lang sing "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen, and putting my thoughts online to a small family of folks who care enough about community to support what I'm doing here by reading this.

and I feel sad, truly sad, for folks who don't think that's important, or who live like it isn't, like the Indian dude I met. I admit that I don't understand their background and perspective and that there's lots of different ways to live... but damn, how does a person hold it together without that sense of community, of centeredness, of a self that survives through all the changes?