01.26.12

me—the dangerous, the unfulfilled, the unlovable

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:25 am by Administrator

at this time in my life, i have two friends with which i feel i have powerful and intimate communion. one is my wife. the other is a woman who is not my wife. recently, i’ve begun to struggle with the implications of this situation. actually, this is an understatement; what began for me as a matter of integrity has developed into a broader struggle to understand my identity. the three of us have been wrestling with the salient matters of boundaries, possession, and safety, and at the root of the discussion has been a central, recurring question: who am i, as a social creature? and why is intimate friendship so difficult for me to have with others?

as i’ve previously written, so much of my socialization has been derived from a childhood paradigm of rivalry and competition. i grew up looking at others as adversaries; i viewed my academic environments as threatening; and i viewed God as my alternate universe, my safe haven in the midst of a vicious world. my childhood was governed by fears, and having grown up as an only child trapped in an intense triangle of dysfunctional family relationships, i lost the ability to readily trust other people. while outwardly i learned to manifest approachability, honesty, and kindness, i was inwardly a deeply guarded, very fearful individual. i learned to distrust authority figures; i learned to question social conventions, which i viewed as derived from power structures; and i came to believe that my life would always be about my battle against the world.

therapy has been suggested to me, but the factors at the root of my profound alienation are the very same things that have prohibited me from seeking help of a psychological kind. on the one hand, i believe that i’m smarter, more insightful, and more self-aware than most psychologists and therapists; i have a difficult time believing that they could suggest a paradigm that i have not already considered. on the other hand, i continue to believe that my psychology is an appropriate adaptation to the world as i know it. yes, i am both unhappy and at times very lost in my world. but no, i do not believe that reality is actually happier and safer than how i view it. moreover, i believe that my profound sense of alienation enables to recognize a spiritual truth at the core of my version of Christianity.

in other words, i have chosen to embrace my unhappiness, because i see truth and value in it. perhaps this is a sad thing. i’ve tried antidepressants, and they changed me. i want to be as i was designed; and i feel that i can be effective as a vessel of love and healing if i can be properly trained, within this design.

the recent discussions with my two closest friends have raised the question as to whether i should be questioning the thing i previously considered my immutable design. must my life be governed by this sense of alienation? must i view others—and particularly other men—as my rivals? should it be my intentional goal to expand my social sphere, despite my instinct to invest myself intimately in only a chosen few, who are more often female than male?

both women in my life see me as a paradox of a kind. i am on the one hand highly capable of transparency and seeming vulnerability in the public arena; but on the other hand, within individual relationships there is a kind of vulnerability i am absolutely unwilling to assume. on one hand i can relate to anyone, particularly those who are suffering or in pain; but on the other hand, i am incapable of really giving myself to others in sustained friendship. i am extroverted, in that i am bored with self and require interactions in order to experience restoration. but i am also introverted in that i constantly feel under siege by the people in my life and what they demand from me.

i am dangerous, in that where i find gratifying intimacy i seek more and more of it, without regard for boundaries. i am unfulfilled, in that i am perpetually uncomfortable with both myself and my society. and i feel unlovable, in such a profound manner. it goes beyond feeling unworthy; i don’t know how to receive love and affection. the only thing that makes sense to me is to be useful, but beyond this i do not know how to enjoy life in any real sense. is this not a tragedy? am i not sick, in the sickest of all ways?

all of this self-scrutiny has worn away at my sense of cohesion. i am seeing the parts in conflict within my being, as they grate on one another and fall into disrepair. there is no easy solution. there is no place where i’m comfortable, except in moments with my wife and in certain moments of solitude. what would i do to get into the nuts and bolts of what i am and just fix it, to be the man capable of being both understood and satisfied? but instead, i find myself more and more the unfathomable thing. and all that remains for me is to serve, to forget myself, to disregard the thing i am that i cannot understand, and to focus instead on others, as God has trained me to do. the complexity of me—it is death. there is no need to dignify it any longer. it is death, and the beauty of simplicity is what i experience as life. it is found in others and ultimately in God. so i serve. i serve. i give of myself, so that i may look outward, and be redeemed

01.19.12

the lampstand

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:04 pm by Administrator

as i’ve grown up in faith, i’ve maintained a fear of God; in fact, it has grown. but the fear is so different now from what it was. i once feared God because i feared His ability to condemn me to eternal hell; then i feared God because i feared His intention to sanctify me through harsh discipline and even death; and now i fear God because i see the fruits of my life—and i understand now, more than ever, that these are contingent fruit. the life that i experience is contingent life; it is dependent on and derived from favor. and should i lose that favor, i would lose my life. i fear God, because if He left me, i would have nothing left.

now, we make a big deal in our primitive Evangelical discourse about the “perseverance of the saints” (the TULIP “P”). once upon a time, this idea mattered to me as well, because my fear of God was rooted in a lack of total assurance of salvation. but the need for “assurance of salvation” was derived from a primitive spirituality of risks and rewards. the child in this culture grows up believing in Christianity as a gateway to heaven, but heaven is for us a kingdom of perfect circumstances. as my concept of heaven has changed—and it is perhaps better likened to “nirvana” than to “utopia”—self-preservation has lost its centrality in my spiritual trajectory. the Pauline doctrine of self-death and self-loss has become authentic to me, not merely as an abstraction but as a principle guiding Christian transformation. we do not believe so as to be “saved”; we believe as a necessary prelude to becoming deconstructed and then incorporated into a new lifeform, one which extends from God the person as His sentient body.

in any case, the evolution of my theological paradigm has paralleled a psychological shift as well. being one who is now free not only to loathe myself but also to celebrate my decline, i have discovered a capacity to “enjoy the moment” by experiencing the immediacy of God. i experience the immediacy of God in all the countless circumstances when i find myself extending from or united with other people, in transcendent connection. i once felt that the mystical God was something best experienced in solitude. but now, even these personal experiences drive me to quest for something within community. whether by exercising my giftings, fulfilling my roles, or serving others, i feel the trajectory of my life crystallized because i sense God freeing me from the confines of mortality by directing my life stream into His body. i live when i give life to others. i rejoice when i bear fruit, exemplified in the transformation and worship of others. i forget myself in these moments; i experience God.

being so fruitful in this stage of my life has exposed me to certain temptations and trials that were previously unfamiliar to me. people have been drawn to my giftings; as with Aaron, i have felt the power of my charisma, even as i’ve grown aware of my limitations, particularly with regard to judgment. i’ve seen in myself the capacity to enjoy my influence over others—and recently i’ve even been jarred by my tendency to feel “ownership” of people as well. i enjoy mentoring others and delegating responsibilities to them; but there is a fine line between having a personal agenda for their development and, on the other hand, presuming to have spiritual authority on their behalf. the fruitfulness has afforded me a dangerous sense of power. i am reminded of the Proverb: “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall”.

all of this has somehow reminded me of those biblical stories of men whom God chose to abandon to ruin. perhaps i worded this situation quite strongly, but how else can one describe the situation in which a man loses the favor of God? when God turns His eyes away from a man, does he not immediately fall into his natural state of disgrace? what man is justified apart from the moment-to-moment protection of His creator? i look at the stories of these men—King Saul and King Solomon, most prominently—to understand what quality it was that hastened their downfall, because i fear the consequences that they suffered. i fell asleep last night ruminating on these things, and i woke up this morning with an impression.

there is only one church addressed in Revelations 2 and 3 for which God threatened to remove His lampstand. it was the Ephesian church—a magnificently fruitful church in every manner except in its patent loss of “first love”. now, there’s much debate as to what “first love” really means. some biblical scholars argue that this is a much more “practical” term than what others might read into this seemingly romantic idea. regardless, i continue to see an element of passion in this term “first love”. it is the kind of passion that connotes not only sincere devotion but also single-mindedness. one newly in love does not look at his beloved as a small part of his greater universe; rather, he looks at his world through the lens of his obsession with his beloved. the world revolves around one’s first love, not vice versa.

it was never this way between Saul and Solomon and their god, which is why it sometimes startles me that they were chosen to be kings of God’s chosen people. Saul sought counsel from mystics, and his mind was principally concerned with his enemies, both real and perceived. Solomon’s concern from the beginning was his role as king—and his profound sense of inadequacy at the start of his reign. driven as such to succeed, his understanding of God was always framed by his experience of kingship; God had meaning to Solomon only insofar as godliness was necessary to real achievement. hence, the Proverbs, and hence, the Ecclesiastes—which i consider a tragic essay of dubious implications for the biblical narrative.

there is, in the era that separated these two men, quite a different figure presented in the biblical story. David, who was guilty of far more egregious personal offenses than any ascribed to either Saul or Solomon, had every reason to be abandoned by God. and yet, Israel prospered under his reign, and the bloodline to Christ was established through him. the Ark was brought to Jerusalem as confirmation of God’s pleasure with David and the people, and even to the last tired days of David, he received honor. though he sinned against God, God did not remove His lampstand from him, as he did from the kings that preceded and followed him. why it is that God spared David this horror lies in this idea of “first love”, i believe. you can see it in the Psalms; and you can see it in the thing he said to Michal, who sought to shame him for his unabashed celebration of God’s favor. David placed God first in his life; and despite every flaw in his being, his passion for God was his singular quality and the thing that he projected from his soul. David never lost his first love for God. perhaps more rightly, God placed within David a first love that was unquenchable.

there are so many ways to judge oneself. i look at myself today through this lens of failure and success, defined as they are through the lives of the Jewish kings. and i recognize that what i fear is not condemnation or even hell; what i fear is to see the lampstand of God being taken from my life and the lives of my people. there is no tragedy in the world that can claim to be equal to this sort of devastation. but where God places His lampstand, the people live and prosper, in a miraculous demonstration of His divinity and power. i ask myself today if i have within me that kind of love, that “first love”, demonstrated in singularity of devotion, utterness of loyalty, and undying passion. am i vessel deep enough and strong enough to hold this sort of love? or have i been destined, like most of my predecessors, to be less?

i struggle with you God, against what i fear about your design of myself. i cannot change my makeup; i cannot turn back the clock and have you accord me a more devoted mind, a more loving soul. i am here, as you have made me. and yet i struggle with you, because though i have been molded, i have been shaped to pursue you. there is in my design an agony that drives me to follow you, to quest for you, to wish for you, like the man possessed by obsession, compelled to possess you and to be possessed. whether or not men judge me by this, i judge myself by this. i see in me this first love, and here and now it is the only thing of worth to me. judge me in this light and find within me this love for you. let it be your reason to establish your lampstand in my life, so that i might give life, and so that i might enjoy the life in you. from nothing i came, and to nothing i return apart from you. i love you more than anything else in life; have me, God and don’t turn from me. let me see the Ark brought into the midst of my people, in my time

01.17.12

thinking about the bible

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:28 pm by Administrator

it’s been perhaps close to a year since the last time i blogged extensively about the scriptural narrative. i’ve been busy putting faith into practice (and suffering the consequences of all of my failures that have thus been exposed), so there’s been little time for rumination about the biblical story. i haven’t regretted that; but i have missed it. when i go through intense experiences, i feel like i need to compare my journey to those of the saints, to understand what is happening to me. i call it sanctification, but there are many other words for this kind of change.

one thing i was wrestling with around this time last year was how different the Gospel can appear depending on who’s talking about it. when the O.T. prophets talked about the Gospel, it was for them a story of national redemption. when Christ talked about the kingdom of God, it was for his immediate disciples a story of power, consummated in resurrection. when Paul talked about the Gospel, it was for him a story of atonement. Paul’s fixation, unlike that of the original twelve, was not on the resurrection but rather on the death of Christ and its meaning. and then there’s the Gospel that countless other people experienced, others who never wrote a word of the biblical accounts. the adulteress who experienced Christ as forgiveness; the sick who experienced the Gospel as restoration to health; the teachers of the Law who came to see Christ as a renewer of God’s covenant with His chosen people.

there are so many facets to this thing we call the Gospel, and not one of these facets (not even Paul’s) can obscure the importance of the others. i am struck by the fact that there as many reflections of Christ’s importance as there are people to witness Him. and, in the end, the theology we each come to is only important insofar as the authenticity of our personal experience of Him. faith begins with the witness of Christ, not with an understanding of what He represents; the latter is what emerges only as we come to terms with this complex, blinding, and incomprehensibly wonderful man/god/personality.

perhaps all of this is my way of saying that i’m finished with questing for an airtight theology. i don’t care for the idea of it, and neither do i believe that such a construct is even possible. Paul quested for it, and i think he took that struggle to the grave. it was his inclination to struggle with God’s moral universe. and i think that he, in his own way, succeeded inasmuch as a man can succeed at this.

i wonder sometimes whether i’m laying a good foundation for a future career in full-time public ministry when i find myself poking so much fun at the apostle Paul. i must disclaim by first saying that my spectacular failures in my walk have opened me to a whole new understanding of Paul’s emphasis, which i’ve encountered with the help of N.T. Wright. Paul was fixated on “covenantal peoplehood” on account of his personal background, and his theology of atonement was so pivotal to establishing that crucial ideological bridge between the Old and New covenants (and they were categorically different covenants). i’ve come to recognize that “justification by faith” (as we currently understand it) probably meant so little to Paul, and this has helped me to distance him from the American Evangelical tradition that i find so troublesome. in spite of these things, i feel respect for Paul but perhaps less sympathy; his style and his pedagogy often strike me (as they must have struck James and Peter) as overbearing, if not frankly browbeating. and perhaps because i feel that i can marvel at Paul without worshiping him, i feel less threatened by misinterpretations of Paul, such as those employed to disenfranchise homosexuals. Paul is so opinionated that he opens himself to misinterpretation. James, as a counterexample, is so specific in his writings that he truly leaves little room for controversy.

as of late, i’ve begun exploring the matter of affinity with the biblical saints. i feel more affinity with some characters and less with others. when i struggle or suffer, i tend to rely more on the lives and words of certain biblical figures than others. i imagine that we all do have our selective affinities, these being derived from our unique faith experiences with God. i think a lot about two guys in particular: Moses and Jonah. i like their journeys perhaps better than any other journeys depicted in the scripture for two main reasons: first, they were failed men, and second, their journeys were not results-oriented. regarding the latter, Moses had no real results to speak of regarding his own ministry, aside from leading a rebellious people into a lifetime of wilderness wandering. and Jonah did have tremendous fruit he could have boasted of, but he proved (as God intended to prove) that this result was really incidental to God’s judgment of his prophet. i like the stories of Moses and Jonah because they are to me the most authentic characters in the biblical narrative; and as such, they are imprinted on my soul as brethren figures in my own personal struggle to understand God.

it is interesting at times for me to consider that the one character of the Bible i am least drawn to is that of Jesus Christ. now, let me first say that Jesus Christ was the one who introduced me to the Bible, and in person He is significantly different to me than the person that might be suggested from the words of the Gospel books. that character (His heroic self-sacrifice notwithstanding) strikes me as a strangely unpleasant character. here is a man who could have spoken plainly, but instead He chose to trip up His listeners with wordplay, obtuse reasoning, and totally confounding parables. He chose to teach His disciples by luring them into silly confessions and then reprimanding them for their patent ignorance. to the last, He was a smartaleck and an uncompromising intellectual. and even in His most tender moments, He hardly seems tender. but i’ll grant that here is the limitation of the written word. the Christ i have met is different from the Christ that many will read. and herein lies an interesting truth: Christ chose to obscure Himself from most, in the specific hope that He would reach only those who were called. as one who has been called, I see the magnificence of Christ. but the Christ of scripture is an opaque character indeed.

as indoctrinated as i have previously been within the PCA tradition, it is often difficult for me to express what i intuitively believe to be an obvious truth: that the Bible is not and was never meant to be the comprehensive revelation of God. when i first came to this conviction, i found myself looking over my shoulder for a pointed finger or an angry angel. i’m finding it increasingly unnecessary to feel this way. recognizing the limitations inherent to the human narrator has afforded me more and more pleasure in engaging the scripture. i was once the child listening to the sage storyteller, hanging on every word. now, i’m the apprentice among far greater storytellers, with my own story to write but with less time to write it and even lesser skills with which to write it. but i must write it; and to write it, i must pay homage to the art of the storytelling. we will tell our stories; and even after we pass, greater stories still will be written. no one adds a word to the book of prophecy; but neither still does anyone pretend that the story is finished. there is no need to close the book. it is an open book, with plotlines spanning generations and great heroes yet to be discovered. i love this book; i love its story; and i love the fact that we are becoming a part of it, even now

01.13.12

dragon tattoo, and war

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:26 pm by Administrator

i ended up watching the “dragon tattoo” remake last night, as my friend really wanted to see it. i’d been reluctant to watch it (as i generally dislike Hollywood remakes of very successful foreign films), so i went into the experience with guarded expectations.

the best part of the movie was the opening sequence. it reminded me of an audi commercial. lots of CGI body contortions and shape morphing in metallic gray tones, with a cool soundtrack. the remainder of the movie was decidedly less innovative. i don’t know whether it’s my progression as a movie viewer or whether i was just in a particular mood, but i couldn’t really understand some of the camera movement and the angles utilized. on a broader level, i didn’t like the flow between the parallel stories. the Swedish original had a haunting and meandering air, and the remake felt more driven and mechanical. neither did the characterizations match those of the original. craig was haggard enough, but he wasn’t lovable, like the original blomquist. and mara definitely owned her role, but the script limited her. noomi rapace defined lisbeth salander; you can’t follow that act.

dragon tattoo admittedly is a difficult story to adapt to the screen. even the original swedish movies perhaps failed the vision of the series, particularly in the second and third sequels. i feel that when one adapts a story as complex as this one for the big screen, one cannot merely transcribe the story into script. one must sense the essence of the story and translate it. the story of dragon tattoo is one of rage against humanity. by eliminating the critical point near the end when lisbeth chooses to watch a man burn to death, fincher robbed the story of its soul. there’s really no justification for this.

speaking of rage against humanity, there is for me in the story of the marines in Afghanistan an undertone of deep tragedy. i’ve written recently about how America is long overdue for true mourning—and how our political arena needs to open itself to true self-reflection, redirection, and even regret. the war in Afghanistan has been horrific for the United States, in all respects. while it has led to some things that our military leaders could call true achievement (i.e. the decimation of Al-Qaeda training camps, the assassination of high-level Al-Qaeda leaders), it has led to many consequences that we would all consider truly unfortunate. the loss of american lives. the loss of so many Afghan/Pakistani civilian lives. the loss of confidence in American leadership at home and abroad. the massive resurgence of the Afghani opium trade. the destabilization of the Pakistani government. a rising regional insurgency against American occupation. economic repercussions for the region and the U.S. and on top of this, the intense psychological ramifications on our servicemen.

the video of the four marines urinating on the bodies of presumed enemy combatants has sparked a lot of the usual formal rhetoric from the American government. i hear words like “inhuman”, “deplorable”, and the like. i’ve heard marines on interview express shame about what their peers had done in the video. all of this is necessary, of course. but when i heard hilary clinton express in the strongest of diction how uncharacteristic and unrepresentative this behavior was, i could not help but feel profound cynicism. what is more horrifying and outrageous? the urine that pelted these dead bodies, or the bullets that took their lives? what is more shameful? the act of gloating over the dead enemy, or the American government’s calculated decision to continue throwing our young men into harm’s way, despite the consequences of this war which bespeak futility and failure?

the marines will claim PTSD, and i personally hope that they will avoid imprisonment. a prison sentence will be the government’s way of claiming accountability. the only true accountability in this situation is for our political leaders to take personal responsibility for the behavior of the troops they have sent to war. if they find reprehensible the behavior of our young men who are being traumatized by war, then perhaps they should be court-martialed, for having made the decision that led to the abuse of Afghanis and Americans alike. separating ourselves from the brutality of war and passing judgment on our troops is a luxury of the most hypocritical kind. there is no respect for the enemy in a time of war. there are no rules when you are fighting for your life. i would urinate on the bodies of my implacable enemy—or worse. i admit this, not to justify my tendencies but rather to say that i cannot and will not judge men at war. the war is the evil. it spawns evil, by necessity.

01.11.12

spiritual growth

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:48 pm by Administrator

a simple question i raised at both of my small groups this week ended up being fairly difficult for people to answer. the question was “how do you define spiritual growth”?

one of the interesting observations i made was that every single person had a very distinct way of answering the question. one person said that she quite simply views growth as “becoming a better person every day”. the person next to her defined spiritual growth as “learning to see God in everything i do”. in the other group, one woman said that spiritual growth is defined as “the bearing of good fruit”, while the next respondent said that spiritual growth for her isn’t about milestones or accomplishments but rather about simply experiencing life.

i presented the question because i was curious about how people would respond. in our evangelical culture, we tend to be very proscriptive about the spiritual life. every church has its own model of ideal spirituality which implies a distinct idea of what spiritual growth should look like. stereotypically, PCA members might be more likely to suggest “knowledge of God” or “appreciation of scriptural truth” as evidence of growth, while emergent church members might be more likely to suggest “humility” or “ability to serve the community” as more primary evidence of spiritual growth.

even the Bible i’d say presents a spectrum of ideas about “spiritual growth” through the lives and attitudes of the saints. i think of the apostle Paul as the quintessential results-oriented spiritual journeyer; even with respect to his personal spiritual formation, Paul defined the fruit by which growth could be tested and measured. moreover, he boasted about the fruit which attested to the truth of his faith. for Paul, the faith journey was a process of self-transformation, by which one comes to understand God and oneself more truly. contrast this with the Psalms of David, who conceptualized his spiritual journey less as a process of self-transformation and more as a quest for actualization, through victory. David did not measure himself by his fruit; he measured himself by his given role, and he inferred from God’s investment in Him a promise yet to be fulfilled.

David’s emphasis on “fulfilling one’s role”, as opposed to Paul’s emphasis on “becoming transformed into Christ’s likeness”, is a concept of the spiritual journey that i see echoed throughout the Old Testament teachings. there are nuances though. Jonah, for instance, is centered on Jonah’s struggle to participate actively in God’s plans, and as such it appears fixated on the matter of obedience. the fourth chapter though hints at a process or conformation that God is seeking in Jonah’s life. in Jacob too there is present in his story a graphic depiction of wrestling, as Jacob struggles not only to be actualized as the spiritual first-born but also to be validated and understood by God Himself.

Christ’s depiction of the spiritual journey is perhaps even more complex. it is difficult really to find any emphasis on growth or process in Christ’s conceptualization of the personal journey. sanctification, a purely Pauline doctrine, is nearly nowhere to be found in Christ’s teachings or parables. at the same time, Christ seeks to dissuade his followers from a simplification of self-definition according to inherited role, whether conferred by gender, ethnicity, or station. there is in Christ’s teachings a simple calling to obedience reflected in loving action, as well as a macroscopic calling for the restoration of a people. i might summarize this complexity in the following way: that for individuals Christ stressed a redefinition of role, while for community Christ embraced the importance of a growth process, consummated in a restoration to glory.

the question for me comes down to this. do we in this society and time perhaps overestimate the importance of “spiritual growth”? and do we underestimate the importance of our role in community? these are certainly not mutually exclusive entities, and i would say that i’ve experienced something of personal growth through my role in community. but as i think about it more, i see that there is a tension between prioritizing personal spiritual growth and fulfilling a role bequeathed. the former views experiences as the template from which personal enrichment is derived; the latter poses experiences as the substance for which the personal vessel was created.

01.09.12

tree of life

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:18 pm by Administrator

after having sat on “Tree of Life” for nearly two months, my wife and i finally sat down to watch it. for those who haven’t heard of it, “Tree of Life” was billed as something of a tour de force, a probing, visually stunning movie exploring loss and cosmic purpose. it was, for me, both baffling and superfluous.

being a ruminating person myself, i often expect to enjoy movies that dwell on the philosophical, but i almost invariably find such movies to be annoying. i suppose my genre of choice would be the “foreign independent crime thriller”, though i’m partial to Brit realism. in any case, “Tree of Life”, in what it attempted to accomplish, was about half as effective as “Another Earth” and sagged from its own ponderous weight. my 5 year-old son joined us for segments of the movie, asking poignant questions like “isn’t a movie supposed to have people in it?” and “why are there dinosaurs in this movie?” a weird blend of National Geographic cinematography and spoken word montages, “Tree of Life” attempted to be profound and instead succeeded in being ludicrous.

as an aside, i find it interesting that my wife and I really have converged in our movie tastes. we invariably like and dislike the same movies. we were both thoroughly unimpressed by “Tree of Life”, while we were both blown away by “Another Earth”.