Wednesday, June 29, 2011

To know us is to love us : living beyond our labels

On June 24th, New York became the 6th state to legalize gay marriage. I've read quite a few blogs and articles on the matter over the last week but one stood out to me because of the universal truth it conveyed. Namely, that knowing someone or getting to know someone messes up all your preconceived notions, your ideas on what they are actually about.

One of my best friends is gay. I've known him since high school when my group of friends and I took him under our wing. He was about as nerdy as you could get- he probably wore his choir t-shirt three times a week, he had chubby cheeks, he was top of his class and the most hideous sandals you can imagine. (He also was fluent in Elvish. Yes, from Lord of the Rings) This kid was a major brown-noser and tattle tale.  But if he loved you, you knew about it. And despite all I just described to you, he was pretty lovable too. We adopted him, roughed him up a bit, and finally forced him to have some fun.

Towards the end of high school rumors started to swirl about our friend and his sexuality. He denied them all vehemently, and even though I had suspicions of my own, I chose to believe him and defended his story to every one of the rumors I heard. By the time I had been out of high school for about three years though, it was getting harder and harder to believe he was telling the truth. Another close friend and I prepared to confront him about it. The three of us were pretty close, so what it came down to was us basically forcing him out of the closet. We even read him a list of all the reasons we thought he was gay. Haha, in hindsight, probably not the most effective/sensitive method, but it worked. He admitted that he was gay and confessed that even though we were his best friends, we were pretty much the last to know besides his family due to the fact that we were Christians. We had such a good talk and re-affirmed how much we loved him and that we would be there for him as he struggled to figure out what this meant in regards to his relationship with the Lord.

The reason I tell you this story is to bring home the truth that we are relational beings. When we love someone, our hearts get tied to their hearts. Issues like homosexuality aren't so black and white anymore. We live in a world filled with labels: gay, straight, Christian, atheist, refugee, terrorist, fat, skinny, prostitute, prude. We have all been labelled and all of us label other people. Labeling makes it easier for us to get on with our own lives. It condenses people down to one word and allows us fit them neatly in a compartment that we don't have to interact with much. But sooner or later, life happens and we meet these labels, really meet them, get to know them, and eventually love them. The label becomes human.

Jesus' life and ministry consisted of His encounters with labels. The tax collector, the leper, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery- all of them became individuals in His eyes. Knowing someone as an individual doesn't automatically mean you want all the same things they want, it doesn't mean you agree on everything, but it does almost force you to consider what it's like to walk in their shoes. A while back I was having one my deep conversations with my Dad that happen almost every time we're together. My Dad knows how much I wrestle with the idea of hell and whether it exists in the traditional understanding. At one point in the conversation he asked me, "Do you think one of the reasons you struggle so much with this issue is because you spend so much time with friends who aren't Christians?" My answer was, "That's exactly why I struggle with it so much." To know someone is to acknowledge their humanity, to acknowledge that we're all just trying to make sense of this life. Jesus knew that and He saw past the label, into the heart.

Friday, June 24, 2011

my love affair with agnosticism

Sometimes I have serious doubts about the existence of God. Sometimes I feel like such a phony that it keeps me up at night. I'm fluent in Christianese and I know how to craft my words so they build up the image of me that I want to convey. And the image isn't just for other's as much for myself as it is for anyone else. The confident, stable, and certain Charissa is the one that seems the safest. But it's much harder to fool yourself than it is to fool the people around you.

These past few weeks have been tough. God had been silent leading up to John's death (hence, all the blog posts about spiritual deserts), but I guess a part of me believed and hoped He would break the silence to comfort me in my sadness. But He didn't and I stopped asking. I began to slosh through the aftermath of losing a dear friend on my own. It took almost two weeks for me to realize how angry I was with God. Not for John's death...people die every day; I'd have to be just as angry about everyone else who ever died. I was angry because God wasn't doing much to quiet my fears that He might be just figment of my imagination, a coping mechanism for living in such a screwed up world.

And maybe that's all He is. It's possible.

The truth is that not one of us can prove that God is real. That's not to say there aren't compelling reasons to believe that He is. I can think of plenty. But in the end each of us in turn succumbs to the unknown, in death, hoping we were right.

Jose Ortega said,
“And this is the simple truth – that to live is to feel oneself lost – he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked.”
I admit, all this sounds pretty bleak: a lost, shipwrecked soul, grasping on to a seemingly frail hope that all is not pointless. And yet, as I've begun to embrace my lack of certainty, God has grown larger and larger, the ground beneath me firmer and firmer. The end of the quote says the only genuine ideas are the ideas of the shipwrecked, the lost. All this time I've been living my life in chains. Everywhere you go in the church you run into people who think they have it figured out, or are striving to figure it out. We live our lives as Believers thinking there is an exact, right combination of beliefs and doctrines, if we can only just line them up- a theological Rubix Cube. And we strive and toil and agonize our whole lives in this pursuit, under the banner of "glorifying God". I do believe there is absolute truth. I DON'T believe we'll ever know which one of us has it. We're missing the forest for the trees. And I'm only now beginning to see how beautiful and massive the Forest is.

My embrace of agnosticism is freeing me from the chains I put on myself. And the God that I hope with all my heart and soul is real, seems to be breaking His silence. My "tragic, ruthless glance" towards Him, my hope of salvation, is bringing order to the chaos of this life.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The sturdiness of life

One of my best friends passed away in a freak accident on Sunday. This is the first time someone really close to me has died and I realize now that I wasn't prepared for the depth of despair that inevitably comes, leeching every ounce of life and ambition out of you. I've always been really good at moving on. I don't like to dwell on things that make me mad, sad, frustrated, etc...I'm good at picking myself up by the boot straps and pressing on. But not now. I can't escape the endless cycle of thoughts in my head: sadness, anger, regret, numbness, sharp stab of a beautiful memory, repeat.

In physical stature John Fox was small, he had the tiniest hands, even smaller than mine. But in reality, John was a giant of a man. He was a shelter to any he called friend, and that was basically every person he ever met. I can still feel his arms around me in one of his hugs that every one of his friends experienced at some could someone so little make me feel so enclosed, so protected?...but these are things that everyone knew about John. These things are beautiful because of how broadly they were experienced. Here is what John meant to me:

John was the sturdiness of life. He did things simply but not half-heartedly. One of my best memories was birthday dinner at his house a few years back. It was just me, a couple close friends and John's family on a summer night. John's air conditioning was never on in his house, he preferred the windows and doors open, with the breeze and flies coming in and out  all through the evening. It was hot before but even hotter with the oven on. We sat around the table cutting vegetables for shepherds pie. Dinner preparation took forever...nothing was really planned ahead- something that normally annoys me. But with John and his family, we were just enjoying each other's company. We didn't eat til close to 9, sitting on the floor around the coffee table, talking about the ACL line-up. There is nothing remarkable about this memory except the way it made/makes me feel. John made everything feel like home. He made me feel like everything was connected. Everything was meant to be submerged in: the river, family, love, laughter, rain, dirt, pain, life.  John knew how to be fully present in all of those things, and was good at taking other people with him, without them even knowing it. Now that he's gone, I feel like a part of my home is gone.

Will I remember how to be fully engaged, fully submerged in all the beauties of life without him? Why does it take death for us to realize the treasures our friends and family have taught us? And now there's nothing I can do. No amount of remembering him or dreaming about him will change that fact that he's gone. I can read his facebook page obsessively for weeks on end and he'll still never send me a message again. I have zero control over this. What can I do? For now, I can only wait. If death is a part of life then this is something I must be submerged in for a while, letting it's waves break over me as I wait out the storm. Waiting and missing...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A song from my heart

Out on the farthest edge
There in the silence
You were there

My faith was torn to shreds
Heart in the balance
And You were there

Always faithful, always good
You still have me
You still have my heart

I thought I had seen the end
Everything broken
But You were there

I've wandered at heaven's gates
I've made my bed in hell
You were there still

Always faithful, always good
You still have me
You still have my heart

You have me, You have me
You have my heart completely
You have me, You have me
You have my heart completely

You have me, You have me
You have my heart completely
You have me, You have me
You have my heart

You have me, You have me
You have my heart completely
You have me, You have me
You have my heart completely

Thursday, June 9, 2011

God is never what we expect

Growing up my dad managed to film almost every major milestone of mine and my siblings lives. As I got older, it got to be embarrassing. Not too many of my friends had to get filmed before their senior prom- pictures were much cooler. But in hindsight, I'm so thankful to have all those memories. In fact my siblings and I are frequently teased for how often we actually watch those videos. 

I remember one in particular where I'm sitting at our linoleum top kitchen table with my mom and dad; I must have been about two. My mom is asking me lots of questions in order to document my burgeoning vocabulary. Questions like, "What is your name?", "How old are you?", "Who's your best friend?"-- I knew the answer to that one. It was Jesus. I'm fairly confident my two year old mind didn't fully understand that concept, but it was a sweet moment to catch on tape regardless. 

To this day I have grown up with that expectation, that Jesus would be my best friend. Even in my current, slightly cynical state, I can't deny that there have been times in my life where He has been exactly that. Each of those times were sweet, unexpected moments of perfect peace; quick realizations of how I was treasured by God. But as lovely as those moments were, they almost never came when I asked for them. They have never come in my times of deepest despair. Never when I begged God, "All I want is to know that you're there, that you love me!" Sometimes I wonder what kind of best friend goes MIA every time a real need comes up. God is never what I expect. Belden Lane says in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, "Our image of God doesn't prepare us for a truth realized in brokenness. We need to be shaken out of our expectations."

If I had it my way, I'd have the mountain top experience of God every time. Day and night, every moment, let me just camp out there. I would have done EXACTLY the same thing Peter did on the mount of transfiguration: God is finally something I can see, something I'm overwhelmed by, something I have no words for. Naturally, I want to stay there as long as possible. But even as Peter was in mid-sentence, God interrupts, tells him to listen, and then everything is back to normal. Then they have to come down. 

The desert, the ground level, the place of mundane activity, is where life happens. Lane says, "Spirituality is not the sublime transcendence of everything trivial and matter-of-fact. In Western spiritual tradition, the journey of the soul into the vale of ordinariness is an equally good, if not surer route to holiness. This is the way of being wounded, of being committed to the concrete, of being bound to the familiar." The harshness of the desert "disclaims the false niceties of home, the small lies and pretences by which an entire life can sometimes be shaped....The fragile ego loses is props and supporting lines. Its incessant need for validation is ignored." I wouldn't say that all my expectations of God growing up have been lies, but a lot of them have gone unmet. The desert teaches you that our expectations put an infinite God into a box. It teaches you not to try and shove God into a tent on a mountain top. 

I'm in a spiritual desert right now. I seem to be here a lot. Things look barren and lifeless. And while there is lots to be learned while I'm here, I can take comfort in the fact that my brokenness is leading me somewhere. "The God of scripture is equally revealed in vulnerability and in triumph. This is because both actions are rooted in love. Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, all embarrassment into laughter. In biblical faith, brokenness is but an expression of a love on its way to completion."

Monday, June 6, 2011

God is a desert

I recently started reading a book called The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring desert and mountain spirituality by Belden Lane. This has been on my amazon wishlist forever and I finally sucked it up and bought it. I have always been enchanted by mountain and desert terrain. I remember flying over the Himalayas on my way to Kathmandu, tears streaming down my face from the beauty of seeing mountain tops soaring higher than the clouds themselves. A weird paradox occurs in those moments: I'm humbled by own smallness in comparison, my questions become irrelevant even as they grow louder in my ears. Maybe that's why I crave these landscapes so much.

I don't know how to be silent before God. We live in a culture of constant noise and busyness and Christians have lost the art of being still. As my expectations of how God will speak to me have changed over the last year, I have found myself longing for a more meaningful approach to Him- one that is not so dependent on emotion and experience.  I confess that even as I've been reading this book, I've fallen into the trap of thinking, "If I can just get away, if I can just visit a desert monastery, THERE I'll find God. THERE I'll experience Him in the the way I should." In chapter 1, Belden Lane says, "Holiness has never been a predetermined result of topography...The danger of simplistic geographical determinism in the spiritual life is that it makes everything too easy...I can imagine that finding the right desert monastery, making the best mountain retreat, will occasion in itself involuntary holiness. But the desert, the mountain, offer no such guarantee. Physically being there is never enough. Growth of the spiritual life requires adopting a conscious 'habit of being'. Far too easily do we embrace the illusion that changing places is the simplest way of changing ourselves." This has been the story of my life so far. I have  had this impossible expectation of how my life as a Believer should look, and each time the expectation is not met I go searching for conditions where it will be met. When I do this or this or that, then God will start talking to me whenever I want Him to. When I go here or there, my faith will be more than a mustard seed. But even as Belden warns against thinking a certain terrain will produce unwarranted holiness, he does suggest that fierce landscapes are a sort of classroom where we practice and learn how to "ignore the inessential in our own lives."

Many of our church fathers and mothers over the years have been desert Christians who have participated in this classroom. One of the lessons that can be distilled from their writings is this:

"God is a desert whose fullness of glory is hidden from human sight, known only in an unknowing and risking of love."

Despite hating risk, I really love that idea. What do you think about it? I'm really only about 14 pages into this book, so this is only the tip of the iceberg. In what ways do harsh landscapes convey truth about God? In what way is God both living water and desert?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Max out or margins?

Throughout the whole "May 21st is the end of the world" debacle, I don't think I even ONCE thought that it might actually be true. I would venture to guess that most people only briefly considered the possibility, if at all. But I do think it was an excuse for a lot of Christians to bring back the cheesy charge to "Live every day like it's your last, because you never know when your last will be." I admit, as cheesy as the phrase is, the lifestyle behind it sounds pretty radical and attractive sometimes. Throw caution to the wind! Give everything away! Make every minute count! Love people deeply! Spend yourself on behalf of others! Sounds kinda like the way Jesus lived. Usually when I think of how I'm compelled to live my life as a Christ follower, this is how I see it playing out. But my sister disclosed her frustration with the phrase, saying, "If I lived every day like it was my last I'd be homeless." This is true. If I were to follow this to the letter, I wouldn't have two pennies to rub together.

On the (seemingly?) opposite end of the spectrum, I've been hearing a lot of talk in books, Bible studies, and blogs about creating margins for ourselves. You know, buffer zones. My dad likes to point out that margins keep us safe. Think about a highway: were it not for the extra space, the bike lanes, the lines painted on the road, cars would be scraping by in both directions, there'd be no wiggle room at all, no room for error. My community group leader challenged us the other day to create margins in our lives that would allow us to respond when someone else is in need, whether that need is time or money or resources. This makes a lot of sense. I would love to have the money on hand all the time to give to any missionary friend that needs it. And Proverbs seems to have a lot to say about saving your money and not squandering it. I have a suspicion though, that Americans lean more towards this option for two different reasons. 1. On issues of money, margins allow us to retain some control. They give us a safety zone and eliminate most need to depend on God for provision. Is all saving wrong? No. But I would say that most people don't even question the idea of keeping a savings account. It's a non-negotiable. 2. On issues of time, margins allow us to re-learn the art of investing in meaningful relationships. In an age of iphones, facebook and twitter, we are over-engaged. In this respect, margins are a good thing. They allow time for thoughtful solitude and rest. They cause us to be intentional about giving away our time.

But which is it? Live every day like it's your last or create margins? These two ways of life seem to be at odds with each other. I tend to lean more towards the first. I like the idea of living in the palm of God's hand; not just depending on Him for my own provision, but for the means to give in abundance. I like the idea of living on the edge- maxing out. After all, I am worth much more than a sparrow and God knows my needs. And yet, I see a lot of merit in the latter option.

Which is it? Is it both? Can it be both? Is it one for some people and one for others? I'm genuinely interested in input on this.