Thursday, December 25, 2008

ROBERT : One of my friends . . . .

One of my friends is a pastor of some considerable reputation, and a well-deserved reputation at that.
      He was not raised in the Church, and came to faith in his early twenties. In fact, he wanted to be a writer and decided that in order to be a good writer he should know something about religion, so he went to seminary.
      While he was in seminary, he began to build a faith, one brick at a time, so to speak. He went from being an agnostic to becoming a Christian to being ordained in the space of three years.
      He said that when he began to pastor his first church there were all manner of things that went on in the name of church that he had never seen before.
      He told me once that he sometimes envied me being brought up in a religious home where the things of the faith were part of the fabric of our lives. I, on the other hand, had no idea whatsoever what it meant to be outside the faith, until I was in my early twenties, of course.
      I was raised in the Church. For a while I was literally raised in a church — our family lived in the four rooms in the back of the church he pastored in Florida. I grew up with the faith of our fathers ringing in my ears, both the words of the song itself and the theology and practice that went with it.
      All of which was perfectly fine until the moment when my life began to crumble and I began to have a sense that either someone had lied to me or I had completely missed the point.
      I remember a specific moment — I even remember the chair I was sitting in and the date and the time, if you must know — when I realized that I had to construct a faith of my own, so to speak, one brick at a time. And sorting through everything I had been taught over the years in the Church made it harder, not easier.
      I told my friend that I was envious of his being able to come to faith without all of this baggage from his childhood. Sometimes, the Church can be a very difficult place in which to follow St. Paul’s instruction to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
      Although, Lord knows, the Church can be pretty good at actually causing fear and trembling.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

BEN : Three weeks in a psych ward . . . .

Three weeks in a psych ward sounds like paradise to the inner prison that I have lived in most of the last ten years.
      I look for answers only to find more questions. I look for relief only to find more struggle. And in the midst of this I try to tend to the details of being a good man, husband, and father.
      The faith tradition in which I was groomed to lead no longer fit. The people whom I had called my people no longer felt like my people. The organization whose label I proudly displayed and defended was consumed with anger and doubt.
      I felt on the outside, marginalized. I no longer shared the same vocabulary, no longer was moved deeply through the rituals and rites commonly practiced. And even worse was the fact that now that I'd discarded the script. I didn't know what my next line was or even when to enter or exit the stage. The director became invisible and seemingly disappeared.
      I wanted to throw everything away. I wanted to become the antithesis of what I knew to be true.
      For the first time, in the silence, sitting in front of that candle, I separated myself from my tradition. And I realized that I was naked, without a sense of meaning and without a way to articulate the pain and agony of separation and fear of being alone.
      I realized in that moment that nothing of my story was my own. It was filled with the perceptions and insight of the voices of my past. But those voices were silenced by the thousand miles that stood between me and the place where I grew up. And like the early morning before the sun has shone its face, the sound of nothing left me deaf.
      And I didn't know what to do. Just as quick, the thunderstorm of moral obligation filled my mind with a sense of urgency to redefine, reword and rewrite everything. But this new script is not as easily written. For each letter is etched not in the philosophy of someone else but born in the work of life--in my doings.
      From that day forward I have lived with a great sense of doubt. Wondering how close I am to getting it right and how close am I to getting it wrong. And dreading the thought of never knowing the answer.
      I often ponder what it must be like to go through life with no awareness of this other dimension of existence, with no need to orchestrate a symphony of meaning and purpose.
      Each time I sat before the candle and in the midst of the continued silence, the storm raged inside. Looking for relief, I found none. I found no sense of moving toward anything. More often than not I felt as if I was moving away. I'd lost my sense of direction. Maybe this is why Israel walked in circles for 40 years with the Promised Land so close by?
      So, three weeks in a psych ward doesn't sound so bad. At least it had an address.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

ROBERT : Life is not a problem . . . .

'Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.’ Thomas Merton wrote that. I wish I had.
      In fact, I just wish I had heard it when I was young and wrestling with what I might be if I ever grew up. I spent a lot of years living in the tension between what I wanted to do with my life and what I thought the One Who made me wanted me to do with my life.
      I assumed, like a lot of Church folks do, that what God really wanted was for me to do or be something that I did not want to do or be. And I figured that the trick was to correctly guess what that was so that God would be happy enough to bless my efforts at least, no matter how unhappy the whole thing made me.
      I knew that I wanted to be a writer when I was thirteen years old. I did not tell anyone though, because I thought God wanted me to be a publisher like my father and his father before him. And like everyone around just assumed that I wanted to be as well.
      The Church folks thought it was what I should be, my folks thought so, the grownups that I counted on for advice thought so too. In the absence of a burning bush or a brother who could make snake out of a rod, I just figured God thought that was the plan as well.
      So for most of my life, I made choices about my career under the assumption that God did not really want me to be what it was that I secretly wanted to be the whole time.

Here is the mystery part —
      For twenty years I spent my hours and days and energy and love trying to do work that I did not like a fair amount of the time.
      I thought I was being a good guy by doing God’s will even though I really wanted to do and be something else altogether. I thought I was at least going to earn a reward in heaven. God thought I was just being prepared to be what it was that I had been intended to be all along.
      That secret wish that no one else knew was not something that I made up on my own. It was whispered into me before I was even born, whispered into me by the One Who made me.
      I stumbled onto this wondrous little mystery while lying flat on my back in a room in a psychiatric hospital. I had gone there to recover from twenty years of depression that in many ways was deeply connected to the wrong assumptions that I made about what God’s dream for me might actually be.
      Living your mystery got you waylaid by a candle and some silence. I got three weeks in a psych ward.
      I would not complain too much if I were you.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

BEN : This all started with a candle . . . .

This whole thing started with a candle and silence.
      For the first time in my young adult life, I was faced with myself and the world that exists in the midst of our busyness. Inside was this raging storm of restlessness that almost made me want to jump out of my skin.
      Yet I stayed seated. And quiet. And still. Long enough to feel the rush of my emotions. To hear my own voice scream within myself. And to recognize that I had no idea what I was doing.
      I left for college completely sure of myself. I had been raised in a tradition that believed greatly in God's ability to define someone's career path early in life. And I was told that I better listen closely because if I got it wrong, I would disappoint God.
      So I tried, with everything that was in me, to listen closely. I agonized over this. I prayed — as only I knew how to do at the time — to make this path clear. But in the end my effort seemed fruitless. I ended up doing most of the talking and never got around to listening. I told God what I wanted. And I had decided on a path that seemed reasonable to me.
      I was already learning the skills I would need for this chosen path. In not so many words I told God that I felt like after all this work and investigation on my part that he should at least bless my path.
      I just wanted to get this whole thing over with and decided. Though, I must admit that I was afraid mostly of getting it wrong. Again, my tradition left no room for error. God is perfect and he demands perfection. At least that's what I was told.
      While I was busy lobbying God for my newfound career path, I actually encountered God. No he didn't appear to me in human form. The clouds didn't part and a dove didn't fly down. In fact, the person next to me never knew what happened.
      But I did.
      And this encounter sent me searching for a way to integrate this experience into my story and my own faith tradition. So I tried to borrow words and images that were deeply rooted in my faith. But I never felt like any of them fit. Even though I couldn't express it to others in the same way that I had experienced it, it unleashed a series of events that changed everything.
      I'll have to save some stories for a more appropriate time. For now, all you need to know is that it led to a candle and silence. And me faced, for the first time, with myself. And I realized that I didn't know exactly who I was and the role I played within the Great Story.
      I was left feeling scared and alone.