Exploring where life and story meet!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Welcome to the mundane!

If you're paying attention to any sort of media of late, you've no doubt heard that the 'most epochal decision since woman got the vote' has come down the pike, but I would argue that this is not the phenomenal societal bang advocates are now proclaiming it to be, rather it will probably be remembered as simply another page, perhaps the last page, bearing only the words, 'the end,' in the long struggle for official social recognition of this particular lifestyle in the United States, neither is it the end of civilization, society, or marriage as some opponents are proclaiming it.  Now I don't usually get into politics on this blog and I have no intention of doing so now.  I will not analyze the societal implications of this decision, we have experts on both sides to prognosticate and only time will show us the true impact.  Rather I'd like to look at an issue that the media and talking heads probably have absolutely no interest in.  What now?

After the parties and parades and rejoicing, what now?  It will be like the morning after graduation: waking up and wondering what to do with the rest of your life.  For so long it has been 'the struggle' keeping the movement going, uniting various factions, giving meaning and purpose to so many, etc.  Sure, there will still be a few dissenters to throw to the lions, but what now?  Socially, the battle is long over, the lifestyle isn't even 'cool' any more; it is normal.  Being gay nowadays is about as controversial as having a tattoo or purple hair or a lip piercing.  Name a current TV show that doesn't have a hip, sophisticated gay character.  Yep, it's mainstream.  Welcome to the mundane, everyday world of normal!  The court's decision surprised no one, society's attitude towards it has been genial at almost every level for several years, it was only official recognition that was lagging behind and now that hurdle is behind us.  Now what is there to fight for?

I am only theorizing here, but I wonder if some within the movement will wake up some morning not long after this pivotal victory and wonder if it was such a good thing after all?  After all, it was the movement itself, the struggle against injustice, against society's disapproval and oppression of this particular people group that made some within the community feel special and gave them all their meaning and purpose.  Now with official recognition and approval, with the lifestyle being so widely approved and accepted (save for a few 'archaic and bigoted' dissenters), who will be left outside the community to applaud and support and encourage?  It's over, it's now a non-issue, at least as far as most  of the uninitiated will see it; you've won the race, awesome, let's go get something to eat and see what's on TV…  It is legal, it is normal, it is…well, boring!  Occupy Wall Street was trumpeted as some epochal movement, but does anyone even remember it today?  Yesterday's media darling is today's humdrum, ho hum non-story.

But this is nothing new, people have been trying to be important and special since the world began and they are always looking for approval in all the wrong places, namely from their fellow men.  It isn't this particular lifestyle either, it can be anything from wearing the right toga to listening to the right music, but whatever it is, even with all the world giving its hearty approval, we still go away empty, because human applause is always fickle and ephemeral.  It is something we crave with our inmost beings, and rightly so, for we were made for just that, but we are looking for it from the wrong source.  Only the One who gave us the craving can fulfill it, but we can't earn it or buy it or be trendy or cool enough to acquire it of ourselves.  Even the court's blessing will not suffice to fill the emptiness in the hearts of those who hoped this decision would be 'the answer,' to their greatest desire, their deepest longing, for they have misplaced their trust.  Even if every person on the planet approved of and celebrated this particular lifestyle, they would still go away empty, for it will never be enough.  A hobby, a lifestyle, a romantic interest, a child, a job, a skill, a race, a gender, an age, fortune, power, fame, none of it will fill that longing.

We can fool ourselves into thinking we'll be content once we are married, once the house is paid off, once the adoption is finalized, once we get that job, whatever, but the days after 'it' happens reveal that we are still as discontented as ever so we set a new goal and strive towards that, only to come away empty again.  It's the morning after Christmas and we can't figure out where the joy went.  The Joy has always been there, it is we who have shifted our gaze to lesser things.  As the Serpent whispered in the Garden, 'ye can be gods!' we are finding godhood far less satisfying than we thought it should be.  But we weren't made for godhood, and therein lies our hope.  Man cannot become god, but God did become man, and that is freedom indeed!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

To boldly go...

"Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter," said the galaxy's foremost Little Green Friend to a skeptical Luke Skywalker as he desperately tried to learn the ways of the Force but was having trouble believing, seemingly no different than the jaded Han Solo who once scoffed at a 'mystical energy field' controlling his destiny.  Obviously in the beloved galaxy 'far, far away,' there wasn't much religious fervor, even the infamous Darth Vader is referenced as being the 'last of their religion,' referring to the defunct Jedi order.

Travel forward in time, at least in one man's vision of the future of our own galaxy and you find a post-religious civilization in which humanity has embraced its place amongst the various denizens of the galaxy, pursuing knowledge and peace, but also finding itself at odds with the more hostile residents, thus needing to defend themselves on occasion.  In this grand vision, the pursuit of knowledge is the highest good and each civilization should be left to itself to decide what is best for themselves.  A grand vision indeed, but one hard won and rarely achieved, as the dozen movies and half dozen TV series portray.

Besides for space travel and interesting alien costumes, what do these grand sagas of the stars have in common?  What every good story has: they pursue what it means to be human and the grand questions pertaining thereto: what is the purpose of life, where did we come from and where are we going, why is the world a mess, and is there a way to fix it?  Men have wrestled with these questions since the dawn of thought and how we answer them determines much about our lives and everything about our eternal destiny.  What is interesting in this instance is that both try to wrestle with these profound questions outside the context of religion, which historically has been the source of those particular answers.  What they don't realize is the very struggle for those answers is in itself the essence of religion or spirituality or philosophy or whatever you want to call it; you can't ask those questions if you want to avoid religion or think yourself beyond it.

In the last century and a quarter we started to look instead to science for our answers, overlooking the inconvenient fact that science can only tell us what or how or when, not why.  We can count the hairs on a mouse or measure the distance between stars but that doesn't tell us anything about the reasons behind mice or stars, how they came about, for what purpose, or who put them there in the first place.  We can invent theories on where the universe came from, what will come of it, and how life arose, but they are hypotheses that can't be tested, and therefore must be taken on faith, as much faith as it takes to believe, 'in the beginning God...'  'In the beginning something happened…'  We are now outside the realm of science and into the realm of faith, religion, philosophy, and metaphysics; science will never answer the why.  It is a tool, but a ruler or hammer or computer will never tell you anything outside of physical facts.  That is the job of religion.

Ironically, in a movie mostly lacking in spiritual overtones (save for the useful but indifferent Force), we find a solid bit of spiritual truth (and no, I am not going to compare and contrast varying theologies here): Yoda hit it spot on with his 'luminous being are we.'  Now I don't know if we actually glow in the dark, but we are certainly more than flesh and bone, yet like Luke Skywalker, we have forgotten this, our entire modern civilization has forgotten this, no wonder life no longer makes sense.  Our souls remain, no matter how much we try to ignore or rationalize them away, and they are at the very core of our being, our identity, and were made to last forever while your physical self will fall apart within a century of its advent.  Maybe, like Luke, we need to believe in order to succeed (and no, I'm not talking about the prosperity gospel here), rather we need to actually believe in Something, the Something behind Everything, the Reason for everything, the Why, and it isn't some unknowable, indifferent energy field or mindless force, He actually took on flesh and dwelt among us.  Obi Wan isn't fond of objective truth, but I never said the theology of Star Wars was sound, only that it offered some interesting insight into our modern view of the world and its dysfunction and our own lonely souls.  You don't have to go to a galaxy 'far, far away,' or even on a 'five year mission,' to find it, it is at the very door of your heart, patiently waiting, as it has ever been.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lost in the suburbs

I remember an emptiness, a lack of purpose or meaning, wondering why we even bothered; it was all a pointless whittling away of the hours, doing our time and then what, and why?  I still feel that way when lost in a suburban neighborhood, with nothing but beige houses as far as the eye can see, wondering if this is how the world has ever been and ever will be.  It wasn't one particular activity or hour of the day, a single experience, or a certain age.  It was sitting in a 'skills for adolescents' class at fourteen, it was watching some insipid show meant to entertain or educate small children that only managed to bore and insult my six year old intelligence, it was reading some required but dreadful book for english, it was those epoch-long sunday afternoons in the summer when it was dreadfully hot and we were supposed to just 'go play,' it was another birthday when I'd gaze at the future and see it stretching long and dull and grey before me, much like Lewis's road to hell, 'without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.'

It wasn't boredom or ennui, it wasn't despair, though perhaps it contained traces of each, but they weren't the cause, but rather a symptom.  I don't know exactly how to describe it, for it is not a thing felt with the senses but rather with the heart.  It was a spiritual deadness, a material futility, an all encompassing dullness and purposelessness, like looking to the horizon on a dreary, cold, grey day in November when all the world is brown and grey and dead and only long months of cold loom before you, so long that perhaps spring will never come, except it is not a physical winter that afflicts you, it is a winter of the heart, a hibernation from which the soul will never waken.  It's death, plain and simple, we live it every day and don't even notice.  Our very souls are dead and numb, going through the daily and yearly dance of routine, obtaining the world's version of success, but still, we feel nothing, so we work harder so we don't have time to feel that ache, that longing, which seems impossible to fill.

But we're looking in the wrong places, it isn't found on the internet, in social media, in our relationships, in riches or power, on TV or at the movies.  We glimpse it from time to time, but it never slackens our thirst, it only makes our yearnings worse.  Having a baby, getting married, buying a house, getting 'the job,' we think will fulfill it, but it doesn't, not for long, this ache won't go away.  What is it?

"He has put eternity into the heart of man."

That's certainly an intriguing thought, but what on earth does it mean?  That's just the problem, we try to understand it with our minds of earth, to define it in mortal terms, when it is something not of this earth, something outside the comprehension of our temporal minds.  Modern man has this strange idea that the material world is all that there is and will ever be, you live, you die, and that's it; eventually the sun will blow up and that's all folks.  So what then is the point of anything?  But man wasn't made for a moment, but for eternity, hence the ache, the longing for a home we do not know and have never seen. The only way to assuage that ache is to set foot on the path that will lead us to that unknown yet familiar horizon, to begin the journey Home, only therein can we be truly content and feel true Joy.  Or, we can content ourselves with our magical phones, busy ourselves with countless tasks and hobbies, surround ourselves with fun and boisterous people, and pretend we are okay, but we aren't, for there is an ache that won't go away and that the world's varied balms cannot hope to cure.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Heading for the hills

If I could dwell in a perpetual twilight or in a land where it was always early morning, I would be well content; the biologists would call me crepuscular and I can see why various organisms find this lifestyle intriguing.  It has finally decided to be summer, which is both bane and blessing to me.  I love all warm weather entails: birds, flowers, green and growing things.  But I am no lover of direct, intense sunshine or heat, rather I like to lurk in the shadowy corners, wet with dew.  Sunshine and heat are required to create these shady nooks, but that does not mean I wish to dwell in the full intensity of the sun.  The oven must be a certain temperature to bake bread, but just because I love bread does not mean I enjoy the oven's heat.  I think the same could be said for the various aspects of our lives: emotional, physical, social, spiritual.  Too much heat or intensity will burn us, weary us, or bring on a dreadful headache, rendering us miserable and no good for anything.

I am not saying we should avoid intense or harrying situations when required, but rather we should take the necessary precautions to avoid exhaustion, burn out, and dissatisfaction in the various aspects of our lives, just like I retreat to the shade when the day's heat becomes too much, so too should we be mindful of the conditions around us and put on our metaphorical sunblock or floppy hat when necessary.  And various situations or circumstances affect each of us differently, just as I would rather work outside in subzero temperatures than on a sweltering and humid day, whereas others are exactly the opposite.  The idea that we must be 'busy' to be significant, important, and to have meaning is just ridiculous; the people with the most harried and crazed schedules we know are probably the least happy and fulfilled, they are just too busy to notice.  Busyness has become akin to alcohol in its modern use to dull our deepest longings, pangs, and fears.

Even within the church we see this, how many programs, meetings, and activities do you or your kids participate in or lead?  Our level of spiritual maturity is judged by how successful our ministry is or how many programs we have, when there is no correlation between them.  In the story of Mary and Martha, Martha is the perfect example of many a modern ministry leader or even a modern American in general: frenzied, grumpy, impatient, harried as she frantically stays busy trying to make sure the party is perfect while Mary sits on her rump and listens to Jesus tell stories.  When she asks Jesus to tell Mary to make herself useful, the result is rather surprising.  Mary is the one who is doing the needful thing whilst Martha is the one making herself miserable over nothing.  Throughout scripture we are reminded of how important it is to rest, to refresh ourselves, to be at peace, and not to try to earn our way into God's Kingdom.  I always found it intriguing, the little hints scattered throughout the gospels, that even Jesus needed to take some time off to head into the hills and be alone; how often He he went off to a lonely place to pray.  If it was needful for Him, how much more so for us?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

To gain the world

My life took a rather sharp turn a year and a half ago, and one of the hardest struggles of that radical change has been fighting off the cultural urge of busyness.  I am quite productive and active, in both a paid and volunteer sense, in and outside of the home, but some part of me still struggles with the idea that I am not 'busy' all the time.  I had the 50 hour a week career (plus on call), the requisite activities, a young family, etc. etc., and I was frenzied, stressed out, and not enjoying it in the least, but from a cultural perspective, I should have been somehow fulfilled.  But I wasn't, so why does part of me feel guilty when I'm not running around like a toddler on a sugar high?  Probably because we moderns have been trained this way since before we could walk!  We need to read, write, count, etc. from an earlier and earlier age, then we begin sports and activities as soon as we are potty trained and can string three words together into a sentence.  Achieve, achieve, achieve!  Therein is your value and worth and all your being.  But it leaves us exhausted and empty and hopeless, because we can never work hard enough to achieve what the world, or we ourselves, think we must.  So we work harder and still find our lives empty and vain.

But it wasn't meant to be that way.  Yes, we must work and be productive, it is a necessary, natural, and good part of our natures but we have taken it to an unhealthy extreme in modern society, and like any other abused substance or trait, the results are disastrous.  There's an antiquated book that reminds us to 'be still and know,' that 'my yoke is easy, my burden light,' and contains mention of something called a 'sabbath,' which urges us to rest one day out of seven.  Even God rested on the seventh day, and no, He was not tired, rather He took the time to look over what He had done and to rejoice in the goodness thereof and to enjoy it.  If life is too frenzied and busy for you to take time to enjoy a good conversation, to spend time with your family, to linger over a nice cup of tea or read a favorite book, then maybe you too need to become counter-cultural.  Can you cut back at work?  Ditch a few activities?  Simply your life?  Do you need the giant house, the third car, the boat or RV?  It isn't easy, it cuts against the grain at times, but it is certainly worth the effort!  'What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his soul?'  An excellent question for our frenetic day and age!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Perspective...

A year ago we moved several hundred miles west and south, into a region very different from that in which I had spent my entire life, and as an avid birdwatcher, this opened up a whole new world of possibilities, at least as far as variety of bird species goes.  I spent all winter pouring over the range maps in my bird book and making a wish list of potential species I'd like to see, and this spring I am giddy as a kid at christmas, always glancing out the window hoping for a glimpse of that next new species.  There are three species of oriole on my list, two of which would be novel sightings for me.  I heard one whistling the other day and eagerly sought him out, hoping it would be either a Bullock's or an Orchard Oriole, but when he finally showed himself, it was nothing but a commonplace Baltimore Oriole, a bird I had seen a thousand times.  I had to stop and wonder at that thought, for there is no such thing as a 'common' bird, especially where orioles are concerned.

Even the most abundant sparrow species is quite remarkable when studied up close, each feather an exquisite work of art in its own right, add to that the complexity of migration, communication, and survival in this cold world, and that birds exist at all is a miracle.  I am especially fond of orioles, their song is beautiful, they are fun to watch, and they are stunningly gorgeous, that and they are a certain sign that spring has arrived at last.  So here I was, upset that I had seen so wondrous a creature, disappointed solely because it was not the bird I thought I should see at that particular moment.  And that is just birds, how much worse is it with everything else in life?  How often am I disappointed or upset because something did not happen how or when I thought it should?  Why can't I just graciously accept the beauty and blessing of the moment, rather than being discontent because life was not exactly as I thought it should be.  It would take much of the beauty and wonder out of life if everything happened exactly as we thought it should all the time, so maybe I should be more like that kid at Christmas, wide-eyed and excited, even if he is only getting socks.

In a humorously ironic side note, I saw an Orchard Oriole a few hours later and the next day there was a Bullock's Oriole strutting his stuff quite blatantly in the tree outside my window.  We are told He knows when even a sparrow falls to the ground, and that we are of much more value than the sparrows, you'd think by now I could trust Him implicitly.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Delving into the uncomfortable

I think I owned a single cheap paint brush, acquired who knows where and never used, before this project.  My idea of home improvement is eyeballing where to place a nail to hang a picture frame; refinishing furniture had never entered my mind.  Like most of our furniture, our dressers were once owned by distant relatives or discovered at a rummage sale, and unlike most of our functional pieces, they looked like it.  I'm not sure, but they might have been in the trenches during the Great War or even involved in the War of 1812, the War of the Roses was probably a little too early though, but whichever war they came through, it was time to do something about it.  I like them, they are very roomy, solid, and functional, but they look like they were left out in the rain for a couple months and then were run over by a bus.  We could have bought new ones, but modern dressers seem to be abominably expensive, of very poor quality, and lacking in functional space.  So I asked the almighty google if there was any hope, and after perusing various and sundry blogs, I discovered there was.  Thus began my career as a furniture refurbisher.  It has been an interesting project, and no, I won't be taking this up full time, but it is fun to know I can do it and the results are rather impressive (and much more economical than buying new furniture).

So what does my foray into home improvement have to do with anything?  Probably nothing, but it reminds me that often life takes us in directions we can hardly begin to imagine and looking back we wonder how we ended up there in the first place but are quite happy for the detour.  This was one such, though very minor, example.  I just read a passage that minded me of this very thing: Jesus had been speaking all day and there were thousands of people gathered around, it was getting dark and they were hungry.  He then turns to his disciples and asked them to feed the ravenous throng, which of course resulted in protestations of impossibility from his companions.  Of course painting a dresser is nothing compared to feeding thousands, but still, the reaction is the same, 'but…"  How often do we balk at attempting the difficult, let alone the impossible, simply because of our own doubts and fears?  Is it not such crazy ventures that make for the best stories?  Is it not around such unanticipated bends in the road that we find the most satisfying and intriguing results?  Perhaps, instead of balking at something as impossible, we need to step out in faith and simply say, 'yes, Lord,' and trust that He'll work out the thorny details.  The results will definitely surprise you!