A Small Miracle For A Hopeless Wanderer

Hello Sunday Morning Readers!

Last week I promised to tell you what Dani, JD and I have been doing on Sunday mornings for the last five months. I hope you weren’t waiting for fireworks. All we’ve been doing is eating breakfast with another couple. That’s it. Nothing to light up the sky.

They’re a cool couple though. They both work in the health care industry. They own a home in the 19th ward. They like to watch cheesy horror flicks or hit up foodie joints in town. Anyway, we’ve been brunching on Sundays and between bites we’ve been talking about where we’re at spiritually and where we want to go.

I’m happy about our little ritual but it’s for reasons that aren’t very sexy. We eat. We talk. We hug. We leave. We’re not growing in numbers. The high-watermarks of our spiritual lives aren’t rising in any quantifiable way. All we’ve truly got is a regular rhythm and a slow growing trust. The reason I’m hopeful is because I think we’re building the kind of trust where you can eventually talk about what’s really bothering you.

I saw a glimpse of it one Sunday back in November when Dani spoke about a wall she has erected. I wish you could have been there. It was the kind of moment you wait for- where the room temperature jumps by five degrees and you suddenly want to curl your toes into the carpet.danibeanbag1

“I used to try so hard to believe everything,” Dani whispered, “to be the very best believer in the sanctuary.” Her voice cracked; my mouth fell open. As the guy who cares the most for her well-being I’ve paid keen attention to the conversations we don’t have, to the way years can roll forward and almost make you forget about what you’ve left behind.

I looked over at the other couple, still almost strangers, still without the context of our years of ambivalence. They couldn’t yet know that these sentences were sunken treasure. But I knew. I knew that it was the beginning of the end of a long internal ice age.

Dani continued between tears. “I just couldn’t do it anymore.” She peered into the depths of the carpet while I held my spine in place. I wanted to reach over and grab her hand or rub her leg or do something to wipe away the shame. But in that moment we all were pressed like gumdrops into beanbags. Dani said she was exhausted. That the spiritual equations never quite added up for her.

She said that she felt freer now that everything was shoved into the background. She said that even Jesus felt ominous and unsafe now; like maybe Jesus was the free iPhone you get when you buy a contract and you barely notice that the contract comes with a thousand additional charges that bankrupt you in the end.

For that fleeting monologue Dani was the center of a room where she prefers to hold a silence in the corner. And her tears made her eyes even brighter because they weren’t ordinary tears, they were the tears of old fears that you instinctively hide- liquid remnants of fermented shame.babydanibeanbag

The conversation didn’t exactly resolve after that. There was no altar call, no moment of decision. But I’m convinced that there was a shift in our personal tectonic plates. Either that or another hunk of glacial ice fell into the sea. What I mean is that even though no tidal wave immediately swept over us, big things were stirring way down below the surface.

That’s why I’m hopeful. Because amid our ordinary efforts I see sparks of grace. Small miracles to remind me that so many of us are longing for resolution. And that maybe the less visible shifts are the shifts that shake the firmament in the long run.

But the brightest spark in our sky has been this new couple, our sudden and closest allies. It’s uncanny how similar the dream that flickered in them before we met. They also wanted a place to tell the truth, to search, to rediscover. They weren’t bitter but they weren’t going back to where they came from either. So we’ve linked ropes with them and started floating toward some unknown destination in hopes of finding God.daveshanigang

Why am I telling you all this? Well, the primary reason is that I don’t think we’re the only four adults with this itch. And I’m wondering if some of you are already doing anything like what we’re doing? If so, I’d love to hear from you. What’s working? What’s not? What are you learning and how are you growing?

And if there aren’t a lot of spontaneous communities popping to the surface, why couldn’t there be more? Couldn’t some of you float rafts like ours in your own locale? I don’t see why not. It’s really nothing more than a recurring meeting with the hope of finding God.

I just keep imagining what it could be like if we had a loose fleet of folks who began reconnecting- with one another and with a God who made sense to them each individually. I bet that some of our private depressions would lift, that some of our gnarly resentments would unravel, that even some of our most frayed relationships would begin to mend. I only say that because I believe that I’m witnessing the early stages of it in my own life. It’s almost like the byproduct of a spiritual life in bloom. And I can’t shake the conviction that it’s available to any of us, all of us, even those of us who have been hopeless wanderers.

That brings me to my secondary reason: If by chance you’ve been wandering near Rochester, NY, I want to invite you to visit our little gathering. We’re solid enough now where we’d love to our share our strange little miracle with you. Please contact me via Facebook, Twitter, or email me at matthewbdrake@gmail.com. I’d be happy to add you to our private Facebook group and JD promises not to let Dani cry in front of you on your first visit.babybeanbag

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To Follow Directions

You know how a recipe tells you exactly what ingredients to add and exactly how much? And if you deviate from the recipe you might end up making something tasty but at some point it stops being what you set out to make?

Well. For the past few years I’ve wanted to write a recipe for my own religion. I’ve had a vision of a personal farm-to-table spiritual restaurant. It’s a theory which has arisen based on the belief that only I could know my body’s optimum diet well enough to concoct the right spiritual practices for me.

So that’s kind of what I’ve been doing. I’ve been clunking around the kitchen, wondering whether bay leaves, thyme, tuna, apple sauce, vinegar, pineapple, and ricotta cheese compliment each other. (Metaphorically speaking.)

One reason is that I like creating things. Another reason is that I felt betrayed by the faith I followed so passionately for so long.

But a huge reason I rarely admit is that I absolutely hate to follow directions. It’s a compulsive problem. Following directions makes me feel like a lemming, barreling and bleeding through rock and fire and water at the behest of some sociopath’s plan for world domination and I would rather stab myself to death a thousand times than to be led off a cliff by another Piper.

Anyway, the point is- if recipe calls for a tablespoon of sugar I’m immediately thinking about how the inventor of the recipe could not have possibly anticipated how much I love sugar and could therefore not have gotten it correct. Same with hot sauce. Same with anything. You can rely on this simple truth: I don’t trust whoever wrote the rules.

But last week in the kitchen I followed a recipe and it kind of worked. There were 7 simple instructions written in pencil on a stained 3 by 5 card. It was an old family recipe, a marinade we use to tenderize venison. In my memory it was a manly sort of recipe where A1 was bound to be involved. In reality I had to use lemon juice and soy sauce and absolutely no A1 at all.

But I followed the instructions for a change a before I was halfway through the whole house was filled with that familiar smoky scent. It was the soy/lemon combo that convicted me of my ignorance. What a weird moment in the kitchen- my eyes bulging at that stained old recipe card and instead of thinking about instructions for a marinade I was thinking about instructions I’ve heard all my life- how I ought to attend church weekly, pray daily, read and meditate in the mornings, give away a portion of my income, and so on.

And though I’m sure it wouldn’t strike everybody this way- as I was standing before empty bowls at the kitchen counter, with JD watching me, I found a strange comfort in the reliability of a recipe to follow. I skipped the A1 and I trusted that lemon juice would work. And weirdly, I believed it would work- that I wouldn’t ruin another large hunk of meat. (I’ve had to throw away a bunch of meat ever since JD was born and I started cooking dinners.)babyinbowl

Maybe this means I’m willing to follow directions- but like with God stuff. That’s terrifying to print. It’s easy for me to admit ignorance in the kitchen but it’s the opposite with religion. I feel as though I’ve tasted everything, as though I understand the underlying principles of spiritual sweets and spiritual sours, that I’ve known God and even understood certain mysteries. So to now arrive back at the curtain of unbelief, to admit that even with all the experience I’ve accumulated that I maybe need a simple recipe to follow- one made by someone else- now that is a marinade I don’t want to stew in.

Profound Personality Change

Is it possible to undergo a profound personality change when you’re all grown up?

I mean the kind of change where you recover some former part of yourself that you lost and you didn’t know was gone. Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m talking about when you draw a straight line between 14 year old you and 22, 27, 33 year old you and the contrast slaps you: “Hey wow, I’m not right anymore.”

Have you ever woken up to an ugly personal truth like that? I have. And I’m not talking about the loss of innocence or the gradual understanding that comes with time. I’m not wishing I was more vital or feral.

I’m talking about something deeper. About the original design for my character. Like, if you picture my character as a young oak tree which was supposed to evolve tall and leafy, except that my particular tree got struck with lightning and a portion of it stands rotting while the un-dead portion grows at odd angles, leafless, like a spire against the sky.

babytree

I wonder if that kind of arrested development happens to lots of us without us paying attention to it.

A few days ago a forgotten memory returned to me. I was 16 at the time and it was an ordinary school night. I was laying on the couch playing a game on my graphing calculator. My mother came into the room and told me to put down the calculator and look up at her. Her face was pink-cheek stern. She said I was no longer the sweet, selfless boy that I used to be. That my attitude was no good anymore and would get me nowhere and that I might be able to hide it from my teachers and friends but no way I could hide it from her and I’d better take a serious look in the mirror and then get down on my knees and do some repenting.

If I’d known then what I know now I might have taken it to mean that my Oak Tree needed some attention. But I bagged up that moment with the morning trash and I took it outside. When it came back last week I remembered everything- even the brown couch fibers against my angry skin. But what I really remembered was my reaction to my mom. How I attributed her complaint as an overreaction of her feminine nature. “Oh mom,” I thought, “you’re soft. If I let you you’d turn me into a woman.” And that’s the first time I remember using a secret monologue to build a fence around my broken little tree.

If I had been a tree, and my mother a careful gardener, she might have been arriving after the thunderstorm, she might have been suggesting a procedure to keep me growing toward the sky. If so, I swept her out of my circumference and never let her back in.

I’ve been thinking about personality change because I keep hearing about it in the 12 Step meetings I attend. They promise a “profound personality change” as a natural byproduct of sobriety. These folks with 15, 25, 30 years of sobriety keep giving personal testimony to the transformation they’ve witnessed as the spiritual aspect of the program takes hold. They claim to be less selfish fathers, less angry mothers, more friendly bosses, more connected to God and God’s will. They claim to have recovered what was lost in the spidering corridors of their addiction. They explain it in different words but the common thread is the reclamation of an integral part of their character, their personality, which had faded from view without them noticing how ugly they’d become.

That idea has been facing me like a portrait of Dorian Gray. And I’m starting to remember who I used to be. I used to be sweet. I used to carry hope in my wide open eyes and I used to offer it, with or without words, to anybody in any condition. Even in New York City when I drew scowls on the sidewalk, it never bothered me because I was too busy caring about whatever pain was prompting the scowl and how the God I believed in could surely soothe it.

Yet I was already withering inside only nobody knew it yet- least of all me. What I needed then and what I’m finding out now is that I have a deep problem and I can’t fix it. I think I’m talking about sin. I think I’m admitting that sin has poisoned my roots.

And I guess the only reason I’m willing to talk about it is because I keep hearing about the hope of transformation. As if maybe I could get back to growing green and tall like I was born to do. And I know that not everybody is ripe for a 12 Step program but I often wonder if the idea still applies. Maybe you’re coming awake through a different set of circumstances but maybe we both could experience a “profound personality change” as we allow The Gardener in.

My hope for a change like that is anchored entirely on the conviction that I have grown crooked and that I can’t fix myself. If that’s you too, maybe we’re both at some sort of strange new beginning. God, help us.

Five Accelerating Results of Resentment

Are you aware of your resentments?

Do you know what they’re about and who they’re against? Do you know how long they’ve been incubating inside you? And do you realize that they’re carrying you somewhere faster and faster every day, like a river accelerating toward a waterfall?

I’m slowly becoming aware of my resentments and the unfortunate reality is that I have a long and filthy list. It’s not a checklist. It’s not cognitive like that. It’s more nebulous, like a thunder cloud.

Sure, there are faces that emerge from the cloud. Toothy, grinning faces. A few are popping into my head right now.

These people are enjoying their lives and they shouldn’t be if you ask me. They should be hanging their heads and wearing burlap and thinking only about the awful wrong they’ve done. They should not be living in the sunshine as if nothing ever happened. Let me tell you, behind their carefree smiles these folks are pythons. They’ll hug you until the breath has left your lungs and they’ll appear surprised when you fall limp as if they had nothing to do with it. And they will feast on your demise and then slither away.

Do you know the kind of people I’m referring to? If you’re anything like me you might try not to think about them. But if you’re anything like me you might find them slithering in and out of the corners of your mind more often than you care to admit.

Just the other day in the grocery store I thought I saw someone like that in the next aisle over and my heart started pounding and my face went red hot and I could feel my body yelling at him like it was actually happening. How I’d make him listen and how small and stupid and naked he’d feel when I was done. And if he tried even once to fire back I’d throw a punch because he’s needed someone to kick his ass for his entire life and maybe it was my job to do it.grocerybaby

Unfortunately that’s not the whole of it. Even more often than individuals I find that my resentments can be globalized around entire groups of people or ways of thinking. I hold these “types” responsible for certain evils that plague my life and anybody else who is as blameless as I am.

These resentments are the kind that get quantified when I watch strangers behaving in the horrible ways that I expect them to. The prototypical politician or the deranged religious leader or that ignorant blogger and her ignorant social commentary and what it proves about how dumb practically everybody is.

These resentments are the festering hatreds that melt my bones. That’s the problem with them: they’re killing me. And the worst part is that they work like gravity- they accelerate over time.

That’s why I’m writing to you about it. Because if you have resentments like I do, even ones that you’re not in touch with, they’re killing you too.

Here are five things I’m learning about resentments ever since I started to pay attention:

1. Resentments give us the illusion of Power. Instead of hosting uncomfortable feelings like sadness, helplessness, or grief, resentments temporarily scratch the itch for strength, authority, and invulnerability. The itch is never soothed and it always leaves us bleeding, but power remains an intoxicating alternative to pain.

2. Resentments pervert our productive energy. They take us away from what we can control (our behavior) and focus our attention on what we can’t control (other people’s behavior). They give us only one message: that we’re the victim- which stifles our ability to take personal ownership.

3. Resentments isolate us. They convince us that we’re the only one, that our problems are utterly unique, that no one else could understand the truth about our situation like we do. We coax ourselves away from our clear headed fellows and into our own head where a stew of mischaracterized events becomes our new reality.

4. Resentments undermine our ability to trust. When we nurse a sense of what is wrong with the world- with people, programs, and institutions, it gradually leaves us with only our own judgement to rely on. Everything and everyone is increasingly suspect until trust becomes an impossibility. When trust has evaporated, depression, addiction, anxiety disorder, and a host of other mental illnesses can gain easy access to our minds.

5. Resentments separate us from God. They set us in opposition to God because they remove us from relationships, from outside input, and from a posture of humility. Also, like I said, they entice us toward power, which is a unilateral attempt to become gods ourselves.

Does anything separate us from God as quickly as resentments do? Maybe not. But how do they sneak in so easily and quietly?

That’s the funny thing about resentments: they’re easy to find in others and almost impossible to find in ourselves. To us they are just “the truth.” We feel righteous in our resentments and in this way many of us never learn. We drift ever further from God, from our fellows, from sanity. We find ourselves alone on the racing water, in the dark, with nothing left but our absolute conviction that we were wronged.

If you have resentments and you want to address them you’re probably going to need help. I know I do. So far it’s requiring a lot of humility, gratitude (which is weird if you’re not used to it), and the help of God and other people. I hope I’ll have something helpful to write about the way forward but in the meantime I’d love to hear your experience. How have you identified and dealt with resentments in your life?

Note: I’m going without Internet for a year so my replies will probably be slower than either of us would like. But I promise to read everything and I’ll do my best to reply. You can still reach me by email (matthewbdrake@gmail.com) and Facebook messenger (I still have those two apps on my phone).

Live Small, Live Slow

We often ask ourselves: “What do we believe?” The real question might be: “What do our unpeeled lives look like?”

The answer to the second question might be the truest test of our actual beliefs.

Do our private worlds hum with serenity, joy, and contentment? Are we filled with love for ourselves and others? Are we gentle people?

When I ask myself these questions and I look honestly into the details of my own affairs, I fail this test. He’s a quick report:

– I have many broken and unrepaired relationships.

– I have many resentments that I’ve been unsuccessful at relinquishing.

– I have habitual behaviors that are destructive to me and my family yet I haven’t adequately addressed them.

– I am often quick to anger and quick to defend myself.

The simple evidence of my private world proves to me that my beliefs are not getting me where I want to go. (I know without a doubt where I want to go: I want to go toward love and peace and patience and wisdom. I want to have the kind of gray hair-in a few years, that people can trust.) But the evidence shows me that I probably shouldn’t be leading any kind of visionary movement right now. I probably shouldn’t be imagining and creating a new paradigm of beliefs when my own beliefs haven’t gotten me out of bed.

Over the last few weeks a phrase has been jangling around in my head:

“Live small.”

I don’t know exactly what that means, or even how it got up there in my skull, but I’ve been chewing on it for almost a month now and I still haven’t been able to swallow it.

I think it might have to do with examining my personal beliefs before foisting them upon the world. I think it might mean that I should spend my best energy trying to be sober minded, trying to be a worthy husband and a steady father rather than striving into the wee morning hours to be the next great white American genius.cartoonporchbaby

And over the last few days two new words have added themselves to my growing mantra:

“Live slow.”

These two words are still foggy in my brain. But what is emerging- along with the horror that my aspirations might not materialize overnight- is the sense that I might have better outcomes if I tackle my life one bite sized day at a time.

I’ve always hated Day-At-A-Time slogans. They’re so matter of fact. So uninspired. I’ve always want to be at the pinnacle of my life yesterday. I was the kind of kid who imagined opening the door one morning and running 26 spontaneous, consecutive miles- faster than most, of course.

The call to live slow asks me to be OK that accomplishment does not appear immediately. It asks me to relinquish my hold on a fantasy reality: the one where I could lose 30 pounds in 30 days, could write a best seller on my first try, could inspire a worldwide movement at any moment.

Instead, it asks me to find joy in the easy, natural pace of life- the wisdom written in the eternal codes of growth and change.

I see it in my son, who at 3 months old cannot walk, or talk, or even crawl. Yet his daily struggle to focus his cute little eyes is so obviously perfect and timely and good. He already knows how to “Live small, live slow,” much better than I do. He’s teaching me to find joy in the quiet moments where it’s just the two of us on the couch, staring endlessly at the colorful patterns on his burp rags. We coo and giggle at each other and in those moments our eyes are reflecting secret messages back and forth and who cares who’s walking and who’s not.

“Live small, live slow.”

That’s what I need to remember today.

Maybe you’re like me? Maybe you want to be amazing. Maybe you want to learn something or do something or say something important. And maybe you want it to happen now. Maybe you see the years sliding month by accelerated month into oblivion and you’re getting anxious because nothing is changing- not even you. If that’s you, maybe you’re looking too far forward, like me. Maybe instead of flexing your wishing muscles for a great big immediate change you could join me in flexing your actual muscles for an itsy bitsy tiny change.

Today my change is this: I’ll be attending a 12 step meeting with my humility in tow, just like I did yesterday and the day before that.

When you’re ready, what change will you start with?

Sacramental Christianity Won’t Win Me Back

Not everyone wants to go back to church.

Do you?

My favorite Christian author (Rachel Held Evans) recently wrote an article about why millenials are leaving the church. In it, she explains that young adults like us don’t need or want our churches to be cool. She says that we’re drawn to Christianity’s long held sacraments when they’re practiced with authenticity and inclusivity.

For many of us, that’s true. We’re leaving church because it feels wrong and we’d return if it felt right. That’s not true for all of us, though. At least, it’s not true for me.

I mean, it IS romantic to kneel on a velvet bar alongside strangers and friends. To gaze at those high cathedral arches, to echo the Lexionary across the centuries, to participate in rituals like confession, communion, and baptism- all those spiritual practices that hold us together and remind us of what our souls are apt to forget.

And as long as I attend with my erudite friends, as long as I don a sports-coat with leather patch elbows, I’m happy to rest my padded bottom on an unpadded wooden pew. I’ll enjoy those quiet moments of old-fashioned-but-never-outdated-reflection. I’ll listen to the man with the low slung glasses who speaks slowly about a tree that was cut down from his yard and how it brought to mind all the trees that Jesus interacted with: Zacheeus’s tree, the fig tree, the vine and branches, the cross itself- and I’ll open myself to whatever spiritual wisdom I might derive from trees, and Jesus, but mostly trees.

But I gotta be honest- that stuff doesn’t help me any more than the fog machine or the throbbing lights or the free cappuccinos in the mega-church lobby. For me, it’s just a different kind of inauthentic- one that makes me feel slightly less manipulated and slightly more intelligent all while in the back of my mind I’m harboring the suspicion that I’m drifting toward another abusive relationship- only this time with an older, wiser abuser.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying my perspective is the better perspective. I just think it represents some of us whose problem with church extends beyond popular Christian culture. (Also, I’m not ragging on Rachel. Rachel is terrific! Her new book is beautiful and provocative and you should definitely buy and read it.)

But as much as I love Rachel (and secretly want to be friends with her and her husband) her perspective doesn’t represent me. As a pastor’s kid, a Bible School Grad, a missionary to China for six years, a church planter, a Christian conference speaker; I’ve been on the scene long enough to know that even the most Sacramental Christianity won’t fix my problem. The simple truth is that I don’t want to go back to the church until the church dies and is born again.church bball

Not all believers want to find their way back inside the building.

If you’re anything like me, you might view the sacraments and the liturgy as good programs that good people built after Jesus left. Programs whose faithful practice has helped people follow God through the ages. Programs which should be honored and cherished and used to this very day. But man-made programs nonetheless.

I’m cool with those programs until the minute their sacraments become sacred. When people start associating rituals (communion, baptism, the sinner’s prayer), leadership structures (prophets, priests, pastors), organizational structures (denominations, theologies, creeds), and morals (sex, marriage, crime, punishment), as items which are fixed quantities that can be applied in homogeneous fashion to all- in my postmodern opinion those beliefs have themselves become calcified idols which are now undermining the very deep truths of the even deeper mystery they were originally built to point toward.

In Rachel’s new book, which is organized entirely around the sacraments, she reaches beneath the sacraments themselves to apprehend the messy, mysterious, somewhat subjective truths behind each ritual. She understands that what lies beneath is the actual pearl of great price. That’s why I’d love to share a sanctuary with her and her family some Sunday. She’s a modern day sojourner (Abraham style), rallying folks (Nehemiah style), to rebuild the broken walls of Christendom.

But at the end of the day, Rachel is back in church. And I don’t mean the ethereal line of believers strung out from Abraham to Billy Graham. I mean the institution. I mean an organization of men who lay out the rules.

And as a postmodern millennial, my mind doesn’t bend that way anymore. Our world is too wide for me to believe that God definitively does or does not want a man in Dubai to share an apartment with his girlfriend, or boyfriend. I worry that to live under the spiritual roof of men who have applied God’s precise opinion on anything from tits to taxes is spiritual abuse.

That’s why I believe that Jesus and Christianity are worlds apart. For example, what if Jesus didn’t institute communion as a formal demonstration of our proximity to God? What if he simply shared a poignant meal and said, “Hey, keep eating and drinking and remember me when you do.”?

Also, Jesus never flew a rainbow flag or carried a poster that God hates fags. Men did that. Men DO that. Men who organize around non-negotiable statements of faith.

And that’s why I can’t return to a hierarchical church. I don’t want a church to tell me that homosexuality is a sin and I don’t want a church to tell me that it’s not. I see through a glass darkly, just like everybody else, and mine is to wait and watch and love.

What I want is a church that doesn’t have an opinion for once. That doesn’t have a vested interest in my money, time, or perfect behavior. Where there are no paid professionals. Where to follow God is an amateur endeavor forever.

I’m not the only one. Many of us are fully engaged, whether we realize it or not, in our generation’s philosophical battle for faith. We want to know the extent that spiritual Truth can be objectively understood, organized, and applied. Our postmodern minds tell us that the answer is uncertain, and for some of us, a return to what we knew could only be regression.

What I’m saying is- we could start over. We could reinvent the wheel. Throw out the baby with the bathwater. Cut off our nose to spite our face. I believe the grass is greener on the other side of professional Christianity and I believe that some of us need to pack up our things and go to a land we’ve never been before.

I don’t know what it looks like yet but I imagine it as a movement of volunteers who open their homes regularly, who are autonomous except in matters affecting the movement as a whole, and who have no objective but to find God and to love people. I see such a movement burgeoning around nothing more than the belief in a God who cares, the transformation that such a belief precipitates within our ever-softening hearts, and the attraction it produces among those who suffer under the burden of fear and pride and guilt and shame.

Does this resonate with you at all? I hope so! Over the last two weeks I’ve been flabbergasted by the volume of emails and friend requests from so many of you. It’s crazy that we have so much in common yet we’ve felt ostracized and isolated- unaware of one another.

I’m beginning to wonder if we’re at the beginning of a new evolution. I believe such a leap could be catalyzed by a multitude of single-cell voices who dream a similar dream. If you’re like me maybe your voice has been languishing in silence for too long. And maybe it’s time to start speaking again, dreaming again, seeking others who are seeking God beyond the primordial ooze.

I’d love to hear about your dream too. What’s been percolating? Shoot me an email or a friend request or better yet, leave a comment below and try to make a friend on the website!

I’m Talking To You Disillusioned Christians

Maybe you call yourself an Ex-Christian, an Agnostic, or nothing at all.

Or… maybe you say you’re a Christian but you squirm through Sunday services feeling like a fraud.

Or… maybe you quit attending years ago and you only think about the faith you inherited at family reunions.

Whatever your attitude, you grew up singing songs on Sundays, believing stories about what God did and what God wants you to do and what God wants you to believe about the world.

But something happened. Either a dramatic moment or an imperceptible shift over time. Maybe you realized your decision could cost you everything or maybe not. Either way, one morning you woke up to embrace your inner doubt.

If you’re like that, we’re a lot alike. I grew up Christian too. I sang songs. I believed beliefs. Until a slew of dissonance provoked me to think freely. Ultimately, a tentative set of fractured but honest beliefs emerged and they didn’t quite fit anywhere.BeFunky Photo

And here I am- full of questions and convictions but with no safe place and with few scattered allies. I’m disenfranchised. Disallowed from from writing my truth without being branded a rebel, a malcontent, a bitter soul, an enemy, or, worst of all, living proof that the devil sometimes wins.

I’m not alone in my plight. There are scattered millions of us. Skittish, like cats in hiding. In America alone there are 300 million citizens of One Nation Under God. If half of us grew up in church and half of us ran away from church and if I exaggerated those by half that’s still close to 40 million wanderers. Uncollected. Alone. Caught in the twilight of belief and unbelief.

And yeah, we’re different. Some of us have said: “Screw it. I’m done.” Others of us want to sleep around with a bunch of other religions to rebound. But at the indivisible denominator we are in common: Disenfranchised Christians. And as much as we sometimes try to avoid it we share a similar spiritual yearning and a similar spiritual language.

So why don’t we gather among ourselves? It’s tricky, that’s why. Nobody can talk about this stuff without making a mess. Our stories are raw, unprocessed, not fashioned to fit inside a prefabricated puzzle. They sometimes sound like personal attacks. They sometimes offend the people we love. Even among ourselves our stories are associated with alarming theological implications which we might or might not believe.

It’s just easier to stay silent. Or to shout angrily at no one in particular. But if we stay silent we wander alone and if we shout loud the Christians shout back- often louder, angrier, nastier, and with the power of their collected rightness. Whether we stalk in silence or fire against the machine we Disillusioned Christians rarely make progress.

Many of us are stuck. OK, I’m stuck. I’m afflicted with the same resentments and the same hair-trigger character flaws I’ve always had. I’m not making progress. I’m not being transformed. And I’ve failed to find and forge life-giving connections with other disillusioned folks who want to change.

This is a problem and I want a solution.

Are you with me?

I want a way forward. A vision of an alternative future where we came together. Where we agreed not to spring for fights or languish in silence.

What if the fighters among us laid down their swords? What if the avoiders among us engaged the dilemma? And what we gave ourselves permission to talk about our stories and our theories about what went wrong. But what if we didn’t stop there? What if we didn’t stay focused on the problem? What if we committed among ourselves to stay focused on the solution?

And what if that solution was to revive our collective hope in God? Not in religion. Not in community. Not in a fresh batch of laws or theology. Simply the wide open hope of a God who cares.

That’s the journey I want to be on. That the journey I want to share with a timid band of believers. Though our destination may be far from where we started, I believe that this could be our journey home.

If you’re a Disenfranchised Christian and if this dream resonates with you I’d love to hear from you. Send me an email or a Facebook message or leave a comment below. Or, shoot someone else a text. Maybe you thought of someone while you were reading this and maybe they’d grab coffee with you. You could start a conversation and who knows, it might lead somewhere. I’d love to hear about whatever happens!

What Happened When My Son Was Born

Please be patient with me. Last week I witnessed the birth of my first child. I’m still moist with joy and exhaustion.

If you must know, I’m recovering from watching my wife push out our baby. I’m not kidding. Nothing prepares you for that job. Ditch digging, thief chasing, pulpit pounding, paper writing- nothing readies you for the uselessness of a man when a miracle unfolds. What happens is, you’re full of pride at having made a person and full of confidence that everything will be fine; yet you are helpless, and as the minutes turn into hours your spine gets tighter and tighter until it launches you to the moon.

That was me in the delivery room- the solitary male in a crowd of eleven, clutching Dani’s limp leg, holding it high and separate, stroking her naked skin, counting to ten again and again, watching her lips curl back like a wolf, telling her it was almost over, wondering if it was almost over, glancing over my shoulder toward my mother and her mother and my sister and her sister, and then across the bed where the nurses had dressed the doctors in what appeared to be HAZMAT suits while other nurses monitored heart-rates and IV drips, and all I could control was the Pandora radio station on my IPhone- about which Dani had hollered mid-contraction: “Turn that off unless you’re connected to Wifi!”

She pushed for two and a half hours. And I don’t mean delicate pushes like you’d expect from your wife. I mean sweaty moan-y pushes like you’d expect from a soldier with a sword in his liver. And her moans kept getting louder while her tears kept growing larger until they were the fast rolling drops that would make any husband panic.

Soon enough the baby started poking through. His hair came first, dark and thin. A sopping wet tuft and a trickle of blood. He scooted forward and backward with every push and release. In and out like the twitch of a tongue.

All the eyes in the room focused on the crux of the V. It was like we were waiting for the entrance of an unknown celebrity- the open runway, the camera flashes, the intense focus on a bright red curtain behind which someone important waited. I wiped Dani’s sweat, whispered in her ear, pressed my forehead against hers when the moans got sharp.

During one moment in particular I drank in the the entire room. Women in motion like synchronized chaos, the rise and fall of voices with every push, the counting and cheering, the use of bars and pulleys and mirrors, my mom’s steady breathing cues, the beep-beep-bop of the computer screen, 126, 126, 127, everything’s good, everything’s great, the empty IV and the nurse who replaced it, Mel and Ray scrunched beside me- sharing Dani’s leg, patting my shoulder, locking eyes with us both.

I wanted to spread myself across the entire room. I wanted to stand at the foot of the bed so I could catch my baby and at the head of the bed so I could hold Dani’s hand in case she needed to break my fingers. And weirdly, I wanted to huddle up with the doctors when they whispered among themselves. And when two nurses rushed out of the room and returned with antibiotics I wanted to drift over to the corner where I could lock arms with both moms and we could all clench our helpless teeth in unison.

That’s when an unexpected inkling arose. “Hey wow,” I thought, “this is WAY too much to absorb!” That was the whole revelation but the revelation kept growing throughout the entire delivery. Every push, every trail of blood, every tuft of baby hair that widened into a baby head- it was all fraught with such precarious, miraculous life-and-death intensity that it stole my ability to cry. It stole my ability to laugh. All I could do when my son burst through was nothing- but gasp in helpless, flabbergasted wonder.

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Look. I’m not the kind of guy to get swallowed up in a moment. I’m the kind of guy who swallows up the moments. I jump forward or backward in my mind if the present moment can’t live up to it’s billing. Or, if I must remain present, I try to infuse it with craftier beer or unexpected thrills or anything to make it pop.

Usually the only time I’m fully in the moment is when something happens that I didn’t see coming. Like a truck, in the opposite direction. That’s when I feel my heart pulsing in my forehead and the cold skin of my palms against the wheel. That’s when I notice how gentle the threads of my jeans are when I jerk my foot to the break, when the rumble stripe rumbles, when the back-draft whips my hair while I recover. That’s when I’m in the moment.

But the birth of my son turned out to be a big enough moment to consume me. I felt every sensation you could imagine- just as screechy as if my sedan was careening across the highway.

We’re home now and I’d be back in control of all my moments if that delivery room didn’t change me. Unfortunately, my son is already teaching me about the sacred nature of ordinary moments. For example: what if it isn’t only the spectacular moments that are too much for me? Like, what if every moment, however mundane, has more life gurgling within it than I could absorb? My kid sure makes it seem possible.

I’ve been thinking about those mundane moments as I watch him. Over the last 12 days he’s been nestled in the crook of my arm, gazing up with the exact foggy-eyed wonder that crossed my eyes in the delivery room. And just like the delivery room was for me; now all of my sons gas cramps are alive and immediate and overwhelming.

Which is how I felt when he came to life. It’s been reverberating in my bones like existential vertigo. But it got me thinking about how often Jesus riffed on the mysterious Kingdom of God- how it’s present and distant and inside and outside and already and not yet. And for a brief flash the Kingdom of God sounded to me like the mundane moments of everyday life.

That’s when I thought of Martha and Mary and how Jesus jived with Mary’s mundane life but questioned Martha’s. If that’s a valid litmus test for faith then perhaps true spirituality is nothing more than to witness the moment-by-moment unfolding of life, to accept our cradles in the cosmos, and to receive each inexplicable moment as a treasure which can only be partially explored.

That sounds too easy. And maybe it is? I’ve been watching my son and I’ve noticed that his secret for living in the moment is his helplessness. It’s precisely the fact that he cannot change his own diapers that keeps his senses bright while I do it for him. If he could do it himself it would just be another forgettable shit.

But nobody springs for the “I’m helpless” paradigm. I don’t. (Who knows, maybe that’s why I need a truck to barrel toward me to feel alive these days.)

What I do know is that an elegant relationship is already forming as a result of my son’s helplessness. He needs me and I find him irresistible. We both live in the moment, his needs get met and my love swells, he learns to trust while I learn to be attentive.

I hope me and him go on like this forever! I’m the luckiest. :)

Will God Take Care of Us?

Last month Dean told the story of his friend who fell off a roof in Malta and of a God who did nothing to save him. This post is my reply. It’s an old story from the summer of 1995 when I was a 14 year old infant, still pre-puberty, still ripe to believe.

Keep in mind as you read this story that one year earlier, on the opposite side of the globe, the Rwandan genocide stole 800,000 lives in 100 days of slaughter. Meanwhile, I lived in a tiny farming community in Western New York with my dad and mom and my two little sisters Melody and Micaela.

For eight idyllic summers my dad was the pastor of our purple-steepled-country-bumpkin church. Mister Barney’s pigs lived at the top of our green sloped backyard and every few days we carried a slop-bucket of egg shells and onion skins to treat them. Money was tight, but aside from clipping spaghetti sauce coupons and forcing ourselves to switch brands from week to week, our existence was a spring-bird’s song.

I never lost any sleep about the Hutu extremists who used machine guns and machetes to slay members of the minority Tutsi community. I didn’t even know that an ID card stamped “Hutu” was the only item that could save a man from constant terror, from hiding his family under a bed or fleeing for safety in the night. In my creek-bed community, the nightmare of neighbors killing neighbors, of women captured and kept as sex slaves, of husbands slicing the throats of their off-ethnic wives; that kind of fright was beyond the scope of my imagination. So too, was a God who might look the other way.

But God came into question in my own ordinary story the following summer when dad resigned his sturdy pulpit and my adolescent life plunged into chaos. Until then our evenings had been predictable. Dad prayed over the pasta as it steamed up to heaven. I squinted at my sisters through the steam. They complained, “Hey mom, Matt’s peeking!” and I pinched their palms in reply.

Sometimes after bedtime mom’s voice might spill under our bedroom doors. Her worries were as soft as the hallway light and dad’s voice was low and steady in reply. However muted their voices, phrases like “empty grocery budget” and “another tough church board meeting” kept slipping into the galaxy of my open black bedroom. But we all kept warm in our beds with the safety of ourselves and the hills and the slow moving life that came one faithful day at a time.

Until the Board Meeting when dad spontaneously resigned. That fateful Tuesday night was the first moment when grown-up uncertainty struck me in the chest. I remember staring out the window toward the cow speckled twilight, tears in my eyes, wondering if I would ever see such deep green grass for the rest of my life. It seems obtuse to fuss about it now. But when I was 14 I had no inkling to interrogate a God who permitted milk cows to moo praises in nearby pastures while Rwandan orphans, covered in their mother’s blood, wept. To my cozy palate, the resignation of my father, and the 100 anxious days that followed, were enough to unhinge me from the hope that God was good and that God would take care of my family.

When my father resigned he came home with a flushed face and said “We’ve got three months to get out!” To this day I’m uncertain if mom knew in advance of his resignation. But with that singular revelation our house ceased to be our home and reverted back to “the church’s parsonage.” I kept delivering slop buckets to the pigs, same as always, but there were only so many slop buckets until we had to leave town. It was the end of civilization as I knew it.

A plan materialized anyway. We would move to the outskirts of Rochester, NY, where a small Pentecostal Bible college was known as an oasis to folks who’d been parched in the desert of ministry. (It even said “Oasis” on the cover of their yearbooks, which dad took as confirmation.)

Dad relocated first for interviews while the rest of us stayed behind to pack. He slept in a tiny dorm at the Bible college but neither the school nor the affiliated church could employ dad, who was educated only for operating tanks in the U.S. Army, for preaching the Bible like a Wesleyan, and for teaching American History like a Pilgrim. Between interviews dad installed cable boxes- which evolved into a full time gig partly on account of Rochester’s limited demand for tank drivers.

Back at the parsonage we packed like the devil was at our backs. You should have seen the sweat on mom’s shoulders. I think that sweat was how the fear found a way to leak out since she couldn’t whisper to dad at night. But every weekend she loaded the girls into the back of our station wagon, she handed me a Rand McNally Atlas and a Rochester PennySaver in which she had pre-highlighted the rental properties, and we set off to hug dad and to secure a new home.

Hugging dad was the easy part because he kept getting skinnier. Finding a home was impossible. “Does it have three bedrooms?” Mom would ask without moving her eyes off the road. “Do they take pets?” I’d nod. “How much?” Her chin might twitch toward me for the crucial question. I remember my fingers on the newsprint, following the line again and again to every awful price-point: $1075. $1250. $1495. $925.

“Too much.” I’d say.

“How much?!”

“$925 a month.”

We didn’t visit houses priced higher than $600 unless we were in the mood to torture ourselves. One house in particular was nothing more than a condemned hunting cabin. The yard was yellow marsh grass, three feet high, barbed wire in the distance. The porch was rotten wet wood and most of the first floor windows were punched out. We only showed up because the landlord took pets and claimed to be negotiable on his $700 ask. Every weekend we visited a dozen equally depressing options: trailer parks, abandoned foreclosures, high crime neighborhoods.

BLOG car1 (1)We always reported back to dad and dad always reminded us that God was preparing an oasis for us. Which is crazy when you think about it. If there ever was a moment to temper your kid’s expectations, this was it. But my parents swung hard the opposite way. Dad believed in an oasis and mom drilled down into the sand to find it.

On one house-hunting expedition mom handed me a pen and a yellow legal pad, she eyed Melody and Micaela in the rear view mirror and announced, “Let’s make a list! We’re gonna tell God our wildest dreams for this new house.”

I gawked and the girls giggled but none of us spoke until mom confessed that she had always wanted a covered porch to watch thundershowers and a dining room for hosting and a deck for dad’s grill. Then she signaled for me to write it down item by item on the legal pad.

Micaela followed mom’s lead by announcing that she had always wanted her own room. At which point Melody exclaimed that she wanted pink wallpaper which I said was ridiculous. I wanted a paved driveway and a real basketball hoop. From there it escalated into one of those Sound of Music sequences where everyone is rosy cheeks and sing-song shouts.

“I want a basement that’s dry!”

“I want a big yard for pets!”

“I want a TWO car garage!”

“I want TWO bathrooms!”

“I want LOTS of kitchen cupboards!”

“I want bay windows with a bench!”

“I want two stories and my bedroom on the second floor!”

Our station wagon cruised up the highway while the summer sun shone down and the ideas kept popping until the legal pad list was three pages long and fifty items deep. We thought of everything but a laundry chute and if we’d thought of it we would have written it down.

Mom was careful to remind us that God was not obligated to our list, that we would maintain an attitude of trust and gratitude regardless of the outcome, and that this was simply an affirmation that God was interested even in our little cares if we would let him be. But still! It felt so dangerous to me. We kept the list on the dashboard in case we thought of something else and I kept a leery eye on it in case it turned into a snake. And if I’d been smart enough to be a cynic back then I might have felt a little selfish too.

Then one Sunday as September crept closer and the long afternoon shadows were promising winter and there was no possibility of any house on the horizon, mom pulled onto the highway toward an address that had appeared in the morning paper with an unlisted price. What was printed in the paper may as well have been a description of the moon: 5 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 acre of land.

Melody and Micaela didn’t seem to realize the disappointment that was about to unfold and I couldn’t bear to tell them. Lately I’d even stopped pinching their hands during mealtime prayer because soon enough they’d have to bow their empty faces into empty plates.

I didn’t notice the paved driveway when we rolled onto it. I saw the basketball hoop but my pulse didn’t rise one tick. What registered was the size of the house and the hulking shadow it cast in the evening sun. It was a giant white box, it could have been a skyscraper, and it stood in a well spaced neighborhood where rollerbladers eased down the lane, waving, until an awning of trees swallowed them up.

A man stood smiling in the driveway. He led us into the house where the air immediately drowned us in an aquarium of cat piss. He rubbed his forehead, he explained that he’d a never rented a house before, that he was moving to Florida, that his wife’s dying cats had expired across all parts of the carpet, and that shucks wouldn’t it be a lot of nasty work to tear up. “Would $650/month be too much to ask?” he wondered aloud.

That one easy comment triggered the springs in my teenage legs. Our legal pad hadn’t even conjured up a house this large and I knew mom and her sweaty shoulders could tear up carpets better than any carpet man who ever lived if she put her mind to it.

I triple jumped to the second floor where Melody was exclaiming that one of the rooms was already pink and Micaela was falling in love with the tiniest room with the cutest windows. And that’s when I saw the laundry chute. Right beside the big bay window bench which overlooked the basketball court. I opened the chute and peeked inside where the wide metal duct ran all the way to the basement which I had not yet visited. It was while my head was in that chute, contemplating all the laundry that I might never have to carry again, that disbelief and belief began to co-mingle through my bloodstream.

I slammed shut the chute and raced to the basement, which was totally dry and which had an extra bedroom for no reason at all. At the back of the house a sliding glass door released me to the biggest wooden deck dad could desire. It overlooked a wide open yard where I opened my stride through the uncut grass like any fourteen year old would do.

The sun was setting and my sisters were squealing behind me. I could feel their energy like the energy of the sunset which was slicing bursts of orange through the deep green shadows stretched out across the lawn. I remember that moment in time with more clarity than any other moment in my life. It was like I was absorbed into something Other, a small particle of an Incomprehensible Whole. I’ve never been so warm before or since and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as close to the Truth as I was at mid-stride on the left side of that house when the tears outraced me, when all I could see in the blinding sunset was the image of that legal pad on the dashboard, no longer a snake and a no longer a gamble, when I believed that no matter how bad everything was that God himself had proved both interest and compassion, and that my family would be safe in September beyond the farm.

We signed the papers at dusk. We ripped out the cat piss carpets. We made a batch of memories I cherish more than others. And then, twelve months later, we moved again.

By then I’d learned about the Rwandan genocide. How the straggling survivors set up camp in Tanzania while I was feeding pigs in my backyard. How the dead were rotting on grave-less dirt while my family was signing for our miracle house. And how when we moved away the following year those ten thousand refugees remained collected in tents, terrified to return home.

It haunted me. Where was God in Africa, you know? He rarely seems predictable when you compare stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe our house was a miracle. All I’m saying is that I don’t understand God. But what I am confident of is that my mom could have accidentally careened us all over a gorge on the way to that house without ruining the miracle at all.

Because the real miracle was something else entirely.

The real miracle was that in the midst of our (mild) suffering my parents took an unlikely posture. They made no demands or negotiations. They rolled up their sleeves by day and their prayers by night and they understood exactly how tall they stood among the stars. They taught us that it’s best to believe in a God who cares. That no matter the stakes, no matter the outcome, if we’re human and we’re breathing we always have an opportunity to look for God in our pain.

I suspect some Tutsis held such a perspective throughout the entire Rwandan genocide. If so, I wonder what they might understand about God that we don’t. I don’t understand why the genocide was so brutal, or why the Bible School never hired my dad, or why my sister-in-law was killed by a drunk driver, or why one of my best friends quit speaking to me without explanation.

I still ask God those questions in the same way mom taught me. I hold them up in the air. Usually nothing happens. But usually I stop feeling alone.

Let’s Have a Baby! (Matt’s Side of the Story)

Click here for Dani’s side of the story!

So, out of the blue Dani decides she wants a baby.

Look. You’ve got to understand. Dani does NOT want a baby. She’s told me a million times. She’s told me in the car. She’s told me in the kitchen. She’s told me in bed while the candles are lit. She’s even told me while using that weird hot thing to straighten her hair.

She always says the same thing. She says, “Matt, I love our life. We can do anything we want. I don’t ever want to change that. Is that OK? Is it OK if we never have kids? Can you imagine how hard kids would be?”

Nobody believes me when I tell them that. NOBODY BELIEVES ME!

They’re all like, “Yeah, yeah, sure Matt, but she really wants a baby.” Or they look at me like they know, and they say, “Ah, it’s a security thing. How much money did you say you make?” That one always stings a little. Or they say something like, “That’s impossible. Women want babies. What did you do to her?”

After a while you start to wonder about your wife. And women in general. Like, can they ever be understood? They seem to have a crypto-security-program running in their heads that keeps you from figuring out basic stuff like why they randomly stopped drinking coffee right after you bought them a new coffee maker, or why they threw out your leftovers from Outback after only four days in the fridge, or why they stopped wanting to have sex with you right in the middle of having sex with you.

prenatal pillsOperating with slightly outdated information all the time tends to make a guy feel a little dumber every day. Especially with how the women explain the new information to you. It sort of feels like it was always out there in the Universe to be had, but somehow you lacked the mental acuity to snatch it up.

Anyway, the point is, that’s why it rattled me when Dani said she wanted a baby.

I remember it. It was in the morning. She was looking out a window. She turned to me, easy as pancakes, and she said, “I think I want a baby.”

Now, usually, I need to dig into statements like that. I like to know where they’re coming from. But I got overwhelmed by the coolness of the news. I started envisioning a fat white mini-me who wanted me to teach him how to eat his eggs and how to shovel snow and how to be a man.

And then I started feeling proud of myself for hanging tough through the indecipherability. Like I deserved some credit for Dani’s change of heart. I had wanted a baby for a year and never once been pushy. I stayed sweet and gentle and kind, you know, like how I am, and I kept hoping that the sweetness strategy would change her mind before her uterus petered out. So when she finally said it, I jumped up, ran over to the window that she was looking out of, and I hugged her tight. All I said was, “Really? You really want a baby?”

And she said yes. And she had tears in her eyes. She said she was even more happy now than before, and that life was finally feeling normal, and that she was very proud of my writing, and that it was time.

And she’s kept saying that for the past few weeks. She even started looking for houses to buy. She bought those prenatal vitamins and everything. And on Easter she set those vitamins real prominently in the bathroom so one of our moms would find them when they came over. Sure enough, my mom found the vitamins and came out of the bathroom holding them behind her back.

There was an eruption of delight and both of our families were kind of staring back and forth at each other with a mixture of joy and relief. A few people were muttering things like “finally” and “I thought it’d never happen” and “no way.”

After everyone left I started to get a weird feeling in my gut. It sort of hit me like it hit me when the leftovers went missing. Like, “Hey… I wanted those leftovers.” But it was different. It was like,”Hey… how come when YOU want a baby all at once we’re storming the baby-making castle.”

And I told her that. And she said it was kind of a dumb way to think about it. But then we had sex for practice, so everything was OK in the end.

Click here for Dani’s side of the story!