Sunday, 22 April 2012

Miscellaneous Advice to Myself, Aged 17

  • Chicken and chocolate will always give you enjoyment.  They will never let you down.  Also, ice cream.
  • Emile Durkheim wrote many decades ago about what he called "anomie" in modern society.  He wrote a book called "On Suicide" also.  He felt that "anomie" is that condition of being anonymous, of being completely disconnected from the normal social groups that used to be such a natural part of society.   Of walking down a street and not knowing a single person and not having a single person know you either, and that being unlikely to change.  He felt that there needs to be a balance for a healthy life.  He felt that suicides tend to looked at as individual anomalies, but should be looked at in terms of which societies produce the most.  He wrote that suicide seems most often to result either from people  feeling completely disconnected from everyone around, or equally from the other extreme: feeling like a gear in a watch, so wedged in you can't even breathe or move unless everyone else decides it's time to, and then only with them and in the same direction.  You, my younger self, suffer from both extremes. In your teenaged, highschool social life, you suffer the former.  In your Christian/church/youth group life, you suffer the latter.  That means suicide is always going to be a problem.  Don't do it.  Leave that up to the other people from your church organization who will eventually succumb to it.  Make connections with people outside your church and youth group whenever possible, and continue to "move" within that church and youth group, even if others feel it threatens to spring all of the gears out if you don't do and be exactly what you're expected to.
  • People around you are going to waste most of their lives and as much of your time as possible in "us vs. them" battles and thinking.  The problem is, you aren't ever going to be us nor them, so actually have no real vested interest in all of that.   Connection is the point, and "me vs. them" isn't going to give you that.
  • Many of those things that you are learning to do? (loading, setting up and using a manual SLR film camera with exchangeable lenses; programming a computer; assembling entire computers from bits; researching stuff in a library; reading a handful of books a week,  writing spelling and typo-free stuff and then knowing how to address and mail that stuff to people in different parts of the world?) When you're middle-aged, teenagers won't know how to do that stuff in near the same numbers.  Mostly they will be used to pressing a button on a screen, saying "go" and then hoping it all magically does what they need it to, and giving up entirely if the magic box isn't in a good mood.
  • You can disagree with and oppose someone else's statements, views, positions, plans, rules, criticisms and judgments without even bothering to construct a bulletproof argument against them, or saying a single word.  A blank, closed look should suffice.  They are unlikely to listen to you anyway, and in many cases don't feel obligated to have a bulletproof argument to have said, decided or started what they have done, so why do you need one?
  • Graphic designers who have designed the cover art for horror movies and hard rock albums have not got evil all figured out.  You have little to fear from these movies and albums.  Contrary to what you have been taught, these are not all satanists trying to get converts.  Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons, Meat Loaf, Pete Townsend and Keith Richards?  None of them are satanists.  Many of them do not even believe in Satan. You have been repeatedly lied to concerning these gentlemen.  Also: wear as much black as you like.  Just because it's the 80s does not mean you have to wear pastel, paisley, pinstriped or neon anything.
  • You will be depressed a lot, so you need some good depressed music to make you feel better, to make you feel how universal your experience is.  That's "depressed," not "depressing," so not Abba, Barry Manilow, John Denver, Neil Diamond and the like.  Like most British singers, their voices are reedy, nasal and whiny, but listen to The Cure to hear Robert Smith making swirling, beautiful maelstroms of sadness with coruscating guitar effects, and Pink Floyd's Animals, The Wall, Wish You Were Here and even Dark Side of the Moon to hear arty lyrics which refer to books you've read like 1984, and provide a deep understanding of what it feels like to find growing up very lacking in the spirit and soul-nourishing department.  Maybe some Smiths, too.  There is no satanism involved in those last three artists, though I can't vouch for the former list.
  • The night is awesome.  Go walk under the moon and stars in the country every opportunity you get.  Look up until it feels like you could fall into the sky, until the earth feels tiny and fragile.  In fact, every time you're depressed, walk for hours.  It provides relief.  And you hate the sun.  Always have, always will.  Your body can make and retain an impressive amount of heat, even in the coldest of Canadian winters.  It doesn't understand how to get rid of heat if the sun is shining.  Walking at night means anonymity, and not having the sun beat down on one.
  • Know what makes you happy.  (see: chicken and chocolate.  Also: the night.  And stories with heroes in them, things with blades, taking pictures and video, recording or playing music, cats and dogs, and lighting things on fire). Stand by what makes you happy and respond with condescension or annoyance to anyone who tries to cast aspersions on "how edifying for a Christian" the things you see excellence or joy in really are.
  • Know what doesn't make you happy and stand behind that too.  Then see below when people insist "How can you NOT like hockeysportslotterypokergreenbeansvolleyballrugbyshirtsterrencetrentdarbypaislypastelpolochurchthebeachboys?!"
  • You are not one of the crowd.  Whenever someone says you must play a game or sing a song or wear a shirt or show up at an event, and that you must like it and will like it, because 'everyone's doing it,' tell them this: "I am not one of the crowd.  That's not the sort of thing that makes me happy, so I'm not going to do it.  I have a pretty fair idea of what I like and what I do not like, and that isn't going to cut it.  You are quite wrong about me enjoying it, once I've given it a chance, so I won't be giving it one.  Now go away and bother someone else."  And then wait for them to do so, preferably with a blank stare.  This is guaranteed to make you plenty of new friends.
  • You are going to make a lot of people unhappy, and you are going to waste a huge amount of time in first asking people what they'd like you to do, and in then not doing it. At all.  It's going to make them angry, so assume that's going to happen and act differently.  Do this: Whenever you're talking to someone, see if you can figure out what they want of you, what would make them happy.  Then you can be sure you're being purposeful about letting them down when you, most times, do not do what you know would make them happy, but which, instead, seems best to you.  When people are angry with you, you need to know that you knew how to make them happy and did this on purpose, rather than that you are a screw up who has no idea how to make others happy.
  • Avoid boring, friendless, personalityless people.  They will be desperate for friends alright, but will have nothing of interest to offer a friendship.  If someone bleeds beige, do not become blood brothers with that person on any account.
  • You need lots of sleep and lots of dreaming time.  Pay attention to your dreams.  They will tell you things you don't dare know when you are awake.
  • For any modern thing you like, go find the roots of where it came from, be it a story, a movie, a book or a song.  What were the influences on the people who made it?  You can be influenced by the same people and do different stuff, dipping in the same well as your favourite stuff.
  • If you find anyone smart who isn't a dickhead, talk to them.  They are hard to find.
  • Many of the girls you like who won't talk to you?  In fifteen years they will be very, very fat, with butch haircuts.
  • Decide which girls in the school you like the looks of and smile and greet each one.  Girls like to be smiled at.  They don't like guys wanting stuff.  Don't want anything they have.  Taste them like a man taking a sip, and then be ready to move on.  Just smile at them and greet them and tell them their fashion choices, hairdo or makeup is working, and that they look good.  And then walk away to show you don't want anything.  Will make them try to be wanted, all the more.
  • You live in farm country so you can't be a goth, really, but if you lived in a city, you would be. Goths aren't all satanists either, even though they don't dress like Gap models who are youth pastors.
  • The language, clothing and music your parents object to?  They are objecting to nothing deeper than its vehemence, its passion, its colorfulness and its heart-felt directness.  You are living in a church culture of indirect, grey, euphemistic mundanity nested inside a national culture of indirect, grey, euphemistic mundanity  Know that simply avoiding certain words or guitar rigs or drum beats simply isn't going to be enough.  If you are frank or deep, intense, passionate or certain, you are going to make everyone angry and uncomfortable.
  • Your kneecaps are just like that.  They will go out of joint if they get the chance and it will hurt.  You don't need surgery and they won't get worse, but they are like that.
  • You think a whole lot of things, really, really fast.  You are seeing connections, big picture and relationships between things that other people either are missing entirely or don't see the point in pondering.  This means you talk way too much, way too fast, about way too many things.  The bigger the group you find yourself talking to, the less any one person should have to say.  Talking to people one or two at a time is the way to go, and try to take it easy on them as to speed and volume of thoughts and connections.  They will want you medicated anyway.  When you want your thoughts to slow down, you use TV and books.  That works, but these are solitary pursuits.
  • You don't need your glasses to read, so take them off when you do.  Because you can.
  • Don't bother trying to like stringbeans or the other vegetables you can't like.  It's not worth it.  
  • Don't bother trying to get into enjoying working out in a gym.  That's not going to happen.  Take long, frequent walks, with hills and rough terrain.  Eventually that becomes hiking.  And it gets you off the couch without putting you in a sweaty, humid room full of shallow people stinking and looking in mirrors and making grunting sounds with red faces.
  • Bother to floss your teeth once a week.  This will be worth it, once you're thirty.
  • apart from your family, pretty much none of the people who are in your life right now will be in it still in five years time.
  • People generally don't understand you when you talk, when you think, when you feel, when you live.  You do not have the time to waste in waiting a moment before doing any of those things, hoping someday they will.
  • Rubbermaid tubs with lids are awesome.  Better than cardboard boxes.
  • Don't worry about becoming an alcoholic should you ever try alcohol and get drunk.  You have pretty much zero talent as a drunk, let alone an alcoholic.  No potential at all, really.  You are too much of a control freak to allow yourself to enjoy anything that much.
  •  notice family and friends who clearly enjoy crapping on your Cornflakes time and time again. People who are jogging your elbow when you're trying to steer the car that is your life.  Put up big boundaries they can't ignore and maintain those.  Stop letting them do this.
  • nobody's "got" you, so you'll have to make sure you're okay your ownself.
  • Guitar.  Get one.  You can learn it.  Do that.
  • Don't try to be like "everyone else."  You can't.
  • Do whatever you want with your hair.
  • God refuses to make most of our life decisions for you.  Don't try to make Him.  You will lose that game of chicken.
  • women are different from men in quite a few ways.  They resent us needing to admit we need to remember to treat them differently than we treat each other, but of course they insist upon being treated differently than we treat each other.
  • reducing complex issues to supposed black/white, right/wrong questions is idiocy.  There are not only shades of grey, there are also colours.
  • do not confuse longing for love.  Connecting is love.
  • generalizing is seeing patterns so you don't have to treat each situation and person as something you know nothing about, every time.  It's one of your best things.
  • There are leaders and there are followers.  You aren't either of those.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Christianity: The Musical

  I'm writing this because stuff got me thinking this Easter weekend about another one of those big divides down the center of Christianity: the people who want to sit in a silent, solemn, private kind of reverent worship, and those who want something a bit more like...Glee. Almost impossible for me not to be snarky about the latter style of worshiping, and for this one blog entry at least, I am going to indulge the snark.  My goal is to convey vividly what the grass on that side of the fence smells like from over here.
  There's an online discussion forum I used to be on all the time ( which was the first place I heard this difference described as "happy, clappy" worship vs. "smells and bells."  My upbringing (moderately Exclusive Plymouth Brethren) was a lot like Quakers and Mennonites and groups like that as to what is now termed "worship style."  (We were supposed to show up each Sunday to the Only Right Church to Attend.  We didn't get to pick which church, based on which one made US happy, and we didn't get to have a worship style).  We were "smells and bells" as to quietness and reverence, but were taking it a step further and not having any actual candles, incense or bells.  Kinda zen, actually.
  There were quiet, reverent, slow, sad songs, a few verses of scripture were read, and the bread and the wine were out every week, because Sunday ("Lord's Day" we were always corrected if we thoughtlessly said something like "We're not allowed to run around outside today because it's Sunday") was the start to your week.  Lord's Day was the heart of your Christian life.  It was about death.  Well, resurrection too, in theory (maybe mentioned at the end of the service) but it was really about death.  Christ had to suffer and die to fix up the problems that we made.  His pain and suffering were our fault, and we were supposed to sit and feel bad and maybe grateful about that.  Both "emblems" (bread, wine) were about the death.  The flesh and blood of Jesus.  We had a life that came from death.  That's what's called "substitutiary atonement." (or "substitutionary atonement")  I only recently found out many Christians don't believe that's what the crucifixion was all about.  (I already knew superatheist Christopher Hitchens had a big problem with that doctrine.)
  I remember being at a youth group function on an 80s Saturday night and starting to play the theme from Chariots of Fire on a piano in a corner of the living room of an older couple who had invited us all to their house to do our "sitting and being lectured by a youth pastor who wasn't called a youth pastor, followed by eating junk food and standing around awkwardly, not swearing or mentioning television, movies, music or anything worldly like that" Saturday night thing.  The old man winced at the rowdy, flamboyant irreverence of this song even though I was playing it very softly and said "Boys, just a few hours it will be the LORD'S DAY..."
  Rebuked, we retreated to the bowl of Cheezies and got more R.C. Cola. I was the sort of kid who was just as angry as embarrassed about stuff like this, feeling that the old guy was being weird but also feeling just as awkward as if I'd actually done something I truly believed was in any way inappropriate. I felt like when you were judged or corrected, it should matter whether you'd actually done something wrong or not, but I knew that, as to group dynamics, it really, really didn't.  The first person to find something to feel offended about, won.  Every time.  It was a "tender conscience contest."
  Thing is, when worship "worked" for me of a Sunday morning (that is, when I felt like there was a genuine connection between God and me, like He was appreciating what I was doing, and me right back at Him), it was like meditation.  I guess it was meditation.  It was me going to a tranced out, very silent, very inner place and being still in there and feeling harmoniously connected to the Source of All Things, in capital letters, which I believed was only possible because of what Jesus had done on earth.  And as for the teary, sobby readings of scripture by a few earnest, sweatingly obese men, or the dusty, dry as papyrus meandering meditations of quivering old codgers? All of that was going on outside me and didn't do much to help or hinder what I was doing deep in the one part of my heart where I was encouraged to feel things.  The "reverence/shame/gratitude/awe" part.  You know, way over on the other side of the heart far away from the "gleeful/passionate/proud/giddy" side.
  And we were "plain" like Quakers, Amish and Mennonites.  Our clothes were muted and patternless, in many cases (business casual being the most casual we got, with many wearing ill-fitting, out of fashion suits they only wore for church as they were farmers or lawn equipment salesmen or plumbers or furnace repair men during the week).  It was quiet.   There was no stained glass (just frosted or pebbled glass in some of the windows in some "meeting halls.")  There were no musical instruments, not even an organ or piano.  We just had someone start singing the hymn he'd suggested we sing (or a more musical man would help a brotha out) and we'd all join in and sing, badly, slowly and quietly, along with.  There was no pastor.  There was an undefined, unofficial but all-powerful group of older men who quietly ran things.  They also swept the basement floors and cut the grass.  Apart from the ceiling fans, the heating and the telephone, there was nary an electric or electronic thing in the whole building, which was normally a converted house.  In a few cases, it was a plained up church, with all the crosses and stuff removed.  Some people even held church services in their living rooms.  This didn't change things much, although if people actually lived in the house, they suddenly had much more "say" in things like where chairs went and what time things started.

(I'd put a picture here of a Brethren Sunday Morning worship service, but I can't imagine anyone would bring or get out a camera during the service.  If anyone emails me one, I'll put it up.  Seriously.  I just Google image searched and came up empty.  It was even less likely someone would photograph the Sunday proceedings than they would a funeral.   Imagine a room with people in suits, women in dresses and hats, sitting in plain chairs which are all turned inward toward a table in the exact center of the room, with a loaf of unsliced bakery bread on it, and a pitcher of red wine with a glass to pour it into. And then picture big spaces between hymns and bible reading in which you were easily able to hear the clock ticking, shoes squeaking, and the occasional explosive cough.  Like a Buddhist temple when monks are meditating. 'Cause we were.)

  When I went to Catholic weddings or funerals, or various functions held in old-style churches, my Brethren Bigotry Training worked perfectly and kept me from being able to connect to or respect those very different forms of worship which were not as well suited to what I knew I needed in order to get my faith on.  I tut-tutted at all the gold, expensive stained glass and vaulted ceilings of the buildings ("drawing attention to themselves rather than focusing on God)" and spending all of this money so they could worship proudly while people starved a few blocks away.  I wondered about the benefit of a powerful organ, and how anyone thought it could "praise" God in its heart, and what it had to do with anything.   I was self-righteous about the uniformly effeminate men who stood on raised platforms, facing an audience, wearing robes and surrounded by candles and incense, pretending, I thought to myself, that none of this was about them, that this was not the most blatant way a human being could draw attention onto himself, short of actually being Jon Bon Jovi, at a Bon Jovi concert. "Just look at how they've aimed the chairs.  Every eye and mind is to be on him," I'd think. These guys didn't sit with us.  They came in, stage left or right, and took up a superior, elevated place, and then left in the same manner.  It looked like they insisted on being physically, socially and spiritual viewed as above and beyond.
  And then as I grew older I saw, with the advent of the Internet and its YouTube windows into the private worship, family, pet and porn lives of humans everywhere, what "contemporary Christian worship" was like.   I grew biliously greener at what I saw was on the other side of the fence.  I was appalled.  It looked like a bad Amy Grant concert.  It was DisneyGod.  It was McChurch Happy Meals, I felt.  Before Miley Cyrus, The Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber, it was all of the things they now are, and once they hit the scene, it actually took inspiration from them.  Worship wasn't inner meditation, it was a loud, garish SHOW.  A concert. It wasn't for God at all anymore; it was for people.  Young people.  For their enjoyment and catharsis and entertainment.  I'd attended church and been lectured on avoiding worldly entertainment.  These guys went to church to get it, and if it wasn't a good show, they'd go elsewhere.  Like customers who didn't like the daily special at a restaurant.  Where we'd been taught we were showing up to "meet God" in the only place He was going to be each Sunday in our town, they seemed to be picking and choosing places where they could enjoy the show.

Just as my response to the elevated guy in the dress with the candles, smoke and polished glass had been to find him extremely witchy, wizardly-in-a-pedophile-way creepy, inevitably my response to the "high school glee club" style of worship with its "teenage love song" hymns was to snicker nastily.  I couldn't help it.  And I didn't feel good about it.  But that's where my heart went, and with time it only got worse.
  I wasn't ready for churches where people talked throughout the service, where kids were running around while worship was going on, where people wore shorts and jeans, where girls wore lots of makeup and jewelry, showing up in yoga pants, displaying valley of the shadow of death plunges of cleavage, where people sat and drank coffee and took innumerable iPhone videos of their "worship team" during the service and put it on YouTube and generally Facebooked, blogged and tweeted about church during church.  Church for them was, as I've said, a concert and multimedia event to be documented.  It also seemed like an infomercial for Jesus, rather than a connection to him.  People sang and listened to pastors talk about us and how we felt about Jesus, instead of singing and praying to and with Jesus.  Like a fan club.  For me, "spiritual" was something you'd not be able to video or post on Facebook.  It happened in the person's spirit, and it was about stillness.
  I thought that if people didn't know about talking to God quietly, in their own heads, in their own rooms, that all their electronic hooha was going to simply show off what big Jesus fans they claimed to be, rather than allow anyone to connect to him without aid of lit-up screens.  In my church, which I didn't like much either because of the cold, ruthless judgment done to me and trained into me, Sunday morning was supposed to be quiet, intimate time spent with God, and there wasn't anything else going on.  You took away everything but you and God, and you dealt with Him, undistracted by your electronics or anything else.  You knew some of the other people there were talking to God too, and you could talk to them about it afterward, but during the service? No, that was private time.  I knew that modern worship apparently really, really worked for some people, they enthusiastically blogged, but it just made me giggle.  Nastily.  And I still couldn't feel good about that.
  The worst thing about it, the deal-breaker in terms of me EVER being able to imagine worshiping in this "new to me" kind of church?  The noise.  The constant, unrelenting noise.  You were lucky if you had twenty seconds to go to a meditative place in your head.  And during that time, people were sipping their pungent coffee confections next to you, laughing(!) at something someone had whispered to them, fiddling with the patch cords of their electric guitars and having their phones go off and apologizing, then still taking the call, heading for a quiet alcove. And they didn't even "do" the bread and wine every week.  Once a month, in many cases.  They seemed to be putting forth a gushingly emotive, painless, deathless, bloodless Life of Christ.  Sanitized sanctity.  Plasticized PowerPoint praise. I couldn't connect.  I couldn't not judge.
  There are lines of distinction that you can choose to draw or not draw, depending upon if you think said distinctions are important and good.  My church drew a line between publicly telling other people about our spirituality (which we were pretty bad at, actually) on the one hand and privately practicing it ourselves., on the other  Worship was as private and special as sex.  Not for spectators.  For the initiated only.  There were other events designed to bring noobs to.  Multimedia churches were all about spectacle, and turned every potential worshiper into a spectator, it seemed to me.  And I've never even been to an American megachurch with escalators, gift shops and Starbucks. Because you know what?  I'd feel pretty much exactly the same there as your average atheist would.  (Except with a more invested and personalized anger at how they were screwing up public understanding of my faith and trivializing and commercializing it)
  So it's Easter.  Facebook is teeming with statuses about how awesome everyone's church's multimedia-focused, amplified, smoke and mirrors mystical Easter stuff is this year.  It sounds to me like this: 

Me, Me MEEE*I* love!  
*I* just really, really LOVE!
It defines ME as a person and I'm just so proud to be ME and love!  
as much *I* do!!! I just LIVE to tell others about how much I love!  
My being a Christian is awesome and is the only interesting thing about me!!
Who was he, you ask?
Someone who loves ME, that's who! Me, Me MEEE

  Thing is, I've been reading the bible. And I know that Jesus wasn't cheerful and positive.  I know he wasn't always tactful and kind.  He didn't merely call the Pharisees a bunch of sons of bitches like you or I might, if we weren't too Christian to use language of the kind that Christ used.  He called them the offspring (sons) of vipers.  That's kind of grosser, I think.  And counts as name-calling and insulting their mothers.  I know he was actually controversial and didn't preface his views with things like "The pharisees? Well, I really hate to be negative, but I just really, really think (and I'm wording this as positively as I can, so bear with me) that, and I'm sorry if anyone's offended by this,..."  I know he wasn't an affluent white man, nor a white hippie granola type. I know he wasn't American.  I know he wasn't a Christian.  I know he didn't give seminars on how to raise your kids right for God.  I know he didn't support a political party.  I know he didn't write a book about how to balance the budget in a Christ-centred home.  I know he sang psalms with his friends, but I have trouble imagining Peter opening his guitar case and tuning up, though I know there have been musical instruments as long as there have been people.  (And rocks.)  I'm not used to being seated "face front" with people on stages, or raised platforms, amplified and PowerPointing and multimedia-ing about how much THEY love!
I'm not used to the teenage love song style hymns with the 7-11 lyrics (same seven words sung eleven times), like an indoctrinating genre of sugary, feelgood pop music with chanting and clapping.
  I don't want to show people how awesome my church building is, and have them meet my pastor, whose warm humility is so beautifully at odds with how very much importance we give him, causing us to give him more importance still, just for being so humble about being the center of everything.  I don't want to blast my gooey feelings about being a Christian and loving! 
 all over the Internet.

  I'm not saying I'm right.  I'm not claiming to be a role model for anyone.  I'm not saying my attitude is great.  I'm saying exactly how I really feel, though, with no sugar-coating or lies. I'm saying where I am. Like Job, I believe in doing that. Also like Job, I believe that telling people to cheer up and get on with it and stop questioning things can cause them, as he said, to lose their fear (respect, understanding of the true power and position) of God. The path to God is going deep, not being perky and positive, in my one-sided experience.
  People ask me "Why can't you just" (always a suspicious start to any sentence) "get over yourself and just enjoy Jesus with us?  Aren't you a Christian?!  Why can't you just go to church and act like one?!"  (the "justs" are being used, as they often are, as conversational lubricant which hopes to quickly slide completely unexamined concepts straight up your ass before you've had time to ask any questions) And I want to ask them "Are you willing to enjoy Jesus with me in quietness, with extended periods of silence?  Sitting beside me instead of facing me from a raised stage, sitting close enough to whisper to me if you need to interrupt my quiet meditation to tell me something, and not needing a wireless headset mic and P.A.?  Are you willing to worship Jesus without a laptop and lighting rig?  Are you willing to reach for a deep, personal, intimate, quiet experience and then not use every bit of information technology handy to announce how much YOU love! worshiping!
  What does "loving Jesus" mean?  The imprint of my upbringing and my genetics and my life choices are all over me, and I'm not merely wanting to condemn the Girly Glee "I'm SO high! (on Jesus) right now that I need to tell the whole world!  I'm tripping balls! on Him!" or "Pastor Evan! was SO anointed with the spirit and on fire (for the Lord) this morning during our Extreme Spirit ChristJam, and he's so humble and real also" style of Christianity.  I'm not content to merely judge.  I'm asking, very quietly and seriously and sincerely, "How come when I don't get into what you're doing, you doubt I am even really a Christian and try to question I know God at all?  I don't get what you're doing either.  And I expect you're sincere.  Is that okay?" 
  I am not an exuberant person. I am not a teenage girl.  I am unsentimental about most group-oriented activities, protocols and symbols.  I am picky about lyrics.  I am more of a troubled artist than an appreciative audience and I'm more of a seeker than a believer. Nothing's good enough for me to stop trying to improve upon it.  I'm always searching for something better and deeper.  I still haven't found what I'm looking for either, Bono.
  I look at my Christian past and present with more sobered re-evaluation of it than starry-eyed reminiscence about it.  A church person from my past came onto Facebook yesterday to tell me that, you know what?  What I really needed was to stop being hung up on the past.  I told him that what we all need (those of us with this past, especially) is to stop always trying to fix one another and start accepting each other. Start assuming that growth is happening in people, and that they're on it, and that they don't need us to shoulder our way in and tell them what we think only we can see needs changing immediately. Like not enjoying church.  "We can FIX that!" they want to cry.  Maybe it ain't broke.
  I am not new to church.  I am tired of it.  I am not looking for an awesome new church.  I have been repeatedly screwed over by Christians, regardless of church affiliation.  Lies, slander and the good old "we're pretending you've died" Christian tactic.  I routinely enjoy atheists more.  But I know lots of Christians and I want to know more.  I want to meet all the ones I can connect to in any way.  But, I want them to be willing to talk to me with their own brains and words, and even acknowledge me when they are more than ten yards away from a pastor of some sort.  Like atheists can.  Is that okay? 
  It's gotten to the point where I find myself discussing western Christianity as if it were a religion completely separate from anything I believe.   That religion has cast me out and I feel like it's time for me to disown it as well.  I follow Christ, not Christians.  Obviously, even putting that distinction into words pisses people off.
  I believe Christ came to earth to show us how God wanted human beings to be, like a Father teaching his daughter how to dance by dancing Himself, to the same song.  I believe that we are to be like him, as best as we can, living with the same spirit and attitude that he had, though our job is a bit different than his was in many ways.  I believe we are to be "agents" for him, representatives who do what he probably would have done, say what he probably would have said, in situations where, really, he needs to be present but isn't and we're all there is.
  I'm living a life and figuring out more and more about that stuff each month.  And more and more, Christianity seems to be about itself and not about Christ. More and more I find that acting like Jesus makes Christians act like Pharisees toward one.  (regular folk just act like Romans, who don't really get it, but don't mind it until it causes political complications, in which case they want to start crucifying people).    It's troubling, but all that stuff in the bible which draws a sharp line of distinction between "the world/society/the age" on the one hand and being a Christian who is misunderstood and attacked by said status quo on the other is nowadays really about "the Christian community" being what you're facing down across the battlefield.  The world rejected Jesus Christ back in the day.  Nowadays, many churches and Christians would do the same, if he didn't stay safely white, blue-eyed and framed on the wall, weren't a "fantasy boyfriend" like Elvis or the Beatles, weren't an autographed cardboard cutout their fan club was worshiping, of a person who isn't in any danger of ever showing up or being controversial, in anything like the way John Lennon got.  As long as he was a nice young American lad, they might let Jesus in, but if he started doing that stuff he got crucified for...
  If you want to act like Jesus acted instead of how churches seem to want you to act, you are going to deeply upset any number (perhaps even the majority) of Christians nearby.  My aunt flat-out told me something I have heard from Christian after Christian, when they objected to my attempts to act like Christ instead of acting like Christians do: "You aren't the son of God.  You can't act like him.  You're not supposed to.  You're supposed to act like a Christian, not like Christ.  Go to a good church.  Listen to your pastor. He'll help you act like a Christian is supposed to. That's what being a Christian is all about."
  It's not about Christ anymore.  Christ has been removed as the central figure to emulate in Christian society.  My sister says "N.T. Wright's latest book Simply Jesus outlines how modern Christianity sidelines Jesus and how the opposing group of atheists and agnostics does just the same for different reasons. He goes into a lot about the Jewish mindset at the time of Jesus and how using the actually historical/cultural lens allows us to better understand the significance of what Jesus and God were doing at that time. Most evangelical churches are just doing what they want but not admitting it and leaving the authentic Jesus on the shelf somewhere because he might make them uncomfortable or reflective, heaven forbid. He made a lot of people uncomfortable; they killed him because he threatened the way people wanted to see things. Change is threatening and scary. I just wish Christians would be more honest about it all, that's all. Party away but don't be naive about what you're doing."
  In modern Christianity, it is all well and good to ask "What Would Jesus Do?" and then convince yourself that he'd play football, own handguns, serve his country by killing brown people overseas, vote Republican, publicly denounce gay people, build a giant church and play guitar in its worship team and all the rest of that. But making yourself in his image instead of the other way around? It's not going to make you popular, warm and nice, trying that.  It's not going to make you more charming. It's not one of the seven habits of highly effective douchebags.
  I absolutely feel like an atheist lately when I talk to church Christians.  This is odd because I can really say that I feel I absolutely know Jesus.  I "get" him, as much as anyone in my position can, anyway.  He is the central figure I think I should be emulating.  He's where I go when I'm at a loss.  I think he is involved in my life, in his way.  But I do not believe in McJesus, and I do not go to McChurch.  I have no interest in imitating the lifestyles of modern western (American) Christians and I have no intention of having my life structured by a McPastor with a reasonably-priced Beliefs Package that can be mine for only three easy Sundays a month.  Does this make me a McAtheist?
  I am not of the same religion as church Christian are.  Feels weird because we're called the same thing.  It doesn't seem to be a matter of emphasis, doctrine or semantics.  Seems a matter of agenda and direction.  Seems a matter of central motivation.  They're supposedly nicer than I am. They come on Facebook and announce that, unlike me, they do not waste time judging people, criticizing or arguing. They say "Wow!" and tell me how "sad" it is that I think what I think.  If only I could be as nice as that...

  It's Easter weekend.  I'm going to hang out with my family and my friends, Christian and otherwise.  No doubt we will talk about God and stuff.  I am going to probably read the bible and talk to God and make a point of not telling people how much I enjoyed it if I do enjoy it, because I may be crazy, but I honestly believe Jesus wouldn't like it if I did. I genuinely believe that he spent some time, as recorded in Matthew's gospel, emphasizing being modest and discreet about ones spirituality.
  "But my devotion is REAL, so it's not boasting if I tell people about it!" insisted a pastor I know, online yesterday.  He seemed to feel that announcing ones devotion and love for God isn't boasting if you can claim that it's real.
  Paul writes "God forbid that I should glory (boast) save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."  I said that abstracting that the one step is, I think, enough to ruin the purity of it.  I felt that going from appreciating and pointing to that historical event, to glorying and boasting in our glorying and boasting, was fatal.  I felt that going from saying "Jesus coming here and dying was a pivotal historical point, spiritually" to saying "We're having a huge, awesome shitshow about how much we love! (jesus) and kinda just want to recognize y'know, (his cross and stuff), this Saturday!  Will you agree to come and watch us trip balls! over all of that?" is sufficient to ruin it, I argued.
  "You are like a lingerie model, topless at the supermarket," I told him, "Insisting 'But these are REAL!' when asked to put on a shirt to be modest about her professionally recognized assets." I told him "Jesus wasn't talking about fakery, nor about boasting. He was talking about modesty.  If you have nothing real and good, it's shame you're doing.  If you have something real and good, it's modesty you're doing.  Spirituality is no different.  Jesus was talking, he said himself, about doing what he called 'laying up treasure in heaven.' You are genuinely pious.  Time to be modest about it instead of advertising it to the Internet."
  My friend's response (and he is going for his PhD in Divinity right now, having gotten his Masters, while I am merely self-taught) was "Laying up treasure in heaven is lame."
  As far as I know, anyone who read this exchange on Facebook was angered and troubled by my side of it (how DARE I suggest they give up their toys/central motivation for piety!), if not amused at how little I apparently know about partying to raise Christ Awareness. I didn't see anyone who was annoyed that a thing God came to earth to tell people was discarded so cavalierly as "lame."  Not as cool as OUR Easter plans!  We love! jesus.  What was that?  Oh, that thing he said sounds lame actually.  We're  going back to singing another song about how much we love! him.  Never mind what he said.
  The Facebookers "liked" my pastor friend's posts, and after telling me they thought I'd misunderstood, if not his intent and wording, then perhaps the entire bible, "Wow!"ed and "so sad"ed posts.  I imagine if he and I go out over beer and talk about this more, I'll get more out of him that I can respect than that.  I'm not giving up yet.

   This weekend I plan to sing songs about loss and heartbreak right alongside a couple old ones about dying and going to heaven, in one case with people I like who don't think they really believe anything happens after we die.  We'll use guitars, but we won't be in a church, because I'm not going to go to a church service this year either.  (after the fact: We sang this, it turned out, and this is us singing too.)
 And I'm going to have people "warn" me. Warn me that there is "just no blessing on the path" that I'm taking.  That blogging and facebooking and phoning and meeting up for coffee with people who will casually talk (about life and love and God and life and death) doesn't count as Christian community, and clearly just isn't giving me some precious, undefinable thing that only (their) church can truly give me.  (Annoyance?)
  Don Miller in Blue Like Jazz has a chapter entitled "How To Go To Church Without Getting Mad."  I've read it, but that doesn't work for me. At all.  Still get mad.  And feel like an atheist who believes in Christ but has lost his faith in Christians and church.  That's doing it backwards, say my friends who have fond memories of church upbringing, but don't actually believe in God anymore.
  And the nonChristians are going to be completely fine with what I do, and they are going to perhaps feel that a man who over the decades continues to have dealings with the Almighty, sans church service, is perhaps serious about it, rather than the opposite.  But the Christians are going to judge me and tell me how much I'm missing out, question if I am really a Christian at all, and if I really LOVE! (jesus) as their t-shirts announce to the world that they just really, really do.  Judgers gonna judge.

  It starts really young, too.  One time, at my teaching job, serving "cafeteria duty" (making sure kids don't throw food and leave garbage everywhere), I had two "on fire for Jesus" little grade 9 elves of Christian girls literally stop me in my rounds, and skip/frolic several laps of me, chanting "We love Jesus-We love Jesus-We love Jesus!" in front of three hundred teenagers. They were trying to "out" me.  They'd heard I "had beliefs" and were checking to see if I had the same gleeful exuberance as they were taught to manifest.  I wonder if they have been told that this youthful interest in church statistically tends to wane once teens head off to university in 75% of cases.
  "Jesus loves you.  Isn't that AWEsome!!!?" they demanded angrily, not seeing the sought-after euphoria in my eyes, but rather a kind of awkward, long-suffering annoyance at them harassing me when I was working, in order to make every kid in the room resolve once and for all to have nothing to do with Jesus, ever.  This despite the fact that when troubled kids talk to me, I am candid that some of my advice as to their dark moments is coming from the bible and Christ.  They always express shock that the bible contains anything but enjoinders to hate gay people.
  "I know," I said with a small smile, which is all I have, most days.
  "But isn't that AWEsome!!!?" they demanded, clearly annoyed that I wasn't acting right.
  "Yes.  But after a thirty years or so of it you get kind of...used to it, and it's still cool, but not a new thing that makes you sing and dance so much" I said.  "It's just nice."
  Both fourteen year olds managed to skip stubbornly away, backs stiffened defiantly against my faithless lack of enthusiasm. THEY knew who was more spiritual, and who God was more pleased with... I wonder if they make couples who've been married for fifty years french kiss in the park on demand too.
  Another high school girl disagreed with something or other I said, and told me fiercely that she was a Christian.  This meant, apparently, that she was against abortion and gay people.  Not very far at all into the friendly, warm and casual discussion that I then started to have with her, she said she hadn't read the bible, and didn't think the stuff in it was what she believed at all. She'd heard there was a lot of very weird stuff in it.  She was a CHRISTIAN, after all, not a bible person.  She believed in Jesus, not the bible.  He was just so nice, you know? Did I want to go to her church?  I really should.

  I'll tell you what would outright shock me this weekend: if a single Christian person said that how I'm living (especially my not attending church services) is not only not wrong, but is actually okay with them.  If a single Christian person said "I'm going to take you at your word that you are doing what God wants you to do." I would be shocked.  Shocked, I tell you.  My sister says it's high time I was mature enough not to be nettled by people judging me and being passive aggressive all over me about what I do.  She's right, of course.  Still awaiting that maturity.  It should be along at any time.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

It's Not About Comfort

  This comes out of reading a bit of Matthew's gospel today.  I don't read the bible enough.  I used to read it every day as a kid and I spent endless hours memorizing it and having it beaten into me and lectured upon at church five times a week and so on.  There are shards of it lodged all through my body tissue.  So when I read it nowadays, it tends to bring a lot of baggage with it.  But I try to read it sometimes, and I try to hear it over the perpetual DVD commentary of my past teachers, chanting in sonorous voices what the different parts of the bible "actually mean", often in direct ignorance of what the different parts of the bible actually say.
  Anyway.  Some random thoughts upon reading what Jesus was saying in the middle of Matthew's gospel: There was a religious establishment in his day, and one already every bit as ancient, defined, stratified and broad as our Christendom is today.  We trace ours back to Peter and Paul in much the way they traced theirs back to Abraham and Moses. 
  Perhaps it would be a bit much to have expected them to accept that Jesus was in fact the prophetic Messiah figure spoken of in all of the holy writings they heard at synagogue, and that he was doing all of the things that figure was supposed to do, and was in fact the only one who was even able to do that stuff. Perhaps.  But even so:
  All questions of his claims and behaviour aside, any of his simply reading the scriptures and talking about them was in and of itself terribly unorthodox and upsetting to people. Just that.  Jews talking about the Jewish scriptures.  What he was seeing wasn't what they wanted him seeing.  (What he was doing was a bigger problem, for them, of course. He was upping the ante)  There were generations upon generations of rabbis who'd for many centuries written far more words on the subject of the Jewish scriptures than actually make up the scriptures themselves.  There was a cultural story of Jewish conquest and persecution every bit as vivid as today's one about 21st century conflicts over the Holy Land, and the trials of the Holocaust. Yet when Jesus read the bible to his fellow Jews and talked about it, it was like they'd never heard that stuff before.  His reading of it was not only completely different from any of the stuff the religious teachers of the time did with it, or the ones writing reams of analysis for centuries before, it had a different tone and focus.
  Jesus was talking about raising ones own personal standard of living up from the whole "So, I haven't, technically done anything wrong?" level to a "Have I done good and made a difference in the world?" level.  The religious teachers of the time occupied themselves with things such as judging if a man was guilty of murder, manslaughter or whatever, and questions relating to justifiable homicide or of self-defense laid out in their writings.  They occupied themselves with questions as to when it was okay to divorce ones wife, and with stuff about money and property rights.
  Jesus did not validate or build upon their work, but rather advised anyone listening to take it a step farther, with a different attitude, saying (all questions of justifiable homicide aside) not to call your brother a fool, and not to divorce your wife, just because it was legal for you to do so and you didn't like her much anymore. (remembering what kind of a position it put a woman in to have been divorced by her husband in an age and a culture untouched by feminism of any kind) but to continue to support her and honour her.
  Religious figures once tried to get Jesus to agree with them as to executing an adulteress.  That one was a clear cut case. He wouldn't go there.  They tried to get him to speak out for or against the occupying Roman armies.  He would have no part of that.  He was preaching about personally being and doing good (rather than merely avoiding breaking rules and giving the impression of religiousness) and forgiving other people (rather than judging them, simply because you hadn't sinned in quite the way they had, or you were reputed to be a holy person, which you felt gave you the right to judge people.)
  Not only did Jesus refuse to take sides on judging people (or political questions), he actually spoke out as to not doing something which we today are pretty used to doing: vicarious virtue.  "I may not have learned much science, but Stephen Hawking is an American, so he knows it for me." "I may not be very giving, but Mother Theresa was Catholic, and so she does it for me (and I send her money)." "I may not have read the whole bible, but my pastor did, and we pay his salary, and so he knows that stuff for us."  We do religion, knowledge and virtue by proxy.  Hiring it.  Delegating it.  Chairing it.  Making it something we are a financial investor in.  Making it something we talk about other people doing.
  Needless to say, this hands-off approach makes it of little personal, life-changing benefit.  If one followed the spirit and attitude of what Jesus described as good living, people would only be able to suspect that you were someone who prayed, read the bible, gave money to charity, didn't mistreat your brother and family and all the rest.  A big part of it was that you'd do it and then not tell people and "raise awareness" of it.  You'd do it, rather than advocate for the doing of it.  You'd be modest in the sense of a swimsuit model wearing a top when going out to buy groceries.  You'd cover it up.  Not out of shame.  Because it isn't good to be getting recognition for good stuff all the time.  It wouldn't be the text of a sermon you'd give.  You wouldn't have a website presenting yourself as an expert, with a PayPal donations button, and DVDs for sale, and lecture appearances arranged on there.  You would live rather than just sell yourself or the virtue you felt most important.  You would blog and Tweet and Facebook status update fairly infrequently, and only to do something specific which you thought was good, and not because you were hired to do it, or to raise sales, or to try to swing votes or any of the rest of it.  Certainly not to share how awesome it feels to do it, as you do it and want people to know about that.  You would put stuff out there and leave it up to people to do with it as they willed.  You would live it rather than do it as a job, for other people.  You would reject being given a special title, too.

  I think the next part, though maybe upsetting to some, shouldn't really surprise anyone: we have a religious establishment nowadays.  We have a system of churches, with authority structures and financial infrastructure and all of that, just like the Jews had in Jesus' day.  We have days when businesses are to be closed to recognize "our" holy days/holidays.  That's how established institutionalized Christianity is.  And just like in Jesus' day, reading the scriptures and talking about them in any genuine way often puts one at odds with all of that structure.  If you are a youth pastor, are you allowed to speak your mind against anything much?  Are you allowed to decide that next week, instead of getting pizza and watching a new release movie (perhaps "scrubbed" for content), you are going to go talk to smelly homeless people or give needles to junkies or bibles to hookers or something?  Are you allowed to say "If the attendance drops off, and these kids are going elsewhere for their partying, as we are doing good, we are willing to simply live with that and will do nothing to try to 'fix it'?"  Or are you going to be held responsible to be popular?  Is approval-gaining and bums-on-seats going to be Job One?
  I'm sure people could point out that they know one group that is sometimes doing this sort of good stuff, right now.  I think that's the exception, though.  Mostly it's about being a group and feeling good about that.
  Because it's an establishment.  It's about politics, outward appearances, arguing whether to let gay people hold positions of power, stuff about slogans, mission statements, money, public perception and what is going to be seen as wrong and judged as such.  And there is a general mealy-mouthed lack of clout, reality, and workability to most of it.  A lot of trying to market themselves, be like a corporation, soothe, unify and comfort.
  And the thing is: people are not staying away from churches in droves because the snake oil isn't slick enough.  They are staying away because it is empty, plastic and pointless.  It is masturbatory.  To flip that metaphor around a bit, for many, church represents having taken the overzealous, excessive joy of life and neutering that.  There is a strong scent of "I used to be someone, and now I'm not being that someone." Like AA for sinners. Getting high off not getting high anymore and talking about it instead.  Using Jesus for comfort and euphoria.  Thing is, he was here in person, and nobody much was getting high off or comforted by him when he was in the flesh (so to speak), walking around, smelling of sweat and needing his feet washed.  He was actually pretty ranty and blunt, according to Matthew, anyway, and Matthew was there.
  When Jesus spoke, as a young man with older guys right there to hear what he was saying, people were completely amazed at what it was like to hear someone speak about the scriptures and have it mean something, have it sound real and workable, upsetting, mind-changing and challenging (not "comforting").  They said he spoke with authority, not like the scribes (the professional religious, church teachers and scholars).
  I've seen YouTube video of preachers shouting and flailing their arms around, trying to get some kind of clout into what they were saying, but really, besides being loud they were mainly just being judgmental and abrasive.  Jesus didn't rail against adulterers and gay people and people who cheated on their taxes, or the government the way modern preachers who want to seem edgy do.  He railed (resorting to name-calling) against the religious establishment and how the venerated religious folk of the day lived.  He didn't merely name names and point a finger at the key problematic religious people.  He did worse than that, according to modern sensibilities: he generalized.  He tarred the entire group of pious folk with one giant brush and said a single thing about them all.  He refused to judge anything or anyone other than that.  He made that one exception in his lifelong habit of carefully not judging people and things.  (Giving it to someone straight isn't the same as what I mean by judging someone or a group to be guilty so as to dispose of them publicly).  He unleashed on the religious figures and establishment of his time.  Dismissed them as a whole.  And that establishment sounds remarkably, disconcertingly unchanged down through the ages until we have what we are steeped in today.  And his judgement was really simple:
  Not good enough.  Don't do like them.
  Predictably, when he lived his life, the religious establishment wanted to discredit and kill him.  The better he did, the more they hated him.  The better person he was, the worse they acted.  That hasn't changed.  Getting hired by other men to speak to everyone about the bible nowadays requires a complete lack of the kind of opinionated abrasiveness by which Jesus was characterized.  Any professional religious scholar or speaker I've ever heard of is allowed to display those traits only if they are aiming at targets safely outside of the flock.  A "judging gun" to aim at others.  "Speak unto us smooth things" is how the bible describes this.  Say stuff we like.  Say the stuff we hear toward the end of this month every year.  Describe this stuff so that kids will like it, and old ladies as well.  Give us that "It's Christmas, Charlie Brown" Linus speech feeling.  Make people buy our religious product, and not the ones others are selling.  Emphasize the superiority of our product.  Don't worry that making it a product in the first place may have done something weird to it. Like what happens when you sell love.
  This blog is written in a fairly dry, blank tone.  This is not high-handed, profane, purple rhetoric.  Even this level of position-taking upsets people, though.  They say they "wonder which side [I'm] on sometimes."  They say it's "a burr under the saddle of the Church." They demand to know what makes me think I can just say this kind of thing.  They claim it's an attack on those whom God loves.  It's "negative," after all. And I'm not doing much of anything.  Certainly nothing new or unusual.  I am meek and well-behaved, by the standards of anyone not conditioned to demand party-line-toeing and diplomatic, Ecclesiastically Correct language  on a Church Christian level. I was told today that Jesus, and the fruits of the spirit themselves, could be summed up in one word: nice.
 Western Christianity, when it's not safely hating distant targets, is cushy and warm, in a bright plastic package with zippy slogans.  It validates us, and tells us to never change.  It tells us to keep doing what we're already doing and to feel good about that.  And, unsurprisingly, many folks find that this warm, cuddly happyfest simply does nothing for them.  They don't feel it.  It's like a Leafs fan at a Star Trek convention, or a hobby quilter at SexiCoN 2012.  So they say "Well, I guess it's alright if That Kind of Thing works for you.  If you get some comfort from it, I guess it's okay in its place."
  Jesus didn't come to give comfort. He didn't come to bring peace.  He didn't come to help families get along.  He didn't come to help young men find a nice, religious wife.  He didn't come to encourage wives to produce an innovative array of exciting but healthful meals for their families.  He didn't come to help people succeed at work by having a positive attitude and knowing how to be team players.  He didn't come to help people reaffirm their dying faith in a labyrinth of tradition.  He didn't even come to tell the rich people he was eating with that, really, they should give more money to the poor.  And he said he hadn't come to do those things.  Repeatedly.  He announced that he had come to bring a sword rather than peace, that he had come to make wives fight with their mothers-in-law, that he had come to turn children against their parents.  And when people "got" what he was doing and saying, the religious establishment discredited, disowned and killed them too.  His message was simple, and it's still here to think about, in terms of how he wants us to think and feel about the religious establishment that Western Pre-Packaged Christianity is today:
  Not good enough.  Don't do like them.
  Because it's not about comfort.  It's not about happy feelings.  It's not about peace.  And professional clergy and accredited bible scholars can't do it for you.  You're it.  So go do it.  Do it yourself or not at all. And then shut up about it.