August 2006


I just finished having coffee with a good friend.  It was serendipitous, really, how we met and started hanging out.  Conversation flowed easily, like rainwater off a roof. 

We talked this morning about life and music — two of our favorite subjects.  Ben looked a little more tired than usual, and his white mocha did little to his appearance.  He’s a prodigious talent — musically and spiritually (if you can be a spiritual talent) — and has his hand in a growing church, school, forming a band and cutting a CD, as well as managing relationships and friends.   But I seemed to have stumbled into him on a day when it felt like a little too much.

With planning a wedding and working two jobs I sometimes feel like life is coming a little too fast.  It’s like playing the old game of Tetris: you’ve made it to a high level and the shapes are falling down so quickly.  For a while, you manage to fit them together but start to get a few gaps, and they’re backing up higher and higher and you can feel the game slipping away.  So it is with life.  The shapes — finances, or friendships, or fathers-in-law — come dropping down and, for a while, they fit together.  No gaps.  But, inevitably, they start building up and you can see that a few more wrong placements and your game is over.  Not that the game of life ends quite as easily.  The analogy breaks down.  Wrong placements in the game of life mean that it simply takes more work to go back and re-place the block, to try to get it to fit with all the others.  Sometimes blocks never fit. 

What if I always stayed on the easy level of Tetris?  What if I refused to go on, what if whenever the blocks started speeding up I turned the game off?  Would this be wrong?  Would I be refusing to challenge myself?  Again, the analogy breaks down.

When life comes too quickly, what if I dropped the ball?  It would mean my appearance would have a little tarnish on it — as it should under the grace of God.  It would mean that my money or my honeymoon to California wasn’t as planned out as it could have been.  I imagine, however, that the trip would still be great, that the money would still be there.  What if I acted like Mary in that famous story with her sister, and sat at the Master’s feet instead of preparing the house for Him?  Could I do that?  Wouldn’t that go against most of what I’ve been told from childhood?  But what if I did it anyway?  Would life, like Tetris, pile up shapes and finally end?  Or would it go on for another day?  Would I — gasp — even be more content and fulfilled?

What would a conversation with Ben look like then?

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I have been thinking lately about culture. I know. Strange. And, with work at the Gathering as a backdrop, culture and the church. Now, in the last column I wrote about how we easily assimilate into culture, following the crowd without ever bothering to see where we are going. Which is often true. I see, however, another cultural phenomenon happening in the church at large. This phenomenon, I will call for the moment, snobbery.

We’re a really self-satisfied bunch when it comes to culture. Although we may be just as interested in money or success as the next person, we have our Christian music and books and blogs to listen to and read, which makes us a little better than the non-Christian, the non-purveyor of Christian goods. Holding a Christian book makes us a tiny amount better than the person holding a secular book. We judge each other by what book we’ve most recently read, or what type of music we enjoy.

I, unfortunately, have done this. I can look at someone’s musical taste and make sweeping personality judgments. And not just with non-Christian vs. Christian material. In college, a group of friends and I looked down upon a certain Christian writer, because his writing was a bit weak and shallow and didn’t make me interact with the gospel in a new way. Who cares that he was writing books that affected other people deeply and, as I’ve heard, he is an awesome, caring man? I looked down upon him because he didn’t pass a certain erudite, theological standard. Shame.

But I think this happens a lot, especially from the Christian culture at large to secular culture. We enter into secular culture, refusing to believe that we, too, are products of this culture. We enter with an approach of snobbery. Our music is better, our books are more edifying. If you look at secular culture at large you see what I’m trying to explain. At large, people feel like Christians have everything together, are stuck up (snobs), and are all too willing to judge. Whether it’s books or parties or music, if it doesn’t talk explicitly about Jesus, it’s no good.

What happened to all truth is God’s truth? What about the fact that when a movie or song portrays grace or redemption or love that this is glorifying to God?

We need to be people who are not snobs, but students. Students come ready to learn, to eat up whatever they can. They come to discuss and take away the good. If a student comes knowing everything, she’ll fall on her face. Trust me. I know.

If we are students of culture we come with our eyes open. We watch where the crowd is headed. We talk to the crowd — see why they like what they do. We find good things in culture to learn from and take home. We come face-to-face rather than mocking it from the side. May we be students. May we test everything, and hold onto the good. And may those we come into contact with — those we talk to and laugh with and pray for — never feel judged by our snobbery.

I’m sitting here on a Saturday. Miles Davis and John Coltrane buzz wickedly out of my laptop speakers. An inner debate rages within my head: should I have tea, or a small cup of coffee? You see, I’ve been trying to let go of my coffee addiction. Yesterday, however, this letting go process gave me a terrible caffeine headache. Cold turkey may not be the way to go. So, here I am. Coffee or tea? Alas.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the phrase “Counter-Cultural.” I’ve been turning it over in my head, examining it from different angles. I hear the phrase rather frequently. And I always hear it as an inherently good state; it is better to be counter-culture than running with culture, apparently. I have some friends that I would deem “counter cultural” because they wear tight jeans and listen to bands no one else has ever heard and have hair that lets other people know they don’t really care what they look like. These friends may not appropriately be counter cultural but rather “underground” like the beatniks fifty years ago. They stand a step ahead of culture. After all, Kerouac’s beatniks helped pave the way for the cultural revolution of the ‘60’s.

I feel a little extra cool for listening to Davis and Coltrane this morning. A little counter cultural, maybe.

I feel like the church often tells me to be counter cultural. Is this true? Do others feel this way? I probably haven’t heard too many sermons with their basis as being a counter culture, but it gets thrown in rather subtly, rather self-approvingly time and again. I hear things such as “We act like _____, while the rest of the world goes and _____.” These two blanks usually stand in stark relief, one obviously being good, the other not so good.

The phrase counter-culture (whether you write it with a hyphen or not) clearly means against culture. In popular terms, this doesn’t mean a Marxist revolt but a decision to stand out and be different. Which means sticking your head up above the crowd, and determining whether you like the direction where everyone is headed. And if you don’t, then you go somewhere else.

Too often it seems like the church wants to be counter cultural, but is really side-cultural. On the surface, we really try to stick our heads up and walk a different direction. Unfortunately, this direction means moving to the edge of the crowd and following along on its cusp, complaining the whole time. We drink a little less alcohol and buy Christian music and figure we’re really shoving it in the faces of those MTV execs. Then we hop into our SUV’s and drive home to our house in the suburbs where we get on the internet and cruise around like the rest of America, catching up on the latest gossip and news. Or, take me for example. Not only am I giving up coffee, but I also am listening to music without words. Just jazz. I don’t watch too much television and my car doesn’t have hubcaps. I know this is hard to believe but it’s all true.

And I would like to believe that this makes me counter cultural. But my brother and his wife don’t even own a television. No TV. Also, they have one car for the two of them. Oh, they both can drive. That’s not a problem. They simply decided: no TV, one car.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone should sell a car or get rid of your television. That would be plain foolish. I am saying, however, that my brother and his wife stuck their head up above the crowd. They didn’t go along with the group; they questioned. The questioning got them a life that is probably richer and more meaningful for them. It’s exactly this that I believe being counter cultural means. Sticking your head up. Looking around. Finding the deeper things of life. Slowing down and asking: “Why a bigger house or bigger television or newer car? What will it do for me?”
I have not yet gotten rid of a car or television because I don’t like the direction we’re headed. I did, however, decide to go for the tea over coffee. And that’s something.

I’m sitting in the library.  Sunlight drifts in through the window, falling silently on my desk.  Library attendants shuffle quietly about the carpeted room, and the familiar click of keyboards resonates from thirty feet away. 

Oftentimes, I feel like I’m juggling.  I feel like it’s taking all my effort and concentration to keep these four balls, or bowling pins, or maybe even knives, in the air.  And people are watching me.  People are watching me juggle these balls with amazing poise and concentration.  I’m probably somewhere like Venice Beach or Key West late in the evening, and the sun is almost down but long arms of light still embrace this part of the earth.  Twenty yards from me is the silver painted robot dancer man, and Michael Jackson is blaring next to him.  There’s a bigger crowd down there, but right now I’m juggling my knives and eating an apple, and a few families show interest.  These families have young kids who are spooked by the robot man. 

My girlfriend Brooke says that when you juggle you don’t look at each object but at a fixed point right above you, where the objects pass. 

So I’m juggling and have a small crowd when the robot man ends his dance and his crowd breaks up.  Since I’m closest at least two-thirds of the people start coming my way, gawking as they pass or stopping to watch.  My apple is almost gone and I’m going to stick the core onto a knife while keeping the other knives in the air.  I’m also shouting something between mouthfuls about my need for a little crowd noise for this next part. 

All this is happening when I suddenly realize something greatly embarrassing – like my pants are inexplicably unbuckled and ready to fall to my ankles.  And I didn’t have clean boxers so I’m wearing tighty-whities.  I’m mortified at the idea of my pants falling, at the idea of the toddler in the pink dress with a happy birthday balloon forever scarred by the unexpected appearance of my pasty-white thighs, of parents shaking their heads in disgust as they walk away, shrieking young ones in tow. 

I feel like this juggler because often it seems that most of my life looks great, is going great, except one small thing sits there on the horizon, or the in back of my head, or in this case, the pit of my stomach.  I think of how well things are going and it all would be perfect if only something else took care of itself.  Something like I know what I’d be doing in two months, or where I’m going to get the money to pay back my parents, or if I would ever write thank-you letters on time.  Usually this something is a thing I need to do and put off, or know I want to do but refuse to draw on the disciplines needed to do it. 

I find it odd that most people I talk to about this think the same way.  Maybe they don’t realize they’re juggling.  But they say things such as, “After this, life will get back to normal,” or “Once I start ______, then things will be a lot better.”  The sad thing is that life doesn’t become normal.  There is no normalcy to life. 

Life is ugly and beautiful.  It spills out over the edges and onto your paper.  It leaks like a bad pen, or doesn’t write at all.  And we all try to juggle our way through it, fitting it neatly into time and space, letting the knives fall neatly into our hands without ever getting hurt.  But oftentimes we take our eyes off the knife, if only for a split-second; we lose our perspective.  Our timing is off.  And I watched the knife because I got nervous since my pants were ready to fall down.   

The tip of the knife blade touches my hand before crashing to the ground. 

For a moment, nothing happens.  Nothing.  Then, a sudden flow of blood fills my palm and I instinctively squeeze it closed, blood dripping onto the pavement.  The crowd gasps.  Or sighs.  Most people begin to hurriedly move away – knowing that blood is not part of the show.  Knowing a toddler in a pink dress doesn’t need to be near knives on the ground, or the man with the bloody hand.   

And then my pants fall down. 

There I stand, in front of an ever-more-hurrying crowd, a few laughs emanating from the robot man 20 yards away.  I stand unadorned, uncovered, unentertaining.  I stand with life literally spilling out of my hand.  I wonder why I kept juggling. 

Why did I keep going instead of stopping, apologizing, fixing my pants?  Why wouldn’t I let people know that life spills like a toddler carrying a bucket of paint?  Why should it surprise anyone that I’m not perfect?  Why do I think that life should play by my rules, according to my time, where I have complete control?  Why do I so often take my eyes off that fixed point that I know I need to gaze at in order to keep things up in the air? 

Because that’s what attracted me to juggling in the first place – the fact that while everything seems haphazard and out of control it’s really all orderly.  It really all makes sense.  All you have to do is look in the right place, and things suddenly don’t appear as daunting.   

I sit here in the library knowing I can’t juggle and probably never will.  But I can imagine it.  I sit here knowing how it feels to let the knives come crashing down.  I know how it feels to be confused and not in control.  I know that life will spill over and throw me up and down – will make me bleed. 

And somehow — not that I’m completely okay with this life running around as it does — I nod my head and accept it.  Even embrace it.  For standing there with a bloody hand, just having pulled my pants up, a young girl in a pink dress slowly totters up to me.  She smiles and her dimples wink at me for a moment before disappearing.  Slowly she reaches forward, holding her balloon.  I look blankly at her.  She thrusts the balloon closer to me.  Slowly, unwillingly, I reach for it.  I grab the string and the balloon nods gently in the wind.  The girl looks at me with large brown eyes, a pink dress with ice cream on it from earlier that day, and hair that falls to her shoulders in tight curls.  She turns and toddles off, leading her father away.  And I stand there, dumbstruck, holding the balloon tightly.

I read recently that the spiritual life is, above all, rooted in the practical experience of love. Normally I don’t worry about a short, pithy quote while I’m reading a great novel, but I really like this author. And the quote bothered me a bit. I am worried it is true.

When I think of the word “spiritual,” my mind goes to darkened, candle lit rooms. A solitary monk is in the basement of a monastery, pouring over some parchment written in an ancient tongue. The monk spends his life praying and fasting; he speaks only at appointed times. He lives in his own little room. He hangs out with other monks. And if they’re together they do spiritual things — like reading psalms to each other or singing hymns together — things that would generally cause my friends to flee. If the monk isn’t doing something very spiritual and contemplative, that’s because he’s sleeping. At all other times he’s in pondering how great God is or reading a psalm in Latin.

Or take my spiritual life. It is a miniature version of the monk’s. To be spiritual in my life means getting up early — when I wouldn’t want a conversation with an actual human — so I can read my bible and pray and talk to God. And I realize this is part of it. I need time to be myself with God all alone. But what about the rest of my life? There is little time I am completely alone.

What worries me is that my spiritual life is mostly about early mornings with my bible and a cup of coffee. It worries me that true spiritual life is, basically, life. It is not about reciting psalms in latin. It is about loving people. The practical experience of love. It’s about loving competitors at soccer games when I would rather kick them in the shins. It’s about loving co-workers and listening to their hopes and happenings in life. The spiritual life is about laughing at a spilled drink rather than complaining or getting angry. It is having a glass of lemonade on a cool spring evening with someone you care about or talking on the phone late at night with someone whose marriage is falling apart. It’s buying a meal for a homeless man or simply keeping in touch with friends.

Sometimes these things are easy. I like lemonade, and it’s easy to care for people I like. Unless I don’t want to, or am a little too busy. Then this “practical love” is not so easy. It is hard. The spiritual life is hard. Usually I don’t want to take time out of my schedule to care for people. I don’t want to laugh with someone if I’m in a bad mood. I don’t want to shake hands with the jerk soccer team that just beat us.

But, I am learning to trust God’s forgiveness and patience. I am learning to see that walking with God is not so much what I do alone but rather what I do with others. How I show God’s love to others. And my prayer is that my life — and all our lives — would be rooted in the practical experience of love. May we be a people willing to laugh and cry, willing to enjoy life, and willing to show kindness and love even when we don’t feel like it. This is the spiritual life.