spiritual essay

The Path Ahead

My head throbs from the noise. I’m sitting in a quiet house in comfortable jeans and an old t-shirt. The fan on my laptop drones a meditative hum. There’s nothing else to do but write now. Nothing I’d rather do. I close my eyes for a moment, relishing it, feeling myself breathe. The bubble of arguments, fears, and hates, stretches out from the back of my head and snaps loose like the last raindrop. It’s good to take a break. Take a closer look without the noise.

Every political post on social media, every article from every news service, every speech and interview has served to make me tired and angry. The camera panning across war torn cities, crumbled to unlivable heaps, gut me. The left, the right, tear me in two. I want to stand and speak, reach out and pull the blood-soaked masses to safety, paint a sign and march. I want to make a difference. I want to be love in action. Half our nation believes the world is coming to an end, and the other half is sighing in relief that they narrowly avoided the world ending. I don’t know if there’s ever truly been nuance in public disagreements, but it’s rarer now. You have to dig for it. Everything’s either-or, black and white, life or death. As a follower of Jesus, I find myself wondering how to live in such a world.

Some might read that and tell me to just speak the Message. I’m convinced that Christ is the answer. That’s not the issue. I know to tell anyone who will listen that Christ died for sinners of whom I’m in the top three. The problem is, that message is what causes my hands to tremble. It’s what drives me to act. It’s what gives me pause when I want to clench my non-proverbial fists and fight.

A part of me wants to scream at every wrong, fight for every cause, but I’m unsure how to stand against wrong and act in love in every situation. We don’t have a full account of the disciples lives, but it’s not something we see them concerning themselves with–yelling at the government for change. When they saw those in need, they did what was necessary to salve their wounds, fill their stomachs, and protect them from the elements. They were a light in the dark.

But they didn’t live in a society where each citizen is a small cog in the great machine of change. Would they have acted differently had they been able to make some small push toward change? Would Paul and Barnabas hold picket signs as they told those in the crowd who were interested about a Savior? I don’t know. I can’t see it. But maybe that’s due to a lack of imagination.

Many pens have been run dry writing on this subject. Some say to pull away from government as citizens of another spiritual Nation, and others claim that one of our most spiritual acts is our vote. Calling our congressman as an act of worship. I don’t know how involved I should be as a citizen who’s a Christian. I don’t know what issues I should stand up for, and where I should be silent. Even the more obvious choices are tangled in philosophical complications, no matter how much we want to make them either-or, black or white, life or death.

When I see the weak, the poor, the powerless being crushed, I’m compelled to act. But I feel like my one voice is lost in the din of so many others. Like my vote is crushed under the weight of the system. Like any sign I fashion is summarily dismissed by those meant to be moved by it. Maybe I’m wrong. The tiniest strikes, over time, can crumble a great mountain. It’s a frustrating struggle, but I believe it’s an important one. One I can’t let go of. That won’t let go of me.

After Life

What happens when we die? It’s not like I can tell you exactly. Paul said, “To be absent from the body is to present with the Lord” (verse). And (verse) says that first comes death, then the judgment. So we got that. But, to be honest, that’s pretty vague stuff when you’ve got a question that big.

When my grandfather died, my grandmother had a dream that they were in a wide open pasture of green rolling hills. They sat under the shade of a tree, and he smiled at her, made a joke, and it gave her comfort that everything was going to be all right. That’s a good story. For me, anyway. I like to believe it was more than the dream of a mourning woman to self-soothe. I want to believe it’s true. But, even if it is, I’m not sure sarcastic granddads in beautiful vistas really gives me any concrete answers.

The church has guesses. Based on the scant information the bible gives us about the afterlife, the evangelical church of my youth has come up with all kinds of hokey visions of heaven. In some book or another I’m not motivated to research the title of, after the apocalypse, Hal Lindsay has the two love interests go to get married on the New Earth. Jesus shows up and asks something cheesy like, “Mind if I do the honors?” I really don’t know how much that actually helps.

I went to one of those Hell Houses when I was a teenager. After seeing people fictionally die horribly in drunk driving disasters, drug overdoses, and other incidents related to disobeying parents, we—the onlookers—were ushered into heaven. There, a man in a white bed sheet and red sash welcomed us by walking up to each of us and saying, “well done, my good and faithful servant.”

All the annoying emotional manipulation aside, I had a deep reaction to that moment. When the man with the full beard and wig walked up to me, placing his hand on my shoulder, I closed my eyes and imagined it really was Jesus, and that he was telling me that because I’d accepted what he’d done for me, in my place, for my salvation, that all my bad was burned up, and all that counted was love. Even right now, that gets me in the gut.

I’m fairly certain heaven won’t be encounters with hippie Jesus, or look like a plywood room covered in red curtains constructed on a fairground by church volunteers on the weekends. I’m also pretty sure scaring people into decisions with car wreck scenarios isn’t all that Christian. But I’m thankful for that tall guy in the wig. Number one, he wore that wig like a boss. Two, after being yanked along by a manipulative wave of scare-tactics, he reminded me that God is for sinners, like me. He gave me the closest thing to a glimpse into the afterlife I really need. He reminded me of no more striving, or tears, or worries or doubt. Complete acceptance and an all-encompassing love that we can only guess at with the cardboard cut-outs of our poor imaginations.

Bicycles

The red light is notoriously long at Mills and Colonial in Winter Park, Florida. So long, you might bring War and Peace to read and, if you had to travel that road every day, might finish by the end of the week. Maybe because of the long wait, there is a group of people who regularly walk through the paused traffic to ask for money.

One man drags his right foot behind him as he moves from car to car, hoping someone raises their head to acknowledge him; rolls down their window. He’s a short Asian man in his thirties, head down, unkempt hair. On this day, I sit in the passenger seat, watching him hobble along. I look over at my wife, and she is feeling the same heartbreak as me. I can see it on her face. If he was near my window, I would give him all my money, the keys to my house, my 401k.

As I said, the light is long. But today it’s untenably long. Like, let’s-make-a-turkey-dinner long. So, I’ve watched this poor man walk up, then back down, the street several times, painstakingly, heartbreakingly. Taking a dollar here, a few cents there, and finally disappearing around the corner. My wife and I, who are both jaded in our own special ways, discuss how our hearts melted at seeing such humanity. I take a deep breath, gathering myself, questioning my life choices. Then I sit back, staring at the red light, but no longer thinking about the light. Then I see him again. He and two of the others that were working the cars. They’re smiling, heads up, and chatting with one another loudly as they speed past the still unmoving traffic on bicycles.

Bicycles.

Which require working legs, feet, and ankles to a fairly high degree.

My jaw stiffens and I curse, pointing them out to my wife who’s already seen them, and is doing some cursing of her own. We’re speechless for a moment after that, and then we raise our voices again, ranting and flailing our limbs. I feel my wallet in the butt of my pants, and think I should apologize to it for almost handing it over to that charlatan. I make fists, squirm in my seat, point at the spot I first saw him cycling along, enumerating the ways in which I disbelieve how he tricked me. I’m feeling like a fool. Feeling fooled.

I want him to suffer. I want him to be exposed. I want to set up camp on that corner, ready with a sign which reads ‘LIAR’ that I can carry along behind him while he drags his perfectly healthy foot through traffic the next time, a bright red arrow pointing down at him. I want justice!

For a solid three minutes that man went from car to car. At one point, he was only one car away from me. I saw the pain on his face. The guilt was as untenable as the light. I looked at the door handle and thought about jumping out, trotting over to him, and handing him a five. I almost did. I tell myself that. I almost did. The man I truly believed was suffering, hobbled—ten feet away—and I stayed in my car. A prayer on my lips for him, my faith and my cash tucked away safely.

Today We Weep

It’s emptiness in the center of me. My brain is stuck in second gear, and I’m numb. People will tell you that you shouldn’t feel this way; that you shouldn’t mourn. If God is in control, they say, we should always rejoice. I disagree. When there’s a death, it’s okay to mourn. When there’s a loss, it’s okay to weep. It’s not good, but it’s good for you. I think what they mean to say is don’t despair. That’s different. That I agree with.

Despair will keep you on the floor. Despair will convince you that there’s no longer any reason to get up. Despair will take your joy out back and shoot it in the hindbrain. But I know my joy’s not dead. It’s somewhere upstairs, watching old episodes of Quantum Leap, waiting until I’m ready to have a conversation. It’s patiently waiting, flipping through old copies of Boy’s Life and Elle, for me to deal with the hurt. Mourning is mentally working through loss; getting used to a world without the thing you had or wanted. It’s a form of rest, and it’s preparation.

Stop telling us not to mourn.

Mourning is self-care. I need some self-care these days. I’ve been running, and dieting, but maybe today I need a shake and some burgers. (that’s right, I said ‘burgers’ with an ‘s’). I need to surround myself with love and humor. But most of all, I need to feel something. (Not run from it; not pretend it’s not there.) I need to accept that something bad is happening in my brain and deal with it. Deal with it until every scrap of it is dissolved. Because pain has a way of coming back—growing sharp teeth and biting you to the bone—years from now, in unexpected ways.

It’s small, what I’ve written. But it almost always makes me feel better. I haven’t said much, but sometimes pouring your bag out on the table is the most satisfying step in getting to a clean bag. Just having that sucker empty. Because all I’ve done is pour out my hurt and it feels good. Listen, If you want to help, don’t tell me that hurting is wrong, or that I should trust God more. When my friend’s father died, he said he’d told a man the year before he understood what he must be feeling when that man’s father died. He had no idea, he told me. None at all.

When I mourn, I trust God. I trust that he’ll see me through it, and not be uncomfortable with the fact that I’m hurting. My weeping, snotty, prayers don’t seem awkward to Him.

Talking about our pain is healing. We fear that it’s too much. To tell. To hear. But it’s like pushing over a bucket of filthy mop water onto the ground. You just made a huge mess on the ground, but the world’s big enough to soak up the mess; take it all in. I tend to turn my bucket over onto the page. It always soaks it up. Sure, it leaves a stain, but the words are like a monument of hope. Something I can look back to and nod knowingly. Seeing how far I’ve come.

Seeing that is no mean thing. How far we’ve come. We don’t look back to be pulled back toward despair, or even mourning, but to be reminded of how far we’ve come. We look and see how small our pain appears from this distance. How much we’ve grown to be able to step over it, how strong we’ve become to be able to climb out of that pit. How faithful God is, even in that mourning everyone told us He despised. And that will most certainly bring a song of praise to our lips. …But not today. Today we weep.

Killing Snakes

When you’re not an actual victim of atrocity, you drop your head at the news, and pray that this time will be the last. I can only make guesses at what it’s like these days to be a black American and see the flickering blue lights of an officer come to life behind you. I can’t speak to that at all. But I know the secrets of the paler American. Even the ones with a religion that demands equality. With freedom he takes for granted, and the hate he takes in unawares.

I watched the video of Travis Cole of Greensboro, NC sitting on his mother’s front porch, confronted by police; beaten, and then arrested for no good reason. It’s a shocking moment—the instant the conversation turns from awkward, but polite, to pointlessly violent—and I stared at my computer screen, trying to understand how this had happened when my phone rang. My mother began telling me about a snake that had gotten into their house.

My childhood home is surrounded by trees. Blackbirds, jays and cardinals paint the backyard every morning, snacking on the bugs and berries there. Squirrels bounce from limb to limb like some animal circus act. It’s not unusual to walk outside after dark and encounter a opossum eating from the cat’s bowl. It’s all so common it loses its ability to dazzle or startle anymore. But, on the rare occasion you stumble onto a snake, the moment sears itself into your memory.

We reserve a special brand of fear for these beasts. Due to the skin of Christianity stretched across the South, we hate them with a religious fervor. Snakes are forever connected in our minds to the animal that slithered up a tree in the first garden to tempt that innocent duo. An irrational and murderous abhorrence we never bother to question. Whether they are coiled to attack or blithely meandering along, we feel the world a better place without them.

You learn to shoot a gun in the South the same way they learn to pray—by cultural osmosis. I haven’t shot a gun in years, but I still get the attraction. There’s a twelve-year old in all of us that likes watching things explode. If you’ve never held your breath as you stare down the barrel to line up your shot, and then see a frozen milk carton of water detonate, or a soda can shredded, there’s little I can do to make you understand.

It is control, yes, but it’s also power. And when you add in the idea that you’re ridding the world of something you see as representing evil itself in some metaphysical way, there’s a sense of self-righteousness too. I personally feel guilty stepping on a roach, but as I line up the shot to end a water snake that has crawled too close to my home, I feel nothing. Perhaps not nothing. Perhaps, instead, justification, a sense of pride at righteousness prevailing.

My father once brought home a badly Xeroxed page which purported to show how black human beings were something less than human. That we were created by a loving God from nothing, but they were the ones descended from apes. At home, church, and school, racial epithets were casually thrown about, and the belief that African Americans were natural criminals was a foregone conclusion. Not up for debate. We locked our doors when driving through certain parts of town.

I still feel it. The irrational hate, the fear, the judgment. It creeps in. I despise it. But my faith has taught me different. I’ve learned that you have to choose between it and hate. One will always destroy the other. For some, black Americans are forever connected in their minds to the people our great grandparents owned; people they thought of as things; animals. The grandparents who used the faith that is rescuing me from my hate to justify theirs. When they see a man sitting on his front porch, waiting for his mother to get home, beaten, he is finally getting what he deserves. That’s our secret. If we didn’t hate, we’d have to face our sin. So, we label you, dehumanize you, we reserve a special brand of fear for you. All this so our hate feels like justice. We hate you with a religious fervor. We feel nothing. But perhaps not nothing.

Dreams From God

I dreamed I was trying to get to the grocery store last night. But every time I was almost there, something would keep me away. I went the wrong way. I forgot my bags and had to go back to the car. A band of 10 year old ruffians held me up with their hoodlum shenanigans. I just wanted my Cheerios, man.

Dreams are strange things. Some stick around for years, while most wither minutes after they’ve bloomed in our heads. We don’t really know what they’re for. They could be the dust of the day we’ve picked up on our subconscious shoes being shaken off. They could be the result of our brain acting as secretary—filing away experiences and ideas in their proper place. They could be the articulation of our most aware self, revealing the things we don’t want to face.

Dreams may even be the voice of God.

Sarah avoided the unwanted touch of Abimelech when God sent him a dream warning him to keep his hands in his royal pockets because she was Abraham’s wife. Jacob dreamed of a ladder of promise. Joseph’s dreams landed him in prison, and then in a position to feed an entire starving nation. Me…? I dream about dinosaurs in my backyard.

If God is speaking there, I’m not sure what He’s saying.

I prefer to think of dreams as peeks into another world. That they’re the emissions of a factory at work restoring itself after a long day is a better answer. But it’s not nearly as much fun as thinking every time I go to sleep  I drop into the head of another me, into a fantastical world so different it seems ridiculous upon waking. A place where monsters exist, we can sometimes fly, and people we know are our bank teller or boss look like our 10th grade girlfriend for some reason.

Even though I know my theory isn’t true, part of me refuses. I’ve always preferred the fantastical to the cold hard facts. I played with toys until I was almost old enough to drive and buy them myself, I still watch cartoons, and sometimes I read comic books with the same seriousness as Solzhenitsyn. Maybe that means I’m stuck in some earlier age; my development, in some important area, arrested. I might agree if it weren’t for another part of me: The responsible part that worries incessantly, considers grown-up consequences to very adult problems; the care-giver who will take on the problems of others at the cost of my own sanity.

However… that may be proof for that whole childish argument.

The childlikeness I tend to hold onto may sometimes leak out, sit in some dank corner of my mind, distilling into childishness: The immature idea that I can save everyone, fill in the emotional gaps that my loved ones lack; that my shoulders are wide enough to carry every burden.

The dreams I have most lately are stress dreams. I’m running somewhere that I never reach. I’m looking for something I never find. I’m found out. The darkest part of me is exposed. Those are the dreams that don’t disintegrate with the sound of an alarm. It doesn’t seem fair that dreams of dinosaurs, fighting off alien hoards, or seeing my grandmother’s face again are often as elusive as a whisper across a room, yet these acts of subconscious self-flagellation stick around for breakfast. But… maybe that means I’m hearing the voice of God after all.

The burdens with which I load myself down, the shame I refuse to put aside, the stress that tightens my muscles into fists—carry over into my dreams. There, a door swings wide, all the lights come on, and a giant magnifying glass hovers over my doubts and fears and shame; my lack of faith. And the voice of God whispers to lay it down.