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In Praise of Geraldine Brooks

I have been listening to as many novels as I can on my Iphone. Usually, such listing comes as a mental distraction to the physical pain I suffer when I put my body through that (self flagellation) religious ritual of jogging.

Geraldine Brooks

I’ve listened to some horrible books, which have experienced great success. I call them the Cheetos of novels. It looks like food,  but, it is just air and flavoring. These are usually these authors that pump out two books a year, sometimes with ghost writers helping.  They are word mills. It is just about the money. They can cobble together a story on a whim.

But then you stumble on the caviar or rhubarb pie with ice cream of reading. These are the authors that I had not known before, but who write as immortals or angels with super-human abilities to understand and to craft language.

I am a little more than halfway through Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing. She, like Joan Didion, was a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for her writing. Having experienced these two writers back to back (with a little of Edgar Allan Poe squeezed in between) has given me great appreciation for the prize. They know how to pick them.

The amazing thing for Caleb’s Crossing is not just that the writing is so poetic, but it is in a seventeenth Puritan English style.  I can’t imagine the research that it took for her to prepare for this. It is more than chewing gum and walking. It is like doing a masterpiece watercolor while walking a tightrope over a bed of hot coals. She does so well. I will demonstrate with a few words from my evening jog. Caleb's Crossing: A Novel

From Caleb’s Crossing, Chapter X.

(a dialog between Caleb, a native young man who has taken on the white man’s ways) and his secrete close friend, Bethia (the 17 year-old protagonist, who Caleb has named Storm Eyes). This is after her father has told her that she will work as an endured servant at the college (in Boston) to pay her brother’s way thought school.

“Do not let them make a slave of you Storm Eyes.”

I stepped back, surprised by his sudden wrath.

“I have no idea what you–“

“I thought your grandfather honorable.” He turned and spat on the sand. I winced.

“He is honorable, Caleb. You must not–“

“Must not! I am full up to my throat with ‘must not.’ You English palisade yourselves up behind ‘must nots,’ and I commence to think it is a barren fortress in which you wall yourselves.”

 

 

 

Why QAnon Matters

Honestly, I had never heard of this particular conspiracy network until this week. Yes, I had heard about the ridiculous “Pizza-gate” story, which some of my evangelical friends and family had sent me (presenting it as the truth) just prior to the 2016 election. They wanted to show me how Hillary was the devil… I suppose. I had also heard about the Seth Rich (see here) conspiracy stories, where, rather than a random act of murder, he was supposedly killed by the DNC to cover something up. God bless his parents for having to live through his death and then the nut jobs who wanted to capitalize on his most unfortunate circumstances. Then there was the Sandy Hook “staged” slaughter. That last one really breaks my heart.Q1

I first noticed the Q or QAnon shirts and signs in the crowd at the Trump rally in Tampa. I didn’t know what it was about, but I was quite curious. I read about it on Wikipedia that night (see here). Since then, several news organizations have done stories to explain it.

I joked about this at first, thinking how nutty or gullible you would have to be to believe in something like that. I was thinking about the characters, Lloyd and Harry, from the movie, Dumb and Dumber.

Q2

But then I started to think about a conversation I had with a patient of mine. She told me the story about her son, a driver for Federal Express. He was delivering a package to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma on April 19th, 1995. What terrible luck, as he was in the building when it was destroyed by Timothy McVeigh’s horrible bomb. He was in his early thirties (if I remember the details correctly) and had two kids. His head was blown off. Nonetheless, on that day, 168 people (many children themselves) died a horrible death.

dumb and dumber

The year I was talking to this man’s mother was about 1998, so the wound was still fresh in her soul. She told me how she started to study Timothy McVeigh’s life (see here), just to try and make sense of all of this evil. There was no making sense of it. But she did learn a lot about the man. He was taken with right-wing, white supremacists ideology and several conspiracy theories, including those very much like QAnon. Those try to suggest that there is this hidden (or deep state) government that is evil and trying to control our lives. The evangelical followers, of course, try to tie this to the Eschatology of Hal Lindsey.

I mentioned to that lady that day that I was currently (in 1998) in a big dispute with my kid’s youth pastor at our church in Stewartville, Minnesota. This youth pastor was passing out copies of a poorly written conspiracy book to the kids, written by one of his friends. That book told stories about black helicopters watching us and taking Christians to internment camps. It also told how the Clintons being the anti-Christ. and connecting it to Y-2K. If I remember right, this deep state was hauling off the Christians in secret to be executed, or something like that (I’ve heard so many of these crazy stories that I can’t keep them straight). I was totally livid!  I called the senior pastor late at night to voice my outrage, and tried to pull my kids from that church (they were old enough to dive and make their own choices). Some parents thought I had been blinded by liberalism, not seeing what was going and the end was really near. I wanted to vomit.

When I shared that information with this woman–and later regretted doing so–she was move to a state of panic-laced tears. “You must stop them!” She said. “This is how all this evil started … with stupid, silly lies!”

I am nonpartisan. I have heard conspiracy stories coming from the left as well (embellishments of the Tump crime family, as if it needed embellishments). My dream is not that everyone would be a Democrat. My dream is that everyone would know the truth and that truth would set them free to love others. I am trusting the Democrats to save this country in this time of history, but they too must watch their souls that they don’t become “party first” as the Republicans have.

Reflecting on this, I am now deeply concerned about this QAnon group. It is evil. It will lead to violence… it always does. God help us. We need to be like this poor mother, taking these things seriously, very seriously.

Mike Jones

(sorry about any typos, I did not have time to proof-read)

 

In Praise of Joan Didion

It has been said, in many of venues… verbally to me, read by me, or even thought by me, that to be a good writer you must be a good reader. I think there is truth to that. However, my downfall, the Achilles heel of my writing process, is my difficulty in reading.

Year of Magical

It isn’t for a lack of want. My fictitious Heaven is constructed in the midst of an endless library. It isn’t my cognition either. While I do suffer from a confirmed case of dyslexia, making it difficult to spell, memorize, especially numbers, that problem only slows down my reading a bit.

No, my problem are my eyes, those physical windows to the soul. When I was eighteen I suffered a rather severe chemical burn to them when a “friend” intentionally threw a handful of powered sodium hydroxide (lye) into my widely opened eyes. He thought it would be funny. It was not. I almost lost my eyes completely.

But it left me with chronic eye pain. The official diagnosis is chronic dry eye, but a rather severe case. It appears that the oil glands around my eyelids were burned out and scared over. For most people with dry eyes, it is more of an autoimmune problem or of aging.

So, enough with the self-pity part, but when I start to read—or write for that matter—from the first word on the page my eyes start to burn. Then with each subsequent word the burning intensifies. By the end of the first sentence I have tears blurring my vision and soon running down my face (thanks to my lacrimal duct plugs). By the time I finish the first paragraph, I must stop and squeeze my eyes tightly closed for the pain to dissipate, before I start reading again. I’ve tried every drop on the planet, both over the counter and prescription. I’ve seen countless doctors including the dry-eye specialist at Mayo Clinic. I have had bandage lens made to cover my corneas, which worked well until they would stick to and abrade my cornea, making things worse.

However, despite this, I have read at least one book per month for most of my life. Up until about ten years ago, they were all non-fiction. One day my son Ramsey said to me, “Dad, if you want to write fiction, you must read it.”

This started my on a fantastic journey of reading down the top 100 list (by the American Library Association) of the best English fiction books. This journey has been delightful.  However, my bottleneck of reading was still the limitation of my eyes. For example, my wife could finish off several books by the time I finished one, because I could not bear the pain.

I had often thought about trying audio books. A few years ago, I did join Audible. I hope that my experience was the exception, but it was terrible. The software would not work on my computer. But then when it did work, I could not transfer the book to any mobile listening device and was therefore worthless. Then I had a very difficult time cancelling my contract and billings. Never got to listen to a single book through them but paid a lot of money for nothing.

Then, last summer, someone told me about the state of Washington’s library system audio book loans. I joined the library, downloaded their software onto my phone and presto, the problem solved. I have now listed to more than a dozen books.

The only problem that I have is finding the best book to listen to. It is odd to me, but, although the books are digital, they are like a physical book, in that if they are checked out to someone else in the state, I can’t check it out. So, I have to get in line to get it.

The other problem is searching for the best book to listen to. I wish the top 100 novel list was a searchable option, but it is not. I’ve tried several options. I ended up choosing the most popular books option.

I would have to say, this exercise has been a great disappointment. I have listened to about eight books, each being very popular and a great financial success in America. All the authors are franchise authors, meaning that they have written along series of “best sellers,” usually with the same characters as romance or mystery novels.

I listen to these books to learn about writing. The problem is, their writing was terrible. You know exactly what was going to happen next. Everything was predictable. I could hear the voice of my editors in my mind saying things like, “Hmm… I think you need to omit that section Mike, or rewrite it completely as it does not hold the reader.”

When the books do deviate from the predictable, it isn’t with great imagination, but rather ood. For example how odd the character reacts to situations.  For example, one book started with a police detective coming home to find his entire family brutally murdered. So the author said something like, “He had to quickly think like a detective and examine the crime scene carefully. The cut across his wife’s throat was from left to right, meaning the perp was right handed.” I could hear my editors (one in particular) saying, “Michael, what normal human being would respond the way your character does?  Re-think this story.”

So, it dawned on me, that these books all had the same things in common, they were published in the past ten years, they went right to the best seller list because of the following of that author. But they were not intellectually or imaginatively stimulating. They were the Cheetos of the book nourishment menu. Maybe that tells me more about the American reader.

I visited the museum of modern art in San Francisco last week. Many of the exhibits were like these book, with no intrinsic value (a huge canvas painted with a plain monochromic black, or a wooden chair with a glove on it) but only had value because the artist was famous.

driving miss daisy arrivals 2 251010

Joan Didion- Recent Photo

Then, a few weeks ago Joan Didion’s book, A Year of Magical Thinking showed up on the list of most popular. I had heard of this title before. I had even used that term “Year of Magical Thinking” or “Magical Thinking” to describe someone who refuses to live in reality. For example, someone whose girlfriend keeps sleeping around with his friends and he tells me, “She’s over that now. She has re-committed herself to just me.”  Hmm? You really want to believe that?

The only problem with this book was that it was on long waiting list. So, while I was listening to one of the pop-culture mystery novels (poorly written but financially successful) Didion’s book came up. I left the old book because I was so sick of it and latched onto Didion’s book.

I just finished A Year of Magical Thinking during this morning’s 5-mile run. I will have to say that Joan has restored my faith in the American writer. It, however, is not fictional. I didn’t know what it was about before I started it. But like C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, it is a self-obsessed journey about her year after her husband, of 40 + years, suddenly died. But the writing was beautiful. It was her best work and she won a Pulitzer prize for it (well-deserved).

It is possible that this book meant so much to me as I recently lost my dear mother. The process of mourning, for me, was aborted. My mother died during a four day celebration at my house of my daughter’s wedding. The wedding was here on the west coast. Mom died in Tennessee. My siblings had the funeral before I could get there, and I was coming as fast as I could. I cancelled my trip to Tennessee. It is like my mother faded from my life with no goodbyes of any type. I feel hollow, like a film that breaks before the movie’s ending. Lacking. Surreal.

I learned so much, as a writer, from her (meaning Joan, not my mother). She describes the ordinary in a way that it becomes the fantastical. I have written two books that are someone autobiographical. In the midst of positive comments, I have heard negative comments such as, “You wrote too much about yourself. No one cares about you or your journey.”  In Joan’s book, I was consumed with her thoughts, feelings and journey. She knew how to make her most narcissistic thoughts, the central theme to each reader’s world. Thank you Joan!

 

 

Judge Kennedy and The Wager with the Fiend

We all have or had friends who are evangelical and adore Donald Trump, and I mean, sincerely adore the man. Every word that reels from his gold-plated tongue is not just truth to them, but somehow, it is God’s truth. I know, for most of us, we cannot explain this paradox, short of thinking that they must have fallen under the same spell as the Jim Jones adorers, or the scarce Jews who loved Hitler. They must have read a different Bible or lived within a alternative reality. It must be defined in terms of mental illness and brainwashing. They follow the tweets of the pied piper’s pipe as if under an irresistible hex.

pied-piper-960x612

But there are those, evangelical friends, who seem more rational, at least on the surface. These friends readily admit that Donald Trump is a liar, a deceiver, a womanizer, thief, and narcissistic-hate monger. They don’t actually like him, yet, they voted for him. They voted for him because of the supreme court appointments up for grab. They were looking ahead to Kennedy’s retirement. They felt like that potential justified the vote for the Fiend (as in monster or devil). It was a wager that Donald Trump will eventually go down into the trash-bin of history, and that does not matter. But his Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) appointees will change America in a big way, “bringing it back to God and God’s laws.” This maneuver was more than just “dining with the devil,” it was paying high stakes poker with him.

devil cards

I remember when I was an evangelical that we were told that the SCOTUS was more important than the office of the president.  We believed the narrative that it was the liberal elites—whoever they were—who controlled the makeup of the SCOTUS. Additionally, we heard from our pulpits, that the SCOTUS didn’t follow the constitution anymore, which our evangelical forefathers, such as Thomas Jefferson (wink, wink) had written. But now, though a “relative truth” rewrote the constitution by their interpretations. Therefore, the weight of the presidency was determined by his or her ability to appoint to the SCOTUS.

In 2016 these evangelicals saw the writing on the wall. The polls told them that Trump’s pseudo-populism was going to usher him into the Oval Office. They hitched their broken wagon to his ersatz star.

For those evangelical friends, they have a worldview that America was Christian, then has slowly slid away into Satan’s domain because of the changes the liberal elite minority have imposed on us. That the majority would turn us back to God, if they had the chance. But even if they weren’t the majority anymore, the Christian minority must support and impose America’s Christian values on the majority as if it were a theocracy.

gambling with the devil

I haven’t spoken to those “moderate” evangelicals in a while, but I expect that they are now gloating in their vindication. They must feel even more confident that they did the right thing by putting Trump into office. In their minds, the litmus test of turning America back to God is making abortion and gay marriage illegal again. But this great wager has come at what cost?

There is no much to deconstruct with this narrative, it is hard to know where to begin. But it is a circular reasoning. To protect an honest, infallible truth Vs a relative truth, they have supported the greatest public proponent of relative truth that American has ever known. That advocation of falsehood is not born of some great and well thought out philosophical conviction by Donald Trump, but of a deep character flaw of mythomania. Yet, the tolerance of that falsehood is surprisingly high, and probably so from the influence of moral relativism that has gripped our western culture over the past 100 years. In other words, I think Donald Trump would have been run out of Washington on a rail in the 1800s because we did have a conviction of absolute truth then.

Then we must move to the particulars. Those Trump despising—but supporting—evangelicals justify their support for him because of the potential of reversing Roe V Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges (the case the ushered in the allowance of gay marriage in all 50 states).

First, you cannot legislate a moral conviction on a culture that does not hold those convictions. It simply cannot work. The majority of Americans support the right for a woman to choose and gays to marry. Beyond that, we must look at the merit of the positions themselves, from a Christian perspective.

A true pro-life stance, the pro-life of a Biblical nature, supports all of life. It supports the life of all human beings at all stages in life. It supports the life of all living things. It supports the quality of life, which is often a product of social justice. To limit it to the viability of a fetus is a grotesque distortion in the definition of life. This notion makes no moral sense (to ignore life in all other circumstances except for a fetus) that it has to be the product of some great political mischief… and it was. “Prolife,” was a deliberate branding by the Republican Party, as an attempt to bait and seduce the evangelical vote.

It is beyond the scope of this short article to address the gay marriage issue from an authentic Christian perspective, but others have. But I will give it a simple framework for discussion.

Imagine that the language of Paul, in his letters, and in Sodom and Gomorrah, Genesis is clear (and it is not) that homosexuality is not of God’s plan for humans. Why then does the evangelical single out that one “sin” while ignoring all the others? Things like stealing, adultery, fornication, deceit, lying and the worst sin of all, hate? We are all guilty of those things on a daily basis. There’s some psychological mischief going on here as well, within the evangelical’s mind. But you can debate the scriptural support for those positions and  I will not do that here. But the psychological motivation for the gay-hating Christians, is clear.

But in conclusion, those Trump-despising but supporting Christians have strained a gnat and swallowed a camel. Look at these verses (Matthew 23:23-24) in the Message:

23-24 “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?

But this great error of the American church has been at what cost? What is the outcome of that perilous wadger? It is enormous! The American church has lost all credibility with the American culture, for which it has been sent to be a salt and light. It has failed and will most likely never recover from this error. This has been the grossest sin of them all.

This is the message to those who find the Trump’s SCOTUS appointment is an end, for which a horrible means ahs been justified. It is morally ridiculous. The only thing that is required is a severe repentance. (I must go but will try to get back to proof-read this tomorrow, please ignore any typos).

Joke and cards

 

A Darker Loss of a Ordinary Death

I hate writing about death. I hate it because when I write, it means that it has touched my world. Yesterday, it did in a big way . . .  I lost my mother, Treva. It is still surreal although she was 95 and in the typical failing health of a 95-year-old. Death, except in a place of war, never comes at a time of one’s wishing. In war it is only the wishing that the other, the non-humans on the other side, would die by your desire.

I’ve already started to hear the mindless chatter, “She’s in a better place.” “God did this for a reason.” “She is with all the (now dead) people she loved.” Even if that were true, and I’m not sure it is more than wishful thinking, it does not matter to me. It hurts like hell that our time on this earth is over, period.

Young Treva

I have been told many times to never write or say anything while you are in the emotional wake of a personal event. Death is one. Your lover leaving you, your dog dying, or your job loss are others. A positive one, is the birth of a child. The fear about speaking  in that state, is that you will later regret what you say. You know, once you have regained your senses you will be embarrassed. This is why I think Twitter is so dangerous (as we all now know).

But sometimes, I think in the aura of something emotionally powerful, even a powerful negative event, is when we see reality with the most lucidity. It is when the layers of façade that we live under in the nominal life, is suddenly washed away leaving a vivid clarity. The process of regaining your senses is where you allow the dust to settle back in, making the mirror opaque once more. So, I write in that place when the emotions are real, where the dust has been blown away as by a storm. I will not write about my mom, which I could write volumes.  I write to embrace the grief, in a narcissistic way, somewhat like Lewis’ A Grief Observed.

I must embrace this grief, with more intention than before. In a very strange set of events, I’ve been denied the opportunity to be part of my own mother’s funeral.  I don’t mean I won’t have a role, I mean I won’t even be there at all. It is complicated, but my daughter is getting married at my house on Sunday. It has been planned for a long time and cannot be changed. I had asked my siblings to wait until I could get there on Monday (they live 3,000 miles away). They would not wait and are having the funeral in my absence. I never thought this could happen. But I can’t miss my daughter’s wedding. I guess they figured I could miss my mother’s funeral. No one should be forced to make this choice. It is like a Sophie’s paradox. At this point in my emotions, my siblings have cast on me an unforgivable betrayal. I now sense that I have lost my entire birth family and can’t imagine ever having contact with them again. That’s how I feel in this moment.

So, I fear that my grief will not be complete. I will not see mom in the open casket. I was not there when she drew her last breath. I hate distance. I hate time. Screw them both! It has robbed me of so much. Yes, they both have given me much as well.

 

I had a close friend whose father blew his brains outs with a double barrel when she was 15. Death is dark, but some deaths are a darker dark, if that were possible. It changed the course of her life. If there is anything positive to say about that experience, and there really isn’t, it is that when you are young and someone close dies of an unexpectant tragedy, it feels as if the world as you know it, collapses around your pain. And it should. Everything to the horizon is consumed within the storm of your agony, you friends, your family, your distant family, acquaintances, and even complete strangers. That gives some comfort, but of course not enough. We all come into this world as rock stars and that place of honor slowly dissipates with age. The real rock stars are able to delay the decline for a few decades at best. Just ask Antony Bourdain.

The hard thing about being 62 and having a mother die of natural causes at age 95, is that the world does not collapse around you. As a mater of fact, there isn’t even a semi-transparent shock wave that penetrates the very proximal world. That is the essence of my feelings at this time and in this situation. No one knows how wonder she was. No one knows her story. No one here feels the loss.

My mother died 3,000 miles away. I wasn’t there. No one here in my town knew her. Her grand kids, my kids, barely knew her. This loss, while it is overwhelming for me, doesn’t seem to show up on their radar. It is an enigma. Someone who I love and knew deeply, is lost and others, in my present world, whom I love and know deeply, don’t notice. I feel that I’m in a diving bell at the bottom of the sea where carbon monoxide is being accidentally pumped from the surface into my bell and I am suffocating, yet the fish around me, don’t know the first thing about air or gases, either good or bad. They swim by not knowing or understanding.

I had a similar experience twenty-five years ago when my father died. In that case, I did attend the funeral. However, my family, wife and kids, chose not to accompany me on the 1500-mile trek due to cost. At least in that setting, I flew into a world of salty rain, where the drops were tears. We, my birth family, were all bathed in them. Then after a week of co-dependent bereavement, I boarded a silver plane due north and landed, once again, in an intimate world where the sun was shining without blemish, and the grief was unnoticed. Four hours earlier I was in a place of hugs and tears and arrived in a place where the most applicable topic was lawn mowing and which kid hit the other first.

This time, for the sake of my daughter’s wedding and the joy of that aura, I must find a way to grieve alone, which feels like trying to contain the force of a nuclear explosion within a suitcase. It is hard to zip up and to close. I want to hike up into the mountains, to an unnamed valley, one devoid of paths, to scream and sob without restraint. But I cannot. Life does not bid me the time.

In some ways, but not many, this expected loss may be harder than the unexpected. There is something even darker about a nominal death. When I hear someone say that someone died, the most common question is, “How old were they?”  I do the same. But it is like the nominal dying has no penalty and carries no expected remorse. Wasn’t my mother’s quality of life much worse over the past few years? Absolutely. But does that validate death? It is that expectation, which makes it darker. It is the loss of a world that cares about the loss that makes it darker. Please stop telling me it isn’t so bad! It is, damit! It is!

Is it worse to lose someone you have only known and loved for 15 years verses someone who have known and loved for 62?  Is it worse to lose someone from an unexpected, violent death than losing someone whose life has been slowly tortured away over years until the worst is then expected? The only assumption I can make is that all death is darker and darker still. It is the tragic places that makes me feel stronger in God being there. Not that I can feel him more in grief. I can’t and I don’t pretend to. Not that I seek him out more, I’m not. But the darkness is so dark, and getting darker still, that the nihilism of atheism becomes more senseless, still.

Self-induced Social Isolation, a Paradox

I’ve had trouble with social skills all my life and I haven’t a clue as to why. At one point, I considered the possibility that I may have some syndrome such as Asperger’s.  However, I don’t have most of those traits. So, if it is something (genetic) like that, it must be a mild form.

But it is funny, going back to my pre-teen years, I could observe the behavior of the popular folks and then try my best to mimic their behavior, the next time I was in a social setting. It wouldn’t work for me. For example, a guy at a party is loud and talks constantly of his great accomplishments seems to be adored by everyone. Then I would muster up the courage (speaking of my younger years) and try to do the same, and I would come across like an ass. I just could figure it out.

A great example of this social inconsistency comes from the movie Tootsie. When Dustin Hoffman is playing the roll of the woman, Dorothy Michaels, he has a very personal conversation with the woman of his dreams, Julia, (played by Jessica Lange). Julia tells him that her romantic dream in a man is for a stranger to come up to her and say he finds her very interesting and would like to make love to her. So, then Dustin, now as the male role Michael Dorsey, does just that (see the video clip below) and it really upsets her. I call it the Dorsey syndrome.

In the case of Dustin Hoffman’s characters, it appears to be that he was just not that attractive of a man. If he had been tall, dark and handsome, maybe the scene on the balcony would have turned out just as Julia had said she was wishing for. But that wasn’t my problem, at least in my younger years. Yeah, now as a sixty-year-old, I may look like death-warmed-over, but there was a time when that was different. My problem was my lack of social abilities and will never understand the skills of which I have no command.

I don’t know why I’m writing so egocentric this morning, but something brought this to my mind. Speaking of which, meaning being egocentric, I’ve been told that the best way to make friends is to focus on the other person. I don’t think that’s my problem. I do have a gift, and I really think it is a gift, of feeling great empathy. It is for that reason I have worked in chronic pain medicine for almost 40 years and have done well with it. I do enjoy (maybe wrong word choice) sitting all day and just listening to other people tell me about their pain, physical and mental pain. They know I care, because I really do care. But I’m not sure who we, the listeners, talk to? God?

But, God has given me the destiny of being lonely. Probably just part of the great Fall. I’m not alone in this loneliness, no pun intended. I think many people find themselves alone, despite their desires not to be. Yes, I have a wife. Yes, I have five wonderful children (whom I don’t get to see very often). But it is one of those perplexing things that I, as a arm-chair social scientist, have never been able to figure out. Denise tells me, often, that is my fault or our fault for not having more friends. Maybe it is a lack of energy. Maybe it is that I love to think deeply, and I find so many social settings so shallow. I don’t know.

Maybe it is this, which has stirred my thinking. I recently spent some time with someone who is very arrogant. He really is full of himself. He is not the kind of person I would want as a friend. When he walks into a room and he expects everything to stop for him. Yet, where ever he goes, he seems to know everyone, and everyone seems to adore him. He is surrounded by friends. It is one of those things I don’t get my head around. Some days I do feel as if I’m from a parallel universe. Maybe someday, God can explain this all to me.

 

 

My Next Church, will be No-Church

In the past few months, I’ve done more listening, than writing. I really enjoy listening to people in their twenties or early thirties, I think I like this group because that’s where my kids are. I would say, about five years ago, I became acutely aware of the mass exodus of this group out of the Church. It first concerned me (and still does) but now it more intrigues me.

Beyond sitting with someone in a coffee shop and talking, I’ve joined several social media groups that reflect this exodus. For example, Exvangelical, a Facebook group. I listen to their stories. I hear their anger at times (especially for those who were spiritually, if not sexually abused within the doors of a church). I have also read many articles and surveys on-line about this exodus. I went to those places to learn and to figure out how we can hold on to those people. I finished, thinking that I understand where they are coming from and they make some good points. I still feel bad for those with a bad experience with one person (eg. pastor-pervert) and it has tainted their entire view of Christianity. Many of these (I think for emotional reasons) call themselves atheists and are deeply pissed.

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So, here is why my next church will be no-church. It some ways it is hard to explain, but it is because my present church is a great church. The kind of church I’ve been looking for. The only other church models that I would more enticing would be either a grand, stone, cathedral with classical music (think of the Church in Europe just after the enlightenment) but with a scholarly and humble pastor / priest. The other model, which attracts me, is a close-knit group of thinking Christians who meet, spontaneously, as needed in homes, coffee shops, bars, and boats. That really is my dream church.

So, I have given up on finding either model of my perfect church. Each time I hear of such a church, it turns out to be a great disappointment (as a house church in Denver I spent time with and quickly realized that leader was, like many leaders, was molding in into his personal cult).

I am happy where I am, for now. But, if anything bad happened here, I would then know that I have found the best and it has come up wanting. My only next choice would be to follow the twenty-somethings out into the wilderness.

So, why do they (the twenty-somethings) and I, find the organized church so unappealing? I will try to explain.

I am no fan of The Navigators. I was with them for 17 years and saw some things that were bad. I’m sure they have good people with them now, indeed I know some of these good people. However, my experiences led me into the abuse by the leadership role and cult-like alliances. With that said, there is one thing that I heard from a Navigator speaker once (this was in the 1970s when they were considering creating their own churches or calling their chapters churches). This man said, “Christianity started as an informal relationship on the hills of Galilee. It next became an institution. Then it became an enterprise. Next, when it came to America, a franchise.”

When you have grown up, either physical or spiritually, within the organized church, you know nothing else. It had been deeply ingrained into your psyche that the organizational church is God’s plan and place. In that paradigm, you cannot leave that institution, without leaving God. It is like the dog who is trying to carry his huge bone through a fence, sideways. He thinks he has no choice but to drop the bone and move on or stay inside the fence and enjoy it. But he can turn to vertically and go through into freedom. This is the sad part about this journey into the post-Church world. They did not realize that there are more options. God is everywhere and uncontainable, physically, or by human ideas.

But what if, we were taken back to the informal relationship of Galilee model? In that context, there is no temptation to tame or enclose God within our institutions. There is no temptation to define God by institutional mores. Within that mindset, there is enormous freedom in the way we worship and think about God.

I will pause here to clarify what I am saying. Unlike one vocal leader to the house church movement back in the 1990s, Gene Edwards, I do not want to destroy the organized church. I hope it the best. I understand that the majority of Christians know nothing else and delight within that structure (but it is moving toward extinction due to the exodus of young people). That’s fantastic, that some people love it. However, I see the back door where the youth are leaving by van-fulls, due to disenchantment.

What are my personal qualms against the organized church? It really mirrors what I’ve heard from the twenty-somethings.

  • Restraint of Authenticity. We had a long discussion about authenticity within my church’s small group, where we are studying John Pavlovitz’s book, A Bigger Table. The group is wise enough to know that is what we should strive for. But, and I may be wrong, I think it is impossible to reach real authenticity within the organized church. It is due to over a thousand years of tradition. The church culture is a place of pretense and it is extremely difficult to change that. When you try to be brutally honest within the church institution, you are quickly demoted along the popularity and spirituality spectrums. For example, I was seen as very important when I considered (and faked it) that I was “Godly” and I was preparing to be a missionary. I am now seen as an insignificant church person when I’ve tried to live honestly. No one is interested in what I have to say.

Here is one very simple example of this restraint of authenticity:

Church Christian #1: “We are having a church meeting tonight and it is very important.  You should come.

Church (trying to be authentic) Christian #2; “I’m not interested. I am exhausted from a hard day’s work and would rather fiddle around in my shop and watch some TV than go to a meeting where a lot of people argue over their views and nothing substantial gets done.”

Church Christian # 1: (thinking) “What’s wrong with that person? They are so rude. They clearly don’t love the Lord.”

There is much more to say about this, but I must move on.

  • Complexity of the Enterprise. I have heard many young people say, in laymen’s terms, they don’t want to go to a church because they don’t have the time. You may think, “An hour a week is too much time?” But what they really mean, is that don’t want the church to start consuming their lives with programs and meetings. Churches are very complex enterprises and require layers and layers of structure. It becomes a blood sucking behemoth. What sets it apart from a social club or business (which may also be a behemoth) is that it has always used guilt manipulation. It may be verbal, implied, or self-implied. What I mean by self-implied, is that you put the guilt on yourself from your years of being within the church. Then you find yourself, not giving just 4 hours a month to church services, but 15-20 hours a month to various church functions and even at that, you are asked to do more and more and you feel ashamed that others step up to the plate to maintain these programs when you don’t.

The relationship in Galilee model never had such an organizational quagmire. The hardest choice was, what do we eat today? No calendars. No day-planners and no comments about you were not at the meeting # 14 this month.

Honestly, I think this organization is just what humans default to and is extraneous to the Christian life at best. It is harmful to a good Christian life at worst. For example, I deeply need the rest of Sunday. Sunday rest is scriptural as that is what the day-of-rest was created for. But if I did everything I’ve been asked to do, I would have no rest. I have a demanding, extremely emotionally draining job and if I treated Sunday just like any other work day, but doing church work, I would quickly burn out. It is not the way we were designed to function. It seems that churches have had to give up their concern for you, in place of the necessity of keeping the programs going.

This is getting long, and I will have to pause. But I will end this segment by saying, these organized programs have great merit. But what I’m saying, rather than having layers and layers of committees to organize a program for helping the homeless, I would be far better off just loving the homeless from my heart. If you love someone, you pause to talk to them on the street. You give them food. You invite them to live in your house. You don’t need an enterprise for that. I honestly think the role of the enterprise-ization of these gestures is for merit. We want to be noticed. We want to be appreciated when we do good deeds. But when we do these personal gestures alone, where no one can see us, when we don’t brag about it, then it is just as fruitful to do them alone (maybe more-so) than as part of a big enterprise.

I may be back to finish this thought. This may be my last post forever. The remaining topics are concerning intellectual freedom (freedom to be intellectually curious rather than follow simply following mandated doctrines).

The Crossroads

So, I’m facing an existential crossroads. I’m getting notices that my subscription to this web page is ending on Monday. It is $98 for an annual fee. Is it worth it? I almost never write here anymore, because I’ve been so busy. It is busyness with life and work. I am hoping that I can emerge from this cloud of overwhelming work soon.

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The other reason is that I feel that I’ve lost my voice. Maybe, it is that I never found it. Years ago, I had a blog, where I wrote weekly, if not daily. It seemed to have a following (maybe 100) and we had meaningful conversations. It was messy as I was so busy then too. I often typed with one hand while ordering coffee in the morning. It had typos, which I didn’t have the luxury to expunge by proofing. But this present feeling of vocal disenchantment seems to stem (as I pull from a bit of self-analysis) from my book Butterflies in the Belfry.

It took me ten long years to write that book. I gave it my heart and soul during that time. I felt like I was making many insights, not just into my own world, but into the universal world. Many of them came to me in profound moments of inspiration. I feel like I have so much to say to those who have been disenfranchised by Evangelicalism or the Church. I felt like I had so much more to say beyond that book. But I must now pack those thoughts away in dusty trunks and carry them to the figurative attic of my life.

My two favorite authors, NT Wright and Phillip Yancey, both read Butterflies and they seemed to like it. I had other deep thinkers and writers read it and like it. But I never found an ear for it with the common person. It was a total financial failure with sales in the 100s (to be successful you must have sales in the tens of thousands).

I had a “rebound” writing experience (sort of like a rebound relationship after a breakup) when I wrote The Waters of Bimini last year.  I had given up on ever trying to write a “Christian” book again. That market is too bizarre. Even close friends (from my evangelical days) would not read it out of fear that it might say something unorthodox. Why not buy something just because a friend had written it? You know, as a favor. Every time I hear of a friend who wrote a book, I buy it. . .  out of kindness. The Waters of Bimini was truly a labor of love, where as Butterflies was more of a cathartic.

If you have tried to be a successful writer, it is a brutal process. To break it big, (meaning that the books pay for themselves), you must have an agent. Each agent accepts about 1-2 books a year, out of thousands of submissions. It is very hard to catch their eye with any writing.

With my Waters of Bimini I decided to approach the big publishing houses again (as I have in the past a few times). This time, I had a nibble. Penguin Books kept the manuscript and the rights to it for a whole year. Then communicated that it was under serious review. But then, in the end, I got a short letter that they did not think it was financially viable. If I were famous of course, it would be worth it to them, because they knew it would sell.

So, maybe I have suffered another author’s disenchantment. I still have the manuscript and now the rights are mine again. I will see it in print later this year, probably publishing through my own company, Mount Erie Press. But it will cost me money to get it out there and I just can’t afford doing this much longer.

So, this convoluted explanation comes back to the moment when I must consider what to do about this page being about to expire. Is it time to pull the plug on my writing for good? This question is for myself and it is a hard one to answer.

 

Heavenly Exotica

I’m sitting in a coffee shop alone this morning, in a foreign land. I’m writing a novel. This is my sweet spot in life, my perfect place. But I use the article the without precision, because I have a few other sweet spots. Having all my kids in one room, where I can protect them with my life is one. Denise and I have several of our own.

mexico coffee shop

I’ve done a lot of sitting alone in coffee shops in foreign lands, writing. Some, modern of glass and steel, with comfortable seating. Some of stone or concrete with hard, three legged stools. A few of tatch. The most rudimentary, just a kind soul making me coffee or tea over a single burner benzene tank sitting on the dirt, and us sitting on stones. There have been hundreds, and yet each time it’s returning to a very special moment. As I sit here and am enamored within a world being built with my words on a computer screen, flowing from my own imagination, a part of my mind is still attentive to the exotic world around me.

apartment malta

Starting with the olfactory, there are new smells of unfamiliar spices, new perfumes, strange foods (yet all with either a base of garlic or onion) being cooked somewhere, and the all-pervading smell of burning paper. I’ve smelled burning paper in every city I’ve visited within the developing world. It is the background smell, and least pleasurable, to all the others. I traced down the smell of burning paper once in Kathmandu. It came from a vacant lot where people were standing around a big fire … of burning paper. In Cairo it was where, like Kathmandu, vacant lots had been turned into makeshift landfills and then someone—for reasons unknown to me—sets them on ablaze. Paper is the dominate fuel of garbage. The smell is sometimes infused with a hint of burning plastic.

My auditory sense is dominated by the languages, which are not my own. I strain at the very primitive edges of language learning in these situations. I hear the same sounds repeated by different people within different sentence structures, and I start to see patterns. I am deeply curious to the conversations, for which I long to participate. (In Malta I was thrilled beyond belief, at my outdoor cafe, when I was able to understand a whole conversation between a father and his daughter, once I suddenly realized that Maltese is really Arabic). Here, I notice the inflections in voices, giving emotions to the syntax.  When I understand the emotions of other humans, using language that I can’t understand, it only intensifies my curiosity.

Surrounding the intentional conversations, I hear the disorganized sounds of children, laughing and crying. I hear stray dogs barking in packs (therefore no one’s pet). I hear traffic, which is different from that in my normal world. The horns are dual and within a high-pitched range. Engines race more intensely in the developing world. In America, such racing is perceived as hostile, a fit of road-rage. In the developing world, I believe it is from aggressive driving without ill intent, which seems to come from living perilous lives. When you struggle to feed your family, life is more of a race to an end and fatalism begins to dominate your world view.

Tying all these sounds together is the music. Each world with their own, gorgeous sounds, (sadly, accented with American rock or pop). Sometimes, in densely populated places, this music emanates from a dozen points; radios, TVs, live bands, and car sound systems passing by with the doppler effect. I wish I could understand the lyrics to give sense to the beautiful voices and melody.

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I will not even endeavor into the visual because it would take pages to describe.

This sweet spot got me thinking this time. For some, maybe many, the afterlife is seen as a place of great comfort. Where you come in, into the perfect home. Where you rest comfortably in your favorite recliner, surrounded by the people most familiar to you.

I now think that my hope is that the new world, or Heaven, (if you believe in that idea), will be an immersion into the very unfamiliar. A passage into the totally exotic. Where, the beauty of the unknown, is most deliberate. Where the unaccustomed, liberates my curiosity to its fullest extent. Where I’m not only surrounded by people that I’ve never met, (I do want my friends and family there too, but that’s beside the point for now), but those people are very different from me. They look, smell, and behave differently. They challenge all my ideas of the perfect. That they speak a language that I will have to acquire. This is my hope of a new earth, of a Heavenly existence, a lovely place of eternal unacquaintance.

Curiosity (written the night before the Parkland Shooting)

Life has its seasons. We change with them and by them. Often, we don’t see the change until the results have seeped in and settled in place. It is like we are passengers, sometimes passively, on a journey. The world changes us. The experiences that we face and the thoughts that sneak into our minds remake us. It is from the things that we see, the words that we read, the turmoil that our souls endure. Our personal reformation is so comprehensive, that once on the other side, we have only two choices. One is to conform to the new us. The other is to pretend, pretend we are who we use to be, as any actor taking on a role that is very different from who they really are.

The year 2016 was a watershed time for my spiritual journey. While the intellectual process had been at work for decades (see my book Butterflies in the Belfry) there was a feeling of finality that came that year. It was if I passed through a turnstile, allowing passage in one direction, without possibility of return.

While I have no longer considered myself to be an evangelical, at least for the past 15 years, the distance between me and them became amplified by several factors during 2016. Before that year, the chasm was traversable. I could flirt with the other side. I could converse with friends from my previous life and be taken as one of them, while I was not. But now the languages are no longer translatable. True empathy no longer is possible between us. I can’t pretend to think like they think as I don’t feel it. I don’t understand it. The breach has widened into two different universes.

There were several defining experiences that year. First, it was the year that I completed my fifteen years of study as I prepared my book. Secondly, it was the harsh reception of that book by the evangelicals. They wouldn’t read it because of fear of unorthodoxy (based on the title and the cover photo.

But the most profound event by far, which I have eluded to many times, was the American presidential election. I am not a Democrat. I’ve spent most of my life as a Republican. Now, I consider myself as an independent. I have never been partisan and would as likely vote for Republican as a Democrat (although that might be changing). But as I watched my evangelical friends line up, one by one, to support Donald Trump, it was as if the world no longer made any sense at all. Was I really one of them at one time. If 2016 was 1986, would I too be a big Trump supporter? Maybe, because then I too had been duped.

But it is not about this one man, it is about the total loss, by the evangelical, of objective truth. It has been coming for a long time. It started with the pseudoscience that they use to prove that the earth is only six thousand years old. This distrust of science was only one part of their social paranoia. More so, it was the thinking that they were being persecuted by the “liberal-humanistic” society. While the Church was intended to be the torchbearers of truth, the evangelical Church became the founders of fake news. This evolution has been catastrophic. The Evangelical Church, has become irrelevant to our society both from an epistemological and moral perspectives.

I am writing tonight because earlier this week I got a strange e-mail. It was from someone whom I knew, professionally, in my evangelical days. Even in those days, he was an extremely critical person. He, (taking off the mask of semantics), hated gays, Muslims, Arabs in general, people who drank alcohol and said, “cuss words.” He was a constant stickler for having correct (evangelical) theology. I honestly think he has some type of personality disorder because he was so harsh on people. He is now a pastor of an Evangelical church somewhere.

I was very surprised to be getting an e-mail from him after such a long period of time. But I opened it and immediately he started with very hateful and condemning words toward me. It was so brash, that I hit the delete and “block” buttons before I became angry. The words reeked of hate towards me, Why? Because somewhere I had written something positive about Arabs. Maybe it was in my book or some other writing. He was furious that I would give support to the “people whom God hates.” I feel that that whole evangelical movement is so far off course that they are hopeless. Seriously, unredeemable.

I do believe that God is there. It is easy to not believe that God is there, and for that reason, I respect atheists and agnostics. But my belief is not with certainty. It is not because I am weak of faith. It is because we humans have fallen minds and souls and are unable to know certainty. I am eternally curious. I do believe that God makes us curious and it takes an artificial force to make us stop asking questions and to accept the oughts.

I still believe that Christianity is true, but with the same uncertainty. That uncertainty is not a moral or spiritual problem. It reflects the honest state of our ability to know. Our perceptions and reason are good but without perfection.

But at this juncture, I am ready to leave the American Christian culture. To be part, is to conform into that which is not healthy, non-curious. Not thinking, but only accepting that what others have determined that I must believe. I cannot know God unless I am free to inquire to search, to seek, and to ask questions, all without thwart.