August 22

On Missing Drive-By Friendships

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot
Wouldn’t you like to get away?*

The world I grew up in was very different from the one I live alongside of today. No internet, no cell phones, no car phones, no cable television, no mp3 players. It was a quieter, slower pace. I lived for a couple of years in a cabin 20 miles outside of town, a one-room wooden structure on the edge of a deep wood. A stream ran clear and cold just a short walk down its bank and it was there that I would bathe when the weather permitted. It was an existence that allowed for reading, listening to music, and thinking.

But cabin life, as wonderful as it was most of the time, got a little too isolated after a while and so I would drive into town to visit friends. Not having a phone at the cabin meant I couldn’t call to see if anyone was home or find out what they were doing. But that didn’t matter: I just dropped in on my friends unannounced and was invited in and made to feel welcome. Friends didn’t try to entertain or feed me; we sat around and talked, laughed, and threw a frisbee now and then.  

At times a friend or two would take the risk of driving out to the cabin in hopes that I’d be there. That was cool. Sometimes I’d go to a bar in the evening where my friends gathered to shoot pool and the breeze. I’d just show up and so would my friends. And we didn’t have an agenda other than enjoying and getting to know one another.

I don’t do any of that anymore. In fact, I stopped doing it when my wife and I moved to Colorado for graduate school. It wasn’t the same as the midwest where I had grown up. When I moved to Texas, it was more of the same: no one just dropped by and I didn’t pop in on friends without warning. It had somehow become rude or impolite over the years and the miles.

I don’t know why it changed. It could have been that phases of life pulled the welcome mat from so many front doors. It also might have been the ramped-up busyness that began with 24-hour news and the explosion of electronic media. Then again, it might have been just a midwest thing: I have friends here in Texas that grew up in the midwest and on rare occasions I show up at their door and they’re glad to see me. But that doesn’t happen a lot.

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came,
You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same,
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.*

Nowadays everything is planned well in advance. People have parties and gatherings but there’s usually a point to them: watch a football game, celebrate a birthday, or some other special occasion. Nobody throws a party for nothing. Nobody says, “Hey come on over and we’ll sit around and think great thoughts!” It just doesn’t happen. Maybe nobody thinks like that anymore.

I understand part of it, but only part. There have been a lot of cultural changes over the past fifty to sixty years. Homes are more self-contained and self-sustaining. Friends are online. Pretty much all needs  can be met without leaving home or having someone come to your home. Or so we think.

It wouldn’t bother me so much except that, as a Christian, I had hoped for and expected more spontaneous fellowship than what I’ve found. When Christians get together, there’s always something to talk about. And it should be something – or Someone – that doesn’t involve sports, gossip, business, material things, or money. We should talk about life and God and love and the hard things about living. We should be involved in one another’s lives more than just seeing one another at church and having lunch together once in a while. For those who go to church.

Part of it could be me, of course. Who invites in individual and marital therapist to just show up without warning? Even though I tell people that I don’t do it without an invitation, I suspect people wonder if I’m evaluating and assessing them when they’re not looking.

Or it could be that I won’t sit around and talk about meaningless bullshit. I want to talk about things that matter, things that can be troubling, things that require thought. Not all the time. But a lot of the time. That could be a turnoff for a lot of people who are pretending to live life but aren’t really experiencing it. Or maybe it’s that I use the word “bullshit” around Christians.

I don’t know what it is, just that it is. It’s sad and leaves me wishing it were the old days again. But that can’t happen and I know it.

Hopefully, in the afterlife, there will be more casual, impromptu gatherings. Kinda seems a shame to have to wait until then.

___________

* Gary Portnoy – Where Everybody Knows Your Name 

August 5

Being “Unconformed” To This World

Before I ever heard Paul tell me that I am not to be conformed to this world, I got the same message from Pink Floyd. It may well be that the Floyd got it from the Bible but I didn’t hear it from Paul first. It was in the songs of Pink Floyd. Songs like “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” and “Us and Them” and “Welcome to the Machine.” In fact, one of the major draws Pink Floyd had for me was the brilliance of the lyrics and the beauty of the music itself. What Roger Waters wrote, David Gilmour transformed into unparalleled piece of music memory.

In Rom 12.2, Paul saw ahead to what is in store for believers at the end of the present age and told us not to be conformed to the world. Waters looked at the evils of the present age and tried to warn us or awaken us, pleading with us to reject the culture and live differently. Pink Floyd identified specific pressures from culture that quietly and hideously transformed us into something or someone we were never meant to be.

To choose not to be conformed to this work involves, first and foremost, a rejection of the culture or philosophy that drives us. Aided by the distance and perspective provided by drugs – marijuana in my case – I was able in the early ’70s to first question and then reject what I had been raised and taught to believe. And to believe in.  I ate the meat and spit out the bones as best I could. Not everything was rejected or needed to be.  There were still vestiges of a Christian culture influencing the U.S. in the ’50s and 60s.

Through a haze of reflective clarity, I heard the message of Pink Floyd: the culture, the system, the spirit of the age did not work for us but actually sought to get us to work for it. You need look no further than “Welcome to the Machine” on Wish You Were Here.  

Welcome my son
Welcome to the machine
Where have you been?
It’s alright we know where you’ve been.

Welcome my son
Welcome to the machine
What did you dream?
It’s alright we told you what to dream

Culture, sang Floyd, prepares you to be just one more cog in a self-perpetuating machine. You’ve been in the pipeline/Filling in time/Provided with toys and scouting for boys.  The song anticipated and perhaps in part inspired the movie The Matrix in its grim, 1984 outlook. We are entertained to avoid facing the reality of life. Echoes of Pascal. 

When I discovered that rejecting the culture was commanded for all Christians – in fact, to love the world reveals that the love of God is not in us – I found it relatively easy to do, at least intellectually and philosophically.  The world should hate Christians; if the world doesn’t hate us, we might want to do some soul-searching. I know I need to.

The problem with not being conformed is being blind to all the ways we are conformed and conforming. “Does a fish see water? Does a fish know it’s wet?”  Do I realize how immersed I am in the world and how deeply the world has infected me? What motivates me? What angers me? When I get right down to it, what does my life say that I really believe in?

I’m not advocating or even suggesting some type of aesthetic, monk-like existence for those of us in the rank and file. But I am strongly encouraging each of us to examine our lives and make changes. (I’ve listened to culture’s siren songs, letting them mesmerize me and lead me deeper and deeper into the spirit of the age. I’ve written about here: Losing My Way . . . Again.)

I know what most of us believe. Or, I know what we say we believe. But sometimes it’s really hard to distinguish a Christian from a non-Christian without bumper stickers, necklaces, tattoos and other visible declarations of our Christian faith.  If the only thing to go on is behavior stripped of visible symbols, I honestly cannot think of anything in my day-to-day life that sets me apart from any other person in my culture. Or from others in my Christian subculture.

There’s something wrong here, obviously. It calls for drastic action: anything short of that will not effect the kind of change necessary to be labeled as a Christian by others. I don’t want to be known by what I’m against – although there’s no shortage of cultural outrages to oppose.  I want to be known for what I do and, especially, how I love other people.

That means sacrificial living. It means knowing when I have enough – that is, what I need – and when I can bless other people. We pray that God will give us our daily bread – and He does! But sometimes it looks like He’s unloaded the entire bakery at one house. When that’s the case, we need to understand that God has given us more than we need so that we might give to others who don’t have enough of what they need.

If Christians were to do this If I were to do this, people might notice. But that’s not the reason to do it. The reason to do it is twofold and quite simple: I should do it because I love God and because I love people. If enough of us gave like that, I think the world would notice. Frankly, I think the world be baffled if this became routine for Christians. Not just a one-time extravaganza for the world to notice but a 24/7/365 lifestyle. Sharing. From each according ability, to each according to need.

It wouldn’t be a great start, maybe, but it would be a good one. Now all I have to do is do it.

August 3

What’s A Christian Outlier?

As you may have noticed, the title of this webpage has changed again.  Just a few days ago it was “Outside the Camp,” and a few days before that it was “Me and My Thoughts.”  Obviously, something has prompted me to change the title and even my own unofficial description as a Christian living in a time of variety and variations.  This post will explain that.  It will also, hopefully, explain what a Christian Outlier is and what makes it different from other expressions of Christian faith.

First, the title.  I backed off from “Outside the Camp” simply because it was redundant: the phrase is taken from Heb 13.13, which appears directly below the title. It seemed banal and insipid.  You know what I mean: vapid. [For those of you who need to read more – and better – books, those words can serve as your vocabulary list for the day.]

But on top of that, being outside the camp would make me an outsider to the Christian faith – which I am not.  (For years I somewhat sarcastically and derisively told people I was a free agent when they would ask me where I attended church. It would get a bemused  smile but didn’t communicate a whole lot.) Besides, I’m definitely not outside the faith, although I am definitely outside the church.

Over the past month or so I had taken to referring to myself as a “Done.”  This came as a result of reading Church Refugees . . . Why People Are DONE With Church But Not Their Faith by Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. As sociologists, they called such people DONES and looked for reasons why such a significant number of people have walked away from church. Not just any people but people who had been very active, held church offices, and sought to minister through the church.  That sounded like me so I decided to be a DONE.

In spite of the term DONES also being banal, insipid, and vapid (see above), I began to visit websites that were produced by these so-called DONES.  I read articles and commented on a few but eventually sensed that something was missing: the term or appellation “Christian” was used prolifically but the name of Jesus was pretty much absent (it may be in there somewhere but I didn’t see it). The people at the sites called themselves Christian – for the most part – but some talked of having “lost their faith.”  Almost everybody else said they wanted to know God through community:

[T]hey emphasized community from a distinctly religious perspective, explaining that they understand Christianity through interactions with others and a commitment to share life fully and honestly with a group of people. Community was fundamental to their understanding of God. They understood community as a manifestation and extension of their understanding of the divine . . .

Again, the dechurched value relationships and community above everything. These are the primary ways they encounter God and understand their own spirituality, develop a deeper understanding of their own faith, and put their beliefs into action. In short, they see their human relationships as an extension of their relationship with the divine. Their relationships are sacred to them—not because they replace God, but because it is in relationships that they find God. – Church Refugees

That struck me as being too much or too little of something.  The book describes one person’s experience as “an example of how our understanding of God is informed by our experiences. When our experiences change, our understandings change. Sociologists call this a phenomenological approach to understanding the world.”  But is that the same thing as understanding God?  I don’t think so.

So I was no longer a DONE.  That put me back to where I was: a Christian in search of description. Finally, the word “outlier” caught my eye – I’m pretty sure it was in a book I was reading about Tolkien – and I looked it up. According to dictionary.com, an outlier is:

noun
1. something that lies outside the main body or group that it is a part of, as a cow far from the rest of the herd, or a distant island belonging to cluster of islands . . .
2. someone who stands apart from others of his or her group, as by differing behavior, beliefs, or religious practices . . .

Origin. n.  c.1600, “stone quarried and removed but left unused”

That sounds a lot like me – except, maybe, for the cow thing – but especially the last part: quarried, removed, left unused.  The Savior dug me out of the pit in which He found me – not a miry pit but a stone pit – and removed me from it. But the church . . . well, things haven’t worked out as I had hoped or imagined.  The responsibility for being “left unused” by the church is shared: it was them and it was me.  I haven’t been left unused by God by a long shot, at least if my clients are to be believed.  But most of what I’ve accomplished as a Christian has been outside the camp of organized religion.

Since becoming a Christian a little over 40 years ago, I’ve been in pursuit of God.  Sometimes I’ve had more passion and energy than at other times and sometimes it may have appeared that progress had stalled or even been lost, but the overall direction has been and continues to be toward Christ.  Seeking and knowing God are at the core of Christian discipleship and sanctification, the goal of each being conformation into the image of Jesus Christ. But the organized church has not been much of a factor in my journey.

Even though “Christian Outlier” is a group of exactly one member (at this point), I know there are a lot of others out there.  We’re serious about our faith and committed to living it out in love but we don’t seem to fit into the typical Evangelical church categories and subcategories of “tolerated believers of variant views.”

Which makes me a Christian Outlier. One of a kind, just like all the rest.

November 17

The Two Great Disappointments in Life

It’s been said that there are two great disappointments in life: not marrying the love of your life – and marrying the love of your life.

Thirty or forty years have passed since I first heard that truism and, perhaps because of the arrogance of youth or the ignorance of the same, I thought I knew what it meant.  Now I know I was wrong back then, or at least partially wrong.

The pain and disappointment of not marrying the love of your life is fairly obviously.  He or she is “the one that got away” or left you or was taken from you somehow.  The disappointment grows out of the rich soil of fantasies and illusions you have nurtured and still nurture over the years.  You harbor a longing love for the memory of a person frozen in time, a golden aura of beauty and bliss surrounding them and expanding with age. Powerful feelings radiate from this memory every time you reflect on him or her.  A part of your heart and a willingness to be unashamedly naked before them – emotionally far more than physically – remains locked in a precious vault of comforting dreams with the memory of moments that now exist only in the deep recesses of your being.

It is this latter development that creates such a painful disappointment.  So tied to the dream are you that you can never really be fully present with the person you do have.  It matters little to you whether or not you are the love of your partner’s life.  You are haunted by the soft memory of the love of your life that no longer is within your reach, lost to you except through a veil of reminiscence.  You may look upon your actual partner with compassion and sympathy or with disgust and scorn because they do not possesses the intoxicating power to make your head swim, to bathe you in a warm flood of endorphins, to submerge you in an ecstasy that is more remembered than real.

You are certain that your life is diminished because of the disappointment of not marrying the love of your life.

But it is the second great disappointment – that of marrying the love of your life – that I was wrong about or ignorant of.  I originally thought it was disappointing because he or she, for all the promise and presence of unending love, did not turn out to be who you imagined they would be in your happy fog of youthful romanticism.  Failures and disappointments that can only be known or revealed or developed in marriage insidiously begin to spread throughout you, eating away at the joy you were certain you’d possess without limit on the other side of the altar and beyond the excited words spoken in unfounded confidence before a witnessing crowd that included God Himself.

Finding out who that love of our life really is, however, is not the second great disappointment. This is where I was wrong.

The second great disappointment – and it is the greater of the two – is marrying the love of your life and then discovering that you are not the person you thought you were.  You fail the very person you only and always wanted to care for and make happy. This is a tragedy that they suffer and you witness.  The mirror reflects your face and it is the face of someone who has failed, who knows they have failed, and lives with regrets and sorrow.

Your love – which felt so inexhaustible and unchanging in your mind long ago – fails you at critical moments, lost like a shadow in a dark room of pain and sorrow.  You stand as a tragic perpetrator and witness to the disillusionment of your partner even as he or she watches the recurring train wreck with you from the other side of the tracks.  There is no undoing the pain suffered and inflicted, no rescuing the promise of true, enduring love.  It is death by a thousand paper cuts to the heart.  It is felt within and seen without.

This is no less true or tragic even when you did not marry the love of your life. They were the trusting lover, the innocent believer, the collateral damage of your immature and misdirected love. They did not know, at least at the outset, that they would compete for years against a memory of love lost, against a ghostly other who was perfect only in your foolish beliefs and star-struck eyes.

Even so, the disappointment is not only or primarily the pain of discovering your failure. It is the penetrating realization of the damage you’ve done to another human being who trusted you. It doesn’t matter if your partner is the love of your life or not: the damage done is at times overwhelming incredible. And while there is forgiveness and moving forward and hope and every other positive thing you can come up with, you can’t undo what you’ve done. Their pain looms in your memory as a horrific monument to your selfishness and smallness.

Perhaps, in the end, there are two great disappointments in life, but they are not what I once thought them to be. It is not disappointment in another but in yourself s that is so disturbing.  Knowing better but failing to do better. Failing, in short, to love another for who they are.

Is it really possible to love another so deeply and completely that you do not inflict your dreams and hopes upon them?  In this life?  Is it in itself sufficient for a felt joy that travels with you through life? No, no, and no.

You are made for relationship: a deep, abiding, flawless relationship with another “that answers back to us,” to use a biblical description. It stands within your grasp in your mind.

But not in this life. One day, maybe, but not today.