Saturday, December 31, 2005

on forgiveness

Fifth grade was the year I discovered the effects of bullying.

I had been picked on before, by people who made fun of my stutter or my allergies, and I had even dealt with a few bullies who had loved to make fun of me for being so small and unathletic. But in fifth grade, we had assigned seats at lunchtime. I had to sit across from Matt D'Ambrosio


What is it with bullies? Like other predators, they always strike when their victim is alone and has no one to help. Only 10 years old and in a new school where I had no friends, I couldn't have been an easier target if I had been soaked with blood and leaving a trail a mile long in the snow.

Lunchtime was when Matt would turn me into a fly and delight in pulling off my wings. Then he would pin me down in his display case for the other students to see, and the torture would really begin.

Matt D'Ambrosio is the first person who showed me that you could use something as simple as a person's name to put them down and make them feel small. No insulting nicknames, no perverted twists on the name to make you squirm and resent the name your parents gave you. Just a subtly twisted knife hidden in the pitch and the tone that makes your very identity odious to you. It was all in the delivery, a way of saying a name in way that said how stupid, useless and utterly worthless you were.

Trying to join in a conversation was useless. I liked the wrong music, wore the wrong clothes, played the trombone, had the misfortune of having been labeled "gifted," liked to read and often doodled on blank paper, and, what was probably worst of all, the teachers thought I was a good student.

Every day, I would eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drink my milk, wishing just once that Matt would forget I was there, that everyone would forget I was there. Every day I wanted to escape, but escape was never an option, and surviving lunch became my chief goal each day.

When we finally were allowed to change seats, four months later, I was across the room like a shot. I wanted to be as far away from Matt D'Ambrosio and his ilk as I could.

I don't know if I can make you understand how awful an experience this was. I would have given anything to leave the lunchroom and Matt D'Ambrosio behind me. It was awful, and I hated it, and I hated him.

To my shame, I still do. Even during those priceless moments when life is like sailing a vessel across a crystal-smooth sea, the monster will strike. Without warning, chance association will stir a memory, and anger twenty-five years old will rise to the surface, its hide thick and scarred by years of bullying, insensitivity and cruelty at the hands of people like Matt. All around, the water boils and threatens to wreck the ship.

I would like to know what Jesus meant when he taught us to pray, "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us."

Surely he didn't mean that we should ask God to forgive us the way we forgive others. Surely he meant just that we should ask God to forgive us our sins, that we should promise God we'd make our best effort to forgive others if he forgave us first, or that we should ask for God's forgiveness while we pretend that we've forgiven people and try to act like they don't still get under our skin.

Surely he didn't mean what he said. That would be impossible.

O Lord, if I enter heaven, it will be by the narrowest margin possible and with the greatest mercy you can extend.

Give me grace, Lord. There is no other way.

Copyright û 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Using the F-Bomb

Now this would make an interesting Christmas Eve service. It's the story of a pastor who, after a lot of prayer, allowed his drama leader to present a Christmas Eve poem where she used the F-word. Repeatedly.

Although I joked with a few people about following this church's lead, I'm not advocating dropping the F-word into the sermon, the worship or anything else. Like them, I'd need some persuasion to feel comfortable with it. But I just plain love articles like this because they show God working in some unexpected ways.

In the case of this particular article, I was impressed by the risk the pastor took in letting someone be so authentic, so straightforwardly honest about something, and at a Christmas Eve service, no less. (I was also impressed by his thoroughness in considering the issue from as many sides as he could, and warning people up front that the next part of the service would be inappropriate for children.)

And as a result of his openness to what the Holy Spirit might be doing, and his thoroughness in testing the spirit, the Christmas Eve service they held at church reached a lot of people who might not have felt any connection with God otherwise.

That's faith, an honest faith that I often wonder if I have, the faith to set aside my ideas of the familiar, the safe, the comfortable and even (at times) the appropriate, to free God to do what he will, whatever the cost to me.

God grant that it be so.

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Search is Over

Notice to all churches in the Central Jersey area: I quit. I've stopped the steeplechase.

My family and I have been looking for a church to attend for the past three years. The whole search began about two years after the pastor at our last church realized the church needed to go in a direction he couldn't take it, and resigned. The pastor we hired about a year later proved to be a bad choice. Bad theology. A controlling, deceitful personality. A bully in the pulpit.

The church self-destructed after about a year, and about a hundred of us were scattered to the wind, looking for a new church. Like the knights of Camelot distracted by wandering fires as they pursued the Holy Grail, we roamed this way and that, striving for glimpses of heaven that led to nothing but ashes and dust.

My family and I searched. We tried a new church in West Windsor. The pastor was a good man and the preaching was decent, but we didn't belong. It was too far away.

We tried another church in Hillsborough. The pastor had a preaching voice that he used even when he was asking his wife to make his eggs sunny-side up, he shat Hallmark cards on stage and called them sermons, and when we stopped going after five weeks, he called to say he "missed us" and asked if we would be back. My wife said no, and told him it was because I found his preaching to be empty.

We visited a different church in North Brunswick. The pastor once worked the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and his whisper-to-shout style of preaching gave me a migraine before the service had ended. We didn't go back.

We visited two churches in Piscataway. The first one was small and friendly, but the preacher pulled Scripture verses out of the Bible willy-nilly, with no regard for context or their actual meaning. The second was large and friendly, but the preaching was no deeper than "Read the Bible; it's a great book!" and my daughter burst into tears one week at the thought of having to attend Sunday School there again.

For a year-and-a-half we attended a church about 25 minutes away. It has a great children's ministry, the pastor is a down-to-earth kind of guy who really has a heart for bringing people to Christ, and the church even has its own radio station. But I got tired of people not knowing my name, I got tired of not being able to join a ministry even after I shared my interest, and I wearied of being asked if I was new to the church.

It's been a long, hard haul these past three years. I saw a fellow refugee last week. He had always had a jaded edge to him, but three years and eight churches later, the cynicism had hardened into bitterness. He didn't want to even hear the word "church." I was afraid to ask him about God.

I don't blame him. My experience with churches has been bland, to put it mildly. The churches I've attended the last 17 years have been churches more concerned with society's morals than with its needs, more concerned with church attendance than actual growth, and more interested in what people can give to the church than in the people themselves.

So, I'm done. I'm not looking for a church anymore. Pastors, take notice: I don't care a fig about the size of your church. I don't care if it has a food court, I could care less about your youth ministries or your involvement in Promise Keepers, and I don't want to hear about your men and women's ministries. What good are they when the heartfelt tears and welcoming looks don't extend beyond the meeting room?

So what if you have a lead pastor, a children's pastor, a youth pastor, a worship minister, a minister of hospitality, an outreach pastor, and even a creative arts pastor? It's great you have a staffing budget bigger than some corporations, but I'd rather have a place where the average joe can contribute more than body heat.

So you have a gym, run a Christian school and have a campus so large that it has its own ZIP code? I'm sure that's as peachy as my grandmother's cobbler, but quite frankly, I don't give a damn what purpose is driving your church. You can purposely drive your church into Lake Michigan for all I care. People, not the size of debt you've accumlated, are what matters; changing people's lives is going to matter more in the Kingdom of Heaven more than how many new recruits were added to the membership roles.

I'm through. Other people can play the steeplechase if they want; I'm done.

Let me say this quite clearly: I - don't - want - a - church. I could be happy if I never belong to one again.

I want a community. I want a group of believers where I can be myself, where I can give the things that are uniquely mine to give and not just fill a vacant slot in an eternally existing program that can function just as well with somebody else.

I want a Bible study where I can show up wearing leather, sporting a score of facial piercings, and bearing a Gay Pride emblem on my chest and know that I'd get the same reception as the guy wearing slacks, a dress shirt and a $150 tie.

I want a worship service that actually involves worship, a service where my spirit can soar to God's presence, and where my corruptible, dying flesh can realize -- even if it's just for a moment -- that it's going to be redeemed, too. Most contemporary services I've been to are contemporary only to Christians; to the rest of the world, they're still at least a lifetime behind the times. Or did you think everyone listens to music by the Bill Gaither Trio and Larry Petree?

Give me a group of Christians living in the same area, committed to one another and committed to working together to figure out this messy, unresolvable faith we share. Give them a vision that's bigger than themselves, big enough to include the city, the country and the rest of the world, not just to address spiritual needs but to address earthly ones as well. (As if you can address the one without the other.)

Give me a group of Christians who will accept me in the same way that Christ does: just as I am, welcome because his blood was shed for me that way. Give me a group like that instead of this poor man's substitute we've been poisoning ourselves with in America for ages, and a lot more people than just me are going to be interested. Look to the fields - they're ripe and ready for the harvest.

But where are the laborers?

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Trapeze Act

If faith were a circus, I'd be in the high-flying act right now, caught in the moment of motion from one trapeze to the other.

I'm at the turning point, that dreadful moment when momentum has run out and gravity is kicking in. There's no safety net below, and if no one catches me, I'm going to plunge to my death fifty feet below, the victim of a foolish, misplaced trust.

Back when I first agreed to join this circus, I thought I had already crossed this turnover point. Other Christians told me, and I believed them, that the world would look at me and know that I was a Christian. It was something palpable, almost as visible in the physical world as in the spiritual. I thought this transformation had coincided with my conversion. Later, I was told it would come through a gradual process called sanctification that would make me steadily more Christlike in tiny steps until the very air around me would smell like heaven.

Like many other things, this belief has proved to be one of many comforting lies and half-truths I told myself as I climbed ever higher toward the trapeze and as the ground moved step by excruciating step away from my feet.

I haven't become any holier, I've just become more wretched. As others around me in church talk of one victory after another, I've developed a sense of my own sin that eclipses what first drove me to Christ. Grace, not sanctification, is what I'm looking for now.

Here at the turning point, my stomach tightens with anticipation and dread, and I no longer can tell up from down. Vertigo has taken my perspective from me, and I'm amazed at how many other half-truths I've dropped along the way. I wonder if I would have had the courage to start the climb without them, and I wonder if I might have made it farther than this by now if they hadn't been weighing me down.

I can see them, dropped on my way past the high wire, or careening through space as I hang here in midair, suspended for an eternal instant between places. Some of them are side doctrines I used to hold onto so fervently, like my discarded belief in the Rapture. Some were once so important that I'm sure the younger me would be appalled at what I've become. The person I am today would have been written off as a backslider or as a pretender to the faith, someone who was never a "real Christian."

I haven't stopped believing these articles of the faith, but I am gaining a more mature understanding of them. God is love, but that does not mean he is merely kind as we understand kindness, or that things will be easy for those who love him back. The Bible is inspired, but that does not mean it is inerrant. Christ is the only way to the Father, but that does not mean the Kingdom of God is confined to the church.

Here at the turning point, I've lost my pride. When I was younger, I insisted on my point of view on virtually everything. Sometimes I only wanted to explain it, and sometimes I wanted to defend it. Often I wanted everyone to agree with me. That need no longer drives me as it once did. My core beliefs remain unshaken, and it no longer bothers me if someone disagrees or thinks I'm an idiot for believing the way I do.

Truth, I have found, is relational and not merely dogmatic. If a person could be changed through mere argument, the world would be a different place, but if the world ever was like that, it has changed. Today, everybody has an argument. Sometimes I'll have the better argument, and if I don't, then I know I can find someone else who does. The same is true for people on the other side of the argument, and nothing is settled. A strong argument is good only when we already agree on the basic underlying principles.

What I'm finding instead is the transforming power of compassion and basic decency. I'm realizing that Matthew left his job collecting taxes to follow Christ because he discovered that Christ just accepted him as he was, apparently without lecturing him about the evils of extortion and greed. Jesus was the sort of guy everyone could feel comfortable around, no matter how they earned their money, used their spare time, or where they came from. Except hypocrites and moralists. He always drove them to an insane fury, even as he welcomed everyone that they disapproved of.

One last thing I've been giving up: control. Throughout much of my life, I've pretended to be the master of my fate. I have been drawn upward, but every rung I have ascended has been by my choice. I was called out into the air, and I chose to obey.

Now I am in midair, hovering, just before the fall. All choice is gone from me, and even if I wanted to go back, I could not. Two options remain: oblivion, or rescue, and neither of them is a choice for me to make. The minute I let go, I yielded my ability to choose to another.

I'm at the turning point, and I can see a pair of hands coming my way, timed perfectly to catch me before I fall any further. Soon they'll lay hold of me, and the rest of this act will be completely beyond my control.

I can't wait.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

God's Goodness and his Love

About three years ago, I was in a position where I was forced to ask myself whether God really was as good as his press agents had made him out to be.

Those who know me well, know what I'm talking about. At the time, I was the foster father to a 2-year-old boy who had suffered severe neglect at the hands of his parents and was developmentally delayed in every area but size. Our son had been with us since January that year, and as August rolled to a close, it was painfully obvious that he was headed back to his parents, who, even the social worker agreed, hadn't shown the least sign of changing.

At the time, I raged against God. Jesus warned that if anyone destroyed a child, it would be better for that person never to have been born — yet here God was, allowing a helpless child to be thrown back to the wolves, just as the boy was starting to benefit from being with us.

It was the age-old question. If God is so good, then why wasn't he doing anything? What's the point of following him if he's just going to lead you into a pit and leave you there?

Even a cursory view of the Bible shows that these aren't new questions. The psalmists regularly upbraided God for his indifference to their situation. King David complained that evil men had surrounded him, mocking both him and God, and yet still God did nothing. And yet the Bible repeatedly claims that God is good, full of love, and that his mercies endure forever.

The Apostle Paul, when he's writing his epistle to the Roman church, appeals to Nature as evidence of God's goodness: The rain, he points out, falls upon the just and the unjust, because God is patient and merciful with all people.

I've always wondered if Paul couldn't have picked a better example. If the rain falls on people without regard for their individual status before God, it's also true that drought hits them equally hard. The virtuous suffer just as much as the wicked when there's nothing to drink and the crops shrivel up in the ground. If anything, they suffer more, since times of drought and hardship are when the corrupt are at their most powerful. If anything, rainfall seems to argue for God's indifference. Maybe God knows every time a sparrow falls to the ground, but it's not as though he did anything to save the sparrow's life, is it?

If God is merciful to the unjust, why can’t he be a little kinder to their victims? A man as evil as Adolf Hitler knew what it was like to be in love, to enjoy a good meal, and to see the first flower of spring — even as Hitler and his agents were systematically denying those pleasures to six million Jews. Men as full of hate as Osama bin Laden have known the joy of holding their own newborn babies, but there are many victims of al Qaeda's terror who never got to see their children born.

Sometimes it seems that God's not just indifferent, he's actively cruel. Terrorists blow up children; industries dump toxins into the air and water, and refuse to clean them up; dedicated employees find their pension funds pilfered by wealthy and unscrupulous CEOs; the rich get richer while everyone else gets poorer and we're told this is sound economics and good for the country; senior citizens have to choose between buying heart medicine and food, and property taxes just went up again. All this happens, and God just sits by.

We can say it's life that's unfair, not God, but that feels like a cheat, a way to let God off the hook. If he's so full of the milk of kindness, then why doesn't he actually do something about it? Millions of children die every year from unsafe drinking water, and the best he can do is have an ineffable purpose we can't grasp? Good theology means nothing to a beggar whose only child lies cold and unmoving in her arms.

Meaningless suffering, particularly the pointless suffering of children, is the most unanswerable argument against God's goodness that I have ever encountered. As Philip Yancey discovered when he wrote "Disappointment with God," the raw emotional honesty born of needless pain puts the lie to our glorious statements that it all serves a purpose. Our arguments falter, our words feel empty, and if we have any wisdom at all in us, we shut up.

We shut up, because God is good. And the beauty of God's goodness isn't found in clever arguments or deep theological responses. God's goodness is found in his suffering, and he is revealed when we get close enough to suffer with one another.

It's in the Cross.

The Cross is the lynchpin of human existence. On the Cross, Christ became the embodiment of sin. On the Cross, Christ revealed the full measure of righteousness. When we suffer because of our sins, Christ suffers with us and bears the greater burden. When we suffer for the sake of righteousness, then we join in his suffering and can look forward to the same victory that he claimed once the suffering has ended. And when we suffer through no fault of our own but simply because life is unfair, then we can know that Christ endured those things too, and we can take comfort that he understands.

So if the Cross is the fullest expression of God's love, and if it suffuses all human history with meaning, what does that mean? It means that the whole of human history, from the day God breathed life into Adam down to the advent of the New Jerusalem (and far, far beyond that) is also an expression of God's love.

It's only been in the last few years that I've really started to gain a mature understanding of God's love. I can't speak for anyone else, but for the longest time, I don't think I loved God as much as I was just in love with him. For comparison, look at the relationship I now have with my wife.

When we started dating, and when we first married, we had periods marked by a giddy, heady feeling of euphoria. She was sensitive, charming, well-mannered and considerate. She laughed at my jokes, shared my interest in science fiction and fantasy, and held the same religious convictions as me. All I could think about was how much I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. We were in love.

Since we married almost seven years ago, there have been times I've wanted to scream. She's nagged me, criticized the way I fold the laundry, delivered withering critiques of projects I was proud of, and blown up at me for not being able to read her mind. Once, when I had got up early and done a number of things just for her, she left me in tears within an hour by complaining about how I had done each of those things without once stopping to thank me for doing them in the first place.

The sun and the moon still set on her, the stars above still circle her, and I'm still amazed that she wants to spend the rest of her life with me, but our relationship has matured. There have been times for each of us when it would have been easier to walk out, but we stayed. That's not being "in love" -- that is love, and it's much more satisfying.

One of the more captivating illustrations I've found for describing God's love is a cold mountain river. It's wild, and uncontainable, and it's rushing with irresistible force down the rapids. We're caught in the stream, buffeted and bruised, cold and unable to grip anything. The air is crisp and cool as we're swept along, sometimes falling beneath the surface for a moment before we burst out, gasping for breath.

Losing ourselves in God's love means surrendering ourselves to the current, and letting it carry us over the waterfall, trusting that when the river dashes us against the rocks, we'll come to life more than ever before.

Losing ourselves in God's love means living in the Cross, because that was where God most fully stepped into history. Christ's whole ministry was a preamble to the Cross; the church's whole history has been an epilogue to the Resurrection.

And living in the Cross, of course, means living outside the demands of law. That's tougher to accomplish than we like to think, because while we properly understand the relevance of the Cross to ceremonial and sacrificial law, we miss its relevance to moral law. We see the Cross as putting the finishing touch on our behavior; as though once we have made our best efforts and tried our hardest, God's grace kicks in makes our efforts complete. The only problem is, that's not grace. It's law, and law never heals, it only kills.

Ask a divorcee. Chances are, they'll be able to tell you about the times they fell into this trap. "If I had only been a better wife, he wouldn't have left me" or "If I had been a more attentive husband, she wouldn't have felt neglected." If I hadn't spent so many hours at work, if I hadn't been home so much, if I hadn't forgotten to fix the roof. Parents do the same thing. "If I had been a better parent, my child wouldn't be gay." "If I hadn't been so strict, he would love me more." If, if, if.

You can also see the flip side, where Christians, without thinking, point to God's kindness or blessing as their reward for obedience or due discipline. "Oh, it's all by the grace of God it worked out this way. We just followed the scriptural principles on how to raise our children, on how to keep our marriage vibrant, and on how to balance work and home life. Without the Lord, it would have been a disaster." (Notice the statement of pride? Although they're claiming to give God credit, they're also stressing how much they did to earn God's favor — and they're also reinforcing the guilt feelings of everyone whose life hasn't worked out so nicely.)

The truth is, you can do your best job and still fail, or do a rotten job and have everything work out just fine. Influence still exists, but Christ died to free us from the law. The law, if we were under it, would result in utter failure for all of us, since none of us is capable of following the law and to break the least part is to be guilty of breaking it all. By living under the law, we subject ourselves to a burden that steals our joy, keeps us from experiencing Christ's love, and leaves us miserable and alone.

Living in the Cross means letting go of our self-imposed performance expectations and allowing ourselves to act out of love rather than obligation. When James tells us that faith without works is dead, he means not that we do things because God still expects us to perform good deeds, but that our faith will express itself in tangible ways as we love those around us. Being involved in a soup kitchen because "Christians care about the poor" is the first kind of act; it's law. Being involved in a soup kitchen to help the people there because they need the help springs from a different source, and is an act of love. Same action, different heart.

The other hard part about living in the Cross -- and really, it's the same hard part, just seen from a different perspective -- is learning to love.

Honestly, I have no idea how to do that. It's hard — nearly impossible, really — to get close to someone whose behavior is odious. Yet Christ not only did it with the Samaritan prostitute he met at the well, he did it with virtually everyone he met. A collaborator with the Romans was one of his disciples, and so was a reactionary who wanted to kill all the Romans and their collaborators. Jesus didn't get grossed out by lepers or offended by people who committed adultery. When a Roman centurion came to request a healing, Jesus didn't bat an eye at delivering a miracle for him, even though the man was a trained killer.

Jesus didn't love people because he could understand them, because he wanted them to believe, or because he felt obligated. He loved people because they were people. I don't know how he did it, to be honest.

But on those rare occasions where we pull it off, where we love the way that he did, where we share their pain instead of merely feeling it, where we open our lives to "sinners" without fear that they will pull us away from God, where we really and completely die to ourselves, to this world and even to what our churches expect of us — when we do that, people see God.
And they know that he is good.

Copyright @copy; 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, August 26, 2005

A Story worth Reading

It's long and not as polished as the latest bestseller, but it's better than anything I've seen in a Christian bookstore. It's about a college student's friendship with a student who did drugs and earned money as a porn star.

Read the story here.

It's best summed up in the author's own words: "Perhaps the beauty of God is not only found in the neatly packaged salvation stories. Perhaps the beauty of God is instead found in the depth and ugliness of our lives."

Friday, August 12, 2005

In Search of Community

Somebody once said, "With God and books, no man need ever lack for companionship." Nice thought. Ten bucks says they didn't believe it either.

Don't you ever get tired of being lonely? Maybe I'm feeling this way because it's quarter past four in the morning and I can't sleep because of my insomnia, but I'm weary to the bone of it. I'm tired of the pretense required for relationships. I don't want people to accept me because they think I'm clever, witty, intelligent, sincere, or because I have an uplifting disposition and cheery smile. I want to be accepted for who and what I am, even the parts of me that are unpleasant.

Why is it so difficult to have an honest relationship with another human being? Is God the only person who can look at our quirks and not be so disturbed that he limits the relationship to a hearty handshake every Sunday, with a vague promise that he'll invite us over to his place for dinner sometime?

What relationships we do have often are shallow and exist for a reason other than for their own sake. We have friendships with the parents of our children's playmates, with the people who suffer with us at work, with people we think can help us, and with people we adopt as special projects. We argue politics, we discuss religion, we analyze the latest movies and salivate together over the upcoming football season. There is nothing real or substantial about any of these relationships: no understanding, no passion, no commitment — and in our hearts we know it.

The church claims to be inviting and it even offers unconditional love, but in my experience it usually doesn't mean it. You're welcome at church if you vote Republican, dress smart, support middle-class values, believe the right things, and don't rock the boat. Don't even bother attending if you're gay, lesbian, voted for Kerry last year, or doodle on the bulletin while the choir sings "Nearer my God to Thee."

God didn't intend for us to be drones that act, talk and think like everyone else. He gave us each gifts, abilities, insights and a personality that adds something unique to the mix. Put us together right, and you should have a dynamic community where everybody's needs are met, where the community at large benefits, and where people flock to join God's kingdom every day. Unfortunately, being put together properly means having a relationship, and relationships aren't easy.

Not long ago, I belonged to a church in New Jersey that prided itself on the depth of the relationships among its members. To the church's credit, it was truly unique in my experience in its commitment to building community. Through a concatenation of events not worth getting into here, the church self-destructed in 2002 after a year under a new, manipulative pastor.

How many of the relationships forged in that church survived its destruction? I can't speak for the other refugees, but most of ours didn't last. I could rattle off a list of people we used to associate with on a regular basis from that church. My wife and I ate dinner at their homes; we went on double dates with them; we invited them to our wedding, our housewarming, and to our first daughter's baby dedication. No longer.

It's as if, once we stopped going to the same church and no longer saw each other every week, all the things we had had in common suddenly dried up. Now when we bump into one another at the supermarket, we stare at one another in awkward silence and fumble for something to say. If we're lucky, we've seen three of those families once in the past year. Our social calendar is empty and we're left to navigate parenthood and marriage on our own.

In fact, my wife and I have managed to maintain a few relationships with refugees from our old church, but that's because we have an excuse to. Every week we attend a Bible study one of them hosts, where three other former refugees attend. Take away that study, and the whole support structure for our continued familiarity goes with it.

I want to believe that it's possible to have relationships that are real and honest, but I've seen little enough evidence that they're anything less than miraculous. It takes time to build that trust, and only a moment to shatter it. Loving another person, letting them see the face that hides behind the mask, means opening ourselves up to pain, and it can hurt just as much when the person stays as when they leave.

We pass most of our lives so utterly alone, even as we protest how much relationships matter, and how much we want to be with other people. I'm tired of being alone. I want to belong, and too often, I find myself standing alone.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Masks: A Monologue

A barren stage, with a single chair or stool. On this stool sits ANNE, a woman in her mid- to late 30s, alone, wearing a plain, featureless mask.

ANNE. I imagine you'd like to know why I'm wearing a mask. It's really quite simple: It's better that way for both of us. I don't have to let you see more of me than is safe, and you don't have to know more about me than you feel comfortable with. As long as I wear this mask, you'll see what you want to. You'll accept me, and I can feel as though I belong.

Oh, I know it sounds odd, but it's true. If you knew who I really am -- if you knew for just one minute that I'm -- If you knew that I was a .... That I'm ... If you knew the truth about me, you would want nothing to do with me. It wouldn't matter that we've known each other for years or that our children play together. It wouldn't matter that we believe the same things about God, about politics, or that we root for the same baseball team. If I took off this mask, you would see me for who I am, and I would be alone again.

I know from experience how cruel that rejection can be. I had a friend, Elizabeth. We had been friends for five years, and had no secrets from each other, except one. One evening, when I was lonely and in pain, and I needed someone to understand me, I took off my mask and I let her see my true face. That was two years ago. I haven’t heard from her since.

So I've made my mask as lifelike and acceptable as possible. I've married, and I've had children. My mask lets people feel comfortable around me, and I feel safe, even though the dishonesty cuts me like a knife and there are times I wish it would all end.

The truth is, I've been wearing masks for almost as long as I can remember. I started wearing them in school, when I was a child, because I dreaded being tormented by my classmates. When I reached college, I saw how supposedly tolerant people treated those who wore no masks at all, so I clutched mine tight and never let anyone see the face I hid underneath. I wear one mask at work to help my career, I wear another with friends, and still another with the parents of my children's schoolmates . I have masks for every occasion, for every purpose, and for everyone I meet.

And most importantly, I have a mask that I wear here, at church.

I know a few of you are thinking how wrong I am, that this is one place I should feel comfortable to take off my mask and let people see me for who I really am. I might actually believe that if I thought that you do.

But you don't. I'm looking right now, and all I see ... all I see, is a sea of masks.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Waiting to Fly

Once there was a man who could fly.

How Daedalos happened to gain this unusual ability, no one really knows. Some say he was a wizard, and having trapped the four winds in a leather sack, refused to release them until Aeolus gave him wings. Other people insist he was a wise man, not a wizard, and had made the wings himself after studying birds. Daedalos himself never said which it was, but if he did kidnap the winds, they evidently forgave him, because his ability to fly soon became legendary throughout the city.

It started one morning down by the Acropolis when an Athenian going about his business nearly tripped over another who was standing stock-still, his neck tilted backward and his eyes staring in disbelief at the sky. Soon a crowd had formed, dozens of necks straining and twisting, and the entire city was watching Daedalos chase a falcon through the air.

No one wanted to learn how he did it, but it soon became a popular pastime to watch him as he flew. When the air was relaxed and cool, Daedalos would glide gently along wherever the breeze took him. In the fall, when a heavenly roar echoed through the sky, Daedalos would throw himself into the air. As long as the weather held, the city would echo with his laughter. The wind would drive him one place and another, casting him down toward the streets before hurtling him upward once more; one moment dancing in wild and reckless swoops, the next wrestling like friends in a passionate embrace.

"When you fly, it's as though you're free of everything that ties you down on this earth," he once said. "You no longer worry about which path to take, or feel concerned about the petty details that seem so important the rest of the time. The wind can be savage, but you know it'll never hurt you, not really. Sometimes you can’t shake the dread of where it might blow you, but at the same time, you're inexpressibly free."

One day, the wind carried Daedalos out to sea. It wasn't until Athens started to recede from view that he began to feel the first pangs of concern. Concern became fear as the land dwindled to a speck, and when it vanished from sight, he turned to panic. He beat the air with his wings as hard as he could, but to no avail. The land stayed hidden, and beneath him rolled the unending waves of the Aegean Sea.

It wasn't until he had reached Crete that the wind finally died down. It slowed and stilled, and it gently deposited him on the ground, and then it was gone.

With no way off the island, Daedalos put his time on Crete to the best use he could. He worked a while for the palace, erecting a maze to conceal and to contain one of the king's more monstrous secrets. With the wealth he earned that way, he bought himself a home, where he began to teach those who would listen what he knew of the wind and its ways.

But most of all, he waited. By night he dreamed of flying over the sea, unencumbered by earthly concerns, going wherever the wind would take him. By day, he watched his students master what he taught them, then make wings of their own and join the seagulls in flight. He heard tantalizing stories of storms, of breezes, or of squalls that blew for others, but if he caught them at all, their strength never lasted. Daedalos would sail into the air for the briefest moment, and then the breeze would carry him to the ground and leave him there with a soft moan.

One night, when Daedalos had been on Crete for so long that he almost believed his stories of flying were nothing more than idle fantasy, he heard the soft rustle of the leaves on the trees. At first he ignored it, but the motion became more insistent, and at last he went outside.

All around him, trees were swaying. From the shore he heard the crash of the waves upon the rocks. Overhead, the clouds rolled and tumbled as they flew past, throwing the ground into light and darkness as they hid and uncovered the moon.

"At last," he whispered.

His fingers trembling with fear, Daedalos picked up the wings he had worn years before when the wind had brought him here. His aged limbs shook as he climbed the ladder to the roof of his home, and then he stood there for a moment, basking in the glory as the air swept over him, blowing his gray hair and clearing away the dust in a rush of motion.

"At last," he said again, and he lifted his arms to his sides. His wings filled with air, and with a mighty laugh, he threw himself from the top of his house.

He was free at last.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Wasting your life

"I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked."
-- C.S. Lewis

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking
And racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in the relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say.
-- Pink Floyd

And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man's years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.
-- C.S. Lewis

Friday, July 22, 2005

Wisdom from a "Big, Fat Idiot"

Thank God for Rush Limbaugh.

I say this with a trace of irony, but I also say it with a lot of honesty. Thank God for Rush Limbaugh. He may be more entertainer than serious commentator, and he may not know what he's talking about half the time, but when he gets something right, he's dead-on.

Limbaugh was quoted a couple weeks ago in a story carried on Yahoo! news about the rise of the Religious Left. Given voice by groups like Sojourners and in publications like "The Wittenburg Door," the Religious Left is challenging the notion that to be a Christian means to be conservative, to vote Republican, or to support administrative policies like war in Iraq or tax breaks for the wealthy.

Limbaugh's comment: "The religious left in this country hates and despises the God of Christianity and Catholicism and whatever else. They despise it because they fear it and it's a threat, because that God has moral absolutes, that God has right and wrong, that God doesn't deal in nuance."

My first reaction, I admit, was to roll my eyes and call Limbaugh an idiot. I really couldn't figure out why he was being quoted. His fast and loose treatment of facts, combined with his infuriating Aren't-I-so-smart? style, makes him about as lampoonable as Michael Moore, and about as difficult to take seriously. Aside from the odd memorable sound bite, he's a lousy spokesman for reasoned conservatism.

Hate and despise God? That's ridiculous. I've been a Christian for seventeen years now, and I've grown more liberal the longer I've been a believer. Among the liberal causes I support are protecting our civil rights from governmental intrusion; tough hate-crime legislation; affordable housing; food, clothing and shelter for the homeless; civil unions for same-sex couples; education and self-improvement for those in prison; and an end to capital punishment. These are all liberal causes, and the positions I've adopted on them stem from my faith, which has been growing deeper, not shallower, over the years.

But you know something? Rush is dead-on. God has instilled moral absolutes into the world, and he doesn't deal in nuance. My effete liberalism offends him, it makes me an object of his wrath, and that absolutism is not something I feel comfortable with.

I read once that Jesus never intended anyone to feel righteous, and neither did Paul. The difference is that Paul's epistles include lists of sins, and that lets us feel superior to people who commit the sins that we don't. So conservatives in the church can rail against our libertine society, and feel good; and liberals can blast society for failing to feed the hungry, and feel good; and both groups completely miss the point that Paul's lists are actually fairly inclusive descriptions of human behavior and meant to remind us all of our own sins.

The issue at hand isn't whether I would perform an abortion or take part in a gay marriage, nor even whether I approve of those things. Nor is it whether Rush Limbaugh or someone else subscribes to the Bush administration's belief that giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans instead of to the people who stand to benefit the most with a little extra cash, counts as favoring the rich over the poor.

The issue is that I'm a sinner, and I do a poor job of upholding the standard of righteousness I profess to believe in.

I believe the dispossessed of society hold a special place in the economy of God, and I can show passage after passage of Scripture that bears this out. I can delineate with great fervor some of the injustices committed in my city, where affordable housing has been ripped up to install luxury high-rises; where homegrown businesses have been uprooted to make way for more upscale developments. I call this an injustice, I call it exploiting the poor, and I believe God sees it that way too. I've also done next to nothing about it.

I believe that people who presume to call themselves by God's name, as we do when we call ourselves Christians, have an obligation to love as he did, and that at a minimum, we should care for the people who live next door to us. Ask me the names of my neighbors. No, on second thought, please don't. I'd rather be spared the embarrassment.

I believe that we should pray for peace and lament when war comes, even if it is necessary; that we should pray for the persecuted church in the Middle East and elsewhere; and that we should pray for people who are imprisoned within their own hatred. That, at least, I do.

I believe a lot of things, but deliver on very few of those beliefs. It's nice to think that that's OK with God, that he'll wink at my failure to do anything meaningful with my life and say, "Oh, you meant well," and that he won't leave all my failures exposed for everyone to see.

I want God to be impressed. Everyone else is. I was a foster father three years ago. I was a missionary eleven years ago. I've led Bible studies and church ministries, tutored prison inmates and visited a sick neighbor in the hospital. Sadly, that's not enough. When all my sins are placed on the scales, weighted against the meager good I've done, even the heaviest feather won't be enough to tilt the scales in my favor.

And, like Rush said, that offends me. God's not going to bother too much over the nuance of why I stole a cheeseburger from McDonald's seventeen years ago, or why I haven't bothered to actually get to know the families across and down the street from me, or why I don't get out there and actually use the vision, the abilities and the means he's given me to make a difference in the world. He's not going to fret over how tired I was, or how I didn't know any better. And he's certainly not going to care that I thought my liberal views were better thought-out and more biblical than the conservative views that come from the Religious Right.

What I think he will care about is that about two weeks after I rolled my eyes at Rush, I realized he had a point. He'll remember that I started to think about all the ways I've failed to do anything meaningful with what I've learned and seen, and that I realized (once again) that I was being just as smug and self-righteous as I like to think Rush is, and repented.

And hopefully, it'll mark the beginning of a new period of grace in my life, when I learned to love a little better and looked a little more like his son, whom I claim to be following.

Thanks, Rush.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Whatever happened to stories?

What I miss most about Christianity is its stories.

Back when I was a teenager, and then just after I became a Christian, I loved to read the Bible. It had great stories, like the one where Joseph gets thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers. Then, just when he's the number-two guy in Egypt and thinks he's put his past behind him, his brothers show up unexpectedly and he almost decides to get even, but he breaks down in tears and just can't do it. Then there was the story of David, whose family was so ashamed of him they made him take care of the sheep, but he became such a great king that there are two whole books of the Old Testament about him and all the other kings got compared to him, and usually pretty badly. Those were great stories.

Somewhere along the line, the book of Genesis became a science textbook about origins, the book of Revelation became a cryptic account of the events leading up to Doomsday, and everything in-between became raw material in lessons in clean living, how-to manuals for spiritual growth, and textbooks on building sound doctrine. I don't read the Bible anymore. I study it instead.

I'm a poorer man for it. Once, when my daughter was feeling sick on a camping trip and none of her storybooks were handy, I started reading her the gospel of John from start to finish. I was amazed to discover that it wasn't disjointed like I had come to believe. It was a weirdly cool story with mystical-seeming themes about Christ's identity that moved and flowed through the text when I read it. Reading it that way taught me far more than I had ever learned through the analyze-it-to-death approach I learned in my college Christian fellowship years ago.

I miss reading good stories with a faith angle. Here's the plot of almost every book you'll find in the fiction section of your local religious bookstore: Someone had a problem; but then they became a Christian, prayed, or stood fast and quoted lots of Bible verses; and God took their problems away. They found love, they found happiness, they solved a crime, or their territory expanded, and everything was happy-happy.

Lord knows, we used to have some good stories, from "Lord of the Rings" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" to "Crime and Punishment" and "Les Misérables," with other stories like "A Christmas Carol" thrown in for good measure. (Of course, we find ways to drag them down. I've known Christians who believe that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis weren't "real" Christians, and I heard a few years ago about some church presenting "A Christian Christmas Carol," as though James 2:14 isn't as central to the gospel as John 3:16, and if Ebenezer Scrooge doesn't say the sinner's prayer, the evening's been a complete waste.)

I love stories that have never gone out of print, or that have survived for hundreds of years and have been published in dozens of languages all over the world. The Tom Clancys and John Grishams of the world may show a well-turned phrase or two, and their books may be a quick, easy read, but great literature survives because it meets our ancient need to tell stories that help us to understand ourselves and our relationships with one another, with God and the rest of his creation.

Stories that do those things survive the years and move across cultures because we all recognize some truth in them: the palpable aura of guilt that hangs on Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, who had considered himself above the common burden of morality; or the self-sacrificing spirit that drives the life of a reformed Jean Valjean.

The Greek farmer Aesop used stories to teach homilies to little children. Jesus used them to teach profound truths to children and adults alike. He told parables about outwardly decent people who couldn't stand to see a brother welcomed home after disgracing himself and the family. He told stories about business managers who cheated their masters in order to make friends and guarantee their own futures, and stories about people with bad theology being better off than people who thought they had God figured out. He talked about kings being kept from their kingdoms, tenants who wouldn't make good on the lease, and fathers feeding snakes to their children.

It must have been infuriating to talk with Jesus when he got off on a storytelling kick. Ask him a simple question about who your neighbor is, and suddenly he's talking about people being beat half to death on the road to Jericho. Ask him why his disciples didn't wash their hands before eating, and before you know it, he's talking about people fasting during a wedding and pouring new wine into old wineskins.

In Mark 4:12, Jesus said that he spoke in parables so that people wouldn't understand what he was saying. That seems kind of odd, at first glance. It certainly doesn't seem like a good way to get tenure in the New Jersey public school system, at any rate.

On the other hand, we still remember and talk about Jesus' stories two thousand years later and all over the world. That's a lot better than I can say about the sermons my pastor preached last month, whatever they were.

Unlike sermons, which tie everything together with all the excitement and personal involvement of a board presentation, stories are open-ended and leave lots of room for discussion afterward. They stir the soul, and leave you plenty of room to draw your own conclusions and debate them with other people. What's there to discuss about a Sunday morning sermon? You can take it or leave it, but unless the preacher was in poor form, the sermon said what it said. It's no wonder that the world views Christianity as a narrow, dogmatic religion with no room for discussion.

I wonder what it would be like to attend a church where the services, from time to time, consisted of plays — good plays, mind you — performed by a drama ministry; where the pastor sometimes took a break from preaching just to read a Bible story from start to finish; and we all lost ourselves for a while in a good story.

If that ever happens, it'd be a tale worth the telling.

Copyright 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.