Archives for the month of: June, 2013

crow 5

It’s your second ever Quaker Meeting of Friends. You get out of your car just as another man dismounts his bike. Where’s your bike? What does driving say about your environmental priorities? You say hi automatically. He says hi back, of course, since he’s not a jerk. Inside, you’re panicking. Is it okay to talk outside? You know that people aren’t supposed to talk during the Meeting. But you’re still outside. That’s different, right? You resolve to hold open the door for him, hoping that makes up for your impulsive greeting.

You know a Quaker Meeting isn’t like your standard church service. No pastor paces back and forth, extemporizing on the truth of the universe; there is no pastor. Nobody gets up to sing; there is no choir. Nobody welcomes you at the door. You go straight to your seat. It doesn’t matter where you sit, because everybody’s got the same view. Every chair is turned towards the center, so you can see everyone. Not that you expect much. The others aren’t that interesting to watch; they’ll just be sitting, contemplating the inner truth we all have stashed away inside us. But you get the sense that you shouldn’t be watching other people. Eyes should be closed or aimed at the trees outside the window, or at a corner, or at the floor, or at your laces. If only you’d brought a pair of chocos. Then you wouldn’t stick out so much.

Some people will be breathing deeply, eyes shut, almost like they’re meditating. A part of you rejects the idea of social security pulling white folks meditating, so you decide it’s something else. Maybe they really are communing with the spirit inside them, as they claim. You give that a try. The spirit’s there all right. That familiar feeling, from when you were younger, that sensation of interacting with God. You correct yourself: some undefined higher power. That spine tingling feeling which, in the moment, is better than an orgasm. And you do your best not to think about sex. Anything but sex. You’re not sure if the Quakers have everything right, but you have this feeling that even if God doesn’t exist he’d surely burst into existence to scold you for fantasizing in the midst of a spiritual act.

It’s not that hard, to forget sex. All of the others are a good deal older, way out of your range. Except that one woman, but she’s still ten years your senior. What if Quakers are a dying breed? Why don’t they appeal to your generation? Explanations from your statistics classes spring forward: small sample size. Maybe this is an anomaly. You decide it’s not. Your generation wants to do something. Waiting around is for failures. It’s what gets you shoved off the meritocracy ladder. Your generation’s god, when he exists, expects you to be proactive. There’s no inner voice with spiritual wisdom. When you sit in a silent room for an hour, that hour of your life has just been thrown against a wall and shot. You don’t get it back. No ROI for introspection. A crow caws outside, mocking the silence.

You remember that someone once told you that you’ve got a gift for introspection. Suddenly it has value again. You realize that you’re not quaking in good faith. So you clear your mind again. That’s when the story comes back. It’s that novel idea you’ve never sat down to write out. You know you don’t need to. It won’t disappear like other ideas; day after day you get it back. Little pieces of its world get revealed, dependable advent candies of inspiration.

This time’s different though. Your mind is truly bored, maybe for the first time in your life. Dull days have netflix. Dentist offices have magazines. Long car rides have shifting views, or maybe fitful sleep. But this Meeting just has the inside of your head. No distractions, no options but creation. The story goes further today. You see more of the characters than ever before. Faces come as clear as day. You hear voices practically. The beginning thrills, the middle pulls, and the end approaches. You’ve almost got it.

And then they’re shaking hands. Someone, an elder somewhere, must have started it. That’s the signal that the Meeting’s over. You’re done. One man,  he must be the elder, asks if anyone felt any stirrings to speak from the spirit. So you could have talked, as long as it was a message from the spirit. Nobody claims a revelation. Anything else someone would like to share, he asks. A woman comments on the crow, that it was pretty. You wonder for a second if she did something wrong, in speaking up, if she violated some sort of taboo since the elder doesn’t praise her opinion. Then it occurs to you that he might be deliberately reserving judgment. Why would it be his place to judge her feelings on beauty?

They make announcements, attending to the minutiae that must exist to keep any grouping of people tumbling along. Then a break for fellowship. A woman, prematurely graying, comes forward to speak with you, asking you about your life in a small talk sense. So you tell her, revealing a bit more than you intended. It’s big talk now. For some reason, she reciprocates, talking about her children. Right now they’re sleeping, and will probably make it to a later service. The oldest is in high school, struggling to reconcile biblical and contemporary ideas of equality. You wish him luck. His youngest brother still plays with blocks, so nobody makes him go to the Meeting. The middle child reads books during Meetings and insists he’s an atheist. An image of that atheist friend you have pops into your head. Then you wonder why reading books couldn’t make you an atheist too.

Unconsciously, your body position shifts. You hear what your body language is saying. Arms crossed, you must be trying to emotionally cut yourself off from this woman, from the big talk. You nod and smile, knowing that you won’t be able to reveal anything else, at least not in this conversation, at least not today.

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A recent shift away from doctrinal Christianity left me with many estranged friends. It’s a weird place to be, because I recognize that in a lot of cases we still care about each other, but there’s a wall between us. And I, as the undeniable builder of the wall, have felt and feel powerless to fix things. Yet, a few weeks ago, one old friend reached over that wall and tossed me a book. It was Donald Miller’s “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.” I read it.

On the surface, Miller’s book is the story of how his first big hit, Blue Like Jazz, became a movie. But it’s really about what he learned from that process: that a truly well-lived life resembles a story. The characters care about something. They struggle. And then, hopefully, they succeed.

It’s rare for me to commit to just one book at a time. Often I’ll have a fiction book and a non-fiction book going at the same time; one keeps me sane and the other gives me useless facts to lord over other people at parties. Since my religious falling out, I’ve also been spending each morning reading essays on religion and meditating. It’s a decent surrogate for the Bible reading and prayer which used to fill my mornings. The latest essay is by McTaggart, “God, Evil, and Immortality.” You know, easy stuff. McTaggart outlines why, in his eyes, the presence of evil in the world necessarily precludes God’s omnipotence. If God is truly all-powerful, he must be permitting evil to exist. If God allows evil, he cannot be called good. And if God isn’t good, he isn’t a god we should worship. Or so it goes.

As careful as McTaggart may have been in covering his philosophical bases, he overlooked what is now a pretty common explanation for this seeming contradiction: God is a storyteller. Evil makes creation complete, just like a story without a villain isn’t really worth reading or watching. I’d heard this explanation before, but thought of it as merely quaint. However, juxtaposed against McTaggart’s rigorous analysis, this pithy explanation gained new esteem in my eyes. This seemed to be an explanation which McTaggart fails to address.

If I had to guess, I would suspect McTaggart would argue that a truly omnipotent God could devise a way for stories to be meaningful without the presence of evil. He dispenses with the argument in favor of free will in this kind of fashion. In reply, I would have to question the ability of a being of limited perspective (e.g., man) to evaluate the comparative worth of any one of the theoretically infinite variations on what it means for a story to be meaningful. I’ll admit, this response just returns us to our circular-thinking origin point. If God is omnipotent, the explanations for his existence hold up; if he is not, they don’t. Circularity often seems to be the best I can do when dealing with philosophy.

Then what do I find in Miller’s book, just a few minutes later, but the statement: “God is a master storyteller.” A little surprising to see this idea come at me from two different directions. I like it. I enjoy thinking of myself as being merely a character in a story. Much less pressure that way. But on closer examination, I feel that the story explanation solves less than I might hope. God’s story doesn’t necessarily have to follow the Christian narrative. The knowledge that there is some kind of plan doesn’t confirm that the plan is good. Too often I see people jump from making a general argument for human spirituality (e.g., why do we perceive beauty?) and then claim they’ve proven there is a God. And then: if God, then obviously Christianity. If Christianity, then clearly the Bible. If the Bible, then the Springfield First Southern Baptist Church’s interpretation.

Why can’t the “story” be the fall of Christianity? I’m not necessarily saying it should be. I think Christianity is well-suited to modernity because it’s so adaptable. I just think we can’t eliminate any possibilities.

And if I really am just a character, and God’s holding the script somewhere, calling my lines from the wings, does this really change the way I’m going to live my life? As much as people like talking about different “possible” futures, there is, and always has been, only one way that the world actually “will” turn out. Leave those suggested alternative universes aside, and admit that something was always going to happen in the future. So our world’s always been predetermined, at least in a sense. If there is a plan, then I’m part of it whether I know or not.

Reading Miller’s book was the final impetus to get me to start this blog. I want to live a story-filled life. Based on prior experience, I know that one of the best ways to bring about change is to kick introspection into overdrive. The additional practice writing certainly couldn’t hurt.

And who knows, I might be the most important character. Maybe I’m the villain.

Really, this blog exists because I want to be accountable for the way I live my life. Soon, I’ll be going through a massive transition, taking on a new job, my first place, new friends, and complete interpersonal freedom. Hermit or socialite. Friend or recluse. It’s really 100% up to me. Fun, fun, fun. But it is. Truly. Writing for an audience is a good thing. Journaling has been wonderful for me over the years, and the worst consequence I could imagine coming out of this blog would be for me to cease keeping that personal log. There’s no better way to befriend yourself. However, blogging might be a good way to befriend the world.

My hope is to be 1) useful and 2) entertaining. Being funny is in my mind not just desirable, but a duty. I’ve occasionally written comedy for a breakout sketch comedy group in Houston called Be Kind to Strangers. Telling stories that make people laugh is one of the most satisfying pursuits I’ve ever undertaken. Check out some of their stuff (and a little of my own work) at bekindtostrangers.blogspot.com.