Sunday School with the President: Pt 2

(This is the second-part to a two-part entry about my Sunday School experience with President Jimmy Carter. Check out the first part here)

I don’t know what we were expecting – a Secret Service announcement, trumpets playing fanfare, or a swirling siren’s call – but I never thought Jimmy Carter would just wander in a side door. He walked up from around the seats and stood before us, idling less than a foot from my knees and asked us where were all from. “Indiana!” Someone yelled. “Indiana…” he echoed. “Alabama!” And then his reply, “Alabama…” I threw in mine. “California.” He looked down, “California…” The organizers told us that this was a tradition by which he started each Sunday School teaching. “If he says your state,” they told us, “then no one should go around saying the same one again. He doesn’t like that.” I remembered the other rules – make pictures for the first minute and then put away your camera, don’t applaud, don’t stand, don’t put your hands in your pockets, don’t mention his condition or the cancer, no well wishes.

“We’re praying for you President Carter,” someone shouted up. I guess we were just ignoring that last rule.

For a11902329_981906041850840_4934700025932738928_nbout ten minutes, he just stood there, responding to any comment thrown his way by the audience, smiling wryly the whole time. An older gentleman yelled up that had also attended Annapolis. Mr. Carter asked which year, and the conversation ended. Another man said that Carter’s cousin had delivered the baby of one of his family members. The former President just nodded and smiled. A woman in the front row asked about Rosalynn, President Carter’s wife. He replied that she was “just fine”, saying they had just celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary. We wanted to applaud that but didn’t. We remembered the rules that time.

And then, CNN (who broadcast the whole thing) insisted they start Bible Study, and without any sort of goodbye, he left.

We got what we wanted. We had sat before the former President of the United States.

He began Bible Study with a brief update on his condition. They got all the cancer in his liver – it appeared – but it had spread to his brain. He was beginning treatment on that. And then, to end it, he said, “That’s enough on that topic.”

IMG_7061His talk focused on friendship, frequently invoking the tenet of Christianity that we ought to “love our neighbor,” which he defined as the person standing in front of you. He spoke about disagreements, which he casually called “differences of agreement,” an idiosyncratic term I had never heard before. He said men and women must struggle all the time to look at others and empathize, even if we differed on core points. It was not about agreeing – no, it was about understanding. He said that he and Rosalynn, while they frequently disagreed, never go to bed misunderstanding one another.

He finished the lesson after a brisk 45 minutes, announcing that he needed to head off to the local high school to “do this a second time” for the others who could not be fit inside the church. He would be available for pictures afterwards, and we were all instructed to come up in groups. “If you come up alone,” he said, “That’s okay, but I’ll wonder why you have no friends.” With the quip, the President left the area.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency ended in a rough state. With a middling economy and the heightening of the Iran Hostage Crisis (and a failed attempt to liberate the victims), he was voted out of office in a landslide election in favor of Ronald Reagan. I grew up under a cloud of conservatism, so Jimmy Carter wasn’t an admired POTUS. He has had an active post-White House career, which culminated in a Nobel Peace Prize in the early 2000s. Time will tell his legacy – whether he was a good President or merely just a good man.

None of that mattered to me. I saw Christ in his eyes. And when he left, I longed to see it again. His message of pure love – just loving the person in front of you – resonated deeply. Maybe that is all we are supposed to do. Maybe that is the calling of the men and women of this world. To love. And maybe, if God is so great and the Holy Spirit is so present, that the details on behavior and attitude will grow implicitly within us as a product of that love. Maybe it is just that simple.

And with that, a non-religious experience became spiritual. And I’m waiting, now, for what grows implicitly from it.

Sunday School with the President

Two weeks ago, a friend told me that we ought to take a trip to see former President Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School at the Maranatha Baptist Church. I grew up “non-denominational” (a fancy term for “generic Christian” with no stance on sectional beliefs), so my thought was, Oh, so a bunch of children sit around Mr. Carter while a bunch of adults watch him teach some basic lesson. I quickly learned that “Sunday School” for Baptists was an adult Bible Study, taught from a quarterly book released to all the churches throughout the country. This would not be songs and coloring activities – this was a 45-minute in depth scriptural conversation that just so happened to be taught by a President of the United States. Then, a week later, news broke that Mr. Carter had developed liver cancer that had subsequently spread to his brain. The stakes seemed high, and well, how could we put off making the journey? The time was upon us.

IMG_0696We knew it would be packed, so we got up at 3:30 am and drove three hours from Atlanta to the little town of Plains, GA. We thought the 6:45 am arrival would guarantee us one of the 300 seats, but upon swinging into the parking lot – set across an open field padded with the edge of a forest – we saw a line that stretched down and around the darkened church. Everyone stood patiently with a warm smile, exchanging stories with adjacent travelers. Buzzing gnats and mosquitos swarmed, settling down onto anyone staying still. NPR and AP reporters went up and down the line looking for interview subjects. Everyone had a story; most had stayed in hotels nearby, some flying in from far away states just to witness the event. It felt historic and yet ordinary. Here was a group of individuals, some of whom were not even remotely religious, queuing up for hours in moist heat to listen to a Bible Study. Someone asked one of the organizers if they had any plans to expand the church, so they could house all the future patrons who would undoubtedly flood in during the coming weeks. She chuckled: “Are any of you coming back when President Carter no longer teaches?” We all knew the answer. “We will never expand,” she concluded.

IMG_0695We didn’t make it into the sanctuary. Ultimately, we were among the “first losers.” When they finally closed the doors, announcing there was no more room left, my friend and I were second and third in line. We had to settle for the first row of the “fellowship hall,” where we could watch a closed circuit feed of the Bible Study in the next room. A few people behind us in line grumbled about line cutters who had jumped in front of us upon seeing the congestion. It was true; my friend and I saw some folks who had snuck their way in, taking advantage of the breezy atmosphere and humble setting. What could we do though? The doors were closed. And ultimately, we were lucky. There were some 400 people behind us who were jammed into a high school auditorium off campus. And then a ton of folks behind them were turned away outright.

Yup. We were lucky.

The church organizers certainly knew how to build anticipation. Secret Service stood at every entry and exit point. They disallowed anything besides “cameras, keys, and money for the offering;” I saw them use a metal detector wand on a two-year-old. I guess when it comes to the President, you can never be too careful. Then, an endearingly blunt woman stood in front of us to go over the “rules.” Mr. Carter would stop by to say hello to us for an extended period of time before going to the sanctuary. No one was to mention his cancer – no well wishes or offers of pity. Positivity would be much more helpful to his recovery. We were not to applaud his arrival or departure or give him any kind of standing ovation – a personal request straight from the man himself.

Mr. Carter’s intention was simple, delivered from him to the organizers to us: we were to listen to his teaching on Christ and apply that lesson to our daily lives.

I thought back to the question from earlier… Will you expand the church? All of us – save the 31 weekly members – were there for a singular reason. We wanted to see the President. We wanted to savor this opportunity. We wanted to get our picture with him, to see the myth of the man, to revel in his person at this difficult and uncertain time.

And so I had this sneaking guilt… What did it say about me, that my intentions upon entering this church were so… non-religious?

And then Jimmy Carter sauntered in a side door, startling all of us, and shouted, “Good morning!”

More tomorrow.

Give Up: An Interlude

Oliver met me on the quad as snowfall softly pummeled the sidewalks. I slipped the whole way, feeling the silent thud-thud-thud of the snow wads, expecting a sound to go along with it. But it was completely vacant. They warned of a coming blizzard, but I did not take it seriously. A blizzard in mid-Pennsylvania was about as common as rain in Seattle, and no one could function if they took meaning to the threats. I ventured out, because I wanted to meet Oliver. He knew my secret, after all – and I knew his.

I asked to meet, and he happily agreed. It was odd though, because it was daylight, although darkened by the greyness and the snow. We never met by daylight – preferred our meetings under the guise of pseudo-social situations between midnight and 6 am. It felt like an Elementary School in twilight – familiar yet upside down. My pulse heightened, influenced by a tossing anxiety that flipped to excitement and then back again. It felt like we were moving forward – or perhaps back – and I changed my mind by the minute. I anticipated, and then I apprehended, and that ambivalence stuck until he said hi and dodged a hug. Then, I knew.

I brushed the snow off a bench nearby, swept his side as well. I knew we would need a healthy distance between us.

He wanted to give me back my secret. He wanted to give up.

He blamed it on a number of things. After careful thought, he had determined this to be a “failed experiment.” He liked girls – he said – and admitted to alcohol as a contributing factor (thought it had never been that way for me). He said he wouldn’t ever tell anyone and would appreciate it if I did the same. He had a reputation to maintain, and a rumor like this might affect his chances to date girls. Also, it was embarrassing – “We both should be embarrassed. Aren’t you?” I asked him if he had planned to tell me today, or if it was coincidence, since I’m the one who asked him to hang out-

He interrupted. He said he figured I knew what was going on when I asked him to meet.
He asked if I wanted to grab dinner. You know, to stay friends maybe.
I said I was fine.
He brought his lips together and shrugged.
He said see you around.
I said okay.

I didn’t go home that night. I remember sitting down in the middle of the commons, head tilted down at a half angle, thinking it all through. I had shed all out my outerwear onto the table in front of me into a lump of exoskeleton. He had the same secret as me, and yet we came to wildly different outcomes. I refused to believe the “girl” bullshit. He had this, and he wanted to give up for his own real reasons. And I had had the exact opposite reaction, despite having the exact same experience. How could that happen? How could one face truth and possibility and just give up? I had turned my back on all that I had learned – I had chosen feeling over faith and ignored my upbringing. I had given up on that and ruined it. God no longer wanted me, I knew. All for this, for Oliver.

A friend found me in the middle of the night on a shortcut. The commons ran through campus, so a walk from a party to the dorms often included a respite of warmth inside. He didn’t know my secret but knew something was wrong. He approached me happily, linked in arms with his girlfriend. She noticed first and asked if I wanted to sleep in their dorm that night. I agreed.

He said he didn’t know what was going on, but he loved me.
I said thank you.
He said I looked scary.
I asked how?
He said it looked like I was ready to give up.
I asked how?
He said he didn’t know but it just looked that way.
I said I was sure I would be fine.

Anniversary

I have never been one for birthdays or anniversaries. Call me a pessimist, but the whole thing seems somewhat arbitrary to me. Do we really need a day to celebrate… normalcy? I don’t know.

A year ago, I wrote my parents a letter that would become the basis for this project. It was overly long and questionably received, but it was truly the first step I took towards coming out as publicly as I have. For the vast majority of my life, I resigned myself to the likelihood that I would never be open about any of this stuff – that to be queer did not mean I had to be queer publicly. To me, gay pride was like my birthday – it seemed arbitrary (why be proud of something I can’t control?) and like a celebration of something that was almost boring to me.

From ages 18 – 25, I was only out to a specific group of people. It was something spoken in hushed tones, kept entirely out of my familial and professional circles and reserved for my friends only.

Then, I decided to bust down the door.

So here’s the sledgehammer I used to knock it off its hinges – one year ago today.


As a general note, names have been changed, and I did shorten this for some semblance of brevity as well as privacy. I spent some time in the original letter discussing the sexualities of some friends and acquaintances – some who are not as open as me – and so I omitted those references.


Mom and Dad,

This letter comes with as much love and respect that I can possibly muster for you both. I attribute so much of my strengths to the example that you set for me from a young age until now. You have taught me to work my very hardest in the worst situations, to rely on my personal strength rather than complain, and to follow through on my commitments. You have overcome incredible obstacles to raise us with such fervor, and I hope I tell you often enough how much I appreciate your sacrifices.

I decided to communicate with you via letter, because it is important that all of what I need to say is said without interruption. So often, I find it is difficult to successfully engage in these types of discussions, as emotions tend to dominate the conversation. If I am to continue living a healthy life, both mentally and physically, I must communicate some things that I have been unable to fully express to you. This was due to my own cowardice as well as the genuine threat to my psychological livelihood by your reactions.  

Since my Freshman year of college, I have been involved in several romantic relationships with men. I apologize for being dishonest with you for so much time about this fact, but it is the absolute truth. I have often found myself in an utter state of confusion about my sexuality, unable to understand where it is that I truly belong. I have consulted texts and requested advice from organizations and individuals all over the political/ideological spectrum and have found no place to call “home.” Every friend or family member that I consulted had a different opinion, and soon, I became skeptical about any information that I received about the topic. I wanted to discuss this with you back then, but after the disastrous result of Mark’s coming out, particularly in the negative language used against him at that time, I decided to continue figuring this out without your input. I did this both selfishly and protectively. I selfishly did not want to go through what Mark went through, and I wanted to protect you both from the embarrassment of having “two gay sons.”

This has been an active part of my life for eight years. That is one third of my life. I have been lying to you for one third of my life. While I was honest with you in my sexual confusion, I did hide these more specific details. I hope that fully explaining my journey will shed light on why I chose to remain hidden.

I have “been in love” twice in my life, as I see it, and both instances have been eye opening concerning my understanding of my own sexuality. My sophomore year in college, I fell in love with a fellow male student, who was equally embarrassed and humiliated by his sexuality. We started confiding in each other and began a romantic relationship, entirely in secret and hidden from our peers. After a month or so, he broke off the relationship by telling me that he actually did not believe he was homosexual. This break up was absolutely devastating to me, and it brought me to the brink of my sanity. In fact, my sexuality has always been intrinsically tied to my esoteric fears. I fear death, because I do not know what lies beyond that door. I fear living a life with openness concerning my sexuality, because I do not know how others will view me. That uncertainty is unbearable to me. And frankly, it is driving me crazy.

The second time, I fell in love with Emma. We began our relationship as something purely physical. Emma cheated on her then-boyfriend (of three years) with me on a regular basis, and we quickly became an emotional refuge for each other. I was bluntly honest with her about my bisexual desires, and she shared her hang-ups as well. However, it could not last. We loved each other, but not on the level required for a healthy lifelong relationship. We broke it off when I moved to Atlanta, and while we tried to reconcile it several years thereafter, Emma eventually met and married someone else. It would have never worked though, and I know that now.

Those were the only two relationships I had in college. Over the course of my three years in Atlanta, I engaged in two relationships with men and one with a woman, and several smaller dating relationships with both genders. They were all fairly unremarkable in their result (I broke off all three), but they had a profound effect on how I understood my own sexuality. Each one ended when I became increasingly anxious about where they were headed. With the two men, I did not want to be in an “out” gay relationship, as I worried that it would reflect negatively on my work with the Autism community (despite the fact that some people in the community knew about my sexual identity and didn’t care). I also just didn’t want to be viewed as gay, that simply.

For a while, I swore off relationships completely, and I became convinced that I would never feel committed to another person, male or female. As you know, I considered building a family on my own, without a partner, and this is still a possibility for me.

After eight years of actively struggling with these realities, I have decided to continue pursuing relationships with men, exclusively at this point in time, as I feel a man offers me the most legitimate chance at a healthy relationship. When looking for a potential partner, I want someone who will emotionally and physically care for me, and who I share a deep and passionate connection with. Your son would never, ever pursue an unhealthy or damaging relationship. Mark and I differ in our views towards our individual sexualities. He is firmly gay and will never be in a relationship with a woman. I personally don’t identify with the label, but my saying this should not be misread or misinterpreted. It is possible that I will find a woman with whom I have a connection with on the level of Emma, but at this point in time, I do not think that is likely. I think it is more likely that, if I make a lifelong commitment, it will be with a man. However, I do not know how I will continue to develop. Either way, it is vitally important that you accept and understand these complexities, because I cannot live any longer with misconceptions involving my feelings and intentions. I will not be able to have a healthy relationship with either of you if you chose to actively lobby for me to pursue a heterosexual relationship, even though that might seem simpler and less shameful to you. You get to have an opinion about the direction of my life, but you do not get a vote. My life will not be run by committee.

All of this obviously had an effect on my faith. Frankly, I am at a loss with my faith, as I do believe in God, but I do not understand why he would prohibit homosexuality. Homosexuality cannot be undone or changed, and I hope that neither of you hold that archaic and naïve belief. To me, it is the only sin in the Bible that is truly a conundrum, as the restraint involved in avoiding it has a profound effect on how that person lives his or her life. To me, this leads to two possibilities: either we are misinterpreting God’s true views towards homosexuality, or the Bible is wrong. I have read the Bible cover to cover, and I cannot fully reconcile some of the things within it as well as the Church’s interpretation of it. Some viewpoints held in the Bible are thrown out with modernity, while others remain steadfast. For instance, God commands slaves to remain obedient to their masters (Ephesians 6:5, also Colossians 3:22, 1 Timothy, Titus, Philemon). I wonder why God, when we now know what a horrible thing slavery is, would ever tell slaves to remain obedient to their masters. Why would the Bible encourage this practice? Why wouldn’t God command slave owners to release their slaves, for it is morally abhorrent to require a human to serve another with no rights or dignity. The answer? It was written in a different time period, and while the overall value might be valid, the application no longer makes sense. Think about those three female slaves of that despicable Ohio man, who kept them captive for over a decade. They disobeyed their master by running for their lives. Are we to believe that God will judge them for not obeying their master?  

I cannot stand the treatment of homosexuals and the discourse surrounding their morality by the Church. If it is meant for me, I will be in a healthy romantic relationship one day, one that will lead to a family with children. I hope this is something that you will all celebrate in. You have three dissimilar and unique children. You are so blessed to have that. We are all healthy. We love each other in a profound way and remain close. We actually like spending time with each other and unconditionally have each other’s backs. What a blessing!

I expect there to be a time of transition as you learn to deal with these realities. I suspect you will both be quite shocked and disappointed, and you are certainly entitled to those reactions for however long they last. I realize this news may be devastating to you, and I will not deny your right to have that reaction and opinion about it. If this is your reaction, I ask that you do not contact me until you are no longer in that state. It is toxic for me psychologically and personally to have any conversation about this that is not both civil and calm.

Ultimately, however, if you wish to have a continued, deep relationship with me, you must accept this part of me fully. This acceptance can look different depending on your continued beliefs. On the most accepting end, I would love it if you shared in my joys and heartbreaks as I navigate my romantic life and, if it ends that way, my eventual romantic partner and family. However, if you cannot reconcile your convictions with this, then I still ask that you allow me to live my life how I choose without any pressure, verbal or otherwise, to change my path. This means including my future family in whatever form it takes without any of them feeling guilt or shame from you based on your beliefs. I realize this may sound harsh and unfair, but this decision is coming from watching families crumble by the “I love you but hate that part of you” attitude many parents and siblings take towards their gay family members. It creates a resentment and hostility, and I have never seen anyone walk away content with those decisions.

Furthermore, I will begin to have more openness about my romantic life, in the appropriate manner. You know that I don’t agree with self-aggrandizing posts on social media or the like, so I’m not suddenly going to become this open book for the whole world to comment on. However, if I wish to tell others about an important romantic relationship, I will do so without any hesitation.

I hope these details about my life do not sully that impression you have of me. This will take us to the limits of our relationship, but I think we will ultimately be stronger as a result. I hope you agree.

I love you both. I hope we can use this as an opportunity to grow our relationship.  

                                                                        Your loving son,

OT: Pride

This is normally the place where I would recap the newest laws of Jesus to add to our little tally (54 by our current count), but Jesus leaned heavily on his miracles than his preaching this week, so there is little to report. Actually there is nothing to report – no new laws added. So I thought I would go a little off topic for an entry.

Los Angeles Pride is this weekend, and for those of you who exist in a hetero-tastic cultural bubble, Pride is an annual parade and festival taking place in nearly all US cities celebrating the LGBT community. It was something in that began coyly in the 70s and 80s as protests and eventually transformed into a fully-fledged celebration. Los Angeles – my current city of residence – offers one of the farthest reaching and largest events (meaning, $20 entry and $8 a beer). The public drinking, partying, and dancing lend it a holiday-like feel; some gay pundits, such as the polarizing sex columnist Dan Savage, have dubbed it “Gay Easter.” I can imagine some Christians cringe at the comparison.

But regardless of its origins and modern day characterization, it is a very big deal for a large portion of the gay community. It is an opportunity to see why the gay flag is rainbow-colored; the personalities of LGBT people range as wide as the rest of the culture. More than anything, though, it is a chance to interact with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people where they can be completely unfettered. A majority of us have learned to function in straight culture by tamping down our personalities to a certain tolerable point, because many people – and I used to be one of them – prefer us not to act gay, even if they are okay with us being gay. Flamboyance in men and toughness in women still feels yucky to a large portion of this world. Gender ought to influence traditional behavior, these individuals would and do say. And Pride is an event where all of that is thrown off in favor of queerness – difference.

I swore off Pride before ever even attending one. It felt like too much to me – why couldn’t I just live my life, date who I want, and be done with it? I didn’t get the significance of it all, because it all felt very much “in the face” of the public. WE’RE GAY, GET IT? We seemed to be shouting out at full volume, beer in one hand and a tassel in the other. Why do we need to ooze our sexuality in such a frenetic way, on display for the whole world to see? It seemed to me to be entirely based in a degenerate vanity, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

But I get it now. After spending years of blending into straight culture, knowing I didn’t truly belong, I get it. We need a little bit of WE’RE GAY, GET IT?, because it reminds us that while we may only be 3% of the population, we are not alone. Yeah, it’s a little too loud, a little too drunk, a little too much in general, but that doesn’t matter. Carnivals are too much for me, and I still enjoy going. Because at least we’re all together, laughing and dancing to the same stuff.

I am going to go to Pride today, and there will be lots to hate and love. But that makes sense, as I tend to have the same reaction to most cultures. That’s what being a community means.

Sins of Inaction: Obadiah & Jonah

[The Lord said,] “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Jonah 4:11 (NIV) 

I played Jonah in my eighth grade school play. I never fancied myself the acting type; that role in my family fell squarely on my brother’s shoulders. But he was not around the middle school anymore, so that left a big vacancy in the small drama department at Penn Christian Academy (with only 45 students in the middle school… well that was not too surprising). So when audition sign ups posted, I puffed up my chest and signed up. Who cares I couldn’t sing, dance, or act? There was no more shadow to stand in!

The play was “Go, Go Jonah,” a musical interpretation of the minor prophet’s trip into the belly of a big fish and then out again. Musical theater aficionados may recognize that title as being strikingly similar to the song “Go, Go Joseph” from another biblical production “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Well that’s because this play was a not-so-subtle rip off of that much more successful musical. Sheesh.

c-go-go-jonahAnyway after my audition, I was just as shocked as everyone else my name next to the title role. How could I, a musical theater shmuck, be given such a role? Maybe the surly drama teacher saw something in me that no one else did…

But at the read thru, I realized that I had been fooled. As I excitedly flipped through my script, I noticed that the character of Jonah, despite being the title character, had absolutely zero lines. He was presented as a mute with a burly beard that muffled all of his speech. The website for the musical states that “The Jonah is a non-speaking part, so any kid can be the ‘star.’” A noble goal, except that I distinctly remember the character description in the script reading: “Jonah is a perfect role for an eager youngster without traditional acting and singing ability.” Ouch.

I did the part, though I no longer felt motivated. My parents came and sat and cheered, like good parents do. But I don’t know, my taste for this classic Bible story grew sour after that experience. Yes, I have been holding a 13-year-old grudge against thus story.

I remember the story of Jonah as being fairly straightforward. God calls Jonah to prophesy to the people of Nineveh, but he flees on a ship to avoid the responsibility. Then, God sends a storm as punishment, and the crew throws him overboard where a giant fish snatches him up. After three days of prayer, the fish vomits him up, and he goes to Nineveh to finish the job. That’s it. Right?

As we have seen before, the children’s versions of Bible stories are often edited for graphic and adult content, and Jonah is no different. Jonah successfully ministers to the people of Nineveh, and they turn from his ways. Jonah proves himself to be a worthy prophet, right?

Wrong!

Afterwards, he laments to God about the lack of punishment for the people, saying that He promised to do it, and he ought to follow through. He goes as far as to say:

“Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:3) 

A deep depression falls over him, and the book ends with a sunburnt, abandoned Jonah in the wilderness, contemplating God.

My grudge is over. Here is a character worth studying. Someone who listens to God, fulfills a promise, and then wonders about the outcome. Sure, that outcome involved the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ninevites, but still, I find myself empathizing with the guy.

God gave him the lead role and then took away all of his lines.

A Note on Psalms

“I am 150 chapters long.”
                  – Psalms

I always found poetry hard to tolerate. I carefully presented my annoyance to others as a rational rejection of the form. It’s pretentious, I would complain. It’s too dense, I would argue. But really, my scorn came from insecurity rather than intellectual dislike. See, I hated poetry, because I never felt smart enough to understand it.

So imagine my trepidation this weekend when I stared down the biblical behemoth of Psalms. At 150 chapters long, it is easily the longest book of the Bible, as well as the least grounded. It is poetry without context – we are not even certain who authored the majority of it. Many find comfort in its contents because of its generality and applicability. Need a little advice? Crack open Psalms – or maybe Proverbs. The Gideons must have included it in their hotel Bibles for a reason, after all.

So in order to tackle it in a meaningful way, I have come up with a strategy. I plan to read Psalms in three parts over the next three weeks, and rather than merely write entries that summarize and apply its contents, I will instead soak it in generally and relate it to a longer narrative. I have three stories I would like to tell you, but they are a bit too vast and complicated for single entries, so this seems like the perfect opportunity. Each day, I will write a piece, and by Saturday, you will have a whole tale, all filtered through the advice of Psalms. I think it will produce a satisfying result, both for you and for me – something literal to ground all of that abstraction.

Maybe I will learn something.

And maybe I will get a taste for poetry along the way.

Loyalty to Loyalty: 2 Chronicles 19 – 27

Nevertheless, because of the covenant the Lord had made with David, the Lord was not willing to destroy the house of David. He had promised to maintain a lamp for him and his descendants forever.

2 Chronicles 21:7 (NIV)

Leslie announced to my humanities class that she was a Wiccan, and I immediately grew suspicious. We would never be friends, because it would not work. I needed to make friends – I had just enrolled in public high school and had a scant few – but desperation could not be the guiding motivation in my quest. She stood on bold feet, never swaying in her stance both politically and physically. Her hair started black but transitioned into purple near the tips, and then there were the thumbholes chiseled into all her sweatshirt sleeves. Her look put me off as much as her personality. I was a strong Christian, with loyalty to God and my church friends, and she was a witch for Chrissake – No. No friendship was possible.

It turned out that we had most every class together – honors kids tended to travel in packs around from class to class – so, I had to be friendly. Soon, my church friends learned of my proximity to a true pagan and questioned me about it. Suddenly, my loyalty to God required me to make a connection with her, to be a good example, to minister to her. Sure, I said. Leslie participated in the theater club, and I had recently joined as well. That, plus the parallel schedules, and some of my new acquaintances crossed over with hers… Sure, I could strike up a friendship – as long as I maintained my loyalty.

It started at a mutual hang out, Apples to Apples and charades served up with soda and chips. Common ground was the best strategy – discuss theater… then talk about classes… move on to God. I mentioned my home life, my Mom, my Dad, my brother, my sister, and she chuckled. No siblings for her, divorced parents, and her father was now a woman. My tongue fell out of my mouth in awe. I had never known anyone like her. I invited her to church, and she said fuck no. She said God was probably a woman anyhow, and she could not be a Christian. You’re all homophobes who are probably gay and racists who lust after black people. I grew shy. She backed off. I backed off. And suddenly, we had lots to talk about.

I played my first game of strip poker with her, though no one in the group had the guts to go completely bare. We all ended at boxers and the equivalent and then redressed with our backs to the circle while others snuck glances. We could not get naked, because then, nothing would be left to do. And there was no alcohol, we did not drink together, so that was not a factor. I had to leave the party early to go to church the next day, so I did not stay for round two.

Months later, she invited me to her house – just the two of us. Hot tub and a movie. We ditched the plan early and made a better one. Let’s drive to the Jersey Shore for the night. So many reasons to say no – it was already midnight – driving curfews – low cash – over two hour drive. But we said yes.

The vacant boardwalk quaked from the lapping waves. We sat on the railing overlooking the ocean, deciding how to proceed. The stars poked brightly through relaxed clouds, and we had two different explanations for their existence. The same with the waves, the rhythm, the tides and the moon, contentment and torment. We argued about science and philosophy, and after minutes or hours, we decided it was both – and no, that was not impossible.

Let’s go fucking crazy. She threw her fist into my spine. Let’s sleep on the sand until the first signs of dawn. We wrestled on the beach. Then we’ll drive home like hungover college students. We shed clothes and swam but had forgotten towels. We’ll be totally blameless. We lasted 45 minutes before the gnats ate us alive and drove back home with the windows down to keep from falling asleep. I was fifteen minutes late for church and forewent coffee. I did not need it. My mind buzzed with the most immediate nostalgia. I longed for a time only two hours passed and feared I would never feel that way again.

I stopped inviting Leslie to church, and she did not mock my faith. The details no longer mattered, because we were so similar. Common ground stopped being a mission and grew from a loyalty between us.

Pastor Hank looked me in the eyes after the second praise break and gripped my hand too hard. Did you drink last night? I hadn’t drank and told him so, but he didn’t believe me but had no proof. He told me he would not tell my parents, and I needed to be careful from now on. I thanked him for his loyalty.

This Sounds Familiar: 2 Kings 3 – 10

Elisha Makes Miraculous Oil. Elisha Produces Flour. Elisha Raises the Dead. Elisha Feeds a Hundred.

“How can I set this before a hundred men?” his servant asked. But Elisha answered, “Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the Lord says: ‘They will eat and have some left over.’”

2 Kings 4:43b (NIV)

Hanging around non-Christian kids growing up made me incredibly uncomfortable. They tended to curse a little more (but not always) and were allowed to sleep as late as they wanted on Sundays (except for… chores and stuff). As I went to a private Christian school until High School, my only opportunity to interact with them was during my local Pop Warner football practice. Honestly, they frightened me, because I had no expectation of their possible behavior. What if they pressured me to sin or even worse, mocked me for not participating in their shenanigans? I knew this much: I believed in Jesus Christ, and they didn’t. So what was their center? How did they know to do right, to love others? They were so alien to me.

And then High School came, and the roles reversed. I was one of a few in a sea of hundreds of non-believers, and a good number of them judged me based solely on my religious affiliation. Being a nice Christian teen meant nothing to secular peers, and instead of proving my higher moral center, it actually worked against me. Many thought I was judgmental and shrill, while others just felt indifferent towards me. Other fellow Christian spies hiding out among the masses enjoyed spending time with me, and after a few months, I even found ground with these unbelievers and made friends. But as I expanded my horizons and began relationships with others, one thing became abundantly clear:

I was right, and they were wrong.

For instance, they told me about how many of the world’s religions had a ton of similarities to Christianity, such as the creation narrative, the downfall of Adam and Eve, and even Noah’s flood. Many of these stories, they said, could be traced back thousands of years before Judaism hit the circuit. But I just did not see it. The Christian traditions came first, I said, and then the other religions just based theirs off of ours. No, no, they argued, I had my facts wrong. And then there was Mormonism (which we all agreed was cuckoo), which had Jesus descending into the Americas and doing the whole Messiah thing over again. And many of the verses and stories in the Book of Mormon seemed to be lifted word for word out of the Bible! Ha ha ha, we laughed, that is so ridiculous!

So Elijah is all ascended up into Heaven, and now we are left with his protégé Elisha. Before leaving us all behind, Elijah promises to bestow many of his gifts onto his second-in-command so that the ministry and prophecy of God may continue – especially as the kingdom remains as divided and Godless as ever. Famine falls upon both Judah and Israel, and Elisha comes across a starving widow and her child. As they prepare to make their final bread and then die, Elisha performs a miracle by making her supplies endless. And then, a family nearby mourns the death of their son. But do not fear, Elisha relishes in the couple’s upstanding behavior and revives the child. Finally, a man approaches Elisha with twenty loaves of bread that are meant to feed one hundred people. Elisha says give it over, and the man scoffs at the suggestion. But the Lord delivers, and somehow, the bread feeds the entire crowd – ! Wait…

This all sounds very familiar.

In some thousand years (or something), Jesus will be performing these exact same miracles to a much higher fanfare. I did some research, and many biblical scholars view these not as coincidences or redundancies, but rather as foreshadowing and fulfillment. In their view, Elisha performs these actions as a way of laying the framework for Jesus to appear on the scene. The opposing view should be obvious to us all: these are mistakes in the biblical narrative, lapses in creativity.

So I think to my teenage self, that upstanding Christian teen so vehemently defending the perfection of the Bible. And now, with a couple of years (read: a decade) of life experience, I find myself much more incredulous. I do not like either of those people – the aggressive zealot or the jaded cynic. I want to be in the middle – to be capable in believing in the things that cannot be proved while still maintaining my intellectuality. Is that impossible?

Let’s Have a Check-In

Today’s entry mark’s the quarter-way point of my project to read the Bible every day for a year. With three months (and ten books) under my belt, I thought it would do a little good to have a check-in. I am often asked if this process has changed my outlook on Christianity or if anything has been revealed to me. After some thought, I narrowed my revelations so far into two categories: Things I’ve Learned, and Things I’m Confused About.

Here we go:

I Am Confident That…

God Exists. This may be cheating, since I entered this project with this belief anyway. I am still trying to formulate my understanding of God’s role in my life, but I do think there is something in a dimension higher than us, with much more understanding and wisdom. Reading the Bible so far has cemented this feeling – but not because God commands us to believe in Him. It is rather the stories of love and decency that inspire me in my belief. Violence is ramped so far, but those little stories of connection – I hold onto those. 

God Thinks We Are Inadequate. This should be obvious, since it has been stated over and over again. We got 553 laws all about how we pretty much suck at living, so whoever this God-of-the-Jews is, He does not think we are doing a good job. However, every word so far is soaked in an obvious dramatic irony, that being the forthcoming entrance of Jesus Christ onto the scene. I wonder how that will change things.

We Are Not Meant to Believe in Men. I think it is telling that every single leader so far encounters some massive downfall. I brought this up an entry ago, but we have Cain-the-murderer, Noah-the-drunkard, Moses-the-unbeliever, and now David-the-adulterer. Yes, these men (and women, don’t forget them!) are meant to be examples for our behavior and outlook. But they are not meant to be gods. That is one point for the Bible in my book actually… scripture does not seem to have an agenda of subjugating us towards others. I appreciate that.

 

I Still Do Not Know…

How We Are Meant to Interpret the Law. This has been a source of debate so far between some readers and me, as it is extraordinarily unclear. We have laws about behavior and sexuality, about forbidden marriages and uncleanliness – and yet, as we have seen with Ruth, there are most definitely exceptions to the rules. This makes some devout believers uncomfortable, because it opens up the possibility to a ton of gray area. As someone who loves to sit on a fence, even I have difficulty with what these “exceptions” could mean.

If God Changes His Mind. God has bestowed His intentions several times, only to have the prayers and pleads of men “change His mind.” He told Moses more than a few times that He wanted to wipe out the world of men and start over, but He never did. What does that mean for our belief in an all-powerful God? Is a God who can truly be changed by the whims of man someone to believe in? Or does somehow make Him even more desirable? 

The Value of an Individual Life to God. This is a subtle theme that has become apparent throughout these opening books, and it ties into my slight obsession with the violence of the Old Testament. It appears that individual lives never appear to match the significance of “God’s people” as a whole. This is why detractors are dealt with so harshly – God does not seem to want anyone to stick around who might threaten the direction of his “whole.” He allows entire races of people to be killed and even demands it – man, woman, child. Why this stringent attitude – especially one that leaves absolutely no room for nuance (especially when we have been shown exceptions)? So what do we mean individually to God? I still don’t know.

 

It is far too early to draw any broad conclusions about the Bible, but that is the nature of this project. To wrestle.

I am wrestling. And that is a good place for me to be right now.