10 10 2011

The incomparable James Alison spoke to our class this past Monday. His message of kindness, wit, and valiant courage was insatiably consumed by my raw and weeping heart. According to him, faith is a “stable disposition placed in you by someone else” as “someone does something for you that enables you to relax enough to do something else,” and in that doing, “the clearly impossible becomes not just possible, but normal.”

For Alison, Jesus is the ultimate daredevil; the one human who was bold enough to do the impossible and enter death, not as its slave but as its triumphant Lord. When embraced, his example should lead to a profound sense of relaxation within us as the impossible–confronting the death* both within us and out in the wider world–is made absolutely unremarkable. In faith we have the power to take death for granted in the same automatic way as we do our impossible ability to walk. If you see someone who can walk, Alison said, you can know without a shadow of a doubt that at some point someone cared for them, however imperfectly; cared enough to teach them step by painful step to lift themselves up from the ground; cared enough to nurture them into freedom from impossibility.

I have a particular story to tell about how I have been nurtured thusly, but I’m finding it infernally difficult to pinpoint a beginning. This story is about my first unguarded tears since July 5, which were drawn forth by the presence of my practicum facilitator. But my tears on Tuesday make no sense without the context of my friend’s tears of desperate longing from the previous morning, or the dream of four days earlier in which I was entrusted with the impossible task of restoring the mad King’s sanity, or the day I was forcefully confronted with the depravity lurking in the heart of my family, or the year I spent frantically courting my sorrow, or the twenty-two years I poured into expunging from my conscious thoughts any awareness that my life was not exactly what it seemed on the most superficial level and the concomitant need to appear to be the master of my own inner world at all times, to stuff down any pesky emotion that might rise up and disturb my equilibrium.

One of the strangest myths I ever used to describe my experience of my Self imagined the core of my being as a little boy skipping down the road, carefree and confident and safe. At the time of this first telling I was explaining why I was such a loquacious storyteller when face to face with one other person and so, so, so quiet in groups. My interrogator postulated I was scared of all the strange people, but fear–though it defined my stance toward everyone–was something I could never confess to experiencing. So I imagined myself skipping, imagined it so vividly that I professed it as my Truth even in the turmoil of my neurotically anxious mind. Anything less whimsical than skipping–my sorrow, fear, anger, lust, humanity–was demanded to never penetrate deeper than the surface of my skin, to wash off without ever touching the core of my “I.”

It was patently ridiculous, a recipe for disaster.

I still live out of that myth more than I would care to admit.

So, when I came to Tuesday to speak about Monday, I used phrases like “overwhelming emotion,” “out of control,” “whole body tensed and quivering,” and “if those cookies hadn’t been waiting for me I would have completely lost it!” What I was telling my PF, and what she heard so well, is that it is impossible for me to be seen as other than in control. I’ve been radically redefining what “in control” means to me, shaping it to include such  formerly verboten things as tears in public and speaking silliness with strangers, but the new must always come on my own terms. It is not allowed to sweep me away unbidden. When it seems to be threatening to do so, decades of practice in running for the hills in order to blow off just enough steam to survive immediately kicks in. I flee into solitude.

Only, for the last year I have Known that continuing to “deal” with things on my own (read: repress, avoid, deny) will destroy me. Call it intuition, a hunch. I would even go so far as to say that God Herself told me so, making a covenant with me that my tears, my healing, would never come to me in the absence of another’s face. I love this promise, and I despise it; I hate the death it calls me into. I have two decades’ worth of repressed emotions clamoring for my attention, and they are so much vaster than any ability I might wish I had to pretty them up, control their expression, choose at what intensity I will lay them before your feet. When I return voice to them they will scream their existence from the mountaintops. I am, frankly, terrified of what they will say.

And this is where I come full circle and join back up with Alison’s faith: living in the courage to burn with all of my passion, rather than just flashing little glimpses here and there when I feel you can handle it, is my impossibility. I simply do not have those muscles to support myself. Tuesday, Heather sat with me for an hour in gentleness and acceptance and strength as I flirted with my emotions, leaning progressively closer but always pulling away the moment they showed signs of wanting to press their lips to mine in turn. She held me upright when I wanted to do nothing but crawl, was always right there when I fell again, again, again. And then she said,

“My hope for you is that someone will make a place for you at their table where you may feast.”

and I replied,

“Me too. I am so tired of having to make it all myself.”

Those simple words, spoken from the very bottom of my heart, brought with them a flood of tears. Sobs wracked my body. And a tightness, a clenching, a walling off of myself from myself was loosened, broken down. The impossible happened, and I relaxed. And I could never have done it alone.

love & snugglies


*for any readers not already primed by Dan Allender to think in terms of entering death (or those who are and want to see something of a different take on the matter), let me point you here and here


When do I betray?

5 09 2011

Alternate title: the one where I immediately regret pushing “publish”

**Note to family: this may hurt a bit. You’ve been warned**

My school places an astronomical importance on self-awareness, particularly in the context of the first-years’ core classes (which I am now taking for the second time ’round): Faith, Hope, Love; Interpersonal Foundations; Hermeneutics; and Practicum I–all of them are designed to push us out of our comfortable, habitual, generally unknowing ways of processing self and world and force us to make deliberate choices about how we are to be. It is disruptive, exhausting work. We are all fools to be so blithely walking off this cliff–and our professors double the fools for taking upon their shoulders some measure of responsibility for guiding each of us into the depths of our tumultuous mix of depravity and glory.

If there is one thing I learned through a year of beautiful agony it is this:

The last thing in the world I am prepared to grow in awareness of is my own secret self.

I was raised by a mother who is so afraid of becoming like unto her own parents she second-guesses everything about herself and a father who gleefully encouraged such self-doubt because it served his own hidden agenda. When confronted with the bitter truth that the man she married had been siphoning off funds to support a sexual addiction for nearly two decades, my mom’s most chilling response was “I’ve known something’s been wrong for years, I just always assumed it was my fault.” Not that she was the only one prodded toward the disowning of self; the aforementioned father continues to insist his children are culpable for his decision to hide the core of himself away from their innocent eyes.

I grew up in a church that prides itself on the denial of humanity. Their focus on carving the common-sensical truth of the Bible from the accretions of human history–originally intended as a movement to foster unity within the church–leaves the majority of believing Christians, let alone the willfully unrepentant nonbelievers, weeping in darkness as the gates of heaven are slammed shut.

I probably have the tropism “fake it ’til you make it” engraved upon my very bones. Only…I’ve tried to fake it, and what I’ve found is that the faking only becomes more extravagant and the making so infuriatingly elusive you eventually forget there was ever any greater goal in mind at all. The lies become your new truth. Desire is buried beneath a sludge of apathy and fear. Then one day, if you’re exceedingly lucky, the house of cards is picked up by a gust of wind and scattered across infinity and you are left exposed, naked and shivering. That’s the day you leave Texas (or whatever your barren desert is named) and move to Seattle (the promised land! flowing with…rain and ever more rain), where the most extraordinary people surround you and show you, tear by blessed tear, that there is another way to live: the way of opening yourself up to desire, not cutting it short; a way of vulnerability before others, without the need to constantly pretend to be better than they.

And yet…

The old patterns are proving to be ridiculously tenacious. Particularly now, as I’m in class with 99 fresh faces to whom I introduce myself as Tom “tried this all before and failed” Sheldon. Oh how taxing this honesty is, when my very introduction invites you into my bastion of shame! Is it just my imagination or do your eyes become veiled as I stand before you, tangible evidence that things aren’t guaranteed to work out as smoothly as you had to hope in order to pack everything up and move across the country to this tiny little gem of a school?

And now I’ve finally circled around to the question that compels me to pick at these sores tonight, that just won’t leave well enough alone (because “well enough” just isn’t acceptable any more, dammit!)

When is it that I betray my experience? Is it when you ask “why?” and I sidestep the utter chaos of my life with a vague allusion to some “personal crisis”?  Am I perpetuating self-abuse when I come home from class and watch Netflix until I pass out from pure exhaustion somewhere around 3am? When you ask how my trip home was and I answer “mostly fun,” am I doing justice to my experience?

Or is now the betrayal, when I type out my worry and confusion behind closed doors rather than seek out the presence of someone who will love me well?

No, I’m not ready for self-awareness. I can hardly handle the little I have. What good is the freedom to feel more fully when what crashes upon you are waves of inadequacy and longing?


13 05 2011

According to the degree plan laid out for us counseling students at The Martian Hill School of Theology and Psychology, I should be in Old Testament, Multicultural, and Research & Stats.

After reviewing the trajectory of my life and realizing that this mad rush toward A Career temporarily killed much of my desire to do this work at all, I am only enrolled in one of those “recommended” classes–Research, the one class at Mars Hill that requires absolutely zero introspection.

This is to be the first of many coming semesters where the zeitgeist of my classmates, my dear friends and confidants, is something I will experience from the outside looking in. No longer will I be an active participant in the conversations that are moving my friends to tears or causing them to question their very identity (at least not in the classroom) This week almost everyone I spend significant amounts of time with is being challenged to confront their implicit participation in systemic prejudice and racism, and I sit on the very periphery of these conversations. Here, once again lurking in the margins, I’m finding truth in words I’ve always said about myself knowing all along they were hollow, a thin veneer papering over huge uncertainties and insecurities.

Read the rest of this entry »

Cognitive Dissonance

2 05 2011

This recent ruckus surrounding Osama bin Laden’s death has thrown me into quite the emotional turmoil. I’m trying to occupy two different camps at the same moment and it’s wearing me thin.

I cannot rejoice in the death of a man: like it or not, he was a child of God just like you and me | Mankind. Always looking for victory where there is none. Nobody will win this war. Osama was just another man. Just another casualty | And Osama Bin Laden didn’t leave a predecessor to take his place? Come on people… let’s be realistic about this “war on terror”; it’ll be never ending | Not sure how I feel about people celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death. Or anyone’s death | When people who are truly evil die the best that can happen is that those whose lives were affected can find peace. | Let’s think more about love and revelation rather than retribution for 9-11. Wouldn’t God want us to love those people rather than condemn them? | Do we really think that the life of ONE person who lives in the United States is really THREE HUNDRED AND THREE times more valuable than the life of a person in Afghanistan or Iraq?

I don’t believe in retributive justice. I don’t buy into the myth of “closure” as an excuse to stoke the fires of vengeance. I find the American culture’s sense of entitlement and elitism disgusting. I see the American church’s nationalistic “claim” on the blessings of God as one of the darkest perversions of the Gospel in human history.

I believe it’s good to rejoice over the death of a truly evil human being (whose continued life each day puts innocent lives in danger), especially when the death occurred in a just manner. It is justice fulfilled, which is worth rejoicing over | Bin Laden dead.. A day to remember and that will be in history books of the future. Good job US Military! | It’s a great day for America. It will bring closure to a lot of people. | Woo Hoo!! I am greatful they killed that bastard before he died peacefully of old age! I hope it was a slow and painfull death. I hope he screamed and cried out loud. Now you’re burning in the depths of hell you ugly skinny dirty beeyatch | Up yours bin laden! I hope you burn in hell without 72 virgins.

I intend to dedicate a significant portion of my life to counseling those serving in the US military. I expect to be sent overseas into the midst of whatever war America finds itself wrapped up in fifteen years down the road. I will bare my soul to men and women who are daily engaged in missions of violence I deem evil. I will take on their wounds as my own. I will weep in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

I hope he gets what he deserves by God, and yet, to see the way people react towards him without mercy or grace, which Jesus would have given him, in my opinion, is regrettable. | Though I am glad that justice has been done, it is still sad that the world continues to work in a way that celebrates the death of people or persons. | Violence begets violence, but love begets love. | I was called un-American because I refuse to celebrate a death, even of someone as hated as Osama Bin Laden. | The celebrations in the streets on 5/01 are the same as the celebrations in the streets on 9/11.

I was reading through my facebook feed last night (presented here in italics), congratulating myself on being surrounded primarily by friends at least as torn on this subject as I am. Friends who have experienced enough redemption in their own lives to hope for the same in the lives of even the most violent, hateful men. Friends who are not afraid to grieve. Friends whose lives have been as insulated and sheltered from the realities of life in Afghanistan and Iraq as mine.

I was stopped cold by a simple benediction from a man who has come face to face with the worst that world has to offer, returned home with a whole host of scars, and volunteered to reenter the desert for the sake of his brothers in arms.

Joshua Lucero, Cesar Machado, Joseph Bovia, and all our other brothers and sisters who worked so hard for this day but can’t celebrate with us… Mission accomplished. Rest in peace.

This dream will demand every last drop of my blood, and more.