Monday, October 14, 2013

When We Were Asexual

This post is part of a synchroblog to promote (and celebrate!) Addie Zierman's new book When We Were On Fire. Check out this link to read the other, more intelligent entries. Funny enough, I kinda sorta wrote something earlier about this topic, which can be found here.

On a side note, I had the immense pleasure of meeting Addie IRL (as the kids on Twitter say) last year in Chicago. She's an amazing wife and mom with two insanely cute kids, and I can state with no hesitation that she is one of the most genuine, beautiful souls I will ever encounter this side of Paradise.


It was never a question of the fire we had as it related to our zeal for the Lord.

It was the fire in our loins.

I always hated it when our youth group would have the inevitable "boy/girl split" nights. This meant that for a few weeks, we were going to be talking less about the Bible and more about biology. Having been raised in - and all but raised BY - the church, Sunday mornings, Wednesday nights, and the occasional "Discipleship Now!" weekends, retreats, and youth camps were safe, comfortable nests for me. I could spend hours regurgitating neat, easy, fill-in-the-blank answers to questions posed about the Bible. We rarely if ever spent time interpreting what it meant for application into our lives or who we were growing into. Basically, we were taught that if you come across any blanks in life you couldn't fill in, just mentally scribble down "Jesus," and all will be well.

The problem is "Jesus" is a five letter word, "life" has four letters, and "sex" has three. What we were taught simply didn't fit in the blank neatly in a lot of ways.

I have numerous female friends who passionately write about the dangers and deceitfulness of Purity Culture and Modesty Culture, having been scarred by them both in their spiritual - and physical - development. For the most part, guys were never similarly warned that our bodies could or would produce sexual thoughts in the eyes of those who saw us. And I always thought - based on my absence of a dating life in high school - girls more often looked at my body as one might view a lump of clay than as an object of desire. (Parenthetically, EVERYTHING we were taught about sex or desire in church was from a heterosexual norm, so that's the perspective I'm writing from; the only difference is, now I know better.)

What we were taught - not so much directly in words as in attitude - was that we as men were drooling, hormonal savages, lacking in the basic ability to control our thoughts or groins. Women were beautiful, delicate, and weaker, both physically and spiritually. And while we were taught, appropriately enough, that it was our responsibility to not act improperly on our impulses or force women to act or dress differently in our presence, we were repeatedly bludgeoned over the head with one term that fell squarely on our shoulders as our unique cross to bear: lust.

We, as men, were slaves to lust. We were slaves to our desires. As such, any time we looked upon a woman (in other words, pretty much any time a teenage boy sees a girl) and found her attractive, we were either committing a sin or about to commit a sin by lusting after her.

So we needed to neuter ourselves emotionally and biologically. Pluck out an eye, cut off a hand. Do whatever was necessary. All the feelings or stirrings we felt were bad, bad, bad. All because we clearly could not control ourselves.

So I began to feel an immediate gut reaction of guilt every time I felt something for a girl.

Is she cute? Yes. LUST. STOP.

Does she make my heart race when she smiles? Yes. LUST. STOP.

Would I like to kiss - LUST. STOP.

I think I like her. YOU HAVE LOOKED ON HER WITH LUST IN YOUR HEART. STOP.

I was left confused. Screwed up. Because, while we were told how bad our thoughts about boobs might be, we were never taught that they were also okay. That it was okay to be attracted to someone. We were never taught or told healthy, appropriate ways to respond or react to our completely natural and normal hormones - only that we needed to not respond or react. And if we did respond or react, we were in sin. That these urges were evil. And by default, so were we.

Therefore, when I went to college and girls actually noticed me and thought I was cute? I had no clue what the hell to do. I was so deeply cocooned in the "friendship bubble" that I seriously actually never considered the possibility of being in a relationship with someone. And when my repressed sexuality suddenly found itself free from the confines of oppression? It scared me. Terrified me.

And it continued hammering home the guilt.

I was unprepared emotionally for what dating and a physical relationship entailed. I was racked with guilt every time I kissed or made out with someone. And this isn't the standard run of the mill church-based sex-angst-regret usually brought on by crossing a boundary, rounding a base, or mastering the engineering skills required to unhook a bra with one hand. It was a complex, textured soul-crushing guilt which combined the pain of thinking I was betraying myself and my faith for giving (or getting) a hickie, feeling good about kissing or making out, feeling guilty about feeling good over kissing or making out,  and worry that, by virtue of being "controlled by" and acting out on my lust nee hormones, I was spiritually decimating the person I was attracted to and tongue wrestling with.

I wound up unintentionally hurting a lot of people. Mostly because the "beautiful, delicate, weaker" women I dated were light years ahead of me in maturity, and were far stronger emotionally.

Although I have grown past some of my insecurities regarding sex and my own body, there remain nagging little voices I gave way too much value to during my formative years which are still at the back of my head and heart and continue to make me uneasy. Even though I'm married and have two kids (concrete evidence that I'm moderately more comfortable with making out), there are times when my biology and sex drive scare me. I question is it okay for me to feel the way I do about my wife. My mind worries if the desires I have are rooted in love and trust between two consenting adults in a committed relationship, or if I'm letting lust rule me. Again. And if so, I should stop.

I have to fight the conditioning to hold myself back. I have to fight to give myself the freedom to give myself fully to her.

And that's just freaking stupid.

When we - pastors, youth ministers, parents, adults - talk of this particular fire, impose laws upon it that we have written to control and dominate it, or perpetuate a culture rooted in fear without speaking to the beauty, right-ness, and normalcy of it all, we in many ways burn the very people we think we're helping.

Because the idea of combining sex with a burning sensation always works out great.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Always Greener

It comes in the form of texts I get from friends. It comes in photos uploaded to Facebook and Instagram. It comes in blog posts, phone calls, Tweets, and in person conversations.

That other side of the fence.

Man but sometimes that grass looks relaxing.

Homebodies

When I made the transition from full-time workaholic to full-time stay-at-home dad, Ashley and I realized relatively quickly that allowing me to go out every so often to socialize with my friends was in the best interest of my mental health. Even though there may have been people I worked with that I was less than enthusiastic about seeing on a day to day basis, I still saw them and was able to interact them along with other adults in my division. As a SAHD, my human contact was reduced to hanging out primarily with two people, one of whom really couldn't hold down a conversation beyond saying "ah."

Now that Elias is here and we once again have a functioning diaper pail in the house, my time spent away from home has decreased exponentially. Whereas I was going out once a week for several hours at a stretch (usually to the public library to write and take advantage of the free wi-fi), now if I can get away, it's at sporadic intervals lasting only for an hour and some change at the most - not counting trips to the grocery store, Target, or the like.

I realize that part of this is due to the fact we have an infant. Staying "grounded" is the nature of the beast. And I'm okay with this on almost every level.

But man.

There are times.

Misdirection

I'll get invited to events. I'll get invited to go on road trips.

And time and again, out of love, I say no.

I say no, because I can't even pass by dirty dishes in the sink at night without stopping to wash them, no matter how tired I am. Because washing them then is easier than washing them in the morning when I already have to take care of getting breakfast ready and giving Kai his breathing treatment and getting him ready for school. And to ask Ashley to wash them is unfair to her after she's been at work and has been helping to take care of Eli after she comes home.

I say no, because my kids depend on me to be there. When diapers are wet, when dreams are bad, when epic light saber battles are supposed to take place, when songs need to be sung to help them fall asleep, or when silly things just need to take place.

I say no, because doing laundry, walking the dog, cleaning the house, shopping for body lotion when she's just about to run out, cooking meals, making the bed, taking out the recycling and trash, and scrubbing clean the bathtub and the toilet aren't done due to nagging but to help Ashley not worry about anything.

I say no, because my responsibilities are rooted in love, not obligation.

I say no, because it's not fair for me to ask Ashley to take care of both of the boys while I go off and relax or have fun.

I say no, because making memories - positive, loving memories - with my family is important. Showing my sons the example of a dad who chooses to spend the majority of his time with his family and not regretting it is of paramount importance to me.

Parenting is the most selfless act an individual can engage in. It's like reverse tithing: you keep 10% of your time while the other 90% is dedicated to a higher purpose and calling.

And yet.

Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

I read blog posts from friends about why they are choosing to either not have kids or not have kids now, and I'm proud of them. Genuinely. Having one or more small people tethered to you decreases your ability to engage in other activities you may be called to do or be in for a season. Volunteering, going on service projects, or spending time with other adults in service to them is much, much easier when your time - to say nothing of your heart - isn't divided between poles. Already every time I'm away from Ashley & the boys I almost mentally begin to start to drive home to be with them.

I witness other dads. The ones who seemingly have no issue with being able to spend huge stretches of time away from their kids. The ones who for whatever reason are able to leave and not blink if it means that their partners have to find a way to cook, feed, clean, and care for their kids.

I know. I know it's healthy to take a break every now and again - both on your own and as a couple. I know that it's good to step back, catch your breath, and look at the beauty in front of you.

And I know. I know and believe that what I am doing is done in a balance of love and self sacrifice, and done so on a healthy level. I know that my staying in with Ashley and the boys is what I am called to do, what I am supposed to do, and what I need to do.

But man.

That other side of the fence.

I have no regrets about my side of the fence. None. At all.

But I'd be lying to myself if sometimes I didn't stop and look at the other side of the fence, and for a brief moment think "Lucky."

As do those on the other side who sometimes look at me and think the same thing.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

My Bad

Looking back on many of the church related escapades I was involved in during high school and into my first year of college - all in the name of advancing the name of Christ, mind you - carries with it the same level of embarrassment I experience when people find photographs of me as a teenager. I roll my eyes as the words of justification come almost immediately rolling off my lips: "You don't understand; that was the way everyone looked and acted back then." Yet there's nostalgia woven through this confession, because that was me. All the stumbles, fumbles, and missteps which make me half-smile as I remember them.

It began sometime around my sophomore year of high school. It was 1988. I had heard the clarion call ring out from theological luminaries - Petra, DeGarmo & Key, Michael W. Smith, and the like - who knew how to sum up the entirety of Jesus' message into a four-and-a-half minute song with a catchy hook. And although I may have grasped in my limited scope my genuine desire to share my faith, it's the "how" it was done by me instead of the "why" that was the issue.

It all started with T-shirts. I felt a sense of empowerment whenever I would leave my house, boldly proclaiming God's love and message of salvation through the use of a witty play on words scrawled across my chest. A favorite of mine was one that read: "Heavenly Metal: It'll Rock the Hell Out of You." My mother, who was obviously not paying the first bit of attention to what I was wearing that day, let me wear this particular shirt to school morning. Not long after I pulled up in my 1985 Chevy Nova and strolled haughtily into the school building, I was called into the office of the Assistant Principal. He asked me to either turn my shirt inside-out or go home to change, because I couldn't very well walk around school with a shirt that said "hell" on it.

Fearing more the wrath of my mother than disappointing my Father, I opted to turn the shirt inside-out. This ultimately brought more notice to the shirt than it probably would have gotten had I simply worn the thing the other way around. My peers, inquisitive teenagers all, stopped me in the hallway to try and make out the words on the shirt I was wearing. I was hailed and lauded by my friends - in the church youth group - for my brazen and daring stance to advance the Gospel through the use of my screen-printed message. Others who weren't in my closed circle of fellow believers either stated "I don't get it," or worse, paid me no heed. The very people who I believed needed to hear this message bared walked past me with nary a blink.

But it wasn't just in clothing options that my peers and I sought to combat the ills and temptations of our culture. We had someplace on Sunday and Wednesday nights to invite our friends to, often with the added benefit of free food offered, provided they didn't mind coming to a church. And there were Bible studies that met on Tuesday nights in people's homes we could offer as a refuge against the storms of boredom found so often in small towns. But the weekends were another story. What could we offer to our friends to counter the dangers to be found at the skating rink, the bowling alley, or cruising around the mall?

The answer came when an adult from a local church rented out a building front in a strip mall and converted it to...The Rock. A Christian coffee shop and concert venue, open exclusively on Friday and Saturday nights (but not too late on Saturday, because we all obviously had to go to church the next morning). All for the benefit of us poor, wayward teens so that we could have a safe place to hang out. Never mind that it was located on a darkened side street adjacent to the local discount store (which is how he got the space so cheaply), it had no signage out front to designate what it was (which probably looked great, dozens of teenagers hanging out in a storefront on a Friday night), and that the parking lot was always littered with questionable bottles and other sundry items. We were hip and emergent before skinny jeans ever came on to the postmodern preaching platform.

The adult benefactor, "Steve," was always present, serving as chaperone, spiritual leader, and seller of overpriced by-the-slice pizza, moderately flat soda, and popcorn of questionable birthdate. He booked the bands, he selected the music played overhead (not to DANCE to, mind you), and led us in prayer and a quick message every week. It was so radically different from our stagnant youth groups.

...except it wasn't.

It was a great hangout for our unchurched friends who needed to see we could be "cool" outside of the church.

...except they didn't come.

It was a great outreach and missional tool we used to share our faith.

...except we were quite literally at times preaching to the choir.

We had music, food, fellowship, and I invited people time and again to come and join in the fun, but no one took me up on the offer. If they did, they certainly didn't return.

Decades of growth and introspection has helped me to understand the how and why of my failed clothing campaign as well as why The Rock eventually crumbled: I was trying to engage a culture without engaging individuals.

Which is something all modern, seeker-friendly or emergent churches have all grown out of stumbling through, right?
While there are numerous stories of individuals coming to know Christ through the use of Bibles left in hotel rooms or being lobbed at them by strangers on sidewalks, through the voices of manic street preachers "bullhorning" their message at them, or even through well-intentioned teenagers adorned in a train wreck of clothing destined for What Not To Wear, I personally never reached out to anyone. I held a metaphorical door open and invited people to come inside but didn't offer a hand TO them on this journey. While I have no doubt even my actions taken in innocence ("Yes. Just read the ten or so words on my shirt and God will reveal Himself to you.") had and still hold the potential to bear fruit, I was offering an image without interaction, and I thought that was enough.

Maybe I was scared that I might not have the "right" answer to a question poised to me. Maybe I was simply following the pattern of witnessing and outreach patterned by the generations before me ("Just read this tract..."). Maybe it's that my faith was still young, passionate but lacking focus. This is not to say that I am a "better" Christian now than I was then. It simply is that I now understand the way in which I reached out was surface-level, and not heart-deep. What good is it to tell someone to "taste and see" when you keep the bread and wine behind a display window?

I was little more than a mute sign, inviting others to engage with God when I wasn't engaging with them in any way, shape, form or fashion other than pointing to myself as a way to point to Him. Now I understand the importance in meeting people where they are - sometimes literally. It is far more meaningful and illustrates that you care when and if you show love, grace and mercy to someone rather than try to hand them off a platitude that is so cheesy Hallmark would have rejected it. Having a dialogue WITH an individual and not just barking a soundbite AT them all but insures I am heard, and it absolutely insures that I hear the other person.

And these days, it's done without a mullet or stonewashed jeans.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

One Flew Out of the Cukoo's Nest

VBS. Vacation Bible School or Very Big Step. You be the judge.

Since my comfort and ease of dealing with kids in the past has already been well documented, it's probably not hard to image how much I abhorred working/volunteering for Vacation Bible School before I had a child of my own.

Mondays at VBS were good, because while the kids were nervous or apprehensive about what to expect, there was always a high energy level because it was new. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were the best due to the comfort and familiarity of it all. Games were exciting, lessons were interesting, and crafts were amazing. 

Thursdays by comparison were hell. By this point everyone - teachers and kids - were getting a little grumpy, tired, and almost ready for the whole ordeal to be over. The fun of the first three days was gone, and the whining of the kids reached a deafening crescendo. Fridays were always a little bit better, because hey - it's the last day. Lessons were truncated, playtime was extended, and any snacks left open from the week were consumed with reckless abandon.

Last year was Kai's first experience at VBS - as well as his first experience of being away from me or Ashley and not being taken care of by a family member for an extended period of time. Ashley and I were somewhat comforted by the fact that I was working in the church he was attending VBS, and so in a worst case/DEFCON 1 level trauma, I could literally run down the hallway to see what was the problem.

This year is his first time flying solo during the week. Dad's not working at the church and isn't in the building (although in the interest of self-disclosure, I am writing this from the coffee shop around the corner). The kids and the teachers in the class are new and unknown as this is church we've never visited before. And to offend his finicky palate, the snacks offered at VBS don't hold to the usual standard I provide him with and come from Whole Foods or Earthfare (as he has informed me, Jeno's Pizza Rolls are "not cool." This mentality will undoubtedly change once college rolls around.).  

This is a big step for him. And it's a big step for us. Because not only am I through tears and a queasy stomach having to learn to trust others to take care of him, Kai's having to learn that being away from me is okay.

Because in approximately three weeks, I am going to begin letting him go from 8:00 am - 2:30 pm Mondays through Fridays and trusting in faith the the K4 program he's enrolled in will not be as traumatic as I imagine it to be - for either of us.

Four years ago, I could barely comprehend the idea that I was going be around him all day every day. And now? I can barely comprehend the idea that the house is going to be relatively quiet for the first time in almost half a decade. To be sure, Elias' cries and laughter will take away some of the silence, but my first hero, my first partner in playing tag, my first backyard adventurer will be gone for the majority of the day.

And although I know how necessary it is, it's killing me a little.

Parents are witness to the rapid-fire growth our kids go through, sometimes failing to note the milestones that pass us since we're so intimately connected with our kids. But when the milestones are punctuated by something so huge, so paradigm shifting that it causes us to pause...we see. We see the way the kid who only what felt like yesterday was learning to pull himself up is now writing out the alphabet, dressing himself (with BUTTONS, no less!), and has gotten so big that you have to shop in the "Kids" section and not the "Toddler" section any longer.

This is going to be good for him. He's going to socialize, learn things I don't know to teach him (education may be my background, but I'm not too keen on science), and not be just playing with his toys all day or nagging me to watch CARS for the seven zillionth time. And now, going to the park, the children's museum, the zoo, or the like will again be special and not something done on a routine basis. But more than anything, his being able to attend is nothing shy of miraculous due to how just two years ago, we began to fear for his health if he would ever be able to attend school. That he is healthy and well enough to go is reason to celebrate. 

This is going to be good for Elias. He's going to have my undivided attention - which is what I was able to give Kai - and not be relegated to the "put the kid in a swing/jab a pacifier in his mouth" syndrome that he might have had to undergo with his big brother still around. He's going to grow and change, go on walks and outings with me, and be held and cuddled like crazy. And just as important, he'll learn that once Kai comes home from school each day, sharing his time with me will be as equally as valuable as sharing toys. But more than anything, the special secrets and adventures that I have shared with Kai I can now share with Elias on a level just for him. I won't be repeating the exact same moments with him. This will be memories and bonding time meant just for him. 

This is going to be good for me. I'm going to witness my boys growing up and maturing, hopefully seeing some of the seeds I planted in them coming to fruition (if Kai can learn to just zip his pants after he goes to the restroom). I'm going to have SOME breathing room during the day (HA!) to write, cook, and make sure the house doesn't fall into complete chaos while Ashley is at work. And hopefully I won't be a completely worn-down, frazzled to the point of needing a bucket of Scotch every day, strung-out maniac by the time Ashley gets home from work every day - so we can, you know, actually TALK to each other at some point.

We're all going to be okay.

I just need to keep some emotional bandages on hand, as we're all going to stumble a bit during these first steps.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dead Christians Society

While we were out and about running errands the other day, Kai and I stopped in at the local Christian book store. Not so much because I enjoy torturing myself psychologically, but because I knew that in the back of the store they keep a DVD of VeggieTales on some kind of möbius loop playback to hypnotize unruly children. Did I mention I had a four year old with me? Who had slept rather poorly the night before and was in a mood that could frighten starving hyenas? Yeah.

After depositing him into one of the built-to-preschooler-scale couches they have in the back, I took a walk around the store - to see what was humorously called a "Best Seller," to see how many versions of WWJD iPhone covers they have, and to see if I could find any recoil-inducing greeting cards to mail some of my friends. Having probably already confused the staff of the store by my wearing a Doctor Who tshirt and cargo shorts instead of the requisite dad attire all the other fathers had on of a polo shirt and pleated khakis, I went to the back to go sit with Kai while his pupils dilated to the talking CGI vegetables. But in the midst of my smirking at the plaques to hang on walls, tracts to hand to the lost, and disproportionate number of faith-based patriotic items for sale, one singular thought hit me once I let my guard down for a minute:

I kinda miss some parts of this culture.

Pas(torn)

My all-too-brief stints as Youth or College Pastor, to say nothing of the number of times I have stood behind a pulpit to speak, have changed me. And I have loved the ways in which they have changed me NOW as opposed to how they could have changed me at an earlier age.

For as long as I can recall, I've felt a call to ministry. And were you to ask my wife or any of the students I've worked with, they will all attest that I've got the heart, mentality, and manic energy level for it. I don't make this statement out of ego, but instead out of experience. Kai has seen me working at and speaking in church for about half of his life (thus far), and I love that he sees a consistent, constant dad between the two places.

But for as much as I love working in ministry and helping others as we navigate our spiritual paths, I've never really...gelled...with other ministers. Granted, there are beautiful exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, I've not exactly gotten along with those in positions of authority in the churches I have served in. Part of this is due to the mixed message I receive of how while they love that I'm not a branded seminarian who comes with pre-programmed ideas of how things should be run, in the same breath they express they wish I was a branded seminarian, because then I might understand how things are supposed to be done.

While I do miss the youth retreats, the midnight conversations, and the sparks in the eyes of those who recognize that our shared faith is more about grace and less about being right, I don't miss in the least bit the jockeying among certain ministers within a staff to position their program, their outreach as the most important, the most critical, the most in need of paying attention to - and by association, said minister in charge of program being the most important person or the one to pay attention to. I don't miss in the least bit not being able to speak my mind or heart or dare to say "no" to something for fear of offending an ego or rocking the boat. I had enough of that in my years of working in higher education administration. I mistakenly believed I might find a more altruistic nature among the people who worked in a church.

I believe that my disconnect within the upper echelon of many pastors boils down to not just my lack of a processed, Velveeta-like MDiv degree, but also that years of working in education have shaped, molded, and formed how I engage with people. Add into the mix that I'm now a parent (two times over) and I weigh what I'm trying to teach my boys, and it's not really all that shocking that working or worshipping in a paint-by-numbers church and faith runs counter to the culture I try to inspire, form, and teach.

Stand on a Desk, Stand on a Pew

Dead Poets Society is one of those movies that, were I stranded on a desert island, I'd want to have with me (along with a BluRay player, HDTV, and satellite phone; but I digress). Having first watched this film when I was in high school, it left an indelible mark on me and warped in a positive way the heart and ideology I used when I found myself in the field of education. Imparting the skills of critical thinking and not being afraid of questions was not the easiest notion to hammer into the relatively thick skulls of college students - but many of them got it. They understood the need to look beyond just repeating that "correct" answer to me.

One scene in the movie particularly highlights the struggle inherent in not just education, but in many churches as well. I won't set the scene (don't worry - I'm not about to spoil anything), because the words convey their meaning quite well:

Mr. Keating:
That was an exercise to prove a point. The dangers of conformity.

Mr. Nolan:
Well, John, the curriculum here is set. It's proven. It works. If you question it, what's to prevent them from doing the same?

Mr. Keating:
I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.

Mr. Nolan:
At these boys' age? Not on your life. Tradition, John. Discipline.

Funny how a movie made almost 25 years ago contains echoes of conversations still being held in classrooms - and churches - today. And while I passionately desire to lead others in the charge of sounding their barbaric YAWP, there are those who still cling to the ghost of the past - because that's what worked and should still work.

Baby Jesus in the Bathwater

I'd be a hypocrite were I to say that 100% of what I have said, written, or spoken on is original content. I try my best to cite credit where credit is due, especially if it's a bit of wisdom spoken by a friend. And much like when I was working in higher education, there's an almost-unstated rule that we liberally borrow from presentations, programs, or talks we hear, adapting it to the needs of the people we serve.

Scattered among the vast sea of books, literature, study guides, tomes on theology, concordances, and the like are some true bits of wisdom. Many are written from sincere, intelligent, and passionate individuals who truly desire for the betterment of our understanding of our faith and are willing to serve as a guide through sharing their experiences. And I would gleefully spend hours researching, emailing, reading, and dissecting these books.

But the study guides which were "recommended" to me, the ones which we were to read a chapter, answer the questions at the end of said chapter, and then break into small groups to further discuss the questions in the chapter of the book we were jointly studying, because that worked at Church X? Again - I read, studied, and researched these books...

...and then might have used about 30% of what was "recommended" to use.

The teaching and methodology used in the majority of modern churches parallels one of the largest condemnations levied against the modern education system today: we teach to the test. We begin in Kids Ministry teaching them a formulaic pat answer to questions; we coddle and pacify teenagers by not daring to take them deeper into spirituality instead choosing to focus on sex and topics of polarizing controversy; and as adults we are told week after week to just come as we are after a 20 minute teaching on the depravity of our country or of the depravity of our own souls, laced with a need to tithe.

Through T-shirts, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs, we are taught and told to parrot the closed response that "Jesus is the Answer," all the while the questions remain open ended. We fear using the words "I don't know" out of a terror of seeming ill-prepared to respond to someone's pain. The soul is important, yes, but how are we able to convince someone that all will be well in eternity when all they can see and respond to is the pain in their soul in the here and now?

I love that months, years after I have moved on and in some cases states away from the students I have worked with that they still email me. Text me. Send their questions to me. Some of them talk about missing the days of our deep conversations or my lunacy on Sundays (Floyd the Cabbage reference), while some vent about their lack of being able to find a decent church or small group, or of the lack of depth in their teachings in church.

They've learned how to move. How to question. How to be.

That's what I miss.

Those moments when we stand in unity on our desks.

Yawp!

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

(Not) Born This Way

When friends and family first saw me interacting with Kai a little over four years ago, most of them were flabbergasted. I had always taken the same approach to children that Kenneth Branagh had in HOW TO KILL YOUR NEIGHBOR'S DOG; that is to say, I kept them at arm's length for the most past and treated their sticky fingers and faces as something in need of being quarantined by the CDC. So when my son was an infant and I somehow automatically knew how to comfort him when he cried, made up songs to sing to him, and didn't run in mortal terror from his diapers, people were understandably astonished. This was, after all, my baptism into taking care of a child.

And the comments began.

Now that Elias is here and after four years I somehow didn't purge all the necessary information on how to care for an infant from my brain, the cycle has begun again. Only this time, I have the joy of splitting my time between a four year old (squeezing every moment of quality time in with him before he trots off to K4 in the fall) and a newborn (who deserves to be held, coddled, and told goofy stories as much as his brother was when he was his age). And now that we're living in a different geographical location than we were with Kai when he was born, new friends witness me with a baby. The same friends who have seen for a few years with Kai.

And the comments continue.

"You were born to do this."

Actually...no. No I wasn't.

Two Truths and a Lie

When I first began taking care of Kai, and especially when I began as a full-time stay-at-home dad, I welcomed comments of this nature. I was terrified that people might question me and my ability to take care of Kai after they actually witnessed me taking care of him. Oh, sure - more than a fair share of people passed judgment on me as a stay-at-home dad, but none of the comments were ever directed specifically at me and the bundle I was taking care of. They were always general, generic judgment calls about men and their inability to walk and chew gum at the same time, and how apocalyptic it must be for a neanderthal like that to take care of a child.

But for people to give praise to my ability to know which end to diaper, and to - you know - actually interact with my kid? It was like music to my soul.

To be honest, I was more astonished than my family and friends were that I was willingly devoting myself to taking care of Kai full-time. Something in me, some recessive mutant gene or trait, must have been activated the minute I held Kai for the first time. (Which, in hindsight, means I now have an origin story. But I digress...) And although I lived in abject fear that I was going to do or say something to him that would emotionally scar him for life before he mastered tummy time, I slowly began to accept what people said to me. What Ashley said and still says to me. What Kai and Elias both say and show in their own ways.

I was a good dad. I am a good dad.

I was good at taking care of them. I am good at taking care of them.

But born to do this?

Not even remotely.

Gender Offender

I have a number of female friends who swear blindly they were "born to be" mothers and/or wives. And that's great; I am genuinely proud for them if they have found something that gives them such joy and fulfillment. It's what from an early age they saw as the culmination of their life's journey, but it's also what people expected of them.

But me? Given my craptastic track record with relationships, the insanely poor lifestyle and health choices I have made, and how for the almost four decades before Kai was born I spent my life focused primarily on me? I was anything but born to be a good dad. There are seriously long periods in my life when I wouldn't have entrusted me with the care of a pet rock, to say nothing of a human being.

I'm barely smart enough now to look back on those times and recognize them for what they were and what they meant to my development, how they shaped me, and that every scar, every healed wound is a badge of honor and sign of victory. But I seriously doubt that anyone who has known me for any length of my life would make the argument I was "born to be" a good dad based on my past. It was not what I wanted, not what I sought, and not what I thought I would ever have.

It was a standard not imposed on me, which left me to develop a little bit more divergent than many of the women I know. And that's unfortunate for us both.

Popeye the Parent Man

I don't believe for one minute that had I been saddled with a similar "future spouse/parent" cross that many women must bear that it would have changed a lot of the choices I made. Part of that is honestly due to how men aren't conditioned to think in such a fashion.

While there may be some deep spiritual truth to me being born to be a good dad, I don't see it as the culmination of my journey. I'm supposed to be the best me that I can be: the best writer, the best nerd, the best beer geek, the best husband, the best friend, the best walker of dogs. I'm a person, separate from yet lovingly, intrinsically bound to forever being a dad. To say that the summation of me as a person rests solely with my ability to be in a relationship, procreate, or be a good parent negates in many ways the journey I have spent my life on to be the best me that I can be. My spouse and children - along with me - get to reap the benefit of me taking the time to make mistakes, learn who I am, and become the best me that I can be.

As pathetically cliched as it sounds, I couldn't have found Ashley unless I stopped trying to find her. Much in the same way, I don't think I could have become a good dad without first becoming a good me. My first, best responsibility to my family is to make sure I am healthy - physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally. Otherwise, I'm off-balance, which means our dynamic is off-balance.

I am who I am meant to be. Part of me is still finding and becoming that person, but I'm me.

I'm the person I was born to be.

He just happens to like to change diapers. It's a part of who he is.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Great Meat Van Incident of 2013

I used to think that my life held some semblance of logic in it. Not much, but just enough to insure that the random occurrences that took place were moderately humorous, held some sanity behind them, and were not altogether completely bizarre.

That was before the Meat Van Incident.

It was a quiet, fun Wednesday afternoon. Kai and I were sitting on the floor of his bedroom, playing our version of Jenga (seeing how many ways and how high we could create towers out of the blocks before they toppled), when there was a knock at the front door.

Now typically, the following series of events happen at my house when there is a knock at the door: (1) Maggie begins barking (a lot); (2) Kai will race to the door to open it (without knowing who is behind it); and (3) I will race behind Kai to the door (to keep it closed and shush Maggie, all the while trying to not make a lot of noise so as to alert the knocker if we are in fact home). Basically it's a comedy skit in action.

On this particular day, the blinds in the dining room side windows were open, and I could see someone standing on the porch of the house adjacent to ours. A peek through the spyhole in the front door showed that there was a white van parked to the left of our house, obscured just enough by the trees in the front yard to not be able to make out exactly what the lettering on the van might have read. The guy who was standing on my patio and was the door knocker in question looked to be covered in sweat and was holding a clipboard.

To many, discovering a clipboard bearing, sweat-soaked mysterious visitor knocking on the front door after emerging from an unmarked white van might be cause for alarm or at the very least a bit of confusion. But, as our house is owned by the university my wife works for, such incidents are more commonplace than I'd care to admit. So, I opened the door with my four year old son standing next to me.

Instead of the usual greeting of "Hi," "How are you," or even a dated "What's up," I was asked the following question before I was asked my name: "Hey, man - where do you do your grocery shopping, and how much do you like meat?"

Clearly, this was not someone from Maintenance.

After stammering through a response about shopping at Whole Foods, Earthfare, and Fresh Market - hoping my hippie vibe would disarm him and turn him away - he informed me that he and his buddy (who had run over to my house at the first sign of some loon willing to open the door for them) were going around selling cases of discounted frozen meat.

Out of a van.

Yeah.

For a moment, I thought about just busting his balloon and telling him we were vegetarians, but come on. I had to see this through. This was just too rich.

I picked up Kai and carried him to said white van - which turned out to not be as unmarked as I had assumed: the name of their business (with "business" misspelled no less) was hand-painted on the side. Clipboard Guy's buddy stepped into the back of the van to open the side door so I could see their sales routine in all its glory.

What I saw instead was an empty delivery van with what felt like no air conditioning in it, two filthy pillows on an equally filth floor, half a dozen empty Marlboro Menthol cigarette cases, and in the very back, a deep freeze unit complete with a magnetic confederate flag on it. The freezer, at least, was cold based on the smoke rising around it.

I muttered "caveat emptor" under my breath while trying to not laugh out loud.

Clipboard Guy then launched into his sales pitch about how grocery stores charge you for the bones in the weight of the meat you buy (which is true), how their boneless cuts of hand-selected and graded by them steaks were just as good (which is dubious), that the variety of vacuum-sealed products they offer were just as good as what "rich people eat" (his words, not mine), that all I needed to do was "slap a piece of bacon around this right here" and I'd have as good a steak as I could get in "one a' them uppity restaurants" (which is as funny as it sounds), and that if I bought them today, as a special for Fathers Day, I could get two cases of roughly 50 different cuts of meat in each case.

For $500.

After politely declining their somewhat ludicrous offer, they asked me if I knew where - ahem - "the hood" was. After they gave me a racially biased diatribe peppered with colorful phrases I refuse to repeat, they wanted to be pointed in the direction of whom they believed might be interested in buying some of their fine wares.

I gave them directions to Whole Foods.

After they drive away, Kai - who had been uncharacteristically quiet during the whole ordeal - turned and looked at me and made quite the astute observation for someone of his age:

"Well, THAT was kinda crazy."  

Monday, April 29, 2013

Suffer the Adults to Come Unto Me

Working in Children's Ministry ruined church for me.

Seriously.

The church in Athens, GA I was attending/serving/working multiple volunteer hours in already had me committed to about as much as was humanly possible. I was involved with the Teaching Team (outlining the weekly sermons and series as well as trying our best to keep our pastor on track and not veer too wildly off topic), the Creative Team (designing and building the environments for said series), the Youth Ministry (coming in on Wednesdays, team teaching with two other adults), and I even took to the "pulpit" on Sundays more than a few times to greet, welcome, and generally act like a loon. I was about as active and involved as many of the paid staff were, but there was one area I steered clear of:

Kids Ministry.

When it was time to repaint and refurbish the rooms so that they looked less industrial and more inviting? I was there. When it was time to clean up the play areas so they'd be safe? I was there. But that was it. I drew the line in the sandbox at working directly with...children.

Until.

The Family Minister held a luncheon one Sunday afternoon for all the volunteers who served under his areas. It was early May, and he wanted to outline some of the needs for the upcoming summer that we could help with. One area in particular he mentioned was Children's Ministry. Since most of the adults who were already regularly volunteering with kids were also school teachers during the academic year, he made an impassioned plea that it would be the height of Christian generosity and lovingkindness if we would be willing to give them a full summer off: no teaching in school, no teaching at church. Given how many of us were there that afternoon, if we all signed up we would each only have to serve two to three Sundays, only during one of the services, over the course of a three month stretch.

So being the sucker/wonderful person I am, I signed up. "Why not," I thought. "I won't be doing this by myself, other adults can be there to talk to them while I just supervise the game room, and it won't be that bad. Plus, it won't last that long."

Jump cut to a year and a half later...

I was still serving people half my size and a third of my age week in and week out, sometimes by myself, during both church services, thereby effectively causing me to miss worship for months on end. Other volunteers backed out a week into our "fill in" run. The "we need you" card was played repeatedly. Yet although it frustrated me I felt like I was at times being used unappreciatively as a free servant, that's not what ultimately wrecked attending church for me.

It was the kids. The third through fifth graders I worked with, and how they modeled what church was actually supposed to be about.

Just like with the adults, we plotted out the weekly series perfectly...or so we thought. Because ultimately, they weren't there to sit through a praise and worship set, catchy video, and 20 minute lesson complete with memory verse, takeaway handout, and prayer time. And to be honest, they weren't interested in the deeper theological underpinnings of what we were trying to teach them.

Although they were doubtlessly dragged to church by their parents, once they got there, they were there for life: to play and interact with each other. For many of them, this was one of the only times they saw each other during the week. And they wanted to celebrate that - by playing foosball. By talking. By jumping off couches. They were already spending five days out of the week in school having to sit still, listen, and not have any "fun." To ask them to continue this on the weekend was the height of unfairness (to them).

So when we'd chat while sitting at the XBox or after a game of ping ping? They saw love in action. When we talked about God, life, or how much school sucked? We connected. Illustrating already-existing spiritual examples and showing how God was already at work in them and with them in their lives made for beautiful "aha" moments. When the emphasis changed from trying to make sure we made it through all five points in the lesson, there was growth.

They saw and lived what a community of believers was - is - supposed to act like.

As adults, we grouse about how church often isn't what it's "supposed" to be, about how there's a lack of connectivity or real life taking place. Part of that is because we've taken the uncomfortable stuffiness of church traditions we say alienate and traded them for rehearsed performances from middle-aged men in skinny jeans. Not that we should become kids and play freeze-tag during the sermon (tempting as it might be to tag the pastor) nor that we should let the place just go total free-form, but if the "relevant" video clip doesn't play, or the band is slightly off-key, or everything doesn't come off exactly as it does on the clipboard of the person who's behind the stage cueing up everyone?

Big. Deal.

I want the church I attend and raise my kids in to be one where we do life with one another. If there is pain, we share it. If there are victories, we recognize them. If we need to talk, we do it. Form and content never is to supersede heart and action.

The first time you fart out loud on a date is when your partner knows you're a person and not trying to act perfect and hold everything in. 

We need more farts in church.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Forking Choices

October, 2012. I stood outside the door of the office I had used for ten months. Staff members and volunteers walked hurriedly past me, avoiding making eye contact, just as they had done for the past few weeks. I let my fingers lightly trace the nameplate attached to the outside wall, fighting back the tears that threatened to erupt. Ten months. It was my final Sunday serving in the role of Interim Minister of Students at this church. And as I smiled at the memory of too much soda, too many corny jokes, and ultimately too few days with these kids, I kept wondering "If only..."

"Did I let the opportunity to finally work full-time in ministry slip through my fingers? Will I ever be afforded a chance like this again? In choosing to be, to love and to act like myself, not conforming to a set of expectations and thereby demonstrating that I didn't fit in with the leadership of this church...did I make the right choice?"

Four years earlier. I stood in a hallway outside a completely different office door, cradling a four month old infant. Students and custodial workers grinned at the sight of my son, occasionally greeting him in that high-pitched voice we tend to speak to infants in. I smiled softly at the irony that it took less than the span of a heartbeat to end a thirteen year career in Student Affairs. Thirteen years. It was the day after my final day of employment at this university. And as I thought back on a decade-plus of advising, mentoring, late-night insanity and life-changing conversations that took place over lattes, I kept wondering "If only..."

"Was I walking away from what I was called to do, from a career and a passion I lucked into and found myself in love with? I have utterly no clue what I am going to do with this kid day after day as a stay-at-home dad. If I commit to this, can I or will I ever be able to find a job again? In choosing to act on actually putting my family first and not just giving lip service to the idea...did I make the right choice?"

Five years before that. I stood inside my bathroom, staring at the reflection in the mirror. I was alone, and it felt like the chasm where my heart used to be made everything in the apartment feel distant and out of phase with reality. My eyes were bloodshot, my hair was completely disheveled, and my face was sunken and hollow from the night I had spent lying on my living room floor, crying until I was sick. After a magical night of dancing, laughing, and opening my too-often-pierced heart to her, she dropped the "f-bomb" - "friend" - on how she defined our relationship. Two years. Two years of letting myself feel, of spending time, energy, and love on cultivating a relationship with her, and in the end I was found wanting. And as I felt the mixture of fury and hopelessness rising like so much bile in my throat, I kept wondering "If only..."

"Why? Why did this have to happen again, when I hoped, I prayed that this time...this time it would be different. That I wasn't the only one that felt this way. After all the emotional and spiritual damage I have inflicted on myself, is there anything of worth left inside of me? Am I even capable of being loved? In letting myself be vulnerable enough to care...did I make the right choice?"

We like to quote Robert Frost like he's some lost Prophet, that the road that diverges - forks - in the road is some beautiful, amazing, experience to undertake and behold. Too often, we forget that these forks in our lives, like the forks on our dining tables, sometimes puncture and pierce as well as guide. We take solace in the promise of Jeremiah 29:11, but secretly wish that He would just drop a hint, a clue, or some sign of what these plans might be. It's the difference in being anxious about stepping out onto a fork in the path as opposed to stepping on a fork in the path.

We want the knowledge without the corresponding potential pain.

We wonder "If only," or "Did I make the right choice?" many times, simply because we're human. I know me. I know I'm going to worry, to doubt some of my choices. But that's only because the unknown remains just that: the unknown. 

It's not as if I am putting my hand to a plow and then turning back; I just tend to question if I am gripping the plow the right way, if I might have grabbed the wrong plow by mistake, or if I'm even plowing in the right direction. 

We wrestle and struggle with this because no matter how much we may wish it to be, neither our faith nor our lives are governed or the same principles as a Magic 8 Ball. It's not as if should we not like the answers given to us or the uncertainty of it all we can just nudge God a little and voila! a new or non-hazy reply shows up. Our nice little contained ball of blue fluid gets shaken through choices made or circumstances forced upon us we, and then have to deal with what side of the triangle comes up. Even if the way we respond to the answer given is to reject it outright and work to make a different one fit better with our vision for how we think life ought to be, we still must acknowledge the answer given to us.

The struggle in this journey comes when we wrestle with finding peace in our soul when all we can feel is turmoil in our stomach. There's a reason the Holy Spirit is referred to as Comforter in John 14:26: He is sent to not only remind us of all that was promised us (like that whole never leaving nor forsaking us deal), but also to help ease the mind and soul of neurotics like me who at times feel terrified or unsure because we've stepped out in faith onto Mr. Frost's metaphorical divergent path. 

The woman who broke my heart? We're friends still. There was something - someone - far better waiting for me. Someone more wonderful than I could have ever imagined who would love me for the me of who I am...and we've been happily married for more than half a decade now.

The career anxiety? To quote Monty Python, I got better. There was a calling - a passion - to be found somewhere between the mountain of laundry and the tapping of fingers on a keyboard. It's a drive that nurtures and defines me, and it has given me friendships more meaningful than I could have ever imagined. And maybe one day I'll get paid to do it as well.

The potential for a future career in ministry? Well...we're not promised answers to everything. Nor are we told that every dream we have will be fulfilled.

The One who is called "Faithful" simply calls us to be faithful as well.