Monday, February 15, 2021

Memories: Goneward, Christian soldiers

Does he, though?
I used to be a real churchy guy.

One reason I moved to Lawrence in 2000 -- aside from the newspaper job -- is that I already knew of a lefty Mennonite church in town that I had come to adore. For the first few years I lived here, the congregation was my home. By that time, my late 20s, I had come to define my Christianity as a sort of language: I didn't think it was necessarily the only right language, but it was the language I knew and had grown up in, so it was the language I would use. The congregation was a place where I could be open about that, and it was ok. And the community was terriffic - the most meaningful of my life. Church-goers were my mentors, my friends, the people I watched movies with and drank with and, once or twice, even tried to date. (Unsuccessfully.) I may never find that again, and that hurts.

After 9/11, though, even my loose definition of faith began to feel implausible. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, people were doing terrible things in the name of whatever religious language they possessed. Hindus and Muslims killed each other in India. They didn't ostensibly share my religion, but Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson did, and they blamed the terror attacks on "abortionists, feminists and gays." I didn't want to share the identity of "Christian" with them. Around the same time, my own congregation went through a process that resulted in our welcoming, for the first time, gay and lesbian people into membership -- a necessary and good journey, one that I advocated, but also draining. I didn't want to have to fight over whether the love of my gay friends was somehow legitimate or not. Over time, I began to think that if God condemned those genuine and loving relationships -- as so many of my fellow Christians fiercely believed -- that maybe I couldn't be cool with God. One Sunday morning, singing hymns, I realized that I could not honestly sing or speak the words in front of me. Mark Twain was right. You can't pray a lie.

John Updike is nowhere near my favorite author. But in November 2002, he wrote a short story for The Atlantic about a man who relinquishes his faith after watching the Twin Towers fall.

Thus was Dan, an Episcopalian lawyer of sixty-three, brought late to the realization that comes to children with the death of a pet, to women with the loss of a child, to millions caught in the implacable course of war or plague. His revelation of cosmic emptiness thrilled him, though his own extinction was held within this new truth like one of the white rectangles weightlessly rising and spinning within the boiling column of smoke. He joined at last the run of mankind in its stoic atheism. He had fought this wisdom all his life, with prayer and evasion, with recourse to the piety of his Ohio ancestors and to ingenious and jaunty old books—Kierkegaard, Chesterton—read in adolescence and early manhood. But had he been in that building (its smoothly telescoping collapse in itself a sight of some beauty, like the color-enhanced stellar blooms of telescopically photographed supernovae, yet as quick as the toss of a scarf)—had he been in that building, would the weight of concrete and metal have been an ounce less, or hesitated a microsecond in its crushing, mincing, vaporizing descent?

And I felt it.

But I have kept the door open to returning to the church. Art was a big motivator -- the songs of Johnny Cash and Sufjan Stevens, the novels of Marilynne Robinson, the films of Terrence Malick. And I have remained sympathetic to the conservative Christian friends that I made in college, understanding why they are so vociferously opposed to abortion without sharing that view.

The last few years, and the last few weeks, have made that open door feel a bit closer to closed. White American Christianity -- which is not *Christianity*, I realize, but still the faith language I know best -- aligned itself with Donald Trump so thoroughly that it began to look distinctly un-Christian to me. The celebration of vulgarity, the lies, the racism and misogyny ... if this was what people understood that God required of them, wanted of them, I wanted nothing to do with that God, or those people really. More likely, the people who called themselves Christians did what they wanted and told themselves that it was God speaking, but that didn't really make me feel any better.

There is no real complex, intellectual theology for me to offer you, only my sense even now that I lost something when I walked away from the church, but that I cannot embrace what the church -- or, rather, what I knew as my experience of church -- has to offer. I know there are other varieties of religious experience, but they don't speak to me. My old congregation still meets, in a different place than when I was a regular, and I still visit from time to time. The music of the old hymns still stirs me. But I still can't sing the words. Right now, I am not sure that I ever will be able to again.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Some evergreen thoughts about humanity that feel newly relevant today

Don't let the bastards grind you down.

Even though they'll win most of the time.

Also, you're probably somebody's grinding bastard.

Memory: Baptism

My dad baptized me on Feb. 27, 1983 in the Emporia Church of Christ. It's funny that I remember the date so precisely, but it seemed at the time like it might be the most important thing in my life -- a marker signifying whether I would go to heaven or hell someday.

The baptism came at a Sunday night service. We always went to church twice on Sundays, and usually went on Wednesday nights as well. The preacher that Sunday night didn't do a sermon, as per usual -- he instead gave answers to presubmitted questions. One was about how young was too young to get baptized. I don't remember his answer. What I do remember is that at the end of it, my dad nudged me and asked: "Do you want to get baptized?"

I did. 

I had asked, in fact, to be baptized a few months before. It had been judged that I was not ready. (By the time this particular Sunday night occurred, I was about a month short of my tenth birthday.) But my grandmother, in particular, had queried me from time to time about theological questions -- a test, I think, of when and if I would be ready.

My dad had been a preacher in the Church of Christ -- we didn't call them pastors. (I'm not speaking here of the liberal United Church of Christ, by the way, but a more fundamentalist non-denomination that didn't believe in instrumental music or letting women speak in church.) He asked this congregation's preacher if we could go ahead after the service. The congregation, which had been ready to leave, retook their seats. Dad and I entered the baptismal together. And then, after a few words, he dunked me.

And as my head went under, my foot slipped up and out of the water.

This haunted me for awhile after. The Church of Christ believed in full-body immersion -- and I had not been fully immersed. It seemed to me that my foot shooting up above the surface in the moment of baptism might mean I had not really, truly been saved. That, without that immersion, I might end up in hell.

But I didn't tell anybody. Instead, I lived with the fear.

A few years after that, my family left the Church of Christ. We'd settled into a largely Mennonite small town. It took me a long time to not fear that we had made a terrible mistake. But over time, at least, I stopped being afraid that my foot was going to keep me from going to heaven.

Monday, February 8, 2021

I'm not feeling resilient

It's really cold in Lawrence, Kansas this week -- the temperature as I write this is 8 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, I've been forced inside more than usual. Instead of spending an hour or two a day strolling along the Kansas River and chilling out, I've more or less been home all day. (I did make a trip to Sonic just to sit and read, but without the Vitamin D and physical activity, it's just not the same thing.)

So I'm having one of those moments where pandemic-induced isolation is driving me a little bit crazy. Feeling edgy, sad, tired, depressed. More than usual, I mean. We've been mostly isolated for nearly a year now. Haven't left town. Haven't seen my wife's parents. Haven't gotten to stand closer than six feet to my dad. 

I'm tired of this. I'm not feeling resilient.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Something I'm noticing.... I scan the headlines this morning is how normal the news seems. That's a relative term, of course, but there's a real difference between a president who tries to solve problems and a president who seems to go out of his way to create crises. 

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Cooking while broken

There was a time about 10 years ago when I got excited about cooking -- I read a Mark Bittman book about why it's good to cook at home, and I was briefly converted. (A similar surge of interested happened a few years earlier when I read Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma.")

But it didn't take.

I try to practice my egalitarian preaching, though I probably fall short. My wife likes to cook -- or at least, she seems to, and she's very creative at it -- but I still try to cook a couple of nights a week. Usuallly it's something simple -- spaghetti, maybe, or chili. Maybe veggies thrown into a pan with a premade simmer sauce.

I sometimes miss doing more ambitious things, though. Today, while it's snowing outside, I tackled a recipe for slow-cooker cassoulet. Usually the slow-cooker works for my lazy man style of cooking -- just throw in stuff and turn the machine on. The cassoulet required a bit of prep, however: Chopping, browning, mixing.

You know, cooking stuff.

But I was reminded why I tend to shy away from this in the first place: My body remains broken from my surgeries (also about a decade ago at this point), and doing the physical job of cooking is ... exhausting. I solved the problem today by sitting for a lot of the prep. But my back still hurt quite a bit when it was all over.

I'm not asking for sympathy here. And I'm hesitant to use a word like "disabled." But ... I have less ability than I did. Some of that may be because I'm older, but a lot of it is is being broken. I can't -- and won't, ever again -- be able to do some things I used to do. And the things I do, physically, take a lot more out of me.

Like cooking.

Today, I found a solution. I need to keep looking for those kinds of solutions. I think I've let my brokeness keep me from living a full life over the years. But I only have this life. I don't want to spend it just staring at a screen.

Saturday, January 30, 2021


I finished binging HBO’s Barry last night. I am utterly fascinated by Bill Hader. I think he’s magnificent. Just watching his face in the show, without any sound, would be entertainment all by itself. The way it goes flat when he’s trying to be a good guy, almost passive. The way his eyes get big and unblinking and his brow wrinkles when he becomes possessed by rage. Hader has fascinated me since I first saw him doing a Vincent Price impersonation on SNL, because who would do such a thing in the 21st century? He’s one of my favorite actors working today.