We Hate the Wedding

“Which do you hate more,” I asked, “the wedding or the jewelery store?”

She replied, “That’s like asking who was meaner, Hitler or Stalin?!?”

We’re 35 days away from the Big Day.  I now approach it with stoic resolve.  Then again, I don’t have to wear the dress.  Or go to the fittings.  Or suffer through the shower.  Or have my gender identity questioned because of failing to embrace glitter and glam, but that is exactly what jewelery stores do to women with simple tastes.   And so the love of my life now hates the day that everyone tells her should be the best day of her life.  Damn.  We should have eloped.

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“Hung-over” with Hilarity… in a Jaded Sort of Way

My Arrested Development binge has coincided with my Scrosese binge.  I’m half-way through AR season two, and I’ve watched Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Departed.  If I were a drinking man — which I can’t be, because of my bipolar meds — I’d say it was something like mixing strawberry daquiris with tequila shots.

(Incidentally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with other people drinking, just with being drunk.)

This could be more disorienting than the Christmas when I read nothing but Flannery O’Connor short stories and stopped trusting anything that strangers said for the next month.  Even the dude at the airport who claimed to be the kid from Problem Child.

Life is funny right now.  I can’t take myself too seriously.  Not with Ron Howard’s 3rd person narration running through my head, describing my every move.  And I’m somehow expecting everyone to get screwed in the end.  But that’s Scorsese, not me, and not God talking.  I’ve got to be careful who I listen to.

Lonely Matinee

On Going to the Movies Alone

The theater was as dark as the day was bright, and as eerie, empty, and old.  The walls inside and out were the color of old toothpaste but smooth as marble, as if the paint had been chosen thirty years ago and purchased in bulk, a fresh coat for every year for a century.  A handful of high schoolers, retirees, and I settled down for our blockbuster of choice.  The momentary embarassment and awkwardness were a small price to pay, as was the $6.50.

To Be Gay or Not To Be Gay: Is That the Question?

Further Reflections on a Complicated Issue 

In “The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!Sufjan Stevens gives us what “is tempting to describe… as a story of male-male agape—just touching on the erotic, with mentions of falling asleep in the backseat of a car—between Stevens and his best friend, but Stevens also lets you see right through it as a love story between himself and Jesus, God born human, a man stung and mocked and wrestled with” (Daddino, Seattle Weekly). 

This may ignore the most straightforward interpretation of the song: “male-male agape” plus eros/philia.  “He runs washing his face in his hands.  Oh how I meant to tease him.
Oh how I meant no harm.  Touching his back with my hand I kiss him.  I see the wasp on the length of my arm.”  And “We were in love!” repeats the chorus jubilantly.  This love was a means of experiencing God’s glory: “Halelu!”  But this love really didn’t work out: “My friend is gone, he ran away….  Though we have sparred, wrestled and raged. I can tell you I love him each day….” 

All of this has led many people to ask, “Is Sufjan Stevens gay?”  To this I would respond: a) you’re missing the point of the song, and b) our culture assumes that the world is divided into a gay/not-gay dichotomy.  Kinsey showed this to be a blatant falsehood, although his numbers were probably skewed due to his sampling methods.  Regardless, Sufjan has recounted in concerts that he was well before puberty when the incident occurred.  This isn’t proof that he’s “gay.”  This is proof that a lot of people experience a lot of things that our culture would use to say, “Hey, you’re gay!”  What if the truth isn’t that simple?

“God Loves Me, So I Can Do Whatever I Want…”

The Problem With Catchy Slogans

I have a friend named “Joe.”  While he would claim to be a Christian, Joe thinks that he can do whatever he wants.  Anything.  He life lacks any sort of responsibility or accountability.  His response: “Once saved, always saved” and “God loves me the way I am.”

Catchy slogans are useful, because they can express truth in memorable ways.  But the problem is that, taken in isolation, they can represent falsehoods.  Joe’s slogans are derived from the Bible, but without the Bible they are misleading, just as freedom of speech does not function apart our other legal rights and responsibilities:  you cannot say whatever you want whenever you want (shout “fire!” in a crowded movie theater, etc.).

I do believe that the Bible teaches that God will protect his own until the very end (John 17;  Romans 8:38).  Calvinists call this the “perseverance of the saints,” although many other groups hold to similar beliefs.  But how can you know that you are “saved” if your life does not reflect your professed faith?

God loves you, he really does.  But his is not the love of a dismissive and permissive parent (Deism?).  His is the love of an actively involved father, working in the lives of his children, calling them to himself.  His is the love of an artist, wooing his creation ever more into his own image. 

I think of the prophet Hosea, called by God to marry the prostitute named Gomer (what a name!) to be an example of the kind of love God has for his wayward people.  “I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one. ‘I will say to those called ‘Not my people, ”You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.'”” Hosea 2:23Yet we want something for nothing.  The offer of grace, of God’s forgiveness, is free.  It costs nothing to grasp hold of it.  But it costs everything to keep hold of it.  The better slogan is “God loves you the way you are, but he is not content to leave you that way.” 

Bonhoeffer called the cop-out “cheap grace.”   It is “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance,… grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ” (The Cost of Discipleship).  Cheap grace is not grace.

Lazy faith is not faith.

Hey! That wasn’t a spy movie….

I did not know what to expect with “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”  All I wanted as another spy movie.  Instead, I got “The Mysterious Yearning Secretive Sad Lonely Troubled Confused Loving Musical Gifted Intelligent Beautiful Tender Sensitive Haunted Passionate Talented Mr. Ripley” (full U.S. title). 

(plot spoiler imminent)

A man who is very insecure about his identity succeeds in assuming the identity of his new best friend, whom he admires, loathes, resents, sexualizes (w/o having sex w/), and kills in the process (2nd degree murder). 

What is fascinating about this depiction is the clarity with which we see Tom Ripley seek his own identity in Dickie Greenleaf.  For him, to love is to become.  When that fails, he must kill in order to become the object of his obession.  He has no self, or very little stable sense of one. 

Is it possible that sexual identity is just one of the more vivid/controversial/painful/awkward-to-talk-about manifestations of our whole being?  A surface symptom of deeper things going on?  Or is what you see what you get?

Why Straight, Christian Men Should Listen to Lesbian, Agnostic Songwriters

When I bought the Indigo Girls’ Retrospective, I endured some awkward questions from the cashier. 

“Is this a gift?” she asked. 

“No, it’s for me.” 

“I thought most of their fans were… you know….” 

I shrugged.  “They’re amazing lyricists and musicians.” 

And it’s true.  Whatever criticism one might have of their views, one cannot deny that Amy Ray and Emily Saliers speak with great clarity and beauty.  To be sure, in their protest songs they may shout at you.  But, in their love songs and life songs, they warmly invite you to walk in their shoes.

What is the nature of love, as expressed by the Indigo Girls?  With shocking Biblical imagery, Amy Ray presents it as “Strange Fire.”  This is a reference to Leviticuts 10, when two priests gave an unauthorized offering to God and were destroyed by his wrath.  But here, that fire is love, which is offered to each other, not to God, and forms a “refuge from the wrath.”  The poet then lashes out against those who oppose that love, with “haughty eyes and lying tongues and hands that shed innocent blood” (Proverbs 6:17, quoted verbatim in the song).  At the very least, the song illuminates the greatest transgression of Christians toward those experiencing homosexual desires: by stigmatizing the struggle and “casting stones,” we have committed greater sins than the sin we sought to oppose.  (“Is it a sin?” is a conversation for another day.)

It is not my place to attempt to summarize the entire body of the Indigo Girls’ work, but I would be amiss not to at least mention “Ghost.”  Emily Saliers captures the utter bitter-sweetness of unrequited love: “I burn up in your presence and I know now how it feels to be weakened like Achilles with you always at my heels….  I can’t swim free the river is too deep, though I’m baptized by your touch, I am no worse than most…. in love with your ghost.”  Is this unrequited love the same as that between a man and a woman?  How can you know if you don’t listen?

Flex and Flexibility

“Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12)

“Hell is other people.”  (Sartre)

You will not hear from me for several days.  I am going camping.  I will travel for two and a half days, each way, in order to spend one night on the trail.  But if you have to ask why, maybe you haven’t been to western North Carolina.  Or maybe you don’t have friends like I do.  I pray that you do.

I love my friend, but my life is more complicated because of them.  I may say the same thing about my wife someday, if I am ever so blessed.  My life is better, but definitely more complicated.  I remember back when I had no true friends.  Middle school.  There was Nate, but he lived on the far side of town, so other than the once a month or two, I felt like a man without a country.  Then I became a workaholic in high school and forgot to care.

College changed everything.  There are others like me, in mind, in heart, and in spirit.  I am not alone.  And there are others better than me, sharper, purer, saner even, who can make me more whole just by showing up and being themselves.  It is to spend time with men that I will trek across  six states.

 I lost my mind once.  It was a “manic episode,” part of bipolar disorder.  I’ll share the gory details in a later post, but what matters here: my friends helped me get to see a psychiatrist, before I even knew something was wrong with me.  After getting on medication, I spent a few months in rehab with my family.  Home is always a safe place, but not always a healthy one, especially as a young adult.  I had to escape.  Another friend took me in for the next six months, sedated, depressed, and marginally-employed as I was.

Few things in life are more beautiful than friendship.  The joy is sweeter and bitterness more bearable with friends.  Friends make us who we are.  It’s not just a matter of influence.  It’s a matter of context.  I am not my full self when I am not with my friends.  Don’t get me wrong.  I need alone time.  But when I emerge from the cave of my mind, I need brothers and sisters — including you! — with whom to discuss, spar, dream, and despair.  Why else do we blog?

But friendship is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and complicated.  The pay-off is huge, but it comes at a price.  I think of the lengths that God went to to become my friend in the person of Jesus.

My imperfections have grated against my friends’ imperfections, even on this small trip.  Me watching too much Pacino and De Niro, barking logistics on the phone and baffled at the contingencies. A.M. might not meet be in Chicago after all.  “Why not Nashville?  It’s on the way.  You could transfer the ticket you just bought, even though the trip is this week….”  G.K. might have to do work on the house he is trying to buy and skip out on all of the actual hiking.  J.D. has to leave a day early to be with his wife.  And I feel like I’m the only one who owns a calendar and a map.

I have a choice: I can flex my ego and refuse to accomodate, or I can do whatever it takes to make this trip happen.  So I’m getting on a bus tomorrow bound northward, so that I can travel south and east, six days on the road for one night under the stars and one night of beer and pizza.  Their beer, my pizza.  Alcohol doesn’t mix well with my meds, but friendship does.  It always will.

Nothing New Under the Muggle Sun…

…But Don’t Let That Stop You From Going to the Movies

“There is nothing new under the sun.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

“It’s all been done before.”  (The Barenaked Ladies)

Only One has ever made anything truly original and new.  All stories are mere shadows of His Story.  Our best stories mirror aspects of that story: the beauty of creation, the bitterness of the fall, the joy of redemption.  Even if a story only captures one of those aspects, it can be beautiful simply because it rings true, however tragic.

Shakespeare himself realized that all the good plots were already taken.  What happens in his plays might not be original, but how always is.  That gives me hope.  A good story matters, even if I already know the ending.  And I can let myself off the hook as a writer, since every what I might say has already been taken, I can focus on the how

If you doubt whether this principle is true, think of every movie made in the last ten years.  Some have been overt ripoffs.  Eragon = Star Wars – Awesome + Dragon.  Seriously!  If you want a good laugh, follow the plot parallels: farm boy gets secret message from captured princess, the bad guys kill his aunt and uncle, and torch their farm, forcing him to follows a magical mentor who sacrifices his own life when farm boy rescues the princess, so that he can save the day in an epic dogfight.  It’s a good thing I love dragons.

Which brings us to Harry Potter.  If the what of Harry Potter isn’t original (Matrix + Lord of the Rings + Little Orphan Annie), what’s all the big fuss about?  The how!  Her plots are page turners, to be sure, but J. K. Rowling’s true success is in her character development.

(Don’t worry.  I haven’t read the last book or seen the movie yet, so no spoiler’s here.) 

Harry is a complicated guy.  He’s a loner, a leader, and a friend, these attributes ever in tension with each other.  Orphaned, ostracized by his surrogate family, ever-threatened by the forces of darkness, and untrusted by the media, Harry has always had to fend for himself.  He makes independent decisions, which can be impetuous and even rebellious.  Harry is unafraid to pursue what he knows to be right, no matter what those in authority say. 

Because of this, his peers look to him as their captain in the unseen war against the forces of darkness.  Though his anger problem and independence often get in the way, he has developped a loyal cadre.

But it is Harry’s friends who ultimately define him.  They are his by chance, by choice, and by that inexplicable magnetism that draws them all together.  Quite often, he does not deserve them.  But, no matter what, Ron and Hermione stay by his side.  Harry is not afraid to cooperate, usually, but his friends make sure to help him even when he doesn’t want it.  They would give up their own lives for each other.  Since birth, this is a boy who has been protected by love, and that is the most beautiful thing of all.

That is what we really want, isn’t it?  To be reminded that life is worth living outside the norms of society, that there is something worth fighting for, and that the love of friends always makes a difference and is always worth dying for?  We long to hear a new voice sing that same old truth to a new generation, and that is exactly what J. K. has done.  Read on!

In Praise of Poop

It Happens.  You Might As Well Enjoy It.

Oh, the wonders of poo!  I’m not talking about some bizarre fetish.  I’m talking about pure, simple childish enjoyment of both the product and the process of doin’ the doo.  Maybe you were 2, or 4, or 20, but chances are you used to talk about poop alot and for whatever reason you stopped.  Why?  Okay, so your parents made you.  Is it possible that they were in the wrong?

 Sure, we throw around “crap” and “shit,” with the occasional clinical “fesces,” but those are usually metaphors and exclamations in reference to miscellaneous unpleasant things.  Why?

Poop is amazing.   The sight, the sound, the smell should all be occasion for laughter.  The color, the texture, the mystery.  “I ate that?”  Scripture is silent on such things, but I can’t help but think that poop makes God laugh, too.  Somehow we in our up-tight neo-Victorian embarassment stopped laughing.  We started taking ourselves way more seriously than God ever intended us to.

“I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:17)  You might not smell like fish and b.o., like the first disciples, but whether you intend to or not, you still smell like poo at various points throughout the day. 

The next time you go, I challenge you to reflect, to ponder the amazingness of the moment, and to give thanks to the unmoved Mover.

And when it is amazing, find someone you love, and tell them about it.