Monday, February 21, 2011

You Can Live Life as a Christian and Still Be Something Called Human

I came back from a youth conference today that was in Kelowna and I found myself there being dismayed. The last couple of times I've been to these kind of events I have been bothered by two main thoughts.

One is the extravagance of these events. There is a lot of flash and glamour put into these events to make them fresh and cool and exciting for the teenagers at the event. It feels like we're trying to market Jesus to the crowd and will pay any price for it. I suppose to deliver a powerful and meaningful message such as the call to following Christ is one that we go to great lengths to deliver. I can understand the reasoning behind it. It's like a missionary speaking the native language and following local customs to relate the message as opposed to forcing the culture to conform to our ideas on society. However, the culture that we're speaking to is one drenched in media and I wonder if we are merely offering a rock concert experience that simply fades days after the show is done. For some, I assume it is.

For being more of a casual observer in the last couple as opposed to a participant or a contributor, it is obvious that it is for some. That the message in the midst of the flash is simply ignored. We do our best to reach out and the noise drowns it out. Mind you, even with focused attention people are going to ignore it anyway. I suppose that saddens me. I know that the message is for all, but some, no matter what you do, are going to ignore the call to something that is different and life-giving.

The other thought is one that bothered me much more and that is the emotional fuel that the events thrive on. I think one of the hardest things that has negatively influenced my faith has been the idea that these events are spiritual high watermarks. That the speakers and the music and heart-felt stories about amazing magical signs of God are all gearing the audience to amp their emotions high. To get them to a place where you key into the stories they tell that talk about a faith that magically changes everything in your life. That this emotion that you are feeling is the Holy Spirit moving in the place and speaking to you.

It seems to paint that the reason you have faith and are obedient the other 363 days of the year is so you can come to another one of these events to meet God again in an intense and real way. That if you are not experiencing this "spiritual" feeling the rest of your year, that you could be doing more and are failing at being faithful. After all, these speakers talk about amazing stories of faith stopping evildoers in their tracks, healing people of their diseases, or hearing the very voice of God. If you don't have these spiritual gifts come to you, then you are not letting the Holy Spirit in and do His work in your life.

That's where I had a hard time, because despite the fact I wanted to be faithful, I wasn't emblazoned with the Spirit like I was at camps and retreats that clearly I was distant from God. I would still try to understand and be obedient, but I still believed that I was being a follower who was less than where I should be. Especially as a Christian who grew up in the faith. You could never live up to where you should be. No matter how good you may think you're doing, you would always look around and some how the bar was raised another two feet. You were a failure and you always would be, but fortunately Jesus would always forgive but would be always be kind of sad because you disappointed Him again.

You would hear stories at the campfire about people being spiritually empty but now that they've had a week at camp, they are more on fire than they've ever been. It was strange, because there was not a lot of variance in the story. Is that the real purpose of these events? To get the high watermark that you couldn't live up to in the rest of your year? You would look forward to these events because your lacked that emotional connection to God.

Then it happened. I went to camp and the feeling was lessened each year I went. My "connection" to God lessened. I wanted to have that connection. I mean, I had spent my year being as faithful and obedient as I could. I needed my refresher because I was trying to depend on God. I would try to reconnect and become a stronger Christian.

I went to Bible college to be a better Christian, devoting time and money and focus to find the God of my youth. But I never did. Was I white-washed tomb that Jesus scorned in the scriptures? I felt like it.

I grew more cynical and I started to really become frustrated with my faith. I tried to sort it out and yet still be faithful but I never did reach that clarity that I had when I was younger when God seemed to be right there.

It wasn't until much later that it clicked. I don't know when it clicked. Maybe when it was when I was asked to be a speaker at a camp. Which was funny to me because I believed myself to be a spiritless Christian. Someone who God wasn't talking to because I hadn't heard anything in a long time. Even in decisions that I tried to discern God's will on (and was validated by other trustworthy Christians), they seemed to lead me to a place where it felt like I had failed in being faithful.

I think that when I was planning out my talks, I didn't want to try to trick people into faith. I wanted them to see that faith was reasonable. I wanted them to have a sincere faith and not one where I got people to start following Jesus based on me pulling out sob stories. I wanted to speak truth. I wanted to treat the kids I was speaking to with respect and challenged them to think deeper about faith. I wanted to talk to them about topics that I never heard when I was younger. Talk about things that were relevant and pragmatic.

I noticed a distinct difference. I would sometimes tell stories that were very relevant to the topic and were very personal and emotional and as I told them, I knew that from a dramatic perspective that I could totally amp up the emotion to make them feel bad. To make them puddy. I could see it. And I was horrified. All these years, I had been duped. I had been duped.

It started falling into place. The speakers know how to make you sympathize with them. Trust them. Get you to come alongside them where when the emotions were right, they could evoke the redemption story of Christ and because people want the happy ending (or at least avoid a horrific one) they would turn to Christ. The call of a full life and a wonderfully deep and challenging life was being mired by emotional manipulation. The talk of discipleship was premised on a guilt trip that you could never live up to.

Choreographed emotion-charged moments were labelled as "the presence of God" and it led me to believe that the mundane Christian life that we spent the bulk of time living was lacking that presence.

I say this and do realize that I don't believe that this is the intention of these speakers and worship leaders (at least for the most part). I don't believe that they are apart of a malicious group trying to trick as many people into becoming Christians so that they can earn more money. I don't believe because I know a lot of these individuals. I am one of these individuals who sincerely believe in the story of Christ and the call of a God-centric life.

However, over time, we have accidentally created an impossible standard that was never intended. There are unwritten rules that say you need to only have the Christian versions of media, that if you need to be thinking of Jesus in absolutely every moment, that you are innately unlovable and it's only because God is so absolutely good that we, the evil, vile, putrid, urine-soaked, scum of the earth are forgiven. We pride ourselves in avoiding being legalistic like Pharisees and rather uphold a listening to the spirit and being free from the law. However, what we have instead is a mandate to a level of spirituality that is as life-draining and as alienating as the Pharisee, but premised differently. Instead of having the belief that following laws to such stringent and ridiculous levels is spirituality, we are now in a place where having the belief that you need to have a certain feeling and being draped in everything labelled Christian is spirituality.

The fact is the life of the Christian is the day in day out decisions that we make. We make ourselves a people that loves God with our heart, soul, mind and strength the best we can. We make ourselves a people that serves others the best we can. We don't get caught up in what feeling we have. Having a certain feeling or sensation is not God's presence just like having certain feeling or sensation is not the presence of a person. Christians believe that God is always present. You might have moments where you notice God's presence but that doesn't make you a better Christian in that moment just like noticing the presence of your wife doesn't make you a better husband. Rather, what makes you a better Christian and a better husband is being faithful and doing what you can to be the best Christian or husband you can be.

This idea flies in the face of teaching that so heavily emphasizes the idea of being saved by grace. I still believe that we are at the mercy of God and God's grace is what gives us the ability to become the best people we can be and to be considered righteous. However, I believe that our actions accurately reflect our beliefs. I'm not saying that works save you or that you can judge another person, but rather I think that if you call yourself a follower of Jesus then I believe it is more important to be obedient than it is to have a feeling.

We have made the Christian walk a soft-headed, fancy worded, therapy session that expects nothing out of it's followers while allowing the people who are crying out for help from God and His people to fall by the wayside. And for the ones that do happen to stumble in will only find a feel good pat on the back religion that will never fix anything.

Mind you, after I've said all of these things, it would seem like that these events are horrible things, but I do know something else vital that comes out in these events and it is the reason that I believe these events are good. The people who attend have a fantastic chance to meet together, grow together and have a chance to live into each other's lives. You have a chance to have fun together, converse with other, sing praises to God together, pray together, and live into each other's lives and learn about God together. As a leader, you can go back home with the kids and use this bonding to be able to teach and disciple them and be able to challenge them because you have spent time together and show that you can live life as a Christian and still be something called human (and not an alien who's emotions are restricted to happiness and guilt).

P.S. I do believe that you can have a strong emotional connection to God, but I want to emphasize that feeling a certain way is not an indicator of faith but rather being faithful is an indicator of faith.

"Well, my goodness gracious, let me tell you the news
My head's been wet with the midnight dew
I've been down on bended knee
Talkin' to the man from Galilee
He spoke to me in the voice so sweet
I thought I heard the shuffle of the angel's feet
He called my name and my heart stood still
When he said, "John, go do my will"
Go tell that long, tongue liar,
Go and tell that midnight rider,
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the back biter,
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut 'em down
Tell 'em that God's gonna cut 'em down"
- "God's Gonna Cut You Down" from the Johnny Cash album "American V: A Hundred Highways"

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Catch-22 of Inefficiency

I don't miss my Xbox much. I've been fine without it, although there is something I do miss and that is Rock Band. If I had it here, I could easily drain hours into it. I want to see what songs are available to download. I want to hook up the mike and guitar and pretend to be the rock star I fantasize about being. I don't even play it to perfect my skill at the game, but I just play because I love to play. It is almost like that thing that musicians have where they love playing music. I love singing the familiar songs and those plastic instruments give you an excuse to belt it out.

Of course, if I did have it here, it would distract me. It totally would. I would be sitting at the table with my pen and trying to write my scripts or at the computer editing videos and my mind would drift to rocking out to Nirvana's "Breed" or the whole Nevermind album. Would it take over? No, I wouldn't let it, but it would distract me.

When I have a creative project and the pressure of the deadline comes, I get skittish. My mind begins working more and more. I stress more and more. And that stress plays out by avoiding the work to pull it together. I have a terrible tendency to leave it until the last moment. However, it is not because I am not putting in the time to work on it. I may put off getting to it in my day, but when I do sit down to do it, my mind has the tendency to not focus on the material, but rather on the fact that the material is almost due. It's a Catch-22 of inefficiency.

It's like the debate in my head is the one side who buckles under the stress and protests against any project that would bring such stress. The other side is the one who is trying to keep the whole thing going and saying "You are going to look like a fool if you don't put in the time to do this right." The second voice will keep losing the debate until his voice gets stronger and stronger as the deadline gets closer and closer. Unfortunately, it usually comes too late. I may pull the show together, but I know it could have been better.

This struggle happens for each one of these shows or any one of my major "projects" where I am the main creative engine in it. Whether it is the Early Night Show or 24 Day or even down to sketches for church, it has the same issue.

The question then becomes, "What can I do to inspire me to produce the best work possible?"

I know that in the past, it was the influence of a significant person in my life that would centre me. They wouldn't even have to do much aside from spend some time with me and talk. Not even talk about the show. Not even about anything in particular. I think I just need to be reminded that I have someone who is on my side. That someone is there to notice when I do create it.

If I don't have that significant person, then it turns to other things. Like Rock Band. Or needless and repetitive internet surfing. Or blog posting.

I have been trying to keep God as the centering figure in my life. That He is the presence who I work for. That He is what inspires and pushes me forward. I've been trying to read more of the Scriptures and more time in prayer and reflection. To a certain extent I feel like I do alright at it. 

However, I will say honestly that to me that the tangible presence of God (for me at least) is there through people. God can inspire in those moments of solitude, reflection, prayer and study, but when you need someone there, someone to say that something that encourages or inspires, I think God uses people.

Arden has been speaking about community at the church recently and I am always reminded about the idea that Holy Spirit works through people. The big call for us by God is to reach out to others, challenge them, support them and care for them. I think this is because when we are doing these things, that we are putting God's love into action. We are involved in that very idea of being the presence of God for others. Not to say that we are God or that God can't make His presence known without people, but I think it is a part of that. That's why to be a Christian is more than just saying that we believe certain things and then make sure we don't do bad things anymore, but rather that we are implored to go and make disciples and care for those who need it.

In the end, I am saying that I will be okay through this process of creating the show. For one, it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. Two, I need more self-discipline. Three, I need to remember that God is always with me.

That all said, it would be that much nicer to have that person at my side who can gently remind me of those very things instead of the echo chambers of my own, stressed mind.

"So stay with me and I'll have it made
And I don't understand why I sleep all day
And I start to complain that there's no rain
And all I can do is read a book to stay awake
And it rips my life away, but it's a great escape"
- "No Rain" from Blind Melon's self-titled album

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Blazer Hacksworth

I have been reading Patton Oswalt's book "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland" and I am really enjoying it. You can see that he has a fantastic grip on how to construct a book that is engaging, humorous, insightful and at moments very heartfelt. This is especially fantastic to see from a comedian such as Mr. Oswalt.

As far as I can tell, there are two main camps of comedians that exist. Both are insulated and distant from the audience, but in different ways. The more mainstream of the two is the one where the comedian tells jokes and has observations and they are distant from the audience in that the content itself is impersonal. The subject matter is more universal and not really introspective or reaching into what really matters to the performer. They could be clean or dirty comedians and they were the comedians that seem to dominate the comedy world. These guys would range from Jerry Seinfeld to Brian Regan to Demetri Martin.

However, the other kind is one that has found more of a presence in the internet age after being apart of the alternative comedy movement that slowly came up in the 90's. These are the guys that told more stories and expressed their opinions about society, culture and politics. These would include Bill Hicks, David Cross and Louis CK. They distance themselves from the audience not in their content but in their style. Their comedy is about ridiculing and deconstructing fallacies in their subject matter. They can come off as angry or bitter or opinated probably because they are. That maybe fine for the stage, but I would be intimidated to go talk to those three. 

Arguably, they are much more related to the comedians that were huge in the 70's such as Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Richard Pryor who had a distinct point of view and personal history that they conveyed to the audience as opposed to a casual observation. In many regards, I believe the reason these individuals are considered legends is because of that honesty.

As a side note, Bill Cosby is probably one of the most prolific and popular with the masses because not only can you see him and his honesty, he is a fantastic and welcoming kind of storyteller. He paints you a picture of what it was kind of like to grow up in Philadelphia and there is a sense that you are now one of the guys that grew up with Bill, Old Weird Harold and Fat Albert.

However, as a general rule of thumb, the personal and opinionated style of comedy is not for everyone. It is hard to be around someone who is so negative. I know for myself, I can get like that. I get snarky and dismissive and I really have to watch myself to not fall into a well of cynicism. Look back at some of the posts of the past and it's like Thom Yorke's kid brother is trying his darndest to be melancholy and removed and trying to be a self-involved wiseass through sketches (Mr. Chapel).

I've gone on this quick rundown of how I see the comedy world to say why I appreciate the book. Patton is one of these guys that has an opinion and can get frustrated and it comes out in his subject matter and style. However, unlike Hicks, Cross and CK, you get the distinct feeling that he has hope. That he is trying to fight his cynicism. He even mentions it in his last album, "My Weakness is Strong" where says "I didn't realize until that point in my life how desperately I depend on negativity and cynicism just to communicate to the outside world." He comments how he needs to change his outlook because it's not good for his daughter to grow up around that. Even before this point, you can see that he would be fun to talk to (as long as you weren't an asshole yourself).

In "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland", I started seeing how I am like him. I'm not suggesting I am as funny as he or as talented (because his book is not really about his career or craft anyway) but rather you start to see a little bit past the veil that his style of comedy imposes. He doesn't have to end a chapter on a joke. There are a couple of times where he ends it on a note that seems to state something significant about him or about his view on things.

He shares memories of his youth and Dungeons and Dragons and his Uncle Pete. I could see the parallels. I have a hard time finding people that get it the same vein as me and to read this book is like finding a journal out in the wasteland. It may not save me, but I know that someone else also went through the same kind of thing.

One moment that stood out to me is the chapter where he summarizes his experience with certain kinds of comics that he toured with. One of them he names "Blazer Hacksworth" who as the name implies a bit of a hack. By the end of the chapter the character is no longer doing comedy himself. Sometimes I wonder if I will be able to know when to back down and find something good outside of what I wish. I hope I can have the wisdom of Blazer. From the end of the chapter: "I looked out over the room. In the back, standing trim and happy in his sport-coat-over-T-shirt ensemble, Blazer smiled, lit by the blue light of the bar. The Tonight Show was forever gone, forever receded on his horizon. But he'd expanded his endpoint to take in every second of every day, and he'd honed his life down to pure reward."

"I don't want to hear from those who know
They can buy, but can't put on my clothes
I don't want to limp for them to walk
Never would have known of me before
I don't want to be held in your debt"
- "Corduroy" from the Peal Jam album "Vitalogy"