Lead Me, Guide Me, Along the Way…

Uncertainty, pain, and suffering are woven into our DNA. American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, author, essayist, scholar, and activist, knew this. He prayed:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

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A Few Words About the M-Word

For adults only, adolescents, and precocious kids

Shhh… shhh… maintain low tones… I am going to discuss (wait for it)… masturbation. Persons of delicate constitutions and/or sexual hangups should leave now.

Is anything as universal and secretive? Masturbation dates back probably to Adam before Eve, and yet even mentioning its existence is considered vulgar in polite society. Given our preoccupation with hook-ups, BDSM, threesomes, and swapping, saying “quiet please” to discussions of solitary pleasure is absurd.

All of the information presented in this essay, it goes without saying, is based on the experience of people other than me.

Immediately after the first wank, condemnation followed. Various religious texts prohibit five-finger (less for women) dating, often based on the premise that its practitioners load up with fantasies involving the wrong people.

Shall we be real? In and of themselves, fantasies are not harmful or wrong, unless you mistake them for reality. The workings of the theater of the imagination only present a potential for problems if they are acted upon. The First Amendment says this, somewhere.

Others argue that flying solo is unhealthy. So is gardening, if you do it too much. For most people, beer is not harmful unless consumed in cases. As in all habits, moderation is the key.

(I should be serious a moment. Use of the, er, equipment presents problems if practiced in long sessions too frequently. Like architecture, less is more.)

So folks, let’s go easy on ourselves. There are plenty of opportunities for guilt without adding another. God wired human beings for pleasure. If not, our arms would not be exactly the right length.

Thank you for your attention. I gotta go.

God’s Timing

You have to have a card to get into the building I live in. The other morning, as I was about to go on a short photo walk, two EMS techs were waiting at the door. I let them in and asked if it was an emergency. Just a fall, they said.

Just a fall. From their point of view, this was all in a day’s work. They encounter much worse. But to people my age and older, a fall is a serious matter.

I said a prayer and went out, headed for a magnolia tree with blossoms in all stages of bloom. I made some pleasing compositions.

When I came back in about twenty minutes, the elevator doors were just opening. I recognized one of my neighbors in the stretcher.

I averted my eyes and went up the nearby stairs, so as to be unobtrusive. I can only imagine the embarrassment of being wheeled out to the ambulance. It could easily have been me. Fortunately no one else was around to witness her trauma.

This just happened. I am praying for her now, as she enters the hospital and undergoes a long succession of doctors, tests, waiting, and questions. As she sits with her mortality.

There is such a thing as God’s timing. My goal was to take a few pictures but I became a vessel of prayer. There was no coincidence here. I was meant to see it, and lift this hurting woman to God’s mercy.

I am reminded to remain attuned to unexpected events. My own problems seem smaller now. We are all connected, each to the other, as we are meant to.

It is time to pray again.

It’s All About the Labels

I have written before about the drawbacks of stereotyping and the misapplication of labels (Wakey, Wakey). Although necessary for organizing our thoughts about the world, they also mislead and oversimplify.

In addition to “liberal,” there is one label that applies to me in part and yet describes me poorly: “evangelical”.

From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, definition 1: of or relating to a Christian sect or group that stresses the authority of the Bible, the importance of believing that Jesus Christ saved you personally from sin or hell, and the preaching of these beliefs to other people.

In that sense I and millions of other Americans are evangelicals. We believe in spreading the Gospel. We believe in having a living relationship with Jesus.

Back in the early Eighties, I knew some evangelicals in college. They were decent folk, with a sincere desire to learn about and obey God. Friendly, fun-loving, devout, salt of the earth. They welcomed me and fellowshiped with me at a turning point in my life, and I am in their debt.

At least in the conversations they had with me, they preferred C. S. Lewis to Jerry Falwell, whose star had just begun to rise. Which brings me to another definition, listed fourth by Merriam-Webster:

Definition 4b: of, adhering to, or marked by fundamentalism.

Therein lies my problem. As practiced in the United States, fundamentalism (by which I mean the so-called Religious Right) has adopted abhorrent political stances: homophobia (or more accurately, hatred of homosexuals), racism, nativism, sexism, false patriotism, and distorted love of capitalism. Lately they have made a devil’s bargain with the Trump administration’s obeisance to money and power.

When the mainstream media says evangelicals are flocking to Trump, they are referring to definition four. Although journalists don’t mean it personally, their reporting often associate mes with political views that violate my most basic values.

I wish the mainstream media would cover the Christians like us, who base our lives on definition one. There are sources out there that show the nuances of American Christians, such as the Christian Science Monitor, but most news organizations portray evangelicals with little subtlety, as if we all thought alike.

As a definition-one evangelical, this is the ground I stand on: the authority of the Bible, as opposed to the fundamentalistic insistence on a literal interpretation. Authority means to me that God has included in the Bible all a Christian needs to know about life and living on a personal level. God has the last word.

The Bible is not meant to dictate every move you make. In that sense, it is not a “user manual” as some like to claim. I think of it as more of a jazz chart, setting forth essential themes while allowing the freedom to improvise.

By contrast, literalism weakens the mind and wounds the spirit, ill preparing its adherents to a pluralistic society. It infects followers with a constant desire to look behind them and make sure they are obeying a demanding god to the letter.

Perhaps they are afraid that Jesus is catching up with them.

The Word also proclaims a vision of a just society. Many of the Trump-following evangelicals do not, or would rather not, see the implications of this vision, since injustice is now so rampant in our culture.

We need a national conversation on many things, including the intersection of church and state. We need to open our minds to the possibility that women and men of faith can have sharp differences over public policy while working for the common good. More discourse, less demonization.

Taking down a few stereotypes would be a good place to start.

Evangelicals Get It Wrong. Again.

Let me just get something out of the way: celibacy leaves a lot to be desired.

I went through a hot spell of purity when I returned to America after my conversion experience in Scotland (A Variety of Religious Experience). I hung around N. C. State campus with some folks from the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IV), an evangelical group of college-age Christians.

Let me be clear: my beef is not with them but with church doctrine. The IV folks were most hospitable to me–open, warm Christians who enjoyed life, whom I remember fondly. Back then, in the early Eighties, political fundamentalism had not taken hold. The brothers and sisters were sincere and accepting. And yes, there were quite a few attractive women in their ranks. I even fell in love with one of them.

Like other Christian youth organizations, they were dead set against premarital sex and advocated waiting until marriage. I accepted uncritically their belief that marriage was the ultimate form of human relationship. It was an ironic assumption, given the sad end of my parent’s marriage.

We were told in alarming detail exactly how much physical contact we should avoid. And we were given copious instructions on how one should prepare for marriage. The pressure was, shall we say, unsubtle. (In another irony, IV’s magazine carried an article that pondered why its members were so afraid to date each other.)

I have changed since those days. My fervency for Christ is the same, even deeper, but the fundies’ doctrine of chastity no longer holds water for me. (To say nothing of the absurd notion of wife submission, another favorite of patriarchal evangelicals.)

As years passed, I sought and failed to find a Christian wife with whom I could experience a mystical union of souls.

It is one thing to reserve sex for marriage when one is in their teens or early twenties. The span from sexual flowering to marriage will most like be only a few years.

It is another thing altogether to marry in later decades, or not marry at all. Both possibilities are open to me at age 63. Forty or so years is a long time to go with only sporadic sex. What I once held up as an ideal turned out to be impossible, and I have been in several sexual relationships. Sinning, in their eyes. Pleasure, in mine.

It is popular wisdom not to “settle”. Hold out for the just-right someone, we are told. At some point, clinging to such an ideal becomes outmoded and injurious. At some point, many men and women reach an accommodation with the prospect of decades-long celibacy.

Evangelicals point to several New Testament verses that condemn “fornication”… a word that is also translated as “sexual immorality”. The second phrase allows for the possibility that appropriate sexual behavior involves much more than technicalities. (Interestingly, I have never heard them criticize the all-too-common presence of sexual exploitation in marriage.)

Although marriage remains an admirable ideal for me, maybe I would be just as happy with a woman-friend who wants to jump my bones. Maybe I should settle for an occasional screw without pining for an ultimate joining of spirits. I am not planning a skirt-chase to make up for lost time, just a monogamous relationship with a woman I enjoy being around.

I think I could do this and be just fine with Jesus, as opposed to obeying restrictions designed for a bygone era.

I think I am on to something here.

 

Sin

My church occasionally asked me to give sermons when a pastor was not available. Here I present an edited version of one. It is based the sixth chapter of the book of Romans.

In the 1920s, President Calvin Coolidge went to church. When he returned to the White House, his wife Grace asked him the subject of the sermon. A man of few words, he replied, “Sin”. What did the preacher say about sin, Grace asked. “He’s against it,” Coolidge said…

When I wrote in my old neighborhood, I sat next to a big window overlooking my street. Waiting for the next words, I sometimes looked out the window. One summer day my neighbor passed by on the way to her car. It was a hot Sunday afternoon, and she wore a black bikini. Presumably she was on her way to the pool.

I am a man. Need I tell you what happened next? I did not turn my head. I looked. And looked. Stared, frankly, for the duration of her walk. Watched her get in.

I am a sinner saved by grace.

I want to put this in the right perspective. I know the difference between looking and saying “hey baby” in a loud voice. I what lust is. This is not meant as another dreary anti-sexuality message.

But in that moment I was powerless. It’s not that I did not turn away—I could not turn away. God understands that, and so did Paul. He wrote “do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (6:12). He knew how powerful sin is. In looking, I wonder who was in control—me or God?

Paul adds, “no longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness,” (6:13). That speaks to intentions. It means admitting my weaknesses, and what tempts me, and avoiding it. It means not trusting too much in my own power to resist. If I am angry at you and I feel the control of my tongue slipping, I’d best adjourn. When I want my own way, I had better consider if getting my own way is good for you.

Sometimes, of course, I act on selfish impulses. And sometimes I say, this is all right—God will forgive me. And God does forgive me—but he will not deny me the pain of my consequences. He gave me a conscience…

Sin” is a word we must use carefully. It refers to one wrong action, or a pattern of them. I prefer this definition: sin is a state of alienation from God. This keeps us from tunnel vision of individual actions and allows us to see the main point: the peril of separation from God. God calls for obedience and faith, yet we can do neither without His love. Sin is a spiritual, mental, and physical condition of isolation from each other and from Christ. It is living death…

In our better moments we want to do good, but only in Christ is our desire completely fulfilled… Christ changes us from within. Christ writes His law on our hearts, and we respond with agape love that transcends our often temporary feelings.

Seems Like a Good Idea

This Motorist’s Prayer used to appear on the official North Carolina highway maps from 1964 to 1981. Given the amount of sheer idiocy on our roads, it wouldn’t hurt to use it.

Our heavenly Father, we ask this day a particular blessing as we take the wheel of our car. Grant us safe passage through all the perils of travel; shelter those who accompany us and protect us from harm by Thy mercy; steady our hands and quicken our eye that we may never take another’s life; guide us to our destination safely, confident in the knowledge that Thy blessings go with us through darkness and light… sunshine and shower… forever and ever. Amen.

 

 

A Falsely Modest Appraisal of the Author

My bestie suggested I write a brief autobio. Far be it from me to ignore her advice.

Larry was born in Chapel Hill and moved at a tender age to Greensboro. His parents say he was a well-behaved child, though he once tore down a dilapidated doghouse for the sheer hell of it. He ate well, commencing a lifelong habit. Larry demonstrated an early aptitude for reading, which has served him well.

He enjoyed construction toys (bonus points if you have heard of American Skyline) and invited neighbor kids to have building parties. His lifelong admiration of the opposite gender began with a crush on a little Jewish girl named Sheila.

His early academic career was better than average. It peaked in the second grade when he earned all A’s the whole year. His secret? Looking attentive while daydreaming of rocket ships. Larry’s heroes were, and still are, astronauts.

In 1963, he trekked with his family to Raleigh, where he thrived on a diet of concerts at N. C. State and free admission to football games, courtesy of his Dad. He lived near a creek and upset a neighbor when a homemade dam backed water into his yard. Secretly Larry was proud.

He took part in Boy Scouts (reaching Second Class!), catechetical classes, and misadventures with his best friend Mike. He learned the virtues of noncomformity in middle and high school, and was once threatened with suspension for having “long” hair. He flirted briefly with athleticism on the Faculty Club swim team, but it didn’t take. Following his Dad’s footsteps, Larry learned to play the flute, um, adequately.

Encouraged by his family, he appeared in several plays in area theaters. Somewhere along the line he discovered girls (or as Dad called them, round boys). To protect the reputation of the innocent, we shall draw a discreet curtain over these pursuits.

Larry excelled in English literature, geometry, creative writing, and French. As the layout editor of the high school literary magazine, he snuck in a short poem that caused controversy among the other editors. It espoused the then-radical notion that some white boys dug black chicks.

He earned enough money as a copyboy at The News and Observer to buy an expensive stereo system. (Hey, he was still living at home.) At N. C. State, Larry made a name for himself as the author of a satirical column in the student newspaper. He failed to parlay his mild fame into sex. Yes, he regrets this.

Graduating with honors in Speech Communication, Larry embarked on a series of jobs without assuming the burden of an actual career. Stops along the way included advertising writing, graphic design, research telephone interviewing, tutoring, and magazine and publicity writing.

In college, he took up marijuana, a decision that proved to be, shall we say, sub-optimal. Weed consumed sixteen years, until God kicked him in the ass and forced him to seek help. The Twelve Steps cleaned him up, cleared most of the mental detritus, and generally made his life immeasurably better.

During his early drug years, God also prodded Larry into Christianity. He was as surprised as everyone else, and the church is still recovering. Using an impressive intellect honed in graduate school, he now sets up chairs for his Lutheran church and leads the Sunday adult Bible study in questionable directions.

Now retired, Larry still holds a part-time gig for mad money. He lives in a century-old brick schoolhouse that was converted into studio apartments. He still goes to meetings, enjoys readers theatre, and wastes time on the Internet. Along the way, he has successfully avoided commercial success as a photographer and recently began authoring these dubious essays.

His (aided) vision is excellent, and he retains an active eye for women of all ages, even his own. His hearing still permits him to rock out. He can still dance for short periods with only minimal wheezing. All his diseases are treatable. Larry is generally happy when he is not stuck on himself.

He looks forward to the autumn of his life with as little Donald Trump as possible.

Questioning God (Not for the Faint of Heart)

This has become the central question in my spiritual life. I used to say, of course he is good—all the time. But now I wonder.

This question is not the result of some abstract theological study. It is rooted in my emotions, my recent experiences, and my hopes.

Like most men, I have wanted to be married. My life now is quite fulfilling (never better), but this one unanswered desire remains. My best years are behind me, and this state of wifelessness perplexes me and disturbs me.

In the book of Genesis (2:18), God said it is not good for man to be alone. Along came Eve. Many complications ensued, of course, but God saw a need and responded.

A year ago, I embarked on online dating. It has turned out to be quite a challenge. I have met some very nice women, a couple of not-so-nice women, and found a lifelong friend. I have endured rejection, confusion, disappointment, anger, and not a little pain. Still, I have kept on, hoping the right woman would be around the corner.

A month ago, I met a woman who seemed to have all of the attributes I seek. She was deeply religious, intelligent, creative, funny, and very interesting to talk to. We made a lunch date and met a couple of times at her church. (I strongly doubt she is reading this.) We had several intellectually stimulating conversations—that’s a turn-on for me. Rightly or wrongly, I perceived her as the closest I had yet come to my wifely ideal.

She then emailed me that because of my political views, she could not date me. We had never discussed politics and I was taken by surprise. The message was sharp in tone, and I responded accordingly. At the very least she could have thanked me for the time I spent with her.

From where I sit, God has not fulfilled his promise from Genesis. I am a good man, a Godly man, and respect women. I have much love to give. This has availed me nothing.

I don’t like God the Father any more. I feel hesitant to praise him. Would you praise someone who has given you a raw deal?

On the other hand, I deeply love his son. Throughout this hard passage, Jesus has stood beside me, consoled me… understood me. He knows what it’s like to be a human being. He wanted a wife, too.

Where does this leave me? I belong to a very small church. It is not egotism to say that my departure would cause harm. So I will stay there.

But… I will be less enthusiastic about worshiping the Father. I will revere and serve his son, as I always have. I have no idea if this is a permanent state of affairs or a crisis of faith that will pass.

Worshiping two-thirds of the Trinity runs counter to church doctrine. I don’t care. The way I feel right now, I will be willing to worship the Father again when he makes good on his promise. If he ever does, or if he even can.

Are You listening?

This was written several weeks ago. I am calmer now and less anxious about dating. Still, I think the question of God’s goodness is essential to developing a living faith.

The Sweet Energy of the Twelve-Step Meeting

Those meetings. Those amazing, infuriating, unforgettable, comforting, harrowing, heartwarming meetings.

Monday, March 13, 1989 was the last day I got high. The details of using are irrelevant here. A drug is a drug (that goes for booze, too).

Picture me. Slumped in my chair, head on my chest, eyes blurry, legs akimbo. The television, tuned to God knows what. Alone in my attic apartment on an ironically-named New Road in Raleigh. Pale winter sunlight spills on the floor. I am old at 34.

In my mind: Desperation, loneliness, suicidality, gloom, defiance. In my spirit: Nothingness.

My first meeting: Lively and foreign. Aside from work, I was unused to company. Young, warm girls hugged me. I barely felt their contact. I sat in a chair, bolt upright, arms crossed, watching everything.

During the meeting: Stories. Stories of fear, privation, crime, degradation, and yet… identification. Empathy. At-home-ness. God alone knew how, but I belonged. These strangers felt the same things I did, did some of the same things I did, sold themselves and their families out, just to get high again. Like me.

Meetings and weeks pass. All over town, I see the same people over and over. A man picks up a red keytag: thirty days clean. Impossible. A woman picks up a glow-in-the-dark keytag: one year. Unattainable. People talk of multiple years. Eons.

I speak, full of ego and intellectuality. I share correctly but with no passion, with all the warmth of an annual report.

Years pass. I help others, work Steps, share my life story, chair meetings, empty ashtrays (this was thirty years ago, remember), give rides, hug a million people, call my sponsor… stay clean, stay clean, stay clean. Jobs fail, Mom dies, illnesses come and go. I stay clean. How did I get here? Friends overdose, relapse, claw their way back. Why did they leave, and not me?

Today: The only day there is. I slouch in my hard wooden on a thick cushion. Nod and smile, hold a hand, wave to a friend. I share, unrehearsed. Words flow and bounce around the room, unrehearsed, liberated. Ideas dance like ocean foam, vanish in digressions and wry observations, hang in mid-air. Experience, strength, and hope. Feelings.

The meeting ends. I give out keytags, nestle in the group hug, say the Serenity Prayer. I have left my burdens at the door, and my heart and mind are young and free.

Those meetings.