Growing Pains

I was rummaging through old documents when I came across an unpublished post from November 2012, just before I left for Guatemala, signaling a more definitive break with my life in the bucolic Pacific NW. I was struck by how much more the hope I allude to at the end has continued to take root, especially as I build a life down here in So Cal. In lieu of not having time to write actual posts (finals week, guys… it’s the greatest), I figured I’d share this with you all. (NB: my parents continue to be awesome.)

***

What is it about a place that can exert such emotional power over the human mind? As if I stored little pieces of my sadness and sin in the pictures and trinkets that litter my room, which return to me the moment I rotate the cheap-gold handle. I’m quickly reminded the creeping spores of apathy and cynicism thrive in the damp chill of a Pacific Northwest winter (which lasts from October-May, for the uninitiated).

Welcome home.

Home, with the stairs that I have, generously, a meager 40% chance of running up without tripping. Home, where I spent countless hours staring across the valley at the horses running around, happy creatures unaware that they had never known freedom. Home, where I forgot how to cry, and where I sharpened a razor-wire tongue that made me, I thought, invincible, if only because I never bled first.

Home, where I taught myself to shave behind two closed doors, blushing and ashamed; where I watched dad take my brother to go camping on his 13th birthday to talk about what it meant to be a man, where I convinced myself it wasn’t such a big deal, anyway, because two years later he missed mine for a business trip. And besides, camping in the winter is stupid.

Home, where, at sixteen, I decided Jesus was worth giving everything to follow, where I encountered that contagious flame of passion that altered my life forever. Home, where I discovered that this holy flame within me wasn’t enough to stop me from looking at porn or to dull the hidden ache of loneliness, and every time I repented I knew that God knew that each sorrowful promise would never be the last, and I couldn’t bear to abuse his mercy so I stopped praying altogether. Home, which I then left.

I learned to pray again at college. I learned to feel, to love, to be loved, and to, for once, be honest with myself. Through a million little miracles, God repaired my maimed soul, weaving the fragments together in a painstaking labor of grace.

But then I would board a plane to the Northwest and the stitching would loosen.

Home, where I finally told my family that I’m gay; where they promised to love and support me, and where I learned that love and support don’t always look to the same to everyone. But we are growing together.

Welcome home.

I wonder how long it will take me to mature beyond the grasping shadows of a childhood ill-spent. I mean, look at me, my penchant for writing maudlin, self-serving complaints about my youth goes up by 1200% when I’m here. It must be all that My Chemical Romance I listened to.

I catch glimmers of hope. My dad and I have never been closer. I’m not hiding like I used to. I pray, often. I wonder what would happen if I stayed here longer, poured myself into reclaiming the history of this place. Maybe, just maybe, I could exorcise the bitter spirits and find that sought-after sense of integrity that evades me even still.

I may never know. I leave again in a week, this time for four months. Shortly after I return, bilingual and much better at soccer, I begin graduate studies 1000 miles away. I’ll continue to grow up, change, move deeper into the warm embrace of that blessed fire, and become increasingly aware of how fortunate I am to have the parents I do, to have lived the life I did. Perhaps the confusion will fade along with the myopia of youth.

I will say, however, that things are not entirely the same as they used to be: back then, I couldn’t love myself, but now I know without a doubt that God loves me, that even in the midst of my apathy and willful rebellion he still wants to be with me, to speak with me, to surround me with grace. And even as I’m unsure if I know myself as well as I think I do, I remember, resolutely, that he knows who I am, fully, and rejoices over me as I am conformed into the likeness of Christ.

Then, my inability to trust myself silenced me before a God I knew deserved better. Now, my inability to trust myself provokes me to cry out to him more than ever, because he is trustworthy and will not leave me to muddle through life alone. The former isolated me, the latter binds me closer to the one who saves.

I guess I am slowly realizing that, even though the dust of apathy rises up from the carpet and a whole host of other struggles seem to rematerialize every time I come home, the one demon that I haven’t heard from in some time is despair, and that has made all the difference.

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Speech-Act, Pt. 1

In an upsetting turn of events, I have recently had to admit that I’m only a human. I know, I’ve really backslidden. Over the past few months my aspirations to be an indomitable, blogging war-machine have been systematically dismantled by a resolute and immovable weariness. Like, a do-I-really-have-to-bother-putting-on-pants-today kind of weariness. If I didn’t own such awesome jeans I probably wouldn’t have made the effort

A large part of it is biological; my hormones (my actual hormones, not my metaphorical ones) are, shall we say, a crazy-making combination of hyperactive and functionally dead. In other words, my body is constantly using massive amounts of inefficient adrenaline to get me through each day because the more sustainable sources of hormonal energy are about as non-existent as unironic Nicolas Cage fans. Supplements are helping, but I still spend most of my time hovering between just wanting a nap and begging God for someone to accidentally shoot me with a rhino tranquilizer.

But it’s more than that. Honestly, the whole idea of blogging exhausts me, especially in regard to so contentious a topic as the intersection of homosexuality and faith. There is little grace in the conversation, with a seemingly new explosive controversy erupting every week – one more ugly comment to become outraged over, one more person to burn at the stake, one more setback to worry about. The idealistic activist in me wants to indulge every combative reflex, the peacemaker/reformer in me cautions that real change will only come through a controlled-yet-passionate nuance, and the tired whiner in me would rather just watch funny cat videos because Mr. Mercury was right and “nothing really matters,” anyway.

So I’ve watched a lot of funny cat videos, all the while growing more and more frustrated by the tone of the online discourse and my own apathy toward it. Over and over I’ve sat down to write something to no avail, the sheer enormity and ambiguity of the situation slowly bringing my spindly fingers to a full stop.

I realized recently that I’ve felt this way before.

I was halfway through my brief tenure at a Guatemalan orphanage, living and working with eleven teenage boys just outside of the capitol. One afternoon, and I’ll never forget this, I saw footage from a nearby government-run institution that held 800 children. Underfunded and understaffed, the way the orphanage handled the large volume of kids was to try and suppress individuality and personality; at age thirteen they all began to wear a nondescript uniform, and they marched. Everywhere. A slow, rhythmic, soul-killing march.

And then I heard about the “pink room.” When a boy who had been sexually abused came to the orphanage he was put in the pink room, a special ward separated from everything else and blocked by many locked gates. Without the personnel to constructively deal with the traumatized boys, and convinced that they were all going to turn into sex-offenders anyway, the orphanage left them to waste away and suffer behind bolt-latched doors.

It’s hard to describe how utterly powerless I felt at that moment. I couldn’t sleep, so aware of such injustice being perpetuated only a few miles away and yet so incapable of doing anything about it (and I asked if I could, trust me). I was already expending all my energy to invest in just one group of kids in one orphanage in one district in one city in one country; I couldn’t handle how finite I was, entirely trapped within the borderlines of my skin cells. The myriad systemic evils that create street-kids and orphans seemed so great, and my own life so pathetic, that I lost all sense of purpose and direction.

And then, at 2AM, one of the younger boys opened my door; he’d had a nightmare and didn’t want to be alone. I walked back to his room and sat with him, not letting go of his hand as I prayed and prayed and prayed. After a couple minutes his shaking was replaced with the deep breathing of a peaceful sleep.

I started to cry.

None of my questions, fears, or inadequacies had been addressed, but I saw that they didn’t need to be in order to serve the kids right in front of me. I couldn’t do anything about the abuse occurring down the winding mountain road, but at least that night I had left my door unlocked so that this one child could know that he wasn’t alone, that he didn’t have to face the night by himself. At least this one child could know, at that moment, that he was loved.

Two hours later I dragged myself out of bed without ever having slept and began packing their lunchboxes for school. It literally felt like the least I could do, but I was going to do it, and with a greater sense of meaning than ever before. I couldn’t salve all the pain of the world, but I could still do small things with love.

In a way, I find myself in a similar place now.

I’m tired. I’m tired of the general climate of the blogosphere that is so inhospitable to gracious dialog. I’m tired of how many people are ensconced in a self-righteous blindness to the suffering of others, I’m tired of how many people respond to such blindness with an equally self-righteous vitriol, and I’m tired of how often I find myself contributing to it all.

I’ve been tempted just to call it quits. The situation seems too complex and too enormous, and we really don’t need another blog.

But a recent conversation with the incomparable Brian Gee (read all the things!) served as a helpful reminder of what I already knew: that perhaps my frustration with How Things Are should motivate me to do what little I can in my own imperfect way to improve the conversation and speak love to those who need it. Rather than simply giving up, perhaps this is worth a little bit of exhaustion.

For me, I guess it’s not so much about influence as it is about integrity – this is just one small blog in one crowded niche of one sprawling conversation, after all. But at the same time I can’t ignore how blessed I’ve been over the past year by the numerous, bewildering opportunities I’ve had to remind someone that they are loved and their story is worth telling. In the midst of questions and silences that is what is getting me through, and I’m starting to think that this may just be how life goes – beautiful in its own maddening way.

Honestly, writing isn’t easy for me at the moment. But slipping into an effortless silence doesn’t seem right, either. Not yet, at least. As always, I appreciate your grace as I try to figure out what on earth I am doing.

I will soon put up a post detailing how I hope to engage the conversation, a vision to which I want to be held accountable. I have so much to learn,* but I look forward to what these next few months will teach me as I explore the shape my speech and actions should take.

Matt

* This phrase receives the award for “Painfully-Obvious, Anthropologically-Universal Platitude Matt Has Employed the Most In His Short Life.” It would like everyone to know that it “couldn’t have done it alone.”

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Exposure

I recently had the amazing privilege to walk on Honduran soil for five days as I visited a dear friend from Wheaton who currently works with streets kids in the capital city of Tegucigalpa.

It was an incredibly filling time of friendship, inspiration, and joy (and yes, Tyler, I’m aware all those things are found in My Little Pony). Or maybe it was incredibly filling because of all the food. Wonderful, blessed, ultra-tasty food. (I must comment on the amazing fact that, for all the sixteen countries I’ve been to, I don’t recall ever disliking the local cuisine. Obviously I haven’t been to England.)

Tegucigalpa sits in a valley bowl, which is brilliant for night-time views of glittering lamplights and torturous for walking. The roads appeared to be in competition with one another to see which could be the most vertical. They were all winners.

My host took me down those streets, through the markets, and brought me to some of the common haunts of the runaways – the drug-addicted, rejected children of Tegucigalpa, his friends.

I had never talked to someone as they drugged themselves. Sure, I’d worked with drug-addicts in South Africa for a few months, but always in the context of recovery. This was different. It would make for more dramatic prose to describe the feelings of shock and revulsion I experienced while watching twelve year-old eyes film over from the effects of the yellow glue, but then I would be writing fiction. I didn’t really feel anything more potent than a familiar sadness.

Drug-addicted homelessness, twitching survival, was simply their reality, and I was merely a guest. They didn’t seem to mind.* Some of them even wanted me to take pictures of them with their quarter-full drug bottles as one does with a close friend. That’s probably not far from how they see their relationship with the numbing inhalant. It makes sense.

Moving between the streets and The Micah Project, a community in which teenage boys can come out of alleys and addictions and be trained and nurtured, provided a nice counterbalance of hope, but the distressing ratio of success stories to crushing tragedies never totally faded from memory.

Living, as I do, in a closed compound with over 100 kids can make one (or maybe just me) a little complacent. Sure, we don’t have a lack of needs and struggles within these walls, but it goes a long way toward making the problems of the world feel “out there”, separate, un-urgent. But the trash-filled streets leave you as exposed to the real weight of brokenness and suffering as their inhabitants are to the cold night air.

Complacency is a defense mechanism, and it’s starting to weary me. It is, of course, entirely impossible to be fully aware of every injustice, and even if it were possible such awareness would crush us in a second, but I think we fear the discomfort and demand of exposure more than we should. We don’t serve an isolationist God who is afraid of pain, who shies away from the stark ugliness of our suffering. As he was willing to take a spear to the side for us, I marvel that we are often unwilling to get up off of our couches for others.

I had to ask myself why I should let the tragedy of what I saw in the streets of Tegucigalpa sink into my soul when I can’t really do anything about it right now. Why complicate my life with something beyond my ability to deal with? Wouldn’t it just cause unnecessary tension? No solid answers came, as they rarely do, but I was left with a distinct impression that, at least maybe for now, allowing their pain to disturb me, to linger in my imagination like a piece of dust behind my eyelid, is enough.

I can let their lives crack the shallow calm of my complacency. I can let the visions of scabs and scars and chapped lips and ever-present toxins remind me, whenever they come to mind, that, no, everything is not ok, that the world is a tortured hell for many, and that we can never tire of doing good. I can give them the dignity of changing me, of spurring me to love with greater abandon those who my hands can touch and my words can reach. 

I feel like I’m throwing in a mere penny in self-offering, but it’s all I have at the moment. And I praise God for the fantastic men and women who are daily giving all of themselves to serve those lost in the margins of society, and I hope my life, whatever direction it takes, will do justice to the examples they’ve shown me of grace and faithfulness for the sake of the suffering.

____________________

* Except for that one drunk lady. She did seem to mind. A lot.

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