Tense

(This post is a slightly edited version of something I wrote on December 7, 2012.)*

***

Real talk, everyone: I can’t see into the future.

I know, it’s embarrassing, but I’ve got to be honest with myself, and the truth is that, for all my effort, all my reading, all my thinking, all my praying, I simply don’t know what my life will look like five, ten, or fifty years from now. Heck, I can’t even guarantee that in the next three seconds a mystical vortex isn’t going to open up and transport me to a land of magic and adventure in need of a hero.

Sigh. Anyway…

Whenever I see friends and family after spending time away, it’s not uncommon to touch on topics such as who I am nowhow I’ve changed, and how I am still growing. That’s all fine and good, and I appreciate being able to process through things with people and share what God has been doing in my life. But since I began the ever-ongoing process of “coming out” a new question has started to dominate certain conversations: who will I be in the future?

People who love and care about me (and sometimes people who don’t know me at all but have been given The Unassailable Right To Say Things by the internet) want assurance that I will always be staunchly conservative and celibate. I mean, I guess that would be nice. It would make life so simple to be able to say, “I will always and forever believe all the things I think to be true right now. I will never doubt, never question, never reconsider, never ‘switch sides.’ So don’t worry.”

Simple and, I think, totally miserable. It would be miserable because I know I’m not right about everything. In fact, I count it as one of God’s greatest gifts that we can learn and grow and be challenged and changed. I am thrilled I am not now who I was five years ago, and I suspect, five years from now,** I will be similarly amazed at what God has done to draw me closer to him in, I’m sure, surprising and unforeseen ways.

So I can’t promise I’ll always be convinced that celibacy is my requisite (though not unhappy) path. I just can’t. I know myself too well, and I don’t know the future well enough.

What I can promise, though, is that I will live each day pursuing the glory of God, seeking to rest in his love and display it relentlessly to others. I can promise that I will place myself under the authority of scripture and Christian community, and that I will ask hard questions and, I hope, obey hard answers.

As it is, if I continue to live that kind of life, I feel confident the convictions toward sexuality that I have now will remain, though enriched, nuanced, and deepened. I hope they do.

I hope they do, because there are moments I’m scared they won’t.

I hope they do, because, when I lay in bed some nights, I hope they don’t.

I’m not some invincible dogmatic war-machine, impervious to any and all pain or insecurity. There are enough people telling me exactly who I need to be right now because of my sexuality that I’ve found the added demand to simultaneously guarantee and justify who I will be in the future both beyond my capacity and deeply, deeply exhausting.

For so long I felt the need to put up some kind of iron-clad front to earn people’s approval, to dispel any doubt that I will always believe what I believe now. That I will be strong enough. That I will be wise enough.

Ridiculous. I’m a Christian. I should be the first to admit that I am both weak and hilariously limited on my own. I am, as all humans are, an ever-changing work in progress.

No, I need God desperately, and trying to come across as sufficiently immutable was just smoke and mirrors to deter people from piercing me with that uncertain stare that says, You aren’t going to make it past forty, little more than a small rebellion against my utter dependence on Christ and the Church.

Because I am weak, I need to cling to the God whose strong embrace surrounds me and lifts me up. Because I can be frighteningly inconsistent, I need to draw near to the God who will lead me in righteousness all the days of my life. Because I can’t rely on my own feeble promises, I need to trust solely in the God whose promises never fail, who will guide me and teach me and nurture me and place before me a joyful path of discipleship that will lead me ever further into his marvelous light. Because I don’t know who exactly I will be as I grow, I need a church community to continually remind me who I am and who I serve.

Precisely because the future is hidden from me, I need to seek God in the present. I can’t win an argument against The Future; fear-fueled visions of what may be can easily overwhelm me because I don’t yet have the experiences necessary to combat them. And, of course, I won’t until that future becomes the present and God, as he always does, meets me in a way that is more astounding, more good than I could conceive of right now.

I’m 24. I still struggle with child-proof Advil bottles and sometimes daydream about being a Pokémon master. I have a lot of maturing to do. As I have recently engaged in the conversation surrounding faith and sexuality, I have realized that no matter how much research I may do, no matter how many blog posts I may write, I simply cannot change the fact that there is much I am unable to learn about myself and my sexuality except through the passing of time. There are fears and trials I cannot fully address until they actually materialize. Now, I’m in no rush – the future can hold on to its crow’s feet and baldness*** – but, well, patience doesn’t come naturally.

So, I’d rather not have to pretend that I have all or even most of the answers right now. What I do have is Jesus, transcendently imminent, and his assurance that he will be with me as the seconds pass like gravel or grass beneath my uncalloused feet. And, as I’ve learned in the past, I shouldn’t worry so much about the future because it distracts me from the present moment in which he is working miracles.

My goal in life is to glorify God in all that I do, not to merely be successfully chaste. Just because I’m confident the former leads to the latter in my life, and just because I am committed to working hard to develop as someone who flourishes in singleness, doesn’t make the distinction any less important.

As Eve Tushnet recently noted, an obsession with “safety first,” with expending all of one’s energy just to “not mess up,” is actually not safe at all: it misses the heart of the gospel and can ultimately undermine the very goals toward which one is striving.****

This strikes me as profoundly true. Ascesis is a risky path sometimes, and I am grateful for the reminder of where my priorities must stand, where my eyes must be fixed, in order to move forward with purpose and joy even as the future continues to stubbornly resist the desired clarity.

_______________

* It is worth noting that when I first wrote this two years ago I was primarily dealing with suspicion and anger from more conservative Christians who thought my refusal to try and become straight spelled doom for my future (eternity counted as part of said future, of course). Over the last year, however, burning condescension from more progressive types has definitely entered itself into the “things-that make-me-most-tired” competition, even as I understand where it’s coming from and am less upset by it than the utterly damaging beliefs of some conservative Christians.

** Assuming the mystical vortex doesn’t show up and I die while gloriously sacrificing myself to save the world from the sinister Arch-Mage.

*** The future is coming way too quickly, guys.

**** Pre-order her book! It’s going to be AMAZING.

[The block print at the top is by Yoshida Hiroshi]

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When Snow Fell In Summer

I would always sit in the back so I could kick off my flip-flops without anyone noticing; for some reason I preferred church barefoot. Besides, with only thirty people in the room on any given Saturday evening the back was still closer than most get on a Sunday morning, which meant I didn’t know what to do with my eyes during the sermon.

When I wasn’t preoccupied with proving I was attentive to the message, I liked to watch people, how their heads bobbed up and down in agreement or how, for some, their Adam’s apples would plunge as if a profound “Amen” was thinking about emerging from their throats only to realize that this was a white-suburban-Baptist church and crawl back into their spirited lungs. (Affirming and thoughtful grunting was, however, encouraged.)

One evening, as I scanned the blessed others surrounding me, I was startled to have my stare met by two restlessly blue eyes, widening for an instant and then shifting somewhere beyond me. The young boy twisted in his chair to touch his sister’s shoulder. She didn’t look up from her fierce scribbling and he didn’t care. He glanced back toward me, then his sister, then me, then nowhere in particular, slowly sliding off his seat in clearly-beloved airplane pajamas.

Some faint whisper of a recent conversation suggested he and his sister had just been adopted, but I couldn’t remember if they were biologically related. It seemed unlikely that two siblings with Down syndrome would be born within a year of each other, but all I remembered from high school genetics was that I lacked talent at sorting fruit flies.

Anyway, that didn’t matter.

As I watched him play on the ground and watched her excitedly draw… something began to press sharply into my soul. My eyes widened in a sudden panic and my body jerked awkwardly.

It wasn’t the most stable time of my life, and I had spent much of that gentle summer being stalked by one red-toothed question:

Why do beautiful things have to suffer?

It had found me again.

I blinked, embarrassed, and then had to keep blinking to stop the tears from brimming over. I wanted nothing more in that moment than to know that these children would make it through every day without ever having to hear someone argue that their lives weren’t worth living, that their joy and sorrow and laughter were formed of some cheaper thing. I needed to know that the bloodless ideology of efficiency and pragmatism would stay the hell away from them. And I knew it wouldn’t. I knew they’d have to learn, at some point, that there are people who say they would have been better off dead.

The boy smiled at me.

And the savage question bit down.

My soul darkened, twisted in confusion, and I left church with a furious prayer blooming around me like a thunderhead on what should have been a cloudless evening.

At some point earlier in the year I had forgotten how to trust God. It probably happened during one of those sleepless nights where I curled up in the corner and begged him to be who he said he was: protector of the orphan, father of the fatherless…where my hope was eventually suffocated by the crushing inevitability of statistics and “Every three seconds…”

So I sped toward the reddening Oregon hills, my prayers lashing out like mindless lightning – striking broken systems, human sin, my own weakness, and God with abandon.

I turned on some music to drown out the fury, and burst into tears.

But nothing could halt the implosion and I became more manic with each turn, the blushing serenity of the mountain fields amplifying the dissonance within me. I needed rain, I needed nightfall, I needed chaos.

The warm breeze whipped around me as I took each corner, repeating over and over and over in a frenzy

Why do beautiful things have to suffer?

and

Why do beautiful things have to suffer?

and

How dare you let beautiful things suffer!

And with a last crank of the wheel I found myself in a midsummer snowfield.

I slammed on the brakes, leaned out my window, and released a low, inhuman moan.

Scrambling out of the car as quickly as possible I rushed toward the animal that served as the quivering point of a fifteen-foot exclamation mark written in lace. Laying on the darkening asphalt, surrounded by a pinion snowfall, was a white peacock.

Oh God no, no no no no, please no!

I tried to get closer but it immediately grew agitated, swiveling its head around and emitting a hoarse, rattling cry. I froze, just staring at it, trying to assess the damage the unwitnessed collision had caused.

There was blood, the albino-red of its eyes spilling haphazardly onto its face, and I realized it couldn’t see.

Not one more thing!

With trembling hands I tried to pick it up and move it out of danger, but the moment I touched its wing it panicked and stumbled onto its feet and let loose a series of horrible gasps. It limped noticeably.

“Stop moving, damn you, stop moving stop moving stop moving!” I screamed, unsure what to do as it tripped at the edge of the road and fell into the shallow, grassy ditch, once again screeching in confusion and pain.

The next thirty minutes passed in a blur. I called my parents who lived right nearby; they knew the peacock’s owners; the owners arrived and wrapped up the struggling animal; their red Land Rover disappeared around the forested bend; I picked up three shimmering tail-feathers; the sun finally collapsed into the bruising horizon; and I was suddenly sitting on the edge of my bed, trying to figure out if I was supposed to think any of it meant anything.

I just sat there, the news that the peacock would fully recover barely registering, running all the possible spiritual interpretations past my inner skeptic. I craved significance, and he was unimpressed – though really, what are the odds that the album I was crying to when I came upon the wounded creature displayed a white peacock on its cover?* – so despite the massive effort my head fell onto the pillow with the magicless explanation that some reckless driver hit a rare, domesticated bird, that I soon-after arrived on the scene, that the stupid bird decided it would rather blindly throw itself into a ditch than let me cradle it and weep into its plumage and revel in the tragic beauty of it all, that it was apparently far healthier than it seemed, that once its owners showed up I had nothing else to do except drive home, and that one of the tail-feathers I took was apparently off-white and ugly.

The world doesn’t owe you something profound, you know.

I know.

You’re not some great savior, you know.

I know.

You’re actually laughably finite, you know.

I know.

So stop trying so hard.

Whatever.

I mumbled a laughably finite prayer and for the first time in a few weeks fell asleep quickly.

_________________________________________

By Dina Dargo

By Dina Dargo

_________________________________________

* This one.

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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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“…is this the real life?”

(From June 19, 2010)

We live on a planet called Earth. On a daily basis we interact with thousands upon thousands of material objects, whether it be a crunchy piece of gravel beneath our feet or another human being. We sense things, we know things. This is real life. This existence of ours is true and good; it is not an illusion from which we must break free in order to reach some spiritual existence beyond our mortal chains. I am not arguing for the rejection of this reality in favor of another. Rather, I am arguing for the transformation of this reality by the truth of another, namely (and solely) the eternal kingdom of God and the inauguration of the Church through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is more than just a moral transformation. The purpose of Christ’s coming was not to change us from bad people to good people upon our conversion which then allows us into heaven (or more popularly, saves us from hell). His coming changed the very nature of our existence. In an admittedly limited sense, our conversion is akin to transplanting ourselves into a foreign culture. If you wake up some day in Uganda, it would be remarkably foolish to assume that adhering to the norms and cultural rules of America will get you anywhere. It would also be remarkably foolish to assume that you are no longer American now that you are in Uganda. A posture of humility and learning must be adopted as you try to understand this new context. You have a cultural reference book that seems strangely inadequate in some situations and a native guide who you wish would be a little more direct. You mess up. A lot. But your hosts are gracious and you continue to become more accustomed to your daily life. There are some things that you were able to do in America that are simply impossible now, some things that are strange and bizarre to the Ugandans that you should probably avoid, and some things that are acceptable and good.

Such is our arrival into the kingdom of God, only completely different and multiplied by infinity. It is our tendency, at least in America, to assume that our conversion only changes our character and moral axis instead of transporting us wholly (or opening our eyes) to a new kingdom, a new reality (which really is not very “new” at all) that functions entirely uniquely to anything we have previously experienced. We are now first and foremost citizens of the all consuming kingdom of heaven, manifested on earth as the global body of Christians as one unified and unbreakable Church, bound together by the love of Christ poured out for us as a sacrifice upon an altar composed of sin and constructed by our own hands. This kingdom is not something we are journeying toward nor is it something we are trying to create on earth; we are already in it and it is already established. It is not yet a complete kingdom, however. It cannot be because then we would not so desperately long for the return of Christ, nor would we need Him any more. We who have entered through the narrow gate could only have entered by passing through Christ who now stands between us and the world.

The implications of this are, of course, rather daunting, as events which demand of us everything tend to be. Some people have called Christianity the “upside-down kingdom”, but I don’t think that’s correct because it makes our mundane, secular existence the normative experience and the kingdom of God a radical departure from the apparent. Instead, the kingdom of God is the truest truth, the most real reality, the basic actuality by which all humanity must measure its existence. We do not, we must not begin with our secular lives and from there gauge how we should act. We, as Christians, begin and end with obedience and submission to the reality of Christ’s call on our lives. This call will often (in fact almost always) demand that we act in defiance of what we and the world perceive as real. Our defiance will bring persecution upon us because it is so thoroughly distressing to be confronted by the revelation that everything we have accumulated and striven for on this earth is ashes and dead weight that drag us willingly to hell because we did not first have Christ, in and through whom alone we find the redemption of our being. As the anointed bearers of this glorious reality, we gain the added benefit of no longer fearing what the world may do to us because it will never be able to change the eternal reality that Christ has called us into communion with Him.

Christ’s call does not lead us out of the world, but rather directly into the heart of it. We must not reject the world and its troubles because we have found something better. If Christ had done that we would all be in hell right now. We must follow Christ into the darkest reaches of the world (which are never far away), armed not with judgment or condemnation but with renewal and transformation, healing and acceptance, love and love and love and more love that flows through us from the fount of the Cross and empowers us to do all things.

This is Christianity. It is not an institution, a moral guideline, a secluded retreat, a facebook note or a comfortable existence. It is the eternally present reality of our complete and total bondage to Christ and His kingdom which frees us to joyfully and powerfully seek restoration in all the earth to the glory of God. It is a reality that not only extends beyond borders but destroys them, not only reaches through socio-economic differences but renders them unimaginable, not only gives us a reason to live but makes life everlasting. It is a reality to which God has drawn us. It is Himself.

And we reject it, we reject Him, every day. We reject Him for the things of this world. We reject Him because the world has told us to act a certain way, to see a certain way. It has told us that our allegiance is to arbitrary and divisive political systems, that our brothers and sisters, fellow members of the kingdom of God to whom we are inextricably linked, are “others”, different from us. It tells us that the demand of Christ to live entirely for Him, to serve with our whole lives, to cling to nothing except to Him, to go to the poor and needy, to seek peace with all, is not really what the Bible says, or that it does not matter what the Bible says because current “reality” seems to say something different and God most certainly could not demand something impractical of His children (such as dying on a cross).

I reject God every day because I just cannot yet accept the full demand of my conversion. I’m scared, I’m weak, and I love too much that which I should not. And yet the pursuit of this reality has been the most life-giving aspect of my entire existence. God is so faithful and is forever with me and my broken, failing, beautiful brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world.

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