I’m glad to say that I’m still reeling tonight from the renewed conviction that I’m not living the life I should be after my encounter with Jen Hatmaker’s prophetic writing, life, and witness. I’ve known that there is a deep disconnect between the life I’m called to live and the life I actually do live for many years, of course, and have taken various halting steps at trying to rectify this situation, only to fail each time- sometimes spectacularly- and all too often from lack of really trying. So this is what I said over on Jen Hatmaker’s blog in response to this post:
Thank you for these powerful words and for your prophetic witness. I’ve long been grateful for the realization that “prophesy” is much more about truth-telling than it is about foretelling, because I, for one, need to hear that truth- over and over and over again. I’m a native Texan, and when I tell my story I talk about the fact that when I finally got out (of Texas) at 18 (I had to; my family of origin was “Christian,” but also very abusive) and went away to a small “Christian” liberal arts college in New England, I was shocked to discover that “God is not a white, anglo-saxon Protestant (male) who lives in the ‘burbs, shops at the mall, and spends the rest of his time pursuing the American dream like everybody else.” I had the privilege while in college of doing a program then known as Kingdomworks (it morphed some time ago into Mission Year). During my Kingdomworks summer I lived in an inner-city church (building) in Philly with a bunch of other college students, where we ran a day camp, Sunday school, and youth group, hoping to empower that congregation to reach its neighborhood through the kids in ways they couldn’t otherwise. I heard shortly after completing my summer, and have known well ever since, that while whatever we did for those kids that summer was well and good in its own right, the point of it all was as much about reaching me as it was about reaching them. I’m glad, sort of, to say that it worked, sort of, and therein lies (part of) my problem. More about that perhaps later, but suffice it to say I’ve spent the better part of the past 17 years (wow! 17 years!) trying to recreate that experience.
Again, when I tell my story I talk about the fact that it was during that summer that I was able to build a bridge (and no, I didn’t really build that) between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there- in the world. That bridge compelled me to traverse it, to go over it again and again and again, hoping to do something, to reach somebody, to touch somebody, to make a difference in some way come hell or high water. Later on, I was shocked and utterly distressed to find that this “bridge” could be traveled in both directions, that it was possible for my encounter with the suffering other to take me right back to my own personal suffering in ways that were near (and remain so to this day) debilitating. That doesn’t free of my 1%er status, my white male USAmerican privilege and all the responsibilities that pertain thereto, but it makes it damn hard to get out of my own way long enough to be of any good to anyone else.
Along the way, I got married and had kids and have settled into a modest house in a working-class ‘burb (can you hear the apology? the guilt?) where I spend my days in a charter school working with ADHD and Asperger’s kids. I’ve got massive debt thanks to the mortgage and the credit cards and the mortgage-sized student loans courtesy of a short-circuited seminary excursion and a few semesters afterwards as first an MSW student and then a Master’s in Counseling student. Now, we struggle to pay all the bills and raise our seven and one year old boys and deal with opposite work schedules and the like, all the while pining for more- not more stuff (though awfully we probably pine for that too)- but more…more. More community, more purpose (Rick Warren, go away. I’m not talking about or to you;), more sacrifice and tears and love and life and reasons to get up in the morning. We lived in Philly for a while and “knew” Shane Claiborne before he was SHANE CLAIBORNE!!!!!!! We love The Simple Way and Rutba House and all the communities like them, and we were even part of our own little “intentional Christian community” for a little while before it blew up in our faces, perhaps because of our application of a lit match to the large stick of relational dynamite we were all sitting on. We know that the Church is a people, not a place and that following Jesus and taking up our crosses means willfully choosing the instrument of our own death. Yet we stubbornly refuse to do it. We take two steps forward and then eighteen steps back. We make risky, bold faithful moves and then run away with our tail between our legs as soon as we get inevitably hurt in the process. We know that the life we long for, that Jesus calls us to, is one decidedly different from the American dream, that Jesus’ dream looks like nothing like it, and we know; we know, we know, we know, we know, that this life of radical discipleship we were made for is so utterly hard in this rich white, USAmerican context that we can not hope to succeed in even small ways if we undertake it alone. So we long- still- for community, for co-conspirators, but we have struggled mightily to find them where we live now in Northeast Ohio, and it’s taken a big swig of humility and almost-trust to believe that if it really is God behind all this somehow, then surely he must be at work in somebody other than us, right? Surely the community we’re called to participate in- one that is willing to take risks to help one another love and serve our neighbors both right in front of us and around the world- surely such a community is one that God is already creating, that already exists in some fashion, right? RIGHT?!
I know I can’t blame others for my failure to follow Jesus the way I know I should, and I certainly don’t want to. Yet as I think you may well know, “opting out” of the American dream is hard. It takes partners. More than anything, perhaps, it takes imagination and courage, and I find myself in short supply of both. As it stands, I feel utterly trapped. Trapped in a way of life that perpetuates the consumer machine. Trapped in the jobs necessary to pay the bills. Trapped in my own short-circuited (lack of) faith. It really is a lack these days. I have friends who have stopped following Jesus for lots of REALLY good reasons, and every day I’m tempted to join them. Some of them have quit because of a lack of belief in God, and I get that; I really, really do. In fact, I almost envy them. I’d love to just give up, to look at all the problems in the Bible and in the world and finally throw in the towel. But I can’t. I can’t because quite simply I’m too angry. I can’t claim disbelief in someone who makes me SO. COMPLETELY. LIVID. I’m mad at God for what happened to me and my family when I was a kid. I’m mad because of my mother’s abuse and my father’s allowing it to happen because “the Bible said” he couldn’t get divorced. I’m mad because of the kids dying on the streets of Philadelphia and in Haiti and everyplace in between. I’m mad because all this anger once fueled me to overachieve, to get good grades and be a better friend and worker and “church”goer and the like, and I’m mad because I’ve been mad so long that I’m worn out. I’m tired of being mad. I’m tired of trying to make a difference and failing. No, scratch that. I’m tired of trying to try to make a difference and then quitting when I lack the imagination or courage or community or resources to actually do it. C.S. Lewis wrote something along the lines of, I think in The Screwtape Letters, that the real danger to the devil wasn’t those who followed Jesus (I’m paraphrasing) because they believed; rather it was those couldn’t quite believe anymore (again, paraphrasing) and yet followed/obeyed anyway. That brings some small comfort, but I don’t know how long I can go on like this, struggling to think about trying to follow despite all the pain and anger and good reasons not to rattling around in my head, heart, and soul. I’d love to give away seven things a day for a month and reduce our clothes and consumption and carbon footprint and everything else. More than that, I’d love for my life to matter, for it to be “burned up in a holy flame” in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, but again, I feel so utterly stuck, lost, faithless, and (aside from my wife and kids) alone. A wise pastor, responding to inklings of all this in me many years ago, said that it’s better to do something, anything, and perhaps fail spectacularly, trusting God to work it all out, than to be mired in inaction because of fear of making a mistake. I’d like to think though that I’m not afraid of making a mistake anymore. Perhaps I’m afraid of succeeding. I’m afraid that the bills and job and house and the rest will keep me from living the life I’m called to. In any case, I find your story and the life you’re struggling to live inspiring and prophetic. I wish there were more folks like you and yours around here.
Sorry for the rant.
Jen was good enough to reply to my comment, and while I’m so utterly grateful for her gracious response, I’m also even a bit more chastened, because what she told me, in part, was this: “I believe you have exactly identified the reasons why the camel cannot fit through the eye of the needle. Brother, I am stopping to pray for you this morning. And for me. And for all of us who want to live a holy, meaningful life but have come to understand the cost.” So I can not help but feel like the rich young ruler, and rightly so. I know well what it would cost to follow Jesus as I ought, and am given great pause. Complicating factors, however, is that it’s not (only) that I’m unwilling, it’s also that I’m nearly incapable, for rich though I am, I am deeply indebted to much, much richer rulers, and maybe that’s part of why I’m so angry. I’m pissed off that I have to ask “By your leave….” of USBank and Huntington and HSBC in order to leave my boat and become a fisher of people.
More than that, though, I’m just…angry. I’m angry for lots of reasons, many of which are related to my recent C-PTSD diagnosis, but there are some not insignificant and entirely adaptive reasons to be angry too. I’m angry at suffering and the sin that causes it. I’m angry at those who sit idly by allowing it to happen, and I’m angry at myself for being one of them more often than not. God, help me. God, help us all.