Saturday, August 23, 2008

Meeting Moses

In college I experimented with fasting. Once or twice a month, that is, I would forgo all apple juice and Peanut Butter Captain Crunch, all beer and marijuana, and even the cafeteria's chicken-fried steak. Next steps: fill up a big jug of water, unplug the phone, and pull up a chair at the dorm room window. And then there I'd sit for two or three days, waiting for winged proverbs to smack against the glass.

Junior year was the big one -- the Seven Day fast. I guess over time I had just become inured with the two- or three-day stints: the first day's food withdrawals, the second day's occasional, and always fleeting, awakenings. I thought for sure that something more drastic - to the tune of a week - would put me clean out into the Desert. I liked the thought of that.

The fast began and ended with a touch of religiosity -- respectively, a last meal at the China Buffet, and the slow, ceremonious eating of a fatted Golden Delicious, on which I'd written a long and since-forgotten poem. But between these vaguely religious bookends, there was only a faint smear of spirituality about the whole thing. At my least gracious, I think back on myself then as a dime-a-dozen consumer of epiphany. The Seven Days could just as easily have been a stack of DVDs.


To make my entertainment edgier, I meditated on the Desert. But first, to get there, I had to wander, backwards as it were, across long stretches of Promised Land. On day five, I finally made it back to the Jordan. I imagined myself the anti-Moses.

As I neared the river, I gradually made out the silhouette of a man on the other side. Then, at once, everything within me sank: my stomach, my irreverence, my 20-year-old suburban hubris.

It was Moses, still barred from crossing my way. I slowly edged up on the Promised-side of the muddy banks. I could see him well now.

"It's beautiful," said Moses, staring out over the expanse of oak groves and honeycomb behind me.

"It's okay," I conceded. "But honestly, it's rockier than it looks. And then there are the Amonites and Canaanites. Not to mention the strip malls."

"The who?" asked Moses.

"Nothing," I replied. I immediately regretted having brought it up.

I looked across the Jordan myself, and suddenly felt invigorated and emotional, like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration.

"It is good for us to be here... Do you think He'd mind if I swam out your way?"

Visibly annoyed now, Moses turned and stared across the plains of Moab.

"The desert's not for tourists," he said at last.

At that, I was instantly back in my apartment, eyeing the refrigerator door. I was dreaming of gorging on milk and honey with the other Jebusites.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mk. 9:24

I won't say I'm experiencing a "dark night of the soul." I haven't by any means earned that right.

"Dark nights" I'll leave to those who can face them: folks like Mother Theresa or Saint John of the Cross, who continually prayed to and yearned for God. They did so even when -- for decades, in Mother Theresa's case -- they felt no closeness to God in their prayers, and continually ached for God in his absence.

What I'm going through now is something less: an overnight flight delay of the soul.

In an airport lit up like it's noon, my own midnight is spent trying to sleep in a chair that's cleverly designed to prevent it.

Occasionally I get up and pace the terminals; I lug around my tambourine and giant golden harp. Logistically, I know they won't fit in the overhead compartment. What the hell was I thinking? I quietly put the thought out of my mind.

The thought comes back. I rest my hope on the First Class closet, where a few times they've let me stow my guitar.

At 4 a.m. I am downright pissed to find the five foolish bridesmaids, huddled together and dozing off (par for the course) on a bench by the women's bathroom. I see that every one of them has her oil lamp lingering somewhere nearby. This frustrates me: they've got lamps for God's sake -- IEDs if I ever saw them -- while I can't even get through with a six-ounce tube of Colgate.

I suppose I should just let these little injustices slide, and be thankful the six of us got tickets at all.

It's funny: in ways I am a firmer believer now than I've ever been. I unswervingly believe .... something, even something substantial, about God's promise to humanity made through Christ. I believe in God's fervent preference for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and in the responsibility that entails for a privileged kid like me.

I believe that God loves us. It's the one truth I really left seminary with. And that's almost always enough.

But sometimes I'm not sure "doubt" is even the word for what I feel. I find myself somewhere out past Thomas, if as yet shy of Judas.

I hide this from many -- though not all -- of my co-workers and clients. They are steeped in another language, a different language, which they share with me at least a little bit each day. "Holy Spirit-filled." "Just keep praising." "God will work a miracle." "Bathe it in prayer." They worry for the salvation of souls.

Their language feels like a litmus test, which, at least secretly, I continue to fail.

I've learned not to use those terms myself. I say "the Lord" and "Holy Spirit" with the sincerity of a flight attendant, welcoming another hundred people on the plane.

Sometimes, though rarely, the attendant even means "hello." He believes "hello."

Lord, help him with his unbelief.

Monday, August 18, 2008

I have never envisioned the word "Texas" anywhere near so much lush and green. Nor have I ever considered "Texan" any forest thick enough to warrant a trail.

And don't bother convincing me otherwise. It's not like mere evidence is going to change my mind. I still can't think "Texas" and "lake" in the same synapse, even after spending an entire weekend in Caddo Lake State Park. Try thought I might, it's like rubbing my head and patting my belly. The signals cross.

The same goes for Spanish moss. Spanish moss I've consigned to Mississippi, or maybe the fat-mustached stretches of southern Alabama. And green? I'd be more prepared to see green in Antarctica. At least iceberg-white is closer on the color wheel than the Texan orange I've grown up expecting. Texas should be lizard-toned. At its lushest, the color of Carolina clay. Not this.

Now, back in Missouri, my brain spins circles trying to recalculate the once simple formula, "Texas." The best it can do tonight, I observe, is to slice Texas like an earthworm into three wriggling parts.

First, Old Texas is still the same as it always was: Ford Country pick-ups and ass-kickings; dust and God and Republicans.

Austin Texas, second, is still a mirage -- an as-yet hearsay bubble of progressive folk musicians and environmental monks.

Finally, there's Caddo Lake: the Texas of good-natured Rice family reunions, cypress knees (which, if up to me, would be called "cypress snorkels"), and the dawning recognition -- thanks to a couple of Jen's social work books -- of the responsibility that comes with being a White, heterosexual, married, employed, educated, able-bodied, and utterly oblivious Protestant male. It's the Texas of watching Jen's grandmother cry over a lost husband, daughter, daughter-in-law. The Texas that can somehow hold a Prius on one end and a nature-loving Episcopalian uncle on the other. Cypress Texas. Green Texas.

Poppycock. I won't believe it.