Friday, November 22, 2013

Thoughts on Interior Dialogue

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened. - Mark Twain

I am in the process of introducing a young fellow to meditating. I am also learning more about meditation myself and in a book I am reading, Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird, this quote opens a chapter. I was showing this guy the book and that was the first thing he read. He immediately looks at me and says, “I have no idea what’s going on.” I, without the context of this being a Mark Twain quote, try to explain about what Laird calls inner videos. Laird describes a process most of us live through on the daily where we play a scenario back through our head of what happened. Then we add our commentary on things…then we add the motivation of the other person…then we add our response…then we add and we add and we add until there is this entire imaginary commentary on an event that maybe occurred over the course of three minutes, but we just mulled over for about 73 hours.

Fast forward to lunch with a buddy this week. We are talking about some things I am currently dealing with, and no…I’m not going to share them. These are some inner-James issues that reflect the videos I just talked about. So, no…no one REALLY hurt me, no one intentionally was jerky, but because I allowed some of these inner videos to play in my head, I allowed this space of pain…so, no need to drag someone’s name through the mud here. But…as I was saying, we were talking about some of my struggles and he related back to a similar situation and said something I found quite profound: “Sometimes I lose track of which conversations I really had with (said person) and which ones I had in my head.” That is a pretty great discovery. We sometimes get so caught up in our mind that we forget and confuse reality from the fiction we have written.

I was surprised by how positive being your own hero is on the web.
And the problems grow from there. For instance, how many times have we sat by a phone waiting for someone to call and apologize for an offense that person never knew they committed? Think about it. How many times have you avoided a person and they simply asked where you have been, because they were so preoccupied with, you know, living their life that they never noticed you were intentionally avoiding them. The problem is explained well by my pastor Jon who frequently reminds people, “Everyone is the hero of their own story,” or as your mom or dad probably told you more than once: “You are not the center of the universe.”

But truth be told, as much as we acknowledge that with our mindgrapes, we don’t let the truth submerge to the heart. And so our emotions are screaming, “Why haven’t they noticed?” whenever someone has wronged us. It is much easier for someone to admit their wrongdoing when they know they have done something wrong. That may be the most obvious statement in the world, yet we live in such a way that we expect people to read our minds. We expect people to figure out what is wrong.

It reminds me of a typical fight we see played out on movie or tv screens:

Husband: Is something wrong?
Wife: No.
Husband: Are you sure? You seem upset.
Wife: You’re quite observant…NOW!
Husband: What did I do wrong?
Wife: Well if I have to tell you then you really don’t deserve to know.
Husband: Was it the trash? Did I forget a kid at a school? Really I don’t know.
Wife: Well I’m not telling you. Figure it out.

This isn’t a diatribe against women…really there are plenty of irrational people no matter their gender (and since this is 2013…their non-gender?). But it is quite telling of how many of us live our lives. In this scenario the wife has built up this entire story of how her husband has wronged her. It may have started as something as simple as the husband saying he would pick up something from the store and he forgot. It may be that he forgot an anniversary. But whatever the starting point, what has happened to this woman is the downward spiral of inner dialogues that the husband was never privy to. He doesn’t know what he did, he doesn’t know the conversations that have taken place for hours upon hours inside his wife’s mind…but she expects him to. (And just to reiterate…plenty of crazies across all genders!)

And so that brings us to the turn. What is to be learned from this? There is no reality in the inner dialogues that we have. Nothing is solved. They actually make things worse…but we continue to have them. These conversations are pure fiction in a biographical world. I have recently made this critique of myself: I have just enough understanding of psychology and counseling to be helpful in a pinch, but not enough to really help myself in the day-to-day. I know when I am being irrational. But at times I can’t stop myself going down that road. I want to, but I just get overwhelmed. I feel like my irrational thoughts are a Mac Truck running down the highway of my soul. It seems like to stop them would wreck me. And what that means is…I’m scared to stop them. The truth is…they don’t hold that kind of power. I just allow them to.

We have within us, Christians or not, the power to prevent and stop inner dialogues or videos. Some of it is actually quite simple. For example, “I am really quite miffed at so and so. Instead of lingering on it I could work out, hang out with a friend, cook dinner, go out to dinner, watch a movie, read a book, mow the lawn, rake the leaves, shovel the snow, paint my toe nails, paint my dog’s toe nails, stalk the cat, stare at my gold fish. I really have a lot of options here.” As a Christian we have a lot more options too. We just have to learn that the fictions we write about our actual life are not an open reality for others to access. We cannot expect and demand for other people to understand all the chaos going on inside us.

So…let’s try to stop that Mac truck. Let’s never let it build up momentum. Let’s actually live our lives in such a way that the videos don’t taint reality. There is not a single one of us who can answer for conversations they never knew they had…so why should we demand it of them.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thoughts on "I'm just not myself"

Look at that handsome devil Joe Purdy.
One of my favorite singers is Joe Purdy. I think I wrote about him when I was trying to explain “melancholy joy.” Listening to Joe is akin to an emotional journey. There is this dissonance between the music and the lyric. The music for the most part is hopeful; it is happy. The highs of the mandolin and even the piano create a place where your heart is contented and even joyful. But the lyrics…well, I’ll let me Aunt G explain the lyrics: “James this is depressing.”

So, that is kind of my genre of music. I like songs where the music and the lyrics are perfectly contradictory…which actually describes one of Joe’s shows that I went to in L.A. Joe had recently had a car company pick up his song, “Can’t Get it Right Today” for one of their commercials. This couple I know heard I was going to see him and asked to tag along. So, I of course agreed, excited to have someone go to the show with me, and we were all excited to hang together.

The show started late. This couple got tired, I was a little tired, but I was excited. The show was at The Roxy. Those of you familiar know that means there are no seats…it’s all standing. So, you factor in getting there an hour early, standing through an opening act, standing through intermission. It just made for a long night. Joe finally played the song this couple came to hear…but he completely changed it. Instead of the melancholy joy I describe the band turns it into a full on dirge. The couple looks at me, a bit disheartened and asks, “Can we leave? If you think he’ll play a happier version of the song we can stay. But we’re tired. We have church in the morning and really want to leave.”

This did not make me a happy camper. I paid good money for the tickets. I drove into Hollywood (not my favorite thing) and I was excited to see Joe, but these two were obviously miserable…so I left. But that song is resonating with me this morning.

I was having a conversation this morning where I caught myself about to say “I’m just not myself today,” but I stopped. For some reason I had one of those “apothecaries” (epiphanies actually, but that is a private joke with someone, I just can’t remember who, so whoever that is…I love you!). The epiphany was this: even when I’m not feeling well, even when I feel like ripping someone’s head off…that is still me. No matter what the mood, it comes from a place within me, and as such I need to own it.

What it made me realize was what we mean by “I’m just not myself today,” is actually, “I’m going to be a jerk to you right now, but you have to deal with it, because I don’t feel like making the effort, heck, I don’t even think I CAN make the effort to be congenial in this situation.” Harsh. I realize this, but the person I am slapping around most right now is me. The truth is “I’m just not myself” is an excuse to behave the way we want to behave. It allows us to do and say things that would be unacceptable in any other situation.
It reminds me of an episode of The New Girl when Nick keeps screaming, “Dead dad pass.” He was using the grief of his recently deceased father (which is a totally legitimate process, and are totally legitimate emotions) to get away with behavior he knew was unbecoming. It is actually a great picture to explain the phenomenon of, “I’m just not myself,” and I think that is what the writers were going for when they wrote that story line.

The truth of the matter is, when we feel out of sorts there are all sorts of legitimate things going on. Some people have chronic pain. Some people have seasonal depression. Some people have more on their plate than they should. Some people are working 70-80 hours a week to keep food on the table and being chastised for not being a better parent/friend/child. Every single one of these are legitimate problems that have the ability to steal our identity from us…because that is what we are saying. “I am working two jobs right now, so those jobs have stolen my identity” is what we communicate when we say, “I’m not myself because work is just too much right now.” And sure, what we are actually doing is just grabbing a common accessible phrase that communicates round about what is going on, but the problem is we believe it.

Why is it a problem to believe it? It causes us to be like the person in James 1 (the Bible, not my autobiography). We are people blown and tossed by the wind of our situations. When we believe that grief allows us to act irrationally and without accountability, we let it take over. Are you going to be irrational when you grieve? Absolutely. But…we, especially those of us who call ourselves Christians, should not allow ourselves to be overtaken by any situation.

And I will be the first to say this is a tricky balance. Many of us grew up in situations where we were taught, “Good Christians have to smile and be happy through every situation.” We were taught, “Someone died…let’s celebrate; you lost your job…let’s celebrate; you miscarried your baby…it was the Lord’s will, put on the big girl panties and move on.” And what has happened to a lot of us is this jaded response that rejects that form of Christianity and moves toward a place that says, “Surrender yourself to every ounce of that pain. Let yourself feel every emotion of it,” but we stop there. We don’t say, “Let yourself feel every ounce of that pain, and bring it to Jesus because He cares, and He will actively demonstrate His love for you in that place.” It’s like a marriage…it takes a long time to figure it all out, but you work toward that.

And so I end with this: I am reading Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird. He talks a lot about emotions and feeling things. The big message in this book on meditation is that we come to a place where we acknowledge what we feel, but are not overcome. Grief is a reality, pain is a reality, but they do not dictate the center of who we are…they are simply a part of who we are. We meditate, we reflect and we acknowledge what is going on, but we do not give ourselves over to the internal videos that we play and build and direct. We instead look past these things toward what I would call God. We don’t ignore pain…we look through pain to see God. This isn’t the Christianity that ignores the problems we face…it’s the faith that says we are greater than what we face, but what we face is indeed very real. And that is something I can get behind. Something that says there are things in this life that are great; there are things in this life that are small, and we don’t have to ignore either. Instead we learn to find the One who helps us put these things in their proper perspective so that we do and say the things that we know we should, because they are a reflection of the true self that emerges through our trials.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thoughts on Memory and Nostalgia

So, I recently had a little flashback of sorts. I don’t know how or where I came across it, but somewhere I heard this little piano riff of seven simple notes. All it took was those notes, not even a full chord, and I saw her: Alice Gonzalez—the most beautiful girl in the world. I stopped. I couldn’t believe that even now, 20 years later, I could recall her face just by hearing a song.

It’s strange the things that cause us to stop and remember things long past. It’s also strange the people and places that we remember. Alice Gonzalez is not an important person in my life. She never has been. She was a passing crush between my freshman and sophomore years of high school; she lived in a city over 3 hours away. I danced with her once or twice at FFA Leadership Camp and saw her elected as the State of Texas FFA First Vice President. Yet, even with so few interactions, Alice will always be that beautiful girl every time I hear…and this is embarrassing…Mariah Carey’s “Hero.”

A quick side note, where did I hear this song? Why is anyone still playing “Hero” in their rotation? Was it 90s day? Was the person listening to greatest hits of pop divas? I really have no idea, but it gave me pause. I remember the silliest details about certain things, but there are important, formative moments I can’t recall. There are moments that were pivotal in my understanding, faith, family and learning to love that are gone, but a fleeting crush can still come back after twenty years.

I know, I’m not a parent, but this makes me think of having kids. Saturday night I got into the Bama-LSU game for free. I sat between the parents of Terrence Magee and Vadal Alexander. Yes, Bama fans, my free tickets were in the LSU section, but they were free and I was on the row 16 for most of the game and row 13 for the rest. Before I invited Magee’s dad to sit next to me, because his row was crowded and there was literally three open seats next to me, I was sitting next to this young couple and their, I would guess, three year old. And the little guy did great in the hour before the game, but when it came time for kickoff two things happened. One, everyone in the stadium knows…it started raining. The second was little guy wanted daddy to hold him.
Maybe if Les had some grass to eat, the second half would have went better.
We smiled and instead of saying, “You should cherish this. The age is soon coming where he won’t want this,” I smiled and said a typical man thing: “That’s how it always happens, isn’t it?” I doubt dad nor son will ever remember that moment where they held onto one another for the opening quarter-and-a-half, but there may be some innocuous moment that one of them does like when the band played Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and that crazy LSU frat daddy pulled out his hidden Jack Daniels, faced the parents and drained it. It’s just one of those things we don’t dictate.

So, we’re about halfway through today's post and I find myself wondering, “Where does this turn; what direction is this going?” And I think this is where we’re headed today folks: memory and nostalgia are good places to visit, but terrible places to live.

Let’s start with the first part of that thought: memory and nostalgia are good places to visit. I actually believe that. If you come around the Love household on any given holiday there are going to be stories about Grandma and Grandpa, aunts and uncles and even relatives we have never met. For instance, I never knew Aunt Molly, but I can tell you how she used to eat onion and mustard sandwiches, which made her belch really loudly. I myself tell stories like the time I took my friend Joel to meet my Uncle Dick in the hospital and warned him, “You can only believe about ten percent of what he says,” to which Joel responded, “How do I know what ten percent,” and I quipped back, “I’ll tell you after.” These stories are good. We need to be rooted in the past. We need to come from somewhere…it normalizes us, it stabilizes us, and in certain cases it keeps us together. Growing up in Florence, Texas, there were not a lot of people like me. I’m just quite different than most of my peers, but our common stories keep me rooted. Because of the things we went through there is this deep well that allows us simply to be with one another and feel okay.

Look how young Portman was in Beautiful Girls!
But the second part is this : Memory and nostalgia are terrible places to live. There are numerous film examples of this: Lauren Holly and Matt Dillon in Beautiful Girls, the mom from Requiem for a Dream; William H Macy in Magnolia. Living in memories, basing your emotional satisfaction on nostalgia leaves you a shell of a person. Memory and nostalgia are perfected thoughts on imperfect events. For instance when Alice was elected First Vice President she was running against Glen Rosenbusch, my FFA teacher’s nephew. It was really kind of awkward supporting Alice while my peers and teachers looked at me like I had betrayed them. Yet, what I remember is Alice giving the best speech in the world while looking impeccable. In other words my memory did not reflect reality…it reflected a projected perfect image that didn’t exist…and that is why memory can be good in the healing process, but a hindrance when reflecting on how perfect your life was then, yet how terrible it is now.

I end with this: Alice Gonzalez was, and probably still is, a beautiful woman. But the truth of the matter is, in my reality she is fiction. Sure, she really exists, she is out there now living life, probably a mom, maybe a lawyer or a teacher…she is very much real. But, in my reality, she is fiction. She is a story that my mind created based on events that didn’t happen the way I remember them. And that’s okay when kept in the proper perspective. We need those moments; we need to be able to walk down memory lane, but the truth is, after that stroll we need to heed Mason Jennings, and “Be here now…no other place to be.” These moments, some of which seem dreadful, will be those future memories if we allow ourselves to fully live into them and not grasp for our fictional pasts.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Thoughts on Orthodoxy

So, as has been a frequent occurrence of late, I was thinking about John MacArthur. And two things pretty foreign to my normal disposition began to occur. First, I want to hug Mark Driscoll and buy him a beer, and second, I kind of, maybe, a little bit, possibly, in the slightest regard, but probably not actually, understand where MacArthur is coming from.* So, let’s first turn our attention to Mr. Driscoll.
No, Driscoll's not punching MacArthur...that's Piper.
So, apparently Marky Mark and his fresh bunch showed up at the Strangefire Conference. Rumor had it he was kicked out. That made me reconsider my thoughts on Driscoll for a brief moment. So, if there is a "-10 to +10" chart of friendship, I’m now a full point closer to bff-hood with Markus! But, as often happens, truth was exaggerated; Driscoll wasn’t really kicked out. He was asked and then physically forced by security not to hand out free copies of his book to attendees, because it wasn’t on the “approved book list.” Apparently John thinks 1984 and Animal Farm should be more strictly adhered to than is current practice.
I kept reading and found that Driscoll went so far as to invite MacArthur to his conference. He offered to pay for travel, cover his honorarium, the whole shebang. And on top of that he said (in the James Love translation), “I understand you think I’m an idiot, and probably feel like this is some sort of trap, so I invited Wayne Grudem to have the conversation with you instead of me, because you say you respect him.” All-in-all a generous proposal by Driscoll, so if I happen to run into him somehow in the month of November I shall high five him, offer a Vanillaphant to him and maybe part as partial bros, or to borrow a term from the Catholics, separated brethren.
Now that my little love fest for Driscoll is solidified in writing, let me talk about the one thing that I think I get about JM. To do that I need to introduce (maybe reintroduce, or just define what I mean to some of you) a couple of terms that inform this discussion: orthodoxy and heterodoxy.
To use a food metaphor – orthodoxy is like butter, gravy or jelly on a biscuit. It is how things are supposed to be. It is accepted as the standard or norm. It is, in theological terms, the approved version of how we believe things to be. Heterodoxy is kind of like the color gray on the wheel. It, in varying shades and luminosity, separates black from white. It has varying degrees of acceptability and accuracy, but as a general rule, it’s not out-and-out wrong. To go back to food, it’s like seeing someone but nutella, chocolate spread or vegemite on a biscuit. Well, maybe not vegemite. That might cross the line into heresy…unless you come from the land down under…then I’d cut you some grace.
So, thinking about heterodoxy today made me feel a little bit like I understood JM. Do I still think the dude is incorrect, harsh and kind of a jerk? Most certainly, but I can understand his hesitation. I can understand if this thought crossed his mind at some point: “When I look at them (Charismatics, Pentecostals and Catholics) I don’t see my faith. I’m searching through their beliefs and I just don’t see anything that looks like what I have been taught.”
I get that. The first day or so in the Abbey of Gethsemani I thought some similar thoughts. I thought, “I just don’t recognize this. Therefore I don’t understand how it fits into my understanding of God and the Church.” But here is what separates myself from JM…I recognize that heterodoxy is reality. I don’t jump and say “That’s Orthodox. That’s blasphemy.” In other words, I recognize gray. It reminds me of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. That chapter is great on love, but also reminds us that now we see through a glass rather dimly. It’s kind of like those of you, who like myself, wear glasses. Suppose you are at work and you take your glasses off and someone chooses that moment to come into your office. You have roughly a good idea of whose blurry outline that is. If they speak, your auditory memory confirms it, but you see no details. And here is the point where I get in trouble with a lot of people…so of course, I am going to set it apart as its own paragraph to emphasize it, and knock off Rob Bell a bit:
When we see and think about God…we see the blur, we don’t see the details.
Part of our life’s work is working toward that blur, becoming more in focus through relationship with Jesus and others. I caught myself typing “others in the Church,” but then deleted it as there is a modicum (yes…I am going to cash in on that word today folks) of understanding and revelation of God found in all people and all things. My relationships with atheists guide my understanding of God. My interactions with Hindus inform the way I see God. Now, those within the Church may provide more reliable information, but any religious tradition that becomes so internal that they exclude general revelation is already at risk of some serious craziness.
I have probably said this before, but will say it again. I am comfortable understanding that when I stand before God at the end of my days I may say something like, “God. I really didn’t understand that,” or “Wow, I can’t believe I missed that and got it totally wrong.” The reason I’m comfortable is I can say with complete sincerity, “But I tried. I devoted my life to seeking after the truth. And I think that pleases you more than being right.”
And that is my thought of the day folks. To steal a phrase, we need to be “lifelong learners.” We need to be humble enough to allow firmly entrenched beliefs to be challenged. Because sometimes those firmly entrenched beliefs are actually shaky pillars that are more about covering some fear or inadequacy than building a firm foundation.
I end with this illustration: My friend Allen Corben is a cool dude. We share a common faith, and I believe a common seminary degree. However, he and I do not line up a lot theologically. Allen is way more open and liberal than I will ever be. But the deal is, at the end of the day he and I can go sit down and break bread with one another because we allow room for the gray. He understands my conservative upbringing in Texas influenced me more than four years in SoCal. He also understands that the issues we are divided on are things fine under heterodoxy. They aren’t the essential matters…and there are essential matters. But if there ever came a time where Allen needed to be corrected because he wandered outside the line of even heterodoxy into heresy, or vice versa, the way we would handle the situation is more like Driscoll than MacArthur. We would invite conversation and not say, “You’re a bunch of idiots and going to hell.” The reason why? We’re actually about our brother and his salvation, and not being right.
* Probably, not actually, but I just kind of want, a modicum of understanding and an excuse to use the word modicum appropriately in my blog. Modicum. Also, Marky Mark, consider that your invitation for a free beer if you travel to Alabama to share it with me. Valid only through the month of November unless you do something else amazing soon.