Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I stopped crying when I was about twelve years old. I would play hide-n-go-seek-tag with my neighbors. The Older Girls developed a handicapping system for the little kids, so that they wouldn't be it for more than a round. I wasn't the fastest, but I was too old to get a handicap, so I would often be it for several rounds. Frustrated, I would cry. There were other things that I cried about that maybe I didn't need to. I was told to stop, that it was childish and annoying and manipulative and bratty. I suppose I've only cried twice since.

The two times that I've cried as an adult were similar. Both times, I was driving, and both times, I was feeling a certain kind of sad, and, both times, I had similar thoughts. The first time, I was driving home from the job I hated, going down I-95. I was listening to the pop radio station, and a treacly song came on, I think it was I'll Go Wherever You May Go, and I started tearing up, thinking about how God is with me everywhere and relates to me and feels with me. I went to the grocery store and bought a lot of Gatorade and Theraflu because it turned out that I had a very bad cold. I think it had put me in a weird mood.

The other time, I was driving up route 29 from Washington Bible College; I'd visited there for a one-day conference for Christian grad students and faculty in the area. Ike's job is to help start and coordinate ministries and communities for scholars. I have very good feelings about Ike, I look up to him a lot. He introduced me to Joe Versus the Volcano, one of my top 6 favorite movies. He's a geek like me, when he moved into his new house, he had a cabling party, and ran all sorts of cables, ethernet, phone, coaxial, all over the house, even into the bathrooms. He figured it's cheaper and easier to run a lot of cables now. If, in a few years, it would be handy to have a little robot in the bathroom that talks to the internet, it would be easy to just plug it into the wall.

After the conference, some of us went out to eat at a Mexican place; I'm pretty sure I had fajitas. I sat next to Ike. We talked about ADD and snoring and sleep apnea. We also talked about starting a grad fellowship at UMBC. Ike thought this was very important, and I did too.

After supper, I was feeling sad and guilty and I started thinking about how Ike was probably disappointed in me for not already starting a fellowship for grad students, or, at least, for not being more intentional in making friends with non-Christians in my department, to be able to communicate with them about faith. I don't think that Ike was actually disappointed in me, but, at the time, I was feeling very guilty. I wanted to impress Ike.

So, I was driving home, up route 29, and it started raining. I was feeling inadequate, worthless. Then, I started thinking about the stories in Luke 15 about the lost sheep, coin, and son. I was thinking about the lost sheep, about how the shepherd left behind ninety-nine sheep to rescue one sheep. I thought, "I'm like that one lost sheep, and God rescued me. God seems to be bad at math, in a very good way." And then I started crying.

I used to journal. I used the Mead composition books, the ones with the black and white splotchy covers. I gave titles to each journal. The first, starting right after the big snow, I called it "Engineering Life, The Universe, and Everything." The second was "Fish Stories". The third, starting a month or two after the second time I cried since I was a kid, I called "Lost sheep found". I only wrote 27 pages into it and stopped. When I started journaling, I thought that God was communicating with me in a personal way. I stopped journaling when I stopped feeling that way, that I had important personal spiritual insights.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Funny prayer voice

"Oh, God," (inhale) "we just wanna thank you, God," (inhale) "for bringing us together here, God," (inhale) "today," (inhale) "God." I don't know many people who pray like how they talk. I'd never say to a guest, "Oh, Gerald," (inhale) "I just wanna thank you, Gerald," (inhale) "just for coming over, Gerald," (inhale) "and eating nachos with me, Gerald," (inhale) "today, Gerald." I'm a pretty good prayer-in-public, I don't do the "just" thing, or the Lord-every-other-word thing, or the sharp inhale thing. However, when I talk I tend to talk very quickly, but when I pray, there are a lot of umms and ahhs and I'm slow and I try to load what I say with symbolism and I bet I sound very boring. I've had a lot of people tell me that they like it when they hear me pray, but I think that's due to our low expectations for coherent extemporaneous prayer.

I have friends who lead worship; a lot of them, when giving an intro to a song, sound completely different than when we're hanging out together. These are generally people who are decent public speakers, and they don't sound artificial when they're doing regular public speaking, but as soon as they're put in front of a group of people and they have to talk about how "we are in God's presence" or something like that, they fall apart.

In churches where they call the talky part of the service a "message" or a "talk" or a "pow-wow", the speaker tends to sound reasonably authentic. In churches where the talky part is called a sermon, the preacher's voice becomes strangely distorted, but not uniformly so. Some pastors who are ordinarily loud get very quiet, or vice-versa. Some pastors try to sound very soft-spoken, or some try to talk very quickly. I rarely hear sermons, though, where the speaker doesn't, at least at some point, speak with a strained voice, sounding like he might be picking up a heavy box or passing a bowel movement.

I think I've met one person who is capable of praying in his regular speaking voice. He would pray prayers like this. "Hi, Dad, what's up? We're hanging out at camp. Thanks for supper, it smells pretty good. We're pretty tired, so if you could help us wake up a little, that would rock. I love you. Amen."

Some friends invited me once to check out the jujitsu club at UMBC. I stuck around because it's a martial art that's designed for people who are kind of short and scrawny, like me. One of the things that is cool about jujitsu is that you can tell that you're doing a move wrong if you're straining or grunting. I find it very satisfying to practice a throw on a guy who is bigger and stronger than me; if I do the move right, it's effortless.

I've heard that master bricklayers can lay bricks much more quickly than their apprentices. The masters don't move extra fast, they simply lay the bricks very precisely, automatically; they don't spend as much time fixing mistakes and estimating and leveling and so on as the more junior bricklayers.

It's more important to pray to God in humility and hopefulness than it is to use the right words or spend a long time praying or to use a magic voice. God loves you and will give you what you need. You might need to accept that God isn't your manservant. You might need to accept that God's will is inscrutable, such that when you ask for something good, and the opposite happens, that doesn't mean that God doesn't love you, rather, he's working things out in an unimaginably good way for you.

When I was a kid, I learned three things about how to get what I needed from my parents.
1 Ask them.
2 Please and thank you are magic words.
3 Go to the less cranky parent.

I don't think that prayer needs to be any more complicated than that. There certainly isn't any Bible verse, "Yea, if thou prayest in a strained voice, verily thy Lord shall grant unto thee thy petition."

I know that all of these things about prayer and humility and acceptance and asking are the right answers, the answers that would earn me a gold star sticker on the chart in Sunday School. Prayer is a little off-putting because when I talk, God doesn't talk back in an audible voice. It's a bit more awkward when I pray and my prayer has no discernible effect on reality. The thing that I know for sure that prayer does for me is that it gives me that I've Prayed feeling; it's like the I Voted sticker. I wonder how much my funny prayer voice is spiritual passive-aggression; I'm a little annoyed at God for not being sensible, so I pray very slowly and deliberately, so that I'm sure to be praying in a way that I won't be misunderstood.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I spent a lot of time in the school library when I was in high school. I had an unreliable dial-up Internet connection at home, (boop boop boop)-boop boop boop-boop boop boop boop kshkshkshksh ptang ptang ptang kshkshkshksh, my parents wanted to avoid paying for Internet access, so we used NetZero, surfing the web with an adbar at the top of the screen for a maximum of forty hours a month. So, every morning during homeroom, I would get a hall pass and go to the library and use the computers there and check my email and play Tank Commander on Pogo.com.

My classmates enjoyed my theory about the library computers. (You must know that the computer desks in the library were quirky. They were glass and the monitor would sit underneath, so, rather than the monitor being at eye level, one had to look down through the desk at the screen.) I suggested that the glass desks with the monitors underneath, sitting in neat rows in the library, were actually an array of lasers designed to annihilate Soviet satellites. For this laser bank to be useful, of course, the library needed a hinged roof that could open to expose the laser monitors as the enemy satellites would pass overhead; this secretly hinged roof would prevent our enemies from finding our secret laser battery.

People would ask me questions about the hinges and the lasers and whether the Soviets were still active at the end of the nineties, when I was in high school, and I would contrive answers to keep the story afloat. It was a great conspiracy theory in that we all felt that it explained some things about the deviousness of our school establishment, it captured our sentiment and expressed our shared symbols and values, with the advantage that none of us actually believed the story about the hinges, and, thus, suffered none of the ill effects that accompany delusion.

I would go to the library at other times, too. The library was where you would go if your parents didn't sign the permission slip saying that you could be exposed to controversial course material. For example, my parents pulled me from health class for the unit on human reproduction and sexuality, and so I sat in the library, alone or perhaps with one classmate, and did bookwork instead.

My English teacher transcended her humanity and represented all of secular culture to me, a conservative Christian kid who had been homeschooled. People like her are the reason that devout Christian parents send their kids to Christian colleges and teach them about having a Christian worldview. One time, my teacher wanted to show The Breakfast Club, an R-rated movie, in class, during our unit on "Young Adult Literature", and Mike the Jehovah's Witness and Dave the Baptist and I sat in the library and had to read a short story about an Asian teenage boy dealing with issues of race and generational difference with his parents, and then we each had to write our own continuation of this story. We were in the honors class; the students in the next-most-prestigious English class got to watch Star Wars.

My English teacher also had us read Of Mice and Men, which supports euthanasia. Another time, she taught us about ethics. We had to consider, for example, a situation in which there are ten people in a cave, and they're trying to get out, and the fattest goes first and obstructs the opening to the cave and cannot be extracted from said opening. Would the people in the cave be justified in blowing him up with a stick of dynamite if it were necessary for their escape, supposing they would die of hunger in the cave, otherwise? We had to write essays giving our opinions on such contrived scenarios. I had been taught, in my Christian worldview education, to be wary of such lessons, because they are designed to erode belief in an absolute moral truth.

Basically everyone agrees that my high school's library doesn't have hinges on the roof for the anti-Soviet satellite lasers. Basically everyone agrees that water flows downhill and the earth is round and Amway is a scam. I dismiss flat-earthers out of hand; I don't even trouble with rhetoric. So many people believe so many wacky little things that it's not worth the time, generally, to investigate something that only a few people believe. Most people aren't existentially troubled by Jehovah's Witnesses because they know that the Jehovah's Witnesses are a cult and there are oodles of cults, and they can't all be right and it's not worth the effort to do a lot of research on every cult that exists to see if it might be right, so it's probably not worthwhile to investigate the beliefs of just one cult to see if that one happens to be the lucky one. I'm not saying that the majority's always right, but it's often passably close enough to being correct.

Growing up, I had many opinions that conflicted with the majority viewpoints in American culture, I was pro-life and creationist and anti-feminist. I didn't have many opinions that diverged from those of Dr James Dobson of Focus on the Family. I felt like I was part of a persecuted minority as an evangelical. The persecution was minimal, but evangelicals who take stances as extreme as mine are, indeed, a minority among Americans.

People are biased and easily swayed and duped; when we form opinions, our attitudes and desires play as much of a role as observation and reason, but I like to think that I'm better than average at observing and reasoning and being impartial. I bet you feel the same way about yourself. I bet most people do.

I'm a vegetarian, and not just to be stylish. I object to the way in which animal agriculture is conducted in America. Most people aren't vegetarians, and I think I need a good reason to justify to myself why my minority viewpoint isn't a wacky one like belief that colonic irrigation is helpful. I've looked into how animals are treated on farms, and it's bad in a handful of ways, and I think that if most people knew how we treat animals, they wouldn't eat meat, either, unless the conditions would improve. I think that most people are uninformed about the horrors of modern mass animal agriculture. The only pop culture reference to factory farms, that I can think of, is the scene in Napoleon Dynamite in which Napoleon works at moving chickens from one cage to another.

When I believe something unusual, but I know that it's because I happen to have some extra information, I can understand why people would disagree with me. As a creationist, I had trouble believing that evolution is a false but popular belief simply driven by factual errors. I knew that most biologists are evolutionists, and that they are more educated than I was. I needed a way to distrust them to be justified in disagreeing with them. I needed to believe that evolutionists believed in evolution because they were rebellious and wanted to avoid God. I needed quotes like this one by George Wald:
"There are only two possibilities as to how life arose. One is spontaneous generation arising to evolution; the other is a supernatural creative act of God. There is no third possibility. Spontaneous generation, that life arose from non-living matter was scientifically disproved 120 years ago by Louis Pasteur and others. That leaves us with the only possible conclusion that life arose as a supernatural creative act of God. I will not accept that philosophically because I do not want to believe in God. Therefore, I choose to believe in that which I know is scientifically impossible; spontaneous generation arising to evolution."
(Wald, George, "Innovation and Biology," Scientific American, Vol. 199, Sept. 1958, p. 100) [It turns out that this quote is fake. I had seen it as a creationist and it was important to my thinking, though.]

I grew up in an environment that distrusted the majority. I remember one gathering of homeschooling families, at which some kids taught others to make fortune tellers; my parents don't mind fortune tellers, but some of the other parents were afraid their children would become occultists, and there was a brouhaha. On the other hand, I wasn't allowed to watch Captain Planet or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because they espoused eastern mysticism. Before I saw Pochahontas, I was given a disclaimer that trees and rocks do not, in fact, have spirits in them.

I dismissed the pro-choice movement as a bunch of eugenicists who wanted "sexual freedom" outside the confines of marriage. I saw feminists as women who just wanted to push men down out of greed and thirst for power. I believed that Catholics and Muslims were basically hell-bound, they chose wrong beliefs because they were trying to earn their salvation by works, they wanted a sense of ownership of their destiny. Hindus were right out.

I am the oldest of six kids; the next oldest is Spencer. He told me tonight that he used to think that people with acne had it because they had AIDS; we were under the strong impression that people with AIDS got it from having sex outside of holy matrimony. I'm glad that Spencer was corrected about the cause of acne before I had my first outbreak.

Growing up, we were taught that our media is driven by things that are cheap and corrupting, and we were banned from watching The Simpsons and The Golden Girls as a result. I didn't even want to watch The Golden Girls, but we had a rule against it just in case. We were encouraged to listen to Christian rock instead of secular rock.

One time, Spencer was at a friend's house, the friend happened to be the son of our pastor. He played "All the Small Things" by Blink-182 for Spencer, he'd downloaded it off of Napster. Listening to it, Spencer thought, "There's not a single bad thing in this." He realized that he'd been taught to distrust secular music, as a uniformly corrupting influence, and he thought that maybe it's not as bad as he had been told. He downloaded a lot of songs on Kazaa, (boop boop boop)-boop boop boop-boop boop boop boop kshkshkshksh ptang ptang ptang kshkshkshksh; that's how I got introduced to the Barenaked Ladies. Spencer had been previously satisfied with Christian music, but, comparing it with the mainstream music, he realized it wasn't nearly as good. He noticed and reconsidered other ways in which he had been taught to disagree with mainstream culture, and it wasn't long after that that he stopped believing in God altogether.

The summer after I had my big existential crisis in which I got a haircut and a cellphone and became a vegetarian, I realized that I had drifted, over the previous two years, from being an avid young earth creationist to not caring very much one way or another about evolution. I went to the library and got a big stack of books about evolution, written from various perspectives. I was in the mood for change.

People trust the beliefs of their own tribe over those of another tribe, even if they don't have any good reason to think that their tribe is more honest or better at logic. When Spencer started listening to secular music, he was learning this. My problems with anxiety, and my realization that I had faulty motives for having long hair and not having a cell phone and so on, led me to trusting myself less, in a good way. I was humbler. I am prone to thinking that my opinion is correct simply because it's mine, I suppose a lot of people are like this, but at that point in my life, this tendency was weaker. I had trusted myself a lot when it came to having opinions about politics and doctrine and evolution, and I found that trust in myself to be limiting because it could only be as big as me. I wanted to find something else that I could trust, with more insight than myself about these things.

I read the big stack of books about evolution. I realized that the scientific community strongly affirms that the universe is very old and that there's a fossil record that's consistent with evolution and that biology has some good answers about where the first cell came from and how mutations occur and percolate through populations. What was more important to me, I think, was that I stopped seeing the scientific community as having insidious immoral ambitions; I saw no signs of a mass conspiracy to hush creationists so that abortions and gay marriages can be so common as to be passe. I started believing in evolution, and not even liking that word "believing" in "believing in evolution" because evolution is scientific and I don't talk about believing in gravity or neutrons. I had changed my opinion about evolution because I figured that the scientific community is more trustworthy than my own intuition when it comes to things that I'm not an expert on. I was looking for experts on other things too, like how babies should be baptized and how miracles work and how to become holy and why a lot of my fellow Christians act like wingnuts and how I could know that I'm not a wingnut.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


I figured I should probably get a haircut and buy a cell phone to treat my problems with anxiety. At that point in my life, I had long hair, down past my shoulders. It was named Rodolfo. I hadn't cut it since the start of the summer I spent in Philadelphia, teaching kids to eat vegetables, this was a novel idea to them. I suppose that I had grown the long hair to make a statement, but I still don't know what that statement was supposed to be. I think it looked like the sort of hair that someone who cared about social justice might have, and I wanted to care about social justice.

I didn't own a cell phone because of a story my dad tells. He talks about how, back when people wrote with quill pens, a writer would have to take a break at the end of writing a line to dip the pen in an inkwell. During this little break, just a fraction of a second of not-writing, the writer would have rest. Ever since we started using ball-point pens we would just keep writing, and we lost that little bit of rest. It used to be that you had a break in dealing with someone as you waited for your letter to get to them and theirs to get to you, and telegraphs took that break away. You could have a break from answering the phone if you were away from home, until cell phones were invented. Now, people are expected to be available, on the phone, at all times. I would tell this story whenever I would explain why I didn't have a cell phone.

It's a nice story to tell while at a party or while driving around with a friend, it's a meaningful story about how technology changes our lives.

I was feeling anxious, I had had problems with anxiety for almost a year, so I looked up anxiety about Wikipedia and I found a related article about existential angst and decided that that's what was bothering me: I was overwhelmed with how to be defined, how to have an identity. I realized that I was telling the story about the cell phones and quill pens not because I didn't want a cell phone, but because I liked telling the story. Actually, I didn't even like the story that much, but I was afraid that if I got a cell phone, everyone that I had told the story to would think I'm inauthentic, which is a big word for fake.

My hair, Rodolfo, got a lot of attention, and I was afraid that if I cut it, people might not recognize me. I mean, my friends would be able to tell that it's still me, by my prominent nose and well-defined cheekbones, I wasn't afraid that I'd walk in the door and people wouldn't know that I'm Alex; I was afraid that people would stop giving me the extra attention for having my friend, Rodolfo, living on top of my head.

Not only that, but a couple of people had given me negative comments about Rodolfo, saying that he was unkempt, which he was. I didn't want to keep the hair, it was a big tangled mat but I didn't want to admit that I didn't actually like my long hair anymore.

Previously, I had been in a Bible study with Rodolfo's most ardent critic, Alan; we were studying faith. I complained that I didn't feel like I knew how to make friends with non-Christians. Do they have parties or something? Alan told me, "Dude, it's no big deal, just wander around the apartments, walk in one with an open door, and grab a cup." "Do I need to bring anything?" "Nah, dude, just show up." Alan calls everyone dude.

(You must understand that at UMBC, the apartments have an ill reputation. The students who live in apartments move in on the day before the semester starts, they move in on a Tuesday morning. By Tuesday night at nine, an ambulance has arrived to give a student a ride to St Agnes Hospital for treatment for alcohol poisoning. The apartments are three-storey brick structures that were constructed as "temporary buildings" four decades ago. I was bewildered as to why anyone would want to live in them until I realized that rules against underage drinking and public debauchery are more thoroughly enforced in the dorms than in the apartments.)

I figured the only way to deal with my anxiety about what everyone, including Alan, thought of Rodolfo was to get a haircut. I donated Rodolfo to Locks of Love; I'm sure there is a child somewhere with a wig with many split ends. Sure enough, no one, not even Alan, hassled me about changing my mind about Rodolfo's merits.

I bought a cell phone, a cheap Virgin Mobile with a pay-as-you-go plan, I wasn't sure what would happen if I bought a cell phone. I didn't want to sign a contract on a new lifestyle.

I was realizing that a lot of the things I was doing, I wasn't doing because I liked them, but precisely because they made me anxious: I had some anxiety with Rodolfo on my head, but just thinking about Rodolfo, to the point where I could decide what to do with him, made me more anxious. I was enduring two dozen sources of anxiety in my life, rather than asking what to do with them one by one.

My existential crisis started with cheap things, like buying a cell phone and donating Rodolfo to an alopecia patient, but as I realized that I liked having a cell phone and that I liked not having a spare identity as a hat, I might want to try some new things and abandon some old things. I felt release and relief as I took these small, concrete steps, and I wanted more freedom.


At this point in my life, I would often walk around on the hills of our campus to talk to God. Our campus has a lot of hills. I would walk up the hill with a lot of fear or frustration and confusion, and walk down the hill with some sort of peace and direction, with prayer happening in the middle.

Late one Friday night, a little before midnight, during this existential crisis, I decided to wander around the apartments. I had planned on walking up one of my regular hills, but I thought that, perhaps, as I was rethinking my place in the universe, I might try something different, I might try Alan's idea of getting to know non-Christians by finding them in their natural habitat. I might get some enlightenment that way.

Out front of one apartment, I ran into a guy who I'd seen perform at a big theater event at UMBC. I'd heard from a friend in his major that he'd recently gotten rejected for an honor in the theater department. He's very talented as an actor, but, the word is, he didn't do much bookwork and that cost him. I said hi to him, but he had had a couple of drinks and just grinned and laughed a lot.

Another guy offered me some Pabst Blue Ribbon. I was underage at this point. Other beers, I knew from television commercials. All that I knew of Pabst Blue Ribbon is what a friend from California had told me, that PBR is not so much a drinking beer as a get-drunk beer. This guy, offering me the beer, was yelling about how he was going to get totally wasted, as if this was a good thing. He was very excited, but I don't know that he was happy.

I never entered any of the apartments that night, I just wandered around, watching people, and feeling painfully confused. Who was I, really? What does that mean? Why is that picnic table upside down? What should my job be? Where should I live? Who should my friends be?

The apartments are on a woody hill, and there is a clearing in the center of several of them, a little service road forms a circle in this area. There are some grills, not good grills, the sort of grills you see at state parks, grills designed for unstealability. People would occasionally grill hot dogs out there. The RA's would give you charcoal if you asked. People would sit at picnic tables and eat food that was rarely any better than the dining hall would make it, and for more trouble, they would do this to have the experience of a cook-out.

I sat at one of the picnic tables, the other was upside down. A student walked up near me, stumbling. I know a trick to help with talking to strangers: when they ask you how you're doing, you tell them the truth. That's how the conversation with Rob began. I asked him how he was doing, as he hobbled, swaying, past my picnic table, and he said "Fine, how are you?" and I said, "I don't know. I'm doing a lot of things because I thought my friends want me to rather than because I really want to, and I feel anxious and I don't know what to do."

"So get new friends," he said, sitting down. He was rambling, he'd start sentences and trail off before he started the predicate. "That picnic table, why is it upside down?" I had seen the upside down picnic table before, but not really noticed it, I just assumed it was inverted in some frat boy prank.

In InterVarsity, I learned that it's best not to evangelize by telling people up front that they're sinners and need to accept Jesus to be saved. It's better to make friends with them, and learn to care about them. Then, eventually, somehow, they realize that your love is truly Christian charity, or they see that you're a good example, or they ask you questions or you ask them questions, and they realize they're in need of a relationship with Jesus. They might not realize that they need Jesus to atone for their sins, they might just need Jesus to help them on this next exam, that's okay. I had tried every form of evangelism that didn't require friendship with the subject; I figured I would try making friends, and not worry about immediate results and see what happened.

Following good evangelism technique, I sat and listened to drunk Rob rambling. After a while, another walked up, Lisa. She had tattoos and wore a bandana and had a nose ring. I could tell that she cared about social justice. She was an environmentalist.

I was trying to get Rob to talk about God and Lisa told me about how she doesn't think that God is this man in the sky, she thinks that God is in everything, there's God in you and me and animals and plants and rocks. She told me that when she feels lonely, she goes outside and finds a tree to talk to.

She told us about how she's a vegetarian, she doesn't want to eat other living beings. I asked her about free range chicken and she said, "Sometimes, free range isn't so free range." She explained that chickens are raised in barns with no room to move around, the barns would just have one window, and that that these chickens are sold as "free range". They have their beaks cut off so they don't peck each other to death.

"Why would anyone do that to chickens?" I asked. "Why don't more people care?" asked Lisa. "And why is that picnic table upside down?" asked Rob.

Our conversations meandered. I was uncomfortable. I was talking with two non-Christians at the apartments, in the middle of the night, and I didn't know what to say to them, let alone what to do about my own problems. Rob got up several times that night to go pee, not in a bathroom, he'd pee on the closest tree.

Sometimes, while sitting with us, he'd slip his hand down his trousers, as if he forgot that Lisa and I were there, or as if he knew and didn't care. I didn't know what to say about that.

Lisa was telling us about how beautiful it is that everything is connected, everything has God in it. She told us about dolphins. "Dolphins are $&*@ing smart." Rob said, displaying his Discovery Channel knowledge of marine mammals. Lisa told us about how dolphins have rescued swimmers, how they like swimming with people. She told us that sometimes dolphins have sex with people. "So, like, a girl dolphin can get a guy off?" Rob asked, enthused. Lisa told Rob about the ways in which sex with dolphins is better than sex with people.

I asked Lisa what she thought of Jesus. "I don't think he was the son of God or anything," then, her eyes lit up, "I think he was a revolutionary!"

We kept talking, until it started to get light, it wasn't so much a sunrise as the whole dome of the sky getting brighter. We asked big questions together. How do we know what right and wrong are? Who is God? Why is that picnic table upside down? Who is Jesus? Who am I? What should I be up to?

A couple of weeks later, I drank my first bottle of beer on my twenty-first birthday. A month after that, I became a vegetarian. I found that Rob had some good advice for me, too, "Get new friends." I was a lot less anxious.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Whole Gospel

Pretty quickly after I began my studies at UMBC, I got involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. By pretty quickly, I mean I was rescued from the charismatic fellowship two weeks into the semester, and, by rescued, I mean I don't know how long I could have been a part of a group where my inability to cry on cue would have been distractingly conspicuous.

In my teenage years, I got it in my head that real Christians read at least a chapter of the Bible each day and take some personal time for prayer. That had never been a habit for me, and I'd felt guilty as a result, just not guilty enough to actually have strong personal spiritual practice. When I got to UMBC, I decided that I would get a fresh start, I would make it part of my college student routine to read the Bible before bed. I figured I would start by reading the book of Daniel, because it's basically about a Christian student at a non-Christian university. I think I made it seven chapters into Daniel before I gave out. I didn't intentionally quit, it's just that the only thing that resembled a routine for me in college was watching Futurama.

The idea that God exists was very important to me, but I couldn't make myself care about personal spiritual practice. I was raised Presbyterian, so I was taught very emphatically that salvation is by grace alone, that there is nothing I can do to merit salvation. I was also taught a lot of rules, which I found confusing, because I thought the grace was supposed to be enough. I was told that the rules weren't what saved you, but that they were a sign of God's work in your life. I worked very hard not to break any of the rules so as to prove God's work in my life, but I didn't know what else I was supposed to do. Personal spiritual practice didn't seem important to me, because I was good enough at keeping rules and believing in God without it.

I played a lot of StarCraft.

I majored in engineering because I like math, but I wanted to get a good job without going to grad school. I figured I would move to Australia after I graduated. I like Australia, I wrote a report on it when I was twelve. I had heard that engineers are in strong demand in Australia. I also heard that a lot of Australians aren't religious, so I could evangelize in my off-time.

It was important to me to be a part of InterVarsity, partly because I felt obligated to be involved in the sorts of things that it does, evangelism, Bible study, and so on. I think I was driven to be involved with IV to a big extent because I didn't know how to be friends with non-Christians. I got along well with my less devout classmates, but we'd never hang out on Friday night and order pizza.

February, that year, I went to a conference with IV; the theme was "The Whole Gospel". I didn't know what that meant, I just knew that it was an IV thing and I was involved with IV, so I went. I rode with my small group, crammed into a Subaru Outback, driving into the middle of the woods because that is where spiritual things happen.

The speaker at that conference was Jimmy McGee. He explained that in the 19th century, there was a fracturing in the church between people proclaiming a sort of evangelical gospel of "believe and be saved" and those who said that the church shouldn't worry so much about evangelism, and that feeding the hungry and healing the sick is more important. He said that both are important. Jimmy talked a lot about how, in the United States, white people did terrible things, not just to the slaves in the South, but to the native Americans and to the Chinese railroad workers and the Hawaiians. He talked about how Christians should look for peace, but what Americans often mean by peace is often a mere lack of conflict; Jimmy called for a more Judaic concept of peace, shalom, community wholeness.

The conference was supposed to last until Sunday at lunchtime, but we left late on Saturday night; snow was already falling, and we didn't want to be stuck in the middle of the woods.

The next morning, we all slogged through snow to the dining hall for brunch. I was surprised to see that we were to eat off of cardboard trays and paper plates and plastic forks. The dining hall was in crisis; they seemed short-staffed.

We IV folk hung out together all day, playing Monopoly and telling stories. That night, sitting in the lobby of Chesapeake Hall, we saw about a dozen dining services workers walk in the door, planning on sleeping on the lobby couches. At UMBC, a lot of the people who do janitorial or food services work are bussed in from the city, but the snow shut down the busses. A lot of workers didn't show up that Sunday, out of fear of getting snowed in on campus; those who did show up would be stuck until the plows came.

At the conference, Jimmy had said, "I am not at peace if my community is not at peace." and that phrase was echoing in my mind; I'm sure Jimmy's teaching had affected the others in the fellowship, too. One person gave a couple of tubes of toothpaste, another, some spare bars of soap, and so on. One guy offered his only blanket off his bed. (It turned out that there were spare bedrooms and bedding for the workers.)

The next day, for each meal, we would go to the dining hall an hour before it was supposed to close, eat, then help the workers clean up. We did simple things to help out, we arranged chairs and refilled ketchup bottles. I was taught how to mop properly by the head of dining services. We did this again the day after that.

We were written about in the school newspaper, and I resented that, I think most of us did; we didn't help out in order to get attention. The dining services company offered us some sort of a reward, like a pizza party or something; we declined, and requested that a gift be made to a homeless shelter or food pantry. We didn't help out in order to get free food.

I started picking up trash on the ground, whenever I saw it. I knew it was somebody's job, and each time I would pick up a piece of garbage, I would say under my breath to myself, "I am not at peace if my community is not at peace." I got to know the people who would pick trash off the ground, but I had trouble making friends with them; we never hung out on Friday night and ate pizza. I don't think I knew how to be friends with janitors.

I went through a phase in which I didn't want to call myself a Christian. I saw the church I grew up in as materialistic and uncaring, and I didn't want to be associated with an uncaring movement; heck, I didn't want Jesus to be associated with the church. I believed that a revolution was imminent. The idea of social injustice was new to me, so I thought it was new to the whole church.

One of my small group leaders led the 30 Hour Famine at the start of spring break. A lot of stories about hunger and poverty were told, but what stuck in my head were numbers:
3 billion people live on $2 a day
1 billion people live on $1 a day
29,000 kids die every day from hunger and preventable disease.

I started doing calculations on my purchases; I had just bought Pokémon Ruby for $35 or so; was that worth not feeding someone for a month? I had taken an economics course a couple of years before, in which I learned about scarcity and opportunity cost: the choice isn't simply give or don't give, it's give to people and give up stuff for myself. I felt greedy eating food much fancier than beans and rice, but not guilty enough to change my lifestyle.

I spent that summer in Philadelphia, working at a day camp for poor kids. One day, coming off the subway, going home, my friends and I were stopped by a homeless man named Seth; he grabbed me by the hand, he needed help. He didn't have legs. We couldn't make out what he was saying, on account of his lack of teeth. He was saying something about the Poconos. One of us had some oranges left over from lunch, so we gave those to him, we figured he could eat oranges. As we walked home from the subway station, I thought, "I just held the hand of Jesus."

When I got home from Philadelphia, I was irate at how my church was operating. There was little discussion of missions, not much of poverty; what talk there was, was of short-term mission trips. By this time, I had become distrustful of the ways in which Christians talk themselves out of doing the very hard but good things. I saw things like short-term missions programs as inoculation against doing real missions work. I quit and joined a Mennonite church.

Most of the time, when someone honks a car horn, they do so out of indignation, having gotten cut off or something. One time, I was driving, and the red car ahead of me was stuck right behind an ice cream truck going at fifteen miles per hour; this red car crossed double yellow lines to pass the ice cream truck. I honked. I wasn't inconvenienced, I honked because the red car broke the rules. I cared more about the rules than I did about the driver of the ice cream truck or the driver of the red car.

When I realized how deep suffering is in the world, I wondered what was wrong with the church, my culture, or me; I lost trust in all three. I was more upset that things were not as they should be than I was sympathetic towards the actual people who are suffering.

For me, over the course of about a year, living as a Christian went from not breaking rules to being concerned with people, and I'm glad for that change. I had many dishonest thoughts, then, thinking that I was the only true Christian around, that everyone else was a sell-out; I feel more like this was adolescence rather than spite.

There was something in all of this that was dangerous for me. Growing up, I had felt overwhelmed by the idea of God, and didn't know what a relationship between any human and God could mean. I didn't know exactly what to do with God. In learning about social justice, I got no answers, I just found one more way in which God was befuddling for me; either the world is basically a bad place, or the church is basically too frail or too corrupt to remedy injustice. Regardless, God set things up in the first place, so there had to be some meaning in dealing with injustice. I felt like I was nowhere near living up to the divine standards because I still had sneakers and there are a lot of people who don't. I felt like there was something big having to do with God that I was missing, but, evidently, so was everyone else around me.

For all of my immaturity, I went from being apathetic to devout. I was reading the Bible a lot, praying, sometimes for hours, I would go for walks and have God on my mind the whole time.