Trying to live love well through the power of the Everlasting.
So today was a pretty big day, because the Kindle Fire that I bought with the Amazon gift card my parents got me came in. I had just enough time before work to turn it on, fiddle with it for a minute, and then plug it in to charge until I got back. After work was done, I was listening to a hockey game in the living room on it (proud member of the Sens Army here) and my family was huddled around while we tested the Kindle Fire’s performance. Thus it was that my sister, her husband, and their three children found us when they unexpectedly walked through the door.
We nearly died. Christmas had come and gone without us meeting our new nephew Levi, or seeing our sister and her family. We grudgingly accepted that we’d have to wait a few more months before we got to see everyone again, and then they walked through our door, here for the New Year’s weekend. It was… awesome. My nieces (twins!) are walking all over the place, and though their verbal vocabulary isn’t quite there, they’ve learned how to sign a rather impressive number of things, and being able to communicate with them is blowing my mind.
My sister looks great, as does my brother-in-law, and it’s great to see them again.
But of course, what I was the most excited about was meeting my new nephew, Levi. The little guy has a surprising ability to seize my heart, and it’s a feeling I just can’t get enough of. Of course, I didn’t get to see him much at first – grandma and the aunts are rather greedy when it comes to babies in this house – but I wasn’t too concerned, because I have a superpower:
I am *amazing* at handling babies.
Seriously, I’m awesome at it. I used to work at a resort where families would come and spend the week for their vacation, and every Sunday I would volunteer in the infant nursery during the chapel service. The workers would always be overrun with screaming babies, and I’d walk through the door and they’d say, “Oh thank God! Here – this one’s crying the worst, see what you can do!” I walk with them, cradle them close, sing to them softly, etc. and sure enough, without fail, the baby falls asleep.
It’s a gift.
There’s something about my body core (I’m like a furnace, it’s weird) and the way that babies can fit so neatly right into the nook of my neck and rest on my shoulder… something about it, it’s magic. I’ve never met a baby that I couldnt handle, and I’ve met a large amount of babies. Between the resort, working at a daycare in college, and having eight brothers and sisters… yeah, I’ve fine-tuned my gift a bit. I’m an exhausted parent’s secret weapon. Just get ’em to Ethan, and you’re home free.
So I was patient while Levi was passed around to everyone else, because I knew that soon enough I’d have him. And boy howdy*, was I right! For the better part of two hours tonight I had Levi, tucked up on my shoulder, sleeping soundly. The instant anyone tried to take him, well, no way. He’d wake up. Back to Ethan he went, and within a minute he’d be sleeping again. And as he slept on my chest, I watched his sisters playing on the floor and throwing beautiful glances my way every now and then. I felt ready to burst with the love I had for this little guy and his sisters. I was so thankful for family, for new beginnings, and for Papa’s faithfulness.
Across the room, my Kindle Fire lay quite forgotten. I couldn’t care less. When I finally handed the little guy off to my sister as he went to bed, I had a sweat stain on my shoulder that seeped through three shirts to the skin underneath, and there was a river of drool on my neck. I shrugged, wiped it casually off, and smiled. I don’t care if the kid soaks me to the bone, I’ll hold him any ol’ time his mom asks me.
I can’t think of a better way to bring in the new year than meeting my nephew.
*I’ve become obsessed with the 1960s TV show “The Big Valley” and I’m watching it constantly. I’ve kind of got an enormous crush on Heath Barkley, and he uses the phrase “boy howdy!” rather a lot. I’ve decided to shamelessly follow suit. Yes, I realize this makes me a dork. That’s okay though; I’m a single, gay, Christian 27 year old with no prospects of meeting an interested, single, gay, Christian guy anytime soon, so I’m fully embracing this TV crush.
So I’ve been tripping all over myself lately in almost all aspects of my life, and I’ve known it. It’s been a weird month or so, and things have just been off, and for a whole host of reasons (but mostly discontentment) I just didn’t deal with it. But then I read two posts by a couple of smart guys, located here and here, and the Spirit of the Living God tapped my heart and was like, “So… you ready to talk yet?”
And I was like… “Ugh. No.”
Then about ten minutes later, I was like, “Er, I’m sorry. Yes.”
And the spirit of the talk/prayer, I think, can really be captured in this prayer by John Wesley:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt,
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven.
From John Wesley’s Covenant Service
So for as long as I can remember, I’ve had people speaking greatness into my life.
“Ethan, you’re destined for great things.”
“Ethan, I just know you’re going to be big someday.”
“Ethan, you have a calling on your life. A big one.”
“Ethan, when you were a baby, a woman had a prophecy that you would be a great prophet of God.”
It’s not always phrased the same, but ultimately the same meaning shines through: I’m supposed to become or do something significant. Something big. Sunday School teachers, high school teachers, pastors, friends, family members, even strangers. I used to roll my eyes at them, and then somewhere along the way my ego decided that I liked hearing that. It made me feel important. It made me feel superior.
Quite frankly, it made me an ugly person.
Not that it’s their fault, really, or that I can lay the blame at the feet of others. Circumstance may have paved the road a bit, but the choices I made were just that: choices that I made. Bad ones. Lots of ’em. But by the grace of the Living God, that’s not how my life will be defined. Not in his eyes, at least, and thankfully that’s where my identity comes from.
But I’m finding more and more just how far I let those praises penetrate and permeate. Each new day brings the same monotonous routine, working a low-paying job in this small town, far away from my dreams and desires. It’s true, I can only blame myself for these circumstances, and I know that Papa can and will use these days for the glory of his name. But somewhere in the routine, about once a week or so, that old familiar thought will creep into the back of my mind.
You’re so much more than this. Look at what you are capable of! You can be great. You should be great. You need to get out of here, as fast as possible, before the prime years of your life are wasted. Ah! What a shame! You could be an earth-shaker… everyone in your life says so, you know. “Marked for greatness.” Yessir, that’s what they say. If only God would remember and get a move on!
These thoughts are always accompanied by delusions of grandeur from my past: an internationally known pastor, speaker, and author. A humanitarian aid worker. An actor, A-list of course, bringing a breath of fresh air into Hollywood as a comfortably unashamed gay Christian, a voice of love, mercy, and goodwill. A politician, free of corruption and blazing his way towards a nation worth being called the home of the free. Oh, there’ll be books about me! Documentaries! Nobel prizes! Senate seats! An Oscar! Oh, the talk show interviews! The GQ cover!
As you can see, I’m extremely humble. Modest to a fault, that’s me.
The point is, these are the thoughts that drove me in the past. So many of my most despicable sins were committed in the pursuit of the greatness the I was apparently born to fill. Time and the Holy Spirit have done quite a bit of pruning, thankfully, so that through the power of Jesus Christ I’m usually able to speak the Father’s glory into the heart of that nagging voice tempting me towards the greatness of Ethan M. Thomas. Speaking the Father’s glory into the situation, you see, seizes up my heart and the Spirit rolls me over with a desire to see Christ lifted high. Now that, from what I was, is a testament to the transformative power of the gospel.
So what’s the point of all this?
I’m wondering just what the future holds for me. See? I’m still a bit self-centered. I’m still human, then. But some days I can’t help but wonder: does God have me marked for something, or were those just the wishful praises of people who loved a boy that knew how to put on a good show? Gifted with a good mind, certainly, and capable of charming people deeply, sure, but was that it? When I graduated from high school, I certainly looked like I had a rocket strapped to my back. A high GPA, graduating with honors, chosen to give the graduation speech, etc. I had a great smile, a pleasing disposition, and a gift for manipulation. So was all that talk about greatness tied into the front that I maintained, or is it more? Something deeper?
I take much of what I read in the books of the Bible with a dose of skepticism, not because I don’t value the scriptures, but because I don’t believe that they are iron-clad, be-all end-alls for Christian living. Guidelines is a term I often use. A way to engage in the story of God in a way that takes us outside of ourselves. So in that light, when I read many stories of characters mentioned in the books of the Bible, I often find a sense of greatness attached to the character from the outset. There could be a million reasons for that, but I was raised in a conservative household that believed in Biblical inerrancy, and so often in my weaker meditations I find myself defaulting to that.
And what it it’s true? What if these men and women actually existed, actually lived out their lives, and were actually marked with greatness from their very births, so much so that they were named with that expecation of greatness? What then? Could pastors, friends, and family members have tapped into something deeper when they predicted a great calling on me?
Such thoughts go round and round throughout my head as I try to make out even a hazy outline of my future. A betrayal of my monstrous ego, I think, but at the same time… I’m human. I’m a 27 year old guy wondering where I go from here. I live in a society that values success, and measures it through accomplishments. So in the inevitable times that I forget to let the Living God define me, I measure myself by the standard of the world I live in. I measure myself through the dreams of greatness that I once had for my name.
Well, by those standards, I’m a loser.
A big one.
And so the big struggle for me, in this season of my life, is remembering just where my identity comes from, and just how success is measured by my Heavenly Father.
I’ve found comfort in the story of Moses. There we have a young man – a young prince – destined for greatness. The Hebrews apparently thought so, and the Egyptians as well. After all, when you’re a part of the Royal Family, a great destiny is just kind of assumed, isn’t it? But through his own actions, Moses disqualifies himself and is brought low: from a royal prince in the ancient world’s superpower to a shepherd in, essentially, the wilderness.
I can kind of relate to that.
Moses’ bubble was popped. His eyes were opened, somewhere in all that, to the Living God. Moses went from, I think, a young man obsessed with the greatness of his own name to a man seeking the glory of the Father’s name, through whatever means the Father chose.
Of course, this transition took the entirity of Moses’ lifetime, and even at the end there was obviously still some work to be done.
I’m encouraged by Moses and his life as documented in the scriptures. Not because I think that I’m going to be a Moses or anything like that, but because I’m reminded that when we start to call valuable that which God calls valuable, we change. We can stop being spoiled, pampered princes and start becoming great workers for our King. I can cease to be obsessed with the glory that I can try to achieve for myself in a quick seventy years (if I’m lucky) and start thinking about how and where God can use me as he writes the story, for the glory of his name.
So when I think about the story of Moses, I know that I can get up and go to work at my seemingly meaningless job in my tiny, obscure town tomorrow, and the day after that, even if it lasts upwards of forty years. I believe that God’s doing something with the life I live in the meantime. And even if the call never comes to go to Egypt and do great things for the glory of the Father, I can know that I’m much better off this way than if I had twenty Oscars, various estates, the Oval Office, and a Nobel Peace Prize all for the greatness of me.
Because as I begin to value that which Papa values, I begin to see success as something entirely different than I ever have before.
So after I wrote through my feelings and thoughts about this Christmas season, I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on where I had ended up: namely, the desire to recapture Christmas, even if only in my own heart and mind, as a time to focus on the aspect of Immanuel. God with us. And from there, to filter this Christmas season (and others to come) through what that means. The Living God, with us? A God that cares about people, and has a heart for the ones that slip between the cracks? My head was full of the implications, but my resources allowed very little of my thoughts to actually become practical actions. It was kind of disheartening, but at the same time uplifting. My perspective had been widened; my heart no longer focused on the sad and (in my view) unjust aspects of Christmas in my communities, but instead on the hope that the gospel has for loving and healing change for all of us and our messed up (however well-intentioned) systems.
So on Christmas Eve, as I went to work in the only store in our small town, I donned a Santa hat that I’m pretty sure belongs to my brother-in-law and met the world with smiles. I engaged and interacted with all that I could today: the people I knew and loved, the ones that I didn’t and didn’t care to know or love, and everyone in between. Now, nothing spectacular happened. There wasn’t any Hallmark-esque Christmas miracle. But I was able to see how drastically I had been ignoring the gospel I claim to cling to. For the past few months I’ve been working at this store and seeing the same people come in and out. I didn’t serve any of them poorly, but I certainly didn’t give them all the service that I give to my mother when she walks through the door.
But I did today.
And maybe that really didn’t impact anyone, honestly. Just one day? C’mon. But what if I capture this idea of Immanuel that Christmas brings, and allow it to direct all my days at work? This town has a population of roughly 450 people, according to the last census. We’re small. Everyone knows everything about everyone. They know my family, even if they don’t know me. They know we’re Christians. They know me. And they also know that I smile and wish them a good day, but don’t really go any deeper than that. Or at least I haven’t before. I’ve always been too busy with church programs and small groups twenty miles away. Any lasting, Kingdom impact in my actual community? Well if there is, isn’t not coming through me, is it?
But perhaps it can.
So today while I was pondering on all of this, a woman came into the store. She owns the bar two doors down the street, which of course I have never been in. A Thomas? At a bar? In this town? Yeah, not likely. 450 people would have a good laugh about that one. (Well, 441, minus the nine people currently calling my parent’s house home.) Anyway, this woman (who seemed perfectly nice) was picking up some last minute things she needed for her Christmas Eve party. At her bar. Right here in our small community. She talked about it, I asked questions, and she answered them. As she was walking out the door, I asked her what time it started. She told me, and looked at me with a raised eyebrow. (There’s no mistaking who I am in this town; I’m like a carbon copy of my dad.)
So tonight, after work, I showered and dressed and walked to the local bar, went inside, sat down, and ordered a drink. It was actually extremely comical, kind of like a movie. There was a quiet awkward moment in which several heads turned, and then a stammered, “Uh, do you have ID?”
Um, I was flattered, but truth be told? I haven’t needed ID for a few years and there’s no mistaking it.
I showed it to the bartender, got my drink, and sat there looking around the bar as I drank it. The conversation seemed a little more reserved than it had when I walked in, and every face in the room was familiar. I saw these people nearly every day at work. But here I was, descended from on high (my family lives on the top of a hill just outside the village) to mix with the commoners. Not really an apt analogy, to be sure, but to many people in our community that’s exactly what they think of my family. I’ve heard it often enough in the store. We’re very nice people, the story goes, but we’re that “religious” family. We don’t mix in, not really, with the others in town.
So I stayed for about half an hour, drinking and making small talk with the people around me. Then, deciding that a little dose can go a long way, I left. Better let them all release the breath they’ve all been holding since I sat down. That was the exact thought in my head. I wished everyone a Merry Christmas, slipped my tip under my coaster, and walked out the door.
Again, there wasn’t any moving moment where the world shifted, snow flittered down, and all looking on declared that we’d captured the “true meaning of Christmas.” But tonight, I went into my community – for real – as an agent of the Kingdom of Heaven. I went Immanuel style, God with us, into the places that they go. I probably just confused them, and that’s fine. I don’t need to fit an entire process into one single night. And when I use the word process, I’m not looking at this town or these people like they’re projects for conversion. I’m looking at a life process, communually, that will hopefully change some of them just as it changes me, bringing us all closer to the heart of the Heavenly Father. Tonight, I think I broke the ice. I showed them that I’m a different kind of Christian. And even if they didn’t get that message tonight, I plan on giving them ample opportunities to get it. Perhaps not at the bar (my poor parents’ hearts!) but definitely through my daily life in this town.
So this Christmas counted for something then, even if only in my own heart. This Christmas marked the launch of Kingdom Agent Ethan Thomas. Mission: South Colton, New York. Purpose: to bring the gospel into a community of people that desperately need it. To live love well with actual human beings. The ones that fall between the cracks.
Steven Pressfield writes in The War of Art that a “hack” is someone who second-guesses what the people want to hear. He or she doesn’t write or speak authentically, but rather gives out what they think will “play well in the eyes of others.”
I really don’t wanna be a hack. I’ve been one before, and I’m done with those days (God willing) forever. I’ve done some thinking over the past few days about what I should write about on this blog, and what I should not write about. I think I played dangerously close to the edge of hack-dom, and I vowed to myself to continue in my original plan: to blog authentically about the things that were running through my mind.
I do think it’s true that there’s a time and a place for certain thoughts or ideas. But I also think that that concept can be a fine line between authenticity and playing games. I don’t do fine lines well, so I think I’ll steer wide of it and fall more on the authenticity side, even if it means talking where perhaps I ought to have kept my mouth shut.
I think doing so has benefits. One is that what I’m writing about and thinking through can help someone else who happens across this blog. Not that it must, but that it could. Another benefit is that it helps keep me transparent. I don’t do that well naturally, and so every little bit helps there.
In the name of transparency and authenticity, then, I’m going to write my way through how I’m feeling about Christmas just now. Fair warning: I’m not starting this with an idea in mind, so the words will flow and change as I write and think things out. Another fair warning: it could just be that I’ve got a bad attitude about it this year, or that I’m being immature, or any number of things that are, indeed, my problem. I’m not ruling that out. But if that’s the case, I just can’t see it yet from today’s perspective. Who knows? Looking back on this next Christmas Eve, I may be chuckling and shaking my head at myself. But for this Christmas Eve…
I’m thoroughly miserable.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been overwhelmed by messages and displays of romance, miracles, the importance of family, forgiveness, and acceptance. It’s Christmas. That stuff’s everywhere; you can’t escape it. And in years past I’ve not had any problems with it. But this year, I’m not digging it. For starters, I’m noticing more and more that Christians in general throw quite a bit of weight behind Christmas, but in ways that I’m not convinced actually help the Kingdom of which Christ is the King. Lights, wreaths, and presents with astronomical price tags? Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with them, necessarily, but for a holiday that we insist – sometimes visciously – is about celebrating Jesus and what his coming meant? Perhaps we might come up with a better way to celebrate that than the world’s richest people giving the world’s wealthiest gifts to one another? Maybe?
Then I turn around and everywhere I look, I’m seeing heterosexual couples. My brother and his wife, my sister and her husband, even my sister and her boyfriend. Each couple is wholly and heartily included in the season’s events. My siblings and their spouses live away, and so they’ve opened their gifts over Skype with my family, laughing and happy and included. My sister’s boyfriend has gifts here in our home, wrapped with his name on them, and has been invited over for our family’s annual Christmas Eve celebration. There is nothing wrong with that at all, but it breaks my heart because I know that someday, I hope to have a man in my life with whom I will be partnered with, covenanted together before the Living God. I hope for something like this, and at the same time my heart breaks knowing that we won’t be extended the same invitations my siblings enjoy. Well, I will be, but only me. He won’t have presents, he won’t be invited, and there’ll be no Skype time for him. And that just won’t fly with me.
And it really sucks, watching my siblings and their families interact with the rest of the family. It’s awful to know that, should next Christmas find me in a relationship, it will be a point of contention, stress, and grief to the family rather than a source of joy and love. A line from the Owl City song “Saltwater Room” sticks out in my head when I think about this:
If this is what I call home, why does it feel so alone?
These things, and a few other thoughts that I just can’t seem to get down in words just now, all factor together to form a very gloomy holiday season for me. I mean, yes, I’m going to suck it up and engage with my family this year, but I still can’t help but feel that something’s terribly wrong with this picture. Something is fundamentally anti-Christ in this season that celebrates Christ, even when we’re celebrating it in a distinctively Christian community.
Christ was born in a manger. Christ walked through life communing with the outcast and the downtrodden. The people that slip through the cracks. Well, it’s 2011, it’s Christmas, and I’m slipping through the cracks. And I’m not the only one, am I? So in a season celebrating Christ and his coming to humanity (and all that that means for us) shouldn’t somebody notice the people who are falling through the cracks? But that seems to be the last thing on people’s mind during these weeks. Sure, it’s in all the Hallmark movies, but in the actual, day-to-day lives of real human beings?
Many of us are broke from spending too much money, stressed from bending over backwards to put on a good show and please everyone, and broken-hearted from all the pain and sorrow we’re repressing in order to be happy and joyful. Like baby Jesus wants.
I think that many of us are being bullied into Christmas. I know I feel like I am. Guilt-tripped, manipulated, and bullied into being a good little Christian and doing the Christmas thing as usual. And if your heart isn’t it? Well, smile wider, suck it up, and deal until it’s over.
I don’t want to celebrate Christ like that. And I know that this doesn’t aptly portray the holidays for many, many people. But I know that it does aptly portray the holidays for many others. And I’m one of the others.
I want to find a way to embrace Christmas as the season that we remember that God is with us, and just what that means for those of us that are weary and broken. Not being bullied into a mainstream idealogy, but poured into by the love of the God that came down to us. Healed and infused with life, not sucked dry and battered about. Living the gospel message, not living a story that hauntingly reminds us of the Israel judged for lavish living at the expense of the poor.
So my hope and prayer is that by next Christmas, my spirit will be renewed and refreshed. That I’ll have figured out a better way to celebrate Christmas; a way that more accurately touches on the Christ that the holiday is about, and the message he brought about a Kingdom of Heaven and loving God and others well. A Christmas celebration that doesn’t leave people on the fringe, feeling like strangers in their own families and communities, but that unites us, deeper and better than is being done currently.
Because c’mon, let’s give credit where it’s due: there’s a lot of people out there doing Christmas well. Thank you.
So maybe next year, we’ll celebrate Christmas well, better and deeper.
And honestly? I think the only way to do that is to be the change I’d like to see.
So I guess that means sucking it up and reaching out to others who are slipping between the cracks this holiday season, with a purpose and a passion. Perhaps I’m here, in this situation and this frame of mind, for such a time as this.
Huh. Funny that. I arrived somewhere I didn’t see coming.
I think I like that.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
I think I’ve got work to do.
Hey there. Long story short: I read a wonderful blog post the other day by Andrew Marin of The Marin Foundation that got me thinking, and me thinking usually means an intellectual hurricane followed by a few days of clean-up. In that frame of mind, I wrote a really long post, but once I reflected on it a bit more, I realized that the vast majority of what I’d written was just too premature to make public. It needs time to stew in the bubbling cauldron of my mind. There was a great start relating to forgiveness and how that practically plays out when the past catches up to us. I think there was some good stuff in there, but as I said before, it needs time.
Anyway, the end result of the crazy thought patterns I raced through in my writing was this: I felt it was important to remind people just whose ideas they’re ingesting here. Give full disclosure, just so that we’re clear that I’m not claiming to be a great mind or someone who should be listened to. I think that the Spirit of the Living God can certainly use some of what I write to help people that read it, but it’s not me, it’s Papa at work again. So, to that end, I’m re-posting the first thing I ever wrote here, entitled “So It Begins.”
My name is Ethan Mark Thomas. That name personifies evil and deceit for some while bringing feelings of utmost love and respect for others, along with a wide variety of everything in between for the rest who know me or have known me.
It is true, I have been a con artist. I have been a thief. I have a been a lying, greedy reprobate viewing human beings as means to an end.
It is true, I have been a humanitarian. I have been a role model. I have been a loving, passionate, genuine bringer of peace, comfort and harmony to many.
I am both. I have been both. I hope to be far more of the latter than the former in the future. But either way, full disclosure. I have been many things, I have done much, and been many places. The vast majority of my past has been using considerable talents for twisted versions of good that only benefit myself and a short-term perspective. So, yeah, you can say that I’ve used my powers for evil. Because I did, and even worse: I did so often while under the name of my master: the Most High, the Everlasting, Jesus the Christ.
That was my past. Remnants of that life still ripple through my daily life, but through the prayers of my community of believers and help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the hold that those behaviors had on me grows less influential every passing day. And now, now I’m something new.
I’m an agent of the Most High, a chosen vessel of the renewal of the Kingdom of God.
That’s what this blog is about – the life I have left to live, and how I will live it and process it as an agent of the Kingdom, dedicated to infusing the will of the Father into life in every area that I touch.
This blog is a place for me to think things out, to process things. I know that eventually people may stumble across this, so that’s why this post is even being written. To let you know who I am, and to arm you with the knowledge that I am not claiming to be someone that should be listened to.
James talks about the tongue being a restless evil, full of deadly poison. I think very few people can fully appreciate that as much as I can. So if you’re going to go ahead a read this, know that what I write here is as a man who was exceptionally gifted as using my tongue to deceive and manipulate many people, to con them and make them feel safe and secure to use them in some way, before eventually ripping their hearts out by vanishing and letting them fall back to reality. Know that right now, so that you can’t be astonished or surprised if you find it out later.
To bring some closure to this lurid past that I’ve spoken of, let me say this: I have been haunted by my actions. They were wicked. I am grateful for the power of the blood of Jesus Christ, who paid the terribly high price for my duplicity and betrayals. Through him, I am reconciled and redeemed. I now walk a path in which the Spirit of the Living God transforms me from the inside out, to the glory of the Father. It’s not about me, even a little bit. And that, quite frankly, is refreshing.
Well, that’s about it for now.
It’s been fifty-six days since I’ve started this new job. That’s eight weeks. Two months. So it’s been two months since I’ve been to church, a small group, a Bible study, a prayer meeting, etc. Two months since I’ve had any interaction with the Christian community that I was a part of. That’s the longest I’ve ever gone without Christian community involvement, by the way. We attended church weekly – and more – growing up. I taught Sunday School to the four and five-year old boys for three years in college, and attended another church for the last year. Every Sunday. Except when I was home on break or away working for the summers, in which case I attended services at those places. Even when I ran away from life I attended churches wherever I happened to be.
So when I found out that my work schedule wouldn’t allow me to participate or attend any Christian community structures or programs – none – I was really down. I mean everything was out now. My weekly meetings with a pastor and spiritual mentor, my bi-weekly men’s small group, and the ability to attend any weekly meetings for any churches in the area… all done. My schedule effectively has me booked at any conceivable time where I might be able to engage in any activity in a local Christian community. I checked. A lot.
I prayed, and I asked my friends to pray. I wanted my schedule to change! Surely God must want my schedule to change! But my schedule did not change, and I had to adjust. I spend quite a bit of time reading blogs, books, and articles as well as listening to sermons and worship from various churches, so I don’t feel like my relationship with Papa is suffering as far as growth and communication. But I’ve been curious for weeks about just how I’m supposed to live and love well in community when I have no community to live and love well in! I’ve mulled it over time and time again, and asked Papa for help time and time again. The result was always the same: wait patiently.
Then an idea snuck into the back of my mind, and it grabbed hold of my consciousness with a whole-body-erupting-into-goose-bumps moment.
Eth, you moron. You are in community. You’ve been in this community the vast majority of your life. Your small, tiny little town? The one that your family has lived in for six generations now? Buddy, it’s a community. And you work at the only store in town. Right in the heart of it. You see everyone. You interact and engage with absolutely everyone in town. You idiot, aren’t you understanding yet?
That happened about two weeks ago, and since then I’ve been pondering this idea that perhaps living and loving well in community has nothing to do with the Christian institutions, programs, initiatives, groups, and meetings. Well, not nothing to do with it. But certainly they can’t hold a monopoly, can they?
I pondered that until a few days ago when my sister and I were having a conversation. My sister is a bit more progressive regarding the role of women in churches and relationships than my family is, and she knows that I call the egalitarian camp home, so she was bouncing ideas off of me and venting to me slightly about things that frustrate her. In response to her questioning that having a husband being the sole (or majority) breadwinner for the family is God’s will for families, I laid out a scenario for her. Suppose that a married Christian man is injured terribly in an accident and can no longer provide for his family. His wife steps up and acquires a job, and through her work she provides for the family instead. Is she violating God’s will?
My sister and I both noted that, according to the examples and stories in the books of the Bible, God certainly seems to have a soft spot for the people that fall through the cracks; the ones whose circumstances force them to exist outside the system norms. A woman needing to work to support her family exists outside the given system norm in the scenario I painted for my sister. She’s fallen through the cracks. (Of course this example is custom-tailored to the specific Christian community my sister and I are familiar with, but we can all substitute models and circumstances here to fit our own experiences, can we not?) Anyway, the point is this: my sister and I arrived at the idea that a God who is all about the dispossessed, the oppressed, and those who fall between the cracks probably isn’t all that concerned about whether this woman is violating some perceived ideal. Probably. Then I thought to myself that maybe me not engaging in Christian community for this season isn’t a big deal either. Maybe. And maybe I’m not supposed to be in Christian community just now… maybe I’m supposed to be in this community; my tiny little town.
And the more I let all those thoughts slosh around in my brain, the more I began to open my eyes to my actual community – the people amongst whom I live and engage in daily life with – and I began to notice, more and more, that they’re the dispossessed, the oppressed, those whom have fallen between the cracks along the way. And the thing is, I think that everyone fits into that category in some way or another. You just have to live life with them for more than five minutes in order to see it.
You see I’d listened for so long to the line of thought that stated it was important for Godly men and women to have Godly influences and support groups in place so that they can live Godly lives and raise Godly families and spread Godly truths that I’d never stopped to think about what we might be neglecting through such a narrow focus. Not that I’m attacking any of it, but instead I’m just asking… what are we not seeing because we’re so focused on maintaining our Godly little lives? Who is suffering next door to us while we’re wholly focused on what’s happening with our church’s programs twenty minutes down the road? Could it possibly be the people that you live within a rock’s throw from? Their lives, their problems, their issues? All of which may be desperately crying out for the gospel of the Living God?
So I’ve stopped bemoaning my hard luck, and I’ve started engaging in the community that was in front of me all along. Sure, I think a day is coming that will find me actively engaged in a church body again. No, I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with being actively involved in your church programs or small groups. But I do think that life just may be a little more holistic than we’d like for it to be. I think that the Kingdom of Heaven may be just a little more holistic than we’d like it to be.
More than just Wednesday night twice a month. More than just Sunday mornings. More than just one arena for us to live the gospel. I think that the Kingdom of Heaven is calling its agents to step outside of our busy little lives, structured with such focus and determination, and to give the gospel (and our King) our time and attention. What might it look like in my tiny little town if the Christians that lived in it started allowing what we say we believe to change how we live each and every hour of our lives? What might it look like if we suddenly started treating the people in our town as if they were as important as the Christian groups and churches to which we belong?
More importantly, what if I started doing it? What if I started treating the human beings around me with the same love and attention that I reserve for my buddies from small group?
I think this may have been what Paul did. I mean, I could be wrong and all, but I think he did this. And I’m not usually a big fan of Paul. In fact, I often wonder if he’s not terribly overrated and held up as an idol in much of 21st century North American Christianity. But still, reading through some of the books in the Bible show me a man that finds community and Kingdom life no matter where his circumstances brought him. In chains in Rome? No problem. He lived and loved well with his new community so that it became clear, throughout the whole palace, that he was in chains for Christ. Funnily enough, those Roman captors just might not have been a Christian community. Yep, he may have – just may have – found himself in non-Christian communities once or twice. And yet he lived and loved well with people, and the gospel thrived.
So at the end of the day, when I’m reflecting on being removed from my Christian communities, I’m actually thankful for it. The Living God is doing something, and that’s exciting. I don’t know where it’s going, and I can’t promise amazing results. But I can wake up tomorrow and give it my best shot, and ask Papa to take that and do something with it as only he can.
Update, 16 December: After some more reflection, I wanted to stress that I’m not meaning to exist in competition with church communities or programs. I’m not meaning to tear them down at all, nor am I meaning to set myself and my ideas as something superior to them. When I question them in this post, I’m questioning only the idea that they are whole and complete philosophies for living and loving well in community. I’m offering this idea in addition to them. For instance, I think there’s room in my local area for both the church (and all the programs that go with it) and Christians engaging in their physical communities as well. Like those old cereal commercials used to say… a part of this balanced breakfast.
In the fall of 2004, Roberts Wesleyan College Student Productions performed “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” The role of Charlie Brown was played by a young sophomore named Ethan Thomas. That would be me. At the twilight of my happy-but-troubled years before the Everlasting began his overt pruning process I fused myself into the role of Charlie Brown. It seemed a custom fit, and among my friends and acquaintances I became Charlie Brown. To this day there are still people who call me that. Charlie Brown became, to an extent, a part of my identity. Of course, seven years ago is a long time in the perspecive of a 27 year old, but the fond memories of the nostalgic (mostly) good ol’ days still rise whenever I see or hear anything remotely related to Charlie Brown, which brings us to the point:
Today I stumbled across this article by Mark W. Benjamin in which he summarizes the history of the famous Charlie Brown Christmas special. I was enraptured by it. It turns out that the powers that be were horrified, convinced that the special would be a flop. The creative team, including Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, had defied industry norms left, right, and center. There was jazz music (in a Christmas special!), no laugh track (unheard of!) and the characters were voiced by children with no professional experience, some of which couldn’t even read the scripts. The message railed against the commercialism of the Christmas season, which probably wasn’t warmly welcomed by the corporate sponsors. And then there was Linus quoting from the book of Luke to explain what Christmas is all about to Charlie Brown. Schulz was apparently told, “You can’t have the Bible on television” and replied with, “If we don’t do it, who will?”
It seems that CBS executives braced for the worst, expecting outrage and rejection, only to be met with an outpouring of adulation and praise. Letters poured in expressing support and thanks for Linus’ scripture quoting. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” won Emmy and Peabody awards. CBS ordered four more Peanuts specials.
As a former Charlie Brown, and as a Christian, I loved reading this article. It woke something inside of me, something that I knew but had forgotten. Christmas, for Christians, is about something far more than trees and presents and lights and Christmas movies and holiday orchestras and candlelight services. It’s even more than hymns and Mary-did-you-knows and cute, well-written poems about Jesus’ life. It’s so much more than getting warm fuzzy feelings thinking about love, happiness, and a baby Jesus slightly aglow in a manger scene. It’s about remembering the arrival of the King of the Kingdom of Heaven, and pondering on what that means for us and our lives. It’s about the gospel.
And not “about the gospel” in the way that invites conflict and hostility with those to whom Christmas means something different, but about the gospel in so far as we’re reminded, at the close of the year, that life’s still about loving and living well. About extending grace and mercy in the name of the Living God. In a season where the year formally ends and a new one begins, there exists a months-long celebration that, for me as a Christian, can serve as a shot in the arm after a long and weary year. A shot in the arm bringing the energy and motivation to live and love well in my heart and my life – in a way that positively impacts my community and the world – to the glory and praise of God.
I mean, after all…
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
Or perhaps more accurately, it’s what Christmas can be about… at least for this Charlie Brown.
Oh Papa, you’re doing something. Even if I can’t comprehend it.
Give me the strength to trust for another day.
Cause it’s been one of those weeks.
I can finally see that you’re right there beside me
I am not my own, for I have been made new
Please don’t let me go
I desperately need you
So I’ve been reflecting on things; meditating on my values, beliefs, theology, and the like, in light of the TED talk about being wrong. You know, the one I posted about a few days ago. I realized two things:
1) I’m most certainly wrong on several things that I hold dear to. Things I think I’m right about. There have got to be several that I’m mistaken about. Things that I have wrong. However, at this stage of my life, I just don’t know what those things are.
2) I already knew this. It’s true, I’ve acknowledged it for a few years now. I know that my beliefs will change over time. But the thing is, I have no guarantee that they will change to reflect what is true. Also, I can’t force time to change them now. That’s the tricky thing about being limited by time, you know.
Anyway, I was totally underwhelmed by these results. So I kept going, and I typed away for a minute or two to get my thoughts down. Normally I go through what I’ve typed several times, allowing thoughts to fully form or to erase phrases or sentences that need to go. But this time, to honor being wrong about things, I’m not going to edit it at all. I wrote this yesterday. Call it a window into my unedited thoughts, or call it lazy, but here it is:
I think that I’m very likely wrong on several of the things I hold closest to. But I also think that God is more concerned with the heart and motivations than he is the validity of my beliefs. I mean, look at history. And, in deference to those who believe literally that history is exactly-as-the -Bible-lays-it-out kind of thing, let’s only focus on the history covered by the Bible. It is FULL of God interacting with people who are DEAD WRONG about who they believe God is and what he’s all about. But he loves them and interacts with them and calls them justified by faith, etc. And when Jesus comes – the Living God in flesh – wouldn’t you think that he would exemplify what God really holds to be most valuable? Wouldn’t you think that whatever the Messiah said was important in our relationship with the Living God would be the MOST important? And Jesus was all about the motivations; the heart. Loving well. Even if you’re wrong. Jesus did not come to preach a corrective gospel filled with dos-and-do-nots; Jesus didn’t come down to say, “And another thing! You’ve all been parading around believing such-and-such. Well, you’re wrong! Nothing doing, folks! And another thing! And another! And while we’re at it, let’s have no more of this!” (Reminds me of Shift the Ape. That might be a good thing to compare it to. And maybe not. Think on it.)
No, that wasn’t the gospel message. God isn’t a high school history teacher impatiently waiting for the kids in his class to get the right answers. God’s more like a guidance counselor – concerned about the holistic formation and the heart behind what we believe. (Um, maybe need a better analogy than guidance counselor.) Anyway, mark that in the all-models-are-wrong-but-some-are-useful thing as well.
So that was the train of thought for now, Eth. Maybe re-vamp it into a focus more on the gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven, not the Kingdom of Rules, or something like that. You’ll think of a way to say it better. But from there get to the main point: the idea that perhaps being right isn’t something that’s really all that high on God’s priority list. Maybe, instead, the high spot on the priority list is trying to live and love well in accordance with his gospel. Even if we’re wrong. And besides, isn’t the Spirit here to guide us? Give the Spirit time to work. Ah! There’s another idea: mention the idea that perhaps we ought to factor time into the equation, since we’re beings existing in time and all.
Anyway buddy, you’ve got this for now. Come on back and hammer it out better later.