Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Broken World of Broken Hearts

When our heart is broken, there is a part of us that wonders if we'll ever love again. It is the place where our childish dreams mock us and jade us. And we secretly vow that love has betrayed our trust for the last time. It always feels like someone died and then we realize that that person is us. Apparently, when we weren't looking, something went terribly wrong and we never really know how or why. All we know is that silent promises have been broken and our world has changed and we can never go back to the way it was. All the while, somewhere beneath the tears, God is drilling a much deeper well within us, in order to fill us with a more profound love. A love that will go farther than before. Hope and strength come from unlikely places to resurrect us, and we emerge stronger. And we are reminded that our brittle hearts are only safe in the hands of God. Only He is trustworthy of our deepest affections, and He will never betray us. Broken hearts are a blessing if they point us back in the right direction.

Love is always more powerful than we think. It has the power to wound and to heal, to crush and to save. We all know that when we invite love inside then we also host the danger of pain, and yet most of us feel that it is worth the venture. The ecstasy is worth the agony. In the end, feeling pain is better than feeling nothing. No good story is without conflict. There is a part of us that comes alive when our future is at risk. A first kiss makes your heart jackhammer in your chest because you feel as if you've just stepped over a ledge and you're not sure where you'll land. The heights of love are both exhilarating and terrifying. It scares those of us who like control. It always ruins our meticulous plans, and never tells us exactly where we're headed.

The thing about love is that it makes us forget everything else. It is a beautiful distraction from a shipwrecked world. A world full of countless reasons to stop believing in anything too good. Still, love travails through the wreckage of broken hearts, undeterred by all the evil and suffering. When love dawns, it seems that happiness is remembered as we forget why we are so unhappy. In those moments, we question if our hearts were ever really broken. And so the cycle continues. We love, we break, we love again. We are sick people, lovesick people. And God is the craziest one of all.

We say that our world is broken because of sin, but it runs deeper than that. It's a result of unrequited love. God offered us His mighty heart and we broke it. Everything was risked to make love possible. We wonder, was it worth it? Apparently, God thinks so. He foresaw the hell and the hate, and yet He wagered more than anyone. It seems that there is no such thing as love without consequences. Regardless, it is hard to imagine this life without love. We'd feel nothing. What reason would we have for living at all? In this ironic world, death makes way for new life. We love, we break, we love again.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Black Holes Taught Me About Love

I watched a documentary about how black holes were once stars that imploded. And at the heart of a black hole is distilled light, but the light can't escape because the gravity of the black hole is too strong (Hello, my name is Ryan Smith and I'm a recovering nerd). But I couldn't help but marvel at how that is such a commentary on the gravity of selfishness. What a black hole is to light, is what selfishness is to love.

I've heard it said that with dating and marriage, it's not only about finding the right person but that it's about becoming the right person. At first when I heard that, I thought it meant that I needed to start practicing good table manners and get in the habit of putting the toilet seat down and stuff like that. Anyway, changing myself never seems to work out well. But upon further thought, I realized that it's not really about changing yourself as much as it's about the mindset itself. "Becoming the right person" puts you in the kind of mindset that blossoms into a great marriage. Selfishness is our default, it comes naturally, we don't have to work at it. But selfishness kills marriages. If we are just looking for someone to meet our own list of needs then we're not ready to get married. Marriage isn't about inviting someone into our world where we're the rock star. It's about two people stepping outside of themselves and creating something new together. It's about two people swapping dreams, not killing their dreams, but entrusting them with someone they love more than their dreams. Someone who is a big part of their dream, not just an accessory.

I've gotten used to being single and selfish. I pretty much do whatever I want, when I want. I eat what I want, I buy what I want, I watch what I want, I wear what I want, I hang out with whomever I want. My apartment temperature is perfect for me, my stereo volume is perfect for me. For the most part, I come and go as I please. My only real responsibility is to make sure my bills get paid and that's about it. And I realize that marriage will change all of that. But I've also realized that selfishness doesn't make me happy. The more I focus on myself, the more unhappy I am. Fortunately, I'm a Christian with a God that has encouraged me to be selfless since I was little. Otherwise, my selfishness would be out of control and I'd be very unhappy.

Someone once asked me if it's bad for a Christian to marry a non-Christian. I could've referred to Bible verses, but it was a Christian who didn't take the Bible very seriously, ironically enough. So, I just reasoned that it's a very bad idea to marry someone who's going the opposite direction than you. You'll end up tearing each other apart. The world encourages people to be more selfish and "to follow their hearts" and to put their happiness before the needs of others. But our God encourages the very opposite, because he doesn't want us to turn into black holes. He wants us to shine. Our selfish desires betray us. Without God, dreams become nightmares. We think we know what we want until we actually get it and then we end up hating it for not being what we thought it would be. Real love is the only thing that lives up to its promises. Jesus is the light of the world because he exemplifies a better way, while this world is imploding and getting blacker. Our sinful flesh desires hell, but God is trying to save us from ourselves. We must entrust our dreams with a loving God or our dreams will eat us alive. Among other things, it seems that marriage is the antidote for a selfish world.

Furthermore, I'm in awe of the sacrifices that parents make for their kids. They shine love in a way that I don't yet understand. Kids are so ungrateful and insane, and yet for some reason parents don't put them up for sale on Craig's List. Nevertheless, it is surely the refracted light of God's agape love, and it is beautiful to behold.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Hooking Up or Something Like It

Asking a girl out is scary. I don't know why. What's the worst that could happen? If she says "no," then I go on my merry way and that's that. And yet I still have a terrible feeling that if she says "no" then the whole world will know it, and it will go on some permanent record somewhere. As if throngs of news reporters are going to show up and hound me and say things like "This is Peggy Powder with Channel 2 News. I'm with Ryan Smith who just got rejected by a girrrrl. Tell me, Ryan, how does it feel to be such a loser?" It's not a rational fear, fears rarely are. I read somewhere that girls like confident guys and so I try to exude confidence and yet I always feel like girls can still smell insecurity. In reality, I know everyone's insecure, some hide it better than others. Most of the time, people showcase their strengths as a distraction from their weaknesses. My weakness is that I'm not normal. The more I try to act normal, the more not normal I feel. Someone will say "Just be yourself," which sounds like a good idea until I actually do that and then normal people don't want to be around me because I'm not normal. And I don't want to get stuck with the weirdos. I'm a walking a paradox. Part of me wishes to be normal, and yet I fight to be unique. Regardless, my whole life feels like a steep climb to get away from myself. Whoever that is.

I have another problem when it comes to dating. I can't date without thinking about marriage. In my mind, I try to live out the rest of my life with a girl that I hardly know and I get dizzy. I picture babies and bills stacking up and her being mad at me for leaving the peanut butter out. I wish I could just enjoy a date without feeling the weight of the next 50 years. And yet I don't want to date blindly or haphazardly. I want to take it seriously, but maybe I'm making things more complicated than they really are. Or things like this really are complicated and I should remain blissfully ignorant in order to move forward.

I wish dates could be more fun and feel less like a job interview. I don't like questions like "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" The honest answer is that I have no idea. And yet I feel the need to validate myself and prove that I have a pulse. I feel like I should say something like "Well, for starters, I plan to purchase a small island in the Atlantic with the money I made from being professionally awesome, and then I plan to sail the open sea while learning to communicate with dolphins." I wonder, at what point does a casual get together with a girl become a date? Last summer, a girl and I floated the Willamette river, just the two of us. I accidentally dropped my car keys (which I shouldn't have carried with me) into the water and couldn't find them. We ended up having to walk a few miles back to her car in our drenched clothes as it was getting dark. I thought it was a disaster, but she said she had fun, and so did I. Maybe, it wasn't a date, but at least we had a good time and got to know each other better without any sort of pressure to start shopping for a ring. Maybe, getting together with a girl can be more fun if it doesn't fit the typical protocol for an official date, whatever that is.

Anyway, in the end, I think it's the guy's responsibility to ask out the girl. I'm old-fashioned like that. A girl can make herself more approachable, but the guy should be the initiator. Maybe that's why God gave guys such resilient egos--to handle rejection. I think that if a guy doesn't fight for a girl in the beginning, then he'll never fight for her. He'll never be the leader he was meant to be. If a girl pursues a guy and thinks she's got him, I think she'll find that she ends up pursuing him for the rest of their lives together. He'll always feel out of reach, and she won't find the earnest love she's looking for.

Another day is unfolding with new possibilities--another chance to fall in love. Who knows, maybe, today's the day. And maybe, I have a say in the matter.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Kissing Toward God

I hate religion. God hates religion. We have a lot in common. Religion is a terrible way to live because it avoids love. But if we say that Christianity is a relationship, then that's not a shortcut either. That's a much higher calling. Relationships are complicated and high-maintenance. A relationship, any relationship, always asks more of me than I'm able to give, and I never feel like I'm doing enough. It would be easier to fulfill a religious "honey-do" list. It would be much easier to sacrifice a goat every once in a while, rather than love God with all of my heart. Religion allows me to chart my progress based on church attendance and tithing and Bible memorization and evangelizing and so on. But a relationship doesn't allow us to arrive anywhere. Relationships are always in transit, and you never really know if you're succeeding or not. Sometimes, I find myself calculating my sins for the day or week, and then I realize that I'm just being religious and that God isn't impressed. Trying to chart my spiritual progress is futile, because it has nothing to do with love.
Anyway, trying to earn someone's love never seems to work out very well. I'm glad God already loves me and wants to develop our relationship. That means that I can just enjoy Him and do things for Him because I love Him, instead of competing for His affection.

I often forget that God is a person, not human, but a person nonetheless, with feelings and a unique personality. Yet, when I try to picture Him, I just see a big ball of light or a stormy cloud or something. I don't know what He looks like, and yet I love Him. That's kind of weird. Sometimes, I ask God how He's doing. He's probably doing just fine, but I just wonder if He always has good days or bad days or what. Sometimes, I wish He'd just text me or something. If Christianity is a relationship, then it's not like any other relationship I've experienced. After all, it's often hard to talk to an invisible friend and keep a straight-face. But God has His reasons for being so mysterious, and I trust Him more than I trust myself. I'll be a fool for Him, if that's what it takes to prove my love.

One of the Greek words for worship is "proskuneo." It means to "kiss toward God." It doesn't mean to kiss in a romantic way (Jesus isn't my boyfriend). But it refers to a servant kissing the hand of a king. I love it, because it speaks of both affection and reverence, which both hinge on interaction. To worship God is to interact with Him and recognize our bipolar relationship. It is to recognize that He is awesome and I'm not, and that I should be grateful that He wants to be friends with me.

It's amazing how easy it is to talk about God as if He's not in the room. Or to read His book without looking up and saying hello to Him. Even now, there is a part of me that doubts that God is really hanging out with me at the downtown Beanery. If that's the case, then maybe I should've bought Him a coffee. Then again, I'd probably be too tempted to drink it, and if I did drink it, then I'd wonder if God was mad at me for drinking His coffee. On second thought, it's all God's money, so I guess He actually bought me coffee. Thanks God.

Friday, December 18, 2009

How Do You Know When You're In Love?

Our lives don't come with instruction manuals. If you say that the Bible is an instruction manual, then you've never read an instruction manual. Instruction manuals say things like "Connect part A to part B using tool C." It's very specific. The Bible, on the other hand, says things like "Love your neighbor as yourself" and then we have to figure out how to do that.

How do you know when you're in love? Some married couples will say things like "Falling in love is like being struck by lightning." But for those of us who've never actually been struck by lightning and don't know how that feels (it sounds painful), that doesn't really help. Or they'll say things like "You just know," which doesn't help either. I think what they are really saying is that falling in love is impossible to describe. To be fair, if someone who'd never experienced sadness asked me "How do you know when you're sad?" then I would probably say "You just know." It comes without warning, it's visceral. Falling in love must be like that. It seems that no love story is the same. There's no formula, no fool-proof method. With love, we must all travel down mystical, untold paths.

Figuring out whether you love someone enough to marry them is so much pressure. I take forever to pick out a pair of jeans that I'll wear for the next two years. When it comes to choosing who I'll spend the rest of my life with, my brain crashes. I'm thankful that God is involved in the process, and His will is certainly paramount. But sometimes, knowing God's will is as elusive as knowing if you're in love. What's more, I don't believe that God causes people to fall in love. That would breech our freewill, which offers us the choice to love--and who to love.

Love seems to branch out and take root as you get older. For me, it's become more philosophical, and I often get lost in its labyrinth. I remember my teenage crush. If you would've asked me back then if I was in love, then I would've said 'Yes' without a second thought. Sometimes, I wonder if I'm searching for that young feeling again, but it most likely wasn't love, because it wasn't real. At that age, nothing is real. Back then, love was part of my ego-centric fantasy along with everything else. It's those wonder years when you think that the world is your stage and that everyone is watching you. And later, you find out that everyone thinks that you're watching them. It was before I knew how much love costs, how much it risks. It was before I knew that love would break my heart more than once.

I know how it feels to miss someone. Perhaps, I will know that I'm in love when I try to imagine my world without her, and am overcome with a sick longing. When the realization that a fiery sunset or luminous rainbow or stormy ocean or four-leaf clover or firefly is all colorless without her, then I will fight to see it all together. Among other things, love is magnetic. Two hearts that are cursed by love would rather die than live apart for long. It's interesting that when an elderly person loses their spouse then often their own health soon begins to fail. It seems that life and love are inseparable.

Sometimes, I feel lonely, and I miss my future bride. It's as if I'm already in love with her, and yet, as far as I know, I haven't met her. But I'm still a hopeful romantic. I still believe in true love. Sometimes, you have to believe in the impossible to make it happen. When you ask older couples about true love, many will say that in the long haul it's more important that you simply like each other. They say that that's more consistent and lasting and practical than intoxicating love. In that case, falling in love begins and ends with "liking." So maybe rather than asking myself if I'm in love with someone, I should be asking if I like her. Recognizing that you like someone seems to open the door to loving them. I don't believe that we are victims of romantic love, but that we always have the choice to not walk through that door. Sometimes, we wander through without paying attention. Sometimes, our hearts choose for us, when our minds are distracted. Maybe, for some of us, in hindsight we will see that we were in love all along, and we'll hear God chuckle. Maybe, true love is closer than we think.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Foolish Love

Last night, a bunch of us church people went caroling to spread Christmas cheer and the love of Jesus. It's funny how things never play out the way you think they should. We all made candle holders, made by poking a candle through a hole in a paper plate and through the bottom of a plastic cup, for shielding. Our first stop was our pastor's house. We walked up his family's driveway singing "Jingle Bells" in the chilling darkness with lit candles in hand. We reached their house as they were filing out. We sounded like cows in labor, but they smiled and nodded. Finally, we finished the howling and they clapped. Then, the pastor's sweet wife, Susie, said "Hey Ryan, your cup is on fire!" Yes, it was quite magical.

Our next stop, was the Lee's house, another family from our church. We walked up, rang the doorbell, and sang "The First Noel." No one answered the door, but their house cat sauntered up and stared out the window at us while we sang. We just kept singing for the cat, and it seemed like it meant something. But defeat finally settled in, so we got back into our cars and drove back to our home base to spread Christmas cheer throughout the neighborhood. Just for reference, one of the guys in our group had printed off very obscure versions of classic Christmas songs. We rang another doorbell and sang the first two verses of "Joy To The World" to another closed door. Finally, the door opened as we sang a weird third verse with the line "Far as the curse is found!" repeated over and over. I think they thought we were cursing them or something. I felt like a crazy Christian from a world beyond explanation. But they still thanked us and wished us a "Merry Christmas" despite our tuneful curses. We pressed on and sang to a couple more closed doors. We hounded yet another house, and a couple children stared wide-eyed through the window at us, then they scurried away. In the dark, we probably looked like scary Druids with candles held to our faces. Their dad finally came out and I thought we were in trouble. He looked confused at first, then a big smile broke across his face. We finished and he was very grateful. Almost too grateful.

The cold was getting to us, but we kept going. We decided to practice "Feliz Navidad" before blessing someone else. We got it just right, pronunciation and all. Then, we approached a quiet, white house and did our thing--ring doorbell, sing. Light and shadows fluxed somewhere inside the house, and soon, an elderly woman gingerly opened the door. She beamed and stepped outside and let the Christmas cheer wash over her. We sang and sang, and she bounced a little, smiling and giggling. We got to the end of the song, but I just kept singing. I didn't want it to end. I felt like our whole clumsy mission was worth it, if only for her.

I realized that love causes us to do all kinds of foolish things. There's nothing rational about trying to spread the love of Jesus by ambushing people with crazy Christmas carols. But somehow hearts are touched by something we don't understand. There's nothing logical about God dying for us in order to save us. But somehow, it worked. Somehow, love did the impossible. When we're in love, we say and do things that are foolish to everyone else. And yet it makes perfect sense to the hearts involved. In the past, I've written songs for girls that I now realize weren't very good from an artistic standpoint. But I didn't care about that at the time. My heart just needed a voice and so I went with it. What can I say? I am a fool for love, a lovesick soul, and I know of no other way to love rightly. Love always dares us to sing like an idiot.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Secret To A Woman's Heart

Just to warn you, if you google "What Girls Want," then you'll soon find yourself falling headlong down an endless rabbit hole. Lucky for me, a friend of mine wrote me and disclosed the secret to a woman's heart. Ready? She said that girls want a fairy tale. And that they're raised on a steady diet of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and so on. Naturally, they grow up eagerly waiting for their Prince Charming to arrive. My initial reaction was that I felt like I'd been given a secret super power. I'd be unstoppable with the ladies. And then I realized how crazy the whole idea was. A fairy tale? Prince Charming? But upon further thought, I felt that maybe it wasn't so crazy.

Perhaps, that deep-seated longing is there for a reason. But what if I'm not a prince? My life is hardly a fairy tale, I don't live in a castle or ride a horse or slay dragons or walk around singing all the time (Well actually, I guess I do walk around singing all the time). Anyway, what if I want to give a girl the moon and more, but it's so beyond my reach? Are us guys doomed to fail? What's more, the Bible ratchets up the heat by instructing men to "love your wives as Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for her." So, not only am I supposed to be a chivalrous prince, but I'm supposed to be just like Jesus. That's even crazier.

Honestly, I know a lot of guys, but I don't know any princes. I know a lot of guys who are trying to be princes, and other guys who aren't trying and that's about it. It's slightly disheartening when I see girls falling for guys who aren't princes at all. When girls hook up with jerks then it sends a message to the rest of the guys that girls like jerks and not princes. I think we all have some growing up to do.

Nevertheless, there is certainly a place in every woman's heart that only one prince can fill. He is the Prince of Peace. There's really no one like Jesus. He will someday return to slay the dragon of this world, and rescue His damsel in distress. There's only one true Savior, no other man can fill that role. Now, I'm not letting guys off the hook. I think most men could do a better job in the romance department, myself included. It's funny that romance films are labeled "chick flicks" and that most guys don't take much interest in them. But maybe it's because every guy secretly feels like they can never measure up to the fiction of it all. Not even Matthew Mcconaughey can be Matthew Mcconaughey in real life. But maybe, just maybe, the only way an ordinary guy can come close to being a prince is by treating a girl like a princess. And praying a lot. I can do that.

P.S. A word to my sisters in Christ-Don't stop believing:)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Have You Had Your DTR Lately?

DTR's are hilarious. Can you really define a relationship? Is it really that categorical? Yet against all odds, DTR's insist on fencing in love. In reality, love in its many forms is so nuanced and unwieldy. No matter how many DTR's are bumbled through, confusion always finds a crack in the communication. After all, trying to wrap words around feelings is like cupping water in your hands, it's so leaky and inadequate and frustrating. And you can never have just one DTR. With each day, there's always the possibility that feelings have changed. And then there's those annoying stories about couples who set out to be "just friends" and ended up getting married. What's more, it doesn't help that we always hear what we want to hear. Even if someone looks us in the eye and says "Drop dead," our hearts often find some way around it. Actions always speak louder than words. For that reason, DTR's should never be used as a license to say one thing and do another, hoping to get the benefits of a commitment without actually committing to anything. Otherwise, you'll be forced to sing another round of "Oops I Did It Again."

Nevertheless, DTR's are a necessary evil. Direct communication is always good. If it doesn't fill in all the gaps then at least it gives fair warning. Guys and girls usually communicate differently, so DTR's take a lot more effort to get the point across the gender barrier. With girls, I have yet to interpret the difference between flirting and just being friendly. Most girls smile and laugh a lot, which can mean a great number of things. Maybe they're just happy.

The worst situations are the ones where one person is confused about their own feelings, which makes the other person even more confused. I actually feel very relieved when I know exactly how someone feels about me. Because then I know what to do. If I'm not sure how they feel, then I don't know what to do and I always feel like I'm doing something wrong. It usually leads to some sort of drama. I hate drama. Christian DTR's are something else entirely. Usually, when one Christian doesn't have "feelings" for the other then they say that it's just not God's will for them. They blame it on God, as if God is Cupid and forces people to fall in love. And if we say that it's not God's will then the other person is left questioning if God is being heard correctly (In the book of Hosea, God told the guy to marry a prostitute, it's funny how people never "hear" God saying stuff like that these days). If we're going to have DTR's then we might as well be completely honest. Just say "I don't like you" and leave it at that, you'll be doing them a favor by giving them closure.

But honestly, I'm a hypocrite. I say that because I can be the most fickle, ambivalent, hard-to-read person you'll ever meet. I think too much, which is a blessing and a curse. I'm terrible with multiple choice tests, because I take lots of time to weigh all the answers, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses and getting caught up in the wording. Communication hinges on wording, which is why it doesn't come easy for me on the fly. I'm better at writing than talking. The reason being, I can't edit conversations. Writing allows me to tinker with the tone, until I get it just right. Sometimes, a certain word feels like a puzzle piece that almost fits but not quite. Anyway, DTR's are not fun for me. I never feel like I'm saying what I mean to say.

Question: Can a guy really have a close, lasting "just friends" relationship with a girl? I haven't had very good results. Neither have most guys that I've talked to. There's always some degree of confusion and frustration, and unhealthy signs of attachment and entitlement. In my experience, when one of us starts dating someone else, then that's usually the end of it. I'm kind of old-fashioned. I've never been able to date a girl who wants to continue hanging out with a bunch of other dudes. Call it crazy or call it commitment. One guy said that when he has DTR's, he sometimes tells the girl that he's interested in a 'friendship with the potential for more.' I don't know how he says it with a straight face. It really defeats the purpose of having a DTR, leaving so much to the imagination.

As for me, usually the best way to define a dead-end relationship is just to end it, sooner than later.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Love Drug

Scientists are trying to develop a drug that causes people to fall in love. They claim that the oxytocin hormone contributes to sexual attraction and promotes trust and confidence and reduces fear. Is your relationship missing that magic spark? Just pop the red pill. Want to make your secret crush fall in love with you? Just slip the love drug into their beverage of choice, and you'll hardly be able to keep them away. It's that easy. Let's face it, falling in love is hard to come by. And trying to win someone over through thoughtfulness and charm is just too much work. The best part is that you'll no longer have to wait for Mr. or Miss Right, with the love drug anyone could be the one. Who cares if they look like Jabba the Hut or Cousin It, you won't know the difference. You'll be head-over-heels in love. And when your love prescription runs out then just make an appointment with your local love doctor.

Why stop there? Maybe, the love drug is the way to world peace, the remedy for racism and terrorism and wars and gangs and lawsuits and sports. We'll all be lovers, not fighters. The world will be one big, long Woodstock, with lots of people rolling around in the mud and putting flowers in their hair. We could also use it to cause people to fall in love with God. We could spike the communion juice with it, although people might start kissing in church and that would be terrible. Kissing is so unspiritual.

Yes, the love drug is the solution we've been praying for. After all, God is love, why would He object? The first and second commandment are all about love. The Bible practically encourages us to take the love drug. We wouldn't be like robots, robots don't love. And why stop at the love drug? What about a faith drug? A drug that rids us of all that nasty logic and common sense. Is the law of gravity weighing you down? Well, that's nothing that a faith pill can't fix. You'll be flying around in no time. The possibilities are endless! Forgiveness medicine, discipline drugs, humility pills, courage elixirs. . .oh wait, that's alcohol.

Who knew that love could be so easy and convenient and bite-sized? Got love?

Warning: If you've taken any of this seriously, then consult your physician right away.

Monday, December 7, 2009

God's Mistletoe

I noticed that the tone of my latest blogs was veering into the melancholy. I blame it on winter. The days are colder and darker and the December doldrums always seem to burrow into my soul. But a couple days ago, I started listening to Christmas music and I'm better now. If nothing else, Christmas is a wonderful anti-depressant. Even if we discovered that Jesus had been born in the summer, I doubt we would reschedule His birthday. Christmas is such a timely, welcomed distraction from the grim weather. The color is fading from Oregonian faces and everyone is bundled like 7-layer burritos. And in the dead of winter, Christmas remains the heart's fireplace.

It's always surreal to hear songs about Jesus being played in the most godless places around town. Like it or not, the first Christmas is still singing. That meek and mild love story simply cannot be silenced. I smile whenever I hear the Salvation Army workers ringing those bells, evidence that Christmas hasn't been completely hijacked by commercialism. It's still about generosity. It's still about coming together. It's still about Jesus. Our world is standing under the mistletoe, unable to escape the kisses of God. Everywhere you turn, there's Christmas.

Two years ago, I begged my parents not to buy me anything. I wasn't boycotting Christmas, I just didn't need anything and didn't want my parents racking up credit card debt. They weren't hearing it. So in honor of Jesus's birthday, I received Guitar Hero 3. I rocked it for about two weeks before it ended up in the wasteland of forgotten Christmas toys. And yet maybe, just maybe, it was still worth it for my parents. Honestly, I'm not very good at receiving charitable love. I'm not sure why. It's either because I feel too proud or too unworthy or maybe a little bit of both. And yet, the transaction of love cannot be completed if it is not received. To deny someone the opportunity to show love is ultimately selfish. We were made to love and we find divine fulfillment in giving love to others. Love is like fresh air to our hearts, to be breathed in and out, to be given and received.

Every year, one big gift remains unopened in billions of households. The generous gift of grace, it is one gift that never loses its luster. It still offers saving love to one and all, young and old, rich and poor. It offers to pay off our soul's worrisome debt. But God's charitable love is worthless to those who will not take it from His hand. He loves to give. And who are we to deprive our Father of doing what He loves to do? As William Blake once said "We are here to learn to endure the beams of love." Just take it. Let God love you, every part of you, and maybe wish Him a Merry Christmas while you're at it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Honest Love

I remember hearing the story "The Emperor's New Clothes" as a child and thinking it was a great story, but didn't realize that it was really a parable. I also didn't realize that I was the child in the story. If you remember, it's about two weavers who make an invisible garment for the emperor. The weavers claim that the fine garment can only be seen by those who are competent for their roles in society. Naturally, everyone agrees that they can see the clothes except for a little boy who yells "The emperor isn't wearing anything at all!"

Honesty has become a foreign language. It is rarely understood and is unkosher in an esoteric society preserved by euphemism and constant ceremony. We have an understanding, there are certain things you don't talk about. Everything has its place. You don't talk about disease and famine at the dinner table. You don't mention the afterlife in science class. You don't tell your boss that he takes his job too seriously. You don't cheer for the Ducks in a room full of Beavers. At a wedding, you don't say the word "divorce." At funerals, we hardly admit that we are all the person in the casket. At church, we don't sing songs about all the people who are going to hell. And on and on it goes. But honesty doesn't pander to formality or pretense or flattery or comfort. For that reason, most people don't like it. It doesn't get you popularity. It's like an alarm clock that is easier to unplug rather than wake up to reality. Most people are careful to say what they are supposed to say. They follow a script. The older generation is preoccupied with being respected and the younger generation is preoccupied with being cool. But honesty cares for neither. It comes streaking through the room, raising eyebrows. Whenever honesty happens, most people don't know what to say, it's very vulnerable and awkward and disagreeable. In an insane world, sanity is the laughing stock.

The Bible tells us to speak the truth in love. Love is not always nice, it doesn't always smile. Honesty is the vehicle for truth, and the truth is usually cutting. I'm not talking about the kind of honesty that tells someone that they are ugly. I'm talking about the kind of honesty that tells people what they need to hear so that they can really live and thrive. For instance, if a friend is ruining themselves with drugs then love confronts them, it doesn't support the addiction. That's not being legalistic, that's love. There is nothing loving about supporting sin that kills, real love intervenes.

Jesus is the most honest person I've ever read about. We often quote Him with a soft, sweet tone, but most of His statements were very abrasive and uncouth at the time. Things like "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." Nobody knew how to respond, because Jesus didn't follow protocol. He wasn't bureaucratic, He didn't play games. He just said what wasn't being said, but that needed to be said. Most people didn't get it, most people still don't get it. People usually believe what they want to believe. What's more, everyone is elitist, we all think we're right. And we surround ourselves with people who convince us that we are right. We follow leaders who are a projection of our own ideology. But in order to make room for truth within ourselves, we must somehow identify and weed out the lies. The problem is that lies are very good at masquerading as the truth. Our only hope is honesty, because if truth does exist then it won't get anywhere without daring voices and a willingness to listen. And yet, in the interest of truth, you can't be your own reference point, you can't learn from yourself . That's like feeding on yourself and hoping to be healthy. To be truly enlightened, we need an outer intolerant light to break into our self-sustained paradigms and lead us somewhere new.

On a different note, it is good to be honest and confess our unsightly struggles to others if only to remind each other that we are not alone in our monstrosity. There have been countless times when I thought I was the only one wrestling with a certain question or sin, but once I shared it, I found out that there were many others with a similar issue. What would happen if we all showed our cards and stopped bluffing? Among other things, love is honest.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Death and Undying Love

Winter is always colder than I remember. This is the season where I can't avoid thinking about my dead brother Tyler. Four years ago, on December 9th, he hung himself with a dog collar. Whenever I reflect on those days, it always seems like someone else's life, like a movie I watched a long time ago. But there's never much resolution when a movie ends with tragedy. Last night, I was tired but couldn't sleep. I just laid awake thinking about Tyler. And then I wondered why I was thinking about him, but I didn't know. Maybe, it's because Thanksgiving always points out the empty chair.

When my brother died, it was the first time that death became a reality for me. Early on, I had dreams that my brother was still alive. Other times, I'd wake up thinking that his death was only a dream. Some days, I thought I saw him around town. I knew he was gone, but my heart wouldn't let go so easily. Once, a friend told me that I had been crying in my sleep the night before. I had no idea, and it was kind of embarrassing. I recall the black hole that I awoke to every morning. In a world of billions of people, I was painfully aware of the one missing person. It felt as though God's plans had derailed. I felt so lost.

In those days, I would often close the door and lie on the floor for hours. Gravity seemed stronger. I could feel the world turning and everyone scurrying about, but it all seemed so pointless. I found a companion in C.S. Lewis's book "A Grief Observed." He talked about how when his wife died he couldn't even find the motivation to do things like shaving. I often forgot to eat.

The reminder that God is everywhere is not a happy thought when you want to get away from him for a while. I remember saying to my pastor "If God is good, then I question the nature of goodness." I don't remember what he said. I knew I should pray, but I was afraid of the ugly things I would say. I thought I was losing my faith but now I realize that it was being proven. After all, faith is only an idea until it is threatened. My prayers became more honest, like the ones in the Psalms. Some people would call that complaining, but someday they'll find out that in the thick of tragedy you either pray honestly or you don't pray at all.

In those days, love came out of the woodwork. Love carried me through it all. Friends and family stepped into our demolished world and helped us through the wreckage. I choke up even as I write about it. They stopped by and sat with us, hugged us, wept with us. They cooked meals, ran errands, wrote cards, listened, and relayed stories about Tyler. God loved us through people. I champion God's love more than anything else, because yet again it saved me. Nothing else made sense, but that simple truth became my North Star. I found peace in the reality that God loved my brother more than I did. I felt that God was weeping with me. His mighty love outgrew mere sentimental ideals. He told me He loved me over and over until I actually believed it. I can't trust someone who doesn't love me. I learned to trust God in a way that defied common sense. Death is cruel, but love is stronger.

Honestly, I just wish Tyler and I could've grown up together and developed more of a friendship. I think I would be a better brother now. I wouldn't care about being right or being better or stupid things like that. I should probably let go of all that, but when I try to let go it just follows me around. You learn to embrace things that you can't let go of. Maybe, it will make me a better person.

I recall the last time I said goodbye to Tyler, it was so casual. Had I known it was our last time together I would've acted differently. I would've told him that the world would be much a sadder place without him. I still miss you bro.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Guys and Girls and the Rest of Us

I think I would understand girls better if I had grown up with a sister. Instead, I grew up with four younger brothers. We did brother stuff. We played baseball together, rode dirt bikes, shot b-b guns, built tree forts, dug holes (for no reason), wrestled, wrestled some more, wrestling turned to fist-fighting, and an hour later we'd be playing baseball together again. If I'd had a sister, I probably would've been suckered into playing with dolls and dressing up and stuff like that. (I have a sister now, but my parents had her when I was in college and I was already out on my own, so I didn't really grow up with her). Anyway, most of my information about girls came from TV and movies, and much later I learned that girls weren't really like that in real life. They weren't so predictable. Growing up, I didn't know how to have a conversation with a girl. I was terribly awkward. I'm still awkward, but it was much worse back then.

I approached conversations with girls as if they were math problems, and they never added up and I was so puzzled. I didn't realize that there are lots of subtle non-verbal cues that girls communicate and if you're not paying attention then you miss them and misread them, and they know it. My first girlfriend was in the third-grade. I passed a note to her that said "Will you be my girlfriend? Check yes or no." She checked yes, but I didn't know what to do after that, so I didn't talk to her for the rest of the year. The following summer, I found out that she had a different boyfriend. One that talked to her.

Most generalizations for guys and girls are misleading, broad strokes like "Men are from Mars and women are from Venus." I'm convinced that some guys are from an entirely different planet than me. I'm a guy and yet I'm not like some guys. I don't like watching sports or hunting or belching or stuff like that. And I think it's the same thing with girls. I've yet to meet a girl that fits any formula. In fact, when I try to fit girls into a formula then I get frustrated. The reality is that everyone is unique and you only understand them when you get to know them. Perhaps, it helps to know some guidelines, like men want to be respected and women want to feel loved. But the specifics require a tailored relationship.

My friend Tim has a great marriage. I asked him the secret and he says that they just talk about everything. He says that things like leaving the toilet seat up are never the real issue. But that it's about his wife knowing that he treasures her, and that she is central to his life. He says that when something puts a wedge between them then they just talk about it and it works out. It makes sense. I can think of countless times when I was bitter toward someone because a tiny issue blew up in my mind but then when I talked with them and understood their heart, then it wasn't a big deal anymore. Arguments usually occur when there is a lack of communication. It's as if the pressure builds until someone explodes and then several different conversations happen at once and it usually ends with a good ol' fashion door slamming. There's also the silent treatment. I think it happens when one spouse wants the other spouse to squirm a little and figure things out on their own. From what I hear, it never really resolves anything, but just adds to the confusion. The scripture that says "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry" is a verse that continues to salvage volatile relationships. Sometimes simplicity is the only hope for utterly tangled situations. Simple things like talking.