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Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

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            Today I am back to the place where I spent the first half of my life, and everything has changed but the carpet and pews and maybe something else, but I can’t put my finger on it because I’ve never been that observant. It’s been a solid seven years since I last walked into this building. The key to it is cold in my hands, and I run my fingers up and down its skeleton as I walk the aisles. The lights are on but it’s dark outside, so the windows don’t show off their color like I remember. Maybe that’s it.

I’m pacing the aisles, and it’s reminding me of how old Mr. Jones used to pace them, hands shaking and tongue shaking as he spewed out what we call our own prayer language. He scared the junk out of me, that man. I laugh thinking about my six-year-old self seeing a wrinkly, wobbly old guy shouting in what sounded like a cross between Spanish and a toddler trying to speak English with a stutter. Boy, he would tell me in a quiet voice when he wasn’t praying, you’re just like your father. Just like your father.

I remember again why I’m here. I continue rubbing the key; it’s still cold.

Funny.

There was a point not too long ago when my father would worry excessively that I was going to hell. It’s not like he told me those words, exactly: “I think you might be going to hell”. And he never once told me to go there. But he would preach to me after he’d finished preaching to the church, asked me if I needed a fourth Bible, and at one point he took me to a Christian bookshop to buy fifty dollars’ worth of books that quoted the Bible every other page.

When the time came for me to leave the house, he called me once a week to ask me about the Sunday sermon at the church I was supposed to be attending. The one we (he) had decided upon, after spending an entire evening reading “What we’re about” pages on every church website in Ohio. I’d roll around in my bed and lift the phone to my ear before I’d register it was him, bright and early Monday morning the one day I got to sleep in, asking me ‘how was church!?’ Truth is, I attended church now and then, but when I didn’t I usually knew what to say to make him think I’d gone. Sundays I usually spent sleeping in, dealing with my pile of procrastination spewed all over my desk, and updating my Netflix queue.

We’re praying for you, he would always say before I hung up. As if he could tell that, despite all my words, I wasn’t sure about this whole God thing those days.

I wasn’t.

I had met a friend named Brian, and we were focusing on our music. University was just a means of pleasing our parents and ensuring some sort of security to fall back on while our music was beginning to take off. I’m in a band, we could say to our elders and childhood friends. Their eyebrows would raise and they would nod, sympathetic. And I’m also studying Architecture and Business. Oh! They would perk up. Isn’t that something? A man of many talents!

We were an acoustic band called Scream Oh! We thought that was a hoot. We wrote songs mostly about girls and about the ironies of life and double-meanings. My favorite song was one about doubting love after a harsh break-up; when I sang “she takes from my hands what can’t be replaced/ the skin from my palms/ exposing real bones that could never love her face”, I knew that I was also talking about the church, about God.

And my father kept calling me.

Once a week, Monday morning. The start of the week for me, the second day of it for him.

The key in my hand is being pressed violently into my skin. I’m squeezing it. The shape of it is in my palm for a brief second, the blood hot red around it. When I look up from my palm I see that there are new flowers in the vases by the altar. Mom must’ve done it, which surprises me. The woman who orders the same coffee every morning and goes to bed at nine forty-five to the minute, has switched out the vases full of red roses for white ones. I walk up to the altar, bend down and take a whiff of them. They smell the same. Like Saturday walks to Flora’s Flower Shop, begging mom for an ice cream or a bag of Pop Rocks since I’ve been good considering I’ve been forced to spend an entire afternoon in some girlie flower shop.

Smelling them makes me nostalgic for the first time since I’ve walked in here. I scrunch my knees up and sit on them, touching both my palms to the prickly carpet. It’s the same. I lay my back and my head flat against it, staring at the white arched ceiling. Before I’m aware of what I’m doing, I’m rolling two rolls to the left, my nose scrunched underneath the bottom of one of the old pews. It smells like dirt and musk and old lady’s perfume and wood and mint leaf and of sweat and sermons and shouting.

And that’s when I remember how Big Red was the best gum already-chewed. Most definitely. If the sermon got a little too long, you’d just plop your head down like you were taking a nap, then as soon as everyone got loud and jumped up screaming Hallelujah Amen Preach it, roll yourself right underneath the tops of the old pews, grab a wad of that pre-chewed stuff and think about how momma won’t find out you’re chewing another person’s spit, ‘cause she’s too busy watching everyone get saved. Juicy Fruit was often underneath those pews, too, but all the sugar had drained out of those pieces. Not Big Red. Big Red tasted like fire and cinnamon and even when it got raw in your mouth, when you would let it sit out for a little bit then put it back in, it would taste brand new again. Like fire, just as strong as the first time.

I’m laughing. My nose is shaking underneath the pew and my gut is shaking against it a little, too. I know I’m obviously bigger than what I used to be, but I didn’t understand it until right now. Why didn’t I crawl under a pew last time I was here?

Last time I was here, I was eighteen and about to travel halfway across the States for school; telling my parents I was going so far for the education, but knowing it was mostly to get away. I went into that building without my family knowing, especially Dad. He might get too sentimental. Make it something I was convinced it wasn’t. It was early, around five a.m. I snuck the key out of mom’s purse on the kitchen counter and made a mad dash down the street. The sky was dusky blue and it was the first time I had been alone in it. The trees leading up to the doors were waiting on the side of the road with their crooked fingers pointed up toward the sky. They would often make me wonder if trees could take some of our places the way rocks were going to, raising their hands to the sky while the rocks cried out.

Walking into the church was like smelling a familiar scent from my past, though I hadn’t yet left it. It was a formal farewell to a place I both loved and loathed the responsibility of. I watched my face change for ten years in that big, finger-printed mirror over there; that is, when I was tall enough to see past the mini table with the tacky fake flowers on display. Momma saved the real flowers for around the altar. I had dreams that I was sliding off the top of that staircase right there, fingernails scratching the carpet to keep me from falling. I had those dreams after I would crawl under the pews and press my tired face into the prickly carpet to take a nap, while phrases like “are you truly saved?” and “you are not perfect, but He is” slipped into those dreams. I had been there not only on Sundays but on days my dad needed to work overtime in his office; his office that was jammed full of what I thought must have been important papers, so important he couldn’t throw any of them away or the whole building might be snatched from us. I knew every tile on the floor in the kitchen, knew where to find the keys to open the snack machine and steal Skittles, knew how the church looked when the sun was just starting to come up and when the sun was just starting to go down.

When we stayed after service, which we usually did, I would sit in the swivel chair in the office and pretend that I was the new pastor. I am sad to inform you, good church people who love Jesus, that my dad has unfortunately died in a suddenly deadly car pile-up. Or, actually, he just wanted to go on an extra-long vacation to Fijis, ‘cause that’s not super sad. In those moments I was married with a wife and kids, bossing my wife to make me coffee (black, like a real man took his coffee) and file something important, telling my kids to be respectful and stop playing on the desk tables. I don’t know if Dad ever saw me in those moments, but if he did you can bet he was overjoyed. He would say it plain and simple: This place is yours if you want it, and I can’t help but hope that you do, son.

I was eight while I was playing those pastor games. Thinking that all it involved was sitting in those swivel chairs and having a pretty wife to file vital things for you, while you were making phone calls with a deep man-voice asking people how they were doing with Jesus these days. Maybe counseling every now and then, letting someone lay on the office couch, pencil on my lip, quoting scripture every time they brought up a problem.

I don’t know when exactly the games stopped. I simply grew up and understood the responsibilities that I could never fully grasp when I was eight, and started planting other dreams. It would start with music lessons, a lyric scribbled on a napkin, visions of performing in a band underneath lights that made my long hair drip sweat; talking to a swarm of girls who thought showing emotions like that was hot.

When I was eight I could sit in a swivel chair like my dad’s and feel what it might be like to lead people to the Lord, to save lost souls, to show them  how to love Jesus. But when I was eighteen I had given up fully, knowing that to execute it was an altogether different concept.

One day I thought about the church and it sent bile shooting up my throat, real, raw-tasting bile. Why was I baptized when I was seven? I didn’t know any better. The church had been a comfort, a safety zone. But it was gone. And it wasn’t real. None of it was real. I read poetry about wanting to believe in God, but not being able to: Why am I blind to sights my brethren see? I wrote songs about doubt. Why was I restrained from life, real life? Restrained from trying drugs or having sex or getting drunk or believing in Buddha or goddesses or Greek mythology? It’s not that I wanted those things, necessarily, but I didn’t want to be told that I could not want them when I wasn’t sure if I did or not. And finally, why did I have to be a bad person simply because I couldn’t believe, really believe?

So the most spontaneous decision of my life came to be—in a rush of adrenaline and boiling blood I spun the globe on the top of my desk, closed my eyes, and crushed my finger into it after a few seconds had passed. Screw the band. Screw the Monday-morning phone calls about going to church and putting me through spells of unnecessary guilt. Screw the lying to my father. Screw the two years left of my major. Screw wanting to travel the world but never doing it. Screw wanting to go after something but never knowing what it should be.

If I opened my eyes and my finger was in the middle of the ocean, well hell, I’d find my way there.

I opened them.

And there it was; my finger over a teardrop. Sri Lanka. I was going to Sri Lanka.

Before I had time to talk myself back into being rational, I was buying a one-way ticket, throwing what I could fit into my dusty suitcase and applying for a fast-track Passport. The next few weeks passed and I dropped out of school. I sold what I could of my furniture, some clothes. I called my parents only when I was in the airport to tell them. It came out robotic, like a recording. I still can’t remember what they said to me, not how they acted or whether or not their voice fluctuated, I was so numb.

That’s what was so funny, huh? That I could close my eyes and let my finger land on such a foreign ground then drop everything and leave, thinking some part of me would be fulfilled by doing so. Thinking I would leave all my doubts and fear of the unknown behind. Thinking if I was surrounded by all things new, maybe I could be new, too.

But it was what was the same that brought me revelation. When I arrived, the ground still held my feet. There was still dirt underneath my toes, and trees were still a greenish color in the summer. Birds still populated the air, and people still knew how to smile or frown or laugh. The air could still get sticky, a breeze could still rush in. I knew nothing of their native languages, but found a good amount of friends who could speak English by my second day. But even then, though I didn’t understand most everybody all around me, though they spoke something that sounded babbling and foreign, I understood what they were trying to say. There was a lady trying to barter for fruit at the market, her two children strewn about her knees and starving. There was a man with his head held high, walking in front of his wife, showing his life off. People needed food like I needed food, and we ate in the same way, with our mouths and eyes and noses. There were eyes full of love, eyes full of rage, eyes that were empty. I was seeking for a world where no man would think himself greater than the other. No man would tell another what to do. Where wealth and food would be shared, where hands would be opened freely; a world conjured up in the crevices of my mind, a place safe and all mine… and I knew, immediately, that I would never fully find it here, or back home, or anywhere. A world conjured up in the crevices of my mind, a place safe and all mine.

Yet I stayed. Weeks, months. Taking up odd-end jobs wherever I could find them. Living on the loans meant for school.

The closest friend I had was a man who spoke English, Saman, but not as well as most. The first man I met who could understand when I asked “Do you speak English, please?”

When I asked him after months of friendship what he believed the meaning of life was, he told me that it was whatever I wanted to believe it was. We were lying on a spray of smooth brown-red rocks, listening to the ocean.

“Life means what you want,” he said.

“What if I don’t know what I want?”

“Life means that.”

“But don’t you ever think there has to be more than you and me?”

“Yes.”

“Then, what is it?”

“What you want it, I think.”

The waves crashed around us still. They were much too far away to touch our toes, yet I had visions of them snatching us by the ankles, leading us out into the open sea where we knew nothing.

In the middle of that sea, what would we believe? That, as our heads bobbed above the surface, we were still the most powerful beings? As our legs and arms grew weary of kicking, there was still hope? I once was taught that Jesus could walk on water. Would I think about that if I was in the middle of it, drowning? If a man were to come to me, stepping on the water as if it were smooth pavement, would I touch his hand, or fear it were an illusion and not even try, confident in my own senses in that moment of panic and sinking fear?

Saman and I continued to talk. I told him about Sunday school and growing up believing in God right there; it was the first time I had talked about what I was running from all the time I had been there. We talked until sundown. We stretched our arms and let the blood enter other parts of our body; on the red rocks we breathed like we hadn’t before.

One week later I found a church buried under lively green trees, in a little cream building. There were no pews. We folded our legs and sang in a language I didn’t know. Yet all around me, I felt that I understood what was happening. A familiar sensation lit up the air, whisking me off to the days of sitting on my knees around my father’s altar, covering my eyes with my hands and asking God to please please show me what he thought about me, what he wanted me to do. Receiving a response that always just said I love you, coming over my body like a runner’s high, like a good night’s rest, like if I wanted to I could fly… a lightness, a simplicity. God? I whispered for the first time in years. But as soon as it came off my lips, it didn’t feel like a question anymore.

One year later I went home. My twenty-three hour layover was in Dubai, and I took the opportunity to scale the Burj Khalifa. Standing atop the observation deck, watching the way the earth curved, I knew I could never go back to not believing in God. Because as I looked out beyond me, to the very horizon and dip of the globe, I found myself saying under my breath: “This is it.” This was the tallest building in the world. This was as far up as we had ever gone, and even if we went any further up from the ground, we would still ever only be under the sky.

All my dreams of escaping the church and God led me to here, the tallest building on the earth, only to realize that not even here could I see everything.

The key is warm in my hands. I roll out from underneath the pew. There’s this verse in my head that’s been playing as if it’s a soundtrack on repeat for the past few weeks since father called: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he’s old, he will not depart from it”. I’m not old yet. Twenty-five years old with memories of this place at ten, still fresh in corners of my brain. Memories of Sri Lanka and going to church with Saman and standing on top of the Burj Khalifa in another corner. Memories of sitting in the basement making music for hours, of thinking that the best in life was to be found only in words I created.

I’ve been back to school. I’ve sat through Business classes with a fresh mind. I’ve been attending a church each week not with feelings of obligation, but because when I wake up Sunday mornings I know there’s no place I’d rather be. I am more confident that life is not about me, not about how I see it, more than I’ve ever been.

I walk up to the white roses again, and smell them. It’s like they’ve lost their color. Maybe I’m more observant than I give myself credit for. They’ve gone from red to white. Clean.

My dad didn’t expect to get a call from me yesterday, I bet. Telling them guess what, I’m coming over there tomorrow, just for a weekend. I’m closer to them now, and much closer than Sri Lanka of course, but still further than they’d like me to be. So they’re of course thrilled that I said I’m coming, though I knew mom would spend the next twenty-four hours dusting in-between the kitchen tiles.

Here I am now, the key warm in my hand. An offer I know still exists. You can work here with me, son. You’re always welcome. The very place I thought I would avoid. The very place that taught me to love God yet taught me to unknowingly hate him and mistrust him, too.

In Sunday school, I was always the star pupil. Answering all the questions before any other kid had a chance to think about them. The star of Bible trivia and Sword Drills and that kid who sang a solo in the Christmas pageant every year, wearing a shepherd’s costume.

But one specific day in Sunday school we shared our prayer requests out loud. Everyone was required to say something, and we went in a circle. Karen asked if we could please pray for her grandma who was very sick. Matty asked if we could pray for his leg which he had broken a week ago, and also his baby sister who was a brat. Finally, it got to me. I had been racking my brain trying to come up with something that needed prayer. Before I was ready, it was my turn, and my body went cold. I don’t need prayer, I had told them. Well, what about someone else that you know? My teacher had suggested. I thought about it, thought hard. Then, I looked up from my palms and said: I don’t know what they need.

Me, star Sword Driller, always the shepherd with the solo in the Christmas plays. Son of the pastor, Bible quizzer.

I wasn’t even aware of what people needed prayer for, or what I needed it for, either.

I continue pacing the aisles. I walk up the few steps to the pulpit, standing upright behind it, shoulders back. I imagine hundreds of faces in front of me, expectant. When I do, a chill goes down my spine so good and so frightening. That scripture in Luke about the Holy Spirit speaking through me jettisons through my mind, and I find myself saying out loud, Yeah, Holy Spirit, you better, or we’re in trouble. I scan the crowd. There’s those elderly ladies in the back, their walkers sitting next to them. Mr. Jones’ wife, Edna, and her best friend Mary. Today they are going to receive healing, I don’t care how old they are. And there, on the right, is Walter Wimbley and his family. Anne, his eldest daughter with an eating disorder, is going to be told how beautiful she is. And it won’t come from human lips that have so long haunted and deceived her, and can never make her feel worthy. It will come from the lips of her father that will skip through her vanity and insecurity and fall into her soul like a seed, sprouting words of true beauty and life. And there, in the middle, underneath the second pew is a child that looks like me. He’s picking the bottom of the pew, tugging at a piece of gum that keeps bouncing back into the air. Son, I’ll tell him. You’ll remember these words that you hear. And even though you’ll have to wander to figure it out for yourself, you’ll know that these words are always an option. And I wish I could tell you this so you would understand, really understand, that these words are true. They’re not mine, so they’re true. But you’ll still have to learn that for yourself, and I can’t help that.

I try to keep my back straight, but it crumples. I fall to my knees on the stage, shaky. I don’t know if my life will keep me here or take me back to Sri Lanka or lead me to another place somewhere like the middle of the ocean, where I think for a moment that maybe I’ll drown.

I crawl back down the steps, on hands and knees, and lie down against the carpet once more. This place will change. The carpet will be taken out, the flowers will die, the pews will rot. One day it will be demolished, turned into dust. Its bones will die. But its body—its real body, the one that must be discovered aside from the carpet and pews and flowers, will continue to live as it has for so long. Stretching its fingers and toes and heartbeat toward every region of the world, every corner of the mind; moved by something grander than this human heart.

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In a sun-scorched clearing somewhere, on paths stretched out for miles marked by gathered dust and fallen orange leaves, a lion and a dog walked side-by-side.

Now, you must know that Lion was not often seen with Dog; polished gold brown did not often walk together with mud-brown, soiled coats. But Lion was to speak tomorrow, on the tip of the land’s largest and highest boulder, as he was chosen to clear up rumors going around about a strange creature the animals had been whispering about. And Dog, his paper skin stretched over long bones, was always scavenging for something. He was as hungry for good food as he was attractive news.

Lion had been surprised to see him soon as the yellow-white light soaked his skin, tail between his legs, long tongue dropped over his teeth, head lowered but eyes high in defiance of his weary neck.

Mother Bird had been the first to speak, singing up in one of the colored trees.

“Well, Dog, good morning! What a surprise!”

She eyed her three babies, mouths open and watering from their mother’s delay.

“Good morning…”

“Good morning…”

“Good morning…” they sighed, until Mother Bird nodded her head in approval, and dropped breakfast into their stomachs.

When Lion was face-to-face with Dog, they began to walk as if they had awoken every morning to walk together. The sound of crisp leaves flattened under paws was the morning’s only melody, until Dog began to pant.

“I forget your strides aren’t as great as mine,” Lion said as he slowed.

“Yes. Not even my strides can match yours,” said Dog.

There was a break in the crunching of the leaves.

“Dog?”

“Yes?”

“I suppose you’re here to ask me about the creature.” You always had to be the first to know, Lion did not add. You are desperate for something, anything to feed your decaying insides. But aren’t we all?

            “Yes.” You know you are more powerful than me with or without this information, Dog did not add. You are desperate to keep your status and your power by spilling your knowledge only in spurts, and only when you see fit.

            “Dog?”

“Yes?”

“I cannot wait to die.”

The words were casual, quick. Lion spoke as if he commented on how colorful the leaves were this time of year, how the spiders crawling along the paths matched them.

“What?”

“Well, Dog. I believe that I deserve to die.”

“What do you mean by ‘deserve’?”

I deserve, Lion thought but dared not speak, to be in a place finer than this. Where everyone’s coats are golden, as mine is. Where creatures do not beg and hunt for their meals. Where bones are not seen underneath skin, and where I might eternally lie in the sun.

“Dog. I will tell you the story that Fox told me. About the Creature. But you must promise not to tell anyone until I tell them.”

Dog’s stomach grumbled. If he was not fed with this knowledge, he might die.

“I won’t.”

“A creature,” Lion began to tell, “was spotted only seven days ago by Fox.”

“Only seven days ago, Fox was out and about near some meadow, doing his usual business—taunting the little butterflies and poking his nose into beds of flowers. He always took a route that was rather far from where he lived when he went on his morning strolls, but one that was simple enough to get him back very easily; a straight trail with no option to turn. But it seemed as though his eyes deceived him this particular morning, as when he turned around to head back home, there was now a path sprouting out from the original. Distinct, yes, but worn; as if it had always been an option.

Naturally, he began to walk down the new path, and after miles of what looked like the same beds of baby pastel flowers, he came to a spot unlike any he’d seen before. There were vines, rows after rows of them, colored in greens and yellows and oranges and reds, dripping with clusters of grapes, purple and bittersweet. There was a sign by the fence, asking passerby’s to please not eat them, but Fox told me that he knew he had stumbled upon this place not by chance, but because the grapes were meant to be consumed by him. He was ravenous, and the grapes were filled with juice to quiet his groaning gut. He continued this way for a while: plucking the grapes off with his pointy teeth, mashing and crunching them until their liquid ran down the sides of his jaws. When his stomach was halfway full, he said, he noticed suddenly that there were sheep nearby, not far off in the distance.

They had been calling to him, it seemed, but he could not hear them through his glorious crunching. They had been calling “Hey, please do not eat that! Stop eating that! It belongs to us! We were told it belongs to us!” But even when Fox understood what they were saying, he didn’t stop. Their voices were soft, and they were spread out in different directions, looking quite lost and defenseless. Some would yell but were not even facing him, as if they only yelled because they heard others doing it. He continued to eat until his insides made no noise, and then he ate some more. After lying on the soiled ground for minutes, listening to the sheep cry, he stood back on his feet and turned himself back toward the pathway home.

As soon as he stepped out of the mess of colored vines, as soon as he turned his head toward the pathway home, he saw it: the outline of the creature in front of the flat horizon. Fox could not help but let out a faint shriek at the mere sight of the creature, which overwhelmed him all at once with what he said was a sense of regret, and the most irrational of all fears. The creature was bigger than myself, bigger than a Lion, with paws of a Lion and the body of one, perhaps even larger than any regular lion, Fox noted. But, the strangest part was that the skin of the creature was glaringly white, its mane in soft curls much like what you might see on a lamb’s skin; its nose pink but its mouth black-lined, an appearance altogether soft as it was frighteningly powerful. Fox said it spoke to him from a great distance, but he heard it as if it were standing next to him. It asked him why he ate the grapes, why did he take what was not his to take. Fox had responded, he said, by informing the creature that ‘A creature has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry, right?’”

Lion cleared his throat, looked at Dog to see the look on his face, then continued:

“You see, the odd thing is, that when Fox was telling this story, I could sense his fear. I could feel it on my skin in chills, as if I were walking through the dead of winter. But when he began to tell me this part, I felt warm again. I was not afraid. And neither was Fox. He stopped looking at me when he told this part, and he did not seem afraid anymore. Rather, dare I say—he seemed as if he was suddenly aware he was speaking to me, and had to make himself seem stronger than we both had been feeling he was. He continued to tell me that he had a conversation with the creature, and that the creature told Him about a place where he wouldn’t need to fill up his body with juices from grapes, because there was something that was far more important than anything we taste or touch or even see here. Fox replied that he himself delivered back a practical and powerful speech about how one could not survive on this supposed sustenance, and that the practical thing would be to eat what was in front of him, and what there was plenty of; the practical thing is to drink the juice that you feel run down the sides of your jaw and to crunch the grapes between your teeth. If it is a wrong, it is but a minor wrong, and minor does not matter much. The Lamb-and-Lion creature came face-to-face with him. Fox did not go into detail when he told me this. He simply told me that He could see into his eyes, and that he did not feel comfortable. In fact, he felt that this creature would destroy many things that he loved very much, like eating forbidden grapes. The Lamb-and-Lion began to speak again, saying that He came to tell Fox that there would be life, abundant life. A life after life ceases. But, Fox says, he became overwhelmed with a sense of disruption, and began to run, run to me. To tell me that there was someone out there bigger than myself, and that this creature was going to take away everything that we know. He told me that a new path had opened in the road, and that it was my duty to inform everyone to be on the lookout for a creature coming to change the way we live. A creature coming to tell us that we could no longer do what we wanted, he said. Someone who would perhaps tear us apart for filling our hungry stomachs with grapes. In fact, the more Fox talked, the more monstrous the creature seemed to become.

            To be honest, I did not believe this story at first. We know how elaborate Fox can be with words; if he lies, you will believe the lie, if he speaks truth, you will feel as if you yourself have experienced it. But I think he was embarrassed to tell me this story. I sensed that he told me simply because he wanted to be the first to receive the glory for spotting the creature. No, I hardly believed him at first. Who could believe something as silly as a creature made up of a strong creature such as myself, and a soft-hearted creature so easily taken advantage of?”

Lion stopped.

Dog stopped.

“But, Dog, I saw the creature. Three nights ago for the first time. And I am not the only one. Since Fox saw Him, many others claim that they have seen Him, too. He has not only been appearing in dreams, but in streams where Fish lives, and in trees that Mother Bird nests in, and in coves where Bear sleeps. And he woke me up three nights ago, the sound of leaves outside my door, his silhouette in my window. I knew it was him. And, the oddest thing was, I wasn’t afraid as I had expected to be. Last night, he woke me up again. And I looked upon him more closely, and saw how much I resembled him. Only, Dog…. I don’t know. A strange thought passed my mind: perhaps I did not resemble Him, but He resembled me? With that thought, I looked back out the window, and he was gone. What would you make of that?”

Dog tried to answer, but yellow spiders, orange spiders, and brown spiders were crawling around his toes, up his thin bones. All spiders are notorious poets, and these began to whisper verses about birth and death and the middle of it all; Dog tried to shake them away, but the yellow one clung on. It whispered words about another world after death. Dog had never thought about what another world after death might look like. He wondered, Who can possibly know what will happen to me after I have lived my entire life toiling under the sun, knowing only the sun? Could there, perhaps, be a different kind of sun? Is life not futile? Certainly my thoughts, my words, are futile. But what of my being?

“I think, in this new place, every creature will not be big or small, we will just be,” Lion said. “I just know it. Size will not matter. Spiders will be lions, and lions will be spiders, and then perhaps they will switch. Perhaps spiders will dwell in palaces, too.”

            Oh, and there will be roads of gold; that’s what Mother Bird said after she spotted the Lion-Lamb. Roads of gold that gleam more than these yellow leaves under white sunshine. Yes, I deserve this place. Does not the powerful deserve such an evocative land? I have done nothing but rule with strength, with discipline, do I not deserve such a place? I am tired of the dirt, of the paths that lead to uncertainty, of the other creatures who do not understand the totality of my personal strength, my own beauty.

“Oh, I cannot wait to know,” Lion said. “I cannot……”

There, in the time it took to put one paw in front of the other, Lion died, falling on the left side of his stomach, dust escaping fast as it could from his sides. Flies sweltered to his face within seconds, as if they knew he was destined to go down at this exact minute.

Dog did not shout, did not jump. His paws remained crunched into the leaves they had pressed into when Lion said his final words. He stood more upright than he had before.

He walked toward Lion, expecting him to jump up playfully, though he had never seen Lion act playful. He pressed one of his paws into the beast’s side, and his paw begin to sink as if it were being pressed into a spot of mud; the flesh opened and began to bleed, running down and soaking the giant Lion. In the state of death this powerful creature bled with the touch of a meager mutt’s paw!

Dog yelped, horrified, shaking off the skin and blood from his paw, running in circles around the body of the beast.

          The spiders followed, scattering in circles with Dog, screaming in sync:

            Death is the destiny of all

            And so the great Lion has taken his fall

            Now the day of death is greater than the day of birth

            But did Lion truly live all his birth was worth?

            And the end of matter is better than the beginning

            But in the race of life was Lion drawn away from finishing?

            Oh!

            Woe!

            Why destroy yourself?

            Why die before your time?

            Oh, ease, no ease, for the little heart of mine!

 

Dog stopped running, as he was panting heavily, and would soon fall if he were not calmed. Again, he faced the body.

Who would believe that Lion so suddenly died? How would he explain his death to everyone else? But more importantly, who would tell the others about the Lion and the Lamb creature, if not Lion? Who would let them know they could not believe Fox’s account of terror? Who would let them know the creature was both strong and meek? How would he explain that this creature could be both feared and loved, all at once—Dog had never known such a concept in his own, personal life. He did not know whether the creature was bad or good.

And, certainly the most obvious question, who would believe it coming from Dog’s mouth? Dog, a creature hungry for news both good and bad, stealing scraps from homes that were not his, content with living life only to feed himself. He felt that if he had an eternal part inside him, it was as dirty as the coat of fur wrapped around his outsides.

How selfish, Lion! He thought. How selfish!

Woe, woe! Everything I did

I do not

Know.

If lions fall, how am I still to stand?

If the bravest is dead, how can I live without fear?

If the toughest skin is soiled soggy maroon, how am I to walk outside, even in the sunny noon?

            Then a voice spoke, near. Between his wails, a stranger had appeared next to Dog. It was Owl, old Owl, the night school teacher. A creature who had spent his time hiding from the sun, pleasuring the night. Teaching the animals who could not sleep, lessons of the stars.

The creature fluffed its feathers and collected a breath.

“Oh, Dog. I have been searching for you. I am old and slower than I used to be. But I have a message for you, and there was nothing that could be done to stop it. I was so determined to get it to you that I have not done anything but try to deliver it.”

Dog could not fit a “hello” in, before Owl went on:

“You see, Dog, I saw the creature that resembles both Lion and Lamb. It told me that today, around this exact time, you would be in great danger. I didn’t know what to think of it, but the creature—Dog, I can’t explain. I can only try to explain through telling you how I feel. But even that won’t suffice, Dog. Oh, he is one like no other! Oh, even the most poetic spiders and most glorious diction could not suffice! I have met him only once, yet I know everything and nothing about him. But he knows me, Dog. He told me everything about myself that I already knew, and He told me everything about myself that I did not know.

I was full of fear, Dog, when he spoke—but not a fear that Mother Bird might have when she hears someone rustle the leaves when it’s dark out, and her babies are sleeping. No, no, not a terror, but an excitement. A fear that everything as I know it will be gone soon, and replaced with a most challenging, engaging endeavor. For who could dream up such a creature as this?! Certainly not my mind, Dog. I admit, certainly not my intellect, nor my imagination.

You know me, friend, though it’s been a while since we’ve seen each other. I have studied the greatest words one can study, I have occupied lands richest in fruit and water and trees, I have heard the most exquisite poems and delighted in wise company. But, Dog, oh Dog, how I have lived without this sense of knowing, and being known, that I do not know.

And I have a message for you, now, friend. Now, lean in and strain your ears to hear me, for I speak softly. Strain your soul to listen, for I speak truth. This comes from the Lion-and-the Lamb, and is meant for you to hear, and there is not a doubt about it.”

The dog unfolded its ears, and uncurled its tail.

“I am here to tell you that firstly, dear Dog, the Lion-Lamb has revealed to me something about you. You believe yourself to be the dirtiest, weakest, and lowliest. And perhaps to others, you seem this way, too.”

The dog’s head remained hung, low, low, nose to the ground.

The owl uncurled a wing, and gently pulled up the chin of his friend.

“But despite all that you have done, I am told that you are valuable. For it’s no secret that as long as you are able to feel the sun on your matted skin and are able to speak words and breathe air, there is life in you. And when there is life in you, no matter what you have done, I am told, and now fully believe, there is hope. You small, filthy animal—you are better than the strongest dead.”

Tears dripped from the dog, falling into the dirt, creating a new color.

“Now, Dog. I am old. I am slow. I’m afraid my time is coming, soon. But I am not afraid anymore. I have completed my mission now. You must run ahead, Dog. You must run ahead of me, as fast as you can, and tell the others that the Lion-Lamb is on His way. He will be coming, not far behind you. You must prepare the way, and you must let all the others know that he is good, Dog, he is good.”

Dog did not have to go. He did not have to run for miles under the boiling sun, panting all the while smiling. He could have stayed put and told owl that perhaps, like Fox had considered, he had been deceived. He could have told his friend that he would need a couple days to think it over. But before Reason, Reason that eagerly dictates our minds and causes us to wonder why the stars, why the soil, why life or death, why me, why you, why this body, and Reason that tells us don’t you do anything about anything before you fully understand… before Reason could take hold of his paws and tie them together and keep him within itself….he took off. And in doing so, he killed Old Reason and gave birth to New Reason.

Dog began to run, a newfound vibrancy in his small bones, a restoration he thought impossible. His friend the owl was far behind him now, but his voice echoed through the trees as if it were all around him; a voice composed of both command and question, as if it came not from his friend, but from —

“Go! Go while you are alive and capable of moving, and tell them that soon I am coming, to make the truth known!”

He heard Him. New Reason gently whispered yes, that was His voice. And though he had not yet seen him, he loved Him.

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The first part is to question nothing. When your teacher tells you that the world was originally one continent as you sit there in third period Biology, get offended. Don’t believe any of it, and instead of listening, come up with all these excuses in your head as to why you shouldn’t have to take Biology, because you really don’t want to talk about any other possible options as to how the world was created. You were born in the church, and it’s all you’ve ever known. You’re really not comfortable thinking about it any other way, because it makes you think about why you do what you do and why you think how you think, and you’re thinking that could be dangerous. Sometimes, it’s better just to believe. It’s better to believe that war is necessary and people must die, and the poor must be poor, and some people just “get it” and some people just don’t, and there’s really nothing you can do sometimes about anything, ever. When you hear of school shootings, and children being drugged and forced to kill their own parents, and a climate change, and new planets, go into your room and lock the door and fold your legs underneath your stomach and shiver. But do not worry, because tomorrow you will make yourself forget. You will cover the guilt with pretty words that disguise themselves as actions. You are an expert at believing what you want to.

The second part is to question everything, right? Because isn’t truth abstract, and an ultimate truth unattainable? Why can’t I be right, and you also be right, and he and she also be right, even though our stories are dramatically different? What is justice, and why do we fight wars? Justice is when the murderer is murdered, so find justice in murder, right? Don’t they deserve it? Shouldn’t people get what they deserve? What is forgiveness, and why do we forgive? Isn’t forgiveness for suckers, can’t it never truly be heartfelt? So why do we even try? Fairness is when I sacrifice and then you sacrifice, when I give and then you give, isn’t it? Isn’t it earned, just like grace? Grace must be earned; you must work for it, must be worthy of it, shouldn’t you? Won’t questioning help you to become aware of yourself like you have never become aware of yourself before? Oh yeah, and you, yeah you, don’t forget that you are self-righteous!? You pretend that you aren’t, but you are!? You are also ungrateful, because you don’t say thank you to God for waking you up every morning!? Why all these questions?? I am done with the questions???

Finally, when taking a stand after questioning, be cynical, always cynical. Be cynical of others, first. Focus on the important things, like how many swear words someone says, or the type of lighting that the sanctuary has (I think it’s a little darker in here; why does it always have to be dark; why can’t we just praise even if our makeup runs down our cheeks or we are seen weeping? This must be a church that is afraid of being real). Compare yourself to the person you’re making eye contact with, wherever you are at, and hope you turn out better than them in some way. Say you love someone even though you know you do not, because you wouldn’t ever invite them over for breakfast, or walk their dog, nor do you care to talk to them for a whole hour over coffee, even good coffee. Talk about how you ought to feed and clothe others, to others, but don’t do it. It’s too much of a burden, and you don’t even know if you can provide a meal for your own family, and you needn’t make the effort. Worry about how you will provide for yourself. Constantly worry about where you will live and eat and what you will do. A sparrow? You don’t even know what one looks like, to be honest. But you’re convinced right now that it’s prettier than you. This is when you become cynical of yourself. Go to Wednesday night Bible studies once a month (when you remember to stop watching shows on Hulu around 7pm) and cry to the small group leader, telling them that your life is falling apart; then on the drive home wipe your black eyes and feel okay, but also kind of stupid that you told them. Hate yourself, hate that you always think about yourself and always cater to yourself, and that you never sacrifice yourself. Be guilty and ashamed of any grace you are given, to the point where you do not believe that you are given it. At the end of the day, when you have defeated yourself, when you have come to the realization that Christianity will only ever mean throwing yourself under flying stones…. decide that you hate it, and blame it for making you hate it.

Decide who God is going to be based on who you are going to be. Forget about reading the Bible, as the words are too difficult to pronounce, and after a while it all sounds the same: regurgitated, repetitive, uneventful. Like a goal you wrote down as a child, but grew up to laugh at; it was beautiful but difficult.

Fall on your knees in your room and scream at the top of your lungs that you are done being apathetic, and that you are done being emotional, and that you are done being both.

Finally, question your cynicism. But note: this will bring you back to the first part—questioning nothing.

Whatever you do, do not think that there is hope in getting out of it. Do not find yourself uncurling from your infantile position on your bedroom floor, beginning to sing in the dark, an old hymn that has remained in your head from the days of pews and wooden crosses on display. O that old rugged crossed, so despised by the world, has a wondrous attraction for me. Do not turn on the lights and do not open your Bible. It will only lead you to disappointment again. Do you want the cycle to repeat? Do not read the words and for once, truly for the first time in your life, decide you are going to understand them rather than try to understand them. If you try, you have an excuse to fail. But if you are going to, you are going to. Do not fold your fingers into your palms and pray. Do not believe that grace is sufficient for you; that the prodigal son can be forgiven after he has run out again, then come back again, then run out again, then come back again, then run out again, then come back again, then run out again, then come back again….

No! Do not believe you can be wiped completely clean of your selfish life yet again, and definitely do not believe that this time, finally, something will be set into motion that will forevermore change the way you live and love and think, and it will be Christ, the truest picture of Christ you’ve ever seen.

You see, the key is to believe everything, anything, but the truth.

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One day I took off my shoes to feel what it is like not to have them. I burned my feet and cried and cried over them and over the feet of all those without shoes. I sat on the cement next to a man who smelled like street sewer and who strummed an out-of-tune, four-stringed guitar. I saw legs go by, some picking up their pace as they paraded by us, some slowing to stare. Maybe smile. I saw hands go by; hands that lifted up shoulders mechanically, attached to sounds like I’m sorry, No cash, Have a good day, Take care. I was low, so low onto the ground I could look into the eyes of the man next to me. Eventually I sweat like him and smelled like him and I understood him; he just wanted to be seen. By evening, I told him good-bye and to take care, but I meant it, truly meant those words like I had never meant them before, as I walked away. That same day I traveled to a third-world country, and held up a camera to a thin, crusty little face. I envisioned the photo in black and white, framed on one of the walls of my house—in  a spot that people will see right when they walk in so they know I know about the pain. The pain I thought I could see in the flash of light exposing the child’s flaking skin and faraway expression, in the blinking click of the camera’s eye. But when I had the photo printed, I saw my own reflection in it first, above the line of chapped lips, in the center of the pupil. I was a big smiling chin under camera eyes. Not what I expected, but maybe it can represent hope, I decide, because at least one of us is smiling. Yes, it will represent hope, there is hope. Life is beautiful because there is hope! Things can change! I hang the picture in my house to remember the child. After a long day, I walk on my sore feet to my bed; my shoes are lying next to it.

…….

This is a prose poem I wrote a year or so ago. James 2:26 had been haunting my daily thoughts, which includes the delightful reminder that “Faith without deeds is dead”. Dead. As in, not living. As in pretty much nonexistent, in this way of viewing the word “dead”.

After reading so many books (like Francis Chan’s “Crazy Love”, Kyle Idleman’s “Not a Fan”, and oh yeah, the Bible) I finally had a moment where I realized they all advocated for the same thing—don’t just read this book. Live it daily. Don’t just know what to say. Say it with love and courage. Don’t just think about what you’d like to do. Do it with boldness and prayer. After all, the Bible is called the living word of God, is it not? Isn’t that what makes it unique from any other book, and what will keep it unique forever? The fact that it is breathing life; that it is relevant, constant, eternal? (Hebrews 4:12 and Matthew 24:35, to see for yourself).

I was slightly terrified of James 2:26. It was usually easy for me to empathize with people, and usually easy for me to have faith that goodness would prevail—but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was usually just thinking about all of this, rather than doing something about doing something about it.

So, there I am yesterday afternoon, sitting on my living room couch, mid-sentence in Shane Claiborne’s “The Irresistible Revolution”, when I have the sudden impulse to drop the book and run. Literally run out to Mill Avenue, a street lined with bars and restaurants and quite a few homeless men and women.

(Sidenote: This was probably not too long after I read the line “Most good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived”. FYI, the book “Irresistible Revolution” is a crazy-inspirational book about the crazy inspiring life of Claiborne, and his Simple Way ministry and lifestyle. It should be read by you who are reading this right now, if you haven’t already discovered it long before me.)

So, true story:

I do drop the book. I do run. (Although it sort-of turned into a jog 1/3 of the way in, as I was in ballet flats and haven’t ran for a month). I walked around trying to find somebody who was homeless and hungry.

Well, believe it or not, I only ran into one man. One man.  And he wasn’t even hungry. I asked if he wanted company, wanted somebody to tell his story to. He didn’t. His girlfriend was actually coming back to bring him coffee in t-2 minutes.

I felt a sudden sense of guilt while I was talking to him. So, we high-fived, exchanged street names (he’s “Monster”, and I’m just “Kaitlyn”, although I wish I would’ve said something cooler now that I think about it), and I walked away, thinking what was I expecting?

I was expecting to give money away, I guess. I was guilty because I had the same amount of cash in my pocket as when I set out. I was upset. Because, dangitt, I was willing! I was able! I wanted to have hands and feet that were led to feed. I had the resources to, had the heart to, the time to, and had the ability to physically move around in a free, open space. But the streets seemed emptier than ever before.

I was expecting to share the gospel. I guess there would be a moment where I would stare deep into Monster’s eyes and tell him that he was loved. Then, he would probably cry. And it would be the first time he’s ever cried in, like, five years. And he would tell me he wanted to know Jesus, too.

So, there I am, begrudgingly headed back home, streets still empty all along the way.

Then, it finally hits me. Laughter. I start laughing at myself, at all my moping, literally laughing out loud like a madman. I was frustrated with not being able to find a hungry homeless man or woman; not a rumbling stomach near the streets I was walking down. Why on earth was I frustrated about a thing like that?

Perhaps because I wanted to share the gospel, I told myself. But then, why did I not just stop and chat with one of the thirty students whom I had just passed?

Perhaps I’ll run into somebody when it is inconvenient for me to give. Actually, I know I will. It will be when my pockets are full with money I’d have liked to use for my own lunch, or for a book I want to read. When love requires sacrifice, I want to be able to give and give, just as much as I want to give right now, when it’s pretty convenient.

It is not bad to go out of one’s way to try to help another. Au contraire. It’s something that I realize I don’t do nearly enough, but something that has been on my mind more and more. When we finish reading a book that inspires us, or hear a sermon that makes us want to jump out of our seats and take action—well, let us take that action! Let us exit the doors and immediately give of ourselves in the form of money, of compassion, of helping hands and feet. But let it not be a fad, a sudden impulse; something that is fleeting and dependent upon our mood.

Let it remain with us long after the words we have read seem worn-out and repetitive. Let the desire to give selflessly remain in us when we are walking down the streets or sitting in a classroom, in a workplace, or eating out, or going to the movies, or……. (insert any scenario, ever, right here).

We cannot fully understand until we do. To admit but never change is to accept. Follow the “radical” desires to consistently love and give and rid of the self, but keep in mind that action can be something as simple as faithfully paying tithes on Sunday, or making time to get good conversation in with friends, and to meet and show hospitality to strangers on a regular basis (Hebrews 13:2)—rather than playing on our phones.

Do seek out the hungry, the hurting, but know they will appear to you in many different forms.

And keep in mind that sometimes the “simple”, done faithfully, is radical in itself.

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He had a Jesus fish on the back of his car, so people knew he was a believer. In thin letters, the word “Jesus” was squeezed inside the stomach, in case the open-tailed fish itself didn’t give it away. He didn’t think much about why the word “Jesus” was squeezed inside the fish. He just slapped it onto his car after paying fifty cents for it when he saw it at the register, when he went to purchase the “Purpose-Driven Life”. That book was lying open on chapter eight somewhere in the car; a chunk of bent pages holding its place, next to the NIV version of a Bible his grandma had given him one year for Christmas. He had opened it hoping for cash, maybe a nice shirt, but instead it was an NIV version of a Bible he didn’t need, didn’t want. He loved Jesus and all, but he had four Bibles already, stacked on a drawer in his room next to an old movie ticket stub, a wrapped peppermint, and a pair of readers.

He went to church on Sundays and Wednesdays, and always raised his hands. And high. When the preacher asked people to come to the altar, he always came. He would look to his left and right, to make sure somebody was watching his humility, then came forward, eyes shut, fists clenched, Jesus, I need you, Jesus, I want you, Jesus, I love you while images of himself coming forward played in his mind like a scene from a Christian film—but a good one; one that was well-written, and would make someone other than a middle-aged mother cry.

He volunteered for church events, and served BBQ sandwiches to people who smelled like dirty fish, and he smiled at them and asked them about their day and their name and if they were happy with their life and do they know God and do they want to know God and do they know they can know God right now.

Once he saw a man on the street who he could have sworn he served BBQ to once, probably, oh, five months ago now. He walked up to him and smiled, because if he smiled big enough, he would inject it into the man. There was something about a smile that could just make everything better, wasn’t there? He found out the man’s name again, it was Tom, Tom with almost no teeth who smelled the worst of them all, and who almost never smiled back. He asked if Tom remembered him, but Tom did not. He asked Tom if he was right with God, and Tom just grinned and said God wasn’t right with him. He wished he could have spent more time with Tom, but he had to get to Wednesday church, because he wanted to hear God speak to him. He felt like God was trying to tell him something, lately. Maybe something big. Maybe someone would give him a prophetic word, or lay hands on him and tell him he was going to heal bones, and make disease flee. Maybe somebody would tell him that he was going to be a pastor, somewhere big and somewhere a long way from here. Maybe someone would finally give him permission to go on that mission trip. He wished he could have spent more time with Tom, but he had to go, and he told Tom he hoped he knew that he was loved, so, so loved.

That night at Wednesday church the preacher spoke a message about love of the self, and how we ought not to do things to be seen by others.

His heart was pounding. Yes, yes, this was for him. It was for him; it spoke straight to his soul, and everything he was made up of was trembling.

I want to be better, I want to be the best me, I want to succeed, I want to get it right.

He walked to the front, after looking to his left and his right, to fall on his knees, singing something about holiness. All the while thinking:

I am humble, yes I am humble, now I am humble.

But we all know we must let go of the self,

The very word and action and spirit of it,

In order to be free

To hear something more than it.

We know it in our heads; often

It must be renewed in our hearts.

And I, and we, must confess:

That “He” is me!

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