Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Professional Christian

“No, Steve, you can’t do that. It doesn’t look good.”

“Yeah, but my friends always go for wing night. What’s wrong with a beer-“

“What kind of example is that?”

I’d just finished my first year at Bible College, about to start my first full time ministry. I was sitting with Jason, a senior who’d already spent three years in ministry as I packed up my dorm room. Boxes lay scattered across the floor, and the not-so-faint aura of old coffee permeated the room. I kicked one of the boxes and slumped into a chair.

“I don’t get it. I mean, I don’t want to be a bad example. But how can I hang with people if I can’t, uh, hang with people.”

Jason sighed.

“Listen, it’s not easy being a Christian or a pastor. The bottom line is that whatever example you set will be duplicated by young people who look up to you. You have to watch what you do, Steve. Everyone’s looking at you.”

I nodded and started packing up some of my books. I’d accepted that being a Christian was going to be hard, and that being a minister was going to be even tougher. And Jason knew more about this than I did. There were certain expectations in the ministry, and I intended to fulfill them. Jason noticed the sudden slump of my shoulders.

“Listen, it doesn’t mean you can’t live. You just have to be careful, that’s all. It isn’t good for the church to have people talking about their pastor going to a pub or a movie or whatever. God has set you apart for a reason, so you have to live apart.”

I nodded.

“Honestly, Steve, once you live with it for a while, it’s not a big deal. You get used to it.”

He was right. I would adjust. I wanted nothing more than to serve God, and if it meant a few sacrifices, I could deal with it.

I was well past my first year of ministry when I realized that I’d made the adjustment. I’d learned what I could and couldn’t say to people in the church, what topics to avoid, the things that I could do and the places that I could go without reproach, and how to slide away from certain questions without committing to a specific answer. There was a list of unwritten rules that were assiduously followed by both pastoral staff and congregants, especially for those who carried the weight of power in the church.

I found the rules to be chafing, and at times it occurred to me, watching from ‘behind the curtain’ one power struggle or another, whether it was about who got what Sunday school classroom to the type of worship, that there was something wrong with the whole system. So little seemed to be organic and free. Even the spontaneous ‘altar calls’ were taken into account when we planned the services. Obviously, organization and planning was important, but was this really what God had in mind? I knew from my own struggles that while my conduct was becoming increasingly smooth and consistent, my faith was shriveling under the constraints of organization.

We were creating a group of professional Christians, but were we making disciples?

The water blinked in the early evening sunlight, and the sound of the geese and ducks waddling along the shoreline filled the air as I ran down the path, dodging a young boy running away from his mother towards the birds. The smell of dried summer grass filled my senses. It was warm tonight, but the breeze off the water was just enough to keep it comfortable.
I’d never been much of a runner. Too short and thick to produce the long strides necessary for competitive running, my formative years had been spent playing football and basketball and baseball. Despite that, I’d grown to like more and more these past few years to enjoy the feel of the ground beneath my feet, the cardio induced exhaustion at the end of the run, and the sense of accomplishment no matter how slow I ran.

I passed another runner, an older man wearing a yellow windbreaker, who nodded at me as we passed. I nodded and smiled, and glanced over again at the water on my right, enjoying the way it sparkled and shimmered like a rich cache of diamonds. A young couple passed me, running almost as slow as I was, talking and laughing. They nodded at me, and I again nodded back. Something I hadn’t known before I’d started running was this almost secret pact between runners. As if I’d joined a club without even realizing it. Not every runner acknowledged you, especially the competitive ones, with their Oakley shades and arrogant air as if you weren’t even there. But they were the exception, not the rule.

I passed a thicket on my right as the ground dipped towards the bridge. Just a bit further. I could feel my legs burning. Every step hurt, and a cramp had wormed its way into my ribs. I pushed harder, and suddenly lost myself in the breathing and rhythms of trying to finish as the gray wall of the bridge came into view. Finally. I touched the brick and came to stop, bending over at the waist to gulp some air before heading back up the hill, walking along the left of the path before veering onto the grass towards home.

The sweat streamed down my face and with the fresh loads of oxygen coursing through my body, I couldn’t help but smile. It struck me that I would never want to race. I could be intensely competitive, a tendency bred through a lifetime involved in sports. But even if I’d been good enough, I wouldn’t want it. Being a professional runner would take all the joy out of it, or so it seemed to me. Watching your form, measuring your times, always understanding that when you ran… you were practicing for the race. I probably wouldn’t notice the ‘recreational’ runners either, and at the end of the run, I wouldn’t be smiling unless I’d finished under a certain time. So much of the joy of running came during the run itself, even the painful parts when it felt like someone jammed a spear into your side. As much as I tried to push myself, it never bothered me to walk for a bit. The goal wasn’t to win. The goal was to run.

The gravel crunched under my feet as I passed by a small church, almost hidden next to a French elementary school. There’d been days recently, where this idea of going back to seminary, of going back to the ministry, absolutely disturbed me. I was no longer interested in being a Professional Christian. To be someone who said all the 'Right Things' and did everything the 'Right Way'.

Whenever I looked at Scripture, Jesus acted as anything but a Professional Religious Guy. He didn’t care what anyone thought, least of all the Religious pros of his time. They ridiculed him, called him a drunkard and a friend of sinners. But Jesus didn't care what they thought of him. He partied at feasts and hung out with whomever and wherever he thought he could make a difference, reputation be damned. He talked to women when no one else would. He extended mercy to adulterers without giving up his convictions. He addressed different races, including his people’s oppressors, without blinking. Even his closest friends questioned ‘his wisdom’ in his approach. Didn’t he realize what he was doing? Did he not realize that his reputation, his credibility, would be ruined?

I waited at the light until it changed. I crossed the street and headed up the hill towards my building. I have often wondered why so many people think that the church is filled with hypocrites. There are some, to be sure, but most churches are filled with people who really do love God, who really are trying to make a difference. Maybe then, the problem isn’t in the people, as much as it’s in the approach. Maybe it isn't what we are, but what we proclaim to be.
If I told people that I was a competitive runner, they’d only have to see me run once or twice to realize the truth. Maybe our problem is not that the church is filled with hypocrites, but that we have convinced people that they are Professionals, and not just the ministers and clergy. Maybe we’ve missed the point of what church is, and instead of understanding that we’re all just ‘recreational’ runners, we’ve outlined rules and guidelines that ‘distinguish’ ourselves from the rest of the pack. But is there really a place for professionalism when we follow Jesus? We can ordain people because we recognize they have a certain calling on their life, but even then, there’s no such thing as a professional disciple. How many times did Jesus have to correct his own guys, the twelve disciples, about that very thing?

My building looms in front of me, and I head around back to stretch. The sun is starting to fade, and it's cooler now as I lay out on the grass. I still have misgivings about re-entering the ministry. I suppose that it’s natural, although that doesn't make it any easier. At least this time I’m no longer worried about my reputation. I’m no professional. I'm an amateur, happily so, and just like my running, eager to do the best I can with what I’ve been given. I’ve thrown away my timer and my goals and my urge to win, and replaced it with a childlike eagerness to merely run wherever God leads, and to enjoy the scenery and community along the way. I know there will be painful moments, and I know there will be moments when I’m alone on the path, but if things get too rough, I can always walk. And if necessary, rest for a while.

This week, ask yourself this question. Are you a professional, or a disciple? Do you run for the end, or is the end the run itself? And most important, is there freedom and joy along your path, or checkpoints and measurements?

My prayer is that we would all realize that God is not as interested in our performance as He is in us, that no one cared more for others than Jesus and yet no one ever had a worse reputation, and that our best, whatever that is, is always enough.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Most Important Question of Your Life

I put my head close to the window to catch some of the breeze as the bus roared through the tree lined neighbourhood. It'd been a good field trip today, but I still felt disconnected, somehow alone despite the presence of my class. I glanced over at my students.

“Are you guys okay?”

“Yup. yup. Are we almost home, Steve?” Josh asked, rubbing his head.

“Almost home, buddy. Another ten minutes.”

Despite the breeze from the open window, I could feel the sweat sliding down my stomach under my shirt. The bus rolled along the Ottawa River, and for a minute I imagined myself out on the choppy blue water that glistened in the afternoon sunlight. There was something about water that always made my stomach catch, especially on days like today, when the mercury pushed near to 35 degrees, the humidity so thick you felt as though you were bathing in a swamp.

The bus ground to a halt and we pulled over to the curb. Two seniors slowly climbed aboard. Behind them, I noticed an expensive looking nursing home. Built in Victorian style, albeit new, the red brick and white porticoes seemed strangely out of place with the lawn furniture randomly scattered along the wide grassy lawn that stretched to the edge of the river.
As the bus trembled and pulled away, I watched the seniors milling about the lawn until the place was out of sight. I turned back into the bus. It was filled mostly with high school and college students, the wires from their Ipods and MP3 players drooping from the ears, their faces plugged into the impassive walls of late adolescence.

“Hey, Steve, are we almost home?” Josh said.

“Almost home, Josh.”

He started rubbing his head again, and I gently moved his hands back to his lap. Almost home, I thought. But what’s home? I let the question simmer as I checked my students again. A few minutes later we pulled up to the school, and I let my thoughts be carried away by the smiles and buzz of the last week of school. When they’d left, I could feel the emotions creaking below the surface, and I struggled to keep them there as I packed up my things and said my good byes for the day.

I headed out of the school lot, forcing my gaze to the road ahead, unable to stop thinking about the questions Josh had inadvertently raised. I was thinking about home, about what that entailed, about the span of life between student and senior. Enmeshed in all of that was another, more powerful question, and in the wake of my own transitions, a far more important one. It was a question I’d been asking myself for many years, in various forms, although I hadn’t identified it as such. In the last six months however, it’d become clear that it was a question I needed to answer. A question that we all needed to answer.

I just wasn’t sure how.

I was a college student when I first started learning about people in the sixties, about the hippies going off to “find themselves”, and I remember thinking it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. I remember my dad and others of his generation mocking their ‘wealth driven’ insouciance as ungrateful nonsense. They would say things like:

“Their parents paid for their college education through hard work, and the only thing they learned is that they don’t know who they are?!”

Back then, I agreed with them. I was a hardworking, straight laced Christian zealot with little time for puff pastry philosophy. I would shake my head at the mere mention of such notions. My thinking was simple: Get a job, get a family and most important, get yourself right with God. At the time I was a full time student and a full time pastor, with hard driving and simplistic notions about the linear nature of life. The golden bowl at the end of the rainbow – retirement, family, success, godliness – did not require a treasure map or a motorcycle.

As the years passed however, I began to notice holes in my theory of simplicity. For one thing, there was nothing simple about human nature, about the flaws in even the best of people. I failed people, and people failed me, on a regular basis. And the structure of my faith was not an airtight compartment either. Anyone with any intellectual curiosity at all found questions, seemingly unanswerable questions that didn’t fit into my neat little package of the ‘dream life.’ And when my well laid plans started to break and boil and fizz into nothing, I was left clinging to an empty container of cliches and shallow propaganda. There’s no program or rehab for broken dreams, and for the next few years I wandered in a wasteland of recovery. I was attempting, without realizing it, to ‘find myself.’ To redefine who I was. Not only in regards to my faith, but my ideals and values, my goals and dreams, the internal makeup that made each of us unique. Beyond all of that however, was an even deeper question than learning who I was.

There’s a breeze tonight, blowing along the trees outside my apartment, the light from my balcony casting shadows along the branches that sway and dip in the wind. From my chair I can imagine myself, as I sometimes do, sitting high in the treetops somewhere in the jungle, listening to the night calls of the wildlife, the hum of insects, the croaking amphibians along the placidly moving water down below. Despite the rough neighbourhood, despite the unaesthetic nature of it all, I will be sad to leave this apartment. Especially this balcony, where I’ve spent so many nights talking to God and asking Him questions and dwelling upon the mystery, the wonderful, sad, joyous mystery of it all.

And tonight, the question raises its head until I can no longer ignore it.

Why am I?

Why do I exist? Why am I here? A thousand questions bleed from the first. Some I can answer, most I can not. It is both the joy and frustration of following after God the paradox of simplicity and complexity. Of understanding and mystery. But understanding why we exist is the most important question we will ever ask. I am thinking back over my own life, and it comes that there has been joy and pain and difficulty and success, for stretches more pain than anything. Above all there is a sense of wandering, as if I can see myself struggling to find the 'correct' road to walk along, the narrow path we read about in Scripture. In so many ways it is a question filled with heartache, and yet I feel a strange sense of relief tonight, as if just asking the question is enough. I know that isn’t true, of course, but still…

I roll my shoulders and take a long pull from my coffee. The lawn chair creaks as I lean back. The building is quiet tonight, but for the occasional yell from the street I am bathed in silence. I wonder if my wandering days are over now that I have pinpointed the one question that frames my life. That as long as I work to define why I exist, I will finally enjoy the contentment and security of unambivalent longing. But even as I frame the question I know the answer.

Nothing will ever be sure. My life will never be safe. The road I walk will never be even… And that is how it should be.

There is great hope and belief in our fast paced culture that work and money and security will answer the call of our deepest longing. And great evidence that it will never happen. Yet still we persist in our unending pursuit of the gold at the end of the rainbow, without ever answering the question that pierces every human heart. We are afraid, as we should be, that we will not like the answer. That we will not get an answer. That God will be a greater mystery than we can perceive. That today will matter more than tomorrow. Yet it is in the midst of our questions we find the narrow path we so desperately seek.

But it isn't enough to search for 'who' we are or to 'find ourself'. To do that without defining the context of why we exist creates a life destined to be shaped by others. It is how a generation of hippies can twenty years later be competing to buy a bigger house or a bigger SUV. Knowledge of self, guided only by self, can lead only to selfishness.

Maybe that's why God asks us not 'who' but 'why'. Why are we here? Why do we exist? There are so many layers and distractions in our world that keep us from asking the raw questions of our life that truly matter. The ones that define us.

Especially this one...

Why am I?

I move to the edge of the balcony, enjoying the breeze against my face as I watch the trees dance in front of me. The question carries both clarity and anxiety, and I whisper a short prayer even as I'm reassured by the One I seek.

These days, I am better at looking at the gifts I have been given, better at seeing the flaws in both my character and personality. And within them, better at determining why I am here. The reason I am leaving my job, my apartment, and my life as I know it, is to work towards the things I believe God has created me to become. The reason why I am.

It is tempting to look at our lives with regret, to see the pain and failure and feel somehow that we have missed our chance, that we have missed out on what we were supposed to do, that the reason we exist… is no longer valid. But maybe that isn’t true. Maybe our reason for life is as fluid and dynamic as life itself. So much of our culture pushes us towards the end, when so much in Scripture pushes us to the present. To now. Maybe we need to stop defining our life by our past, and look at where we are upon the road. The story of the Bible is a narrative between God and his people. It is the story of our relationship with Him. Sometimes it is beautiful, often times it is ugly, but throughout it God always meets His people where ever they happen to be. He does not ask them to walk further, but merely to look up. Maybe it is within the simple choice to walk and to seek, to look up, where we will find our answer.

I remember the things that have caused change in my life, significant events that made me think or rethink my situation and pushed me in a new direction. I have staggered down uneven hills and drifted into deserts, away from the good things He had for me. I have chosen mountain steppes and the barren winter roads, because in the end it was my choice. But when held together, I can see the gentle hand of a loving God who has guided me through even the roughest of times. And I can hear His voice asking me the one probing, gentle question that defines us all.

The journey through this crazy world is not always sure. But so long as we seek the One who made us, so long as we try to answer the one question that asks more than any other, I am confident we will find our way, and that our feet will walk upon the path we were meant to take, wherever that is.

May God grant us the courage to ask the toughest of all questions, to remember that our lives begin today, and to wholly pursue that which we were given to do.


Friday, June 08, 2007

Why the Church Hates Homosexuals… and Why It Shouldn’t

“There’s no way you’re going to beat me, Jim. I’m superior tonight. Just face it.”

Jim rolled his eyes and slid his chair back to his cubicle.

“Whatever, Burns. One game of Risk does not make a champion.”

I laughed and started humming.

"Okay, we got time for one more game before the morning calls come in.”
The massive call center was empty and silent. Jim and I had been working the overnight shift as computer techs for the last four months. Despite our vast political differences, we’d become close friends. His slender frame and quiet personality belied an inherent toughness, and his intelligence and intellectual curiosity paved the way for many interesting conversations when the phones went quiet.

“Hey, Steve, have you seen these?”

Jim had started working on his photography, and while I was no expert, I could appreciate his work. We looked through the pictures he’d posted on his web site and then suddenly he turned as the next picture came up. It was a man’s shoulder, artfully taken.

“That’s my ex-boyfriend.” He said quietly.

I blinked and then frowned, mostly out of confusion. I knew that he’d been dating his current girlfriend for nearly three years. He sat quietly, waiting for me to say something.

“Oh. But you’re dating a woman…”

“I’m bisexual.”

I nodded and let that sink in. After a minute we started chatting, and I asked him frank questions about his sexuality, about what it meant, about his experience. I’m sure that some of my questions must have seemed a bit insipid, but because of our friendship he answered them readily enough, happy to be open with me. For the next six months we worked together, developing a strong friendship until the day he moved out West.

Jim was my first gay friend.

I didn’t realize it then, but my relationship with Jim changed my view on a lot of things.

I pulled into the church and headed for the end of the parking lot. It was empty tonight, and there was a vast, prairie like feel to the empty asphalt. At the edge of the lot (next to the church) was a medium security prison, complete with barbed wire fences and massive stadium lights. It was early in the evening still, and the bright sunlight illuminated the empty church and tightly knit prison structure with equal abandon. I steered my car towards the small island of grass between the two properties. I hadn’t thought about Jim in a long time, but it was time for me to write about him. And it: the highly politicized, and highly toxic, issue of homosexuality and the church.

Studies had revealed that the number one thing people associated with the church in North America was “anti-gay.” When I first read that, I wasn’t sure I believed it. After doing an informal study for a seminary course project which involved interviewing people on a Sunday morning however, it was easy enough to confirm. The church was known more for what it was against than what it stood for. At the top of that list was homosexuality. And for all I could argue, with much success, of all the good the church had done and still does in the world, this was not something I could defend. Why? Because it was true.

The church was anti-gay. Even worse, it did hate homosexuals.

Most people who attended Sunday morning service however, weren’t even aware of it, especially in the conservative denominations. Perhaps that was the saddest part of this whole tragedy. And yet, understanding how little this hatred was perceived by its members revealed more than any statement of faith ever could.

I pulled out my notepad and took a seat under the small tree in the middle of the island, enjoying the wisp of shade it provided from the early evening sun. From my spot on the ground, I had to squint to find the large arch out front of the church entrance. Suddenly I glanced over my shoulder at the prison, less than twenty yards from where I sat. Am I trespassing? I hadn’t considered it before, but I wasn’t sure if the grass island belonged to the church or the prison. I smiled sadly at the irony and leaned against the tree.

The politicizing of a moral question was the nature of the church, and without question, sexuality was a moral issue. It went without saying. (Just as many people today do not recognize the simple fact that Jesus was extremely political.) What bothered me however, was how the church had turned sexuality into only a political issue.

Over the years I'd seen the church divide into two camps when discussing homosexuality. One camp said that homosexuality was normal and wasn’t sin. Some churches, such as the United Church, had ordained gay and lesbian ministers. The other camp said that homosexuality was not only sin, but that encouraging homosexuals to attend your church was akin to encouraging licentiousness. Both of these views were extreme and neither, in my mind, reflected the message of Jesus.

It was impossible to read Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, and not understand that God’s idea for marriage was to consist of one man and one woman. Any theologian who argued otherwise was simply not being intellectually faithful to the text in front of them. God, who despite Richard Dawkins’ blustering, fatuous theories to the contrary, consistently revealed Himself in the Bible to be a loving Father concerned about how best for his people to live. The ideal, God's best, was a marriage of one man and one woman. (Thousands (or millions) of years later, we know from our own data that this is still the case.) And yet, even in the Old Testament, King David (a man after God’s own heart) had multiple wives. I'd heard many politically minded Christians call gay marriage the step before legalized polygamy. (Which I agreed with) Well, if that was the case, David and Solomon and Abraham were ahead of the game. All of them were polygamists, and yet somehow God loved them and used them in powerful ways.

In the New Testament, it was quite clear what God’s hopes and expectations were for humanity in regards to sexuality: no sex outside of marriage. And that marriage consisted of one man and one woman.
So while I could agree that homo or hetero sexual relations outside of marriage was sin, it still didn’t answer the question.

Why did the church hate homosexuals?

I glanced up from my notebook. A cloud had covered the fading sun and a cool breeze swept across the parking lot. I’d been attending evangelical churches for fifteen years, different churches in seven different cities, and it was always the same. Not once had I met a gay person, an openly gay person, at my church. I’d heard pastors say, myself included, that the church didn’t hate anyone, that all were welcome. And maybe they thought, as I did, that they were being sincere. But if we’d stopped to examine how we did church and the things we said, the jokes we made, we’d have realized that wasn’t true at all. We were ignorant about understanding homosexuality, because for most of us, it simply wasn’t an issue. I would never know what it was like to desire another man, so it was easy to categorize in strong language about how moral “we” were. What we did was to make it an issue, and forget the humanity of it all.

The truth is that the church doesn’t like homosexuality because we're uncomfortable with it. It has a very high ‘ick’ factor. It has nothing to do with the fact the church thinks homosexuality is sin. If that was the case, why doesn’t the church have a hard time talking to addicts or prisoners or murderers or adulterers? Adultery, by any account, is a far more painful and flagrant sin than a man not understanding why he is attracted to other men. And of all the sins in the Bible, the greatest, by any exegetical rendering, is pride, not sex. Of any kind. (C.S. Lewis)

Unfortunately, there's no easy answer to the ISSUE of homosexuality. In the church, we've done a poor job welcoming people with lifestyles with which we disagree. We have, in fact, shown not love, but hatred. That may sound harsh, but if we're honest, we realize that it's true. I think that we feel threatened because we feel like we have to choose sides. Either we're pro-gay or anti-gay. But what if we don't have to choose? What if we just love people, whoever they are, and let them figure out what God has for them? Isn't that what Jesus did?

Look, loving homosexuals doesn't mean we have to give up our convictions, but it does mean we must give up our agendas. And what agenda does love have? It doesn't.

Love has no agenda.

I looked up from my notebook and rolled my neck. The sun had eased into twilight, and I glanced over at the stadium lights humming behind me. Sometimes the church was like a prison. Sometimes we let our fears get the best of us. Somehow we needed to break down the walls between cultural distaste and our distaste for sin. To remember the sinner wasn’t just the man or woman outside the church, but that the sinner was us. When Jesus invited the prostitutes and tax collectors he wasn’t being metaphorical. How sadly ironic that the Literalists, the Fundamentalists, taught this mostly as parable.

I still think of Jim these days. I miss his company. I think about the things he taught me about acceptance and love. It's normal to think politically when talking about morality. But to address people as 'issues' is inherently wrong, more sinful than any position we agree upon when it comes to sex. The church's first priority is not politics but relationships, and when any segment of our population no longer feels welcome within our walls, its time to get back on our knees and remember who we are, who God called us to be, and what we can do to make a difference. Until then, we are just another political party without an office.

May God open our eyes to see the prejudices within our hearts, and help us to become the loving people, within a life of love, that He has called us to be.


Friday, June 01, 2007

Overcoming the World's Greatest Addiction

A warm spring breeze swept over the balcony as I sipped my drink and puffed on a cigar. The lightly flavored tobacco mingled with the fresh upswell of grass and mud that danced along the edges of my senses. It’d been a quiet week, and as I sat watching a couple of sparrows chirp and hop along the top of the bushes, I breathed in the clear skies and peaceful surroundings. I thought about the past week and the upcoming summer, always a time for reflection and writing and perhaps most important – sleeping as late as I pleased.

The contentment lasted for about thirty seconds.

I could feel the itch, the sensation, as it started somewhere in my solar plexus and moved its way along my arms until my entire body felt like a coiled spring. The glass trembled in my fingers. I stood and tried to roll my shoulders to relax, and as I did the sudden movement caused a flurry of wings as the birds flushed out of the bushes and arose en masse and flew out of sight.

“What’s wrong with me?”

My thoughts came out in a jumbled whisper.

I took a deep breath and tried to take another puff on my cigar, but the rich tobacco flavour had fled with the birds, and in its place was a burning sausage of leaves and grass. I grumbled and powdered the rest of the brown lump into an empty tuna can.

I’d been saving that cigar for a month. So why did I feel so… empty all of a sudden? I looked to the sky for an answer, but the only sound was the distant voice of a neighbour yelling at their cat. I looked at my book, but it suddenly seemed as bland and uninteresting as my cigar and a night of pleasant quiet. I shook my head and headed inside.

It was a long time before I fell asleep.

When I woke up the next morning, after hours of fruitless tossing, it wasn’t until the next day that I gradually realized why I’d been so miserable the night before, why on too many occasions the nights I’d planned for myself had ended so badly. Like the rest of my fellow humans, I was an addict. Addicted to something that was never advertised, and rarely spoken of, in any circles. And yet, it was the world’s greatest addiction.

I didn’t know it that early Saturday morning, but I was about to learn one of the most important lessons of my life.

When I was a kid I never thought a whole lot about the world that I lived in, the culture miasma in which I was being educated, or the values of my society. Mostly, my parents taught me the difference between right and wrong, and I obeyed. Not always, of course, especially in high school, but as the years have passed it has become obvious that on so many levels that my values largely mirror the ones they taught me.

They were traditionalists, my parents, and I was raised with a solid understanding of right and wrong, of treating people well, of not only loving God but a loving God to help along the way. Consumerism and individualism were as foreign to me as the idea that morality didn’t matter. They were academic terms, learned in university when discussing culture or anthropology to describe various ‘difficulties’ within the modern Western world. For me, they held little significance.

They still don’t mean a whole lot, in that whenever we talk about cultural ‘struggles’ or human ‘difficulties’ we prefer to talk about it in the abstract, academic terms that keep it far away from our own everyday lives. Better for it to be a ‘cultural struggle’ than a ‘me struggle’ for obvious reasons. If it’s about me, I have to do something. If it’s about our ‘culture’, than I am free to do what I like, and I can score points merely by correctly analyzing the issue.

I showered and pulled on my sandals, lost in thought about my previous night. The coffee was ready, and I mixed in the sugar and cream, sipping it periodically until I was satisfied with the result. I checked my bag, packed as usual with my laptop and a million odds and ends, and headed out for the day. I knew that I was on the edge of realizing something important, something about my time the night before, something to do with why too many of those nights had felt so empty, but what, I had no idea.

The roads were quiet. Despite my inability to sleep I’d risen early, and the clock in my car read 7:51am. It had to be bothering me, I thought miserably, for me to be up so early on a Saturday morning. I pulled into the Starbucks parking lot, and after I’d parked, passed by a couple of other early morning risers who were smoking outside the building.

When I’d finally settled in with a fresh coffee, I flipped open my laptop. The lack of sleep was already getting to me. I leaned back, sipped my coffee and looked around. Over to my left a young family I’d known since their first child was wheeling their two young charges through the door. They nodded their greetings and I smiled and said hello. I couldn’t help but wonder, looking at their kids, at how quickly the last few years had passed. I turned, and browsing around the magazine rack was an older gentleman I hadn't seen before. His hair was sparse, and the expression on his face was pinched and small. He frowned at a young woman who leaned near him to pull another magazine from the rack. I turned back to my laptop.

The past few weeks I’d gradually pulled away much of my volunteer work at the school, readying myself for the changes to come the next year. But in so doing, I’d distanced myself from the most important aspect of my life. I frowned and took a sip from my coffee. It wasn’t just that either. We all had to make adjustments to our schedule from time to time. What I realized however, was that more than ever my life was all about me. There were some weeks when I would think that I had this addiction licked, that maybe I'd finally beaten it. Without fail, I'd soon find myself acting selfishly again.

You can argue that we always act for our own self-interest, even if we’re trying to be altruistic, because even then we’re doing it for the way it makes us feel. But that explanation is a load of philosophical hogwash for people trying to explain why it’s okay to be more self centered.
I sipped my coffee and smiled at one of the baristas who was just starting her shift. It was both an enlightening and saddening realization. The world was constantly preaching this message of self-actualization. That the customer, the individual, was king. That all we really needed to be happy was to earn enough riches, to store enough in our barns, to just worry about ourselves and everything would be okay. Our commercialistic culture emphasized this, but I wasn’t sure that this wasn’t a problem for everyone. That it was the same the world over.

The disheartening aspect to this whole thing was realizing that this wasn’t something that would go away because I wanted it to, or because I’d figured it out. It was like discovering a broken part of the human soul. People could talk all they wanted about education, and while that could help, it seemed to me that this addiction to self was evident in even the best universities around the world.

I stared at my laptop and then quietly shut it down. I glanced over at the old man as I packed up. He was still scowling, even as he read his magazine. In the past, I’d always assumed that my faith would be the difference. That somehow Jesus would cure me of this awful addiction, one that too often left me gasping at the emptiness of life.

He hadn’t.

I mulled this over as I headed home, watched as the driver beside me suddenly sped up and cut off the car in the opposite lane. A frantic, desperate hurry to get from one place to another, I thought, to get to the next scene in the movie. That continual playing reality show starring us. I slowed to a halt as the light turned red.

“No. Starring me.” I muttered. I couldn’t push this away.

The woman in the car next to mine raised an eyebrow when she noticed me talking. I smiled but she only looked puzzled as she put her sunglasses down and turned her head. I accelerated slowly when the light switched, and watched as the trees and houses and stores flashed by my window.

Faith helped. Well, it could help. Knowing that I was loved (and liked!) by God meant a great deal to me. That realization gave my life an eternal perspective and fulfilling hope in the future. However, I couldn’t rely on God’s grace alone. I’d seen too many rich, selfish Christians to believe that. No, I needed to manage my daily decisions, I thought, I needed to consciously apply myself to the task of overcoming this addiction to self.

By the time I got home I felt better, though I wasn’t sure why. The thick bushes that lined the parking lot glowed lime green in the bright morning sun. I leaned against my car and watched the birds hop and skip and dance and sing in the morning light. I’d been miserable when the world had told me I should be content. I was most at peace with the world, however, when I was thinking about others. When I was dwelling on the needs of those around me. I wasn’t sure what I could change at the moment, what I could do differently during a time when there seemed to be no end of daily change for me. But what I couldn’t do was not respond to this check in my heart.

I smiled and watched the birds for a while. Sometimes, we thought that giving of ourselves meant ‘big ideas’ and ‘big time commitment’, but maybe it was a mindset to do the little things, to keep ourselves conscious of the people around us, the ones who really needed our help in a world screaming for our attention. Maybe that’s what it meant. Maybe there was no final cure from this addiction to self. With a little effort however, and the sweet touch of God’s hand, maybe we could manage it so that when we did sit down at the end of the long day, we could truly enjoy the full life that Jesus talked about.

May God give us the courage to examine ourselves, to open our eyes to the lies of the world around us, and show us the contentment of working towards a more selfless life. In all that we do.