Posted by: Mark Nielsen | July 29, 2008

Dirty Dancing With Jesus (a.k.a. On the Verge, Part 1)

Dirty Dancing

I’m trying to stay positive in this confusing season of my life. Trying to stay open, both spiritually and practically, to the possibilities that come with big changes on so many fronts. (For example, a new job for my wife, at a new school, and a new church we’re trying out — both of which had been the “same old thing” for about twenty years up till this spring… also, I’m unemployed, but that’s nothing new). 

It can be hard work to stay open and hopeful, to believe in oneself and take the risk of building new relationships. Meanwhile, the strain is starting to show, in how I feel physically and what I do to avoid that hard work. I’m eating all wrong. I’m indulging in some bad habits. All to deflect that risk and hard work. I’m like a cross between Amy Winehouse and Homer Simpson. I have to be careful, and yet at the same time throw caution to the wind in order to embrace what’s next and maybe make a big splash as a someone ready to take big risks.

Remember that line from Field of Dreams?  “If you build it, they will come.”  It’s that  kind of openness I’m cultivating, but without all the New Age/Celestine Prophecy/The Secret sort of mumbo-jumbo and wish-fulfillment fantasy that often gets sold to us in America along with  that style of openness.

The main difference between me and Kevin Costner (aside from my being better-looking, of course) is that I still believe Jesus and His Spirit are at the root of these small tectonic shifts in my career and personal life. Along with a mild case of existential dread, I have a classic case of Hope. But it is not a hope that chases after something so vague, mysterious and downright weird as a whispering voice, a large black man that sounds like Darth Vader, and the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson. No. In contrast to Costner’s fuzzy but determined hope, mine is a focused sort of hope. If, on the other hand, I were to just open myself like a sewer drain in a rainstorm –with no discrimination or good sense, without engaging my brain along with my seeking spirit– then who knows what brand and volume of shit might be allowed to flow into that drain, along with the stuff that nourishes a person.

Ultimately, there’s got to be a sorting. A system. A method to the madness, or else we’d just go mad from all the competing choices and voices and challenges we are barraged with daily, whether we’re conscious of them or not.

This is the role of religion in the post-modern era. It’s a filter, a trustworthy algorithm, so that when we do our inevitable God Google –our search for love, meaning, satisfaction and inner peace– we don’t have to try out all kinds of random (but perhaps temporarily fascinating!) crap that only leads to pain, or at least further away from our ultimate goal: joy.

As a Christian, pursuing but not entirely bound by a system that theologians would call “orthodox”, I also believe that to always and only follow one’s heart can be dangerous — if in fact your heart is a little broken, which mine clearly is.

This is the essence of sin at its core: a beautiful but broken and childlike heart, wrestling with God and/or The Mystery. We push away God and Man, then maybe change our minds… and back and forth we go, in a complex and sometimes sick little dance. We reach out, we connect for a time, then because we can’t ever feel permanently or completely satisfied in such a broken and toxic world (there’s that existential dread again…), we stop dancing and start moping, or drinking, or screaming, or bombing. When other people prove themselves to be sick and confused as well, we grab hold of a grudge (or two, or hundreds), let it take up residence in our soul, then limp on in fear and frustration.

In more extreme cases we lash out, to hurt ourselves or the other person, both of whom we once believed were better than this. (Both = me and her, or me and him –whether it’s dad, wife, friend, mom, co-worker, sister, lover, child, brother, president. Any stand-in for God will do in a crisis, or at a crossroads.)  We throw tantrums, we throw pots and pans, we blame each other, then either walk out or beg for forgiveness, afraid we’ll be abandoned for our foolishness.

We all do the dance, don’t we? Now and then, at least.  We may know God intimately, or just nod to Him/Her/Them from a distance on occasion. We may even throw pots at Him, in the form of willfull ignorance, pride or humanistic/scientific denials, all of which are usually laid over some deep-seated anger — anger that He/She/They refuse to just show themselves unequivocally, give us a big hug, and Explain It All. 

We play out the drama of our search for that eternal and perfect Parent/Lover with many of the ordinary, innocent, unsuspecting people in our lives. We want only love and acceptance, and to give the same, and yet we are unsure what to do with the Big Love once we have it. It’s either that or else we don’t know, or forget, that we already have the Big Love, always, for in Him we “live, and breath, and have our being“. This, too, is the nature of our sinful separation from God — to be always on the verge, but never arriving (this side of heaven, at least).

Often we make excuses, or try to distract ourselves from that date to dance with God, to practice the steps. The dance itself is usually done by serving and relating to other people, whom he has commanded us to love despite their flaws, and whether or not they know the dance steps . When you boil it all down, to love is the only command God ever gives.

And yet we duck that love. We avoid the work, like the spiritual toddlers that we are. What work? The hard work of real cooperation and real honesty and real forgiveness, the giving and receiving of which is the only way to conquer the cycle of sin and to stop hurting each other so much. Sometimes we are driven in our brokenness to replace that seeking of love (which we doubt will come anyway, and stay, and be steady, and satisfy) with the seeking of substitutes: money, attention, sex, social importance, physical thrills (the list goes on, of course).

In my case, I have identified certain compulsions as my avenues of denial and distraction. Television and movies. Sexual fantasies. Food. Alcohol. Writing sollipsistic, self-indulgent blogs and essays, in an effort to purge “the demon”. Of course, identifying these habits is not always the same as stopping the behaviors. But it’s the important first step. Or at least one of the first.

So how many steps to peace and health and Abundant Life are there? Ten, like the commandments? Twelve, like in A.A.? Twelve thousand? Four, like the four basic truths underlying Buddhism? I don’t pretend to know anymore. Yet until I see evidence to the contrary (and trust me, I’ve looked) I gotta believe that those things Jesus said about dying to oneself and living for others is the way to peace and abundant life. So I guess I’m in training for that. I just want to be ready to go when it’s “go time”.

In this place, at this time, because I’m trying to be both hopeful and realistic, I have to live in a place of tension. I can’t escape the sense of something big just around the corner. But I can’t force it to happen, either, because I’m not the builder. I’m the instrument. One of many, in fact. And if He builds it, it will come. Whatever “it” is.


Responses

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