Archive for April, 2013

When I was a young expatriate, enrolled in a theatre program co-taught by grad school and conservatory, one of my coursemates, a Scotsman who thought my literary tastes puerile (a word I didn’t know and still can’t pronounce), got us into a master class series at a West End venue.  Though a couple of the instructors were names I’ve often enjoyed dropping, the best teacher was a lesser known Shakespearean actress armed with both an arsenal of practical advice for young performers and an incredibly noble view of the arts.  We are here to serve the audience,” she intoned.  “[That is why] we bow at the end of each performance.”  For a full house of drama students poised to captivate future fans, this was a challenging word.

Back in undergrad I had a communications professor who loved the cinema but avoided certain directors out of, I guessed, spiritual or feminist convictions, or possibly both.  When she referred to the films of these sexist heathens, or whatever they were, as gratuitous, I assumed she meant they contained too many swears, just a little too much skin.  But this was not the reactionary diatribe of a podunk fundy campaigning for decency. Though my college was unapologetically Christian and located almost literally in a backwoods, it was no less academic for being either.  Evangelical as she was, here was a Ph.D. whose grasp of Bakhtinian semiotics and Foucauldian whatchamacallit made my head spin.  She wasn’t just saying the films in question added graphic elements because the producers knew it would help sales or because the director was a horndog, though both assertions would hold up in the court of common sense.  Rather, she objected to the heavy-handed use of violence, profanity, and nudity for artistic reasons, not just moral ones.  I wasn’t sure why.

A few years later, after London, I was living in New York, where I met dozens of the thousands of Christian artists working in a variety of media.  Hundreds of conversations about art and faith began to shed more light in the cave of my developing convictions.  Some of the discussions were about the problem of gratuitousness in art, which one singer-songwriter said happened when the artist’s desire for expression superseded the listener’s need for identification, or something like that.

Such gratuitousness might be found in a Midwestern arena, where a smiling pop princess wows the crowd with writhing and riffing to a song whose lyrics, it seems, she has never read.  It could occur on Broadway when the method actor portraying the sensitive young man in a kitchen sink drama obsesses in the tranquility of his dressing room over a private trauma he later recollects on stage, using substitution to induce live catharsis.  He feels purged; the audience gets puked on. Or it could happen on the left coast when a starlet, new enough in town to believe everything her handlers tell her, shakes the dust from her Bible belt background by taking off her clothes for the camera (and a greater than usual number of crew members), not thinking far enough ahead to realize that once her full frontal reaches celluloid or her derriere goes digital, there’s no takesies backsies.  Her dry cleaner and pharmacist and neighbors and grandchildren will always have the evidence, forever be able to say, I’ve seen that (and those).

My Christian artist friends were not necessarily against getting naked in the name of art.  But some of them were non-actors for whom the question was merely theoretical.  They hadn’t worked as an actor, as I barely had (no pun intended).  So they didn’t really have to think through how practical aesthetics and personal ethics work themselves out in the real career of a person of faith in regular negotiations with directors, producers, and representatives who take 15 % off the top (5 percent more than God).  Whether it was because they were novices and dilettantes like I or because they were seasoned professionals arriving at different conclusions than I might, some of these artists said that Christian actors, many of whom were comfortable with realistic portrayals of violence and coarse language, shouldn’t get so hung up on the idea of nudity.

In theory, I appreciated their hatred of legalism.  Believers in the only true original One are free in Christ and ought to suspend judgment as long as we can.  It is a terrible thing to fall in to the hands of a self-appointed arbiter of everyone else’s good taste.  God save us from the narrow-minded tyrant who draws arbitrary lines for others, pontificates where scripture is silent, puts a fence around the law and says, “This is sanctified, that is not; say poop if you must, as long as you feel bad about it.”

I’m not entirely sure nudity is always taboo for Christian artists.  Jesus hung naked on the tree, and some powerful if controversial and maybe, I don’t know, misguided artistic portrayals of this central crisis in history forgo the traditional undergarment.  As do other fine representations of many a noble or playful subject.  Walking through the Met, marveling at classical masterpieces centered on the human form, never feels like pornographia, always reminds me that premodern painters and sculptors had no Victorian qualms about letting it all hang out.  It is not the body that is sinful.  But something in us is.

In one of those many hours of chats about God and creative license, me waxing loquacious, as I’m wont to do when I’m passionate about a subject and have the ear of folks who have not yet found me tiresome, I was shocked into silence by someone suggesting it a sign of spiritual immaturity when actors refused to do on-stage nudity.  That seemed, still seems, silly to me.  For while I’m not sure nudity is ever integral to a plot, I am pretty sure, as a matter of both civil and spiritual liberty, that nobody gets to tell me when I have to take my clothes off.

Art that seeks first to titillate may be of the lowest cultural order because it exists primarily as a servant of commerce.  And, whatever its intention, graphic subject matter may have the potential to darken the souls of artist and audience alike.  But more disturbing (and engrossing) than sexploitative details of who did what where and for how long may be the unrelenting exposure of a memoirist’s own soul.  There’s nothing like a page-turning tell-all as penance for the past.  Fueled by the possibility of praise as the ultimate hope for redemption, the self-conscious author casts the reader as his confessor.  One imagines the writer feeling cleansed as manuscript passes from his hands into those of his publisher’s publicist.  It is the rest of the world, his reading public, that is about to get dirty.

Communication is not merely about personal expression, but also about serving the human community for the glory of God.  In trying to do so through the arts, we should enjoy the pleasure of simply getting to practice our craft, whether it’s a collage about dandelions, a dance about nothing, or an essay about God.  But we must also keep in mind we are doing that work to connect to others, in hopes they might experience something for themselves.  And let us hope that something is good, in every sense of the word.

It’s tempting, writing memoir, to say too much, and to do so as quickly as possible.  To shock with the removal of coverups, and to continue to captivate readers until every shred of pretense and pose, down to the last fig leaf, is piled on the ground, and I stand bravely, if uncomfortably, in my own skin.  Maybe, if I dare to mention every ignoble thing I might ever have thought about doing, then you will love me for being so transparent.  Or you could reject me, and I would have the satisfaction of hating you for that.

Kind of a cheap gimmick, I think.  And a lazy one, in that it lessens the need for me to show restraint and you to use imagination.  Worse, it’s manipulative.  Because, really, I’m still going to follow Arthur Dimmesdale’s little way of vague confession–I will be selective in what I show and tell, so that, with any luck, you will like me even more for being so torn up about sins which, I hope you think, aren’t as bad as yours.  Worst of all, if I continue to shame myself for the past, it proves I have taken my eyes off the One who was already stripped on my behalf.

It’s subjective, of course.  A book that leads one person to God could damn another person to hell, or vice versa.  That’s a little dramatic, perhaps.  No work of art has that much power.  One of the instructors at those British master classes was a playwright who said, “The play is in the air.”  Half-way between stage and seat, the script and actors and costumes and lighting designers are consorting with audience members to create meaning.  My lit theory prof would point out the ontological problems in such a sloppy statement.  I’ll concede his accurate criticism of the imprecision.

All I’m saying, as a layman who long ago gave up dreams of academia, is that every individual artistic experience, of a rap or jig or installation or bestselling novel or indie short, is unique.  God knows, two people sitting in the same theater watching the same scene could be doing so with diametrically opposite motives, and then, still, could get out of the experience the opposite of what they had hoped.  God does know that.  So, I remind myself to ask Him about the what and wherefore of my wanderings as both producer and consumer of art, once upon a time dramatic, and now, Lord willing, literary.  And I will keep what I think He shows me to myself.  Mostly.

But if armchair philosophers and would be renaissance men like myself are good at anything, it is forming and sharing opinions.  So I’ll offer one more:  when in doubt, keep your pants on.


@LScottEkstrom is a freelance writer living in New York.

Article and photo credit:  Copyright 2013, L. Scott Ekstrom.  All rights reserved.

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A recent sitcom episode featured a debate about the essence of humankind:  good or evil?  I liked the show more for the comedy than the situation and usually think, when half-hour scripted programs try to teach something, they’ve misunderstood their assignment.  Just give me 22 minutes of fluff, some ridiculous scenario providing an excuse for a comedian and some character actors to deliver well-timed irony carefully constructed by a roomful of over-educated writers.  Throw in a little double entendre, and I am a fully satisfied man.  But, in the case of this series that gleefully jumped the shark seasons ago, the didactic storyline in question was, nonetheless, compelling:  what is the nature of human nature?

Not an easy question to answer.  At present the world, at least the Western portion, seems to come down on the side of good.  I don’t mean that we are good (spoiler alert!), but that we seem to think we are.  Entire institutions—of higher education, cultural engagement, charitable cause—are based on the premise that we could solve all our ills, or at least other people’s ills, if we could just guard our natal innocence from the evil forces of society, apparently something other than a group of individual humans.

I get the appeal.  Back in college, I once told a professor, “I’m not sure why, but something in me believes, if we just had enough time to discuss our problems, humans could solve any challenge.”  “Oh I know what that is,” he deadpanned; “it’s the tower of Babel.”  And then, because he was the Socratic type who liked to let students figure things out for themselves, he walked away without explanation, leaving me, for the last decade and a half, to wonder what he meant.

I knew the Genesitic allusion, believed there was a moment in history, or prehistory, if you like, when earthlings became so inspired by their potential they decided to build a ziggurat in their own honor, a stairway of human achievement reaching into the heavens.  An impressive demonstration of distinctiveness, as is the collective résumé of homosapien accomplishment to this day.  People wisely identify their talents, study hard, work long, and leverage all that sweat equity into a better future for their own children and, in the grandest of cases, the children of the world.  Since I’m a passive type who often forgets action can change situations and may yield increased happiness for myself and others, these examples serve to remind me that I must, from time to time, get off the couch.  I understand the exclamation of another sitcom character:  “People are awesome!”  (I watch too much TV.)

Given that the children of Adam can reach such heights, why, in the Babel account, does God come down and put a stop to the project?  Misotheists, those who believe there is a God who is not good (and that, to varying degrees, describes most of us at one time or another), might say He felt threatened by our progress, worried that if we reached past the clouds of self-doubt, we might find where He kept the thunder and steal it for ourselves.  But the biblical God, though always thinking of His own glory, and appropriately so, is also always thinking of our good.  And He seems to think it’s not always best for us to accomplish our goals, even good ones.

Born in the 1970’s, I am a Gen X poster child—delivered by Dr. Spock, suckled by Sesame Street, come to age on “Free to Be You and Me.”  Twentieth century America, I’ve heard it said, was the first culture to decide that man’s chief problem is thinking too little of himself.  And I’ve often wanted to believe this is true.  Wanted to believe, as a new teacher not much older than my students, that my own contagious positivity would soon transform apparent miscreants into budding Wordsworths.  That is, after all, the theme of every teacher movie made in the last forty years.  But by seventh period of my first day of actual teaching, I had shed, not only my 38 Regular sport coat, but also my belief in the innate goodness of humans, be they 15 or 23.  Funny how idols melt in the heat of reality.

The allure of self-actualization, however, was a siren song I couldn’t, or didn’t, resist; I soon took up the gauntlet again—in other lessons, other classes, other years, and then grad school, and, later, through a couple career changes; all the time, I guess, trying to prove something to someone—that, despite a growing record of false starts and mediocre results, I could still be successful if circumstances altered.  Being better than others would prove to them that I was great; their forced praise would make me feel good; and goodness would make me forget my need for God.

A horrible train of thought, when you say it out loud, but there it is.  This is the heart of evil in me:  I hate myself but would do anything to be worshiped.  That may be the posture of neurosis, the particular plight of the artsy-fartsy, or even the classic profile of a future addict.  It’s also, I’m pretty sure, the human condition.

The Word uses strong language to describe sin.  But some of the most offensive phrases in the scriptures of Old and New are about the futility of trying to please God through our own efforts—human righteousness is compared to menstrual rags and excrement.  I guess that’s why the Reformers talked about our need to repent of, not only our worst deeds, but also our best.  A holy God cannot be reached by anyone who has ever even thought about committing the slightest whit of the mildest sin.  There is goodness in us, yes.  God put it there, and it is real.  But, given that there is also something else in us, to assume good wins out or will ever grow into something good enough to earn a heavenly reward is a gamble the bible does not recommend.

So, are we just damned if we do and damned if we don’t–literally?  Should we, as one professing existentialist friend determined to do (before he eventually became a Christian), live for pleasure alone, and, then, as another pledged to expect, just take our hell when it comes?  Actually, I’m not saying we should try to do bad.  Or that we shouldn’t try our best at all times.  I would like science and technology to advance beyond imagination to make life longer and better for more people than we ever dreamed possible.  I hope all peace talks succeed, freedom covers the earth, education empties every jail cell, and people help people in every conceivable way.  But, God knows, when things get better and we think we alone have made it so, we start to believe that maybe we’re not so bad after all, that everything would be fine if we just continued to work our hardest at being our best, to the glory of us.  Then, and only then, when we have made a name for ourselves through the shedding of our own blood and tears, will the Almighty receive us.  Blessed be our names.

Sometimes, however, one of God’s children does something so unspeakably inhuman, the only word to describe the action is evil.  We name it so, rightly.  But just as quickly as we judge the evil in a few, our philosophical waters are muddied again:  we see heroes and helpers everywhere, running to save, staying to help, raising support for the long haul.  “Evil did not win utterly; most people are still good,” we say.  And those good people demand justice.

To be sure, justice will be done, if not in the here and now, then in the hereafter.  But there’s the rub.  While I can take comfort in the fact that God is the judge of my enemies, I must also wonder, whose enemy am I?  If, as atrocities make clear, some people are evil, how do we know we will never be so ourselves, or that we aren’t already worse?  Innocent victims looking forward to others’ judgment seek solace in knowing there is a fixed culmination of history in which all misunderstandings will be cleared up, all paradoxes reconciled, all good and secret motives made known.  It’s wondrous, actually, to consider how tears might turn to laughter, cold shoulders melt into warm embrace, burdens disappear.

But reverie quickly gives way to panic if we think about what it would mean, when all is revealed, for every person who’s ever lived to see every thing we’ve ever done, thought, and felt.  Of course, if everyone’s a moral toad, it’s basically a wash.  Unless, come the end of days, our cosmic evaluation is not a comparative study.  What if, though judged in front of everybody, the standard by which we are measured is not the values du jour of our moment under the sun?  How will the cultivation of our inner nobility fare when God replaces the sun with Himself, vanishing time and temporal standards with it, and we are confronted with, not a jury of our peers, but the most beautiful and terrifying sight of all—a Judge who is sinless perfection become sin for us? What Rock will we hide under then?

Maybe, when I was trying to pretend greatness by teaching great books, if I had better understood what Hawthorne and Golding, O’Connor and Greene, were all trying to say about me and you, that pessimism has a point, that if we did some honest spelunking into our own souls we may not like what we see, and, worse yet, we may not have much power to change it; perhaps then, I would have forfeited the contest for greatest human ever, realizing that frenetically trying to climb the podium toward personal best may actually place us in the loser’s circle.  What if, instead of the daily battle for self-promotion, I had rested more deeply in Another’s greatness, already proved at Golgotha when, in historical literature’s finest moment, the Incarnation enacted a loophole:  Him for us.  If, as a young buck, I’d believed that more deeply, it might have moved me more frequently to a counter offer:  me for Him.  Then maybe I could have been more useful an instructor to my fellow students of grace.

Questions remain.  How will God judge His enemies, whoever they may be?  How will He handle my friends who don’t accept His free exchange program or strangers who’ve never heard of it?  Frankly, though not flippantly, I don’t know.  I’m not exactly sure what perfect justice and mercy will turn out to mean for those who don’t believe in it.  As for me, I imagine I could still waste a lot of time in this life, perhaps be a little embarrassed about blind spots when He returns, and maybe, when it’s time for rewards or the lack thereof, I could, for a moment, wish I’d given Him more sooner.  But, ultimately, however my work may be judged, I know my soul won’t be, because long before my academic days, actually, I made the initial step of giving up on myself.  Decided, instead, to trust the One who, even longer ago, chose to be judged on my behalf.  Remembering that decision, His more than mine, frees me, like nothing else I know, to admit my worst and try my best.


@LScottEkstrom is a freelance writer living in New York.

 Article and photo credit:  Copyright, 2013.  L. Scott Ekstrom.  All Rights Reserved.

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An autobiography says, “I became awesome; here’s how.”  A memoir says, “A lot of people did me wrong; now I’m naming names.”  A spiritual memoir says, “I found God; here’s my secret.”  But a Christian memoir says, “God found me; go figure.”  I’m trying to write that last one.  Here’s the introduction to my book in progress.


If I believed people were basically good; that religious people were better than most; all pilgrims were climbing different sides of the same mountain, any path likely to reach the top; that spiritual success could be traced back to some distinctive superiority in the seeker; or eternal destruction was ever unsought . . .

If I believed twenty-first century Westerners were the wisest, most altruistic folks to ever live; that truth was unknowable or conflicting spiritual narratives might be simultaneously opposite and true; that tolerance was the freedom to believe whatever you like so long as that belief is not so strongly held or clearly expressed as to offend any other belief . . .

If I believed proselytizing was immoral or all people weren’t already trying to get everyone to believe as they did anyways; that there need be any incompatibility between conviction and civility; that disagreement equaled judging or judgment indicated hate . . .

If I believed personal faith was always immediately evident to everyone or could exist indefinitely with no signs of growth noticed by anyone; that we knew which and whose sins were the most heinous and should never or always discuss our own . . .

If I believed conversion an outdated innovation, the dangerous legacy of colonialism, an optional variety of faith for the emotionally inclined, a dedication appropriate for only the least savory, a necessarily datable and conscious crisis, a second chance to redeem ourselves, the mere erasing of past sins, a revivification of the latent angels in our nature, the reward for a pledge to reform, a tenuous moment of perfection, or a conditional communion we could muck up at any time . . .

If I believed the Spirit of God did not still speak to the spirits of women and men or that He will ever tell anyone anything that contradicts something He already told us all through His Word; that the bible was not holy writ but, rather, the ignorant ramblings of superstitious bigots or the copy of a copy of the flawed human reflection of a Word dictated from heaven but lost in translation by errant scribes . . .

If I believed Christ was not the Christ but a hyper-enlightened guide for releasing the light within; that His birth was illegitimate, His teachings paralleled by other prophets, His miracles legend, His so-called perfection bunk; that His death was deserved or an unfortunate misunderstanding, that it was not the worst and best thing to ever happen, or that it effected an automatic turning point for all, whether they fell at His feet or spit in His face . . .

If I believed resurrection started with something less than the body of God rising from the dead . . .

If I believed any of these things or many others I also don’t believe, the life I am trying to live and the book I have tried to write would be, for better or worse, very different from what they are.  What I do believe, for starters, is that the Three-in-One God, who created the universe and sustains it still, knew, before He also created me in His good image, that I was prone, at least from birth, to mar that image beyond recognition, forever vacillating between the yin and yang of self-destruction and self-worship.  But, His love for and knowledge of me being infinitely greater than my own for and of myself, He came down the mountain.  Lived a beautiful life, died an ugly death and, through Word and Spirit one winter’s night a quarter century ago, walked farther still, down basement stairs and into my pimpled soul, descending even into the hell of my own making, to kiss my every sin with death and life and love and, then, ascend with me in His arms, saved by grace, only grace.

My book begins there and is about His continual mercy set in stark relief against my near-continual rebellion.  It is not, as someone once described the religious testimony, a tale of how I used to be bad but now I’m good.  It is not even a story that is mostly about me.  Sure, in my own stab at a literary non-fiction, as with my attempt at Christianity, my tendency toward disobedience finds me daily sliding myself back into the spotlight.  But if I’ve lived long enough to know anything, it is this:  a merciful Providence persists to show me I was never meant to be the lead actor in my own life.  Things go better when I accept a supporting role and allow Him to be writer, producer, director, and star.

So, all that to say this:  here goes something.


@LScottEkstrom is a freelance writer living in New York.

Article and photo credit:  Copyright 2013, L. Scott Ekstrom.  All rights reserved.

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At 35, and barely holding on to my hair, I reasoned it was my last chance to become a movie star, so I quit my day job and moved to Hollywood.

Filled with the promise that L.A. could do for my fledgling acting career all that NYC had not, I enjoyed a wonderful cross-country drive, including an intoxicating 24 hours in Yellowstone. Easily lining up an apartment with a couple other actors, I believed a higher power was guiding every detail of my move.

My first week in Los Angeles, I booked background work on two TV shows, one about ghosts and the other about witches.  It seemed I was to specialize in occult entertainment.  Being on set, as I had experienced a few times in New York, was cool—gorging myself on craft services, learning from the professionalism of cast and crew, sitting so close to one of television’s loveliest leading ladies I could have touched her hair and asked her to marry me.  (Reader, I did not.)

But after those first two gigs, I spent the next few weeks making hundreds of calls, trying, to no avail, to get more work.  In the mean time, I applied for several real jobs, got only one interview, and didn’t get hired.  So, with my paltry savings depleted by the end of my first month there, I decided to admit defeat and return East.

It was a strange thing to do—talk incessantly about moving to Cali for seven years and then stay only seven weeks.  I wouldn’t blame people for wondering exactly what happened.  But the truth is, nothing happened.  And that’s the point.  In the midst of recession, I had left a decent job and an affordable Manhattan apartment for a strange city with virtually no prospects.  I had taken a gamble on my ability to make something happen once I got there, but it turned out I could not.

I recognize that, compared with acquaintances who have found some success on Broadway or in Hollywood, my attempt at a career was a joke.  I don’t just mean I was too fat or am too plain-looking or will never be talented enough, though all that may be true.  The main difference between them (people I’ve known who’ve become featured performers or series regulars) and me (who never joined Actors’ Equity or showed up on IMDb) is that, whereas they know exactly what they want and figure out how to get it, I can’t seem to go 48 hours knowing who I am.  They are the Gallants who received proper training and continually tweak their craft.  I am the Goofus who cobbled together an eclectic semblance of technique through liberal arts classes and semi-professional experience.  They are the disciplined go-getters who were pounding the pavement in Midtown six hours before I was eating a breakfast sandwich in Hell’s Kitchen.  And they’re the hungry types who were slating their names up in WeHo while I was down in NoHo buying nachos with a credit card.

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I decided to go West.  Maybe because, ten years before, I had moved to London without an apartment and found one within days or because, three years after that, I moved to New York without a job and found a good one within weeks, maybe, because those experiences worked out, I figured, mid-thirties, that I had one more risky move in me.  So I set my GPS toward Sunset and wished for the best.  But soon after my Hollywood adventure became a debacle, I vowed never to make the mistake of believing in myself again.

I emailed some friends describing my emotional state during those dark weeks of the soul:  I have never had less confidence in myself than I do now.  One minister replied with concern regarding this slump in my self-esteem.  I appreciated her sympathy.  I need friends like that, good folk of any belief or none who help me see my natural strength when I feel overwhelmed by weakness, people who remind me that most clouds pass and things will probably get better soon.  That helps some, hearing others’ optimism in the midst of my cynicism.  But, ultimately, I need something more.

For when I wrote that my confidence was shaken to the core, I actually meant that not just as a prayer request but also as a praise report:  stranded in L.A., watching the mirage of my own potential give way to the reality of my own mediocrity, there were moments when I took my eyes off myself and saw Jesus.

Though I’ve called myself a Christian since childhood, I can count on one hand my own seasons of spiritual renewal.  Most of the faith walk, mine anyway, is slow and somewhat mundane, but there have been a few times, unplanned weeks or months, when the energy of the Divine has been especially potent, and the result was, instead of the usual stumbling toward Calvary, during these times I’ve sprinted.

October 2009 in the San Fernando Valley was such a time as that.  But unlike 1988 when I felt immersed in the Spirit, 1991 when I learned to cultivate the Presence through prayer, 1996 when my thoughts were haunted by the unparalleled excellency of Christ, or 2006 when my bible came back to life, my mystical time in the desert of North Hollywood was not pleasant.  I hurt in ways I had never hurt before.  But as life and the Lord conspired to show me what a cowardly slug of a dreamer I have always been, I came nearer the end of myself, stared deeper into the abyss of my own nature and, facing a few more demons, perhaps literal ones, I had no alternative but to trust in God more than I ever had.  And He was there.  Not as a soft comforter or sugar on my lips but like a rock where I could rest the night until the sun came out.

I sometimes hear people using the words soul, God, and the universe interchangeably.  Fifteen years ago when Dharma or her hippie parents co-opted a hybrid of Eastern religions to pepper their conversation with clauses like “The universe must be trying to tell me something,” Greg and the Montgomerys and we Middle Americans watching those crazy Californians on our ginormous televisions, we all laughed at the silliness of such New Age sentiments.  Now, in a post-Oprah age, such phraseology is mainstream.  Christians lapse into similar language.  Heart’s desires are assumed messages from a God, who, apparently, is most interested in helping affluent Westerners achieve success—everything happens for a reason and works out in the end if you do right (as if anyone frequently does) and just believe (in what—yourself?  A benevolent cosmos?)  Makes me wonder about all those naughty orphans starving to death in developing countries.  And what about those believers in many times and places who have been persecuted, some to death, with no happy ending in this life?  Is there some formula for victorious living that kidnapped sex slaves haven’t heard about?  A secret mantra that tsunami victims should have been repeating, some law to follow that would have attracted better things than a decimated village?

Or maybe a perfect God made the earth good and humans very good, but by our sin we’ve destroyed it and us so badly that this planet and the people in it bear only a slight resemblance to His image.  Perhaps, in our personal lives as well as our cultural struggles for a just and happy world, we would be better equipped for the fight if we stopped congratulating our own greatness long enough to notice a Creator who has become our Redeemer and will one day make all things new, full, and fun.  I do not say this to imply that true religion is just tarrying in this miserable world until Jesus comes to take us to a “de-luxe apartment in the sky.”  Yes, if I die today, I will immediately rest in paradise.  And, yes, one day, maybe tonight or tomorrow or in a thousand years or so, the Sun of Righteousness will return to infuse and remake this earth.  The physical will become superphysical.  And when that happens, we who have longed for His appearing will get everything we ever really wanted.

That’s what I want to say to prosperity proselytizers:  You have a point.  God does want to bless us with unimaginable riches.  But your timing stinks.  You focus on the present, trying to wrest goodies from God’s hand by the manipulation of pious deeds done with dirty motives, like squirming brats who endure the hug of a homecoming dad only to ensure their receipt of whatever gift shop trinket might be in his suitcase.  How can you be so stuck in the present when there’s so much to adore about the past and future?  Christian redemptive chronology knows the glorious bookends of a past when Christ chose to die for us—how incredibly romantic—and a future when, our courtship with Him consummated, we will literally sense God—see, touch, smell, taste, hear Him.

But back to me.  How does such knowledge of past and future affect my present?  How did it do so winding through Laurel Canyon with tears streaming down my face and later, giving up and leaving the Golden State, bypassing Vegas, and speeding by the Grand Canyon to reach New Mexico that first night eastward, slack-jawed with wonder about what had just happened, or, rather, all that had not:  I could not get my head out of the smog long enough to translate my myth of California—easygoing success amidst sun-drenched nature preserves—into any useful reality.  What good was a past/future faith when my present was peanut butter and jelly and, that second night, a $29 motel room in Godforsaken, Texas?  Amidst professional and personal failure, how did I mentally survive the third night when I arrived at a friend’s house in Kansas City to accept his dinner and breakfast invitations, knowing that he knew I couldn’t afford to pay my fair share?  Humiliated by such headshaking loss of pride, I wondered if all my friends and family, when they found out I was packing it in before I had fully unpacked, wanted to ask what my cousin had on the phone:  “Are you done with your mid-life crisis?”

It helped when my Kansan buddy, some time between the burgers and The Mentalist, counseled, “Running into a brick wall is not a mistake; it’s just a road you’ve discovered is a dead end.”  Helpful also was the note from a former coworker suggesting I needn’t over-explain myself to people:  “Just say you got to L.A., decided you didn’t like it, and left.”

Kind words from a supportive community, certainly part of my daily bread.  But what blessed me the most during those days was that, although I could not see any useful reason for believing in God—there were innumerable petitions He was not granting, there was no immediate deliverance from flakiness, no prophetic word of wisdom, no eleventh hour reversal of plot; life was simply a burden to endure—nonetheless, I believed.

I used to get discouraged when I observed people who, years after being converted, still could not sustain any measurable happiness, bogged down as they were by depression, family squabbles, money troubles, or worse.  But my journey in and out of the La Brea tar pits provided a new perspective on these unbubbly souls, the ones whose testimonies will never grace the promotional materials of a parachurch organization promising a better life through Christ.  Because, if that’s the case, if we’re just following principles to make God bless us with the life of our dreams, we will think, when those dreams come true, that we deserve every good thing we got.  As it turns out, we never really loved God at all; we just wanted His stuff.

No, I want to stand with my brothers and sisters in failure, recognize that false gospel, and cry Bull!  I want to look back and picture the Lover of my soul dying for me because He knows I don’t have the right stuff to follow His rules or even my own.  And I want to look forward and imagine Him waiting for me with who knows what up His sleeves.  Because here’s the great irony:  when we’re willing to live now for nothing but Him and with only what He decides we need, then, in the great forever, we will, along with Him, also get everything–the great haul:  we become co-inheritors with Christ.

Those are the kinds of realizations that kept me alive, on a leaky air mattress, in a grungy room off Magnolia Street, when I looked out my window at the mountains in the distance and realized they were the backside of the Hollywood Hills:  the glitterati were mooning me.

It took a few weeks until I could get someone to take over my spot on the apartment lease.  And so while I waited for that security deposit to pay for gas all the way home, and since I couldn’t even get a temp agency to hire me, I watched reruns of Friday Night Lights with my roommates, and I read.  I read what I always read when trauma disables my left brain:  the Psalms.  And I read all the epistles and went to the Coffee Bean and re-read a favorite book about God as the real source of pleasure.  I say this to point out there was no contradiction between the theological and the existential.  The Word of God and the God of the Word—He was the One who was with me.  The growth I experienced at that time was theological.  But it was not merely so.

The last night of my trip back, I stayed in Ohio with a gracious couple whose Greenwich Village bible study I had once led.  Now, for a doctoral program, he and she had traded in that groovy walk-up for a ranch house by a cornfield.  It was she who asked, over smoked almonds and Cabernet, “What were you reading that made you experience the profound renewal you discussed in your email?”  And I thought, yeah, good question, because the disciplines matter—the meditation, the prayer, etc.  But sometimes, as in the case of those precious and painful hours on my face—God just shows up and you watch Him breathe.


@LScottEkstrom is a freelance writer living in New York. 

Article and photo credit:  Copyright 2013, L. Scott Ekstrom.  All rights reserved.

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Bait and Switch

In New York, image is everything.  All transplants to the City (like me 10 years ago) quickly feel the pressure to market a persona that prospective employers and “friends” will buy.  As a youngish single guy living in Manhattan, I donned my share of masks.  When I first arrived, moving from a rural Western New York town that, at Population: 3800, is 7 hours and a world away, I imagined my recent graduate degree from a British institution would be my key to fame, so I presented myself as anglophile smarty pants, until I discovered that nobody here thinks I’m smart and landed my first job as an assistant making $10 an hour.

Next, I became the aspiring actor who, if truth be told, rarely made it to auditions, performed miserably at them most of the time, and, if I was lucky enough to get a gig, vacillated between potentially adequate and just plain awful.  Briefly, I was a hipster wannabe, until I decided that staying in really was the new going out and being in by 9 pm was best.  I even attempted the metrosexual thing (you remember—straight boy, well-groomed), but a preference for Pepsi over Pilates, a tendency toward bad hair days, and a mountain of student loans snowcapped by credit card debt soon overshadowed my desire to be the svelte, product-pampered, cool-clothes-buying hottie who gets the girl.  (Incidentally, an old girlfriend did once call me hottie, but I’m sure she was flattering and, anyways, she’s since married someone else—a fat lot of good that did me.)

So, while my type, as my former acting teachers would call it, is still unclear (I’m hoping before it’s too late to be Young Daddy, the nothing guy who marries the beautiful woman who bears children who take after their mother), I’m nonetheless certain of who I am.  I am, forgive the apparent non sequitur, a Christian.  Not necessarily a very good one, and, because I’m a bit of a weenie, not always a public one, but a believer in Christ all the same.

“Christian in the City” may seem like a novelty or even an oxymoron to some, but my sense, be it perceived or real, is that I am not alone here.  There seem to be, all around me on this wonderful island of concrete and steel, a growing number of others who confess Christian theism as their dominant worldview.  And these are not your father’s Jesus people or your grandfather’s holy rollers.  I’m talking about orthodox believers who, while they may have been Bible-thumping Jesus freaks or bong-toting preachers’ kids in the high schools of middle America, have somehow ended up thriving in NYC not just as a religious subculture but as likeable, grown-up members of society.

I don’t mean to overstate the case or frighten happily agnostic Gothamites with predictions of a Christian invasion, but I suspect you already know of whom I speak.  The copywriter in the cubicle next to you, though up for a pint on Thursday night, left the pub after one round for a meeting he eventually admitted was a Bible study.  The lead actress in the Broadway show you see thanks her “Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” in her Playbill bio.  Tacky sentiment, you think, but, no worries, it’s probably a southern thing, and, besides, she’s damn good.  And the young Wharton grad renting the apartment next door?  Though he can be as cocky as all kids close to making their first million, don’t be surprised if, when you break your ankle next week and he brings you a meal, the card attached suggests he is “praying for you,” and you get the sense he means not just “thinking of you” but literally getting down on his Brooks Brothered knees and mentioning you by name to a divine Person who, he believes, is listening and wanting to aid your recovery.

These Christians I speak of, your co-workers, acquaintances, neighbors, may not be packaged the way you’re used to thinking of their ilk.  They may not bear the image of the anti-intellectual, bigoted, politically-driven prudes obsessed with waging a culture war against the “liberal media” and Britney Spears’ belly button.  They might be regular folks who have, some against their best intentions to the contrary, fallen in love with a Man they believe to be love personified.  Yes, evangelicals are, by definition, evangelistic.  From time to time they may want to talk about their faith, just as all people tend to discuss things that are most important to them.  Humor them and listen if you want.  Or nicely tell them to cork it.  Perhaps they’ll understand, as an old jock-turned-youth-pastor once explained, that Christians are called to love all people, not just to manipulate them into our kingdom, but because we posit a God who loves all people—even average-IQ dilettantes, overweight metrosexuals, ex-hipsters, out-of-work actors, and juvenile Christian writers.

@LScottEkstrom is a freelance writer living in New York.

Article and photo credit:  Copyright 2013, L. Scott Ekstrom.  All rights reserved.

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