Archive for May, 2013

In the fall of sixth grade I found myself at the community theater, performing in Pippin’ and sharing a dressing room with the teen and twentysomething guys.  My favorite dude was a pot-smoking 19-year-old who described himself as a “born again Christian.”  I asked how he could do the one and call himself the other, and he said marijuana was just something he enjoyed.  That didn’t strike me as a very satisfying answer, but, nonetheless, I thought he was pretty cool, and his open expression of faith intrigued me.

Prior to meeting him, I had only heard the phrase born again as a slur to criticize people who had gone off the religious deep end.  But having just dipped my toe into the shallow end of religious experience by praying the Sinner’s Prayer at church camp, I was beginning to discover more and more evangelical types whom I really liked.  I soon came to call my camp prayer the moment I, too, had been born again.  Probably it wasn’t.

That I assumed God was to be found most fully in the face of Christ and not Buddha or Mohammed or the moss on a rock could be argued, I know, to be simply because, being born into a culturally Christian pocket of the U.S., I began my spiritual search with the religious assumptions handed down to me by my parents.  But is that not where everyone begins?

So it was, for me, that church led to church camp and, by the archery field, a group devotional as poignant as it was simple:  man separated from God by sin, Jesus bridging the gap.  I had always known God existed, and that He was good and all-powerful.  Now, a deeper understanding of God’s love proven at the cross seemed to demand a response.  One night that week, after lights out, the counselor stepped in to the 11-and-12-year-old boys’ room and invited us to pray.  There, on the top part of the middle bunk along the north wall of Cabin 3, closing my eyes to the royal blue curtains framing the moonlit window, I earnestly told God I was sorry for any sins I had committed so far, asked Him to forgive them, and promised to start acting like a real Christian.

It was an important development in my spiritual plot.  But, less like the Spirit to spirit encounter of regeneration, it was more like a pledge of the will to start being good.  And good I was determined to become.  I decided to stop the swearing habit I had intentionally begun at age nine, when I told my aunt I did a “damn good job” mowing the lawn, when I programmed the school’s Commodore 64 to run every bad word I knew, or when I referred to a randy churchman as “that bastard.”  BC (Before Camp) I had decided to take advantage of the premium cable recently come to Hometown and watch as many R-rated movies as possible.  Now I knew God disapproved.

Upon return from camp, I memorialized my reform by fashioning a five-foot high construction paper cross on the inside of my bedroom door, printing on it the words to one of our bonfire songs—“Jesus’ love is a bubblin’ over, Jesus’ love bubbles in my soul” . . . ending it with the early Christian saying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”  I also began proudly wearing a small pendant with the inscription I am a Lutheran.

But my tweenish zeal brought with it struggle as well as celebration.  The counselor had said God wanted us to listen to Christian rock.  I wondered how he knew that, since the bible, completed 1900 years before Amy Grant ever picked up a guitar, made no mention of God’s musical preference for Stryper over Van Halen.  But I began to think I should take down my poster of David Lee Roth, stop reading Mötley Crüe’s liner notes, and replace Madonna’s Like a Virgin with praise tapes about her namesake’s Son.

Also, for the first time since second grade, I began to doubt my calling as a performer.  I wondered if it was right for a Christian to play non-Christian characters, and I envisioned being sued by a film studio for refusing to do so.  I asked Dad if they could do that.  “Why,” he answered with a question, “would you refuse to play any character, you little weirdo?”  Actually, I made the final phrase up.  But that must have been what he was thinking, I imagine now, 27 years later and not much younger than Dad was then.

Maybe for a moment he suspected what Mom would know a few years thence, that this new kick was beginning to mess with my career goals.  I began to think God wanted me to become a minister, though I still hoped to become a movie star.  In a moment of reflection during art class, I developed a syllogism to justify my likely disobedience to the call:  it would be more spiritual to be an actor who wished he were a pastor than to be a pastor who regretted not becoming an actor.  In the meantime, I was well on my way to becoming a Junior Pharisee, until my sixth grade Sunday School teacher introduced a very unkosher idea—John 3:16.

God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  “This,” he said, “was the gospel in a nutshell.”  The point was inadvertently driven home by my unchurched social studies teacher, who taught us ancient world cultures, like Sumer and Greece, and all major religions.  When she got to Rome and Christianity, she wrote on the board that the basis of this religion was John 3:16.

The radical verse set my imagination racing.  It wasn’t Almighty indifference that lumped everyone into heaven or excellent behavior that qualified some.  Rather, it was a universal invitation of grace, accepted through faith:  salvation had been accomplished by Christ on the cross and was received by all who would trust in His sacrifice instead of their own.  That year I exchanged a couple letters with my best friend from camp.  He wrote about the last night, when we all put our mattresses on the floor to be closer together, and how surprised he was to see me cry.  I wrote back with a multiple-choice quiz on religious topics.  Subjects included What is Fornication? and Who Is My Neighbor?  But the key question elucidated my newfound discovery:

          What must we do to go to heaven? 

A.) Follow the 10 Commandments

B.) Obey the Golden Rule, or

C.) Believe in Jesus

[Answer:  C]

The notion of salvation through faith was a relief, but only briefly.  For in the wake of this liberating realization, a new and troubling thought occurred through sixth grade and into seventh:  if salvation hinged on belief, then it was more important than ever to know you believed.  But how could you know for sure?

Nearly everyone I knew claimed to believe in Jesus.  But, although I had always called myself a Christian, something happened on that archery field or in that bunk that made me not want to take my faith for granted.  I assumed the good folks at church had all made similar commitments, even though few of them talked about stuff like that.  Maybe, being of WASPy descent, they were not given to wearing religion on their sleeves, as a half-Swede cousin would later accuse me of doing.  Perhaps the stoic but reverent profession of creeds and membership vows were the high church version of an altar call.  But whatever the important visible steps of baptism, communion, and confirmation meant, and however sincerely they were carried out, no act could guarantee salvation if true conversion was granted by grace and activated through faith, an invisible and very personal matter, if not a private one.

I wanted to rest in the finished work of the cross but felt compelled to lean on my own act of “deciding for Christ.”  The result was a compromised confession amounting to something like a syncretistic blend of old-time religion and neo-paganism:  I had summoned up the good sense to choose Christ, and He, in response, had granted me a second chance at proving myself worthy.  And although that supposed moment of getting saved brought with it little existential reality, I would just have to content myself with an imperfect degree of assurance.  Hopefully, come the resurrection of souls, my hybrid sort-of belief would be enough to escape damnation’s flames.

Puberty helped bring my quest to a crisis.  It had been coming for a couple years—sore armpits from sprouting hair, a vocal range that dropped from first tenor to second bass.  But, by Easter of seventh grade, such characteristics played second fiddle to the real concertmaster:  s-e-x.  Or, because I wasn’t actually having sex, perhaps I should just call it lust.  The gross sin of my thoughts alone obliterated any hope of getting or staying saved through good deeds.  And, though I was trying to believe I was headed for heaven simply because “Jesus paid it all,” I also knew it was dissonant for a child of God to think like a demon in hell.  The Word may be silent or debatable about a good many things, but, regarding the mental indulgence of fantasizing over anyone who isn’t your spouse, the Sermon on the Mount is clear: Jesus calls it adultery.

There was some comfort in learning from peers and mentors that my experience was 0% abnormal; in comparison with the mass of humanity, or at least teenage boys, I was not a freak.  The hormones pulsing through me were the natural course of biology.  But as good a thing a body is, I knew I was more than physical.  I was also a spirit whom God had spoken to through nature and reason and the Spirit of Jesus Christ, Who had been pleading with me since childhood and, particularly since camp, to yield my whole self to Him.  But the reality of my enormous desires and anger and God-knows-what other sins seemed to make the possibility of holiness impossible.

So, I was a sinner, longing for the certainty of forgiveness and the power to do what Jesus would do.  In my search for such, I was reading the second-hand hippie bible Grandma had picked up for me at one of her household sales.  At camp, during private devotional time, I had started “In the beginning” with Genesis and later got part way through Exodus, which, like the children of Israel wandering through the desert, I found a little dry.  I tried to skip to the end, but Revelation frightened me more than Vincent Price’s monologue on my Thriller record.  So I stayed away from the apocalyptic genres and most of the Hebrew testament to focus on the gospels and epistles.

What I first noticed, in the second half of that green bible with the modern paraphrase, were conditional promises—Be very good and God will bless you.  And then, conversely, there were warning passages I hoped would scare the hell out of me.  But seeing the Word simply as law, using it to appeal to pride—You’re a good Christian, so act like it—or fear—Flee immorality so terrible things don’t happen to you—didn’t empower change.  In fact, it just made me weary from trying.  Realizing all that I had was not all I needed, I slouched toward despair.

Around that time I had a dream of Judgment Day.  Humanity was lined up before a chute that would take us to heaven or hell.  As the line shortened and I approached my turn on the cosmic slide, I wondered where the ride would take me.  I woke up before finding out.

Shortly after my fourteenth birthday, I was alone in the basement engaged in a secret practice that had become a new habit—watching The 700 Club.  I had been doing so for several months, and it had become a tool for better understanding the message that united all of scripture and formed the bedrock of my religious ancestry, from Wittenberg to Stockholm to upstate New York by way of Minnesota:  “grace through faith in Christ alone.”  Even the ability to believe, let alone the desire to obey, was a gift—and an infinitely more hopeful prospect than a clean slate or a divine pep talk.

A natural liberal who voted in mock elections for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, I had no idea who Pat Robertson was—at the time he was off the air running for president.  If there was conservative political commentary, prosperity teaching, or proclamations of judgment on natural disaster victims, I didn’t notice.  What moved me were the featured stories of a compassionate God surprising broken people with His love.

By 10:30 that January night in 1988, I had seen enough.  My key questions—how could I know I really believed? and how could I overcome sin?—gave way to one clear answer:  I just needed Jesus.  Truths introduced through the historic catechisms had been driven home by the Christian Broadcasting Network.  After watching some testimonies about people getting “baptized in the Holy Spirit,” I prayed with the man on TV, Pat’s son Tim, for a similar experience.

I didn’t speak in tongues, and I don’t remember any of the English words he asked home viewers to repeat.  But I do remember following his instructions to raise my hands in prayer, an ancient expression of worship I had never used before but which has felt natural ever since.  The lifting of hands reflected the sudden feeling of surrender to God and the strong confidence that He could do something supernatural in me.  He did.  The Holy Spirit touched me and, in so doing, initiated a mysterious change that was to grow into a major interior renovation.  While praying, I also noticed an odd feeling in my ear, and then Tim said, had said in Virginia Beach when recording the program 12 hours earlier, “Some of you are feeling a strange sensation in your ears.”  That was odd, but maybe it was an external sign of God’s sovereignty over this internal event.

After the prayer I did a double pirouette, charged with the electricity of new beginning.  Later, upstairs in my own room, I looked at the moon and saw that its beams, refracted through frosty windows, appeared to make the shape of a cross.  I’ve noticed this phenomenon sometimes since, but that night, for a moment, I thought it was a special miracle from God.  Then there was a shadow of anxiety as doubt queried, Are you just making this stuff up?  I thought the twirl and possibly the moon-cross “vision” had more to do with my enthusiasm than God’s Spirit.  For a second I wondered if I was embellishing, or at least rushing, the whole thing.  Ignored, for the time being, the doubt quickly passed, and the next morning there was an abiding witness that Christ had come near and was with me still.

Whoever I had or hadn’t been, and whatever you want to call the touch of God’s love on my melancholic soul hanging out in the basement—assurance, sanctification, or, as I eventually came to label it, my real spiritual birthday—it was a turning point.  I knew I’d made peace with God regarding my eternal destiny and understood that, filled with His Spirit, now, if not before, I finally had the power to live a holy life.

Applying the transformational leading of the Spirit to the impatience I disliked so much about myself, the morning after praying with young Robertson, I thought, I never have to lose my temper again.  That was true.  Since I was separated from my sins by Christ’s death and had access to the same power that had raised Him from the dead, there was no longer any need to sin.  But I did.  Not long after that, on a white water rafting trip, I got annoyed with someone on my boat, threatened to break his skull open with my paddle, and pledged I would enjoy watching the blood ooze from his head.  Obviously, I was not always appropriating the grace I had been given.  I would eventually learn that implosions—coldness, avoidance, passive aggression—may be even less honorable than explosions.  But back on the boat, and safely to shore, and everywhere, as I continued to exhibit a mix of clear growth and real struggle (with impure thoughts as well as so much else), the Spirit patiently whispered, “You no longer have to be ruled by the whims of your own heart; you can instead be led by Mine.”

The testimony of the Spirit was confirmed by the Word, and vice versa.  The bible that had for so long seemed a dry collection of pipe dreams and accusatory commands was now, itself, a vital testimony about God as the real lover of my soul, a perfect expression for the fellowship of re-creation going on inside of me.  In the weeks after I prayed with the televangelist, I sensed that Presence—the felt reality of His Spirit pressing against my spirit, releasing waves of love I never imagined possible, every surge of affection affirming that I really was His child.  That experience was to continue in a virtually constant and increasing way for nine months.

Then, in the autumn of ninth grade, the honeymoon light of God’s manifest pleasure was eclipsed, by what and for what reason I did not know.  So I came down from the mountaintop, and my real progress in the walk of faith-without-sight began.  And continues—often, it seems, despite my uncertain fumblings in scattered directions.  But I can’t change the reality of my experience:  I saw Him in the sanctuary of my soul.  And I think, sometimes, that would be enough for a lifetime of faith.  But He giveth more.  Little feelings and leadings and answers and insights that come, in response to my seeking, because He is just; and, more often, they come, these reminders of His love, because He is something more than just.  And because grace never depended on me anyhow.


@LScott Ekstrom is a freelance writer living in New York.

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

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Once upon a time ago in a town where I no longer live, I was in a bookstore, browsing, but also eavesdropping on two other customers standing at the newspaper rack. Perusing the front pages, one of the ladies apparently saw a photo of kids standing in a classroom with their hands over their hearts.  Provoked, she lamented to her friend, “Well, at least they still say the pledge, even if they don’t say ‘Under God’ any more.”  The second woman, apparently the sycophant in this relationship, nonetheless showed a moment of pushback with the clarifying question, “They don’t say ‘Under God?’”  “I don’t think so” was the leader’s quick response, and then, before there was time for anyone to interrupt her diatribe with the actual history of the much evolving pledge that has remained unchanged since the McCarthy era insertion about the deity, she changed the subject, sort of, by reading aloud an anti-government op-ed headline, which elicited a kind of Amen from her repentant sidekick.

It was election season, a time that seems to bring out the worst in all the citizenry, led headlong to ugly by grandstanding candidates and savage talking heads.  In the months leading up to the most recent major election, it was, in part, such lack of basic manners that moved me to deactivate my Facebook account—I was fed up with equally annoying posts by donkeys and elephants so vicious in their caricature of the opposition it made even an apolitical animal like myself wonder if, with civility already passé, civilization might not be too far behind.

I don’t know if the socio-political divide in America is the worst it’s ever been.  A quick survey of campaign posters from the nineteenth century unearths ridiculous attack ads far meaner than any negative commercials we might see on television every two years (or is it always?).  But, in my lifetime, the culture war virus seems to be more infectious than ever.

In recent years, I’ve done a lot of flip-flopping, not just in my politics, but in my living arrangements, moving between upstate and downstate New York, a few hundred miles and many worlds apart.  In the City during most of President George W. Bush’s tenure, I noticed many liberals reacting like we were under a neo-Nazi regime.  And back in the Country under the Obama administration, I’ve heard plenty of conservatives say things like, “We’re now living in Communist Russia.”  I oversimplify, of course.  There are people of all stripes on both sides of the state.  But usually you can feel, in any given place, which semi-culture is dominant.

Twenty-some years ago charismatics and other evangelicals were abuzz with “spiritual warfare” prayer.  We would “put on the armor of God” and “plead the blood” of Jesus over the forces of darkness, and, as weird as that could get, there was biblical warrant to some of it.  I still sometimes call myself a charismatic, by which I mean the Holy Spirit can do whatever He wants and I don’t want to get in His way.  I do believe in an unseen realm somewhere beyond the matrix, and sometimes, when I use the word spiritual, I am referring to invisible but no less real forces of heaven and hell that, by our daily actions, we are all partnering with, on one team or the other.  But I’m pretty sure the best of us are also sometimes Satan’s little helpers, so we should be very suspicious of our own tendency to see the devil working primarily through people we don’t happen to like.

Back in my teens, as I was beginning to become uncomfortable with some of these extra-biblical adventures in the spirit world, I shared my concerns with an anti-charismatic pastor friend who said what worried him was that, for the most zealous of believers, some day the spiritual war could turn in to an actual war.  I thought he was being melodramatic.  I no longer do.

Perhaps, when we demonize the other simply for being different from us, we are looking for a scapegoat—in bad economic times, in the midst of relational strife, in the wake of our own moral failure.  Perhaps we are feeling the sword of God’s conviction come against us and, instead of letting Him have His way, which always turns out to be love, it is easier, in the short run, to try to turn the sword against another tribe.

Whatever the reason for our society’s verbally combative mood, I am increasingly concerned about how we are treating each other.  Whether it’s a young man at my favorite breakfast spot in Hell’s Kitchen yelling to someone across the table about “that evil dictator Bush” or a middle-aged man at a small town diner seething with anger over the anti-American machinations of “Barry Hussein Obama,” I am worried about what might happen if this rage, the same poison available in blue or red, spills into the streets.

It’s already in the church.  Good Christian people express unadulterated hatred toward the heathens moving their country away from God.  Elderly parishioners percolate with bile about immigration.  And then there are the younger faithful, attending services for God and country, who also attend gun shows to shop for the arsenal they might need to protect themselves when America falls because of judgment against people who sin in ways they don’t.

But I don’t want to exclusively pick on conservatives, whose extremities led me to react by turning in my penny loafers and becoming a Democrat some time between Bush 43’s first and second terms.  I actually find the other side equally unpalatable, so much so that I’ve recently become an Independent, or rather, unaffiliated.  That was what I intended to be when I first registered to vote, until a local politician and family friend told me, “You know, you can’t vote in primaries if you don’t join a party.”  I knew that, but to make the guy happy I said, “Okay; I’ll be a Republican.”

I’ve heard that Billy Graham is a registered Democrat and that Jimmy Carter was the first president to identify himself as a born-again Christian.  But when I was born again in the late eighties, in part through the ministry of a right-wing televangelist, I assumed that being conservative theologically meant being so in every way, including politically.  The incredibly effective rhetoric was If you vote for pro-choice candidates, you are a baby killer.  When I moved outside of my hometown, however, I started to meet Christians who were as ardently pro-life as the church folks at home but who didn’t allow that one big issue to determine all their votes.  Some of them even thought governmental policies could play a role in helping the poor.

But spending much of my adult life in liberal-leaning cities, I have frequently been witness to self-righteous and childish antics equal and opposite to that which put me off of the GOP.  That bookstore I used to visit, though occasionally patronized by conservative tourists like the aforementioned passers-through, was, like many bookstores, actually a bastion of liberalism, or so the locals thought.  But when one of the staffers, hoping to demonstrate balance, tried to showcase a few titles by conservative figures, the regular customers, and some employees, messed up the display, moving Dick Cheney to Horror, and placing Glenn Beck in Humor.  I get the joke.  And those are innocuous enough examples.  But, for a people forever bragging about their broadmindedness, liberals can be awfully petty.

It makes me wonder, if you start to think there are some views that don’t deserve a respectful hearing, where might that lead?  Could it actually go as far as an enlightened elite determining which beliefs a tolerant society will tolerate and mandating that the dissenting opinions of “intolerant” others be banned, and the people who hold them . . . extinguished?  Some alarmists (on both sides, fascinatingly enough) say that’s where we’re headed.  To me, it still seems far-fetched to imagine America crumbling in any of these scenarios.  However, if the atrocities of history have taught us anything, isn’t it that any view, be it right, left, religious, or secular, can be used to justify genocide?

Some years ago I was attending a Christian conference sponsored by an organization that is ostensibly nonpartisan but known for its historic ties to the politics of “family values.”  The worship was incredible and the bible teaching was great, and then, between seminars, while chatting with a colleague, I saw a well-known engineer of the Republican machine shaking hands with a bunch of ministers.  At least I thought I recognized him, though I was willing to doubt myself.  But when I shared my apparent celebrity-sighting with a couple friends who’ve worked for some of the most conservative pundits and politicians in recent history, they didn’t doubt what I saw.  One said, “He has a house nearby.”  And the other rolled her eyes and said, “. . . strengthening the base.”  I had long wondered if the convictions of prayer warriors had been preyed upon by vote-seeking fear mongerers.  Now I was pretty sure they had been; that I had, in fact, been had.

I have said in recent years that I am politically liberal, socially moderate, and theologically conservative.  But, truthfully, I have no idea what I mean by that.  I like the sound of the words as they come out of my mouth, but, probably, they aren’t precisely true.  For the truth is, it’s all relative.  Like everyone else, I am and always will be, in the various senses of these words, more conservative than somebody and more liberal than somebody else.  Because I drink and swear and sometimes vote for Democrats, I don’t consider myself a fundamentalist.  But because I try not to drink too much, am pretty goshdarn modest in my use of language, and hold a view of scriptural inerrancy that leads to a few convictions even some of my fellow evangelical friends would label hyper-conservative, maybe I am, by some definitions, a fundamentalist, albeit a nice one.

Recently, in conversation with a newish friend but in the hearing of an old one, I referred to myself as nice.  The person who has known me well for a long time interrupted with a counter-argument in the form of a query:  “Wait—You think you’re nice?”  Maybe she was suggesting my self-affirmation as a friendly person was too much protestation, like the person who begins an account of his own boorish shystering by saying, “I’m a good person, but . . . ” or ends a period of backbiting manipulation by insisting, “I’m not a . . . .”

Perhaps, when I was trying to paint myself as nice, I was resting on ancient laurels that haven’t been true of me for decades.  Or maybe I was still trying to convince myself that it’s always okay for me to do what I often do:  quietly listen to others air their strong opinions as I nod my head slowly, brighten my eyes slightly, and, with a vague smile, say “Interesting,” by which I mean, “That is the least interesting thing I’ve ever heard” or “Not only do I disagree with most of your answers, I think the way you’ve framed the question is based on assumptions diametrically opposed to mine.”

In fairness to me, I want to mention that my reserve seems perpetually misread as dislike or disinterest; that, often times, when I furrow my brow and take a beat, I’m just thinking; and sometimes, actually, what I’m thinking is that I completely agree with what’s been said and that I’d like, somehow, to passionately express that agreement but am not quite sure how to do so in a way that is believable as well as socially appropriate.  So, rather than do disservice to my point, I avoid extemporaneous speech, and maybe later (like decades later), write about it.

But then, there are other moments, probably the kinds of ones my friend was thinking of, when I do finally speak, too much, and in a way that comes across as bullying or bitchiness.  And I follow up my zing with a look that tells my conversational partners, “I could level you with five syllables of snark.”  Maybe, at another Christian conference, a decidedly non-charismatic one, where we took an inventory of spiritual gifts and mine came up as Discernment, it was my snarking that friends around the table were thinking of when they said, “You need to be very careful how you express the truths you discern.”

Few of us are good at balancing truth with love.  But, like the friend who once interrupted my whining by saying, “Scott, get over yourself,” the friend who called me on my phony niceness did a pretty good job.  I liked hearing her say that I wasn’t always nice.  It provided a gracious few seconds when I felt free to admit what I wasn’t and empowered to start becoming what I already thought I was.

Not that niceness is always appropriate.  If someone near you is in danger, a harsh scream may be the most necessary and loving action possible.  Or, if someone you are not romantically interested in is trying to chat you up, a curt “No” may be the kindest word you should muster.

As for me, I increasingly suspect that my attempts to see through all political visions and align with none are part of a larger problem I have in wanting everyone to like me without my having to commit much of anything to anyone in particular.  All the same, I do think it’s right to affirm that no political candidate is dangerously close to ushering in the kingdom of God.  Because ideologies–including social, fiscal, and diplomatic ones–tend to bifurcate in ways that don’t perfectly line up with good and evil, Christians will always have to be eclectic when it comes to exercising their franchise.

I think republican democracy (with all lowercase letters) is a great idea that has been a blessing to many parts of the globe and could be so for more of it.  And I am humbled by the service and sacrifice of those who make my freedom possible.  But all governments are temporary, save one.  And I’m not sure how to classify that one—the benevolent monarchy of King Jesus?  An oligarchy of the Three-in-One?  Or, when the Godhead comes to earth, and the justified behold His glory as well as their own, maybe the scenario would best be labeled a peaceable anarchy.  For, on that everlasting day, we who have looked forward to it will do whatever we want, no one’s desires will conflict with the wishes of anyone else, and every action will conform perfectly to the glorious will of God.

You’ve probably noticed that hasn’t happened yet.  So, in the mean time, I’ll keep studying the issues to better perform my civic duty.  And, to tell you the truth, I’m a little worried by the fact that some of my spiritual mentors exhibit political views quite different from mine, and they aren’t afraid to express those views out loud.  This troubles me, not that we disagree about the political stuff, which is still not that important to me, but because maybe, if we agree on so much spiritually, and they, my intellectual heroes, are farther ahead in life and faith than I, if I think things through to the extent they have, I could end up where they are politically—that is, having some definite opinions that some other people are definitely not very happy about.  I guess I’ll have to see what comes and trust that God’s grace comes with it.  I hope, whatever conclusions any of my beliefs come to, I will be able to express them without being a coward behind the back of my stronger opponents or a jerk in the face of the weaker ones.

For now, my point is not to advocate for either side, in part because I don’t follow the news closely enough to know what I’m talking about.  And maybe also because it’s kind of fun to keep people guessing.  I’ve been a Republican and a Democrat, and now, as a nothing, I’m planning to hint at being a Green Working Families Party member for a few years while I secretly study libertarianism and then choose myself as a write-in candidate in 2016.  May the best me win.

@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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When I was a pretentious young English teacher at a Christian prep school, I spent a lot of time theorizing about literature; time I might have spent grading papers, planning lessons, or actually reading the books I was supposed to be teaching.  I did read most of them.  But when it came to Les Misérables, I figured 800 out of 1200 pages was enough and brought in a guest speaker to cover the rest.  And as for Pride and Prejudice, I’ve never met anyone with a Y chromosome who’s made it past the third chapter.  Still, I wore nice ties and wrote even niftier syllabi, including, in an introduction for the AP seniors, something like “Our classroom discussions of classic novels may afford frequent epiphanies of Christ, the original Author.  But we must bear in mind that such discussions are a temporal activity:  since Christ is the ultimate aesthetic experience, there will be no need for literature in heaven.”

I’m no longer a high school English teacher, and I’d like to think life has hammered some of the pretension out of me, and that deeper reflection on the totality of scripture and its implications for now as well as later have brought me to recant at least the second part of my coarse outline (bad pun intended).  For, while I picture the Christian view of death to be something like a serene cruise through the ocean of God’s presence, heaven is the penultimate plan.  After that comes the new heavens and earth, that eternal moment of infinite place, somehow beyond time and space, when and where heaven and earth meld, and those who love Him get what they want–all of Jesus, in the flesh as well as in our hearts.  Then, I think it follows, along with Him, we will also receive, from His hand, the perfect version of every good thing earth has to offer.  And, for me, one of the best things in life, along with family and friends and food, has always been the arts, including literature.

When I was a schoolboy myself, some of my best friends were jocks.  In part because of that, I made it a life goal to figure out exactly what people found appealing about sport.  The fact that I prefer the Anglicized rendering of the word, without the s, probably indicates I’ll never be the sporty type.  And my being, at that time, a pacifist (and also, briefly, something of a socialist, but that’s another story) may also provide another clue into why athletics, which I viewed as ritualized warfare, were an enigma to me.  I hate conflict and am generally unmoved by competition.  When faced with a challenge, I feel no natural compulsion to rise to it or even run from it.  My inclination, in the midst of danger, accusation, misunderstanding, or the invitation to prove my opponent wrong, is to stand in motionless silence, praying for invisibility until the storm passes.  Had the desert storm in Iraq lingered much past my seventeenth birthday and actually resulted in a draft, as my friends and I worried it might, and had I gone through with my plan to register as a conscientious objector, my would-be fellow soldiers would be, no doubt, better off without the help of the sometime kindergartener who cried watching Shogun.

So, you’ll understand when I say that seeing opposite teams trash talk while working out strategies of how best to best each other does not provide an archetypal interpretation of my own life.  I’ll admit it has always kind of fascinated me, observing people demonstrate physical talent so foreign to my uncoordinated self, and noticing that others seem to get so much enjoyment out of watching their guys do well.  Bully for them.  Really.  In the meantime, back in college, I stuck to my books, feeling more at home in the library than on the quad, where, God forbid, someone might toss a football in my general direction.  But by the time I reached grad school, a little more filled out but no better at feats of strength and agility, I realized I no longer had a passion for academics either, at least not on par with my peers, so I settled for an M.A., letting the more bookish (and intelligent and hard-working) than I win the doctoral prize.  For me, reading a scholarly article about the theatre didn’t hold a footlight to actually going to the theatre.

Artists, not aesthetic philosophers, had always been there for me, starting with musicians.  It was a cassette of Albinoni’s “Adagio in G Minor” that helped me realize my adolescent angst; a friend’s Tchaikovsky cd offered a note of hope beyond the angst; and a live performance of Ravel’s rendering of Mussorgsky assured me there was still fun and order in a world that also featured relatives languishing with cancer and the sudden death of childhood friends.

Even better at capturing and soothing my imagination than music alone was music as the backdrop to movement.  There was Tchaikovsky again, but this time with more major chords and paired with the storyless choreography of Balanchine and a corps of in-sync dancers, all testifying that there was beauty, so much of it, Somewhere.  And in recent years, So You Think You Can Dance, the great reality competition show with the terrible title, has moved me even more with contemporary, hip-hop, and disco pieces that feel like the telly is reading my soul.

Sometimes the music and the dance, like books and plays, tell an explicit story, and parts of that story relate clearly to mine, and that realization, that someone else has walked where I’ve walked, that my experience is in step with the greater human community, this brings identification.  Once life is sufficiently processed by art, I can let go of the mystery; catharsis ensues.  Sometimes it really is that explainable, formulaic even.

But more than the cerebral stuff, I like it when art of any kind works on a deeper, more intuitive level, and thinking doesn’t get in the way; I prefer it when, to quote an old acting coach (who himself was probably ripping off a line from his favorite guru), “we go out of our minds to get back to our senses.”  Then, we go beyond even the composer/choreographer/writer’s intention, become less conscious of the musician/dancer/actor’s technique, and we feel, it seems, that the aesthetic has become the mystical.  Moments like that, in a Toronto opera house or a London theater, in front of an original Van Gogh at MoMA or the silver screen of a multiplex in a suburban mall, these experiences, at their best, help me understand why agnostic theists and even atheists sometimes use near-religious language to describe their impressions of art, be it in a Lower East Side singer-songwriter dive, at a symphony hall uptown, or, in midtown, on their own sofa in front of the small screen.

Like me, they try to capture in words what that music and movement or word and action meant to them; like me, they fail.  And so perhaps, also like me, they have, to some extent, stopped trying to discuss in everyday life these transcendent moments that give greater meaning to all of life.  For, at least in my pampered existence, there are few things worse than opening up to someone who responds with a blank stare, dismissive laughter, or advice like “Dude, you need to stop eating soy.”

I understand, as smarter others have said better, why some people who are post-believing, post-modern even, gravitate to the arts for something like religious experience.  A Broadway pop opera, an ensemble drama at a hole-in-the-wall theater, a raw performance by an incredibly natural young film actress—these can provide goosebumps, rivers of tears, or palpitations of excitement that echo, or try to simulate, the joy I have known in the Holy Spirit.  So can booze.  Or Tylenol PM . . . give a sensation of ecstasy.  But, at least in the case of actual drugs, though called substances, substance is precisely what they do not have.  And what God alone has and wants to give us.

In adolescence, I affirmed my faith in Christ not only because I needed something beyond myself and any god would do; or even because I became convinced I needed Him alone, though I desperately did, not just for heaven later but on earth now; but also, and mostly, it was because I became more certain about this than anything else before or since—that He was true, is, in fact, the Truth, as well as Love.  If I didn’t believe He rose from the dead, I’d probably be some kind of middle-brow pagan.

That’s not an insult to my self-professed pagan friends, some of whom are some of the nicest and happiest people I know.  They have seen, as I sometimes see, that there is much potential joy to be had in the experience of nature.  And what is culture if not the harnessing of nature for human enjoyment?  I love saltwater breezes in the sun, country bonfires under the stars, hikes through desert valleys, or drives near snow-capped peaks.  But even more, I love a warm rainy night in a lakeside amphitheater, under a roof held up by pillars without walls, when the lights are dimmed, an orchestra plays Mozart, and the 75-year-old woman in front of me reaches for her husband’s arm, touching him as the music has touched her.   Or, even better, back in the City, sharing a blanket on the Great Lawn and, somewhere past the baseball diamonds, under lights, soprano and baritone provide the accompaniment for friends catching up over wine and pizza.  These moments of nature and culture—along with those precious family times over Christmas coffee cake or on vacation together or during a perfectly ordinary day—these are the minutes we hope to immortalize when we think, life is good, and should always be such.

But, though good, life is also hard.  And we all have different strategies for coping with that reality.

Some people, I guess people of a different personality type than I, seek to enshrine their best moments by talking about them with whomever will listen.  I’ve sometimes envied people who can digest both good and bad memories by telling a little anecdote and then moving on to whatever life brings next, have often wished I could be a person with less porous skin covering my soul, one who didn’t take in everything so deeply and seem to remember it all forever.  But that is not me.  The boy who cried when the girl in the miniseries was rescued from hara-kiri was also the boy who told his parents he was crying because he stubbed his toe.  He later became the baritone who first saw Les Mis on a high school chorus trip to Chicago and was so shocked by the death of young Gavroche that afterwards, standing outside the Auditorium Theatre, he had to remind himself it was only a show.  And talking about it later, with his buddies, he had to find ways to make fun of it in order to keep from gushing.

The decision to become an English teacher was an attempt to temper the artistic with the practical.  But I knew, before I even finished student teaching, that, while I enjoyed writing, teaching others how to read the printed page would never thrill my soul.  I had been intrigued by the theory of literature as a subset of the arts but had never really been much of a reader, of fiction anyways.  When I tried to teach novels, I kept imagining how much better the movie would be.  So I decided, mid-twenties, to gush away, to enter in to the 3-dimensional world of the dramatic arts myself, or to try to, by pursuing my childhood dream of performing as an actor who sometimes sings and sort of can dance.

It didn’t work, and when I eventually had to admit that neither temperament nor talent favored me sufficiently to be a successful performer, I comforted myself with the possibility that on a glorified Broadway or in a heavenly Tinseltown or even at a celestial Bolshoi, I might still see my name in lights.  Stranger things will happen.  But, whatever we may be, for now, “that which we are, we are.”  And with those dreams deferred indefinitely, I find I needn’t just dry up or explode.  There are, in fact, other dreams, maybe even better ones.  Like the opportunities to take in the arts for pleasure—to listen, see, and, sometimes, read—and not be distracted by wishing I were the artist instead of the audience.  And then, there is the writing, if only for a few readers; this opportunity to say, “I . . . this,” and for them to respond, “Yes!  I . . . also that.”  Even if it turns out to be merely an exercise for myself, I find it is, honestly, much more enjoyable than acting (fairly) or singing (poorly) ever was.

Recently, I was watching somebody talk about some sporting event, and the end of the story was about how all the players were hugging and crying and saying they did it for their Dad or Jesus or America or Johnny.  I wondered if, for a moment, that was the hope of athlete and fan all along—an opportunity to feel deeply, express that feeling openly, and, through that experience and the sharing of it, live more fully.  Maybe in the New Jerusalem, whatever that turns out to be, I’ll be roommates with Tim Tebow, and he’ll teach me how to throw a football.  Until then, sports (I’ll add the American s, since I didn’t end up becoming a communist after all), will probably never be my thing.

And though the arts probably always will be, they needn’t be my all.  Like all good things, asking them to be more than they are is to abuse them and myself, and to become overly dependent on my supplier–be it the celebrated thespian who shows up first in the second scene, after anticipation has sufficiently built, so that the frenzied audience erupts in spontaneous applause and the actor can feign humble annoyance; or the headlining star who rises into a pool of light on an elevator built for one; or the jazz legend, too cool to accept applause or even smiles, who leads his knowing remnant of aficionados into the sublimity of authenticity.  I can take in the talent of these folks, enjoy their work for what it is, and admit what it isn’t.

Remembering the wisdom of a scholar-artist who once lived in Oxbridge as well as Narnia, I can look above the created to see Creator.  And, borrowing a term from that fellow’s drinking buddy, I can see through artistic “sub-creators” to know the real Auteur who made and transcends middle earth and will some day remake every part of it, melting the bad, perfecting the good, and sharing it all with whomever would come, with all who accept His invitation into the real-life story and game and party that lasts forever.


@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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