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The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book, Sainthood for the Middle-Aged. Copyright 2021 by L. Scott Ekstrom. All rights reserved.

“I have tried so to write the first chapter that those who can’t bear such a story will see at once what they are in for and close the book with the least waste of time.” 

-C. S. Lewis

If I believed people were basically good, or very good at knowing who we were and what we wanted; that the surest path to happiness was to do our duty, or be true to ourselves by pursuing our dreams . . .

If I believed what the world needed most was for the best people to take the culture by force and coerce the worst into living better . . .

If I believed authentic faith was immediately evident or that we could know which and whose sins were the most heinous, and we should never or always discuss our own . . .

If I believed the Spirit of God did not still speak to the spirits of women and men, or that He will ever contradict something He already told us all through His Word . . .

If I believed Christ’s birth and life were anything less than a miracle; that his death 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 the Resurrection was anything less than the Body of God rising from the dead . . .

Then the life I hope to live and the book I have tried to write would be, for better or worse, very different from what they are. 

For 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 He loved me enough to come down the mountain—to live a beautiful life, die an ugly death, and, through Word and Spirit one winter’s night over three decades ago, to walk further 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 first book began there and was about “His continual mercy set in stark relief against my near-continual rebellion,” moving through, as I marked it, the end of youth:  my mid-thirties.  This one, sort of, picks up the same story later on, though with less drama and a more meandering narrative, as is, I suppose, befitting a man now in his forties who no longer notes each passing year as a personal epoch.  Much has changed and I don’t know what’s next.  But even after all these years, with all the surprises about the way things turned out, or didn’t, I remain amazed by what has stayed the same. 

Melodramatic (or arrogant) as it may sound, as a teenager experiencing new birth, I somehow knew I had encountered the unchanging dogma that upholds the world: Christ Alone.  All these years later, even after so many doubts and disasters of an ordinary life, I still know. It’s all about grace.  And also, still, be it a whim of vanity or the press of Love, I feel the need to share that story, with friends and strangers who may relate to it some or not at all.  Whether anyone else feels the need to read it is, perhaps, not important, or even any of my business.  I am not the point.  I just believe there is one. 

All that to say:  Here goes something. 

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The following is an excerpt from the book, Confessions of a Christian Sinner.  Copyright © 2016 by  L. Scott Ekstrom.

 

Chapter 3:  What the Devil’s Wrong with These Kids Today?

 

I’d rather fight You for something I don’t really want

Than take what You give that I need . . .

Rich Mullins

 

After the ecstasy and trauma of my first year in faith and high school, I entered tenth grade harboring a superstition:  striving too hard to get close to God can only backfire.  Better the day-to-day attempt to live a normal teenage life, curbed by traditional mores, but growing, if at all, slowly.  In pursuit of my normal, I went on a couple dates with the girl I liked, reprised my role in The Nutcracker and, as my sixteenth birthday approached, started dreaming about getting a car—Dad willing, maybe a classic Jaguar or a new Miata.  I was thrilled to be granted the eventual use of a used Buick.

Life as it was, was, for a while, kind of fun.  But sometime between playing comedy in the spring production of Bye, Bye, Birdie and avoiding tragedy in summer driver’s ed, I was, again, hatching plans to get God quick.  In addition to Sunday mornings and evenings at The Fellowship, I expanded my churchgoing routine to include Wednesdays and Fridays at a would-be megachurch in the next town over.  There, on the bi-weekly youth nights, the jocks played ball while the rest of us watched, until—the best part of the night—ballers and skate punks and preppies and geeks all convened to hear a message from our rock star of a youth pastor.

He was a barrel-chested, burly guy who seemed, to us, mature.  He was probably twenty-four.  Old enough to command respect, young enough to attract our attention as he delivered, with escalating volume, energetic sermonettes designed to motivate holiness; which may include, he demonstrated, yelling at the devil. After youth group, official meetings would sometimes spin off into feed-fests at the pizza shop, games at someone’s house, or a movie about the Second Coming.  Good clean fun, I think they called it.  But also, it was, all of it, an opportunity to identify kindred spirits in the faith; a workshop where I hoped to forge deep friendships with a select subset of the particularly devout, be they longtime church kids, the newly dedicated, or the re-recommitted—anyone who was “sold out” for Christ.  Prospects arose.  We were lucky to find each other.

Like every gang of like-minded youths, we banded together to enjoy each other’s company.  More importantly, our tight connections would serve to hold us accountable—through encouragement, positive peer pressure or guilt and, if necessary, shunning—till we who remained arrived at perfection.  To that end we covenanted, my special Christian friends and I, to transform faster and shine brighter than your average Christian teenagers, who proved their faithfulness by merely not drinking, not watching R-rated movies, and not going past first base.  We would do better.  Transcending prosaic abstention from worldliness, we would surpass our lukewarm peers and lazy elders to reach unprecedented heights of heavenliness on earth.

Among the ranks of the local God squad, I was beginning to develop a reputation for potential leadership.  I hadn’t yet figured out that church people were apt to identify their sensitive, relatively articulate young men as wunderkind jewels in their crown.  So, when adults at either church referred to me and my peers as “on fire for God,” I was flattered.  I liked the attention and soon detected how easily I could elicit the praise of the sanctified by saying certain things and not doing others.  If they thought I was a strong believer, because I brought friends to church and didn’t date non-Christian girls; because I never swore, refused to bet on the football pool, and rarely watched TV; or because I was good at praying in public and knew that St. Paul spent his three-day prayer vigil on “the street that is called Straight”; then, must be, whatever uncertainties I was suppressing, I really was a Christian.

And I was about to discover another scheme for proving my spiritual status.  Through some intriguing visitors to the youth group that had now become my second church, I was introduced to the prophetic movement, the latest wave of the shape-shifting charismatic revival.  Like few people I had ever met, these prophets demonstrated a single-minded devotion to their mission.  Also, they were kind and cool and really funny.  Along with a few others, I followed these post-college spiritual giants to yet another church, hoping, there, to finally find the ultimate short cut to God:  a prophetic revelation that I was an extraordinary Christian exactly where God wanted me, crowned by the miraculous confirmation of speaking in tongues.  I settled in, expecting my blessing.

In the various meetings where sundry people humbly sought to be the mouthpiece of God, there may have been, in some of the oracles, a motif of health and wealth, though much less than critics might think.  Actually, most prophecies weren’t related to the concrete future.  Much of what I witnessed were special messages to individuals about how best to move forward in their personal faith and ministry.  Many of the words of knowledge or wisdom or whatever you call them—if you changed their tone, if you took away the first person authoritative point of view, the bold declarations from “Father God”—would sound a lot like a Wesleyan sermon.  And so I adjusted accordingly, flipped a switch to get what I could from a new tradition.  I didn’t care about differences in style as long as I could hear my divine Daddy calling me closer.

Before long my ears were tickled by another option—utterances suggesting that, soon and very soon, my unordinary friends and I would gain local church-circle fame by becoming preacher-teacher-apostle-prophet-evangelists ourselves; or at least that’s what I thought I heard.  The actual words were, perhaps, more about God.  At any rate, I became what I wanted to hear.  Because maybe, if I could get the river to flow through me on its way to bless others, I might catch a drink myself.  Clinging to the prospect of near-future spiritual leadership to mask my current spiritual immaturity, I tried to walk in audacious affirmations of my own authority—sharing impressions with acquaintances, writing cheesy songs I hoped were inspired by the Spirit, and, once, in a church gym, and to no effect, laying hands on a basketball player’s injured knees and praying for a miracle.

After the initial promise of a thrill, the results of my foray into the prophetic began to disappoint.  The blessings didn’t come fast enough.  I heard “thus sayeth the Lord” this and that, but didn’t ever receive what I thought I needed, which, I guess, now that I think about it, would have been an audible voice declaring me His beloved son in whom He was well pleased, accompanied by writing on the wall and, for good measure, a blast of Holy Ghost dynamite in my heart.  That, it was starting to become clear, was exactly what the prophets could not deliver.  But, in fairness to them, they never claimed to.

Occasionally there would come forth from their lips a “heavy revvy” that really registered; some previously unspoken truth that could only have been revealed by an outside force—depictions of both private events and interior monologues so accurate in their detail it would give you the willies.  But since what it didn’t do was result in my instantaneous transformation, I couldn’t figure out why God would disclose such extraneous matters; so I soon conjectured, perhaps prematurely, that He hadn’t; and I began to worry that some of those flashy disclosures might be dispatches from the dark side.  I didn’t initially say so, because I feared suggesting such to prophets—that they may be, sometimes, empowered by the opposing team—would probably have been met with protestations of blasphemy, and insistence that the Spirit-filled servant of God could not be possessed by a lying agent.  And maybe that’s true, for “God doesn’t make mistakes.”  But we do.

When I started down this latest road, whatever were my motives, they weren’t all wrong.  I wanted the total encounter-with-God package, replete with adventures in the Kingdom and intimacy with the King.  And I knew such an existence was possible; the Word and experience had taught me the supernatural world was real.  There is an animated chiaroscuro being painted in the heavenlies, and people, all people, are called to be involved in—and, on one side or another, are already engaged in—spiritual warfare.  There are demons and angels that are not us.  And there was, weeks after my turning-point prayer back in the basement of eighth grade, an afternoon when I “saw” the unseen darkness behind someone’s private problem and felt led of the Spirit to rebuke a specific something that was His unequal opposite.  I did, and observed an immediate and lasting change in the situation.

Over the years there would be other moments when a fellow believer would share a dream or vision with me, about me; and I must say, some of these proved to be something from beyond him or her.  Fewer still have been the moments when, borne out of raw prayer sessions, alone or with close friends, or simply in a burst of knowing, I have “heard” something definite to share with others; something, I believed, and still believe, from the Lord; specific to the recipient, expressed subjectively and interpreted fallibly, but, nevertheless, above the natural realm, though not out of nowhere.

Of those possibly-prophetic insights, the ones in which God was apparently speaking to me through another, I would learn to hold on to words that passed a few tests:  they did not contradict the written Word, they confirmed something I already knew in my spirit, and they suppressed ego for the glory of God.  They could do that, I’m pretty sure, whether or not they were preceded by the potentially manipulative imprimatur of “God told me.”

What I would also learn was that, broadly speaking, any prophetic speaker, myself included, could be sometimes right and sometimes wrong; which, I understand, if you’re talking about foretelling, seems a silly thing to say.  I mean, you could say, as I have sometimes, that certain fulfilled predictions merely found themselves on the fortunate side of the law of averages; or were self-fulfilled.  Even more cynically, one could surmise that some so-called forthtellings, the messages that don’t say, This is gonna happen, but, rather, This is who you are, and here’s how you should respond, might just come from a perception so keen it seems super but is really natural.  Still, I must concede, decades later can’t deny, sometimes that is not the case; there can be more at play.  Like when a prophetess veers so far off the rails you’re tempted to ignore her forever, until she re-centers and totally nails it:  a word comes forth, and there is a rightness about those words that you will think of sweetly for eons to come.  Man that I am, I do believe.

In the boyish beginnings of my prophetic experiment, however, I did not know any of these things, did not know to manage my expectations accordingly, did not understand, about others or myself, that gifts are gifts, and do not guarantee anything about character; so we should cut each other some slack.  Neither the gifts nor the gifted are God.  Failing to discern the difference, I asked too much of my fellows, for no one but Jesus can be God with skin on.  They were more patient with me, my friends and leaders were, though I was about as wise as a dove, and could be, behind my silent smile, as surly as a snake.

Lacking the basic decency to tell my truth—that I was not comfortable with the game—neurosis kept me going, betting on I knew not what, even after I had admitted to myself that my sophomoric grab for glory felt wrong from the start.  I kept up the façade and joined the festal throng in what was to be our big moment—when we gathered at the altar, and everyone began to pray, first in English, and then in unlearned languages of earth or elsewhere.  Beginning with Spanish, I transitioned to gibberish, and finally arrived at one of the most confusing experiences of my life.  They called it “God in the bosom,” and that sounds beautiful.  But what I felt was more like stage fright.

I tried to tell myself my expectations for the prophetic high life had been unreasonable.  But I could not shake the memory of perfect peace I had enjoyed two years before.  That was real and really good; these other exercises were, I was starting to think, possibly neither, at least for me.  It was recommended that one practice your prayer language for hours at a time—to prime the pump, as it were, until the Spirit flowed without interruption.  But I couldn’t work out how, if I weren’t sure an activity was right, doing more of it would help convince me of its legitimacy.  So I disobeyed prophets’ orders and, a week after I started, stopped trying to speak in tongues altogether.   Not because I didn’t believe in the gift, but because I didn’t believe it had been given to me, at least not yet.  Hungry for God and eager to please his representatives, I had faked it.  And, soon thereafter, I knew it; knew, also, that if I had to choose between what felt counterfeit and feeling nothing, I would take the latter.

My slightly less stoic feeling now, a quarter century later, is that, whatever all that was, it was probably too much too soon; and, possibly, as good as any of it may have been for someone else some other time, it was not right for me.  Or maybe it was, but not meant to last.  Lots of people come to faith in a Pentecostal milieu.  Their Christian life begins with an explosion of power—a certainty that all things are possible for those who believe, and a belief that the Holy Spirit can do whatever He wants.  And that is as great as it is true.  But such high-octane spirituality, many people eventually find, is not sustainable.  So they double down and claim even more miracles.  But not everyone is healed, and those who are, of course, will eventually die of something else.  No one but God gets everything he wants.  At least not yet.  In the meantime, Jesus is no show pony.  He is Aslan, the roaring lion, and He won’t be tamed.

Finding this out can be quite a shock for some.  At a certain point, maybe the tenth or hundredth time that God does not deliver the spectacle they summon, disillusionment sets in; they leave the faith.  Or, as I would eventually, they find an expression of it that is less dramatic in its carryings on, more moderate in its daily carrying out.  When they do, they are sometimes called backsliders, as I was to be called.  And maybe they are.  Maybe I was.

Offering the benefit of doubt, so to speak, I bet if I had simply said to my new friends, “I love you, I don’t want to interfere with your journey, but I’m just not sure about [so many things],” they would have respected my forthrightness and given me space to process this latest turn in my tale.  We could have engaged in a thoughtful chat revealing that I placed more hope in prophecy and the glossolalia than they ever intended.  What I needed, we might have affirmed together, more than the gifts of the Spirit, was the fruit of the Spirit; and what I should be focusing on, more than the miracles, was the Love of Jesus—the truly irrevocable gift of God, forever and ever, amen.  And, about the other stuff, we would have agreed to disagree, parted with a hug, and stayed in friendly contact as brothers and sisters in Christ.

But that is not what I did.  And that is not what happened.

Midsummer, on my way to choral camp, a question penetrated my psyche:  What if God had tricked me, and Satan was actually the good guy?  This wasn’t the first time I had entertained the same.  Back in May, it was on a Saturday that I received my first personal prophecy in the name of the Lord; and it was on the Lord’s Day, less than twenty-four hours later, that I began to wonder who my rightful lord really was—God or the devil?  A ridiculous deconstruction out of nowhere.  I dismissed it, until, weeks later, on the way to the university, as we drove by a spiritualist retreat center, the insidious thought resurfaced and latched on tighter—What if evil was good and good was evil?

At camp I was mostly busy with all-day classes and evening rehearsals.  But back in the dorm, during the rare moments off and alone, the quiet amplified the questions—How do you know God is good?  And if He is not; if, in fact, He is the opposite of good, how can you entrust your soul to His untrustworthy care?  I froze.  I kept my bible close but didn’t dare read it, for fear it was filled with lies.

My solo piece that week was from Mendelssohn.  “O, Rest in the Lord,” I sang and did not do.  The performance garnered mixed reviews.  One instructor called the vocals solid; another described my interpretation as emotional vomit.  But afterwards, a girl from a loving atheist home, where bible reading was strictly forbidden, said that when I was singing, I looked like an angel.  I knew I was no cherub, but maybe there was one with me.

The next week I was back home and, though telling no one, still anguished by the ugly probing—How can you be sure that God is God, and not the other?  At spring festival I had sat at the piano and joined the Baptist minister’s daughter in a pop anthem about the loving arms of God.  Now I couldn’t even bring myself to stand up and pray, since doing so would bring me closer to the One who might not be the friend I thought.  It was like I suddenly knew nothing, except that this tension of indecision was unsustainable.  Roman Catholics, old-time holy rollers, and modern-day prophetics all report extraordinary manifestations of the enemy exorcised—ectoplasm on the platform, demons swirling above, parishioners puking.  Hearing these stories, once upon a time, I could almost imagine the excitement of getting so far forward in faith, right to the cutting edge of the holy war, that I could actually see the battle.  But I found out early on that the spirit world was too much for me.  Hit with my first whammy, I reeled.  I couldn’t tell up from down.

So I turned aside, to a friend in the flesh and in the faith, someone just outside the prophetic fold but tolerant toward those within, and understanding of my urgent need to borrow another’s belief, to grasp the Body visible.  The friend in word and deed gave me a tape; I popped it in the deck and stopped thinking for myself.  And as I listened to a folky guy sing his soft-rock prayers to an awesome God, heard his musical request for help to stand on the promise, identified with his plea for grace even as he fell from it, the sword of the Spirit, wielded acoustically, did its work.  The darkness returned to hell without me, and I was back in the light, free to pray and read and trust again.

As summer waned, I got my driver’s license, went school-shopping for MC Hammer pants, and was, in a brief phone call, summarily dismissed by the actress friend I’d long liked:  “Scott, No.”  I also followed The Fellowship’s tradition of being baptized in an above-ground pool.  Before getting dipped, I made my public statement of faith:  “I’ve been following the Lord for a few years now, and I’ve decided I’m going to follow Him forever, and I’m never turning back.”  Coming out of the water, I mugged euphoria.  Some ingénues giggled, a football player defended my sincerity.  But the girls were right.  I had hoped that immersion, Jesus-people style, would provide a mystical moment.  When it didn’t, I affected one.  Some of us left the after-baptism party to head off to our second youth group.  There I chatted with the gentle associate pastor who never raised his voice, even when he jokingly referred to me and my ilk as The Charismaniacs.  He told me his believer’s baptism had been a truly spiritual experience and asked if mine was as well.  I didn’t affect my response:  “No.”

In the weeks to come, though I had aborted attempts at tongues, and resolved to avoid the whole prophecy thing, I was less successful at explaining my hesitations to the prophets, miserable as I was, then as now, at answering challenging questions to defend my point.  They cared about me, they said, and did not want me to miss out on whatever God had for me.  I believed them.  And, without lapsing into relativism, believe still that experiences which may, for me, remain mystifying, might be, for others, the manna of God.  Despite all that we can know with great conviction—by the power of the Spirit to illuminate the Word—we still don’t know so much, about the mind of God, or the hearts of others or ourselves.  So it behooves us bible-believers to overcome our quibbles and unite around our common confession, our unique definition of the human condition:  we are sinners in need of a Savior, and Jesus is all there is.  But He’ll do.

Unfortunately, when I first stepped away from that world, my black-and-white thinking offered little grace toward anyone who did not agree with my latest assessment of who spoke for God and how.  (Sixteen-year-old presidents of their public school bible clubs are not known for nuance.)  I told myself I did the best I could, to be true to my beliefs, and unbelief; that I had no other choice but to break off, even if it hurt people.  But I came to regret the way in which, for the sake of self-preservation, I isolated myself from, first my friends, and eventually everyone; I wrote people off simply because I thought their theology was off; and I treated Christian brothers and sisters like enemies because I disagreed with the way they fought the enemy.

I’m glad that, over the years, as I somewhat reconnected with old friends from Jesus freak days, we found that we had all mellowed.  Realizing we may never be as godly as we once thought we were, we’ve been able to laugh at some things, overlook others, and be civil enough to not discuss our non-negotiables.  Perhaps that’s good enough for now and, later, we’ll all be roommates in heaven.

Sophomore year in college, I received a letter from a girl at choral camp four years before, when I was battling to believe in the goodness of God (and the badness of the devil), but still, apparently, going through the motions, which is not always a bad thing.  She wrote about a day I’d nearly put out of my mind, the night when a few of us were hanging out after a relaxation class, which I’d walked out of, decrying it as New Age.  The letter recounted the ensuing events pretty much as I then recalled them—how, back in my room, with a small group of interested parties, I shared my faith and the plan of salvation, quoting scripture from memory and singing the hymn I’d heard in a play:  “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling; Calling for you and for me . . . .”

Knowing nothing of the darker side of my story, she related the impact that evening had on hers.  She had, I did not know, accepted the soft call of our tender Lord, and ended up, a couple years later, at a student bible study on a faraway campus, running into another girl from choral camp and the night in my room.  She, too, had come to believe in the ballad of redemption, in the story of a God who stoops to sing, entrances the intractable, and wins them with a Word; though they doubt His power, spurn His grip, and cause divisions in the Family.  Even when sung by an average baritone whose faith is muted, the news breaks through:  It is finished.  The Giver is the gift.  Know that He is enough.  So God can get the glory, and we can get some rest.

 

Copyright © 2016 by L. Scott Ekstrom

 

 

 

 

 

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The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book Confessions of a Christian Sinner.  Copyright 2016 by L. Scott Ekstrom.  

 

Chapter 2:  Drakkar Noir of the Soul

I want the presence of God Himself, or I don’t want anything at all to do with religion.  –A.W. Tozer

That fall, high school began, happily, with all the verve of new beginnings.  I dropped the last of my baby weight, gained some fresh threads, and told a girl I liked her.  Underneath it all was the happy fact of God’s presence:  what had begun the previous winter, with a televangelist’s repeat-after-me prayer, was now reaching its peak.  Though I didn’t know it at the time.

I had assumed the incomparable awareness of God with me would grow and remain, along with the answers to prayer and words of divine guidance that accompanied my initial year in the Spirit.  During that spell of excitement, my bedroom served as prayer closet, and many were the moments I would head upstairs to pray—usually for wisdom or the allaying of worry—when, before I even had a chance to kneel and speak the need, the answer came, in the Word I was learning to read or from the Spirit I was learning to hear.  Almost-prayer would turn to praise as I fell on my face in thanksgiving.  With all these easy-come answers, there seemed, in fact, no need to actually develop a prayer life.  I pledged to pray fifteen minutes a day for a week.  But I found the boredom of intercession too hard to endure and gave up thirty seconds into the first night.

What I loved about being a Christian was the joy, which I hoped to speak of to anyone who would listen.  I didn’t necessarily lead by telling them the joy’s source, figuring that if I boasted long enough about how happy I was, people’s curiosity would be sufficiently piqued.  They would ask for the secret to my hilarity, and I would tell them about my Jesus.  Unless, at the time, I felt that doing something else would give me more joy.  I guess that was the case on the white-water rafting trip, when the youth group got back to our digs, casual conversation turned to the subject of beliefs, and a younger kid said he wanted to hear more about mine.  Not wanting to miss the older guys’ ribald discussion in the next room or the girls’ dirty dancing in the commons, I told the boy I didn’t really feel like talking.

One thing I definitely hadn’t discussed with anyone was the afternoon in June when God left me.  It was a few months after receiving the Spirit.  School was not quite out for the summer, but I was home alone, recovering from a stomach virus while putting the finishing touches on a Fred Astaire number.  Sometime between kick-ball-change and pas de bourree, I felt God leave.  Spiritual oxygen evacuated with a breath.  One second I felt God and the next I didn’t.  And in that second second, the despair, accompanied by temporary insanity, was instantaneous.  He who had become my life was gone.  I wanted to die.

Switching off my bootleg cassette of “Shine on Your Shoes,” I bolted around the upstairs in hysterics, pausing briefly to study the look of my tear-stained face in the mirror over Mom’s dresser.  Running back to my room to prostrate myself on the rust-colored carpet, I cried out for God’s return.  And it came.  The Cloud of Unknowing re-descended, and I felt the Shekhinah once more—a glory familiar, but more concentrated, and, this time, accompanied by a unique visitation.  Through closed eyes I saw pure white light, and in silence I heard, from His mind to mine, You really are my child.  Not exact words written on a wall, but an unmistakable guarantee from the Spirit:  His presence roared the truth I already knew.  I was His.

It was heaven.  But inseparable from this direct contact with Christ came an unobstructed view of what He was asking of me.  Not that He dictated a laundry list of personal revelations superseding scripture.  Rather, it was the juxtaposition of dust and glory—the me being me, bowing before I Am Who I Am—that revealed, instantly, everything I wasn’t.  The specifics of His demands are less important than their sum, which was, suffice it to say, everything.

The extremity of Mercy caught me off guard.  While I was relieved to have the Joy back, I resisted His invitation to draw closer.  Which was horrible of me, of course, but also stupid–thinking I could ignore the law of divine gravity.  For there He was, flooding me with thoughts about His absolute acceptance, which, you would think, would have made every part of me instantly melt in submission; or rise up and shout “Yes, Lord, Yes!”  And maybe there was some of that.  But, also, I indulged an aside:  Surely He doesn’t expect me to live like this; nobody gives that much.  And, determined I couldn’t either, I balked.

I know there are streams of Christendom that emphasize God’s penchant to bless those who seek Him first.  I have many a friend whose own story includes just such a sacrifice-cum-outpouring.  And I love those friends and believe their stories, because God is good, and faithful to reward those who want Him; and because, arguably, my original 700 Club prayer may qualify as just such a “second blessing.”  There was, after all, my turning from sin and committing myself to God, and then, a shower of Love.

But my experience upstairs, months later, was the opposite.  It was not the laying down of a fired up heart, awaiting latter rain.  Rather, God was the fire that came first, knowing full well that I was mostly after spiritual endorphins and the assurance of an eternity without pain.  And then, even after a spark of Truth emphasized what was required of me—and I said No—He stayed.  Who could dream up such a deity?

To some extent, the rest of my Christian walk, in so far as it has been forward moving, has been an attempt to do what He asked of me all those years ago in my own upper room—to offer up the days and goals and loves of my life for His name instead of mine.  A reasonable exchange, I understand, when I am in my right mind.  For I know, and I knew, that this living for an Other is the very least I could do, the rightful reciprocation for a substitutionary Life.  But in our life, in mine, there is always this need to wrestle for remembrance.

Upstairs, that late spring in the late eighties, the intense manifestation of Jesus dissipated after a minute or less.  Or maybe it was longer or shorter, that time out of time.  I’m not sure; it doesn’t matter.  What does, is that I continued to walk with Him through the heat of summer, sensing Him as I had before, though even more strongly.  I tried not to think about why He wanted to leave, and I had no theological framework to process that perception.  My theology, such as it was, was based primarily on subjective experience.  I couldn’t explain why the soundtrack of the Spirit had been put on pause.  The point was He was back to stay.  Or so I believed.

The Spirit of Christ hovered over me in the fall, as I inscribed my algebra textbook with the sign of a dove.  He stood by me when I told my director I couldn’t participate in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because its fantastical worldview opposed scripture.  The Spirit sat with me at my first Homecoming dance, which I spent half of in the coatroom swapping Jesus stories with the Methodist kids.  And He knelt beside me on the floor of the family rec room, as I leaned against the carpeted wall and contemplated my continuing struggle with imagined passion and its predictably frequent result—the self-inflicted release, the immediate shame of another battle lost—until, as I pondered my pattern, Grace interrupted my guilt and caused me to understand, quite simply, that I did what I did because I wanted to do it; I agreed with God, and the bondage to Eros lifted.

And when, also that fall, I felt the Spirit leading me to leave Family Lutheran for a non-denominational church with charismatic tendencies, I hung up my choir robe and carried my confirmation bible across the cornfield to join The Fellowship.  Maybe I hadn’t obeyed God’s radical call to give Him everything at once, but I wasn’t exactly wandering in the desert either.  I was growing, following Him as best I understood.  And loving it.

Then, in October, the sense of Him began, again, to fade; this time slowly but surely until, by November, there was nothing of His presence left to feel.  And with the perceived loss of anointing came the apparent loss of so many promises:  lust returned, answers evaded, guidance stopped.

I didn’t immediately freak out, the memory of His touch being fresh enough to sustain me into December, as I searched the Word and sought the counsel of new friends, looking for proof texts, formulae, spiritual exercises . . . anything to coax the Nearness back.  I dreamt about a magic potion I could drink to invoke the Spirit.  But when I awoke, my soul was dry.

In the New Year, I tried one last trick.  The day after my fifteenth birthday, the teen Sunday School lesson at The Fellowship was about how Saul became Paul by spending three days in fasting and prayer.  The teacher suggested this as biblical pattern—Jonah in the whale, Jesus in the tomb, Saul blinded by God—three days of darkness between crucifixion and resurrection.  Though she might not have intended any of us to actually apply the principle, I latched onto it as the ticket out of my slough:  attempt three days without eating or drinking (or showering or talking to people or applying myself at school or in the dance studio).  Spend the time crying for the light until darkness subsided.  Asceticism would move the hand of God.

That afternoon I absented myself from a football-watching party, making some excuse about homework.  Once I’d retired to a room far away from the sports-mad crowd, I shut the door to the Buffalo Bills, threw my assigned paperback aside, and got on my knees to lob complaints at God, coaching Him on how to rescue me from spiritual dryness.

On Monday I continued my embattled prayers by pretending to sleep in any class I could.  With head down and eyes squeezed tight, I got to the inner work of hobbling together my interior castle, inverting a passage from Jesus’s brother into my own requirement of God:  “I draw near to You,” I silently chanted; “You draw near to me!”  My mental droning didn’t last long.  When the Global Studies teacher disturbed my ashram by asking what was up with me—normally a decent student, now neglecting to hand in an assignment, bombing a quiz—I knew there would be trouble.  By the time I got to English, Mom, another English teacher across the hall, had gotten word that I was acting strange; she ducked into my class before the bell and assured me she was going to get to the bottom of this.

So I lied—said I was exhausted—and ditched school the next two days.  Staying mostly in my room, again feigning sleep, I tried to pray and, with decreasing faith that anything would happen, continued my secret fast.  My parents were very present, so I couldn’t get away with skipping many meals.  But for a few days, when nobody was looking, I would sneak my plate to the kitchen and hide my food in the compacter.  They took me to the doctor to find out if I was depressed, he said I wasn’t, and, when blood work yielded no abnormalities, I returned to school.  By lunch on Thursday, the three days having passed without a miracle, I was sick of being hungry and sullen.   I bought a strawberry crunch bar, told a joke to my Spanish teacher, and gave up, if not on this elusive God, then, at least, on my latest method for apprehending Him.

Back in December, back on stage, I had spent the second act of The Nutcracker smiling and nodding at Clara and the cast, all the while wondering How could there be a God?  Immersed in His presence for most of that year, the very existence of doubt had seemed silly.  Now, cut off from His aura, faith felt ridiculous.  I scrawled “Jesus is the answer” on a lavatory wall, but I wasn’t so sure.

Even now, the memory of blasphemy stings.  I could shudder to think that, in the space of weeks, I might go from such certain knowing to abject doubting to almost forgetting the reality of being known; and I am forced to admit anew where I would always steer myself, if left to myself—Gehenna at every turn.

Blessedly, those unreasonable pauses from belief in God’s existence, like other such moments before and after, were fleeting.  But by mid-January, after waiting on the Lord for three months and spending the better part of a week storming the brassy heavens with my pathetic prayers, uncertainty took another tack.  I began to wonder, not, if there was a God who saved, but if, in actual fact, He had ever saved me.

The year before, studying the Word and other Christians to try to figure out God’s plan of salvation, I found one trend among evangelicals to be of particular annoyance:  all the talk about “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”  It was the byword of a movement, and it raised a question that must be answered:  have you had your datable, preferably emotional, crisis-conversion?  I had read the entire New Testament, and the innovative phrase about personal acceptance was nowhere to be found.  As a truth it was biblical enough.  A gift, once given, must be received; and, from heaven’s perspective, the receiving must happen in a moment.  The angels could surely see the exact nanosecond when a nonbeliever became a believer.  What annoyed me was the obsession some Christians had with knowing when their moment was.

Evangelicalism, as I’ve understood it, is an emphasis on known truth creating authentic piety spilling over into action.  Anyone can go forward at an altar call; not everyone is changed by the experience.  And we must be changed, must come to believe that Christ has come to us—to earth, to Calvary, and “up from the grave He arose.”  But also He has come, by His Spirit into ours, so we might know Him in truth, and truly know He’ll never leave.

When I joined the evangelical party, I was not endorsing a notion that twentieth century American evangelicalism is the only authentic expression of Christianity that ever was or will be.  I didn’t even call myself an evangelical, preferring its then-popular redundancy, born again Christian.  But in doing so, and saying so, I was not merely aligning myself with the faction I fancied.  I was declaring my allegiance to the divine and historic Jesus, portrayed in scripture, alive in my heart.

But from my admitted position to the right (theologically), I must also admit that—standing guard against encroaching compromises to biblical authority, and seeking a way to enshrine the reality of saving faith in the truly saved—we evangelicals, some of us, have, sometimes, overemphasized a certain kind of entry pattern for all:  Step One-Pray this prayer.  Step Two-Never doubt that everything has instantly changed.

The Fellowship, for all its fervor, did not share in the frenzy.  Teaching emphasized God’s work in present circumstances.  And attempts at discipleship were generally sensitive to the possibility of people making small decisions, in their own way, to start following Jesus as best they could.  It was, I think, an approach as reasonable as it was biblical.  Assurance, for most of us, comes in fits and starts, as the growing-boy soul explores the brave new world of grace.  Coming in to the kingdom—that dramatic instant ordained from above—might, here on earth, very well look like a slow journey.  People could pick up their crosses in lots of different ways; and then, when it pleases Him, the Spirit could give to pilgrims-in-process, somewhere down their own Emmaus road, an experience of Jesus, so that, in the words of a spectacular lady evangelist, they would “know that they know that they know.”

Outside of The Fellowship, in the exotic churchy world of youth groups and Bible clubs and Christian radio, I was hearing other narratives by enviable heroes of the modern faith, who not only knew the moment they were saved but assumed such knowledge to be normative.  And I didn’t know.  Had it happened at camp when I first started seeking?  Or down in the basement when I committed?  Or up in my room when the Spirit reappeared?  My three-year process of coming to faith didn’t fit into the two-minute testimony model that seemed to be the rule.  When He was with me, matters of origin hadn’t mattered.  I was His and He was mine.  But now that I didn’t know where He was, I wasn’t sure where we stood.

I tried re-praying the Sinner’s Prayer and then psyching myself up with scriptures about assurance.  But I knew better than to assume any prayer necessarily guaranteed anything, especially if that prayer was offered with a mix of faith and doubt.  And that’s where I was:  betwixt knowing, on some level, that I had become a Christian, and wondering, then, how I had lost Christ.

Alone in bed or on horseback in the desert or driving with family out to the island, I was always trying to think of the right verse or prayer to lift me out of my spiritual slump.  Nothing worked.  So I worried, to the point of distraction, that I might be separated from God once again.  If I were to die or Christ were to come back, could I, in the end, still wind up in hell?

Boarding a plane to the West coast, I envisioned a crash, obsessing in silence over the worst; not because I didn’t want this life of psychic misery to end, but because I feared that if it did, my soul would burn.  In ballet class, doing piqué turns from upstage left, I imagined the Second Coming about to come, and me hitting Hades before reaching downstage right.  Had I believed in the mere annihilation of the damned, such heresy would have been a comfort.  But I knew that the Jesus I thought I knew, the One of history and the scriptures, the guy who the spiritual-but-not-religious say they love, was, actually, quite awfully clear about the final destination of those who turn out to have never really known Him:  eternal smoldering in a cosmic dump outside the city of God.

Sharing my horror with other Christians didn’t help much.  They thought I was just down in the dumps and offered inspirational platitudes I rarely found applicable.  Usually that was my fault, because I wasn’t courageous or articulate enough to really share the depth of my struggle with people who knew me.  Instead, I consumed more media and began to learn, when I had canvassed enough bible teachers in radioland, that I was not alone; other believers worried about their salvation, too.  Leaders tried to offset these fears, explaining to self-obsessed followers that changing emotions didn’t change our standing with God.  That made sense but, I thought, did not precisely apply to me.  My worry was not about a flagging of my warm fuzzies; it was the cessation of His good vibes that concerned me.

Various bully pulpits addressed tender consciences with the good news that one sin didn’t automatically reverse God’s favor, virtually all sins were forgivable.  Fine truths to hear, but I wasn’t worried I had sinned myself away from God; I was afraid I had never met Him.  Applying biblical logic, I knew I had believed, knew the Spirit had affirmed faith’s reality and changed my life.  Ergo, I was a Christian.   But, below the logic, where I like to live, this unshakable obsession persisted:  by some anomaly, I, like possibly no one else, and for no explicable reason, had experienced the very definition of conversion—knowing Jesus and the transforming comfort of His love—without technically being converted.

By the summer after ninth grade, I was sick of trying to comprehend what I couldn’t explain.  So I stopped actively trying to do so.  The anxiety generalized and faded from the fore.  There were occasional flare-ups of despair, as insecurities about my spiritual state would resurface, from time to time, until I finished college.  But, overall, there was a tapering of angst; a spiritual healing, for sure, but also, perhaps, a natural one:  emotions steadied as chemicals leveled and gray matter reached maturity.  God only knows.  Whatever it was, as adolescence transitioned to the challenges of adulthood, my thinking—about my salvation, anyway—was soothed.

During my junior year of college, on a walk through the woods, I told a classmate I had not felt the presence of God in six years.  She found that hard to believe.  And she was right to doubt my doubts.  For looking back, over a quarter century now, I can better see that God never left.  He was there, of course, to varying degrees at various times, always; He was my insight in the Word, my peace in prayer, my solace in the church and inspiration in nature and culture.  He was in my thoughts constantly and, even when He wasn’t, He was the thing I wasn’t thinking about.

And, as far as the special touch of transcendent immanence goes, nowhere in scripture or history is there a promise or saintly example of people feeling the warmth of His countenance all the time.  On the contrary, anecdotal assemblage of spiritual stories yields a pattern:  God granting the new believer a unique impression of His love, and then, for a time, taking it away (the feeling, not the love).  Not because we sin, though that’s another problem, but because He wants to teach us to walk by faith instead of sense.  Stability comes as we learn to trust what we’ve felt but do not feel.

I’ve sometimes bemoaned my lack, back in the day, of a contemplative spiritual director, a he or she who could have warned about the classic dark night of the soul, who might have directed me to just keep walking in the Way, blind as I may be.  But maybe, through friends and the church, I did have that care, was given that advice, and would have been proffered more, had I entrusted my confessors with freer access to a heart that gasped, “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.”

Had I heeded their prescriptive balm—in particular, the wonderful cliché to keep reading and praying through the bible, systematically, even when it seems pointless—then, maybe, more of the gospel would have sunk in more deeply.  And if it had, if I’d better understood, earlier, the amazing implications of grace, I might have looked less at my present, spent less time analyzing my metaphysical past, and, instead, gazed past my own navel, beyond even my personal encounter with Christ, and beheld Him, one thousand nine hundred fifty-some years earlier, perfect and perfectly naked, wearing nothing but the sin of the world.  Abandoned.  So that I never would be, never could be rejected, because once upon a time, He was.

There, in the darkness of the Father’s absence, He hung like meat, bled out, and gave up the ghost, that I might be haunted by this thought alone:  He loved me like that.  And with hell finished—for Him, for me—only resurrection remains.

 

Copyright 2016 by L. Scott Ekstrom.  

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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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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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