Profiles From Venice Beach: Part 3, The Meth Addict

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Part 3: The Meth Addict

“And the Lord looked upon the woman with mercy, and spoke thusly to those souls around her who would stone her: ‘You wicked men! Judge not, yet you yourselves be judged. Condemn not this woman merely because she sins differently than you do, lest you yourselves will be judged before your heavenly Father, and the grace you show will be shown to you.’ And they looked to the dirt with shame and let their rocks fall to their sides, and they departed. And the Lord looked to the woman and said, “Child, go and sin no more, for you are loved along with the rest.”

“Hell son, I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me where to find some whiskey drink.”

Excuse me?

“Some whiskey drink. I can’t find any (expletive) whiskey ‘round here.”

The question startled me. The sign I was holding read: “Tell Me Your Story, I’ll Give You A $”, but it was the only time someone ever offered me money, despite the fact I looked like I was panhandling. Plus, the brashness and honesty of the request was hilarious.

I couldn’t help but smile. The bald man, wearing a tank top and denim shorts, looked exactly the part to be asking me such a question. He had a furrow running down the side of his face—the type a villain or a veteran has in films. I’ve never been a decent judge of age, but the man looked 40, going on 60. He sat down next to me and leaned over with an arm across the back of the bench and teeth that were 10 years past the point of salvation.

“So you’re looking to hear a story; what’s the catch?”

There isn’t a catch. I’m a total stranger, and chances are, you’ll never see me again.

“Well, I’m from Bakersfield.”

Go figure.

“And I’m a meth addict.”

He got my attention with that, and he knew it. He realized he now had my focus.

“And I (expletive) hate my wife. That’s why I’m looking for some whiskey. I can’t stand the (expletive).”

I ask him if he’s ever planning on quitting. He replies, “Nope. I’m going to be smoking meth all the way to Hell, and then a little more when I get there. I absolutely love it.”

And here he paused. “All those church folk assume everybody is looking to change; well, some of us are happy just the way we are.”

It was a fair point.

I was about to ask him to expand on this particular theology when a woman walked up.

They say that after being married for some period of time, people will start to take on the features of the other. Living together and using the same drug makes the resemblance all the more remarkable. I knew it was the man’s wife before she was introduced as such.

With them, they had a beautiful, young teenage girl, who I was told was their niece. Unlike her aunt and uncle, she had none of the furrows and lines on her face. Her hair has blond, and her face was innocent; her aunt and uncle had eyes like coyotes—not malignant, but certainly not simple and kind. A touch of cunning, a splash of experience, and a splinter of stubborn compulsion. But there was none of that in their niece. It was as interesting as seeing a church lined with fearsome statues of gargoyles—terrible, except to the untrained eye—and then walking inside to find some grand painting or statue, crafted over a sustained period of religious ecstasy. Indeed, the work of art is made even more beautiful for the guardians surrounding it.

The man caught them up to speed on what I was doing—he was just beside himself, telling everyone around who would listen how I was crazy—but the good kind of crazy. I told him that I thought that he wasn’t the good kind of crazy. He threw back his head and laughed until he couldn’t breathe.

Meanwhile, their niece sat on the bench beside me. It was her first time to Venice, so I was a novelty—the type you would expect to find and could tell your friends about. I had given her uncle his dollar, which he had tried to refuse, but when his niece sat down, he gave it to her, and she held it up while her aunt took a picture of my sign, and me and her beside it.

I asked if she had any stories (besides spending a sunny day with the smell of the ocean and her meth-addicted relatives, of which she seemed unaware of. Or, like many raised around such things, merely assumed it not worth noting). She said she was a barrel-racer. She told me this in the same way you would tell someone what your occupation is—for up to a certain time in one’s life, your sport is your profession until you actually get a ‘profession’. She told me the craziest thing that had happened to her was when she was riding a horse and got pitched over a fence and landed flat on her face. It seemed no one had taken the time to tell her the horse had only been ridden perhaps five times prior and was wholly unbroken.

As they all started to leave, my new acquaintance again tried to return his dollar to me. I refused. He made some remark to a passerby about “how much he loved this kid,” and insisted that they talk to me. Then put his arm around his wife’s waist—the other about the shoulders of his niece—and walked off.

About 20 feet away, he turned around without breaking stride, grinned, gave a little wave with his hand, and continued off, presumably to find some whiskey drink. The three of them looked like a happy, loving family. I’m sure in many ways they were—as if grave dysfunction disqualifies a person from happiness or love. It is often the perfect who misunderstand what it is to love in spite of flaws. People often speak of feeling ‘judged’ by the religious or the ‘perfect’, but very few people lament being judged by the patrons of a dive bar. It is also the perfect that don’t stunt their earthly years with functioning meth-addiction, so there are two sides to the sword.

I wish them all the best, regardless of which side they may be walking.

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Profiles From Venice Beach: Part 2, The Marine

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Part 2: The Marine

As I’m writing these stories, I find I have a remarkable number of names attached to them. Everybody I met introduced themselves, which is rather surprising, because I never instigated a named greeting, which is a norm in our American social interactions. This makes sense in retrospect; names live on even when faces do not. King Arthur could look like anything, but he would still have pulled Excalibur from the stone. Ulysses could have been tall, short, black, or white, but after a couple millennium, it’s his name that carries his deeds.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t ask names; I never meant to retell stories—only to listen to them. I didn’t want people to worry about what was going to haunt them down the road; fear of retaliation or retribution drives mankind to immortal sin. David wasn’t a murderer until he was afraid somebody might find out what he did.

And that’s exactly why I’m not using The Marine’s real name—both out of respect and so this won’t get traced back to him. Regardless of what follows, I really loved him; not in a cheap, flippant sense—like I love tacos—but in the way that I’m sure Christ loves him.

Some people showed themselves in ways that others didn’t, and The Marine had a sense of social apathy that I deeply resonated with. It wasn’t a detachment with the world, but a detachment with social stigma, and it is the hallmark of the greatest saints and sinners this world has ever produced. But mostly the saints—Nietzsche lost his mind and Judas hung himself, but a young, African philosopher clung to life long enough—despite the fact he was a moral train wreck—and became Saint Augustine.

But that is neither here nor there.

Casey walked up to me while I was talking to Rick. He stood in front of me—fit, young, and well-dressed in a collared shirt and dark sunglasses, behind which he surveyed me and my ragamuffin conversation partner.

Some people who talked to me only approached me because they thought it was novel someone would just give away a dollar. They would tell a quick story and ask for their compensation and then leave. Some people would tentatively approach and ask to take pictures. Some people would just stop some distance off and point, or pull out their phones, or just turn to their friends and motion towards me. But everybody who told me a story—a real, honest-to-God snapshot of their life—they always stopped and surveyed me and my sign. It was as if they probing to be sure that I was serious; they wanted to be sure there were no strings attached, no cameras watching, no judgment or sermon waiting for them. It was also a little disconcerting. Casey looked at me like that.

“So, you want to hear a story?” He said it almost like a statement, like a dare.

Yep.

“About me?”

Who else?

“Well I’ll tell you a story.”

What commenced next was rapid-fire, as I’m sure most of his life had been up to that point. Casey poured his life out to me like he was talking to a drill sergeant.

“Abused by a single mom. Life was a living hell. She died. I was happy. Nothing could have been more of a relief. After that, I was a real loose cannon. Joined the Marines because there was no other real option. Did three tours overseas. Killed three people. At least. Unconfirmed kills don’t count. Then I discovered the secret to never working again.”

And what’s that?

“Claim disabilities. Now I work when I want to and go to Thailand and Brazil. I love hookers.”

He looked at me and waited for my reaction. I think he wanted me to be shocked. To be honest, I was surprised at the honesty; not so much the story—everybody has a story—but the honesty was stark, clean, and unabashed. Casey had all the functional appearances of a man who has seen his shadows and embraced them, and wanted people to know. Casey seemed (and I’m just speculating) to be part of the breed that wanted to be viewed as bad as they actually were. Everybody has it in them; some deny it, some run from it, but Casey embraced it.

Rick leaned forward off the bench—one of the few times he spoke to someone I was talking to. “You were in the Marines?”

“Yes sir.” Casey replied.

“Well, let me shake your hand and thank you for serving our country.”

Rick leaned forward and shook his hand, but Casey kept his eyes on me. He had taken his sunglasses off when he had started speaking, and I had locked eyes with him for the entirety of his machine-gun tale, and he held my gaze.

“That’s quite a story.” I said, as I reached in my pocket for his dollar.

All of sudden, the stance and tone he had assumed during his narrative fell away, and Casey put up his hands, trying to fend off the little slip of green paper.

“No, no, I don’t want your money, brother, I just wanted to tell you a story.”

It’s the rule.

“Keep it, keep it.”

You’re welcome to give it away.

At this point, Rick leaned over again and said, “I’ll take it.”

I handed Casey the dollar and he gave it to Rick. Rick thanked him. Me and Casey chatted for a little while longer. He told me about Thailand, about one of his friends who had gotten shot while on deployment, about what he was planning to do for the rest of his life. He asked me where I was from, and I told him Alaska. He rattled off a few names and asked me if I knew them. I recognized one. He wanted to go to Alaska, he had never visited. We talked about home for a while, and then he started to go. He seemed lonely; not too many people come to Venice Beach by themselves.

He asked me what my name was, and I gave it to him. He followed up by asking my last name, and giving me his. I asked him why he wanted to know my name. He only said “You never know when you’re going to meet someone again, and the world has a funny way of bringing people together.”

Casey started to turn around and hitched, and looked back at me—facing down the boardwalk with his shaved head turned looking out over his thick shoulder.

“Hey,” the Marine said, “I think what you’re doing is great.”

I smiled. He started to turn away again, and then turned back.

“But remember,” he added, now returning my smile, “Nice guys always finish last. You gotta be an asshole if you want to get ahead.”

I smiled again. He put on his sunglasses. Almost as an afterthought, he said, “But really, I love what you’re doing. You’re going to be just fine.”

With that, he turned up the boardwalk and disappeared into the crowd. People like Casey are the reason I sit on the same bench every time I go to Venice, just in case they happen to walk down the same stretch of beach twice.

Mother Nature is not a perfect matron; everyone is crippled from birth. Some limp more than others, but few take the time to acknowledge they’re crippled. If you should love Casey for any reason, it’s that he was one of the few folks that had acknowledged in his life that we are all playing against a stacked deck. The dealer is against us, our friends our against us—perhaps even more often, we’re against ourselves. And all we can pray is that quiet prayer of salvation—that we break even by the end of the hand.

Profiles From Venice Beach: Part 1, Rick and Milla

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Part 1: Introduction, Rick and Milla

This is a project that’s been on my mind for a while. I heard a story about a guy who sat by a bus stop with a sign that said, “Tell Me Your Story, I’ll Give You a $”. That was it. If you told him your story, he’d give you a buck. I don’t know anything else about him, except that he had a wonderful idea, so I borrowed it.

I wasn’t planning on writing about it; I wasn’t even sure I was going to ever do it. I started the whole idea during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and every Saturday I had free, I wanted to watch basketball. I was walking out to my dumpster on one such Saturday, and a cardboard box was sitting on top of all the trash. So I grabbed a marker and the box and headed to Venice Beach—the best place in Southern California to hear stories.

That first day I sat on a bench for about 6 hours with my sign—tell me your story, I’ll give you a dollar. The bong shop in front of me was blaring music, I had a bottle of water and an old baseball cap, and the cardboard sign from my dumpster. A lot of people took pictures, some people would stop and point. Most folks just walked by without even reading my little offer—out of the corner of your eye I’m sure it would have looked like I was begging—who wants to make eye contact and feel guilty?

I didn’t have any idea what would happen, but I ended up going back. And back. And back. I still occasionally do, when I can find the time. The most common question I was asked was, “Why are you doing this?” I’m still not entirely sure, but I usually told people that it was a form of penance for a life spent not listening. That’s half the reason I didn’t want to write about it—I was there to listen, not to talk. To try to preserve that sentiment, I share as little as possible of my own opinion. This is merely a chance to tell stories that are worth being told.

People will tell you just about anything when they know you’re not just waiting to speak.

Rick and Milla were the defining moment of my first day. He walked up to me to me tall, lean, and with a rough, icy stubble of a beard. One hand held the strap of a battered backpack; the other held a coarse leash attached to the collar of a beautiful husky with shining, meek eyes. He was dirty—dirty, but very neat, probably in his mid-50’s—the age when men start eying local barstools and arm chairs, just looking for a place to sit down.

He eyed my sign from behind aviator sunglasses.

“So if I tell you my story, you’ll give me a dollar?”

Yep.

“What if I tell you two stories?”

One dollar.

“Well then, I’ll tell you a story.”

Rick was from Florida. A couple months prior, he had gotten tired; tired of the climate, tired of the area. Like any other human being, Rick got worn down with the stagnation of his day to day life. So he had hitchhiked out to California—just him and his husky. He had got a ride with a couple of girls from Florida to east Texas, courtesy of Milla and those brilliant eyes. Then a man in a pickup truck picked him up and offered to take him to Tuscon.

They were driving through the New Mexico desert when the man suddenly pulled the car over to the side of the road and told him to get out.

“What do you mean, get out?” Rick asked.

“Your ride’s over,” the man said. “Get the f— out of my car.”

So Rick got his bag and his dog and got out of the car. He had no idea why the man had done it—it seemed to be just plain human meanness. It’s difficult to understand why a man would do that to a person, so Rick didn’t even try to. Stranded in the middle of the New Mexico desert, he walked miles through the sun and sand to find a roadside phone and call a patrol officer, who came and took him to the next town. Then he came to California, and had a talk with me on a hard wooden bench on the Venice Beach Boardwalk.

I asked Rick if he lived in the area as I gave him his dollar. He said that he didn’t really “live” anywhere, but yes, he stayed around the area. His exact words were, “California is my home now, even though I got no home.”

Rick gets $200 a month and some food stamps from the government. He had just bought a portable color television so he could watch some TV by himself. He lamented the lack of public electrical outlets in the area citing it as one of the disadvantages of California. I had never really given it much thought—I had never given much thought to most things Rick told me. But then again, I’m not used to cops waking me up when I’m sleeping in a park at 3 AM and telling me to get moving. And I’ve never had a cracked rib after getting mugged over a few bucks shoved in a tattered old backpack.

I asked Rick if having the dog around kept people from hassling him. He said sometimes, but the real advantage of the having her around was that women loved her. I could understand why. Milla was beautiful. She was named for the Milla Jovovich after Rick had watched Resident Evil. Rick thought Milla was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, so when he got his husky, the name transferred. He was also incredibly respectful when he mentioned the actress, never using our cultural terms of female commodity—hot, sexy, etc—but only beautiful. The entire time we talked—which was about three hours—Milla just laid under the bench, her head on her paws, occasionally offering her head to me or Rick to be scratched.

Rick told me a story about a man who had offered to buy Milla. He had walked up while Rick was panhandling on a street corner and offered him $500.

Rick replied, “Do you have any kids?”

The man said that he had three.

Rick said, “I’ll do a straight trade with you. You give me your three kids, and I’ll give you my dog.”

This sent the man into a fury, and after cursing and screaming at Rick, he stormed away. As he was telling me the story, Rick reached down and scratched Milla behind the ears; she looked up and leaned into his hand.

“I don’t understand why he was so mad,” Rick said. “This dog is all I have. I love her like she was my own child.”

I believed him. Milla was no small dog, but she looked much better fed than Rick did. She was just like Rick—dirty but neat. And those eyes had a glow in them—like fire behind a sheet of ice. If Rick loved anything, he loved Milla.

Rick was a career bum. He worked when he could, but he didn’t have much going for him besides his experiences. If he wanted to, he could have written the book about being homeless, and while he had only been in the area for a couple months, he had already figured out the system. If you got woken up for sleeping in a park, you got a ticket. If you had a cigarette on the boardwalk in Venice Beach, you got a ticket. If you spent a night in jail—no matter how many tickets you had—your tickets would be expunged. I asked Rick if he had any tickets. He said yes—that everybody did. But he couldn’t to jail because they would take his dog, and he didn’t have the money to get her out of the pound. If he couldn’t pay, they would put her to sleep.

Rick tried to stay in public areas whenever he could. People are quick to prey on those who are perceived as weaker than them. Rick was one of the most acute observers of other human beings that I have ever met. If a dog would walk by, he would lean forward and put his legs in front of Milla in order to put a barrier between her and the other dog. If someone walked up to me to ask about my sign, Rick would immediately stop talking. All of his interactions were geared towards just slipping by as an extra in the scene—not out of fear, but out of experience. When Rick got up to leave, he waited till a bike and two dogs walked by, then looked down at Milla and said,

“Milla, up.”

Milla crawled out from under the bench and walked up close to Rick’s legs. Even his dog was being as inconspicuous as possible. I wished him well and shook his hand. Then he took one step off the boardwalk, pulled out his last cigarette, lit it up, and disappeared around the corner, just an extra character leaving the set.

I remember people’s stories more than I remember their faces—you see so many faces, but so few people are willing to open up enough to share themselves with a stranger. Yet every time I go back to Venice, I keep an eye out for a tall, skinny man and a husky with blue, blazing eyes.

Ships, Castles, and Sojouring Thus Far

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I was about halfway between the grey port from which I had embarked and the warm, crackling tongues of my fireside. The ship I had booked passage on paused at a desolate port, stopping only to dry the sails and offload some simple folk, no doubt shuffling off to wherever they called home. I stepped down to visit with them and stretch my legs, which I felt had become stiff and unsure on the old wooden vessel I was on. It was a sturdy boat, but it appeared as if it was thousands of years old; cracked paint streaked across the hull like so many scars on a soldier’s face, and the sails—strong as they were—always seemed about to tear.

I stood on the dock and shared a pipe with a fellow passenger; I was puzzled, for he had one of those faces that I was sure I knew, but could not place.  We had both had set out from the same port, intent on making our destination as quickly as possible, but he mentioned now that he fancied stopping off for a while. I told him that I didn’t know when the ship was coming back. He smiled through the smoke twisting around his eyes and said in a deep German accent, “Friend, I’m not sure whether or not I wanted to go where it was taking me. The men defer to the captain’s guidance too much, and I do not trust him.”

“Where will you go?” I replied.

“I think I’ll go for a walk. If I like what I see, maybe I’ll stay. If not, I’ll wait for the ship to come back.”

“What if it never comes back?”

“It will. I’m told it always does.”

At first, I thought I would let him go on his way, and I would continue on mine. I started to jog back up the gangplank, but seeing the German disappearing amongst the trees, I stopped halfway up and turned around, almost knocking a heavy, mustached man into the water as he walked up behind me. If I hadn’t been in a hurry, I would have thought it curious that he smelled of pine and had streaks of earth on his clothes. As it was, I apologized, and he acknowledged me by removing his hat with such a ridiculous solemnity that I almost thought to follow him up the ramp instead of the German, who was by now almost swallowed up in the crossing arms of the trees. But the wind made the ramp rock, and dreading another bout at sea, I hurried down the decline, my momentum carrying me after the receding figure.

I caught up with him after a moment, short of breath, cold air nipping at my throat and eyes as I sucked it in through my mouth and nostrils. I asked where we were going; I received no answer—my guide merely glanced around as if everything around him was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He looked as if he was seeing things he had never seen before. All I could see were dark trees and thin mist.

“German, where are we going?” I finally asked, tapping him on the shoulder.

“I’m not sure, but I feel it is somewhere worth being.”

“How do you know?” I asked incredulously.

He paused, as if he was tasting the air. “Because of the air—the way the wind moves amongst the trees and through my hair. That is how I know.”

I stared at him, beginning to think I had followed a lunatic.

We walked on for a while, amidst the deep wood. My guide seemed to be moving with a sense of purpose, following the tickle of the wind. Soon enough, the trees began to thin. Looming stone caught my eye over the reaching tips of the wooden towers, and we emerged into a relative clear field, upon which a large stone fortress had been erected. Golden stalks of wheat buttressed the castle on every said, and these waved and tossed their heads to and fro. The German walked towards the building without hesitation, hands running over the ends of the stems.

I followed behind him tentatively, curiously.

“German,” I called out from a pace or two behind, “Why are we going towards that castle? We don’t know what type of men are inside.”

“They are decent men.” He replied with the same conviction. “The wind blows here as it once did on the decks of the ship.”

I became more and more convinced to the man’s mental health.

However, after a moment, I noticed what he had said; the air had grown stale during moments on the ship, and also during certain places amongst the wood. Now, it flowed with the same surety as it had amidst the waves and out over the deep. The same wind that filled the sails of the ship swirled around the fortresses walls and seemed to hold them up.

We approached the gate through a path worn into the grass from countless feet. The wooden gate looked strong and weathered—not as weathered as the timbers of the ship, but old nonetheless. My guide walked up to the gates with that same curious certainty he had displayed since we had disembarked. He laid his hand on the heavy wood, and it swung upon to the soft touch, as if on perfectly balanced hinges.

He took two steps in, and looked around as a knowing smile played across his face.

“I’ve been here before.” he said. “If I did not know any better, I would say I was born here.”

I wanted to ask him how he knew, but a man in a flowing scholar’s robe strode up to the two of us; my guide—the German—in front of me, and I lingering a pace or two behind.

“Welcome,” the academic spoke from behind a long beard that reached down to his collar, and with deep eyes that showed a lifetime of listening and learning “Will you be staying long?”

“I believe I will be, but I cannot speak for my companion,” my guide responded.

“It is as well either way,” the bearded man said, “That sturdy old boat is as good a refuge as this fort. We just had a gentleman leave us for a life at sea; it is all the same in the end. Each must follow where the wind leads him.”

I noticed then that our host had a depiction of a large ship—the very ship I had departed—stitched into the fabric of his cloth; it seemed to twist and toss amongst the flowing fabrics at the slightest movement. Around me, things began to show that the fort had been built from pieces of the ship I had left. The crank to the gate was an old ship’s wheel; iron-banded barrels, caulked with pitch and salty brine, lay stacked off in one corner. A couple paces off, a man and a woman were laughing together—one wore water-tight boots; the other leaned on a staff fashioned from an old oar.

“In some way or another, we all came from that ancient ship,” my guide continued, “And we have no qualms if they should return, although some may have grown overly found of our home.”

“That’s quite alright,” the German responded, grinning, “Some have grown overly fond of the ship.”

I stared at the man with gaping eyes and slack jaw. I now knew him—not from my journeys or my old life, but from my reading—the German was none other than Martin Luther. I marveled at him, bewildered at what sort of providence had crossed our paths.

Just then, a man walked up and was warmly greeted by our host.

“John Calvin, it is good to see you!” he remarked warmly, “You have done wonders with the place.”

Calvin grinned and extended his hand in greeting, which was firmly grasped and shook, causing the ship on his cloak to pitch and toss. He looked around at the high stone walls, a nostalgic sweep of those contemplative eyes. I noticed then that the stones seemed to have been chosen, not for their homogeny, but for their impurity and color, which created a kaleidoscope of mineral color and spark.

“Ah, Jonathan, I did not build it, as you well know. Yes, when I arrived, there were not as many residents, but this castle was standing long before I ever arrived, and it will stand after I am forgotten.”

“Well, me and Wesley simply love it here. We weren’t raised to sailors.” I picked up on the name Calvin had used—this man speaking could be none other than Jonathan Edwards.

“Ay, but we must never forget that some are,” said Calvin, “And we must never forget that the old boat is what delivered us here, even those among us who have never seen it.”

I looked around me in wonder. I wondered to myself, “Just how old is this place?”

I must have spoken aloud, for the man called Calvin turned to me and said, “As old as time itself.” He smiled, “As old as the ship we rode in on.”

“Who could make such strongholds as these?” I managed to choke out, finding everything around me so new, and yet so familiar, as if I was recalling a distant memory or a forgotten dream.

John Calvin leaned forward, as if he was sharing some mystery with me, “The craftsman is one and the same. He entrusted the ship to a captain—I believe the current one is an Argentinian man named Francis. The fort is led by many men, though the wind holds it together, just as the wind drives the ship.” When he had said this, he smiled knowingly and winked at me.

The wind stirred the air around us. It filled the ship’s sails, and it held fast the walls of the fort; it danced and twisted across the wild sea and through the dark wood. I suddenly felt compelled to leave my companions, and strode out of the gate, pausing to marvel at the strong walls and shimmering rock. The wind pushed at my back and played with my hair and I strode back through the forest, following the still, small breeze.

The Cafeteria Prophet

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The pink heart stared at me across my greasy potatoes and hard scrambled eggs. I had just said the Lord’s Prayer, followed by a specific thanks hastily murmured for the food in front of me. After the “amen,” my eyes opened, looked for my fork, picked it up, and then drifted up to meet the bold pink heart glaring back at me.

This ferocious organ was clinging to the back of a sweater of a young woman seating facing away from me, engrossed in a novel at the table ahead of me. Her breakfast lay finished and pushed away. Across her hoodie, emblazoned in vibrant, billboard letters, read: JESUS IS MY SAVIOR, NOT MY RELIGION—the pink heart made up the “U” in “Jesus.”

I sat staring at this message, so boldly proclaimed and confident. It unsettled me, although it may have been mere intimidation in the presence of the confidence and assertion of the sweater—or it may have merely been the food I was eating. Either way, I pondered on the bold theology of this cafeteria prophet’s clothing, and was uncomfortable with the statement.

“Jesus is my savior, not my religion” is a fairly common, fairly abstract statement, offered mainly by young-ish Protestants in reaction to the ills perpetrated on the church and individuals by excessively strict religious institutions. The message itself manifests in other forms, such as “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion” and “I don’t like the word ‘Christian,’ I’m a follower of Christ.” It’s a decent message, keeping in line with an American distrust of authority and establishment, as well as a desire for individuality in the midst of imposed leadership and values.

Despite the validity of such a statement, it truly neglects a necessary aspect of the Christian faith—the very faith that Jesus Christ established—and turns it into a loosely defined relationship with a person that most Christians (or “followers of Christ”) don’t have a normal, face-to-face relationship with. Jesus is risen, but, he doesn’t personally interact with most of us—at least not in the way that we interact with our neighbors, roommates, pastors and priests. Yes, we are given Scripture and the Holy Spirit, but if there is anything that can be known about Scripture, it’s that people can interpret it differently; just ask a room full of Christians if they’re Calvinist or Arminiast—be sure to specify you want verses to back up their claim. As for the Holy Spirit, it is by definition the Person of the Trinity that “blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8)

There is a danger here in denouncing religion for the sake of Jesus; he never made this distinction, nor has Church history. Christ came as the fulfillment of thousands of years of tradition and religion; right before the Ascension, he affirmed Peter as the “rock on which I will build My Church.” Even Christ saw the need for a Church—and Church leadership—in order to shepherd his flock. Yes, we have a personal relationship with Christ our Savior, but that is facilitated, strengthened, and protected through the Christian faith—through healthy religion.

Jesus is my savior; Christianity is my religion. My relationship with Jesus is built on the faith of the Jews; my walk with him is aided by 2,000 years of Church tradition—2,000 years of religion. I was uncomfortable with the cafeteria prophet’s message, not because Jesus isn’t my Savior, but because he is also the cornerstone of my religion. The statement “Jesus is my Savior, not my religion” seems to neglect that for every individual for whom Jesus Christ is their Savior, he is also their pastor. This neglect is troubling in that it acknowledges Christ, the Head of the church, while marginalizing the Body—leaving one alone with a disembodied head.

Jesus is my friend, Jesus is my Savior; Jesus is also my high priest. You don’t need a high priest if you don’t have a religion—nor do you need church authority, theologians, Christian education, or most of Holy Scripture. The desire to emphasize the fact that Christians have a personal relationship with Christ is admirable; to do so at the expense of the Church is fatal.

The Pastor

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They all waited in quiet patience: the pastor was coming forward. His old age prevented his moving with any sort of urgency—indeed, he seemed to shuffle everywhere he went, with eyes glassed over with the grey sea of time. His hair was more or less gone—partly from necessity and partly from age. He had cut it short when he had been roaming about, planting churches throughout the Roman empire. The hair that had not fallen to shears eventually fell from time and toil.

Now, there was but few earthly toils that remained to him. Joints riddled with arthritis, skin stretched tight from scar tissue, back bent as if he was carrying a large burden, the ancient priest had only one final road awaiting him, and it would be a brief one. His body was wasting away more and more every day—some in the congregation marveled that he could make it to the service at all. It seemed that if death was much longer in coming, he wouldn’t have a chance to die—he would just cease to be. All one had to do was blink, and he would wink out of existence.

The old pastor took tiny, scraping steps to the front of the congregation, the tapping of his sandals mixed with the shaking of his hands. A young deacon stood at his side, hand hovering above the bowed back as if he was afraid this frail, ancient man would step into some crack in the church floor and be swallowed up. The pastors fingers were knotted twigs—the result of years working in the mines on some god-forsaken island. Everything about the man exuded age; some of the elders in the congregation could remember a man filled with passion and pious recklessness, but now that sun was setting. Night had all but swallowed up the once flaming spark in the pastor’s eyes.

But for now, the setting sun took small, deliberate steps, until he stood in front of his congregation. Those who knew no better waited with hushed expectation for what was to be said: would he speak of the emperor Trajan; or perhaps of his journeys? Maybe they would even hear a story about Jesus—after all it was only a couple decades prior that the two had walked along together. The tension was evident; the pastor was oblivious to all of it. He stood at the head of the congregation and looked out at the church he had founded. From cracked lips came a single sentence:

“Little children, love one another!”

The words were spoken with much more conviction than it seemed the man should have been able to muster. Those who had never been to the church before looked at each other anxiously, eagerly—now the preaching of the Apostle was to come: visions of Judgment, stories of Jesus, convicting words and bold ideas—the excitement was palpable.

But no more was said.

Not another syllable.

The pastor began his long shuffle to his seat in the back; the young deacon returned to his side, hands at the ready—he would not be the one who would let the Apostle that Jesus Loved fall and break a brittle bone—no matter how irritating and confusing it was to hear the same line, week after monotoned week.

For years, since he had gathered two or three people together on the location the church now stood, the pastor had repeated the same phrase and nothing else. He had no sermons, he had no fresh insights, he had no variation. Just the same, single-line message: Little children, love one another. Some suspected that the time he had spent in persecution had broken a once-thriving mind; others said that he was merely waiting to die and felt no need to prepare new sermons. Still others debated on the significance of his delivery: perhaps he was using his succinct rhetoric to make a bigger point or highlight a culturally issue.

As for the pastor, he merely allowed himself to be helped to his seat in the back of the church and closed his eyes as the church began their worship. The songs were deep, slow songs that reverberated around the stone building and leaked out windows hewn from rock. No music was played, and none was needed. Some people exchanged curious glances; others looked slightly exasperated, but all sang nonetheless. As their praise hummed in dull, flowing streams, the young deacon leaned over to the old pastor and remarked quietly,

“Father, why do you say the same thing over and over again? It begins to become monotonous to some of the brethren.”

The pastor’s eyes remained shut, but a tightening around his mouth seemed to indicate a smile or sadness. He thought about how so many people had missed the brutally simple message; how they were so willing to argue doctrine and so unwilling to love. After a moment, he spoke in a quiet whisper that could barely be heard—even by the young deacon, whose head was almost resting on the pastor’s chest as he waited for a reply.

“My dear Polycarp, it was our Lord’s command.”

“But father,” the deacon responded, “Did he not command other things also?”

Now a faint smile could clearly be seen playing on the corners of the pastor’s mouth, as if he was recalling every incident where Jesus had loved—that woman dragged into the temple, that short little tax collector up in the tree, Mary Magdalene and all the others. He remembered his Lord dying for love.

“My son,” the Apostle John replied, “If this alone be done, it is enough.”

Around them, the music surged; in spite of the monotony, in spite of the confusion, in spite of the irritation, the praise continued unabated. The young deacon settled back into his seat and thought about what had been said. The old pastor remained seated with his eyes closed, dwelling in the love of Christ and passing the time until he was united with his old Friend.

Let Us Discuss

Hey folks,

Sorry it’s been so long since I put anything up; there are a number of articles in the hopper, I just need to clean them up. Most of my focused writing has been going towards The Evangelical Outpost, the publication I am currently writing for. I will have a couple things up in the next week–Scout’s Honor.

On a related note, I just found out that a good friend of mine is taking over the editor-in-chief position for Dartmouth’s ApologiaNot only is this significant because it’s Dartmouth, (one of those schools covered in ivy) but it’s also a great inter-denomination publication geared at promoting dialogue between the different sects of Christianity professing the name of Jesus Christ. It is a very intelligent, thoughtful magazine aimed at strengthening the Body of Christ through discourse, and everybody should go give it a glance. They also have a blog that’s much more consistent than mine.

All that said, I’ll be back posting soon. In the meantime, take a minute to pray for all those affected by the tragedies in Waco and Boston. God is so good, but our world can be so incredibly awful sometimes. And thank you to everyone who reads what I have to say–all 13 of you.

I love you guys.

In Christ,

Ron

Broke or Breaking

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Everybody needs to be broken in some way or another. It comes in various ways—some harsher than others. Some are mercifully simple—you lose a job or a friend. Some are brutal and vicious—a bad divorce or a decade of alcoholism. None of these things are easy; if they were merely trivial, it wouldn’t be called “broken.” We rarely remember the light tap on the shoulder; we always remember the feel of pavement after getting knocked down in a parking lot.

Sometimes, the asphalt can be our kindest mentor, for it saves us from the cliff.

I’ve never been one to take things on faith; I need to know for myself. I am the product of our scientific and cynical era—an era that has stepped past doubting faith and now doubts everything. Our fathers warn us, “Don’t drive that road, the bridge has been broken for years and the river is deep.” And we nod and smile and don’t listen to a word of it. Inevitably, we end up struggling frantically out of car windows as water pours in around us. The bridge is out. Now we know.

The danger in this is that there may come an accident and we won’t be able to get out of the car. We will sink to the bottom of the river, and we will never come up, and the only thing that will be left is the faint sound of bubbles breaking the surface. Then, that too will disappear, and the river will run along as always, disrupted only by the sound of screeching tires and splashes as more cars plunge in after us.

In my relatively short time on earth, I’ve gone through enough cars that I should know to listen to advice and heed the road signs. Perhaps it’s a function of maturity; after all, the older people get the slower they tend to drive. Some still hurtle down the highway and through back roads and over washed-out bridges, but many learn to slow down, to listen, to not trust themselves so much. I still drive faster than I should. I’m sure I’m still heading down some roads that will end in rivers.

I will either learn, or I will drown. There isn’t a middle ground. Time is a wonderful equalizer. Karma may be a cheap illusion, but common grace sure looks a lot like it. People who drive fast get in more accidents. People who don’t listen have to figure things out for themselves—sometimes in mid-air, with the sky above and the water below and gravity pulling the whole thing down frighteningly quick. Sometimes getting carjacked is a blessing. Sometimes being conscious enough to crawl out of a broken window is a blessing too.

And when we sit on the bank of the river and watch what is left of our car sink away, when we lay on our backs in a parking lot and the world is ringing and the lights above are spinning and crossing like a kaleidoscope—here is where we are blessed with the opportunity of choice, the chance of redemption. A wise man will fail for a moment; a foolish man will fail for a lifetime. Maybe the wise man fails again and again, but each time he redirects his course—he drives one road and asks for directions, he drives slow enough to stop before going over the cliff. A foolish man just drives—carpe diem.

When Jacob was wrestling with God, and his hip was dislocated, he realized he was overmatched and dealing with someone he could not best. He stopped fighting and held on for a blessing. Yet how often do we continue to wrestle, doing our best to ignore the pain in our hip?

Hopefully, we will break before this happen. If we are lucky or have a speck of wisdom, like Balaam’s ass, our bodies and minds will surrender and lay down before we meet the Angel of the Lord in the middle of the road. We will be remained of asphalt tattoos and broken bones, and we won’t careen down roads with no good end.

Even if we get on the right path, it’s still winding and narrow; we still need to ask for directions and read road signs. But there are guard rails, and there are others—creeping along, doing their best not to look down as they traverse this winding mountain road. They keep their eyes up, the light from a far-off city playing on bruised faces and scarred hands. As they roll the window down at rest stops, they all consult the same cracked, weathered guide book and the same wise, old men, and ask with saving humility, “Is this right? Is this the way I should be going?”

The Bookshelf God

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It’s interesting how small God is to some people.

Recently, a biology professor from my former high school named Eric Kretschmer wrote an article outlining his journey of reconciling what he had studied in the scientific field and what he knew as a follower of Jesus Christ. You can find the article here. It’s worth reading. Specifically, Kretschmer does a thorough job of balancing an Old-Earth perspective with a Christian God. If you have any questions, leave a statement in the comment section, and I’m sure he will do his utmost to respond to you in a timely and courteous manner.

In response to this article, a certain gentleman named Ken Ham wrote another article. You can find that here. It is also worth a quick read, if for no other reason than understanding what prompted me to write this. Ken Ham is a very ardent Young-Earth Creationist, and this becomes immediately evident in his critique. However, unlike Kretschmer’s article, there is no comment section, no room for dialogue, and no way for the Eric Kretschmer to defend himself.

Behind this curtain, Ham lambasts Kretschmer for daring to introduce evolutionary theory into a Biblical interpretation of the Bible. He concludes this exceptional rant with an exceptional closing paragraph:

Teachers like Kretschmer will be held accountable for the many students they lead astray with their compromise regarding biblical authority and undermining teaching.  How very sad.  And the board/administrators of such Christian schools will also be held accountable.  What they are doing in essence is helping the secularists capture the hearts and minds of generations of children!

Just marvelous.

Teachers like Kretschmer.

Teachers that devoted a good portion of their lives to pursuing a MD in Theology so they could better equip young minds to defend their faith. Teachers like Kretschmer that venture into the public forum in order to help strengthen the Christian body through dialogue and conversation.  Teachers like Kretschmer who are more focused on rooting and growing the Christian body than being a divisive voice in an already divided Church.

I shudder to think of the horrors that befall the Christian body when men like this are teaching our children science—I’m shocked we haven’t been consumed in fire and brimstone already.

Ken Ham is a textbook case of a man who has crafted God in his own image—a bookshelf God—and refuses to let it go. I don’t know Ken Ham from Adam. For all I know, he is a decent man with decent values who follows the same Christ that all Christians worship. But what can be seen from his brief, yet scathingly bitter article, is that this man has a very small God. If a man cannot admit an infinite God, how can he admit infinite grace? If a man cannot admit the possibility of a system outside his own frail understanding, how can he throw himself blindly onto a Divine system that no man can comprehend? As GK Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “A personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside of time.”

Ken Ham says that “we have abandoned the authority of God’s Word.” Yet where has Kretschmer abandoned the authority of God’s Word? He is a man that believes in Jesus Christ resurrected, in the Holy Trinity, in a Divine God who is returning to judge the living and the dead—and who happened to manifest himself through evolution. Nowhere in the Apostle’s Creed is evolutionary theory mentioned, yet Ken Ham seeks to discredit and defame a Christian brother over a couple million years. What is a million years to the power of God? What is a hundred million years to the love of Christ?

Titus 3:9-11 declares, with no light tone, “Avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”

My issue is not so much with intelligent design vs. evolutionary theory—nor are the two entirely incompatible. My issue is with a self-proclaimed Christian who deems it a profitable use of his time to attack another member of the Church. The Church is persecuted on every side; do we really need to tear at each other from within?

Christ didn’t come to preach a message of Young-Earth creation; he came to preach love. I’m angry with Ham, not because of his views (which are entirely legitimate), but because of a glaring lack of grace and his confinement of God to fallen man’s rationale. He is a man given some measure of authority and recognition and, instead of furthering the call of Christ, he is furthering his own idol of Young-Earth creationism—a clanging gong and a resounding symbol.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Against such things there is no law.

When we stand before Heaven’s gates, Christ will not ask us how old the earth is—the concept seems laughable. He will not have a gate marked “Calvinist” and another marked “Armenianist.” He will not differentiate between the Catholic, the Orthodox, and the Protestant.

No, we will stand before the Judgment Seat, and Christ will look down, and he will ask, “Did you know I loved you?” And if we answer “yes”, there will be no more questions. For if we truly trust that the risen Christ loves us, we will have loved others. Instead of defaming our Christian family, we will love them. We will pick and choose our battles, allowing foolish controversy little attention and saving our breath for the message of Christ. Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself.

In the words of John the Apostle: little children, love one another.

Overindulged

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Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.

–        Henry David Thoreau, 1854

Our Information Age is a grand old time. Now, more than ever, we can know what’s happening on the other side of the world in the twitch of a finger. We have a veritable fount of knowledge to draw upon; every riddle has a solution, every problem has an answer, every destination has a safe path. The internet and media has broken down barriers of mystery and shattered imagination; we no longer need to wonder or research at how the sun turns overhead—somebody has done it for us.

We seek out knowledge, regardless of whether or not it’s worth seeking. And we end up with what we ask for—a whole bunch of information that has no purpose. We go looking for truth and instead fill our heads with the inane and unessential and are contented. We need meat, but instead eat cotton candy. There is a place for cotton candy—at a carnival, where we are looking to be entertained, and in small amounts. But to make one’s diet revolve around cotton candy is to allow the mind to become slow and lazy.

The Age of Information (and it’s more serious, yet mistreated brother, Knowledge) has ransacked Wisdom. We are the most informed people ever to walk the earth, yet we are perhaps the most foolish. Our father’s books are too long for us; we can know the whole story in a few lines. Moderation and meditation are for monks and fanatics, and we leave these comical vices to those who have the time to indulge in such pointless intellectual discipline.

Any rational man would regard it as a health problem if they sat on the couch for six hours a day and ate nothing but fast food and washed it down in litre after litre of soda. Their body would feel the strain of it, and they would quickly become tired and sluggish. If they didn’t change their lifestyle, they would quickly be confined to a wheelchair, subject to the direction and guidance of whoever was pushing them at any given moment. If they remarked, “I have become exceptional at consuming quantities of fast food,” we would scoff at them: how silly to take pride in something that we ought be ashamed of.

And yet in our insatiable thirst for knowledge and stimulation, we will sit in front of a computer screen for days on end—playing games, reading two-cent news articles, and filling our minds with bits of useless information that began to pile up like black mildew in a sink. We have a lot of this mildew available, and we are very good at it gathering it, but does that mean it’s worth indulging in the first place? The wise man knows he knows nothing; the fool thinks he knows all.

Object, if you please, on the grounds that this Age of Information provides a means to stay in touch with distant friends and family. If people who are not present are the focus of your attention, then by all means, continue to give your time to those who aren’t around. If it is important to know what your high school friend is having for breakfast in Maryland, then leave off your own breakfast in California.

We live in a place where we are relatively free to do as we please, and if we please to neglect the reality of the physical moment in exchange for 140 characters, that is our business. But that does not make it ideal, nor healthy. You may know the state of your cousin in Italy this morning, but do you know the state of your friend across the table this afternoon? Have you taken time to talk, or would you prefer to throw up the flimsy wall of a laptop or a cell phone and hide behind that? Human interaction is difficult; interaction with a screen is easy and stimulating. A magic show is fun and entertaining, life is hard.

Object also, on the grounds of being informed about the world around you. I would be more willing to concede this point, but only to a degree. Information that sparks action or a complete world perspective is wonderful; that Hugo Chavez passed away is huge news—where will Venezuela go from here? There is a place for such news; this is an improved means to a reasonable end—knowing the state of the world around you, being an informed human being.

However, this is not necessary; it is neither good nor bad. It gives us the illusion of being responsible, but if we do not do anything with our knowledge except file it away in the recesses of our mind and pull it out to show people, then what good is it? What does it benefit a man to know everything yet do nothing?

If I know of that terrible earthquake in Japan, and then I go to Japan to help, or send my resources in my place—this was news worth knowing. If I know that some new laptop or movie is coming out next month, and I spend my time waiting and talking about it—instead of, say, the tsunami in Japan—I am no better than a small child reading a nice story of castles and fairies, fantasizing about what it would be like to be a princess.

Then there is the rest of the “information”: the 30-second sound bites, the useless facts, and the endless stream of lazy humor. Most pitiful of all is the shouting commentators on such events, whose opinion and influence holds no sway unless projected onto the theater screen of a message board, where they can get the flickering warmth of attention, if only for a moment. They are like a freezing man in the midst of a storm, lighting individual matches for warmth. Or, in the case of those who try to enflame others, they are like a man who burns his entire box of matches all at once, and then is left to a merciful death from hypothermia.

That doesn’t mean that you need entirely give up any sort of electronic interaction; there is indeed a place for such means of communication. Sit down at any computer, and the world is at your fingertips. But any man who is given the whole world, and prefers to forever crawl from shallow ditch to shallow ditch is a man to be pitied. Our Age of Information should be a tool, not a lifestyle. When we pull out a phone instead of having a conversation, we are valuing an illusion (at best, a shallow form of interaction) over those around us. Why turn to a blind crowd to hear their every thought, whim, and idea? We would do better to listen to the crazy drunk on the street corner shouting that he had been probed by aliens. At least that man is passionate and committed enough to say what he believes where people will see his face; at least that man is a member of society—albeit a disturbed one. For if someone entirely neglects all personal, physical interaction, they aren’t anti-social, they’re inhuman.

So where is the line? There must be some measure, some filter to determine what we take in and shut out. The answer is simple and subjective; do unto your mind as you would do unto your body. If you would view it as a good use of time to sit on the couch, cram greasy fries down your throat, and never lift a finger to exert any meaningful effort, then do the same in your intellectual life. But if you want to explore, to dance a salsa, to sit on the beach as the sun sets, to do something that will perhaps leave some shallow imprint on the world that one day a person may venture to pass by and see, then do the same for your mind. You do not learn how to ride a bike by sitting on a couch; nor do you become an interesting human being by staring at a screen. Perhaps you can walk; why not learn to run? It’s not pleasant, but it’s a sight better than giving up creativity and life abundant to some glowing pictures and lines. The glow may be stimulating, but this stimulation—like cocaine—only lasts for a season, and then leaves a mind empty and ragged.

A pagan man would look at us and think that we worship our laptops, our cell phones, our televisions—these glowing idols. He would think us possessed, the way we sit in quiet subjugation to a flickering light. Ancient gods demanded a sacrifice, then men could go on their way. Our new gods are far more cruel than the pagan’s. They require our constant attention; we must sacrifice our very lives to appease them. The pagan, in all his barbaric wisdom, could recognize enslavement for what it is—that every time our idol vibrates or makes a noise, we are obligated to placate it with tapping hands and spoken words.

“You call me barbaric?” he would remark, “I who worship the sun, and the sky, and the raging sea—I am the fool? At least I worship things that are bigger than me, that can tear me asunder. I worship that which I cannot understand. At the foot of my gods, I have become still and calm. I have sought peace and clarity in the midst of storms.”

“But you enlightened folk are too good to be still and be small. You have taken the fierce gaze of the sun and hid from it. You cower away in caves and crowd around glowing statues of your own creation—weak gods that entertain you and whisper to you. I worship gods that frighten me; you worship gods that make you giggle.”

And then, when he was done speaking, he would look around in incredulous pity, and he would leave. He would go back to his home, where the sea is still violent and untamed, where the breath of God still dances along the crooked fingers of the tress. He would leave us to our caves and endless knowledge, and he would return to his wilderness.

Maybe I could talk him into taking me with him.