Recycling Faith

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When I was in elementary school, our district did a can drive to promote recycling and cash-in the deposits for funding. Classrooms competed to collect as many aluminum cans as possible. The principal promised an ice cream party for the winning homeroom. I begged my parents to buy soda in bulk (“It’s the responsible thing to do!”). Instead, my father took us dumpster-diving.

We lived at the edge of suburbia in the midst of America’s housing boom; any square-foot of untouched land held potential for profit. At the end of each day, once construction crews were finished, we’d cruise the neighborhood looking for promising worksites. My sister and I scaled the metal walls of dumpsters glancing toward our father waiting by the car like we’d just been granted permission to rob an ice cream truck. Once in we would pick our way around the rubble, tossing any cans over and out where Dad collected them, like they were Easter eggs on a church lawn. Memory exaggerates, but I’m sure we collected several hundred cans with this routine.

A couple of weeks back, I went for a drink with a friend from grad school. We discussed his doctoral work, which was creating something of a faith crisis. “The old stories just don’t work for me anymore,” he told me. His tone was neither desperate nor dismissive; he wasn’t looking for answers or advice. Good thing, because the only response I could muster was swishing my glass while muttering “the drinks here have always been a bit too weak for me.”

It was in middle school that I began attending the weekly youth meetings at our church. We met on Tuesday nights for games and a Bible study. The youth pastor was young and cool (like, wore jeans-to-church cool); several college-aged leaders with frosted tips greeted us as we arrived. For two dollars, we could buy two slices of pizza and a soda.

We talked about Jesus and the Biblical stories. Seven days of creation, belly of a whale, virgin birth, the apocalypse…we got a crash course in fundamentals of the evangelical tradition. More importantly, we learned how to express that tradition (“share the good news”) to others. It was the latter that gave our education a sense of urgency. Faith had to be erected quickly like the new homes of the housing boom, structures built to meet the material demand of the masses which call for answers and concise paradigms. But, like a bursting bubble, not much is needed to reveal the weakness in the frames.

My childhood and the housing boom ended at roughly the same time. Dumpsters and muddy plots of land were replaced by overgrown gaps in the sidewalk. As puberty struck, I grew peach fuzz and skepticism. By the time I graduated college, enough of my long-held assumptions had been scrutinized that I felt like I was coughing in a cloud of smoke but still asking “is something burning?”

All this makes me think of a metal mug my father had in his office which he used for stashing all his loose change. Every six months or so he enlisted us kids to count up the coins into paper rolls— 100 pennies, 40 nickels, 50 dimes, etc. Completed rolls were left on his desk to be deposited in the bank. He called it our college fund. I never saw the deposit slips, but I’d call that “dark humor.” That said, it’s only recently occurred to me that the school district and my father seemed to employ a similar strategy for funding my education: save what you can, it just might add up.

I like to say that my childhood faith has evolved into deconstructed pieces. Practicing this faith is a kind of dumpster diving. Instead of checking boxes next to “I believe” I seek the pieces of my Christian heritage that can be recycled. Some days it’s difficult not to feel as though my tradition takes sincerity and cashes it in for platitudes. The 2016 election, for instance, was like someone gathered all those recyclable cans I’d been collecting and tossed them into the ocean, right above some seals. Baby seals. Just because they could.

I never left the church. Even though the old stories haven’t been working for a long time.  I think I lack the courage. A hiatus here and there may have done me— and my faith— some good. But I’ve never had the bravery of Thomas— searching for answers out in the world while the other disciples remained huddled, terrified, in a locked room.

My class won, by the way. And ice cream during school hours never tasted so good. Which is to say that I do think there’s still–there’s always— hope. Even if it comes from a dumpster, even if only worth a nickel. Because who knows, it just might add up.

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On Being A Better Person

Ten days ago the ball dropped in Times Square and millions of people across America raised their glasses to celebrate the occasion of successfully surviving another year, despite Mayan prophecies.

 2012

Friends hugged, drunken buddies sang out “Auld Lang Syne” (though, due to their less-than-sober state, forgot most of the words and reverted to “Starships” my Nikki Minaj instead) and couples exchanged brief, self-conscious, sparkled with champagne kisses. Somewhere out there, I’m sure there was an ex-English major hiccupping his way through some cheap wine and telling everyone around him  “Eye juz wuuuuvvvvv yeeewwweeeee”…but I honestly have no idea who that may have been. The point is, 2012 had ended and 2013 had begun.

Amidst this celebration, many of us cheerful hiccupping idiots resolved to make changes. This is an aspect of our western culture that is almost entirely universal. We see the New Year as a new chapter, a beginning to a new me that’s skinnier, nicer, happier, has finally stopped reading useless blogs online (allmyroads.com what a black hole) and also has a much sexier eHarmony profile. In doing so, for a brief moment every New Year’s Eve…most of our country acts like they’re Christian. This is because, simply put, unless you’re a Christian, the entire idea of a resolution makes absolutely no sense.

 wut?

 A resolution is the proclamation that who I am as a person can become better and I’m determined to see it happen. It’s the promise to myself that I, as an existing, real, present entity will become a better version of myself. Such a notion is unique to homo sapiens within the animal kingdom; animals are driven by a desire to survive; not improve themselves. There is no evidence to lead us to believe that a bear has any desire to improve itself into being a better bear.

Of course, it can be argued that the human drive to improve is just a complex, evolved means of survival. Therefore I want to eat less McDonald’s so I can live longer, stop dumping my dog’s waste in Bob-the-annoying-neighbor’s mailbox to increase my chances of him not running me over with his Civic and look more like Brad Pitt so I can have more sex and thus pass on my genes. Resolutions such as these could be whittled down to acts of survival. But such a generalization would exclude desired improvements like learning a new language, spending more time with family, helping others and many other common New Years goals. If human beings were driven simply by a will to survive, we wouldn’t find within ourselves a desire to improve the very nature of our personhood.

resolutionsTherefore a resolution requires the belief in both the existence of personhood and (hinging upon the first) the idea that this personhood can be eternally better (ie not just a evolutionary tweak). Most major world religions will hold a belief in the possibility of one or the other, but only Christianity agrees on both. Judaism, for instance, believes in the existence of a person…but amidst a sacrificial system that has yet to meet their messiah that person will always be marred with sin and in need of yet another sacrifice. We cannot be better because we have not been redeemed, and this will be true until our messiah comes.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! Let’s try Hinduism!”

Hindus discarded the idea of personhood being anything that exists beyond this lifetime (thus, making the idea of our personhood being eternally better a moot one) and instead resort to the concept of reincarnation. Our personhood is only valuable in the sense that it may improve our next life…in which case it’s really of not value at all.

“Whew! Good thing I’m an atheist…”

Au contraire. Atheism denies the idea of objective goodness. We cannot objectively improve ourselves if there is no objective standard.

“How ’bout dem Mormons?”

If I’m Mormon, my resolution to be a better person is not to be a better person, but to be a better developing demi-god that will come to fruition in the next life. Thus I don’t drink coffee or margaritas and instead wear a nice suit, go on my two-year mission and make snazzy commercials that annoy the bejeebers out of everyone that’s trying to watch their favorite Nicki Minaj video on YouTube. This isn’t to improve my person…because my personhood will one day be discarded en route to my godliness…unless I’m a woman.

what?

Oh. Okay Joseph!
Oh, Okay, Joseph!

Contrary to these, Christianity is the only major religion in which a resolution to better our personhood makes any sense. Our theology is rooted in the belief that we were created as eternal human beings, an existence in which we currently reside. We were not created as humans now only to become angels or gods later, nor we were created as gods now that are evolving but stuck in human bodies. We were not created as souls that have to put up with flabby stomachs, headaches and awkward teenage hormonal stages only to be liberated when we finally die and shed our wrinkled body en route to some home in the sky….we were created as and are eternal human beings.

Lest we allow ourselves to believe that heaven be boring as hell.
Lest we allow ourselves to believe that heaven be boring as hell.

But just as important to this thinking-nay- of greater importance, is our comprehension that while we do have personhood and that personhood does exist (in it’s entirety) beyond our present physical world, our personhood also could be better. Not only could we be better, Christianity proclaims, but we are screaming to be better. Every inch of our morsel is groaning for a chance to be better, for a need to improve. Our personhood is fallen, tainted by sin and scarred with pride but not to the point that it has forgotten that it’s not meant to be this way. This is why, every time we look in the mirror, we know there’s something about us that’s lacking. Granted, many of our self-perceived flaws are superficial: a bowl where our six pack should be, hair that doesn’t seem to stay combed, a zit that always appears right on the tip of our nose around Christmas time prompting one to permanently earn the nickname “Rudolph” (totally hypothetical mind you)…these are all superficial imperfections, but like the flower of a weed that shows itself above ground, we know these imperfections run much deeper than our skin. Every imperfection we can see is a testimony to a deeper imperfection whose root has hold on our soul.

funny-new-years-resolutions-card

 And so humans must, at some point in their life, face the reality that they can be better. This reality, Christianity will claim, is the reality of sin that keeps us from our fulfilled state in the presence of our Creator. It is prevalent and it cannot be overlooked. It demands a solution; it demands that a resolution be made to bring about the fulfillment of our personhood. Such resolution was made and in the form of Christ on the cross. This sacrifice is the only thing that makes it possible for us to reach our fulfillment as humans, for us to become better. Our resolutions only make sense if they are grounded in the theology of who we are in relation to Christ’s redemptive plan.

On New Years Eve, I raised my glass in a toast and I resolved to be a better person. I resolved to do so because I believe that my personhood is eternal and I believe that it is in dire and increasingly great need of being better (i.e. redeemed). In raising my glass and seeking to make a change, I declared my belief in the grace of Christ, my utter need for that grace and the resolution to walk in that grace every day of the upcoming year.

This is, in fact, the only resolution that makes sense.

Hahahahaha but really.
Hahahahaha but really.