Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Brief and Sundry

I pick my wife up from the airport tomorrow night, and I'm glad. Sure, Mikey and I watched five action movies in five days (two Bruce Lee films, to boot) one football movie (Invincible) ate pizza one night, taqueria another, burritos tonight. I had a good time with my wonderful son, and only got angry once or twice over his extended vision of housework timing. He's 14, so much an individual and almost a man, but he still needs me in young and unexpected ways from time to time. Our pest guy sprayed inside a few days ago and later that night he came out to tell me he thought spiders were crawling in his bed. I was able to comfort him in a way which is rare for us now.

He's a good son, a friend who is closer than friend, and I love him.

But still. Stephanie provides a central point around which housework, grocery shopping, and cooking get done (even if we share those jobs). It's easier to sleep with her next to me. And I'm curious to find out what happens to Fiver and Hazel-rah and the rest of the rabbits in Watership Down, our nightly read. No fair of me to read ahead.

And on reading.

I had to decide what my next book purchase would be, and I went with Wright's second volume, Victory of God. I was looking at Meier, Brown, Crossan...anyone with a big book about Jesus or the gospels. But Wright, once again, it is. I also ordered the first in Sandalstraps' resource list for his 'What is the Bible?' class; I think it's Pelikan. A history of Scripture. Whose Bible is it Anyway?. I'm very curious to know.

For surely, if classical theology, what is still alive in some evangelical theology, is a landscape painting (even with dark corners) what NT scholarship has become is modern art. Abstract. Wild. Uncentered. Highly personalized. The Continuum of Skepticism (I should trademark that). How is a reader to know where on the line to park his or her hiney? Once the NT is seen as a human product (even if it fulfills a divine purpose) how much gets left in and how much gets thrown out is very much up to the individual. And then the question comes up, how much does it matter? I know Crossan denies the resurrection, the gospel miracles, most of the gospel material period. I also know he considers himself a praying Christian. I read a review at amazon where an atheist said he read Crossan's Jesus-book and became a praying Christian himself. I think that's great, of course, but this I feel like Alice past the mirror.

It's a strange time in history to study the NT.

I see no reason to doubt the resurrection at this time. It is the central proclamation of the entire New Testament (and not just because I believe, a priori, a God exists who could do it; the resurrection is half the reason I believe in God). Surely, at least, the disciples believed it happened. But there are Christian scholars who say it didn't (far from all, of course). So many of the most beloved stories in the gospels, Luke's infancy narrative for example (think Linus in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special) have been hammered into oblivion, even by professing scholars. And those who uphold the traditional views often go too far in my view, wrestling like mad to make sure there are no inconsistencies or errors. I'm hoping Wright treads a middle ground, if one can be tread.

The impossibility of miracles is far from proved in my mind, yet that is the central issue for many readers of the NT. The gospels are full of them, and their reliability is deeply colored by what one thinks of the possibility of the miraculous. The thing is this (and I know I'm probably repeating prior blogs): many modern readers of the NT are clearly biased by their presuppositions, by their cultures, really, their place in history. Schweitzer was right about that with the first Quest. But since all of humans are shaped in part by our place in history and culture, the same is true of the original writers of the NT. The original disciples and evangelists. Is finding their perspective the only way to read the NT? Wright seems headed down that path. But surely, none of us can know God's mind with great certainty. How well did Paul know it? Good scholarship may show us 'what St. Paul really said,' but how complete was his revelation?

Of course, when scholars try to step in and say that the NT as we have it (distinguished, as much as possible, from subsequent church tradition or readings of it) is completely wrong about Jesus' actions and words, about atonement, about salvation, about the church...what makes them better equipped, two millenia and multiple cultures later, to peer into the twenty years between Jesus and Paul and tell us what really happened? Or the thirty or forty years between Jesus and Mark.

There's more to this than I have time for.

The two biggest obstacles are the miraculous, as I've said, and the modern sense of the right (I don't know what to call this). A loving God would not send anyone to Hell; he would make sure all humans come to him; he would not require a blood sacrifice, or the suffering of Jesus, to forgive sins, and so on. These two very different issues (my own reading of much of the OT, and some of the NT, is colored by the latter) run in wild streams throughout the broad spectrum NT scholars. On the other hand, many cannot believe God would allow any mistakes, any error, into his book. The NT must be entirely the inspired product of the Divine mind? Else what do we have? Nothing but opinions?

This new blogger is messing up my drafting, also, and I'm signing off before it freezes again. I'm not able to write all I want because every couple minutes it just locks up for a minute or two! Very discouraging.

Well, love to all.

Maybe I should go to Africa and start a hospital.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The New Look


I knew if I lazed around long enough, the good folks at blogspot would upgrade the templates, widen that reader's digest narrow column I've hated for so long. Voila. I didn't even have to write a tag. This design is called stretched denim, which kinda feels appropriate past 40.

***

My wife is out of town all week, and when she leaves I have a hard time sleeping the first couple nights. Hard as in maybe four hours last night. I may complain (though less these days) about reading her to sleep each night (still on Watership Down) but I miss her presence, her voice and scent and body-warmth, even on the other side of our cal king futon. Even dropping off exhausted, we know the other is there. When I go away, say to sail, I sleep fine (besides snoring shipmates). But when I'm here and she's gone, even with my son still with me, I feel it.

***

I was up late last night, or early depending on perspective, reading posts at Debunking Christianity, one of Sandalstraps' spots for discourse. There are other sites like this on the web, but there's something grass-roots, home-grown about DC. Many of the posters have sincere and moving falling away stories; many argue well. Certainly some have been disillusioned when reading the Bible. Sometimes I think a different perspective on an incident or passage might change their reactions, sometimes I completely agree with them on the human content in our book. When I was reading through the OT in my first year of EFM, though I'd been a non-innerrantist for a dozen years, the old paradigm still moved inside me. I had a very strong reaction to Joshua, for example, shoving my Bible across the table and saying, "it's out of the canon, like Luther with James, it's out."

That may not be exactly what Luther said about James, but the point is I felt Joshua could not be describing my God, the Christian God, accurately. Others in the group, lifetime Episcopalians, certainly Jesus-worshipping Christians, were a little surprised by my strong reactions. One woman, S, said, "I've thought differently about the Bible for so long...this doesn't bother me much." Much of the focus in our church is on the Eucharist, the worship, the community itself and outreach to those in need. The Bible isn't the center. The point is that even though I say I'm a non-inerrantist, it's a very enticing myth (true or not) and tough to move out of as I read. Plenty of bright Christians who have read the whole Bible still hold to it, even if in modified forms. Part of this, surely, is the pressure in American Christian Colleges to do so (a point Ehrman makes in a very interesting debate here). Part of it is the chaos which ensues when black and white thinking about the text is broken down: if this isn't God's word, how do I know what's true?

Good question. I'm still trying to find my own answer.

And that's really what I want to say here. Sandalstraps, arguing very well somewhere deep in DC, notes in a number of posts that intuition and human need, the experience of God, are evidentiary in their own right. Certainly that's how I came to Christ (again). I read the gospels, slowly, and heard the Voice calling to me, a personality unlike any other in literature. I responded without a developed apologetic. I figured half the gospels might be wrong, but some of it seemed deeply true. I'm getting ahead of myself (I'm still writing my online coming to faith story) but I was very impressed by a few passages in John. When Jesus says he's not going to the festival in John 7, then goes; when the water is being brought to the altar to symbolize the water from the rock in the wilderness (an eminently holy moment in the ritual) what does John say Jesus does?

On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him."

I thought then and I still think now: there is no way someone made this completely up. It's too bizarre to be false. Where is the evangelical or apologetic value? Especially to gentiles outside Palestine? The man blasphemed YHWH in his own temple. He is claiming to be the rock from which water will flow, but an undying water, like the bread of life which never spoils. This Galilean stands up at the ultimate moment in the cultus, the holiest moment of the festival, and claims he is the center of the entire thing; this would be as insane as if I stood up on the 4th of July on Capitol Hill and screamed that I was the Declaration of Independence, I was Liberty, in the flesh.

I knew it, I heard it, I believed it was historical, and after reading a few other passages in John, I asked God to show me Jesus. I came to believe, for the first time in my life in any concrete way, in the Jesus of the gospels. I didn't even know if humans have souls (still don't). I didn't know if Hell is real (still don't; my own priest, without elaborating, once said, "we're in it"). I had no particular sins on my conscience at the time (though if I looked, they were there). I heard the Voice, over a long period slowly dropped my guard, and when called, I answered.

It was later, a few years later, that I started running into others online who had such different stories: they may have needed God at some point, but they don't seem to now! They read the Bible and decided God wasn't real, or Jesus wasn't his man, or some such thing. The reasons why are many, but the big few show up often: the nature of the Bible, the behavior of Christians, the reality of human suffering, and the multiplicity of human religions. Those are very poweful questions, I agree. Why haven't I thrown in the towel myself?

Something in John 6 comes to mind.

I want to write an actual blog-sermon (my first Hymn from the Wood) on the passage just before the one I'm going to quote, but until then: Jesus, in another of his magnificent I AM statements, says that he is the bread of life. That those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will be raised at the last day. This naturally disgusts many, and some of his followers leave. In briefest terms, I'd note that this is another invitation to communion beyond communion, to union; the speech is also placed in a geographic location, which opens some question as to whether later Christians merely redacted in a description of the Eucharist. Jesus invites people, in shocking and easy to remember terms, to unity with him in the most full way imaginable.

What happens?

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

"You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."


Now if Peter put it just like that or not I don't know. But the statement is consistent with other things he says and does in all four gospels. At least for now, I hang on like Peter. Some questions I get answers to, many I don't have yet. I'm nervous, actually, to study the NT this year in EFM. I've read most of it, but not in big chunks in a long time. What will I find? The Voice, still, I pray. For what converted me to Christianity wasn't mostly argument or reason (though very important was C.S. Lewis' non-fundamental reading of Scripture in Reflections on the Psalsm, and I had been wrestling with various Jesus/gospel questions). What brought me in was a willingness just to listen to the Voice, to read the gospels with only half an ear open. Some things there I couldn't explain or understand, still can't. But overall, I was overwhelmed by the personality of Christ. I did not argue myself into the kingdom. I came, dragging my heels, in response to a historic personality.

It seems I have written some of my final posts on my spiritual journey. Oh well. With school on it will probably take me months to get back to that series anyway (though I hope not).

It wasn't long, of course, before I began running into gospel-criticism, the post Strauss post Bultmann world. I read Schweitzer thinking he'd strengthen my faith; I had no idea of his view on Jesus. Then I poked around online, continue poking. What I find there is often challenging.

Why am I hanging on, Peter-like (and my belief in the historic nature of the gospels, at the moment, is fairly strong) and not falling away like the others in the story? I don't know. Need, which may be a weakness or strength. Stubborness. The desire to never quit anything in my life without thoroughly good reason. Above all the moments, the rare moments, where I feel close to God. Those moments are not mystic visions in any way I understand them; they are not beta-wave stimulations (I've watched plenty of tv); they are something much deeper, richer, more broad. Love walks down out of the universe-sky and rests a strong and gentle hand on my arm.

Like good food, good water. A man knows when he is being fed.

That's the truest apologetic I have to offer. For some (say those in 12 step programs) it's enough. How far I'll get at the rational level I don't know, but I pray, more than anything, for deeper union, for communion beyond communion. May God give me answers; but mostly, may he show me Love.

I have more to say, but I'm getting that strange insomnia hyper I can get and I need to pull back from this bloody screen (teaching online today also). I need to go watch Prison Break with my son. Thanks to all who read. It's great to have time to post a bit more often than usual. I'd like to plan these posts better, but heck, it's just a weblog.


Sunday, August 27, 2006

Wright, One Down

I know there are a lot of good blogs online, and I should limit my posting. But as I read the final pages of Wright's People of God last night I find myself needing to reflect. Call it inblog, blog for me, but here it is:

The Great Strength of Wright's entire approach (at least how I read him) is what I'm calling his non-presuppositional historic method. Or, since I don't want to sound like a pedantic goof, Wright's great strength is his desire to uncover as fully as possible the historic-cultural connotations of the language, metaphor, and genre of the NT documents apart from two millenia of Christian tradition. Does he always stick to this? I've seen essays outside this book where he may not. But in POG he appears to build from the ground up. (Is any human able to build purely within such clearly radical texts, especially a human who has already placed faith in God in reaction to the NT? No. And Wright says as much).

Now plenty of scholars will tell me they have done the same thing: Crossan, Mack, Spong, all the descendents of Bultmann and Schweitzer ("what, miracles? impossible!"). Revisionists are legion today (Wright included). But the fact is Wright (if I can say it) looks closer, into human motivation, Jewish expectation, tradition-formation, without accepting or rejecting the NT story a priori. He, for me, is not simply an 'elegant fundamentalist' (to near-quote Crossan). His historic-literary approach makes more sense to me than any I've seen.

Have I read Crossan's 'big Jesus-book' yet? No, and it's on my list. But even in his first volume Wright dazzles. He brings me close to the milieu of the gospel-world and hence initial textual-context. He reads the literature in the way that twenty five years of reading literature (though I admit the unique nature of the gospels) tells me literature should be read. When NTW critiques others, say those who maintain Gosp. Thomas is earlier than the canonical gospels, or that Q's earliest form (if Q existed) was similar to GTh, the force of NTW's common sense is like fresh air and cold beer on the deck in summer (even if the implications can be unnerving): what kind of Jewish community would have produced the Thomas Jesus? How did all the rest of the Jewishness (blatant apocalyptic, kingdom language, messianic proclamation, echoes of the OT throughout) get added and accepted later as the church spread beyond Palestine? For surely, the NT as we have it is as Jewish as Passover. Of course, it is also something much more.

In some ways, ironically, Wright fulfills Schweitzer's vision, but Schweitzer seems blinded to his own prejudices and assumptions (and he was so very good at seeing this in others);, also, Schweitzer had much less other scholarship to work with and was writing at a different time in critical history (Wright builds entire tapestries using other scholars' work). Wright has bias, as does any other reader, but the cases he makes (often briefly, even scantly) are compelling precisely because of his method, not because his conclusions necessarily comfort.

Now I feel like I'm writing an Amazon review. So here it is: if any reader is serious about saying anything at all about the gospels from a historic or literary perspective (including, "is this true?") POG must be high on the reading list.

Do I agree with Wright's perspectives? Give me a few years! Certainly his own bias needs to be considered further, his two other books read...for now, though, I've been nourished and moved.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Slouching Towards Bethelehem 2.0

Thanks in part to Sandalstraps' positive comments regarding my first post in this series (way back when) I'm plodding ahead. Besides, the alternative is real work. I admit that this series feels a bit solipsistic, but then again, going back and writing about my past always changes my present.

***

It is unnverving when I think back to my college years how well I could parrot the gospel message yet still not know or experience the author of the gospel in any significant way. Along with Sandalstraps, I too remember "testimonies" and I admit mine may make a good story in its entirety, but for that very reason I try hard not to embellish or tint. When I was 20, my childhood perceptions of God were still dominant beneath my intellectual faith-veneer; as when I was a child, half-drawn and half running away like hell. If I knew Jesus, I surely didn't experience him or only did so rarely, like an unexpected faint breeze. I knew the evangelical distillation of the gospels, what I just called the gospel message, but not the demanding, self-aggrandizing yet sacrificially loving figure which inhabits all four canonical gospels and the theology of Paul.

I had a job with a small fabric company and on the long delivery truck rides with the owner's son, a Jewish man only a few years older than me, the two of us would discuss and debate religion, often at his request. I had a basic apologetics down, and I was arrogant, frankly, in my ability to 'defend' the faith. Probably also terrified that I couldn't. Still, I can't say some of this didn't sink into my friend's head. It's amazing it didn't sink into my own heart. Healing takes lots of time, and above all, awareness of the wound.

Not long before that I remember reading in my discipleship material at my first evangelical church (or maybe in Crusade) that Jesus witnessed to everyone he met. I don't actually know if that's true, but I tried to emulate it. I began talking about Christianity, generally from a persuasive dimension, with just about everybody, at work, in my apartment building, at school. I represented myself as 'well' or 'changed' through my faith in Christ. Perhaps I was taking something from my faith. I wonder if God didn't smile on some of that hectic evangelism, immediately trying to poor out my shallow and poorly understood belief. The sad fact is that I believe my trauma and ocd had so split my intellectual and emotional selves that the two had little commerce. I may have been a special case. But when I read now about individuals like Michael Shermer or Dan Baker going from evangelical witnessing Christian to famous agnostic non-theist I wonder. I feel like it would take a great deal to fully unhinge the faith I have now; something happened about six years ago which will not be easy to unhappen.

But I left off in part one as I began working at the reformed christian bookstore.

Because my anxiety had blown through whatever barrier I was using to keep it down, I had quit my fabric company job without much explanation, dropped out of school, left my fraternity, and was taking xanax and trying all the old anti-depressants, the tricyclics, meds which I was mostly able to tolerate but which unfortunately did nothing for my obsessions and anxiety. After a few months, maybe ten, where my only employment was mowing the lawn at my brother's church I got the job at the bookstore (I was attending my own church only rarely on Sunday nights, military pants, black trench coat with little handcuffs hanging from a button, lots of hurt).

The first thing the owner did was give me a copy of the 1689 Baptist Confession of faith and ask me to write a response paper. It know it's long and I'm not suggesting anyone read it all. It is essentially the baptize-confessing-Christians-only version of the Westminster Confession of 1646; the Westminster Confessions allowed for the continued baptism of the infants of believers.

I had never heard of 'Reformed Theology,' let alone neo-Calvinism. Try Section three for starters. Or ten. I had never heard anything like this in my life: we don't really have free will (not since Adam at least, depending on when one believes God authored his Decree...as if He is tied to space-time). Before our lives even began, God decided which of us would be damned and which would be saved without regard for our characters or actions. Predestination. Election. Effectual calling. Someone gave me a book by Arthur Pink, he was a modern-day hero at the bookstore, a man who sees election on nearly every page of scripture. Suddenly I was smack in a community that did nothing but argue, about predestinatino, election, the extent of the atonement, amillenialism, all that. And looking back, not one of them was a scholar or anything remotely close. Some of them read a fair amount, but they read authors, like Pink, who said the same things over and over. For them, predestination, God choosing the saved apart from their own will, was gospel-milk, first-things, foundational belief.

The bookstore I had stumbled into not only believed this virulently, they believed it in true 17th-century style. Essentially, these men were modern-day Puritans, only they hated Fundamentalism and Dispensationalism as much as they hated Catholicism. Almost everything I had ever heard before about Christianity was wrong. Oh, once one was saved that salvation couldn't be lost, but then, it's hard to know whether one is actually saved or not. Are there outward signs? If not, perhaps the inner sense of salvation is erroneous. Perhaps one has false assurance. (Ironically, that perhaps could have applied to me). The owner smoked a pipe and I was promptly given one of his old ones, introduced to cigars, and above all, debate. It was okay on this job to stop whatever I was doing and discuss theolgoy with a customer or another employee while on the clock. The sad thing is that the tolerance of ideas outside reformed theology was not high. I actually remember once Estella, my ex, probably 20 at the time, brought me lunch in the back room, and as I sat there and tried to eat my tuna sandwich one of the guys who worked there, the main theolog of them all, Larry (a man who, years ago at least, left the faith) got into an argument with me about the extent of the atonement. Did Jesus die for everyone or just the elect? At the time, I wasn't deeply committed to any idea about the atonement, and I said something Packer says, a quote I can't remember. This pissed off Larry so much he began quoting Owen, others, and I swear wanted to physically fight me. Physically. It got close. And poor Estella stood there and watched it all.

That may have been near the end though, when I was considering quitting. I was there less than a year.

Whew, I'm starting to sweat just remembering it. Suddenly I had found the greatest wealth of Christian intellectual material I had ever encountered, volume on volume, true systematic theologies, church histories, but most with the same bent. I started reading Spurgeon, Bunyan, Owen, Calvin (of course), Luther (but somehow missing his central focus/obsession, not the bondage of the will, but his radical understanding of grace). The store didn't carry any 'trinkets' like bumper stickers or posters unless they were theologically correct, but it had thousands of reformed seminary level books. Spirituality had become knowledge in explicit terms. All the clerks and managers were men; I think a woman kept the books.

The church these people all attended still exists (though like many, it has split, with my old boss leading the move away); some of my old fraternity brothers are still there with their families. That they uphold God's inerrant Word is without question. That they dislike dispensationalism, what they call fundmanentalism, really any theological developments since the Reformation, is acutely clear. Ideas from thinkers after the reformation? Watch out. They must agree with the great latin two word creeds (though Reformers don't like creeds) sola scriptura, sola fide, sola Christus, etc.. I began looking for a therapist at this time and several had issues with this. "God's Word is all Truth" I was told.. They believed only in Bible-based counseling and distrusted any modern psychology because Freud, you know, was an atheist.

Sadly, tragically, for me, Christianity had become an integrated, aggressive set of ideas. A systematized theology, fought over point by point. And it was based around great names, the giant minds, rock stars of the reformed faith, the new Patriarchs, and evaluated, above all, by doctrinal correctness.

I believe there are good Christians who believe in predestination (St. Paul may have been one of them, but I'm not sure he had the issue sorted out either). My own view is that there is no way humans can understand this from God's perspective. Still, I lean in the opposite direction: we really do have free will in some critical things, despite the pressure of culture, the unconscious, our own emotional wounds and addictions, even direction from God. But regardless, in my view, it is a ridiculous thing to make pre-destination, election and the rest of it, foremost in the gospel message, as these men did. Scripture, though they had answers for every verse which seemed to teach in the other direction (the dreaded Arminianism), teaches both halves of this question. Most importantly, the theory of election has enormous negative emotional impact on many human beings. It changes people and the way they view their world and God. I've seen it, felt it. There are lots of ways to present the gospel: Jesus loves you; you are going to hell without Jesus; or, you need to accept Jesus right away, but know that God decided before the earth was made whether you would or wouldn't...those not chosen, well, they'll burn in hell to show God's majesty, justice, and mercy.

For me, it was about the last freaking thing I needed.

Allow me to speak to those ghosts of twenty years ago which held such power over me then: give me a fucking break. The Bible is not a puzzle we crack. The Bible is not the perfect product of a single mind which we interpret without reader-agenda, which can be mashed into a mathematically precise theological system to fit any human situation or problem.

I remember in the beginning of Paradise Lost, when the demons are first waking up in Hell and looking for activities to amuse and distract, one group goes off to debate predistination/free will. Sometimes Milton says it better than anybody.

For a time, though, I had a new (and for me quite obsessive) religion neatly summarized by the famous five-point acrostic TULIP: Total depravity of man (we are utterly broken and fallen and unable to move towards God in any way); Unconditional election (God chose who will be saved); Limited atonement (Jesus only died for this elect); Irresistable grace (those called will choose God regardless of what they want); and Perserverance of the saints (those called and saved will never fall away).

When my anxiety began to creep up again (as my xanax dose crept down) I asked the owner if I could work less hours. He couldn't understand why a young guy like me wouldn't be thrilled about a career in retail for four bucks an hour and our conflict, which he later apologized for, led me out of the store and the world of book collecting as an end in itself and, eventually, back to my mainstream Baptist church. I don't know how any of the guys from the old store are doing. Well, one of them, Larry, fell away from his marriage and faith a few years later. I saw him seven or eight years ago drinking shots at a bar (where I was drinking myself).

There are answers in this life we will never have. Things we can't know. This must be accepted. Above all, Christianity is not an intolerant intellectual system which rejoices in its own correctness. And many reformed thinkers, still, strike me as rigid. I've seen N.T. Wright, for example, blasted (from a distance, of course) on reformed boards because he doesn't hold to innerrancy (apparently, I don't even know what he thinks about the Bible; he seems to base most of his theology on it). Or because of his new reading of Paul: "this violates sola fide", faith alone. As if the Reformers suddenly wrote God's Word, or were the only ones that could understand it. It seems foolish to me to rely on Reformation thinking alone, on their readings of Scripture solely. The Reformation accomplished many significant things, but it also led, all too often, to asceticism, intellectualism, sectarianism, and a rejection of much religious ritual and beauty (in reaction to excesses in Catholicism, I know).

I'm sick of such arid thinking. I appreciate symbols and mystery also.

It's true that I have presented a straw man of Reformed theology. The point of this post is to continue telling my own story, not critique Calvin or Luther. The guys I worked with at the bookstore (Little Geneva, I've sometimes thought of it) were just guys, many hadn't graduated; none had actual theology degrees. I was not well emotionally when I was there. And there are surely Reformed theologians today I would respect and read. But for me, in my own experience, predestination, neo-Calvinism, such aggressive intellectualism and arrogant epistimology...this was all one more false path I was led down in my personal search. For others, it may be the right path. For me, it was anything but.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Late Night

First day of school: no parking at all, I park, in desperation, more than a mile from campus and walk in dress shoes. Too many students trying to get into all of my classes; those that didn't make it into online tonight...for some of them, the pain on their faces is fresh in my mind. I felt underprepared, have lots of work tomorrow to get ready for the semester (which of course started today). In short, an exhausting and dramatic ten hours on campus.

And other things: a continued uncertainty about what, if anything, God wants me to do. A stronger sense of faith these last few days or weeks, but a feeling that, at 41, tenured, I'm already on a distinct, and secular, path. My 'gifts' belong to a middle-aged man. Theological questions I would have liked to wrestle with in my twenties only now present themselves; life is so bloody short.

Perhaps by God's grace, I stumble on this. Yes NTW is one of the most famous theologians in the world and I'm sorry I write about him so much here (and why do I feel like that's my standard...as if only some large-scale contribution counts; I used to think that about poetry and I haven't written in five years). But reading his mini-bio I thought about the messes I've already climbed through, the reformed days, the fundamentalist days, the whatever I am now days. I hope, you see, that perhaps all this will lead to Something.

One of the most distinctive features of the OT is Israel's belief in divine providence; God gives them Palestine and then later, because they weren't good Torah-ists, sends them into captivity, etc. I'm not saying God wasn't active in history through Israel, but sometimes they seem to have gotten it wrong in spots. What I want to do is talk about this concept at the individual level. Along with many other humans, I understand the drive to believe we all live in some kind of meaningfully scripted novel or play, that every scene, even the most grim and horrid, has meaning and purpose. That God is active in our, in my, life on a large-scale. That somehow all my experiences will mesh into some clear Vision.

But I don't believe much of that. Not at this time at least. The universe seems chaotic to me, biologically random. Not that God isn't doing something, won't do something in my life and on the earth as a whole, but my gosh just what? The outcome feels far from certain or assured. Should I go to seminary? Should I be an academic tied to ministry? Should I continue teaching college? Should I go into parish ministry as a priest (somehow that always sounds a little absurd)? Does God really 'call' anyone?

I guess if he does, one knows.

Still, I'm so hard on myself. And I have this odd grandiose streak to match my, uh, forceful self-assessment. Harry Potter. Aragorn. Motorcyle Boy. I'm in the middle of my own mythos, and it's tiring.

At nearly midnight, it's all truly tiring.

I hope that someday my remarkable past: the painful theological struggles all over the map, the years of therapy and recovery and group, the horrendous first marriage, the intriguing story of my re-integration into the church, all add up to something.

It's funny, because I think I am in part looking for identity. I have winced over my blue collar academic credentials before: city college, state college, more state college. I had the mind, I think, to go lots of places, but that same mind, unfortunately, also was very troubled; it spun inside me like a stone wheel, and it's amazing I've gotten as far as I have in my career. Part of the regret over not going ivy league or some such is the belief that going to a hallowed campus would give me a lifelong identity. Shoot, it might have helped! I know I take pleasure in saying I'm a professor now, even if I'm in academic janitor land (though there is no doubt my job, and my students, can be quite vibrant, real, and relevant, even when I don't know it).

Looking for identity seems a bad substitute for a call from God.

But then the 'call' thing is something that keeps coming up in other contexts. People outside my head, who know little about what goes on in my head (isn't this true between all of us) believe I have a special kind of leadership, a deacon or priest or religious academic leadership. This I don't imagine. I've heard it more and more.

Anyway, reading NTW's essay (I almost said blog or post) was helpful because his own journey was so long, so diverse, even if it became focused at different times. It included some depression and therapy. He kept changing his mind on many issues before he settled into the perspective for which he has become famous (and, I imagine, many things still remain unsolved in that acute, but patient, mind). What he says about being a Christian scholar and staying sane...that you have to admit 'I don't know' pretty often and wait for answers if they can ever come...I dig that too.

I don't think I want to become NTW-famous. I think I want to find and exercise my gifts, and that while that may feel like a fame-drive it's not the same sort of thing. Though I feel like I've wasted decades, I suppose Paul would have been happier if he could have skipped the Christian-slaughter phase of his own career; I don't have anything like that in my past, at least. In part, the vague pull I'm trying to describe is, in part, about doing what my writer friend J would describe as articulating my life in language, or narrating my own internal story, or some such thing. Being heard. Getting my inside out. In other part, my struggle with 'call' is, partly, about a deep need for meaning. Succesful campus politicking left me dry. What is more meaningful than work in the Kingdom? That's a big piece of it. I've always had The Deep Thirst for significance, for meaning, for purpose. The Deep Thirst. How will all this come together, if at all? Maybe need can be call.

Sure I wish I had been a clear-headed theology student at 22, in a real college, not some whacked-out 'reformed' bookstore. That just wasn't my path. I wish I had discovered the beauties, and general open-mindedness, of the Anglican tradition decades ago. I wish I had known the glories of the Eucharist long before now.

But now I think my writing is drifting off the page into nah-nah land. Nah nah nah. I need to crawl in beside my sweet sleeping wife and drop off myself. May God give me good rest, and a vision and the strength I need for tomorrow.

Your kingdom come. Your will be done. On earth as in heaven. Give me tonight my daily bread. Forgive my sins as I forgive those who sin against me. Save me from the time of trial.

Friday, August 18, 2006

I Have Been Tagged (And It Feels Pretty Good)

I've never been memed, or tagged, or whatever the term is (at least not when I knew it). But stumbling on my name in Chris's blog I am too honored not to respond.

Here I go.

1. One book that changed your life: One? Forget one. I can't do just one though for any of these categories though I've tried; I apologize in advance.

Tom Sawyer, third grade; Becky Thatcher was the first girl I kissed (in the cave, natch). The Silver Chair, sixth grade; I met an imagination oddly like my own and was introduced to Christian mythos. Lord of the Rings, eighth grade; I thought I was Aragorn for three years; this may be part of the reason I live in the mountains now. Of Mice and Men, eleventh grade; my first exposure to real literature (outside Twain); I stayed up till three to finish and and cried my eyes out, and this was the beginning of what is now my career. Drama of the Gifted Child, Healing the Child Within, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, early to mid-twenties, the beginning of hope and recovery. Scaling the Secular City, mid-twenties, you mean there is actually an academic who believes in Jesus? Then a few years of darkness...not much reading, mostly surviving. Then Symposium, around 30; I couldn't believe materialism wasn't the only way to view the universe, and that someone non-Christian would argue for a transcendent ethic. Chesteron's Everlasting Man, early 30's, the "Riddle of the Gospel". John's gospel, around 33; I still believe this the finest piece of religious literature in the world in any religion. Stop Obsessing, three years ago; Foa's book is the finest introduction to treatment for OCD that actually works. The New Testament and the People of God; where else have I encountered a mind like this mind, an approach this thorough, wherever he's headed?


2. One book that you’ve read more than once: Summer, Edith Wharton. American naturalism/realism at its essential, near-poetic best. I've taught this book to hundreds of freshman and continue to appreciate its power, though I am beginning to retreat from the darkness of the end as representative of most human lives. Also here (and both optimistic) Wind in the Willows and Homer's Odyssey.

(For the record, I'm with Chris here on Dune and Earthsea).

3.One book you’d want on a desert island: besides the Bible and especially the NT, Paradise Lost or Moby Dick; otherwise, as I think BK at Cadre said, a book about building wooden boats from scratch, maybe an atlas of the seas I was in.

4. One book that made you laugh: the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian. Heartily, often.

5. One book that made you cry: many of the good ones do this. Tale of Two Cities had me sobbing, sobbing, sobbing at the end. Also Crime and Punishment, The Mill on the Floss.

6. One book that you wish had been written: Drawing Water Out of Rocks: Reflections on Scripture, by Chris Baker.

I'm waiting for this one, Chris, or something like it. How do I make sense out of the Bible? C.S. Lewis is the best thing I've read on this topic and he surely was no scholar (as he often notes) and did not attempt any thorough answer.

7. One book that you wish had never been written: truthfully, I resist this question. I think of Milton's stand against censorship in Aeropagitica, but if pressed...all kinds of bad Christian counseling books where therapy is denigrated in favor of "Biblical counseling" or some other narrow line of shit. Oh, Babywise, though parts of this book have helped some people. And almost everything by Dobson, especially when he advocates hitting children and tells us how much he felt loved when his mom hit him with her girdle. We have never hit our son and I do not believe in hitting children, period. Look at Solomon's kids.

8. One book you’re currently reading: uh, Wright's book of course, also Witherington's The Gospel Code and at night with Steph before bed, Watership Down (which I read in high school also).

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read: the rest of Wright's series, also his book on scripture, The Last Word. Also Raymond Brown's commentary on John. The OT book Chris recommended months ago which I botched the amazon order on and still don't own. The Epistle to the Hebrews. The NT in Greek (I would have to learn Greek).

10. Now tag five people: I think everyone I know has already had this meme! And most of the rest of my friends blog infrequently these days. Still, my five are Romy, Scott, Sherry, Amanda, Mike the Funkiller; if you're re-memed, enjoy the love.

11. There should be an eleventh category: great books I've read most of but never finished! The Republic, Moby Dick, Paradise Lost, the Hebrew Bible, the NT. There are others.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Good News

The test today went well; the tech said she saw nothing unusual, and the doctors now get their chance to look at the ultrasound. Still, it's a huge and very emotional relief for Steph and I. I don't have time to say much more than that.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Something Different on the Body; More on Wright's Jewish Backgrounds

I had meant to post something about Wright's book and my issues with Providence in ancient Jewish history as it's reflected in the Hebrew Bible. I still may, but something else has come up I want to share. This blog, for better or worse, started by 'going there,' wherever 'there' might be, and I see no reason not to do so again. Learning to share my feelings saved my life at one time and I figure I owe it to myself to continue the process.

I turn 42 next month. On 9/11 to be exact. My stepson (whom I call my son, though he still calls me Troy after nearly ten years) is entering high school in about a week. Steph and I have no other children, no biological children. I am afraid of most things, and I am surely afraid of having a baby, of raising an infant, of the 24/7 responsibility and work. Still, after the original 9/11, mostly because we were sick of birth control in one form or another but also because we felt we might like to try for a child, we quit using any form of contraception. That was almost five years ago. We have not gotten pregnant.

And now I, we, are considering the Great Snip. Actually, I think it's something like Snip Burn Stitch, Snip Burn Stitch, but that sounds most non amenable, like a grape jolly rancher dropped into an otherwise perfect gin tonic. I'll stick with Great Snip. The doctor told me today it is essentially non-reversible, and that I needed to be sure I didn't want any more children. I'm only partially sure, gang, and that is a bit of a rub, but there is even bigger news to follow, news which takes the Great Snip off the radar for a bit.

During the examination he discovered a lump in my, uh, well, you know. He asked me if I had noticed it before, I said no, and he said before we proceed with scheduling the vaz (as those in the biz seem to call it) he wanted an ultrasound. I go in this Monday at 1:00. From there either a biopsy or nothing, depending on what the ultrasound shows. The lump could be meaningless; it could hold great meaning. I won't know for a while, as long as two weeks (though I like to think if something looks suspicious he'll call before the follow up visit).

I have never been here.

I had an off liver number a couple years ago, probably nothing, the re-test two months later was normal. I've panicked over death many times, but never over a rational signal. Oddly, airplanes, deadly germs and rare contagious diseases, the things that are not likely to ever kill me scare me. The 'real' stuff...well, this is my first brush.

And it's probably only a faint brush. I read about Lance Armstrong and his nuts were pratically falling off before he got help; he had tumors in his lungs and brain and everyplace from the disease. Me, all I have is a little lump, and it's above, not on, the testicle, which is usually important; also, I'm 41 not 31. I think young men are the ones who usually get the actual disease. Right now, though, I don't have anything else to say. I'm tired; I want to read. I told my wife on the phone and tried to minimize it (at this stage it really is minimal) but I could tell she was a little scared. I couldn't not tell her until I had my results!

***

And now for something completely different.

As I wrap up the section in Wright's book on ancient Judaism, on its expectations and hopes, I don't know where he'll head next. The final sections of the book are on the first century of Christian history, and this interests me more than anything. But what am I to make of ancient Judaism and its connection to Jesus?

Surely Jesus was Jewish. Born a Jew. If he was God's unique messenger in history, even the incarnation of God himself, he came to Palestine, not India or Rome or Greece. Why? This is a great puzzle for me at this time. So far at least, Wright has shown that there was no simple messianic expectation among Jews. Yet while beliefs among the Jews of this period were clearly varied, there was a general belief that God would act, in history, to rescue/redeem/elevate the Jews (or a particular chosen-set within them). Even at this early stage in my reading, it seems vividly clear the Jews expected something different from what Christians claimed Jesus was. And surely, if Jesus was not God's redemption, what the Jewish nation got from Titus Flavius was the stark opposite of what they expected from their God. Josephus, for any number of political and personal reasons, was convinced the Jewish God had gone over to the Romans; I can see why.

How will Wright dovetail this into Christian belief that Jesus was God's salvation, the beginning of the kingdom of God, walking in the flesh? I admit I'm anticipating reading further. But for the moment, my own faith is vaguely uncentered on the intellectual plane.

One thing I will say: Albert Schweitzer was the first NT critic I read. And I found his apocalyptic reading of Christ powerful indeed. It's true Schweitzer, famously, denied the supernatural component of the gospels, denied God, really, and instead used the Christian NT, even his quirky reading of it, perhaps precisely his quirky reading, as a force to launch him into a life of sacrifical service. As he writes in another of his books, over and over, humans are life among other life, all of which wishes to live. It was his categorical non-transcendent ethic.

But many readers, myself included, have seen Schweitzer's proclamation that Jesus and the early Christians expected the world to end imminently as a strange and embarrassing puzzle (for of course it seems it hasn't). Wright has managed to convince me, though he hasn't yet discussed any of the gospel texts, that the majority of Jews during this ear expected no such thing, that apocalyptic language was eminently symbolic, that they expected, if anything, a likely military overthrow of the pagan powers which oppressed them. If not military, some process by which Israel would (finally) be 'on top' and free; the Temple would be rebuilt/restored by someone who was not the shockingly impious Herod; the sins of the nation which had kept them in exile or under occupation would be expiated at long last. A second Exodus, only this would be a restoration of the land they were already in.

Views on individual resurrection after death varied, but it seems most Jews felt the members of the covenant, the true Jews, would be raised to experience this new kingdom when it arrived. This is not Platonism, or Hellenism; it really isn't Christianity either. As I said, I am eager to see where Wright proceeds from here (who, regardless of the fact that he is now an Anglican Bishop, I believe is a Christian).

But I must finally (with some thanks, I admit) toss aside my respect for Schweitzer's thesis (not necessarily Schweitzer the man). Wright is not alone in his critique of Schweitzer, and the case he collects is very strong, drawing on much recent scholarship. At least, I think this is where Wright is headed. As I said, I haven't even gotten to his discussion of the gospels. But already, reading the apocalyptic texts, it seems, plainly, Schweitzer read the NT without understand the nature/background of the apocalyptic he (correctly) saw in so many passages. I was wrong also.

But this by no means solves the puzzle of how God of the universe might have actually acted, through Jesus, for the Jewish nation. Of course, the very earliest Christians taught that Jesus came not just for the Jewish nation, but to offer God's love and salvation, life and grace, to all nations, all men and women. That, without question, is clear throughout the NT. And while I am far from an expert, I don't see the universal nature of the offer as something Paul made up, either, though that is an interesting question. Some of the early Christians may have been holding on to the Jewish marks of covenant (like circumcision or dietary restraint) but it seems they yielded fairly quickly to Paul's pressure to abandon them to further the missionary purpose.

Anyway, as I said, I'm over my head in this water. If Wright is teaching me one thing, it's to be less opinionated until I halfway know what the hell I'm talking about. I can't stick to that completely, or wouldn't be blogging for another decade at least, but it's an attitude worth personal cultivation.

***

I think that's it for now. I'm very moved by Victor's comment to my post below. I will get and read the book he recommends (though it may take a few weeks or months with school beginning soon). I too have shot hate-bullets: at Christians when I thought I was one and when I knew I wasn't.

It's actually Saturday afternoon now; I've two-sitting blogged, and my ultrasound test is that much closer. Not close enough. I would like it to be over. Steph was very upset yesterday though she hid it from me well. Truly, it's probably nothing. But times like this allow a reflection on life and relationship which is as precious as it is difficult.

Love to all.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Reflections on Saturday

This is one of those times I feel I don't have much to say but want to write anyway.

Steph is away at Reggae on the River until Monday; Mikey is at a friend's. I've been home alone (just me and the dogs) since Thursday night. I feel it. I really feel it. I was left home alone a lot as a child, or with one parent at work and one sleeping (they worked opposite shifts, day and graveyard or swing, all the years they were married). I'm not a helpless child now, but I feel the absence of my family.

I am fortunate to have them, as much as I wrestle with feeling close to them. Mikey and I are doing better (he's now 14) as his hormones dump-truck through his veins; I am learning not to see his individuation and anger as personal attacks on my authority (they're surely not). Steph and I continue to grow, and as always, I must continue my exposure work to depress the force of my ocd. It works, but it's hard to do. Surviving can be comfortable; thriving takes work.

Since we found out how much moving into another house would cause our mortgage to rise, we've slowed down a bit. The realtor fee alone would buy a new car. Astounding. The California real estate mania. Our 1700 square feet of mountain house has nearly doubled in market value in five years. I'm glad it did, or we could never afford to buy anywhere else in California!

***

Wright's book, People of God continues to impress. He really is looking closer, or trying hard. Judaism has been understood in fairly simple terms by most Christians, certainly by me, for a long time. Luther's reading of the NT continues to dominate most of Protestantism: Law and Grace, in Luther's understanding of the terms. But so far, Wright's first-century scene-setting (and it's sinking in so deep it's scary; I begin to feel I am time-traveling) gels completely with the literature I've read from the OT. You can feel it: God gave us this land, why aren't we in it anymore? What happened to the promises to Abraham? All that. National identity, temple, torah, the land. I don't have the energy for a full-post right now (staining those bookcases I built after I assembled them, oops) but it's almost unnerving.

For surely the world-view Wright is unpacking influenced Jesus as he grew and lived in it. I used to imagine Jesus walked around with full god-consciousness, all the information in the universe at ready access, the thoughts of God in the body of a man. No one can read the mind of any person, let alone one who lived 2000 years ago and left no self-written record (if Jesus came now, would he blog?). But surely Jesus had a human brain, a human mind, was born an infant and raised as a child and young adult in a particular culture, place and time. The old idea that the spirit inhabited the body like a hand in a glove (Plato's idea, or his analogy at least) and that the spirit/mind was completely distinct from the body no longer makes sense. We may have spirits or souls, but surely we have brains and Jesus had one also. I assume he could not have held God's distinct mind in a human body. Does this mean Jesus was not divine? I have no idea. I worship him. I believe he was God's unique historical messenger and God raised him from the dead. That's quite enough, I think. Jesus makes statements which seem to imply special knowledge, foreknowledge, on his part and at least one famous one where he says the father knows something he doesn't.

Simply: I'm realizing I'm such a newbie at NT history I'm laying lower as I try to learn. The old categories have been too simple. The question of Jesus becomes much more complex when I assume he's not a purely divine mouthpiece; though the church has long asserted (long) that Jesus was both human and divine, Christians tend to think of his sayings as the Alpha and Omega speaking without interference or human filter. I believe Raymond Brown was the first commentator I read who said that even Jesus' statements need to be understood as influenced/limited by cultural context and contemporary world-view. Again, some of the things Jesus says clearly imply special knowledge, but this doesn't mean he still wasn't the Son of Man.

The Mind of Christ. Looking at the sayings in the gospels, that must have been quite a place.

I believe Wright, drawing on narrative theory (meaning exists in story; this idea is hot in psychology, theology, etc.), modern literary theory, and the enormous work of Sanders and others who have looked much closer at second-Temple Judaism than anyone looked before...Wright is synthesizing all this into a remarkable and history-making revolution in Christian studies. He surely is. His books will be read for many years after other current bestsellers in NT studies are relegated to minor shelves. He may well surpass the influence of Bultmann. I don't know how NTW finds time to eat his porridge, or whatever Brits each for breakfast. It's not just the contentious 'New Perspective' on Paul; he is attempting historical explication at a new level. Whether he can bypass his own presuppositions I don't yet know. He seems to be genuinely trying. Here's to hoping I can see my own.

So many brilliant minds write apologetics heavily bolstered with one perspective: the Bible is a divine book and its authority, verse by verse, must be assumed and upheld (at the same time). This is a tragic error. I don't believe this is Wright's view, but I haven't finished and moved on to his second book. I just read a definition of the Bible at Sandalstraps: "(the Bible) is not a single book, but rather a collection of many separate books composed at different times in different places, and compiled into not one but three major canons representing two distinct religions." This is an excellent definition of the texts we now possess. How the Divine inhabits this text, if it in fact inhabits it at all, is a potent question (it is possible the human/divine interaction occured, historically, outside the textual composition process, that we can see it by looking through rather than in the text itself). In fact how could the Divine inhabit any text? The human/divine inteaction occurs when the text is read, and surely not every time it's read by every person.

Forget revelation and human reason alone. Those who exalt in the glory and ability of human beings need to reflect on the dark size of this universe, the fragile and mortal nature of our bodies, the imperfections in our mind. We sometimes feel our reason is majestic and inviolate, but read Bacon's Four Idols as a starting point for the struggle which the search for truth has always been.

May Christ redeem and restore this entire race. Some believe he will.

What do we have in the meantime? Faith, love and hope. Our minds and hearts. Above all, the ability to make choices. May God help me trust him and choose well.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Jesus-Karate and Humility of the Body

(Prologue)

As I wrote earlier, Steph and I joined a martial arts school about 25 minutes down the hill. The sensei became a Christian three years ago, converted from drinking brawler to Jesus-lover (based on his account and others), and his sincerity does impress:


Students getting ready before class, stretching on the mats...

Sensei: Hey Troy

Troy: Hi Sensei

Sensei: How was your week?

Troy: Oh, good

Sensei: How were services Sunday?

Troy: Oh, yeah, good, we went

Sensei: What was the message on?


Like that. Of course, I never remember what the message was on, or rarely, but he's only asked me once so far. He did approach me a couple weeks ago and ask me a very sincere question I wished I had answered differently:


Sitting on chairs before class begins

Sensei: So, what's the Lord working on in your life right now?

Troy: Uh, well, I don't know. I think the nature of the Bible.

Sensei: What do you mean?

Troy: You know, I see the a mix of the divine and the human when I read it; I'm not sure how those things interact.

Sensei: Do you know I Timothy 3:16?

Troy: Yeah, I know that book

Sensei: What about fulfilled prophecies?

Troy: Well, some were, some weren't, for example, the northern tribes never did return....


Like that. I regret that last conversation because what he was asking me, in simple and transparent terms for a man who doesn't know me and who teaches martial arts for a living, was really very personal. I responded with a theological puzzle; I thought I was being equally sincere. The fact is sensei knows more than I do. My real answer (which I have yet to give him): I want to be a better husband and father.


I'll tell you, it's something, after a karate class, sparring with some guy, to stand there catching my breath listening to praise songs while the sensei talks about right thinking, about peaceful living, about loving action...truthfully, I feel I've hit a jackpot. My other martial arts teachers were all very human, very secular, even when I loved them and they loved me.

***

And now for the humility part. This is mostly inblog. I begin with a sparsely told martial arts resume.

This is the forth time in my life I've attended a martial arts school.

The first was when I was twenty (ah, twenty, limber-muscle-speed-breath). This was the IMB Academy when Dan Inosanto taught there in the afternoons. Bruce Lee had been dead just over ten years. We used to bow to an original oil painting of him. His famous 300 pound bag (or whatever the poundage) hung in a back room, along with his wing chun dummy (which us beginners never touched). It was starstruck training for me. I became quickly, deeply dedicated. Some of my crusade friends asked me 'is this affecting your Christianity?' No. It was helping my mental health. Estella, my ex, was noticeably bothered; she thought it was making me 'more angry.' Jeez. Actually, it was giving me a channel for the anger I had denied all my life. As I said, I was only there a short while, less than a year, going to classes in the afternoons taught by Inosanto, sometimes Vunak and Grody and those guys. At night I began attending a more advanced class taught by Rich Bustillo until he kicked me out (nicely) for being in over my head and slowing other people down. I only stopped going (have I said I loved every minute of it) when Estella announced she was leaving on summer project the next year, and my anxiety got so bad I dropped out of everything, school, my job as a truck driver delivering fabric, and the Academy. She never liked my going, and I knew it, but it was too damned bad I left.

A decade later, as I was leaving Robert and divorcing Estella, I decided I'd like to train again, in my old group if possible. Surpisingly, I found a little studio about two miles from my house that had all the right logos in the yellow pages ad. The sifu there started about the same time at the IMB as I did, but he had kept going and now had his own school! There were about twenty students total; we trained on a concrete floor in a sketchy part of Long Beach. Again, I knew I had found something. It was much more social than my long conversations with the stairmasters at the gym. Eventually, the sifu Daniel moved to Costa Mesa and got a bigger and better school, though it didn't really grow until around the time I left. For a long time, there were thirty of us or less! I was there three years, training hard hours every week, but on the books one more year before I moved north. I quit going that last year because I felt exasperated with my martial arts training, what do I do with this now?; also, I got very busy at work. But Daniel (whose last name I withhold here) was a true brother to me and always will be. My love to him. When my depression was turning bloody bad he'd take me home after class, give me clothes to wear because all I had was my work out stuff (including underwear and shoes sometimes) and take me out for a beer or food or dancing...anything to get my head out of what I was going through. We must have eaten together two hundred times. I'm deeply loyal and wish I saw him more. Sometimes Inosanto would come down and do a class, or Paulson, or one of the other senior students from Inosanto's school in Marina Del Rey. For three years, Daniel's school was my social circle; the martial arts my prime hobby. Now he's big time; big school, lots of students, lots of bucks, good for him. He got what he wanted, 'one succesful school,' and I got what I wanted: 'tenure and a house in the woods!'

I was hired at my current college; I moved north, got married, bought a house in a small town in the snow country of the sierra nevada. I sit here at my laptop and type in that same beautiful setting. My wife had a little martial arts background also and she found a school right, surprisingly, here in our little town. I went one hot August day four years ago to a cardio kickboxing class. This was my first cardio kickboxing class, and let me say they should be called cardio kick your butt class because the workout was very tough. The sensei there, Dave, saw my form on the heavy bag, saw I knew how to kickbox (somewhat), and immediately took me in as a student and friend. I didn't want to do traditional karate for a long time, so I'd go to the cardio classes, work on my form, spar with Dave and his senior students (there were only about four and two were teenage girls). It was a fun and family-oriented place; another social circle for Steph and I both. Eventually I began doing the traditional karate classes, got a couple belts. Even entered a few tournaments! It was point sparring, yes, but my first fight was when I was a white belt and I went against a brown belt and smoked him. He didn't know, of course, that I had past experience, but that was just the way it went. I even attended a large tournament near San Francisco. I never took first, but I often competed against brown and black belts. It was good fun.

The dark side was that Dave and I, and others, partied. I did the sparring portion of my blue belt test pretty drunk, actually. It was my idea: hey, let's see how alcohol affects my sparring skills. It diminishes them considerably, let me say. Dave could be a bit rough, also; I had a few black eyes there. And he and I were sparring every Friday for a while. Or actually, he was killing me. I don't know if I learned a ton there, but I was working out and having fun. Steph and I were there about 2.5 years I guess, before Dave got into much deeper trouble than alcohol (well, he did get a couple DUI's before his deeper trouble) fled the state and ended up in jail. I hear he's out, and hope he's well.

I knew about the larger school down the hill, the one we just joined, but never went because Dave had trained there from white belt to black (even now, he and the sensei have the same gestures, expressions) and Dave had left on bad terms. It took me two years, no training at all except weights really, before Steph talked me into going in and meeting the guy.

Enter Jesus-karate.

The most amazing thing about this school is its curriculum is quite good, especially considering where it is. He has a very good grappling coach (more on that class in a moment) a good boxing coach, and the sensei himself is committed to martial arts in all forms. True, he teaches traditional karate, but his school serves many other needs. Needs of guys like me: I'll always be on the jkd path. They incorporate thai boxing (not like Daniel, of course, whose form was near-perfect and who had learned under one of the top thai men in the usa) and the whole mixed martial arts thing. Steph and I signed up where we can take as many different classes as we want for three months to see what we like.

I am trying grappling.

Daniel, my old sifu, to be fair, is a very good grappler now and has had Brazilians in his school since about the time I left. But when I was there we didn't really grapple. A few techniques were tossed out; there wasn't much actual mat time. My new school...oh man, that's where this post began in my head for me somewhere a few thousand words back. Two nights a week I grapple with guys all younger than me, all. Most in their early twenties. Most high school wrestlers. Many with grappling experience. The class is taught by sensei or a thirty something woman who grappled (not wrestled) in college and whose legs are as strong and hard as oak limbs.

As a younger guy I always stood out a bit in my martial arts school. At Inosanto's I did (as a rank newbie), and then later I did because I had already had some training. But here, now, turning 42 in September...the Humility of the Body. Especially with grappling. I can't imagine a sport more grueling, unless it's the Mojave Desert Summer Ultra-marathon Plus Weights. I keep ending up with this 230 pound monster, a guy waiting to enter the sheriff's academy (if he passes background) who is helpful and nice during class but fierce during our matches (every class ends with each student in one or two matches). So far, after five classes, I'm just glad I have no injuries! I'm grateful every time I don't tweak something! It's amazing conditioning, sure, and I actually find it fun (below the pain, fear, and near-dread I feel before each match) but there is no doubt that it's not about looking great anymore, or winning. It's about surviving the class. Getting to the end. Without puking. Leaving knowing I've grown as a person, exercised my entire body as hard as I can (literally) and learned a little martial arts in the process, even if everyone knows I'm a novice.

***

This is a strange biography, a martial arts bio. Told in sparse prose no less. But for those of us who have the bug, just like any other thing (baseball, auto racing, running, whatever) it simply is the thing. For someone with wounds from the past, it's a great way to release energy, anger and hurt, and now I feel like I have a constructive, safe place to do this; certainly safer than Dave's school, as much as I know he cared for me. A place where I will also learn new technology. Sure I grow older every year, but it feels awfully good to be doing something so young. I treasure it now more than I did at twenty-something (or thirty-something). I don't take it for granted. May God help me enjoy it as long as I can, when I can, hopefully for many years to come.

As they say at the end of each class...'honor, hope, truth, temple.'

***

(Afterword)

Why have I started with the toughest class, the one where I have the least background, the most physically demanding? You know, that is a good question. I guess, because, as always, I absolutely love the challenge of learning. I'll never be the best; I'll never compete (unless they have an old guys league...even then) but I put my heart into it, try to learn humbly, and am friendly with everyone. No attitudes. It's hard to hold an attitude, no matter who you are, after ten minutes of sucking wind on the mats. Plus the Jesus-love lecture and the Michael W. Smith music at the end.

I find this new sport, this new branch of martial arts (and the place traditional jkd was always weakest...long remedied as many, including Inosanto, now have black belts in jiu-jitsu) pretty darn edgy. Fun, tactile, the good kind of draining. I hope to try the boxing class also, even do some traditional karate (nothing like shouting your way through a good kata) but no matter what, I've found a new martial arts home. My eyes actually mist. Steph and I are considering moving down the hill (we'd be in beautiful oak woodland, foothill country) to be closer to the new gym (and Mikey's new high school, and my job, and civilization). I kinda hope we do. Cedars are great, but they are no substitute for human company.