Friday, August 14, 2015
Sometimes ideas are best contemplated in a narrative. This is the story of when God visited me on my birthday. It is a complete work of fiction. Which means it's completely true.
There was a knock at the door. I know, I know, not the most dramatic start to a story. But it was the perfect knock. It wasn't too soft, like a lost visitor timidly knocking, unsure if he had arrived at the correct door. Nor was it too hard or loud, like the UPS man on a schedule who needs you to open the door and sign for a package containing yet another stupid impulse purchase that you order every other day because with Amazon Prime it will arrive in two days.
Like I said, the knock was perfect. It got my attention and, though I knew not who was on the other side, I was calm and relaxed as I approached the door.
“Oh crap, you're God,” I blurted out as I swung open the door, revealing the man standing in the hall. He didn't look like God, though, at least not how pop culture and tradition portrays the Divine. Father Time with the great white beard he was not. Instead, he was clean cut, well groomed, and wearing blue jeans with a simple, yet fancy, buttoned down shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
I may have projected my own fashion preferences onto this incarnation of the Deity.
But though he didn't look like how I thought God would look, everything about him plainly showed that he was God. I didn't think, or have a feeling, I just knew that God was at my door.
Can you think of anything more terrifying?
Confronted face to face with God, I panicked and nearly screamed the first thought that came into my head. "Are you here to kill me?"
God cocked his head to the side. "What? No! Why? What? Why would you think that?"
“Because of the whole 'meet your maker' thing?”
"That's just a saying, really," God tried to explain. "But, no, I’m not here to kill you."
"Oh," I said, exhaling a significant sigh of relief. And then we just stood at the door for a few awkward seconds as my brain scrambled, yet failed, to unearth another sentence to say.
"So," God began, "are you going to invite me in?"
I frowned slightly as I crafted my response. "Like, into my heart?"
God shook his head at me. He would be doing this a lot that day. "Again, no. Besides, you already did that like six times in one week when you were seven. And then again when you were ten. And then when you hit puberty you were asking me back into you heart every night. And sometimes three or four times throughout the day on top of that..."
"Hey! Woah!" I cut God off. Which, in retrospect, was probably not a wise thing to do. "I get the point, but come on, people are going to read this!"
"That's not my fault," God insisted. "You’re the one writing this. And all I meant was it's just common courtesy to invite a guest into your home."
"Oh, right," I said as I understood the obvious. "Please, please come in. But you have to understand my confusion. I mean, God is literally here, literally standing at my door, and literally knocking on it."
God sighed. "You may have some issues there understanding metaphoric language. Especially with how many times you just said 'literally' in one sentence."
"Uh, all right," I conceded as I ushered him into my humble apartment.
God scanned the small living quarters quickly. "It looks like a twelve year old boy with access to a credit card lives here," he assessed. "Who are you, Tom Hanks in Big?"
My jaw went slack. I was still trying to comprehend the fact that a physical personification of the Divine was standing in my apartment. His scathing critique of my decor did not aid in that comprehension.
"I'm just kidding!" he smiled after a few moments when I failed to respond. "Listen, I don't mean to be forward, but you're not exactly on the ball here with this whole hospitality thing. Would you mind if I hit you up for a beverage? Incarnation makes one thirsty."
"Sure, sure," my head quickly snapped back into the game. What would you like? I've got coffee or tea I could make." I opened the door to the fridge and examined my meager offerings.
"Actually, I wouldn't mind having a Surge."
My head peaked up out of the fridge. "Really? I mean, um, God drinks Surge?
God nodded. "God drinks Surge."
I hesitated. "Well, yeah, I guess you can have one. I mean, they're really hard to get though."
"Oh don't give me that," God quipped back. "Sure, you can't go down to the store and pick some up, so you have to resort to the strenuous task of ordering it online and having it delivered right to your door within a few days." He placed a hand over his chest and dramatically added, "I am moved by your struggle and suffering."
"All right all right! I get it! Sorry, I'm just a little flustered by all this. One can of Surge coming up," I said as I reached into the back of the fridge for my secret stash.
God leaned against the wall next to the fridge. "If it helps, just think of it as a tithe. Then that can already belonged to me to begin with. Actually, 12 cans come in a case, so 1.2 cans belong to me. Better round that up to 2 cans just to be safe."
I let out a mostly fake chuckle as I handed God a can of Surge. He looked down at it, still grasped in my hand. "Did you not hear the part about rounding up?" he asked.
"What, you're serious?" I said without thinking. Then I took the time to think and immediately backtracked. "Sorry, sorry, you're right. You're God and it's just pop." I retrieved another can and passed them both to him. "I do have to say though, I think you're abusing the concept of tithing here.”
God chuckled. "Why shouldn't I? Everyone else does."
He popped open a can of the precious Surge and walked into the living room. "Mind if I have a seat?" he asked a second before landing on the couch.
"Yeah, sure," I said, joining him. "It's a pretty rubbish couch, but, hey, it gets the job done." After a pause, I asked the obvious question, "So, why are you here?"
God turned and looked at me. "I came here to ask you that exact question. Why are you here?"
“Um, this is my apartment. I live here.”
“No,” God said, “that's not what I mean.”
“Oh!” my eyes lit up. “I see, is this an existential question? But isn't that more your territory? Shouldn't you provide the answer to that?”
Sipping from his can of Surge, God said, “No, no. I mean, why are you here in this crappy apartment, in this rotten neighborhood, in this city you hate?”
I agreed with his description of everything, but my initial reaction was to defend myself. “I don't hate it.”
“Stop trying to defend your inaction!” God slammed the Surge down on the coffee table in front of him. “You don't like it here and you haven't for a long time.”
“I have friends here, a home, and a job,” I continued to protest.
God gave me a look.
“It's a good job and I worked hard to get it,” I explained. “And I'm good at it! I put forth a lot of effort to make it work.”
God nodded. “Yes, effort, yes you do. I agree.” He paused. “But what about passion?”
“What do you mean?”
God tilted his head to the side, his gaze settling on a pair of name badges hanging from a shelf. They were my name badges from the two academic conferences I've presented papers at. The first one was from a conference at Dordt about Christianity and popular culture, the second from an American Academy of Religion conference held at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
“Those,” God began, pointing a finger at them, “those required substantial passion. Not only did you have to write the dang papers, you had to write proposals beforehand to get accepted to even write them! Not only that time and effort, you had to pay to register and attend and subject yourself to the outright terror of public speaking. Why on earth would you do any of that, if not for the passion you have for the subject matter and the exercise of writing?”
I looked fondly at those badges. “What are you saying? I should do that, somehow, somewhere, as a job? But who would pay me for that? Where would I go for that? How would I live?”
“It doesn't matter,” God said quietly as he picked up his Surge and resumed enjoying the citrus flavored beverage.
“What was that?”
God took a big chug of his Surge. “What does it matter if you can make a living off of it or not?”
“It matters a lot!” I shouted the obvious.
“Why?” God insisted. “Right now you, what, you exist? You survive. You go to work, you get a paycheck, you come home, you pay the bills. You repeat. Does that make you happy?”
“Well, no, but...”
“Then why not do something that makes you happy? That you are passionate about doing?”
“Because I don't have a plan!” I exclaimed.
God shrugged. “Who cares? You don't need a plan.”
“Why,” I asked with hopeful hesitation, “because you have a plan for me?”
God gave me that increasingly familiar look he gives me whenever I say something stupid. I imagine he gives that look to a lot of people a lot of the time. “Is your name Jeremiah?”
“No...” I answered.
“Then shut up about that,” God shook his head yet again. “Not everything in that book is propositional!”
I was quite taken aback by this, and the accompanying smirk on God's face did not help.
God regained his composure and continued. “Is that why you don't want to pursue your passion? Because you're afraid you will fail?”
For some reason it was at this point that I lowered my defenses. Instead of trying to defend myself before the Almighty, I opted to actually be honest with God. “Yes, I am afraid to fail.”
God nodded. “You will. You will fail. You will fail spectacularly over and over again.”
“Well that's not very comforting,” I slouched in my seat on the couch. This was not how I expected a literal conversation with God to go. Oh, I should probably ease off on using the word “literal.”
“But,” God continued, “if you're really passionate about it, you will keep pursuing it, and keep on failing at it, because you will have the slightest glimmer of hope that, no, I won't say that you'll succeed, but the hope that it will all matter somehow to someone.”
“This is still not very encouraging,” I said to God.
“Why? Because you might not make much money at it?” He shifted in his seat and turned towards me. “Okay, let's get to the root of this. Why do you want money? And forget the usual, obvious nonsense about the American dream and the house with the picket white fence. Why do you want money and success?”
A million reasons ran through my mind, from being able to afford the basic necessities of life, to indulging in the excess of life, to altruistic ends of donating my hypothetical wealth to worthy causes and charities. As all these reasons whizzed passed me in my mind, one stopped front and center and screamed.
“To show them that I am something special and great and that they made a huge mistake to just walk away,” I snarled through pursed lips and gritted teeth.
“There we are,” God said approvingly. “Now we're getting to some honesty.”
My heart was breaking as I reflected on what I had just said. I thought it would hurt from focusing on past loves and the pain associated with them, but instead the pain came from admitting and realizing just how small of a person I was. So much of my self-identity and self-worth was tied up in my standing in these failed relationships. If I came out on top somehow that would signify me as a worthy person. Worthy of what I'm not really sure.
“But, here's the thing,” God straightened up in his seat and looked straight ahead. “They don't regret leaving you and hurting you. And they never will. They don't miss you.” He paused. “They don't even think about you.”
My face lost all composition and melted into aghast horror. “Why are you saying this?”
“Because you cling to this delusional fantasy of becoming great and successful and rubbing it in their faces. You think that if only you become accomplished and acclaimed in some capacity, then they will realize their mistakes.” He turned to me and said sternly, “You don't want them back, I know. You want them to want you back. But that's not going to happen. There will be no vindication, resolution, or even closure.”
God leaned back into the couch as my emotional state just collapsed. “Stop,” I whispered. “I don't want to do this anymore.”
There were tears running down my cheeks at this point.
“I said stop. Stop writing.”
The tears were both on my face as I sat on the couch talking to God and as I sit here at my desk typing this story.
“Just stop already!” I yelled. “This isn't fun!”
It is rather discomforting when you break the fourth wall to address yourself while writing about yourself.
“For as much as you love stories,” God sighed, “you really don't understand them much. You think just because you are writing this that you can control it? Stories have a way of quickly ceasing to be things and transform into living, breathing, entities of sorts. Independent, uncontrollable creatures in their own right. You may have started this story but you can't stop it. It's taken on a life of it's own.”
“So what, I'm stuck here doing this?” I asked while trying, and failing, to choke back the tears.
God got that little smirk on his face again. “Oh yes, you're stuck on a couch with God. It must be terrible.”
“Right now it kind of is,” I breathed as my fragile emotional state surpassed my attempts at reverence.
“Well, I'm here,” God raised his Surge as if to clink glasses and say 'cheers!' I was not in the mood. “Better just open up and say all the things you've always wanted to say to me.”
I paused for a moment as I reflected and tried to organize my thoughts. “You're right. I'm not happy. Deep down in me there's this pit of darkness, depression and self-loathing. I don't like me very much. Most days I hate me. But I think most people don't see that because there's so many crazy awesome things in this life to love and get excited about and those just float so easily at the surface. I try to focus on those things instead.”
God nodded. “But those things on the surface are all fleeting, while the darkness inside you grows. Think about the dreary emotional state you had to come to in order to start writing this and commit to writing it. That's a really dark and messed up thing to do.”
“Well,” I said, my gaze moving hopefully to the face of God for a fulfilling answer. “Will I ever like myself?”
“No,” he responded coldly. “At least not in the way you think. You're always going to hate yourself for what you've done. You're going to hate yourself for what you will do. You will hate yourself for the people you've hurt and for the people that have hurt you.”
Any restraint I held over my emotions failed at this point.
“You were supposed to fix me!” I shouted in anger at God Almighty. “You were supposed to make me happy and be the answer to my every problem! You were supposed to fill that God-shaped hole inside of me!”
“Oh, wow!” God chuckled. “You are just full of bad evangelical Christian cliches, aren't you?”
“Of course I am! I spent thirty years in the church. Stupid cliched sayings are what I think you are! I am supposed to be happy and wealthy and successful because I loved you. And I am none of those things!”
God faced me and his kind, jovial face twisted into a scowl. “Now hold on. You can sling all that self-righteous indignation my way, I can take it, but you would do well to remember that you're not innocent in all this. You say you loved me? Good for you! I believe you do. I know you do, but when was the last time that affected your life? When was it last reflected in your life? You want to make this tit for tat? You want to do this whole “if you obey me I will bless you” thing? Fine! But don't you come at me all Frimme Hersh in A Contract with God crying out that shouldn't God also be obligated to fulfill his end of the bargain? Because let me tell you, Mitchell, you have not fulfilled your end of that deal. You have not obeyed me. You are a terrible Christian. You are, by any standards of righteousness, a terrible person! A fine example of a hypocrite, this one is! You come up to me all high and mighty? You dare? You don't want me to list off all or any of your transgressions that have nullified that covenant. You sure don't want me to get specific about your sins. You're praying right now that I don't even list them in the most vague or generalized ways!” With that last sentence he was staring up at the ceiling, no longer addressing Mitch on the couch but Mitch at the keyboard.
He took a deep breath. “You know who you are. You know what you've done. You're self-reflective to a fault. So you know better than anyone else that you have no ground to stand on here. And you dare to talk to me like this?”
“You bet I dare to address God!” I exclaimed with a mental wink and nod toward the badge from Dordt hanging on the shelf. “Because it's the only hope I have! If this is a tit for tat, a transaction, an if/then scenario, then I am screwed, Grade A, good and proper screwed!” I didn't say “screwed.” “Because I am well aware that I am a failure, that I am unworthy, and that this an absolutely hopeless situation. There's nothing I can say or do, pray or believe, that can ever change that! So all I've got is the hopeless hope beyond all hope that you don't give a damn (is that a theological pun?) about any of that and you still somehow love me with an impossible love that I cannot understand.”
Silence haunted the room for a few short seconds that lasted forever.
I continued, but quieter this time, less rage, more sullen. “A love that I don't deserve. That I can't earn. And that I can't lose.”
After a moment of God's stern, yet sympathetic eyes piercing my soul (and I don't know if that is literal or metaphoric), he calmly replied to my rant. “I love you not for who you should be or who I want you to be. I love you simply for who you are, whether you like it or not. If I waited for you to repent, get your act together, and become a good and perfect Christian before I loved you, then I would never love you. I would never love anyone.”
God bowed his head. “I would never love.”
“There's no joy in wrath,” he spoke again after some contemplative silence. “Trust me on this.”
I sensed in that statement a bundle of infinite and timeless emotions that I could never understand. But there was something very, I don't know, human in God's voice and posture at that moment. He was a person that needed a kind word and a gentle hand. So, I reached out to give him a pat on the back, but I hesitated. Was touching God like this akin to touching the Ark of the Covenant? Would I be struck dead? Would my face melt off? I decided reaching out to the Creator was worth the risk and I gave God a comforting pat on the back.
“So if you love me, why didn't you fix me?” I dared to ask again.
“Because you don't need fixing,” God spoke as if this was the most obvious fact.
“Yes I do” I insisted. “I am clearly broken!”
“Yes, you are broken. But that doesn't mean you need to be fixed. Your brokenness makes you who you are. You're brokenness makes you beautiful. Haven't you noticed I have an affinity for the broken?”
“Then what is the point of crying out to you for help? Why are you here if you're not going to help me and fix me? Why are you here, God? What is the point of you?” My outcry here was probably blasphemous, but I figured I had already crossed that bridge today.
“I never came here to fix your brokenness,” God said with a gentleness that I did not deserve. “I'm here to be with you in your brokenness. I came to join you in your brokenness, so that you don't have to go through it alone.”
“So you're never going to fix me?” My heart sank.
“Not in this lifetime.”
“I will always be broken?” I didn't know my heart could sink this low.
“You just have to accept it and deal with it and press on anyway.”
“I would rather you just fix me.”
“I tried that before,” God explained. “You only just break all over again.”
I wasn't sure if he meant specifically me or just people in general. I guess it didn't really matter.
“This isn't really the happiness and rainbows, mansions and streets of gold, wealth and success message you hear in church these days,” I said, reflecting on my decades of experience growing up in the church.
“Maybe that's why you hate going to church so much,” God pointed out another of my many failings.
“I just can't do it anymore,” I threw my arms up in the air in an over-dramatic display of frustration and exhaustion. “I just can't pretend to worship some shallow, certain caricature of a complicated, messy, uncertain, undecidable God.”
God tilted his head back and downed the last of his can of Surge. He set it down on the table next to the other, unopened one. Learning forward, he rested his elbows on his knees, clasped his hands together, turned his head to me and hypothesized. “Then maybe that's the story you should tell. Maybe that's the message you should create and spread. Maybe you can create something good and worthwhile out of your depression and darkness. Now, hear me out, I'm not saying this is the reason for your darkness. I'm not saying there is a reason for your darkness. But maybe, just maybe, you can find a reason or make a reason out of this darkness.”
“Why would anyone in the church listen to a broken, miserable, screw-up like me?” I asked, acknowledging all the rubbish in my soul we were confronting today.
“Because everyone in the church is broken and miserable. They just refuse to admit it. They've been fed the line that Jesus will make them happy and they're too scared to confront the reality that Jesus doesn't make them happy, that I don't make them happy. And how are they supposed to reconcile that with all the superficial pulpit theology they hear, or all the cheerful, bubbly worship songs with nonsensical lyrics that they sing?”
“Trying to escape the reality of our brokenness isn't working for Christianity. I'm a shining example of that.”
“And here's another thing,” God pointed at me. “You are one of those rare evangelicals that is optimistic about this life, this world, and the future. You admit and confront your brokenness, yet you still find a way to be chipper and don't run around crying that the sky is falling every ten seconds.”
“But I don't know how to go about creating such a message. Like I said, I don't have a plan.”
“And like I said, it doesn't matter.” God's joyful grin returned to his face. “Fail. Fail time and time again. Fail spectacularly. Fail with reckless abandon. Because at least you will be doing something. At least you will be doing something with passion.”
“Will it make me happy?” I hopefully asked one last time.
“No, but nothing else will either. So what have you got to lose?” With that, God abruptly stood up, grabbed his other can of Surge, and walked towards the door. Guessing our time was up, I followed to see him out.
“One last time: Why are you here?” God asked as he began to turn the door knob.
My mouth trembled as I spoke, “Because I don't know where else to go. No place better, no place worse.”
God leaned in close to me. “Then you might as well be someplace else the next time I come and ask you.”
With the second, unopened can of Surge still in his hand, God didn't say another word as he slipped out the door and closed it behind him.