Divine Fugitivity: The Doctrine of God

“Wilderness as wide, wide world could not be contained, but wilderness as a specific place could be.” This notion of wilderness is the nucleus of Delores Williams’ work around what Dr. J. Kameron Carter has coined “fugitive theology.” As such, it provides the theological grounds upon which an alternative way of imagining what we might call “God” emerges. I read Williams’ exegetical work around Genesis 16 and 21 as a path of potentiality for reconfiguring the doctrine of the Creator away from notions of sovereignty and towards a social-symbolic notion of wilderness vis-à-vis the black radical tradition. I am interested not so much in exploring God as that which Hagar discovers in the wilderness, but in the figuration of God as the wilderness itself—the space of fugitive refuge devoid of exclusionary practices of governance. This essay will begin by looking to Sallie McFague and M. Shawn Copeland to establish the ways in which particular conceptions of God have been deployed as a means of exclusion and a justification of colonial enterprise. Next, I will utilize Williams’ reading of Hagar to explore God as wilderness (/fugitivity). This God, I will argue, functions as a sociopolitical critique against every system that attempts to police the boundaries of belonging.

To begin, let us first establish the popular view of the God-world relationship that Williams’ work challenges. McFague refers to this view as the monarchical model. It imagines God as an “all-powerful king [that] controls his subjects [who] … in turn offer him loyal obedience.” Mcfague notes that the allure of this model is bound up in the ways it “dramatizes divine transcendence,” meaning it places great emphasis on the authority and grandeur of God. This notion of the sacred incites both “awe and reverence” as well as vocational identity, considering that discipleship calls forth service to the Master. Finally, in keeping with the male pronouns used for God throughout scripture, divinity is almost always rendered as male within this model. Therefore, God is foundationally patriarchal, which presents a kind of social double predestination for women in which they are destined by virtue of biology to a life of both human and divine subordination.

It is crucial to mark that God as sovereign overseer has routed within it a racialized doctrine of election that functions as a theological bordering tool. By the fifteenth century, supersessionism transubstantiates and meets the transatlantic where it begins to route itself through the slave trade. The Gentile Christian claim to owning the covenant of Israel (see Exod 3:10) becomes part of a wider matrix of the desire to own the earth and label it as property. In that way, the story of YHWH’s relationship to Israel becomes a story of bordering, of negotiating who is in and who is out, with black bodies positioned on the receiving end of this “elected” system of governance. Copeland notes that though race “is a social construct with no basis in biology, … skin [pigmentation] morphs into a horizon funded by bias.” This should not surprise us, however, since (white) Christian settlers were operating from the basis of the monarchical model of the God-world relationship. As we will see glimpses of in the story of Hagar, insofar as divine sovereignty relates to lordship and property, the racial imaginary is secured and sanctioned under the guise of divinely ordained social hierarchy.

Reframing Hagar’s escape to the wilderness as an act of sacred defiance against her own brutality, Williams challenges this notion of a monarchical God who sanctions the arrest of black bodies. When Hagar escapes to the wilderness she is liberated not only from the brutalities of being a slave, but also from the patriarchal God of Sarai and Abram. As such, “Hagar becomes the first female in the Bible to liberate herself from oppressive power structures” and “the only person in the Bible to whom is attributed the power of naming God.” Here in the wilderness—a home away from home (which is not so much a home as it is a scene of captivity)—is a space of possibility where Hagar exercises a sort of ‘paratheological’ – imagination of the divine. Here she freely names God in a way that interrogates the doctrine of the Creator funding the brutalizing body politics of the Abrahamic plantation.

Hagar’s naming of God is the hermeneutic by which God as wilderness can begin to take shape. She addresses God as “El Roi,” which, as Williams notes, is a deity that “is not associated with Hagar’s oppressors, the patriarchal family.” Instead, El is traditionally used to refer to the god of the Canaanites. And, interestingly, names compounded with El were not applied to specific people or tribes but to cultic sites: “El olam, ‘the Everlasting God,’ appears in Genesis 21:33 in connection with Beer-sheba. El ro’i, ‘God of seeing,’ appears in Genesis 16:13 at another sanctuary in southern Palestine.” What does it mean that Hagar does not call upon the patriarchal God of her slave owners Sarai and Abram? Hagar’s unique choosing of the name El Roi is the mutinous construction of a non-anthropic, non-patriarchal, non-monarchical deity that is found in the very site of resistance to those opposing notions of sovereignty. Considering the context in which Hagar announces this sacred name (in the wilderness), God is the wilderness and the wilderness is the cultic site of fugitivity. The implicit corollary is that God is not the god of the plantation or the patriarchy. In this way, Hagar’s naming action is a staunch critique against “patriarchal power at its highest levels, since the ultimate head of this ancient Hebrew family was its patriarchal God.”

The runaway slave Hagar witnesses to the runaway God who is wilderness—the path of fugitivity towards abolitionist futurity. This God is a challenge to imperialist notions of the divine operative in the popular doctrine of the Creator. It is a notion of the sacred that is uncontainable, and therefore a polemic against all systems of power that necessitate the politics of surrogacy and atonement. What if the brutalities of the external and provincial God is a reflexive gesture of sovereignty to try and border the unborderable? What would it mean to think divinity not through the logics of the settler, and therefore the notion of borders and boundaries, but rather through the wilderness “as wide, wide world [that] cannot be contained?”

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Atonement Theory & The Idolatry of God

In Christian theology salvation tends to refer to God’s intent to restore that which has been broken in the world, including the earth and the creatures that inhabit it. The doctrine of salvation has a robust Christological interior. Soteriology (lit. “the study of salvation”) primarily centers around the “life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ in relation to human salvation.” Because of my chronic health problems, particular imposed soteriologies have caused me and my faith the most trauma. What I am interested in is the ‘implicacy’ of the doctrine of salvation in systems of meaning and power that ultimately disavow those in similar positions of vulnerability. One of the primary ways this gets played out is in the construction and exhortation of atonement theologies as modes of theodicy and meaning-making—that is, as theories designed to explain the existence of evil and make sense of the human predicament. I want to argue that insofar as atonement theologies function as defense mechanisms against facing systems of oppression, adherents are implicated in the idolatry of an antichrist.  

Let us begin by defining the “dominant Western view of the atonement” and its relation to salvation. Leanne van Dyk articulates that in this view “the death of the beloved Son is the substituted punishment for the accumulated total of human sin. … Punishment, [therefore,] is rooted in the divine economy.” This theory essentially frames the incarnation of Jesus as an “anthropomorphic reaction to human sin.” The death of Jesus, then, is the event which satisfies the wrath of God and makes possible the ability for sinful humanity to inherit holy salvation. Such sin-based theology is so enraptured in a Christ that redeems human sin that it tends to place redemptive value on the suffering of others, and, at its worst, forces the justification of such suffering. For most of my young adult life, this theology was the bedrock of my Christian faith.

Growing up in the Evangelical Church, my understanding of the doctrine of salvation was primarily informed by a scripturally dislocated John 3:16. Hence, the concept of salvation was inextricably linked to a certain interpretation of the crucifixion and a redemptive grace that was imparted to all who professed belief in the divinity of Christ. We ended up drawing the Godhead into an egoic longing for “retribution, judicial resolution and punishment.” This theology implicitly assumed God the Father to be fundamentally wrathful, dangerous, and subject to supposed cosmic laws of offended justice, and yet this God was spoken of as fundamentally interventionist in nature. However, in the elementary stages of my faith this boded well for me and my young mind that longed for a majestic Zeus-like God who had control over the dealings of the world.

We may ask, “What is disavowed in the dance between theological predications of atonement and Western cultural logic?” With such an individual, ahistorical, legalistic, mathematical formula-based theology being the center of many dominant notions of the Gospel, to what extent does this notion of salvation “[mask], even [legitimize], the violence which is such a painful characteristic of our society?” Dr. J. Kameron Carter argues that the inability to confess America as a genocidal society built off of slavery keeps the doctrine of salvation implicated in the idolatry of whiteness. He describes whiteness as “a practice of government, of population management and in this way of sovereignty.” He poses a striking polemical question, albeit indirectly, in conversation with Dyk: How does whiteness as a brutalizing practice of sovereignty intersect and inform the dominant Western view of the atonement? Carter reveals that whiteness has aided and abetted imperialist images of God that have been received in the Church as normative. He calls this “the reduction of the sacred to a brutalizing property-concept.” We ended up with a rather primitive notion of God who exists outside the realm of creation judging the world from afar.

When my health began to erode in 2006, this interventionist (and monarchical) deity—the one who enabled Jesus to heal the sick (Matt 8:3, 8:13, 8:16), to give sight to the blind (John 9:6-7), and to exorcise people of demons (Luke 8:26-33) was apparently, for reasons unknown, apathetic to my suffering, to the countless prayers I prayed, and to every hand that was laid on me for my healing. This began to render the Crucified Christ a meaningless, even harmful, metaphor for me. I began to see that because atonement theologies so strongly emphasized the redemptive blessing of Jesus’ blood, the wounds of others almost inherently became glorified centers of meaning leaving them to grieve their pain in isolation. I longed for an alternative theology and still do.  

Substitutionary atonement makes room for the perpetuation of individual and corporate systems of oppression under the guise that “all is paid for and eschatologically secured in Christ.” Slavoj Žižek says new age Asiatic thought has become the underlying ideology of postmodern post-industrial capitalism because it allows people to participate in a system that’s still rooted in domination and aggression while maintaining this inner sense of detachment. Though I do not claim to know how to approach the doctrine of salvation in a way that fully honors the experience of suffering people, I fear that framing the Crucified Christ in terms of atonement is the Christian equivalent of the white bourgeoisie appropriation of simplified Eastern philosophy. Both promote a stance of passivity to oppression, as if to be faithful is to be still rather than to act for one’s own liberation. The notion of salvation in the dominant Western view of the atonement is so caught up in the restorative reality of the eschaton that social activism is practically rendered futile. But what if the crucifixion was not about changing the mind of God about humanity, but about transforming humanity’s monarchical conception of the divine? What if being ‘saved’ was never about accessing God’s kingdom through gaining the forgiveness of God, but about being freed to live in a radically new way? Perhaps, then, we are saved not to escape this world, but to help transform it.

Control & The Antithesis of Faith

(Sermon delivered 9/27/17 to my preaching class—middler’s of the Divinity School.)

Matthew chapter 28 vv. 1-7 & 16-18:

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. … Go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’” … Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.”

The major climactic moment post-resurrection when Jesus appears to his disciples after having died and “proves” his messiahship, the text says, “They worshipped; but some doubted.” It’s horrible Jesus propaganda, but brilliant insight, I think, into what it means to be human. There’s something called Christian Atheism, which sounds like an irreconcilable paradox, but I think it gives us good insight into what this little detail in Matthew may be getting at. What Christian Atheism asserts is that actually all of us live in the liminality between belief and unbelief. In other words, doubt and faith, theism and atheism aren’t actually diametrically opposed; they’re two dimensions of being human. In other words, belief is a spectrum, and our dance between the polarities is what makes us human.

When things like mystery, liminality and questioning are actually portrayed in scripture as normative for the life of faith why do we reinforce the stigmatization of doubt? When some worshipped and some doubted but all were commissioned to go and love the world, why do we persist in pathologizing skepticism?

I’m passionate about this because nobody brought this to my attention when I needed it most. In early high school I began developing major complications with my health. My severe bodily suffering was compounded by my own shame for the ways I found myself questioning my faith, the nature of scripture, and the existence of God. Consequently, I found myself doubting my own self-worth in deeply isolating ways. I prayed for years that God would give me some ounce of theological clarity, that God would give me some revelation into Godself that would make the doubt go away.

I wish I could tell my younger self that wanting this sort of clarity and certitude is actually a seeking of cosmic control—a flashlight to illumine the darkness of the open road of our ambiguous lives vis a vis unimaginably vast mysteries that we can never hope to comprehend (i.e., “Why do we suffer?” “Is Jesus the only way to God?” “Is there a God at all?”). But as someone who continues to walk the road of chronic illness, let me say that the darkness does us a favor by exposing control as an illusion. I think the reality is that sooner or later we discover that we can’t actually control what happens to us, only how we respond to what happens. And the grand project of our lives is to learn to surrender in gratitude to the great mystery of being. That means doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it’s control. If you can hear this now, then maybe the next time pain, anxiety, and doubt knocks upon your door you can have the courage to unabashedly invite it in, allowing it to transform you into someone who is ready to journey ever deeper into the mystery of the risen Christ.

Amen.

A Gift Worth Preserving

I mourn for this beleaguered Earth,

The only home we’ve known.

I stand with the Native Water Protectors,

But from behind the security of a Macbook.

I mourn for every sea creature with stomachs full of plastic,

Every newborn welcomed into a progressively toxic atmosphere.

What will it take to convince us of the grave importance of ecological preservation

Over the lie of capitalist consumerism?

Perhaps a child of our own

Rays of light through the desolate woods—

A gift worth preserving.

Trader Joes

Pushing what was now my full cart down the quietly untouched bodily hygiene and animal food aisle, I looked to my right and saw the bag of dog treats that had so often been the meeting point of Lucy’s whiskers and my hand.

I stopped for a moment and just stood there looking over at them and the picture on the front of the Portuguese Water Dog. I recalled Lucy’s thick black fur and youthful energy, her realist sensibility and sassy resilience, her unconditional wagging of the tail regardless of how late I came home at night.

I remembered the habitual twinkling of her collar tags as she would follow the sound of my guitar to find me playing alone in the living room. And I remember staying by her side after she came home from surgery and nursing her with those same treats. Then, with that old familiar ache, I remembered with piercing accuracy how it felt to see her bed without her in it, to play my guitar and hear still the echo of those tags now imagined.

You can carry a wound for a child, a parent, a dear friend, even someone you’ve admired but never met. But I’m finding just as well that your heart can break wide open for an animal—indeed, for a dog; and it turns out that you can cry even in that cold, dormant aisle of Trader Joes.

Come Inside

In more ways than one the past five months have silenced me. I simply haven’t found the energy or the words to voice my experience. This has been a season of immense pain, of learning, of hope, and of pain once more. It’s the sort of pain that isolates, apparently even from my own voice, as it seems this dark existential pit of being has no sufficient words. I have journaled mere details of my days without a hint of poeticism and started songs just to scrap them because they have become clichés. I’ve been desperately searching for something to catalyze my healing. But this… this suffering is persistent.

Journeying with me from Tacoma, Washington to Durham, North Carolina and the community of Duke Divinity School, this suffering goes with me more than ever before. I have said over and over again to my poor health, “This really isn’t a good time. Could you please leave me alone?” But at its core is this fundamental insistence on being experienced fully and without reprieve, to break me wide open for reasons unknown, and silence me at a crucial moment when I could be making new connections with new people.

I think there is simply no making sense of our suffering, you just learn to grapple with two fundamental options: resisting your reality or embracing it (not to be mistaken for enjoying it). Today I break the silence because I’m feeling ready to take up the latter. Perhaps our pain and suffering knocks upon our door not to taunt us away from fulfillment, but to befriend us and teach us all that it can about true love and true joy—those virtues that we culturally unlearn.

now silence your core

heed the knocking wound

and with a resounding breath

prepare a room for a resurrected heart

The Dragon

In Chinese culture, dragons represent traditionally masculine traits like strength and ferocity, but also perseverance, divine spirit, and success through overcoming hardship. For years now I’ve had large dragon tapestries on my bedroom walls and they’ve meant different things to me along the way.

Let me begin by giving a very brief backstory. Towards the end of elementary school and all throughout middle school, I was a victim of racist bullying. To be honest, it’s not something that I’ve given much thought until rather recently with the Black Lives Matter movement. Coming to terms with my own experience of racism has allowed me to better understand the racism of others and work to shake off its roots in our American culture.

My sophomore year of college, I bought my first dragon tapestry at a street market in Fremont, Seattle. I bought it simply for its aesthetic qualities, and didn’t think too much of it. But this was also around the time that I began to reclaim my Chinese identity. I proudly put up my dragon tapestry as a way to remind myself of my Chinese heritage and that I was proud of my family’s history. Looking back, it was also, in large part, a personal permission slip to give up the grudges I had held for so long against the racist bullies of my childhood.

When I moved to Davis, California I met someone who introduced me to a sort of mythic iconography where, in a visible place in your house, you put an animal or beast that represents your weakest traits, and the objective is to have this rich dialogue with it that becomes instinctual as you face the challenges of life. Essentially, one listens to it and learns from it not so much in an attempt to become it, but to become better as a result of it. I found this idea really fascinating. After all, I never fully identified in what the Chinese Dragon symbolized. I had, for the last six years or so, battled with weakness as a result of chronic insomnia and uncorrelated chronic fatigue. I knew that I had already found the perfect beast for this project, and so I decided I would give this iconography a try.

I bought another dragon tapestry at a tibetan store downtown. I paid the quiet and mysterious store owner, rolled it up, put it in my backpack, and biked it all the way back to my apartment.

When I got back, I surveyed the room, looking for a good place to put this new dragon. There was hardly any room in my bedroom for such a large sheet.

“Maybe I’ll put it downstairs in the kitchen. Better there than nowhere at all.”

So I walked it downstairs and found that there was definitely no room for it there, especially since I had another tapestry on the wall, which I had forgotten was there. So I brought it back upstairs to my room.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have bought this,” I said to myself.

I really thought there would be room. I laid down on my bed for a moment out of physical fatigue and looked up at an empty ceiling, and there, just like that, I had found both the physical space for my tapestry, and the perfect location for such a habitual practice of mythic iconography.

That year I spent countless miserable nights awake with insomnia looking up at a dragon on my ceiling, and, call me crazy, but I think I became a better person for it. On those nights I would look up at my dragon and he would stare down at me and we would talk. Many times he would mock me and my weakness. He would tempt me to give into hopelessness. He would say, “You’re not a Chinese! You can’t overcome your suffering!” But I would think back to the stories of my grandparents, and remember where they came from and where they ended up. Poverty, prison camps, providing for their entire families just to be deserted by them, then going to college on their own dime, becoming successful lawyers, starting a family and paving the way for the life that would one day be mine. This history was also my history.

A year later, the dragons are up in my bedroom in Tacoma. This is the room where I continue to suffer with insomnia, and where my conversations with the dragons continue. I’m learning to identify with them more and more because I feel that in some small way I really am overcoming my hardship by facing my suffering. It’s through this long and consistent battle with insomnia and fatigue that the importance of fiercely loving myself and powerfully standing up to hopelessness becomes so clear to me. I simply cannot survive if on top of my suffering I am tearing myself down in my own heart. Although the Dragon is, in many seasons, my nemesis, he is also my teacher. He is teaching me that I can in fact become a lot like him, although it might take the subversion of the traditional model of power and success (hint hint… Jesus).

This week I am not at home. I am in Winthrop, WA with my father and there are no dragon tapestries here. But last night, I had insomnia again and discovered that there was one hiding in the shadows.

2:45am. I leave my room. It’s better not to stay in one’s bed tossing and turning all night because of negative conditioning. So I go to the dimly lit living room where the fire place is still on. I sit for a moment with my head down in defeat.

“Why me? What did I do wrong today to throw off my sleep cycle? Why the hell can’t I just be like other people and sleep like a normal human being? My vacation with my dad is going to be ruined if I don’t sleep.”

And like an avatar from another reality, this dragon suddenly appears with a fierce gust of wind directly above me to my right. I look up at it and it says,

“You’re weak! You will never know success. You will never be able to help others if you yourself are in need of help! You embarrass me. You bring no honor to your family. You are worthless!”

It takes me only a few seconds tonight to spit back with my own sleep deprived but fiery conviction.

“No!! Dragon, don’t you see? This is the only way to retain my true identity! Without facing my own pain I will never come to see the true gift that my life is. For as long as I drink this cup of suffering, I proclaim my victory until it comes.”

The Dragon usually gives up when I start to make parallels to my experience with the scriptures of my faith tradition. In this moment I feel victorious. However, to be honest, I felt a little lonely once the Dragon left. I enjoyed having a conversation partner at that late hour, even if it was a bit of a contentious dialogue.

I realize that the Dragon stops talking to me when I have all I need to accept my conditions, retain my power to see myself as beautiful and worthy, and remember that I contain a piece of divinity, a piece of God’s sacred spirit inside of me. I’m thankful for that because I need every reminder I can get that all the tools for success, for inner peace, are already within me. This capacity for love and peace is in me because it’s in all of us. I believe that. And I’m trying to infuse every facet of my life with this belief and am endeavoring to live like it moment to moment authentically whether it’s with my experience as an insomniac, my service to others, my friendships, my letting go of grudges, or my relationship with my family. To unlock these treasures within us requires only a subtle shift in perspective, although it has dramatically huge implications. For me, that has everything to do with the way I view my suffering in the context of success.

As Rumi said over seven hundred years ago, what cleans the dirt is dirt itself. It’s only in my present circumstance of my chronic insomnia that I have begun to understand this. What if the “dirt” of our finite, mortal lives is actually the path to heal and transform the dirt we see in the world? The exploration of our own dirt, our own ugliness, hate, aggression, fear, and weakness is where the journey begins. May we find our own creaturely teachers and tempters, and may it be a journey of healing for each and every one of us.

Memory & Place

I woke up with a cold this morning, which was too bad, but I ended up embracing it because it meant I could have a sick day and sick days can be fun if you let them. My dog was sick today too—some stomach thing—so I got to lay pathetically next to her in solidarity. I think she liked that.

I did a number of little things today, but nothing that significant to write about. Though I will tell you something that I thought, which is that I miss living in the city. I found that living there can make the mundane tasks of every day life seem less pointless. I could water my plants and look out the window at a city also in the midst of the mundane. And “going out” was as easy as stepping out my front door. When you’re in the city it doesn’t feel like you have to leave to find the world because you’re already in it.

Here in Tacoma I live in a neighborhood about fifteen minutes from downtown, which is far enough from the city to feel alone. It’s not my parents’ fault. It’s a really nice home and a pleasant neighborhood. We’re on top of a series of hills tucked away from the elementary and middle school, the golf course, the corner store and the old Blockbuster that’s parking lot is now a place where kids skate and smoke weed.

I have no friends here, although I used to. He used to live across the street in that mansion. I always felt a little less cool than him mainly because of their house and how young and trendy his parents were. We’d call each other on our home phones and hang out usually at his house, for obvious reasons. We’d skateboard on our quarter pipe that our dads built together.

I had another friend the next street over. I’d walk to the street, then I’d crawl through the brush to top of the hill that marked the end of his backyard. I’d slide down and make my way to his back door and I’d knock and wait. Most days he’d answer and we’d watch scary movies and skate in the street. If we were lucky we’d convince his mom to drive us to a skatepark and we’d just skate for hours.

I miss all of that. That’s when living here made the most sense. That’s kind of when my life made the most sense. It wasn’t so complicated. Now it’s all about finding some job that’ll give you enough money to do the mundane, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll enjoy your work. Now without a job, I spend lots of time watching nothing in particular from my window feeling nostalgic and remembering all of those things. Nowadays this street is pretty deserted during the day, but maybe it’s always been like that. I think most of them go to work around 6 in the morning. Sometimes I’m finally falling asleep when they pull out of their driveways.

I don’t know what I’m doing. I really don’t. I’m twenty three. I don’t have a job. I’m living with my parents. I’m in this stagnant pool of young adulthood and it’s like I’m just learning to swim all over again. All I want to do is have fun with my friends, but I don’t have friends here anymore and the friends I do have are busy living their lives that look nothing like mine. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so alone in my entire life. It’s partly this amazing privilege to be living here with a mom and dad who are willing to put me up until I figure out my next steps, but it’s also this incredibly lonely experience.

Before dinner tonight I took a walk back to my middle school. The school is a ghost town at night. The detritus of Halloween night litter some corners of the school property and remind me why it’s a holiday that I mainly avoid aside from rarely getting invited any where. I started tracing the perimeter of my school counter clockwise. I looked into the gym. The lights were on and I could see it was remodeled now. But I could still make out the area that me and my first girlfriend sat during PE. I thought back to that one day after band class when her friend dumped me because she was probably too afraid to tell me herself. It’s funny how it felt nothing at all like being dumped the next time in college.

I went around and found the stairs and walked up to where the library is located. I peered in the windows of the dimly lit library. Everything looked nicer now. I wondered to myself why my schools always get better looking once I leave. This looked like a library I could have spent hours in, but back then it wasn’t anything to retreat to. I walked down to the basketball court that I mainly avoided because of the assholes who felt the need to pick on me during lunch and in between classes. I didn’t stay there long. These weren’t memories to dwell on. So finally I went around to the entrance of the school and found the curb I would sit on to eat my lunch alone. I just stood there for awhile taking it all in. It was dark now.

I remembered how alone and unlikeable I felt as a seventh and eighth grader. I remembered all the friends I lost. I remembered the time I came home from my first school dance in tears. I can usually find it somewhere within me to see the humor in the past, but as I was standing there in the deserted school yard I never once felt like laughing at these old memories. The pain was still too real. It’s manifested itself in different ways over the years. I’ve felt alone all my life. But I also remembered how so much changed for the better once I moved on to high school. I made friends. I got a better haircut. A couple of girls liked me. I got asked to my second school dance with one of the popular girls and I actually had a good time. In high school I finally felt like I was worth something again. Then I thought about where I was now, in my twenties and once again lost and confused and lonely, and I knew in my heart that this too would pass; that I would move on from the ambiguous space of feeling too old to skateboard all day and too young to give my time to some boring and meaningless day job. This too would turn into something beautiful and unexpected just as everything else has. The secret was to just keep walking, to keep taking chances, and to never stop learning from all the past has to teach me.

Rainfall

It’s a dark and dreary day here in Tacoma, Washington and I’m so in love with it. The rain drops are heavy and musical. Everything green is greener. Everything toxic is vanished. I welcome the rain any day it decides to take over this industrial city. I realize some people get really sad when it rains, but for some reason I feel more like myself. I think a part of it is that I struggle on a daily basis with low self-esteem and especially when I’m outside the house and around other people. I do believe a lot of it is merely imaginary, but I often feel like the whole world is staring at me and that this world is better looking and closer to perfect than I’ll ever be. Of course this is false because I really do believe that each one of us is beautiful in our own way. But when it rains and people retreat inside I suddenly don’t feel so vulnerable and alone anymore. In fact, I start to feel a bit invisible and it’s profoundly liberating.

Sometimes I’ll crack the window by my desk and play my guitar to the sound of the rainfall. I’ve written lots of music on rainy days just like this. Other times I will unearth my journal and write about my life and everything I’ve been thinking and feeling. Writing is very cathartic for me—almost as good as talking to a counselor who is paid to listen to me and provide insightful advice. And although this is a rarity, every now and again I’ll go out in the rain and have what some might call a mystical experience.

On rainy days there have been occasions where I’ve felt keenly connected to a higher being who is the embodiment of love and accepts me just the way I am. And trust me, I hear the skeptic saying that it’s just a naturally induced neurological state from being outside and having a sense of natural grandeur. And maybe it is, but maybe it isn’t, and after all, does it really matter? In that moment I understand grace as a life I’ve been given without any conscious effort on my part—an opportunity to the make the most of what I’ve been freely given. Christians would call this an encounter with Jesus the Christ. Muslims would treasure this precious experience with what they identify as Muhammad. Buddhists might relish in their enlightenment and their momentary freedom from human suffering. The Agnostic might shake her head at the sky in awe and wonder and ask, “Who are you?” while the Atheist might treasure the same moment as if it were her last.

Sometimes I think I use the word God too much. To me it’s a verb. It’s a knowing intelligence, which is moving through the universe in a certain pattern. We can see this pattern in Buddhism with the four noble truths. The first noble truth is impermanence, the second is suffering, the third is non-attachment, and the fourth is the eight-fold path of right relationship. The pattern is that the truth isn’t just in the words; it’s coming out of this one seed that’s moving everywhere that we call God. Joseph Campbell said, “God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought, even the categories of being and non-being.”

I suppose what I experience during these mystical experiences is a oneness with all life, and every time I talk with someone and connect with his or her heart (often while talking to homeless people), and every time I experience true joy or suffering of my own I hear an echo of those mystical experiences that tie everything real and transcendent back into an experience of God. See I learn about who I am, who we are, and who God is when I encounter love. To me, myth is the ultimate truth. If there is one spirit of the universe, then there’s just one story although its got a couple hundred billion scripts. I love the diversity, but they’re all telling the same story. It’s one consciousness (our consciousness) expressing itself over and over and over again.

So I don’t know how or if God truly interacts with the universe, and I can’t prove to anyone that God interacts with me, but I can say that believing that God does these things changes me on a daily basis. It makes me a better person. Christianity gets off track when it loses the tradition of the here and now. And that was its glory. It did not appeal to history. Yes, I believe Jesus was born, died, and rose from the dead, but unless you can experience that same vitality and that same nobility of life here and now, that’s just a story to you. So what if this Jesus stuff turns out to be false in the end? It made my life better in the present and it was my way of making sense of this life just as much as it is an Agnostic’s, or a Buddhist’s, or a Muslim’s way of making sense of their existence by claiming their own beliefs about the divine. There is something in us that knows that this is true that requires no litmus test; something we innately understand about myth, about story.

What my faith does cause is the desire to help people find God for themselves. But it does nothing to make me want to change people’s mind, to convince them that everything I believe is right because I don’t believe I know everything. Believing in God makes me want to quiet down enough to hear other people’s stories and to learn from them, to make space for more possibilities of God, to provide the space for people to question God on their own, to make their own mistakes, to have fun and to even forget about the questions all together because in the end did we even realize that is was raining?

NK