As any of you may notice, because there's a lot of snow in Seattle, we're all vaguely snowed in here, some of his very much snowed in. Not me personally, mind you, but I have friends and family who are. I listened to a sermon on the iPod today since I knew I wasn't going to bother to head out to an actual church service on public transit in this kind of weather.
I am considering the issue of "being fed" or what self-feeding looks like in a personal context. Earlier you may have noticed I wrote about how I have been dramatically reassessing my understanding and attitude toward the psalms. I was reading a bit of Athanasius on the topic, actually, and it struck me how much self-feeding I'm likely to have to do on the psalms. The church I have been part of has never once gone through psalms from the pulpit, which is pretty astonishing the more I think about it. I hope this may be rectified soon but I am not sure if I am sticking around for that or not.
Now when I wrote earlier about self-feeding and the pastoral buffet of teaching I was not consciously mulling over what I am consciously mulling over now, what may genuinely be grace to one man may be nothing but a damning law to the other. At this point a pastor must consider what may be a law of averages. You can preach for the 90% of the congregation who you believe needs to shape up and repent of X sin but doing so means that the 10% who are left who have a different or opposite struggle hear the rebuke for the others and either sense that it is not for them or feel worse about where they are already at for not being the other 90%
There are few issues in evangelicalism where this gets more prominent than not being married. I know of a church that dealt, dare I say, obsessively with the topic of marriage and dating for a few years and it tended to be from a set of assumptions that 1) everyone ought to get married at some point because 90% of people will marry 2) we're focusing on getting all those singles into that 90% 3) the net effect was to tell singles that their goal was to get out of their single status but paradoxically singles might be enjoined to serve more and thereby find people whom could get them out of the singleness phase of life.
Now if I find myself in a situation where the things I most struggle with, things like fear that my life is stagnating at a respectable but nevertheless dead end job in an economy where my skills don't seem all that marketable and I most certainly could not support a family on the income I have but I believe that for a wide variety of providential and rational reasons that I have the job God wants me to have where I am at ... of what use is teaching about marriage and dating to me in a setting where for years dating was considered bad? I have had well-intentioned friends say I'm not ready to be married. Yes, I knew that quite a long time before they did, thanks.
On the other hand, I am probably not that cut out to be a monk. I do not have a confessional tradition where being a monk really interests me. There are no evangelical monks, are there? Where are they? Evangelicals are busy telling people that 90% of people will marry. That 10 percent that won't marry or maybe aren't marriage material? Who cares about them? They don't matter that much, they're just the ones with lots of free time to serve ... in some formal capacity.
And that IS a distinct advantage, isn't it? But if the chef provides food for all but the lactose intolerant what are those lactose intolerant people going to do when they see tons of cheese being ladeled on to the plates? This is where the paradox of self-feeding returns. A person who feeds themselves what they know through experience they can handle suddenly risks being the jerk who doesn't go along with what the chef is spooning out for the others. The most respectful thing would be to not show up for the meal if you know no concession is being made for what you can and can't digest, but then people want to know why you're not showing up for the weekly meals. Well, uh, you can't exactly spin that and you can't say what's what without the risk of steeping on people's toes when that's the last thing you want to do.
And so it has been from that perspective that I have not attended a certain place for a few months. I am also at a stage in my life where to hear months of preaching on that topic would not be a benefit to me where I am at. I already feel a sense of anxiety that I am neither cut out to be married nor to remain single the rest of my life and rather than this motivating me to somehow "prepare" for married life ... as if anything on earth really does that ... it has put me in a place where I feel that since teaching on married life seems academic and useless to me and since I in my single state frankly don't need to know now the stuff that was apt to be discussed for the sake of my own conscience I skipped out. Not that I have no struggles with lust or anything, far from it, but knowing how things went last time these topics were broached by preacher X I know better than to put myself in a position where stuff that is meant for the 90% is stuff I actually need to hear again. I've heard from plenty of preachers that that special book is in the Bible and it would be wrong not to preach from it. I'm at a point in my life where me hearing preaching from that book ... eh, not so sure I need to. So if it is a blessing to others, awesome. I just skipped it.
So if that is what food is being put on the table and I don't feel that I can in good conscience partake of that food should I be at the table? Should I not be at a church because I'm either not being fed or the food on offer is food that I feel I shouldn't eat? Is being part of God's people about ME being fed to begin with? If by fed a person means understanding the Gospel in new and life changing ways I'm not sure I've been fed since about 2005, to be honest, and I don't like to frame things in terms of it being just a pastor's fault that I don't feel I have come to a great appreciable understanding of the Gospel of Jesus in three years' time. I've got a lot of problems, a lot of problems, in comprehending what the grace of God is. If I am in a church where it seems like other people get it and I don't does that mean it's all my fault? Somehow I don't get that sense either because no one is righteous except Christ when the chips are down.
So I have taken a break from a place and from any regular church attendance. I used to hold firmly that membership in a church was vital and necessary to one's Christian walk but over the last few years I have had my confidence in that shaken. I like the idea in principle more than in practice. Spenser's axiom that the more real you are the less likely you are to feel welcome "may" apply or it may be that what is genuinely grace for person X may come off as law for me. My best guess as to why this is is that there are things that I feel I ought to be and do and since I see myself as unfit to be and do those things I judge myself as wanting in the scales that other people seem to be obtaining.
Or, to be more blunt, if 90% of people marry and I am not only not married but have never even bothered to "he who finds a wife finds what is good and obtains favor from the Lord" (in other words actually date, which would have been weird because the church I've been part of has a colored history of being pro marriage and anti dating) what's my problem? Is it a problem that can be remedied or is it unfixable? If I don't think I'm selfless enough to be a husband or father or don't make enough money should I try to fix that or simply resign to that and then feel as though a lot of the preaching at the place I have been is simply not for me, never has been for me, and never will be for me? Or is it possible that people marry for reasons that are not that rational and I've been potentially sold a bill of good about how ready people actually are when they marry? I have had people tell me that people should marry because it is better to marry than to burn and what's my excuse for not marrying? Does pleading total lack of qualification to be married count? Nope. I have constantly felt like I'm in some weird double bind where if I don't feel like marriage material that's agreed to but that eventually I 'should' marry. And I have gotten some very clear indications from family and friends that married llife, particularly parenting, can be the measure of adult fulfillment. It's not on purpose .... but it can be unintentionally discouraging.
I don't know what I want, really. I'm told by a church culture and by some zealous friends what they think OUGHT to be the case. I am in a setting where I know what the "law" says, whether the law of averages or the law of Scripture or the law of expectations and I am starting to realize that what other people think is not very important. I am not good at ignoring the opinions of people I respect or care about. For a lot of my early years I was told I needed to know what I wanted and have a plan for my life. I did that for a while and it never panned out. Now I don't think it does anyone any good to have a plan for their lives because God thwarts our plans. We can commit our plans to the Lord and He can destroy them or uphold them as He sees fit.
I'll be honest, when I was in my late teens and early twenties where I wanted to be at this point in my life was to have a teaching position in literature or biblical studies at a college, be married, and have a kid or two and maybe have some time left over to write music once in a while or publish something in some form. I'm not a professor of anything, most certainly am not married, no kids (thank God, as I wouldn't want them except after the earlier conditionof being married had been met) and I haven't had anything published in the traditional sense of that term.
Instead I have a blog here on the internet that I know at least some people read. I started off this blog intending to write about music and cartoons and eventually deal with some theology and it seems to have inexorably shifted toward theology, but theology of an admittedly vague sort. I am most definitely single and have no, so far as I understand the term to have currency in this society, been on a date. I'm of two minds on whether I ought to or even want to go on a date. I am a boring fellow as my blog can probably attest, I tend to be obsessive about the topics that interest me, topics that I'm not sure very many people care about. Even within one of my fields of interest, classical guitar, my interest is often met with a sort of indifference or bewilderment. I am a very introverted person. Get me in a room with more than about ten people, especially people I don't really know, and I am apt to have an inversely proportional dynamic at work, the more people you put with me in a room that I don't know as family or friends the less likely I am to want to say things.
And the part where I feel like I must have a bad attitude on the subject of dating, marriage, and women, is that I often wonder who would be worth the trouble. Really, who would be worth the trouble? This is not tos ay I don't love women. There are women I love a great deal, as friends. The idea of there being any other element sorta repels me and not exactly because I plan it that way, either the feeling of anxiety about romantic attachment or, God knows, the slightest hint of romantic attachment itself.
So I can say that I'm not against the idea of having a girlfriend but am not sure it is worth the time, trouble, and effort to have one. But Ecclesiastes mentions that there is a man with no companion and no children and he works and works and he never stops to ask himself, "For whom am I doing all this work?" We can't spiritualize the topic to the point of saying "well, you work for God." We can, of course, but that's not what Koholeth talks about. You can't huddle up with Jesus to keep warm on a cold night. Make no mistake, it's pretty damned cold here in the Emerald City right now. Telling me I should be complete in Jesus and be warm ... thanks, I have my electric bill paid up and have baseboard heating. So I don't have anyone to help me keep warmbut I'm covered.
I have heard some Christians say over the years that is is important to have a legacy. This legacy has been most often framed in terms of kids. Kids are idols sometimes. The first born of Egypt were slain. Now at one level this indicated that children could be idols but at another level it's not what the point is. God destroyed the legacy of the Egyptians in one night but killing the firstborn in all the land. Our legacy is Christ, not the legacy that we spend our lives working to establish.
I could spend my whole life composing music and I could get published and perhaps in a century my music will actually be played or still be in print and perhaps I might end up getting mention in a footnote in a music history book. But that is not likely. My music is not that awesome and people who work on music primarily for their legacy or to prove things never amount to anything, not unless they happen to have already amounted to something and recognize that legacy is what you give to others for their benefit, not yours. Bach's music legacy is a gift to us and I believe that he recognized he rocked the house and also that it was his gift to future generations of an already musical family to continue serving by creating music. But as Koholeth put it, it is good to enjoy your work that God gives you to do. This isn't a caseof "do what you love and the money will follow" it's "love what you have been given to do because if you don't you probably can't bargain with God for a better deal."
And this is where the food for the 90% that is hard to digest for the 10% comes back. I have some idea what God wants me to do on the basis of the work that He has given me joy in doing. This is not stuff that makes any sense to people where I am at, and perhaps it is more accurate to say that the sort of music I feel God has given me time and inspiration to work on is useless to any church. I am too insecure a performer to want to put my music out in front of people myself. I prefer to give my music to other people to play. I tried a rock band thing for a while and musicians said positive things about the music and audiences, such few as I had, didn't resonate with it. I have often wondered if there is a basic problem in what I write, if it lacks emotional depth or connectivity with people.
but while I feel closer to the Lord when I compose, feel as though I am doing something He has given me to do when I compose, I do not sense that what I do as a musician or composer is something God's people will have any use for. I've tried a handful of things and nothing much came of it. A professional musician once told me that my music would be a challenge to market. She said that it's good music, accessible music, but that it is too complex and unusual to appeal to the usual church music crowd but it's not nearly strange enough to appeal to the academic musician crowd, not unusual enough. In other words I'm not John Rutter but I'm not Lutoslawski or Charles Ives.
I am not sure where God wants me to be other than where I am at and I'm chafing a bit at where I'm at. I feel as though if I were to ask people where my life is going they'd say "nowhere". That's where I feel I'm at now. In earlier ages there was a popular understanding that how providence played out could sometimes means that things suck and you can be grateful you're not worse off. We live in an age now where even among Christians providence tends to only be invoked as a way of pointing out all the cool stuff God gave you that you SAY you don't deserve but secretly think you do deserve because, hey, God in His omniscience gave it to you so that means you must have been doing something right. And if you claim, "No, that's not the reason" y0u're probably lying because the first great liar was immensely blessed by God and moved from "I deserved this" to "I deserve more". If you think you deserve something you can't have real gratitude for it.
I don't deserve to be able to compose the music I write. My eyes are poor and my hands were injured working some menial jobs ten years ago. I don't deserve to be able to write or play music at all or to read. In earlier age, even if I had been born ten years earlier, I'd have died at childbirth or shorty there after. I don't really "deserve" to be alive at all. And I don't take that in the weird health-and-wealth speak to mean that "You were a winner before you were even born. Your sperm hit the egg first out of millions of sperm." Uh, great, Mr. preacher, that really proves a lot. Unlike you, who are married, I have never once sat down and thought about which one among millions of sperm of any guy's semen would be most likely to reach the egg in a woman's uterus first and thereby somehow prove that the resultant baby was a winner before birth. It just doesn't follow logically anyway.
A friend and I were chatting a while back and when I explained that I like the idea of marriage in theory and as an institution but am not sure it would justify all the junk attendent to it he joked (or half-joked) that I would make a great monk. Perhaps I would, but evangelical Protestantism does not seem to have any monastic orders. If you're a fellow like me who specializes in researching obscure contemporary classical guitar repertoire and enjoys South Park then I would probably make, I don't know, probably make for a truly terrible monk. What I know does not have much practical value and what I don't know could fill enough books that would require the deforestation of Brazil.