Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I just called to say...

George: I might tell her that I love her. I came this close last night, then I just chickened out.

Jerry: Well, that's a big move, Georgie boy. Are you confident in the “I love you” return?

George: Fifty-fifty.

Jerry: Cause if you don't get that return, that's a pretty big matzo ball hanging out there.

George: Aw, I've just got to say it once, everybody else gets to say it, why can't I say it?

Elaine: What, you never said it?

George: Once, to a dog. He licked himself and left the room.

Jerry: Well, so it wasn't a total loss.

New scene— George and Siena are sitting in the car again. They're listening to the hockey game on the radio.

George: You know, I could have actually gone to that.

Siena: So why didn't you?

George: Well, I didn't want to break our date.

Siena: Oh, well.

George: Because I... I love you.

Siena: You know, I'm hungry. Let's get something to eat.

In 2000, I joined the pastoral staff of a moderately large church in Northern California. It was the most huggy place on earth. It seemed whether greeting or parting, an embrace was required. At first, it drove me nuts. I have some real personal space issues. You’re only welcome to land if you have received clearance from the tower. It wasn’t just the hugs. This church was the “I love you” capital of Christendom. Public profession of adoration between friends is a fine gesture to be sure, but not exactly within my stockpile of experience.

You see, “I love you” for me is an expression of great import. The phrase carries with it the weight of significant depth and personal covenant. To feel love for someone else is one thing. To say, “I love you,” well, this is more than deep caring, it is a contract—a new level of spoken commitment.

In part, as a result of my brief experience at that church, I verbally communicate my feelings for my close friends more often than before. Still, it can be “a pretty big matzo ball hanging out there.” Not for lack of confidence in the “I love you return.” I’m not sure that is always so important. I mean, everyone likes to hear they are loved (whether or not the feeling is mutual), right? Ah, but therein lies the problem.

It’s all about semantics. At that church, “I love you” meant, “I appreciate you” or “I’m glad you’re my friend” or “it sure is nice weather we’re having.” For me, “I love you” means, “built on the qualities I have come to deeply value in you, I care for and trust in you enough to risk a consequential portion of the depth of who I am on my relationship with you.”

Not only are there considerable differences in what these words mean from one person to the next, but, I have come to recognize that many people (including myself) find the idea of being loved difficult. Being loved is not a passive state. It seems to carry implicit responsibilities. If I am loved by you, I must bear the burden of your emotion. I now knowingly have the power to hurt you deeply. Sometimes, however, the problem is even more straightforward and narcissistic. I feel guilty—find it difficult (or even impossible) to receive your love because I don’t feel lovable. If you really knew me, you wouldn’t feel this way. Because of your expression, I am now beholden to continue whatever charade has inspired you to develop such affections. I no longer have the option of ever “being myself.” I must be the person you can love.

I sometimes wonder if this isn’t one of the reasons westerners in postmodern society are so quick to push God away. The formidable complexities—the internal antagonisms involved in the giving and receiving of unconditional, honest, whole love appear insurmountable… or, even worse, strike debilitating terror. The issues of personal space surrounding our heart keep Him (and most everyone else) at arm’s length. What tragic, personal devastation we affect through passive resistance in the name of self preservation.

New scene— Jerry and George are at the coffee shop.

Jerry: "I'm hungry. Let's get something to eat."

George: Yup.

Jerry: Big matzo ball.

George: Huge matzo ball.

Jerry: Those damn “I love you” returns.

George: Well, it's all over. I slipped up.

Jerry: Oh, you don't know.

George: You have any idea how fast these things deteriorate when there's an “I love you” out of the bag? You can't have a relationship where one person says, "I love you", and the other says, "I'm hungry. Let's get something to eat."

Jerry: Unless you're married.

George: I mean, now she thinks that I'm one of these guys that love her. Nobody wants to be with somebody that loves them.

Jerry: No, people hate that.

George: You want to be with somebody that doesn't like you.

Jerry: Ideally.

George: I am never saying “I love you” again unless they say it first.

Waitress: Matzo ball soup?

George: That'd be me.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw "Eli Stone"

My wife and I watch Eli Stone. As network television goes, it’s pretty alright by me. I’m a Victor Garber fan (thus the initial interest). The premise: an associate attorney in a large San Francisco Law firm develops a hereditary subarachnoid brain aneurysm. He begins to have “sensory hallucinations” or visions. This rather serious scenario is often handled (on the show) with levity—sometimes even song and dance. The twist? The visions usually come true. Motivated by the phenomena, Eli finds himself advocating for worthy but less than popular causes. He comes to believe the visions are from God.

A faith theme runs strongly throughout most episodes. The season premiere a few weeks ago held no exception. Eli has undergone surgery to remove the aneurism. As a post procedural requirement, Eli must participate in counseling sessions to determine his fitness to once again practice law. Season two opens in one of these sessions (with a counselor played by Sigourney Weaver). The episode's story hinge: Eli comes to realize, though he has been meeting with her for three months, Ms. Weaver’s character is visible only to him. He asks if it’s possible she is only a “supersized vision.”

Weaver - Well, anything’s possible Eli. Isn’t that the very essence of faith?

Stone - That’s not an answer. Are you . . . ?

Weaver - God can be a narrow term. Let’s say hypothetically that I am or, to use a term from your line of work, that I’m His “fiduciary.” You had the aneurism removed. You were quite clear that you wanted your life to return to what you consider “normal.” But you’re meant for so much more, Eli. You’re one of those people for whom “normal” is a failure of potential.

Stone - Oh, so, you’re punishing me by dropping a bank on Jordan?

Weaver - That’s not the way of things. There’s no, "you don’t scratch my back, I’ll smite yours."
Don’t get nervous. I’m not about to start drawing my theology from the ABC Network writers’ table.

Most of the time, I love what I do. Still, I have often been remarkably jealous of people with a straightforward, 40 hour a week job; a handsome 501K; and a cake party in the staff room every time someone has a birthday. I wrote in my last post that people often want someone else’s problem. But, sometimes it feels like I already get EVERYONE else’s problem by default—by the very nature of this organism called ministry. There are days when I want to “have the aneurism removed,” as it were. But I keep hearing this voice in the back of my head say, “you’re one of those people for whom ‘normal’ is a failure of potential.” Unfortunately, this voice doesn’t sound much like Sigourney Weaver.

Consequently, depending on how you define the word, one might substitute that “followers of Jesus are people for whom ‘normal’ is a failure of potential.”

Weaver – You’re missing something. It’s true. But, it’s nothing a law license is going to give you.

Stone – [turning to go] Only one way to find out. [pausing and looking back] Or, I guess you could just tell me.

Weaver – I think you’re missing having the sense of the divine in your everyday life. I think you’re less happy now than when your life was occasionally upended by the fantastic. I think that grace fulfilled you in a way you didn’t even know you needed. And the only thing crazy about you is the fact that you don’t seem to realize that.
I have a friend who recently wrote about wanting to live among those who fall into the top 1% of self discipline and personal aspiration (e.g. Olympic champions). She feels lonely in her humble pursuit of personal and faith community excellence and seeks hope in environmental change. I understand and can’t discount that this can sometimes be an important part of growth. But, active engagement in the quest to climb one step higher, go a bit deeper, see things more like Christ sees them… these things separate her from others. I have a feeling they always will, regardless of her surroundings. You must find the ideal environment for who you are today, but if you are still (in this case always) becoming, you may just outgrow it tomorrow. For this person, “normal” (even if it is found among the top 1%) is not an environment in which to thrive. Nor is it a place to despise. It is something to transcend. It’s an environment you create, not one you discover.

I guess what I mean when I say, "I sometimes wish I could have a 'normal' job," is that, at times, I wish I could be satisfied with anything else. But I can’t. Not to say anything else is a lesser calling. It just isn’t mine. Whatever God has set before me today, THIS is where my potential lies. It IS my “normal” in and from which to rise. Anything less would be a failure of potential.

Realizing and accepting that makes my heart smile. Actualization is a myth. Satisfaction is a consequence of good choices—of obedience, not of arrival. Joy is the driving force of a great life, not its byproduct.