It happened just a few months into my first official position as a “youth pastor.”

It was summer, my first in Virginia; hot and humid. My allergies were still learning to cope with the horrific pollen levels in the air. The youth pastor who was over me in the chain of command decided to have a “food fight” as a youth group activity. The purpose of this activity remains unclear to me to this day, other than to keep the students amused, which is what youth pastors are typically charged with. What was clear was that all those assembled were to bring some sort of food, and we were going to throw it at each other. He advised bringing old clothes.

My logic was this: even my “old clothes” were painting clothes, and I would need them again in the future. It was obvious that the clothes worn to the “food fight” would be best disposed of afterward. So, I would go purchase something cheap, and toss them when I was finished.

Where else, but the local Goodwill?

I picked up a pair of black jeans and a black and blue pinstripe long-sleeve shirt that fit, not being too careful knowing that I would wear these one time. I went to the check-out lane. The woman ahead of me remarked on my choice: “Oh, you matched those well.” My heart sank a bit, but I refused to succumb, holding onto my utilitarian attitude: these were for the kids! This was a worthy sacrifice.

I wore them, made an unsalvageable mess of them, secured them in a trash bag when I arrived home, and left them on the curb after my thorough shower. I hadn’t thought of that ruined outfit, purchased for desolation, until this weekend.

I was acting in a short comedy sketch this weekend for my faith community. My wife assisted, as she is so handy with, in building props. The other actor entered carrying a tray of popcorn bags, like you would see at a ball game. So, Karen dutifully popped a bowl full of popcorn the night before, that would be placed on top of the stuffed popcorn bags, just enough so that it looked realistic.

Now, I know it’s only popcorn. In my head, I’m thinking, this is for my art! This is for the audience, and this is about God.

And then I thought of the clothes from a few years ago.

When I was a sound and scenic designer in college, I remember the debate about how “environmentally friendly” theatre was or was not (the term “green” had yet to surface in mainstream culture at that time). I remember at least one publication discussing what to do with the leftover scrap lumber from the set construction, as well as the set pieces themselves after the show was finished. I remember the sense of sadness watching my first real set be destroyed after the run of the show, striking the stage for the next production. There was a tug-of-war there, of sorts, although it hadn’t really pushed its way to the surface yet. I was the kid in high school that drew remarks from a teacher for having a Greenpeace decal in my locker, before I had any idea what they were about. I was the guy who bought an Earth Day t-shirt my freshman year in college. I’m currently the recycling fanatic in an American Southeast that largely couldn’t care less about recycling.

In short, I think I’m a bit of a contradiction.

I wonder if there’s any room at all for utilitarianism here? I currently practice theatre in the venue of a faith community. A huge amount of lumber from sets is recycled for housing repair. We do huge clothing drives. There’s a lot less to be guilty about here, because creating is in itself justified in God’s image, and the art is worth some waste. There is also, however, a point of careless disregard for our activity that hurts those around us indirectly. The clothes for the “food fight” a few years ago were at that level, I think (the other pastor felt guilty afterward, as well). Funny how I did something I’m suddenly very certain was extremely distasteful to God in order to engage in a pointless activity that I thought He would be passionate about.

Now, perhaps it’s silly that a bowl of popcorn would cause this level of introspection, but, at the same time, there are people who would gladly give anything for that popcorn before they starve to death…some of them in our own country. So, at what point does our art justify waste? At what point is creating outweighed by the collateral damage?

Okay, maybe someone wouldn’t “give anything” for popcorn, but it does seem to flaunt our excess a bit, I guess. Worse, however, is the realization as I write this of the actual food that was used in that “food fight” years ago, made for the evening, also destined for waste, that could indeed have fed someone. The irony that the latter is the function of the church, but that we used it for the former, strikes me painfully in this moment.

Is the answer a difference between legitimate artistic creative ventures and youth activities? As much as I’d like to believe that, it seems a bit elitist to say, as well as a bit of a double standard. If one is wrong, then it seems it should at least be indicative of a line, beyond which the other is wrong, as well.

Or, perhaps the answer is the danger in crossing a line toward fanaticism in believing God “called” us to do something specific, and thus we dive into something forgetting logic, damning the torpedoes and full speed ahead. In short, am I justifying wasting food for the sake of the art that I love, while condemning the same waste in a “ministry” that I fully believe I entered in error?

Or, perhaps the answer is neither of those. Whatever it is, I don’t have it. What I do know is that this is a valid question, and, while I’d be rather pretentious to think that I had the answer at this point, I’m hoping that I stumble across it soon.

Nothing to Fear, But…

I’m afraid…not.

Afraid that I’m afraid, that is. Interesting, isn’t it, how words take on different meanings depending upon their context? Take “fear,” for example. That’s a theme that’s popped up a few times in my reading this week. I began thinking about it when my friend Katherine posted this poem. I immediately made a note to myself: that freedom from fear is love, the theme with which this poem closes. That sounds like one of those heavy, weighty, philosophical things that I would have to unpack in the back of my head for the next few days, so…I let it percolate for a while.

Fear had already surfaced as a theme last Saturday, however, as I was having lunch with Karen at our favorite local pub and bookstore, and I picked up a Batman novel to peruse over lunch. Now, Batman has been a vice, and a bit of a favorite character of mine, since childhood. I think it’s good to escape into these sorts of things every now and then, and, after reading the first chapter over lunch, I bought the book (I also bought something from Tolstoy so I didn’t feel quite as guilty).

The title of the novel is Batman: Fear Itself. While it’s admittedly difficult to find themes and metamessages in genre novels, the Batman battles one of his arch-villains, the Scarecrow, in this adventure. The Scarecrow thrives on fear, and takes sadistic pleasure in terrifying others. Batman’s ultimate challenge, of course, is to triumph over fear, though he ironically adopted his own guise to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. Some hypothesize that the character of the Scarecrow (to attempt to bring this back to something more literary) was inspired by Ichabod Crane (hence that same last names of the characters) in Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Crane’s fate, of course, is left hanging as we ponder whether or not he truly encountered the dreaded Headless Horseman, or if he was simply frightened out of his wits and fled. The innuendo of the story leads the reader to the latter. His fear led, we presume, to his emotional death.

The poem my friend posted is based on the Scriptural poem of Job, and meditates on the concept that the “fear of the Lord” that is connected both here and (not exclusively) in the Psalms to wisdom. Yet, the poem concludes, as does John in the New Testament Canon, that freedom from fear is love; or, as John phrases the concept, “There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment” (I John 4:18, HCSB).

So which is it?

There is a respect, a piety if you will, involved in fear, which can be implied in the original languages of the Scriptures, that is not an unhealthy thing. When I drive, I make a (half-hearted) attempt to follow speed limits to some degree because I have a fearful respect of the police cruiser that may be waiting around the corner, radar at the ready. That isn’t a bad thing. There is a fear, however, that brings death, not life, and that fear is the opposite of love. This is the terror which the Scarecrow uses in the DC Universe to bring physical death to his victims, the horror that brought the emotional death of Icabod Crane, leaving only a shattered pumpkin in its wake the following morning. Nothing good is borne of this fear, because there is no respect or wisdom, there is simply stagnation. We don’t move into the promotion at work because we’re afraid of the change, we don’t propose to the person we love because we’re afraid of one more knife in the back, we don’t embrace the Divine because we’re afraid that our reason or individuality must be checked at the door. And thus, we stop, not moving forward on the continuum of life.

Except, when we stop, we don’t sit still for long. We begin sliding backward, and that backward movement is death.

When Karen and I married, both of us had been through our share of bad relationships. We used a phrase on our wedding invitations that she coined one evening during our engagement to bring me out of my paranoid nature: “No more broken hearts.” In marrying her, I placed an unconditional trust in her: to use the gambling analogy, I went “all in.” In choosing to place that trust in her, I permitted her the opportunity, as L’Engle would say, to prove herself trustworthy. The fear wrought by my instinct for self-preservation and paranoia were defeated by my love for her. The love cast out the fear.

We live in a culture motivated and saturated by fear: fear of another terror attack, fear of failing markets, fear of being mugged on our way home from work. We install security systems in our homes and on our cars. We casually toss away freedoms in the interest of national security. What would it look like if we did not permit our fear to rule us? What changes would that bring? More to the point, what if those fears were, in fact, cast out by love? To paraphrase the 60’s song, perhaps all we need is love; or, more specifically, a perfect love. There’s fear involved there as well, however, because stepping toward love involves trust, and we don’t like to trust. Yet that is the first step, the first enormous step, toward truly loving.

I hope we can all take steps of trust. May they lead us to a perfect love.

Shadow Boxing Easter

Easter came, happened, and went. I almost think that I missed it. I mean, I knew it was coming. The knowledge that last week was Holy Week was stored somewhere in the back of my mind, I think. But Easter was completely uneventful to me this year. Two years ago, I posted daily reflections here from the corresponding day of the week recorded in the Scriptures. Last year was marked by celebration instead of a more meditative observance. I wasn’t sure what Easter would bring for me this year. I didn’t want to plan it, because then it would have felt forced. I just sort of waited to see what would happen as it approached, and what sort of observance would seem most natural as it arrived.

Nothing did. It arrived. It’s over. So now, I’m sitting around on the Monday after thinking about how anticlimactic that was. The family dinner was a bit long and I was overwhelmed with people, and I ended up sitting back and observing (as I frequently do), pondering, “Is this it? Is this Easter? Bummer.”

I’ve never really been one for the chocolate egg and bunny scene, but Easter for the past few years has brought with it either a more sincere or a more enthusiastic reflection upon the core of my faith, but this year I feel almost as though I should be blogging something really profound about what the season revealed to me, that I should be posting some obligatory revelation that appears to have eluded me.

The fact that it’s 50 degrees and raining outside doesn’t help, of course, as this is supposed to be Spring and all. Ironically, pondering the season for a bit this morning as I remembered another blogger’s photo of a quite striking spring flower, combined with reading a friend’s tweet this morning about how Easter was yesterday and today begins the first week of the resurrection and how might this look in our lives, comes the closest to profound that my overly-scheduled life permitted me to grasp from Easter this year. Because the core of it is hope, hope for something new, something reborn, if you will…something popping out in vibrant color from beneath the rain and grey sky that are currently permeating my surroundings.

And I do hope for that, even though at the moment I feel as though I’m shadow boxing. It is an incredibly basic hope at the moment: hope for time, hope for inspiration, hope for productive writing, hope for a positive week. Hope, I think, for the color of the flower of my friend’s photo, at least metaphorically, to break me out of the dreary bleakness I’ve been drudging around in for most of the winter, so that I can approach the rest of the year with a resurrected feeling.

No accident, I think, that we observe the Resurrection in the season that we do. I’d like to discover some deeper level in this hope for a new life, but at the moment, even as I slow down and try to catch my breath, the best I can muster is a very shallow hope in a very deep Truth. I hope that my hope will grow, hope that it will somehow burrow its way out from under my characteristic cynicism and become what it has been in the past.

Here’s to hoping.

Humor is Being Mis-Labeled

The fact that I hold a serious dislike for labels is no secret. For the most part, I go to great efforts to avoid them. One way in which I specifically try to avoid them is by refusing to place decals and bumper stickers on my car, partly because I think it is indicative of a struggle to realize one’s identity (which I think I’m relatively comfortable with…well, I think), and partly because I think it is just tacky. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I must also admit that I fall momentarily short here. I have a customized license plate, because a percentage of the proceeds went to benefit Virginia’s arts programs. I also have an Apple decal on my back glass (somehow, labeling myself as a Mac user isn’t problematic…hmmm, perhaps it should be). Otherwise, I avoid these things passionately.

Karen and I were having a conversation about observations recently. You tend to notice things about people you see often but don’t necessarily know, such as the style of clothing that they wear, or the types of vehicles they drive. I made such an observation about our new neighbor, and Karen pointed out that these sorts of observations couldn’t lead to an conclusive picture as to someone’s personality. I agree totally, but at the same time, it is one of the first steps of observation in forming a clinical picture of someone, and it is a habit which tends to spill over from my professional life to my personal. Returning to the bumper sticker/decal discussion, I was behind a large pickup truck in traffic a week or so ago. Among the labels adorning the back glass of the truck were a sticker for rugby, a U.S. Marine Corps license plate, and one that proclaimed “Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body.” I feel I could form a relatively accurate summary as to primary personality characteristics of that driver.

Sometimes, though, I encounter a series contradictory messages that, at best, strike me as ironic, and at worst leave me baffled. For example, a truck parked a few buildings over from us is covered in bumper stickers. One urges its readers to “Raise Clams, Not Subdivisions.” A worthy sentiment, but ironic considering it is parked in an apartment complex.

Today, however, I was behind a truck in traffic again that moved me surpassed irony and left me in complete confusion. The decals on the back of this particular truck included “Vegetarian,” a peace sign, and (again) the U.S. Marine Corps. Perhaps there is an identity crisis at work? Perhaps a used vehicle that was already adorned, and then added to by its owner?

Or perhaps someone with an excellent sense of humor that enjoys messing with people like me. If so, it was without a doubt the most humorous joke I’ve read all day.

“Default Face”

Last summer, Karen and I spent part of our vacation in the Boston area, and she showed me around her alma mater. The best part of the vacation for me was when she took back to the neighborhood where she lived for a good part of her college career, took me to her favorite haunts, one of her favorite restaurants, showed me her old apartment. She recounts those days with such a positive, fun countenance. Today I listened on a whim to one of Karen’s favorite bands from those days, Burlap to Cashmere. I’d never heard of them until we were dating, and one of the tracks on what to my knowledge was their only studio album, Eileen’s Song, always opens a bit of portal for me to experiences I never witnessed. I can piece together images of Karen with friends from old photographs, and imagine her joy and sorrow, the love and heartbreak of her college years. In short, that song gives me a glimpse into the passion that I know marked that time period in her life. That passion for life rolls over into our present, and, at the risk of sounding overly sentimental, makes me love her that much more.

I have my own musical portal to memories of my undergraduate days. A specific song for me is Round Here by Counting Crows. The song brings to mind a specific set of people, of circumstances, and thus opens a recollected floodgate to those years, the dreams, determination, and passion that marked them.

I realized today that the common word that springs to mind when I think of both of our backgrounds is passion.

I remember the encounters with people I had during my undergrad. My first experience with professional theatre, the communication studies professors that were so influential on me, the relationships, both romantic and otherwise. I remember how I tackled everything with an almost reckless abandon, and how I met new people and was hungry to get to know them, to experience their diversity and backgrounds, to add their search for knowledge and new experiences to my own, to journey together with them through that adventure we called college. I remember the joy of seeing someone from across the room, and wanting to get to know that person. I, like Karen, often wonder what ever happened to so many of those people today.

When you marry someone, you discover all sorts of things about yourself. At some point after college, even toward the end of college, I began to have more of a tendency to “go it alone.” I had always been fiercely individual, but at that point I began to notice that I just had fewer people close to me. This is a trend that continued through a good part of my early professional life. Karen tells me now that I tend to look upset or angry when I’m not; that irritated is my “default face.” This makes sense, because people are always asking me what’s wrong and why I’m upset, when in fact I’m in a perfectly good mood. The result of this, though, is that it has made me appear stand-offish when I’m not, and thus has resulted in a difficulty forming close friendships. I have close friends now that have told me that their first encounter with me gave them an impression that I didn’t want them near me, when in fact that wasn’t necessarily true. Thus, a facial expression that I don’t even intentionally wear has resulted in a social isolationism during my recent years.

I wonder: did I have that “default face” in college? If not, what gave it to me? Certainly, I could tell (and likely have here) a laundry list of experiences that have left me bitter with people, politics, religion, and the arts. So, is it a bitterness that I try to relinquish but can’t that leaves me with this “default face?” I think it is more, because what I recognize as a tragic truth is that I don’t just lack the socialization that I had in college, but I also lack the passion. In fact, it has become ever so elusive in so many areas of my life. I see the same thing at times in Karen, as we go to work in our professional lives, and come home and go about the business of life. I wonder: did I trade passion for success? Did I trade dreams for income? At what point did I become so responsible in my 9 to 5 existence that I lost the passion that came with rehearsing a play until the wee hours of the morning, or spending half the night writing because words were suddenly springing into my head? How did I end up here? Is it maturity? If so, I’m not certain that it is a maturity that I want.

Certainly, I’ve began to revert back to my truest self over the past two years, and I’ve began to re-discover some of the passion I had been ignoring. At my most optimistic, I want to believe that I haven’t really lost it, that I’ve only ignored it in my stupidity for several years. When I remember my passion during that time, however, and when I imagine what I think was Karen’s, I just know that I desperately, desperately want them back. I’ve learned lessons, I’ve “grown up,” but I think I could have done so without laying my passion by the wayside. This is a mistake I endeavor to correct now, every day. I find myself pushing against the structure of life, fighting, and refusing to allow outside expectations to stifle my passion, because I’ve come to realize that it is so much more important what has superseded it.

I am absolutely desperate to re-discover the depths of my passion.

I am hoping…I am praying…that I am getting closer to letting it be free. And, if I’m truly fortunate, it will be free today in a more pure way than it was then, and that it will infect those around me to experience it as well. That would be the best passion that I could hope for.