If/Then Salvation Quandry

Today’s sermon (or what I heard of it before I had to prematurely leave) reminded me of a question I’ve asked several times, in different ways, and which has never been satisfactorily answered. So I’m going to try it again today, not so much in the hopes that it will be any better received now than before, but simply out of a need to¬† try once more to find a phrasing which suits the nature of the conflict in my heart, and to remind people that this is in fact a problematic aspect of our faith whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not.

I’m not interested in the how, the specifics. I am interested simply in the if, then; the incontrovertible. The necessary implications of certain factual statements.

Statement: Either becoming a Christian prior to human death is the only means of achieving salvation (and avoiding an eternity in Hell), or it is not.

If it is not, then
1. Most of us are lying/quite misinformed.
2. We may be precluding salvation by evangelizing. If God makes a way for people who never hear the gospel, then by making them hear the gospel we actually give them a greater chance of damnation than they would otherwise have had.
3. While the best route is to become born again and to have a relationship with God during this life — and thus while there is a “reward” for salvation — the potential risk seems to outweigh that. In the cost/benefit analysis it seems difficult to argue that the potential cost is worth the potential benefit.

If it is, then
God has created billions of people who never had a chance of salvation. By virtue of circumstances beyond their control (being human) they are sinners, and by virtue of circumstances beyond their control (geographical, temporal, and/or communicative isolation) they are damned for not accepting a savior they were never offered. They are as culpable for their crime as a wind-up doll which walks off the edge of a table: set in motion by an outside force and lacking the capacity to change their trajectory prior to catastrophe. Nevertheless we, and he, place the blame on the toy rather than the hand that wound the key.

These are the two possibilities I see. Neither sits well with me. Neither is a thing I would want someone to whom I am witnessing to bring up — for in the face of the former, I am wrong, and in the face of the latter, the notion that I am serving a God of love, compassion, and mercy becomes somewhat absurd; at best I must concede that the pre-existing notions of those terms are irrelevant to the entity I’m describing.

Like I said, this is not new for me. And many have tried to respond and will likely find themselves wasting time repeating arguments which have not previously proven helpful to me, so I quite understand if no one responds at all. But there it is, should anyone wish to try. I’m really not trying for a “gotcha” conundrum here. This genuinely bothers me and I genuinely don’t like that.

Meanwhile, have a nice Sunday. I don’t know about where you are, but here, the weather is beautiful.

a l o n e . . . ?

I’m kind of an expert on being alone. I’ve been doing it for quite some time; as long, in fact, as I can properly remember. I was alone ever since in second grade someone told my friend Ben that I had flipped him the bird (I hadn’t) and he no longer wanted me to come to his house and play hide-and-seek. Then in seventh grade I made a friend named David, but I was still pretty alone, and we didn’t hang out much. In ninth grade I broke out of my shell a little, but I was still pretty alone, and all through high school, though the shell continued to crack, and though I found myself with people more than ever before, I was still alone.

In college, I wasn’t as alone. I didn’t have the luxury, and it was actually a little scary, because I’d gotten used to being alone. Now I was unalone. That’s not a word, but that’s what I was. Like being undead — not living, but no longer dead. I was a social zombie.

There were bright, dazzling moments of togetherness throughout those four years. True belonging, true meaningful relationships. But these served merely to accentuate the loneliness, because like all good things they came to ends, and I’d stand in rooms that had been filled with people who I liked and watched them all leave, mostly in groups, mostly together, without me, and then it’d just be me, and the light switch, “last one out” and all, and I was alone.

That’s kind of how college ending felt, and I went into a bit of a panic, because after seeing what living felt like I remembered the cold emptiness of pre-college and saw it closing in on me like a hideous trap. I decided to live with people in Pittsburgh primarily because I didn’t want to be alone again. I became obsessed with a pretty friend and ruined that relationship because I didn’t want to be alone again.

Two months later, I was alone again.

I have spent a year living at home, which is loneliness compounded by loneliness. The home, even full, is empty. Two parents work all day, returning mostly too tired (or else not returning, too busy) for whatever company I might have hoped for. Two siblings too caught up in their own lives — the lives, too, of friends reaching out online — and so, most days, even with someone two doors down, I am alone.

David does not live here. Nor does anyone I went to school with that actually liked me or knew me. Nor does Andrew, nor Jonathan, nor Rich. They have lives, they have communities, and they are not alone.

Here, in this town, I am alone whether I am inside or outside, among people or not. At church, I am alone. I have been for a long time. I have not belonged here for at least three years, but I kept coming, because the alternative was to be alone. People have reached out, a few — another David, for whom I am (though I don’t convey it) grateful — but mostly, I have been alone.

Of course, I haven’t been alone.

No, not really. I’ve been ignoring One who was there the whole time, and though at times we spoke (many times I felt like I was merely talking aloud to myself), He was there, and that was a comfort when it needed to be. But I was created for human interaction, and I have been starving, and in that sense I have been alone.

I wrote a poem, the other night, after an evening with my grandmother. I arrived early for dinner, anticipating a wait for a table that did not end up existing, and so I had twenty minutes to look around at all the people sitting with other people, to answer the waiter three times that I was fine, that I had just arrived early (I think he thought I’d been stood up), and to consider how not okay I was, how alone I was, how despite my grandmother’s impending arrival, I had been stood-up, stood-up by the world at large. My mind wandered back to Pittsburgh, all the meals eaten in shameful solitude at some restaurant or another, iPhone in hand to make it look like I had A Life, A Purpose, that I was Okay with being Alone.

As the night unfolded, we walked through the mall, in search of clothing that would fit me and maybe a pair of shoes. We passed so many couples, young lovers, holding hands, asking for advice on this blouse, those jeans, these sneakers, stealing kisses and glances. And I realized that the actual reason I hate going to the mall is because it is one more place where I am alone with other people who are not.

I listened to Billy Joel on the way home because the grand opening of an LL Bean store had hired a tribute band, which had been playing “Only the Good Die Young” as I turned the ignition and slowly backed out of the crowded lot. I was scandalized by the lyrics, to which I paid real attention for the first time, considering both Joel’s hostility towards Virginia’s (of course that’s her name) moral backpedaling from his sexual advances and the fact that I’d almost never tried to get a girl to go out with me for anything at all, certainly not with that sort of enthusiasm. “I might as well be the one” really only works if you consider yourself worthy of her, and I had some esteem issues to be sure.

Eventually my favorite song of his came on, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” and as I crooned along about reds and whites, I had a bit of an epiphany: how alien the experience I was singing about was to my own life! I didn’t “remember those nights hanging out at the village green” because I’d spent my high school and college years mostly cooped up by myself. I’d never partied, I’d never had alcohol prior to turning 21, and while I did not in any way resent that, I still couldn’t help feeling like I’d missed out on American teenage life, immortalized in song (with all its ups and downs) by the Piano Man himself.

Home, lying on my bed, I tried to fall asleep but the memories of the evening’s pain and emptiness lingered in the forefront of my mind, so I got up and wrote this improvisational piece:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I felt it, God
Alone
I felt
Today, the mall
the way to it but also there
and back again
I felt alone.
He held her hand, she held back
nothing (save his hand)
And they held each other.
No one held me.

Each pair an echo of two ones
And I, a pair one short,
Looked on and, looking, felt a tug —
The strings of unpaired heart.

Why now, why there, why
why?

I don’t know. And I’m afraid to ask.
It followed me, here it’s home
It’s in my room, in my bed,
Under this blanket,
In my mind.
It hurts.

My sweet romantic teenage nights!

But I am not a teenager.
My nights Romantic like Hawthorne,
never sweet,
never romance.
And I am not a teenager.

Never half a double date,
Never knew the feel.
Only ever been third-rate,
Un-sought-after third wheel.

God send a mend, a caring friend
A shoulder for my head to lend.
I’ll break, not bend — pray don’t offend,
But wounds like this I can’t not tend.
My life, my faults, I shall amend.
And daily will this prayer ascend:
“Dear God, my loneliness please rend;
A comforter or lover send,
Tell brokenness at last to end.
(Just one last thing do I addend:
My restless heart please apprehend,
And may it sole on you depend).”
And now to sleep my soul descend.
And all of heaven then Amen’d.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was cathartic, through-and-through. I didn’t so much care whether it was good or not. I uploaded it to a less-read blog of mine with tags like “mediocre poetry” and figured “what the heck, maybe someone will be touched by it, maybe not. I just needed to write it.”

I found it strange, even as I lay back down to have a go at sleep once more, how comforting and yet unfulfilling the knowledge of God was in that particular nothingness. I’ve been raised to believe that He fills all the emptiness in us that nothing else can, the old “God-shaped void” routine. But this hole felt different, not really God-shaped, maybe girl-shaped, definitely people-shaped. And I knew that filling either void required pursuing Christ with relentlessness, but the knowledge only confirmed the reality of the current emptiness, the dire need which has been rising up in me cyclically for years, the one I’ve tried to fill with other, baser things and am always left craving something more, something pure, something tangible and permanent.

A day went by, uneventfully. My brother and I drove out through the rain to Applebee’s to get a late-night, half-priced meal of appetizers, and all I could think of was how lovely the rain-streaked roads looked reflecting the taillights of the car in front of me and how quiet it was in our car, how the raindrops were the only soundtrack, how Joshua and I have nothing to say to each other. A night ostensibly meant to be spent “bro-ing out” (for that’s what I jokingly called it) looked like it was going to be pretty mediocre.

And so it was. I tried a half-dozen threads of conversation but it’s hard to talk with someone who doesn’t want to. He gave me courtesy smiles and one- and two-word answers, but whenever I stopped talking, only the radio filled the air between us. Left to my own thoughts — voiced or otherwise — I began to survey the room, to see once more couples, happily chatting away, enjoying one another’s company, and again I felt the ache. Not for romance, but for companionship. Being with people wasn’t the answer. Being with people who wanted to be with people? Much closer.

Our ride back was even quieter than the ride there. I turned on some music to compensate for the absence of rain, but didn’t listen to it. Joshua stared at his phone like a drowning man stares at a life preserver just out of reach, and I knew he was just as alone as I was, only he didn’t realize it yet, so when we got home he would go back to his room and his closed door and his silent apathy, and I would go back to my room and my open door and my silent agony, and that was that.

This morning, stumbling into some coffee, I decided to return to my several-days-suspended reading of a copy of Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz which I borrowed from Ryan, and almost laughed when I saw that the next chapter was about romance. It was compelling, insightful, the usual words I use to describe Miller’s writing. Mostly I saw myself, I saw the insecurity, and the selfishness (veiled and glaring), and though I had never dated and he had, we seemed pretty much on the same page when it came to not knowing what to do. As he says, “what little I know about dating is ridiculous and wouldn’t help rabbits reproduce” (140).

I stopped laughing, though, when I reached the end of that chapter — a haunting soliloquy from a husband to a sleeping wife — and saw the next chapter was entitled “Alone.”

“The soul needs to interact with other people to be healthy” (154).

If you wanted me to point out all the things Miller said about loneliness that spoke directly to me and the place I’m in, I could quote the whole chapter. But that right there, about the health of the soul, nailed my infirmity and prescribed the cure in fewer characters than half a tweet.

A week from today I will be starting my second day of work at a small web development firm on the Worcester side of the outskirts of Boston. I don’t really know what the future holds, but if it holds the plans of men like my boss and I, I will be living and working there for years. I’m looking forward to that, to having something to do, to being able to afford leaving my house and seeing movies again.

But mostly, I am looking forward to being around other people again, to a chance to not feel alone. I’m looking forward to living and working with Ryan, to knowing there’s another person at my fingertips who has been where I’ve been, who has been insecure like I have, who has read Donald Miller’s books and has left notes and underlined passages like the one I just quoted.

And I know that Ryan just got engaged, that sooner or later he will not be living with me anymore but will be living with his wonderful wife, but it’s a start, and a really great start, and God’s in it, His fingerprints all over it, and for the first time in many years I know I’m not alone at all.

Amen? Amen.

15 Days, Day 5

This is part of a writing exercise dictated by this list. It may benefit you to read it if you seek to know me (or merely someone) better; it may benefit me in the selfsame way. And if knowledge of others is your goal, seek out Anna, whose list prompted mine, and Kimi, whom Anna credits for said list.

Day 5
What sort of person attracts you?

An odd way to put it. I’d have asked “what sort of person are you attracted to;” then my English major compadres would have scolded me for the preposition, and we’d be needlessly off-topic already. Oh wait.

There are two ways for me to answer this. The first, more obvious, is tinged with romance, and though it stretches beyond “what’s your type?” it can’t help being bogged down with the awkwardness of answering that question. Nevertheless this is an exercise in honesty, not in cowardice, so I’ll do my best.

But first there is the other way, an inquiry of sheer magnetism: when I look around me, is there a common thread uniting my inner circles? For the most part, there are two threads, circles in a Venn Diagram which so overlap that one might not notice the exclusions: intelligence and faith.

Doubtless this is what led me to a Christian college, for there (glaring exceptions notwithstanding) the majority of people possess both qualities; they are smart waxing wise, inquisitive, open to pondering “big questions,” and all of these things under an umbrella assumption that the God of the Bible is real and that He became incarnate in Jesus as the conduit of redemption for the human race.

I have had some decently close friends who are atheists and agnostics. I have also been close with, not idiots, but people for whom good grades come hard (if at all) and the fields of philosophy and theology are prohibitively complex. But all of my “true” friends — that is, the ones who know my deepest secrets and fears and hopes — are bright believers.

One interesting point: as much of a role as gaming has had in my life (and though many of my close friends love gaming) I am not, precisely, drawn to gamers. The gamers in my life who do not fit into either of the other categories (particularly those who are not Christian) possess various other qualities which have drawn me towards them, but never has the shared experience of loving games actually proven enough to form the basis of true friendship with me.

Ahem.

I have never had a girlfriend. I’ve been on exactly “one date” and that didn’t really count since it was a date based on company rather than mutual attraction, had neither anticipation nor promise of a sequel, and was a mostly unmitigated disaster insofar as my “good date” gestures go (I still shiver a bit at the thought of all the things I did wrong).

I have been “in love,” or as close as one can get without reciprocity, three times, with two close-but-not-quite-there runner-ups. And when I survey those five, I see no particularly obvious similarities beyond the professing of faith. So let’s start there: for attraction beyond the basic and animalistic, a girl needs to love Jesus.

I firmly believe in the principle of “equal yoking,” but a lot of people seem to misinterpret what that actually means. Really, it’s no more complicated than the image of a yoke suggests: two creatures united under one burden. If one is dramatically weaker, or pulling in a different direction, or covered in fleas, it will inevitably hinder the progress of both. If every single girl is a prospective partner, then I’m looking for one who is headed the same way, doesn’t conflict with who I am, and balances out my shortcomings while benefiting from my strengths.

Granted, who I am is malleable, and some parts of my life can (should?) and will go as I become a better person. But anyone who requires me to change major parts of my life right off the bat isn’t going to be wringing any heavy-hearted poetry from me. Assuming we agree on the Christ thing (same direction and all that), she’s got to also love stories. Now that could be books, movies, plays, games (all of the above? JACKPOT!), I don’t really care which; the key is imagination. I’ve spent my life wrapped up in creativity and I don’t plan to stop just because “the missus” wants me to pull my head out of the clouds and concentrate on things that “actually matter.”

I don’t claim to deserve immaturity, but being young at heart? That’s a birthright. A girl who doesn’t read or game or watch movies that don’t suck is a girl I’ll never get; more importantly, she’ll never get me.

Personality-wise, I’m a bit of a Janus. I’m either loud and outgoing (and extremely opinionated) or quiet, introspective, and brooding. The latter tends to come out around my closest friends and, inevitably, would be seen by a wife. I’m thus attracted to a girl who makes me quieter when I’d otherwise make a fool of myself but keeps me optimistic when the raven starts croaking “nevermore.” Typically this means free-spirited; strong-willed.

Quite bluntly, if she can’t keep up with me and put me in my place, it’s not going to go well for either of us. I’ll come off the bully, she subservient, and we’ll both grow to despise one another before long. She doesn’t need to be as smart as I am but what she lacks in intelligence she’ll make up for with wisdom and clarity, an example of the humility I so desperately lack.

Really, it comes back to the yoke. Each time I’m drawn in it’s by a girl who I’m trying to picture as a partner: not one to dominate and drag or be dragged and dominated by, but equals; not mirrors of one another, but fitting puzzle pieces.

I could rattle off a list of specs, hair colors and body types, nationalities and ages, but I won’t. Because I recognize that all the typecasting in the world won’t matter when I find the North to my South and, like magnets, we are pulled irresistibly and inseparably together.

Breaking the Silence

It’s been such a long time since I published anything that I fear I’d almost fallen into the mindset that I wasn’t allowed to write anything until I had a, well, glorious return of some sort. If breaking silence after two months amounted to anything less than the second coming my entire following would ragequit and I’d never have an audience again.

Or, you know, something like that.

Suffice to say I, like winter, have been fairly frozen lately in all senses, and the spring thaw (happy vernal equinox, by the way) has generated a welcome shift in my life, from the fundamental — I’ve been more spiritually focused, more physically active — to the fiscal — I’ve applied for a job for the first time since September — to the frivolous — I’m enjoying a variety of games for a variety of reasons. If you need further proof, consider this. As in, this blog.

My digital silence (if you call it that; I’ve been active outside the blogosphere after all) hasn’t been for lack of inspiration; perhaps just the opposite. Fear that anything underwhelming would turn people off has kept me from writing anything at all, despite a plethora of ideas (some of which have even spurred vibrant debate and conversation via alternative outlets). A quick catalog of things which might have been (and might still be) entries: the triviality and baseness of contemporary worship versus the soulless character of traditional worship; the commodification of gaming; the harsh (seeming) truths of Paul’s writings; the phenomenal childishness of the gaming community; why Linkin Park and Josh Groban have more in common than i’d realized.

The short “series” I began leading up to the Oscars garnered such little interest (part one, to date, has only 12 views; part two, only 7) and feedback that I did not even feel compelled to finish it out. I suppose part of the fault there is simply in misaligned interests — you guys didn’t really care about movies, or about my thoughts on movies, or whatever. But more importantly, I made the greatest mistake a writer can make: I wrote something I myself did not enjoy reading. No surprise, then, that others felt equally disenchanted.

Time and again I’ve inquired as to what, if anything, people I know would enjoy reading as a litmus test for how I ought to conduct this blog. Frequently the response has been (when there has been any response at all) that any writing conducted for the entertainment of others (rather than that which is born from personal inspiration) is destined to fail. As one who thrives on (if not attention then) affirmation, this is a tough rule for me to learn and live by. Mixed messages haven’t helped either; many a time I’m told that my writing is good enough that people will read it even if they’re not particularly interested in the subject itself, but my view, subscriber, and comment counts say otherwise.

We write what we know, I guess, and the things I know most are games, theology, and failure. Few people, I imagine, care much to read with any frequency (if at all) about the last of those, and not many more are often up to the strain (I’ll not say challenge) of grappling with the philosophical demons I’ve conjured up of late. That’s not to say I have no inclination to write about matters of spiritual nature so much as to say that, from a blogging standpoint, I’m not sure my thoughts are fit to print. Long-time readers will be familiar with the mental tug-of-war I’ve been carrying on with against Calvin. Some of you have done your best to assuage my concerns but it’s become rather clear that I’ve reached a bit of a dead end in that regard; that is to say, I’ve asked an unanswerable question.

At least when it came to that debate both sides were using scripture and humility. Other issues I’ve more recently encountered have a lot more emotion tied into them and thus have a tendency to get rather messy. So let’s add to the list of things I might feel inclined to write about the matter of the church’s dealings with homosexuality and the Biblical view of women (as compared to men).

If I’m honest about all the things I’m not sure of, I suppose the common denominator is the question of unity. What should it look like in the church? Do the dozens (or is it hundreds) of denominations around the world make a mockery of a creed declaring belief in a catholic — that is, universal — church? Is the apparent division of believers really, as one good friend suggested, to the benefit of specialized service? Or is our rigid adherence to certain interpretations of the gospel hindering our potential for much greater coherence as Christ’s body? And where does love factor into all of this? Where is the line between loving your neighbor by accepting his perceived shortcomings and loving your neighbor by calling his perceived shortcomings into question?

As for gaming, the past month in particular has provided a generous helping of reasons to love and hate gamers, games, and game culture. I’ve been led to question the validity of the medium in general, to wonder where the boundary between art and business is and whether crossing that line invalidates the other side of it. I’ve wondered where loyalties stand and where they ought to stand between producers, press, and players. I’ve relished nostalgia for almost eighteen years of a past-time and looked forward with both craving and caution to its future, near and distant.

The important thing, though, is that I’ve stopped wanting to write and now I’m doing it, and I’m going to keep doing it. The camera, too — what was once so frequently seen in my hand it might have been considered an appendage, but has spent the last eight months unused — has finally escaped into the great outdoors, and like the pen I have no intention of sheathing it anytime soon.

Last year, in a cute (take that word as you will) attempt at basic iambic pentameter, I wrote a simple two-line explanation of myself. Anyone comparing it to the Adam Bogert of the past six months would call me a liar, but I fully intend to own these words once more.

My life can be summed up in this: I write
With words (in ink) and photographs (in light).