Monthly Archives: November 2011

Too cool for Sunday school?

Let me be frank. I am not a very cool person.

“Pshaw!” you say. No, really. I kid you not. Point of fact, I am so un-cool that I assume people in my blog’s target audience use the word “pshaw”.

This is you, right?

If coolness were money, I would be one of those clowns that looks like an “old timey” hobo with the painted-on frown, pulling out his empty pockets and looking forlorn. Although I have no idea how much dough those clowns pull in a year, so maybe that image is less than accurate. I’m not very cool, is what I’m saying. So you can imagine that, as I explore what a life of following Christ can look like, I try to avoid any semblance of being lame.

Disclaimer – Anyone who reads WTFaith.com is automatically excluded from any kind of lameness based on beliefs, creeds, daily bath rituals, fashion, music choice, use or non-use of current slang, or watching Gossip Girl. Here’s your free pass. Everyone gets one. 

Take it. . . before I change my mind. . .

That being said, I used to think that Christians were super lame. And from a secular perspective, that’s not a hard conclusion to jump to. After all, Christians seemed to spend a whole lot of time focusing on what they can’t do instead of what they can do, and it appeared to me for a long time that the list of can’ts was a lot longer than the list of cans. They dressed up in geeky little dress shirts and wore geeky little ties and not a bit of it was ironic. Every Sunday they would stand and sing and hold up their hands, as if they were all listening to a live cover of “Free Bird” but forgot to bring their lighters with them.

Like Gollem with his ring, I have always hoarded whatever coolness I could lay claim to. Even today, I protect it and nurture it because, let’s face it, it’s not exactly raining “awesome” on me day in and day out. So when I was searching for churches in my community, I did so with a certain amount of trepidation. I wondered how much of my precious, precious cool I was going to have to leave at the door.

Then I came across my current church’s website, and I saw a picture of this guy:

He's so metal he poops iron ingots.

This is Aaron Boothe. Aaron runs the worship service at Hillside Church in Duluth, MN. He plays the guitar like I wish I could. He sings and does a little dance like Dave Matthews when he’s rocking out. He plays songs about Jesus Christ every week, he declares the glory of God without a trace of irony, and he is way cooler than I am. Aaron Boothe and lameness are like oil and water, Whigs and Tories, nature and a vacuum . . . they abhor each other.

How anyone can have beef with this little guy, I have no idea.

Seeing Aaron on the website’s staff page was pretty darn reassuring. If it’s possible for someone on church staff to be awesome, it must open up a door for me, right? Maybe I could sneak my way in. At least, it seemed like it was worth a more in-depth look.

So I snuck my way in. And even there, at this awesome little church in the heart of downtown Duluth, I suffered a little bit of culture shock. Let me elaborate – at the time of this post, I’ve been attending church for maybe seven weeks. Here’s a little something I started a few weeks ago – I made lists of things that I was uncomfortable doing in a church context, and a list of things I was completely comfortable with. I wanted to keep track of my faith journey, and my thought was that I could maybe watch items move from one list to the other. Some of the things I was uncomfortable with were “singing,” “saying ‘Jesus’ instead of ‘Yeshua’”, and “crying in front of people.” Now, I am gaining a certain amount of comfort with singing along during worship service, and “Jesus” is just more recognizable than “Yeshua,” but I still haven’t gotten to a place where I would want to be seen crying in church. To be fair, I haven’t felt any urge to cry in church, but I’ve seen people doing it.

Why am I worried about crying in church? I don’t know. Is it because I’m a man? Or is it because my background is so strongly secular? Again, I don’t know. But it’s clear to me that there are still some things that people do in church that I feel, rightly or wrongly, aren’t something that I, myself, can do. Maybe I’m focusing too much on cool. I mean, I don’t know what passed for “cool” in biblical-era Nazareth– indoor plumbing? chrome camel shoes? a kick-ass burkha? jamming out on the harp? – but I am pretty sure people didn’t follow Jesus because of how trendy he was. Although he did throw wicked parties (John 2:1-11, check check-it), which just goes to show that some things are always rad.

"I got 99 problems, but a sin ain't one."

So why bother worrying about cool? Lately I’ve been joking about it. Anytime Brandi or myself does something that is so saccharine, so positive, so enthusiastically uplifting that we can’t help but comment on it, I’ll joke and pray out loud for God to anesthetize me to feeling as lame as I surely must be becoming. I mean, the other day I actually said the words, “Man, this day is killing me. I just want to go home, make a cup of tea, and read my Bible, you know?” I mean, I said that. In the past two months, I seem to have squandered away what little cool I started with and have morphed into the Church Lady.

Why yes, actually. It IS special.

But that’s alright. I don’t feel lame, even though I logically assume I must be. I feel great, actually. If my average, every-day happiness before finding Hillside Church was a four on a scale of one to ten, I’d say that I’m now cruising at a six. Which isn’t hugely dramatic, but it’s real. Coolness is ultimately about perception, and reality is something that exists regardless of perception. But this all has me wondering, and I’d like to get some chatter going on this blog.

So chatter, will you? Here is what I would like to know from you, the 1.4 people reading “What the Faith”  – is there something that people do at church that you can’t bring yourself to do? Was there ever such a thing? If so, how did you get over it (assuming you did)? I would love to hear from you guys, and I promise that any comment that does not reference genitalia will be approved. (I’ll approve maybe half of those referencing genitalia, but only in medical terms – and certainly not if it’s done for laughs. Jesus ain’t no joke, son.)

Srsly!!one!


/petition

For the past 8 years my loving husband, Daniel, has been telling me gently, but with absolute conviction, “Sweetheart, life isn’t an MMO.”

This might sound like a weird thing to be a recurring note through the life of my marriage, but it takes a while for lessons to get through to me. . . probably because I can’t hear them over the blaring music of my iPod. Some of them I completely refuse to get at all. This MMO thing is an example of it.

An MMO is a “massive, multi-player online role-playing game”, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term. They’re played on computers or certain current-gen gaming consoles (hence the “online”). An MMO generally takes place in a large, open digital world where thousands of people connect on a common server and run around on an avatar they created. Because these games are built to emulate a certain genre of gaming (fantasy adventure, super-heroic, post-apocalyptic survivor, etc.) you can do any number of things with your avatar – from fighting monsters to cooking lunch, which makes the experience unusually immersive. Many of these tasks are broken down into cute mini games. For example, in Sony’s “Everquest 2” your avatar gains “adventure” experience by slaying beasties, doing quests, and interacting with the content out in the world. It also gains “tradeskill” experience which, just as the name implies, applies to how much time you put in at your “day job”. The game gives you lots of choices – just because you, Thrognar the Barbarian, have made a living slaying the gigantic and territorial polar bears of your frigid native continent, that does not mean you cannot also throw down a mean banquet. Or whittle a gorgeous dining room set, or hell, translate scrolls from ancient languages into things that will help your allies be more powerful! Taking Thrognar and making him focus on leveling up one set of experience or another is called “grinding”.

Now, this all seems pretty fantasmigorical, (she makes up instead of saying “fantastic” which might confuse her point, or “fantastical” which she hates), but I see tons of similarities between real life and the MMO experience. I mean, hey – if you want to get good at something,  you gotta “grind” your skill so that you can level up. This applies to everything! Cooking, writing, drawing, playing the guitar, you name it! Normal people call it “practice,” but I see the truth. It’s a level grind.

Another aspect of some MMO games is called “faction,” which basically represents how liked or disliked you are by a group in the game world. You want to get along well with people, you gotta grind up your faction with them. Now, raising your faction with one group is inadvertently going to lower your faction with a group somewhere else (get in good with the orcs, and the elves aren’t going to think too highly of you), so you gotta pick and choose carefully. This too has its parallels in real life – hang out with the goofballs in class, and your “teacher” faction might drop. If you don’t grind up your faction with “work”,  you’re not going to be able to get that Promotion to Management quest from your boss, for example. Then you’ll have to start the faction grind all over again.

"Your faction standing with Management has gone up!"

 

Then there’s “level gap”. Anyone who’s ever played an MMO knows that  the game will provide you with a way to know how difficult a monster is going to be, should you decide to lift your axe and cowboy up. Usually, there’s a color system to tell you how likely an opponent is to kick you in the beanbags and send you home crying to your mom. Move your mouse over the bad guy, and his or her name will appear in a certain color, and the color tells you how likely you are to win a given fight. Opponents whose names are gray are easy. To you, they are the equivalent of like. . . a single preschooler against an adult. On the other hand, opponents who are red (or in some games, purple) are the equivalent of . . I don’t know. . . Batman. You can imagine where the rest of the colors fall in between.

"Batman scowls at you threateningly. What would you like your tombstone to say?"

 

Now. . . we don’t live in a society where we suit up in ridiculously grandiose armor that has uber-epic stats, hoist our class’s weapon of choice, and go out to kill orcs (or aliens, or thugs, or whatever). However, we do fight daily battles. Remember that phone call to the phone company to argue about a bill? You won? Well, that was an opponent that was clearly white or gray. But, remember that meeting with your boss – the one in which you got your butt chewed? Yeah. . . they were a bigger color than you could take. Don’t feel bad. That was a clearly a boss fight. I mean, they’re even conveniently labeled as “bosses” so you know.

"GROGNAR WILL DESTROY YOU!!!!!"

 

Now, I see all of these similarities between the pretend world of MMO’s and our real world, but for many years there was one parallel I was never able to make. It seemed to be an issue of intervention. Online games are usually run by major software companies, and they typically employ a team of people that keep the universe you’re playing in running smoothly. People called “GM’s” (game masters) or “devs” (developers) fill this role. These people are your lifeline if you enjoy playing your game. They’re the ones who regulate game play, fix bugs in the system, track down exploitable rules, and deliver the players new content. You can get onto the chat forums of any given game and put in a post with a request for something you’d like to see, or point out something that isn’t working correctly, and these people will add it or fix it. The cool thing about these gaming deities is that they alone can go around the rules of the system they’ve built. They can bend (or break) the physical laws of the game world for your avatar, and whether or not they do so is completely at their discretion. Like Neo in The Matrix, the see a world made entirely of code that they can manipulate. With the possible exception of our individual governments (who come close to working within this metaphor ,but don’t have the kind of power over life that I’m mentioning here), I could never find a parallel for that role in our day to day lives. Well. . . that’s okay. Not every metaphor is perfect, right?

Obviously, this was vaguely troubling for me, because a dev or a GM is one of the most important parts of any given game world. Sure you play the game “as is”, and if you’re a roleplayer, like me, most of the time you’re immersed in what you’re doing and don’t give the devs or GMs much thought. But when something isn’t working right, or there’s something I need to make my character development complete, guess who the first person I think of is? Guess who I’m sending emails to? To whom do I (and all  my fellow gamers who exist in this pixalated world with me) send our “/petition” request?

"This guy."

 

In real life, things go wrong all the time. I spend hours “grinding” at my day job to pay for my car, and it breaks down. The boss I spent weeks grinding up “faction” with gives me a bad review and wants me to get a-whole-nother bar of faction with her. Life’s  not supposed to work this way, according to what I understand about the coding, but who do I email with a bug report? Who do I go to when I want to say “You know, I love this game, played it for 28 years, but I feel like I’ve done all the content for my level, and I’d really like to see new opportunities for players like me”? I go to the metaphorical forums of the break room, and Facebook, and the smoking section, and I hear a lot of complaints about . . . everything. Malfunctions, and lack of content, and game exploits, but no one talks about who the “devs” are that might fix these things. Who adds new content? Who makes us excited to play again? Who smooths-out game play, so that leveling up is easier than ever without losing its challenge and fun?  According to the chatter in these forums, most people are starting to believe there’s no “devs” at all – that we’re out in this universe alone, playing a game where the content never changes. The things we think of as “bugs” aren’t bugs – they’re “working as intended”.  We, the avatars of this world, are completely on our own. Our options are to accept the bugs or quit playing. No one’s gonna fix it.

Troubling.

Funny thing is, some people do believe that our “game” has devs. These people, coming from all walks of life, are all trying to deliver the same strange and intriguing message – that there’s a GM, whom they call God. This God loves you. This God wants to talk to you.

When I first heard this message,  I found it rather hard to believe. I had heard of other gods in this metaphoric game world, had even gone so far as to invent my own. I had already attempted to contact the God these people seemed to be promoting, when I was a child. I’d attended church, sang in the choir, did the whole “grind.” Overall, it hadn’t seemed all that interactive an experience to me. As a child I’d been intrigued by the idea of an invested God, then confused when I didn’t get the feedback I’d been expecting, then disappointed enough to stop playing entirely. Now, as an adult, I was hearing the same message again, and this time with a challenge.

“Try it,” people told me. “If I’m wrong, what have you got to lose?”

Granted, I told myself, the last time I’d tried to know this God was when I was a child, before I ever started leveling up. To the character I am today, it was back story. Maybe I was doing something wrong all those years ago. What does a child really know about anything? Now that I have children of my own, I understand that more than ever. Doesn’t that mean, I asked myself, that I should give it a shot?

I have a habit of sitting in my car while its parked. It gets me out of the wind and is a good place to go catch a smoke. One night I was doing just this when, into the darkness, I uttered a tentative, curious, but genuine:

“. . .God?”

I was immediately rewarded with a firm and resolute:

“Finally!”

Okay, maybe it wasn’t exactly like that, but that’s what it felt like. For the first time in over a decade and a half, I began to speak to this God that I’d wanted, for so long, to be real and invested. I found weird things happening. It was like, one by one, changes were being made in me. Answers I’d sought for so long were being given to me. The friends and extended family you can only find in a church, but that had always seemed so alien to me, began to be given to me by the handful. I met  wonderful people that have, from that day to this one, helped me grow so much as a person. For you role-players reading this, you wouldn’t believe the character development.

And as all these things started happening, prayers answered and unanswered, gifts given and sacrifices made, I realized that I’d finally found my dev. My GM. The creator of my game world, the ultimate force behind my content, my updates, my bugs and my role-play. There was someone out there looking after the server status, making sure the game play was streamlined. There was someone to petition with requests for new content for me to experience, and things to add for my character development. There was, and just like in the case of every MMO ever, there was a forum you could put these requests, or feedback items, or ideas, in. They would be heard, and considered, and dealt with – sometimes in ways you liked, and sometimes in ways you had to learn to appreciate. All these years I’d just been going to the completely wrong website for the forums. It wasn’t that they didn’t exist, they had been here waiting for me all along.

I keep trying to tell people, “Hey! I know why you’re getting that 404 error when you go to report a bug, or make a petition, or submit feedback! That’s not the right web address! Here, let me show you the right one!” Most people ignore me, but with some,  I think I’m starting to make some ground. Not everyone is ready to hear it – I didn’t know I was. All I did was get pointed to the right web address and told, “Submit your petition. Offer your feedback. Report your bugs. See if someone doesn’t get back to you within 24-48 hours”.

So I offer the same to you. Its important to keep in contact with your devs. That’s why they build their forums. Now that you have the right address, try it. Send off your metaphoric email. Submit your petition. See what happens. Worst case, game keeps playing as is. I’ll tell you, in my case I got a response almost instantly, followed by a patch that made everything run better.

"Gratz, dude!"

 


Why I am not a vampire-werewolf for Christ.

I was saved at a young age. I was somewhere between the ages of eight and ten, and I was spending the night at the home of my cousins, who were raised in a southern Baptist household. After that I went to church a few Sundays, and then I just. . . stopped. My parents weren’t horribly interested in taking me, although I really don’t think they are responsible for my lack of faith. If anything, I think that it was just a simple matter of age – I was too young for salvation to have any real impact to me. I was still effectively immortal, right? I could sort out my soul later.

When I got a little older, my excuse evolved. I became a skeptic.  My step-father at the time helped me along in that. He was an intelligent (if slightly emotionally unbalanced) guy, and he thought he was doing me a favor when he used his more experienced logical mind to prove to me why faith in God (especially Jesus) made no sense. Under his tutelage, I became a fervent anti-Christian – and by the time I entered high school, I was good at it. My step-father had taught me to find the inconsistencies within peoples’ arguments and exploit them, but he’d also taught me the joy of defeating an opponent with my mind. I entered into religious debates with believers, and I had a pretty high success rate – if you can call logically wiping the floor with people who believed in Jesus Christ a success (which, at the time, I did).

You can imagine my surprise when, a couple of months ago, I found myself attending church, engaging in fellowship, and believing in the story of Christ. After all those years of being a neo-pagan, or a Buddhist, or a deist, or whatever else I called myself when I was doing my best to not be Christian, I was almost embarrassed to find myself “saved” again. (I’m still not sure how I feel about that term.)

At least I know I’m not the first in this position – after all, maybe I can I find some parallels in the story of Saul/Paul, who went from being the “Shaft” of Christian-hunting badasses to being the “Shaft” of church-making badasses.

He's a complicated man, and nobody understands him but Lord Jesus.

Now, I never thought that I would be exactly like Paul. Paul was an educated Jew, the son of Pharisees, and he sited his credentials several times when making his case for Jesus. My own resume is far less impressive, but still, I figured that going from fervently anti-Christian to fervently Christian would make my message more impactful to other skeptics. I thought that I would be able to use my credentials as a logical man, the step-son of an atheist, to engage skeptics, agnostics, and atheists in terms they would understand. In a way, I saw myself as that guy from the movie Underworld, the guy who looks like Scott Stapp.

For those of you who have resisted the seductive siren’s call of Underworld, I’ll give a brief set-up. The Underworld setting focuses on vampires and werewolves, two ancient races who have been at war for at least fifteen minutes of expository scene-setting. One man, who vaguely resembles the lead singer for “Creed”, is born to be a werewolf – and when the time is right, he will turn into one. However, in the course of the movie, he is bitten and turned into a vampire. “What?” you say, “a werewolf and a vampire at the same time?”  That’s basically the point of his character – by becoming a juxtaposition of two diametric opposites, he gains superpowers that aren’t exhibited by either vampires or werewolves. He becomes something new.

That’s what I thought I would be – something new, a die-hard skeptic turned into a believer. Surely, then, I had within me the secret words needed to make atheists realize the truth of a loving, personally-invested God. I figured that if I could be convinced, anyone could be convinced. So I tried. I engaged people who seemed skeptical, and I said things like, “You know, I used to be the biggest skeptic you could meet.” I tried to build in their minds an accurate picture of myself, pre-Christ, as a person who didn’t believe the sky was blue unless he could look out the window. They listened for a moment, then their eyes glazed over and they changed the subject. I tried it a few times, with the same results. And you know what I learned?

I am nothing new.

Pictured: Not me.

Nobody was impressed by my “used to be a non-believer” pitch because they’d heard that pitch before. Hell, I had heard it dozens of times before I really engaged God. I just assumed that the people who were telling me that were not really skeptics in the first place. At least, they weren’t good skeptics. After all, they’d been roped into the most ridiculous major religion in the world. How skeptical could they have been, am I right? Now it appears, in hindsight, that some of those people I disregarded had been die-hard skeptics before they found Jesus. Or at least, they could have been. I had no way of knowing, as I never really attempted to know those people. I didn’t ask them for examples of how atheist they were – never asked them to rate their non-belief on a scale of one to ten, with one being the most naïve child in the world and with ten being Penn Jillette.

(No offense to Penn Jillette, by the way. I love that guy.)

We got a groovy kind of love.

This realization, while humbling, is also uplifting. I don’t have any super powers when it comes to turning skeptics into believers. God, however, has all the super powers anyone could need to make others see the light. He’s like Superman, if Superman were also the creator of the entirety of time and space.

Instead of being all that much like Paul, I’m just a believer who started out as a non-believer. Perhaps, in a way, I belong in a spiritual family of converts, with Paul as our most famous progenitor. And I can look to Paul for inspiration, as I attempt to help people realize the truth about God. He faced endless persecution (was the dude ever not in jail?) and I imagine at times he felt just as powerless to tell people the truth as I feel. And yet, nobody can deny his mission was a success. Paul was a rock-star of the early church, a celebrity bad-boy who constantly offended “the Man” while turning the hearts of his jailors to God. I should be so skilled as Paul. As I try myself to tell people the good news, it’s enough to remember that while I could never fill Paul’s shoes, at least I can follow in his footsteps.

I heard that Paul is one baaaaaaaaaaad motha -