This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.
Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.
The Hollow Men - T.S Eliot
The spring of 2003 was a magical time for me. I was living at the height of a conviction that I was called - at all costs - to confront evil and wrong ideas with powerful eternal truths. I was about to graduate a major state university with a degree in Philosophy of Religion and was quite comfortable atop my religious high-horse built for war. From those lofty intellectual heights I could survey the lesser kingdoms of secular humanism, Buddhism, New Age pantheism, animism and all other inferior "isms". And, like all good warriors for Christ, I was ready to decimate every wrong thought and belief with divine authority effective and powerful for the tearing down of strongholds.
One Friday night I went out on a raid looking for vulnerable agnostics or maybe a talkative new-ager to "minister" to. What I found this night was a massacre in the making. I stumbled upon a large group of smelly hippies gathered in Old Town Square. They had congregated around the charichture artists selling charcoal portraits of Jimmy Hendrix, Jerry Garcia and various other depictions of Grateful Dead concerts they had attended. As I passed the impromptu drum-circle, weed-slurred dialogue caught my attention. I tuned in and heard spiritual topics of oneness and unity being slowly discussed... very, very slowly. My night just got interesting.
I was warmly received when I joined the circle and nobody seemed to mind I didn't smell like patchouli. I quickly discovered many of these free-loving folks were members of a community called The Rainbow Family. They had gathered from across North America in the federal forrest land 30 miles north of my home town for one of their many annual "Gatherings" . This gathering was, to my untrained ears, about sex, drugs and drum circles. But a small crew had escaped to the city to resupply and were now discussing spiritual matters.
I listened quietly to the different ideas being shared about oneness, emptiness, the circle of love, unity and wholeness. When I said I was "listening" what I mean is: I was quietly deconstructing each new spiritual insight offered and categorizing it using my vast mental rolodex of world religious concepts. After 20 minutes of this I was ready to debunk everyone who dared open their mouth. I was fixing to drop the hammer and lead the heathens to Jesus, when, just as I began to speak, a drunk, toothless Native-American man stumbled into the circle. This gentleman sat down next to me reeking of cheap vodka and introduced himself - we'll call him Qaletaqa. Qaletaqa, however, didn't wait as long as me to address the circle of spiritualists.
After only a minute or two he felt he needed to contribute two cents. Flashing his three remaining teeth, Qaletaqa began to cuss his way through a testimony of Jesus. He told everyone that it wasn't "oneness" but a relationship with [bleeping] Jesus that would make the difference. He told them how [bleeping] Jesus loved them all and wanted them to be happy. He told them that religious people didn't have it all right but [bleeping] Jesus was still real. Every time he used the word Jesus it was preceded by a swear word. I was mortified! I had been upstaged by an irreverent addict who clearly did not have the rhetorical skills necessary to turn the hearts of these deprived souls.
But, in the midst of this most unusual evangelistic presentation, I could feel the spirit of the group begin to shift. I started asking the Lord if He wanted me to say anything - a spiritual practice I highly recommend and rarely followed in those days. I remember feeling like I was supposed to stay quiet and listen. As I did I watched something amazing happen. As Qaltaqa testified about [bleeping] Jesus, the group began to embrace Him. They heard a very simple gospel message of God loves you and you can know Him by knowing His Son Jesus. There was openness to these very raw and simple ideas and the group consciousness was elevated. I don't remember most everything that was shared that night, but, after Qaletaqa had radically shifted the topic to Jesus, I do remember how I felt. I felt connected. Connected to my fellow men who were all seeking a life and hope beyond themselves. Connected to a vast array of different ideas about God; a connection which was somehow held together in a shared experience of unpretentious dialogue amongst equals. Connected to Jesus who I think had been honored by sincere hearts. Thank God I didn't open my mouth and ruin it all.
After an hour more I had enough and stood to leave the circle. When I did every person stood to bid me farewell with an awkwardly long hug. I had just sat silently for 90 min while horrifically inaccurate theological ideas were shared; but, as I stood there hugging hippies, I could feel self-righteousness melting away. These men loved me with a love and openness I didn't yet posses. If they only knew what I had come there to do! I walked in to the circle on a religious charger for war, but left humbly riding on an ass - my foolish dumb ass.
As I mounted my bicycle to ride home tears began to stream down my face. Everything I'd heard that evening was "wrong" and "irreverent" and I hadn't corrected any of it! But I felt loved, strangely known and deeply connected to something much larger than my petty ideas and worthless Philosophy degree. This feeling didn't make sense to me. I'll always remember the loving words my heavenly Father spoke to me as I peddled home: "Never get so intellectual you forget to love."
For years I have had a nagging question lodged in my heart regarding the nature of sin, salvation and our religious and concepts of right and wrong. For most of my life right and wrong were so black and white. What I mean is this:
(**WARNING** The following few sentences will make many of you very uncomfortable and you may want to stop reading because I don't properly articulate your position. I get it. But hold on, there might be some freedom for you in the ideas that follow!)
I grew up thinking that smoking cigarettes is wrong because my youth pastor said it is. Smoking pot is wrong because my bother did it and I'm mad at him. Plus, the police say "be smart, don't start". Abstinence is right because AIDS proves premarital sex is wrong. After all, God loves a good global epidemic to punish the sexually immoral. Liberals are wrong because Rush Limbaugh talks real convincingly and came to my hometown in a helicopter for Dan's Bake Sale. Conservatives are right because Ronald Reagan (I know it's poor syntax but it's just true). Later in my life - when I attended that liberal bastion of secular humanism and anti-god brain washing known as college - I learned conservatives are wrong because Bush lied and kids died when we unilaterally started an illegal war over oil. Still further revelation came when I discovered liberals and conservatives and libertarians and all people everywhere who support anything but anarchy are wrong because it's clear the Federal Government is conspiring to cover up their destruction of the Twin Towers on 09/11/01. Oh yeah, and the Fed.
If you're still with me, thank you. I grew up with the above mindsets. And while the exact nature of the things I learned above is embellished a bit for rhetorical flourish, it's true I was fascinated by being right. And being right meant I needed "facts" which I could then use to decimate everyone else's intellectual position. I was proud to be an intellectual hit man; locked, cocked and ready to rock. I could drop a classical Aristotelian 3 Point Categorical Syllogism on you so fast even the ancient Greeks would be impressed. I am right and you are wrong. Simple. Powerful. Hard to argue.
But in my fervent pursuit of "right" I never really noticed I didn't have too many friends. Actually, I recognized I didn't have any friends - as Friday night weekly illuminated this painfully obvious reality - but I never quite understood the connection between my lonely heart and my aggressive, justificational head (I had to create a new word to describe it). I was, in my humble yet erudite opinion, rather good at arguing but rather poor at friendship. My solace in college became open mic night at Lucky's Saloon; a weekly occurrence where I drank Guinness and ate peanuts alone at the bar while reading Henry Rollins and waiting for some poor creative type to sit down next to me. Then, after I started a "conversation" (really more of a monologue preceded by one or two setup questions) I would move in for the intellectual demolition. This is for real. I have journal entries to prove it.
But something changed for me in March of 2008. I was in downtown Atlanta Georgia for a few weeks setting up a data center. My boss and I were taking a coffee break in the Buckhead neighborhood when I witnessed a violent collision. I was standing outside Starbucks talking to my boss when, over his shoulder, I saw a gentleman in red Chevrolet coup turn left across traffic into a shopping complex. What neither of us saw was the woman driving a gray Honda Accord through the green light. Their two cars collided head-on without either driver hitting the breaks. The red Chevy was spun back around the direction he came as the woman's car nearly stopped dead in her tracks. My boss whirled around and took off running. He was the first one the Accord and he began to help the passenger out. I ran across the street to the man in the red Chevy and was the first one on scene. He had not been wearing a seatbelt and was laying across the front seat with his neck and head pressed up against the passenger door. I could see his chest heaving in labored breathing. Another panicked bystander approached and asked what we should do. I said, "There's nothing we can do. We can't move him because of his neck. We need to pray."
A few moments later an off duty firetruck pulled up, headed to the same shopping complex. The whole four lane street was shut down and it became a increasing chaotic scene. As the firemen began to take charge of the red Chevy I walked back across the street to my boss. He had taken off his jacket, wrapped it around the lady from the Accord and was literally standing in the wreckage with his arm around her gently speaking words of hope. Paramedic teams soon arrived and went straight to work on the man in the red Chevy. They pulled him from the car and laid him on the street. I'll never forget the images of these paramedics working on him.
As I stood watching a man fight for (and later loose) his life, a police officer arrived and began to question me. He asked me if I saw the accident. I said yes. As I stood in the wreckage of this tragedy he then asked me a question I'll never forget. He said, "Who was at fault."
Below is my journal entry from that day as I sought to process what I had just seen.
Written March 30th 2008 @ Starbucks in Buckhead, Atlanta Georgia
I just witnessed a violent collision of two lives; one no longer has his. Strange how death approaches without warning and steals all we’ve ever known. Dozens witnessed the tragedy. Few absorbed the impact. Many dismissed it as a fact of life, though not a fact of THEIR life. Some coldly scorned the “stupid drivers”. Two cars directed by two very different people moving at the speed of normal met for an instant. And at that moment all past and future moments stopped. There are no more “what if’s” and “could be’s”. There are no more chances to reorder your heart or smile to your child before work. Time, space, life, death met, made their exchange, and moved on before breath settled in my lungs.
The police showed up questioning me who had the right of way? Who cares about that I wondered? Cops and insurance companies. The site was closed, an investigation conducted. Multiple police units were dispatched because of the fatality, an escalation requiring special care. When death approaches the lives it leaves behind must be handled delicately. Law demands a determination of who was right and who was wrong. Justice need distinguish the two. But so also does the company who must then underwrite the financial and medical repair. An immediate fact which posed this emotional question, “Why are we talking about right and wrong when life and death are on the line?” One woman lived and the other man died. Need we look further?
I have never been able to shake the question which arose that day in my spirit, "Why are we talking about right and wrong when life and death are on the line?" Why are we so concerned with right and wrong? It is because we've never seen a guy die in the street? Is it because we're too scared to feel the pain of uncertainty about who God is? Or have we believed the ancient lie and traded our intimacy with God for information about God?
I invite you to consider this central question with me: what if right and wrong turn out to be horrible conceptual substitutes for the central message of Jesus of Nazareth? I think right and wrong have evolved into concepts an emotionally and spiritually disconnected people use to justify dead stony hearts. And I for one, am tired of being dead.