Faith and the Comfort Zone

I recently wrote about stepping outside of my comfort zone (Take Me Out to the Ball Game). In his book Holy Grounds, Rev. Tim Schenck writes, “Faith demands we face and overcome fears and suspicions of things that take us out of our comfort zones.” I say amen to that!

Take the oft-quoted John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” (KJV) This is one of the bedrocks of the Christian faith, that Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross so that my sins would be forgiven. Just about everything about this takes me out of my comfort zone.

First off, it doesn’t make sense. I like things that are neat and logical, and this just sounds crazy. Why would God do something like this? It sounds like a terribly roundabout way of doing things. Didn’t he have any better ideas? How does that work anyway? What possible connection could there be between Jesus’s death on a cross 2,000 years ago and my sins today? How do I manage to get eternal life out of the deal? The very concept makes my brain hurt!

I’m also more than a little uncomfortable with the whole business because it sounds too fantastic to be true. We are always told, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Well, that certainly fits the scenario here! Eternal life? Really? Even though I in no way deserve it? I’m naturally wary of any deal this one-sided, even if—especially if—it is entirely in my favor.

Furthermore, I didn’t ask for it. Jesus did it for me anyway. We are unaccustomed to any act of over-the-top generosity. Most of us can’t honestly fathom the idea of going to a horrible death for a stranger. How much less would we be willing to die for a stranger who won’t even be born for another two millennia. I’m uncomfortable with that level of self-sacrifice. If there was ever a gift capable of inducing overwhelming guilt, here it is!

Faith is not only accepting the gift and accepting that it happened as told in the Bible, but accepting that it really is as wonderful as it sounds. “Faith demands we face and overcome fears and suspicions of things that take us out of our comfort zones.” John 3:16 takes me way out of my comfort zone. I am suspicious of it because it defies logic. I goes beyond anything I have come to expect in the world. I fear that I am unworthy of such love, and that I might lose it.

Then there is this to consider: Elsewhere in the Bible we read, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” (Luke 12:48, KJV). I would say everlasting life qualifies as “much.” Faith demands that I overcome my fear of the much that may be required of me. I must leave my comfort zone.

Reading Broadly

In my last post (Take Me Out to the Ball Game), I mentioned getting stuck in a reading rut. I read a lot, and enjoy many different genres of fiction, especially science fiction and classic literature. And yes, I also read a lot of juvenile and young adult books; adults who think they’re too old for J and YA books are missing out on some great reads! For non-fiction, I tend to turn toward history, theology, and philosophy.

This sounds like a nicely varied diet, but even so, I sometimes need a nudge to read books I might not otherwise pick up. To help find that nudge, this past year I joined John Green’s online book club, Life’s Library. I have also partnered with a friend to start a book club at our church, in which we explore books that challenge our thinking about religion, and deepen our understanding of faith and its place in society.

John Green, himself the author of several acclaimed young adult novels, urges his fans to read broadly, and to think about issues and other people complexly. We all like to read periodicals and blogs we know in advance we agree with. We find it comforting to turn again and again to favorite authors. There’s nothing wrong with doing either of these things, but doing so exclusively can result in a narrowing of the mind. When so much of our information comes from social media whose algorithms carefully filter out content with which we might disagree, it is vitally important to follow Green’s advice and actively seek out a wide variety of sources and opinions.

Here are a few ideas on how to do that:

  • Visit your local library. Wander some aisles you normally avoid.
  • Make friends with the people who work at an independent bookstore. Ask them for suggestions.
  • Join a book club.
  • Get involved in the conversation at Goodreads.
  • Browse some book review sites:
  • Little Libraries are popping up all over the place. Next time you pass one, look inside and pick up a book that piques your interest. And remember: While I don’t recommend giving up on books too quickly, it’s okay to abandon a book if it’s rubbing you the wrong way or just not striking your fancy. But again: Sometimes it’s good to at least give a fair hearing to an author with a point of view different from your own.

Happy reading!

 

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

We have a Triple-A minor league baseball team based here in Des Moines, the Iowa Cubs. They are the farm team for the Chicago Cubs. The ballpark is very nice and easy to get to. Parking, in spite of what some people will tell you, is easy, as it is everywhere in Des Moines. (I’ve lived in Chicago, Boston, and New York, so when Iowans complain about parking in Des Moines, I just laugh.) Tickets to games are not expensive, every seat in the house is good, and food options are varied and tasty. There’s even a booth where you can get some excellent beer from Iowa’s microbreweries.

In spite of all these positives, I rarely to go to games, mainly because I have convinced myself that I’m not the kind of person who attends minor league baseball games. But last night I saw how wrong that assumption is; ALL kinds of people attend minor league baseball games. I went with my wife and a friend of hers, and the three of us had a great time. I began the night with a breath-killing hotdog smothered in onions, sauerkraut, and mustard. A few innings later I had some corn on the cob and three small but loaded street tacos (with more onions). In the 8th inning, I washed it all down with Burnout Brown beer, made in the nearby suburb of Ankeny by Firetrucker Brewery. The Cubs eventually lost to the Round Rock Express in the 10th inning, after which there was a short but good fireworks show.

All of this is to say that I’m glad I pushed myself out of my small comfortable circle last night. It’s so easy to fall into a routine that feels safe and steady, and so easy to define myself in a way that limits me. The older I get, the more I tend to fall into these traps. Left to my own devices, I listen to the same music, read the same types of books, travel the same route to and from work, eat the same foods, do the same things, and associate with the same people. There are so many opportunities to break away from routine, and I am happier when I do. This morning I’m listening to a Spotify playlist featuring mostly bands that are unfamiliar to me. And my wife and I are already planning an evening out to see a Des Moines Menace soccer game. Even though I’m not the kind of person who attends fourth tier soccer games.

LGBTQ+ and the UMC

As a white, mail, heterosexual, Protestant citizen of the United States, I have been handed the Golden Ticket in life. I have not always acknowledged my good fortune, nor have I always been cognizant or sensitive to the fact that many people do not share my advantages. Nevertheless, civil rights are something I feel strongly about. Today I want to address just one aspect of one area of inequality: sexual orientation.

Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, the term “gay” was frequently used as an all-purpose pejorative, as in “That is so gay!” When AIDS first hit the news in the early 1980s, I remember hearing and (I’m ashamed to admit) re-telling jokes like this:

Q: What do you call a gay on skates?
A: Roll-AIDS!

Q: What do you call a bunch of gay musicians?
A: Band-AIDS!

I’ve since become much more sensitive to the LGBTQ+ population, though I’m sure my “sensitivity” still at times comes up wanting. I rarely speak out on the matter, and seldom take any sort of public stand. I couldn’t sit by quietly though, when events unfolded the way they did at the February General Conference of the United Methodist Church. At stake was how the UMC would address same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy. Before the final vote, it was expected that the church would adopt a plan which gave a great deal of autonomy on the matter to local churches and pastors, who could decide for themselves how accommodating they would be to the LGBTQ+  community. Sadly, the conference ended with the UMC voting to uphold the Traditional Plan, which strengthened its official opposition to same-sex marriages and the ordination of openly LGBT clergy.

On hearing this news, I sent the following letter to the main UMC office:

I was baptized, raised, and confirmed in the United Methodist Church, so it is not without sadness that I write to you today. I am deeply disappointed by the stance against LGBTQ people taken by the UMC over the weekend. I am well aware of what the Bible says about homosexuality, but I believe the Bible is a living document and the church is a living body. It must grow. It must move forward. To do otherwise is to stagnate, become irrelevant (or even deleterious), and die. In this troubled time, with bigotry rearing its ugly head in all forms all over the globe, what is needed is unity and inclusion. The UMC has chosen division and exclusion, and that is a decision by which I cannot abide. It is here that I part company with the church that once nurtured me.

I received a pleasant note is response, which outlined ways I could, if I so desired, officially withdraw from the Methodist Church. Since then, I have not taken any steps toward doing so. I currently work at a Reformed Church in America congregation, which is a denomination that has been a bit wishy-washy on LGBTQ+ issues. For the time being, I have decided that it is better to work from where I am than to simply distance myself from either denomination.

My Favorite Running Routes

Last time, I talked about running. This morning I am going to continue that discussion by telling you about my three favorite running routes. I’ve moved around a lot (too much) since I first began running, so I’ve run in cities, small towns, and suburbia, in some pretty ritzy areas and some really ugly areas. Coming up with this list was easy. I didn’t include races, or any place that I ran only once due to happenstance. These are three routes I spent some time on, and got to know intimately.

When I lived in Medford, Massachusetts, I could run from my home, around Mystic Lake, and back home to make a circular 6-mile run.  Some of the route was on sidewalks, some was on trail right alongside the lake. It took me through three towns: Medford, Arlington, and Winchester. I became so familiar with this route that I named several landmarks along the way, including the Squirrel Tree.

Also in the Boston area: both sides of the Charles River. At various times I lived in Back Bay, the South End, the North End, and in Central Square (Cambridge), and from each of these locations, my run inevitably took me to the Charles River. I first discovered this route not as a runner but as a walker. I was living in a dorm at the Berklee College of Music, and for the one semester I was there, I spent more time exploring the city than I did attending class. My steps eventually took me to the Esplanade, which runs along the Boston side of the Charles. The Esplanade is a popular tanning spot in the summer, and I logged many hours laying on a towel, reading and baking myself.

Then there is the Chicago Lakefront which is, in a word: AWESOME! My spotty college career began at Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Chicago. I would ride my bike south from the beautiful Northwestern campus all the way to the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park. There I would get a hotdog and/or ice cream from one of the many street vendors before heading back north. The whole round trip was approximately 40 miles. Later on, I would run along the lakefront, starting from various places. There was always something going on, always some new variation to discover. I especially liked it on gray foggy mornings, when the sky and Lake Michigan would merge into what looked like a big blank spot in the universe, as if someone had erased everything east of the city.

I haven’t run any of these routes for several years now, but I assume they are still there, only no doubt changed a bit since I last saw them.

My Drug Is Running

I ran today for the first time in just over three weeks, the length of time I’ve been battling a nasty cold which began with a cough then settled in my sinuses. This morning’s run was short and slow, but it felt great. Tomorrow I will do it again.

I’m a terrible runner. Though I’ve completed a handful of marathons, I’ve never done one without walking part of the way, and never brought in a time under four hours. I’m sure my technique would make a track coach weep. Plenty of people have told me running is unhealthy and needlessly hard on the joints, especially the knees. Indeed, my back and my left knee do occasionally give me trouble. Nevertheless, running makes me feel good. It is both physical therapy and mental refreshment. It is my emotional stabilizer.

From elementary through high school, I never participated in any school sport. I dreaded gym class. I was one of the only three or four boys I knew who never joined Little League. Riding my bike was my main form of exercise, that an assortment of neighborhood games that closely resembled Calvinball. (Readers of “Calvin and Hobbes” will understand.)

Then when I was 19, I let a roommate, Wally, talk me into running with him. We lived near Revere Beach, just north of Boston, so the run was scenic and pleasant, in spite of the fact that Wally was a good six inches taller than me and it was all I could do to keep up with his long strides. I’ve been running ever since. I don’t listen to music while I run, and other than Wally, my running has been almost entirely a solo activity. It’s my alone time, even when surrounded by thousands of other runners in a race, which these days is much more likely to be a 5k or 10k than a marathon. Also: I run outside as opposed to on an indoor track or treadmill. Enduring four seasons of Iowa weather is part of it.

Life undeniably comes with problem, worries, and frustrations. We all need to find ways to cope. There are bad coping mechanisms like drugs or alcohol, but there are plenty of healthier options. Running is mine.

Cheezy Philosophy

My favorite cheese is Foxglove, from Tulip Tree Creamery in Indianapolis. This is a washed rind cheese. For those unfamiliar with washed rind cheeses, just know that they are STINKY! Foxglove is not a cheese for the faint of heart. In fact, the moment you open it, all those of faint heart are liable to run from the room. It’s that pungent. And it’s not for everyone. But I love it! Spread some of that onto demi-baguette slices, and I’m in heaven.

Personal taste is a weird thing, whether it’s taste in cheese, art, music, or books. Is taste a good barometer of quality? America’s bestselling beer is Bud light. Does that mean it’s the best beer? (I’m not even sure Bud Light is beer. I’m not even sure it’s potable.) According to Wikipedia, the Beatles are the bestselling musical artists of all time. Does that mean they are the best? (Within the world of pop-rock, probably yes, but is their music better than Mozart’s?)

If personal taste is too subjective, then what is a better way to judge good-better-best? Are there objective ways to measure art? Are there absolute standards of goodness which can be used to compare The Beatles to Mozart? Andy Warhol to Rembrandt? Foxglove to Cheez Whiz?

I enjoy philosophical discussions, and I especially enjoy philosophizing about art. It’s one of the reasons I like conceptual art so much. There’s an old line that says, “If you have to explain a joke, it ain’t funny.” Maybe not immediately, but sometimes more lastingly funny. In the case of art, sometimes the explanation is the best part.

But my intention with this post isn’t to answer deep philosophical questions; it is actually to acknowledge the limits of such questions. In any given situation, there is an amount of time—sometimes lengthy, sometimes nearly nonexistent—during which I can think about it, but then there comes a time when I must act. Especially as a creator, I can easily philosophize myself into inaction, but unless at some point I stop thinking and start doing, then the creating isn’t going to happen.

As for cheese: If I need a snack for a bunch of people to enjoy while watching a baseball game, Cheez Whiz with Bugles is the way to go. But if I don’t care how badly I stink up the room, then bring on the Foxglove!