Some Men Leave Nothing Behind

John Schindler, who blogs here and tweets as @20committee, has an interesting series of tweets about Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock:

Since the 1990s, I’ve long believed that target selection can tell us a lot about the attacker. For example, it never made sense to me that the Oklahoma City bombing was done by Muslims because a federal building in Oklahoma City isn’t a target that means anything to Muslims. Now, since then, attacks have gotten a lot less planned and a lot more haphazard — more targets of opportunity and ease, rather than anything meaningful.

But nothing about what happened in Las Vegas makes much sense. The target, an open air country music festival, initially suggests someone for whom country music means something negative. But if the reports are correct that Paddock was looking at concerts (like Lollapalooza), and this was just the one he chose, well, then, the target itself has no meaning. Except that it was easy.

So I agree with Schindler that much about the attack makes no sense. But I believe it may be possible for Paddock to be, in fact, a fairly blank slate. He may have left nothing behind.

My dad was 73 when he died in January, and I don’t think I ever really knew him very well. I thought, in going through his things, I might learn something about him. I found a treasure trove of letters he wrote to his mother when he was stationed in Kwajalein in 1970-71, and thought there might be some insight there.

But there wasn’t. He talks mostly about golfing, bowling, playing basketball, and going diving in the lagoon. He doesn’t talk about work — my dad was good at keeping secrets — except once to describe how beautiful the sight of an ICBM warhead reentering the atmosphere is (Kwajalein is the receiving end of ballistic missile tests launched from California). He doesn’t talk about feelings or thoughts or ideas.

Nor does he really in any of the other papers I found. He had them, and occasionally he parted with them when we spoke. But not often. And he didn’t write anything like that down.

Nor was there anything on his computer except photographs.

My dad is as much a mystery to me in death as he was in life. And maybe that’s who he was. He was what he did. He was a soldier, an officer, a project manager, a math teacher, a basketball coach. Not everyone feels the need to make great pronouncements about themselves to the world.

Granted, my father never planned or organized an act of individual terror (CAVEAT: outside his military service or his time working for General Dynamics, and we don’t generally consider those things terrorism), and so there’s nothing to explain. The only surprise I found in his apartment was a wall covered in baseball caps, a Keurig coffee maker, and a mess left buy a man grown too sick to clean the place where he lived.

It may be Paddock is one of those men, like my dad, who just kept things to himself. Who is largely imponderable and unknowable because he committed nothing to writing, left few traces, and had few public opinions on much of anything. You need such men if you’re going to keep government secrets — I’m a terrible keeper of secrets, and it is just as well I never got or had security clearances for very long. Paddock apparently never kept those secrets, but he was 10 years younger than my father and would have come of age in entirely different world. But my guess is lots of men (and lots of women, too) live such lives, leaving little behind when they go and letting us try and figure out who they are by what they’ve done.

So whatever concerns we have about what we don’t know, it may be we don’t know anything because there’s nothing to know. (Watch me be really wrong about this.)


Pardoning Sheriff Joe

I’ve not blogged much of late. Because I have been busy trying to keep body and soul together, working on a novel (more anon), and frankly, I’m not sure there’s anyone out there paying much attention.

And I’ve not much to add one way or the other on current political discourse. Well, I do, it’s in the novel. It’s a story set some two decades in the future about a group of foster kids who form a small army to get revenge upon the giant company that arranged for and profited from their abuse. Yeah, it’s informed by this ministry I do — because there are real parts to it, I think I’ve done some good, and when “Melina” handed me a wonderful story (wonderful in terms of fiction, and not in terms of the story she told), I decided it really was a shame to waste it.

But I’ve not much to say about Trump and the current condition. I am a pessimist. I believe much worse is coming, and I’ve believed this for a very long time.

When President Trump first hinted, early last week, that he was considering a presidential pardon for former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, I didn’t really have an opinion one way or the other except to remind some folks that pardons — ahem, forgiveness — is for the guilty, and not the merely to unfortunate. They are, to an extent, a fuzzy shadow of divine grace, extended to those unworthy because … that’s what God does.

It has been fun to watch my Twitter feed argue the relative merits of the pardoned, particularly those comparing Arpaio’s pardon to that of Chelsea Manning (which wasn’t a pardon, but a commutation, which too is an act of grace and mercy). And A lot of what I’ve seen about the merits of the two pardons deal with the character of the person pardoned, whether they merit sympathy or empathy, and the consequences of the acts that got them convicted in the first place.

(For anyone unclear, there are those who allege that Manning’s theft of government documents and handing them over to Wikileaks got people killed.)

I’m not here to argue the merits of either act. Just to note how we talk about deserving pardon here. In both instances, the presidential act gets in the way of justice being served (though there was and is a lot less and anguish over Manning’s commutation). I agree that it is likely the use of the pardon in Arpaio’s case is likely a sign of the kinds of perfectly lawful lawlessness that is to come from Trump.

And yet I do stand by the principal of the unlimited pardon, even for a horrific human being just like Joe Arpaio. Yes, there will be times — many of them — when as Christians who wield the sword we will say something like “May God have mercy on your soul, because we cannot.” But at the same time, once we speak of “deserving mercy,” we reach a place where none can be extended to people we believe unworthy. It is hard, as I frequently note of Christendom, to wield the sword with anything resembling authentic Christian love. In fact, I believe it to be utterly impossible. There is no way to love someone in any meaningful way when you are inflicting pain, suffering, or death upon them. Even in the name of justice.

Yes, I understand that in another time, Arpaio would not have been pardoned unless he had first showed himself worthy — that he had repented and been penitent, showed that he had changed his life. (Nor would Manning have been pardoned either.) But we don’t live in that world anymore, and Jesus did not call disciples who had gotten their lives together first. He met Peter and Andrew at their nets, poor, half-naked, and smelling of fish. He met Levi at his traitorous tax booth. And he didn’t wait for Saul to see the light and rethink his life. He was the light that changed Saul’s life whether Saul wanted it changed or not.

We don’t deserve God’s love. And sometimes we don’t deserve the grace we find in the world either. Anymore than we always deserve the evil that comes our way as well.

Moral Therapeutic Deism, 1952 Edition

As you know, I’m a fan of old radio shows. Af late, I’ve been listening to This is Your FBI, which ran on ABC from 1946 to 1953. I’m almost at the end of the run.

This is Your FBI was an anthology show that featured different crimes every week with one constant, Special Agent Jim Taylor (played by actor Stacy Harris). It was produced in cooperation with the FBI, so we get lots of pontificating by J. Edgar Hoover (mostly played by an actor).

And lots of pontificating about the nature of crime, particularly the youth crime wave that allegedly swept the country in the immediate post-WWII years. Crime was a simple matter for the producers of This is Your FBI: bad parenting was responsible for most it. Young people became criminals because they were either spoiled or were neglected. It’s a simple psychology indicative of mid-century thinking that probably drove more than a few parents neurotic.

But for This is Your FBI, “the criminal” is almost an entirely different species or race of human being. In fact, there is much talk about “the criminal,” how he is different, not like “us,” a threat to ordinary individuals and society, and under the right circumstances, can eventually be managed out of existence.

For that is the goal of all this law enforcement — the complete elimination of crime. By catching and locking up criminals, and creating conditions by which none are produced. Like most endeavors to change and make human beings better, it has failed. And it will fail.

What does any of this have to do with religion? This is Your FBI is an unremittingly secular show, like most popular entertainment from the middle of the 20th century. To the extent God and church are involved, it is usually peripherally — a church is robbed, a priest is interviewed about someone’s character.

Except that in one episode, “Man Hunt,” from May 1952, the narrator speaks of the the etiology of “the criminal” in a different way:

Few people become professional criminals for any single reason. Greed may be a dominant cause in many, insecurity in others, and hatred of society in a proportion of the remaining cases. Some students of crime point to another reason seldom mentioned: the decline of religion. Study after study of religious training among criminals prior to their arrest show almost none with interest in or knowledge of any religion. One of the tenants of any form of worship is the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Obviously, no criminal lives by that code. Mainly because, as the figures show, the majority were never taught the basic concepts of any religion. As a citizen, you can do nothing about your neighbor’s interest, or lack of interest, in moral ideals, except by your example. However, if you are a parent interested in preventing your child from becoming a criminal of tomorrow, invest your time, your effort, in helping him learn the truth of religion. It’s the best investment you can possibly make in his future. And in your country’s.

The decline of religion. This is May, 1952, very near the high watermark of American Christendom. Churches in cities, towns, and suburbs were stuffed to the gills, engaged in a building boom, couldn’t lay bricks and cement or design programs fast enough. I’m not entirely sure where, in 1952, religion was supposed to have declined from. The church is influential, listened to, respected. Catholics, Jews, and Mormons have more or less become Protestant co-religionists in an America where the church is reasonable, liberal, and tolerant. Perhaps not as much as some would like, but that change is a just a few years down the road.

There’s the stunning lack of specificity, a reference to a generic religion that wants us only to be good. It is, as I have noted before, a lowest-common-denominator faith, a “truth” that has no specific content (because it can’t without inflaming sectarian disputes; so, pick a truth, any truth) but which, somehow, can inoculate against evil behavior. Note again what’s essentially stated here — a content-free truth can make someone a good person. Indeed, that’s the whole point of religion here. Not transcendent meaning, but becoming and being a good person. And this is 1952, long before the culture wars and the decline in church membership. Faith and truth here are merely utilitarian means to ends, with the end here being good citizenship, not discipleship.

Conversion Stories

Well, today (Saturday, July 8) I did something a little different — I played some of my songs at Moses Lake Seventh Day Adventist Church. It was one of the better welcomes I’ve received. The congregation is fairly large, younger than I’ve seen outside the Catholic parish here, and more diverse than the other Protestant congregations I have visited (though not as reflective of the population as the Catholic parish is).

I met the pastor a couple of weeks ago while doing a story on a free, two-day long dental clinic they were hosting, and we talked a bit. He grilled me theologically, basically wanting to know if I believed in God’s grace. At least he didn’t assume.

We arranged to meet again, I played him and the associate pastor a few of my songs, and they invited me to come play for worship.

I enjoyed it. I will go play anywhere — I’ll come to your church if you’d like! — and the thanks I got has been the best I have ever received. I hope to go back, maybe even regularly, but that is not up to me.

I noticed something interesting, though.

The theology very much reflected the Adventists’ roots in mid-19th century America — individualistic and decision oriented. I am learning to respect this theology, even if I don’t share it, because it represents the experience not only of a lot of American believers, but probably a lot of Christians not just in the last two or three centuries, but probably throughout the history of this people called church.

(And we seemed to come on the Saturday the Adventists celebrate America, so there were patriotic hymns of an earnest, 19th century sort. I get the sense the Adventists, as an offshoot of the Millerites, don’t quite know what to do with America theologically, being a very American church yet also being a minority far out of the cultural mainstream.)

At any rate, something came to me in the midst of worship. And it struck me when the associate pastor said something.

One of the songs I played, “Follow Me,” tends to reflect my theology. Jesus doesn’t ask us softly and tenderly. He comes up to us — at least some of us — and smacks us across the side of the head, strikes us blind, and commands “follow me,” after which we leave everything and follow Jesus. There’s no please, no request, just a demand that we cannot say no to. And we leave everything to follow Jesus.

The Gospels, and Luke’s version of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, seem to reflect this irresistible Jesus. He does not knock gently on the door. He breaks it down, grabs us while we are trying to flee, and drags us kicking and screaming out of the house.

But I also see a lot, in the Gospels, people coming to find Jesus. To see him. Meet him. People who seek him out. The most intense stories are of those Jesus meets and calls. But the other stories … they seem to matter too.

For me, Jesus commands: “Follow me.” But the associate phrased it in a very different way, as a question: “Will you follow me?” Jesus is in charge in that first telling, we are in the second.

Which I think reflects the conversion experiences so many people have. Both the associate and the pastor told me a little of theirs, and they were very reflective of the wider American religious culture, some version of I was out of control until I grabbed hold of Jesus. From everything I have read on his blog, that seems to be Rod Dreher’s experience as well — until I put God at the center of my life, I was out of control, wallowing in sin, captive and unable to free myself, living a pointless and meaningless life.

Disorder to order. That’s what following Jesus does. It creates order and meaning where there was chaos and meaninglessness. It creates a break, a chasm, in a life, between a time of darkness and as time of light. It is a very typical conversion story, and very legitimate.

It has also become the dominant narrative. It is how we understand conversion.

But it is not what happened to me. I do not see myself as having made any real decision to follow Jesus. He just stepped into my life on a particularly terrible day and gave me no choice. There was no saying “no” to Jesus. I was not in charge.

If anything, I’ve had a lot less control over my life since Jesus claimed me than I did before. And meaning … well, that wavers. I have good days and bad ones.

As I said, I am learning to respect the dominant conversion narrative. It reflects a real, lived experience, and there is scriptural support. It may be that many Christians, perhaps most, have found themselves facing a moment when they understood Jesus to ask, “will you follow me?” And they decided to follow. And good for them.

I, however, was never asked. Never given a choice. This too is scriptural. In fact, this is what makes our most compelling encounters with Jesus. That is, in part, what has made all that has happened since that beautiful Tuesday in early September, 2001, so difficult and perplexing — I followed, and all I seem to have gotten for it is grief, rejection, despair, and loneliness. I don’t understand why God’s people are so frightened, so cruel, so tribal, so unwelcoming.

I don’t understand why God would drag me to be with such people.

Still, I got to play music today. For people who thanked me, and said they appreciated it. It felt good, and it has been too long. I hope I can again. Soon.

Clothed in the Spirit

Because I’m working another full-time job, and not involved in the life of a congregation, I can plead that I’m not paying the kind of attention to Scripture — or worship — that I really ought to be. I’m a bit lost in the wilderness, as I have confessed multiple times on this blog.

So, this posting really should have been written several weeks ago for Pentecost.

Not long ago — and I’m not sure when exactly that was — I was reading through the two books of Chronicles, the second and much shorter historical account for Israel’s rise, fall, and redemption from exile. It’s a much more sanitized version of our history (yes, ours), leaves out many of the gory details of Saul’s faithlessness and David’s sin.

But I came across this amazing passage from 1 Chronicles 12 about David’s “Mighty Men”:

16 And some of the men of Benjamin and Judah came to the stronghold to David. 17 David went out to meet them and said to them, “If you have come to me in friendship to help me, my heart will be joined to you; but if to betray me to my adversaries, although there is no wrong in my hands, then may the God of our fathers see and rebuke you.” 18 Then the Spirit clothed Amasai, chief of the thirty, and he said,
“We are yours, O David,
and with you, O son of Jesse!
Peace, peace to you,
and peace to your helpers!
For your God helps you.”
Then David received them and made them officers of his troops. (1 Chronicles 12:16-18, ESV)

“The Spirit clothed Amasai…” וְרוּחַ לָבְשָׁ֗ה אֶת־עֲמָשַׂי This Spirit is the ruh that is the breath of God, and it enfolds Amasai like a garment. He wears לבשׁ lbš the Spirit of God. It covers him.

This doesn’t happen often. In Judges 6:34, the Spirit of the Lord clothes Gideon (וְרוּחַ יְהוָה לָבְשָׁה אֶת־גִּדְעוֹן) as he leads the army of Israel across the Jordan and gathers allies, and later in the Chronicles account (2 Chronicles 20:24), The Spirit of God clothes Zechariah the son of Jehoiada as he calls out the people’s idolatry following his father’s death (וְרוּחַ אֱלהִ֗ים לָֽבְשָׁה אֶת־זְכַרְיָה בֶּן־יְהוֹיָדָע הַכֹּהֵן). These are passages when a leader is clothed in the Spirit to gather followers or preach the clear truth to the people of God.

But this passage from 1 Chronicles is different. David is approached by some men from Benjamin and Judah — with whom David is at war because Saul is still king — who have come for reasons the Chronicler doesn’t say. Only David calls for God to rebuke them if they have come for ill. That’s when the Spirit clothes Amasai, and he proclaims his allegiance to David.

This is a political confession Amasai makes on behalf of his thirty men. He, and his cohort, give themselves over to David, and proclaim peace upon David and all those who help him, for God helps David. They will fight, will command men to fight, for David.

Like the Gibeonites, they see which side God is on and they switch sides.

Others from Israel slowly defect to David. But only Amasai and his thirty make a Spirit-clothed allegiance and confession. They are David’s because David is God’s.

What has this to do with Pentecost? Everything.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49 ESV)

“But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” ὑμεῖς δὲ καθίσατε ἐν τῇ πόλει ἕως οὗ ἐνδύσησθε ἐξ ὕψους δύναμιν. Acts itself uses “tongues of fire” and filling to describe the action of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, an outpouring like water, and not clothing wrapping and covering. But the risen Christ himself in Luke speaks of “putting on” power from high. A garment that enfolds us so that we can make a confession, proclaim an allegiance to Christ.

One of the things I learned early on as Muslim is that the shahada, the basic confession of faith — لا إله إلى الله محمد رسول الله there is absolutely no god but God and Muhammad [the praised one] is the messenger of God — is also a fundamentally political confession. To speak these words changed how the believer related to clan, caste, village, nation, and reoriented everything toward God and His Prophet.

Clearly this confession that Amasai and his fellow soldiers make is also a political confession. By being clothed in the spirit, and proclaiming “peace” to David, they are saying they will serve David and David’s God, who helps David. And not Saul. Their relationship to David becomes more important than being men of Benjamin and Judah, and they become men of David here.

And this is Peter’s confession on that day the followers of Jesus are “clothed with power from on high”:

This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. … Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:32-33, 36)

This is a political confession, as political a confession as Amasai’s proclamation of peace for David. When we confess this, we confess who is Lord, who is sovereign, who is helped and whom God helps. We confess whose side we are on by remembering whose side God is on — Christ’s. We are no longer divided by language, tribe, clan, and nation (εθνος), but we are no longer united by being members of the House of Israel or simply by being subject to Caesar’s rule. We have another Lord, because God has helped another.

And in helping Christ, God is helping us. In being on Christ’s side, God is on ours.

But only because we have come and submitted ourselves first to Christ. Because the Spirit has given us the power, wrapped itself around us, clothed us, and given us the ability to make that confession. We are only righteous insofar as Christ is righteous, and the only righteousness we have is that which first belonged to Christ.

Life Abdunatly

John 10:1-10

1 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

They know his voice.

I have my dad’s old cell phone. It’s still listed in my iPhone’s address book as belonging to my dad, though he is gone and Jennifer now carries that phone.

And it still has the outgoing message he recorded. I cannot delete it — it is the last copy of his voice I know that I have. I simply cannot let go of it.

I know my dad’s voice. I have always known it, whether I was waiting with anticipation or terror at his coming.

Here, Jesus tells his disciples that his sheep know his voice. They know it. The teaching is made after Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees, some of whom cannot believe that Jesus is the long prophesied Son of Man.

It sounds here like you either know the shepherd’s voice or not. And maybe that’s true. To follow the master, and refuse to follow the thief, or a stranger, is to know something about the shepherd. The shepherd has come by the right way — the gate — and the gatekeeper has opened the gate for the shepherd.

Jesus is the gate, the one through which entry to the sheep is given. He is also, later in the reading, the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. He speaks and those who follow know he has spoken.

I have heard the voice of Jesus. And yet, I did not know him. I was not one of his when he spoke to me. I could not follow the voice of what was then, to me, a stranger. It took others — faithful followers, struggling as best they could — to show me who he was. Who he is. I did not know his voice then but I do now. He is not a stranger to me now. He is the shepherd, and I know his voice.

I don’t think I’ve followed a stranger. Or been robbed by a thief. I have followed. I have life. I have it abundantly. I have that promise.

I wonder, though, what that means. Because what I’m living now … does not feel to me like abundant life.

LECTIONARY MONDAY Living a Burnt-Over Life

Acts 2:1-21

1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. 15 For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. 16 But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
18 even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
20 the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

It is Pentecost Sunday. The birthday of the church, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and filled them, covered them, set them afire with power and faith — trust — to do great things.

I was baptized on Pentecost Sunday in 2005, so this is my “baptism birthday.” My first internship supervisor, who has moved on from his call in rural Wisconsin a time or two or three since our time together, would, for a the first few years afterwards, send me a message — “Happy baptism birthday!”, something he tried to do with all his parishioners when he knew they date of their baptism.

The first couple of times, that greeting made me angry, felt deeply humiliating, a reminder of the terrible thing that happened. But those feelings passed a long time ago. It’s also been a long time since he’s wished me a happy baptism birthday. And I miss it.

I’m feeling disconnected today. Not spirit filled. Not on fire. I’m lonely and isolated. I wonder what my future is. I am not amazed, or astounded, and I’m not dreaming dreams.

It’s the usual complaint of the last few years. My life feels somewhat pointless, purposeless, and empty. I cannot even take comfort in this ministry I do, since I no longer have any idea how much of it was real and how much wasn’t. I feel a little humiliated being lied to, but more importantly, I feel like I’ve wasted my purpose. Like I have none.

In the past, when I have felt this way, it has been mixed with destitution and the despair that induced. But thanks to my father’s recent death, Jennifer and I now no longer face that kind of oblivion. I have work and a place to live I pay rent on, and some other things. We shall not be destitute unless I’m supremely stupid or the stock market ceases to exist tomorrow.

But still … purpose.

It’s a sense of homelessness, a desire to connect, to belong, to part of a people, to know them and be known by them. I picked a lousy place to do that — Central Washington is a place, like the Midwest, of settled people, of people so enmeshed with each other that they don’t welcome strangers very well and don’t really know how to get to know strangers. The upside of knowing people since kindergarten — as one tiny class of seven high school graduates do in one small town high school graduation I covered this weekend — is that is how most people have known each other for most of human history. You are born, live, work, and die in the midst of kin and loved ones. “These are my brothers and sisters,” one student said. And he wasn’t wrong.

The downside is the only way people really enter that group is through birth. They know of no other way to welcome new people into their midst. And so … they don’t really know how.

This is one reason I think Semitic scriptures (Bible and Qur’an) make such a big deal of welcoming strangers. It is so very counter to how we actually live. It is not easy. And that is why so many are not very good at it.

I think the ministry was a way for me to connect, even with someone virtual. (I think Bethany — whoever she really was — wanted that too, was lonely too, which is why she pretended so much, and why she hasn’t hurt me.) I am lonely, and I want to be part of other people’s lives, to matter, to be important. And it’s hard, being a stranger and a wanderer in the land of settled people.

It is, right now, more than I really care to bear.

God feels so … gone. I feel so empty, forgotten, abandoned. I know I cannot rely on my feelings, especially in the empty place. But still, it is all very overwhelming. And it’s not just feelings, either. I am not part of whoever “they” are as they have gathered in that one place. I am not part of them. I am not of them. I have no place.

I was on fire. Once. Now I am ashes. The fire … has gone.

In the LCMS’s The Lutheran Study Bible, there is a prayer in the footnotes to this passage from the Hymn “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord”:

Come, holy fire, comfort true, Grant us the will Your work to do And in your service to abide; Let trials turn us not aside.

I have to trust this emptiness is, in fact, a place I have been brought. That this yearning to know and be known, to have a home, is one I have some hope of realizing. Because right now, I do not know. It is hard to trust. Hard to trust God in the emptiness. Hard to trust the fire of the Spirit when there is nothing but cold and ashes and silence.

Jesus spoke to me. Why don’t more people care about that?

Maybe because I don’t care enough about it.

It is an odd place, this place of cold silence. This place of strangeness. This empty place. I’ve had the Spirit descend on me, speak to me — It will not always be this way, so live until it changes. You do not need to be so angry. Things are going exactly as they should be. My love is all that matters and this is who I am. — an intense revelation that when I read it together, still speaks to me.

Still says all I need to know. To believe. To trust

That I am reborn. That I have new life. That I am filled with the Spirit. That I am on fire. That I belong. That I am one of them in that one place. That I have been called and gathered and sent forth.

I trust. In the thing I cannot see, touch, or even feel inside me right now. I trust. It is all I have.