“Starting next week at staff meeting, we’re going to work our way around the table and each give our testimonies.”
Testimonies. Your story in Christ. I couldn’t even begin to estimate how many of these I’ve sat through in my existence — reformed sinners, people that spent time in the slammer, people that had premarital sex or were blasted back to faith from the edge of addiction — all good stories where “Yes!” can detail the power of Christ to change lives.
So why do I instantly cringe at the thought? It could be the public speaking, but I work at a church with a small staff of around 12 full-time employees (and one part-time “youth assistant” hired from the first family of the church).
It could be the forced-upon Christian staple of detailing your life through the invisible hand of God. (Replace “after college I moved to [blank]” with “after college, God called me to [blank]” and you have Testimony 101.)
It could be the fact that I work alongside a former marine, wounded in combat, who now runs a national healing ministry. (I think he wins).
Or it could be, besides all of the above, I don’t act like the other staff members on the outward-Jesus-scale.
The outward Jesus scale isn’t meant to describe inward Christian virtues that get expressed outwardly — love, joy, peace, patience, etc., and giving change to homeless beggars — this scale dictates things like listening to Christian praise music incessantly, saying the phrase “bless you” when someone sneezes, owning Thomas Kincaid paintings, liking pictures of sunsets overlaid with Bible verses, etc. Inspirational sayings from Facebook are also acceptable as desktop wallpaper.
I’m not criticizing those particular surface expressions of inward faith. I guess I’ve been surrounded by the Christian subculture my entire life, starting with a very conservative family that banned secular music and saw my dad congratulating complete strangers for their Christian parody shirts in the fast food line. When you discovered another professing Christian, it held the same camaraderie of liking the same band or TV show. I mean, we both express our identity through this interest.
I bought two albums around the same time in 2002. One was Denison Marrs’ Then is the New Now; the other was Cool Hand Luke’s Wake, O Sleeper. For those familiar with Christian music, both these albums were overt about their Christian message, despite the wide variety of interpretations of their Judeo-Christian values.
Denison Marrs was a rock band. Their music was immediate. They took the classic guitar/bass/drums combo attack and made some memorable music with some occasional clunky lyrics. (“Rescue Mission” took the overused NASA phrase, and, not unlike Houston having a problem, applied it to the mission field.) They weren’t challenging, but they spoke directly and concisely and expressed themselves in (what I still find) the best way possible: passionately, over distortion.
The main problem with their 2002 release, their first for Floodgate Records, was how good the opening track was. It set the bar so high the remaining nine (competently good) tracks failed to follow up on the promise of “What Life Has.” That opening riff, the locked-in drums and the way it soars (I think that means that the major chord progression of the main lick ascends), all lead up to the blowout chorus, the simple but honest call of “I wanna live for something / I don’t really wanna die here anymore.” Wow. That’s something to scream into your pillow. Isn’t that the gut human emotion that leads to salvation? To an effort of better living for every moment? To live for something? To not live a gravetending life (phrasing courtesy of The Message Bible)? The thing is, that rings just as true for me 10 years later as it did when I first heard it. Why aren’t we singing that song at church worship services? Tone it down with an acoustic guitar and you have a God-given anthem. Why persist in the fluff that mostly pervades?
Cool Hand Luke’s Wake Up, O Sleeper was a stodgy and more complex listen, arguably more important, and arguably a slog. I heard, around that time, the lead singer / drummer (not named Luke, sadly), would face his drumset away from the crowd when playing live as an outright offering to God — as opposed to, say, leading the crowd in one? (No word on if he initially tried an inverted drum set facing toward the ceiling. I mean, c’mon, God may have your back, but He’s clearly in the ceiling). This unique, live setup, rather than the content or merit of their music, is what is most remembered. Over 10 years later, the most memorably striking aspect of O Sleeper was a first chord that was identical to Taking Back Sunday’s “Cute Without the ‘E’” that would then signal my brain to expect the excitement of a punk-emo song.
September 2012. “Another holiday,” I murmured. I had just rolled off the best two weeks of my life — one of those breaks from normalcy, a completely unsustainable period of time that, if persistent, would not only destroy my already meager bank account, but wipe away any chance of health or longevity.
The holidays make me stare my existence in the face. They make me take stock in the passage of time. Pathetic time. Just another hour, in fact. March 2013. In the other room, kids are full-on laying hands on each other. High school and college-aged kids and it sounds like a scene from “The Exorcist.” Or maybe an auctioneer reciting the menu at a falafel shop. Don’t these kids have hobbies? No wait, that’s the bitterness taking hold.
I’m in the loner area. The observatory. Another guy is in the chair across from me. He’s wearing flip-flops. Maybe he was dragged here, too. The problem with being an outsider is you express your insecurity through judgment. The problem with being an outsider at a religious function is you feel immediately guilty, because God’s real, or maybe this is none of your business. Why do I find myself missing last year, the year before that? Hard years.
Swift kicks-to-the-adulthood years.
Because I’m looking up at them, that’s why.
I used to think life and spirituality were mutually exclusive. It seemed that, being raised in a Christian home and having a concept of “sin” before I had a concept of solid foods, we got the one big problem out of the way early. My dad told me that Jesus would save me from the fire. Apparently, my soul was saved as early as four years old.
I dedicated (and proceeded to rededicate) my life to Christ every time a youth function offered the opportunity (just to make sure it would stick). Somewhere, either high in the celestial heavens or deep within the minutia of my DNA, I had an eternal soul and it was safe.
But my life was another story. My life was damned to some undiscovered corner of God’s light — at least, that’s how I understood it. Not consciously, but in the deeper reality of my middle-class, big-nosed, teenage-fringe existence. I related more to songs about everyday hardships than some salvation as a concept, or God as a savior.
But I’m not finished yet, so my testimony doesn’t resolve like a clear cut, three-act story. So this is what I got:
I want to life for something. I don’t really want to die here anymore.