My Alien Brain

“And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” Colossians 1:21-22

The first migraine hit me in middle school. While wrapping up some pre-algebra problems, a fuzzy, white spot kept covering up the numbers. I’d blink and rub my eyes and try to work around it, but the spot hovered there for most of the class. Being the well-reasoned adolescent that I was, I naturally assumed what seemed logical: I was about to die of a massive stroke.

I obviously didn’t die. But when the spot finally did go away, I wished it had stayed.

Stomach-curling, fist-clenching, world-bending pain plopped down into my cranium and threw some sort of headache party. After an hour or so, I couldn’t take it anymore. I told the skeptical school nurse that I thought I had a “migration headache,” which didn’t ease her skepticism. Still, she let me go home.

Just to complete the headache humiliation, I got sick right outside the school (so that all the classes on that side of the building could watch), fell asleep as soon as I got home, and woke up with a throbbing head. Migraines don’t like to go without a fight. They kick and scream into that good night.

My own head revolted against me for several years after that. If I didn’t get enough sleep or got hit with too much stress, the spot would make a comeback. I did learn to lessen the pain sometimes by closing my eyes as soon as the fuzz sprang into view, but that didn’t always work.

Truthfully, the migraines were the least of my problems. My un-reconciled brain, the one that had no understanding of Christ, had revolted from God. Instead of fuzzy spots as warning signs, there were evil deeds, as Paul calls them. I played on others’ emotions to get my way, used girlfriends as my personal trophy case, spent hours and hours on the kinds of websites that wouldn’t make it through a work Internet filter, and generally wasted my gifts. The pain that resulted from those “spots” wasn’t just inwardly focused—it left quite the burning trail in its wake.

My alien brain knew nothing else then. It wanted nothing better. It was pretty much dead.

That’s exactly the reason Christ’s reconciling, restoring death still astounds me. This gray matter, so unresponsive to anything spiritual, came to life with God’s preceding grace. He kept hitting me and kept hitting me until I finally gave up, followed His Son, and stopped being an alien.

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The Strains of Christmas

Christmas at my house meant preparing for the worst. The worst didn’t always come, but you couldn’t be too careful.

You see, the thing about holidays is that people tend to be together, pushed into the same room by tradition and baked turkey. My family spent most of the year avoiding such things, as we hurried off to school or work, buried ourselves in music and books, and generally enjoyed the comfort of a closed door.

We could usually navigate the raging Scylla and Charybdis of Thanksgiving because it only meant a day together before we scattered again. But while we chewed stuffing, my father would chew on his disappointment over his life and his family. My older brothers would try not to notice. The tryptophan made us all too sleepy for much more—at least, that’s what I like to think.

But then Christmas came lumbering into the UpChurch household with all its vacation days. We had too much time off, and too many unspoken issues. We were like a pot of boiling potatoes with the water sloshing out on the stove. There’d be some sizzling over a lack of job, a splash or two over how much something cost, and then boom… the lid blew off.

An hour and two new holes in the wall later, we surveyed the wreckage of the yuletide cheer. My brothers would fume back into the basement, my father would escape to his computer, and my mom would try to figure out what to do. Usually, the anger just sunk back into the pot for another year.

When I moved out of my house, it took years for Christmas to reclaim its festive atmosphere. Even when the war ended, the shellshock didn’t. There were too many things unsaid, too many things not dealt with. The embers of home-fought battles wouldn’t die down.

Then, Christ.

Describing salvation couldn’t be better summed up than in those two words set apart in their own paragraph: then, Christ. There was no choir of angels singing (audibly to me, at least) or a special star shining light down on my apartment, but it was a moment that clearly separates time into two epochs. That separation is for both BC/AD and OJ/NJ—Old John and New John.

As this New John, though, I noticed something that might as well have been as miraculous as angels breaking out the tunes over my head. When Christmas came, the dread didn’t. I’d plucked the Christ off Christmas, and the mass didn’t seem so heavy. In fact, I even looked forward to it.

No, the tension didn’t suddenly melt away. The tempers weren’t all snuffed out. There were still moments that stretched tightly across our gatherings. But I now knew something just slightly flip-the-world-upside-down, mind-blowingly awesome: A baby, born poor and away from home, had taken the worst this world had to offer. A king wanted Him dead, and His country had no place for Him. But still He came… for me.

For you.

Why I’m Pentecostal: The Background

Other than the blazing light and literal blindness, my introduction to God came as something of a Damascus kitchen experience. God broke in when I bolted the door shut. I realized early that God wasn’t through being involved in His creation.

That doesn’t mean I had plans for anything more. I knew so little of the Bible then that the idea of speaking in tongues had no room in my growing understanding of faith. Even when I read those sections, I simply wrote them off as something that happened “back then.” Funny how we add an internal commentary to the Bible that dictates our approach.

I’ve often heard that Pentecostalism is stained by emotionalism—and I would plead somewhat guilty. Our emotions help us experience God, after all. We grasp at His complete uniqueness, His ridiculous power, and we can’t help but be smacked with a river of emotion. It’s a flood that cuts through our passive lives. And God led me to understand how emotion can build our faith.

Following Jesus began with fits and starts—like learning to drive a five-speed. I’d slam down the gas and get a roaring engine, but no movement. I’d hit the clutch at the wrong times and make a grinding sound that shook me. I bumped and sputtered along for months.

And then I got mad. The kind of angry you get when you want God to work the way you think He should. I wanted Him to get rid of the junk and just move me along. I wanted to have gumption, courage, and a hard edge if needed. I wanted Spirit (though I didn’t know that then).

In anger, I tore into my Creator (just being honest). I told Him that He needed to make the five-speed transmission work magically now. I told Him I wanted to be more like Peter, who seemed to suddenly morph into this warrior of the gospel after Pentecost.

I’d love to tell you that right then—right that moment—the Holy Spirit rushed into the room and lit it up. But He didn’t.

Instead, I kept learning to drive the stick shift.

[Next up: The Change]

The Day My Mother Went Crazy

I don’t remember the day of the week—so, let’s say Wednesday. My cell phone cracked and spluttered over my brother’s voice, but I understood enough. My mother had stopped her meds again; she’d lied about it; and now she didn’t know her youngest son existed. My family wanted me to talk to her to prove I was, in fact, real.

The idea sickened me.

They didn’t tell her who I was, just that someone wanted to talk to her. My mind whirled around a prayer—a very inadequate bottle rocket—as I waited through the rustling and murmurs and silence. Mostly, I just hoped she wouldn’t take the phone. She did.

If you’ve never been told you don’t exist, it’s not something I recommend. You hurt for the person who can’t remember, and you hurt for the lost connection.

When I visited her later, a shell sat across the table from me. Her eyes dulled under the fluorescence—no recognition, no love.

Loving her then gave me the smallest sense of what it’s like for God to love us—even when we run, even when we deny He exists. He just can’t stop. We can’t see until His preceding grace tears away the haze, and, suddenly, we remember what love is.

(A)theist: The Journey of 2003

Suicidal college students should not have to sit in waiting rooms with nothing but pulp entertainment. Perhaps the hope is that the airbrushed images, out-of-reach vacation destinations, and political attack pieces scattered throughout the worn magazines will provide joy beneath taupe walls.

I’ll just tell you. They don’t.

Whatever the justification for the cornucopia of Time and Condé Nast, my first visit to the university’s mental health clinic had only one bright spot: it was free. Seated in the midst of chairs packed into the room—I overcame the Lexus ads and remained.

Two or three other students kept their faces resolutely down. You have to love the unspoken communication in such places. We pretended to be obsessed with novels and cell phones and crinkling pages because we knew why each was there. After all, you didn’t wait there because the seats were comfortable. You waited because something had gone wrong.

My wrong had reached a climax at the tip of a knife the day before while standing in the kitchen of a two-bedroom apartment. With no premeditation, I decided I’d put an end to what I saw as nothing more than the motion of electrons—that is, me. In my deluded mind, the difference between my skin and the food I’d just cut was only a matter of texture and shape, and certainly not the chasm I now know exists between matter and my God-breathed life.

What stopped me had nothing to do with remorse or a desire to live. I had neither. Instead, it was curiosity—aching curiosity. Right then I heard—though I have no idea if it was audible—a single phrase: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The words reminded me of something—something I was sure I should remember—and that was enough. Purpose.

As you can see, I had two reasons to go see a psychologist: 1) I wanted to end my own life and 2) I heard a voice in the kitchen. Although the psychologist meant well, he could only deal with the symptoms: some techniques to think positively, some ways to refocus.

I’d love to tell you that during that time, I immediately looked up what I’d heard, surrendered to Christ, and retired at 25. But considering myself “healed enough,” I forgot about the event for several months—as well as one can forget nearly ending his own life. And perhaps that was best, since God used my lowest point to chip away the whitewashed walls I’d put up that declared “I don’t need God to be okay.”

Without God, I’d ended up staring at taupe walls and considering life of no more worth than carrots. I continued to stumble through depression until I did finally look up that phrase. Conviction and repentance and acceptance came upon discovering that “In Him was life, and that light was the light of men.”

It’s funny what God’s Word (in all senses) can do.