Monday, February 07, 2005


God and the Art of Being Human

I had a long conversation with Lu Saturday night. The phone rang, I picked it up and heard her voice. I just about fell out of my chair. That's what happens to one who is suddenly voice-to-voice with another human being when most of the prior contact has been through the abstraction of words.

We talked of many things. Much of the conversation centered on her experience in Nashville. It's an interesting set of contradictions: one minute she'll say that she's at her wits' end and about to bail, and then she says that she belongs there. Not in the sense that it's home as Los Angeles would be if she came back, but that Nashville, difficulties and all, is where she's supposed to be.

The main idea that built in me through this conversation was more subtle. It runs through her writings, too. What has struck me in listening to her is that here's a woman who has walked with Jesus for years doing a variety of things, yet she still frequently condemns herself. Her sensitivity makes her see what has gone wrong and then she blames herself for the problem. I
got the impression in talking with her that she had a sneaking suspicion that many of the problems in Nashville were her fault. Or at least she was willing to take the blame. She has been trained well.

It could be that I've cheated. I threw my life away years ago but God chose to pick me up again. His own reasons. I remember many things from those years, including telling people there was no real difference between Santa Claus, Jesus and the Easter Bunny. Choose your belief. None of them matters. God brought that to my mind shortly after he collected me the second time.
"I was wrong," I said, looking back at a long series of events that I could not ascribe to coincidence.

Although I didn't believe in God then I still thought about what God would be like if he were real. Or she. If the world had been made by a god, what does it say about that God? The first thing that came to mind is that he (I used the masculine pronoun because that's the way I was raised) liked beauty. A lot. Even the places that people have thoroughly screwed up have beauty, and other places were so beautiful that I just about jumped out of my skin. Moonlight sparkling on icy cornices, the glint of water over dark granite, the wind in my face accompanied by the unique sound of it in pine needles, the motion of the tree I was in, the scent of its bark or the larger scents of a forest. Of course it could be said that we humans have evolved in this world so naturally we see what's around us as beautiful. Do you believe in coincidence?

Beyond beauty, God loved complexity and detail. Look at how I'm made. Look at ecosystems. Human researchers are constantly surprised by how poorly their simulacrum systems work as they try to simplify them. The world is complex so that everything becomes center-seeking. Knock out one element for a time and the rest will take over until a new balance is restored.
Single-leg systems don't last long, and that's what people try to make. I regularly read accounts of research that can be summarized as "We didn't know that could happen."

And then I looked at people. Life seems generally to be a process of taking a child and trimming off everything that makes her or him awkward to handle. No matter how complex the brain is, how sensitive to the world around, parents and school offer no help for retaining these. There isn't even the idea that such things are valuable. No, the answer is always to reduce the child so that by the time he's an adult he will function without trouble in society.

So, any putative God would have to explain all of this. I kept the "god files" open even while assuming there was no such god, because while there was no real evidence I'd trust in favor of God, there was also no acceptable evidence against. By such small signs can the work of the Holy
Spirit be seen, keeping me from going over the edge into complete hopelessness.

If God is real, I told myself, he will accept all of me. Because he made me that way, if he's around. So, when he collected me that night in September of 2003, we knew where we stood. I wanted truth, he wanted, well, something. I didn't know why he bothered but I wasn't about to refuse the offer because the alternative to it was really bad.

One day I'd been bad-mouthing God. The next his hand reached down to me and gently calmed my tail-chasing thoughts. The logical consequence of that kind of thing is to begin thinking about forgiveness. That process came to a point a few months later when I ate the bread and drank the wine. Jesus saying I was forgiven. I accepted that. God looks at me and sees not the black stain I carry from history, but Jesus' burning purity.

I'm reading a fascinating book called "Animals in Translation," by Temple Grandin. This is a real eye-opener. Instead of describing a bunch of theory about how people and animals should behave, she writes from her experience as an autistic adult. Autism is a strange state, with heightened sensitivity and various other aspects. Her overall thesis is that in her autism her mind works more like that of an animal than do the minds of "normal" people. What's most interesting about this is how what she writes backs up everything I've always believed about animals and people. We're all more complex and sensitive than we've let on, and we've learned to hide it well.

So you get a group of people into a strange city. They look for jobs, places to live, places to belong. While they're doing that they expect to start a church that will turn the city upside-down. Temple Grandin would have taken one look at that and said "It's not going to happen because it's counter to the nature of the people involved." People need a certain amount
of security, some friends, a place to belong. Christians seem to believe in instant transformation: go anywhere, do anything. Sometimes it works. Sometimes that's what the Holy Spirit wants. Many other times the project explodes and injures everyone involved. That's just what Satan wants.

How can we show God's love when we're barely people? We all have learned our people skills from the devil-led world around us, a popular culture that has uncritically bought the ideas of behaviorists hook, line and sinker. We're mechanisms, black boxes whose insides we can't figure out but if you provide the right stimulus the correct behavior will result. We don't need role models because we can figure it all out for ourselves. Life is simple and easy to learn.

Christians have two ideas about being broken. One is that we are broken, and this one is fully correct. We're so broken we don't know how bad shape we're in. God presents us with a moment of grace and we take it and run, afraid that the moment will never be repeated, that we'll overtax God's patience. Ask for no more than you really, really need or else you'll be accused of whining and pestering. We learn well. So we never ask God for what we really need: gut-level forgiveness.

The other idea about brokenness is that each of us has to be broken, like horses to the saddle. Temple Grandin writes:
"You have to be gentle when you're working with prey animals. I've seen so many animals ruined by owners who traumatized them through rough or ignorant handling. The whole idea of BREAKING a horse is a perfect example. If you break a horse, he's BROKEN. He's traumatized for life and usually no use to anyone after that, including himself a lot of times."

I could be wrong. I could be deluding myself. Evidence indicates that I'm doing reasonably well. I'm a year and a half into this experiment and still living, and still making progress. God leads me along and I find little things that I can do to help others. I know life comes from God; my life
continues by his grace.

God's plans for me seem to be quite particular. My experience, my way of seeing have been used by the Holy Spirit to bring healing to other people damaged by their deadly ideas of God, ideas that my desperation led me to discard. I'm aware that from the outside there is little sign in my life that I know God; I'll never be out at the front of the march of Christian soldiers, leading and pulling them on. No, I'll be in the back somewhere helping the poor broken ones who just can't keep up with the crash of barbarians.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the idea that we are people. Further, I suggest that God wants us to be people and that he knows full well that he has to teach us how. God knows the cost and has proven that he will do anything to get us back. He most certainly doesn't want machines, as demonstrated daily as he changes my heart of stone to flesh despite my grumbling and fear.

Forgiveness is a rare phenomenon. We have no real experience of it. We know the usual kind, when people say they forgive you but three months later they remind you of it. Temple Grandin demonstrates in her book that new memories don't displace old ones, especially if they have some pain in them. The new is just an overlay.

Outgrowing the machine mindset really starts with forgiveness. If you've given your life to Jesus, he doesn't remember anything from your past. All those crude comments and jokes I made about the God who saved my life? He has forgotten them. Every one, expunged. They're all gone. And then the Holy Spirit goes to work. He erases the pain in the old memories. There is an essential emotional component to rationality but this doesn't work right when you have layers of new junk on top of old pain.

"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death." (Romans 8:1 NIV)

No condemnation. None at all, ever. I have been given many names but the first one that counted, the one that began my real life, is the name of "Forgiven." What kind of life can be built upon that foundation? I have no idea. I wonder myself. The only way to find out is to go try it. The Holy Spirit goes to the root and gently transforms it by changing the soil in which it grows. He holds our hearts if we let him.

2005 February 6
Lu gave me permission to use her as an example in this story. Thanks, Lu.
Rewritten February 7

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