Monday, October 31, 2005
It's popular to think that beliefs don't matter. You can, like the queen in "Alice in Wonderland," believe ten impossible things before breakfast. It's just belief, right?
I just finished reading "Life of Pi," by Yann Martel. This was recommended by a friend, and is very interesting. Well written, too. Pi Patel is on a ship with his family and their zoo animals when the ship sinks. Only Pi is left, with some animals, on a lifeboat. As a child, Pi had become interested in God so he did the logical thing: comparison shopping. He went to the mosque regularly, had a prayer rug and did the obeisances. He went to a temple, too, and a Christian church. He even got baptized. The book is full of good scenes, but one of the best is the meeting between Pi and his family, and the three leaders of the local religions. Each of them tries to force a choice, but Pi's unflappable logic brings them to silence.
It's a nice thought, and a really wonderful alternative to today's rigid divisions. I believe God is flexible and gives us the benefit of the doubt, but at some point you come to the core belief. We're corrupt, living beyond our means and incapable of change, and only belief in Jesus can change that.
Belief seems such a flimsy foundation for life. A thought can change, as my brother pointed out years ago, by simple application of chemicals or a blow to the head. But thoughts can also change the world. If Edison had given up on test #199, we wouldn't have electric lights. Well, we would, but someone else would have done it. Somebody says "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief," and God enters that name into a special book, and opens the door for him. What happens? A neuron takes a slightly different shape? The pre-belief person looks just like the post-belief one, but everything has changed from God's point of view. There's now an invisible white robe to clothe and protect the naked sinner.
Pi Patel, at the end of the book, tells his story to some men from the shipping company. They want to know what happened to the ship. Pi can't tell them that, but he does tell them about living with a tiger in a lifeboat. They don't believe him, so he recasts the story such that the animals become people. At the end, the men agree that the version of the story with animals is better than the other. And Pi says "And so it goes with God." I'm left wondering what that means, but it implies a lot of things having to do with the world being much more complex than we believe.
Our God is bigger than our beliefs, fortunately. He can't be contained in a human mind.
Thursday, October 27, 2005
Fear, Fight, Flee?
Lu tends to have good friends, and many of them are Bloggers. When I have time I follow the links from her Blog, and then explore the stories at the end of that trail. The other day I ran into Conna's Blog, with a little story about fearing God. That stopped me in my tracks, because, well, because it's one of the few things in this crazy, out-of-bounds experiment with God that I seem to know anything about. It's not just knowledge. I have the feel-how of fearing God, and yet approaching him.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
To him belongs eternal praise. Psalm 111:10
I believe that now. There are real reasons to fear God: he could snuff me out with not even a gesture. If he forgets me for an instant I evaporate as if I'd never been at all. I am so depraved, so far from any real holiness, that the only barrier between God's justified wrath at my fallenness and his judgment is the robe that Jesus put over my shoulders. "He's mine." The wrath changes to sunshine and an outpouring of gifts.
Life is what he wants. Life is complex, hard to do. I've taken shortcuts and simplifications, as if I'm just riding the train to the end of tracks. I have no hand in the guidance, no dream of where I'm going. I'm scared of changing this.
Fearing God is also about fearing his power to change. He is fiercely dedicated to real life. He never stops making suggestions, offering guidance, illuminating the trouble spots that I'd rather leave in darkness. It has worked well enough until now, so just let it go. But that's not good enough for God.
I want to fight? Fine. God will get down on the ground and wrestle me to immobility. I want to run? He'll let me go until my feet are cut, my legs exhausted and my human brain whirling in fatigued tail-chasing. He waits. I turn around. Then he will open his arms and take me back. He loves honesty.
He never, ever, quits. That is truly frightening. Nothing, not even my attempts to limp away out of his sight, is enough to separate me from him. We are well and truly stuck with each other. It can go hard, or it can go... well, not easy, but at least with a measure of grace.
Fearing God makes a lot of sense, but it's a special kind of fear. I fear him, yet I call his name when I need help. I would never do that with a person because I know that when I ask for bread, the other person is likely to give me a rock. God will give me bread, but that very bread is made from his life, and imbued with his life. To eat it is dangerous! To be touched by God's hand is catastrophic. To have God clear the crud from my eyes so that I can see more clearly is to leave the illusions behind, and that, for a sensitive man, is just completely out of range.
I need illusion as a bat needs the dark, as a hermit crab needs his borrowed shell. Illusion is one thing God won't tolerate. It's an echo of Satan's promise to Eve. I fear God's power to shine his pure shadowless light through the murk of my soul.
He does so gently, but insistently. He will spend the time it takes for the pure truth to come out and become solid, strong enough to build a new life on. Fleeing is no longer an option because, cut off from God, there really isn't any hope for me. Life isn't much fun anyway but if I'm running from God it really turns grey. I fear what he could do with my helplessness because of what that state has led to in the past. People see a helpless one and think, while rubbing their hands together, "Fresh meat!" God thinks, and acts, "One who needs my special help."
He knows I need help. He started his plan long ago, and sacrificed his Son so that I could come to him in my quaking honesty and try to get things sorted out. Little by little we do it. Not that much of this shows. All I can really say is that I'm still here. This, for some reason, makes our fearsome God happy.
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
We will work with each other, we will work side by side.
We will work with each other, we will work side by side.
And we'll guard each man's dignity and save each man's pride.
The first time I heard this version, at some Christian meeting in the early 1970s, I was shocked. Dignity? Pride? This was news to me; I'd heard only the Bowdlerized version that replaced that line with something more in keeping with Modern Christian Thought. I've forgotten that version, but I remember the incident.
Who cares about dignity? And pride is something to be ruthlessly stamped out, right? I wonder.
What is life without pride? I see the results of this every day: people who've given up. Some are on top of the heap, and keep their humanity in some far corner while they step on everyone else in a ruthless scramble to stay on top. Also in people on the bottom, wandering around aimlessly. There are many in the middle, too, just waiting for either retirement or death.
Some have passion but no guidance. Some have neither. I wonder if pride isn't an essential part of human guidance, because pride might have something to do with caring. People who are proud of their neighborhoods take better care of them.
Now, why did God choose Saul? At first glance, Saul's the last person you'd look at to bring the gospel to the world. He has a stated and demonstrated hatred for the Lord Jesus, everything He stands for, and all people who are associated with him. He thinks nothing of just killing them, like a doctor cutting out an infection.
But the man did have passion, he had pride, and he had direction. He knew what he wanted. Maybe it's a shorter distance from that condition to being an effective missionary than it is for someone like me: modern, dispassionate, distant.
The big question for me is, "How did God effect this change?" Of course, God could have simply reached into Saul's mind and switched a few neurons around, but if He had, love would have collapsed and the universe would have popped like a bubble. Gone. If Jesus were to appear to most modern people on the road to anywhere, they'd just drive on by. Most likely He wouldn't even be noticed by anyone in the river of traffic. If he were noticed, people's response would be "I'll get back to you on that. Sorry. I have a meeting."
Saul was, by his own statement, a Jew's Jew. He passionately followed the rules. You'd think that someone like this would be impervious to a new message, but I wonder if Saul's passion came from knowing that he was shoring up a burnt-out building. Passion comes from somewhere, and perhaps Saul compared his slavish devotion to rules to the shining passion Jesus showed for everyone. Love can't be hidden, and Jesus was here to shine from a hilltop. It probably drove Saul nuts. Something in him was whispering "This is true" and he was acting out his opposition in ever greater acts of rage.
God can't manipulate people. He can show, he can demonstrate, but he can't force. Our society knows little of the ways of love, force being the bone in an otherwise flabby and dead structure. Ever more signs, ever more laws, and ever more disobedience from people who have a feeling that control of that sort just leads farther into a hole.
I wonder what would happen if our leaders respected pride and dignity as much as God does. Jesus came to Saul, in person, with bells on, and Saul collapsed. He could no longer deny the truth. He had three days of blindness in which to think about it, but the issue was never in doubt. Dignity, love and pride are a strong combination.
Monday, October 24, 2005
Amid riches, how do I feel rich? Why do I always feel hollow? What does it take to fill a big dry hole? I guess God had to get my attention first, so that I'll take down the umbrella.
Really, the idea that I prevent my own filling, that there is no gauge that reads full, is revolutionary. It makes so much sense. It even squares with what I see around me: people whose hands are full of gadgets, yet eagerly reaching for the next one. Is anyone ever full? Can anyone ever feel it? Am I the only one to ask this question?
Maybe other parts of the world do better. Maybe there people grow up with the emotional skills to understand what they're getting, and what to do with it. I used to handle this intellectually, but there are problems with that approach. It's very easy, for one thing, to so clamp down on freedom that life is just walk between straight walls. Or, I guess, one could justify almost anything intellectually, but probably through God's hand on my life even then I couldn't make such a lie stick. I usually went the other way: living the life of a pauper. A homeless man in a good home.
What does it take to feel as if I have a home anywhere? I don't know. I'll have to learn. God has a home for everyone, he says. I just can't feel it, and it seems that the feeling of it is important to him. For my part, I'm just scared. Don't look down. Nothing there but desert. All the way down.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
When Is Full?
The question might seem trivial. After all, we all know when we're full and when we're hungry, right? In some cases... maybe.
I've been resisting God's efforts to have me feel his participation in my life more directly. What would this be if not a bribe to make me acquiesce? But the thought hit me tonight: if I don't feel anything, how do I know that I'm full? Intellect only goes so far. God made us with emotions and he doesn't build things unless they're perfect.
Lots of people go chasing after God, wanting to feel his touch, wanting to KNOW he's in their lives. I think this is a case of being drenched in gasoline, with the pump still putting out a stream, but the operator unaware and wanting to feel full. Society teaches us to turn off feelings, and the church is right there with the same rule. Ignore your feelings. Do what's right. Well, how do you know something is right when half of you is more or less dead?
Feelings are just plain terrifying, and get more so as I age. I'm less resilient than I used to be, more suspicious, less tolerant, more desirous of just being left alone until I die. If you don't learn them young, then God will teach you when you're old. I have an idea that everything we do here is more to prepare us for living with him in eternity than for anything we accomplish here. What we do is important, what we learn from doing is even more important.
Emotions are going to be happening in Heaven. Those who feel walk on knives in our world. I hope there's a reward for this later on, something to make the pain worthwhile. Better yet, maybe there is a reason for it here, too.
Parents, I plead with you to teach your children how to deal with emotions in some way other than sweeping them under the carpet. It's easier then than as an adult.
I see them as a bottomless pit. Don't even bother trying to fill it. But maybe the truth is that the pit is already full and I just don't feel that fullness because I'm afraid it's a lie. It is very hard to contemplate this. I have to trust God. Trust that what I'm hearing from him is correct, that I haven't messed it up in translation, that I'm not twisting his words into something more palatable to me. There's only one way to find out, as usual. Go and see.
Friday, October 21, 2005
One is spending time with him. I just routinely went to bed early, got quiet, and we discussed things. I'd ask questions, he'd give me answers, or not. Or he'd guide back to an answer I already knew and had forgotten or run away from. He never lost patience with this process, unlike people who tend to explode if called upon to answer a question more than once. Include me in that category; I get upset when people don't listen.
Eventually I learned of the power in that simple act of communication. To ask God questions is to learn His ways. To pray is to invite his involvement; if you ask for someone else to learn the truth, how can you avoid seeing it yourself? God keeps me honest. Eventually, distraction became a more attractive way to spend my time.
Music. Playing computer games. Or just closing down my mind. Reading for the purpose of killing time.
Some time back I wrote that a Christian who's separated from God is the saddest creature on the planet. I ended up proving that to myself. I was sad, depressed, not interested in much of anything but didn't make the connection.
A basic truth of troubleshooting is that when nothing you do works, try something else. Anything else. Desperation of that sort drove me to God in the first place. Well, "drove" isn't quite the right word; he set up the circumstances and I followed blindly and fell into his lap. God promised to end my depression, but like the Israelites looking back at Egypt, when I compared the familiarity of depression with the new and very strange world He wanted me to inhabit, the old way looked pretty good.
It didn't work. It seems that now that I know what the alternative is like, now that I have spoken with the God of the Universe and felt his hand on mine, life spent in trying to get away from that is a very quick trip down the Oblivion road. There are precedents: once you've tasted Haagen-Dazs, supermarket ice cream just doesn't cut it any more. My mother can really cook, so I grew up knowing what real food tastes like. Hence, I can't eat at McDonald's. That's not food. It's just calories.
I belong to Jesus now. I ignore him at the expense of anything that makes life worth living. I wanted to start a new Blog called "Long Haul Christian," but longhaul.blogspot.com is in use (hasn't been updated in three years) and lhc.blogspot.com is not allowed. So, I'll just stick with this.
But God's voice is not what I expect. He invited me to buy a new 100mm macro lens for my digital camera today. I'd been thinking about it for months. I have a 50mm macro, but the 100mm version gives me more room to work because I don't have to be so close to the subject. I also intended to buy a 35mm lens to fill the gap between the 20mm and the 50, but they didn't have that in stock. I walked out with the macro lens.
God's gifts to southern California started early. We had a light rain in late September, and a real storm earlier this week. Spring comes when the rains start so the flowers will be early this year. God makes the beauty and I photograph it to share with others.
None of this makes any sense, but I said it myself two years ago: Step one is to forget everything I know about God and let him teach me who he is. I don't trust anyone but him to do this right; people tend to have agendas. Agendas have little to do with life, and life is what I need. Q.E.D. The logic of the iconoclastic follower of Jesus.
So, I learn, bit by bit. I am, and I suspect this is true of everyone, reserved for God. Paying attention to this seems to be a good thing. Color is coming back, again, into a world that was looking bleak for a few months. God plays hardball, but he does so gently.
Our God is jealous. Not because he feels slighted by our attentiveness to everything but him, and in particular my desire to fill my life with distractions so I don't see the awful truth, but because he knows that his way is best.
I can't tell you the number of times it seems as if a relationship I have is finally taking off into something warm and inviting, and then it ends. Or a simple conversation starts on a day when there have been no phone calls, and then the phone rings off the hook. Time and again, through the years, counter-statistical.
I'm not one to bang my head against walls. If the will of God is to keep me alone, then who am i to argue? All I know for sure is that my ways haven't worked very well: I don't get what I want. So, I want the wrong thing, or am trying to get the right thing the wrong way. Beats me. So, I quit.
I guess that could be called faith, although the path seems pretty easy to walk when it's the only one open. As an old-time bushwhacker in the mountains of Colorado I learned early that bashing crossways through the brush on a shorter path was much slower than going with the flow of terrain, and taking turns toward where I really wanted to be when an opportunity showed up in an opening between trees or rocks.
Water has no will of its own yet always gets its way. Is God giving me hints? How subtle is a slammed door?
What is the alternative? Talking with God. Now, there's a frightening thought. I still harbor all the old judgments. The roots of assumptions deeply dig into my soul and I turn to God with great fear and quaking. Yet he seems to enjoy the conversation, no matter the subject. I don't really understand it, but I am getting used to it. For now.
For now I float alone over the abyss of loneliness that always threatened to consume me. I don't fall into it because of God's hand under me. I don't know how other people handle this kind of thing, or even if what I write is comprehensible to anyone. Perhaps it is my experience that makes the whole set of images comprehensible to me. I can't communicate the fear I've felt of finally losing any connection to the world and drifting off into terminal strangeness. Well, maybe I'm already terminally strange. In our culture anyone who goes across the grain of society, seeking his own path instead of following the well-beaten trails, is seen as weird.
I've always been out of touch, a bottom feeder, so society hardly notices I'm here. Perhaps God is using this characteristic--I wonder where it would line up in a Meyers-Briggs--to keep me to himself so that I can learn his ways. I certainly have a lot of my own to unlearn.
So, what's one more weirdness on top of the others? For some reason, my survival is important to God, and I just have to go along with that. Maybe, some day, I'll enjoy it.
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Having no dream of my own, I signed on first to Craig's dream of a new life through Jesus--I had nothing to lose but a dead-end job in Kansas--and then to Rick's. I'd never had many friends. Maybe this would change.
30-odd years later, nothing has changed. By the criteria I use to judge real friendship, all of mine are distant. I'm an asteroid far from the warming sun. I've gotten used to it.
I thought this might change through Mosaic. Be in contact with people, friendships might come about. That didn't happen either; somehow, the Velcro that holds groups together got left out of my makeup. The Cat who Walks by Himself is another name for me.
But I did come out of Mosaic with something new, something that hadn't occurred to me before it happened. At the time I sort of considered God to the be the booby prize: having failed to make human friends, I was forced into second-best. I mean, if relationships are the purpose of human life, what am I? Complete failure? Anyone can claim friendship with God. Many do, and are branded nutcases.
Maybe there's another way of looking at this. A real friendship with God might be the necessary first step into human relationships. After all, I've pretty well failed in most human regards, so God has to first teach me how to be human. I'm long since past thinking of a relationship with God as the booby prize. It's his hand over that abyss, not mine nor anyone else's.
He, by his kept promises, has earned my respect. People keep promises when it's convenient to do so. God makes a promise and then does everything he has to in order to make it happen. If it means giving up his son's life as a sacrifice to make a friendship possible, he will do so. He never quits, never gets tired, never gets crabby after answering the same question for the 34th time.
I'm used to broken dreams. I gave up on them years ago and have been living more on momentum than anything else ever since. People disappoint, I disappoint. Right now it's God guiding me and holding me together that makes anything possible. Maybe that relationship is the real cornerstone for any solid building.
I don't know where we're going. Based on my experience of the last couple of years, I trust God knows what he's doing in the guidance department. He knows where we're going. He also knows why. I'm just tired of it. He has told me why: to make me like his Son, Jesus. He'd probably tell me how if I asked, but I don't want to look any farther ahead than I have to.
When Jesus said you must die to yourself he wasn't kidding at all. He is very gentle in applying that, as gentle as possible pressing toward change, but it's still the end of the road for the old way of life, decided each second of each day, a million tiny deaths leading to, I hope, one big new life. I can't imagine it. Right now it seems impossibly far away, but God holds my hand. He's committed, and I guess I am too. I know what the country behind me looks like.
Hand Over the Abyss
I survive through not looking in there. I know it exists, I know it's ready to swallow me whole. I don't look. I skate around the edge and distract myself, filter the feelings, act as if it's not there but it is. I feel the pit and I see reminders of its reality every day hanging around on streetcorners in Los Angeles. People who have given up.
I gave up years ago. I realized life would never be what I wanted, but, well, you just can't act like that or you have even more problems than the basic one. Push myself out of bed, push myself along the track, keep going and don't look back. Ever. Until I felt the pit's edge crumbling under my feet. That's when God stepped in.
Nothing really has changed in the ensuing two years. Maybe it never will. I no longer have a clear idea of what God is up to.
Having read many horror stories of Christians being abandoned in sticky places I expect the same to happen to me. God will realize how inconvenient I am and drop me. I don't know how to square those stories of others with God's promise never to abandon me; the implication in the stories is that God abandons people for a purpose, then picks them up later. "See? I never left you." Seems like a semantic quibble to me.
People's stories aren't God. Perhaps they really were abandoned for a time. I don't think so. More like a perception of abandonment. There have been times when I wish God had abandoned me; being held to his standard, being held to my promises, is hard. He never has, although sometimes he does feel closer than at other times. I know he's there.
And it's his hand over the mouth of the abyss that enables me to go on. Distraction doesn't help me skate around any more. I'm standing on his hand, or more like quivering and quaking in a heap, and under that hand is nothing. Black. Consuming. But God holds me. He wants me to see the abyss, know it's there and quit trying to put it out of mind. I don't understand, but he's the mechanic. If your Ferrari breaks down, you don't take it to Joe's corner garage, unless Joe just happened to work for Ferrari at some point in his career. You take it to an expert.
God knows my soul. He made it. He knows what he's doing. I can't see farther than the next few minutes, pretty much by training. Never look farther ahead than the next problem, because the one beyond that may be the killer. Maytagged out of life by the combination of big wave and shallow water. Look a few seconds ahead and hope. Hope? Not even that. Except that perhaps even real hope is growing. The abyss isn't so scary when God's hand is over it.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Into the Light
You take a step, and then, flooded with brilliance, knocked off your feet, you crawl like a suddenly exposed cockroach back into the shadow. It's too bright! It hurts! I can't stand it!
If God were as advertised, that would be the end of the story. "You want to live in darkness? Fine. I'll go away and leave you alone."
So, step one in getting along with God is to forget everything we've been taught. If I could talk people into one thing, this would be it: deal with God as He is, not as you think he is. If you don't know who he is, ask him! Who better to ask? Put aside the assumptions of judgment and ask.
And then you end up flooded with light.
He knows what that's like for me. He knows that I've wrapped myself around with layer after layer of protection. He knows that I feel pain as he dissolves those stone walls. He knows that at any one moment I'm on the edge of having had enough. That road to oblivion looks very attractive. He knows. He has been there. Forty days in the desert with no food, alone.
If God were the God of hellfire and brimstone I'd have been dead long before now. Instead, he is the God of relationship. It's actually simple: he enjoys my company. He wants to talk with me, in the cool of the day or in the heat of my anger. He has done everything he can to make it possible for me to be his friend.
It's all His doing. I have no claim, no honor. God made the plan and then did it. No promise. Simple fact. He has made promises that are based on that simple fact, such as bringing me back to life.
But it's painful. Pins and needles in the soul. I don't like it. The world rubs me raw without the walls I set up, but those same walls prohibit real relationship with God. He's talking and I'm playing submarine way down there in the cold depths, with my hands over my ears. Yes, plenty of excuse for him to just erase me as one more disobedient churl.
The God who made the Universe is willing to spend however much time it takes to bring me fully back to himself. It's not an easy trip for anyone. He very patiently works with me. He waits. The judgment fell on His own Son.
Saturday, October 15, 2005
Brand on the Heart
Alex has done another installment on "The Mystic." More fantastic story. Do I believe it? Not really, but the reasons have more to do with my experience than with the story being fantastic. His version of mysticism sounds too much like 21st century culture-speak. In particular, he talks about people in the Mystic adopting some symbol of their belonging, as the early Christians were said to do with the sign of the fish.
I think that a real mystic would recognize the brand on another's heart, if he weren't so taken up with modern communication techniques. There's so much noise in today's society that people's senses are overwhelmed. They can't hear God speak to them, much less see the subtle sign of God's presence in another's life.
People look forward to a "24/7" connected world. I long for peace and quiet, away from telephones, radios, cars, airplanes, helicopters, stereos and all the other cacophonous junk of modern society. There's lots more talking going on but no more being accomplished. Peter Gabriel sings
You know the way that things go
When what you fight for starts to fall
And in that fuzzy picture
He writing stands out on the wall
So clearly on the wall
Send out the signals deep and loud
And in this place, can you reassure me
With a touch, a smile, while the cradle's burning
All the while the world is turning to noise
Oh the more that it's surrounding us
The more that it destroys
Turn up the signal
Wipe out the noise
Send out the signals deep and loud
Man I'm losing sound and sight
Of all those who can tell me wrong from right
When all things beautiful and bright
Sink in the night
Yet there's still something in my heart
That can find a way
To make a start
To turn up the signal
Wipe out the noise
Wipe out the noise
Wipe out the noise
You know that's it
You know that's it
Receive and transmit
Receive and transmit
Receive and transmit
You know that's it
You know that's it
Receive and transmit
You know that's it
You know that's it
Receive and transmit
There's a lot more transmitting than receiving going on. People see that happening, and talk louder. Which is signal, and which noise?
In my mind, mystics spend a lot more time listening than they do talking. They don't have time for silly games like dropping pieces of paper in an Internet cafe. They don't care about belonging. The one thing they care about is hearing God.
God gives each of us a seal. We are warded against the world's evil. The Holy Spirit is our guardian, our comforter, our teacher, and if we had ears and eyes we could see His presence in those people he has branded as his own. That would be the Sign of the Mystic.
There are many wonderful distractions. I don't have a TV because just about everything on there is corrupt and I don't want it in the house. There is good music, though, and games that challenge the mind, and stories written by sensitive authors who bring new knowledge. Movies, too, animations by Hayao Miyazaki and some well-told live action stories. Distractions all, and why not. Who says we have to be on-line all the time? It gets to the point of a problem when I use these to wipe out God's voice because I just don't want to hear what I expect him to say. "Loser. Deadbeat. Get up and do something for me."
That's not reality, no matter how much I think it is. What he says instead, assuming I have the noise level down far enough that I can hear him, is "I love you." Oh, how that sears me. Love can only be a lie, can't it? Turn up the noise. It's not real! I don't want it to be real.
I need it to be real. Jesus dying on the cross shows the reality of God's intensely focused, fierce and tender love for me. Sacrifice. This can also be used as a bludgeon: see what God has done for you? Now, don't you feel bad that you're not doing something similar? That's not God's point. God desires restoration more than blind duty, and mystics really try to go for the branded heart of it. Of course, clever graphic design is easier.
Write Me A Story
God doesn't ask much of me, and isn't upset when I don't do even that little bit. He waits.
"Write me a story," he says. It's something I've learned to do through a concatenation of events.
Images are my native language. As a child I designed things in my head. When I tried to build them the reality always fell short of that shining image. Words were even worse; I'd have some fantastic image and try to tell others about it, but all the shine came off in the translation and the story hit the floor with a thud. Lead. No sparkle. I quit.
It turns out that the story is just part of the sparkle. The reader has to put something into it. I got better at words through the years, aided by having to say something to psychotherapists and also by an enjoyment of writing. At first it took a lot of steam to get me to write but as I've gotten better at it the threshold is lower. Now it just takes a whisper: "Write me a story."
I wrote one last night. Today there's a comment on it. Wow. People still read this Blog. I've been inconsistent for the last several months because my story has become so weird. God can't possibly be putting up with me. The story can't be true. He can't still care about me. Still, he does, and he likes it when I write stories from the weird edge.
I am deeply suspicious of rewards. Our world is so corrupt that rewards and bribes are interchangeable. God can't be bribed at all; his love is complete as it is and can't be improved, but I can be bribed. It's disgusting. I try to be unaffected by anything but logic, but emotions are powerful. Feeling good is one hell of a bribe. It has been so rare in my life that the few times when I've felt good shine out like shafts of sunlight through a thick grey overcast. So, God hands me a bit of a rosy glow and I turn on him, junkyard dog style, and get him to back off. Like those dwarves sitting in what they thought was a stable in "The Last Battle," refusing to see the sunlight.
Is it reward, or manipulation? The truth is that I don't know. Nothing in my experience has prepared me to understand any reward God might give me. Actually, it's probably not even a reward. God just is, like that sunlight, and I can walk in its warm beam or I can run out of it and back into the rain. I'm so depraved, so untrustful, that light is seen as a problem because it upsets my worldview.
None of that changes God's view of me. I'm still his beloved child. No matter what I think or feel.
God made the universe. He could come to me and force my fingers to move. He could dictate the words I use and shock me every time I stray. What he does instead is to ask. "Write me a story. Please. Let me worry about what it's for." He asks, humbly and kindly. The experiences are there. He helps me find words, helps my mind stay clear, but he doesn't guide the story. Oh, he'll suggest things, lighting up certain scenes a little more brightly so that I remember.
He could have his own Blog. He could just put the files on Blogger's disks. He could do this any way he wanted to. But he made people because he wanted to. He wants to live with us, and our rules just get in the way. One benefit of living on the bottom of things is that no one cares very much what I do. I have no reputation to lose, so I just write, no matter how weird it looks.
As long as I can find the words to suit the image. OK, I've written you a story. What's next? Oh, you want me to fold up my umbrella so a little blessing can actually fall on me? Come back next week. Now you're asking for something really difficult.
Wary of Names
"Jesus, man, you just don't get it. You need a name. You gotta do something, call yourself something that tells people you've arrived!"
A Christian. A follower of Jesus. A Believer. A Republican, a Surfer. Names to infinity. You are what you wear, or what you eat, and belief just goes on like a suit of clothes.
What does it take to be something deeper than the name? Christians, especially, seem to be very concerned with this. They want to make sure their names are in God's book, so they make sure they act accordingly.
A friend of mine was here a couple of weeks ago. His timing was really unfortunate; the mood I was in, I was just barely able to keep from snarling at him. One day I was in a halfway friendly--well, more like slightly friendly--mood. He'd come by to bring my car back and was sitting in the living room. I gave him the copy of Brennan Manning's "Ruthless Trust" that I'd bought to replace all the other copies I'd given away, and he was looking through that.
"How do you know this is true?" he asked.
It's actually a good question, and one I'd thought about a lot, especially about this book. Its ideas are radical, starting with the simple fact that God can't love us any more than he already does, no matter what we do.
I pushed open a little door in my clamshell and said, as a summary of my thoughts, "My experience corroborates what he writes there."
His response was immediate. Flames scoured my clamshell and I let the little door slam shut. "That's the Charismatic fallacy. You can't go by experience."
I didn't say a word, although I thought quite a few. Some of them being along the lines of "If what you're doing doesn't work, it's time to try something new," but that's something I've said to him before.
Of course, he's right. Partially. To navigate the Christian life purely by experience is a mistake. If I'd had more time I'd have tried the more complex answer, which is that I balance the Bible, teaches from others, my experience, what the Holy Spirit says to me directly, logic, and a subtle feeling of rightness all against each other. If there's general agreement then I'll move, and feel fairly confident, but it's always subject to being redirected in the future.
You'd think that life depended on these decisions. It doesn't, really. God loves me no more now than he did before I even acknowledged him. God loves the murderer as much as he loves anyone. My actions don't limit or control God. I have no way of making him love me because he cannot be manipulated. His love is complete and nothing I do can change that. There is no magic formula to make him love me more, nor the just right mix of devotionals and words to pry blessings out of him.
He names me... something. I don't really know yet. Living is the process of learning that name, instead of all the names I've been given or the names I've given myself. Do you want to follow rules to a definable name, or allow God to teach you a real name that no PR machine can make up? A real Name, that contains everything you are. Only God knows it.
All the rest of the Christian practice is there to help support us in learning God's name. Reading the Bible, praying, going to church are seen as necessary acts to obtain God's blessing. Those acts may aid in finding a name, but they're not the Name itself. The name is in the heart someplace, and God knows hearts completely. Reading the Bible while keeping the mind-gates locked against any whisper of God's voice isn't going to help much, although God will still use the words that manage to stick. No time with God is wasted.
Each person's path is individual. God didn't make us so that we could follow trends and end up looking alike. You'll never find a way to your unique name by following the herd. Perhaps there is some benefit from being in a crowd--less likely to be picked off by predators, I suppose, unless it's a predator that everyone is following--but I don't know what it is. I've had to act like a herd animal all of my life, but the act is wearing thin. Very thin.
God still loves me. He still whispers in my ear "Keep going." I don't follow any of the rules. Maybe it's a semi-conscious effort to drive him away: "You can't love me any more. I don't do any of these things."
"Before the world was, I am. Before you had any idea of my Name, I loved you. Nothing you do will change that."
Friday, October 14, 2005
Where Am I Going?
He didn't really answer. Just pointed out a memory. "Being made into the likeness of His dear Son."
Well, yes, I do remember that. I just didn't expect the path to be quite this weird. The church lays out its step-by-step plan, and I, not knowing any better, buy it.
It seems that this weeks' Burning Issue among cutting-edge evangelicals is how to make following Jesus fit in with the trendsetters. The problem is that being a real revolutionary isn't very trendy because it might get your hair messed up and your Ipod might fall out of your pocket and get scratched when you lean over to pick up your latte.
If Jesus were to come back now, after all the churches got over fighting to be the one to represent him, they'd be assigning him handlers, writing his speeches and telling him all about spin.
"Say, we have to change your name. You know, 'Jesus' doesn't have the right ring to it. Too familiar. We need something with some pizzazz. And you're gonna have to lose the sandals and the robe. Oh, yeah, no robe. Send the wrong message. Not that I think you're queer, but you know how the audience is."
Jesus has already seen it all. People tried to handle him, and he knows all about being image conscious. The Pharisees with their phylacteries and ostentatious presentations were all about image. Jesus was dusty. Sweaty. Like the others who walked from town to town, seeking work or running errands.
I've never cared much for trends. I see myself as a complete square. People start talking about TV shows and I draw a blank; I've not owned a TV since the mid-1970s. They talk of movies, sports, politics, cell phones and I'm left behind. And yet, there are those who think I'm cool, because I follow my nose and refuse to let the culture dictate what I believe in. Most ignore me as I don't have the trappings, but I'd never get through to them anyway.
What do we expect? What do I expect God to want of me? Am I going to be a one-man ministry revolutionizing the world? That seems to be the desired goal, but I've always been a man of small dreams. Just one arch of sand, or another day survived, or a good Blog entry written. God doesn't seem to care how many people read these. He is just glad when I write them. He's glad when I don't give up for just one more day.
Most of the goals are set impossibly high. Thousands of Christian books will tell you the path you should walk, but I wonder how much of God is in them. Each person's path is unique, and can come only from a close interaction with the Holy Spirit. Truth isn't trendy and never will be, but it's the only medicine that really works. Lies may sugar-coat the situation but nothing happens. Cultural relevance is another way to wrap truth in cotton batting so the sharp edges don't dig in.
Without the sharp edges nothing changes. God is involved in very serious work, and only he knows how to do it. Only he can see the way ahead. He'd probably love to give me an advance ticket to ride the Reading Railroad, but he knows that unless I walk all the other squares, by the time I get on the train I won't know what I'm doing. One day at a time, which is a horribly unfashionable thing to say to the modern Church of Glitz. Only God can help us see the truth in our world that is made complex and fast-moving for just one reason: to distract us from the Living God of the Universe.
His voice gets lost in the modern din. I guess that's the best reason for cultural relevance. God's questions, his voice, go too deep. It hurts. Yeah, let's stay with the superficial things. Everybody come to church next Sunday with your baseball caps tilted up at 11.4 degrees, and the bill turned 36.85 degrees to the left of center. That way the trendoids will be attracted. Until the following Sunday.
Where will I be? Struggling to hold onto God's hand. I know where I'm going, but I sure am tired. I hope this ends soon. Well, not so much struggling to hold on, as... a complex mix of not giving up, holding my head up so I really see what's happening, but trying not to freak out at the size of the waves, and simply trying to get through the day without biting someone's head off.
Part of the problem dates way back to the first time I ever felt God's happiness with something I did. It felt too much like being jollied out of a bad mood, as my brother and sister used to do. I hate being manipulated. I've probably gone too far the other way: God tries to hug me, and I pull away and snarl. It's not real. It's manipulation. I'll do it myself. Grrrr.
But... what is the point? One thing the church is really down on is happiness. Get your facts straight, then meet life with faith, and then you can feel good. Or something like that. But some of us never have felt good. God tries to change that. I'll bet there were times when Jesus felt good: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." That'd send quite a glow up the old nervous system, yes it would. Jesus probably accepted it a whole lot more gracefully than I do. One more lesson to learn, and I'm tired of lessons, so I clam up and try to keep it all out. So that I can be true, so that I can know what I know to be true.
The problem is that there is no longer any truth without God. I don't know any touchstone other than him. Cut off from him I am helpless. So I bounce back and forth. If I were able to accept his comfort, feel his love, life would probably still be difficult but it would feel different. It might feel worthwhile.
Where Am I?
Early on I became interested in the stories of explorers. Not the modern synthetic kind, wherein the main subject of the story is the privations and difficulties, so that anyone reading it knows that the writer is a True Explorer. No, I like the real thing: go out there to find out. Go and see. Orellana and his hair-raising first trip down the Amazon in 17th century. Heyrdahl and his hair-brained scheme about people settling the south Pacific from Peru using balsa rafts. Going to the moon in the journey of a zillion steps, from Goddard and his little rockets to Schmidt and his geology applied to the moon.
They all had problems. Orellana almost died. Kon-tiki was waterlogged and crumbling when Heyrdahl arrived near Tahiti. National Geographic explorers in Carlsbad Cavern praised their primitive torches because they illuminated just one problem at a time. Scott died returning from the South Pole. This is rough stuff. Put your life on the line and go. They died to themselves for the sake of learning.
Christians talk of cultural relevance and other baloney. Jesus wasn't exactly relevant to the Pharisees, and he died because of it. He spent 40 days out in the wilderness, alone.
I've been alone all of my life. I've tried to change that but nothing works. Seems I'm on a track that precludes company. Maybe it's because I don't understand human interaction except in theory. Practice is different.
And yet God is relational. Our world is relational. I set up overlays, methods of relating to the world. You have to do something if you're going to make an independent living. I learned how to act.
The act is dying. I'm so irritable these days that I can barely get through a day of work. Threadbare, tattered, end of the rope. The ideal solution would be not to wake up. Ah, I desire that. Just go to sleep some night and never come back to face another day in this damned abrasive, loud, sharp-edged ugly world that grates on the sensitivity that God gave me and that I'd chuck in an instant if that were at all possible.
John Eldredge says that the places where we believe we're weak are the places where God placed our strength. Or something like that. The point is that the world attacks constantly the things that God gave us, to drive us back into the hole and teach us to keep our heads down. If Jesus had believed in that we'd all really be without hope, but he died gladly! He just plain came down here, knowing what was to come, the pain, the death... and he didn't begrudge any of it. Free gift to us, who haven't done a damned thing to earn any bit of his grace.
It's this protracted death that gets tiresome. Just get it the hell over with. But the only way to learn how to live, or do anything else, is to do it. Jesus, even the Son of God, had to do this: tempted by the Devil after spending 30 years learning to live. All the while knowing what was coming. I can't stand looking forward to another day of simple work.
You'd think God would say "OK, enough. If you're going to grumble and complain, fine. Go back to Egypt. I'm not going to bail you out again. The next time you get in trouble, figure it out for yourself."
No, what he says instead is "Don't quit. Please don't give up. I know what I'm doing."
So, I ask him what the hell he is doing, because I certainly don't know. I'm lost, confused, and it hurts. And he says "You do know. You've known, right from the beginning. I am making you like my dear Son."
"I wish you'd go experiment on somebody else. I've had it."
That's sort of the central aspect of this. Trailblazers don't have comfortable walks in the park. Jacob had no one there to encourage him as he fought with God all night. Alone, he was. Alone, I am, as usual. Perhaps truth can only come out in the lonely times. People can be a distraction, books and television and music and games. Sleepless nights seem to go with being an experimental Christian, which is something those brightly-smiling emissaries from the Land of the Mushroom Eaters never talk about. They talk of mentoring, or discuss airy theories of which word best describes the great things they'll do sometime if they get all their ducks in row.
Is there any help for the explorer? Well, most of them do go in teams. It's helpful to have someone else around if you fall into a crevasse. They can pull you out. But who do you trust with the rope? Who will not fall asleep while you're wrestling with God in prayer and forget that you're alive? Who will pay attention to the subtle signs of hidden distress and not rub it in, but will rather just send you a kind word to help you on a day when you'd rather just give up? I have no idea. It's all a nice rosy theory.
So, I do it myself. Staggering along from weary day to weary day, hoping that someday the path will get better, but losing hope day by day as the trail stays hot, dry, and infinite into the future. "Don't quit," he says. Well, not much chance of that.
I am well and truly stuck. There is only one exit from oblivion, and this is it, lonely, severe, tiresome and confusing.
I'd love to rail against God. Job-like, I could turn on him and say "Look what you've done to me! All my capabilities gone to dust. You've abandoned me." But I know that he hasn't. That little thread that I can feel in the background is still there. The Holy Spirit still keeps life barely tolerable so that I'm able to keep going. Hanging by a thread over the abyss. Perhaps this is the core truth: the only person you can really trust with the rope is the Holy Spirit. Everyone else is just words. God acts.
Saturday, October 01, 2005
Leading with Kindness
Now, what could be more dynamic than a plant? Trees take apart rock, and grass rends the street. If you want concrete proof, just look around.
That's an aside, though. The real question is "Who cares?" Call it whatever the hell you want, just go out and do it. Lots of people get so much into planning, and designing logos, and coining clever phrases, that they never really do anything. Young and trendy types, mostly.
A name does not solve the problem. What problem are we trying to solve? The same problem that God is trying to solve: bring the world's population back to his bosom.
If God worked the way a church worked, there'd be studies, and consultants, building designs, a few bake sales, planning sessions. Thousands of years would go by as the plan was refined and made elegantly relevant. Anyone who didn't fit the plan would be out of luck. "Sorry. We're doing the greatest good for the greatest number." If God really worked that way we'd all be out of luck.
What God really does is lead by the example of kindness. I can hear the sneers. "What about Egypt? What about Sodom? What about hell?" Yes, God has quite a reputation but that's due to the fact that churches, and Satan, handle the most popular PR channels. To find the truth about God you have to ignore all that and, as Jesus suggested, "Go and see."
If God acted the way most people think he does the earth would be a sterile desert. He'd have gotten tired of us long ago. Instead, God looked at what happened when Eve and Adam disobeyed, saw the outworkings, and made a decision. He would redeem the place himself, putting the major burden on his own Son. No matter the cost, God would bring people back to himself.
Christians fail to see the projection of this. A plan that starts with this demonstration of love, of caring for people, isn't going to devolve into purposeless punishment. Go read the story of Moses and Pharaoh to see how many chances God gave the latter as Moses negotiated. God didn't pull the plug until Pharaoh was committed to his own plan of cheating.
If God weren't the very embodiment of love, I'd be dead. He'd have lost patience long ago. Instead, he waited for year after weary year until I got to where I'd ask for help, and now he protects me as if I were the last little hot coal in a frozen world, trying with everything he has to keep the spark alive. It's difficult because I have so little respect for life. I don't look forward to each day, as some do; I'd just as soon not wake up.
How do you change that attitude? Why do you bother? Most people wouldn't bother trying. Waste of effort, and I'd end up on the triage room floor. Just make it painless, please. But God won't give up. He's not interested in performance. He loves people. He genuinely loves all of us, each of us individually, so much that he will do ANYTHING to keep us alive.
That's the example that the church needs to give. Forget the fancy names. Show the world a God who is alive, and wants people to live. Of course, this course will draw criticism like lightning to a copper pole held high, but it is a battle. Quit concentrating on the battle, though, because it's already won. Go on with life, your hand in God's kind hold.
I know that standard models of kindness aren't compatible with pain, but God sees that differently too. Old habits are hard to break, and hurt in the breaking. Pain is inevitable. One day maybe I'll think it was all worthwhile.