Wednesday, March 22, 2006
The Wrong Kind of Dying
Will you stay where you are?
Or will you reach for a star?
This can be victory's hour
See his grace, see his power
Will you stay where you are
Or reach for a star? (Ken Medema)
I don't really believe in victory. The best I've been able to do is hold off defeat for a time.
The last few weeks have been bad. A Christian desperately running from God is making his own misery.
What replaces pride in the motivation of a life? I've had certain core of staunch pride in my ability to do things, but that's gone. I just don't care any more. The jig is up, bankruptcy exposed. Where do we go from here? God seems to be keeping mum on the subject.
Perhaps that's because I know the answer. What replaces pride? I suspect it's love, which means I'm in trouble. There isn't enough love in me to fill a doll's thimble. God tries to grow it but I throw rocks at the new plant if I see it and otherwise lock myself down and ignore it.
And yet life goes on. Day by day. Dreary for the most part. I used to have hope that it would get better. Now I don't look that far ahead.
Sunday, March 12, 2006
Guilt Expands to Fill the Universe
As soon as one guilty ghost is laid, another takes its place. Jesus said that a demon exorcised will, upon finding its old home cleaned out, move in and invite its friends along too. Human beings are forever building monuments to past atrocities, as if these could expiate the guilt. But soon another monument is made, and another. There is no forgiveness in stone, nor in history.
Families do it too. The guilt builds through the years, uncorrected mistakes, miscommunications, abysses bridged by arms that are too short or that actively deny the attempt. Eternal guilt, days, years, generations. We've all seen it. Feuds. If you can't have forgiveness you might as well make the other guy pay.
If no one else will make me feel guilty, well, I'll just have to do it myself. I heap snow on the hot coals of memory but nothing quenches them. There is nothing but flight until the legs are worn to stumps. Even then the impulse to flee animates the vestiges. Twitch, twitch.
Guilt drives the human race. Endless cycles of hand-wringing, apology, smiles over the gravestones. None of it is damn good enough. No forgiveness comes. Guilt builds to an inchoate anger and there is no sink for it. Tail chasing until the teeth sink into the self who then strikes out as the only outlet.
Yes, throw more gasoline on the fire. Go to church, feel the guilt dripping from the words, the music, the endless litanies, the endless entreaties to a distant god more cold than the heart of an outbound comet. You will always find something to feel guilty about, and that reaffirms your membership in the human race. You fit right in. Take up your burden and add to it each year.
Is it no wonder Christians are seen as weird? We're forgiven. The guilt stops. Jesus stopped it, agreeing with his Father that they would make the solution together. Jesus became the sink for our guilt and it's gone as soon as you allow it to be taken away.
Haven't you seen this? I certainly have. I've been through enough family arguments to know where the guilt is being assigned, to no avail. I've seen people carry the guilt. I've lived with them. I've run from my own. It's hell on the sensitive soul.
Forgiveness is a very special state. Somehow God makes it happen. Somehow he takes it up and it's gone. Human beings have better things to do than build monuments to the tears of guilt.
The book is "Transcendent," by Stephen Baxter. Science fiction verging on fantasy. The human race has developed for half a million years into... basically, a big and powerful version of one human being. Even an imaginative author can't figure out what to do with his guilt, so he populates the story with ugly splinter versions of himself. All that happens is that the guilt-sink grows to consume ever more resources.
The answer is as plain as the old-fashioned cross on the church steeple. Perhaps the people inside have forgotten the message, but the symbol is still there.
Friday, March 10, 2006
The Best Year
I don't know how she finds these things. This one is especially cruel, because it shows very clearly that I'm from not just from some year that never showed on a calendar, but from a different planet. To illustrate, I've copied the test text here and will give my answers for all the world to see. And then you can all chip in to buy me a ticket home.
It's an abrasive world. Historically I've handled that by layers of cotton batting. Over the years it built up so that almost nothing got through unless I knew what it was. A few things, typically beautiful and quiet.
I finally got home, and there was a damned helicopter buzzing around and around and around. Just one more irritation. I hate those things, but of course the people inside have no idea of the noise they're inflicting on everyone else, or, like the motorcyclists whose engines rattle windows four blocks away, they think it's music.
To me it's just one more raw, jangling, sharp-edged intrusion. God has been dissolving the cotton batting and the stone underneath. He wraps me in himself to keep me from being utterly destroyed by this ugly world, but still some of it gets through. Things I didn't learn the first time around I'm learning now: how to handle sensitivity in a human way.
Normally I'd have run. Finances don't permit that, or at least that's what I think. So I've joined the armored hordes of the city, barely able to move as we ignore each other. Tanks bashing through the streets, greased by a bit of social politesse, but inside each is a human being afraid of everyone else. Just get me out of here, let me get home, lock the door and forget about it.
That's the human soul without God's participation. With Him, who knows? I hope that this path eventually leads to something better, a way of living in this world that allows me to be something other than a balloon at a cactus convention. Can God make people sensitive, and sturdy? In theory, yes. In practice, it depends entirely on how brave the person is, and I'm more of a runner than a stayer. When there's a choice, that is.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
Please Don't Quit
Apply the same principle to human life, and you get me. A soul so thoroughly burned over and salted and plowed under that nothing but the toughest survivors grow. I know how to survive, and that's all.
It's the plot of a thousand lousy science-fiction novels. Alien take-over. Some presence in the head of the protagonist that he spends the rest of the book eliminating... or not. The God of the Universe lives in me and talks to me.
"Yeah, right. What's he telling you to do? Take over the world?"
"No. He just asks me not to quit."
I have little will at the moment. If God wanted to turn me into a machine for his service, he could. Very easily. The doors are open, off the hinges. I'm lying on the dead ground, not interested in moving. It's the end of the line that I've always feared: no more will to go on.
Will kept me going. I used to be able to force myself to do what needed to be done. No more. I'm worn out and the salt has entered the aquifer. Nothing more grows.
If God looked at me through modern return-on-investment principles, he'd let me drop through the drain. Instead, I float there. I can look down and see what I've feared. Oblivion. But I don't fall. There's little chance that I will ever do anything that justifies God's interference. He interferes anyway, whispering "Don't quit," holding me up, surrounding me, protecting me from life's sharp edges. He does this because of who he is. I don't really care. I don't know what motivates a normal human life. That's gone, burnt, torn down, the pieces scattered. I live now because Jesus touches me and whispers in my ear. "Don't quit. Please."
Sunday, March 05, 2006
Pick up a one-pound brick and put it on a shelf five feet above the ground. You have just done 5 foot-pounds of work. This is true no matter how fast you do it. The work is done against the mutual attraction of Earth and brick; they want physical intimacy and resist the separation, which is what you feel in your muscles.
How fast you do the job is called power. Do it quickly, you sweat more. Do it slowly and you can relax. Each of us has a natural pace, and the key to efficient physical work is finding the pace that works best for you. That two-hour pace for the work of making a well-packed pile of sand suits me. Some do it much faster. Some do it more slowly.
So, you become a Christian. Perhaps you watched a friend's life change and wanted to get in on it. Perhaps you saw a sunset and Jesus' statement about "No one comes to the Father but by me" came to mind, and you wanted to meet the Creator of Sunsets. You stoop down and go through the narrow gate under the Cross, and there before your eyes is a shining land where all things are made new. You start walking.
Then you see the size of the hills ahead. Others come along beside you with offers of help but most of it is in the form of "Go faster."
I can understand the attitude. There are fired-up people who want to change the world overnight, and they expect everyone else, now they're saved, to see that their particular bandwagon is the best one. Get on and get going! Faster!
I don't buy this idea any more. God knows the pace. Everyone's afraid of backsliding and they want to prevent it, memories of "Pilgrim's Progress" coming to mind and all those other 19th-century tracts. There are times and places.
No one can scale God's mountain in a burst of enthusiasm and self-flagellation. Sometimes the route to the top leads you downward. Is it backsliding, or progress? Who's counting? My own story includes a period that would certainly have looked like backsliding, but I'm no longer so sure. Maybe I'm just hard-headed and need lots of convincing. Well, really, there's no doubt on that one. God still uses events that occurred in those years to teach me new things.
God has a pace that's suited to human beings. If I listen to him I don't get so badly freaked out over how impossible the whole thing is.
I've had people call me to line up sand sculpture jobs. When they find out that a sculpture takes 8 hours they say they'll call me back. It's as if they're insulted because I can't just produce a sand sculpture out of my hat, poof. No, folks, anything worth doing takes time and learning. One brick at a time.
Saturday, March 04, 2006
The Wrong Apple
I was lying in bed last night. I was tired but feeling good; the little party that I do every two weeks for the "Until Uru" online community had been a lot of fun. As I loosed the reins of consciousness my thoughts turned to Adam and Eve. What, actually, did they do? The answer didn't come immediately. I know this is the stuff of a million sermons, so what's the point of plowing such well-worked ground? Well, I've learned that familiar ground is no longer seen. Take another look.
It was hard to do at the time. I'd had a migraine in the afternoon, and decided as long as I was going to have a headache I might as well do something fun, so I had some beer. That and the party were great distractions from the migraine fireworks. How did Karen know I was self-medicating for this?
Nothing got settled then. I fell asleep. This morning we resumed the conversation. What did Adam and Eve do? They ate the fruit that God had forbidden, because the enemy told them God was lying about it. "You won't surely die if you eat this. He's keeping the best from you."
The Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. So, now we know good and evil. Before we'd lived in a sunny land of assuming that everything would work out. God has things in hand. Now, Adam and Eve had to figure it out for themselves. Make their living from sweat. I used to live in such a sun-filled space: life went on and no matter what upset happened things worked out. I had this semi-conscious confidence. I think God was taking care of me.
That is, of course, absurd. God didn't know me from, well, Adam. God had much more important things to do with his time than manage the affairs of one inept boy in a hick Kansas town. God was in New York someplace, working with the mighty ones. Even our church didn't expect God to do anything real.
The key step in any troubleshooting process is to find out what's really going on. Sometimes you have to sort through many conflicting signs and signals to figure out which ones actually bear on the problem you're trying to fix. How do you know when it's fixed? It works. If it doesn't work, it's still broken. Facts are your main tool. I had the facts of a life that worked out. Could be random chance, but statistics seem to favor the prepared. You reach out your hand, expecting an apple to fall into it, and many times the apple shows up. Maybe not a literal apple; you want steak, you get yesterday's bread, but something happens that assures life for another day.
Eve quit believing God's promise. So did Adam. So did I, for a time. Life got much rougher. I felt as if I had to do the driving. (A little side note here: A thought just popped into my mind that I needed to check the bread I'm warming for breakfast. I didn't think enough time had passed, so I ignored it. The thought came back: not that the time is up, but that you need to put the bread into the oven now that it's hot. Oh. God does care about little things.) My driving isn't very good. I'm trying to read the signs and keep the speed up and get through and keep going without getting lost and do all the other zillion things required and it's just exhausting and why the hell do I bother? Just park the sumbitch in the ditch and quit.
And the whisper returns. "Remember Me?" It's actually a daily process. Moment by moment I can choose which apple to eat: one that has God's breath in it, or one that I make up from cultural and other influences. God's voice is quiet because he wants me to work on listening. It's not cruelty. It's a standard storyteller's tactic that, in our world of cacaphony, isn't well received. You just can't hear things when it's much of a muchness. God's still, small voice is uniquely audible, and it has taken me 30 years to learn to hear Him.
In "The Magician's Nephew," Digory is sent to retrieve a special apple from a garden far to the west of Narnia. After he picks the apple the White Witch tells him to go ahead and eat it. He can see that she has already done so, and he's hungry! The Witch argues and argues, but he can see her face change. Yes, she will live forever after eating the stolen apple, but it will be a hard and cruel life of self-management that ends in an ugly death after a very long winter. Digory resists and takes his apple back to Aslan. The sunshine in his own life continues, and spreads to his mother and to the succeeding generations of his family.
There are songs about stolen apples, and myths going back to the beginning of time. Life is an interesting balance. What's stolen? What's a gift? Whom do I believe? Some stolen apples have been handed down for so long that they've been canonized, which is why plowing familiar ground can be a useful reality check. Belief is said to be a simple matter of brain chemicals, but it's really the most powerful force we have for changing reality.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Where Were You When?
All tucked in for the night
Standing in the doorway
Hand upon the light
Just tell me one more story
One you swear is true
Tell me what you did back when
Tell me what to do
Where were you when
Where were you when
Where were you when the world was made? What were you doing?
Tell me did you feel like me
Small and weak and scared
Tell me is it really true
Were you unprepared
Tell me how we got to here
How you made the plan
Tell me all about yourself
Tell me who I am
Where were you when
Where were you when
Did you look ahead and tremble? Or did you see the future and rejoice, knowing that it would be finished?
The pen is in your hand
Your mind sharp like a quill
All the earth is moving
But time is standing still
Everything is waiting
For you to make a move
There's everything to gamble
And nothing left to prove
In another bedroom door
In another time
A face that looked a lot like his
Looked to a face like mine
Naked in the question
Frozen in the light
On the edge of mystery
On the edge of flight
Step out of the history
Step into the light
Where were you when
Where were you when
Tell me a story! Where were you? What have you done? Who are you? How do we of flesh and blood dare to touch a pure Spirit? How can the God of the Universe, stars scattered like seeds in a field, stir me with a gentle touch?
Ah, don't preach to me of yesterday's answers. Don't fill my ears with endless repetitions of hand-me-down lessons that never worked. I need to see God's fire burning in someone else so that I won't feel so weird.
Where have you been? What have you learned? Pull the lessons burning hot from the oven of your life and share them fresh. Today, my friends. Today is what we have, before it passes behind to become a stone in the foundation of another today.
Tell me a story, please. Your story. I want to, I need to know what makes you, you. Why are you not someone else? You're not like them! You were made unique, unlike any other being in the universe.
Where were you when
Where were you when
"Where Were You When" by John McCutcheon