Saturday, July 28, 2007
I Changed the Universe
"I AM TOTALLY BLOWN AWAY BY YOUR POST! THOSE THINGS:
Yes that WAS God telling you those things and He DID answer. I knew as I sat and talked to my son that it was not "me" I was so calm, confident, so unwavering. Of course I have been a wreck internally this whole time but he doesn't know. Humility - yes I get that too. I totally get that and why that is an important part of this, it has to do with my pride, defiance, defensiveness and stubbornness as a parent - without humility I would not be able to get the help I need or admit I need it."
I was thinking about this as I rode around in the dawn. Questions. Why does God bother to answer prayers? Why did He respond here? Did I really have anything to do with it?
I sat on the picnic table and watched new sunlight rise over the ridges, discussing things with the Holy Spirit and thinking about prayer. People tend to be amazed when God answers a prayer. I wouldn't say that I've become blasé about it, but I do expect something to happen. I've learned that God cares. He enjoys giving us gifts, whether it's a child or a sunrise or protection. I think there's a lot of false humility going around, too. People beg for just a second or two of God's time, if it's His will. He already gave us His Son. Is he going to hand us rocks when we're starving? I don't think so, so you might as well go into His presence with a brass band and ask for what you need. Get in his face. That way He knows you're serious. Of course, what you get may differ from what you asked for because of God's rather quirky way of interpreting prayer: he cuts through the assumptions and holy gobbledygook and sees what the real need is, and then looks at needs that connect to those needs. Pray for a crumb, and get a feast with friends. Or, pray for a friend and get God.
So, gradually I got this wider idea of what prayer does. God is eager to help and looks at the whole universe. My role in this is tiny. And yet I asked and in one night the course of events bent a little bit. Would have this happened anyway? I don't know. That's not my story.
In the end, though, the most remarkable part of this whole event was my friend's request for help. Most of our time we spend under blessing-proof umbrellas, alone, wondering where God is. That near-panicked Email, "Pray for me," opened a window in the umbrella.
And the long-term answer? Well, if you want a permanent fix you have to be around long enough to get it. One night's answer leads to the next night's answers. Survive long enough and eventually the stiff human mind begins to bend and grow under God's ministry.
Humility is the model. There's much talk of this but from what I can see there isn't much understanding. God humbly offers to help us, if we ask. Asking for help may be the one act that releases God's power. It allows him the privilege of helping, and you don't stay with anything for very long without feeling that to do so is a privilege.
My friend's life is lots more complicated than mine. Her experiments in faith have more depending on them than mine; if I fail I'm the only one going down. I can throw myself into this without worrying about the effects of God's actions on other people. Doing so in a family situation makes a relationship with God more complicated but also, from my viewpoint, more necessary. Who else can work the needed changes while holding the broken bits together?
I just think it's neat. God, the creator of our world, waiting with anticipation for us to ask for help. I need it too. This gentle touch from Him who knows every atom and assembled the suns.
The biggest problem we face is looking at God's universe from our human point of view. Asking for help is enough to enter His universe but from that point on the help has to continue in order for us to understand anything. There are pieces of a more whole picture floating around--like the popular idea that everything in nature is connected--but we either don't see or don't understand how the connections work. God sees it all: my friend's frustrated living out of patterns initiated years ago and how those patterns can be changed, and how her patterns fit with all the other paths people walk. One evening's prayers establish a new course but she'll have to keep walking. So will I. There are no automatic Christians.
Friday, July 27, 2007
Prayer is Weird
Talking with God is no problem. Asking for things is a little harder. Asking for things for someone else is very strange. God already knows what she needs, so what can I add to things? God loves her more than I do and I assume He's doing everything he can to help her. Why pray? We're directed to pray without ceasing but I don't really get it.
It's one of those things I sort of take on faith. God says it's good and I consider the source and believe he's not just blowing smoke. So then the next question is what to pray for. I've never been able to do one of those "Lord, if it's your will, could you please, you know, sorta help this person? Oh, and save everyone else in the world while you're at it." I figure it's my responsibility to know what's going on and I also know that in any troubleshooting situation the more specific you can get the more likely you are to come up with a solution that works.
So, I sat and thought about this. OK. One thing she needs is self-confidence. Where does this come from? If you're the strong and self-willed type you can just pump it up. The rest of us do without until we meet God. There's something about His unceasing care that has changed the way I view myself. So, I asked God to help her with how she views herself, knowing that this would take longer than the current situation allowed, but I asked God specifically to just do a short-term intervention. If the situation spiraled out of control, as arguments coming from low self-esteem tend to do, things would only get worse. God protects free will but I thought this was a case of needing more direct action.
And then the Holy Spirit suggested humility. That was interesting. What does being humble add to conflict? How does one become humble? What is humility? Our culture tends to think humility is modelled by the self-abusers: "Oh, I'm worthless, nothing, blah, blah, etc." Jesus is our model for humility: the Son of God dying like a common criminal after talking with anyone who came along and telling each of them the same story in words they could understand. Jesus knew exactly who he was, and spent his life doing his Father's commandments. He got into conflict but he stayed with the same story. Ego and self-justification never played a part; if an argument escalated it was because the other party just couldn't leave it alone. I asked God to keep both of these people from getting into ego-based argument.
Then I got a real surprise. It's something that had occurred to me a while back but not recently. The Holy Spirit mentioned protection. Oh, yes. Argument opens the door to all kinds of bad things, so I asked God to put protection around their house so that nothing but His spirit could get in. I imagined this glowing bubble around their house, with a long tube from the top going to where God is. I know it's silly... but nobody was going into that house without God's permission.
Did any of this help? I don't know. Not my problem. My friend seems to be in better shape today, and thanked the friends she had asked for prayer.
Now comes the hard work: short-term intervention gets you over the immediate rough spot. There's life change that needs to happen in that household, which is a very complex thing to accomplish. How is it done?
I don't know. As a "spiritual director" I'm largely a failure. I suggest things for people to try and they just don't work. Even broadening the concept to more general terms doesn't seem to bring anyone closer to Jesus. So, maybe I'm just dead wrong and everything I've done in the last few years is self-delusion.
I just don't see how one can live as a Christian without having daily conversation with God. I've assumed that this relationship is the basic concept, as illustrated by the veil in the Jewish Temple being torn when Jesus died. I'm clothed in Jesus' righteousness. Why? So that God can see me.
Yet what seems logical and simple to me is weird and difficult to others, even those who say they like the look of it. So, maybe the problem isn't in the basic idea but in how it's done. Maybe my approach is too mystical, too loose to work for others. I've learned to balance management and laissez-faire living, sort of. Some things die from over-management, as I've learned from my own life.
Note that a relationship with God is logical and simple in concept only. Doing it day by day is by turns delightful and terrifying. The God who made the Universe and planned every little part is working in me. My soul is less than a candleflame in a hurricane with him around, but his intent is protection during change. Fierce tenderness. A Shepherd who challenges His sheep.
I've even looked into Calvinism. Maybe I'm one of the Elect. No, can't be. Ugh. I can't stand the idea that God chooses. I have to believe that Jesus came to seek and to save that which is lost, every single one of them being invited to the feast.
In the end, I just don't know. People make their own decisions.
One thing to remember as you read these stories is that I turned to the Lord in 1971. I spent most of the years between then and now ignoring God; if you'd have come to me with stories of God's kindness in about 1988 I'd have asked which planet you just came in from.
So, for those of you who feel terminally estranged from God I have no advice other than "God doesn't quit." I pray that you'll leave a back door open in your walls of armor so that somewhere along the line God will find His way in, in some unguarded moment as He did with me. He is contractually prohibited from doing frontal assaults.
Unless he's invited, of course, but that's another story. Prayer always goes both ways.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Man of Faith
Some say that you can't love others unless you love yourself. Jesus even implies this: "Love others as you love yourself." Well, don't we all love ourselves to excess? There's constant exhortation to forget ourselves and lose ourselves in service. It doesn't seem to work very well, as measured by the transformation of our world.
I first heard the statement about loving myself in 1977, on a walk with a friend. I was sceptical. Thirty years later, riding and alone, thoughts come and go. I'm a lot less rigid than I used to be, less dependent on stiff structures of logic and intellect. God has ways of insinuating his ideas into my thought-stream and the result is a richness I couldn't conceive 30 years ago. I can discriminate more finely the shades along the continuum of ideas, and what hits me this time is that self-love doesn't require or imply self-worship.
As with most concepts involving people it's hard to fit the ideas into words. Jesus is our model, the man who lives to follow his father's commandments and yet doesn't roll over for just anybody. For those people who admit need he will do anything. He is Himself, no matter where He is. He never puts himself first, and yet is absolutely indissoluble even at the point of death: He gave Himself willingly. We have this idea that if one is not to be full of self, that implies being full of nothing. Either-or. Jesus demonstrates that to be full of God is also to be full of a real Self.
We stand down here in the maze, unable to see ahead. I'm climbing this hill and ahead of me is a switchback. I can't see what's around the far side. Having faith in road designers and the constancy of our world, I predict that the road curves around and keeps climbing. Other curves aren't so clear. How much confidence I have in a continued path depends on how much I trust God's guidance. Is there really a road out there?
When war breaks out between irreconcilable opponents, the smart residents hide and hope the storm will blow over before their houses do. When the war is in a person's soul, and goes where I go, what can be done? Is God the good guide even in the middle of the bitter warfare? What is he trying to do? Removal of self seems to be the logical answer, so that He can move in and make the place his own.
And yet here I am, riding up this hill, sweating into the cool misty air of an early summer California morning, just so that I can hear birds use the same air to call to each other. Rather than removing me, he has been very carefully strengthening some parts of me while we--note that "we"--decide which parts can dissolved in His blessings. Keep the experiences and memories while changing their associations; the old deadly associations are being replaced with associations centered on His gentle regard for who I am.
The logical question is "Why bother?" This all takes a long time. "Without faith, it is impossible to please Him." How do you transform an intellectual, rational sceptic into a man of faith? By demonstrating faithfulness every day, I guess, which means walking through all of this pain, confusion, down deep in the maze, and watching how God brings a rain of blessing along with the guidance along the edge of quitting.
I'm in a class of one. Each of is, truly, is. We can choose to make common cause with each other but that doesn't require complete suppression of who we are. That way leads to madness and anger. We need to learn to enjoy differences, which requires enough stability within ourselves that external forces aren't a threat, and that requires internal strength, and that means the Holy Spirit, and that calls for faith. We can't see Him.
We allow ourselves to be affected by lots of other invisible things: advertising, movies, TV shows, other people's ideas. Why not allow God to work in the same way? His way is difficult but good.
To see myself changing in this way is in most ways a shock. Faith? Me? Can't be. In more subtle ways, well, I've always had faith that things would just work out. They have. In the last few years I've bucked and protested as God has worked to bring what used to be hidden out into the light. My rational front has always had a fantastic structure made of flowers, birdsong and moonbeams that I didn't want anyone to know about.
That I'm still here is more a testament to God's faithfulness than any skill or strength I have. In so many events my life could have ended or taken a really ugly turn, but it has been like those cartoons of the sleepwalking steelworker who walks off the end of a beam just as another is lifted to where his foot will be. This naturally leads to questions of "Why me?" but I have no answer. How does a tender man survive in a world of sliding hard blocks? God's protection, I think. Why would he work so hard to ensure my survival? The simple answer is that it's His nature.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
We win arguments by beating the other side down until they can't move any more. Nothing is really solved. You could say that fatigue wins more arguments than anything else but eventually, no matter how many bricks you put on top of the pressure cooker the old argument is still steaming away in there. It'll be back, and will usually unload at just the wrong time. We've all seen it: someone comes along and kicks a pebble and pretty soon the whole hillside is in motion, sliding, grinding, crushing everyone in its path as the old argument takes on a whole new life.
It seems pretty damned hopeless. Do differences of opinion always have to end this way? What happens when the argument is with the God of the Universe? He's pretty strong. Not much point in even trying to present a different viewpoint: He's right, by definition.
What we don't see is how humble God is. No one talks about this. He has no ego involved in winning arguments, and the fatigue technique is destructive. What he wants is for me to gladly agree with what he presents, as gladly as he has accepted me into his community of saints and angels.
I had a dream one night about being in about the last place I'd expect to be: in that great hall of Heaven, with the throng of people and animals all crying out "Holy, holy, holy" while looking upon God. God could demand this. It is no more than the truth: he's holy, I'm corrupt. Yet he accepts me, which is a decent foundation for worship. But still, standing around in the crowd like that? Well, the feeling of the dream was of a far more dynamic thing. Everyone was there both because they wanted to be, and because God wanted us there. There was no grudge, no pointing out of old sins. God was glad we were there, and the "Holy, holy" part was just a kind of spontaneous thing, like doing the wave at a concert.
You don't get argued into offering up a heartfelt "Holy, holy, holy." How does God do it? I can't speak for others. What I've seen and felt is God's steady encouragement. His burden really is light, and life-giving. I've seen his humility, asking me for forgiveness. I've experienced directly his steadfast commitment for 36 years, even when I said I wanted nothing to do with him. I follow none of the rules of Christianity but God still holds onto me. I'm rather sad that it has taken 36 years, but the arguments just sort of dissolve as God proves he's more interested in me than he is in a program. He holds onto me as we--what a strange concept, we--untangle the choking threads of the past.
My survival has depended on a lot of practices that run counter to the kind of life God made me for, and the kind I've dreamed of. To step away from what's familiar to me and walk into God's new land is something I profoundly resist. Dragons lie in wait out there, smoking and ready to flame. I've felt their flames. I know those dragons from experience and want nothing to do with them. I've lost every fight with them. God says we--still a strange concept to me, we--can defeat them. Argument.
Who argues with dragons and wins? Somehow, God does. It's more than a suit of asbestos armor. Truth reveals that the dragons aren't that big any more; what's huge to a boy is just plain smaller to an adult and yet the dragons remain huge in emotional memory. It's more than a sword, as a sword does nothing against flame.
So, it's truth, and patience, and waiting, and repeating the lesson in different ways until internal reality finally shakes loose in a psychotectonic event of sliding ideas. God knows that an unsettled argument is a weak foundation stone waiting to fail, and if I have the patience to match his he will take that weak stone and show it for what it is and then rebuild it.
We're on the borderland of metaphor here. I don't know how much of the foregoing is comprehensible. God is no metaphor, but he fits none of my words nor concepts so I try to paint a moving picture in words that are themselves abstractions of the rainbow-clouded reality. What is sure is that failures in human institutions are no surprise, given that they're based on winning arguments by crushing the opposition. Ruling by the strong, when we'd often be better served by listening to the weak and humble.
I also can't generalize too much here. My experience leads me to interpret events in a certain way, and what I see as oppression in an organization may be just what someone else needs. We have to make up our own minds, and listening to God is an essential part of that. He comes, humbly, offering to help because he wants to. I never thought I'd believe someone else had my best interests at heart--that's usually the prelude to a good reaming--but it's true of God because he has no ego involved.
You don't get to "We" by being beaten up. I know it's the usual technique to force things and people like it because it brings quick results, and it feels satisfying to the ones who force. They can count the numbers and see the effects, and then move on. They don't have to clean up after the explosions, because those who explode blame themselves for their weakness.
Self-denial doesn't come about because of losing an argument. Self-denial comes from falling in love with Jesus. How very odd it is that I can now conceive of that idea.
(composed to Ray Thomas' "From Mighty Oaks")
Saturday, July 14, 2007
What I Want
Stories can start anywhere. I, as the writer, dictate the starting point for this one: a seven-year-old boy looking around and suddenly realizing that on top of the living earth, amid the glowing air, under the shining clouds, people have built lives of lies. Somehow this boy was left out when the instruction books were handed out, so he quite naturally wondered why things were this way. In his mind he conjured a dream: Find a way to be real. Ignore the holy relics, the traditions, the rules stated and unstated, and be whole.
A seven-year-old boy starts on such a quest with some major disadvantages, especially when starting from Kansas. He had one advantage: no one listened to him anyway, so he had the freedom to explore. That advantage, though, was built on top of what he'd already learned and even at the tender age of 7 assumptions have grown up like weeds.
Survival dictates conformance, at least on the outside. Outside conformance eventually works its way inside due to the sheer amount of work living split takes. All around me I could see what happened to those whose rebellions were more obvious than mine. It was rarely pretty. Oh, they got some approbation from their friends but the act looked pretty thin to me. I was looking for the heart. Of what I wasn't sure. Just... I knew there was more.
The signs were out there. What was music if not an all-too-brief visitor from the land I wanted to live in? What of the sparkle of water in a mountain stream and the scent of pines? There was magic in those but even those who walked out there rarely saw it. I was navigating by feel in a sighted world.
College was even worse. Although I can accurately translate from words into the language I use inside for thinking about things it takes time. College allows no time for thinking; you must simply absorb. That's what they'd been wanting me to do all my life but I couldn't see the difference between that and any more formal brainwashing. I dug in my heels, fell behind and got kicked out. All that was left of that year was Craig and a hint of Jesus.
Craig sent me his spoken plea. The burning question was: Could I become a Christian with any kind of honesty? The debate raged furiously for a couple of weeks, which didn't help my work habits.
Could I really give my life to Jesus? How is this even done? Just a few words?
We'd always gone to church but I felt no reality there. It was all a duty, and part of my core belief was that there had to be more to life than duty and obligation. What could it be? Craig was the first person I'd ever met for whom Jesus seemed to be real. Ultimately I wanted to be like him. He seemed better connected to the world of the heart than anyone else I knew. Was that due to Jesus?
It was like taking the first step into a foreign country. I already knew how language affected conceptualization and my first forays to churches after I finally made the decision--more to end the debate than for any selfless devotion--showed me that they had the same problem of people outside. The basic idea of Christianity is that Jesus died to remove my sins, and yet here was everyone in the church, every Sunday, praying for God's forgiveness.
I solved the problem in my own way. I packed up everything that would fit, gave away the rest, and headed west. Craig was in Greeley. He was a little surprised when I showed up. It turned out that his church was no closer to reality than the more formal outfits I'd attended, so the search went on.
Still, I was in a strange land, not knowing the rules. I put on my protective coloration again and gradually a new set of weeds grew up around me. God spoke to me--yes, to insignificant me--but I decided the voice couldn't really be Him as I was too young.
I ran into another group that seemed more real. Not really a church, but a kind of teaching ministry whose core concept was that of relationships. This was close enough to my original dream of human reality that I signed on and went to work. If God wouldn't make me a real relational human being, I'd do it myself.
Year later I walked out of the psychiatrist's office for the last time. It wasn't working. I was stronger than she was, and her tools didn't reach deep enough. I could predict where we were going and stay off the path. Eventually I got tired of paying for silence and quit going.
That left me with the problem of what to do with myself. The relationship idea was dead, the idea of being human was even deader. I just dropped the whole thing and lived day by day, one sand sculpture at a time, one bike ride, a day of work, an evening of music.
It takes time for a lifelong dream to truly die. Nine years went by and I began to wonder if I'd get over the next bump. I no longer really cared, and that scared me. I smacked up the motorcycle by not caring, so started riding the bus to work. Then Jesus stepped back into my life. I didn't care very much, so told him to do anything he wanted.
IV: Skirting the Edge
I expected wholesale replacement. Clearly I'd failed and needed everything new. I quit thinking about it. God could reach deeply enough and I expected him to just take handfuls and toss them. Another kind of end.
It has not been that way. Assumptions have power. God is even more adamant in resisting assumptions than I am. Forgiveness turns out to be a powerful push toward changed ideas.
Still, that old dream was hanging around. Last September a friend I'd met on-line (playing Uru) started talking with me. There were no built-in limits. By January it was over with, me trapped in old fears, she frustrated with my silence. In June the whole thing came back in my face; what was over with intellectually was far from over emotionally.
It had nothing, really, to do with her. It was God's work, and I was angrier than I have ever been before. Especially the timing: I'd just gotten over some fighting, finally beginning to feel that God's way of leading wasn't to erase me. And then this all blows up. Suddenly the "progress" I'd made in relating to others just seemed like what it really was: a bunch of empty tricks, tolerated by others because... ah, who knows. It was a feeling I knew well: being on the outside, looking in from the cold to a room warm with light and people. I'd never be in there.
I told God to take a hike. He tried to get through to me but I refused to listen. I told myself that God cared no more than anyone else did, which was nil.
I learned therefrom that lying to myself is dangerous. I knew that God cared. Jesus is the most direct showing of His caring. I told myself not to believe any of it; God was just another manipulator. I could feel the distance growing, and the edge of oblivion got closer.
How do you heal something like that? I have no idea. God started it by asking me to forgive him. The God of the Universe, humbly approaching me and asking. Just as Jesus did all those years ago, allowing himself to be crucified as a low-order criminal. With my toes hanging over the edge, and thinking about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, I knew I was in danger. That got through to me; cut off from God's voice there really wasn't much point to living.
It still wasn't very good. I had dreams: one of my house being invaded by people with guns, coming in all the windows, finding me alone. Another one of me finding a cop on the street and beating him to pieces. And one of me being on a road someplace and coming upon a dead cougar lying there. It doesn't take a trained analyst to figure any of that out: I was being invaded, wanted to beat the crap out of God for making me hurt, and could see the future: I and all I held beautiful would die.
It's interesting how I can know things and yet not really know them. I've written here before of God's gentleness, of how he's not interested in turning me into a robot, that he has gone to great effort to make me what I am and there'd be no point in trying to make me something I'm not designed for. Between belief and reality there is a wide gulf, when it comes to actually doing something with the belief. God is, however, patient and will just keep working on the lesson until it really takes hold.
Self-judgment is deadly. I signed on to a real dream but allowed it to be derailed years ago. There's only so much one person can do against a hostile world. I judged myself for how closely I was adhering to my ideas of truth, but those ideas were founded on the same set of lies that I'd rebelled against. All God was trying to do was give me back the original dream.
A friend asked a while back: "Larry, what do you want?" It's not a trick question, but I can't answer it. All I know is what I don't want. The question always gets tangled with another: "What am I allowed to want?" This is why God and I collided so hard: I'm supposed to want what God wants, but how do I know that without talking with him? And what is there left of me if I'm supposed to be a shadow of God?
V: The Future
Another friend made me see that I've not done all that badly. While I felt I was nowhere near the dream I'd started to chase all those years ago, I'd still ended up in a decent place. Her comment has stayed with me in a curious way. It's true, but not true. Self-judgment versus reality. What I am versus what I want to be, but how can the comparison be made when the want to be part is a feeling rather than a hard destination?
God's will, as expressed in my life, is aimed in the same direction that seven-year-old's dream was, it seems. It's not supposed to be this way. I'm supposed to be a soldier taking orders; when God says "Go" I'm just supposed to start walking.
I wonder, though. All around us are churches and Christian groups falling apart due to rancor and argument. I wonder what would happen if everyone there started looking, open-mindedly, at their assumptions about God.
How am I supposed to serve God? I'm commanded to, but the shape of that service seems to be something other than what I expected. Will I enjoy that service? I haven't much so far, but that's due more to self-judgment and argument than anything else. There are aspects of this story that I just don't want to know because it seems that part of being whole is having emotions.
One night I was lying in bed thinking about this. I saw the mountain ahead with this steep road going up it, and thought "Ah, just bag it. It's too much of a problem for me. I'll live without it." Jesus said at that point "What are we going to do about it?" We? My thoughts changed course. We. I always judge what I can do based on being alone. I see the impossible and just turn aside. God, however, calls me toward that impossible emotional life, and says "We can do it." He's crazy. I've become crazy enough to believe him.