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Archive for June, 2008

I have a decision to make. It’s about a job, a great opportunity in some ways, but like most all important decisions, it’s not altogether clear what’s best. It’s strange; I know in my head how to discern the mysterious, ever-illusive will of God, but it’s just so messy in real life. On paper, I have notes from a guru, but in real life, well, I am just a guy making his way amongst the shadows.

There are generally three ways of understanding this whole decision-making and the will of God thing. The first is what I grew up with, where there is a definite, specific will of God for your life and may He have mercy on your soul if you somehow stumble from that path. Hopefully you’re paying attention when you bump into the spouse God meant for you, that sort of thing. The way you figure things out within this understanding is through “open doors” and fleeces. An “open door” means that things are working out to head a particular direction; a closed door, vice versa. A fleece is essentially a test, devised by me, but meant for God: the classic case is where Gideon puts a skin outside and if it is wet from dew the next morning he does one thing and if not he does another. Honestly, that seems like divination and manipulating God to me. And the open door thing is practically sheeshaw. How do you decide between open doors? And maybe God wants us to use a doorknob once in a while.

The second main option is the sort of thing I moved toward once I got sick of the pressure of trying to figure out what in the world God wanted me to do. Here, there isn’t a particular will of God at all. Instead there is a range of options that would work, and God expects you to use your judgment and wisdom to make the best of things. God doesn’t exactly leave us alone, but the most we can expect from Him is some sanctified decision-making ability. There is a lot that makes sense to me about this position, most significantly, that God expects us to use our brains and take some responsibility for ourselves. He wants adult children after all. Then again, this position seems to boil down to practical deism; what about walking with God and being his friend? Besides, God does things that wouldn’t seem wise to me at first (um, the cross anyone?); I want some of that. My wisdom is clearly inadequate, it sure would be nice to draw on some of God’s resources. This position, would also seem to be okay with second best and, damnit, that’s not fine with me; I want the best.

The third position is the old way; the grand Tradition testifies to this way, but it has fallen out of use lately. Catholics seem to have kept it around somewhat; Ignatius Loyolla is an exemplar. Anyway, this position is the one that resonates deep within me and was one of those things that when you hear it, you instantly feel at home, a thing that your intuition has been grasping and yearning toward for a long time. I just knew there had to be a better way. Here God does direct us when we come to a fork in the road, but if we choose wrong, He’s still there walking with us for the next one. God speaks into the particularity of our lives, this is where research and good judgment come into play. The better you understand the options, the better your hearing. God also speaks into the silence and space of our lives. In Scripture, God’s voice is quiet, so we can’t really expect him to shout above the drone of our busy, noisy lives. When we are listening, we aren’t exactly waiting on a voice either; instead we are attending to our affections: we are paying attention to our deep inner longings, we are using our brains to think about our emotions.

The raw information that we are looking for is the consolation (joy and peace, deep resonance) and desolation (any disturbance) in our soul. The rule is that you do not decide in desolation. That isn’t to say, however, that feeling consolation about a particular decision means it is from God. If only it were that easy. We must test consolation: examine our decision-making processes, examine our motives, etc. The goal here is to detect “the tail of the snake,” traces of rottenness that betray deception (coming from Satan maybe, but even more likely, coming from within ourselves). There are bunches of concrete thought exercises to do here to explore the contours of ones mind/soul, but well, this is a long blog as it is. The other thing to mention though, is that while no one makes decisions for us, it is good to talk to others, to make decisions in community. That gets all of the stuff I’ve just been talking about out onto the table, it gets it out of the relative darkness of our minds and into the light of verbalizing it to someone else (this is vital for me, because my mind is a touch crazy). Other people ask us tough questions too.

Anyway, that’s how I understand what’s supposed to happen. Much easier said than done. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Does this make any sense? Does it resonate with you? Should I try to explain the third option some more?

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Baggage

I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately because of some recent conversations with people who feel ashamed that they have any baggage. One person told me, “Everyone else just seems so normal and I want that to be me.” I have many more thoughts but this is a beginning …  

Life has a tendency to sneak up on us. We don’t expect it and, most of the time, we don’t want it. Yet, our baggage makes us who we are, regardless of whether or not it is with us because of our own stupid choices or the choices of others. We have it. Period. I think it’s easier to try to forget our baggage, to go through life acting as if we have little to carry as we bend and sweat under the weight we try to carry alone. Baggage isn’t something we confront and, often, it is something we try to discard.

To release life in others we must first release it in ourselves. Confronting our past is a big part of this process because our lives are shaped by what we’ve come through. To ignore our past is to sabotage our future. I think it’s important at this point to share a bit about my past, to let you know that, while different, our pasts are strikingly similar. We have all have baggage, whether we want to admit it to others or not and admitting it is the first step toward releasing life in ourselves.

I grew up with a mentally and physically disabled father because of a car accident three months before I was born. I didn’t know anything other than this and I’m thankful that I didn’t have a father, only to have it ripped from me. I have no memories of him as non-disabled, only the realization that my father was different. Caring for him by cooking, watching, and bathing were constant reminders of the life that I’d been given. Growing up in these circumstances I did know that something was different. I saw the world differently, as something to taken as seriously as it should be savored. Life is wonderful and taking it for granted has never been something I’ve struggled with. I did, however, grow up resenting God. In fact, I hated him with such an intense hatred because he would allow this to happen. To me, God was little more than the big man in the sky who liked toying with us.

I felt this pain growing up, seeing my friends play catch with their father and knowing that this would never be me. But growing up without a father is far from the end of my story. In high school, something like a dozen people I loved died unexpectedly. In college, there were a few more. I had recurring nightmares that, through a series of events, all the people I cared about died. Now that’s baggage.

When people hear about my life I often get an empathetic nod, a smile, a statement that comes out of the awkwardness of not knowing what to say. But what most people don’t realize is that I don’t see my life differently from them. Sure, the circumstances are different but we all experience life in different ways. Just because nothing “significant” has happened to you doesn’t mean that you haven’t had similar feelings of pain and regret. Our lives are strikingly similar in that we all experience life, the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, the hopes and pains. Just because we experience life differently doesn’t mean we don’t all experience life in our own ways.

We experience lost loved ones. We experience failed relationships. We experience moments of complete stupidity. We experience saying words that we can’t take back. We experience disappointment. We experience life. The question, for me, is how do I understand life? Do I understand it as the kind of baggage that weighs me down to the point of paralysis? Or do I understand it as baggage that transforms me into who I want to become? Transformation is something we choose; it doesn’t choose us. 

I am who I am because of my life and, honestly, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I wish I had the time to describe my own transformation, how I got to the place of thankfulness and gratitude for what I’ve been given. Maybe another day. 

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The Mystery Man

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a man I met almost five years ago. In the summer of 2003, I decided to take an 8,000-mile road trip before heading back to school. I met my grandfather and brother in Wyoming so we could visit Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, but this only lasted one week. The other seven weeks I traveled alone. No planning. Just driving, camping, hiking, and thinking. I rarely took the interstate, seeking out gravel roads whose pot-holes seemed to find me, inflicting untold damage on the worst consumer choice of my life: the Daewoo Nubira. I can confirm that these cars were not made to withstand anything except a car dealership’s parking lot. In fact, I think I would have made a better choice purchasing a golf cart, without a battery. Or wheels.

I spent a day and two nights at the Grand Canyon. Watching the sun set on the GC is a spectacular experience because the light illuminates the canyon walls, transforming it into something different altogether. This was one of the only experiences in my life that I didn’t try to take a picture. I just took it all in.

Driving out of the GC I got a flat tire. I correctly assumed that my car now hated me for everything I had put it through on the gravel roads in Utah. So, I slapped on the spare tire and drove to the nearest town, Page, Arizona. When I walked into the shop that would fix my flat, there was a man in his 60s standing at the counter, joking with the mechanics and manager about old people who drive RVs. “Road viruses,” he called them, then admitted that he drove the biggest one of them all. I walked up to the counter and told them what I needed done. The manager mentioned that it would take a few hours, so I joined in on their conversation. The mystery man asked me all the questions with which I had become so familiar on the road: Where are you from? Who are you traveling with? You are traveling alone? Where are you going? What do you do?

I answered this last question by saying, “Well, I have my MA in cultural studies but I focused on American religion.” A face that had been so full of life and laughter immediately changed into one of loneliness and doubt, responding, “Do you have time for a cup of coffee?”

We walked to a diner a few blocks away and he did pay for my coffee. Over the next three hours we talked about our lives. I learned that he was from Boston and grew up in an Irish Catholic family. I learned that he was divorced and his grown children barely spoke to him. I learned that he had focused so much on providing for his family that he forgot his family, not to mention drinking a bit too much. I learned that he was a broken man, looking back at his life and wondering if any of it mattered. He asked me a lot of questions about Christianity, trying to reconcile the faith he knew with the reality of his life. Then he asked the question that continues to haunt me, “Am I worth forgiving?”

I’d never been asked that question before, especially by a man more than twice my age. I wish I could tell you about what I told him. I’m sure it was mediocre. I’m sure it was sincere. I’m sure that if I could talk to him again my answer would be slightly different yet completely ordinary. Yet, I can’t stop thinking about his question: Am I worth forgiving? It’s a question that can only come out of brokenness, out of a hope that he can be different than he is. He looked at his broken life, his broken relationships, his broken being, and saw a person not worth forgiving.

Am I worth forgiving? That’s the question. The question we confront in those quite moments of self-doubt and self-hate. The question that drives us mad because we know ourselves too well to think that we deserve anything more, let alone forgiveness. We wonder what our lives will mean when we come to the end of it all, afraid that our choices now will lead to our loneliness later.  We seek what we cannot give ourselves, forgiveness.

I really don’t know what I would tell this man now. I’d probably share with him the gloriousness of shalom, that God desires to reconcile and redeem. But all of this seems so trite, so ordinary. I can’t help but wonder if the ordinary answer is good enough. I wonder if it takes this kind of brokenness to bring us to a point where we give up our inward compulsion for self-redemption and look outward to the redemptive power of Christ.

I wonder, what would you have told him?

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Since I just talked about what I learned in school, I figure I may as well explain what I learned by being a student. It isn’t a concept or a skill; it’s a way of being and I have just begun to learn it. It is humility.

I’ve always been a smart person. For some, grad school is a place where you realize you are not the smartest person around, that there is a ton you do not know, and you are appropriately humbled. For others, success in grad school confirms their sense of self-importance and superiority. You’ve met people like this and they are, quite frankly, arrogant asses. Regent College, being the Christian place that it is, strives to teach people humility and that knowledge is properly used to serve- for this I am deeply grateful. A few Regent profs also take (a little too much) pleasure in helping some with aspirations for a Ph.D and an academic career to realize that they are simply not that smart. This, in fact, did not happen to me.

As it turns out, I am still one of the smarter people: I succeeded quite well. I am very good at the specialized skills of reading and understanding and communicating clearly (at least in academic ways!). SO WHAT?! That is the question I learned to ask in grad school. So what? So I am smart, so I am good at school. What difference does that make? In and of itself, it doesn’t mean squat. It doesn’t make me better at all. I think because we grow up going to school and being evaluated for our performance, we somehow get this idea that those who are intelligent are superior. This is a lie. I meet lots of people who have a lower GPA than me. And they are also better at loving, better servants, better at listening to God. Hmmm…which is better?

Two years ago, I was frustrated because I felt like I had so much to offer and little outlet to offer it. And God pretty much told me that I was so prideful that I was dangerous. Lots of teachers have power and do a lot of good, but because their spirit is not right, they also do a lot of harm. So God started the long process of teaching me humility. He taught me that, just like everybody else, I am uniquely gifted and that these gifts, in and of themselves, are worthless unless they are used to love and to serve. Now, as long as I can keep from being prideful that God has planted the seeds of humility within me, well, then we’ll be getting somewhere!

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