Good Days and Bad

As much as yesterday was a bad day, today was a good day (I really hope you don’t think that each of these posts is written the day it goes up… I wrote this post three or four days ago). Kind of a great day actually, mostly because I spent a very good portion of it with God. After thirteen years of walking with God you’d think I’d be better at it by now. For one, you’d think that I’d understand that when I focus on God I do good, feel good, love well, and enjoy my life, and when I focus on myself I’m listless, depressed, frustrated, and prone to fall to whatever temptation presents itself. See, its not like I didn’t have temptations today, but I didn’t struggle with them nearly as hard because my focus was in the right place.

That being said, it is truly and incredibly easy to let my focus wander, to let my selfishness overwhelm me and this inevitably ends badly. I know I’ve mentioned on here that I tend to wear a lot of masks, and once of those is spirituality. I have no idea what people see when they look at me, but I want them to see a spiritual giant. A man who’s close to God, who’s got everything together spiritually, who fights the battle daily and single-handedly strikes down the spiritual bastions of evil.

That’s not actually me though. If I’m honest, that’s not even close to being me. It’s what I’d like to be, but that’s really just my pride talking. See, it’s not about me, how people see me, or what I do. It’s about God, and the more I focus on how I want to be seen and who I want to be, the less my focus is where it actually needs to be. In fact, it’s safe to say that the more I focus on being seen as a spiritual giant, the more of a spiritual wuss I become.

God is the key to… well… everything! He should be my main focus, my first priority, all the time no matter what. Unfortunately, I still suck at that. However, when I do focus on God, I always have awesome days. Mmmm…. I think I should probably learn from that, huh?

Where Do I Want to Be in Five Years?

I’ve been avoiding this question for a long time. Not because I don’t know the answer (honestly the answer hasn’t changed much over the past decade), but because I didn’t believe it was possible. This question has been a source of pain to me, and so I ran away from it. Now, however, I find that the answer is changing. Not entirely, there are some aspects that are still the same, but others have been added, and some have been removed, and the priorities have shifted some I think. So, where do I want to be in five years?

In order of importance:

1) I want to be stronger in my relationship with God. To put a more specific goal on this, I would like to be entering St. Teresa’s sixth mansion. St. Teresa of Avila wrote a book called Interior Castle or The Mansions in which she delineates the spiritual experience of the Christian into seven ‘mansions’ that she describes in depth. At a guess I think that I am somewhere in her third or fourth mansion right now (not sure about that though, it’s a very subjective judgment and I don’t entirely trust myself). In five years I would like to be at least at the doorway to her sixth mansion, if not inside it.

2) I want to be content with wherever God has brought me. This could wind up precluding all of the goals that follow it, honestly. God has taken me many places that I didn’t want to go over the past thirteen years, and I don’t really expect that to stop. However, wherever God has me in fives years, whatever he has me doing, I want to be happy about it. I’ve written before about the fact that happiness has never really been a goal in my life. Well, now I’m making it one. However, as I said then, happiness doesn’t come simply from getting the things I want. I want to have eudaimonia, wherever I am.

3) I want to be married. I’ve said several times that I’m finally happy being single, and that’s true. God has me in a time of romantic solitude at the moment, and I’m finally learning to be okay with that. This is a wonderful thing. However, the desire to have a mate hasn’t left me. I am content to be single, but I still believe that God has someone for me, and that I will find that person someday. I hope that in five years this time of solitude will be over and God will have brought me that person. Maybe not, and if not then see goal number 2, but I hope that he will.

4) I want to be teaching. I’m already teaching, and I love teaching. This is a goal that I’ve already achieved and I don’t want that to change. However, as a sub-goal, I would like to be consistently making $30,000 a year teaching. Given my degrees that’s a little bit harder :P. We’ll see if that’s what God has planned for me. If not, then I think I’m already okay with that. Eudaimonia is not based on income. As another sub-goal, I would like to be out of debt on my credit card (this is actually a short-term goal), and have a significant portion of my student loans paid off.

5) I want to be in the middle of a doctoral program. Given my current academic standing I think five years is a realistic goal for this. I am sure that I’ll need to do a second master’s program before I can even be considered for any of the doctoral programs that I want to pursue. However, a two year masters starting say, fall of 2014, would land me in my second year of a doctoral program five years from now, if things go well. Again, I’m not entirely sure if this is where God is taking me. I want it to be, and there are a few people pushing me in this direction, but I’m not sure if it is. If not… well, I guess see goal two above.

So, this is where I want to be in five years. As I said, goals 1 and 2 trump everything else, and I am fully aware that achieving goal 2 might mean giving up goals 3, 4, and 5, but I have peace with that (right now at least). Making long-term plans is, in all honesty, difficult for me. I’ve seen too many plans and goals turn to dust, and I can’t explain how painful that is. Honestly, I’m not even going to try. Still, God has used that pain to make me a better person, a better man, and a better Christian.

Have you ever read the book Dune? It’s a phenomenal novel. Honestly, I’d argue that it’s the best science fiction novel ever written. Anyway, in Dune there is a prayer… well, they call it a prayer, really it’s more of a mantra… that the Bene Gesserit sisters use:

“I will not fear. Fear is the mindkiller. It is the little death that proceeds complete oblivion. I will let my fear pass over me and through me, and I will turn my inner eye to follow its path. When my fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

I use this mantra on a regular basis, and with a little adaptation it can be equally applied to either physical or spiritual pain:

“I will not hurt. Pain is the mindkiller. It is the little death that leads me to oblivion. I will let my pain pass over me and through me, and I will turn my inner eye to follow its path. When my pain has gone, there will be nothing. Only God will remain.”

God leads us through times of pain and fear in order to stretch us, to grow us, and to draw us to himself. This is, after all, the primary goal of the Christian life, and so I will rely on God to scare me, to hurt me, and to take care of me when he does. I want to achieve the goals that I’ve listed above. They represent my hearts deepest desires. I often think of them as roses that I’ve sheltered and cared for through many terrible storms. Honestly, there have been times when they withered to the point that I thought they would die, but slowly, and with a lot of help, they’ve always been nurtured back to health. However, I have yet to see them bloom, and I truly, deeply want to.

Bible Study Burdens

Today has not been a good day. Actually, it’s pretty much been a downright bad day. Here’s the thing, today could have been a good day, it probably could have been a great day, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t. I’ve been meeting with a group of guys for a kind of floating bible study for a while now, and this week the only time we could meet was at 5:30 this morning. That’s right, 5:30… in the morning. So, I went to bed early (like 11), and got up early so that I could be ready and awake for the bible study.

The problem is, for a few days now I’ve been doing my devotions, but not really doing them. You know what I mean. I’ve been in that place where I don’t really want to spend time with God, but I do out of duty. Don’t get me wrong, duty isn’t a bad thing. If someone is spending time with God out of duty, I’m certainly not going to tell them to stop spending time with God. However, there’s a big difference between dutifully going through the motions and really doing the minimum necessary, and passionately devouring the word and spending time listening to and communing with the father. So, for several days now I’ve been going through the motions because I haven’t actually wanted to spend time with God. Ever since my fast ended really.

This morning instead of being interested, motivated, and passionate about getting into the word with a good group of men, I was distracted and ambivalent. I like ambivalent, it’s a good word, but I really don’t like being ambivalent. So, three hours later when we finally get done, I take off and head home, deciding that I’m going to take the rest of the day off… well mostly… as much as I take any day off anyway. I did a little work, worked out, and then watched anime and played video games for most of the rest of the afternoon. The thing is, I spent the entire morning struggling. I was trying to relax and watch a funny anime, but I found that all I wanted to do was look at porn.

So, like the bloody idiot I am, I did. I really don’t like porn. Even if it didn’t appeal strongly to my basest instincts and lead my mind places that I’d rather not go, it has no redemptive value. There are no strong story lines in porn, no great acting, no clear social commentary, no meaningful dialogue… mostly because it’s all about getting off as fast as you can. So, that happened, and then I repented. Still, my day didn’t really get any better.

I’m not going to say that the stain of sin follows you around, it’s doesn’t. Once something is forgiven, that’s that, it’s gone. However, I was tired, lackadaisical, and somewhat morose for the rest of the day. I couldn’t really get into the game I was trying to play, and I wasn’t particularly interested in the show I was watching. I just didn’t particularly care about anything.

However, after most of a day of this I finally got myself off my ass and took a friend out to dinner. After that the rest of the night got better… until I ran into a mutual friend of that lady I’ve been thinking about. She told me that she and a couple of other mutual friends are thinking about fixing said lady up with another mutual friend… and again my day plummets downwards. Not for long this time though.

Here’s the thing. After all of this, all the struggle, the sin, the apathy, and the disappointment, I finally did what I should have done a while ago. I went and spent about an hour actually talking to God. Not listlessly flipping through pages in my bible. Not hurriedly saying a few rote words of praise and supplication. I spent an while actually talking to him. This made all the difference. It got me out of my funk for one, but he also pointed out that I shouldn’t have been particularly disappointed in the first place.

I’m finally happy being single, remember? Did I forget that? Why yes, yes I think I must have. I need to be single for a while to solidify that… well, to let him solidify that. I don’t need to be dating anyone right now, or pining after anyone right now, because I’m supposed to be single, and I knew that… I just forgot about it. More than that, as much as I might regret spending a few days thoroughly indifferent towards him, he wasn’t indifferent towards me.

We all go through times when we don’t particularly want to talk to God, and he always brings us out of them. Why? Because he’s perfect and we’re not. I failed to look to him for my strength, which I really needed after my fast, but he didn’t fail me. He was just waiting for me to be ready, and that took some doing. I think I’m getting better about recognizing these times and turning to him during them, but I still fail miserably sometimes, and he forgives me.

So, all in all, my day sucked. However, it turned out good in the end, when I finally turned to God for help. This brings me back to what I’ve said time and again. We must turn to God. The more quickly we turn to God, the better off we are, and the faster we’ll get out of whatever funk we’re in. Turn to God and let him bear your burdens. You sure as hell can’t do it alone.

Wait, what do you mean by ‘the Church’?

I talk a lot about ‘the Church’, and this concept isn’t really always clear. Often by ‘the Church’ what we mean is ‘my church’, or ‘my denomination’, or even just ‘the people I agree with’. Sometimes we use the term ‘church’ to mean the entire body of Christianity, but this raises the question: what makes one a Christian? We could argue that to be Christian is simply a matter of personal identity (i.e. if I think I am a Christian then I am, regardless of my beliefs), and certainly there are many variations of orthodox Christianity (try comparing Baptist, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christian practices sometime). There are differences in theological belief, differences in practice, differences in focus, and differences in understanding. There are liberal Christians who don’t believe that Christ is necessary for salvation, and there are conservative Christians that believe that if you don’t wear a tie to church on Sundays you are going to hell. So, how can we talk about ‘the Church’ in any meaningful way?

Scripture, however, does speak of ‘the Church’ as a universal. Well, technically it talks about the body of Christ as a universal, and declares that ‘the Church’ is the body of Christ. However, this brings us back to the question, what do we mean by that? If the body of Christ and the church universal are the same thing, then what does that mean in practice? The clarification offers no actual clarity because it raises all of the same questions. The clarification tells us that we have some scriptural support for speaking of ‘the Church’, but doesn’t actually give any clarification as to what ‘the Church’ is.

We clearly can’t argue that ‘the Church’ includes everyone who calls themselves a Christian, because there are plenty of ‘Christians’ who aren’t actually Christian. I call myself a Red Sox fan, but I don’t think I’ve watched a baseball game in three years. If I do see the Sox playing I’ll root for them, but clearly I’m not a fan. Similarly, there are plenty of people who identify themselves as Christians, but don’t actually engage in any form of Christian practice on a regular basis. Christianity is a religious faith, not a birthright. If I move to China and live there for the next 30 years, I will still be an American citizen by law. However, being born into a Christian family doesn’t make me a Christian, that is a choice that I have to make for myself, just like being a Red Sox fan.

So, can we simply say that ‘the Church’ is made up of everyone who is truly saved? Perhaps. Technically I would argue that this is true, but this then raises the question of what it means to be ‘saved’. Am I saved simply because I was moved at a Church service, went to the front of the church, and repeated some words? I think the majority of theologians would reject this. Salvation is not simply the repetition of words, it is a commitment, a surrender of will and an acceptance of the authority of Christ.

So, bearing this in mind, can we say that ‘the Church’ is made up of those who are truly seeking to follow after Christ? This, I think, is getting closer to the mark. Christians are those who are seeking Christlikeness. Those who have surrendered their lives not to a particular denomination or theological worldview, but to the true and living God and seek to live in communion with him every day. Try reading 1st John sometime and you will find this born out within its chapters. 1st John chapters 1-3 are filled with continuous present verbs (i.e. if you keep doing…whatever or if you make a practice of …this). When I speak of ‘the Church’ I speak of those who are making a true and honest effort to live their lives in communion with God and to portray a similarity to Christ in their attitudes and actions. They don’t even have to be good at it, I think its clear from this blog that I’m not, but that is the goal of their lives.

The body of Christ is made up of his followers, and his followers come in every shape and size. Some are well-to-do church members in good standing, some are tattooed, some are drug addicts struggling to be better, some are lawyers, politicians, missionaries, doctors, beggars, pastors, teachers, and thieves. The key is that they are all trying to live like Christ, even if they fail. Hell, even if they don’t know how, they are trying. Consider Christ’s story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector if you think that some of the above are more ‘worthy’ of being called Christians than others.

Christianity, for all it’s many varieties, holds a body of unchanging core beliefs. The fundamental beliefs (where the term Fundamentalist actually comes from) include the virgin birth, the dual-nature of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the second coming of Christ, and the authority (not inerrancy) of the Scriptures. If you call yourself a Christian and fundamentally disagree with one of these then you might have some thinking to do, or God might just be working in you. He knows that I’ve believed plenty of heresies over the years, but he always brings me back to the truth eventually.

I would add the doctrine of the triune nature of God (i.e. that the father, son, and holy spirit are three persons in one being), the doctrines of personal and natural sin, a belief in Satan and the demonic, a belief that Christ is the only means of salvation, and an understanding of prayer as important (essentially fundamental) doctrines and practices. However, there are relatively few churches that would disagree with any of these, and there are plenty of believers who may not be a part of a local church who do believe in these.

Of course, this brings us to the question of whether a person should be a member of a local church, but I’m going to leave that one for another post.

Hate

I’m very familiar with hate. In fact, I was a very hateful person before I converted to Christianity. Hate was pretty much the only thing I knew how to feel. The only thing I understood, and this  isn’t an exaggeration, was how to hate. I hated everyone and everything. The only thing I wanted was to see people hurt. So, I understand hate. It makes sense to me, and I understand what it can do to people.

I’ve had some comments on one of my posts from a few days ago (honestly though, the fact that this blog has generated any interest whatsoever amazes me) that are fairly hostile. Not just hostile to the ideas in the post, but hostile to me personally. The hostility doesn’t surprise me, as I said, I’m familiar with hate, but the responses rather do. However, this highlights one of the major problems in today’s civil discourse. So often it seems impossible for people to disagree respectfully.

I teach an ethics class in which we discuss the issue of Hate Speech, and in that class I get a lot of students whose response is simply ‘why can’t people just be nice to each other’. Honestly, I often laugh at these students (quietly and to myself) because of their naivety. However, they ask a good question. Why can’t we be nice to each other? Why do we seem incapable of disagreeing respectfully?

Some of this is simply that we are completely insecure as a nation and as individuals. We are utterly and completely afraid of everything, and we can’t seem to get over that. Many of us seem to think that personal insults are a valid part of reasoned argument, and that disagreement is an act of hate. This then breeds a hateful response intended not simply to refute, but to injure. Another part of it is that many of us are so arrogant that we can’t respect any opinion that varies from our own. Many people, on either side of every major argument, utter some form of the phrase, ‘If you disagree with me then you are clearly a terrible person!’ I know wonderful people who are pro-choice, and wonderful people who are pro-life. I know wonderful people who are pro-gay marriage, and wonderful people who are pro-traditional marriage, and wonderful people who don’t think the issue matters in the slightest. I know wonderful pacifists and wonderful militants. I know wonderful democrats, wonderful republicans, and wonderful independents. There are good people on both sides of all of the major arguments, and we often fail to see that completely. The thing is, there are also bad people on both sides of all of the major arguments.

Ad hominem attacks have become so much a part of our everyday discourse that they seem natural. The problem is that these attacks do nothing to actually advance our ideas, and they do everything to shut down conversation. There is not one group that is innocent of this today: Christians do it, Muslims do it, Atheists do it, Republicans, Democrats, Skeptics, Enviromentalists, you name the group and there are plenty of people that hate their opponents, and plenty of people who confuse those who disagree with those who hate. A part of this is because hate sees hate, even when it isn’t there.

There is plenty of hate in the world without adding our own. Heck, even anti-hate groups spread hate (have you read some of the the SPLC puts out?). Instead of seeing hate in those who disagree, and then responding with hate of our own, we should respond to hate with love. We should love those who hate us, hard as that is.

The thing is, it is hard to love the people who hurt us, hard to love the people who hate us, and often hard to tell the difference between the two. Regardless, our job is to love both, and to show that love at all times. So, that’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m really not entirely sure how yet, but it’s what I want to do.

You see, the thing is that I’m not really sure I can respond in love, and actually respond. Not to say that it would be impossible to lovingly and carefully refute the claims without attacking the individuals, I’m just not sure that I can do it right now, and even if I could, I’m not sure that the individuals would see it that way.

So, I sit here wondering if it would be more loving to simply do nothing, or to attempt an amiable refutation. Sometimes I wonder if any refutation can be seen as amiable in modern society, certainly this doesn’t seem to be the case. Obviously I haven’t let these comments through, and I don’t plan to. Honestly, right now I’m not sure if I’m going to let any comments through. Of course you’re always welcome to submit comments, but I’m not really sure I’m going to actually post anyone’s comments.

I’ve said several times that I’m treating this blog as a personal journal, and I don’t know that I really want comments cluttering up my journal. All in all, I have some thinking to do before I decide how to handle them.

Fasting and Internalization

You people are all insane. I hope you know that. I run another blog… no, you don’t get to find out what blog it is (anonymity, remember?) and it took me forever to build up a following on that blog. So far I’ve kept a pretty steady ratio of posts to followers here and I don’t understand that at all. Seriously people, what I have to say isn’t that interesting, and it certainly isn’t particularly important. Why in the world do you want to read my random thoughts?

Well, now that that’s out of my system, I finished my fast today. It was good… strange, but good. I’ve always had an easy time fasting… don’t get me wrong, when I’m prideful and decide that I should just fast for three days to be ‘spiritual’ I usually last about six hours before eating something. However, I’ve always tried to make a practice of only fasting when God tells me to fast, when there’s a particular purpose to the fast beyond exercising my own arrogant self-righteousness. So, what I mean is that when God tells me to fast, he makes it easy. I can’t take any credit for fasting being easy, it’s simply God making allowance for my many and varied weaknesses.

This fast was not easy. God provided in my distress. He gave me the strength, but for the entire first day of my fast I just wanted to eat something. I couldn’t go fifteen minutes without thinking about getting a hamburger, or a steak, or an ice cream cone… whatever. For the life of me I couldn’t get my mind off of food, but God takes care of us in our times of need. The second day of the fast was a little easier, though when my roommate started cooking hamburgers on his grill I nearly lost it, and then today was the easiest of all.

Still, the fast was streching, challenging, and summative. I honestly feel like what God’s been trying to do was mostly done before my fast even started… although the two weeks of periodically fasting from sleep might have had something to do with that. Nonetheless, fasting is an important ritual. It’s provided a good, clear ending to this lesson (not that the lesson is actually over). It’s important to have these memorable moments in our lives that let us remember the lessons that we learn. The things that help us to internalize these lessons, and that is the point, isn’t it, to internalize these lessons? To make them a part of our daily lives, a part of our overall spiritual experience? The goal is to let God actually change us, instead of simply listening and then assuming that something magical happened, even though we haven’t actually learned anything or changed in any fundamental way.

This is one of the things that ritual does for us. It finalizes things, gives us a place to look back to and say, ‘Yes, I remember when God taught me that…’ So, all in all,  the week was good, God humbled me a little, loved me a little, pushed me a little, and taught me a little, and I hope that I’ve come out the better for it. I guess only time will tell in the end.

Reflections

Sometimes I find myself just sitting and thinking about my life. Before I turned twelve I’d been shot at, thrown a kid off a cliff (don’t worry he didn’t die or anything), broken someone’s nose in two different fights, tried to kill myself, been beaten senseless several times, eaten and fed others poison berries, been called every bad word in the book by one or both of my parents, almost made my mother leave the family, fallen off a cliff (obviously I didn’t die either), and been thoroughly inculcated into the demonic (I mean that literally, not figuratively). Cognitively, I understand that this is a bad childhood. Actually, I think from the average American perspective, this is an extremely violent, troubled childhood. However, for me, it’s just the way I grew up. I realize that my childhood was violent and disturbed, but I generally don’t think of it that way.

Before I turned eighteen I’d tried to kill one person,  been told I’d actually killed someone else (and that I was being charged with manslaughter), put together a plan to set off a nerve gas bomb in my high school (it was a stupid plan in the first place), tried to kill myself several more times, made a habit of watching porn at least six hours a day, and started hurting people (especially women) in order to make myself feel good. I feel the violence and depravity of my teenage years much more than that of my childhood. There isn’t much in my childhood that I actually regret doing. I understand the things that were done to me, and the problems they caused, and I understand the things that I did to others. The core of pain that I’ve mentioned a couple of times now certainly had its start in my childhood.

However, many of my deepest regrets come from the things that I did during my teenage years. After I converted to Christianity these things haunted me for many years. I lost a lot of sleep over the things I’d done and the people I’d hurt. I spent days at a time praying for them, and begging God to make me a better person. I struggled with many of the sins that I’d lived in before my salvation, and I often wanted to walk away from the Christian life. God would never actually let me walk away though, no matter how much I fought him. I’ve never been one to run away, but I tried to run away from God, a few times.

God doesn’t let go of what’s his though. He’d track me down, tell me he loved me, and drag me back onto the straight and narrow path. He did this more times than I can count, and I can’t thank him enough for it. I don’t deserve such treatment. I’ve certainly hurt God more than most people, but he never gives up on me anyway. I want to be able to love like this, and in a few cases I’ve been able to (a very few cases).

I want to be more like Christ, and God keeps making me give up integral parts of myself in order to make me more like Christ. I have to admit, I like becoming more like Christ, but I’m not always fond of what it requires. I started my fast today.