Meaningless Thoughts

The last few days have been pretty awesome. Not because of anything particular that has happened, but because of where my focus has been. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of days about the grace that God has given to me. Not just forgiveness for things in my past, though there is certainly a lot of that, but the opportunities that he’s given me to become a better person, to live well and joyfully, and to pursue him with everything that I am. Honestly, I don’t really have a whole lot to say right now. I have spent the last two days exceptionally thankful, and I think that being thankful is an important part of the Christian walk that we often allow to drift to the wayside in the pursuit of more important things.

It’s easy to go to God when things are bad, and it’s often hard to find things to be thankful for when times are hard. When times are good it’s easy to forget about God. I’m constantly amazed at the number of unsuccessful people I meet who excuse themselves with comments about bad luck, and never getting opportunities, and to some degree these are true. Opportunity is certainly not equal in our country, and we really shouldn’t pretend that it is. However, I am also amazed at the number of successful people who credit their success to their own abilities, insight, and perseverance. Rarely have I met an unsuccessful person who credited their own choices for their current problems, and rarely have I met a successful person who credited luck, chance, or God’s providence for their situation. It seems that unsuccessful people all have bad luck, and successful people are all insanely talented.

This isn’t true, of course. There are plenty of successful people who owe their success entirely to luck (or God), and there are plenty of unsuccessful people who made bad choices in life. Of course, there are also incredibly talented people who’ve never been given a chance, and people who built their success thorough trial, sweat, and tears. That being said, we like to take credit for success, and avoid credit for failure. Some of this, I think, is inherent in humanity. Some of it is due to a culture that judges us on what we have instead of who we are. However, regardless of the reason, we desperately need to take responsibility for our failures, and thank God for our successes. We also need to trust his providence in everything. If God truly is sovereign, then he does have a plan for this world, and for us.

Of course, we could argue for a deistic God who is sovereign, but just doesn’t care what happens to us, but this (in my opinion) would not be the God of the scriptures. We could also argue for an intellectually acceptable God who operates within, and is governed by, natural law (i.e. the laws of physics, chemistry, etc), but again, I don’t think this is the God of the scriptures. The God of the scriptures is both sovereign and caring. He is both transcendent and immanent. He stands above natural law, apparently outside of time, and his word serves as the fulcrum upon which all things turn. This God is not governed by the rules, he is the creator of the rules. He cares deeply for his creation, and especially for mankind, but he is also coldly willing to sacrifice millions to make a point (just look at the conquests of Israel and Judah). He is both loving and just, caring and wrathful, merciful and jealous. That is to say that, ultimately, God is an enigma.

However, this doesn’t mean that we should give up, throw up our hands, and simply say, “well, we’ll never figure it out, so why try?” There are many questions in the Christian faith that can’t be answered, and many men have gone astray in their instance that there must be an answer. However, this doesn’t mean that we stop asking those questions, that we stop considering them, discussing them, mulling over them, or attempting to understand the complexity that is God and his relationship with man. This is something that is worth doing. It always has been, and it always will be, and the greatest men of the faith wrestled with these questions. Certainly they are worth our time.

Little Things Lead to Big Things

This is a concept that is very true and works in multiple directions. For instance, I have a young friend that I’ve mentioned several times… I’m not sure I’ve ever given her a name… let’s call her Shelly… I’ve known Shelly since she was very young, and I’ve never really done anything all that special for her. I’ve given her a few birthday presents here and there, I’ve spent time with her, and I’ve comforted her a few times when things at school were upsetting, but I haven’t done anything really major. I’ve never saved her life. I never bought her a pony. I never did much of anything besides be myself. The thing is, over years of being myself, this little girl has decided that I’m a really great friend, and a close bond has formed. The same is true with her younger brother… Timmy…, for whom I’ve also never done much of anything special. Little things, over a long period of time, lead to big results.

This is true in the opposite direction as well. When I was young I was given constant negative reinforcement. I can’t say that my parents ‘never’ did anything majorly wrong (I almost made my mom move out at one point, and that is the one time that I can say that my dad just plain beat me), but they didn’t do many hugely wrong things. They weren’t drug addicts, they didn’t sell me to strange men in alleys, they didn’t smack me around on a daily basis. Nonetheless, little things, repeated over a long period of time, lead to a massively screwed up kid. When I turned twelve I was in my eighties, and I didn’t reach my teens until I hit 20. Thus my twenties were filled with all the emotional crap that teens have to deal with. It was all very annoying.

So, little things+time=big results. When a gorgeous woman whom I’ve never met and who has many pictures and few connections ‘friends’ me on Facebook I tend to take one look at the profile, decide it’s not a real person, and deny the friend request. … …Of course sometimes I take the time to look through the pictures of said gorgeous woman… I generally regret that afterwards. Today has been one of those days. Ever since the friend request I got this morning, I’ve been wanting to Google ‘the girl next door’. I don’t particularly want to do this, but the idea keeps popping back into my head. I push it out, and a few minutes later it pops right back in. Then I push it out again… and repeat. This frustration has persisted through grading, martial arts classes, and a friend’s party. I suppose I could have named this post ‘and the cat came back…’ If you know what I’m talking about then you know… if not… it’s a thing, don’t worry about it.

At this point I can’t say what will happen, and I hate that feeling. I can say that I’m going to take my frustration to God and ask for help. I can say that I’m going to do my best to keep my mind and heart focused thoroughly on him. I can also say that little things lead to big things. Little blessings lead to big blessings, and little problems lead to big problems. …And there it goes again :(. Anyway, we all have desires. It’s a normal part of life. We want things. Sometimes we actually, legitimately need things. We long for things. However, ultimately, it isn’t the desires that pop into our head that matter. It is what we do with those desires. Which desires will I choose to dwell on? Which desires will I choose to pursue? Which desires will I choose to focus my heart on? I know which desires I want to focus on, but all to often want and will are two different things.

So, for all of you who are struggling with some desire that frustrates the crap out of you: it happens to all of us. You are not alone. So get your head back in the game, beat the shit out of whatever is pulling you away from God, and focus on pursuing him with a complete heart and mind. I’m going to go do the same.

P.S. What the heck! I was winning! I go away for two days and I’m back to barely breaking even! Seriously people…

The Pursuit of Life

One of my bible professors died a couple of days ago. It wasn’t unexpected in any way, but it’s still surprising. That’s probably a little bit difficult to explain. I think that we are always surprised when someone dies. I remember my grandfather dying. He spent several years dying, and we all knew that it could happen at any moment, but it still came as a surprise when it did. Compare this to my Grandmother, who had relatively few health problems, but quite suddenly died of a stroke, or my friend Robin who was quite a bit younger than I am, but died quite suddenly in a car accident earlier this year, and it really seems like my grandfather’s passing should have been much less painful. It was expected, we were even kind of waiting for it, but when he finally died I still couldn’t believe it anymore that I could when Robin died. I think that death, even when it’s expected, always comes as a surprise.

The man who died was a truly amazing man. He provided the foundation for everything else that I’ve learned and understood. More than anyone else, excepting God of course, this man taught me what it meant to grow in my knowledge of the Lord, and that is something that I will never forget. I’m hoping to be able to attend his funeral service this week, and I don’t really see any reason why I wouldn’t be able to go, unless I simply forget about it, which is entirely possible I suppose.

At the moment things are going fairly well for me. Yesterday was a wonderful day, even though I only got a couple hours of sleep on Saturday night, and I was able to thoroughly enjoy every part of it. I had the chance to tell my young friend at church how proud I am of her, and what an honor it has been to watch her grow into the young woman that she’s become. She seemed very happy to hear that. I got to have lunch with some wonderful friends, new and old, and I got to enjoy my afternoon with very little work to do. I also got to spend a very sweet hour with the Lord before the evening service.

I’m hoping that today goes as well, and it’s off to a fairly good start. There is a woman on eHarmony that seems fairly interested in me, though we’re still just beginning to get to know one another. I suppose that we’ll find out what will happen with that when it happens. There’s also a young lady who’s been coming to my church that I find myself somewhat interested in. However, I rather doubt that she would return my interest. I was interested in her once before, a couple of years ago, when I was in a very bad place, and I handled it very poorly. 

There is no way to know what will come in life. However, we can be sure that neither the good times, nor the bad times, will last forever. Much like the endless revolutions of the Earth create night and day, our lives revolve through a cycle of events that bring both wonders and horrors. However, we must seek God’s hand in all of them and pursue him.

Lies, All Lies!

This afternoon I was overwhelmed by the crushing certainty that I am always going to be alone. I am old (well, comparatively to many of my friends) and still somewhat overweight, even though I exercise regularly and work hard not to overeat. I don’t make much money, and a lot of the time I still feel like I don’t have much to offer. I understand that it’s unlikely that I will ever marry a young, beautiful woman. Sometimes that hurts, and sometimes I’m honestly not sure that I want to. However, this emotional certainty that I would always be alone filled a part of my day with pain. It passed quickly enough, much like the majority of such lies, but left behind desires that I would rather not entertain, also much like the majority of such lies.

Life is often painful. We all have lies that we’ve built up over the years, lies that are buried deep in our psyche and help to form our fundamental self-image. These lies might come from old pains, from rejections, from childhood traumas… whatever. The lies that we believe can spring from any number of sources and none of them make those lies valid or true (they are two different things). I’ve often believed the lie that I have nothing to offer women, that I’m just not what women want, by citing the many rejections that I have under my belt. Honestly, this often seems like a valid defense for this lie, but sometimes I have to wonder. There have been times that this challenged my trust… honestly there are still times that it challenges my trust. Rejection can be very difficult to deal with. It can tear you apart quickly and easily, and sometimes that leaves you with little to hold on to. Enough rejection and it’s easy to start assuming that you will be rejected. This isn’t just true with women, but with every aspect of life. It’s easy to assume that you’ll be rejected at everything you do.

Honestly, I can count the number of times someone has tried to set me up on one hand. Heh, I used to ask some of my closer friends to set me up. I had one friend who used to tell me repeatedly that she ‘didn’t know anyone good enough for me’… I quickly took this to mean ‘I don’t know anyone on whom I’d inflict you’. The thing is this has more to do with me than it ever did with her… well, a little… honestly I’ve never been very sure that this particular friend likes me very much. I know that she loves me, but I’m not sure that she actually likes me. Still, it’s probably likely that this is more me than her also.

As I said, all of this has challenged by trust for God in the past, and it continues to challenge that trust. I still wonder if I’m going to be alone forever. I’m still not comfortable with that thought. I know that God should be sufficient. That I should be joyful in the midst of my doubt and in my loneliness. It’s still a challenge though. I am getting much better at rejoicing in the midst of pain, but this is still something of which I’m terrified. I even pointed out the other day that God told me to wait, that it wasn’t time yet for him to bring the right woman into my life. Of course, this all implies that there is actually reason to hope. Still, there are days when I trust and hope, and then there are days when I’m thoroughly terrified of being eternally alone.

I’m also just afraid of rejection in general. I finally started my application to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (for next fall) and, halfway through, was thoroughly convinced that there is no way they will let me in. I’m too old, I don’t do enough in the church, I don’t read enough, my grades are too low, I’m in too much debt, etc, etc, etc. I think about a hundred reasons why they would reject me ran through my head. Needless to say, I didn’t quite finish the application, though I got through more than half of it. Nonetheless, I knew that starting it would be difficult, this is why I started a full year before I hope to start. My goal is to have the application done my the end of the month, and then go from there. I’m terrified, and fairly certain that I won’t be able to hack it even if, by some miracle, they do let me in.

Here’s the thing though, with both woman and with seminary. I’ve been rejected… a lot… in both areas of my life, but God has grown me in the past seven years. Part of that growth has come through repeated rejections. Nonetheless, I know that if he wants me in seminary, then he will put me there, and I know that when he will put me there. It will probably take a miracle to get me back into school, and it will probably take a miracle for any woman to fall for me. However, God is in the business of miracles. It’s what he does, and he knows when best to perform them. So, all I can do is trust him and wait.

Fear

Fear is the mindkiller. I’ve always loved the prayer of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood from Frank Herbert’s Dune. It’s useful in many situations, but it is also a wonderful reminder that making decisions from fear is a bad idea, pure and simple. Nonetheless we make a lot of decisions based on fear. The fear of failing. The fear of rejection. The fear of being alone. The fear of dying. The fear of losing someone or something that we love. Rational fears, like a man standing in front of me holding a gun, and irrational fears, like toe-snipping crabs that fill the sand just under the incoming tide. We allow fear to rule our lives, and generally that fear is based on one thing: pain. Even the fear of loss (like the fear of a family member dying) is based on fear of the pain that loss will bring.

We fear known dangers such as drug-dealers, crazy snipers (I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the DC sniper), terrorist attacks, rising living costs, and lower wages. We fear the unknown. Will the girl I want to ask out say yes or no? Will I get the job I want? Will anyone ever love me? Will I ever be able to pay off my student loans? We fear things that we have no real reason to fear like spiders (very few of which can actually do significant harm to an adult human), roaches, or rain. And we fear things that we have very real reason to fear. Nonetheless, it still comes back to fear. Will I allow myself to be ruled by fear, or will I exercise a little trust?

Admittedly, there is a valid argument that wisdom must at least listen to fear (the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord afterall). To live entirely without fear, without caution, and without reserve generally leads to an early grave. However, there is a difference between listening to fear and being ruled by fear. We are to display trust, and trusting God means following him even when I am afraid. This is not an easy thing to do in the best of times, it is certainly not easy when much of our culture (both left and right) is based on fear-mongering. If you want something new to be afraid of simply turn on the news. I promise some new threat is looming right around the corner. If that’s not enough, then start asking hard questions of yourself and find the very real fear that lies in challenging your beliefs. There is always an argument that can make you question even the most deeply held beliefs, and these are the arguments that we should face head on and explore until we have found understanding.

We can always find something to be afraid of and, if we allow it, that fear will rule our hearts like a tyrannical despot rules his nation. It will crush us, drive us to rash action, to foolish choices, and eventually either to destruction, to madness, or to both. There is a famous saying that the only thing we have to fear is this very fear that threatens to overwhelm us. I would wager that few of us know who to attribute this saying to (before I did a little research I would have mistakenly attributed it to John F. Kennedy), and I would wager much more that even fewer could tell where the quote come from or recite the entire quote itself.

In his first inaugural address in 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt (still one of my favorite presidents) said, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Roosevelt uttered these words in the midst of the greatest economic crisis that this nation has ever faced, and a humane crisis that one could argue rivaled the Civil War. Roosevelt called to a people, many of whom were jobless, homeless, and starving. In a time when people had many very real fears, Roosevelt called them to cast those fears aside and march together into the future.

He also said this, “Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for.” During a time in which many people had nothing, Roosevelt reminded them what they did have. He did not berate them for their fear, nor did he encourage them to believe that everything was alright, or even that it would be alright. In fact, he even called out the ‘foolish optimists’ who did. Instead, he reminded them of what they still had, and encouraged them to endure, and not only to endure, but to fight for a better world. Roosevelt was far from a perfect man, and he certainly was not a perfect president, but his words hold within them a truth that applies to all people in all times.

The key to overcoming fear is not to foolishly assume that the reasons for our fears aren’t valid. It is to see what we still have, and what we will still have even if the worst should come to pass. Christ commanded us to lay our burdens on him, to rely on God for our very sustenance, to put our eyes on him, instead of on the things of this world, and it’s something that I’m getting better at as I practice. My hope and my life lie in the hands of the father, and even if none of the things that I desire come to pass, even if all of the things that I fear come to pass, this will still be true. Thus, I have nothing to fear but to be driven by fear. Fear is the mindkiller.

Being Yourself

I have a friend that I deeply admire. She’s actually a barista at my favorite coffee shop, but I’m there so much that I consider most of the barista’s friends at this point, or at least close acquaintances. This particular young woman, let’s call her Michelle, impresses me because she is always herself. I… am not always myself. Don’t get me wrong, I always try to be myself, but there are times that I wind up being someone else, or trying to be someone else, to impress someone, or to hide some insecurity, or to protect myself from getting hurt. I think that I can honestly say that I am usually myself, but not always.

I’ve never seen Michelle be less than herself. She has a unique personality that is inspiring both in it’s confidence and in it’s openness. I can’t say that she’s not afraid to share who she is (I don’t know the inner workings of her mind), but if she is afraid, she doesn’t let it stop her. Michelle doesn’t seem concerned with impressing people, and in being unconcerned she is impressive precisely because she isn’t trying to be unconcerned. I’ve written a fair amount about striving. Striving for success, for coolness, for likablility, for wealth, for attraction, for godliness, for… whatever… we strive for the things we want, we push, we fight, and weep, and we are never satisfied. Michelle strikes me as a person who is simply satisfied.

I’m probably wrong in this, at least to some degree. I’m sure that she has her share of problems, and I’ve certainly seen her on off days when she wasn’t particularly happy with something. I’ve seen her on days when she’s down in the dumps, on days when she’s still asleep, on days when she’s bright and chipper, and on days when she’s just plain frustrated with something. I’ve seen her struggling with problems she didn’t know how she was going to handle. So I’m not trying to say that Michelle’s life is perfect, or that she handles life perfectly. However, I can say that she handle’s life honestly.

I am forced here to think of another young woman I met at this coffee shop, a very pretty young woman to whom I was quite attracted… until I spent a little time talking to her. I honestly don’t even remember her name, but we’ll call her Red Dress… it was what first attracted me to her… unlike Michelle, my few conversations with Red Dress have seemed… less then genuine. She strikes me as a person who forces herself to be happy, even when she isn’t, because it’s the Christian thing to do. I remember one of my first conversations with Red Dress, she put on one of the most plastic smiles I’ve ever seen, and told me that I too could be filled with unbelievable joy… the only thing I could think was that if the ‘joy’ I saw in her was the joy she was offering, I didn’t want any part of it. Michelle is joyful, even on her crap days she exudes a sense of wonderment about God and the world around her. Red Dress is… fake.

One of the most important things that any of us can do is to be honest with ourselves. If we are not honest with ourselves, then we cannot be honest with others. If we cannot be honest, then we cannot be ourselves. We will put up fronts, masks, falsehoods without even realizing it, and all to often, people can see through these into our actual selves. Masks are a natural part of being. A natural part of living. That doesn’t make them good.

The Two Faces of Prayer

A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine about Joel Osteen and the Prosperity Gospel movement, and for those of you who have a problem with calling this movement a ‘gospel’ movement, the word gospel comes from the Old English word ‘godspel’ which is a translation of the Latin ‘bona adnuntiatio’ which is also a translation of the Greek ‘euangelion’. Euangelion, Bona Adnuntiatio, Godspel, and Gospel all have one simple meaning: ‘good message’. Christians use this term to refer to the message of Christ, but having someone tell you that God is going to make you rich, healthy, and happy certainly counts as a good message. Not a true message, but a good message. That being said, my friend asked me the question: can’t Christians lean a little bit more on the prosperity gospel? Why is it so offensive to believe that God might want to give his children good things?

I was thinking about writing this post last night, which would have made it timely, but incomplete. In church this morning I was reminded of the second half of the issue: Prayer has the power to change God’s mind. If you don’t believe that then read Exodus 32, or Amos 7. This is not to say that God is variable or wishy-washy, but that prayer is effectual from time to time. Honestly, the entire concept that God changes his mind is theologically… challenging to say the least. We are told in scripture that God knows everything, that he is unchanging and constant, and that (at least on specific occasions) he changes his mind. I’m not going to try to break this down into a theologically understandable construction… to be honest I’m not sure that I can at the moment. Much like the hypostatic union, this is something that I don’t understand, and that I’m not entirely convinced I am even capable of understanding to any reasonable degree. However, I am confident that it is. God is constant, he is all-knowing, and yet he does change his mind. Not easily, and certainly not capriciously, and unlike ourselves when God changes his mind it is not a sign of changing or imperfect character.

So, all to often, attitudes concerning prayer in Christian America fall into one of two camps: either prayer is magic, or prayer is ineffectual, or at least only effectual for the internal being of the believer and not effectual for actual issues in life. Let me treat the prayer is magic attitude first: many Christians treat prayer as though it is a formula to make God do what they want. I’ve had people tell me that I was ‘praying wrong’ and explain that if I phrased my prayer in ‘this’ way that nothing would happen, but if I phrased it ‘that’ way then God must answer my prayer. This is both in part a cause of and in part a result of both the prosperity gospel and the word/faith movements in modern theology. The problem, as I explained to my friend, with the prosperity gospel movement is that it takes a part of the Christian gospel (that part that promises good things and answered prayer) and ignores the rest (all that stuff about suffering isn’t really important after all). The prosperity gospel movement promises and focuses on satisfaction through worldly treasures, which is exactly what Christ tells us not to do (the Beatitudes anyone? Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all that). The word/faith movement combines with this focus a belief in the inherent power of human language. This movement teaches that our words can change our physical reality, and that the right combinations of words can force things to happen. This then places God in the power of man. God must do what want as long as I phrase my desire correctly, and thus it is my will and not God’s will that truly matters. Clearly, again, this contravenes the teaching of scripture (James: you have not because you ask not, and when you do ask, you ask with the wrong motives, to satisfy your own lusts… I might have paraphrased a little). As I’ve said before, a good working definition of magic is the magician’s attempt to alter his physical reality through the manipulation of spiritual forces. Thus, these movements treat prayer as though it is magic, and prayer is not magic.

However, often in reaction to these movements, but sometimes through a reliance on logical reasoning, or simple bitterness that God has not done our will, but his instead, many of us respond by rejecting the effectual nature of prayer entirely. We argue that prayer ‘changes the believer’ instead of that prayer ‘changes the world’. Again, this isn’t entirely untrue. Just as God does promise his people good things, he also promises them suffering. Just as God does explain the effectual nature of prayer in the physical world, he explains the important effect of prayer in the mind and heart of the believer. In part, the purpose of prayer is to draw us into communion with the father and to mold us in the image of Christ… in part.

At it’s core, prayer is our means of communicating with God. Just like your cell-phone *luddite grumbling* is your means of communicating with your biological father, prayer is your means of communicating with God. Just like you wouldn’t only call your actual father when you need something (… if you do, and I’ve been that person, you are a horrible, horrible child. Go call your parents and tell them that you love them), you shouldn’t make your prayers into a list of needs and wants. Hopefully, prayer should mostly be a chance to talk to God, to relate, repent, worship, and yes, request. However, it is also a time to listen to God. If you are a Christian, God speaks to you. If you don’t hear him, then you need to learn how to listen (… logically the other possibility is that you’re not really saved… but we generally don’t like to talk about that).

Just like you’re biological father, God does actually want what’s best for you. Unlike your biological father, you have no recourse to say that God is being arrogant when he acts like he does know what’s best for you… he knows everything, remember? However, this does not mean that when I ask God for something he simply ignores me. He might not give me exactly what I want, but he does take my requests into account. So, prayer is effectual in the world, it is not magic, and it is important for me to understand the difference.