List Makers

Americans are obsessed with observable, trackable progress. I’ve noted this for many years in martial arts. For any of you familiar with martial arts you probably know that the system of ranking by colored belts is an American invention. In fact, since I started practicing twenty years ago, the number of belts has increased while the time required between them has decreased. When I started most schools recognized white, yellow, green, blue, brown, and black belts, and there was generally anywhere from three to six months between tests. This time increased the higher you went, so you might wait three months to test from white to yellow, but a year to test from brown to black.  Today I know of many schools that recognize white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red, brown, and black belts, and some schools require less than a month to test from one belt to the next.

This is not what martial arts used to be. I briefly attended one school in Virginia Beach that used an archaic Japanese ranking system. When I started the first thing the instructor told me was that I had to understand that there were no belts in his class. I was a student until he told me to go start a school, at which point I would be an instructor. I had senior students (everyone else in the class), and I was the most junior student. Outside of this there were no ranks, tests, or obvious format of progression. I loved this system, and if I hadn’t moved away, I’d probably still be studying there.

I mention this because it is symptomatic of a much deeper problem in American culture: we want to be in control. Whether it is making a bucket list for the week/month/year, making a detailed list of short/long term goals, or making a list of qualities that we want to see in a spouse, we like to try to control our lives and the world around us. I’m not saying that having a list of goals or desires is a bad thing. It can help keep you on track, help you focus, and help you say no when you need to say no. I have a short list of long term goals that I’m working towards (I’ve posted this before). I have a short list of things that I’m looking for in a future spouse:

1) I want a wife who is a committed Christian with a visible desire to grow closer to Christ.

2) I want a wife who is intelligent and capable of carrying on an interesting conversation.

3) I want a wife who is kind-hearted and compassionate: who consistently puts others before herself.

4) I want a wife who is beautiful to me and to whom I am physically attracted.

5) I want a wife who is between 5 and 11 years younger than me (6-10 ideally, with 8-10 being the real ‘sweet spot’). Right now I’m actively against dating anyone who is more than 11 years younger than I am, simply because it’s been a habit that lead to very painful results in the past.

6) I want a wife who desires me and is willing to pursue me as hard as I pursue her.

7) I want a wife who is a virgin.

I know that I want these things, and I ask God to bring this woman into my life on a regular basis. However, in all of our planning and list-making we often forget one very important detail: we aren’t in control. My life is not my own, it belong to Christ and he can do with this life whatever he desires. God does give us the desires of our heart, but sometimes they don’t look the way we want them to, sometimes he asks us to do insane things, and sometimes he puts us through the ringer before granting those desires. If you don’t believe me, then read Isaiah 19-20, where God makes the prophet walk around naked for three years. Or read Ezekiel, where God makes the prophet lie on his side for a year and a half eating only bread cooked over dung. Or read Jonah, where God makes the prophet go and preach to the people who have oppressed, terrorized, and slaughtered his people for years. Or read Hoshea, where God makes the prophet marry a prostitute and accept children that are most likely not his own. Or read the gospels, where the father commands the son to suffer, die, and pay for sins that are not his own.

We don’t get to control our lives. This is true of everyone, the control that we are looking for is an illusion we create in the hopes of protecting ourselves from fear. However, in the Christian it should be especially true because we actively give up control over our own lives when we choose to follow Christ. Our purpose and highest goal is to glorify him in everything, and that should trump every other desire or goal that we have. Because of this all of my life-goals, all of my desires for a wife, everything that I could list out and say ‘this is what I want’ is negotiable. My will is to be subsumed in Christ, and anyone who thinks that Ezekiel wanted to lie on his side for a year and a half eating dung-bread hasn’t actually read the book. Ezekiel talked God down from making him eat bread cooked over human dung (bargaining with God anyone?), Christ begged God to ‘let this cup pass’ from him. We don’t see these kinds of objections recorded in Isaiah or Hoshea, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the difficulty the prophets had obeying the commands of God.

We must relinquish our need for control in our own lives and in the lives of others and learn to accept the things that God chooses for us. This is the path to true happiness, and this is the path to greater, truer, and more meaningful relationship with God.

It’s Impossible I Tell You!

I have a superman complex. Especially when it comes to romantic relationships. Show me a young, broken, hurting woman who is not ready or willing to commit to a serious relationship and I’ll pursue her for all I’m worth, convinced that I can heal her wounds and we’ll live happily ever after. So far this hasn’t worked well for me, but I think it’s symptomatic of a more significant problem both in me and in American culture as a whole.

As a culture we push for the impossible. This is evident in our entertainment media, in our heroes, in our attitudes, and in the things that we pursue. As a culture we strongly emphasize pursing and doing things that should be impossible. I’ve talked a lot about doing hard things, and I think that it is important to do the things that are hard. The things that challenge us, stretch us, and push us are also the things that grow us as individuals and as a community. It is important to challenge ourselves, to push ourselves, and to set goals the require us to rely on God and on others. That being said, it is equally important to set goals that are realistically achievable.

Actually, one of the foundational keys to success is to set achievable goals, and this is something that we aren’t often encouraged to do. American media and culture encourages us to ‘reach for the stars’, ‘believe in the impossible’, and ‘trust that we can be whatever we want’. However, this has led to a patent and pervasive denial of realism. A few days ago I spoke with a friend of mine who is currently frustrated with waiting for her boyfriend to be ready to commit. I challenged her to set a realistic goal concerning how long she would wait, and her response was ‘I’ll wait for him forever’. While this certainly sounds romantic, it never actually works. We hear stories about the few people who can do something like this, who wait for their beloved for 10, 12, 15, or 20 years. I once knew a man who pursued his ex-wife (who had left him) for sixteen years before finally winning her back. I have to admit that there is a part of me that wishes I could do that, but I can’t. I’ve tried. I can last a few months, maybe a year… but my record is two years before finally giving up.

The attitude that ‘I can do anything’ is clearly and utterly ridiculous. For instance, as an extreme example, I can’t walk out the door of my favorite coffee shop and fly away. I am limited by my physical capabilities. I will also never be an astronaut. I am not mathematically minded enough nor committed enough to truly succeed in this career. Thankfully, I’ve never particularly wanted to be an astronaut. However, the principle is sound. We are all limited by our physical, intellectual, emotional, and psychological abilities, and while it is important to expand those abilities, it is equally important to set goals that are achievable within those abilities. Through hard work, determination, and commitment I can successively set grander and more difficult goals. However, those successive goals must be representative of my expanding abilities (i.e. they must remain achievable).

All to often the attitude I see in myself, and in others, is that I can do anything without effort. I set grand goals for myself (like healing a broken heart or waiting for years for someone) that are not even remotely achievable within my current capabilities. Often I see the same in my students. I can’t count the number of students who have declared to me, in grammatically atrocious (barely understandable) English, that they are going to get a Ph.D. in whatever their chosen field may be. Some are willing to do the word it takes to improve their writing and thinking abilities, but many are not, and this makes their goal clearly unattainable. Doing hard things doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, effort, commitment, and a willingness to suffer in order to obtain even minor steps towards our overall goals. The impossible isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be easy. It it was, then it wouldn’t be impossible.

Rain

I was going to write another entry on my thoughts about manhood today, but it’s just not coming to me right now. Today has been a rainy day. Unlike the short, sudden downpours that we’ve been having all summer (the ones that I can only describe as God pissing on Lynchburg), today has been wet, dreary, and rainy all day long. Yet this somehow seems appropriate. Water is cleansing, and at the moment my mind and heart could certainly use a cleansing. I made dinner for flowergirl and her roommates last night, and I think it went fairly well. We all ate, and everyone enjoyed the meal, and then one roommate left for a concert and the other went to bed, leaving flowergirl and I alone. We cleaned up and talked for about two hours. I think it was a wonderful conversation about philosophy, politics, and life… I have no idea if she would agree with me. Much as I think the dinner went well, I am now more convinced than ever that she has absolutely no romantic interest in me. Still, God hasn’t told me to date her, or to romance her, or to pursue a relationship with her. He’s told me to love her well, and to expect nothing in return. This, I think, is thoroughly annoying.

I am left with the feeling that no woman will ever truly love me. I don’t honestly believe that this is true, and yet at the same time I do. As much as God has grown me this summer, as much as he’s taught me about joy and satisfaction in him, the idea that a woman would ever put my needs and desires before her own seems anathema to me. Yet, now more than ever, I know that the most significant thing that I am looking for in a romantic partner (among an array of desires) is a woman who will make me a high priority in her life. Actually, I’m looking for a woman who will make me the second priority in her life, right after her relationship with God. I think that this is personal growth, at least growth of a sort. In the past I’ve always pursued women who needed me or women who would let me love them, and I’ve always been hurt.

Earlier this week (…I might have written this down, not sure) a friend of mine, in an off-hand comment, told me that I should be picky. I honestly don’t know what he intended when he said that (though, given the context of the conversation is was clearly about my dating life), but the comment has stayed with me, and it’s meant a lot to me. Honestly, I’ve always felt like the bottom of the barrel romantically. A part of me wants to say that I’ve always been made to feel like the bottom of the barrel, and I’m not entirely sure that statement would be untrue, but it feels like a lack of responsibility. Regardless of how others treat me, I decide how I see myself. That being said, I have generally been treated like the bottom of the romantic barrel by the majority of the women in my life. However, the key here is that I’ve always felt like the bottom of the barrel.

Regardless of how people have treated me, I’ve looked at myself and seen someone that no woman would want. I’ve seen someone who’s place is to give love, but not receive it. I’m not completely sure that I’m past this. I still look at myself and can’t imagine a woman ever wanting to love me. I still see someone who is fundamentally undesirable in some indefinable way, and at the moment I’m still not sure how to change this. However, I think actively looking for someone who is willing to love me as much as I love her, instead of looking for someone who simply needs love but won’t give it. I also realized a couple of weeks ago (and I’m pretty sure I did mention this) that it actually wouldn’t matter to me if flower-girl wasn’t a virgin. This is the first time I’ve been attracted to a woman and not truly and deeply worried about this.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly hope she is, even if only for her sake. I also still hope that I wind up marrying a virgin. However, in the past I have been afraid that I’d wind up with a woman who wasn’t a virgin. I’ve been afraid of being judged, or of not measuring up, or of… whatever. Of something going horribly wrong and my new wife, whoever she may be, finding herself completely sexually dissatisfied with me. I have not had this issue with flowergirl. It really just hasn’t been an issue. At the moment I’m not entirely sure whether to attribute this to some personal growth in myself (conceivably possible) or to something about her (…also possible…) or to something particular about my feelings for her (also possible… perhaps the most likely, not sure though).

Ultimately, I think I still have some growing to do. Probably a lot of growing to do. Its entirely possible that I’ll spend my life alone, and I think that’s something that I’m still afraid of. However, I also think that this summer has brought a lot of spiritual and personal growth in me, and that is most definitely a good thing.

Waiting…

In his poem If Rudyard Kipling expresses what makes a man. The poem as a while is incredibly powerful, and his opening lines are deeply evocative, especially the line ‘If you can wait and not be tired by waiting’. This is something that I’ve never been particularly good at. I’m an impatient man, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships, and this is something that has caused me many problems, especially since I tend to fall for women who aren’t really ready for a relationship. This year has been all about waiting. It started in the spring when God put returning to school on my heart, but told me to wait until the fall to apply… for the next fall. I would have been perfectly happy to put in an application last spring and be starting now, but that wasn’t the plan. Although, considering that it took me a full month to actually fill out the application in the first place (I started it September 1st and finished it September 30th… haven’t put it in yet), it isn’t really surprising that God told me to wait. He’s also had me in a time of enforced singleness, my own choice up through about June, and after that… well, you’ve all read about my cringe inducing romantic escapades. Today I found out that the young lady to whom I sent flowers (go read a few posts back) simply isn’t ready for a relationship. She didn’t tell me this herself (though I have a feeling she’s recognized my interest, though I haven’t formally acknowledged it and don’t plan to for a while), but a friend of hers told me. I had kind of figured it out for myself though. She’s seemed completely neutral to my approaches so far, blundering as they may be. She hasn’t discouraged me in any way, but she hasn’t encouraged me either. I take this to mean that she has some interest, but doesn’t actually want to be pursued at the moment. So, I’m back to waiting.

Of course, in my prayers, God has been confirming this for some time. Every time that I’ve prayed about this woman God has told me ‘just love her well’. Of course, I want him to tell me ‘yes, she’s the one for you’ or ‘she’s going to fall hard for you’ or ‘you’re already in her heart’, but what he tells me instead is ‘just love her well’. So, this is exactly what I plan to do. I am going to love her as well as I possibly can, and trust God with whatever the outcome might be. At the moment I am coming to terms with the idea that it is very possible that nothing will ever happen, and that this is alright. My job, my only job, is to be her friend and make her smile as much as I can. At the moment I’m actually pursuing other women, although this is (at least in part) to keep myself from pursuing her. I know myself, and I know that if I ‘wait’ for her then I won’t be waiting at all, I’ll be pushing. I don’t honestly expect anything to happen with any of the other women that I’m talking to, but if something does I’m certainly not opposed to it.

I’ve asked her roommate to help keep me accountable in this as well. Hopefully she’ll be able to keep me in line and to keep me from doing anything stupid. However, I suppose we’ll see what happens. Today I was asked to briefly describe my ideal woman by one of the other women I’m talking to. The following was my response:

My ideal woman? Honestly I’m not sure I believe in ideal people at this point. She would have to be spiritually and emotionally mature; confident and strong, but vulnerable and actively wanting to submit; desiring to love, support, and cherish me as thoroughly as I will her; willing to initiate things (I don’t mean ask me out or propose here, but once I’ve made the first step she would have to be willing and able to pursue me); intelligent and nerdy (capable of holding her own in conversation); kind; gentle; beautiful (this includes physical appearance, but I think that beautiful refers to the entire person, not just looks); caring for others and someone who will sharpen me spiritually; and probably has a fairly good income and benefits (my career path, unfortunately, is not the most lucrative) though this last would really just be a nice plus if it was the case.

Honestly, I think this is a solid description of the core of what I’m looking for. I’m just not convinced that she exists… We’ll see though. I know that God has a plan, and I trust that he’ll bring the right woman into my life at the right time. I just wish that time was right now.

Humbled Like Christ

I’ve always loved the beginning of the second chapter of Philippians. Christ humbled himself for us because, though he was equal with God (i.e. he was a co-equal member of the Godhead, of which no member has primacy), he did not view that equality as a thing to be taken, but instead he gave it up to become a man. Not only did he become a man, but he became a poor carpenter’s son who, thirty-three years later, was crucified by the Romans to pacify the Jewish religious aristocracy. This picture of complete humility, from all-powerful creator of the cosmos to condemned man, is the ultimate example of Paul’s charge in the same chapter to view others as higher than ourselves, and of his charge in Romans to view ourselves with right minds. Christ, though he was the second person of the living God, did not view himself so highly that he refrained from becoming a man that would be shamefully hung on a cross (for in Jewish culture this was a shameful way to die). Why then do I think so highly of myself that I believe others should gather around my feet to be taught, or that women should love me, or that I am, in any way, deserving of respect or love.

Today we are enamored of the concept of human rights. I blame this largely on the enlightenment, culminating in the Declaration of Independence – the first wholesale statement of rights rather than responsibilities. We focus on what we deserve as individuals: I should be loved, I should be respected, I should be given work, I should be happy, I should be…, I should…, I…, I…, I…. In this obsession with selfishness we lose one of the most fundamental aspects of the Christian faith: life is not about me. If Christ can put aside his rights as the creator of all things and subject himself willingly to torment and execution, then can’t I put aside a few of my rights? I’ve been up all night, vacillating between prayer, watching Lindsey Stirling videos (the young lady I’ve mentioned introduced her to me in a facebook conversation last night), and looking at porn. In this case, two of the three have the same impetus: I am afraid. I am afraid of getting hurt, afraid that putting myself out there will lead me to another heartbreak, and all God keeps saying is to ‘trust him’, which generally isn’t helpful when I want emotional reassurance. So, after a night’s worth of struggle, sin, repentance, and pleading, my devotions this morning were Philippians 2.

Christ, in all his deific glory, found himself worthy to be born as a man and die a painful and humiliating death so that God could be glorified through our salvation. And here I am gnashing my teeth over the prospect of getting my heart broken again. Honestly, it really is incredibly ridiculous. If it is God’s will that my heart be broken again, and I truly hope that it isn’t, then I should rejoice in that as it glorifies him, and he will use it in my life to make me better. This is a part of what it means to be humbled. To give myself entirely over to the calling of God in my life, no matter what that calling might be, and allow him to shape me as he wills.

So, now (finally… you’d think I’d catch on sooner) I find myself praying that God give me peace, whatever he leads me to. Instead of begging him for someone’s love, or pleading with him to protect my heart, or raging at him for putting it in danger yet again, or fleeing into sinful comforts, I am simply asking for his peace through everything. The truth is that I hate the beginning of things when it isn’t clear which way a relationship will go. I want to be in a comfortable, committed relationship that is going to turn into marriage, and I’d honestly rather skip the ‘getting to know you’ phase entirely. However, in this also, I will ask for peace.

Flowers

So… I may have done something stupid today. Of course, it could also be something awesome. It’s all kind of up in the air. Remember that young lady I mentioned (yesterday, I think… I don’t remember what I write in these things)… well, I sent her flowers today. Anonymously, of course… I’m still worried about making things awkward for her, and I’m worried about getting my heart broken again. I’m really not a fan of getting my heart broken. Here’s the thing, every time I pray about this lady (and I’ve prayed about her a few times) God tells me to ‘just love her’. He tells me not to worry about whether a relationship will come out of it, or whether she’ll like me, or whether my heart will get broken, but to just love her. In keeping with that idea, the flowers were anonymous, and I’m trying to keep in mind that I’m nothing more than her friend until she says differently. I’m not trying to win her heart. I’m not trying to seduce her. All I’m going to do is do my best to make her life better. I’m trying very heard to guard my own heart through all of this, not to get my hopes up or to fall in love or… anything like that really.

Honestly, I find the entire thing both exhilarating and terrifying in the extreme. I have no idea what she thinks of me, and I’m not sure that I’m really comfortable putting myself out there again. That honestly makes me wonder if I need to spend more time being intentionally single. Nonetheless, she’ll get the flowers in a couple of days, along with an encouraging note, and hopefully it will make her day a little bit better. Seriously though, flowers are expensive! I’m not going to say how much I dropped on this, but man… expensive.

Honestly, there is a part of me (a small part) who wants to ‘make sure I get my money’s worth’ here… whatever that actually means. The thought has crossed my mind that I spent all this money and I deserve something in return. It’s ridiculous, of course, she doesn’t owe me anything, and I honestly feel ashamed that the idea ever entered my head. I did this to make her life a little better, not to get something for myself. However, there is that selfish part of me that wants to get something for myself anyway. Honestly… that part of myself is pretty disgusting, and extremely exhausting. I’m really tired of him making everything about me, and that is one of the reasons that I’m trying very hard to keep my focus here on God. I keep telling myself, ‘just love her, don’t look for anything in return, just love her’. It’s harder than it sounds, which is kind of strange.

I have a number of friends who I care for deeply (heck, I was going to drive one of them to a town an hour away so that she could pick up a new ID), and with them I don’t have any trouble with expecting a return. It’s just not an issue. However, with a woman for whom I have feelings… it’s far too easy to do things in order to get things, and I don’t want to do that. I have no interest in manipulating the people that I care about, and that makes me wonder why it’s so easy for me to want to do exactly that.

Honestly, God still has a lot of work to do in me.

Speak the Truth in Love

I haven’t met many people who are particularly good at this. I know people who are good at speaking the truth, but it often doesn’t come across as loving, and I know people who are good at loving, but they don’t generally rise to the challenge of telling people the hard things. I tend to fall into the former category. I’m good at confrontation, good at telling people what is true, but I often have to work at the loving part of it. I’m good at loving people that I like, but then.. that’s generally pretty easy for almost all of us. People that I don’t like, I have to work hard to love them, and I can’t honestly say that I always succeed. However, I do have an excellent example in my pastor. He is a man who can speak the truth in love on a consistent basis.

I’ve found that people who are good at loving others don’t like to speak the truth, because it hurts, and people who are good at speaking the truth don’t like loving others, because it hurts. Something that I see continually throughout Christ’s ministry is the combination of an unending desire to see all men come to him, and an unyielding willingness to let them walk away if they are not ready. I have yet to figure out how to combine these two qualities without wanting to kill myself from the sheer grief and stress that they cause, which (of course) makes my estimation of Christ skyrocket. He was, and is, the almighty God in the flesh, and I can’t live up to that, much as I might like to.

My pastor is one who does an amazing job of speaking the truth in love. Don’t get me wrong, people will still get upset with you if you speak the truth in love, but the difference is that they won’t have an actual reason to get upset with you. We all tend to get frustrated when someone disagrees with our point of view, tells us that we’re in the wrong, or that we can’t have what we want. I know I do. I get frustrated when someone tells me that I can’t have what I want, and when I’m told I’m in the wrong I’ll often argue my point ad nausem. However, eventually, I usually get it. Eventually. If people stick around that long. I suppose that’s one good test of a true friend: are they willing to be your friend when you’re wrong, and they know you’re wrong?

So, a little good news to share: I got into a medical study that is going to pay me a LOT of money (around $2000) for very little work. I’m pretty excited about this because it will actually put me in striking distance of having my credit card completely paid off by next spring (possibly by Christmas if I wind up getting a lot of classes). It’s honestly hard to explain exactly how excited I am by this. I’ve been in debt for a pretty long time, and getting my card paid off won’t get me out of debt (student loans are kicking my tail), but it will get me closer, and it will be very good for me. I’m starting to create (or God is starting to create) noticable change in my life, and it’s not just this. I find that I’ve been happy lately, not just happy about circumstances, but just… joyful. I’ve had moments in which I feel like I can fully understand Plato’s eudaimonia, and that is a wonderful thing.

There is also a young woman of whom I’m rather fond… I’m not really ready to talk about her yet, because there is (at the moment at least) still a very good chance that we’ll wind up being nothing more than friends. I have no idea if she returns my feelings in any way, or if she’s even realized that I have feelings at all, but I suppose I’ll find out eventually. I am doing everything I can to leave this in the hands of God. We’ll see what he decides to do with it.