A Life of Worship

It seems that I have a lot more to say when I’m struggling with things than I do when I’m not struggling. Honestly, I don’t suppose that should really surprise anyone. I think we all tend to have more to say when we are struggling with God. The issues in our lives tend to be more evident when God makes them undeniably clear to us. In turn, this obviously means that we pay more attention to them, and that we have more to say about them. All to often I (we) have little to say when life is good. The reason for this is, I think, very simple. In the church today there is a dearth of true worship in the church. I have much to say when I am struggling with God because my struggles are at the forefront of my mind. I am frustrated with God, frustrated with myself, and I want everything to be better. However, when things are better I am not thankful. E.M. Bounds illustrates the difference between thankfulness and gratitude in his book The Essentials of Prayer. Bounds argues that gratitude is inward focused and negatively associated (i.e. not that gratitude is a negative or bad thing, but in association with action gratitude, being focused inward, is negatively focused because it does not produce action). Thankfulness, Bounds argued, is outwardly focused and positively associated (i.e. again, towards action: that thankfulness, being outwardly focused, produces action). I find that I agree with him in this, and I think that both are necessary for a life of true worship.

Obviously one may demonstrate thankfulness without being grateful. This happens quite often when we utter words of thanks to God or to others, even though we are inwardly bitter, angry, or disappointed. This is, of course, hypocritical (i.e. hupokrites refered to an actor, so a hypocrite is literally one who acts), but we are often hypocritical in our lives without paying much attention or care to our hypocrisy (this is something that has strongly disabused younger generations [who value genuineness greatly] from the mainstream church). So, we go through the motions of thankfulness with no true spirit of gratitude. I have found, in my own life, that this often leads to even deeper feelings of disappointment and resentment. I have, many times, felt truly grateful for the trials and struggles that God has put me through. However, I have also (probably more often) been thankful out of a sense of obligation. I suppose Kant would argue that acting on this sense of obligation, especially when my feelings ran counter to it, was the most truly good action. However, while I have great respect of the man, this is one place where I think that I profoundly disagree with Kant.

Sacrificial love is, in my opinion, a beautiful and very important thing. However, love that is truly sacrificial is gracious and grateful as well. It is not resentful, which is what I find my hypocritical thankfulness often turning towards. To act out of obligation is good as long as the action is truly genuine as well. I may thank God for trials because I am obligated to do so, and still feel truly grateful for those trials. However, if I give obligatory thanks in bitterness and resentment, I cannot find the wherewithal to call this ‘good’. Thus, I must argue that this kind of hypocritical thankfulness is not good.

However, one may also clearly be grateful without being thankful. I have often found myself in this place: filled with a feeling of grateful contentment, but so focused on my own internal pleasures that the outward exercise of thankfulness disappears. St. Teresa of Avila warned of this in The Mansions. St. Teresa claimed that she had known several sisters (she was a nun and so her writings were generally directed towards the sisters) who became so overwhelmed by the internal pleasures of God’s gracious love that they ceased all activities. She called this a deathly illness (though it isn’t entirely clear if she meant physically or spiritually) and called on the ranking sisters to keep watch on nuns who showed signs of this malady. St. Teresa claimed that this cessation of outward activity was a sign of spiritual weakness that would inevitably delay or even halt the spiritual growth of the sisters so affected.

I have to admit that I have seen this in my own life. There have been times when I hoarded God’s love and compassion, keeping it to myself and enjoying my time with God without letting anyone else benefit. When my spiritual life is turned entirely inwards it doesn’t stop being real, but it stops being prosperous. When we turn our affections entirely inward then, as Paul said to the Corinthians, we are edified, but the body is not. However, when we keep our holy affections balanced, with a strong inward life of spiritual gratitude that spills over into an outward life of thanksgiving and praise, then we edify not only ourselves, but the body as a whole. This is, I think, the best life that I could hope for, and I hope that it is the path that I am now on.

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.

Reasonable Religion

Several authors have done a wonderful job of defending the rationality of the Christian faith (Alvin Plantinga, N.T. Wright, Francis Schaffer, and C.S. Lewis [even though I’m not really a fan of the last] all come to mind). They have thoroughly defended the historicity of scriptural texts and the rational foundations of theistic belief in general and of Christian belief specifically. However, there is a huge difference between warranted, rational Christianity (i.e. Christian belief that is philosophically and historical defensible) and reasonable Christianity (i.e. Christianity that fits into our ‘normal’ conception of life).

I cannot count how many times someone has told me to ‘be reasonable’ about my faith. By ‘reasonable’ they meant ‘I know that you feel like God is telling you something, but you shouldn’t do it’. People told me this in college when I sold my computer to pay for a missions trip. They told me this when I changed majors, when I decided not to pursue a pastoral position, even though I had a degree in Christian Leadership. They told me this when I quit a job at Walmart to substitute teach, and when I was convinced that God was pushing me towards a 17 year old girl (I decided that I wouldn’t actually pursue a relationship until after she turned 18, but she shot me down regardless… I’ll have to write that story sometime). Each of these decisions has led me into some difficult times, but in each of them following God and allowing him to guide my life has led to significant spiritual growth and has helped me to better understand God. It is easy for us to doubt, to convince ourselves that our reasonable decisions are a better guide to life than God’s will. However, I’ve also made some reasonable decisions, even when God was telling me not to (that’s what led me to Walmart in the first place), and they have never turned out well.

While our faith is absolutely rational and defensible, it is rarely reasonable from a human perspective. If you are ever convinced that God’s will is always going to be the reasonable thing try reading Genesis, or Exodus, Ezekiel, Hoshea, personally, I think my favorite example of the unreasonableness of the Christian faith is the crucifixion. Throughout scripture God asks those who are willing to follow him to do entirely unreasonable things. To sacrifice their own happiness and well-being for his glory. To sacrifice themselves for the good of others, and to trust God in impossible situations. Remember when God told Abraham to get up and leave everything he’d ever known? No idea where he was going, or what he was going to do, just leave. Or when God commanded him to kill his only son, the son of the covenant he’d made with God? Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is an excellent discussion of this.

Ultimately, the greatest argument for a reasonable religion is the pursuit of comfort. The American dream tells us to pursue our own comfort, our own ends, to take care of ourselves first, and that true strength comes from taking what we want. However, scripture tells us something completely different. Scripture tells us to put God first, and then others. To pursue God’s glory rather than our comfort. To leave off our own ends and pursue the ends of the kingdom. Lastly, scripture tells us that God doesn’t value the strength to take what we want, but the weakness to put others first, even when this means allowing them to take advantage of us.

The reasonable, Americanized church often rejects these concepts. It tells us to be hard and forceful, to defend our rights rather than live up to our responsibilities. It tells us to ignore God and do the culturally acceptable thing. To focus on this world instead of the next. All to often we develop the wrong priorities and the church encourages us in this development. So, one of the most fundamentally difficult aspects of Christian living in America is to avoid the trap of easy, reasonable religion that surrounds us, and instead to pursue ‘the upward calling’ of the faith.

Water, Water Everywhere

I was going to give this post another title, but if you actually know the poem it would have wound up being fairly dirty. I’ve had two full nights of sleep, which have been magnificently wonderful in every way, and I’m looking forward to sleeping again tonight. A friend of mine actually prayed over me yesterday concerning my sleep problems, which was completely appreciated. As much as I talk about the power of prayer, sometimes I’m honestly not sure that I believe it. Only sometimes though. I absolutely believe in talking to God, and in listening to him, but there are times when I wonder if my prayers have an actual effect on my life. Needless to say, I prayed often for ease in sleeping over the past few days, and yet I still went three days with almost no sleep. That is always unpleasant at best (though I have to admit that it’s good to know that I can still go that long without sleep and function).

Saturday morning I went for a hike (Yay! my knee’s better and I can hike!) and I had a long talk with God. We talked about many things, but one of the things that we talked about was marriage and women. I cannot say that I have prayed for the woman that I will marry everyday since I was saved. However, I can say that I have been praying for her since I was saved. I have prayed for her for the past thirteen years. Sometimes that God would teach her, sometimes that he would bless her, sometimes that he would give her joy and happiness, and sometimes that he would bring her to me. Often my prayers are fairly general. I trust God to know what is best. Sometimes though, whether because he has laid something specific on my heart, or because I have a specific desire, they are not general at all. Saturday, I asked God to let me be in a relationship with my wife before the end of the year. His response? It’s not time yet.

Honestly, I’ve had this response many times over the years. Marriage and relationship is a desire that I struggle with (obviously). It’s a desire that I’ve given to God multiple times, that I’ve asked him to take from me, that I’ve wrestled with, and that I’ve submitted to. There have been times when I put that desire before my relationship with God (the last girl I dated God flat out told me that she wasn’t good for me). There have been times when I set it aside in order to pursue God. There have been times when I trust him with it, and there have been times when I don’t.

Last Tuesday I had coffee with a young women. It was fairly fun. Not stellar as far as dates go, but certainly not bad by any means either. She expressed some interest in doing it again, or perhaps going out with a group of people. So I called her and asked if she’d like to see a movie with some friends and I a few days later. She didn’t return my call until my friends and I were walking out of the theater. Normally I would accept her excuse of business, and optimistically keep trying. I would hold on to the thread of a possibility that she was actually interested, or that she might be, even though she didn’t seem interested. I decided not to do that this time. It might be a missed opportunity, I honestly don’t know if this is the right decision, but she doesn’t appear interested, so I’m going to assume she’s not.

Honestly, I’m considering simply taking till December and telling God that if I’m not going to pursue anyone unless he specifically tells me to. When it comes to women I’m still fairly lost. That being said, I actually know what it means to be loved. I can point to multiple people and say ‘I have no doubt that he/she loves me’. Their love might not be romantic, but I know that this is what I want in a relationship. I want someone who loves me, completely and with a whole heart. So, I think I’m pretty much done until I find that. Honestly, I might change my mind tomorrow… it happens often enough, but I might not.

Superheroes

I love superheroes. I love the stories, the characters, the concepts… honestly, I pretty much love everything about superheroes… except the way some authors draw women. Yes, I’m a nerd. I’m pretty sure that’s been well-established. So, along with this love of superheroes came a love of the idea of righting wrongs… I had to learn the hard way that this isn’t the way it works. The idea of righting wrongs is really nice, it removes guilt, regret, and responsibility. The problem is that we can’t change the past. Once a wrong has been committed it can’t be uncommitted. I can work to mitigate the damage done by that wrong. I can work to make a right come out of the wrong that I have committed, but the wrong that has been done can’t be undone.

It’s been a rough 40 some hours, and I’ve done some things that I wish I hadn’t done. Things that I can’t go back and undo. However, as Paul tells us in Romans, where sin increases, grace abounds. I could sit here and berate myself for the things I’ve done in the past two days, I could run them over in my head, I could beat myself for them, burn myself for them, take out on my flesh the anger that I feel over my actions. However, all of these things are attempts to drive myself to perfection, and that’s not what Christianity is about.

It’s very easy to convince ourselves that our lives are about our sins. That we must strive to free ourselves from sin, or that we are defined by our sins, or that we are trapped by our sins. The thing is, grace is the antidote to sin. This is not to say that my sin is unimportant, or that I can or should sin with impunity. Paul also tells us that the fact that grace abounds where sin increases does not mean that we can or should continue sinning. Sin is wrong, and is something that I should avoid. However, it is also something that I live with everyday. I live, I try, and I fail. When I fail, grace.

I am, to be honest, always amazed at the grace that God shows. At his continual willingness to forgive my wrongs. I fail in so many ways and he is always ready to forgive me. I used to say that I couldn’t understand this and that he shouldn’t have saved me. I gave up on that a while back… mostly because it’s ridiculous. God does what he wants, and what I think is really unimportant. That being said, I have no idea why he chose me, why he pursued me, or why he saved me.  However, he did, and I can imagine my life if he hadn’t. It isn’t pretty or pleasant. Heck… my past 40 hours hasn’t been pretty or pleasant and this is me after being a Christian for 13 years.

Honestly, I wish I could show the grace and mercy that God does. I want to, and yet every time he gives me the opportunity, I fail. I love people, and yet I fail. I want to help people, and yet I fail. I want to be a good man, and yet I fail. I want to be like God, and yet I fail. It often seems that failure is what defines my life, and yet… in failing repeatedly I succeed in growing. From my failure grace brings growth and victory, and this is something that I truly do not understand and cannot replicate. I imagine that if I could… I really don’t know how to finish that sentence. I was going to say ‘I’d be rich’, but I really don’t want to be rich, so I doubt that I would.

Why? Just Why?

Even though I’ve avowed a desire to not pursue a relationship at the moment, I still find that a couple of women stand out to me. The girl that God has been pushing me to ask to lunch is not one of them. This is still no end of frustrating, but I’ve finally stopped fighting with him about it. I’m still hoping that lunch will be just that, lunch. Nothing more and nothing less than a good meal together and some spiritual conversation. That’s all I want from her, and I hope that’s all that God has planned. I’ve asked four people to be praying about this for me, and one of them actually knows her. He promised to pray, but also gave me the advice that I’ve been wanting to hear: she’s immature and selfish, it’s probably not a good idea to try to date her.

I thanked him rather profusely for that, and considered one of the women who is standing out to me at the moment. I would call her Smiley. It would fit, but I know someone by that name already… it doesn’t fit very well. So, let’s call her T’Amber. It’s… an unusual name. Anyway, T’Amber is mid-twenties, beautiful, very kind, and she seems both intelligent and quite invested in her spirituality. I rather like T’Amber, and am fairly positive that she’s available (I have a friend who lives with a guy who recently broke-up with her).

So, I find myself asking God: Why would you push me to ask Sally to lunch and not T’Amber? Seriously, what’s up with that? Then I remember the year that I spent working at Walmart. Right after I got out of seminary I was unemployed for several months. Paying rent, electric, car insurance, food, etc with no actual income will sap your resources fairly quickly, and so after a few months I was more than a little desperate to find a job. I can remember watching my bank account dwindle from several thousand dollars to a few hundred, and begging God to give me a job, any job.

Finally, within two days actually, I had two job offers. One was from a Chinese restaurant here in town working 14-16 hours a week for about $6.60/hour. The other offer was from Walmart, working 30-32 hours a week for about $8/hour. The choice seemed obvious to me, and yet I knew without a shadow of a doubt that God wanted me to accept the restaurant offer. It made no sense, it didn’t pay enough, it got in the way of my life. It was a stupid idea, and so I didn’t do it.

The following year was one of the most miserable years of my life. Walmart paid the bills (well, most of them), but it was a horrible place to work, and what was worse: I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there. I wanted to quit from the moment I walked in the door on my first day of work, but God told me not to. Much like the Israelites after they refused to invade the promised land, I had made my choice, and God was going to teach me a lesson. And he did. It was long, painful, incredibly frustrating, and undeniably effective. When God tells you what to do, you do it.

I have to relate this to a student who’s currently in one of my classes. She and I haven’t been on the same wavelength through the entire class. She doesn’t turn in quality work, and often the work she does turn in has little to do with the assignment. She asks me for help and advice, but when I give it her response is either: ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘That’s stupid, I won’t do that’. Needless to say, the comparisons are both obvious to me, and less than flattering.

So, when it comes down to it… I’m going to ask Sally to get lunch with me. Like I said at the beginning, I really hope that lunch is just lunch. I hope that God has no further plans for this, and I hope that he opens a door to ask out T’Amber soon. That’s what I’d prefer or, better yet… that he would take women and relationships off my mind completely and make me a monk. It’s what makes more sense to me, but then… I’m an idiot.

Money, Money, Where for art Thou?

God teaches us in interesting ways. I was going to talk about Romans 2:5-8 and the importance of taking scripture in context. It was going to be a really strong academic post explaining a difficult passage of scripture and warning about the dangers of cherry-picking verses. Honestly I was really proud of the post that I was planning to write. Maybe I actually will write it someday. However, this morning, as I prepared to write my wonderful post, I ran into a guy… we’ll call him Julian… I’ve never actually liked that name, but it will work. Anyway, Julian was a middle aged guy studying for some IT exams. Julian and I got to talking about life, and what I do, and about money. Wonderful, wonderful money.

Julian was recently laid off from his job as an electrical engineer, and as we talked about what I do for a living, and the kind of living I make, he was shocked at how little I have to live on. Julian pointed out that the unemployment he was getting (a percentage of whatever you made at your job) was a little over my average monthly income. He was really very nice about the whole thing, he kept telling me that he didn’t mean to insult me, and that he was glad that I enjoy what I’m doing, but he was shocked at the state of education professionals in the US.

For those of you who don’t know, the average college instructor (right around 70%) is an adjunct who makes between $15000 and $25000 per year with no benefits. Most instructors have a good amount of student loans that they generally can’t even begin to pay, and many of them do their jobs for love, not for the money. It’s not unusual for adjuncts to have two, three, four, or even five jobs and to work 60-100 hours per week or more. Most people don’t know that, and I’m not surprised that Julian was shocked.

I was a little surprised at my reaction. At first I felt humiliated, I often do when I’m talking to someone about how little I make, and when he pointed out that I probably don’t make enough to even think about getting married or having children I agreed, even though I don’t actually agree. However, as we were talking I realized something. Even though Julian wasn’t happy for me, and couldn’t understand what I was saying, I actually was pretty happy. I’m not going to lie, I’d like to make more money, but I’m content with what I have. I can generally pay my bills, God always provides in hard times, and there isn’t much that I really need. Honestly, I’ve been realizing over the past year that there isn’t really much that I really want. I mean, there are things that I wouldn’t mind having, but the difference between ‘wouldn’t mind having’ and ‘want’ is pretty astronomical.

Ultimately, the thing that I don’t think Julian understood at all is that my happiness doesn’t come from having things. It doesn’t come from the standard of living that I enjoy, which is certainly below what he is used to, it comes from something else completely. I’m still learning joy, and I’m not going to say that I’ve mastered the lesson yet. However, I am learning it, and this is something that I am very, very happy about. It is a lesson that I’ve been needing to learn for a long time, and actually learning it is a very good thing.