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.

A Right View of Oneself

I think I’ve mentioned before that I do martial arts as a hobby, and help teach an Aikido-Jujitsu class. I really enjoy this, though I’m not the best fighter in the world… or probably in the state, but I practice because it’s a lot of fun. I’m a fairly big guy, so I’m used to being the biggest, strongest person in the class, and being the toughest person in the class. I have to say that this always makes me feel good about myself, and there are times where I have to work hard not to be a bully (it’s a natural inclination of mine). Last week a new student started in the class. A guy who’s a little bigger and a lot stronger than me, and a lot of the simple things that work on people just don’t work on him (he doesn’t feel most of his pressure points). He’s a really nice guy, but he makes me feel inferior. In a real fight I might be able to take him… might being the key word. There’s a part of me that would like to find out honestly.

Then there’s the part of me that only wants to be around people weaker, dumber, less perceptive than myself. People that I can feel superior to. I am a prideful man, though I think I’m a lot less prideful than I used to be, and it’s something that I’m continually working on. This new student (…honestly, I haven’t had a chance to learn his name yet), we’ll call him Bill, is someone that I can definitely practice on. He’s offered to teach me some Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, an art that I’m not hugely fond of… mostly because I don’t really like ground-fighting, but I think it would be a good opportunity both to expand my martial skills and to intentionally practice humility. 

That being said, I go back to the verse in Romans 12:3. If I convince myself that only people weaker than me are worth spending time with, then I’m not likely to have a right view of myself. Spending most of my time with people that I can make myself feel superior to is a way to boost my self-esteem (i.e. pride), but not a good way to boost my confidence or a good way to have a right view of myself.

Something that I need to, and have been, making an effort to do is to spend time with people who are better than I am at things that I love to do. People who are smarter than me, people that are better fighters than me, people who are more spiritual than me.  I need to seek out ways to make myself better, instead of seeking out people who make me feel better. This is a hard thing to do.

Then The Demons Left

I had the privilege of attending a deliverance (i.e. exorcism) tonight. It was an interesting experience, and I use the word interesting intentionally. If I’m honest, the only thing I can say with absolute confidence is that the experience was real. The woman who was delivered was visibly changed by the end of the night. That being said, I’m not convinced that the experience was entirely spiritual. As I’ve said, I’ve been involved with the occult, I’ve been exorcised (or at least the attempt was made) shortly after my salvation, and I’m fairly familiar with the demonic. In my experience demons aren’t stupid. According to my reading of scripture, demons aren’t stupid. In fact, I have no rational reason to believe that demons are stupid, but some of the things that were said tonight were remarkably stupid.

Some of this I can put on the simple fact of pride. If a demon is compelled by the Holy Spirit to speak, and whether for pride and for some other reason it does not wish to speak the truth, the only possible response might sound stupid. For instance, if the only answers are yes and no, and the demon doesn’t want to say yes, then no is left, and no might sound stupid. However, this only explains a portion of what happened tonight. Also, if everything rebuked tonight was a demonic spirit, then the young woman who was delivered must have had upwards of a hundred demons in her. The only scriptural precedent I have for this is Legion, and his case in scripture appears to be rare. That being said, scripture tells us remarkably little about the demonic, and so any exorcism ministry must be, in large part, extra-biblical. This was openly admitted by the exorcists tonight. In fact the claim they made was that much of what they did was extra-biblical, but none of it was unbiblical. This is a claim I have to agree with. Nothing I saw was heretical, none of it was sinful, none of it was theologically problematic. It was simply outside the scope of what scripture teaches.

The result of what I saw was absolutely real. I said this above, and I want to reiterate it. However, it was also therapy (again, this was a point made by the exorcist), and I think that which was rebuked had a mix of spiritual, psychological, and emotional elements. I have no doubt that some of the things rebuked were demonic in origin. However, I am not convinced that all of the things rebuked were demonic in origin. I think some of them may have been sin issues, emotional traumas, or psychological mechanisms that arose from those traumas. That being said, I also see no problem with rebuking these things. One thing I noticed is that the exorcists, at a few points, bordered on word/faith (i.e. name it claim it) doctrines without actually crossing over into them. I found this intriguing because, if they had crossed that line, then I could point to something distinctly unbiblical, but they didn’t. And there is truth in the claim that words have power. Not the reality altering divine power that word/faith doctrine gives them, but they do have power.

So, I’m definitely glad that I went, and I’m probably going to join them again. For now I have no actual verdict on what I saw tonight, except that it appeared effective (I want to say ‘was effective’ but to really make that claim I’d need to see sustainable change in the woman delivered, and… well, this all happened a few hours ago).

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?

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.

Hope

I know what it’s like to live without hope. I’m not there right now, actually I’m doing pretty well right now. I find that I’ve finally come to a place where I’m not looking for anything. I’ve always been looking for something, a better job, a relationship, someone to love me, someone to support me, a new hobby, a new degree program, or some new thing… always something. However, recently God has had me waiting. I honestly have no idea what I’m waiting for, I’m just waiting. I’m not applying to any jobs, not sending out resumes, not applying to schools, and I’m not looking for a relationship.

At first this was really hard because it felt like giving up. I thought I was on my way back to that point of utter and complete hopelessness, that God was, for some reason, commanding me to dive back into the depths of suicidal misery, and I do actually mean that literally. I’m not being melodramatic, two years ago I was suicidal for about four months. I also spent Jr. High and High school trying to get myself run over by cars. However, that’s a story for another time. I’ve found that the secret when I’m suicidal is to remember that my life is not my own. It is not my right to end my life. Only God has the right to choose when I die.

However, back on track, that hasn’t happened. It’s been hard, especially the last couple of weeks, but God is bringing me to a point where I actually do rely on him and find my meaning, my purpose, and my self in him. As I wait, I find that I am becoming more comfortable waiting. Not the hopeless, giving up kind of comfortable that proceeds suicidal desperation, but a comfortable expectation that the waiting will end at some point, and that God will use it to make me better.

I love my job, and while I’d like more work sometimes, and could certainly use more money, I know that what I do matters. I have friendships that need work, but I also have friendships that are meaningful and that allow me both to sharpen others (which I love doing), and to be sharpened (which I need). Finally, for the first time in a very, very long time, I’m comfortable being single. There are one or two women that I’m interested in, but I don’t need anyone else in my life.

I’ve been happy before, but it was always something of a circumstantial happiness. There’s nothing wrong with this, circumstances can make us happy, but they can’t be relied upon to make us happy. Circumstances change, good things come and go, but our happiness doesn’t need to do so. We can be joyful because God is with us. As the Psalmist said, he is our portion and our part. Actually, even more telling, Jeremiah says this in the middle of Lamentations, which is a book that thoroughly expresses the feeling of hopelessness and depression.

I’m finally beginning to learn to simply be happy, not because of something that I have or something that I’m doing, but because I have him. I am simply content, and satisfaction is the key to happiness. Like me, many of us spend so much time searching for one thing or another that we forget how to be content, and contentedness is not only important, but also commanded.

So, simply put, I’m learning to be happy, and to let go of pain. Giving things up always happens differently. When I gave up my hate it happened almost overnight after I first got saved. One day I hated everyone and everything, and the next I didn’t. However, God took almost a decade to change my suspicion and distrust into a complete and total trust of him, and many of those lessons were very painful. When I gave up my anger he had me fast for three days, and I gave up my anger on the first. No, this… I’m learning to be happy, learning to let go of my pain, and I am fasting, but I think this is going to be more of a process. God works in mysterious ways, but he never stops working, and he always knows what he’s doing.

Dang Stupidhead!

God values our honesty. This is something of which I am absolutely and completely convinced. Read the Psalms sometime if you don’t believe me. See how deeply honest the psalmists are in their prayers and praises. Psalm 136 is a great example of this in my opinion. It takes an awful lot to get more honest than that. So, God values our honesty, and sometimes that means telling him things that don’t sound particularly respectful.

Sometimes it means telling God that you think he’s a nutjob and what he’s asking for is utterly ridiculous. That’s the position I found myself in tonight… and the thing is, it wasn’t even ridiculous, just a little bit humbling. The thing is, I really am massively prideful, and so ‘a little humbling’ and ‘I don’t want to’ quickly turn into ‘God, you’re insane, this is just a stupid idea’.

When I do this God’s response is usually something along the lines of ‘Uh-huh. I don’t care, do it anyway’, which is of course wonderful for me to hear. Nonetheless, this is the conversation I had with God tonight. It finally wound up with me asking God to lay off and just let me complain about everything for five minutes, which I thought was fair considering that he knew that I was going to do exactly what he told me to do. So, I got my five minutes of whining, and he’s getting his public humiliation tomorrow, which honestly probably won’t be particularly humiliating.

This is the thing though, have you ever had something that you both really did, and absolutely didn’t want to do at the same time? Yeah, I have a feeling that my entire week is going to look like that. The thing is, I know it’s going to be good. I know that tomorrow is going to be good, and I know that fasting this week is going to be good, and I know that giving up is going to be good. Nonetheless, I find that I still don’t want to do it. The very idea of it scares the crap out of me, and I know that isn’t likely to change until I actually get through all of this. Sometimes God makes us do hard things, and as much as that isn’t any fun, it is good. … … …It still doesn’t keep me from calling him a stupidhead jerk sometimes though.