Where we wrestle with the sublime, mysterious, powerful and often frustrating paradox of God's necessary grace.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Grace of Myopia

I'm near-sighted, and not by a little bit. Without my glasses, the world more than 3" away from my eyes is a soft blur. Lights are round, glowing blobs. People's faces are vaguely pinkish or darkish ellipses with occasional light-colored bits quickly appearing and disappearing as they speak or blink.

Normally this is no advantage. Me driving without glasses is driving blind. But there is one situation where my myopia is a blessing in disguise.

I walk and swim in the pool at a local gym. Because I am quite overweight, I attract attention, none of it favorable. (How odd no one's come up to me and said, "You have the most marvelous physique! I'd love to look as good as you. How *do* you do it?" I'd smile, look down humbly and say, "Lack of exercise and too many calories.")

To some extent I'm used to the gawks and the whispered comments and the grinning asides. But at the gym, fat people are a rarity, it's mostly hardbodies and fitness Nazis. When I walk the length of the pool, there are floor-ceiling glass windows between the pool and the exercise machine areas. So, I'm very much "KenWritez on Parade!" (cue music!)

I remove my glasses and place them on the concrete at the end of the pool in front of my lane. Suddenly the natatorium resolves into a muted blur of soft colors: Creamy white for the walls, blues of various shades for the pool, dark and bright areas for the fitness machines beyond the glass.

For a time, I am free of being a public spectacle, at least as far as me seeing it goes. It's as if a heavy pack slipped off my shoulders. I can't even see the faces of those people in adjacent lanes. So I walk, feeling the cool water slide over and past my body, the currents tug at my legs, the big exhaust fans roaring far overhead as they move out the humid air for fresh.

Intellectually, I know people are still staring, but I can't see them and for now, today, that's enough.

For now, today, that's grace.

Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Grace at DefCon1


Yesterday was a bad day.

Not the worst I've experienced, but close. I lost my temper while posting on a message board and committed the sin of posting while pissed (off). I had been angry for a few hours prior, and when I saw yet another self-righteous poster celebrating his ignorance and belligerence by painting those who disagreed with his political opinions as fools and criminals, I went to DefCon 1. Do not pass Go, do not collect my thoughts and post rationally.

I posted a blistering attack, dropped the F-bomb a few times, made a personal attack on another board member.

The board admin sent me a hasty and angry email, telling me I'd broken two of the several guidelines governing to board and I needed to apologize and take a time-out.

I was still seething so I replied, "You got it" and posted in the same thread a terse apology for my language and my attack. It was more rote than heart-felt, but I didn't want to be suspended or booted from the board. The admin later emailed me privately in concern over my vitriolic post, and this is my reply to her:
K.--;

I don't blame you for doing your job--not at all. In your shoes I may have done the same. Thank you for doing your job. (Trust me, that cost me something to say but I meant it.)

I'm so angry right now...I guess "enraged" would be a better word. I can point to all sorts of bullshit in my life and on [the board] as causes, but that's game-playing. I'm not really sure why. Inside me is white-hot. I have no desire to go on a rampage of any kind or hurt anyone. This rage is amorphous and without target.

I burned down my profile because I was sick of it. I was sick of posting as if I were a smart-ass 14 yr old pimply teen and as a result, people justifiably expecting nothing more from me than a joke or a smart comment. I was sick of my profile's stupid jokes and the puerile writing and my prattling on and on about God's grace when to my shame I stand revealed in my eyes as a hypocrite, real and concrete, not the mere papier-mache likeness that obscured my own sins and character defects [from everyone else but me].

So now I stand in desperate, howling need of grace, screaming both my rage and my raging need for it at the top of my inner voice. So, the short answer is, no, I'm not okay.

I'm spending too much time on [the board] and it's not a good thing, so a vacation is in order. It may be only a day or three, perhaps longer, I don't know. I consider you my friend as well and I apologize for my part in us losing touch.

Just between you and me, right now I'm struggling with depression. Even now, when I'm head down in the toilet and gargling, I know I'll come out of this okay. I know God's grace really is sufficient no matter my circumstances. Maybe you think my reliance on grace is a neurosis, and if I'm honest, I have to admit that's possible.

Looking at that and tasting it, tho, I don't believe it is. This feels like I'm in the shit for a season, however long that is, and I choose (with much muttering, ill-grace and a sour look) to trust Someone bigger than myself to make things right.

I'm still responsible for my choices and my beliefs and attitudes, tho. I don't get a "Get of Clinical Depression Free" card. A friend has given me the phone number of a reputable psychologist here in town and I'll be calling her tomorrow to set up an initial appointment. Should you like, please send a prayer or good thoughts my way.

Oh--a final thought. My situation has the potential to make things awkward between us. That doesn't have to happen. I want you to know our friendship is undamaged and you don't have to walk on eggshells should you call or email me. Feel free to ask me anything you like. I reserve the right to answer, but I'm not made of glass. If I can survive 18 years growing up in my family, this should be cream gravy.

Warm regards,

With much affection,

--Ken

I don't know if this invalidates everything I've posted on this site, I hope not. Perhaps to some people it does. I would ask those people to please re-read the caption on the title page of this blog. Notice the word "wrestle." Notice I didn't say "rejoice in victory" or "stroll." I watched Olympic wrestling today, and at the end of the second round, both fighters were scuffed, contused, bruised, exhausted and gasping for air. In any honest struggle with God, we're going to get our asses kicked and like Jacob limping, we'll bear the marks ever after. In my opinion those are marks to be proud of because they mean a faith worth contendiung for in a God who's real.

I refuse to promise I'll always be happy-clappy on here. Life just doesn't work that way. But I can promise I'm not a full-time miserable bastard, either.

I can also promise God will always be God. And that will piss you off at times. It certainly does me.

Peace and grace to you.

Update: Today is a better day. Lamentations 3:22-24 "Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, 'The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.'"

Monday, August 4, 2008

Giving God the Finger and Right Thinking

This is a copy of my post on http://www.tbd.com.

In a thread on a message board I frequent, a poster concluded her OP with "Get rid of your stinking thinking so that you won’t be defeated and discouraged. Believe what God says and you will be victorious and triumphant!!"

This is fine advice to an extent, but there is a danger in taking it too far.

Someone taking this attitude too far will see this as a way to force God's response: "If I believe and say the right things God has to answer me" or "Now that my ducks are in a row, my Christian life will be perfect."

Defeat and discouragement is a normal part of a healthy, valid Christian life, just as when a toddler learns to walk, she'll fall down and skin her knees. However, to agree with Honeybee, defeat and discouragement ought not be the whole of one's Christian life. If this is the case, something's wrong.

Jesus said in John 10:10, "...I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." This means a full panoply of experience: Highs, lows, mediums, ins and outs and roundabouts. Other scripture suggests joy ought always be a constant, yet our imperfect and unreliable perceptions can easily overlook its presence in our hearts, expecially when we're in troubles.

When I'm (pick one, some or all) sad, sick, depressed, angry, disappointed, crushed, humilated, whathaveyou, my negative emotions fill my mind's eye from horizon to horizon and they're all I can see and the world seems to be nothing but them. It seems impossible I'll ever laugh or feel good again when I'm chin-deep in shit and the tide is rising.

At that point I have a choice. My first option: I can continue spiraling down into the black, thinking constantly about how bad I feel, how impossible it is for this situation resolve, how angry and disappointed I am in God and in everyone around me.

My second option: Be honest with myself, and with God. "God, I'm deep in shit right now, I see no way out and You seem to be ignoring me. I'm so damn pissed off at you that things are this way!" And then...

And then...

I have to do the hard work and let God be God. I can't twist His arm with magical thinking (as preached by "name it and claim it" or positive thinking pastors and teachers) or by pushing the right Christian behavior buttons or by somehow manipulating Him into doing what I want. Like David in the Psalms, I have to cry out to Him, chin deep in shit or not, because only in Him will I find answers, deliverance and healing. (I've been in this world long enough to discover no one else can provide these, nor can I get them from any program of thinking, religious structure, level of anaesthetization, material possession or activity.)

There were times I didn't get a response from Him. Those are times when I find out exactly, and I mean to the fucking millimeter, how much I believe in Him! Do I still believe him when every single aspect around me says He's gone and not coming back?

To turn this into a personal aside for the moment, God help me, I have to say Yes. I have to say Yes because I do believe Him, it is in me like a fire, like a drum beat, a rushing river, a mountain--something I cannot walk away from.

I don't know why this is so. Other people have tremendous difficulty with this. I wish I could say I do it because I'm a spiritual giant or specially favored of God; He licked His gold star of approval and stuck it to my forehead because I'm such a fucking prince of a human being and shining example of Christian piety and charm.

If such is the case, then let me assure you celebrity's a bitch. The more I age as a believer, the harder the struggles become and the less God seems to stop by for tea and sandwiches.

Yet if I'm honest with myself (never a given), doesn't this parallel the life of a child growing into an older child, then a teenager, then into a young adult, then into maturity?

A 14 year-old won't have the same problems as a 34 year-old; their two worlds are completely different. The 34 year-old's problems (divorce, job stress or unemployment, financial disasters, relationship struggles such as dating or potential marriage) would crush the 14 year-old. A 14 year-old parents are never far from the scene (in the best of worlds), whereas a 34 year-old is on her own.

Yet as the troubles deepen, so do the joys, so it's not an relieved landscape of pain and suffering. God, who'd want to be a Christian if that were the case? I'd toss Jesus in a heartbeat and live on the beach sipping Coco-Locos if that was the case.

This feels uncomfortably close to waving my own flag, so I'll stop this facet of my post here.
To get back to my main point: it's right and appropriate for believers to focus their thoughts on the Lord and on His kingdom. This is a method for us to knit our minds and spirits to the God, to allow Him free access to every aspect of what makes us--us, and thereby shape us into His own image. This is one way we grow as believers.

But don't allow the practice to become corrupted into a practice to manipulate God or one's external environment. I'm sure you've seen the prosperity preachers on TV, big hair and all: "Send me your seed faith gift of $100 and I'll pray over it with my anointed handkerchief and God will turn your gift into $10,000!" That's a total load of shit. It's one of the nastiest forms of scripture-twisting and deception out there masquerading as Christianity.
(Sorry, got on my soapbox. I'm off it now.)

What the poster said is accurate scripturally. The danger is in us interpreting it in a way to feed our own ego or desire for control over the universe and God. The other danger is in expecting the results of this admirable Christian practice to look like what we expect.

For example, let's say I own a business on the verge of bankruptcy. I read the OP and say to myself, "If I start claiming God's promises for myself and start jumping through these Christian activity hoops God will save my business."

No, actually He won't. At least, He won't do so because I've somehow forced Him to respond in the way I want by my actions or words. My business succeeding or dying has nothing to do with His love for me. One of His hardest jobs IMHO is to divorce us from our dependence on circumstances to define reality. "If my business fails, God must hate me" isn't any different from "If my business succeeds, God must love me." God's hand on our life steers it where He wants it to go, and that can just as easily be into bankruptcy court or the Chamber of Commerce "Business of the Month" award.

The Christian life is one that must be lived in honesty and in honest examination and prayer if it is to survive the beatings and deprivations of the world, if it is to be more than a hollow ornament. Only through being honest with God and yourself will you learn why you believe and why, so go to God with every single insecurity, pain, fear, hope, dream, love and hate. You can't possibly piss Him off because you're honest with Him, even if you tell Him, as I have many times, "God, I'm so pissed off at you!"

"So go thou, pissed off at God if thou needest, yea, even unto giving Him the finger, yet forget not to return in honesty to Your loving Father who stands by thee even when thou seest Him not. Even in thy woes, if thou are honest, thou knowest in the deepest parts of thine heart thou art an asshole yet the Father desires above all thou equally knoweth thou art beloved of God regardless, for did His Son not come to save assholes such as thee? So get thou a grip." (Book of Hesitations, 12:1-246)

Matter

This is from another blog of mine:

Matter: (n) 1. the substance or substances of which any physical object consists or is composed.7. something of consequence... 8. importance or significance. (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/matter)

Matter.

Do I matter? Is there any reason I'm hereandnow, any reason at all apart from random biological chance during my conception? Has God actually created me--via my parents and all my ancestors up the chain of being--with a definite purpose in mind or am I nothing more than the end result of some foreplay? If the latter, the issue ends here. C'est la vie, c'est la mort--rien n'est important. (My attempt at philosophical French: "That's life, that's death, nothing is important.")

But if I am crafted, if I am brought into being deliberately by my Creator, then the question still arises, unsatisfied: Do I matter? Am I important in the works of creation or am I cosmic cannon fodder? Would the universe suffer by my absence?

I have cried out to God to let me matter. I don't mean naming a bridge or a school after me mattering. I don't mean my name in lights or spoken by tv news anchors, show hosts or celebrities mattering. I don't want to be a household name like Billy Graham. That level of mattering would drain me.

What matters about mattering to me? I want people's lives to be better because I was there. That's all. Yes, my name in lights would be nice--what, I'm Ghandi? My ego is the size of Montana.

But more vital than the surface crap, far more, is the matter of mattering to other people. Of mattering to their hearts, souls and spirits. No, I do not want be Jesus Christ. No one wants a fat, insecure Messiah. You can't get booked on Regis and Kelly.

I want to live my life, the life apportioned to me and designed for me, and I want to know that's what I'm doing and that I'm supposed to be doing it. I want someone's day to be brighter because I was in it, even for a moment. I want to give someone a cold glass of grace when they're in the hot desert. No, what I do or say in that one moment won't save them or damn them, I don't want that power--not even a little of it. I want the people I give grace to, to remember me as a conduit of God's grace and they can feel more free to turn to God, just maybe, as a result. That they remember if God can use a man like me, He can use them far more profitably for the kingdom of grace.

Matter.

Do I matter?

Coffee?




Coffee's on the sidebar, over there. Super-trooper and decaf. Mugs, real cream (no fake crap) and all the fixin's are next to the pots. Nosh in the fridge. Help yourself.

Welcome to the Oxygen of Grace blog.

My name's Ken and I'm your semi-geezery 46 year-old host here in California. I've been a Christian of one flavor or another for over 30 years. Sometimes merely surviving for a long time brings its own wisdom; you tend toward a visceral knowledge of what works and what does not. I've also been privileged to spend time in community with many people who walk their talk as far as grace is concerned and I've tried to learn from them. My godparents, Allison and Lola, stand out as examples.

I find I can learn about grace from unlikely sources. CNN, the newspaper, poetry, movies, TV, atheists and agnostics, believers of other faiths, believers from Christian traditions different than mine. I believe to God, we're all Balaam's ass and He will speak through us regardless of what or even if we think about it.

I find strangers often the richest sources of grace: The man who looked like a stereotypical Hollywood fashionplate on the airliner who spoke to me kindly when I was standing in the crowded aisle waiting for the toilet to free up and everyone else was ignoring me. The dark-haired woman at the library who stopped, looked at 13 year-old bundle of teen angst me, and said, "You're an extraordinarily handsome young man," and then walked away. The man in the next lane of traffic at the entry to Dodger Stadium who paid for my parking when, pulling up to the booth, I realized I'd forgotten my wallet and could not turn around because of the crush of incoming cars.

I'm not promoting any political or social issue, I'm not going to try and sell you anything nor am I a member of any denomination. I describe myself as "post-evangelical." Here's my agenda: Grace, grace, and more grace. God's grace every day, every hour, every minute, every moment. God's grace for us to breathe, to live, to exist, to possess meaning, to live life, to become fully human, to live life in love with other people regardless of who they are or what they believe, to live our lives pointing out God to a cynical, hostile, desperate and watching world, grace to live life with the integrity Jesus did, grace to embrace daily His cross in our hearts. Grace to recognize our own cornucopia of sins and weaknesses and grace to ask God's forgiveness for them and to forgive ourselves for them--the most difficult bit of the process.

To my sorrow, I did my time as a legalist in my early years as a Christian, and I pray never to return to that swamp of refused thinking, canned beliefs, lazy belief, sterile relationships and fear of the unknown, the alien, the potentially suspect, in fear of anyone who's different.

My daily need for grace is no less than anyone else's and more than some. My ability to cock it all up and piss on His grace is as great as anyone else's and likewise more than some.

Now you know why I titled this blog as I did.

Some personal info: I'm a freelance writer and married to the lovely Sturdy Wench. She has two children, one of which still lives with us, so I get to experience the joy of step-fathering a teenager. As the comedian said, "Now I know why tigers eat their young."

I have a...hmmmm..."complex" relationship with God. Some believers seem to skate their way through life, God is their best buddy and troubles seem few and easily conquered through prayer and personal holiness.

That's not me.

I know how to show grace to other people. (I even do it sometimes.) Even though "treat others as you would be treated" is simple to say, it's not easy to do. It requires serious stones and a willingness to look like an idiot or a heretic in front of other people. It requires you die to yourself, die to your need for other people's approval of you. As far as I know, it's the only way the word of God gets walked out in truth. Someone standing behind a pulpit or in front of camera, banging their gums without walking this out in moments when it is most inconvenient, is worthless. Shut the fuck up and get a real job.

For 'complex' read "rocky, uneven, halting, contradictory, frustrating, occasionally joyful, mysterious, bloody, sublime, citrusy-tasting." When I finally face God for my judgement, I'm half-terrified He's going to bitch slap me out of frustration before He hugs me and welcomes me home. Then I'm angry that He won't bitchslap me and will instead just hug my neck, tell me sins are forgiven and forgotten and welcome me home. How dare He not kick the shit out me of as I deserve?! Look at all the times I've deliberately chosen to sin, the times I've screwed up, been a complete asshole to Him, to other believers!

Arrrgh!

Thus, you see a snapshot of some of my issues with grace, with God, with myself. I have more posts to come, and I promise they won't be as navel-gazing as this one. Well, I don't mean for them to be. It's my occupational hazard.

If you have a response, please comment.