Being Alive

At church yesterday my pastor asked the question “When was the last time you felt fully alive?”  That question got me thinking (as all pastoral questions should), when WAS the last time that I felt fully alive?  That question led in its turn to the question “What does it mean to feel fully alive?”  This new question led me further to wonder “What does it even mean to BE fully alive?”  I’m not at all certain that I know the answer to any of those questions but I believe that they are worth investigating, so I will begin with the last question and work my way towards the first.

I guess that to be fully alive might mean that I am breathing.  Metabolism and cellular respiration are taking place within my body.  I am different from the chair in which I am sitting or the large volcanic rock resting on the patio outside of the coffee house where I sit writing this essay, in that I am alive and they are not.  This revelation would lead me to conclude that the last time that I felt fully alive was the last nanosecond before this current nanosecond.  I do not believe that this conclusion addresses my pastor’s point however.  Under the simple construct “alive equals fully alive” my pastor’s question would have no meaning, and pastors, good ones anyway, don’t ask questions that have no meaning.

Looking a bit further out across the patio I see trees in very large pots.  Those trees are much more like me than the rock is and I believe you could say that it is fully alive.  Water and nutrients are coursing from the roots up the stem and branches to the beautiful red leaves, where photosynthesis is going on to provide the sugar needed by the plant to maintain life.  Yes, I believe that I can honestly say that this tree is fully alive.  What I am not able to say is that it feels fully alive.  I don’t know if the tree feels at all.  Then again, I don’t know that it does not.  I was always intrigued by the line from the 1951 movie “The Thing from Another World” in which an alien that had evolved from a plant origin rather than an animal one is threatening scientists at a research station at the North Pole.  A journalist is amazed by this discovery and a scientist tells him that some plants, such as the telegraph vine, do a certain sort of thinking right here on Earth.  The journalist is mind boggled and then told that he should not be.  “Intelligence in plants and vegetables is an old story Mr. Scott.  Older even than the animal arrogance that has overlooked it.”  Of course, that’s just a movie.  But in truth I don’t know what plants may or may not ‘feel’.  Perhaps they do feel things in some way.  This would be a most unsettling thought for my vegan friends.

So even in my not-knowing I am going to assume that plants never feel more alive or less so.  Animals however present a tougher nut to crack.  I have kept many cats as pets in my life and can testify to their many moods.  I have seen anger, contentment, fear, hunger, playfulness and perhaps even affection in my cats.  What makes the waters more muddy is the question whether the cats KNEW that they were angry, contented, afraid and so on.  I don’t believe that they did.  When a cat was curled up on my blanket-covered lap while I took a nap on a gray winter afternoon, did she ever think “I feel contented now, but I felt more contented last week when I was curled up here after a really big meal?”  I don’t think so.  Plants may feel things and animals certainly do, but I cannot convince myself that either one can reflect on their feelings.  Forgive my human arrogance, but only we can do that.

This brings me to the question of what it means for me to be fully alive, and in order to get to the heart of that I have to ask what if means to be fully me.  That question leads me inevitably into theology, and that should surprise nobody since this whole line of thought began with a question by a pastor in a church on a Sunday morning.  Me, therefore, is a sentient being of the species Homo sapiens (although a charge of containing a considerable amount of Neanderthal DNA has been leveled against me from time to time). I am not only unlike any other non-human lifeforms on this planet, I am unlike any human one too.  I have likes and dislikes, I not only know hunger and contentment and fear but remember other times that I felt them and can grade whether or not I was more hungry then or more afraid now.  I can create and I can willfully destroy; yes, I am unique in the universe.

To what can I ascribe this uniqueness (for better or for worse)?  To chance?  Not likely.  No tornado ever went through a Kansas junkyard and made a jet aircraft, and leaving an old Buick on blocks in the front yard of my house will earn me a few lumps on my head from the hand of my wife but will never evolve into a Lamborghini.  Things left alone go from order to disorder; all real scientists know this.  So I have to conclude that I am designed by an intelligence that is outside of the natural order.

That intelligence has broken into our world and told us a little bit about Itself and why S/he went to the trouble to create me, and has explained that what I am on this day as I write this rambling essay is a very imperfect image of what I was designed to be and, I am promised, some day will be.  I am alive today but not fully alive.  My being, now freed from the iron grip of death, must still drag vestiges of death around as I go about my daily affairs and I cannot help but feel the effects of those ultimately conquered but nevertheless troubling vestiges as I progress towards the day when those final vestiges well be fast off and a new life as what God – let’s go ahead and call that Intelligence what S/He really is – sees me as will begin.

Feeling fully alive, then, means to me feeling at least in part how I will feel when I finally am that being that I am intended to be.  When full joy, full love, full compassion, full mercy, finally are the norm for my life I will be more like the tree and the cat: aware of love but not as a variant from full love and aware of contentment but not as a variant from full contentment and so on.  Only hunger, pain, anger, disappointment and the like will be either memories or obliterated altogether.  A life of infinitely variable joy, not variable in the sense of quality but rather in the manner of sensing and expressing it, will be what I will feel when I am fully alive.

So when was the last time that I felt fully alive?  I haven’t yet.  There are a good many times when I have felt pointed toward feeling fully alive; when a child or grandchild was born, or when a kitten is rescued from likely death, or when I see the first shoots of a garden break through the soil with their promise of delicious and healthy food produced by the work of my hands and sweat of my brow.  But I have never felt fully alive and do not believe that I ever will until my earthly struggle is over and I stand perfected in the presence of Ultimate Perfection.

So should I despair that I can never, by my own efforts, hope to even approach being fully alive while in this life?  Not at all.  I get periodic glimpses of what that fully alive life will be like and that is enough to keep me energized and moving forward toward the life to come.  And when was the last time that I had one of those glimpses of being alive?  Today, and yesterday, and the day before that.  Any time that I stop for a moment to savor watching two friends chat over coffee at the table next to me while one of them scratches behind the ears of a gigantic Newfoundland dog, or when I help a friend prepare his garden for planting the spring crop, or read a story to a grandson sitting on my knee, I am looking down that path toward being fully alive, and sensing in a small way how it will be when it is my only reality.

I believe that we all have many opportunities to feel like we are on that pathway toward being Fully Alive every day.  The complexities of life may cloud the view and there’s no point in being a pollyanna about this; some people’s life circumstances make sensing that path to Fully Alive a lot more difficult to see than do other’s  It can still be done however, if we have the desire to do it.  I recommend that choice, as it makes all of our “nows” more bearable.

What I Need To Want

Yesterday morning I was sitting back in my Lazy Boy chair and trying to quiet my mind in order to become attuned with God.  I have not had much success with this in the past partly, I think, because it is very hard for me to turn off the chatter which goes on non-stop in my brain at such times.  At this moment, as I sit at my desk scratching pen over paper writing a draft of this post, my mind is focused on the task at hand.  Remove me from this desk, place my rear end in that chair and expect me to continue with any kind of focus and you, or more to the point I, will be sorely disappointed.

Such was the case on this particular morning.  I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, tried to focus on God, and my mind instantly flew to what I wanted to get done that day.  The list was long, and included working in two gardens that I tend, writing letters to friends, looking at carpet samples in order to choose one to replace our old and worn carpet with, and many other things.  All of these were good things to do, but it was obvious even to me that I could not possibly do them all and that I would end up scrunching in as many as I could, doing none of them well, and  then lamenting that I could not do the others and feeling guilty about that fact.  Eventually I would shrug it off and drink a little wine while watching an episode of Sherlock Holmes, not giving the topic another thought.

While all of these ideas were grinding around in my head like stones being rolled in a lapidary’s tumbler one thought managed to bubble up to the top: what should I WANT to want to do today?  The rough list of the day’s wants was nearly endless, but if I could narrow it down by selecting a shorter list based on what was really worth doing (which was most things on the larger list) and why they were worth doing in the first place, I reasoned that I could thereby produce a more manageable list of tasks to accomplish that would be of greater value, releasing me to enjoy my evening wine and movie without having to feel guilt about the tasks not completed, or having to ignore them as if they weren’t worth considering in the first place.

But how should I decide which of my many wants I should WANT to want?  Here it gets tricky.  If I rely entirely upon my own reason I am not materially helped.  I will choose tasks for the day based primarily, or even exclusively, on gratifying my own pleasure, and while there is nothing wrong with enjoying oneself there is simply more, much more, to life than gratifying one’s pleasures.  I will invariably tend to the self-centered activities in the short term over and above the activities which offer more benefit in the long term.  Before I get to selecting my wants I must first establish the criteria which hem in and define my WANT; that which motivates me to pursue my wants in an orderly and focused manner.  And what, then will suffice to form the WANT?  Perhaps it’s another, larger and more focused WANTWANT, or “WANT squared”, and so on ad infinitum, but I do not think so.  At some point I believe we must arrive at a proper source of WANT, and I believe that such a source is found when WANT bounces up against Need.  In and amongst all of these competing wants there must be a Need which drives the WANT to chose which wants are most profitably pursued and which should be postponed or shelved entirely, guilt free for sanity’s sake.

It logically follows, to me at least, that this Need which will shape my WANT to prioritize my wants and forgives me for those that I have chosen not to accomplish that day must not come from within me.  If I make the choice exclusive of any external input of what does or does not merit being done on a given day my WANT only becomes another of my wants.  Or rather, I will elevate each want to the level of WANT, thereby justifying my own mind doing that which I have chosen to do regardless of whether or not it was something done in the place of something which was more worth the doing or even something worth doing at all.  An internal yardstick only gives me a tool with which to justify my own actions, and will not accomplish anything good in the long run.  My yardstick then, my Need as it were, must therefore come from outside of me.

That’s the point at which God reentered this conversation which raged inside of my head while I was trying to quiet things down.  God says that I need to love Him (or Her, if it makes you feel better.  God is truly bigger than all of that however) with my whole being and after that to love others as much as I love myself.  God is thereby saying that He is my yardstick, and how I prioritize my actions and even my desires should be based on that relationship of love between me and Him and me and my neighbor (who happens to be everybody else in the world).  If I will order my thoughts in that direction God will steer me towards the right choices among competing wants and grant me happiness for those accomplished and peace about those left undone.  Condensed to it’s basic foundation then, my Need must arise from a love of God, my neighbor, and myself.

But God will not force this upon me.  God, the ultimate independent personality, by creating me in His image has made me to be an independent personality as well.  I am perfectly free to pursue any want that I choose.  I believe that it was the French philosopher Sartre who said that slowing down to allow an old woman to cross the street had no more value than speeding up in order to hit her as regards expressing one’s individuality by an act of the will.  Maybe he didn’t really say anything that idiotic but he was certainly capable of doing so, and if he didn’t say it somebody else equally idiotic assuredly did.  In any case I am free – scot free – to make choices.  If I should want to make good choices however I must have some sort of yardstick, and if I want to consistently make the best possible choices I must have a yardstick not of my own making; one which has the force to convince me of the advisability of using it. That yardstick is God’s want, which in turn becomes my Need which drives my WANT to choose wisely among the many options which present to me on any given day.

So how has this discovery played out in my life?  Hardly at all!  Heck, I only laid back in that chair twenty four hours ago, so give me a break.  I can say that yesterday I ordered my wants so that I gave pleasure to myself, my wife, and a couple of friends while postponing writing to other friends and placing a phone call to a beloved brother, and I feel very good about the whole thing.  I even managed to enjoy that glass of wine and episode of Sherlock at the end of the day.  Ultimately, I believe that God feels pretty good about it too, except for the parts where I screwed things up.  But I’ll keep trying, I won’t beat myself up over those failings, and God loves me anyway, so it’s all OK.

Reflections on Lent, Day 35

Just because a person becomes a Christian does not mean that they will now be blessed with every good thing and will walk smiling through a life without troubles, wondering why everybody else doesn’t simply adopt their easy plan for love, money, and a life for the most part free from pain.  I know that this caricature of life as a Christian is pure bull caca, and it continues to amaze me that it is preached by some and accepted by great crowds of the gullible to this day.  Jesus and ten of the first eleven disciples (Judas excluded), seemed to miss out on the health and wealth aspect of this strange description of Christ’s mission on earth, so why on earth would anyone think that such a vision would work for a true Christ follower today?

This topic of pain and trouble has been dealt with already by writers and thinkers far sharper than Yours Truly.  Harold Kushner wrote “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” in 1978, and Rabbi Kushner did a wonderful job of explaining this topic.  I will not summarize that book here, but I encourage anyone wrestling with this issue to give it a read.   This is only a Lent reflection however, and not a book review.

During this Lent period I have been trying to focus more sharply on God and my walk with Him/Her (at ease now;  I’m not trying to be unnecessarily incendiary here.  I just believe that trying to apply gender roles and limitations to God is a fool’s errand).  At the outset of the Lent season I naively expected a significant spike in the quality of my prayer life, a quiet confidence that God was in control of the wildness and confusing randomness of my health, work and family life, and that maybe I would hit on the lottery.  As it has turned out, this has been one of the most trying months-and-change that I have had in a while, and if you consider that my last year included a heart attack and bypass surgery, that’s saying quite a lot.

I won’t go into all of the details of the trials which I have endured during this Lent season, and I also won’t try to say that I have not also experienced great spiritual successes and blessings too.  The point of this reflection is that we all, Christian and non-Christian alike, live in a bent and broken world, and that becoming a follower of Christ does not remove a person from that world.  All of the pain and wrongness which afflict the atheist or the Hindu or the Muslim or the Capitalist or the Vegan afflict the Christian too.  I don’t know why that is so, but I do know for a fact that it IS so, and nobody will gain anything by denying that fact, except perhaps silver-tongued preachers who prey upon the fear and greed and weakness of those who listen to them.  I am not judging anybody here (that would be way above my pay grade!), but I am not overly confident of those “preachers'” odds for a good outcome when the judgement day arrives.  I hope for the best, but I’ve got some doubts there.

With all of this in mind, it is probably reasonable to ask why it is a good idea to become a Christian in the first place.  I miss out on the sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll, I don’t get to make fun of people who are different than me, and I don’t get to cheat on my taxes with a clear conscience if I buy into this Christian thing, and in return I get  –  What?  Maybe I’ll go to heaven if I get the luck of the draw (if Calvin’s caricature is right), or maybe I get a crutch to prop my weak ass through the life that everybody else seems to be living just fine (NB: they aren’t!) .  Maybe I’ll just get the prestige of being the adherent to a barely tolerated subgroup in American society and earn the right to get a shellacking in the next election if I decide to run for president.

No, any benefit received by following the crucified Christ is not likely to be monetary, political or positional in society.  So what is it”  I have learned this Lent season that God is, as David Benner writes in “Surrender to Love”, madly in love with us.  Jesus does not stand between us and the shit that the world, the flesh and the devil throw at us.  Instead, He stands beside us, getting covered up in that shit the same as we are.  I count it a privilege to be covered in the same shit that the broken world threw on my God, and when He/She cleans me off some day I hope that He/she will clean off the world that was throwing it as well, and that all of us who will accept God’s grace will dine – no, dine isn’t the right word – will PARTY together, while those who chose to reject Christ to the end will nurse their grudges and drink their bitter cup in an outer darkness of their own choosing, in a prison or tomb locked from the inside.

So yeah, life can be a bitch.  So what?  That’s not news.  Put your tough pants on.  Life is also a gift, and while you can’t always dial up the life you want, you can always draw on His/Her power to make it reflect a little bit of Christ back into the world.  For me, that is enough.

Reflections on Lent, Day 33

This morning our pastor preached out of the passage in the Gospel of John which describes the period immediately after the death of Jesus.  The picture is this; the time is the afternoon before Passover, a most high holy time for the Jews, and it is an offense to have dying people on crosses hanging by their nailed extremities at this time.  The Jewish leaders asked the Roman governor to order the breaking of the condemned men’s legs so that they would be unable to push themselves upward in order to draw a breath, thereby dying of asphyxiation That way their bodies could be removed from the crosses before sundown.  The two thieves were indeed still alive and their leg bones were accordingly broken with a large mallet.  When the soldiers came to Jesus however they saw that He was already dead, which surprised them.  Just to be sure about things a soldier stuck a spear into Jesus’ side and blood and water flowed out of the wound.

Many years ago when I was coming to faith in God once again after a seventeen year separation a pastor spoke with me about my reservations.  I was a very rational and scientific sort of person and not at all likely to take things on faith.  That pastor sized me up very neatly and gave me a small stack of books which he thought would help me get over the materialistic hump.  I don’t remember what most of those books were but two of them rocked my world:  “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis and “The Resurrection Factor” by Josh McDowell.  The sermon this morning reminded me greatly of reading the second of those two books.

McDowell went about discussing the whole crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection story as if he was analyzing it in forensic terms.  Many explanations by unbelieving individuals of the events of that day turn on doubt that Jesus really was crucified, doubts that He really died,  doubts that He was laid in a tomb, and doubts that He left that tomb alive.  I will not cover all of McDowell’s points but will limit myself to the doubt that Jesus actually died.

The Romans were very good at killing people.  In fact, all of the various empires and regional powers of the time were pretty good at that, but the Romans had become the masters of the entire Mediterranean world by being a little bit better at it than anyone else.  It is with great confidence therefore that I regard the words of John when he writes that the Roman soldiers found Jesus already dead.

John then goes on to point out that one of the soldiers stuck a spear into Jesus just to make sure he was a goner.  Now when I was a soldier, if I would have wanted to make certain that an enemy was dead I would have shot him in the head – especially if I suspected that he was a zombie – or in the area of the heart if he was only a common, garden variety Viet Cong.  Thankfully I never had to do any such thing, but that is exactly how I would have proceeded if I had found myself forced with the necessity to do so.  But Jesus was up on a cross and one would never try to stick a spear into a man’s head anyway, considering that his heart was a good deal softer and less protected by a skull and so on, so I have no doubt that the Roman soldier put his spearhead straight into the non-beating heart of Jesus.

And what do you suppose flowed out of that wound?  Exactly what you would expect, if Jesus was in fact dead.  Blood and water ran down the body of Jesus, according to John, to drip into the dust on the Hill of the Skull.  What this said to McDowell, and what it says to me too, is that Jesus was not only dead, but had been dead for a while when the spear entered his heart.  When blood ceases to flow it begins to separate into its liquid and solid components.  The solid stuff, the red and white blood cells and platelets and so forth, settle to the bottom while the watery plasma remains on the top.  When that spear penetrated Jesus’ body and entered the heart that fluid was released to flow outside, followed by some of the solid red matter mixed with plasma.

This removes from the discussion any idea that Jesus merely fainted and was revived later, only to disappear into a far away country, take a wife, have some kids, and resume his occupation of carpentry while a new religion in His name was founded and slowly became the official religion of the entire Mediterranean world.  John’s description was too detailed and accurate for me to doubt it’s truth.  Jesus died on that cross, and over 500 people saw Him afterword alive and well before He finally ascended into heaven.

I have read many more convincing proofs that Jesus is whom He says He is, but this one came to me at a time of doubt and weakness, and will always be a favorite for me.

Reflections On Lent, Day 26

Today I enjoyed what was probably the best church service that I have ever had the excessively good fortune to attend, and I have attended many very good ones.  Of course, there were other very good services conducted nearby and elsewhere but I simply did not attend them.  No matter.  I have been a committed Christian for over thirty years now and have been blessed by truly wonderful services at a number of churches.  This is not about any sort of competition, and there is no material prize.  I am only saying that I was blessed by today’s service at House of Providence in ways that I have never been blessed before.

What particularly was so special about today’s service?  Particularly, there was nothing special about it.  The music/worship was wonderful, but then it usually is.  The sermon went straight to the point and spoke to where I am right now, but then then it usually does.  The people, the prayer, the Prayers of the People; all of it was as good as usual.  But for me, today, all of these strands were blended together into a whole that salved my wounds and nourished my soul in ways that don’t happen just every day.

I was greatly moved by the focus on Jesus’ last moments of life.  While hanging on a Roman cross, His life draining out of Him, Jesus looked down at John and Mary, His mother.  In paraphrase Jesus said “Mom, John is your son now,” and then He said “John, take care of Mom for me.”  Now that’s not what ancient gods usually said and did.  The Sumerian goddess Ishtar sends a bull from heaven to trash the Earth because the heroic Gilgamesh, king of Ur, doesn’t want to go to bed with her.  The king seems to prefer the company of Enkidu, a wild man also created by the gods to harass Gilgamesh but with whom he becomes best buddies.  It’s weird, but I ain’t judging.

In Greek mythology/theology Zeus and his cohorts are busy having sex with mortals and pouting when things don’t go exactly their way, causing shipwrecks and losses in battle and turning sex partners into cows to avoid the ire of jealous god or goddess spouses.  Other theologies were less comical.  Aztec priests, when dedicating a pyramid at the imperial capital of Tenochtitlan, conducted between 10,000 and 80,000 human sacrifices in only four days.  Work out the math on that one.  And I will not disturb you with the details of Aztec human sacrifice, but it wasn’t pretty.

Jesus’ thoughts at this moment were not on bulls, or sex, or sex with bulls, or bloody sacrifice, apart from His own that is.  He was thinking about His mother.  Jesus knew that John was the only disciple who would live a long life and die a natural death.  He could have entrusted his mom to Peter, Mark, Matthew or, worst case scenario, to Stephen.  He didn’t.  “Mom, stay close to John (he’s going to be around for a while).  John, treat her like your own mother.”  Other religious views show superhuman gods with very human failings, which are amplified as only a god could amplify them.  Jesus on the cross shows the victorious God who defeats hell and death but also shows human tenderness and love for his mother, even over his own immediate problem.  That is a God that I can put my faith in.

Jesus also said that He was thirsty and that it is finished.  No doubt He was thirsty!  Blood had poured from his shredded back and He would have had no fluids since the night before.  But His thirst is nothing like our own.  Jesus was given sour wine to drink, but we need the water which flows from Him, and He gives it.  It is awful that Jesus had to hang thirstily from that cross so that My dry soul could be spiritually rehydrated, but I give Him thanks that He did it for me, and for everyone else who will drink.

And finally He said “It is finished”.  What is finished”  Death and hell appear to be all around us still.  ISIS tortures, rapes and kills in Syria and Iraq with impunity.  Disease rampages through Africa and poverty dogs much of the world.  If Jesus came here to make things right it certainly doesn’t look on the face of it like it’s working.  What exactly did Jesus finish?

In a word, eternal, spiritual death.  Sin and hell are no longer in the driver’s seat.  As bad as it looks, it’s getting better.  Heaven and Earth are being reconciled and there’s nothing that the devil and all of his forces can do about it.  God’s kingdom on Earth is inevitable; it is coming and will be established, and sin will be cast outside the walls of the Kingdom of God to grind it’s teeth like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, certain of his self earned righteousness and unwilling to allow Gods grace to heal him of his self inflicted wound.

Yeah, it was a service that I needed today.  I will go to bed tonight still thinking about it, and hopefully it will remain with me as I pick up my busy workaday life tomorrow and get into the mix once again.

A Lenten Testimony, Part 1, Day 19

Not too long ago a dear and valued friend learned that I had become a Christian.  We had been out of touch for a very long time and when we knew each other in the 1970’s, and ran into each other briefly in the early 1980’s, I was anything but a Christian.  For the last couple of years I have been looking for my old friends and then sending them invitations to correspond by old fashioned letter mail, painstakingly written and lovingly folded, enveloped stamped, addressed and sent.  There is something human and personal in that which is missing in electronic communication, and I like it very much.

But I did not sit down to write about writing letters.  My friend expressed surprise at my faith and wondered how it came to pass.  I gave her the short story in a letter which nevertheless ran to six pages (we’ll see if one stamp was sufficient to get that letter mailed!) but I have been mulling her question over and over in my mind and feel compelled to write the longer story.  That will require more time and space than can be had in a simple letter, and so I will dedicate a Lent Reflection blog space to this project and will desist my daily Reflections until the job is complete, which may be tonight and may be a week from now.  We shall see.

My friend reminded me of something that I had said over four decades ago, something like “I was my own god, and I knew what was right and wrong and had my own standards to answer to”.  It humbles me that somebody remembers anything that I said over forty years ago.  When you begin the project of defining the word “friend”, I believe that having something that you said forty years ago felt to be worth remembering has to fit in there somewhere.

I believe that my friend’s memory is accurate, and I had even more to say about such things back then.  The “Virgin” Mary was just a teenage girl who got pregnant (no surprise there), said God did it, and to her amazement people believed her.  I also said that my idea of life after death was a marijuana plant growing out of my skull after I die, which a friend would place on the mantle over their fireplace.  That way, whenever they looked at the skull and marijuana plant they could say “There is old Glenn, still getting his head”.  But let’s forget the Mary and skull stuff.  That was all just shallow cynicism.  The part which my friend particularly reminded me of has substantially more meat on the bone and that is what I would like to gnaw on.

“I am my own god.”  Yeah, that sounds like something that I would have said, and it would have been true too!  I answered only to myself in those days.  As a child I grew up in a family where all authority lay unquestionably in the hands of my father.  I am sure that Dad was raised in a similarly authoritarian environment, and twenty years in the Navy had done nothing to temper that view of parenting.  I was not a robot, really, but my options were a good deal more narrow than those of my friends, and the consequences of arousing the displeasure of my father were something to avoid at all costs.  I chaffed under this oppressive system and at my first opportunity, the moment that I graduated from high school and turned 18 years old, I jumped ship and sought new freedom.

Unfortunately, this all occurred in 1966 when we were in the middle of a war and there was still a draft.  I knew that I would be drafted soon and honestly didn’t care one way or the other if I was, so down I went to the recruiters’ office one day and signed up for three years’ service.  Entering the service is probably not the best way to seek independence, but then I never was a bright kid.  I learned the inconvenient truth of this on the first full day that I was in the Army and had it drilled deeper and deeper into my head every day thereafter for the better part of three years.  And then my day of liberation arrived.  May 29, 1969 I walked off of an Army base, took a taxi ride to the airport and flew back to San Diego a civilian, captain of my own ship, and indeed my own god.

Those were the crazy times; the 1960’s and 70’s.  Old institutions were crumbling and I was free to create new ones in my own image.  Nobody could tell me what to do, and as long as I did not do anything blatantly illegal in front of any agent of civil authority I did whatever the hell I wanted to do.  Ultimately, I did a pale imitation of what the real God did; created my own universe and ruled it by my own rules for my own pleasure.

That plan did not work out so well.  My highest good was indeed seeking my own personal pleasure.  An anthem of the punk rock days was “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” (bawled out in an appropriately brash Cockney accent).  I think that the Sex Pistols did that one.  Well, I did it before they did.  Those three pursuits plus whatever else I enjoyed and desired at the moment were all that I sought in those years, and although I was not completely immune to a noble thought or a kind act, and engaged in those activities as much as anyone else with whom I hung around did, still my foundation was “What I want, I get if I possibly can without getting killed or going to jail”.

In that system friends can become more important than spouses.  How my first wife and I stayed together the first two unmarried years of our relationship I have no idea.  I was always more happy sitting on a bar stool with my friends than sitting at home with her.  And how we managed to stay married for three years after saying our vows is an even deeper mystery yet.  I continued to hold down bar stools at every opportunity until I founded a construction company with a friend.  From that point on I worked ten to fourteen hours a day seven days a week, intending to found our fortune and make a name for myself as a successful contractor.  Being a successful husband did not figure into that picture.  Finally and in the most gut-wrenching way, for me at least, the rug was pulled out from under my feet and I was shown that I did not ultimately get to rule what I thought was my kingdom.  If I was a god, then I had precious little power to order my universe the way I saw fit.

And then there’s the thing about right and wrong.  In my younger years I was pretty certain that I knew what those qualities were, but as I proceeded through my 20’s and the loss of a wife and business and home, became a construction gypsy, met and married a lady and then began to wander down the same old path, I began to rethink just how firm a grip I had on an understanding of right and wrong.

Why is something right?  Because I like it?  What if I think something is right but somebody else thinks that it is wrong?  If the other person is somebody whom I do not like then tough beans for him, but what if it is somebody whom I like and may even respect a little?  What do I do with that?  Slowly it dawned upon me that right and wrong may be elements which arise from somewhere outside of me and my perceptions; that my old paradigm of being the arbiter of my own personal standard of right and wrong was a philosophy that simply would not carry water.  For Nietzsche perhaps, but not for me.  Not now.  I recall sitting in an apartment with several friends when I was at my college, smoking weed and drinking beer, probably snorting cocaine too, and talking about how we were going to save the world.  That was a very common occupation back then.  I was a good deal more radical than were most of the others who were present that evening and declared a Trotskyite solution to the world’s problems.

This solution would be for the “good of the people”.  We harebrained radicals on either fringe are always plotting our idiocies for the good of the people.  One of the guys there, one whom I did not know as well as I knew the others, asked “What if your solution isn’t what the people want?”  My predictable reply was “We’ll do it anyway until they realize that it’s what’s good for them.”  The person who questioned my utopian vision just stared at me for a moment and then said “Wow man, you’re an elitist pig”.  Those were fighting words on so many levels!  They were also true, which didn’t help the situation any.  Somehow the truth in them seeped into my drug and alcohol addled brain however and i inexplicably allowed the insult to slide.

Maybe that was the beginning of my realiy searching for the meaning of right and wrong.  Eventually I came to understand that in the absence of some kind of metric which lies outside of the reach of mankind, and therefore beyond manipulation for any one person’s cynical ends, there is no such thing as right and wrong, or good and bad.  If we are the product of time plus accident, where does this notion of right and wrong come from?  There is so much doubt among scientists as to whether or not we are able to accurately discern physical reality with our senses, how can these same senses give us reliable information on whether or not those same incompletely understood phenomena are good or bad, right or wrong?

Many years ago a ship washed up on a beach in Oregon.  Being burrowed deeply into the sandy bottom of that beach on the Oregon coast, it steadfastly refused to be removed and ended up resting there for nine years.  During that time this ship leaked oil and damaged the ecology of that beach, which is rich in clams and bird nesting areas and so on.

Oregon is a socially liberal state.  In Portland people who order an omelette in a restaurant want to know the names and living conditions of the chickens and cows who gave up their eggs and cheese for the sake of their breakfast.  To this ardent and somewhat comical bunch the fouling of that beach was a horror too awful to contemplate and in my own estimation a very wrong thing, but I had to ask some of the people who held that view, mostly just to be an annoying turd but also partly to make a point, “why do you believe that it is wrong?”  To the ship’s owner, maybe losing this old rustbucket in a storm resulted in an insurance settlement that was of more value to him or her than was the ship.  Without an unmovable yardstick of good and bad, right and wrong, how do the perceptions of tree hugging Oregonians trump the perceptions of money hugging capitalists?  Unless there is a rule, something which says “The Lord God placed men in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it”, then all we have is dueling perceptions which, in a mechanistic and nietzschean universe, end with the strongest person being right.

By 1984 I was utterly disillusioned by my old philosophy of myself as god and as arbiter of right and wrong in the world.  Things I had seen in Vietnam, failures that I had endured since then and multiple close brushes with death or injury from drunk driving, drug overdose, or being shot, stabbed or beaten by outlaw motorcyclists or outraged boyfriends, to mention only a few instances, I finally arrived at a point where I had to make a change or I was going to jump off of a bridge.  God literally allowed me to feel His comfort and glory one night when I wandered into a church, and I have been with God ever since.

The rest of this story will appear sometime in the near future as “Part II”.

Reflections On Lent, Day 17

There was not much reflecting on Lent going on in my mind on day 17, just like there wasn’t much on day 16.  “Not surprising” I thought to myself.  “I’m really busy today, with a full schedule at work that is going to take some creative jiggering of employees to get everything done with the least possible inconvenience to everyone involved”.  The day did work out well, but required nearly all of my thought, allowing little time to ponder spiritual things.

And when I did remember that we are in the midst of Lent and try to put things into a spiritual perspective, my mind was quickly filled with thoughts of the health issues of my granddaughter and the pain and fear that my daughter and her husband are experiencing.  When I get those thoughts put to rest I remember the tangled process of getting my car fixed.  I was rear-ended several weeks ago and the process of getting my car repaired is frustrating to say the least.  And then there are the handful of other issues which divert my mind or simply weigh it down, so that there is very little time devoted to thinking about God.

Then it hit me as I was forming beds around some shrubs in my front yard: there might be somebody who doesn’t want me to be thinking about spiritual things.  There just might be a personality which is very steadily working to keep my mind focused on things other than God and my relationship to Him.

Who would want to do a thing like that?  Uh, the devil maybe?  But what does the devil care about me?  He is only a created being, far from omni-anything.  I’m certain that the hideous depredations of Boko Haram, ISIS, the awfulness that is North Korea, the war in eastern Ukraine and the culture of rape in India, Congo, and elsewhere are much more likely to whet the palate of Old Scratch than my puny self.  It doesn’t make sense that he would waste his infernal time trying to turn my attention away from God.

Perhaps that’s what “junior tempters” such as were described in C. S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” are up to.  I can easily see some junior tempter, ‘Drizzleschmertz’ we’ll call her, employing all of the skills that she learned at the Boarspittle Demonic Academy in an effort to win favor from her overseer, Schnodsmutl, who will eat her soul if she does not deliver my own to whet his appetite.  I am nobody in particular except for being a beloved child of the Living God, so they would not invest much into capturing me.  Bigger guns for bigger prey.

And then there are the two books by Frank Peretti, “This Present Darkness” and “Piercing The Darkness”.  Those two books are not very much in favor now because we’ve all become too cool to believe that our liberal social institutions might be demonically directed.  If Peretti were to write a similar book in which conservative individuals and institutions were the ones influenced and even directed by demons, and in many instances he could probably make a coherent case for such a theme, his books would probably once again be on the best seller list.  The politics of the thing mean nothing to me.  Peretti painted a vivid picture of spiritual warfare that in my opinion still has something valid to say to the world about the unseen component to many of the awful things that we see today.  I have no problem with the idea of a scaly, beaked demon with sharp claws tugging at tufts of wiry bristles growing out of its jowled, slobbering face whispering distractions into my ear as I try to focus on God.

Do I believe anything like this is happening to me?  Yes, no, I don’t know, maybe.  I can’t see the supernatural, so how can I speculate on what it looks like and what it’s doing?  Do I believe that such a picture is impossible?  No, I do not believe such a thing.  Do I believe that such a thing is happening to me today?  Again, maybe.  I can’t rule it in and I an’t rule it out.

So maybe I’ll just assume that I am a prize in some supernatural struggle and force myself to choose a side.  Of course, I choose God’s side.  And how will I do that?  Bend my mind toward good things and try to be aware of what’s happening around me.  Love God and Love my neighbor. No, not just formula; really do it.  Even if the turd neighbor who annoys the snot out of me is impossible to love.  Love him/her anyway and keep my eyes, ears and mind open.  No telling what I might learn.

Reflections On Lent, Day 16

There’s not much reflecting that I have done on Lent today.  I awoke at the usual time (5:30 AM), made breakfast and drove off to work.  After work I walked three miles as part of my cardiac program and then went to buy tonight’s dinner.  Chili and hot dogs it was.  Upon returning home I had to call my brother in Idaho.  “Had to” does not really say it right however.  I wanted to call my brother.  Some of my best times are when I’m hanging out with my brother, whether in person or on the phone.  So let’s put it this way: it was a priority that I call my brother.

That call completed, now it’s time to eat and after that I must dive into “The Skeletons In God’s Closet” in order to prepare myself to help lead a book study next Monday night.  I love the book and love leading the study, and tonight I must pour a few hours’ into preparation for this project.  Of course, I still have Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday to go, but he who hesitates is lost, or so they say.  So tonight, preparing for my book project and talking to my brother take precedence over writing a reflection.

And that is completely biblical.  Ecclesiastes 3:2 says “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal—.”  You probably know the rest of that scripture, especially if you were a teenager in the 1960’s and listened to The Byrds singing “Turn Turn Turn”, a song written by American musical genius Pete Seeger.  I have no idea what the spiritual orientation of The Byrds or Mr. Seeger was but the lyrics, as far as anybody knows, are credited to Solomon, who knew a thing or two about God.

So tonight I prioritize.  That which I have considered and decided is truly important I will do.  That which is less important will take a back seat tonight.  To everything a season.

Reflections On Lent, Day 15

Today’s reflections on Lent is that I did not reflect very much on Lent.  Today was very much like all of the other days this year that I have gotten up, gone to work, come home and pittled away the rest of the evening without thinking too much about God.  It could have been lingering effects of the stress that I have been under with a sick granddaughter, or a day of juggling my time trying to keep the patients moving and not having to wait too long for their tests while trying to cover multiple sites with a bare minimum of employees.  With any luck some anticipated new employees will soon alleviate this burden, but for now I must carry it daily.

At any rate, when I arrived home from work an hour and a half after I normally do I had almost no energy left.  A nap, I reasoned, would be sufficient to rejuvenate me and enable me to attend our church’s weekly Home Community meeting at some friends’ house, and it probably would have been except that I didn’t wake up until well after the group would have come together and begun their meeting.  I regret missing Home Community.  I really do enjoy getting together with those good people, eating wonderful dinners and talking about God.  It’s one of the highlights of my week.  It just didn’t happen this week and contributed to the general flatness that I feel tonight.

I wonder if Jesus ever felt this kind of flatness.  Probably not.  He was God after all, and probably had enough irons in the fire to keep his spiritual edge keen and ready for work.  But Jesus was also human too.  One hundred percent human.  Isn’t it at least conceivable that Jesus was subject to the same impulses, or lack of impulses, and frailties that have plagued the rest of us mortals as we walked our sometimes dreary paths on this earth?  I don’t really know the answer to that, but I think that it’s at least worth pondering.

About the other saints I have no doubt.  Paul, with his thorn in the flesh, most certainly had times when he was simply thinking “I wish I could get that damned thorn out”, and the Ephesians or Romans or whoever just had to wait another day to get their church founded or receive that letter that they were waiting for.  And Martin Luther, when he was not wrestling with a Pope who could easily have him burned at the stake, spent hours squatting on the can and wrestling with painful and persistent constipation.  I wonder which situation Mr. Luther thought was the worse?  I have little doubt however that, between working out his 95 Theses and writing his Three Treatises Mr. Luther spent at least a little of his time wishing that he could just drop that log and get off of the pot, where his legs had long since gone numb while sitting there and waiting for something good to happen.

And on it goes, I assume, for the rest of struggling humanity.  Some days you are founding churches and writing theses and some days you just want relief from a nagging pain or to be able to take a dump.  Today has been one of those latter days for me.  It seemed sufficient to slog through a day’s work and wake up from a nap in time to eat dinner, write a thoroughly non-spiritual reflection on the fifteenth day of Lent and then get ready to go to bed.

So there it is.  I hope that you, reader, had a more Spirit-attuned day today than I did, and I hope that the Spirit floods me with thoughts and observations tomorrow.  For today, I can report that I made it through to the end with no particular spiritual insights given me over the course of the day.  I suppose it is possible that I’m in good company,

Reflections On Lent, Day 14

Thirteen is indeed a nasty number.  As I wrote yesterday, many people consider that number to be very unlucky.  I am now one who can be counted among their numbers.  I can write this for two reasons:  First, because this is my blog and I can write anything that I want, and secondly because today was a very great improvement over yesterday.  Yesterday I had a sick granddaughter with frightening symptoms and no diagnosis, a challenging day at work where I was exhausted from lack of sleep and distracted by worry, and was facing an eye test to evaluate some weird visual disturbances that I was having.  This does not make for a party sort of emotional state.

Today we apparently have a diagnosis, which can lead to a treatment.  I got a decent night’s sleep last night (utter exhaustion!) which helps everything, and the eye exam showed no evidence of detached retina, which was the result that I feared most.  So it would be very much in my nature to mutter a desultory prayer of thanks and relief, pour another glass of wine, and return to schlepping my way through life in my traditional pollyanna style.  OK, I’m not that shallow.  Not quite.  But you get the picture.  I live for the groove.  I like the Ansel Adams photo of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” hanging on my wall over the worn rocking chair that i bought upon the birth of my daughter 36 years ago and want both to stay exactly where they are for another 36 years.  That doesn’t mean that I’m a stick in the mud.  My friends will tell you that I am quite the opposite.  Still, I have a lifestyle, a pattern of behavior that is my comfort zone.  That comfort zone softens the blows of life for me and, so to speak, sedates me against the pain of life.  It is this rhythm of life that I gravitate back to after the storm subsides, and this rhythm does not include pondering the power and efficacy of prayer.  I only do that when waves are smashing in my windows and washing the soil out from under my foundation.

This is Lent however, the fourteenth day of Lent as a matter of fact, and I have tasked myself, and also feel that I have been tasked by God, to ponder the power and efficacy of prayer when the waves subside, the windows are replaced and the foundation shored up.  So I ask myself now: Was my prayer answered?  I prayed for the life and health of a beloved granddaughter yesterday and today we have great hope that a treatment can be drafted and put into effect, and that a beautiful young life will continue to bless her family until long after I am gone.  Is that an answered prayer?

I don’t know the answer to that question.  Nobody could possibly know the answer to that question.  Could this be purely physical?  Medical science applied to perplexing symptoms with the difficult but ultimately predictable outcome that I have described above?  Yeah, I suppose that could be true.  I suppose it is possible that I believe that some God answered my prayer only because I want to believe that, rather than believe that we are ultimately adrift in a random universe where the only gods are time and chance.  To be honest, if I did believe that I lived in such a universe I probably really would create a god to believe in and wouldn’t blame anybody else if they did so as well.

But I do not have to resort to that.  I worship a God who exists, who walked the earth, who preached, healed, performed miracles, was murdered but rose up out of the grave and appeared to multiple hundreds of people after the Romans had done their worst.  And Romans were very good at building roads and aqueducts, creating a legal system, and killing people.  I’m pretty sure that they killed Jesus good and dead.  This God said that I should pray when I am distressed (among other times) and He will answer me.  I prayed, and He answered.  I am sure that’s how the deal went down.

Of course, there’s still Boko Haram, North Korea, ISIS, repression of Muslims in Myanmar, the raping and killing of women in India and a host of other things that I pray about that have not been answered.  What about that?  The answer if I am hearing God clearly, is that the people of God were in Babylon for 70 years, the Hebrews were in Egypt 400 years, and Jesus has not returned in two thousand years.  Things take time, and God’s timetable is very different from my own.  That’s cool.  I’m OK with that.  God may take a little bit longer to clean up those other messes, but over the last 24 hours He seems to have taken one load off of my shoulders.  Tonight I will pray just as fervently a prayer of thanks as I prayed in supplication last night.  Why?  Because I have faith.