The Phoenix Gift

It was time.

The bare bulb threw sharp shadows, angular in their diminished brilliance, leaving remote closet corners barely illuminated. Casting about the cluttered closet — that mortuary of materialism where much that was once precious now lies entombed in dust and disuse — a glimpse of a black vinyl case peaked through the litter: this was it. Clambering over the clutter, I grasped the handle, and stumbled across the junk to lift it free.

It seemed so very heavy, perhaps less from its mass than from the burden of its past, and the history which it bore. It had been many, many years since I had shouldered that weight.

Flipping its latches and opening the lid, a fleeting sense of emptiness filled me, in that dark, ill-lit corner of the soul where unfathomable loss resides, long since grieved, rationalized, and set aside amongst the litter of life’s unmet expectations, disappointments, and futile hopes, in that process we euphemistically call “moving on.”

The passion had been real, and intense, if short-lived. From the infancy of struggle to master simple chords and rhythmic strumming; to the adolescent incoherence of lessons teaching orchestral chord comping and chordal melodies in an age of Hendrix and Cream; to the maturity of a group of bizarrely eclectic musicians hammering together rock rhythms and jazz harmonies into something akin to fusion jazz, well before anyone quite knew what to call such a musical chimera: throughout this musical coming of age I had discovered something which, for the first time in those younger days, expressed the depths of a soul at once both lonely and frightened, yet hopeful and excited. Hours were spent in practice; days in arranging pieces I had written in the still-unfamiliar language of musical notation; years in coming to a place where I felt comfortable creating and performing something uniquely of my own spirit with and before others.

As that dusty case swung opened, the guitar now in full view, I experienced as well, for a brief instant, another moment in time: The cockiness of overconfidence unwarranted by experience or training. The intoxicating smell of hardwood carved by blindingly fast blades. The gunshot sound of mahogany hurtled across a room to land splintered on hard concrete. The first stunned look at a hand mangled beyond recognition. The shouts and chaos of a wood shop where something catastrophic had just occurred. The utter despondency of seeing a musical gift, once soaring and graceful, now fallen in the ashes of a smoldering and dying dream. The other-worldly moment where I mysteriously felt moved to thank God for what had just happened — and the stunning inner peace that followed immediately thereupon. The long, painful recovery filled with false hope that I could use my left hand to play again. The brief and fruitless attempt to play with my opposite hand a decade later, soon abandoned in frustration as I came to terms with a loss which was not to be regained, mourned alone in dark rooms with inconsolable, sobbing tears.

It was time to sell this guitar, and another, and move on.

I gently picked up the instrument, its strings dull and lifeless, its frets oxidized and rough, its neck slightly bowed by years of constant pull from strings left tuned to pitch. I sat, and began, gently, to strum, a little.

And a small smoldering ember deep within briefly flickered into flame.

It would need to be cleaned up to sell. New strings, a gentle polishing of frets with fine steel wool, some tender cleaning and polishing of wood dulled by dust and grime, and it found new life again. The guitar, a low-end left-handed Stratocaster built in Japan in the 80’s, would not bring much on eBay. The action was too high, the bridge and tuners low-quality, but the active pickups I had installed shortly after it was purchased had superb sound — and made it seem worth saving. Perhaps I should keep it, upgrade some components, and sell it then — or even give this silly idea of playing one more chance. After all, you never know…

Two months later, a new guitar emerged, with high-quality hardware, a new neck, and far enhanced playability. The project was a sheer joy, as I mastered new skills at guitar repair and setup. The time spent waiting had not been wasted, as I set about laboriously mastering the basic skills necessary to play again.

It was far more labor than play.

Most guitar players play “right-handed” — which paradoxically means they use their left hand to finger the notes to play on the fretted neck, while their right hand plucks the strings directly or with a flat pick. Switching to “left-handed” meant the right hand handled the fretting duty — made somewhat easier by being the stronger, dominant hand — but now meant the weaker left hand, with much reduced finger flexibility and strength from the injury, had to handle picking the strings. Even holding a pick was exasperating at first, as it shifted position constantly or dropped out of my fingers altogether, leading to endless frustration. The pick hand must also move nimbly across the strings, coordinating the string plucked with those fretted by the right. The lack of left-right coordination was maddening, as striking the wrong string, or multiple dissonant strings — compounded by the challenges of controlling the pick — made for painful and fumbling attempts to play even the simplest melody line or chord progression.

Then there was the mind-muscle disconnect: the mind had a pretty good (albeit rather rusty) idea of what to play, from my previous musical training and experience — but the muscles controlling the fingers had an entirely different idea, and balked at positioning themselves to manage even simple chords and scales. One day would bring apparent progress; the next would leave me with little doubt that this whole effort was foolishness and futile, a waste of time better spent on more productive pursuits.

But yet I persisted, driven in no small part by the reawakened passion to play — and the determination and persistence that time and maturity have taught me are the only way to accomplish any goal which is worthwhile. I have just begun taking lessons, putting aside the all-too-easy presumption that I can magically acquire skills without the guidance of others and the disciplined paths they prescribe.

And I am making progress which is both encouraging and measurable. I have not as yet reached a level by any means where I am competent, much less accomplished — but I have reached a place from where such an accomplishment is no longer a hopeless fantasy, but a realizable and foreseeable future.

And I can now see, through eyes of faith, a day where my spirit may once again soar on the winds of song and the harmonies of the heart. To die, and be born again; to be immolated, and rise from life’s ashes; these are the mysteries and the wonders of the ever-unfolding journey of faith.

There can be little doubt that there will be much music in heaven — soaring, glorious, beautiful beyond words. And I now know that I shall be there, adding in some small measure to that infinite and glorious song of eternity.

God of Loss and Grace

The Anchoress tells of receiving heartbreaking news: the prospect of losing her hearing:

Yesterday morning, though, came a straw I have dreaded my whole life, and I finally drew it: the “you are losing your hearing” straw…

The loss was discovered, of course, due to that dismal ear infection of the past two weeks, but the hearing in that afflicted ear is only slightly worse than the other. Upon reading my test results the doctor asked if I had worked around airplanes for the past 20 years, or if I had fronted a rock band. “Severe degeneration! hearing aids!”

The pain of such a loss is real, and it is deep — it can neither be trivialized nor ignored. Some will deaden the pain by drink, others by denial or depression, or one of a host of other means whereby we mitigate the pain while refusing to embrace it.

We live with sense of entitlement: we should be free of pain and suffering. For most, such dire news — particularly about health and well-being — is a devastating blow, devoid of meaning and justice, a cruel trick of fate, perhaps, or some sort of karmic retribution for evil done in this life or one prior. It is at best random misfortune, at worst a cruel robbery, a brutal injustice. There is no making sense of it — it is without reason or purpose.

Yet for the Christian, things are supposed to be different. We serve — as an article of faith — a God of love, and when one has committed their life to such service, the reward of such a severe trial raises a host of uncomfortable questions: Is God unfair? Is this punishment for sin? Is He capricious, toying with me, playing me for the fool, demanding my obedience then rewarding me with pain and loss?

The Anchoress responds as many would — with rage:

“I drove home pounding the steering wheel and telling God I thought He was pretty damned unfair, after all. I demanded that He listen to me and make me a sensible answer about why things were going as they were, why at only 46 years of age I was increasingly debilitated, increasingly arthritic, increasingly feeling like a 65 year old.

It’s not enough that I must sometimes use a cane, or that I wear glasses, not enough that I am constantly bruised, often fatigued into stupidity and inarticulate, stammering aphasia, not enough that my body is scarred all over and that my skin is under seige simply because I am Irish! now I am going to need hearing aids? Now I am going to be deaf? What has my husband ever done to you, that you need to inflict this sort of wife upon him?

Oh, I howled. I ranted.

And it was so out of character for me to do so – this has not been my way, to shake an angry fist at God and make demands. I didn’t like doing it – it felt so wrong. So wrong, not to simply be thankful for my blessings – for all the good things, and all the “not too bad” things.

But I was so angry.

Anger at God — a frightening, even terrifying thought. At worst it presents images of lightning strikes, fire and brimstone, judgment, destruction. Better to pretend you’re not angry, hide it from God lest He send another, more awful plague in retribution.
Continue reading “God of Loss and Grace”

The Road to Grace: Honesty

Fifth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace
  3. The Sword of Grace
  4. Getting to Grace
  5. The Road to Grace: Transparency

 
Honesty.

Perhaps the rarest of all human virtues, treasured mostly in its absence, brought into focus most sharply in its antithesis.

If you ponder the subject for a moment, you may well find it surprising that we are anything but honest — that we do less than express exactly what we think, that we are anything but open and honest about our actions and motives. There are, after all, no dishonest dogs, no lying cats (though some might differ), no roguish raccoons or shady shellfish or mendacious mammals — save man.

So why, then, do we twist and torture the truth, crafting clever stories or deft deceits to cover our shortcomings and faults, smiling warmly while telling the most audacious prevarications concerning things both weighty and trivial? Why is this so often our default behavior?

What, exactly, are we trying to hide?

The answer lies in that dark angel of shame, that inner incubus engendered from a life spent divesting endless energy in the pursuit of the empty self. For dishonesty arises from evil, from the desire to hide that which must not be seen, from the need to present ourselves to others as something other than we are. Our ruptured relationship with God produces a perverse and unnatural self-sufficiency, driven by the desperate desire to fill the vast inner chasm thus resulting with a host of destructive desires, behaviors, and obsessions.

These fevered yet futile attempts to kill the existential emptiness and primal agony of life lived unnaturally, isolated from the life-source of God, prove highly toxic, causing yet greater distraction by their inevitable consequences. Designed to give, we strive endlessly to acquire; created to love, we engender hatred, exploiting others to fill our unquenchable needs, and detesting them when they prove unable to meet them. Our relationships become, not fertile beds of true intimacy, but vast webs of manipulation, abuse, resentment, and fear, as we suck the life out of others, seeking to satiate the insatiable void in our still-empty soul.

When we use the finite and futile to fill our edacity for the infinite, the invariable outcome of this manic miasma is a deepening conviction of our own guilt and growing awareness of our intrinsic unworthiness. Yet there remains a gossamer thread still tying us to the divine, an ancient truth near forgotten, a genesis of the God-life deep within, which says this can not, this must not, be true. And thus we craft another narrative of necessity, convincing ourselves and all around us that we are something which in fact we are not.

This pervasive dishonesty is the antithesis of transparency, and if we are to approach the ideal of being truly integrated — our inner self and outer appearances drawing toward unity — then we must come face to face with our own deceitfulness. This pilgrimage toward honesty must begin with the one with whom we are most deceitful: ourselves.

In our sophistry and sophistication this self-delusion is called by many names: rationalization; minimalization; justification; denial; projection. Though we often place such concepts solidly in the realm of science and psychology, they are in fact the attributes of a soul unwilling to face its inner abyss. They are, distilled down to their sordid essence, our unwillingness, our inability, to be rigorously, ruthlessly honest with ourselves.

Such a journey to the center of the soul cannot, indeed should not, be undertaken alone. The very strongholds we wish to conquer are such that they unite in their own defense: you will reason that you do not rationalize; you will deny your denial; project your fury at yourself onto others; minimalize your own responsibility for much which ails you. The mind is a dangerous neighborhood, best visited with another.

There is much to be learned from those who have undertaken this road to rigorous honesty through the crushing collapse of all of life’s props, brought about by the slavery of addiction and alcoholism. Driven to utter depredation and despondency by the scourge of a compulsion unbeatable and hopeless, they stagger into smoke-filled halls and church basements to seek what help they may from others of their kind. There they find kindred spirits — coarse in speech and common in appearance — yet victorious over the selfsame demons which shriek within their own dissipated minds.

They hear, for the first time, a startling truth:

Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.

There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.

Honesty: how peculiar, how unexpected, how self-evidently foolish as the solution to a deadly losing battle against booze. Yet those who triumph are those who become most willing to expose their darkest secrets, to face their shame, to lay it open before God, and share these hidden horrors which have enslaved them with another trusted friend.

Of course, you protest, you are not at all like those people, drunks and druggies, whose lack of moral character, hedonism, and enfeebled will must depend on such extreme and ridiculous measures to overcome their moral turpitude. You, on the other hand, a faithful Christian, have seen the light, and are walking the straight and narrow, secure in your own righteousness — err, the righteousness of Christ. The truth has set you free, after all — you know Christ.

Uh-huh.

And Christ knows you, and spoke about you often: something about “whitewashed tombs” comes to mind.

The path to honesty starts — startlingly — by getting honest, first and foremost, about ourselves. The dark heart of man knows no bounds — and the Christian is no exception, no matter how righteously we present ourselves to the outside world. Our hearts are filled with greed, lust, hatred, fear, pride, and extreme selfishness. Our one great advantage is this: when we are honest about our true nature, and act on that honesty, there is grace unlimited to overcome these inner demons.

So how then should we proceed?

We should, first of all, be systematic. Recovery programs use an approach which lists resentments, fears, and harms done to others — thereby covering a vast expanse of problems in human relationships which poison the soul — relationships so often devastated by the extraordinary self-centeredness so central to addiction. Other structured formats exist, based on lists of character defects, the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, the seven deadly sins, or other moral or spiritual principles. In a subsequent post I hope to expand on the recovery model, as well as provide a list of questions as a starting point to discovering core moral failings. The key here is not to achieve some legalistic righteousness, nor to engender guilt and self-pity, but rather to bring about conviction — that painful but healing knowledge of where we have failed, which is the commencement of a journey toward breaking the control of self-centered evil over our lives.

The second point is this: we do this to share with another. We should not strive to paint a rosy picture to impress, nor fill our story with a host of justifications, or endless whining about how life and its inhabitants have done us dirty. Surely they have in many instances — but we are responsible for our own attitudes and actions, regardless of the culpability of others. If we are rigorous and honest with ourselves, we will generally find we have brought much of life’s pain upon ourselves.

And lastly, we must pray. Unaided, our souls will drift and dodge, and find a million excuses for putting off this necessary work or justifying our ill motives and evil actions. Prayer empowers us to know, and in knowing, enables us to change. “I am the Truth and the Light” — both the ideal and the means to grasp and achieve it.

Everything inside you will rebel at this task, complete with procrastination, timidity, and our insane busyness whereby we avoid facing life’s painful truths and necessary reflections.

And of course, this self-examination isn’t really necessary, after all.

Unless, of course, you want to experience grace.

The Road to Grace: Transparency

Fifth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace
  3. The Sword of Grace
  4. Getting to Grace

 

We’ve been discussing some of the core principles of how the Christian faith works — not by adhering to a new set of moral dictates or rules to follow, but by undergoing a transaction which begins with forgiveness and judicial innocence, empowered by a profound inner change, a new inner man which draws us toward the fulfillment of new purpose and direction, aligned with God’s will. This inner transformation creates conflict, as the habits and strongholds of a lifetime of self-will do not die easily. While our course is being realigned toward a new direction, our free will remains fully intact — and often quite committed to the comfortable and convenient paths which, while hoary and familiar, still prove destructive and counter-productive.

Some of these old patterns change quickly under the assault of grace and the insight and changed motives of our new life. But many are stubborn — fortified fortresses, hewn from heavy stones, built up over many years as survival skills for coping with the pain and emptiness which is the hallmark of the self-centered life. These challenges take many forms: bitter resentments; irrational fears; addictions in their many forms; compulsive deceitfulness; rage and anger; arrogance, condescension, manipulation, and many other manifestations of our self-centered, self-serving dispositions. Many Christians falter while assaulting these lofty walls, throwing themselves repeatedly against their bulwarks in futility and frustration, only to fail yet again.

But not all meet these insurmountable challenges with frustration and failure. Some — almost ironically, those most profoundly defeated by these very assaults — find another way — a way which turns their very defeats into powerful, yet humble, victories. They find in their brokenness, wholeness; in their hopelessness, hope; in their shattering, salvation and strength. It is a victory not achievable by force of determination or strength of will; its power lies in utter defeat, sanctified and empowered by the embrace of grace.

One of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith is this: those who are most profoundly defeated are best equipped to help others suffering these same defeats. No one helps an alcoholic like a recovering alcoholic; no one can touch and comfort one mired in depression like one who has experienced that dark hell themselves — and transcended it through grace. We are afflicted that others may be healed.

There is in today’s culture a toxic strain of Christianity, a bastard born of a great faith incestuously whored with the shallow nihilism of obscenely prosperous materialism, which teaches that we should all be wealthy, all be healed, all be delivered from every difficulty by a simple word of faith or healing prayer. But quick-fix Christianity is a Golden Calf, an empty shell of a faith made great not by wealth and comfort but by the suffering of its saints. We are delivered to deliver others; it is our pain which purchases true freedom.

There is no easy path on the road to grace; indeed, we will never choose willingly those roads which lead to deliverance. The signs will point downward when we wish to go up; they will lead to narrow ledges and steep cliffs when the easy roads seem broad and safe. It is perilous to travel these pathways alone: Christianity is a journey of companions. The path will never be the same for any of us — but those markers which guide us have been placed by many pilgrims who have gone before.

Christianity promises to be the triumph of light over darkness: “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” But beyond this compelling imagery, what exactly does this imply? The Christian often conceptualizes this luminance as transpiring in the realm of the intellectual: we have, as a result of our recreated life, a deeper understanding of right and wrong, a fresh appreciation for the things of God and the destructiveness of sin. We “see the light,” in the sense of insight, thought, and moral compass.

But the light which casts its brilliance upon us is not merely confined to the mind, for the mind is quick to rationalize and deceive, all too eager to accommodate and justify that which is both dark and destructive. The true power of the light of Christianity shines most brightly in a most frightening place — the place of transparency.

At the heart of our displacement from God, our existential angst, lives the dark angel which goes by the name of shame. While often confused and conflated with guilt, shame is not about behavior which violates a standard — the essence of guilt — but about an inner worthlessness, an empty and terrifying conviction that we are unclean, rejected, contemptible, and hopelessly flawed. To gaze upon this terrifying truth is to stand face to face with destruction, to suffer the catastrophic rejection of any and all who might glimpse our ghastly secret.

This terror drives us, a vicious and merciless master, energizing and engendering a host of fortifications which shroud the secret while simultaneously lending power to its dark dominance. The engine of shame drives before it an endless train of ragged, wretched slaves: condescension and arrogance; fears of every kind; manipulation and control; rage; lust; obsessive and compulsive behaviors conscripted to distract from the death within and kill its ungodly pain.

When these feeble defenses are finally stripped away, as their utility spectacularly fails in some life catastrophe, sundering our lives apart, we come at last to the point of grace: our shame becomes exposed, a gruesome corpse no longer hidden in its shallow grave, its decaying limbs uncovered by the torrential storms of life. The alcoholic hits bottom; the marriage ends abruptly and unexpectedly; a child dies; financial disaster strikes. Whatever the crisis, whatever the circumstances, we come to a point where there is nowhere to fall but into the arms of a graceful and gracious God.

It is at this moment we finally become honest with God, even while enraged at the injustice He has allowed to befall us. It is a severe mercy, a crucifixion not sought yet divinely ordained. Our rage at God is nothing if not honest — indeed, it may prove to be the first honest thing we have done in many a day.

Yet to be honest with God alone — whether in anger, or desperation, or fear, or faith — is to but glimpse the beginning of a transparency which transforms. If we are to seek out the fullness of grace, and find the redeeming and transforming power which grace alone can bring, we must do something else, something far more frightening: we must share our darkest inner lives with others.

Uncomfortable yet? You should be.

The recoil and horror you feel at this prospect is natural — it is the reflexive response of years of defending the darkness, pandering to its relentless demands as it strangles the lifeblood from us. It is the reluctance to have surgery though the cancer will kill you, the end of a deadly dance whose suffocating embrace is asphyxiating your soul.

Such work cannot be done alone. Transparency with God alone is not adequate to the strongholds which enslave us in ways both brutal and ruthless. We must expose our inner selves, our shame, our failings, our fealty to evil — and we must do so with another human being.

The Church exists for a reason: it is the body of Christ on earth. This is not merely a theoretical or theological construct, but a crucial fact: we are the hands, heart, eyes and ears of Christ on earth. Flawed, fallen, feckless, failing, to be sure — yet chosen by God to be very instrument whereby He brings healing and wholeness to its members. The Church is not merely choir members singing hymns, or liturgy, or sermons on Sunday; it is a hospice, a hospital, the tangible instrument whereby Christ, having touched our brokenness with healing grace, uses our very failings as the surgeon’s knife, the lenitive balm to restore and rescue others. Redemption — to be “purchased back” its core meaning — is not just about saving our selves, but salving the souls of others. In the upside-down, counter-intuitive paradox which is the kingdom of grace, our very diseases bring healing to others. The toxic illness which is self-will run riot is broken — and after it is hopelessly shattered and utterly worthless, only then is repurchased by God, at full price, and made into something of great wonder.

When we begin to open our souls to another, our agonized words find common ground in their experience, not only in the depths of our pain but in hope for our deliverance. Our secret shame finds not judgment, but understanding; not criticism but gentle correction; not rejection but relationship with another who has walked these same dark paths and found restoration and wholeness at their end.

Transparency: what you see on the outside is what resides on the inside.

It is, in its simplicity, terrifying yet profoundly liberating. It must be done with wisdom: it is not wise to cast our swine before pearls. Quite often, it will not be found in those who are most religiously righteous. If you look carefully, however, you will find those whose grace and humility bespeak the chrysalis of a new life arisen from brokenness.

Seek them out, and take a risk. You will never look back.

Getting to Grace

Fourth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace
  3. The Sword of Grace

 
We’ve spent some time recently on relatively heavy-duty topics — like justification, sanctification, and grace — as we’ve explored Christianity as a faith founded on grace and mercy rather than obligation and judgment. Most non-Christians — and far too many Christians, unfortunately — view the Christian faith as a set of rules to follow, a collection of obligations which must be met to “keep God happy.” But it’s not just laws and legalism, but rather a profound inner change of direction and orientation which radically changes the spirit — and leaves the mind and the will stumbling and fumbling behind as they struggle to do in their own power that which they are incapable of achieving.

How do we in practice, in the daily grind of sweat and swearing, facilitate the transformation of the whole being which is the ultimate goal in starting down this path?

For me, it comes down to a simple calculus: what makes me do what I do?

You see, if my goal is to have my thoughts and actions aligned with those of God — when they have spent life running hard in the opposite direction — then something quite essential has to change: my motivation. It has been my experience that the grit-your-teeth-and-just-do-it! approach just doesn’t cut it. Sure, I can muster up will power to bludgeon down the gates of heaven, trudging on for a while doing the “right thing,” but that gets very old and very cold before very long at all.

I’ve concluded that, in essence, I do things in life for one of two reasons: I do them because I have to, or I do them because I want to.

Now, all the shrinks and psychologists out there may be excused, before they start bringing up Oedipus complexes, anal retentiveness, the Id, and a host of other Freudian mechanisms which, frankly, hold little or no interest for me — not because they may not have some influence on me (they may well, but color me skeptical that human motivation is so primitive, brutal, and simplistic), but because they are of no practical value in the day-to-day decision-making that makes up the brunt of life.

So let’s keep it simple: if I’m doing something, I’m doing it because I want to, or because I have to. And sure, there’s a lot of overlap here — I often enjoy many of the things which I am obligated to do. And, this may surprise you: I find that doing things I like is always easier than doing things I must .

This is why, for me, a faith which is all about rules and obligations is so very hard to follow, and ultimately doomed to failure. My natural gravity is this: I like doing the things which are destructive for me and which separate me from God — they seem to be rather hard-wired within. On the other hand, I really don’t want to do “good things” — things which draw me closer to God — because I don’t believe they will make me happy, or benefit me, or they seem too difficult: they are a chore and a bore, best avoided. To my way of thinking, I will be quite happy when I get what I want — and when this doesn’t satisfy, well, then I simply need more of what I want.

And herein lies the miracle of grace: the inner transformation of forgiveness and new life have the power to make me want to do the things which draw me nearer to God — the things I previously had no interest whatsoever in doing. And once I find myself doing such things, motivated out of an inner desire to do them, rather than a crushing obligation of rules and law, I begin to experience the rewards of acting in concert with the purposes of God.

And my life begins to get better, and happier, and a whole lot more peaceful.

It’s the damnedest thing. Really. But it really works.

What is going on in this process is not a repudiation of free will, a blind robotic submission to some nebulous deity; it is rather a confluence of wills. I freely choose to do that which I know to be the right thing, despite my natural reluctance to do so — and find in the doing that the choice opens to me a new experience of God, a new pleasure and satisfaction in doing those things which, despite my innate reticence and selfish reluctance, actually bring about a deep sense of satisfaction, purpose, and joyfulness.

The process works, in my experience, through a series of steps:

♦ Insight & conviction: As I discussed previously, the inner transformation of grace occurs first in the spirit, then percolates up through mind and soul. There comes a rather sudden awareness that certain behaviors, thoughts, actions, and attitudes are no longer okay. Call this conviction, call it conscience, call it dis-ease, call it guilt if you will (a word widely ridiculed in a culture which glories in the shameful, decadent, and destructive). It is a sense of uncomfortableness which acts as as a warning sign, a guidepost which gently alerts you that you’re off course, and acts an inducement to change.

♦ Repentance: The dis-ease triggered by wandering off course triggers a desire to change, to correct the error and get back on track. The will kicks into action, determined to act, think, or speak differently.

♦ Confession and forgiveness: We acknowledge to God that we have wandered away, and offended Him — not because He is a jealous tyrant trying to spoil our fun, but because He is determined in love to draw us closer to Him, and our own actions have ultimate harmed us by separating us from His love and grace.

For many of our character flaws, this sequence brings significant change: the desire to pursue the destructive and hurtful behaviors intrinsic to our old way of life lessens, and often disappears altogether. It becomes easier and more natural to do those things which make our life more peaceful and purposeful, as the new way of living becomes normal and natural. Change comes from the inside out, and with it considerable joy and contentment.

Would that it were always this easy.

Before long we stumble upon the more difficult moral challenges in life, the strongholds which are deeply entrenched in our souls, the behaviors and failures which we seem unable to overcome, despite our growing awareness of how hurtful they are to ourselves and others, and how destructive to a deepening relationship with God. We run through the drill, repeatedly: failure, conviction, repentance, confession, recommitment. Wash, rinse, repeat — endlessly, with no apparent progress and increasing discouragement as the new life seems increasingly powerless and frustrating.

The power of Christianity, the new inner life which transforms, often seems incapable of overcoming such roadblocks. These strongholds may be many: excessive fears; inability to trust; anger and rage; greed and materialism; sexual addictions and compulsions; drug and alcohol abuse; compulsive eating, or gambling, or a host of other destructive habits and obsessions. Many of these arise from deep wounds sustained in life: abuse, abandonment, childhood or adult trauma; severe physical or mental disabilities. Some are even inborn or inherited, such as alcoholism or obesity. Their enslavement seems total, even insurmountable; the journey to wholeness which Christianity promises so often runs aground on their jagged rocks and shallow shoals.

Yet these, too, can be vanquished. These, too, can be not merely conquerable, but will become instruments in the hands of a gracious God to bring extraordinary change, not only within us, but for many others around us.

“The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This was spoken, not only of Christ, but of us: our greatest liabilities can become extraordinary assets in the hands of grace.

But be forewarned: the journey over these jagged crags is a terrifying one — but it is the only way out of the prison. Be prepared to lose all you treasure, and more.

And be prepared to gain vastly more than you bargained for. Getting to grace is a hazardous path — and the most exciting journey you’ll ever take.

The Sword of Grace

Third in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace

 
We struggled through some intimidating “God-words” — justification and sanctification — in my previous post, and in the process I lost both of my regular readers, leaving but a few wandering insomniacs whose Ambien prescription had just run short. For those now drifting back, whose eyes are just now unglazing, I touched on something of how Christianity works — or doesn’t, for many who have tread its well-worn path.

If nothing else, I hope for those who endured that irreverent review, that there arose at least a glimpse of the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Christianity is not merely another framework of moral codes by which to live. It is not comprised solely of the teachings of a charismatic leader, urging compliance to please or placate God or promulgating some hidden wisdom. It asserts at its very heart an outrageous claim: that those who relinquish their right to self-centered autonomy by submitting to God through the specific and exclusive portal of Christ will become judicially guiltless before their Creator. It further claims — perhaps even more outrageously — by this act to re-create the person so submitting, in a manner so thorough and profound that the individual can no longer be thought of as the same person who existed prior to that moment of choice and submission.

Yet if these claims are true, if this transformation be as radical and profound as its teachings and proponents assert, why then are those who lay hold of this conviction seemingly so little different from others who have not undergone this metamorphosis? If Christians are utterly transformed in the depth of their beings, why do they struggle and fail so often to be outwardly transformed as they should inevitably be by such a tectonic shift of the soul?

I was afraid you were going to ask that.

And I would be presumptuous and foolish to pretend that I have simple answers; I do not. What I do have is experience — the experience of many years of walking the Christian life, with stunning successes which proved all too fleeting, and disastrous failures which made a mockery of the high calling and lofty precepts of the convictions I hold dear. And I have shared this journey and experiences with many others, both past and present, whose path while wildly different in particulars is indistinguishable at its core.

What exactly is the nature of this transformation, this re-creation, which lays claim to a man in such mysterious manner? It is perhaps best described by what it is not.

It is not simply a change in thinking, a new perspective, a different set of opinions or a new worldview. If anything, the mind is the last bastion of resistance to its influence, and often the greatest enemy of the very change needed to transform the whole of one’s being.

It is not simply an emotional experience. Although emotions may be powerfully affected, emotions often serve to inhibit or distract from true progress, and are notoriously unreliable guides to its course.

It is not simply a change of the will, a setting of a new direction and discipline to achieve new goals and improve one’s life. The will, indeed, must be conquered, shackled, broken like a wild stallion to suit the purposes of this new Master. The will becomes but servant — rebellious, recalcitrant, resistant, remorseless, fighting its new overlord at every turn.

It is not simply a change of heart — although the heart lies closest to the seat of change, and senses its arrival before all else.

It is perhaps best described as a genesis; an arid fountainhead bursting forth with fresh spring water; an ancient stygian chamber shot through with dazzling shafts of light; a Phoenix arising from the ashes of the heart. There is a primordial recess in the soul of man, a silent sarcophagus unheralded and unseen, which springs to life like the burst of new flora at winter’s demise, when this dawn first breaks.

Thus is the experience of this new creation — but it is far more than mere renewal. It is as well — unexpectedly, surprisingly — a force of sedition with an unassailable foothold in a hostile land, seeking to undermine and overturn the tyranny of self with the sword of grace.

We are now at war. “I have come, not to bring peace, but the sword.”

Its effects are immediate, and often profound. There is a new vision, a grasp of things formerly hidden, a new light disclosing much which was cloaked in darkness, a profound and unbounded joy of discovery, and purpose, and optimism. We glory in the glint of sunlight reflecting off the helmets of our soldiers, marching in perfect unison, their colorful regalia stirring our hearts with visions of triumphant victory.

The reality is soon discovered to be starkly different. The cratered carnage of the battlefield, littered with the detritus of battles fought bravely but foolishly, sobers the spirit and saps the strength. The victory we hoped to be swift and painless now seems pyhrric if not pointless. Yet the failures are themselves at the point of the sword — they are, paradoxically, the means to triumph.

When a man becomes new in his spirit, he has engaged the very power of God in an irrevocable union whose outcome will be the full restoration of the purpose and relationship intended — by design — between the Creator and His creation. But the love which such a relationship demands must be utterly free, and hence the will and actions of man must be left unfettered and without coercion. This will, long subsumed to the service of self, must ultimately be turned to harmonious submission to the will of God, which desires, in freedom, the full integration of the new man into the wholeness and purpose of God’s design.

Though the inner change brought about by submission to God and our judicial pardon is profound, the mind and the will are steeped in a toxic brew of lifelong slavery to self. We have years of destructively pursuing that which seems right to us — of deceiving ourselves and others about our true thoughts and motives; of addictions and obsessions and hardened habits which have served to mitigate the pain and emptiness which our ego-enlargement have ultimately wrought. We lie to cover the shame; we react in anger, and resentment, and rage to cover the fears: fears of exposure and moral nakedness; fears of rejection; fears of failure; fears of existential insignificance. The sex, the booze, the pursuit of money and prestige, the materialism — all are exploited in search of integration and meaning, all leading only to more emptiness, more pain, more meaninglessness — and more of the same behaviors, over and over, endlessly.

Before our transformation, we are in a sense of one mind: this is the only life we know, the only tools we have at hand. Our inner and outer selves are on the same page, though the story is going nowhere and the final chapter looks bleak.

After our inner selves are transformed, however, the old contrivances no longer find consonance within; they find, instead, dis-ease. Our spirits are forging forward on a separate journey, and there is increasing tension between a mind and a will committed to failed, destructive solutions and an inner being seeking truth and wholeness.

We react to the inner discord our old life engenders with the tools we know best: we try, using knowledge, and effort, and will power, and discipline, to change the thoughts and actions we now know to be destructive. And we succeed — at first.

Sort of.

The behavior changes, but the thoughts and desires linger. The appearance improves, but the inner demons remain — if anything, they grow stronger, as each failure is a new victory for an old life. The struggle is draining and painful, disheartening and exhausting, as old habits persist and even prosper. With each failure, renewed commitment; with each relapse, new resolve. With each sortie, stalemate. Again. And again. And again.

And this, surprisingly, is exactly as it should be.

The mind and the will, unaided by grace, have no power to conquer the forces which bind them. They must be broken. There can be no resurrection of the dead until the dead be shown incapable of resurrection.

At some point in this long and fruitless journey, a juncture is reached. The wheels are coming off the car, and we’ve tired of pushing the pedal ever harder. It is a moment of choice: to resign ourselves to our old life, embrace our failure, and drown out the quiet pleadings of that inner voice; or submit, yet again, broken, falling headlong into the arms of grace, which alone can conquer that which is vastly larger than our feeble wills and darkened minds can overcome.

The sword of grace has slayed yet another stronghold of the old life. Another small parcel of the tyranny of self has been repurchased. We have been given what we could not gain by our own efforts, regardless how determined.

Cheer up. There are many more such battles ahead.

How then do we appropriate this liberating grace, this victory through surrender? There is no formula, for formulas are the haven of fools. But there are answers. The answers, I have found, are always simple — and never easy.

But that, my friends, is a topic for another day.

Back soon, God bless.

Justification, Sanctification, and Grace

If you’re browsing along, and see the topic of this post, chances are good you’ve already clicked the next link on your blogroll, especially if you’re not a Christian. You probably don’t realize this isn’t really a theological discourse — well, in a way it is, I suppose, as all discussions of the spiritual life are in some way theological — but my intent is not to bore you to tears. But I will certainly understand if you can’t get past the “God-words.” No problem, happy browsing, drop back again for another topic of more interest to you.

Even if you are a Christian, you’re probably getting a little nervous already, as your eyes glaze over when this sort of stuff gets talked about at church or your bible study. Hang with me a few minutes, then surf on if I get too deep — fair enough?

Good, glad you stayed.

In a prior post on purpose in life, prompted by some musings by Rick over at Brutally Honest, we got some discussion going — at both blogs — on these very topics. Yes, we all need a life, I suppose — unless this stuff really is about getting a life, at least one that matters. At the core of this discussion is some reflection on how well we’re doing in life — specifically whether our lives make a difference to someone other than ourselves, whether as Christians (or just people trying to do the right thing) we’re behaving in ways which are pleasing to God, or meet with His approval, or following the Golden Rule — whatever that might be.

I recall a conversation I had some years ago with a young man in Britain, in the old Compuserve forum days. He, an atheist/agnostic, said something to the effect of, “All religions are the same — there’s basically a set of rules to follow, and if you obey them, you get rewarded by going to heaven.”

And I agreed with him (to his surprise) — with one caveat: that Christianity is the one exception to his otherwise astute observation. In Christianity, it’s not about doing something different, it’s about being something different.

So how does that work? And aren’t Christians all about being good, following the Bible, going to church — and condemning and judging those who don’t?

Yeah, all too often we are. Sad but true. But that’s not really how it’s supposed to work, you know. Which is how we somehow started discussing these “God-words,” or what I call the “-cation” words: justification, sanctification, and vacation. (Well maybe not the last one, but God do I love vacations!). So what do they mean?

Well, “justification” is really a legal term — same root meaning as justice. The term was used in ancient Greek civic culture for writing off a substantial, unpayable debt. It basically says we’re seriously busted, in deep doo-doo, goin’ to court before the judge with a public defender who was out drinking all night and comes to court with a bimbo on each arm. We’re guilty as sin, our tattooed arms and body piercings are on full display, and sitting on the throne is Judge Judy — and she’s got her bitch on, bad. We’re goin’ up the river for a life of TVs in our cells and tin cups, weight rooms and a big guy named Willie who thinks we’re really, really cute.

Then this dude whispers in Judy’s ear. She grumbles a bit, huffs, then blows us away with some unexpected news: you’re free to go. Your guilty as charged, but some stranger has stepped in and offered to do your time for you, to pay your debt in full. Wha?? Dude!! “As far as this court is concerned, you are as good as innocent”, says the Judge. “Now get outta here!”

That’s justification.

Declared “not guilty” through no merit of my own. Too good to be true. Why would anyone do such a thing?

Well, to push the metaphor, already strained, a bit farther: it seems this guy who’s paid the price to set you free has been watching you for a long, long time. He’s sees in you something of himself, and envisions for you a potential far greater than anything you could ever imagine. He’s got great plans for you; you fit just perfectly into a grand scheme he’s been thinking about since long before your sorry ass landed on this planet. It’s worth it to him to pay such a price, because the outcome of this grand plan means everything to him. And so he’s given you this gift to make it happen. For free.

Well, there is just one small detail I forgot to mention: a small “postage and handling” fee for this get-out-of-jail transaction. This little liberation will cost you, ummh, pretty much everything you now value. Your self-will. Your selfish, self-centered pig-headedness. Your arrogant and clueless idea of what’s best for you and what will make you happy. Your crazy idea that if you do what you want and get what you want, you’ll finally be content and at peace (how’s that workin’ for ya?). In other words, all that garbage which got your sorry butt busted in the first place.

Bend the knee, suckah — instead of serving time, you gonna be serving eternity.

Suddenly the deal’s not lookin’ so good. You’ve heard Willie’s not such a bad guy after all — and you have been meaning to get pumped up and work on that 6-pack you’ve always wanted…

But in the end you decide to trust this crazy guy whose already footed the bill for your get-out-of-jail-free card. Of course, he already knows what a pathetic sonofabitch you are, and having spent the big bucks to get you off the hook, is fully prepared to do the heavy lifting necessary to transform you into the useful and happy partner — dare I say friend? — which he’s always envisioned you to be. But first you need a major cleanup, starting from the inside out, since a whitewash is never gonna cut it. Extreme makeover needed — on the inside. The outside will take care of itself, in time.

This, my friends, is what we call sanctification.

An extreme makeover, from the inside out. Sounds painful.

It is. Especially if we try to do it ourselves.

Having won the lotto and walked out of court with no prison rap, you are, understandably, pretty darn grateful to this mysterious benefactor whose been so incredibly generous and kind to you. So, of course, not quite getting the program, you try to follow the rules he seems to have in place, figuring this will make him happy. So you go to church; start reading the Bible; say a few prayers; try to be good. You hang around with others who been similarly pardoned — although you find them pretty darn boring, compared to the run-and-gun crowd you’ve always hung out with.

And it really doesn’t work out all that well. The harder you try, the more you come up short. The siren song of your life of self-service is always singing in your ears, beckoning you back to that “happy” life and the “good times” you remember. You fall on your face — a lot. And those Christian “friends” you have? They’re starting to really get on your nerves. Telling you to just try harder, pray more, read your Bible (like that works!). Frowning a lot when you share with them your weaknesses and failures. Talking about you behind your back because you’re a “backslider.”

The demons inside start running the show more and more, those addictions and obsessions which you were supposed to get rid of when you signed on to this deal. They start sounding ever more reasonable, comforting you with how important it is to get your needs met. Before you know it, you are making a bee-line toward the place where you began — or worse. Those seductive voices even begin to sound a lot like God, so surely you must be on track, and with some more effort you’ll surely get there. You wonder where this “peace” and “happiness” is they sing about and talk about in church — and to be honest, those hypocritical holier-than-thou Christians don’t look all that happy and joyful themselves — bastards. Pretty soon it all seems like a bad dream, and you’ve ended up worse off than you began.

This, my friends, is not sanctification. It is slavery.

You’re trying to build the perfect house with defective tools and flawed materials. You’re using your very best efforts to improve your lot when your very best efforts are your very worst enemy. You’re trying to perform that extreme makeover, working from the outside in. The outside may look a little better — but the inside is still the same: selfish, self-centered, fearful, ugly, black. You are trying do the work of God with the hands of man — and you are doomed to fail. You end up exhausted and spent, and never become that integral and integrated person who makes God’s purposes move forward and makes your own life meaningful, contented, and filled with the satisfaction of living with purpose.

I know. I’ve tried this approach. Didn’t work out very well.

So how is it supposed to work, this Christianity thing? Are we set free only to spend the rest of our lives as miserable failures scrambling to meet a host of impossible goals? The answer is, as you might expect, no; the key is a truly strange and rather wonderful solution indeed. It is far more strange — bizarre even — than anything you might have imagined.

It is a thing called grace.

And like any good daytime soap or episode of Lost, I will leave you wondering just what that funny word is all about … until my next post, anyway.

Thanks for sticking with me. Back soon with more.

The Path – III:
The Triumph of Failure

A journal of one fool’s journey, and the faith which found him.

 
crossThe day was a warm one–stifling, more precisely, as only an early summer day in D.C. can be, the thick moist air hanging heavy like velvet draperies in the close confines of our brick apartment. Shorts and tee shirt clung to clammy skin as rare breezes through casement windows proved scant relief for a sweat-drenched brow. Yet the heat went unnoticed, my eyes transfixed on words which caressed like gentle breezes through windows unseen yet freshly opened.

The words like wind whistled through fractured spirit, at once cool and soothing, yet firing embers long dormant like some blacksmith’s bellows: faith and forgiveness; peace and purpose; grace and guidance. A child rejected, adopted and treasured; a boy broken in spirit, made whole and at peace; a man worth nothing, repurchased at great price.
Continue reading “The Path – III:
The Triumph of Failure”