In the Doldrums

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
‘Twas sad as sad could be ;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea !

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion ;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean…

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold :
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

The doldrums.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his epic poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner, depicts the dread of all ancient sailors: becalmed, abandoned by nature and fate, powerless to move forward and at the mercy of vast forces and spirits beyond their control.

In some measure, these have been days much like that. The past few months have been some of the most difficult of my professional career. There has been a sense of fatigue, of purposelessness, of weariness with the routine and the rush, the frustrations and failures inevitable in any life pursuit, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the practice of medicine.

It is a high calling, this profession — words which, while true, seem fatuous and hackneyed in an age marked by hard science and even harder cynicism. It is a vocation fraught with paradoxes and contradictions: compassion and cold steel; empathy and enervation; arrogance and humiliation; deep satisfaction and bone-wrenching sadness. Its rewards, while rich, seemingly come at the cost of your very life, as the slow extravasation from countless battle wounds weaken the spirit and shock the soul, sapping your strength, leaving but an empty, fractured vessel, gloriously engraved on the outside but pervious and parched within.

It is no one thing, this weariness, but a score.

It is the two hours spent filling out a mandatory online recredentialing form for an insurance company, insisting on intrusive and irrelevant information (“What is the mailing address and contact phone number of your high school (required)?”) so that their marketing department can claim they only use the “finest” physicians.

It is the three hours spent dictating charts after a 10-hour office, missing no detail that might lead to an insurance denial, a government audit, or a later lawsuit — and knowing you will be back before sunrise to finish those charts you no longer have the mental or physical energy to complete.

It is the mandate to comply with the endless and every-engulfing tsunami of government compliance regulations, demanding coding quality assurance, privacy protection, identity fraud, or pay-for-performance “programs” which would overwhelm entire QA departments at Lockheed-Martin or Raytheon, but which you are expected to implement, by yourself, for free, in your spare time.

It is the countless hats you wear every day: employer; small business owner; conflict resolution manager; IT consultant; accountant; complaint department clerk; therapist; social worker.

It is the garrulous patient who talks endlessly but never answers your questions, while you run ninety minutes behind schedule; the sullen patient who refuses to fill out your history form or answer your questions, demanding you “get that information from my other doctors”; the demented patient from the nursing home with no records, accompanied by an aide who knows nothing about her or why she is here; the angry patient who blames you for their disease, refuses to follow your advice, and who is certain that you are only seeing his sorry ass to make a buck off him; the uninsured patient who needs major surgery or expensive medications but has no way to afford it.

It is the patient in intractable severe pain, incurable by every means modern medicine has to offer, who sits weeping before you, her shriveled life constricted to never leaving her home or getting out of bed, who begs you for answers you do not have. It is the insurance company who refuses her next treatment because it does not meet their “treatment guidelines.” It is the state regulators who harass and threaten you as you manage her severe pain with carefully-managed, medically appropriate chronic opiates while they perceive you as an addict-enabling criminal.

It is the perfectly-performed surgery with a disastrous outcome; the excellent outcome that leaves a bitter patient because it did not meet their wildly-unrealistic expectations — which you told them it would not and could not meet; the out-of-town and out-of-touch daughter who demands everything be done for her dying father’s terminal cancer to assuage her guilt, hating you almost as much as she hated him.

Add to these the seemingly-daily debacles the freakonomics of health care in the new millennium: overhead costs spiraling at multiples of the inflation rate, as income dives inversely; ever larger numbers of legitimate treatments and services denied or criminally underpaid by government and the insurance industry cartel; the ludicrous notion that you can somehow provide the highest quality (or even barely adequate) care while being reimbursed substantially less than the costs to provide it; the horrifying freak show in Washington where corrupt and prevaricating politicians shamelessly conspire to destroy a noble profession and an extraordinary health care system to line their own pockets and acquire perpetual power and control.

And then there are the lawyers — aah, the lawyers.

I spent the better part of twenty years in the practice of medicine avoiding their clutches. I came to believe that careful, conscientiously-practiced professionalism, a willingness to spend substantially more time than my peers teaching and communicating with my patients, constantly striving to treat them with dignity, kindness, and respect, would prove a bulwark against the woes my professional peers suffered at the hands of an out-of-control legal system.

What a fool.

My first two malpractice suits came within a year of one another, now over ten years ago. Both were frivolous, and were tossed out of the courts for lack of evidence — after tens of thousands of dollars were spent on their defense. Both, incidentally, were triggered in large part by inappropriate comments by another physician (anyone who thinks physicians cover up for their peers is badly misguided — we are an arrogant lot, shooting our wounded and eating our children). During this same period, several other suits were threatened but never filed. Small comfort, indeed.

It is difficult to express the personal devastation afforded when accused in a medical malpractice lawsuit. It is an existential crisis, cutting to the heart of who you are as a professional, challenging motive, integrity, and competence. Anger, betrayal, self-doubt, fear, and sleeplessness become your daily bread. Every patient becomes a future litigant. An invisible attorney sits in the examining room on every visit, condemning and second-guessing your every decision and action, as you wildly check off every test and x-ray you can imagine to defend yourself against his future judgment: “Doctor, could you explain to the jury why you did not order this study, which could have diagnosed her disease before it became so advanced?” Check. “Doctor, could you read page 1235 of this medical reference — which you stated you have in your office — which points out how all patients with this disorder should be evaluated thus?” Check. “Doctor, isn’t it true that you dismissed his complaints as nothing to worry about, when in fact his cancer was eating away at him and you ignored its warning signs?” Check.

My current litigation, scheduled to come to trial this June after nearly three years in process, of course cannot be discussed here; perhaps I will discourse on the lessons learned therein — for they are legion – when it is resolved, one way or the other. Suffice it to say for now that it involves a child, and that the damages sought exceed the limits of my malpractice coverage by multiples of seven figures.

Sleep well, Doctor.

In truth, why would anyone choose to go into this profession today? Why would any sane man continue to practice medicine in this environment? Why, indeed, do I continue in this insanity?

As a man of faith, a Christian physician, the answers to these questions are far from simple. They cut to the very heart of free will in the service of God and man; of matters of purpose in life and submission in faith; of trust and obligation, gratitude and motives, prayer and practice. The high-sounding principles of pew and pulpit are now tested in the fiery crucible of life, and you discover that lofty ideals and strong convictions alone are insufficient ground on which to stand. The dark night of the soul strips away your props and annihilates all your pretensions; will there be anything left but ashes when the flames have died out?

Time will tell, I suppose, whether I stand on rock or sand.

May God be with me. May God be with us all.

‘They Need to Be Liberated From Their God’

I’ve been incommunicado for a while, in no small part for reasons shortly forthcoming. But lest you be left completely high and dry, here’s a little nugget for you.

The WSJ has a book review of Son of Hamas which will definitely be on my reading list when it comes out:

Mosab Yousef is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founder and leader of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Throughout the last decade, from the second Intifada to the current stalemate, he worked alongside his father in the West Bank. During that time the younger Mr. Yousef also secretly embraced Christianity. And as he reveals in his book “Son of Hamas,” out this week, he became one of the top spies for Israel’s internal security arm, the Shin Bet.

Matt Kaminski describes the book as follows:

The book, a Le Carréesque thriller wrapped in a spiritual coming-of-age story, is an attempt to answer what he says “is impossible to imagine”—”how I ended up working for my enemies who hurt me, who hurt my dad, who hurt my people.”

“There is a logical explanation,” he continues in fairly fluent English. “Simply my enemies of yesterday became my friends. And the friends of yesterday became really my enemies.”

Just to whet your appetite — back soon.

Dredging Bottom at The Atlantic

Many of us have been struggling to understand the nature of our current economic meltdown. Was it greedy bankers, who made unscrupulous loans while passing the risks on to others? High-rolling hedge fund managers who resold the risky bundled securities and reaped millions? Politicians and political activists who pressured banks and lending organizations to make risky loans to minorities and low-income customers or be castigated as racists and bigots? Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or the FHA?

Let the confusion end: The Atlantic has hit the news stands with a breaking revelation: It’s the Christians! To wit: Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

… recently, critics have begun to argue that the prosperity gospel, echoed in churches across the country, might have played a part in the economic collapse. In 2008, in the online magazine Religion Dispatches, Jonathan Walton, a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Riverside, warned:

Narratives of how “God blessed me with my first house despite my credit” were common … Sermons declaring “It \'s your season of overflow” supplanted messages of economic sobriety and disinterested sacrifice. Yet as folks were testifying about “what God can do,” little attention was paid to a predatory subprime-mortgage industry, relaxed credit standards, or the dangers of using one \'s home equity as an ATM.

In 2004, Walton was researching a book about black televangelists. “I would hear consistent testimonies about how ‘once I was renting and now God let me own my own home,’ or ‘I was afraid of the loan officer, but God directed him to ignore my bad credit and blessed me with my first home,’” he says. “This trope was so common in these churches that I just became immune to it. Only later did I connect it to this disaster.”

Whew! That was easy! Who knew? But is it really that simple? What are the facts on which this startling conclusion is based?

…Kate Bowler found that most new prosperity-gospel churches were built along the Sun Belt, particularly in California, Florida, and Arizona --all areas that were hard-hit by the mortgage crisis.

Makes sense: these were rapidly growing areas of the country; with rapid growth and cheap credit, lots of homes were getting sold. And lots of new churches and churchgoers would be expected. So, these Sun Belt areas grew quickly, had a lot of new churches (some of which were the “prosperity” variety) and ended up with a lot of foreclosures. But surely there has to be more evidence than that…

Nationally, the prosperity gospel has spread exponentially among African American and Latino congregations. This is also the other distinct pattern of foreclosures. “Hyper-segregated” urban communities were the worst off, says Halperin. Reliable data on foreclosures by race are not publicly available, but mortgages are tracked by both race and loan type, and subprime loans have tended to correspond to foreclosures. During the boom, roughly 40 percent of all loans going to Latinos nationwide were subprime loans; Latinos and African Americans were 28 percent and 37 percent more likely, respectively, to receive a higher-rate subprime loan than whites.

So, a lot of foreclosures occurred in the Hispanic and black communities — and the prosperity gospel was increasingly popular among these groups as well. Pretty damning, I’d have to say. Pretty much nails it down, don’t ya think?

Or not.

Seriously, there’s really not much more to the “evidence” in this article than that. Sure, they mention that some of the banks were marketing to prosperity Gospel churches, and some pastors were a bit cozy with the banks as well, and seemed to be encouraging debt. But really, that’s about it. Perhaps some numbers would be nice: how many of these churches’ members actually ended up foreclosed or financially destitute? What percentage of foreclosed homes were purchased by these church members? If you’re going to make the claim that the prosperity churches are a major factor in the housing meltdown, wouldn’t some hard facts and numbers be, you know, reasonable to provide?

Oh, and here’s a little mental exercise for you: imagine their cover blaring forth: “Did African-Americans and Hispanics Cause the Crisis?”

Sigh. From a once-great magazine to garbage journalism, chasing Newsweek to the bottom of the literary barrel. What drivel. This is their cover story? Jeez.

Where to begin? The prosperity Gospel churches and their televangelists have always been favorite targets of the mainstream media and pundits who want to get a handle on “Christians” and what they think. They are easy targets because they have such high media visibility, and their preachers often have an ostentatious lifestyle which almost begs the accusation of greed and hypocrisy. And sometimes, as happened with Jim and Tammy Baker and Jimmy Swaggert, they hit paydirt.

What seems to go unnoticed is the the “health and wealth” churches, although culturally highly visible, are very much a fringe movement in Christianity, bordering on cultic at times, and are regarded by most mainstream evangelical and Catholic theologians and scholars as being heterodox at best, if not outright heretical — the antithesis of the core Christian doctrines about concern for the poor, the spiritual benefits of suffering, the dangers and bondage of debt, excessive materialism, and an unhealthy focus on wealth. They are widely ridiculed and little respected among most Christians in my experience, and I suspect their stated numbers of followers is inflated more than Obama’s “jobs created or saved” stats.

True, there will always be an appeal for a message that promises you wealth in the now and joy in the hereafter, and so it is no surprise that their congregations are often large. But neither is the teaching of these prosperity preachers solely devoted to wealth acquisition; there is a strong emphasis by most on morally upright living, self-discipline and spiritual development, and they often have ministries to the divorced, victims of domestic abuse, the homeless, and drug and alcohol recovery. Not everyone in the pew on Sunday is looking to cash in on God.

No, the real motivation behind this article has nothing at all to do with any serious attempt at understanding the housing crisis and its causes; it is a gratuitous slap at conservative Christians, and the nefarious politicians and preachers who supposedly exploit them:

Few of Sarah Palin \'s religious compatriots were shocked by her messy family life, because they \'ve grown used to the paradoxes; some of the most socially conservative evangelical churches also have extremely high rates of teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce.

They just can’t help themselves, can they? What does Sarah Palin have to do with the housing crisis? And precisely what are these “extremely high rates of teenage pregnancies”, etc., etc.? Facts and hard numbers don’t matter when your proffering a political and religious hit piece. Or this:

There is the kind of hope that President Obama talks about, and that Clinton did before him --steady, uplifting, assured. And there is [Pastor] Garay \'s kind of hope, which perhaps for many people better reflects the reality of their lives. Garay \'s is a faith that, for all its seeming confidence, hints at desperation, at circumstances gone so far wrong that they can only be made right by a sudden, unexpected jackpot

The real “desperation” comes not from sincere-if-misguided congregants of some prosperity gospel churches, but rather from a dying journalism industry, which having lost all objectivity and the respect of their readers, have become naught but petulant, pathetic harpies hoping to score a journalistic jackpot at the expense of religious conservatives.

It’s not working, fellas — nobody’s listening to you or reading you anymore.

Perhaps the money we gullible Christians save by canceling our subscriptions to your sad rag can go towards a bigger home someday.

Speaking Truth to Power

From Hewitt:

Bishop Thomas Tobin opens a can of whoop-ass on Congressman Patrick Kennedy, on his “I’m pro-choice and a good Catholic, too” shtick:

“The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does. …

There \'s lots of canonical and theological verbiage there, Congressman, but what it means is that if you don \'t accept the teachings of the Church your communion with the Church is flawed, or in your own words, makes you “less of a Catholic.”

But let \'s get down to a more practical question; let \'s approach it this way: What does it mean, really, to be a Catholic? After all, being a Catholic has to mean something, right?

Well, in simple terms … being a Catholic means that you \'re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations. It means that you believe and accept the teachings of the Church, especially on essential matters of faith and morals; that you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish; that you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly; that you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially.

Congressman, I \'m not sure whether or not you fulfill the basic requirements of being a Catholic, so let me ask: Do you accept the teachings of the Church on essential matters of faith and morals, including our stance on abortion? Do you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish? Do you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly? Do you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially?

In your letter you say that you “embrace your faith.” Terrific. But if you don \'t fulfill the basic requirements of membership, what is it exactly that makes you a Catholic? Your baptism as an infant? Your family ties? Your cultural heritage?

Bravo. Look, if you’re pro-choice, fine. But spare us the hypocrisy of claiming to be a “faithful Catholic” and pro-abortion at the same time. That dog won’t hunt, and it’s long past time our vaunted political leadership got called on it.

Deep Waters

The following essay was originally posted in June 2005. The story is a true one, although the names have been changed.

 
Lake ClarkThey say that hell is hot. Sometimes, however, it is very, very cold.

Jim loved Alaska — it had been his home since birth. God’s country: wild, unpredictable, spectacular in beauty–there was no place like it on earth. Cities were a necessary evil, with their services and surliness, but out in the wild was where life could be found. Out among the glaciers, the ragged mountains framing the endless blue sky like jagged, broken glass, out where grizzlies snatched salmon from raging rapids, shortening their march to death as they fought wild currents to reach their spawning grounds. Out where eagles graced the sky, soaring above green fir spires and spotless snow fields. Out where God lived, where a man could see His hand, and hear His voice.

Jim lived a simple life of simple faith. He loved his wife as he loved the land, and together they were blessed with six children–three older girls, the twin boys, and a baby son their most recent gift. Each was a treasure greater than the next. Their lives were story book: The lodge they owned nestled near the shores of Lake Clark, a large inland glacial sea, mirroring the snow-peaked mountains surrounding it. Summers were busy–hunting and fishing tours, visitors from afar seeking trophies and photographs, decked in newly-purchased gear from REI in the lower 48. Jim loved to fly–the float planes lifted gracefully from the lake, carrying their awestruck passengers over endless miles of breathtaking beauty to some far-away stream where tied flies touched water and fish broke airborne for their last meal.

Out in the bush, relationships were few in number but rich and deep. Church was more than a Sunday obligation–it was a place where life was shared, joys celebrated, suffering comforted–a place where faith begot works, where love put on snowshoes and helped stack the winter’s wood. Family life was alive, ripe with blueberries picked, hikes to the falls, and quiet nights beside campfires. Summers passed quickly at Bible camp, concentric ripples of cannonballs and giggles of joy rolling across the lake from the old dock. Dates with dad and high tea with mom found no competition from mindless cartoons, and bedtime prayers thanked Jesus for His goodness and God for His gifts.

Winter was time for quiet reflection, as the short days and deep snows kept sportsmen far away, and school and indoor chores made the time pass slowly but with purpose. The plane was their lifeline: what few roads there were became impassible in deep snow, and flights to Anchorage a necessity for supplies and health care. The girls came along often, although the younger boys stayed with friends and relatives for lack of space.

Jim had tens of thousands of hours of flying experience, a skill which paid rich dividends in the harsh, capricious winters of south Alaska–there was little in the way of flying conditions he had not challenged and mastered. So this flight to Anchorage in February was a pleasant surprise: the low gray skies broke open to display the rare winter glory of sunshine on pristine snowfields, the glorious tinted rim of Alaska Range peaks and deep seas of Cook Inlet. The supplies garnered and the girls’ dental care completed, they took off for the return flight to home and hearth.

The storm struck without warning, a white she-devil blown in from the Gulf, the Cessna buffeted by sharp, hard winds as visibility and ceiling dropped precipitously. The instruments held true, and countless hours of difficult flying forged Jim’s nerves steely and his focus intent. Mom held the girls’ hands, distracting them from natural fears with songs and stories and heads held to breast, her own pounding heart betraying her calm demeanor. “Will we be OK, mommy?” “Jesus will bring us home, honey.”

The GPS told Jim they were indeed near home–the lighthouse in space beaconing safety and rest. By reckoning they should be near the lake, just a few miles out from the landing strip. But Nature had not finished yet, her rage reserved for one final blow.

A whiteout in a small plane is dreadful beyond imagining. Suspended between earth and sky, with no point of reference, no sense of up or down, sensory deprivation in a aluminum rocket. Your training trusts your instruments, but instinct and eyes scream for visual confirmation. There! On the right! Through a brief window in the suffocating white blindfold, a dark line: the outline of the lake shore. Jim banked the plane toward this beacon of hope. “Are we home yet, daddy?” “Almost there, honey.”

But wild Nature held one last vengeance: an atypical winter thaw had opened a long dark crack in the ice, normally frozen solid in February. The line Jim saw was not the shore. The plane hit water at airspeed.

The prop and windshield exploded. The cabin filled instantly with icy water, as Jim craned his neck to reach the fast-retreating air, still restrained by his harness. Years of wilderness training sprung to life, as without a thought he grabbed his Bowie and cut free the webbing. He struggled with the girls’ restraints, hopelessly locked between seats crumpled by the impact. His wife was nowhere to be seen. Time was up–the air was gone. He broke from the cabin, gasping for air at the surface, hoping to dive and try again to free his treasures. It was not to be: the plane sank like a millstone, 600 feet to the bottom of the frozen fjord, entombing the family he worshiped.

In shock, he looked around. His wife, by some miracle, thrown from the plane at impact, had struggled to the surface and clung to a floating berg. Spared from a frigid tomb, they stood on a fragile shelf of thin and breaking ice. Over two miles from the shore, clothing soaked through in sub-zero temperatures, their survival was still a loser’s bet. Slowly they worked their way shoreward, breaking through the ice at times, body temperatures dropping despite their exhausting physical efforts. Guided by some hand unseen, they finally fell exhausted on shore, finding shelter in an empty lodge. Blinded by cold and head trauma sustained in the crash, Jim was led into the cabin by his wife, who cut off his frozen clothes and started a fire.

Friends awaiting their arrival grew anxious, and the Air National Guard was called. A Pavehawk helicopter–battling the same merciless weather–located the crash site, and ultimately reached them at the cabin. Even then, they could not be evacuated, as conditions grounded the rescue helicopter until morning. A friend flew a Piper cub–braving the same horrendous storm–to bring arctic sleeping bags and warm food. Bravery, love, and duty had spared their lives.

Months passed. Physical healing came quickly, but the rawness of heart wept like an open sore, gently salved by friends and faith, prayers and potlucks, tears and thankfulness. The boys were precious as never before, but the emptiness of heart left by a lost child cannot be filled. The rage at God passes–slowly–as strength flows from trust born of countless old decisions to set aside self and act in faith. But the memories remain–the laughter lost, the peace of a sleeping child, the love of a flower picked, the unexpected hug. There is no answer to “why?“–only time, and trust, and talk, and the tender whispering of a gentle Spirit. Yet one haunting regret refused to die: the vasectomy Jim had undergone after their last son–expeditious at the time, financially prudent–was now a self-imposed prison in a home filled with people, yet achingly empty.

And so they sat in my office, seeking my skills to restore what no man should be asked to provide–hope and happiness. And they told their story, my heart aching with each small detail disclosed. Jim was a man of enormous character and strength, his wife still bearing the unspeakable pain on her face–yet there was no shame in the tears that welled up in their eyes. As I gently probed deeper with almost unseemly curiosity, I was drawn in by the most remarkable revelation: these two would stand. Theirs was a strength not merely of hardiness, or training, or steely denial hiding a dying heart, but of power beyond the means of any mortal. They had faced the hell that men fear even to consider, and conquered it. There was glory in their weeping, victory in their agony. They would never be alone, and never be defeated. I, the proud expert, felt strangely insignificant in their presence.

The surgery went well, and early recovery smoothly. As I spoke with Jim before he left for home, he talked about the girls who had loved their daddy and whom he still loved so deeply. “You know, if I could fly to heaven and bring them back, they would not want to come. Their happiness is complete, ours still unfulfilled. Jesus has indeed brought them home.”

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.

The Engine of Shame – II

This essay, the second of a two-part series, was originally posted in October 2005.
 
DRGWIn my previous post on guilt and shame, I discussed their nature and differences, their impact on personal and social life, and their instrumentality in much of our individual unhappiness and communal dysfunction. If indeed shame is the common thread of the human condition–fraught as it is with pain, suffering, and evil–it must be mastered and overcome if we are to bring a measure of joy to life and peace to our spirits and our social interactions.

Shame is the most private of personal emotions, thriving in the dark, secluded lairs of our souls. It is the secret never told, the fears never revealed, the dread of exposure and abandonment, our harshest judge and most merciless prosecutor. Yet like the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain is far less intimidating than his booming voice in our subconscious mind.

The power of shame is the secret; its antidote, transparency and grace. Shame thrives in the dark recesses of the mind, where its accusations are amplified by repetition without external reference. Shame becomes self-verifying, as each new negative thought or emotion reinforces the theme that we are rejected and without worth. It is only by allowing the light of openness, trust, and honesty that this vicious cycle may be broken.
 
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The Engine of Shame – I

This essay, the first of a two-part series, was originally posted in October 2005.
 

Steam locomotiveA wise friend–a man who helped me emerge from a period of considerable difficulty in my life–once taught me a simple lesson. In less than a minute, he handed me a gift which I have spent years only beginning to understand, integrating it into my life with agonizing slowness. It is a lesson which intellect cannot grasp or resolve, which faith only begins to illuminate–a simple principle which I believe lies close to the root of the human condition.

My friend taught me a simple distinction: the difference between guilt and shame.

While you no doubt think I am devolving into the linguistic morass of terminal psychobabble, I ask you to stick with me for a few moments. What you may discover is a key to understanding religion, terrorism, social ills such as crime and violence–and why the jerk in the next cubicle pushes your buttons so often.
Continue reading “The Engine of Shame – I”