The Descent

cliffsIt haunted him, without mercy.

Strong, athletic, handsome, and personable, he seemed at life’s outset to be unfairly advantaged. His friends were many; a ladies man, by reputation, the life of every party, the love of every woman who gazed on him.

He was, by nature, a generous and gentle soul, a gift he received from his parents, humble and devout. He himself found religion attractive, and attended synagogue regularly with them. He had little use for the priests and the lawyers––he found them legalistic, arrogant, and judgmental––but embodied in his faith he discovered a formula for living: obey the law of God, and your life will be healthy and prosperous. Did not the Proverbs promise, “By humility and fear of the Lord are riches, and honor, and length of days”? He would do his part, and God His, and all would be well in life.

The climb had been arduous. Stronger and more agile than his friends, he had reached the top of the cliffs before them. His best friend, struggling behind him, lost his footing, and he reached back to save him from falling. His friend was saved — and his own life changed forever.

When he came to, he felt no pain — in fact, no sensation whatsoever. He heard the shouts and the dislodged rocks of his friends scrambling down the cliff; he tried to get up, but could not. He had survived the fall — and lived to wish he had not.

Weeks and months passed, with no improvement; his paralyzed body remained lifeless, though his mind, now a tortured prisoner, remained fully alive. Most of his friends drifted away, their discomfort in his presence so palpable that their absence was more relief than regret. The Four remained, though he saw no reason for them to do so, other than guilt, or some pathetic sense of charity to the crippled. His limbs withered and shriveled, twisted like the branches of those ancient trees on the cliffs. Racked by fevers, festering pressure sores, and wallowing in the excrement he could no longer control, he no longer had a life, but only a slow, agonizing, and hopeless descent toward death.

The Four visited him daily, alone, in pairs, and on occasion collectively. They cleaned him, tended his wounds, and tried to encourage him in his deepening depression, to no avail. As shriveled and twisted as his body had become, his soul became far more foul and fetid in its unquenched and raging bitterness. Self-pity, self-loathing, and a hopeless despondency descended upon him, crushing and torturing his spirit in a personal living hell. His friends prayed, read Scripture, and feigned faith in some deliverance of spirit, if not body; this only increased his cynicism and the sputtering rage he spewed toward God. How could a good God allow such an evil fate? Had he not kept his part of the bargain, only to be betrayed by a deity he had once trusted? Why did his friends torment him with this utter nonsense?

Then there was the humiliation he suffered at the hands of healers, who prayed and pranced and called down Heaven’s power to heal him; he had too little faith, they accused, when their futile foolishness failed. In this, they were most surely correct. Then, the day his friends dragged him to the Temple, to the priests, as Moses had prescribed. His bondage arose from hidden sin, they said: his own, or his parents. What sin was this, he challenged? The sin of saving a friend’s life? His parents had more righteousness in their little fingers than these prattling and pretentious fools — where was their repentance? The self-righteous religious cast him out of the Temple, and the long journey home was silent, and awkward, and hopeless.

The crowds were immense, if the stories be true — this charlatan must have some slick magic up his sleeve, and there was no shortage of gullible fools in the world to follow along. His angry protests were to no avail — must he go through this humiliation once again? — as the Four lifted him onto the cart and began the dusty and agonizing ride to ridicule. See the Master? Not even close — they could barely see the house for the mob. The Four muscled their way through the grumbling crowd, and ignoring the shouting owner, climbing a fig tree by the house. Before he could protest yet again, they lifted him onto the roof, nearly dropping him in the process — what a fitting and ironic end to his pathetic life that would be! Now what? They began to claw at the straw and tiles; curses arose from below as mud and straw and shards of clay tumbled onto upturned faces. Then they lowered him into the darkness.

He saw their eyes first: seated above the crowd, dressed in fine linen robes, their phylacteries glittering with fiery jewels, their eyes blazing with hatred and contempt seemingly from the very depths of Sheol. Then, turning, he saw at last the healer’s eyes: strong, kind, penetrating to the depths of his spirit. To see them was to gaze into eternity, and see its joy. He felt utterly naked — but not ashamed.

He smiled: “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

There was no challenge this time — he knew the sins of which the healer spoke: bitterness, unforgiveness, cynicism, ingratitude, the hatred of God, of life, the despair over lost promise and shattered hopes. There befell then a lightness, an extraordinary peace, the lifting of a burden far heavier than that his friends had borne in bringing him here. A smile crossed his face, for the first time in many years: could this be joy?

Amazed at his inner awakening, he failed to hear the gasps, to notice the stunned silence of the once-noisy crowd. There was only the angry, strident whispers, hushed at first, then ever more intense, like the growl of a ravenous predator: Blasphemy. Blasphemy! BLASPHEMY!

He looked back at the healer: there was no fear, no anger; naught but an enormous strength, his eyes afire with the conviction of truth. “That you may know that the Son of Man has the power on earth to forgive sins…” He looked directly into his eyes: “Arise, pick up your mat, and walk.” It was far more invitation than command.

It lasted but an instant, but seemed an eternity. Great warmth seared through his withered flesh. Tendons tight as iron loosened and stretched; his shriveled muscles softened and fleshed out; his papyrus-thin skin pinked and plumped into a vibrant glow. He sat up — before realizing he could not do so. Swinging his legs free, he stood — he stood!! — bent over, and rolled up his mat.

The crowd gasped, and cried, and praised God; he heard none of it, not even the joyful shouts of his friends on the roof. As he bounded out the door, every hand reached out to touch him, as if he, the healed, had the power of the healer. As the sounds of the crowds faded into the distance, he touched his newborn limbs, still stunned in disbelief about what had just happened.

There was much work to do; relationships to repair, amends to make, and the endless telling of his story to the amazement of all who would listen. He followed the Master throughout Galilee wherever he preached. Sitting among the thousands, he nevertheless saw Jesus look directly at him each time, and smile. It seemed as though the Master had even more joy at the healing of his crippled heart than he himself did — and his own was indescribable.

Many months after his healing, he wandered again into the desert, alone. The storm clouds were gathering: the hatred he had seen in the eyes of the religious leaders was ever more intense, and he sensed something dark and foreboding ahead in his Master’s mission. His own journey led him back to the cliffs, where his life had changed forever. His eyes gazed upward at their great height, then slowly descended to the rocks of brokenness below. He recalled his Master’s words, spoken so prophetically: “Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

And finally, at long last, he understood.

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.

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.
 
Continue reading “The Engine of Shame – II”

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”

The Miracle of Forgiveness

A recent post on evil brought some very thoughtful comments, which meandered a bit, as comment threads are wont to do, onto the topic of forgiveness.

It is a topic I have visited before, and no doubt will visit many times again, in experience if not in writing. The issue of forgiveness is ever fresh in human experience, flowing inevitable from the wanton harms and evil which surrounds us and so often affects us directly. It is a subject among Christians which engenders a great deal of misunderstanding and sometimes foolishness. In what is certainly the most uttered prayer in Christianity — the Lord’s Prayer — we are called to both ask forgiveness for ourselves and extend it to others: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

So what exactly is forgiveness?

Forgiveness requires, first of all, that there is some genuine harm done — real or perceived — to an individual, by another. The harm may be physical, emotional, or spiritual, affecting any one of a host of important areas: our pride, our emotional or physical well-being, our finances, our security, our relationships, and many other areas. The harm must be substantial — the injury must cost us something dear, thereby engendering the inevitable responses to such harm: fear, pain, sorrow, loss, anger, resentment, disruption of relationships. The need for forgiveness arises out of these natural defensive responses to the offense — defenses which have an unnerving tendency to be self-perpetuating and self-destructive.

Some of the silliness surrounding the act of forgiveness arises from the lack of such substantial harm. Choosing, for example, to forgive the Nazis for the Holocaust, or the terrorists for 9/11, for example, when we ourselves have never been affected by it directly in any way (or at best trivially so), becomes little more than pretentious posturing. It costs us nothing to say, accomplishing nothing but the appearance of self-righteous sanctimony. This form seem especially common in some Christian circles, where it serves little more than a veneer of righteousness, allowing us to sound “Christian” while sacrificing nothing.

False forgiveness commonly takes another form, driven by obligation to moral or religious dictates, and facilitated by denial. Having sustained some harm, we know the moral command to forgive, and therefore simply will ourselves to do so. When the inevitable anger arises again — as it always will, if there has been substantial harm — we simply force it under the surface, recommitting ourselves to the act while trying desperately not to relive the incident. Yet the anger and resentment never get resolved, and arise repeatedly — often in areas of life far removed from the direct injury, manifesting themselves in depression, irritability, and acting out in other relationships or domains of life. The forgiveness driven by moral compulsion or law far more enslaves the giver than frees him, and allows the poison to fester rather than lancing the boil.

True forgiveness at its heart is about sacrifice. It is an extension of grace, a humble admission that we too have harmed others — perhaps even been instrumental in precipitating by our own behavior the offense we have sustained. It arises from a profound gratitude at having been forgiven ourselves, by God, of far greater failings than those which have wounded us.

Yet there is more to forgiveness than just having the the proper spirit — there must be action. Forgiveness arising from the right spirit is still frail — the emotions, the hurt, the resentment remain all to close at hand, as the injury is relived time and time again. The feelings persist though the spirit forgives. The heart must be transformed — it must, in fact, be dragged to victory by the will manifesting itself in changed behavior toward the offender.

Corrie ten Boom and her family secretly housed Jews in their home during WWII. Their “illegal” activity was discovered by the Nazis, and Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to the German death camp at Ravensbruck. There Corrie would watch many, including her sister, die. After the war she returned to Germany to declare the grace of Christ:

It was 1947, and I \'d come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth that they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander \'s mind, I liked to think that that \'s where forgiven sins were thrown. “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. And even though I cannot find a Scripture for it, I believe God then places a sign out there that says, ‘NO FISHING ALLOWED.’ ”

The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. And that \'s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a cap with skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush — the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister \'s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were! That place was Ravensbruck, and the man who was making his way forward had been a guard — one of the most cruel guards.

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!” And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course— how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? But I remembered him. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard there.” No, he did not remember me. “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein,” — again the hand came out — ”will you forgive me?”

And I stood there — I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven — and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place. Could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could have been many seconds that he stood there — hand held out — but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart.

But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust out my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other \'s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God \'s love so intensely, as I did then. But even then, I realized it was not my love. I had tried, and did not have the power. It was the power of the Holy Spirit.

To experience the miracle of forgiveness, we must relinquish our right to revenge, to serve justice on our enemies — for justice served in retribution is a toxic victory, shallow in satisfaction, engendering only hatred and bitterness and slavery. To be free, we must act: to make amends to those who have hurt us, when we have played a role; to pray for those whom we resent; to reach out and serve, if by pure will alone, to those whom we hate, that such hate may be transformed into transformational love. In this manner alone may we experience the deep miracle and healing that is true forgiveness.

Coming Contractions

Is the current economic downturn just a painful recession, or is it something more?

At the risk of sounding apocalyptic (I’ve been doing that a lot lately), it seems that the conventional wisdom (that this is just a severe recession which will correct itself within 1-2 years) is increasingly naive.

Several essays I would recommend to you for your consideration.

 ♦ Ray Dalio: Recession? No, It’s a D-process, and It Will Be Long

When I first started seeing the D-process and describing it, it was before it actually started to play out this way. But now you can ask yourself, OK, when was the last time bank stocks went down so much? When was the last time the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve, or any central bank, exploded like it has? When was the last time interest rates went to zero, essentially, making monetary policy as we know it ineffective? When was the last time we had deflation?

The answers to those questions all point to times other than the U.S. post-World War II experience. This was the dynamic that occurred in Japan in the ’90s, that occurred in Latin America in the ’80s, and that occurred in the Great Depression in the ’30s.

Basically what happens is that after a period of time, economies go through a long-term debt cycle — a dynamic that is self-reinforcing, in which people finance their spending by borrowing and debts rise relative to incomes and, more accurately, debt-service payments rise relative to incomes. At cycle peaks, assets are bought on leverage at high-enough prices that the cash flows they produce aren’t adequate to service the debt. The incomes aren’t adequate to service the debt. Then begins the reversal process, and that becomes self-reinforcing, too. In the simplest sense, the country reaches the point when it needs a debt restructuring. General Motors is a metaphor for the United States.

Dalio’s interview is essential, IMO, to understanding where we are, and cutting through the haze and maze of a million pundits talking about a “recession.” His tone is particularly noteworthy, lacking in histrionics or talk of “catastrophe” — thus making him all the more credible.

 ♦ Jaque Attali, Wall Street Journal Europe: We’re Heading Toward a Global Weimar:

This growth of public debt, on top of private debt, can only lead to catastrophe: the bankruptcy of households, banks, even countries. What has happened to Iceland can happen to larger countries as well, if panic seizes creditors. Anything is now possible, including the collapse of the global banking system, whose losses would have grown beyond reach of rescue.

This panic could be set off by the realization of the insolvency of the system. It could also be set off by political or terrorist movements: A number of determined groups, with even limited means, could organize speculative attacks on banks, leading to their collapse.

Then we could arrive at a global depression. It could even be followed by hyperinflation, provoked by the immensity of the monetary means created since the start of the crisis; the depression would allow the debt to be reduced to nothing, to the benefit of the borrowers. The world would then be experiencing a depression ready for inflation, a global Weimar.

His proposed solution, however, should set off a few alarms:

… the world’s institutions should be reorganized. We can’t have a globalization of the market without a globalization of the rule of law…

… it’s quite obvious what should be done: Merge the G-8 with the U.N. Security Council, allowing the chief Southern powers, such as India, Brazil or Nigeria, to join in. Place international financial institutions under the protection of this restructured Security Council, and put it in charge of setting up real global regulation, to control financial institutions; to modify the Basel Accords, by suppressing “mark to market” models; and to organize the revival of the production of public goods (water, clean air, freedom) world-wide.

In the long run, the world will be organized around a new coalition of nations, sharing the burden of these challenges, not around a single country, as is the case today.

Can you say, “New World Order”, boys and girls?

 ♦ Donald Sensing: America is, in fact, bankrupt

Much moaning and groaning has been going on about how the $800 billion “stimulus” bill will saddle future generations with mountains of debt. And it will, though that’s not my main complaint … future generations were already saddled with not a mountain of debt, but a Himalaya range of debt. In fact, using Generally Accept Accounting Practices, a formal set of accounting procedures abbreviated as GAAP and the kind used to audit corporations, the total American federal debt actually is greater than the economic output of the entire world.

Gulp.

 ♦ Fortunately, Europe will save us — or not: High-risk, high volume lending to ex-Soviet block Eastern Europe is not working out so well: Eastern European currencies crumble as fears of debt crisis grow:

Hungary \'s forint fell to an all-time low on Monday, and Poland \'s zloty slumped to the lowest in five years on plunging industrial output. Half of all loans to the private sector in Poland are in foreign currencies so borrowers face a severe debt shock after the 40% fall of the zloty against the euro since August.

“We \'re nearing the level were things could get out of hand,” said Hans Redeker, currency chief strategist at BNP Paribas.

 ♦ But at least you have your pension to fall back on: Maybe it’s time to cash out, buy gold, and keep it under your mattress. Pension Tsunami:

That approaching wave of pension debt is bigger than it looks. The purpose of this site is to provide an overview of the multiple pension crises that are about to drown America’s taxpayers.

 ♦ Richard Fernandez hopes we can, but doesn’t sound very confident: Avoiding the End of The World

One of the reasons government has a hard time managing complex systems is that politics treats events largely like linear systems. Politics interprets events in the context of its mythology. But if politics is in the best of times the art of lying to ourselves in the broad day, politics in crisis is the vice of lying to ourselves while we are falling off a cliff. And when fables meet a changing environment disaster is often the result. The second difficulty is that government is a ponderous, elephantine beast. Bureaucracies are nearly always behind the curve. Part of the requirement is to get ahead of the problem and cut out those parts of governance which contributed to the problem. But what to do when government is already part of the equation; when only government has the legitimacy to do some of things which need doing? It \'s like hoping a patient who shot himself can successfully self operate to remove the bullet.

 ♦ When all else fails, learn from the Soviet Union: Dmitry Orlov is an interesting guy, who immigrated from the Soviet Union at age 12 and traveled back many times during its disintegration and subsequent social collapse. He finds a lot of parallels between the Soviet social collapse and our current economic disintegration. He is decidedly a pessimist on where things are headed, but has some interesting and entertaining insights on how societies function (or don’t) after social or economic meltdown: Social Collapse Best Practices:

I was very well positioned to have this realization because I grew up straddling the two worlds – the USSR and the US. I grew up in Russia, and moved to the US when I was twelve, and so I am fluent in Russian, and I understand Russian history and Russian culture the way only a native Russian can. But I went through high school and university in the US. I had careers in several industries here, I traveled widely around the country, and so I also have a very good understanding of the US with all of its quirks and idiosyncrasies. I traveled back to Russia in 1989, when things there still seemed more or less in line with the Soviet norm, and again in 1990, when the economy was at a standstill, and big changes were clearly on the way. I went back there 3 more times in the 1990s, and observed the various stages of Soviet collapse first-hand…

Here is the key insight: you might think that when collapse happens, nothing works. That \'s just not the case. The old ways of doing things don \'t work any more, the old assumptions are all invalidated, conventional goals and measures of success become irrelevant. But a different set of goals, techniques, and measures of success can be brought to bear immediately, and the sooner the better.

 ♦ And finally, proof that the world really is coming to an end: Playboy‘s going broke: The magazine has fallen on hard times, with flaccid sales and lack of market penetration. It’ll be a shame to see the Playboy Center fold … I guess no one reads it “just for the articles” anymore. Playboy, Posting Loss, Says It Would Consider Sale

None of these essays really consider another factor: the black swan — the unexpected and unpredictable occurrence which renders all prior assumptions invalid. Think: a major Middle East war, with shutdown of oil supplies; a large-scale mass-casualty terrorist attack or nuclear terrorism; a massive natural disaster, such as an earthquake which levels, say, San Francisco. With the world in its current economic state of instability, the effects of such an event would be amplified many times over.

These are, as they say, interesting times. They are a time for prayer, not panic; a time to reassess priorities; a time to prepare for future difficulties and uncertainty.

And a time, above all, for faith.