Stony Soil; of Love and Listlessness

4 02 2012

Alda is the nicest little old lady I know, and, honestly, I have trouble even calling her a little old lady, even though she is little, and she is, technically, old.  She’s got the liveliness of someone years younger.  One day, while we were in the kitchen chatting, she told my wife and I that though she had loved her late husband for many years, she never was really in love with him.  They treated each other lovingly, but the emotional appeal wasn’t really there.  She told us that she wanted to remarry, to have a chance to be deeply in love with someone.  She said she wanted a marriage like ours.  Now, my wife and I have been married for years; we are definitely not newlyweds, but I would certainly say that we are still very much in love.  It’s really just a matter of emotion.

Some couples are just married and some are just married.  Either they’re just married, as in recently married, or they’re just married, as in not living life to the fullest, content with just being married.  It’s a rotten stereotype, and it’s not always true.  While I’ll grant that the happiest married couples are generally the ones who still have rice in their hair, marriage really does get an unfair treatment.

First comes the infatuation, then the disillusionment, and then comes the “mature” love, which essentially boils down to treating each other fairly and raising kids together, without all of that emotional impetus that got them together in the first place.  In other words, marriage has a nasty habit of turning into something more like a business agreement.  It’s a convenient way to have a warm body in bed, and it’s a stable arrangement for rearing children.  It would seem that romance was nothing but a bait-and-switch trick of the hippocampus.  Does marriage always follow this course?

You see, I have to ask, because the relationship of the church to Christ is that of a bride.  The nature of a marriage parallels our relationship with our savior.  Consequently, Christians often go through the same stages in their pursuit of the faith that many couples endure over their years as spouses.  Jesus likened faith to a farmer casting seed around his land.  Some of the seed landed on the path and never took root.  Some landed on the stony soil and sprouted quickly but never took deep enough root to survive.  Some seed grew among thorns and got choked out by the weeds.  Then, there was the successful seed.  In the application to marriage, the seed that lands on the path is the unrequited love.  You courted her, but she was not interested.  You flirted with him, and he moved on to greener pastures.  Likewise, God courts some of us, and he is shunned outright.  The love is never reciprocated.

Then, there is the seed that lands among the thorns.  You fell in love.  You married and raised a family.  Then, the effort of raising kids, maintaining two incomes, maintaining outside relationships, maintaining the house, etc. all worked toward alienating you from the one you married.  The weeds, the distractions, grew between you, and you found yourself married to a stranger.  Similarly, the act of being a Christian and doing Christian things, coupled with all of the other distractions of life can add up to finding yourself a stranger to God.  You find that you’re still going through the motions, but that romance, the initial emotion that drew you into a relationship to begin with, is gone.

And then…there are the stony marriages.  The infatuation is there.  The feeling is intense, but it goes no deeper than a feeling.  After the initial thrill wears off, there’s no substance to hold the marriage together.  It withers and dies.  This is, really, the three-step marriage cycle most commonly described by the psychologists.  Just because you found a way to get along and keep the marriage going, doesn’t make it a success.  The romance is dead.  You love, but you’re no longer in love.  The common belief is that this is truly mature love.  This is correct.  It is mature love, but that doesn’t make it ideal love.  The common parallel to spiritual life can be found among charismatics.  The charismatic church is, by far, the best at evangelizing, at bringing unbelievers into the fold.  The non-charismatic or even anti-charismatic church seems more largely composed of those who either grew up in that kind of church or switched over from a more charismatic church after becoming disillusioned.  Their view of the charismatic faith is that such faith is shallow, lacking in substance, development, commitment and wisdom.  Very often, they’re absolutely correct.  Charismatic faith is saturated with feeling and emotion, and it is very often not backed up by anything more substantive.  The seed fell on the stony soil and sprouted rapidly, but it never found any depth.  They fall in love, and then they get bored or fall out of love.  Then, very often, they leave.

Contrary to the anti-charismatic opinion, though, the emotional appeal of charisma is not a weakness.  That’s actually the strength of it.  The weakness is the lack of depth.  The seed was not faulty because it sprouted quickly.  The seed was faulty because it never gained any depth.  Charismatics are not to be faulted for their emotional drive.  The lack of emotion is the weakness of the other side.  We ought not to curse the stem for the lack of roots, when the stem is the only thing going right.  Similarly, disappointed and cynical failures at romance ought not to criticize the young lovers for being  infatuated.  The young lovers are the ones who really have a good thing going.  There’s really no reason to aim for unfeeling marriage.  The real fault of young love is that it often does not have the depth to remain in the beautiful and glorious state that it’s already in.  Emotional love is the goal, the thing to be aimed for.  It is not the error of the immature.  Falling out of that state is the error of the immature.

The real aim of a successful marriage is to sprout that romance and grow it, keeping it alive and well by developing the depth necessary to weather good and bad days, the ups and the downs in life, and yet never cease to be in love, not just loving.  The aim is to be permanently infatuated.  After all, some seed does fall on the fertile soil.  It sprouts up like the seed among thorns and the seed among stones, but the difference is that it stays that way.  The other two don’t.  The former charismatic looks back on the emotional thrill ride of that former life as an empty shell.  He thinks he is wiser, and he’s right.  He is wiser, but he lost the romance in the process.  His marriage to the faith is still loving, but he is no longer in love.  He went through all of the stages of marriage, from infatuation, through disillusionment, to “maturity.”  But he is now a cynic.  Those three stages are the phases of the stony soil faith.  He won’t pray for healing.  Why?  Because he no longer believes.  He won’t seek out prophecy, because he no longer believes.  It’s in the Bible, quite clearly, but he still rejects it, and he rejects it on the basis of being a Bible-only believer, ironically.

The former charismatic says she was not saved because of the charismatic church, but in spite of it.  That’s like saying she didn’t get married because she fell in love, but in spite of it.  This is patently false.  She could blame the charismatic church for not giving her the tools to become strong in the faith, but she could never claim that the passion and excitement of faith, of real mountain-moving faith, repelled her from that faith.  We all come to Christ by falling in love.

It’s not common, especially these days, to find an old married couple, still holding hands and casting adoring sidelong glances at each other after half a century of marriage.  It’s not common, but it happens.  I wish it would happen to us all.

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Rattlesnake Mountain

18 04 2011

We were all there in the open field at recess watching James’ dad get blown to bits.  James was even there with us.  Of course, we had no idea what we were looking at.  It was one of two plane crashes I remember seeing from that same playground during my time in elementary school.  The small aircraft hit close to the peak, igniting a fire that spread and rose until it engulfed the top.  What is fire to a little kid?  What is tragedy?

A few years ago, I noticed my goldfish staring in awe at a candle I had placed near the fishbowl.  Where, in nature, do fish confront fire?  All of the beasts in the forest know it well.  At the first scent of smoke, the bees start packing up the honey.  The deer flee for their lives.  Even the snakes head for the water.  All of the animals of the forest know what fire is, and they fear it dreadfully.  The fish don’t have a clue.

There we were, like a pond full of goldfish, staring at a fire, and somewhere in that fire was our classmate’s father.  We didn’t have a clue.  I remember when he was called out of the classroom.  I remember the next day, staring up at Rattlesnake Mountain, with its ashen gray cap, and freckle-faced Brent exclaiming, “Dude!  That was James’ father!”  He kept saying it until it finally hit home with us.  The teacher may have told us all at the same time, but I don’t remember.  It was a hard thing to grasp.

James was rare for being a black kid in a nearly all-white school.  He was one of only about three non-whites I think I saw in the seven years I was there, five non-whites, if you count the faculty.  He was extremely quiet and well-mannered.  So much more dramatic the change when he began biting and kicking his fellow students for no reason at all (I thought).  We were only second-graders.  I had no idea what it was like to lose my father.  All I knew was that my classmate was behaving like a rabid animal.  Shortly after that, James moved away, and we never saw him again.

And then I had my own Rattlesnake Mountain, that same year.

Christmas came, and I got my very own Starscream Transformer robot toy.  I remember it well, and I remember how it came with two left hands and a missile that broke as I was detaching it from the forms.  I recall the evening when I sat on my father’s lap, and he helped me put the decals on the toy.  He had the sticker for the shiny gold eyes grasped in a pair of tweezers.  He hesitated, he breathed deeply, and then he gave me the tweezers and set me down on the couch and wandered off.  I had no idea that I was witnessing my forty-two-year-old father have a heart attack.  Once I finished the decals myself, I wandered about, looking for my parents, when my older siblings informed me that they had gone to the hospital.  My mom came home late and alone.

The next day was business as usual.  I thought my dad was going to die, and there I was in school, doing what I did every day, helpless in my circumstances.  I don’t remember why, but I found myself biting and kicking my classmates like some rabid animal.  Yes, now I could relate to James.  I was horrified at my own actions, watching myself transform like a young Jekyll and Hyde story.  The teacher knew something was wrong at home.  She pinned a note to my clothes and admonished me to leave it there until my mom took it off.  I don’t know why, but I wore the note all the way home, without trying to read it.

The next day, my mother kept me home from school and took me to visit my father in the hospital, instead.  That was all it took to make me a happy well-mannered kid again, seeing him alive and in good spirits.  My first day back at school, the teacher pinned another note to my clothes, thanking my mother for whatever it was that she had done.  “Now, don’t take this one off,” she said, “This is a good note.”

In second grade, my parents were enormous giants to me.  The prospect of my dad dying was like the prospect of God dying.  This one who should have been too big to fall, this all-providing source of survival was at death’s door.  I can well imagine how Christ’s disciples might have panicked at the death of their rabbi, a surrogate father, but more, something like Father God in the flesh, too big to fall, dying like a mortal.  One can see Peter’s fight/flight response, cutting off a servant’s ear one moment, and denying Christ the next, having witnessed the death and destruction of the man who always had all of the answers, the one who could not be touched.  There he was, the apparent source of life and health, bleeding on a cross.  Christ’s mountain was called the Skull, but it was the place where the snake had bitten him on the heel, symbolically.  It was his Rattlesnake Mountain.

It recalls to mind the various faces of the September 11 attacks, all of those close shots of people hanging out of windows to escape the fire.  Those must have been someone’s fathers and mothers.  I can only imagine the horror of having watched it happen to a loved one.  Much worse, to have seen the face of one clearly, on a newspaper or on television.  When I watched the tsunami roll across Japan, it was like the plane crash at Rattlesnake mountain, like a goldfish staring at a flame.  It was mesmerizing, but it was nothing personal to me.  I feel like I should sympathize more.  I know I would feel much different if that tragedy came to me.

Deep in the recesses of my mind, I wonder if we’re all destined to feel the pain of those victims.  We’ll feel their pain, or we’ll feel that pain.  I pray to God that the pain is only sympathetic.  If that’s all I pray, then I probably am not sympathetic.  And, if I am cold, then perhaps the hour has come for God to break me, that I may bleed, and, having bled, I may learn to feel again.





The Day After, and the Day After That

25 12 2010

A man lived in a modest home on a very expensive little square of land.  The home was reasonably large, but nothing in character to make it particularly attractive.  At night, he could be seen in his living room watching television, while all of the other windows in his home were dark.  One day, he decided to tear down this house and build a much bigger home with more rooms.  He designed it with an old Spanish architecture, built by a renowned company.  Out in front of this home, he put a plaque detailing the history of the site, though one might wonder what significance could exist in a home built only a few years ago.  Whatever had existed there before was long gone.  Only the dirt was historic, for what it’s worth.  The home was lovely, furnished with brand new furniture and all of the latest technology.

In the evenings, he could be seen sitting in his living room watching a bigger television, and all of the other windows in his home remained dark.  Now, there were more dark windows, to dark rooms with no one in them and no life housed.  In truth, he either needed fewer rooms or more family living with him.  Actually, he seemed only to need one room.  As it was, one room held all of the life, while the others were vacant catacombs.

In our mansion, we have three-hundred-sixty-five rooms.  One of them is well lit and full of life.  Its light spills out the door and down the hall.  You can see the light before you see the room.  You can stand in the glow before you’re in the room.  One room is full of life and festivity.  One room holds the family.  One or two others occasionally get a visit, but this room is where the action is.  The other three-hundred-sixty-four rooms are about as lifeless as a grave.  We walk briskly through the room, then exit back into another dark hallway.  The glow gently recedes as we head away from the door.  Then we find ourselves in darkness.

The day after Christmas, known as Boxing Day for reasons unknown to most people, is usually a day for breaking toys, returning unwanted presents, and spending what’s left of the family budget on things, things and more things, to fill the vacancy left by the light of Christmas.  The purchases on Boxing Day are a match lit to find one’s way down the dark hall, in absence of the waning light of Christmas.  The world has forgotten Christmas already.  Yet, the world never knew it.  On Christmas morning, the sun rose at its usual time; the wild animals followed their usual routine; all of nature was ignorant of the event.  The whole physical world saw Christmas as just another day.  On the day that Christ was born, the whole world saw the life of just another day.  Few people were aware that anything significant had happened, because the significance was purely in the minds of those who saw it.  Christ was the great secret.  He was only a baby, and he was doing nothing extraordinary.  For all practical purposes, the first Christmas really was just another day.

The only difference between Christmas and all of the other days in the year is what we do with it.  In one sense, it’s all in our minds.  We could say that it’s nothing special.  Nothing happens on that day that could not just as easily happen on the day after, or the day after that.  On Christmas, we wake up with the feeling that this is a special day, like no other.  The day after Christmas, we wake up depressed, looking for a suitable drug.  The only difference between the two days is what we put into them.  The Christmas room is full of life, full of loved ones and full of charm.  The room next to it is dark and cold, uninhabited and neglected.  Christmas is expensive and laden with work.  The other days are cheap and easy.  Christmas is religious and meaningful, while the others are mostly secular and routine.  Christmas is a time for building relationships, but the others are a time for growing stale and unfamiliar.  The only difference between the two is what we do with them.  Otherwise, one day is just like any other.

One room is like any other.  The only difference is what you fill it with.  God has a house with many rooms, and he intends to fill it with loved ones.  Every room will be filled with light and life.

Some houses on the street are brightly lit.  Others remain as festive as a tomb.  The Puritan rejects Christmas for its pagan origins, while the atheist rejects it for the Christian thing it has become.  For some, it is secular, a party to celebrate nothing.  For some, it is the birthday of someone very special.  It is a symbol.  It is whatever it means to you.  It amounts to whatever you invest into it.  It is not that Christmas is an ordinary day trumped up to pretend itself important.  It is that every other day is neglected and unappreciated for what it is.  Every other day needs a little Christmas, and every other person needs Christ.  The world is full of empty souls, with scarce few that know what it means to be filled with Christ, to be Christmas among the empty days of the calendar.

Emmanuel, God is with us, still.  Christ came and struck us in awe.  Then he left.  The day after that, after he was gone, when the miracles had ceased, and the Holy Spirit had not yet come, the world was held in suspense, like Boxing Day, not knowing what was left to hope for, but only guessing and waiting, remembering what had been, and feeling the vacancy.  Christ was really gone this time.  He wasn’t coming back in three days, this time.  It was over, or had it just begun?  No, it had not even begun, yet.  At the moment, it was just over, and it was not anything else, yet.  It was the day after, and its only significance was that it was no longer the previous day.

It was the dark room, next to the living one, close enough to hear the activity and catch a glimpse of the light, but still in darkness.  But the day after Christmas is the first day of waiting for its return.





Not Every Apple Has a Worm

22 07 2010

Welcome to my home.  I would love to offer you a cup of coffee, but I am unable.  It would be brewed from a Mooka Express, dark and heavy, laden with a syrupy sweet creamer.  Granted, you could have it light or dark, whatever your preference.  I would love to offer you a cup, but I’m afraid you’ll have to serve yourself this time.  I cannot see you.  I will not hear you.  I am unable to do anything for you, except that I might talk to you.  For this, I am grateful.  The experience is not unlike praying to God, I might suggest.  Here you are, in my home, flanked by books and a computer, overlooking my living room, where my wife rests on the couch, reading.

I invite you into my castle in the lingering twilight, waiting for the various stained-glass  lamps to turn on by their timers, because I want to show you an example of what a life might be.  It is not an ideal life, by any means, but it seems to exceed the limits that some seem to put on their own expectations.  When I was first married, my father told me what many others have said, that marriage has its ups and downs, that marriage is a lot of work, but it’s worth it.  Some would have said that marriage isn’t worth the effort.  Not one single person ever told me that there was any chance that marriage would be a wonderful, easy cornucopia of joy.  No one said that I could, even remotely, hope to have years and years without a serious disagreement.  They only told me that I’d eventually grow tired of my wife, and that we’d need a television to keep us entertained.  My brother told me that after two years a couple is no longer considered newly wedded.  After that, I assumed we were to merely settle into a comfortable but dull coexistence.

A blogger whom I respect even said, outright, that couples who never seem to have troubles suffer from a shallow relationship.  It’s that dark problems and heavy disagreements can never arise between two people who are never really close to each other.  The implication is that in order to have a healthy marriage, one must occasionally be miserable.

Had I relied solely upon my parents’ stormy marriage, I might have believed these suggestions.  Had I relied on my brother’s disastrous and nearly fatal marriage, I might have never been married.  The fact is that I simply did not fall in love and commit myself to this other wonderful person because I have at the back of my mind the sadistic need to be lambasted periodically by the one person who has the real power to absolutely destroy me.  No one marries because they want more hardship.  We all marry because we want to fill our lives with bliss.

I want to show you that my marriage has been happy, in a way that the world would call unrealistic.  It has not been a lot of work, and there have not been any serious bumps in the road.  I do not say this to brag.  I say it because if you don’t think it is possible, then you will never achieve it for yourself.  I want every marriage to be stable and dripping with mutual love and adoration.

To counter the arguments made by the nuptial pessimists, I thought to suggest what one might do to arrive at a lasting, happy marriage.  I must admit that I am at a loss.  Marital advice is thrown at us from every corner, mostly by people with failed marriages.  They are the people whose marriages have been to Hell and back who have the most advice to give, but none of these people can conceive of one without trouble.  To them, the spark of romantic love always turns to a devastating inferno.  Happy people are too busy being happy to write about it.  That’s why most poems are sad.  Therefore, I’d like to show you a marriage that has, after a reasonable span of years, not lost what it set out to accomplish, which is the mutual and uninterrupted increase in happiness.

If you say that this is impossible, then I would kindly ask you not to insist upon it.  Nothing hurts joy worse than the belief that it can not exist.  More importantly, if a nobody like me can make a marriage work, then anyone can.

Granted, the most important step, I think, was in choosing a suitable companion.  I understand that not all marriages are matches made in Heaven.  I understand that not everyone is like me, but, more importantly, not everyone is married to my wife.  I can only control one half of the relationship, but therein lies the first step toward a healthy marriage: not attempting to control the other half.

But though we cannot help what comes to us, we can only help what we do with what comes to us.  If every marriage began in love, then every marriage has something to return to.  It can always be restored to an earlier point.  Ideally, it can always be restored to the beginning.  The reason that we drift from this is simply because we have the innate tendency to get used to our own lives.

Take, symbolically, the little girl with the doll house.  The doors in the little structure move on hinges, and she is delighted.  The furniture can be rearranged, and the little lights can be turned on or off.  Clothes hang in the closet.  The mother stands in the kitchen, and the father sits on the sofa with his newspaper, and the girl is delighted by everything and every detail.  She loves her house as it is.  In fact, she loves it more when it is built to imitate real life.  When she reaches adulthood and marries, she might have a house of her own, which she is delighted with, at first.  When was the last time you opened a door and remarked, “Wow, the doors even open and close!  And the lights even turn on and off with this little switch, here!”  Never?  The fake has been usurped by the real, but while we were impressed by the fake, we are unimpressed by the real, because we are overly used to it.  A very important key to a happy marriage is to live like a couple of kids playing house.  Play is fun, even when it’s an errand.

Feminism has wrecked our society.  In an attempt at “equality,” wives have gone to work, just like their husbands.  As a result, the cost of living, namely the cost of home ownership, has increased.  Now, one would seem to need two incomes to survive.  But while the husband comes home from work to enjoy himself, the wife comes home to continue working.  The home seems to be the workplace of the woman, even when it ostensibly is not.  In attempting to be the man’s equal, the woman works twice as hard.  I can only imagine the resentment that must build with time.  We can say that the husband should do his share of the work around the home, but the fact is simply that in most cases the wife will be the one to clean the house, prepare the food and raise the kids, more than the man ever will.  She does it, because she cares more about these things than he does.  I must say that one major contributing factor to our mutual happiness is that my wife does not work outside of the home, except to volunteer occasionally for charity.

In saying all of this, though, let us not forget the importance of faith.  If husbands would love their wives as Christ loved the church, then our marital problems would be half-solved.  Our love could not be broken, even by death.  If we displayed the fruits of the spirit, if we loved each other selflessly, then we could not go wrong.  We would never have a grudge to hold.  If we prayed for humility, and if we submitted ourselves to the will of God, then we would not dominate or belittle each other.  If we both hold true to the passionate love of the same God, a determined love of his righteousness and a shared awe of his glory, then we share the most important thing of all.  Everything else is negotiable.  Every material item is a fleeting piece of matter.  Every physical want is just a passing gas.  The only thing that matters is the one thing that we can always agree upon.  We are both tied to the same anchor.

Not every apple has its worm.  The cynic would love to dig into every relationship until he finds the problems that the couple works so hard to hide.  Sometimes they work at hiding their troubles more than they work at preventing them, but not every relationship is laden with such things.  There is no perfect relationship, as there is no perfect car, but there can be a spotless, lovingly maintained one that looks like new, even when it is decades old.

I wish the best to you and yours.

Sincerely,





Invalid Syllogism; working backward and getting lost

19 04 2010

If you follow the stream downhill from camp, point A,  then you get to the same place we got to, point B. We followed the stream downhill from camp, which is why we are here.

It stood to reason that following the stream assured a predictable path of travel.  If they followed the stream away from camp, then they could follow the stream back to camp.  While it is true that anyone who followed that stream with the current would eventually end up where they were, it was not true that anyone from where they were could follow the stream against its current to arrive back at camp.  Traveling downhill, the tributaries were all convergent.  If the stream split at all, then it always merged again a little further down.  Thus, one could reliably follow that stream and overtake anyone else who also followed that stream.  They would not veer from the path.  However, while the tributaries are convergent on the way down, they are divergent on the way back up.  What this means is that a person not paying close attention to the forks in the stream might not remember which one to follow going back.  In fact,  two members of our camping group did that very thing.  Traveling downstream was deceptively easy, as there were no decisions to make.  There is always only one downstream.  However, traveling upstream has its alternatives.  There are often multiple ways to go upstream.  The result of this was that at the end of the trip, when the pair never returned, Search And Rescue had to be called.  In attempting to work their way back to the beginning, they got hopelessly lost.

In social interaction, this very same kind of mistake is often made regarding the interpretation of other people’s actions.  For example, if I do not like you, then I will be reluctant to spend any time with you.  Let’s say I do not like you.  Therefore it stands to reason that if you invite me to your party that I will do my best to avoid going.  This is a valid line of reasoning, but I am already privy to my own motivation.  I didn’t really need to reason it out to know what I was going to do.  The real deduction comes from the person who is trying to figure out why I did not attend his party.  I was invited, but I said I was busy.  I was invited again, but I was still unable to attend.  Yet again, I was invited, but I still found a reason to decline.  The other person observes that I seem reluctant to attend his parties.  He knows very well that if I dislike him, then I will try to avoid attending his parties.  Therefore, he concludes that I do not like him.  However, working forward was like traveling downstream, and working backward was like traveling upstream.  While one motivation yields a predictable result, the motivation is not necessarily predictable from the result.  I don’t attend his parties, because he serves alcohol, and I am uncomfortable around it.  I don’t attend his parties, because he plays the music too loud.  I don’t attend his parties, because I have really bad flatulence, and I’m afraid of embarrassing myself.  I don’t attend his parties, because I’m infatuated with his sister, but I’m so shy that I’m afraid to be around her.  I don’t attend his parties, because I’m a very busy person with very many obligations, and I really have no time to attend.  Working backward from the response to the motivation, our lines of causation are divergent.  We may never really know why a person seems to avoid us, unless that person tells us, and maybe not even then.

But we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and we imagine the circumstances that would have gotten us from the motivation to the outcome, and we use that to determine what the motivation was.  Generally, we choose the conclusion that involves the fewest specifics, the details that we could never guess, or else we choose the conclusion with the most egocentric basis, the one that pertains specifically to me.  I don’t know what goes on inside your head, and I don’t know what goes on in your life, so my understanding of you is limited to generalizations that could apply to anybody.  I don’t have any way of knowing that you are overwhelmed with the burden of raising your kids.  I might have guessed it, but if I am not, or have not been, in a similar situation, then I might not understand.  What I can apply to anyone who knows me is that they have an opinion of me.  Add to that the fact that my whole world revolves around myself, I’m far more likely to assume that your behavior has something to do with me.

Tracing back a person’s behavior to that person’s motivation is tricky, so long as that person is not me.  It gets trickier if that person is from a different culture.  In Japan, the open expression of anger is greatly suppressed.  Therefore, it finds its way out in very subtle ways.  This passive-aggressive behavior often tries to say, “I hate you,” through the little things in life, like a drawer left open, or a dish left unwashed, or a task performed slowly.  Understanding the Japanese mindset requires amplifying their actions.  An American missionary to Japan once told me that her roommate confronted her for hating her.  She was shocked that her roommate thought she hated her.  The evidence for this animosity amounted to a number of trivial things that had nothing to do with the American’s feelings for the Japanese friend.

In contrast, the Russians are known for being painfully blunt with their feelings.  If a Russian hates you, then that person will likely tell you.  You simply don’t need to guess.  Consequently, I find that Eastern Europeans are generally easier for me to get along with, as my reticence does not cause them to wonder if I dislike them.

A Japanese man once invited me to dinner for the sole purpose of deliberately making wrong turns on the way there, spending the entire time trying to tell me not to be a racist (I couldn’t convince him that I wasn’t), and making me pay the bill (which I could not afford).  I barely knew the man, but he had decided in the few minutes that I had known him that I simply did not like him.  The dinner was his way of getting back at me.  For the life of me, I cannot fathom what I did wrong.  All I had done was sit in the same room with him for a few minutes without engaging in conversation.  He took that as an expression of dislike, I suppose.

Relating to different cultures is relatively easy, compared to relating to different species.  Sometimes people get bit by their own dogs because they hug the dog around the neck, putting themselves over the dog’s shoulders.  To us, it is an act of affection, but to the dog it is an assertion of dominance.  Some dogs don’t mind.  Some retaliate.  When dogs fight, the winner proclaims its victory by putting its head upon the other’s shoulders or over the other’s neck.  When a dog does it, the motivation is one thing, but when a person does it, the motivation is another.

Relating to other species is easy, compared to relating to something as vastly different as God.  What goes on in the mind of an omniscient God is an endless enigma.  The reasoning behind any action could have such a vast array of possible causes and motivations, that understanding him becomes an almost hopeless Gordian knot.  Most often the best answer to why God did something is, “I don’t know.”  As is generally the case, we tend to overlook the many details that we could never guess, and we opt for the explanation that relates most directly to ourselves.  A bad thing happens to me, and I conclude that God must not like me.  In so doing, I may have followed the stream uphill, and been misdirected to a tributary that went another way.  The fact is that I don’t know why bad things happen to me.  I might never guess the feelings he has for me, unless he tells me.

I used to think that the Bible was a form letter.  It seemed like a generic letter of love written to everyone, in general.  Then, it seemed like a store-bought greeting card, written by someone else for no one in particular, given to me by a God who loves me.  People are very egocentric.  If a speaker gets on stage, smiles and says, “I like you people,” they take it personally and impute that the speaker really does like them.  In truth, no such assessment could hold any meaning.  The entire group cannot be evaluated like an individual.  The same seems to hold true for God’s love expressed to us in the Bible.  In this we are at a crossroads.  If we ask, “Does God really love me?” we are left with life’s circumstances, which tell us nothing, and a Bible not written specifically for any particular person.  Tracing God’s actions backward to his motivations is an impossible task.  Without the moving of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, without God simply telling us in his own way, we are at a loss.

Jesus loves me,

This I know,

For the Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me, this I know, because he told me so, himself.  The Bible tells me that he loves the world (John 3:16), and I need his Spirit to make it personal.





Life in a Bottle

9 03 2010

We live our lives from within a bottle.  That bottle is the human body, which contains us.  We look out through the windows of our eyes.  The world looks back at us and sees only the eyes.  We look through them, and the world looks at them.

 Modern thought is highly analytical.  The scientist observes human behavior and explains it entirely on physical terms.  The testosterone and androgen levels cause a chain of chemical events that turn a boy into a man.  The chemical messengers cause a change in the firing pattern of neurons in the brain, which causes the man to think affectionately toward members of the opposite sex.  The purpose is unmistakable.  It exists to promote human reproduction.  The strong desire produces a feeling of intensity, triggering the fight-flight mechanism.  This causes an adrenaline response, which, in turn, limits most of the non-essential body functions.  One resultant effect is clammy hands.  He takes her hand, as a gesture that communicates his intentions.  She then evaluates his proposal and assesses his merit based on what she deems to be her range of options.  Her cerebellum works actively to determine whether he can provide an adequate genetic contribution to their progeny, as well as his ability to provide financially for their collective well-being, thus ensuring the successful rearing of young.  If she deems him to be a suitable mate, then a similar adrenergic response might be invoked in her own body as a result of the importance of the situation.  Next, they might engage upon a contractual agreement, ensuring that the male will fulfill his duties to help in the maintenance of their household, rather than depart abruptly and prematurely.  We call this contract “marriage.”  It also arranges for exclusivity, so that the male might not accidentally waste his time rearing another male’s offspring, and in so doing jeopardize his own reproductive success.  All of this is necessary for the continuation of the species.

 But this is the description of an organic robot and has nothing whatsoever to do with falling in love.  From the outside, we see mechanisms of a purely practical purpose.  They in no way resemble the experience that lies beneath those functions.  When I fell in love with my wife, I never once considered, nor cared, what physiological processes were involved in this state of existence.  At the time, I was even a biology student in college.  At the time, I was even studying physiology.  One notable effect to having my nose in biology texts for hours on end was that I began to see people as walking, breathing sacks of guts.  Every person was an assembly of their various parts.  I didn’t look into people’s eyes, so much as I looked at their eyes.  This person might have a lovely iris.  That person might have more or less adipose under the basilar membrane of the skin.  When a person is considered in terms of her physiology, she ceases to be regarded for her humanity.  We stare at the surface of the glass, observing its reflectivity, its color or its label, not seeing the person on the inside, looking out.  Within that physical bottle is a spiritual being, looking out.

 In this sense, then, pornography and modern analytical thought have much in common.  Both take into great account the physical shell and disparage the spiritual human.  They look at the outside only.  The abortionist doesn’t claim to murder a person, but, instead, is merely removing a lump of “tissue.”  The most sacred things in life can be desecrated through cold objectivity.  Over-analysis reduces humanity to a sack of guts, or a bag of chemicals.

 But I am here.  I am in this body, looking out.  As I gaze into my wife’s eyes, I dive into her soul.  I connect with that person, whom I love.  I don’t see a couple of well-shaped corneas covering two hazel irises.  I see a person.  I don’t respond to a natural chain of physiological events.  I love.  I adore.  Whatever the mechanism, I am consumed with the experience.  Somehow, I think that this is what our Creator intended. 

 When we watch television, we get into the show.  We don’t sit there and marvel at the complex array of photons being emitted through a cathode ray tube or a liquid crystal display.

 When we drive a car, we need not consider the timing of the firing within each cylinder, or the chemical processes of combustion.  All of the complex functions of the engine, the transmission, the steering and the brakes have been simplified and condensed to a few simple controls.  The entire machine has been made intuitive for us.  If we want to turn left, then we turn the steering wheel left.  If we want to speed up, then we step on the gas.  We don’t need to adjust for air intake.  We need not direct the oil to be pumped to the top of the engine block, so that it can run down over the camshaft.  The gas pedal has been brought to us; we don’t have to climb over the engine to control one of its components. 

 Such is the human body.  Most of what happens to keep us working is, thankfully, beyond our conscious perception.  We don’t have to manually digest our food.  We don’t need to think about our heartbeat in order to make it happen.  We don’t have to consciously assemble enzymes within our cells.  This machine, which is far more complex than an automobile, has been simplified and brought to a focal point of control, so that we might be able to operate it as intuitively as though we were not driving a machine at all.  We hardly even notice that we are operating a machine, but we are.

 Modern thought has struggled to take this away from us.  It has focused so intently on the machine, that it denies the very existence of the driver.  It reduces the experience to an illusion created by a mechanism.  Unfortunately for the modernist, he cannot observe this mechanism without living through such a mechanism, himself.  In order to stare at a bottle and see no further than the glass, he must first look out through the glass of his own bottle.  This is a double standard, an unequal treatment of others and himself.  The mechanism of a human body cannot be studied without living through one.

 The spiritual side of humanity is what’s being ignored.  If the man looks at a woman and connects with her humanity, then he will not be addicted to pornography.  If the abortionist considers the humanity of the fetus, then she might reconsider this murder.  If the priest connects with his God, then he might not obsess with the legalism and rituals of a dead religion. 

 When we love our neighbors as ourselves, when husbands love their wives as Christ loves the church, we see the humanity within the corporeal bottle, like we see ourselves.  We all love ourselves.  We all nurture our own humanity, yet we often objectify each other.  We do not do this because we have been deceived by appearances.  We do this because it is convenient to sin.  It is the vice known as selfishness.  We ignore the humanity of others in order to use them for our own gain.

 To see the life inside that bottle, to look beyond its glass, we only need to change our focus.





A Mirror Among the Ugly

16 01 2010

How do you tell someone that he’s ugly?  You do it very, very gently.  If you’re his friend, then you’ll probably never tell him.  If you’re his mother, then you’ll lie.

They live in a house without mirrors.  Over the bathroom sink hangs a picture of the Mona Lisa.  On the bedroom door hangs a full-length picture of Audrey Hepburn.  They brush their teeth and shave in front of these images, making believe that they are really seeing themselves in a mirror.  They eat breakfast with tarnished silverware, and they drive to work with the rearview mirror adjusted away to avoid accidentally seeing themselves.  Unfortunately for them, their workplace is an uncontrolled environment.  They can’t help but occasionally glimpse themselves, reflected in the bathroom mirror or a shiny surface.  They are the ugly.  They are everyone.

 Within everyone grows an innate evil, an ugliness that we try not to look at.  We do not, cannot, see ourselves for whom we really are, because we live our lives from the inside out.  A thing seems right because we want it.  A thing seems wrong until we do it.  Our house has no mirrors.  At work, people see us, and they react to what they see.  It shows us some reflection of ourselves.  But they only see us on the outside.  They are the reflection of our fully clothed selves, and we look away from that image, even.  We are as beautiful as we like to think we are.  So long as we never see ourselves, we can live in that fantasy.  All who know us may see us as arrogant jerks, but we remain unaffected.  We avert our eyes.  We break the mirror.  We try to buff the ugliness out of the shine.  We blame the lighting.

 God has sent to us a full-length mirror, and we stand naked before it.  It is the Holy Spirit, and it shows us what we are.  The fools among us shudder and walk away, trying desperately to forget what they saw.  Some of us stand and stare in shock for a while, only to convince ourselves that what we see isn’t so bad.  Others accept the image, realizing that they do not rise above the ugliness of the world around them.  Your Mom was ugly.  Your Dad was ugly.  You followed the trend.  Your friends are ugly.  Your dog is ugly.  At least the whole world is ugly, too. 

 But God has not sent this mirror simply to make us feel bad about ourselves.  We need that mirror in order to change what we can.  We use it so that we might not walk out the door with toothpaste in the corners of our mouths.  We use it to improve ourselves.

 Cooper’s Looking Glass Self is the principle that even when we look in a mirror, we do not see ourselves for what we are.  All we see is some person staring blankly at a mirror.  We use other people’s reactions to us to shape our self-image.  They see us in a natural setting, smiling naturally, reacting naturally.  Unfortunately, our friends usually don’t tell us everything we need to know about ourselves.  They’re often not brave enough to tell us when we’re behaving badly.  Worse yet, our ugliness gets filtered through theirs.  All we see is any extra ugliness that exceeds theirs.  Anyone who shows us the wickedness of our ways we malign and ignore.  We refuse the image they show us of ourselves, because we do not like it.  It does not fit what we’d like to imagine.

 Christians are often accused of being judgmental.  This, more often than not, is a complete lie.  We have been through that fire, are still going through it, being shown our flaws in painful high-definition by the mirror of the Holy Spirit.  We don’t have the luxury of living our fantasy.  Those of us who haven’t gone through it are those who do not have the Holy Spirit, and, therefore, have not really accepted Christ.  If you want to play that role and be that Christian, then you’re going to look in that mirror, and you’re going to go through that fire.  You get to peer into that image and see that wart, that pimple and that crooked nose.  You get to see your arrogance, your selfishness and your shallowness.  On the plus side, you get to work on fixing it.  You don’t have to stay that way.  On the minus side, you can’t pretend you’re beautiful, when you’re not.  It’s no wonder the world calls us judgmental.  In us they see a reflection of themselves, shining off of the sheen cast by the work of God in our lives.  They will look upon us, and they will hate what they see.

 We did, too, at one time.  Some of us still do.  No one is perfect.

 So, how do you tell a man that he’s ugly?  If you want to be his friend, then you don’t.  He won’t brush his hair if he doesn’t know it’s a mess.  He won’t pluck the dangling booger from his nose if he doesn’t know that it’s there.  In fact, anything true is potentially useful.  People don’t use truth to hurt themselves.  We reflect upon people by hinting at them what they really are.  The Holy Spirit reflects like a mirror, abruptly and plainly, holding nothing back and sugarcoating nothing, but neither does he mean any of it for harm or insult.  Likewise, we should speak the truth in love, gently, not to insult but only to help.

 In return, we can expect to be thrown to the floor and stomped on.  Such is the life of a mirror among the ugly.