Sunday, December 30, 2012

When Id Screams

I talk a lot here about honestly . . . living on the ground floor of reality. But even I know, despite my idealism, that society would almost cease to function within the framework of total honesty.  But I do think it is healthy that we are at least aware of the masquerade.  In my prior evangelical days, when we subscribed to the notion of achieving "godliness" we became more and more disconnected to our own reality.

Freudian psychiatry is of course no longer in vogue, however, Sigmund did do a great job in describing the organization of the psyche.  His notion of the Id, ego and superego can work as a decent model.

So, within this model, the really honest self would probably be the Id. Layer upon layer above that are the controls (inhibitions) that allow us to suppress the four year old within us, so that we can create social interactions as adults.

I find it interesting when the Id breaks through, often in the most unsuspecting time or place.  While I've seen this happen many times in others and myself, I will use one example that I can clearly remember as a great example.

Years ago I was a deacon in a large church in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  The senior pastor of that church had illusions of grandeur where he envisioned our church becoming a mega church, with his bigger-than-life personality at the helm.  So, he paid some consultants to come in and figure out how to wring out a few more drops of money from each member.  They concluded that our meager church of about 500 members could cough up about a million dollars . . . with the right program (of psychological manipulation).  I've grown to loathe such "faith promise" programs which use a lot of emotional and guilt manipulation.

Anyway, we leaders were assigned to go out in pairs to meet with each family. We would pretend to call it a prayer time, when it was really and tricky manipulation time ("Oh God please help this family to really trust you like they never have before by stepping out and pledging what only You know that You will provide.")

So, we arrived at one of the key families house for our "prayer meeting."  The mom, I will call her Sandra, was a wonderful woman, Sunday school teacher and involved in several women's groups. She was referred to as "a most godly woman."

I was still young (28) and quite naive  I remember being shocked to the point of being speechless when we started praying with the woman and her quiet husband and her Id came tearing out to the surface.  She began to scream at us, and, as we use to say down south, "Cursing us out" (pronounced "cussing us out").

I remember her standing up and shaking her finger at us, "You sons of bitches, I dare you come in my F-  - -ing house and trying to steal the shoes off my babies so you can build your motherf---ing church. That will happen over my motherf---ing dead body you assholes and you can tell that motherf---ing pastor that he can eat my shit before I give him and another damn penny."

She was very, very mad.  I think she was very embarrassed when her anger subsided. She never made eye contact with me again over the subsequent few years. I'm glad that I was the junior member of that prayer duo as I watched the senior deacon try to squirm our way out of their house.

I have been totally stressed out over the past few weeks.  I mentioned in my last post that I've had a "near death experience" with my medical practice as we almost went bankrupt.  Unfortunately I have a big heart and began seeing too many poor people so our bills surpassed our income. Words can't express the stress I have felt.

Now the good news, I had a big boost of money come in today, which will allow us to make payroll once more.  But in my prolonged level of stress, sleep deprivation, the most childish part of me came rushing to the surface. I deeply regret it now. I didn't like my Christmas present my wife gave me. I know, four year old material.

My wife has traditionally given me a pack of underwear almost every Christmas since we were married 31 years ago.  For a stretch of about five years I asked each year for an ice axe. She would always tell me that was a totally impractical and silly request because we were living in Minnesota and there were no mountains. But I had dreams of climbing one.  One year, I think out of frustration, she got me a red one.  It, until this day, is the greatest Christmas gift I've ever had.  This past summer I used it to summit a challenging. glacier-clan Mount Baker.

I grew to loathe the underwear gift but had never said anything about it.  While I know this is not true, it communicated to me each Christmas that my value to her was nothing more.  I turned worked very hard and got her big gifts each year.  That was my family tradition when I was growing up.

I grew up in a family where Christmas was totally impractical. We bought beyond our means and bought each other impractical gifts, that we knew the person would love.  Maybe a trip to the beach, or a guitar, or a motorcycle, or a car.  My wife grew up in a family where gifts had to fit well within a small budget and of the most practical type, pajamas, gloves, toaster (if the old one was broken). So, I will need about five pairs of underwear each year, so, it goes to reason, why not make that my Christmas present?

I feel horrible about venting about it . . . and quite childish.  Now she feels totally devalued by me that I would say such a hurtful thing as "please don't get me underwear each year for Christmas."

But this got me thinking about the child within me.  I know he resides there, the same child that I knew, and which made up the whole of me, during my preschool years.  I want the biggest piece of the cake, the one in the corner with the icing on two sides.  I want to be appreciated more than I am . . . always.

Maybe the superego is the Holy Spirit.  Maybe. Or just maybe it is learned self-policing personality that keeps us all from becoming assholes . . . thus friendless.  But I often see people giving full expression of their Ids but they do it in such a camouflaged way that it can make themselves look like saints.  Say the pastor in Ann Arbor. If you looked at the child within  him, that child was screaming, "I want to be king of the hill, and of the biggest hill in town."  But he was crafty enough to rephrase it as "God wants us to move out and trust Him for mighty things.  Who is on God's side . . . and who is not?"

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Philippians 4:5-7 for the Person with Anxiety

Philippians 4:5-7

New International Version (NIV)
Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

This verse has been quoted to me a thousand times in my life. It was a major reason that I felt so inferior was the fact that not appearing anxious was natural for many of my friends, but for me it was an all-consuming matter to not fear.  Over time you have this deep, subconscious feeling that either you are junk, because you can't reach that level of peace, or that God is mighty unfair.

But, I sincerely believe that we all don't start from the same place.  I have no problem under-eating (although I wish I did at times) but for the anorexic, it is a constant nightmare.  We are not the same.  I don't have to fight those demons.  But I do have to fight the anxiety demons.

Lately, once more I was thrust into the center of an extremely anxious situation.  I won't go into details here as that is not the focus of my posting. But I will summarize by saying for about three weeks I was teetering on the edge of financial failure as a business owner despite working extremely hard for the past few months (and the reason I don't have a moment to write here anymore, expect for days like to day, Christmas day and I'm not working).  

Oddly it had to do more with computers than anything. In September I switched to a new billing company for my medical practice. They use a different software than our practice had been using. To make a long story short, because of the new software, Medicare and virtually all of our private insurances simply stopped paying us.  Bills were pouring in and I ran completely out of money. The bank refused to lend me a dime even though the insurance companies owed my business almost $100,000 (most of which I will never see).  So that's it in a nutshell.  I am only out of the woods by the fact that I am due to get a check tomorrow for $6,000 for which I can pay my employees but I can't pay myself for this month and who knows what will happen next week.

Okay, with that said, I want to talk about the anxiety part of it.  As I am getting older, I want more than ever to find that peace.  I don't want to lie on my deathbed knowing that my life was filled with anxiety and sleepless nights.

I have come a long ways.  I mean, even starting this business in the face of extreme odds (and those odds against me are the reasons the banks won't loan me money) and that took a lot of courage.  But I want to find a way that when I'm face with those traumas of life, being told I have cancer, being told I'm being sued and etc. that I can find a way to pray and to believe God.

But this brings me back to the spirit of this blog.  There are many of us who have spent a good portion of our lives in the evangelical world where fake miracles were the fabric of our everyday lives.  We got burnt.  On this side, it would be very easy to believe that God never solves our problems.  That the worse outcome, the one we fear in the middle of the night, is the one that is inevitable.  But I will be back with some more thoughts on this topic.  But somehow this passage has to be true despite the nagging reality that it doesn't appear to be.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Few Thoughts For a Strange Place

I was confident that I wouldn't even attempt to write anything about the horrible shooting on Friday.  Of course we are sick of it. Sick of it in the same way we saw the planes hitting the Twin Towers, over and over and over . . . for what seemed like weeks. I've tried to avoid the sadness, because, as a father and now grandfather, it is too grievous to consider.

I've heard that it is a challenge to faith when these things occur. I will qualify that by only two bands on the spectrum.

On one end are the atheists.  The tragedy is a treat to them because it screams of meaning (although a sad meaning) in a vacuum where there can be none. In the atheists' universe, there is no difference between shooting 20 innocent first graders with an assault rifle and curing cancer. They are two meaningless points in space without reference points. But no atheist can really live this way. They feel the pain and sense the grief that it is real . . . and it is evil.

In the other band, near the other end or the spectrum are the evangelicals who are backed into a corner where they believe that the only way their God can be big enough, is that he plans every movement of every atom . . . with no randomness.  In His destiny, these Christians try to resolve an irreconcilable beliefs that their God loves everyone (at least the good people) with an endless love, but at the same time, plotted the most disgusting cruelty against them. Somehow they live with that in the same way the atheists try to live with their perplexing ideas of meaning without a cause for meaning.

Second, unrelated point. I took my wife and son to Handel's Messiah, performed by the professionals of Seattle's Symphony and Chorus. It was totally incredible. For the first time, I followed every word of the three and half hour performance from the program.  This is what praise music suppose to be. A totally God-centered rendering of the whole Gospel.

More later.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Glimmer of Hope

I taught Sunday School today . . . the first time in many years.  This class, is a high school class.  They are doing a series on media and because I have a movie club (as a ministry of my church) I was asked to teach a couple of classes.

During this series, I think the kids have mostly been watching movies and discussing them. I wanted to spend half the class talking, philosophically, about discernment.  The point I made is that all media have the goal of entertainment. Some of the particular pieces also ask questions and a few of them, give answers.  Entertainment and asking questions are amoral, or, maybe an actual good thing in itself. That of course is that you are not consumed with being entertained or your questions aren't genuine.  But the answers giving in a particular media source (meaning one film or one music video) maybe be good, or bad.  Bad answers are simply those that are incorrect.

I was impressed with the kids that they got this right.  They knew that entertainment is mostly good as is asking questions.  Some kids don't.  That wasn't what I was taught at their age.  I was taught that entertainment was worldly and some questions, such as "how do I know God exist" were forbidden.

So, I have a glimmer of hope that maybe my evangelical experience was not the norm.  I am also happy to say that I was invited to help with this class.  In my previous church, a media class was my idea. I was canned after just four weeks, once the pastor got the idea I was watching TV shows with the kids.  Sad.  He missed my entire point.

I'm continuing to read Portofino.  I was thinking last night that if my kids were to read the book, that they would see my wife and me as exactly the same as the mom and dad in the book (at least during their growing up years).  If they did, that would be an exaggeration on their part. But it is true one of my biggest faults is a temper.  I've never hit my wife or kids (or dog) in anger, but I've been known to scream if my attempts to fix my plumbing fails.  I also an anxious at times. Just like the character in the book, I worry about making trains and planes and etc.

In the same token, Denise reminds me of the mom, but again, the character in the book is more extreme and I even doubt that the real Edith Schaeffer was that pious. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Portofino . . . the Mirror

I'm in the middle of my second reading of Portofino. I almost never read a book twice, but, something drew me back.  I've told people that I put this novel in my personal top 10, if not the top 5.  It is up there with The Way of All Flesh, and oddly for the same reason. I will get to that in a minute.

In case you don't know this book, and its popularity is modest at best, it is by Frank Schaeffer, son of my personal hero Francis. The book is the pretense of a novel with the unpretentiousness of a autobiography. Sure, the particulars are probably an invention of Frank's mind, but the context is without question from the real-life experiences of the man.

Part of the fun of the book for me is the fact that I, at least at one time, knew personally the unpretentious characters of the book. Not closely, but at arm's length.  I observed the family enough to know when he is talking about fictional character x, he is really talking about his sister Susan and character Y, is his sister Deborah. I spent several nights in the same room as his mother and all he says about the fictional mother rings true of the real woman.

I really think the book is a must read for all evangelicals who one day have this strange feeling deep in their soul that something isn't right. It is like a torch lite taking them out of the cave to the sunlight. At first it is like that proverbial chill up the spine while alone in a deserted old mansion, but no one is present in the room. You just can't describe the feeling.

While both books (including Butler's) are certainly not instructional manuals or even have a deliberate purpose to add clarity, they certainly do and seem to do it inadvertently.

Portofino (along with the other two books of the Becker trilogy) unpeels the layers of evangelicalism, one by one, and it is a bit brash like fingernails on the caulk board.  Not only do you get this Deja vu feeling, but the absurdity of the subculture at the center is like the Emperor's striptease in reverse.  Okay, enough tangential metaphors for one paragraph.

I think the book is key first step in moving from the 30th floor of the masquerade back towards the reality.  Maybe it is just distinguishing the 30th floor from the ground floor. I can see an evangelical reading it, and then one night the light bulb goes on. "It is just pretend after all."

But, to quote from the real angry dad, "He is There and He is not Silent," but I will add, He resides in reality . . . or He doesn't reside at all.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Aging . . . The Meaning of Life . . . Solomon's Solution

If there was one threat to my happiness, it would be the aging process.  This is a topic that I don't think is spoken about in Christian circles.  After-all, there are profound pressures within most Christian circles to pretend to not care about the temporal vs the eternal in another dualistic twist.

If you are younger than . . . say . . . 35, then aging may not even be on your radar.  Part of that is the time perception of our brains, which I will get to in a minute.  Old age, or even death for that matter, seems so other-worldly to the youth that it isn't even a second thought.  Maybe the closest that some of the deeper thinking youth would get to this idea, is their legacy.  This takes many forms.  For some it is simply wanting to be somebody or leave a mark in history. In the PR surrounding the movie Lincoln (by the way is a great movie) biographers were saying that even as a young (twenty something) man, Abraham had a strong sense of history, that he wanted to leave his fingerprints on the course of America.  But that's about the only glimpse of their mortality that young people get, unless they have a friend die or have a close call themselves . . . then the thoughts of mortality are short-lived.

I'm not sure at what age that this haunting mortality first walked into my life.  I think it may be when I turned 40.  I do remember some important milestones that added to that feeling.  I remember when a high school friend, my same age, died.  Of course a major event was when my father passed away.  I remember as a little kid thinking that I could not survive (emotionally, if not physically) the passing of either of my parents.  I barely did. I thought a lot about mortality from that point forward.

Then, what seemed trivial events that left a lasting impact.  I remember a nurse, by the name of Ruth, saying, "You aren't getting any younger and you need to settled down," when I was trying to decide if I should switch jobs.  I remember a very talkative barber telling me in Houghton, Michigan, "You know, it's getting thin up here but I will do what I can with what you have."  Until that moment I never noticed that my hair was thinning.

It is bizarre but prior to that, I had this sense that I was immune to aging. That somehow getting old was an act of the will and I wouldn't allow it to come into my life.

My thoughts about this aging is not just cosmetic, although my dwindling appearance hurts too. It is more complicated.  For me, it is about the way I feel.  In the last 10 years I developed an autoimmune disease (Sjogren's Syndrome) which causes a nuisance pain in my tendons, muscles and extremely dry eyes.  While these physical ailments aren't so bad in themselves (compared to the chronic suffering so many other's have), they do give me fear of failing health that could come in the future. I don't like that and it makes me feel older.  But the thing that trumps all of these is the speeding up of time.

I said I would get to this and now I have.  It is a scientific fact that our perception of time changes as we age.  Ironically, I first heard Billy Graham say this many years ago, when it didn't mean that much to me.  But it is true.

The first decade of my like seemed like it went on forever.  I remember each Christmas seemed like such a long, long wait.  But slowly the pace of life started to speed up.  Now it is near the speed of light.  Christmases come and go like the rising and setting of the sun. But connected to this rapid change are losses.

Aging is a process of loosing. You not only loose your hair, but you loose the people you love. You loose your kids, one by one, to graduation from high school, then moving away. Our loss of our five children came like it was being fired out of a machine gun.  Yes, of course I am happy that they alive and healthy, even though they now live far from me.  For those of you who have lost children to death, you certainly have my permission to (and my blessing to) despise me at this moment . . . that I would dare complain when my kids are healthy on this earth. But it is still painful when you loose them geographically.

But the hardest part is that this time perception continues to speed up as we age.  So, the first half of our life lasted 1000% more time than the last half will.

I said once, a long time ago, that the most fearful thing I could imagine was standing in line at the guillotine (the "humane" killing machine) during the reign of terror in revolutionary France.  But we are in that line.  We are not sure when or how our turn will come.  Our best hope is that it will come late, and painless. But it could be as awful as that machine with the angled blade.

So, what is my point in all of this talk?  If I tried to have this conversation in a group of Christians, I would be seriously scorned.  They would pretend that their disdain was motivated by my extreme un-spiritual perspective, but I believe the real motivation would be from their own inward terror and the layers of self-deception that they practice just so they don't have to think about it.

Yes, in case you are wondering, I do believe in an eternity.  I think, in some mysterious way that I don't start to understand, God will heal this planet and bring us back to live forever. But it won't be as semi-transparent mist floating around on clouds. It will be in the world like Tolkien's Middle Earth, were adventures abound on every turn.  But that's the subject of a different post.

So, this now brings me to Solomon's solution and the way I try to find happiness in the flow of my personal mortal history.

Modern Christianity tries to teach us that a spiritual person would never think about death or how short life is because their minds are on the heavens all the time. To me that is an escape. I was actually taught by the man who led me to Christ, that I would never see death.  He was about 100% confident that we would be raptured to glory in around 1980 . . . or maybe 1998.

Another Christian feeble attempt is to find your "Purpose."  This is from the same mindset as the "Purpose Driven Life" movement in Evangelicalism.  I was taught (after I wasn't raptured in 1980 or 1998) that the way you find meaning is that you invest yourself in eternal things.  This was seen as winning souls.

I remember going around the country speaking about my upcoming missionary assignment to the Middle East, that I really though that God was going to use me to turn Mecca into a Christian city.  But these types of grandiose ideas are part of the Christian-narcissistic thinking that is such a part of some Christian circles.

In Solomon's view, and he was the most accomplished man in history, that it was all worthless.  That leading a huge ministry is vanity like every thing else.  He concluded that the real secret to this life was to enjoy it.  Savor the taste of chocolate, the company of friends, the sounds of good music, the view of the mountains, the smell of the sea, the dance of colors on the artist's canvas . . . to savor these all the days of our lives, for this savoring is the real preparation for eternity.  In the process of savoring what God has made, is the purist form of worship.  To savor properly, without arrogance or self-indulgence, is the most pure form of evangelism.

If only I could. I don't want to pretend that I'm not getting older or that I won't soon find myself on my death bed, but I want to savor every square inch of this life I can, and in a deep faith, trust that this was just the prelude.