Friday, November 14, 2014

Freed

There is a prison that you have been released from…and you are never going to have to go back or even need to fear going back to that prison.  The prison cell already had a prisoner…a different prisoner from yourself…who served your time and went down that long lonely hallway and was put to death for all the crimes you have or ever will commit. 

The freedom from that prison is really a freedom that means…you can live the life of a reformed prisoner, who contributes to society and works to right all of your previous wrongs.  But it also means that you can screw it up (like a lot of real prisoners do) and find yourself doing things you did before.  You may even be trying not to do those things, but some habits die hard if they ever die at all.

The thing is…if you really don’t believe that you can screw things up again, and again, and again…and you still won’t go back to that prison…

…if you still have an uncomfortable feeling that if you were to go off the deep end, you might wake up behind bars with the warden looking at you, shaking his head in disappointment…

…if you just want to be seen and be known as a good person because you just can’t take the idea that you might be a bad person who would be in prison in the first place.  Your sense of self would be devastated by this kind of admission that you aren’t as good as you should be and that you can’t really work your way into being that good…

…if you really have reservations like this that linger, even small ones that are buried deeply into the inner working of your emotions and shadowy, fearful doubts that maybe you aren’t 100% safe no matter what you do…

…if anything but absolute freedom from ever possibly being found guilty and setting foot in that prison again is alive in some tiny spark of a way… 

If these “ifs” are there…than any work that you do to be good and to be that reformed prisoner is actually work that you are doing to keep yourself from going back to prison.   You are actually trying to save yourself by your behavior from that deep, tiny, seed of a fear that you and your goodness is what keeps you out of that prison.  In other words…in Christian words…you don’t believe that you are really saved by what Christ accomplished.  You believe that you are free but only if you maintain a standard of goodness.  That you’re actually on some kind of spiritual probation that can be revoked if you step out of line.

What if I don’t look like the reformed prisoner that I SHOULD be?

What kind of valuable life would I be living if I didn’t work to make my life mean something? 

What will other prisoners think if they see me acting like I did before I was freed?

The thing that these kinds of fear based questions forget…is that the freed prisoner was freed while he was guilty.  His worth and status and innocence are not something he accomplishes AFTER he is free…they were accomplished WHEN he was freed.  Already given…already acquired…already forever bestowed.  Free status can never be revoked.  Innocent status can never be changed back to guilty.  Valuable status was given before he had accomplished a penny’s worth of success.   And the other prisoners desperately need to know that they can be freed from their prisons while they still have their current status as prisoner.   They are still guilty…they need to see that it is free because they have no other way out! They need to see that the freedom being offered is not the freedom that results in the prisoner running for his life again.  They need to know that the replacement prisoner died for them and that the sentence has been served.  There is therefore now no need for any more sentencing.  Freed prisoners are guaranteed to never be imprisoned again.

But there is another way.  You may simply want to be a good person in order to do good.   The problem with this approach is that all of us, every one of us has been put into prison.  The only exit is to walk through the open cell door and deal with this idea of freedom and the debt being forever paid.  Because simply being a person who is good has a major problem.  Only the most perfect, blameless, absolutely goodliest (my word), spotless record will be acceptable.  I mean infinitely better than Mother Theresa herself.  Nothing less will do. 

So you may find yourself doing a whole lot of good in your life, and accomplishing some pretty great things, thinking that you are in freedom…only to find in the end that you have still been in that prison the whole time, while others have long since been dancing in real freedom.  The only thing that keeps freed prisoners from waltzing out of their prisons is the continuing idea that freed prisoners aren’t really free.  That “being good” is, on the whole, just as important a part of the story as the whole “prisoner dying for and freeing the prisoners” part.   There will be a lot of prisoners who sure looked a lot like they deserved to be free and a lot of free prisoners who sure looked a lot like they deserved to be in prison still.  That’s because deserving is not a part of the whole “prisoners dying for and freeing the prisoners” story. 

So what do you do about this prison thing?  The only answer is that the prisoners don’t do anything…but they are given everything.  The good that the reformed prisoners do comes as a result of the work that has been done for them, not their selfish, fearful efforts.  The freedom that is lived in is the soil which love uses to build love within the freed prisoners, not the fear of return to prison, nor the desire to look like what a “good person” looks like.

The reality about freed prisoners is that they often still look like undeserving prisoners.  What glorifies the one who freed them more than for them to say…yes, I am guilty and undeserving…and He saved me anyway.  It points to Him…and never to the freed prisoners, to their lives and accomplishments, to their work and commitment, to anything but their need for the One who freed them and took their place. 

Simply put…freed prisoners were loved before and after they were in prison.  The difference now, first and foremost…is that they’re free…forever.

So if you’re really free, you can live in that freedom…whether you get it right or get it wrong.  And you can do it all in freedom and not fear.
  

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Sobriety...

A funny thing happened on my way to sobriety.  I haven't gotten much better.  I am not a rock of
faith, maybe the playdoh of faith.  I am not a whole lot more loving or selfless.  I am not helping a lot of people and my grades in gratitude often hover near or below the failing mark.

It is true, however, that I have been sober for about 3 1/2 years...that's almost 25 in dog years.  I have not experienced the depths of depression that I have in the past, but I am not free of the symptoms and the pain.  I understand some things a little better, but I still have no blueprint that details my own inner workings, giving clear answers to the why and how I experience certain difficulties.  And I certainly don't have a grasp on the working of life's narrative and why things happen the way that they do.

I have recognized some of the faulty wiring and irrational perspectives that lightning around in my head on a daily basis...but mostly I still think that I am right.  I see a little more clearly the resentments that I carry, or that are strapped to me with tight cords and knots.   And even though sobriety shines a light on them...they still haunt me like dreadful shadows.  Words, judgments, criticisms, heartbreak...they can all, at times, feel like they just happened yesterday.

I guess I don't feel very victorious over much of anything.  I am glad that I don't have to drink...but I have so many reminders in myself and my continued weaknesses that I am and always will be an alcoholic.  Sobriety really is an alcoholic without the alcohol.  Still an alcoholic.  If I try to think I am no longer an alcoholic...well, I don't know what would happen.  Probably not good I'm thinking.

But, sobriety seemed to happen to me, it wasn't something I accomplished and decided to do.  It is interesting, because I think I could say what I just did and substitute other things in place of 'Sobriety'.  Things like...'Self-Control'.  'Humility'.  'Loving'.  'Determined'.    Or accomplishments such as...'Good Parent'.  'Good Student'.  How about 'Successful'...or 'Popular'...or 'Lovable'?  Where is the line drawn between something that I accomplish myself...I control, I create...and something that happens or is given to me?  When is it ok to take the credit?  And if that word 'Humility' is ever to be involved in that equation, when can I ever take credit for anything?  It's pretty difficult...the way my mind works with 'credit' is along the lines of "give an inch and I'll take a mile."  Selflessness is just not something I think that the human mind can wrap itself around...we always have boundaries in place...kind of like when we try to contemplate eternity or infinity.  It is just not something that can be boxed in and has a limit that can be reached.  Humility is endless so it is really, really, really hard to define when I may have reached the bar that is 'selfless'.

The funny thing that happened on the road to sobriety is that I can't explain what happened.  Not really.  And I think that is true for a lot of other things in life that we may want use to define us.  I think in a similar way, we have to be ok with seeing ourselves as needy 'alcoholics'...who need help from an outside power, not an inner-strength.  Letting ourselves be defined by something bigger than us will always trump whatever we can accomplish ourselves.  If you are someone who has already accomplished those things that define you...those words that many people work for to add to their resume...this is not for you.  But if you have tried those things and have consistently fallen short...being told that changing yourself and making better choices actually starts to feel like a prison sentence...because you've tried to climb that wall and failed.  But being told that you can see yourself as a needy person who needs help...when you know that you really are a needy person who needs help...starts to sound like hope for the hopeless. Because life (hopefully) is not what you (or I) make it.






Monday, August 11, 2014

Faith in Dwight is like Faith in Me...or You...or Anybody



Dwight, Dwight, Dwight...can't he see that Jim is only pushing his buttons?   It is ludicrous that someone would be so driven to prove that he doesn't take a moment away from 100% concentration on his duties.  In fact, it is so obviously a ridiculous and impossible suggestion, that for Dwight to be manipulated in such a way makes this scene very hilarious.  At least to me.

But how would it feel if someone like Jim actually followed you around with a stopwatch, or a yellow highlighter, or a hidden camera...ready to pounce on any little iota of "liberty" that you might take with any of the various rules in life.  First...it would be crazy...but second, it would also probably become pretty glaringly obvious that everyday life has a tremendous amount of built in "gray areas" when it comes to rules.  Broken the speed limit lately?  Said something that was "embellished" to make the story funny?  Pretended to be offended by something a celebrity did when sometime in your life you thought or did something fairly similar?

If you're having trouble relating...maybe you're a bit more like Dwight than you think.  He doesn't think that he can't do the impossible.  In fact, when Jim sarcastically discusses the details of Battlestar Galactica and completely butchers and combines the plots from different movies...Klingons and Wookies, Dumbledore Calrissian taking the ring back to Mordor...Dwight can barely contain his righteous indignation...and I can hardly blame him.

And that's where we end up...either justifying/ignoring our limitations, or relishing in our virtue.  Both produce righteous indignation...because in those circumstances, what is wrong then with the world is outside of us, not in us.

I have learned not to do this and if you watch this short video I can give you the seven steps to stop doing this too.  NOT. (hello 1993 - Austin Powers, Basil is calling)

So, I hear myself saying this and my own argument in my head is...you're being an idiot...nobody is perfect and nobody expects you to be perfect...being a good, kind person who is compassionate and caring and giving isn't about perfection.  Well, that makes sense and works to a point...but then the world intervenes...and atrocities happen, and really serious suffering happens that I have no control over.  But on a more personal, everyday level...people that I see all around me are suffering in ways that I could make a difference...but I don't.  And I would recognize that I should care more about things that are wrong...if only I actually did care more than I do.  Maybe it is only me...but then again, that's what I am saying.  It IS me.  Not society, not ideology, not corporations, not hypocrites, not my enemies, not reality television, not global warming, not recession, not rock n' roll, not hippies, not yuppies, not politicians, not celebrities and really not saying 'nobody is perfect'.  It is not that I am personally responsible for all that is wrong with the world...but that I bear all the marks of the imperfection that characterizes a world that contains suffering.  The idea is really that if one person suffers, the whole enchilada is bad.  Not that if only a few people suffer then we can all relax, we are doing a pretty good job...every chef knows...one booger in the soup and nobody can eat...or nobody SHOULD eat.

If this sounds like a mountain out of a molehill, remember that the next time a molehill circumstance seems to ruin your day...or week...or year.  Or better yet, take a look at the mountains that are devastating people in all parts of the world and remember that eventually a mountain falls on all of us.

The Good News is deeply embedded in the realization that the really, really deep problems with this blue marble and the humans on it is way, way, way beyond us to fix...(that means we can't fix ourselves or the world without justifying our fixes, being unaware of the problems or having our own level of righteous indignation because "at least we are doing all that we can").  The irony that I personally struggle with my own righteous indignation whenever I encounter people who exhibit righteous indignation is just one of the humorous ironies that prove my point...every...single...day.

This Good News can actually be quite freeing.  In AA it is called Step One - admitting that you are ultimately powerless and that something other than your inner fortitude/willpower/strength/determination is required.  And there is a basic term for this that many people hate...faith.  That simply means that you don't know it all, don't have all the answers and even if you did, you recognize that you need help.  Simple as that.

We all use faith in everyday life...but I think it helps to be aware...it makes the big problems of the world seem more like a job for something much bigger than you or me...and that is better than the alternative.  I mean...would you have faith in me to fix any of your problems?  Me neither.



        

Friday, June 27, 2014

Those New York Minutes




I watched the NBA Draft tonight.  Something that happens at every draft is that one or more athletes turned instant-millionaire describes that moment as a dream come true.  Being selected to an NBA team is the beginning of a life change that is quite dramatic.  It is one example of a possible story-line in life that moves a person from one kind of life to another...or one perspective of life to something very different. Of course, we all know that while one person experiences this kind of plot-twist in their life, every person in the world is experiencing plot twists of their own in a myriad of ways.

God is so often thanked for being the author of the positive story-lines, but he rarely gets credit for the ones that seem to go bad.  At least not in most christian circles.  I'm comforted that I am not alone in this dilemma, John the Baptist questioned if Jesus was the Messiah from his prison, those closest to Jesus surely felt the story-line that they had expected was not going the way they hoped.

I think the obstacle that often gets in my way is the delusion that I feel in control of my life.  I feel that I can have a choice/outcome story in my life - if I decide to write it the way that I want.  But it has a way of subtly slipping through my fingers, and the more I grasp for it, the more I feel the weight of failure, pressure to achieve, a lack of security in what defines my life.  In other words, my faith in this world is almost exclusively in myself.  The only thing that manages to penetrate this deep reality, that I cleverly hide from myself, is when something out of my control completely knocks me off balance.  It is the same thing that is happening to everybody, all over the world, at different times and in different ways.  And it is scary at those times to continue to believe that it is all up to you, all in your hands.  Being the master of your own fate can feel very empowering when your name is called at the NBA Draft...but when those other twists of fate come calling...it can be a different experience.

The question to ask is whether God is in those times as much or more than the positive times?  Is God in control, involved and writing my story when that New York Minute happens?  Because if you've only heard that God can bring blessings to you and has a fun plan for your life (because you're so faithful), you might not have anything to turn to in that 'New York Minute' when 'everything can change'.

I am not saying you will handle it any better or have a wonderful strength of faith when that happens, many of us wither like a flower in the sun.  But I am saying that you can recognize that you are not as strong as you might think...that you are not as in control as you assumed...and that feeling of helplessness might be just where God is waiting for you...even though you don't like that any more than I do.  

Friday, May 30, 2014

Tippin' the Scales

I was listening to a podcast today while driving.  The story I was listening to was about a woman who had been the victim of a violent attack, and had identified her assailant who was subsequently given a 32 year prison sentence.  18 years into his sentence, DNA tests proved that she had identified the wrong man.  Her shock, guilt and shame over this was pretty heavy and very understandable.  A friend tried to console her by reminding her of the good things she had done in those years by counseling others and telling her story to prisoners to convey the pain that victims live through.  Her response to this attempt to console her was this..."if I add up all the good things I've done in my whole life, they don't even begin to tip the scales against what I did in identifying and condemning an innocent man."

Scale tipping in my favor is actually something I do on a constant basis.  It's really like breathing or blinking.  One of the major ways of tipping scales in religion is to focus on what I do for God.  How much I love God.  How my heart burns to accomplish the good things he wants to do in the world.  It is really difficult to be honest with myself that I have frustrations, resentments and issues with God Himself.  Can my interests be so self-centered that in spite of knowing what God has done for me, I can still feel that He doesn't really care?  Apparently so.

I have this idea of how I should feel about God but it is intermingled with who I want God to be.  And that want is intermingled with how I want my personal story to go. And that personal story is intermingled with feeling a value and a worth that is based upon my own accomplishments/talents/virtues etc.  It is essentially me putting my hands upon the scales to get them in my favor.

Listening to that podcast today, I felt a connection with the woman and the scales.  It isn't just the scales of good and bad deeds, it is the scales of what I want my life to be and to have been....and who I actually am.  It is the weight of how thankful to God that I should be...and the bitterness that I actually have.  It is the scales of how much I should desire to serve Him....and how I expect Him to serve me.  It is how much I should be forgetful about my own life and circumstances....and how much I obsess over them.  It is how I should trust God in all things...and how I have trouble believing that He is truly on my side in the here and the now.

I think what the Gospel offers...what it must offer...is that the scales are gone completely.  Not that they are reset to zero so that now they measure me "as a Christian"...but they need to be gone.  Completely. It must offer this because even when I feel the scales are pretty good (although usually unaware that I am using the scales at all) the reality is that they are not tipping in my favor, at least not based upon me and who I am.

Sanctification is a big issue in certain Christian circles, and likely will always be...and I am bumping into all the time it seems.  What I can't seem to figure out, is how really smart, well educated people can seemingly convince themselves that they don't use 'doing good works' for God as a way to prop up their own sense of righteousness.  It can be described in a lot of different ways, creating your own identity, being your own savior etc.  But I just find it totally impossible to intentionally perform "for God" without it being basically all about myself.  I'm not self-deprecating here, but if I am it is only because it makes me seem more humble than you.  And deep down, that is really what my heart wants, whether I will it to or not.

I don't know about you, but I really need the freedom to be fickle towards God.   I need the freedom to fail Him on a regular basis.  And yeah...sometimes I wallow in that failure...so that's not allowed either, huh?  But if I am "prone to wander" then I need God to pursue and corral me, not to try to think that I don't wander or that I can get things "under control"...more scales.  It isn't that I have never experienced any of the things that I know I should have as a Christian...I just think that most of the time there has been (and still is) a lot of scale-tipping underneath of it all.  But all of that too is covered...if the scales have truly been removed.  And that has to be ok.  And if the Gospel is the Gospel...it is.