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A prideful humility.

_

Note: So much time has passed since I last wrote an entry here, I’m unsure if anyone visits anymore.  As far as a reason for the sabbatical, I really don’t have one,  other than my complete and total inability to settle down and write while the sun is shining.  And Seattle, for those that live in more blessed climates, was graced with an unusually bright spring and summer.  Thus, no writing.

A Prideful Humility.

Yes, I know, it’s one of those overwrought Christian titles that attempts to use a cute paradox to catch our eye.  They usually drive me mad, but in this case, it really works.  The problem begins with our definition of humility.  We imagine a humble spirit as some blithering and docile cream puff, wandering around muttering self deprecating apologies.  The type who follows every compliment they receive with an admission of some unrelated failing, eagerly assuring us of their unending inadequacies.

I’m not surprised that we’ve screwed up humility.  If pride is our biggest sin, it certainly should follow that humility will not go smoothly.  But I am utterly amazed at our ability to try and sell such a description of humility.  Consider William Bennet’s Book of Virtues.  I’ve heard several pastors wonder aloud at how humility escaped his encyclopedic catalog of desirable character traits.  I don’t wonder in the least.  Christian humility, as it is commonly presented, is ridiculous.

I’ve heard two great definitions of Christian humility.  The first is from C.S. Lewis and describes a humble person as not one with a low regard of themselves, but one with little regard at all.  Someone who almost forgets to consider themselves amid their concerns for glorifying God and loving his people.  The other definition, I don’t know where it originates, presents humility as the act of rightly understanding one’s standing.

When I first heard these definitions, I imagined them insightful, but completely incongruent.  This misunderstanding though, probably had more to do with my feeble grasp of my own humility than any real theological friction.  But through His grace, I began to see a beautiful consistency between the two.

Our problem with standard fare Christian humility is that it leaves us no less self absorbed.  Even when we deflect compliments through self deprecation, a sin nearly always lies beneath.  Perhaps we’re afraid of the standard we’ll set if people think we’re gifted.  Maybe we’ll feel convicted of other less redeemed aspects of our life.  The reasons are endless.

But humility does not go awry in simply what we say.  Often our botched attempts at humility are most pronounced in our silence.  I was struck recently by how reluctant we are to share stories that may paint us in a positive light, stories that may illuminate our superiority in a certain area of our life. This is odd, we seem to have no difficulty highlighting our great depravity or stubborn refusal to stop sinning.

Are we simply humble and nothing more?  Is this a blessed indication of the final death of pride in our lives?  Ummmm, no.

The answer lies in an equal saturation of both definitions of humility.  If we first have an accurate view of ourselves, this ought leave us utterly miserable and defeated.  But we cannot stop there, as so many do.  No, we must then, through the work of the gospel, begin the great exchange of our sin for Jesus’s grace.  And through this exchange we emerge into a new role.  No longer mired in mindless self deprecations, we are freed to act instead as mirrors, forgetting ourselves in our desire to reflect glory back to God.  This reflection need not wallow in tepid mediocrity, but instead boast boldly of the amazing work the Lord has done through us.  And within this role, the concept of arrogance falls away as irrelevant and absurd.

I’m sorry God, but I think you’re crazy.

_

Mystery of God

I was 27 years old when I nearly walked away from God. It did not happen in the clutches of a wayward woman.  It didn’t come in the aftermath of some drunken rebellion.  It didn’t even follow some great tragedy or misfortune.  No, this darkness, this flooding void, came as a leach upon something very good.  Theology.

For me theology was life and death.  It was not something to simply peruse and browse and set aside when the hour became late or the topic too deep.  It was a map; the very map which made life possible. Setting it aside not only admitted defeat, it stopped all progress.  It felt as if my life would lose all meaning if I ran upon something I could not understand.

This was foolish of course, because it was inevitable I would encounter such a challenge.  But I believed it was simply a lack of effort which prevented people from reaching true understanding. I would not give up, so it seemed fair to expect such a derailment was perfectly avoidable.

I recall the sermon vividly.  Our pastor was trying to convince a reluctant congregation that predestination was a tremendous blessing.  Towards the end of the sermon he used an example to help illustrate the fruits of this theology.  He described a father watching his child play on the sidewalk in front of their house.  As the young boy is kicking the ball, he loses control of it and it rolls into the street.  The father, sensing disaster, runs and grabs the boy a split second before he lunges into the path of a speeding truck.

The pastor finished the story with a big confident smile.  A smile that made it very clear this story was supposed to make us very happy.  This was the moment we were to say praise the Lord, it all makes sense now. I looked around a bit, hoping I wasn’t the only one who didn’t feel the joy.  Someone else who heard the same story but came away with a different conclusion.

The audience seemed divided.  Some I could see accepted the news with great thankfulness, a ready affirmation to their belief.  Others looked quietly distraught, a simmering confusion boiling beneath the surface.  I was not confused.  I was horrified.

The pastor went on to explain how the father represents God and we are the child. And this is a metaphor to our story of salvation, how God reaches down and plucks us from certain disaster.  This was very confusing to me.  It seemed like only half the story.  And of the two halves, by far the only one that is presentable enough to explain from the pulpit.

I leaned over to the person sitting next to me and asked what about the other boy, the one who the father sat back and watched run in front of the Mack truck? If I was the kid, I hardly think the joy of avoiding my own death would equal the despair of my watching my father let my brother die.

I wanted to ask the pastor what he thought.  I wanted to stop the sermon, stand up and ask about the brother.  What should we think of him?  A sacrificial pawn?  Perhaps just some unfortunate cost of doing business?

I didn’t.  I sat in my chair and seethed.  It was one thing to come against some confusing aspect of God’s nature. Some seeming contradiction between two descriptions of our Father. But quite another to be told it ought to make perfect sense.

I think it was the presentation that sat so coldly.  The easy calmness, the smug projection of self assuredness.  A tone of pity telling me that my intellect was too soft and infantile to accept such a truth.

The sermon ended, the worship band played a few songs and we shuffled outside.  On the way to my car I caught a friend with a tear in her eye.  We spoke for a bit and it was clear she had found the same dark side of the story. She told me if this was how God really was, then He wasn’t a God worth worshipping. I nodded my head, unwilling to disagree.

I drove home.  Anger and confusion casting a pallid shadow over all my thoughts. I had been here before, I knew the terrain well. But it did little to keep the devil at bay.  It simply couldn’t be.  How could a loving God create people for the sole purpose of eternal suffering without any chance of repentance? If this were true, the whole thing seemed meaningless.

Why should I get out of bed?  Why should I tell my neighbor about the gospel?  And perhaps even more so, why should I worship?  Does the praise of a robot truly delight the Father’s ear?  I suppose it may, and if it does, I can only protest, He is still God.  And He may still ask me to praise Him.  I imagine I still would, but it would be as a slave bows to his cruel master.  A movement of actions but not of the heart.

But there was some truth to it.  I found it in scripture.  Often, right next to a verse describing free will and choice.  This almost made it worse because it kept me from throwing out the idea in its entirety. That would be much simpler.  I could just call myself an Arminian and find another church.  But no, however distasteful, it was clearly there and must be faced.

Over the next days and weeks a dramatic shift careened through my life.  This single idea, this theological wrecking ball wielded such power it consumed all light from my relationship with God.  God was still there, I never walked away from the belief in His power, in His existence.  But now He sat upon a different throne.  A black throne in a black cave.

I wish I could say the answer came through further study.  Some brilliant theological deduction that brought the conflicting pieces together.  Some answer that held free will and God’s sovereignty in perfect union.  It simply never came.  Hours and days I poured over scripture, books, sermons, looking for a logical answer.

After weeks of fruitless searching, I simply quite.  I gave up.  Set aside the books and gave up. It became clear to me that pursuing this any further was bringing me dangerously close to a point of no return.  A moment when the confusion would put to death all belief. A kind of spiritual panic attack when fears and assumptions are taken to ridiculous extremes.

In the end it was a decision.  A cold force of will to declare the topic off limits.  Perhaps to be revisited during a time of greater spiritual strength.  At first it felt like defeat, like I was quitting out of a pathetic mental weakness.

Yet this weakness turned into great solace.  A few weeks later, after I regained some composure, I realized a great truth.  There is a purpose in God’s mystery.  If I understood it all, if it all made perfect cohesive sense, what would that mean?  I would be God.

This acceptance brought tremendous freedom.  And even more than freedom I found a certain joy.  A release from the burden of predicating my love for Jesus on my understanding for His actions.

The more I dug, the more aspects of life I found stained by a refusal to accept this truth.  How many times had I judged God, launching criticisms in a moment of haste because His actions didn’t make sense. A broken relationship, a lost job, an uncured disease. All blame laid at His feet because it didn’t fit into my explanation.

I returned to scripture, but now I found something very different.  The stories, the parables, the teachings, they all made much more sense in light of His divine mystery.  I realized there was a reason He taught in parables rather than systematic theology.  At some level, He must delight in Him being God and us being humans.  And with this, delight in the chasm between our understanding.

He asked me to simply be a human.  Accept my limitations, love Him and love those around me.  And learn to love Him at a much more basic level.  Love Him not because I understood His perfect plan, but because I first believed that He loved me.  That in His very nature was a loving and just God.

The doubts and confusion remain to this day. I imagine they will always be a part of my faith. But they have lost their power.  Still questions to ponder and wrestle, but never again will they throw their claws around the Father Himself.

What People Think, part 2

What People Think, part 2

For a while I thought this was normal.  Everyone must live under this hyper sense of self awareness.  But I found exceptions. I found them in the mission field.  I found them in my church.  I found them sharing the gospel to a group of homeless men at a shelter in Seattle.

They shared a brilliance.  Not of towering intellect or flawless theology, but of simple luminescence. A fearless joy, the type of reckless abandon that must bring a smile to our Father’s face.  The unfettered enthusiasm of one who has won the race but continues to run.

I wanted it very badly. But it felt so foreign.  Every thought, every motive, every action, stained by this disease of posturing.  Escape seemed ridiculous to even consider.  I would bring it before the Lord, but sensed even He would smirk in disbelief at such a grand request.  I’m sure He did.  But being God, He hid it very well and reassured me it was still a worthy endeavor.

I do not pretend there exists a single route to such a goal.  If there did, I imagine most of us would have set upon the path long ago. Of course some have certainly arrived, but I am unconvinced many of them ever set out in the first place. They seem to have simply been born that way, perennially untethered from the cords of dreadful vanity.  I wished them well, but they were of little help.

The secular world offered some assistance.  There was Scott, a friend who ascended The Tooth, a popular rock climb near Seattle, completely naked. He didn’t seem to care what people thought of him.  Or Keith, a co-worker who cranked The Beatles and played air guitar for random customers.

But it lacked depth.  Beneath their raucous veneer hid dry and brittle bones.  Ask a few questions, dig around a bit, they imploded like everyone else.  Haunted by fears and insecurities, they simply built a façade so blazing and bright you forgot there was anything behind it.

Sadly, the Christian responses were not always better.  Yes, they felt the same poisonous bite of narcissism but they listened to the devil far too much.  They were a sad and dark group, mumbling self deprecating words to anyone who passed by. For these poor souls, the opposite of vanity was self effacement, a wiping out of themselves. In this, they were successful, there was nothing left to see. A pile of blackened bones swept away and forgotten.

No, I would not find the answer with them. There was something very different about the true Christian humility. It seemed rooted in a foreign soil, and when I caught glimpses of it, however brief, I saw a surprising confidence.  But it wasn’t the measure of their confidence I found remarkable, but rather the character.

Their confidence, it seemed to me, was not tied to their skills, abilities or even their gifts.  They took joy and courage in these, yet I had the feeling that even if you stripped them all away, they would remain faithful. No, it was something deeper.

Their lives seemed to ask a question, of which the answer, I admit I have yet to see in my own life.  What, they said, was the point of worrying what people think about you when you are not the one they’re looking at?  I had no answer.  My life felt as if I were carrying around a giant window, constantly shifting it about to give everyone the best view.

They, however, simply held up a mirror. This mirror was set in the angle towards God, so that when I looked at them, the great majority of their image was exchanged for the Lord’s. They seemed to take great joy in this, as if it were an honor to simply reflect any attention they may receive.

These Christians, these holders of the mirror, I saw were very dangerous to the devil.  There was nothing you could take from them.  No insult, no injury, no pious judgment, nothing had any force behind it. If a sermon fell flat or a ministry failed, it landed no crushing blow to their sense of worth.

Their failure, as they seemed to view it, was merely a delay. A brief obstruction to learn from and quickly move past.  And perhaps even more, an opportunity to pause for a moment, look about, and find another mirror.

What People Think

Part 1.

Poseur.  Posturing.  Putting up a front.  I celebrate them all. The simple ability to present something other than reality.  Most of us are pretty decent at it.  I am exceptional.

I noticed it at a very young age.  It began as an observation, the kind of learned reaction a kid makes without making a conscious effort.  People, I found, framed their judgments of me, or anyone for that matter, based on perception.  I was an intuitive child and quickly made the connection that this perception was malleable.  Something I could shape to my own liking.  Almost a manipulation, but I think that is too harsh a word.

Everyone does it to some extent.  Imagine a world without this.  Even an hour would be unbearable.  Every person you meet, every interaction requiring a perfectly unfiltered presentation of self.  Impossible.  I can’t even imagine it.

Some of this is good of course.  I don’t think I would have a single friend if my true thoughts and emotions were broadcast without restraint.  I’ve often wondered what it would be like if we were all required to wear one of those electronic reader boards hung across our chest.  Every thought streamed live for the world to see.  Horrifying, of course.

The filtering, I imagine then, is a gift from God.  A way to give us some semblance of normalcy until our thoughts and motives are fully redeemed.  But like most things, we’ve taken a good concept and marched it out to the fringes of ridiculous.  This tool, this filtering, has been applied with such persistence, we’re left with no spot uncovered.  Every aspect tinted and hued with layers of pious presentation.

Success at it comes in varying degrees.  It is a highly individual thing.  The image I may try so dearly to present will likely seem absurd and senseless to the next person in line.  I suppose there is common ground.  We all want to appear righteous, stable, etc.  But those are not very interesting.

This presentation, this posturing, nearly always follows my idols.  In college, this was outdoor sports.  Skiing, climbing and mountain biking formed the holy trinity of my worship.  Therefore, it was essential that I be known as someone who excelled at those activities.  And this is where it gets ridiculous.

Take the climbing gym for example.  With a room full of girls, and perhaps worse, fellow climbers, it was a scene that begged for a well thought out presentation. This required great skill.  A JV attempt would land you in the crowd with the painfully obvious strivers.  Those poor souls, bless their hearts, who understand the goal but never learned the rules.  Their game is obvious.  People can see they are trying to be noticed.

Not me.  This is varsity territory.  The ability to perfectly manage your presentation while conveying a tone of carefree ease.  If done well the audience walks away thinking, wow, he is such a strong climber and it doesn’t even look like he’s trying.

The details are sickening.  I clearly recall not wanting to climb the same day as a weight lifting workout because I knew that I would not climb as well.  Partly this was for reasons of personal competitiveness, but far too much was simply a fear people would see me and judge that I was not a strong climber.

There are more.  Recently, after a long 2 hours of climbing I was ready for a burnout climb.  This entails ascending a very easy route repeatedly until your muscles are utterly fried.  The problem, of course, is that by the end you look very pathetic.  Struggling and sweating to ascend a route a 7 year old could climb blindfolded.  Amidst this laboring, a thought crossed my mind.  What if the people watching me didn’t know I had already climbed for two hours?  What if they thought this was simply the best I could do.

For a moment, I even wondered if there was a way I could say something to my belayer that would inadvertently inform those watching that I really had climbed for a long time.  Something like – wow, nothing like a 2 hour session to really burn the muscles. Said with just enough volume to allow those nearby to hear.  Sickening.

Perhaps this sounds completely absurd.  Maybe you are one of those lucky few graced with complete unconcern for the perception of your peers.  But I petition a test.  Recall for a moment the last group photo you’ve been in.  When you saw it for the first time, who did you look at first?  Yourself.  Which is odd, because you are quite aware of what you look like.  The only explanation for this priority is that you were concerned about how others would perceive you.  Did you look good?

The Christian version is even more entertaining.  It is also much easier, mostly because the image we are trying to present is a worthy goal. Faithfulness, love, charity, mercy, these are widely admired goals.  Certainly more so than looking good in the climbing gym.  Because of this, we let our guard down.  Why doubt someone’s presentation of faithfulness if it is something we are deeply striving for ourselves?  And the circle goes round.

Group prayer time is the most obvious.  I admit I am not a prayer warrior.  Well, it depends on the situation. Yes, if I am praying for someone or they are praying for me, I certainly pay attention.  But group prayer is a very different animal. Within seconds my mind is off wandering about, exploring such profound questions like if I put enough topspin on my serve at volleyball last night.

This daydreaming generally does not impress fellow Christians.  Believers are supposed to really enjoy this group prayer stuff.  Therefore, I developed a simple technique.

With eyes closed and bowed heads, the skill is subtle but well perfected. Often it isn’t even words.  A simple ‘Hmmm’ will do.  Just enough for people to think you are paying attention.  The timing is everything.  It is the same skill that allows you to say ‘oh, interesting’, during a conversation that you mentally checked out of 10 minutes ago.  Say it at the wrong time and it can be very awkward.

The key is to listen for the pause at the end of a prayer.  The subtle cue to snap to attention and offer a quiet affirmation.  A smooth ‘yes Lord’, whispered right after someone offers a particularly moving petition.  It works very well.  People will think you are holy.

Bible verses work as well.  Though I’m nearly always the one hold the façade.  Wrapped up in some invigorating theological conversation, someone will offer a bible reference to support their point.  Cruelly, these people who have a much better memory than I, will reference an entire chapter.

Something like hey you know it’s just like in Romans 9.  And they just leave it.  No reference, no hint about what the chapter entails.  I’m just supposed to know.  I cannot admit I haven’t the foggiest idea what is in Romans chapter 9.  I must maintain the image, of course, so I just agree. Yeah, you’re right, totally like Romans 9.

My absolute favorite is the bible search.  We’re all sitting in church, the pastor takes the stage and asks the congregation to turn to Nehemiah.  The anxiety begins.  New Christians are allowed to take their time.  But for the rest of us there is a strict standard.

10 seconds. That’s it.  Any longer and the old lady sitting next me begins making assumptions.  Well, he certainly hasn’t read the Old Testament anytime recently. Gosh, I wonder if he can even find Genesis?

My movements are calm and collected as if to say, oh yeah, I was just in Nehemiah last week during my morning devotionals. I know exactly where it is.  I’ll just browse a few other OT books on the way. Meanwhile my mind races frantically, wishing I’d learned that stupid Sunday school song Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus…

10 seconds passes, I haven’t found it.  This is the point of no return.  Close the bible.  Place it on the floor.  Pick up my notebook.  This was the plan all along, I really prefer to take notes anyways.  Crisis averted, my holiness intact.  The old woman looks over with an approving smile.

To be continued, hopefully with some resolution…

Fear of God – part 2, kind of…

–NOTE–  (This section was supposed to go in the middle of the last essay, but it did not work out as planned.  This section is more fun anyways.)

Yet even with such a firm admonition, the mind falls short.  It is simply impossible to keep a perfect balance of fear and boldness. Ah, but this is when it becomes exciting.  It is in such a moment I found myself several years ago.

My friend Brandon and I were out for a day of aid and free climbing.  The outing was planned as a preparatory climb for an upcoming trip to Yosemite.  I was in my early twenties at the time, that brilliant and precarious moment when brash confidence steps across the line and convinces the mind there are no real consequences.

In the midst of such youthful hubris we convinced ourselves the sensible thing to do was try a multi-pitch aid route. Multi-pitch routes were nothing new, we both had plenty of experience on long free routes.  The aid climbing, however, was very new.

An explanation.  Aid climbing was originally invented as a technique to cross small sections of a long route too difficult to climb by human power alone.  Often these are sections of very thin cracks, too narrow to fit your fingers, but wide enough to accept tiny pieces of metal.

Small steel wedges, no larger than your fingernail are wedged into constrictions in the crack.  If well placed, they technically can provide enough strength to easily hold the weight of a climber. When the cracks become larger, a different device is employed.  For anything wider than the width of your finger, a climber uses an aluminum cam.  These spring loaded devices expand and contract to fit the contours of the granite walls.

Aid climbing sounds very easy.  After all, you’re not even using your own strength to hold onto the rock wall.  Again youthful pride spouts its foolish assumptions.  I was now perhaps 200 feet up the route.  Movement was slow and arduous.  If free climbing is a pure and aesthetic pursuit, aid climbing is a mechanical slog of tedious drudgery.  But on we go.

The pitch was taking it’s toll on my enthusiasm.  Over the last 15-20 ft the climb had changed character and I begun to entertain the possibility I had gotten ‘off route’.  The colloquial term for simply lost.  In retrospect there were subtle clues, a bit more lichen on the granite, no evidence of chalk marks from previous climbers.  But the suspicions died beneath the stronger desire to maintain upward momentum.

By now the crack had become ridiculously small.  Digging around my harness I searched for the smallest device on my rack.  Pushing aside the more legitimately sized pieces, I unclipped it from my harness and studied it for a moment.  A #3 Black Diamond Micro Nut, forged from an alloy of steel and copper, a soft compound designed to mold into the sharp crystals of a granite crack.

It looked pathetic.  No wider than Lincoln’s head on a penny and about as thick as the cover on a hard bound book.  Hardly confidence inspiring.  But the alternatives were not pleasant.  Retreat was theoretically an option, though looking back over the traverse I had just crossed, it looked no less frightful.

No, upward was always superior.  Slipping the slice of steel into the crack, I gingerly transferred my weight onto the piece.  It held.  I consoled myself with thoughts of the wider crack awaiting me above. The next few movements passed surprisingly well.  After 8-10 feet the crack opened up enough to accept a full sized cam.  With immeasurable relief, I quickly stuffed a #2 cam into the perfect hand crack.

Eying the route above, my heart quickened.  No more than 35 feet up I could see the bright red webbing signaling the end of the pitch.  Safety would soon again be my companion.  With renewed confidence and a surge of energy I quickly switched from aid climbing to free climbing.

Though buoyed by the fresh hope of success, the transition to free climbing is not simple.  The biggest problem is simply the gear.  While aid climbing, you must carry an enormous quantity of carabiners, cams, nuts and webbing.  There is no easy place to store the equipment, every piece must be accessible at any given moment.  The only solution is to hang it in heavy loops, dangling awkwardly from the shoulder and harness, giving the distinct sensation of climbing with a chandelier strapped to your chest.

These delightful accoutrements also have the terrible habit of dangling in just the right position to catch on a flake of rock below.  Without fail, this occurs just as you are lunging for a handhold, the harness snapping tight inches before the fingers reach their destination.

No matter, the goal was in sight and I was relieved to simply free climb once again.  Placing two more cams in the crack I moved higher, the confidence continuing to rise.  Looking up again, I caught site of the anchors, now only 10 ft or so away.  An easy finish.

The first sign of peril my mind simply dismissed. Pieces of rock this large do not move. Yes, certainly a climber must occasionally contend with small loose boulders but this block was 15 feet wide and 25 ft tall.  Yet it moved again.  This time it was unmistakable, the shifting matched with a terrible grating sound of crystals crushing under thousands of pounds of weight.

My mind raced through the possibilities, jumping between logical and irrational conclusions.  This is impossible.  How is the mere force of my hands expanding in the crack sufficient to teeter a mass of rock the size of a suburban? And if so, what could possibly keep the side of the cliff from falling off completely.  Quickly I thought of my belayer below and wondered if he could avoid the crashing monolith.  Doubtful.  I even briefly pondered who would fall faster, me or the rock, and if it were the latter, could I somehow land on top?

The theoretical questions were quickly broken by the sound of the cam popping out from the crack below.  Looking down, the alarming sound was met with an equally terrifying site.  As the crack slowly widened under the movement of the rock, the camming device stretched to it’s widest perch and then, as if echoing the fate to soon befall me, it fell.

The second and third cams popped in quick succession, leaving an uninterrupted line between me and the tiny wedge of steel placed 35 feet below.  The crack continued it’s outward march.  Within seconds the width would be too far to hold.  In horror, I searched in desperate glances at the surrounding rock.  A small hold, an adjacent crack, a foothold perhaps.  Nothing.  The featureless granite stretched out every direction in a cruel polished shine.

Within seconds my hands followed the fate of the cams from moments earlier.  A final desperate attempt.  A flurry of hand movements, anything to hold a crack now far wider than my fist. But it was not enough.

Gravity soon arrived, following a pace it had practiced countless times before. It begins with a jerk and quickly settles into perfect consistency.  10, 20, 30 ft. pass in quick succession. 5 more feet and the rope snaps tight.  The nut held.

The relief, while welcome, was quickly replaced by the fearful waiting for the falling boulder.  Instinctively I hunched my shoulders, the way you might brace yourself when someone yells ‘fore’ on a golf course. Somehow I imagined this would be helpful when a 20,000lb stone fell upon my head.

Silence.  I ventured a look upward.  Unbelievably, the boulder was still there.  Quiet and dreadful, it lay with a calm composure belying it’s sinister potential. I would not die today.

We did not finish the route.  Quietly, I retrieved the gear and lowered to the ground.  We packed our bags and went home.  There are moments to persevere and moments to recognize defeat.  This event was comfortably placed in the latter.

Walking down the trail towards our car, I felt a subtle change.  Perhaps a more sensible person would respond in complete aversion.  But no, I was too young and brash to let this mark the conclusion of my climbing career. The feeling was more of respect.  A renewed appreciation for the harsh consequences at hand when fear goes unheeded.

With the adrenaline finally leaving my system, I made a silent vow.  To God, to my family, to myself.  I will learn to fear.

Fear of God

Why I climb.

I suppose it does demand an explanation.  Ascending walls of rock and ice for pleasure falls a bit outside the normal range of recreational activities.  No one asks for a justification of basketball or swimming.  They just make sense.  You have the all the benefits of exercise and competition, and they are quite safe.  Climbing, unfortunately, can only claim half of those as legitimate attributes.

Yet it is not the dance with danger that drives climbers. Well, perhaps a few find a certain suicidal thrill in the wildest niches of the sport. But for the vast majority, the danger is simply there.  Neutral.  Not something to be deeply abhorred, yet also, not a source of light hearted gaiety.

Fear is like God.  A constant presence whose counsel you ignore at your own peril.  Often I have found it in a whisper, a still small voice setting doubts before your stretching ambitions. The thin nagging sense that something is off, that something will go wrong.  Just loud enough to notice, but not enough to deter.

In others, it shrieks with a scream, bursting through the door with immediacy, demanding to be heard.  Disaster is no longer a lurking probability. It has arrived with a fury.  20 ft. from the end of the route and it is clear you will only make it 15.  Each movement a desperate attempt to halt the rushing onset of muscle failure. It doesn’t work.  You fall.

Almost easier are the fears that arrive after the moment of disaster.  A hold breaks without warning, sending you careening off into the air.  Your mind has no time to fear. Instead focusing the 1.5 seconds of freefall on twisting your body to avoid broken ankles. By the time fear can arrive, the rope has drawn taught, stretching to a halt 30 ft. below.

In the middle however, lies the vast majority of a climber’s interaction with fear.  The constant, dull pressure simply reminding you of the consequences at hand.  Real and tangible consequences, like missing a hold and falling 1,200 feet to the rocks below.  Without this steady admonition, your mind loses it’s sense of vigilance.

Mistakes would soon follow.  A knot tied incorrectly.  A carabiner clipped to the wrong loop. A simple misstep and bam, in an instant it’s all over. Fortunately with climbing, the danger is very obvious.  One simply has to look down to remind himself of the consequences.

Within this fear I have found two great gifts. The first came early, and it is very likely what drew me to the sport in the first place. It was a fear that taught me to consider only those dangers which truly posed a threat.

It wasn’t an active choice, rather a lucidity forced upon the mind by precarious circumstances.  When life hangs upon the grip of a small ridge of granite, the brain undergoes an instant purging.  All stresses, worries and contemplations evaporate in a moment, leaving every neuron to crackle and fire at the task at hand.

It is a curious sensation.  Doused with terror, yet not far from elation, the clarity producing almost a high.  For climbers, this is it.  The endorphins swirling through the brain, a euphoric brew of triumph and relief. Perhaps a summit to stand upon.

Transferring this grand concept to the rest of my life has proved remarkably difficult. The useless and mundane anxieties still rule much of the day.  But I persevere. The need is so great.  So much of the frustration and agony in the Christian life would fade away under shadow of His real concerns.  Yet we insist on shouldering it all.

I wonder, perhaps, if this is what God meant when He commanded us to fear Him. I have heard Christians say we ought imagine the fear of God as something more like awe.  It sounds very nice, but I cannot find it in scripture. The God I read about rarely goes 10 pages without responding in some dreadful lash of wrath and justice.

No, I think we are to fear God.  But I do not doubt we have walked a far distance from the essence of His command. Or perhaps more importantly, we have lost touch with the character of the one making the demand. And in this, our fears become a vivid indication of who we truly think God is.

This makes all the difference. If I believe God is capricious and vengeful, a response of bitter fear is quite natural.  I have found myself here often, thinking God an ill tempered father, waiting to spoil any happy moment. But how sad.  It leaves us little more than the cowering sneer of a peasant beneath his mercurial king.

But there is another way.  If I believe God is loving and faithful, if I believe He truly longs for my eternal joy, everything changes. Within this minor mental adaptation, this slight shift of perspective, lie enormous consequences.  So many troubles in life, from losing a job to unsolved health problems, lose their frightening countenance.

Despite its simplicity, I can think of few concepts more contrary to our natural tendency.  We are simply wired to worry, it sprinkled in the mold when our bones were cast.  Escape must from its hold must lie in repetition.  A daily remembrance of what we ought fear, of what we must trust.

This is why I must return.  To the mountains, to the cliffs, to the clear and vivid lines. Every movement an encounter with the tangible.  Each soaring ridge a stark reminder.  It is real, it is raw, and with my hand upon the rock, my fears find return to their rightful place.

The Devil’s Advocate – The perils of living by exception

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In my late twenties I led a bible study group for a few years.  It was a beautiful collection of God’s people, meeting together each week in fellowship and community. Every member bringing their unique gifts, creating a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.  Some came with wisdom and discernment, others offered mercy and hospitality. Each gift of the Holy Spirit finding its place.  Except for me.

It just was simply all too cheery and smooth.  Realizing this, I quickly learned to assume the role of devil’s advocate.  Yes, that delightful soul who finds pleasure in pointing out the contrarian point of view.  I never found it in the Corinthian list of spiritual gifts, but I knew it was there, hidden between the lines.

It was a natural fit.  Like a well worn pair of Carhartts, I found the position comfortable and played it with ease.  Whenever someone suggested a new thought or viewpoint, I supplied the opposing argument.  Whether or not I actually believed it was irrelevant.  Often, upon further reflection I would even realize I agreed with the person.  Of course, this understanding came after the conversation had long since ended and the opportunity to acquiesce gone as well. Most people simply assumed I was ornery.  This was true, but not for the sake of being difficult or obstinate.  It was the way my mind worked.  Had I attempted any other intellectual route I am firmly convinced my mind would have welded shut, like a seized engine run dry of oil.

I imagine it’s genetic.  My family, bless their hearts, is similar, if to a lesser degree.  The instant a story, idea, even a thought leaves your mouth it is thrown to the lions.  Every possible blemish or crack in your logic is quickly discovered and politely pointed out.

I still recall coming home from school, telling my dad how excited I was about an upcoming climb, only to hear him frown and think of the 1% chance that something would go wrong. Regardless of the fact the chance of disaster was actually much higher, I still found this terribly annoying.  Within a few years I realized I did the very same thing.  Ironic how much more acceptable character flaws become when you carry them yourself.

There are innumerable negatives to viewing life this way, but it does bring a few benefits.  Ideas that persevere through the gauntlet are often very good.  Tested and tempered by fire, they come with an intrinsic reliability uncommon in Christian circles.  And because of this, people seek wisdom from those who look at life through this lens.

Theologically, the process is straightforward.  Someone brings up a point, often meant as an encouraging word or uplifting proverb.  Something like Don’t worry Jimmy, remember how God promised us in Matthew that he will clothe us with more grandeur than a lily? Interesting example.  Maybe I’m just a gardener at heart, but I’d take a lily over most of, eh, human nakedness.

Truly though, I’ve had people mention such lines to me with utter seriousness. And making matters worse, they’re often very sweet, likable people who will some day sit at the Lord’s table while I am sent to clean the gilded toilets.  Hey Jesus, have you seen the Comet around here? Ah, but at least I’ll be right.

Return to the example of the lilies.  Without losing a moments hesitation I fired back at the unsuspecting believer.  Have you considered the Christians in Siberian prisons, who perished from exposure and lack of proper clothing?  Surely somewhere in the world a Christian dies every day from a lack of clothing. Would you offer this verse as a comfort to them?

The more sensitive types recognize a theological bully and lose interest in the conversation.  More vigorous foes return the volley, claiming that there must be exceptions allowed. I reload.  Oh, and what good, my friend, is a promise with many exceptions? Shall we draw upon the great hope of a mere strong statistical possibility?

By this point internal doubts begin to arise, I start to question what I even believe.  It is one thing to tear down ridiculous arguments and replace them with sound biblical doctrine. It is quite another, and far more precarious, to slash and burn without offering a replacement.  Maybe this poor soul was better off in their delusion, I wondered.

Eventually this same contrarian approach filtered into every aspect of theology.  Every conversation, every piece of scripture, every good and holy gift fell under the guillotine of exception. Reading the bible became exciting again, but for reasons even God would disapprove.  I read to prove it wrong.

Proverbs provided the easiest fodder.  Promises of a bountiful harvest I quickly matched with a great famine in Ethiopia.  Surely Christians could be found among the dead and dying?  I dug deeper.  Pledges of wealth and prosperity arrived next.  I reminded God of Christians in China, faithful souls who lost everything in spite of, and even because of their belief.

Living by exceptions was not limited to the merely theoretical.  I began to find its influence among the most basic decisions of practical life. Where to buy a house, picking a career, even something as benign as morning devotionals lost their joy.  I knew at some point the 6:00am ritual would lose it’s inspiration and I would fall back into old patterns.  Why bother.  Better to forgo the entire exercise rather than suffer the pangs of certain failure.

The more I looked, the more I found evidence of its long and bitter fingers. With each cynical example, each caustic win of an argument, faith lost a ray of its luminous shine. One by one, the lights flickered and went black, leaving enough glow to see my own shadow, but little more.

For a moment I remained still, warmed by the satisfaction of a well won argument.  But the victory was fleeting.  The walls of pure logic and reason quickly grew cold and depressing.  In the quest to find absolute truth I had run aground on the fetid shores of atheism.

The answer rested in a definition.  Hope, I found, was the opposite of living by exception.  The devil’s advocate pleaded for me to assume the worst, while hope asked me to anticipate the best. This was a new and foreign land, a vantage point quite unfamiliar to me.  Believing He had the ability to love me was easy, but Hope asked for something very different. It asked me to believe that He would.

The moment the thought entered my mind, I quickly sensed Logic and Reason whispering their counter evidence.  Remember all those prayers you’ve heard, and how few were answered?  What good is it to hope, when you’ve seen it fail so many times?  What a fool you will appear when your ridiculous hope crashes to the ground.  It is better to just reconcile yourself to cold reality. The devil’s tirade continued, my mind an easy customer for his wares.

But this can’t be how it is.  Even if the devil was right and hope is dead, could I live in a world without desire, without aspiration?  Could I bear the silenced heart, rebuked for it’s childish expectation?  No.  I’ve met this person.  It is not a life worth living. It isn’t even life.

I looked for a righteous hope, an example of pure Christian longing.  The counterfeits were much easier to find.  The glittering poison of prosperity doctrine.  The beautifully disguised idol of health.  These, I was told, were what I ought hope for.  I searched the bible and found, if anything, these were the very things I would likely have to go without.

All was not lost.  Perfect hope did exist.  I found it among the calm and resolute.  Those faithful souls who look to the goodness of God, yet love Him no less when the reality doesn’t meet their expectation.  Who persevered not because they wanted something from God, but because they trusted Him in the first place.  A perfect optimism, balanced upon a single, simple belief.  God is good.

Amazingly this was a revelation to me.  Perhaps the most basic tenant of faith I had walked right by.  Yes, I heard the phrase before.  I’d even tossed it about with flippant ease.  But it’s simplicity belied a difficult truth.  The God who ruled the universe also loved me.  Even today it is difficult to write.  At some basic and visceral level I had just never accepted His absolute goodness.

And there it lay.  Hidden beneath the years of cynicism, under the bitter comfort of exception.  The terrible root, the single lie Satan casts before us, knowing if we believe just this one, his work is complete.

Removing it was not easy.  To this day, the work remains unfinished.  But the lines are now clear, the definitions brought into the light.  I must return to Faith often.  To remind myself of God, His character, His love.  And soon I see Hope, unbound and free, assuming it’s rightful place in my soul.

A new stress learned

Stress

I do not respond to stress in a logical manner.  Or perhaps more specifically, the catastrophes and disasters that sound terrifying to the average person, elicits a very minor response in me.  This would be a powerful advantage if only the inverse were true as well.  But no, I manage terribly under the common and insignificant annoyances of daily life.  It is as if my mind, frustrated by the lack of truly cataclysmic events, decided instead to appropriate all the adrenaline and endorphins reserved for a major emergency and pour them upon every minor irritation.

In the absence of a saber tooth tiger to flee or mastodon to slay, my adrenal gland instead empties its contents upon such trivialities as the sight of a parking ticket.  Perhaps after 500 years of adaptation the human body will learn to respond appropriately, but for now I die in anxiety from a thousand tiny pricks.

Return me to the stone ages please, I believe I would flourish. I wonder how many prescriptions for depression medications would go unfilled if we all periodically chased a woolly mammoth across the plains of Montana. Recalling the most intense moments of stress in my life, I find little evidence of lingering damage.  There was the dead body we pulled from the Snoqualmie river in high school.  And the time in Honduras when a man walked up to our clinic with his arm dangling and nearly severed from machete fight. Or when a friend and I found ourselves stuck in a dead zone between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, surrounded by an angry mob.  After all of these, I slept quite soundly.

One would imagine this realization would have come much earlier in life.  My mother tells me it was clear from the moment I entered 1st grade.  I must take her word, I can’t recall anything from that year except perhaps the color of my shoes. Even that is in doubt. Fortunately she has a memory for details of more importance.  Evidently, prior to grade school I was cheery and happy, full of the same bright energy I see in my nephew, Jackson.

This quickly slipped away.  Somewhere between the red brick hallways and twisting tetherball I learned the fine art of stress.  I cannot blame my teachers, many kids tumbled along with lighthearted ease.  But I saw things differently.  I learned that people thought I was well mannered and sweet, and because of this, they liked me.  Naturally I desired for this to continue, so I made a mental note to maintain this posture in the future.

Undetectable in the moment, this minor mental adaptation placed the first tiny weight upon my young shoulders.  With time, it would grow much heavier, but each new piece was placed with such imperceptible slightness, I did not notice the change. The approval of friends, success in grades, it all appears so ridiculous in hindsight.  But oh, how a day hung upon who was picked first for the kickball team.

Elementary school came to a close and Junior High opened with new and useless stresses. Questions of kickball teams were replaced with the looming shame of junior varsity. Football, wrestling, the internal pressures ticked upward with insidious steadiness. Girls soon entered the storyline, bringing their own unparalleled ability to wreak havoc upon the minds of young men.

Everything was very normal to this point. I imagine nearly every boy toils under the same tension and strain.  But as high school arrived, a new breed of worries quietly entered the room.  I had found God.  Or more accurately, God had opened my eyes to His presence and realness. This, I was told, was the moment when my burdens and stresses are cast at His feet and I begin a new life of blissful content.  I responded differently.

I began to sense the weight of holiness.  In many regards this was a tremendous blessing, pushing a young Christian beyond the puddles of complacency. But it came with attachments not easily pulled apart.  In a cruel irony, the same anxiety that compelled me to serve my King soon tore away the satisfaction of that very act of service.  The fuel for energy became also the chemical that burned and destroyed.

I found little help in fellowship.  Most Christians simply tossed feeble accusations, questioning my attitude of discontent.  They told me God orchestrated everything and theologically, my role didn’t matter. If God wants something done, he’ll do just fine without you, so don’t worry about your role.  A pious cut was often attached, asking why I thought I had such an important role in His plan anyway.

In better moments, I kept my response to myself.  In others, I replied caustically, declaring that I simply must have an important role if the church is full of complacent sluggards like you. This was not an effective response. Especially when the great majority of my life did not reflect the words I easily tossed about.  I grew more measured in my responses, but a restlessness remained.

Finding few answers, I looked for a Christian with this healthy discontent.  Someone who felt the unceasing pull towards holiness, yet who also reveled in the gift of His grace and joy.  I quickly found those who lived entirely in the former, their lives an uninterrupted blur of service projects, bible studies and church groups.  I would learn little from them.  Others I found lying motionless and defeated; sad, grey souls who long ago succumbed to their haunting sense of imperfection.

But there were others.  My favorites I encountered in books, authors long dead and not likely to disappoint. Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a close friend. As would Andrew Murray and John Paton.  Faith lived out on the ragged and desperate edge, far from the smooth black walls of complacency.

I looked at their lives and found a very different stress. By nearly every measure it was incredibly difficult, but somehow this burden brought the opposite reaction. If anything, the trials only increased their desire to serve.  Curious, I looked for an explanation.

When Bonhoeffer encountered a trial or frustration he could clearly see the immediate impact of the event on the gospel.  When Paton suffered from a fever, he could draw the connection between the sickness and it’s potential affect on his ministry.  Every day that he lay sick in bed, people would not hear about Jesus.

For me, it was very different.  When I suffered a week of insomnia and migraines, I simply thought of how crummy I felt and the disappointment of missing volleyball on Tuesday night. I could pray to the Lord for healing and endurance, but it all felt very tepid and purposeless.  I read the scriptures, looking to 1 Peter for guidance.  I found great words of encouragement for suffering saints. But it didn’t look like it was written for me.  I was not suffering for the Lord, I was just suffering.

Benign and insignificant at first, this minor assumption quietly disarmed the Holy Spirit. Hope, encouragement, joy and perseverance, each silently pulled down and locked away.  Drawing a line in the sand I cast Him out, ordering Him to restrict his assistance only to areas of formal ministry.  Leave the rest to me, I cried, every stab of pain and worldly frustration I will bear alone.  And the devil grinned, reveling in his ruse.

Ground ceded to the enemy is not easily regained and many years passed before I understood the correct answer.  It came in two parts, each critical and unique.  First, I learned to grab hold of my gifts and place them in His service.  As I steadied my hand to the plow, great swaths of life came under the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Suffering regained a sense of purpose and challenge, no longer relegated to the merely abstract.

Second, I looked at my life again and found that nearly every incident carried the potential to guide the gospel. Even the most insignificant frustration and trial, far removed from the borders of active ministry, offered a profound choice to glorify or deny Him.

The passion and sacrifice of my heroes still endure as distant goal.  But until that day arrives, in the quiet stress of the ordinary, I learned to share in their holy comfort.

An Answer Appears

Long again.  Sorry…

Continuation.

High school passed unremarkably.  The morning after my prayer I did not awake in the throes of pain and agony.  No cancer began marching throughout my body.  Nothing really changed.  After a few days passed, I placed the incident in memory past, along side a couple other questionable prayers to God.  Whether God heard my prayer or not, I wasn’t overcome with a desire to remind him.  Like patience and humility, these are prayers you bring to Him occasionally, but it is hardly the time for persistence. They are dangerous enough spoken once.

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Neurologists offices never have a decent selection of magazines. No Outside, no Rock and Ice, not even an old Newsweek.  I’ve yet to find a legitimate reason, perhaps they believe their clients are simply not in a reading mood.  Terrible, because this is the highlight of visiting a doctor.  The rare opportunity to read magazines I wouldn’t be caught dead with in a grocery store checkout line.  I reconciled my loss and flipped through a copy of Neurology Today.

The nurse called from the reception area and walked me to the exam room, informing me the doctor will be in shortly.  Long ago I learned to interpret the charming deception of this line.  For a doctor, the word shortly spans the entire distance between 15 minutes and complete eternity.  I had heard this doctor was exceptional, so I learned patience, wiling away the time flipping through the pamphlets scattered about the room.  Pleasant sounding articles like managing your chronic daily migraines.

In walked my doctor, thankfully relieving me of the rather dreary literary options.   The first thing I noticed was his clothes.  Disheveled and ill fitting, they flopped about him like a man who found attention to style a wild and dangerous distraction.  I reminded myself C.S Lewis in all his brilliance had little regard for style.  This was all fine, hoping instead this doctors focus settled upon the study of my primary concern, migraines.

After the first few questions, even this was in doubt.  Eventually he asked me to describe the nature of the pain.  I walked him through the same rambling and detailed outline I had provided to every doctor.  The response was nearly universal.  Physicians carry the unique ability to appear entirely interested in your response while listening to nothing.  Eventually they answer with well, you look healthy, I’m sure it will pass.  Knowing this, I added an extra line to my recitation, mentioning how distasteful the pain had become.  Hoping for a firm emphasis on the severity of the issue I even briefly wondered if missing a few meals and not shaving for a week would provide a visual representation of how I felt.  Oddly though, the words alone appeared to work.

He responded with friendly exasperation, Well no s#*$, of course it sucks.   Startled, I asked myself if I’d ever heard a doctor swear before. A few sentences later, the F word rolled out of his mouth, as natural and unencumbered as a sailor.  Really?  Did he just say that?  The colorful language was all well placed of course, but it did little to reduce the disarming affect of hearing the top migraine specialist in Washington drop swear words as liberally as a drywaller.

Any sensible patient would grab his jacket and walk out, demanding a refund at the front counter. But something about this doctor seemed different.  I gave him a chance, though more from desperation than wisdom.  The alternatives were not especially attractive.  Physicians morbid enough to dedicate their lives to the study of migraines are difficult to find and I’d spent months waiting for this appointment.  Thankfully over the coming weeks and months, I found a deep brilliance resided within his wild, off the cuff demeanor.

The questions continued.  Tell me, when did the headaches first begin?  I had to consider it for a moment, I’d never really thought it through.  They just appeared.  Well, I told him, I suppose around 16, though I couldn’t be exact.  Other inquiries followed, questioning the finer details of the headaches.  Is it more like a pounding hammer or more like a squeezing pressure? I cannot recall the last time I was pounded in the head with a hammer, so it’s difficult to say.  I offered him something vague and useless like, it’s a little bit of both I guess.

The answer hit me slowly, bouncing around between the improbable and foolish as I walked away from the clinic.  Soon it was undeniable.  Those cursed headaches started right around the same time I brought that ridiculous prayer to God.  Oh c’mon, are you kidding me?  Really, this is how it works?  Anger, disappointment, complete amusement, I couldn’t pick the correct response.  I wanted them all.  For a moment I entertained the option of viewing it with a sense of comfort.  Perhaps this God really is in control.  While pleasant, this perspective dissolved quickly.

Like nearly every significant trial I’ve encountered, my reaction vacillated wildly. On good days I felt awash in His grace, rejoicing that God deemed me worthy to suffer for His glory.  Life laid out before me, He walked me through the many ways this trial would bring me closer to Him.  He showed me the people I would encourage and support because of empathy.  I saw pride and arrogance finally losing it’s grip in my weakness, slipping away because it had nothing left to grasp. I watched the ambition for worldly pleasures suffer greatly and peel away at the hands of this pain.  This is why I had prayed.  This was good and from the Lord.

But there were other, more common responses as well.  Painted in darker hues, shadows crouching behind the lies I began to believe.  The most damaging were those I never acknowledged, left clawing about in the periphery far away from the light.  I knew they existed, but confrontation required more than I possessed. It was the devil’s favorite battle, the one he had me convinced was not taking place.

I had many doubts about God.  Yet I never doubted His power or sovereignty.  I couldn’t fathom a world where God lacked the resources to achieve His goals.  One would imagine this as a source of great peace. But this first requires an unshakable belief in His goodness.  Without it, His sovereignty became something to fear, a tyrannical king casting joy and despair at the whim of his fancy.

I imagine Job felt similarly, though I felt sheepish drawing any comparison.  I found Job’s bitterness came not merely because his life was filled with tragedy, but because the calamity went far beyond natural bad luck.  The unseen hand of a mightier power was clearly orchestrating his destruction.  I cannot explain why, but I felt the same.

I heard many partial answers, but nothing dealt with the nagging reality set before me.  Some Christians told me I needed to redefine my definition of goodness on His terms. Ok.  Great.  What does that mean?  I didn’t even know His terms.  And what I do know of them, they don’t match anything a human has found satisfactory.  God clearly gave us a sense of right and wrong, of joy and death, of justice and unfairness. Yet real life did not seem to match these divisions imprinted on my soul.  I looked further.

Others asked me to open my eyes to the tremendous blessings in my life.  I couldn’t throw this out as easily.  My life was filled with undeniable gifts many Christians never taste.  But the comfort was fleeting, I just questioned God on behalf of those less fortunate.  What of the schizophrenic or manic depressive?  I searched their entire life and found little reason to rejoice in God’s control.

Calvinists petitioned me to consider Adam’s original sin and draw every pain and suffering back to this dark event. I heard words like imputation and infralapsarianism.  It made sense intellectually, but I found little comfort.  I wasn’t there.  Or if I was, no memory lingered to provide a sense of guilt for humanity’s foolish mistake.  If I was to suffer the consequences of this first indulgence, I would prefer my own chance at resisting.

Charismatics brought their own angle.  They turned it around and questioned my belief, assuring me the pain would go away if I just had more faith.  This I attacked with vigor, asking why God didn’t heal amputees.  Why did He only heal conditions that could just as easily heal themselves?  The Holy Spirit used an odd sense of discrimination.  Did the magnitude of suffering in the world really stand ready to disappear under the simple request of more faith? I saw little evidence.

A few, perhaps the wisest, asked me what my life would look like without the pain.  Would it be a life worth living?  Would the glorious reunion of heaven lose its brightness if not preceded by a dark and strenuous crossing?  This was difficult to set aside.  The very reason I prayed in the first place was because life felt hollow and trite in its superficial ease.

But there were others who suffered.  I asked God for an explanation of those whose agony spilled far beyond any opportunity of sanctification.  What of the child I heard of on the evening news, the young boy locked in a closet his entire life?

I learned to live by exceptions.  Every argument, every well developed explanation eventually crumbled beneath an undeniable exception.  I felt a dark pride in finding someone whose life escaped the promise offered to me.  Left alone, this wreaked havoc on my relationship with God.  Psalms, Proverbs, even the promises of Jesus grew pale and dim under the barrage of the logic of exception.  Whittled to the barest remnant, faith collapsed from a burning bush to a flickering coal.

The answer came from Job.  Though in truth, it really wasn’t an answer.  I poured over the book, looking for God’s explanation to the poor man.  Nothing.  If anything He looked quite pissed at Job for doubting Him in the first place.  Yes, He restored and blessed Job again, but I found far more of the book dedicated to God’s passionate defense of His divinity.

I understood why so few pastors preach through the entire book of Job.  It was brutal.  But it is what I craved. Like a rebellious child secretly desiring the rules and boundaries of a firm parent, I needed a God who stood far above me.  An answer to the pain would provide momentary comfort, but a God who reminded me He was the answer was far more enduring.  New questions would come, I would surely find more unanswered contradictions.  But if I simply believed God was truly God, the mystery was acceptable.  My faith no longer hinged upon the understanding of each moment, but through humility conceded the entire struggle to Him. He was, after all, God.

I still struggled with complete reconciliation.  But I learned to give God more grace.  Not true grace, of course, He is in little need of my mercy.  No, I simply learned to withhold judgment of His goodness until the story was complete.  This was to become my very definition of faith.

The most foolish of prayers

_Sorry this is quite long–  Feel free to read it in installments.

Foolish prayers.

I’ve always enjoyed inspirational books. Not inspirational in the Oprah Winfrey, self help sense of the word. Rather, those classic tales of rugged men daring greatly against tremendous odds. Roosevelt suffering in the Amazon, Shackleton stranded in Antarctica, my favorite stories cast a lead character persevering with endless grit and determination. This all worked delightfully as entertainment, but I continually hit upon a reoccurring problem. I couldn’t relate.

My life was the very definition of ease. Comfortably middle class, loving parents, healthy body, sound mind. Searching for legitimate trials in my life required acrobatic leaps of imagination, digging at the edge of absurdity. It was fruitless, the suffering simply didn’t exist.

As a suburban white kid in Seattle, this was not something to be proud of. It wasn’t cool to be middle class. Or perhaps more correctly, it wasn’t cool to appear middle class. You were certainly expected to have enough money to buy a seasons pass at the ski hill, but your clothes better come from the thrift store. Poverty as style. Delightfully American.

Though amusing, this was clearly unsatisfactory. How could my life ever have meaning if I never experienced true struggles or suffering? Or worse, if I invented a façade of tribulation to hide the shame of my comfort? I needed legitimate pain. Something that would force utter dependence on God. Yet this was more than simply adding a jewel in my crown. The very legitimacy of my faith now stumbled through the door and loomed as an unanswered question.

Doubt upon doubt crashed in as well, laying waste to the fragile caricatures I stood behind. Do you love God? Does your heart rise at the sound of His voice? C’mon do you honestly even believe this? Or do you simply have a ready defense, a line of reasoning pushed forward to hide the shame of the deeper accusation? Tell me, do you love Jesus?

I do not know from where the questions came. Whether it was a demon lashing accusations or the Holy Spirit hammering conviction I cannot say. I’m not entirely sure the discernment is important. The result, however was unmistakable. I needed God in a way I had not yet experienced.

Unfortunately my desire was unmatched by ability. No force of will seemed capable of crossing this raging gorge stretched out before me. I listened to the music, read the bible, I even felt the occasional bliss of a youth group retreat. Nothing stuck. God still seemed relegated to little more than a quiet old sage I visited occasionally when I needed advice.

Even the very name I used to address Him shed light on our relationship. I spoke to Him nearly always as God, occasionally Father, but almost never Jesus. Something felt off. Undoubtedly my vocabulary was jaded by exposure to Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant, but I could not say Jesus without feeling awkward. Or perhaps even worse in the mind of an insecure teenager, cheesy.

The word God came out much easier. Grey and nebulous, it served the purpose of avoiding attention from non-believers, but more importantly, it left alone my own half belief. To say Jesus declared I had met the God of the universe in a real and personal way. The way you meet a friend, a spouse, a teacher. Practical and tangible, you don’t even consider doubting the authenticity of the connection. Many Christians around me seem to have this, professing their deep love and compassion for Jesus. They spoke of God as a child would his father when he is still young and innocent.

Though not all were sincere. Often their happiness and contentment appeared inauthentic, simply actors feigning belief as a grand, delusional coping mechanism. The type of people you meet and after a brief conversation realize they’re not listening to a word you’ve said. As if their mind reached a certain point and decided any further inward contemplation was dangerous. I imagine the decision was rooted in fear. A fear their doubts may grow into disbelief. Ironically they feared the very position I found myself in, yet their response was cast in a wildly different mold. While they drew back into the shelter of trite mantras and comfortable promises, I threw myself at ragged edge of absolute truth. I wanted to meet the real God.

I certainly needed help. I needed a Christian to learn from, a brother in Christ who had tasted God deeply. Eventually I found it. In the life of a climber, of course. Tim Hansel story. To be Written later

I had found my answer. At least to the extent a 16 year old male can conjecture upon the great spiritual need in his life. My need was suffering. A visceral and raw dependence on God. Not manufactured by a simple change of perspective, but a real, tangible pain. This great trial stood before me as a bridge from the intellectual understanding of Christianity to the true faith I felt missing.

I hit my knees and offered my prayer, uttering quite possibly the most foolish words a Christian can bring before God. “Father, give me a trial, give me some great struggle or pain, my life is too easy.” Before the words left my bended knee, I felt the cold chill of regret. What if God gets this wrong? What if He miscalculates and casts upon me some burden too great?

Of course my request was not without boundaries, and these I brought to God as well. Not in outright prayer, but in those quiet murmurs and thoughts you leave laying about for God to pickup. My requirements were sensible. The trial must not interfere with my love for sports and adventure. Or if it does, it must leave room for a dramatic and glorious perseverance. A trial significant enough to warrant His sympathy, but not so severe as to hinder my ambitions.

The mind of a 16 year old has its limitations though. I found nothing could fit this profile. No injury, no disease, nothing worked. Every legitimate struggle I imagined required some frightful sacrifice. This was terribly disappointing, I thought it quite reasonable to expect the glory of perseverance could outweigh the necessary suffering.

I sensed the Father’s patience waning. While the original petition was noble, the absurd stipulations were too much. After a respectful pause the Holy Spirit muscled his way into the conversation. You must simply leave it in my hands. If I believed in this God enough to trust He wielded the power to intervene in my life, I must also trust him enough with the resolution. After a deep breath I offered Him my surrender. Do with me what you will.

(answer coming soon.)

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